Notes provided by: David R. Glerum, Music Director – WMFE-FM/NPR, Orlando, FL. (1990-2009); Music Director – WXXI-FM/NPR, Rochester, N.Y. (1980-1990)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) – Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b:
Confiding the painful creation of his only opera, Fidelio (originally entitled Leonore) Beethoven declared: “Of all my children, this is the one that caused me the worst birth pangs, the one that brought me the most sorrow, and for that reason, it is the one most dear to me.” The opera’s evolution was indeed convoluted and lengthy, spanning nearly a decade from its unsuccessful premiere in Vienna, on November 20, 1805, at the Theater an der Wien (even as Napoleon’s troops were rampaging the city), to its final version, which was enthusiastically received when it premiered at the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna on May 23, 1814. It was an arduous and bumpy struggle for Beethoven, characterized by disappointments and restarts: “The whole business with the opera (Fidelio) is the most cumbersome in the world. There is a great difference between reflection and being able to submit oneself to rapture. In short, I can assure you, the opera will earn me the martyr’s crown.” As a result of these challenges, Beethoven wrote all of four overtures for the opera: the first three – Leonore Overtures Nos. 1, 2, and 3 – were deemed unsuitable for the opera house; and the last, titled the Fidelio Overture, passed muster as the most effective theatrical curtain-raiser.
In the concert hall, however, the Leonore Overture No. 3 shines as a fully realized musical masterpiece, capable of standing on its own. It encapsulates all of the drama and passion of the opera and is as compelling as any symphonic tone poem in the repertoire.
The spiritual impetus and force to Fidelio stems from the composer’s passionate alignment with the ideals of the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. He was drawn to a libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner (more for its story than execution), which may have been based on historical events drawing from the Revolution’s “Reign of Terror”; its themes of righteousness prevailing over evil and liberty triumphing over tyranny appealed to the very core of Beethoven’s being.
These values were his passions and identity and must never be compromised. Ever the idealist, Beethoven saw these values as essential to the very fate of mankind.
Fidelio is sometimes classified as a “rescue opera,” a genre especially popular during the time of the French Revolution, and during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in France and Germany. The plots often deal with the rescue of an oppressed political figure from the forces of evil and tyranny.
Such is the case with Beethoven’s opera, whose protagonist, the Spanish nobleman Florestan, has been unjustly imprisoned for his political views by his sworn enemy, Don Pizzaro, in the gloomiest dungeon of a fortress outside Seville. The overture begins with a portentous slow introduction, depicting the descent into the prison, and quotes a portion of Florestan’s yearning aria, “In the spring days of life happiness has flown from me.” When Florestan’s wife, Leonora, hears of the abduction, she embarks on a rescue mission, disguised as a man and assuming the name of “Fidelio.” The music accordingly takes on a fiery and active tone. She gains the confidence of the jailer, Rocco, who employs her as his assistant; thereby, gaining entrance to her husband’s cell. Meanwhile, Pizzaro is tipped off to an imminent inspection of the prison by Fernando, Minister of State. Determined to avoid implication, Pizzaro rushes to assassinate Florestan. As the impending crisis approaches, Leonora declares herself and a trumpeter (off-stage) heralds the sighting of the Minister’s carriage. Hope is restored, but not fully allowed until a second trumpet fanfare is sounded, this time coming closer and signifying the cathartic moment of Florestan’s liberation. Pizzaro’s plan is thwarted by the timely arrival of the Minister, who rescues husband and wife from certain destruction. Pizzaro vanishes and Fernando frees all the prisoners who were wrongfully imprisoned. Beethoven then unleashes the floodgates in music of overwhelming rapture and jubilation. Victory is ultimately achieved!
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) – Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23:
Allegro non troppo e molto maestosa – Allegro con spirito
Andantino semplice – Prestissimo – Tempo I
Allegro con fuoco
In 1874, Tchaikovsky was in his mid-30’s, barely eking out a living by teaching harmony at the Moscow Conservatory and writing music criticism for a local journal. These activities provided a modest income and were rewarding up to a point, but the composer saw them as burdens that took precious time away from his creative musical work. He felt it was time to break free from the Conservatory and become a composer full-time. Building on his successes with Romeo and Juliet and the Symphony No. 2, at the end of the year Tchaikovsky decided to write a piano concerto. He hoped that the new work would bring him the artistic and financial success needed to move forward as an independent composer. By this time Tchaikovsky was highly trained and confident, but recognizing his limited technique as a pianist, he sought the advice and guidance of Nikolai Rubinstein. The encounter was a colossal mistake.
