Classics IV: Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3
Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, op.23a, Samuel Barber
Violin Concerto in D Major, op.35, Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Symphony No. 3, op.56 “Scottish”, Felix Mendelssohn
Sunday, February 4, 2018
There are many theories and conjectures about notions of talent, ability, and genius that continue to circulate in the world. Malcom Gladwell, for one, has proposed in his book, Outliers, that beyond all other considerations, there are rational and concrete explanations for the outstanding achievement of people today considered geniuses in their field. He posits the notion of 10,000 hours required for mastery of any endeavor and that even the young Mozart was undistinguished as a child composer, yet the notion of child composer is in itself a kind of outlier status that seems to defy this explanation. Regardless of whether or not we accept the outlier theory as promulgated by Gladwell, all the composers on this program were already well on their way to mastery long before adolescence. Samuel Barber composed his first piece by the age of 7, Gustav Mahler recognized 9-year-old Erich Korngold’s musical gifts, Felix Mendelssohn’s first publication came at age 13, and he composed enduring masterworks before the age of 17.
The name Martha Graham and modern ballet are inseparable. The dancer/choreographer was one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century. Her works remain a part of the modern dance repertoire and the music composed for many of those works has become standard fare in the concert hall. Graham’s most celebrated musical collaborator was Aaron Copland, who composed the music to Appalachian Spring. Just two years after Appalachian Spring, Graham asked the young American composer, Samuel Barber (1910-1981) to compose the music for a new ballet, this time one based on the Classical Euripides tragedy of Medea. Graham’s work was originally titled Serpent’s Cave but was renamed Cave of the Heart after undergoing some revision prior to its official premiere in the winter of 1947. Graham’s version of the story is a dramatic transformation of the Greek original, involving only four, symbolically named characters: The Sorceress, The Adventurer, The Victim, and The Chorus. The story is ultimately about intense passion, betrayal, and vengeance. The ballet includes few direct allusions to the dramatic action of the Greek drama whose analogous main characters are Medea (sorceress and granddaughter of Helios), her husband, Jason (of Golden Fleece fame), Glauce (daughter of Creon, King of Corinth), and Creon. The myth tells of Jason’s unfaithfulness to Medea as he turns instead to Glauce for love. Enraged at this infidelity and disgrace, Medea plans her retribution, which is to punish Jason by destroying what he loves. Her main object of vengeance then, is Glauce, whom she plans to poison through a garment she is to wear. Her plot is successful and Creon dies attempting to save his daughter. In Euripides’ version of the story, Medea even kills two of her own children to strike back at Jason, but the Graham ballet does not include this episode. The vengeance here is directed toward those responsible for Medea’s humiliation.
By all accounts, Barber’s score to the Cave of the Heart was immediately well-received. A review of the premiere describes the music as having “heroic grandness, maddeningly insistent rhythms, [and] melodic insinuations.” Originally constructed in seven sections, Barber first created a seven-movement orchestral suite based on excerpts from the full score for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1948. The most popular version of the music from Cave of the Heart is heard in the frequently performed Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, op. 23a (1955). Here Barber has consolidated the music into a single movement structure deriving themes and motifs particularly associated with Medea from the ballet and recasting it into a kind of tone portrait. Barber wrote that the work traces “her emotions from her tender feelings towards her children, through the mounting suspicions and anguish at her husband’s betrayal and her decision to avenge herself, the piece increases in intensity to close in the frenzied Dance of Vengeance of Medea, the Sorceress descended from the Sun God.”
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is far from a household name though his music is probably much more familiar than most realize. The reason for this is that Korngold is one of the pioneers of Hollywood film music and he penned the scores to some of the classic films of the first half of the 20th century. His scores to the films Captain Blood (1935), The Prince and the Pauper (1937), and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), are among his most celebrated film compositions and are frequently performed in concert today. Korngold earned Academy Awards for Robin Hood and the score to Anthony Adverse (1936).
Despite his reputation as a seminal figure in the history of Hollywood film music, Korngold’s compositional career began quite traditionally as a composer of standard classical works, especially operas. Some of Korngold’s early operas were extremely successful in his native Europe; he was born in Moravia but worked mainly in Germany and Austria. In fact, Korngold was something of a compositional prodigy, who after meeting Mahler at the age of 9, was recommended by the master to study with Mahler’s colleague, Alexander von Zemlinsky. Korngold composed many successful works while still a teenager and premiered his first two operas at the age of 19, both to critical acclaim. In the 1920s Korngold began an artistic relationship working with the pioneering German stage and film director, Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). It was through his association with Reinhardt that Korngold first came to the U. S. in 1934, initially to make arrangements of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music for Reinhardt’s film version of the play. Soon he was under contract to compose for Warner Bros. films. Korngold’s destiny to settle in Hollywood was sealed with the rise of Nazi power and the German annexation of Austria in 1938. Korngold, born to a Jewish family, vowed not to compose concert music for the European stage until Hitler was defeated. So, it is not surprising that after the defeat of European fascism in 1945 Korngold turned once again to composing more traditional concert works. One of the first compositions he completed was his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, op. 35. Korngold dedicated the concerto to Alma Mahler, wife of the late Gustav Mahler, and the premiere was given by none other than Jascha Heifetz, acknowledged today as one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century. Although this concerto was completed in 1947, a time of great experimentation in the area of concert music, Korngold’s works are connected to both the earlier period of the century, before his self-imposed hiatus from the concert hall, and, especially in this concerto, his music for films. The style is conservative and intensely Romantic, but not overblown as the dramatic mood of a film might demand. Interestingly, the main themes from each movement are largely derived from several of Korngold’s most accomplished film scores of the 1930s. In the conceto’s opening theme, the solo violin introduces a rising 5-note theme that is taken directly from the film, Another Dawn and the second theme comes from Juarez. The main idea of the slow second movement is originally from Anthony Adverse, and the second theme of the Finale comes from the score to The Prince and the Pauper. The concerto thus follows the traditional Romantic model with a grand and expressive opening movement, a heartfelt and lyrical slow movement, and a devilishly difficult but exuberantly cinematic finale.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) is one of the most influential but perhaps most underappreciated of the great Romantic era composers. He composed works in a wide variety of genres and was, like Korngold, a prodigy of Mozartean caliber. Some of his most well-known and frequently performed works were composed while still a teenager, such as the Midsummer Night’s Dream music Korngold arranged in 1934. Mendelssohn was also a virtuoso pianist and one of the leading figures in the history of orchestral conducting, known for his highly regarded ensemble still active today, the Leipzig Gwandhaus Orchestra, in Germany. Even more, Mendelssohn was an avid student of music history and he, along with people like Robert Schumann, helped to revive interest in the music of J. S. Bach, whose works had been largely forgotten since his death in 1750. Mendelssohn was the scion of a prominent Berlin family. His grandfather was an important Jewish leader and philosopher, his father, converted to Christianity, was a successful banker. Consequently, Felix and his older sister Fanny grew up well-educated and privileged, in addition to the enormous musical gifts they both shared.
Mendelssohn had frequent opportunities to travel as a young man and these travels had a profound impact on his musical imagination. The dramatic and melancholy mood of his Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 “Scottish” was inspired by his experiences while visiting Queen Mary’s palace, near Edinburgh in 1829. This same trip also produced the inspiration for the famous Hebrides Overture (“Fingal’s Cave”). Like the overture, however, Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony would have to wait many years before its full realization. In fact, the symphony would not be completed and performed until 1842, making it the last of Mendelssohn’s five published symphonies to be completed. While the “Scottish” or “Scotch” label was originally given by the composer, by the time of its premiere he deleted it realizing the symphony’s Scottish-ness was not its most essential character.
The symphony opens with a slow, dark hued introduction that seems to embody the nobility and tragedy of Scottish history. The main, faster section is a stormy movement built out of a restless theme first heard in the strings. The scherzo-like second movement takes a Scottish reel or hornpipe as its main melody. The light, spinning melody gradually builds to a towering orchestral theme before the movement subsides. The Adagio that follows is one of Mendelssohn’s most beautiful slow movements with its tenderly turned melodic phrases, haunting instrumental colors and noble, awe-inspiring middle section. The symphony concludes with a grand, almost martial, Finale, marked “Allegro guerriero” (fast and warlike) whose contrapuntal development conjures images of a battle. The victory seems uncertain as the hushed tones of the introduction briefly return before a resounding song of celebration (Finale maestoso, majestic finale) brings this exceptionally dramatic symphony to a fitting close.
© 2018 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.