Program Notes - Nov 13, 2004
Overture to “The Battle of Legnano”
Giuseppe Verdi was a purely operatic composer, and one of the most successful the world has ever known. Only Mozart and Wagner have matched the sustained success as repertory works as Verdi’s major operas. From the very beginning of his career, his operas were well received by audiences, although critics of his own time seldom gave him his due. Perhaps for him, like modern composers like Gershwin (Porgy and Bess) and Lloyd Webber (Phantom of the Opera), Verdi’s popularity with audiences prejudiced “high-minded” critics of his own day into believing his works were musically shallow. In modern times, though, he has been given the same respect by musical scholars as he always enjoyed with his audiences. Verdi, more than any other composer, now defines the genre of Italian Opera.
Verdi was precocious, but hardly in the same league as other composers who began as performers such as Mozart and Beethoven. Although he began playing keyboard while very young, and even assumed some of his teacher’s duties as church organist, he was not considered a prodigy. In fact, he was turned down for admission to the Milan Conservatory when he applied at age nineteen. Undaunted, he developed his own skills without high level formal instruction and was essentially self-taught as an opera composer.
Many of his operas are frequently performed and very familiar. Although the overtures to these most famous operas have made it to the concert-hall repertoire, there are many gems to be found among his less known pieces. One of the best of these gems is the Sinfonia to his relatively early opera The Battle of Legnano. Verdi carefully distinguished between the Prelude and the Sinfonia as a curtain-raiser for his operas. A prelude (for example the opening music to La Traviata) is frequently short, and intended to establish an ambiance into which the opera emerges. The Sinfonia, on the other hand, is a more thoroughly developed piece, structured according to the normal forms for an extended overture. It is often built from themes that appear within the opera, and usually contains dramatic and emotional contrasts that reflect the larger work. The Sinfonia to The Battle of Legnano is an example of this latter type of opening music. It is one of the longest and most fully developed of his overtures.
The inspiration for the opera was one of the most famous battles in early Italian history. Legnano was a walled fortress city, the stronghold of the bishops of Milan. It was here that a confederation of Lombardi dukes defeated the much larger army of the Emperor Barosso, who sought to bring all of the smaller Italian duchies under his rule. The defeat ensured that Italy would not fall under a despotic rule, but that the individual states would retain their freedom and autonomy. Verdi was very patriotic, with an entrenched sense of the value of personal liberty. He believed in the eventual emergence of Italy as a united country with a free and democratic tradition, and was strongly attracted philosophically to the story of the battle. Unfortunately, the story line of the opera failed to capture audience interest and the work slipped into obscurity. Its Sinfonia, on the other hand, contains some of the most beautiful and lyrical writing (especially for woodwinds) of any of Verdi’s orchestral music, and deserves to be kept before the public.
Fantasie Brillante on Themes from Bizet’s “Carmen”
The melodies of Bizet’s opera “Carmen” are beloved by all lovers of serious music and many of them have crossed over into popular culture. The March of the Toreadors, for example, is familiar to people who never listen to classical music, showing up in such far-ranging places as television commercials. Indeed, the Habanera has become almost symbolic of seduction. It is no wonder that so many composers have taken Bizet’s melodies as their inspiration for virtuoso showpieces for various instruments. One of the most brilliant of these was composed by the obscure French composer (it is his only known work) Francois Borne. The technique required of the flutist is such that Borne himself may have been a flute virtuoso who wrote the piece to show off his own skills. Originally, composed for flute with piano accompaniment (and frequently performed and recorded in that format today) it was orchestrated by Giancarlo Carmello to show off the soloist in the concert hall as well as the recital auditorium. In its orchestrated form it may be the showiest piece for flute and orchestra in the current repertoire.
The accordion virtuoso Joseph Soprani recognized that a spectacular presentation by the soloist could show off the potential of the accordion just as it does for the flute, and that the melody lines and variations would transfer nearly perfectly to the accordion keyboard. Thus inspired he adapted Borne’s piece for his own instrument, maintaining the identical formal structure (in fact, utilizing Carmello’s exact orchestration for the accompaniment) but employing the additional possibilities available to an instrument that can play chords as well as single notes. The result is a brilliant presentation of the accordion as an instrument of true versatility and classical beauty, far above its image as part of a “polka band”. The audience will easily recognize the Song of the Toreador, Carmen’s seductive Habanera and the famous Gypsy Dance, and can hardly fail to be dazzled by the technical brilliance of the variations Borne built around these themes. Soprani’s contribution, by his adaptation of a virtuosity originally designed for the flute, lifts the accordion to a stature deserving of equal admiration.
