Overture to A Midsummernight’s Dream, Op. 21
If ever there was a composer who did not fit the romantic picture of the struggling artist fighting for his daily bread and his artistic survival, it was Felix Mendelssohn. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth and raised in affluence, his precocious musical talent was recognized and nurtured by his cultured and highly supportive family. His home was a Mecca for the intellectual elite of Germany, the many family visitors encouraged the prodigy, as well as his musically talented sister Fanny.
It is interesting to compare the situation of the two siblings to that of Wolfgang and Nanerl Mozart fifty years earlier. Leopold Mozart ruthlessly exploited his children commercially from a very young age, dragging them around Europe in an endless procession of public appearances. By contrast, Felix’s father insisted that his son retain his dilettante – amateur – status; he never received remuneration for his performances until his family considered him a mature musician. His first paying job was at age 24, when he became music director in Düsseldorf. There was never any question of a professional career for Fanny.
By age 15, Mendelssohn had composed a dozen string symphonies, numerous concertos for one or two instruments and a full catalog of chamber and vocal works. Then, at age sixteen, he amazed the world with two masterpieces. The first was the Octet, Op.20, which was quickly followed by the Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Earlier in 1826 Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny first became acquainted with the romantic German translation of Shakespeare by August Wilhelm von Schlegel (Germans thought it better than the original.) The Overture quickly became spectacularly popular and was performed repeatedly throughout northern Europe.
Years later, in a letter to his publisher, Mendelssohn commented that the sequence of ideas in the Overture follows the play quite closely. We hear first the motto of the wood’s magic – one of music history’s most brilliantly conceived chord progressions, fairy music whispering on the violins, and later the bray of Bottom with his ass’s head combined with the “Mechanicals’ dance at Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s wedding. There are also a few themes that the composer chose not to expand upon within the context of the complete incidental music, particularly the Overture’s second theme. Mendelssohn wrote “at the end, after everything has been satisfactorily concluded, and the principal players have joyfully left the stage, the elves follow them, bless the house and vanish with the dawn. Thus the play ends, and my overture as well.”
Sixteen years later, in 1842, Frederick William IV, King of Prussia invited Mendelssohn to compose the rest of the incidental music, Op.61, for a Berlin production of Ein Sommernachtstraum. By using themes from the overture as a basis for the later sections, as well as recapturing the light and airy earlier style of orchestration, Mendelssohn was able to make the music sound like a seamless whole.
The eerie effect of the introduction into fairyland was such a touch of brilliance that subsequent composers have shamelessly borrowed it – note the opening measures of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
John Adams is generally associated with minimalism, a style of composition pioneered by Terry Riley, Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, in which short musical motives are repeated, although gradually and slowly changing in melody, harmony or rhythm one note at a time. While repetition in the works of Riley, Glass and Reich can seem interminable, Adams adds more drama and harmonic direction and a more accessible tonal and melodic language to his scores. He is one of the most frequently performed contemporary American composers.
Born in Worcester, MA, Adams studied at Harvard University with Leon Kirchner, David Del Tredici, and Roger Sessions. In 1971 he settled in California, teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory. From 1978 to 1985, during his tenure as composer in residence with the San Francisco Symphony, he established a reputation with the success of such works as Harmonium, settings of three poems by Emily Dickenson.
In 1987, Adams’s collaboration with stage director Peter Sellars catapulted him into international fame with the Grammy-winning opera Nixon in China, based on Richard Nixon’s breakthrough trip in 1972. In 1991, Adams composed The Death of Klinghoffer, also based on another historical event, the terrorist murder of a crippled passenger aboard a cruise ship. Not only did both works become the most performed contemporary operas in recent history, but they were also televised by PBS. Klinghoffer was filmed in 2003 on location in the Mediterranean aboard a cruise liner, the most authentic venue for the presentation of opera on film. In 2003 Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, a choral work commemorating the victims of the September 11 attacks, won the Pulitzer Prize for music.
Shaker Loops started life with material from an unsuccessful string quartet titled Wavemaker. In the early 1970s, Adams was influenced by the Minimalist composers’ stripped-down harmonic and rhythmic language, coupling his own interest in waveforms. He tried to create what he calls “waves,” sequences of oscillating melodic cells giving a rippling, shimmering effect, like the surface of a slightly agitated pond. But at the time, as Adams says, “My technique lagged behind my inspiration, and this rippling pond very quickly went dry.”
Going back to the drawing board, Adams retained the idea of the oscillating patterns, associating them with the nineteenth-century religious practitioners, the Shakers. Even the word “Loops” in the title can be associated with the Shakers, whose spiritual practices included whirling in circles. He recomposed the piece, first for string septet and later for string orchestra. Divided into four movements, each with a separate title but played without pause, Shaker Loops is virtually without melody. Rather, it proceeds by using repeated rhythmic and harmonic cells, whose individual elements gradually shift one at a time. The effect is hypnotic, again, much as the spinning meditation would be for Shaker practitioners.
In the first movement, ‘Shaking and Trembling,” Adams immediately establishes the oscillating ostinato idea that dominates nearly all aspects of the piece, punctuated by irregularly spaced jabs. everything slows to a crawl in the second section, “Hymning Slews.” Here the tremolos, or shakes, are replaced by a much slower two-note ostinato pattern over a sustained pedal.
The slow tempo is maintained at the beginning of the third movement, “Loops and Verses,” which recommences the oscillating ostinato in the upper voice. But soon other faster patterns begin to emerge, setting up a kind of canonic polyphony as more and more instruments enter the fabric of the music. The movement begins a gradual acceleration into the “Final Shaking,” in which different oscillation patterns carry on simultaneously but at different rates.
Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning wheel), D. 118
Orch. Lev Zhurbin Ljova
It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Franz Schubert invented the German art song. Of course, he had help; poets of the Romantic era had discovered “das Volk” (common people), and the growing middle class soon adopted the Lied as a classier and more emotionally intense substitute for the folksong in home music making. Secular cantatas and opera-style concert arias used to be the food of choice in aristocratic circles, but that soon changed as well.
The Romantics also favored emotional extremes, drawing inspiration from everything from scary folktales to suicide over unrequited love. Musical narrative called for accompaniment to support the emotive content, and Schubert was a master at creating a kind of pianistic commentary on the text. Most of his Lieder open with an introductory ritornello that sets the mood of the poetry to come, whenever possible through tone painting.
Gretchen am Spinnrade, composed in 1814, is one of Schubert’s earliest songs. The text comes from part I of Goethe’s Faust. Gretchen thinks with trepidations of Faust and his lavish promises. The accompaniment imitates the perpetual movement of the spinning wheel.
Lev Zhurbin Ljova is a Russian-American film composer, violinist and arranger. He made the arrangement in 2012 for The Knights, a New York based chamber ochestra.
Des Baches Wiegenlied (The Brook’s Lullaby)
No. 20 from Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795
Arr. Colin Jacobsen
In 1823, Franz Schubert became familiar with a collection of the poetry by the German lyric poet Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827). In the collection were a group of 25 poems titled Die schöne Müllerin, of which the composer chose 20 to set to music as a song cycle. It was the same year in which he was first hospitalized with syphilis, a disease that would kill him five years later.
Schubert had adopted the idea of a cycle of songs loosely connected by a common poetic idea to suggest a story and to be performed as an entity, from the model of Beethoven’s cycle An die ferne Geleibte (To the Distant Beloved), considered the first such cycle in the history of music. But Schubert’s massive cycle dwarfed his model. The cycle was published in Vienna in 1824 as Opus 25, but, ironically, was not performed in its entirety until 1856; the public was simply not ready for such a long work.
The story in the songs moves from an initial promise of love, through disillusion, to final tragedy. There are two “speaking” (i.e. singing) characters in the songs: the young journeyman miller, who sings to the brook as his confidant; and the brook, which responds to him in the last song. At the beginning, as the journeyman miller wanders happily through the countryside, he comes upon the brook, which he follows to a mill where he finds work. He falls in love with the beautiful miller’s daughter, but she is out of his reach as he is only a journeyman. He tries to impress her, but her response seems tentative and lukewarm at best. As he becomes increasingly desperate, he fantasizes about her as he sings to the brook, whence comes the listener’s confusion as to her response – or lack of it – to his advances. To aggravate his pain, the girl appears to flirt with a hunter clad in green, the color of a ribbon from the young miller had given her from his lute. In his despair and jealousy, he becomes obsessed with the color green. Gradually his fantasies turn to death, where flowers sprout from his grave to express his undying love. In the end, the young man drowns himself in the Brook.
In his Lieder, Schubert is well known for matching the piano accompaniments to the meaning of the poems. In Die schöne Müllerin, where the brook and the mill wheel provide such important background to the story, the piano ostinati reflect their characteristic motion. When the Hunter comes on the scene, the ostinato turns to a galloping figure.
The final song, “Des Baches Wiegenlied”, is a lullaby, offering the Miller rest, solace and a vision of the infinite in the sleep of death. The toggling of major and minor in the melody became on of the composer’s signatures for the rest of his life.
Violinist and composer Colin Jacobsen has been involved in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. He arranged the song for The Knights Chamber Orchestra.
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D. 417, “Tragic”
Of all the great classical Viennese composers, Franz Schubert was the only one to have actually been born in Vienna. Yet the city was less accepting of the music of its native son than the music of the outsiders who settled there. In the half century after his death, Schubert’s reputation rested almost exclusively on his wonderful Lieder while the rest of his music was mostly neglected. None of his orchestral music was published during his lifetime, and the first six symphonies had to wait until 1884-85 in the Gesamtausgabe, the first complete edition of his works.
Schubert gave the Symphony No. 4 the subtitle “Tragic” as an afterthought. At the time of its composition in 1816, he was a full-time teacher at his father’s school. He hated the job, a factor that may explain the mood of the Symphony. At the time, he was also taking composition lessons twice weekly with Antonio Salieri, who had also taught Beethoven upon his arrival in Vienna. Schubert was also attending numerous concerts and operas, doing some private teaching, and socializing with his friends. There is very little biographical material available for this period in the composer’s life that might cast light on the genesis of this Symphony. After all, he had no backstage father like Leopold Mozart to promote him all over Europe.
Despite his youth, Schubert was an extremely fluent composer, capable of turning out Lieder in a steady flow. He had composed music for his family’s string quartet, as well as some church music, but his two earliest ambitions were to compose symphonies and opera. Although at the time of composition of his Symphony No. 4 Schubert was clearly familiar with Beethoven’s first eight symphonies, his own early symphonies show little influence of the intimidating master. Rather, their language harks back to Mozart and Haydn, especially the latter. While Beethoven’s symphonies – especially from No. 3 on – were the fruit of a mature composer, Schubert’s first five were youthful, student attempts. Even his Symphony No. 9 “The Great” in C major, was written when he was only 28.
Since Schubert and Beethoven died a year apart, they are usually regarded as contemporaries. But by a nasty combination of bad luck and bad habits, Schubert died before he could completely mature as a composer, while Beethoven lived to a reasonable – if uncomfortable – age for his time. Except for the compositions of his final years, the C major Symphony, the final string quartets, the C major String Quintet, Die Winterreise and the last piano sonatas, we have been denied the fruits of Schubert’s maturity and can only guess what he might have become had he, too, lived into his 50s.
Symphony No.4 falls into the unusual class of symphonies in minor keys, which, for the time, were quite rare and often suggested a “program” – or at least a tragic affect of some sort. There was no precedent for writing a symphony with four minor movements, Mozart’s 40th being one of the rare examples with three, but Schubert was not far behind with his heavy first and final movements and the anguished middle section of the second movement Andante.
The Symphony opens with a lugubrious introduction, which in the hands of Haydn might have been used to set the listener up for a rousing, jolly allegro. But Schubert meant it, as witnessed by the nervous, almost angry opening theme. Of course, during this period, symphonies in minor keys had to have second theme group in the relative major, but Schubert seems only to pay lip service to this convention, maintaining the nervous drive throughout the movement. &
The second movement, an expansion of the conventional ABA song form, repeats both A and B sections with new and more poignant harmonies, plus a coda. It opens with a gentle cantabile that almost washes away the tension from the opeing movement. Then Schubert hits us with the B section, a reminder that all is not entirely serene. of particular interest in this movement are the sighing motives Schubert uses throughout, sometimes a descending major second, at others a more plangent minor second.
Schubert called his third movement “Menuetto;” it falls more into the style of Haydn with his heavy peasant dances than Mozart’s more elegant court dances, but it also suggests the new scherzo that Beethoven had substituted for the dance. Note also the slight ambiguity about where the downbeat is because of the heavy stress on the final beats of the measures. The Trio is clearly also rustic.
The Finale returns to the anxiety of the Symphony’s opening movement. Written in sonata form, instead of the conventional rondo, it opens with another nervous theme. As in the earlier movement, compelled to end in a major key, Schubert retains the tense mood by lacing his seconadry themes with dark harmonies and the major/minor ambiguity that characterizes so much of his more emotional writing.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016