In a letter to Madame von Meck, Tchaikovsky described the experience vividly:
“On Christmas Eve, 1874… Nikolai asked me… to play the Concerto in a classroom of the Conservatory. We agreed to it… I played through the first movement. Not a criticism, not a word. Rubinstein said nothing… I did not need any judgment on the artistic form of my work; there was question only about its mechanical details. This silence of Rubinstein said much. It said to me at once: ‘Dear friend, how can I talk about details when I dislike your composition as a whole?’ But I kept my temper and played the Concerto through. Again, silence.
“Well? I said, and stood up. There burst forth from Rubinstein’s mouth a mighty torrent of words. He spoke quietly at first; then he waxed hot, and at last he resembled Zeus hurling thunderbolts. It appeared that my Concerto was utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable; passages were so commonplace and awkward that they could not be improved; the piece as a whole was bad, trivial, and vulgar. I cannot produce for you the main thing: the tone in which he said all this. An impartial bystander would necessarily have believed that I was a stupid, ignorant, conceited note-scratcher, who was so impudent as to show his scribble to a celebrated man.”
A proud and highly sensitive man, Tchaikovsky was offended and enraged, storming out of the classroom. “I could not have said a thing. Presently, Rubinstein joined me and, seeing how upset I was, asked me into one of the other rooms. There he repeated that my concerto was impossible, pointed out many places where it would have to be completely revised, and said that if within a limited time I reworked the concerto according to his demands, then he would do me the honor of playing this thing of mine at his concert. ‘I shall not alter a single note,’ I replied. ‘I shall publish the work exactly as it stands!’ And this I did.”
With this courageous and momentous decision, Tchaikovsky proved that he had the confidence to strike out on his own as a composer. In the autograph of the Piano Concerto No. 1, Tchaikovsky indignantly scratched Rubinstein’s name from the title page, just as Beethoven did to Napoleon in the manuscript of the Eroica, and inscribed instead the name of the pianist and conductor, Hans von Bulow. Von Bulow went on to be the soloist in the Concerto’s world premiere performance in Boston, Massachusetts (curiously enough not in Russia) on October 25, 1875. The reaction from both the critics and audience was tumultuous and wildly enthusiastic. It has gone on to become one of the cornerstones of the repertory, serving as the standard against which all virtuosos must prove themselves. It is a heroic test for the soloist’s reserves of endurance and technique, as well as charisma and personality.
Gabriel Kahane (b. 1981 – ) – Freight & Salvage – World Premiere:
Freight & Salvage, for string orchestra, is an exploration of the relationship between my work as a songwriter on the one hand, and my work in more formal musical environments, e.g., the concert hall in which you are sitting, on the other! As much as Freight & Salvage sounds little like Schubert or Mahler, it is nevertheless deeply indebted to both of those titans, in the sense that as master songwriters, they found ways to re-use and deepen material from their songs in larger instrumental works. In writing this piece, I thought a great deal about Schubert’s journey that led him to his final instrumental masterpieces, and in particular, the last three string quartets, piano sonatas, and the cello quintet.
From an architectural standpoint, however, Freight & Salvage is much more indebted to Bartok, who was a great proponent of the arch form, which is the structure I’ve used in this piece. To understand an arch form, imagine that a mirror is held up to the first half of a piece, so that the second half resembles the first half, but with the themes or sections played in the opposite order in which they first appeared. In this case, the form is A-B-C-D-C-B-A, followed by the coda, and the entire form (excepting the coda) is a mirror image of itself. The outer most part of the form (A) is a chaotic, fragmented paroxysm of scattered bits of information that nevertheless contains all the DNA for the whole piece. This is followed by a lyrical section (B) that gradually picks up steam until we reach (C), an energetic tune with a bit of a lilt. This is followed by (D), the figurative center-of-the-onion, after which the sections re-appear in reverse order (C – B – A), finally giving way to the coda.
where did it begin?
we forgot to mow the lawn
too much time spent
with electric deck of cards
where did it begin?
one day the words were gone
letters lost and found
in someone’s yard
kids fall down in the snow
they used to
shopping carts, a highway
toward a single spire
mask and glove and pipe
but not much learned
when you let me in
against that careless fire
all the farms all the farms
all the freight
all the books had burned
scratching out a past
we don’t remember much
words come apart like
tendon shattered bone
once there was a city
you knew well its touch
still got the linen but
the memory’s thread is gone
kids fall down in the snow
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) – Daphnis et Chloe: Suite No. 2:
Although thoroughly Parisian in upbringing, Ravel took great pride in his maternal Basque ancestry, which inspired a lifelong fascination with Spanish music and accounted for Pavane, Bolero, and the Rhapsodie espagnole. He was equally affected by his paternal Swiss lineage, his father excelling as an inventor and engineer and passing on to his son a commitment to precision and craftsmanship. Stravinsky would describe Ravel as “the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers.”
At the age of 14, he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he was a student from 1889 to 1895 and from 1897 to 1903. While there he came under the spell of Erik Satie and developed an admiration for the music of Gabriel Fauré, who was his primary composition teacher. During these years he associated with the French avant-garde (Debussy), and became interested in Wagner, the Russian nationalists, and the Balinese gamelan. One of the great disappointments of Ravel’s life was his failure to win the coveted Prix de Rome despite some four attempts. It was clear to all that the reason for this gross oversight was purely political and had to do with the conflict between the conservative administration of the Conservatory and Ravel’s independent thinking.
Nowhere is Ravel’s supreme mastery of orchestration more fully realized than in the ballet Daphnis and Chloé, his lengthiest composition and regarded as perhaps his most impressive achievement. Upon hearing it, Stravinsky – rarely effusive in his praise – gushed that Daphnis was “not only Ravel’s best work, but also one of the most beautiful products of French music.” His drive for perfection was obsessive and ongoing, remarking: “I did my work slowly, drop by drop… I tore it out of me by pieces.” Why go to such lengths? “My objective… is technical perfection. I can strive unceasingly to this end, since I am certain of never being able to attain it. The important thing is to get nearer to it all the time.” It’s no wonder that Stravinsky dubbed his friend, “a Swiss clockmaker.” All that hard work certainly paid off, for Daphnis is considered a masterpiece; it occupies a place – along with works by Debussy, Mahler, Stravinsky, and perhaps a few others – at the apogee of orchestral virtuosity in Western music.
Daphnis and Chloé was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev in 1909 and produced by his Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Chatelet in Paris on June 8, 1912. Choreographer Michel Fokine fashioned the ballet’s scenario from a pastoral romance attributed to the Greek writer, Longus (flourished 2nd/3rd century AD). The story is one of the most popular of the Greek erotic romances in Western culture after the Renaissance. It was translated by the late Renaissance French poet Jacques Amyot, recast by Fokine, and further substantially altered by Ravel to suit his requirements. Longus’s romance emphasized a psychological examination of the passion that develops between Daphnis and Chloé, two foundlings raised by shepherds on the island of Lesbos, from the first innocent and confused emotions of youth to full sexual maturity. The subject was intriguing to the composer, who sought to create a “great choreographic symphony… a vast musical fresco, less scrupulous archeologically than faithful to the Greece which was imagined and depicted by the French artists of the end of the eighteenth century.”
While working on the ballet – perhaps sensing its limited feasibility for future performance – Ravel began assembling two orchestral suites from the score, No. 1 in 1911, and No. 2 in 1913. Both are heard more often the complete ballet, but the Suite No. 2 is more admired has become a cherished staple of the orchestral repertoire.
The Daphnis and Chloé Suite No. 2 encompasses the final three scenes of the ballet. In the first two tableaux, Daphnis and Chloé, foundlings raised by shepherds, explore the courtship and beginnings of love, and kiss; a band of pirates invade and abduct Chloé, whisking her away to their seaside camp; Pan is invoked and manages Chloé’s escape by terrifying the pirates into a state of panic. The Suite No. 2 takes us to the events of the third tableau, in which the lovers are reunited. It bears the subtitles: “Daybreak,” “Pantomime,” and “General Dance.”
Set in a grove sacred to the god Pan, “Daybreak” begins with the sleeping Daphnis awakening to be reunited with his lover. In this shimmering depiction of sunrise, Ravel offers some of the most evocative and voluptuous music ever written. Daphnis is bathed in the idyllic sights and sounds of nature, with various bird calls evoked by the violins and piccolo, divided strings gradually removing their mutes, creating the magical impression of the sun’s slants of light penetrating the morning mist. With the emergence of the sun into full day, the music reaches an exhilarating climax. Daphnis and Chloé eyes meet and they throw themselves into one another’s arms.
In “Pantomime,” the lovers pay homage the rescuer Pan, as they reenact and mime the story of the god wooing the nymph Syrinx. Ravel’s seductive and sultry flute solo is a virtuosic delight, shared by all four members of the flute section – piccolo, two flutes, and alto flute – seamlessly woven together. Abandoning their roles, Daphnis and Chloé fall together once again, climaxing in a declaration of love.
After exchanging their solemn vows of love, the “General Dance” ensues. A group of girls dressed as bacchantes enter and shake their tambourines, followed by a group of young men. Ravel concludes with a joyous and raucous celebration, a Bacchanalian dance so brilliant and intoxicating as to never be forgotten.