Program Notes - April 16, 2005
Suite from “The Adventures of Robin Hood”
Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a prodigy, like so many other composers. Unlike most young composers, though, his first works were not ‘imitative’ but were fully formed. While others, like Mozart, learned to understand others’ language and re-create, Korngold’s music was ‘adult’ from the beginning. He had found his own musical language before he learned how to write it down. On hearing Korngold play (as a child) a cantata he had written, no less a composer than Gustav Mahler proclaimed him “a genius”. At age eleven Korngold’s op. 1 Piano Trio was performed by pianist Bruno Walter (already one of the greatest German conductors), Arthur Rose (one of the greatest violinists of his time) and Friedrich Buxbaum, a celebrated cellist. A noted critic of the time, Felix Weingartner wrote of the performance: “When is the boy going to commit a blunder? But although searching most diligently, [author’s note: critics are good at this!] I could find none.” By age twenty two of his operas had received several performances, and his masterwork opera Die Tote Stadt premiered in his twenty-third year. He was proclaimed a ‘wunderkind.’
Nevertheless, it is not for his stunning symphonic music, nor his dramatic operas that he is best known today. In 1934, he was invited by his friend and Austrian compatriot Max Rheinhardt (a famed theatrical producer and director) to Hollywood to work on a score for his spectacular film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The rest is history. That score (adapted from the music of Mendelssohn) made his reputation in Hollywood. He was hired to a long-term contract by Warner Brothers, and a new career was born. Events in Europe soon led him to relocate his family to the US, and the different musical climate here made a further career along the lines of his European background very chancy … he took the obvious option and cast his lot with the movies.
Nowadays it is fashionable to comment on Korngold’s serious music (his symphonies, his concerti, and his operas) and say “He sounds like movie music.” The reality is that movie music sounds like Korngold! His movie language is pretty much the same as his previous classical language. The fact is, he made such a strong impression on Hollywood that other film composers began to imitate him. One can find the same themes, the same melodies, the same orchestral effects and the same general “sound” in his previous music as in the movie music for which he is so famous. Several of his “swashbucklers” contain direct quotes from chamber music and opera scores he had written years ago in Europe. (Well, faced with a three-week deadline to complete a film score, what would you do? No time to wait for your muse to reappear and produce an original new melody … why not use a perfectly good one from twenty years before? Nobody would know it, anyway!)
Many of Korngold’s scores were written for the swashbucklers starring Errol Flynn, the ultimate romantic darling of Hollywood’s forties and fifties. Possibly the greatest of these was the score he wrote for The Adventures of Robin Hood. The movie music was written to underlie both dialog and action, and had to be timed to the second. That he was able to create such emotionally moving and dramatic effects in a score that was not performed and then cut/paste edited, but simply added to the action of the music is almost mind-boggling. Nevertheless, that is how it was done! The famous sword-fight between Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham was so perfectly timed that the sword-clashes on the screen exactly match the accents in the brass … being performed by an orchestra in a separate studio on a different day.
Korngold recognized that the music of The Adventures of Robin Hood could stand alone outside the film in a concert performance, so he extracted a four-movement suite that incorporates much of the music with essentially the same instrumentation as had been used for the film. (Not surprisingly, the musicians used by the Hollywood studios of the time were symphonically trained and nearly the equal of many of the major American symphony orchestras.) The four movements portray episodes of the film, although not exactly with the same timing as he had previously used. Nevertheless, it captures the feeling of a Hollywood film score perfectly. Interestingly, the very last orchestral statement, after Robin takes Maid Marion in his arms for the final kiss, contains a theme which is a direct quote from the final movement (“Angelic Life”) of the fourth symphony of Gustav Mahler – the same composer who had once proclaimed the ten-year old boy a genius. Takes one to know one!
Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra, op. 88
Like Korngold, Max Bruch was a child prodigy. He received his early training from his mother, a moderately successful concert soprano. At age fourteen he composed a symphony that won the Frankfurt Mozart Foundation prize, and used the proceeds to pay for more formal training from the respected teacher Ferdinand Hiller. At age twenty he began to support himself by teaching music, and by twenty-seven had risen to the position of Music Director of the orchestra in Koblenz. His proficiency and ability to carefully craft his works served him well, and he became a journeyman composer – respected, but not revered. Eventually, though, he was awarded a post teaching a master class in composition at the Berlin Academy. His career progressed smoothly upward with no setbacks (but also without any eye-opening successes) until he was eventually awarded an honary Doctorate by Cambridge University and held the prestigious position of Chairman of the Royal Academy of the Arts, in Berlin.
Throughout his career, his goal was to write music that was tuneful and immediately appealing to his audiences. This put him somewhat at odds with the progressive ‘New German’ musical movement and somewhat out of the mainstream. By comparison to established composers such as Richard Strauss and upcoming talents like Erich Korngold, his music was “dated.” Consequently, his compositions never earned the respect that he himself personally enjoyed. Although he wrote three operas, three symphonies and over a dozen pieces for soloist(s) only his violin concerti have enjoyed frequent performances.
The Concerto for Clarinet and Viola is a well-crafted work for an unusual combination of instruments. Bruch recognized that the dissimilar sounds of the instruments would work exceedingly well together, perhaps because they were in basically the same register. His son, Max Felix Bruch (to whom the score is dedicated) was a gifted clarinetist, so he certainly understood the potential of the instrument. Very few major solo concerti exist for either instrument separately, and the thought of using them together had to have been a bit of “mad genius”. But it works! Although the work demands virtuoso skills in its performers, it is not flamboyant so much as it is reserved and introspective. It is hardly ever performed, and this is a shame for it contains some truly beautiful moments and is perfectly crafted to show the mellow timbre of both instruments. The orchestral accompaniment contains moments of drama and expression, but the focus is clearly on the interplay between the soloists. As with all Bruch’s concerti, there are moments when each soloist sings as if in solitary contemplation but there are also times when the effect is exuberant and extroverted. Bruch excels at both extremes, and the work captures the listener. This is truly a rare treat.
Pohadka, “A Fairy Tale”, op. 16
In the awareness of modern audiences, Josef Suk is one of those artists who have somehow “slipped through the cracks”. This calamity is equally unfortunate for the composer – who is thereby denied the immortality achieved by his more famous colleagues – and for the listening public, which misses out on some truly beautiful music. Like his mentor (and father-in-law) Dvořák, Suk came from humble beginnings in a small Czech village. His father, who was both a schoolmaster and choirmaster, taught him at a very early age rudimentary technique on piano, violin and organ. Apparently, he displayed enough talent that he was pointed immediately towards a musical career. At age eleven he matriculated at the Prague Conservatory!
Intending to be a performer, he studied violin as well as the usual additional exposure to theory, harmony, etc. In his third year he discovered an interest in composing. By the time he was ready to graduate he had become an excellent violinist, but he had also completed a commendable Piano Quintet. Just before Suk was about to leave, however, Antonin Dvořák joined the faculty of the Conservatory. In order to learn a bit from the most acclaimed Czech musician ever, Josef decided to remain an extra year. This proved to be the watershed event in his life – he wound up staying three more years and became Dvořák’s favorite pupil. Eventually he married Dvořák’s daughter Otylka, and they remained a tightly bound family until both Dvořák and Otylka died within two months of each other. (Suk’s greatest work, the mammoth symphony “Asrael”, was written as a memorial to both his father-in-law and his beloved Otylka. It deserves mention along with the great contemporary symphonies of Mahler, Elgar and Sibelius.)
When he finally did leave the Conservatory in 1888, he embarked on a dual career. He joined three other accomplished soloists to form the celebrated Czech Quartet, as its second violinist. This group became famous as one of the finest string quartets in Europe, and over the next forty-five years he gave more than four thousand performances with them. Thirty some years later, Suk came full circle when he was appointed Professor of Composition at the same Prague Conservatory where he had studied with Dvořák.
One of his earliest major efforts as a composer was a commission for incidental music for a play by Julius Zeyer “Raduz and Mahulena”, which was based on a well-known Czech folk tale. The hero, Prince Raduz, falls in love with the beautiful Princess Mahulena. The Princess’ mother, evil Queen Runa, to serve her own ends first causes the death of the King (Raduz’s father). She later casts a spell which imprisons the spirit of Mahulena within a poplar tree and also clouds Raduz’s memory, causing him to forget their love. (Not a very nice person, Queen Runa!) Eventually, Raduz encounters the poplar tree in the forest, and is overcome with a compulsion to chop down the tree. He grabs the ax from his friend, the woodsman Vratek, and assails the tree mightily. As the bark is broken, the tree seeps blood instead of sap, but the spirit of Mahulena is released. At her sight, Raduz remembers everything. The two lovers are re-united and all ends happily.
nowing the value of the music, and despairing that the play would ever be staged again, Suk extracted an orchestral suite which incorporates most of the music. The first movement, titled The Love and Sorrow of the Royal Children, begins with a lovely violin solo which represents Mahulena. (He later incorporated this melody to portray his wife Otylka in the Asrael Symphony). The second movement is an intermezzo, Folk Dance, based on a polka from the first movement. It also incorporates the song “There Were Three Sisters”, which is sung by the woodcutter who would later be so significant to the outcome of the play. The third movement, Funeral Music, is based on the music surrounding the scene from the play in which the King dies. (Suk also incorporated this music into Asrael, perhaps to memorialize Dvořák . ) The final movement of the suite, titled Queen Runa’s Curse and the Triumph of Love, is a graphic description of the action from the final scene of the play. Prince Raduz, completely without memory of Mahulena, wanders in the forest and comes upon the poplar tree in which she is imprisoned. He somehow feels compelled to chop down the tree, so he borrows the woodsman’s axe and flails away. At this point, the final movement opens with a graphic description of the rhythmic blows of the axe biting into the bark of the tree. As the sap of the tree flows, vague memories of Mahulena begin to return to Raduz and he halts briefly to contemplate the love he senses that he once had. Driven by a compulsion that he doesn’t entirely understand (presumably the irresistible power of their love) he returns to his labors and continues to fell the tree. As the sap flows, it turns to blood and the spilling of the Princess’ blood releases them both from the spell. In a musical apotheosis the lovers are reunited, and Queen Runa is finally defeated. The music ends with the same violin solo that opened the suite (portraying Mahulena) and a final tender chord heralds a new dawn for their love. Suk has shown an expressive genius that deserves to be experienced and appreciated as much as we do his famous teacher, mentor and father-in-law.
The Fountains of Rome
Since the time of Rossini, serious Italian music has centered around the opera. While giants like Rossini, Verdi and Puccini created their stage masterpieces several generations of lesser Italian composers tried – but generally failed – to establish an equivalent presence in orchestral music. The lone major exception was Ottorino Resphighi. His three most famous tone poems, (which also include the Roman Festivals and The Pines of Rome – played by the Immaculata Symphony just a few years ago) are sometimes termed the Roman Trilogy. They have earned a place in the repertoire which challenges almost any other composition for sheer sonic brilliance.
Respighi’s early education in the European lyceum system led him quite naturally into a musical career. Although he had been trained in all aspects of music, his early interest in composing cannot be disputed. Immediately after graduating, he traveled to St. Petersburg in Russia, where he studied orchestration for a year with Rimsky-Korsakov. However, for the first dozen years or so after returning to Italy he was unable to support himself by composing. He played piano and in the string sections of several orchestras throughout Italy, although not as a virtuoso soloist. During this period he never gave up his first love of composing. He produced several minor works as well as a few larger pieces for full orchestra, but achieved no major successes. Like Suk, except for his three famous tone pictures he has been overlooked as a composer. Several of these early works are very worthy of reviving and more frequent performance. All were competently crafted, but none captured the fancy of the Italian public who preferred the drama of opera. Nevertheless, his personal style was developing all along.
His composing career suddenly took a turn for the better when he was appointed in 1913 to the position of Professor of Compostion at the Ste. Cecilia Conservatory in Rome. Now having more time to compose he was able to bring his style to maturity. He burst onto the international musical scene with a brilliant sonic portrait, The Fountains of Rome. Almost overnight, his public perception was transformed from ‘competent minor composer who merited little real attention’ to ‘emerging giant of the musical world.’ The success of Fountains also made him financially independent, so that he no longer needed to augment his income from other musical activities.
Fountains portrays four of the most famous landmarks of Rome, at different times of the day. Respighi himself stated in the original score that the time of day was chosen to represent “the hour at which [the fountain’s] character is most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or when its beauty appears most impressive to the observer.” The first movement, The Fountain of the Giulia Valley at Dawn, opens as a typical cloudless day in Rome. Gentle murmurs gradually give way to the flow of the day as the sun climbs slowly into the summer sky. The Fountain of the Tritone in the Morning illustrates the play of naiads, nymphs and tritons – its insistent theme in the French horns might perhaps be the “one track mind” of the triton, chasing the woodwinds and strings who tease him with their delights. The Trevi Fountain at Noon, (perhaps Rome’s most famous fountain) is seen under a sun beaming down with Mediterranean intensity … mirrored by the complex brilliance of the brasses, set in a fantastic filigree of strings and winds. Could it be a wedding festival? Clearly, it is a sumptuous climax, when the day is hottest. The day’s journey finally ends quietly, as we gaze over the serene formality of the Fountain of the Villa Medici at Twilight. Many consider the Fountains of Rome to be Respighi’s best work. It is certainly one of his most evocative.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly