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Program Notes - Nov. 2, 2013


Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music, from “Die Götterdämmerung”
Richard Wagner (1844 – 1908)
Richard Wagner was one of the most controversial figures in nineteenth century music, as well as one of the most important in its later development. He spent his entire mature career developing a new art-form, which he termed the “music drama” (as opposed to “opera.”) This new musical vehicle forced him to invent appropriate new musical language and devices. In his own time he was revered by many and hated by many more. He became the center of a cult extending far beyond the confines of his music. However, his arrogant and often irascible personality brought him into frequent conflict with others, especially the self-appointed guardians of musical tradition. His celebrated and long-running feud with the influential and respected critic Edward Hanslick is almost legendary.

Wagner’s music dramas usually dealt with lofty concepts and high artistic or philosophic ideals. There is some dispute over whether the four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung was Wagner’s masterwork, but it is clearly his largest and most complex undertaking. It took almost three decades to complete, during which time his own personal musical style evolved greatly. The climactic music drama of this sequence was Die Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). Interestingly, the storyline of this particular opera inspired the entire project, yet it was the last one completed. He essentially wrote the other three as a prelude to the already-envisioned conclusion. And he held the project together in his own mind while completing many other completely unrelated operas, all of which were huge successes.

The complete operatic series is based on the Norse legend of Siegfried, whose naïve purity eventually led to the downfall of the Gods and the beginning of the era of humans. The final drama opens with a scene of the Norns weaving the rope that represents the unfolding of future destiny. The rope breaks, and the true final chapter begins: The ultimate hero Siegfried awakens and sets out on his final heroic journey, which (after many complicated plot elements) ends in his death at the hands of a treacherous betrayer, who had schemed towards it from the beginning.

Wagner had long-ago invented the concept of the leitmotiv, a musical theme that was always linked to a single element of a drama. Many of the most important themes from the Ring appear in this fragment, which is one of the most important events in the complete opera. In this segment (which has achieved concert-hall popularity totally apart from the opera itself), Wagner states many of the individual themes associated with various aspects of the complete cycle. He weaves together Siegfried’s personal signature melody, a motiv representing the sword that had been broken and re-forged, one representing the power of fate, one for the fateful curse on the Ring itself (as well as several others). This one short orchestral interlude, which is less than ten minutes in duration, probably has more individual leitmotivs than any other spot in all four operas – it is, after all, the death of the hero – and signals the impending final downfall of the gods.


Piano Concerto in a-minor, op. 54
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)

Robert Schumann was one of the central figures in the development of the Romantic era in music. He was influential far beyond his position as a leading composer and conductor. He was also an editor, writer, critic and a member of the intellectual elite. He published a newsletter, Neue Zeitschrift, which served as a forum for ideas driving the development of music at the time. It could be argued that he never really attained his potential as a composer, because all of his other activities kept him from ever achieving the single-minded focus that genius sometimes needs to fully express itself. A modern psychologist might characterize him as suffering something akin to a long-term version of adult ADD. He was a man who dove into a project with immense energy – for as long as it held his attention – but who could lose interest and abandon it for something else. Alternatively, he could be considered a ‘Renaissance Man’ whose interests spanned many different areas, preventing him from reaching full potential in any.

The Piano Concerto (he only composed one) was one of his earlier major works, and one of the more popular in modern times. He began his musical career as a concert pianist (and, in fact, eventually married Clara, the daughter of his piano teacher – who later surpassed him as a soloist). Thus, it is natural that a major work for piano would be one of his earliest efforts. He began to sketch themes for a concerto at age nineteen, but didn’t really work on one until many years later. After several fitful starts over many years, he resumed interest in the concept. It took him three years to complete! (This was rather a long gestation time for a work in that day.) The concerto was debuted by his fiancée wife, Clara. He considered the work to be “something between a symphony, a concerto and a grand sonata”, rather than simply a virtuoso showpiece.

The Concerto began as a single-movement Phantasie, which he was unable to publish. He refused to give up his belief in the value of his music, and reworked it into a full-fledged concerto. In this, he further developed an approach that Beethoven had begun: integrating the orchestra as a full partner with the featured soloist. This concerto does not depend solely upon the virtuoso skills of the pianist, nor is it an alternation between passages by the soloist and orchestra, intended to balance them in juxtaposition. Instead, it tightly integrates the orchestra and piano. For example, the gentle slow movement contains a passage for cellos that could be a ‘song without words’, while the piano takes a back seat (even though playing at the same time). The finale, however, does feature much of the bravura playing that had become traditional since Beethoven – the soloist is not shortchanged in presenting her (Clara’s) or his (Robert’s) virtuosity. The result is a piano concerto unlike any that had previously been written, and not to be equaled until Brahms. Schumann quite clearly accomplished his goal, and we are much the richer for it.

Symphony no. 2 in e-minor
Randall Thompson (1899 – 1984)

Randall Thompson was one of the most eminent American composers of the mid twentieth century. He started his studies at Harvard, and later earned his doctorate at the Eastman School of Music, then taught at the Curtis Institute (where he also briefly served as director). He later studied with Ernest Bloch among others. He earned the American version of the Prix de Rome, and was twice awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship. His distinguished career included appointments at Wellesley College, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Virginia and Princeton, as well as his tenure at Curtis. He was nearly an exact contemporary of Aaron Copland, and his music is every bit as “American” as that of his more famous colleague, though less familiar.

His second symphony, although no longer frequently performed, is arguably among the best symphonic works ever written by an American composer. The premiere (under Howard Hanson by the Eastman/Rochester Philharmonic) was an immense success, and the work was performed over a hundred times in its first two years. It contains many unusual musical devices (odd rhythms, unusual harmonic intervals, unexpected shifts of dramatic emphasis, …) and is very difficult for most musicians to “count.” Yet it sounds pure and simple to the audience, and is easily listenable by all. It is clearly his masterpiece.

The work opens with an intensely rhythmic statement, first by horns, then trumpets and finally strings. This melodic/rhythmic fragment recurs all through the first movement and then returns, transformed, throughout the rest of the symphony. The second movement is a complete contrast to the frenzied feeling of the first. Its simple, pastoral atmosphere calms and soothes the listener (who is probably still on edge after the energy of the opening). The third movement, marked vivace, recalls the energy of the first but is much more rhythmically complex. After an energetic opening (which recalls the rhythms of the symphony’s beginning), a slower interlude – though still full of unusual rhythms and unexpected tempo changes – temporarily interrupts the energy, which returns to end the movement as it had opened. The finale begins solemnly with a horn solo melody that recalls the melodies of the first movement, but with a slow and stately feeling. Immediately, dynamic movement returns (along with rhythmic complexity) and the conclusion reflects the energy of the opening.

In his personal thoughts on the symphony, Thompson said that he “… wanted to write four contrasting movements, separate and distinct, which should together convey a sense of balance and completeness.” There is no question that each movement is completely different, yet they hold together as a single entity. This work epitomizes a movement in American symphonic music, and deserves to be ranked with its best. Perhaps posterity will eventually add Thompson to the constellation of great American composers of similar style, such as Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson and Roy Harris. If so, this masterpiece is what will get him there.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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