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Program Notes - November 10, 2007


 

The human spirit. How is it reflected in art? What meaning does it have in music? The composer can choose to portray a human frailty, a curse placed upon the human self, a challenge to overcome, a goal to achieve. Many masterworks are based upon linking the human condition to the music, or else making the music portray the human condition. Which is the origin, which is the result? Sometime, it’s hard to tell.

Tonight’s program includes three works that are all linked to the human condition. Three separate composers have identified something they want to say about humanity. Two tell a story, the third work avoids a story, but is still about humanity. The two stories are tragic. But the music is, nevertheless, uplifting and positive in outlook. The work that doesn’t actually tell a story seems like it “ought to.” This music is of the heart, not of the mind. Be moved!

 

The Forest Dove, op. 110
Antonin Dvořák (1841 - 1904)

 Unlike most great composers, Antonin Dvořák did not spring from musical roots – his father was a butcher. His earliest musical interest was sparked by the village schoolmaster, who taught him some rudimentary music theory along with his conventional school subjects. At age twelve he quit school to train as an apprentice at his father’s trade. Apparently the apprenticeship failed, for he subsequently enrolled in the Prague Organ Academy at age sixteen, with the intent of becoming a church musician. While there he also studied theory and taught himself the viola, becoming a very talented amateur who was frequently called upon to augment professional orchestras when a larger string section was required. His latent talents went unrecognized, for he graduated with only second class honors, and the comments of his teachers that “he was rather less gifted in theory than in practical work.” This ‘theoretically ungifted’ young musician developed into probably the greatest Czech composer of all time.

Dvořák humbly considered himself to be merely a ‘provincial musical craftsman’ who understood how music ought to be constructed and followed the rules. However, he was far from being a ‘diamond in the rough’. He grew to be one of the most respected composers in Europe, before being hired as the first director of a new musical academy in New York. While in America he completed many major works, including the famous New World Symphony. By the time he returned to Europe, he was acknowledged as one of the greatest living composers, and any work he produced was assured of performance, publication and success. It was at this time that he undertook a series of several tone poems based a compilation by Karel J. Erben titled “A Garland of Folk Poetry.” Erben’s work is a set of ‘fairy tales’ drawn from Czech folk lore, but given an artistic poetic rendering. It was not the words of the poetry, however, but the Czech spirit reflected in the tales that fascinated Dvořák. His four tone poems, each completely different in musical construction, evoke a common thread: the tragedy that can arise from a very human obsession.

The original text of The Forest Dove (sometimes translated as The Wild Dove) tells a rather grim story. A beautiful young woman poisons her husband, so that she may marry a handsome young lover. For a brief while, everything in her life is wonderful. But a forest dove appears at the side of his grave, day after day cooing mournfully. As she sees the bird, pangs of conscience arise and begin to tear at her soul. The repeated appearance of the dove eventually drives her mad with remorse for what she has done, and she takes her own life. As she is laid to rest, a curse falls upon her and her name for the double sins she has committed. Dvořák’s tone poem does not tell a narrative story, but the various elements of the fairy tale are easily heard in the music. At the end, the composer takes pity on the protagonist of the drama, creating an atmosphere of moral redemption. The music dies away to a quiet close, almost serene. Perhaps Dvořák felt that she had paid the price for her actions and should be granted divine forgiveness in the afterlife?

  

Francesca da Rimini, op. 32
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

Standing before the gates of the underworld, the explorer reads an inscription: “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.” Daunted, yet resolved to continue, he summons up all his courage and strides forward. As he forces himself to take step after measured step, the winds of the Second Circle of Hell rise about him in a fury that might put a blast furnace to shame.

Thus begins the story told by Tchaikovsky in one of the most perfectly programmatic pieces ever composed. Early in his career, just before composing his Fourth Symphony, a friend proposed to him an opera based on the (historically true) story of Francesca da Polenta, a contemporary of Dante Aleghieri, who portrayed her story in his masterwork the Divine Comedy. A libretto was prepared, but Tchaikovsky was unsatisfied with its mediocre writing, so he read Dante’s Inferno for himself. He decided that the story was better suited to an orchestral piece, as he had done so successfully with the Overture/Fantasy “Romeo and Juliet.” In the space of three weeks he completed a passionate, intense symphonic fantasy loosely based on Francesca’s episode from The Inferno. The work has been both praised and panned by musical scholars and critics, but it has never failed to excite its audience.

The actual historical character, Francesca da Polenta, had been promised in marriage by her father to the son of the lord of Rimini to seal the peace that had finally been negotiated after a long bloody feud. The man to whom she was betrothed (Giovanni) was brave, but lame and ugly. Francesca’s father, fearing that she would reject her promised husband, arranged to have the marriage done by proxy, through Giovanni’s handsome brother Paolo. Francesca fell in love with the brother, and was unaware of the deception until the wedding day. After the marriage, the two spent much time together. They were seduced by reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, and eventually became lovers. One fateful day they were surprised in the middle of a tryst, and Giovanni murdered them both.

Tchaikovsky’s version of the story begins with the traveler (originally Dante, being guided by the poet Virgil) undertaking a perilous descent into the underworld. Soon they reach the Second Circle, where sinners are tormented eternally by unceasing hot winds – dramatically portrayed by music that never reaches a harmonic chord of resolution, until the traveler finds a spot of slightly less intense heat. Here he encounters the wondrously beautiful spirit of Francesca da Rimini, who tells her story. Duped by her conniving father into marriage against her will, she eases her sorrow by reading books in the company of her husband’s brother. As time passes, the two are drawn to each other. One afternoon their eyes lock – and Francesca discovers in herself those feelings of passion she has never known for her husband, the Duke.

Gradually, they abandon their reading in favor of more amorous pursuits. The intensity of the music grows, reflecting the intensity of their ardor, until they are swept away in rapture. At the ultimate moment of their passion they are surprised by the Duke, who kills them with two sudden violent knife stabs (obviously audible in the music). In Dante’s Inferno Francesca is condemned to Hell for her marital infidelity, in spite of the unjustness of the marriage. The explorer sees before him an ironic parable of Mankind (in this case represented by a beautiful woman) condemned to be victim by the very things that make her human.

Shaken, the traveler abandons his journey into the underworld and flees back to the surface, passing through the same Hellacious chaos. Finally, he exits through the very gate by which he had entered – the Devil chasing him the whole way, and laughing at him as he departs. Has the traveler learned something that will change the future course of his own life? Or will he fall victim to some other failing that makes human life worth living? Tchaikovsky’s music has no answer. He, like all of us, was human and destined to live his own life … to learn its meaning only at the end, if then.

 

Concerto no. 2 for Piano and Orchestra, op. 23
Edward MacDowell (1860 - 1908)

 At the turn of the (last) century Edward MacDowell was almost certainly America’s most respected composer, both at home and abroad. Although there were many other composers of equal merit, his music had somehow escaped the provincial image from which his contemporaries suffered. He was Professor of Music at Columbia University (the first to hold the position), and his major works had been performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, as well as by many orchestras in Europe.

As often happens, he had been drawn to music very early on – beginning serious piano studies at age eight. His mother, recognizing his talent, took him to Europe as a teenager to enroll in the Paris Conservatory. After two years they decided the atmosphere didn’t suit him well enough, so they moved to Germany. Here he continued his development as a pianist and began to study composition with Joachim Raff. He had the opportunity to display his keyboard skills for Franz Liszt, probably the world’s greatest pianist at the time.

Liszt was impressed, and took note of him, but nothing else came of it immediately. At age 20, MacDowell ended his formal studies and began to support himself by giving piano lessons, while composing as a sideline. He submitted an early orchestral work to Liszt, who remembered him. The maestro was impressed by the work (an orchestral suite) and recommended it for performance, and to his own publisher for publication. A career was born, and MacDowell spent several successful years in Europe.

In his late twenties, having married in the meantime, he took his family back to America, where he initially settled in Boston. Within a very short time, he had composed what would be his two most successful works: the Second Piano Concerto, and a second suite for orchestra now known as the “Indian Suite.” He himself gave the premiere of the concerto, playing it both in New York and with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was an immediate success. His sudden emergence as “The Great American Composer” focused attention upon him, and he was appointed the first Professor of Music at Columbia University. He spent the rest of his life in New York City.

His orchestral output is small: four tone poems, two piano concerti, two orchestral suites and a couple of other works. However, he wrote an immense amount of music for solo piano, as well as many art-songs. However, his Second Piano Concerto was his masterwork. He was not a trailblazer, even though all around him music was beginning to diverge along many disparate paths. This concerto was a very conservative work, even in its own day. Early critics drew parallels between it and Brahms’ First Piano Concerto (which had been written thirty years before!). However, he made the conservative language suit his own needs.

The melodies of the concerto are memorable, the rhythms are occasionally unusual, the phrases are of odd lengths and the overall structure is not constrained to the exact style of any previous composer. MacDowell himself felt that music was a language, but a “language of the intangible” … a “soul language.” He frequently drew upon external stimuli for inspiration, but never wrote programmatic music to tell a story. Nor does the concerto. But, for all that, it seems “as if” the music had a story to tell – its ideas are that memorable! This concerto was, arguably, in its time the finest piano concerto ever written by an American composer. If it has been superseded, it is still a masterpiece in its own right.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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