Program Notes - Nov. 6, 2010
King Stephen Overture, op. 117
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Beethoven is almost certainly the most admired composer of serious music in the Western culture. The story of his life is so dramatic as to have been, by itself, the subject of literature and films. Most of us know the story of his developing deafness, which eventually prevented him from hearing a single note from many of his greatest compositions. His early successes as a prodigy performer forever transformed the style of piano performance. His greatest impact, though, was the invention of a musical philosophy that molded the way other composers would approach composition and eventually how audiences would view music. It may be primarily due to his genius that we now consider serious music to be an art form rather than merely diversionary entertainment.
Beethoven wrote for almost all of the musical forms, from chamber music through symphony orchestra, but very little for the stage. His one opera, Fidelio, was eventually successful after several revisions but he never returned to that medium. He did, however, write incidental music to accompany several productions for the dramatic theater. King Stephen is the most mature of these compositions. The stage production tells the story of Stephen, the Hungarian national hero who was crowned king in the year 1000, and who later converted his people to Christianity. The play was written to celebrate the opening of a new theater in Pest (half of the city we now know as Budapest), and Beethoven was commissioned to provide an overture and several vocal numbers interspersed throughout the play. Although the rest of the incidental music has dropped into obscurity, the overture has become established in the repertoire as a perfect concert opener.
Piano Concerto no. 1 in b-flat minor, op. 23
Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Out of the neurotic self-doubt that plagued Tchaikovskys personal life grew a genius that allowed him to transform his twisted suffering into a sensuous musical grandeur, full of passion. Tuneful, emotional and easily approachable, his works have seduced even those who usually avoid serious music. It is no surprise that Tin Pan Alley has swiped so many of his melodies for its popular songs. Listening to one of his works, one is invariably hypnotized by its emotion, to the point of not hearing the musical notes so much as being caught up in the feeling they express.
So it was with his first concerto for the pianoforte. When Tchaikovsky played its early score for his close friend Nicholai Rubenstein, one of the finest pianists of his day, the virtuoso declared it unplayable, trivial, worthless, and suggested major revisions. Rubenstein surely had the technical skills to play the work, so his complaint was probably over the unusual structure, which was unlike any of the other concerti in the repertory at the time. Stunned by the criticism, which Rubenstein later softened in his public pronouncements, Tchaikovsky vowed to change not a note. He published it pretty much as it was originally conceived. Its highly successful world premiere, given in New York in 1872, was followed by a merely polite reception in Russia. However, it quickly entered the virtuoso repertoire for pianists around the world.
When Van Cliburn performed it to win the prestigious Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in the midst of the Cold War tensions many years ago, the feat shocked the world. He demonstrated to musically-conscious Europe the talent to be found here in the United States. The American public subsequently adopted the concerto almost as our own, and it is now the best known and perhaps best loved of all piano concerti by American audiences.
The concertos form is roughly symmetric. A short middle movement serves as an interlude between two dramatic outer movements, either of which would be an effective concert piece standing alone. The first movement is especially massive, and by itself exceeds the length of any Mozart concerto. It opens with a highly familiar horn fanfare followed by an extremely dramatic first theme stated by the piano all in the wrong key compared to the body of the movement. Neither of these themes are used again once the work really gets going. This was a totally different approach from the great concerti that Rubenstein knew and admired, and probably had something to do with his initial reactions. No matter, the dramatic introduction served Tchaikovskys expressive needs.
The solo part abounds with virtuosic writing, technical difficulties, odd rhythmic counterpoints to the orchestra. Much of the last movement is a controlled frenzy, interspersed with grand sweeping lyricism by the orchestra. One seldom notices these individual details, though, for they are merely the composers vehicle of expression. Although lacking a story line or program, the music evokes the drama of the theater rather than a sterile construction of the intellect. Tchaikovskys good sense in sticking with his original concept, rather than following Rubensteins suggestions for revisions, has been the great fortune of audiences and a triumph of creativity over conventionality
Variations on America
While at Yale, he was one of the first students in its fledgling music department, studying with Horatio Parker. Parker would eventually be recognized as one of the foremost musical educators in the United States, who greatly influenced the development of American musical composition in that time. Young Ives, though, was the bane of Parkers existence. Almost from the beginning, Ives had perfect command of whatever Parker tried to teach him. But the young composer disdained Parker and his lessons as being unimaginative. Almost every example of Ives mature experimentalist style will show the listener why.Ives later compositions are the musical equivalent of cubism in painting. He would invariably decompose familiar music (frequently his own aural impressions of New England America) into bits and pieces of melody and harmony, of mood and feeling. These he would then transform twisting familiar melodies subtly, adding dissonance, introducing sharp contrasts, playing different fragments simultaneously in different keys, and various other musical nonsequiturs. Finally, he would reassemble the pieces! The ensuing work is often hard to listen to, and was usually shunned by the average audience (as well as critics from the time). Ives didnt care. His highly successful insurance business allowed him the freedom to write what he felt, not what the public wanted.
Variations on America is a youthful work, very approachable by Ives standards, but foreshadowing his mature musical style. Originally composed for organ, he submitted it for publication at age 17 (long before he attended Yale). It was, of course, rejected its style probably mystifying the intended publisher. That version is full of typical Ivesianisms. For example, at one point the two hands play the same melody simultaneously but offset by one measure and in completely different keys. William Schumans 1962 orchestration actually enhances Ives conception by giving distinctly different instrumental colors to individual melody lines and harmonic fragments, which might otherwise get lost in the thick texture of the organ. As a result, the audience can clearly hear the creativity and playfulness that would develop into the brilliant (although misunderstood) genius of the mature Charles Ives
Prelude and Mazurka from Act I of Coppelia
Leo Delibes (1836-1891)
Leo Delibes grew up in a musical family. Although his father (who died when he was merely eleven) was a postal clerk, his mother was an opera singer and his uncle an organist. They promoted his love for music and provided his initial training, which was good enough to get him into the Paris Conservatory as a prodigy. Here he was so successful that he accomplished the remarkable feat of earning the First Prize in Solfège (reading and singing a melody line by its musical symbols the familiar do, re, mi, fa, sol, etc., as well as those syllables most of us dont know, for the notes outside the normal scale). And he did it at age 14!
While at the conservatory he studied composition with the French opera composer Adolph Adam (probably most famous for his Christmas carol Oh, Holy Night), but Delibes real interest was in following his mothers footsteps as an opera singer. He debuted in a Meyerbeer opera at age seventeen. However, his singing career went nowhere and he accepted appointment as a church organist (thus following in the footsteps of his uncle, as well). Given time to compose, he eventually found his true talent. Most of his music is for the theater, especially light opera. He premiered his first operetta in 1856, and turned out one per year for the next dozen years or so. Most of these have disappeared, but he eventually composed three more substantial masterpieces: the opera Lakmé and the ballets Coppelia and Sylvia have all become established in the repertory. His music is most noted for its wit, charm, elegance and grace, rather than for its dramatic impact. The selection heard here is a perfect example.
The Prelude and Mazurka was arranged as a concert piece, fusing two separate musical moments from the first act of his ballet Coppelia, based on a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann (author of The Nutcracker). A lovely chorale by the horns opens the Prelude, and leads to the elegant Mazurka which actually occurs much later in the first act. As is common with the classical ballet, many of the musical moments have nothing to do with the story line, but merely provide the dancers with a vehicle for performance. Such is the case with the Mazurka, which is a Polish country dance form similar to the waltz, with a different accent pattern. In contrast to the swirling grace of the waltz, it is more reserved and aristocratic, usually danced with a prideful bearing (although several parts of this mazurka display a touch of abandon, and one moment is actually powerful enough as to have been described as dancing in hip boots). Even when played in the concert hall, it is easy to call to mind the corps de ballet in their brilliantly colored costumes and their graceful movement.
Variations, Chaconne and Finale