Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) is the composer of some of the most famous operas of the 19th century and the overtures he composed for many of them are themselves frequently programmed concert works. Despite this level of celebrity and enduring fame, Rossini remains something of an enigmatic figure. He achieved phenomenal success relatively early and proved to be an extremely prolific composer, producing as many as four new operas in a single year. His first opera was completed in 1810 and by 1822 he was one of the most celebrated opera composers in all of Europe. By 1829, at the age of 37, Rossini had composed his last opera, despite living for another 40 years. The exact cause of his withdrawal from the operatic stage is uncertain, though we do know that Rossini suffered from a variety of maladies during the ensuing years and experienced some legal and financial entanglements. He did compose a number of non-operatic works later in life. Nonetheless, after a career of unprecedented achievement, to retire at the peak of his success seems hard to fathom.
Born to a musical Italian family, Rossini composed operas in all the major genres of the time, from the lighter comic opera style known as opera buffa, to more weighty subjects of opera seria. Works like L’italiana in Algeri (1813), La gazza ladra (1817), and his most famous opera, Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816) helped establish his reputation throughout Italy and beyond. In 1824 he moved to Paris, where he would reside for most of the rest of his life. Known today for his innovative approaches to dramatic musical composition and brilliant writing for voice, Rossini was influential on opera composers for the rest of the 19th century.
Rossini clearly understood the role of the overture as a preparation for a dramatic entertainment and his overtures are both musically varied and brilliant orchestral showpieces. This is certainly the case for one of the most famous of all, his Overture to The Barber of Seville. Interestingly, Rossini composed this overture for a much earlier work and then used it for at least two other operas before appending it to the Barber of Seville. While the opera is a comedy based on intrigues and deceptions in an 18th-century Spanish court, the overture is portentous and dramatic and not suggestive of comedy and farce. Following the ominous slow opening brass chords and stuttering strings, a series of contrasting sections ensues with some of classical music’s most familiar themes, at turns lyrical and boisterous. This all leads to a furious and exhilarating closing section marked by dramatic crescendos, rushing strings and winds, and blaring brass.
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) has become one of the more well-known American composers of the 20th century mainly through the extraordinary popularity of his powerfully expressive Adagio for Strings (1938). This is not meant to suggest that Barber’s numerous other works are less deserving of admiration, but rather to recall the deeply felt expression that is characteristic of much of his music. The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 is roughly contemporary with the Adagio for Strings and related to it through its touching lyricism and unpretentious expression. Despite being Barber’s first work for solo instrument with orchestra, his Violin Concerto has managed to find a prominent place among the vast repertoire of violin concertos composed since the time of Vivaldi.
Barber’s Violin Concerto, like most of his subsequent works, was composed on a commission from a member of the board of trustees of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, from which Barber was a graduate. Barber began work on the concerto in Switzerland in the summer of 1939, completing the first two movements there intending to finish the work in Paris that fall. History intervened when the imminent Nazi invasion of Poland disrupted life in Europe and Barber hastily managed to catch a boat sailing for the U. S. By this time Barber had already been informed that though he first two movements were beautiful they were not technically demanding enough for a solo concerto. Barber set out to rectify this deficiency in the Finale, which is indeed a technical tour-de-force.
The concerto begins immediately with the solo violin and orchestra unfolding a passionate yet delicately turned melody that is soon countered by a playfully rhythmic theme first heard in the clarinet. These two ideas provide the primary material of this unusually intimate and expressive movement. The soloist is always prominent but never dominates and even the brief cadenza is reserved in character. The beautifully poetic slow movement is introduced by the solo oboe whose touching melody is then taken up by the strings before the entrance of the solo violin. The pathos increases as the violin and orchestra trade brief motives before the violin mournfully consents to the stirring opening theme of the movement. The effervescent finale is built on a perpetual motion idea in the solo violin whose dazzling activity is sustained virtually throughout the entire movement. The orchestra mainly provides a background of rhythmic punctuation and interrupts the violin’s continuous flow only twice with its quirky, almost satirical march‑like theme before the concerto comes to its resounding close.
Among the most colorful and perhaps tragic figures of the 19th-century Russian nationalist movement is the composer Modest Musorgsky (1839-1881). Born to privilege he pursued music as his career and found little success during his lifetime, a circusmtance that undoubtedly fed his inherent sense of self-doubt, depression, and alcoholic tendencies. Regardless, Musorgsky was an original and inventive musical genius whose reputation primarily rests on a few works, many of which were salvaged by other composers, such as Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. His most familiar work is his suite of descriptive piano pieces, Pictures at an Exhibition. The work gets its name from an exhibition of works by Musorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann, who died in 1873. The work is introduced and many of the movements are connected by a brief section entitled “Promenade”—intended to depict the corpulent composer as he moves from station to station. Although Pictures at an Exhibition was originally composed for solo piano it is most well known in orchestral versions, of which several exist but none are by Musorgsky. Of these, by far the most frequently heard is the Ravel orchestration, which gives a depth and richness of color to the music that in reality surpasses the visual images that they describe. Many of Hartmann’s pictures are soft-hued aquarelles, which, despite their imaginative subjects and execution, pale in comparison to our own imagined creations sparked by Musorgsky’s compelling music
The score opens with the noble “Promenade” played by the trumpet, nel modo russico (in the Russian style). A sudden flurry in the low strings confronts us with the grotesquely haunting “Gnome.” A distant trombone begins the next “Promenade” whose softened wind tones anticipate the next picture. The image of a mist shrouded “Old Castle” transports us to a strange and distant place. Pulsing low strings accompany a long, soft melody in the various winds including an atmospheric saxophone. The trumpet returns in the next “Promenade” but the tone is thickened through the addition of tuba and strings. The gardens of “The Tuileries” is apparently occupied by playful children chanting their sing-songy Nya-nyas first heard in the solo oboe. No intervening promenade separates “Tuileries” from “Bydlo,” the lumbering old ox cart with out-of-round wheels, as it slowly approaches. What its cargo is is unknown, but there is a definite sense of relief as it passes. The next “Promenade” is ethereally transformed through its high, airy winds and ominously menacing low strings. The “Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens” is a humorous musical picture based on designs by Hartmann for a ballet in which the dancer’s torso is encased in an egg-shaped costume with chicken-like limbs and head covering. “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” are two Polish Jews, the first wealthy and weighty, the other poor and shrill. Racing themes and motifs seem to bounce off one another in “The Market Place at Limoges” where customers argue and bargain for their goods. Awesome chords in the brass interrupt the commerce as we are struck by the image of the “Catacombae: Sepulchrum Romanum” (catacombs of Paris). The eerie catacombs have had a chilling effect on the Promenade now titled “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua.” A different kind of eeriness and grotesqueness are heard in “Baba-Yaga’s Hut on Fowl’s Legs.” Heavy rhythms and repetitious motifs describe the legendary Russian witch and her elaborately decorated hut that stands on bird‑like talons. The upwardly rushing strings at the end of Baba-Yaga segues directly into the magnificent “Great Gate of Kiev” portrayed by a brass chorale answered by solemn winds. The majestic brass theme returns several times, interspersed with chiming Russian church bells, a triumphant setting of the Promenade and a splendorous conclusion. © 2019 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
There is an old saw in music that the best Spanish music has been written by French composers. As initially insulting as that might sound, it is hard to argue that there isn’t a lot of great Spanish music to have come from the pens of Frenchmen. Take for example the great opera, Carmen, by Georges Bizet, or Emanuel Chabrier’s España, or Maurice Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, among many others. Nonetheless, Spanish culture, rich and varied as it is, has been the inspiration for many composers in addition to those of neighboring France. Further afield, the Russian composer, and founder of the Russian Nationalist movement, Mikhail Glinka spent two years in Spain and composed several works influenced by Spain and its culture. It is undoubtedly due, at least in part, to Glinka’s importance that Rimsky-Korsakov turned his interest to Spain for his brilliant Cappricio Espagnol. On the other hand, the French predilection for the colors of Spain and other national idioms is exemplified in Claude Debussy’s orchestral set, Images.
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) is certainly one of a handful of Russia’s most influential and important composers. After Glinka, the formation of “The Five” played a central role in shaping Russian music for the rest of the 19th century. Tchaikovsky, who stands outside of that group, is probably the preeminent composer of Russian history, yet Rimsky-Korsakov exerted tremendous influence, not only through his leading role as part of the nationalist school, but as an important academic and the teacher of Igor Stravinsky. Among Rimsky-Korsakov’s most prominent contributions to the history of Russian music is the textbook he wrote on the use of the instruments of the orchestra. His mastery of orchestration is perhaps the hallmark of his musical character, in addition to his interest in Russian and other national folk idioms.
Though he never set foot in Spain, Rimsky-Korsakov became enchanted with the color and variety of Spanish folk music, primarily through collections of folk songs that came to his attention in the 1880s. It is from these sources that he derived the music for his Capriccio Espagnol, op. 34 (1887). In a similar vein as at least two of Rimsky’s other successful works, Fantasia on Two Russian Themes and Scheherazade, the Capriccio was conceived as a work for orchestra with solo violin. The work was premiered in the same year it was completed and was an instant success in Russia, widely acclaimed by fellow composers, including Tchaikovsky who hailed it as a masterpiece of orchestration. The Capriccio is in five movements, each of different character and all based on Spanish song types, such as the alborada (morning song), gypsy dances, and the fandango (a dance type of uncertain regional origin), here associated with the region of Asturias, on the northern coast of Spain.
The brief opening “Alborada” jolts the orchestra to life with a fanfare-like theme engaging the rich colors of the full orchestra. A solo clarinet introduces and joyfully sings the main theme of the movement before handing off to the solo violin. The clarinet and violin exchange fragments as the movement concludes. A set of five variations on a romantic theme make up the second movement, first in the horns, then the low-strings, followed by dialoging solos in the French and English horn. A pair of richly expressive string variations ensues concluded by a swirling flute. This section is interrupted by the boisterous Alborada theme, again featuring a busily active solo violin answered by clarinet. The next section is led initially by the brass and percussion introducing the passionate character of the “Gypsy Song.” The solo violin plays a virtuosic cadenza over the rolling snare. A throbbing dance rhythm begins only to be interrupted by a series of wind solos, flute, clarinet, and oboe, and finally brief harp flourishes. The full string section then sings the intensely passionate song over the rhythmic pulse of the accompaniment, which transitions directly into the concluding “Fandango asturiana.” The appearance of the castanets and the series of colorful solos mark this section, which builds to a furious coda based on the swirling Alborada theme and brings the work to a breathless conclusion.
Though he never traveled to Spain, some of Wolfgang Mozart’s most famous operas are set there, such as Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. His symphonies, however, derive their character from other European musical sources, mainly Italy, France, and Germany. His “Posthorn” Symphony is a creation of his Salzburg years and is adapted from the longer, seven-movement, “Posthorn” Serenade, K. 320 composed in 1779. The serenade was a genre that was common to a number of Austrian composers, including Mozart and his father, Leopold, both of whom composed quite a few of these lighter, occasional works. It is believed that Wolfgang Mozart’s “Posthorn Serenade” was composed for the occasion of the conclusion of the academic year (Finalmusik) in Salzburg. The question that probably most interests listeners about either this serenade or the symphony programmed here is, what is a post horn? The answer is, in this instance, as simple as the name implies. It is a valveless brass horn used to announce the arrival and departure of the mail service and was used through the early 18th century. The instrument appears in the trio of the Minuet II of the serenade but is not included in the symphony. As is the case in a few other of his serenades, Mozart later reconfigured some of the movements of one work into another composition for new uses. The Posthorn Symphony is such a work, using three movements of the serenade to form a work structured in the Italianate manner of Mozart’s early symphonies.
The first movement begins with a brief but slow, solemn introduction, characteristic of Mozart’s later operas and symphonies, before launching into a spirited movement marked by alternately surging and charming themes mostly carried by the strings. The slow middle movement, Andantino, begins in a darkly serious mood, balanced by the subsequent lighter interplay between strings and wind instruments. The movement’s middle section emphasizes the darker music of the opening. A vigorous and playful Presto movement brings this “symphony” to a rousing and energetic conclusion.
Continuing with the theme of musical journeys, each of the three movements of Images (1912) by French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is an evocation of a different cultural locale. Debussy used the title of Images for no fewer than three different compositions, but the other two are works for solo piano: Images, series 1 (1901-1905) and series 2 (1907). The third series began as a work for two pianos but ended up as an orchestrated set and has since become one of Debussy’s most beloved works, especially the longer middle movement, titled “Iberia.” In fact, Debussy found inspiration in a wide variety of foreign musical sources throughout his career. He famously first heard the exotic and beguiling sound of the Javanese Gamelan orchestra while attending the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris. Coincidentally, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol was performed for the first time outside of Russia at that same Paris Exposition, again to wide acclaim. Earlier in his career, Debussy had the opportunity to spend time in Russia as piano teacher and member of a piano trio where he encountered the music of the Russian nationalists as well as some of the regional folk music. For the French composer, like the Russians, folk music was a way to find a new direction away from the established traditions of European concert music. Like each of the earlier Images sets, the orchestral Images carry descriptive and evocative titles. And like Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy borrows themes from various geographical regions to convey the character of the place. In the Images for orchestra he references three different European regions: England, Spain, and France.
The first section is titled “Gigues,” the French word for “jig,” a common type of Anglo-Irish folk dance. Debussy originally intended the movement to be called “Gigues tristes,” or mournful jigs, which seems somewhat ironic as jigs tend to be lively dances. The opening music is spectral and haunting, alluding to the original “triste” character, but soon a rhythmic dancing theme enters, it turns out borrowed from a folk song known as “The Keel Row,” of northern English origin. The movement plays brilliantly on the shifting moods represented by the haunting opening music and the rhythmically activated folk tune. The second portion of the work is the longest and most varied, titled “Iberia.” Though Debussy quotes no folk songs or dances here, the colors and themes are distinctly Spanish in their personality. The movement is organized in three sections: “Par les rues et par les Chemins” (In the Streets and Byways), bold and buoyant in character animated by castanets and evocative dancing themes; “Les parfums de la nuit” (The Fragrances of the Night) takes on the mood of an enchanted fantasy through its soaring themes, supple rhythms, and obscured pulse; and “Le matin d’un jour de fête” (The Morning of a Festival Day), which seems to approach from the distance as a march leading into an exuberant dance sequence.
The concluding section of Images is titled “Rondes de printemps” (Spring round dances) is a gloriously impressionistic depiction of French springtime. Debussy included an inscription in the score to this concluding section that reads: “Vive le Mai, bienvenu soit le Mai/Avec son gonfalon sauvage: Long live May, welcome May with its wild banner.” Within this colorful and episodic movement, Debussy suggests its French character through the use of a pair of folk songs “Nous n’irons plus au bois (We shall not return to the woods)” and “Do, do l’enfant do (Sleep, sleep, the child sleeps).” The work closes with some of Debussy’s most inspired splashes of orchestral color, a masterpiece of invention and sound. ©2019 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) is best known for his orchestral masterpiece Symphonie Fantastique (1830), which is known to be a work of profoundly autobiographical nature, in part due to a disastrous romance and marriage between the composer and an Irish actress named Harriet Smithson, famed for her portrayal of Shakespearean characters. The connection to Smithson eventually ended, but Berlioz’ interest in Shakespeare seems to have lasted for the rest of his life. Berlioz was in fact an ardent devotee of literature, writing compositions to works by a diverse group of authors ranging from the classical Roman poet Virgil, Les Troyens, to Romantics like Byron, Harold in Italy; and Goethe, Damnation of Faust; as well as Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet and his last completed work, the opera Beatrice and Benedict (1862). In fact, Berlioz had apparently been contemplating a work based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing since at least 1833, the year he and Harriet married. Nonetheless, it would be nearly three decades before the idea came to realization, as the libretto written by Berlioz became the basis for the opera, now called Beatrice and Benedict, named for the two reluctant lovers from Shakespeare’s original story.
As dramatic as the Harriet Smithson episode was in Berlioz’ life, his music takes drama to a new level. Known for his brilliant use of orchestral color and bold, descriptive themes, Beatrice and Benedict is considered a true masterpiece, despite its relatively infrequent appearance on the operatic stage. The story, adapted from Shakespeare’s comedy, focuses on the characters of Beatrice and Benedict who enjoy taunting and torturing one another as they deny the possibility of romance between them. Of course, the story ends with the two marrying subsequent to plotting by friends and family who think the tormentors are actually destined for one another. Following the original run of the opera in Baden-Baden, Berlioz, himself a music critic in Paris for a time, recalled that Parisian critics attending a performance obliviously commented that they “found the spoken dialogue lacking in wit. To which the composer commented: The spoken dialogue is taken almost word for word from Shakespeare’s text…” The Overture to Beatrice and Benedict, H. 138, has become a staple of orchestral concerts due to its colorful orchestration and lively character. The musical themes are derived from the opera, but the overture does not function as a kind of musical synopsis, instead Berlioz uses a few contrasting ideas to create a work that both stands alone as a concert overture and serves as prelude to the opera.The work is approximately 10 minutes in duration.
Following his move to Vienna in 1781, Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) achieved both musical and financial success. His opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782), was very well-received, and his reputation as the finest pianist in Vienna was confirmed following a celebrated contest between himself and the Italian pianist, Muzio Clementi, at the behest of Emperor Joseph II. Between 1784 and 1786 Mozart composed 12 new piano concertos, Nos. 14-25, each one a masterpiece. Some were composed for his own performance, an occupation that rewarded the composer handsomely, and two for a particularly gifted young student named Barbara Ployer. 1786 saw the premier of his opera The Marriage of Figaro, which was also well-received and initiated the fruitful collaboration between Mozart and the librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, who also penned the libretto to Don Giovanni the following year. At around this same time Mozart’s public performances as pianist became less frequent as his income from other sources increased. Unfortunately, his financial condition could not sustain his lifestyle and he would spend the last years of his life outspending what appears to have been a considerable income while borrowing money from friends, leaving his wife, Constanze to deal with the debt after his death in December of 1791.
The years of his prodigious concerto composing were, however, a time of great success and renown. The Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491 comes from the same period during which he was composing the Marriage of Figaro, but it is a work of dramatically different character from the comedic farce of Figaro. Of all Mozart’s 27 piano concertos, only two were composed in minor keys, the D minor concerto, No. 20 and this one. It is perhaps not coincidental that Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in the same key, a key of portentous importance for Beethoven, evokes the mood of this concerto by Mozart, a work that Beethoven is known to have admired. The concerto opens in a serious mood with the orchestral theme outlining the minor chord that so characterizes the opening movement. This theme is reserved for the orchestra, the solo piano never participating in its utterance despite its frequent recurrence throughout the movement. Though the mood is predominantly sober, the piano brings some balance through elegant themes reserved for its presentation. Characteristic of many of Mozart’s late concertos, this work gives much thematic emphasis on the orchestra’s wind section, which frequently engages in interplay with piano. Following a dramatic cadenza, the movement closes in a surprisingly reserved mood, leaving us to await the slow middle movement anticipating a resolution to the lingering tension left at the end of the Allegro. The Larghetto is a model of apparent simplicity as only Mozart could create. The opening theme, an almost child-like tune, provides the bulk of the piano music and is heard in alternation with contrasting sections, led once again by the colorful winds. Relief indeed from the troubled opening movement, but the Finale returns once again to the somber minor of the Allegro. The movement takes the form of a series of variations on the theme first presented in the orchestra, here providing a platform for the soloist to display power and virtuosity as each variation builds in intensity until a break arrives in major keyed, wind band fourth variation. A sixth variation lands solidly in the key of C major prominently featuring wind instruments before shifting back to minor. A brief cadenza leads to the final variation, now in a rollicking 6/8 meter and decidedly in the original minor key ending this concerto on a note of uncommon seriousness for the genre. The work is approximately 33 minutes in duration.
For many concert-goers the music of Polish composer, Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), is much less familiar than that of some of his more frequently programmed, Western contemporaries, like Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, and his musical style is dramatically different from the neo-tonal and lyrical approach typical of those composers’ more well-known works. Born in Warsaw at a time of violent upheaval in eastern Europe, his family and life were inevitably ensnared in the turmoil created by the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Second World War, and rise of Soviet control of Eastern Europe. His family moved to Moscow in 1915 to avoid an advancing Prussian army headed for Warsaw. Lutosławski’s father was executed in 1918 in Russia as a consequence of political activity that ran contrary to the changing tide of power in revolutionary Russia. The family returned to Poland where the young Witold began his formal music education. At the university he studied mathematics and music, distinguishing himself as a pianist and composer. After graduating in 1937 Lutosławski wanted to study composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, but once again conflict intervened when the Nazi and Soviet armies invaded Poland in September of 1939. Lutosławski was taken prisoner by the Germans only to escape and return to Warsaw, having to travel a distance of over 250 miles on foot. While in Warsaw he played music in cafés, particularly Polish music, which was banned by the Nazis. During this time he became close friends with fellow Polish composer, Andrej Panufnik (1914-1991) forming a piano duet and creating original arrangements for themselves. Lutosławski remained in Warsaw until just days before the destruction of the city in the infamous Warsaw uprising in 1944. In his haste to flee the impending disaster, he was forced to leave most of his unpublished compositions behind, all of which were destroyed in the conflagration. After the war he returned to Poland though the influence of the repressive Soviet regime under Josef Stalin created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty among artists not wanting to draw the ire of officials and critics. In 1950 Lutosławski received a commission for a new concert work for orchestra that would set him on a path to public and artistic acclaim, though it would ultimately not be a work that would define his mature musical style. That work was the Concerto for Orchestra, completed in 1954, and was commissioned by the conductor, Witold Rowicki, who wanted an orchestral show piece for the newly formed Warsaw Philharmonic.
The Concerto for Orchestra actually marks the end of period in Lutosławski’s career in which he was focusing on the use of folk materials as the basis for his musical works. Nonetheless, despite the turn in approach that marked his later works, the Concerto is the composer’s most significant early work and remains his most frequently performed orchestral composition. The Concerto is in three movements titled “Entrada,” “Capriccio notturno ed arioso,” and “Passacaglia, toccata, e corale.” The “Entrada” begins forcefully with pounding, insistent tympani strokes that lead into a thematic fragment that grows through repetition, permutation, and imitation, almost in the manner of a fugue. This theme is actually derived from a Polish folk melody. Once the tympani and imitation cease a brief wind-dominated interlude leads to a full orchestral climax with blaring brass and percussion. The closing section of the movement is a study in contrast with solo wind and violin passages taking up the theme of the opening over a calming stillness sustained in the strings.
Fleet, muted strings introduce the “Capriccio notturno ed arioso,” which is structured in two contrasting sections. The first hushed and almost breathless in its constant movement, the second bold and brassy punctuated by the snare drum over tense, straining harmonies. The movement ends with a recollection of the opening, reorchestrated, fragmented, and descending into the depths of the ensemble’s range.
The third and longest movement is constructed in three large sections, a passacaglia, which is a 17th-century dance type based on a repeating pattern usually in the bass over which increasingly complex music is layered above. Here Lutosławski follows tradition by beginning in the lowest reaches of the double basses, gradually adding to the texture. The vigorous “Toccata” follows the gradually dissipating “Passacaglia” section. The bustling “Toccata” settles as the solemn “Corale” with its long breathed, legato melody in the brass lends a mood of other-worldly calm before being absorbed into the insistent resurging “Toccata” music that drives the work to its conclusion. The work is approximately 30 minutes in duration. © 2019 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.