Suite from the Opera “The Tale of Tsar Sultan”
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov became one of the most powerful and influential musicians in Russia, rising to a prestigious Professorship at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Although he is best known in the West for his three orchestral compositions (Scheherezade, Russian Easter Overture and Capriccio Espagnole – all of which the DCS has performed in recent years) he is also well known in Russia for his operas. In fact, after the success of his big three works he essentially abandoned pure orchestral composition in favor of the stage. Though his operas are seldom performed in the west, they are still parts of the standard repertoire in Russia.
Most of his operas could be described as “musical fairy tales”. They depend far less on character development and anguished human conflict than upon fanciful stories that are clearly supernatural, even when there are humans involved. Although some of his most significant musical genius comes out in his operas, he lacked “dramatic power” and his operas never achieve the impact of, for example, Puccini. Korsakov adopted the musical device of using Russian folk songs for music and scenes that focus on the human element, while inventing his own colorful and artificial melodies and orchestrations to illustrate the supernatural element. The non-vocal writing reflects his mastery of orchestral colors from his earlier great works, and presents many purely instrumental moments within the operas.
The full title of the opera is “The Tale of Tsar Sultan, His Son the Famous and Mighty Hero Prince Guidon, and the Beautiful Swan Princess.” It is based on a Pushkin fairy tale that caught the composer’s fancy at a time that he needed a subject for his next opera. A few years after its premiere, Korsakov recognized that he had incorporated into the opera a lot of music that could stand alone in performance as a concert piece. He therefore extracted a Suite and published it as op. 57. It became one of his last orchestral publications.
The suite is drawn from the prologues to acts I, II and IV of the opera, each of which focuses on a supernatural element of the fairy tale. It is tied together by a characteristic trumpet fanfare that signals the onset of some event with an other-worldy connection: magic, miracles, mighty deeds. The first movement is titled “the Departure of Tsar Sultan”. The second movement, “The Tsarina at Sea” depicts the Tsarina adrift on the open ocean in the midst of a storm. Between the second and third movements it is traditional to interpolate another bit of music from the opera that Korsakov did not include in the published suite, which might be his most famous incidental composition: the Flight of the Bumblebee. The final movement depict the three miracles by which the hero saves the day and the fairy tale draws to a satisfying close, each one signaled by the pervasive trumpet fanfare. The final miracle is an apotheosis of transformation, and is one of the most beautiful soaring melodies Korsakov ever invented, orchestrated to leave no doubt that the work has a happy ending, and all is well.
Selections from “The Creation”
Haydn is revered by musical scholars as the composer who essentially invented the symphony as a musical form. However, in his role as the chief court musician to the ruling Esterhazy dynasty, he was also required to write a large amount of sacred music, especially masses for ceremonial occasions. Since he had one of the world’s finest orchestras at his disposal it is not surprising that these works would show off the combined possibilities of a chorus supported by a full classical orchestra. By the time he left the employ of the royal court for a four-year sojourn to London, he was already recognized as perhaps the finest composer on the continent, and he already knew how to write for chorus and orchestra.
While in London, he became familiar with the success of his transplanted countryman George Frederick Handel with a similar (but far more dramatically theatrical) semi-sacred form: the Oratorio. And, truth be told, he was probably envious of Handel’s immense success in that medium. When he returned to Vienna, he resolved to make his own mark in this format. He began a collaboration with the influential Baron van Swieten that would lead to one of his greatest works. With Swieten’s support (indeed, Swieten would adapt the English texts into the German form of the libretto) he began a two year project that culminated in a public performance of what would become his best loved and most frequently performed work – in his own lifetime and still at present – the oratorio The Creation.
The Creation opens with a purely orchestral prelude titled Vorstellung, which is usually translated as ‘Chaos’, but whose literal German meaning could also be rendered at ‘that which stood before’. However translated, the brief prelude perfectly represents the formless, static situation before God began his work. In a very unstable and eerie harmonic language, probably the most creative and impressionistic language he had ever employed, Haydn portrays the shapeless void – until the chorus enters with its dramatic utterance “and there was Light.” The first section of the oratorio depicts God’s handiwork creating the land, the sea and nature. It ends with probably the most familiar excerpt from any of his choral works ‘The Heavens are Telling’, in a glorious C-major that stands in stark contrast to the eerie harmonics of ‘Chaos, with which creation began.
The Creation was such an immense success that Haydn departed from his previous practice. Instead of publishing it (unprecedentedly in both German and English at once) through an established publishing house, he underwrote the publication costs himself and sold it “by subscription” throughout Europe. In the first year alone, there were over 400 subscriptions sold – the fortune it brought him established him financially for the rest of his life. And since that time, it has earned acclaim as perhaps his greatest single work.
John Rutter is probably the most-performed choral composer of his generation, which would include all living composers. Although he received a complete musical education in composition and music theory at Clare College (a part of Cambridge University), his first love has always been the choral medium. His purely orchestral output is minuscule, and he wrote no songs for solo singer accompanied by piano (the typical artsong format employed by practically every serious vocal composer throughout history). His only foray into pure melodic song, rather than music for full chorus, are the modern Christmas carols “Star Carol” and “Shepherds’s Pipe Carol”. However, his output of sacred music for church choir is immense, and it is frequently performed in protestant churches across the English speaking world.
Although his music is drawn from the English choral tradition of such composers as Holst and Elgar, his harmonic language is closer the French tradition of Fauré and Duruflé. In addition to his smaller works for chorus a capella (or accompanied only by organ) he composed four major works employing highly augmented accompaniment: Te Deum, Requiem, Magnificat and his most famous work Gloria. Originally written for brass choir, tympani and organ to support the vocal forces, Rutter himself orchestrated it for symphony orchestra, and it is this form that we present today.
The music is theatrical and fits perfectly into the ear of the modern audience. It might be reasonable to suppose that if Rutter had initially turned his attention to popular musicals instead of sacred music he might have eventually written Phantom of the Opera, before Lloyd Webber! The music draws liberally from melodies of previous composers (for example, the dramatic closing melody/harmony in the last movement of Gloria is Faust’s theme from Lizst’s A Faust Symphony) and the stylistic tendencies of others (the first movement is rhythmically and harmonically an imitation of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast). Nevertheless the work, as a whole, is so perfectly characteristic of Rutter that it could be mistaken for no other composer. Gloria is glorious.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic
One of the most recognizable songs from the American heritage is The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which has become almost a symbol for patriotism in modern times. It is easy to overlook the fact that at one time it was revered by one half of our current nation and hated by the other. Unlike Dixie (the song representing the Confederacy can be attributed to a specific composer) The Battle Hymn cannot be attributed to a single source. It arose as a marching song to inspire the Union armies during the Civil War, and it started as a simple melody to which four verses could be sung, without any harmonic support.
However, the content of the individual verses themselves are so very different that they can be given a wide variety of harmonic treatments that produce completely different effects. The melody itself is to straightforward that it almost writes its own harmony, even though it arose as a plain song. Many arrangers have taken advantage of the versatility of the melody and its verses to prepare arrangements accentuating different emotions. Perhaps no single arranger has done so as effectively as Peter Wilhouskie.
The first two verses are treated like the marching song of its origin. Beginning with pianissimo snare drums and a fanfare by distant trumpets, the regiment gradually appears from the distance in the first and marches by. The quiet of the evening encampment is reflected in the mention of ‘circling fires’ of the encamped army and ‘the morning dews and damps’ to which they awaken. The mood is completely transformed in the third verse ‘in the beauty of the lilies Christ was borne across the sea …’, which was originally presented by Wilhouskie as a gentle unaccompanied men’s choir (although it is frequently supported by a small group of winds in some performances) It ends with the words (frequently modified in modern times) that served as its inspiration to its first singers: “as He died to make men holy let us die to make men free”, as they marched to a battle from which they might not return. Throughout the work the chorus ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah ...’ is always solemn and powerful, but in the final conclusion it grows to the sort of majestic triumph that invariably brings the house down.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly