Concert One: Vibrant Virtuosity
September 17, 2017, 4pm
Jackson Auditorium / Weston Center, Seguin
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
Beethoven figures prominently on the first two programs of the 2017-2018 season of the Mid-Texas Symphony. It is right that the only composer truly deserving of the title of Titan opens this afternoon's program and dominates the October concert, for when Beethoven arrived on the scene there was no polite transition. He immediately submitted music which sounded unlike anything others might have written previously. Yes, credit is due Franz Joseph “Papa” Haydn, yet when we hear the early large scale works of Beethoven, there is one, and only one composer whose name can be seen affixed to the scores and that is Ludwig van Beethoven.
In many ways, the same can be observed of the music by the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius. After a few transitional works, Sibelius found his voice. Like Beethoven's, it was a voice not previously heard and it spoke a language foreign to most Europeans. When Sibelius adopted Finnish as his language of choice, his music was changed forever. Had he not fully committed himself to the language and mythology of Finland, Sibelius would likely today be only a footnote, rather than the composer who cast a giant shadow across the Scandinavian landscape. Beethoven and Sibelius are at once a study of complimentary characteristics as well as deep contrasts.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”
Was Ludwig van Beethoven a pianist who wrote music, or a composer who played the piano? It's a legitimate question since the piano is such an important part of Beethoven's output. Fortunately for Beethoven, his skill as a composer, seasoned by his bold originality, was there when his hearing began to fail, making it almost impossible to carry on a career as a pianist. Fortunate, as well, that he had already proven himself a composer with vast range. The final numbers are staggering: nine symphonies, thirty-two piano sonatas, sixteen string quartets, substantial sonatas for piano with violin, piano with cello, and a scattering of songs and other chamber music for mixed ensembles. In addition to Fidelio, his one and only opera, Beethoven left us with seven full blown concerti, the lion's share for piano.
When we consider the entire life work of Beethoven, his works are generally identified as falling into one of three periods, Early (through 1802), Middle (1802-1812), and Late (1812-1827). Yes, this is a simplification of a career anything but simple, yet it does help us understand that Beethoven was never content to stand still. He was always innovating, always a step or two ahead of his contemporaries. It's important to note here that almost all of the various genres of music written throughout Beethoven's life are represented in each of the Early, Middle, and Late Periods. An important exception is his output of concerti. His earliest piano concerti are products of his early period, numbers four and five are middle period, but there are no piano concerti beyond 1809.
Beethoven's Middle Period encompasses many of his most celebrated works. It begins with the Third Symphony, known as Eroica, or heroic, and that is a word often used to describe generally all of the works within that ten year span of the Middle Period. Certainly, there is an heroic character to the Piano Concerto No. 5, though it is revealed only after a contemplative opening for the soloist, complete with flourishes, before the orchestra leads the way into the opening theme of the first movement. It's assertive music, barely contained in a concert hall. Much of Beethoven's music, especially of the heroic Middle Period, reflects Beethoven's love of the out-of-doors, and this is such a work, especially in the outer movements.
Does anyone hear the opening melody of the second movement of the Piano Concerto No. 5 as a suggestion of “There's a Place for Us” from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story? I always do, and I never begrudge Bernstein for using Beethoven as the germ for his moving song. There is, of course, the matter of the nickname, "Emperor." Beethoven was not a man beholden to anyone titled by birth or, worse, usurpation of power. After his falling out with Napoleon, whom he had admired until Napoleon declared himself Emperor Napoleon I, Beethoven had removed his dedication of his Symphony No. 3 to Napoleon. Thus, it is impossible that Beethoven would have thought to call his Fifth Piano Concerto “The Emperor.” Rather, it was the invention of Johann Baptist Cramer, the English publisher of the concerto. The nickname is intended as a reference to the nobility of the work, Beethoven's final concerto for piano and orchestra.
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
In a conversation relative to the recent release by the Minnesota Orchestra of “Kullervo,” a large work for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, Music Director in Minnesota and arguably the current authoritative interpreter of the orchestral music of Sibelius, contends that Sibelius found his voice as the result of his successful courtship of the woman who would become his wife. As with most educated Finns, Sibelius' first language had been Swedish. When the young Sibelius began to fall in love with Aino Järnefelt, daughter of an influential Finnish-speaking family, he was viewed by her family with considerable suspicion. For one thing, he was a musician and how could he properly support Aino in marriage? Worse, he barely spoke Finnish and he was only beginning to study and appreciate the folk legends and traditions of Finland. According to Vänskä, it was only after Sibelius wrote to Aina that he intended to write music “in the Finnish spirit” and that “Finnishness has got under my skin,” that Aina's parents began to warm to Jean Sibelius.
This discovery of what it is to be Finnish proved to be the the tipping point for Sibelius. Finlandiapaved the way to success, not only in Finland, but also across Europe. Whereas Sibelius' earlier work, much of it written while he studied in Berlin and Vienna, was well regarded, many of the public thought his music sounded too German. They were ready for something different. Little did they realize that what they awaited was music which spoke another language, Finnish.
The transition works for Sibelius were based on Finnish folklore, often instrumental transcription of folksong and dance. The rhythms and inflections of the language became defining characteristics of the Sibelius sound, even when his intentions were to compose strictly within the same structure which had served well Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Gustav Mahler got it at least partly right with his famous statement which is remembered from the only time Mahler and Sibelius ever crossed paths. Sibelius expressed that he “admired [the symphony's] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs.” To this, Mahler protested, “No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”
On the one hand, Mahler got it right. His symphonies are unlike those of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Sibelius. But to accept that Sibelius was speaking in a strict code of academic structure does an injustice to Sibelius. His music, like Beethoven's, is not music to be contained in a chamber. It is best heard as an unfamiliar language breaking new ground and describing an unfamiliar landscape. That is the power of Sibelius at his best, found in abundance within the Symphony No. 2.
Concert Two: Beethoven Unbound
October 15, 2017, 4pm
Performing Arts Center, Canyon High School, New Braunfels
Ludwig van Beethoven: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus Johan Svendsen: Romance Op. 26 Henryk Wieniawski: Légende Op. 17 Hector Berlioz: Reverie et Caprice, Op. 8 Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
Ludwig Van Beethoven: Overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus”
Beethoven's final moments, if a report by Schubert's friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner are to believed, were dramatic in the extreme. At about 5:45 in the afternoon of March 26, 1827, as a storm raged, Beethoven's room was suddenly filled with light and shaken with thunder. Hüttenbrenner, one of only two who were present at Beethoven's death bed, continued:
“Beethoven's eyes opened and he lifted his right fist for several seconds, a serious, threatening expression on his face. When his head fell back, he half closed his eyes . . . not another word, not another heartbeat.”
It is said that nearly 30,000 mourners attended the funeral of Beethoven, including 36 torch bearers, wearing "funeral clothes with white roses and bunches of lilies tied to their arms with crepe." Among the torch bearers was Franz Schubert. Beethoven was buried in Währing Cemetery, his tombstone bearing but one inscription: Beethoven.
This is the imagery most often used to describe Beethoven's final struggle with death. His defiance, the clenched fist, was present to the very end. In understanding this side of Beethoven's character, we can easily believe that he was mightily disappointed that the choreography given him for his first assignment of music for the theater was short on protest. The choreography for “The Creatures of Prometheus” was by the celebrated Neapolitan choreographer Salvatore Viganò. He normally created not only the dance but also the music. However, in this case, he called on Beethoven for the music which in the end consisted of an overture, introduction and 16 dance movements.
Rather than tell of Prometheus in constant conflict with Zeus, the principal Greek God, or of Prometheus boldly stealing fire from Mount Olympus and giving it to mortal man, Viganò focused upon another side of Prometheus, the Prometheus who fashioned two human figures, brought them to life, then took them to Parnassus to receive instruction from Apollo, god of the arts, then to Orpheus to teach them music. From Melpomene and Thalia, humans learned tragedy and comedy, and from Terpsichore and Pan, the Pastoral Dance. Beethoven's Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus is true to Viganò's vision. It doesn't rage, it doesn't shake its fist at the Heavens, yet it shouldn't be believed that the heroic side of Beethoven wasn't already brewing. The Eroica Symphony was only several years away and the rage-filled Fifth Symphony would follow soon after that.
Johan Svendsen: Romance Op. 26
Henryk Wieniawski: Légende Op. 17
Hector Berlioz: Reverie et Caprice, Op. 8
Johan Svendsen was born a dozen years after Beethoven's death, in Christiana (which later became Oslo), Norway. His father, also a musician, taught him the clarinet and violin, and it was with the violin that Svendsen set out to make a career as a musician. It was only after he began to experience hand problems, which derailed his dream of concertizing as a solo violinist, that Svendsen was forced to chose a different path. He went to Leipzig, where he studied composition with Carl Reinecke, a proper and crafty composer and teacher, but not one to breath fire into his students. Thus we find in Svendsen's Romance nothing resembling Beethoven's fire and brimstone. Instead, we find music of great melodic charm and invention. It's no wonder this is one of Svendsen's most admired compositions.
With Henryk Wieniawski we find a musician who not only reflects the passion one expects from one of Polish roots, but also a composer with a bold harmonic language. Unlike Beethoven and Svendsen, known primarily as composers who were also skilled instrumentalists, Wieniawski's fame was primarily tied to his virtuosity as a violinist. It was apparent from the very beginning, when he went away at the age of 8 to study at the Paris Conservatory. When he graduated at the age of 11 with the top prize in violin and launched a career as a soloist at the age of 13, it was apparent he would take his place among the most celebrated violinists of his era. Certainly this promise was fulfilled by his appointment in 1860, at the age of 25, as the violin soloist to the tsar of Russia. But his most satisfying moment might have come during his courtship of Isabella Hampton, who would become his wife. Her parents were not at all sure this was the best thing for their daughter until they heard him play his Légende Op. 17. They were so impressed they immediately approved the match and the couple married happily in 1860.
Hector Berlioz is one of the few composers who could follow Beethoven without being overwhelmed by his proximity. Although Berlioz was the much younger man, his early works, written while Beethoven was still alive, showed him to be a worthy successor to The Titan. In fact, Berlioz later acknowledged that hearing Beethoven's Third and Fifth Symphonies in 1828 left him both overwhelmed and inspired. Berlioz wrote his Reverie et Caprice, Op. 8, in 1841. It immediately caught the ear of all the celebrated violinists of the day, including Ferdinand David (violin teacher to Svendsen) and Henryk Wieniawski, all of whom concertized with Berlioz' score as an important addition to their repertoire.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Ten years separate the composition of The Creatures of Prometheus and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. As the ink dried on “Prometheus” Beethoven was about to cross the line from what is referred to as his Early Period into the Middle Period, sometimes called his Heroic Period. As we recall, Beethoven had restrained his inclination to celebrate the rebel in “Prometheus,” but now, as he crossed beyond that arbitrary marker of 1802, where the Middle Period is said to begin, Beethoven could no longer contain his need to express himself in a much more dramatic fashion. He found that voice in his Eroica Symphony (No. 3) and perhaps even more defiantly in the Fifth Symphony. The Sixth painted pastoral pictures of thunder and lightning, but was a calmer side of Beethoven.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 is not so much a fist pumping in the air, raging against the shortcomings of society, but rather heels clicking in the air. It is no surprise that Richard Wagner, after describing the Seventh as possessing “bacchanalian power” which propels it “through the roomy space of nature” concluded by calling Beethoven's Seventh the “Apotheosis of the Dance.” Beethoven felt pretty good about the Seventh too, describing it as "one of the happiest products of my poor talents."
Ironically, the Seventh had the misfortune of being premiered alongside another of Beethoven's scores, Wellington's Victory. To Beethoven's dismay, the audience went away whistling The Bear Went Over the Mountain rather than the now famous 2nd movement Allegretto of the symphony. In the end, however, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony stands as one of his very best, while Wellington's Victory is today recognized as the novelty it has always been.
Concert Three: Angels & Anthems
December 10, 2017, 4pm
Jackson Auditorium / Weston Center, Seguin
Engelbert Humperdinck: Three excerpts from Hansel and Gretel Sandman's Song; Evening Prayer; Dream Pantomime
Selected A Capella pieces - Seguin High School Chorus
David Mairs: Carol Medley for Strings and Chorus George F. Handel, arr. H. Harty: Excerpts from Water Music Suite John Finnegan: Christmas Sing-along
Leroy Anderson: Sleigh Ride
It is sometimes said that there are certain composers who have created a new musical world so successfully that any effort by others to imitate it is destined to fail. This argument can be made when considering the musical theater of Stephen Sondheim and, if further example is needed, the total domination of opera by Richard Wagner.
As Wagner's life reached its final pages, a great musical void loomed on the horizon. Try as they might, those who attempted to extend the musical way invented by Wagner were doomed to failure. August Bungert was one who tried, with his six-opera cycle Homerische Welt (Homeric World). But do any besides the musical historians know today the name August Bungert? The case rests.
Engelbert Humperdinck: Three excerpts from Hansel and Gretel Sandman's Song; Evening Prayer; Dream Pantomime
The German composer Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) showed such great promise from an early age that his parents gave up their objections to his making a life in music. Humperdinck's life changed dramatically in 1880 when he met Wagner. Two years later he was invited by Wagner to become his assistant in the preparations for the first Bayreuth performance of Parsifal. Humperdinck sat willingly at the feet of Wagner, learning all he could from the master.
Following the death of Wagner in 1883, Humperdinck tried his hand at a number of jobs within the music industry. He dabbled in the writing of musical criticism and was employed for awhile by the music publishers Schott. Was this a game of procrastination, or was Humperdinck merely waiting for the right opportunity to take seriously his calling to write music? Certainly he noted the two post-Wagner schools of musical theater which began to emerge: Volksoper (popular opera) and Marchenoper (fairy-tale opera). His choice to pursue the latter was not altogether of his own making. His sister, Adelhied Wette, asked him to compose some incidental music for a children's play.
Thankfully, Engelbert wrote the music and it was a success beyond his expectations. This led to more writing, and the operatic telling of what was then an obscure tale by the Brothers Grimm, Hansel and Gretel. This became a breakthrough moment for Humperdinck. He found his voice and his niche in the emerging world of fairy-tale opera. “Hansel and Gretel” was a tremendous success. Richard Strauss not only loved the opera, but agreed to conduct the premiere, December 23, 1893. Upon hearing a performance of Hansel and Gretel, Gustav Mahler declared it a masterpiece, and “a delightful addition” to the post-Wagner operatic repertoire.
Hansel and Gretel got a somewhat less enthusiastic reception in the United States, no fault of Humperdinck or his music but rather on account of carelessly made statements in the publicity for the work's American premiere. The English impresario Augustus Harris, who brought Hansel and Gretel to New York, publicly declared the opera as “the wonderful work of this great composer Pumpernickel!”
G.F. Handel, arr. H. Harty: Excerpts from Water Music Suite
It is probably safe to say that the English conductor and composer Hamilton Harty would have had little good to say about Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. After he failed as an operatic conductor at Covent Garden, Harty stated: “Opera seems to me a form of art in which clumsy attempts are made at defining the indefinable suggestions of music.” Following the fiascos of his performances of Tristan und Isolde and Carmen, in 1913, Harty returned to his more sure place as a conductor of concert music. With the Hallé Orchestra, Harty was praised as one with an “extraordinary grasp of every nuance and expressive device.”
Though Harty's negative opinions regarding opera as an art form likely found plenty who were dismissive of his statements, it is likely a majority would have fallen in line with Harty and many other conductors of the first half of the Twentieth Century who regarded music of the Baroque Period, i.e. Bach, Telemann, Handel, in need of instrumental reinforcement. Their argument likely went like this: “If Handel had a modern orchestra at his disposal he would surely have written his music to sound differently.” Hamilton Harty was one who stepped forward to “assist” Handel by rewriting his music to a 20th century standard. For decades this is how listeners thought Handel's Water Music or Royal Fireworks Music should sound. The music was as much Harty's as it was Handel's.
Today, as authentic period instrument performances have become the norm, Harty's lavish re-orchestrations have fallen from favor. Ironically, there is now interest in authenticating orchestral tone and practices from late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is achieved through utilization of instruments of those eras and the return of the Harty and Beecham versions of Handel and Bach which were commonly in use well into the 1960s and early 70s. Imagine you're hearing Handel through an audio prism and your ears will quickly adjust.
John Finnegan: Christmas Sing-along
Not to dismiss the numerous great recordings of operatic superstars belting out programs of Christmas carols, but I would rather hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or Robert Shaw's great choral ensembles sing this repertoire. Why? I suppose it's because that's how I first learned the essential songs of the season. My mother, who had an enthusiastic love for singing (without much of a voice to go with it - “Forgive him, Father, for he knows not what he says”) taught me and my siblings the essentials: Jingle Bells, Silent Night, Away in a Manger, etc. We sang them tirelessly. In elementary school in Victoria, Texas, I loved singing these same songs, and more, with the school choir. I suspect I am describing not only my own experiences but those of many others. This is music which we love to sing together. Thank goodness for the traditional moment in every Mid-Texas Symphony Holiday Concert when David Mairs turns and invites the audience to join in the singing of a medley of songs of the season.
Today's medley is assembled by the Australian composer and arranger, John Finnegan. It's time to clear our minds of the distractions of holiday shopping, the sheets and sheets of Christmas cookies, and the many other worries which come with this time of year. Sing your hearts out, sing your cares away with a medley of Jingle Bells, Joy to the World, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Silent Night, Away in a Manger, Deck the Halls, and O Come All Ye Faithful.
Leroy Anderson: Sleigh Ride
Leroy Anderson, before he rose to fame as Arthur Fiedler's favorite arranger, spent the years of WWII in the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps. He was fluent in a number of languages, including German, Icelandic and various other Scandinavian languages. When he returned to the New England area following the war, he was offered the position of U.S. Military Attaché to Sweden but declined. He had decided to focus upon music as his principal second language.
“Sleigh Ride” was written in 1946 during a summer heat wave. Along with The Typewriter, Blue Tango, Trumpeter's Lullaby and countless other light classics, Leroy Anderson's music became well known to the public and well respected by the musicians who played his music. “Sleigh Ride” will surely bring smiles to many faces and perhaps some will hum along the words, which came later, written by Mitchell Parish in 1950.
Just hear those sleigh bells jingling,
ring ting tingling too
Come on, it's lovely weather
for a sleigh ride together with you.
Merry Christmas, All!
February 18, 2018, 4pm
Performing Arts Center, Canyon High School, New Braunfels
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Impresario Overture
Concerto for Flute, No. 1 in G Major, Mvt. I Clarinet Concerto in A Major, Mvt. II, K. 662 Bassoon Concerto in B flat Major, Mvt. III, K. 191
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
The Genius of Mozart
There is only a handful of composers whose work will bear the scrutiny of an all-(insert composer's name) program. Mozart is perhaps at the top. When looking at today's program the immediate tendency is to look for the reasoning for an entire program made up of only Mozart's music. I admit that for a few moments, in considering what to say about this all-Mozart affair, I checked off the various anniversaries which this might celebrate. Anniversary of his birth? 250 years? Nope. Anniversary of Mozart's death? Nothing there, either.
Putting aside the calendar, one then considers the worth of the man. Franz Joseph Haydn supposedly said to Mozart's father, Leopold: “Before God, and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me, either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.” Tchaikovsky called Mozart “the musical Christ.” Goethe summed him up: “A phenomenon like Mozart is an inexplicable thing.” Should we need any other reasons for an all-Mozart afternoon? I think not!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Impresario Overture
Impresario: a person who manages a performance (such as a concert or play). An impresario today or yesterday or tomorrow would leap at the opportunity to put on a concert of Mozart's music. Perhaps that was the situation with the premiere of Mozart's singspiel/operetta Der Schauspieldirektor, or The Impresario. Only here, the impresario was none other that Emperor Joseph II, an amateur musician who was also an avid supporter of Mozart. Joseph II's idea was to have a festival which would feature two stages, one at either end of a great hall. On one stage a new work by Mozart would be performed while at the other end would be something new by Mozart's rival, Antonio Salieri. This was meant as much a competition between German opera and Italian as an actual contest between Mozart and Salieri.
Mozart was at that time quite busy with the writing of The Marriage of Figaro, plus a couple of new piano concerti, yet he couldn't really turn his back on Joseph II's project. In the end, the only real winner was Salieri, who was paid considerably more for his opera as Mozart for his. The last laugh, however, belongs to Mozart, whose Impresario Overture is still played today with regularity while Salieri's Prima la musica et poi le parole (First the Music and then the Words) is a mere footnote in music history books.
Mozart: Concerto for Flute No.1 in G major, Mvt. I
Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A major, Mvt. II K.662
Mozart: Bassoon Concerto in B flat major, Mvt. III K.191
It is often observed that Mozart's strength was not so much innovation, but rather the art of writing pure music. It is not blasphemous in the least to say that Haydn, who preceded Mozart, was much more the adventurer and, of course, Beethoven then came along and created a body of boldly original music which broke the rules, reinvented others, then proceeded to break those. Mozart, on the other hand, worked within the rules of harmony (not without the occasional surprise) while observing even more religiously the rules of structure. There is an architecture to Mozart's music which tempts the trickster to rearrange bits of Mozart's music to make something new. In other words, one might take the first phrase of an early Mozart Symphony in D, then drop in a phrase from a different Symphony in D and make it sound as though it belonged that way. It would be possible to get away with it because the structure of Mozart's instrumental works is so consistent from one work to the next.
What we will hear this afternoon is not that drastic, but it should still prove the purity of Mozart's musical structure. We take a first movement from his First Flute Concerto, follow that with the middle movement of the Clarinet Concerto, and wrap it up with the finale to the Bassoon Concerto. After all, each of these works is made up of a fast movement, a slow movement, and then another fast movement. From a bit more technical view, the first movements are all in a sonata-allegro form, and the second movements are each marked either andante or adagio, both a variation of slow. The third movements also have similarities for they are each in the form of a rondo, which describes a structured mixture of a principal theme with various other contrasting themes mixed together in a more or less formulaic manner.
As you enjoy this hybrid “Concerto for Wind Instruments,” note that there is always a singing, almost vocal quality which Mozart asks of each of his instrumentalists. This is why wind players so love his modest body of concerti for wind instruments with orchestra. And this is the genius of Mozart, that he can work within the accepted rules of musical structure prevalent at the time, yet produce musical phrases which go far beyond those of less gifted composers. He truly had a vision, a gift, and the product of his genius is music of the highest level, both as musical expression and entertainment.
Mozart: Symphony No.40 in G minor, K. 550,
I wonder if there isn't a secret code hidden within the amalgam of wind concerti we just heard. Is Maestro Mairs imparting some Masonic secret, or is it Mozart testing the power of our observation? It might not be intended, but it is visible to the inquiring mind that the three wind movements we just heard are in the keys of G, A, and B-flat, respectively. The work just ahead is Mozart's famous Symphony in G minor. The first three notes in the g minor scale are G/A/B-flat! Coincidence? Mozart loved games. Perhaps he just slipped one past us.
It was mentioned earlier that Franz Josef Haydn was in many ways a more innovative composer than was Mozart. One measure of this is that Haydn wrote often in the minor keys. Of his 104 symphonies, 11 are in minor keys. This may not seen that extraordinary until you realize that in his 41 symphonies, Mozart only wrote two in minor keys, and both of them were in the key of g minor.
There are other examples of Mozart writing in minor keys, several of his most famous piano concerti are in the minor, but it is obvious that for one reason or another Mozart wrote most often in major keys. The great Mozart pianist, Alfred Brendel, and a very able thinker as well, argues that Mozart's minor key works, although “few in number ... balance out those in the major by their own innate weight”. Brendel is even so bold as to suggest “the minor confronts you in Mozart as the superior force.”
The difficulty the Symphony No. 40 has in proving its superiority is that it is embedded in the middle of Mozart's final three symphonies, a body of work which is regarded at or near the top of any hierarchy of greatest symphonies (by any composer), thus making it impossible to rank any ONE of Mozart's final symphonies the superior, one over the others.
Although modern scholarship insists that Mozart's final three symphonies are individual works, the opinion of the eminent musician Nikolaus Harnoncourt that Mozart composed his final three symphonies as one unified work is certainly worthy of consideration when reflecting upon this miraculous final blossoming of Mozart's symphonic genius. All-Mozart? Any objections? Then let's hear the music.
April 29, 2018, 4pm
Jackson Auditorium / Weston Center, TLU, Seguin
Samuel Barber: Concerto for Violin, Op. 14
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
For those who have been aboard for the entirety of the 2017-2018 season by David Mairs and the Mid-Texas Symphony, perhaps you have noticed a symmetry to the series of concerts. I notice these things and find them fascinating, whether it is by design or serendipity. Let's review for a moment this season's opening concert: Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 and the Symphony No. 2 by Sibelius. Two major works by two major composers.
Now look at today's program, the final of the season and also the end of David Mairs long and fruitful relationship with the Mid-Texas Symphony. Again, we have only two works, both important compositions by important composers and, as with last September's concert, we have a concerto on one half followed by a symphony on the other.
I admit I may be seeing matched bookends when we really have nothing but an opening and a closing concert. But as long as I'm at it, I'll take this comparison one step further by noting a lesson I learned long ago from San Antonio Symphony trumpeter Jan Roller. We worked together in the San Antonio Symphony for a number of years and I recall after a performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto I mentioned to Jan what a moving experience it had been. I don't even recall who the soloist was; it was Sibelius' music which had caught me up in its passion. To my enthusiasm Jan replied: “If you liked the Sibelius, you should listen to Barber's Violin Concerto. I did and to this day I find them to be brothers by different mothers, so to speak. I guess what I'm saying is that the Barber Concerto is in the heavyweight class for good reason. Like the Sibelius Violin Concerto it is passionate, engaging and memorable. It's also the finest American violin concerto in the repertoire.
Samuel Barber: Concerto for Violin, Op. 14
Samuel Barber was throughout his life an exceptional composer. His career was a chain of one exception after another. As a young boy he declared to his mother, in writing: “I was meant to be a composer . . . don't ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football.” Barber also took exception with the dominant tendency of American composers of his generation to go to Paris for studies, most often with Nadia Boulanger. Instead, Barber always preferred Italy. And also remarkable was that Barber chose not to inflect his music with American folk music and jazz, as was the case with Aaron Copland and the vast majority of composers in search of the illusive American sound. Toward the end of his life, Barber stated: “I wrote as I wanted to for myself.”
It wasn't that Barber was opposed to sounding American, whatever that meant. His “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” is undeniably American. It can also be argued that his iconic Adagio for Strings captures the American soul, perhaps more by its association with American tragedy than the sound of the piece itself.
Barber began work on the Violin Concerto in 1939 while spending the summer in Switzerland. This was his first important commission, coming from Samuel Fels, the inventor of Fels Naptha soap. The work was intended for Fel's adopted son, violinist Iso Briselli. Toward the end of 1939 Barber left Switzerland, distancing himself from the eruption of World War II. He returned to America with the first two movements complete, but lacking even a sketch of the final movement.
He sent the completed parts of the concerto to Briselli, who soon responded that he felt the concerto was too easy and lacked virtuosic elements. Barber responded with a final movement in the form of a perpetual motion which made high demands on the soloist. Barber biographer Barbara Heyman wrote: “This is one of the few virtually nonstop concerto movements in the violin literature (the solo instrument plays for 110 measures without interruption).” Again, Briselli returned the score, complaining that the movement was too lightweight and wasn't in keeping with the character of the first two movements.
In the end, Barber and Briselli agreed to disagree. A financial settlement was agreed upon, allowing the concerto to remain in the hands of Barber. Barber promptly offered the first performance to Albert Spalding, who immediately accepted the opportunity and the rest, as they say, is history. Barber, who might have fumed at the initial rejection of his music, in the end made light of the situation by subtitling the concerto “concerto del sapone,” or a “soap concerto,” this a reference to Fels Naptha soap and also the soap opera melodrama which surrounded the genesis of this important title in the substantial output of Samuel Barber.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed six symphonies, but for the most part the first three are seldom heard. This is in a way shameful for there is some great music to be found in those early symphonies and through the writing of those symphonies, Tchaikovsky found Russia in his soul. He wrote to his benefactor, Nadejda von Meck: “Why is it that the simple Russian landscape, a walk in summer through Russian fields and forest or on the steppes in evening, can affect me so?” Despite his outpouring of love for the Motherland, there were still detractors who accused Tchaikovsky of being too European. However, Stravinsky essentially quieted the debate by stating, simply: “[Tchaikovsky] was the most Russian of us all.”
By the time Tchaikovsky came around to his Fourth Symphony he had refined his abilities as a composer, and it is largely for this reason that the final three of Tchaikovsky's symphonies are more highly regarded than the first three. He found a way to speak with great emotion, with passion, and with grand Russian gesture while still staying within the boundaries of symphonic architecture. It should come as no surprise that Tchaikovsky admired the work of Mozart, one who excelled as no other at creating art within the structure of the symphony.
This is certainly not to say that we can find Mozart within a Tchaikovsky symphony. In fact, his mature symphonies could have come from nobody's pen but Tchaikovsky's. Surprisingly, Tchaikovsky stated that his Fourth Symphony “is patterned after Beethoven's Fifth. Don't you see a program in the Fifth?” asks Tchaikovsky. “My symphony has much the same basic idea, and if it does not appear clearly, it only means that I am not a Beethoven – which is no news to me.”
Tchaikovsky continued describing parallels with Beethoven's Fifth when he created a program to his Fourth Symphony in order to satisfy the curiosity of Madame von Meck. “The introduction is the seed of the whole Symphony: This is fate: that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal, which jealously ensures that peace and happiness shall not be complete and unclouded.”
These are the words of a man trying to invent a program, after the fact, but they are also the words of a man who was trying to construct a personal world of happiness through an ill-advised marriage to a woman he really didn't even know. His disastrous marriage to Antonina Milyukova, exacerbated by his discovery after the “I do's” had been exchanged that his wife knew not a note of music, lasted only a few months. Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck: “My heart is full. It thirsts to pour itself into music.”
Memories of his sham marriage to Milyukova haunted Tchaikovsky through the writing of the Symphony No. 4. Is it any wonder the work is in the key of f minor? Yet we find in the Fourth Symphony the hauntingly beautiful melodies for which Tchaikovsky is remembered. We also find that wonderful third movement, so inventive with the pizzicato strings and the contrasting woodwind sections. And finally, there is the powerful final movement, a roller coaster swaying from brooding emotions to festive joy. Once again Tchaikovsky explained it in his correspondence with von Meck: “If you cannot discover reasons for happiness in yourself,” Tchaikovsky wrote, “look at others. Get out among the people. Look what a good time they have simply surrendering themselves to joy.”
Tchaikovsky's Fourth ends triumphantly, sounding as heroic as Beethoven's Fifth. Perhaps Tchaikovsky was right all along, that his mid-point symphony truly is a reflection of Beethoven's.