Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande tells the story of Golaud who encounters the mysterious Mélisande in the forest, and marries her. But very soon, Mélisande finds her true love in the person of Pelléas, Golaud’s half-brother. Golaud becomes suspicious of the lovers, killing Pelléas and wounding Mélisande. Mélisande dies in childbirth, and Golaud continues his descent into madness.
In the twelve years following the play’s 1893 premiere in Paris, four great composers wrote music inspired by Maeterlinck’s masterpiece – Claude Debussy (opera), Gabriel Faure (incidental music), Arnold Schoenberg (symphonic poem) and Jean Sibelius (incidental music).
After Debussy completed an early version of his opera in 1895, British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell (soon to play the role of Mélisande in London), requested Debussy to excerpt a symphonic suite from the opera to accompany the play’s London production. Debussy refused. Mrs. Campbell then asked Faure to write incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play. Faure agreed. After a one-month collaboration with orchestrator Charles Koechlin, the score of the Incidental Music to Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80 was ready. Maeterlinck, present at the 1898 London premiere of the translated play — accompanied by Faure’s incidental music — wrote to Mrs. Campbell, “In a few words, you filled me with an emotion of beauty the most complete, the most harmonious, the sweetest that I have ever felt to this day.”
Mort de Melisande
The orchestral suite consists of four numbers — Prelude (the prelude to Act I in Faure’s complete orchestral score), La Fileuse (Mélisande at the spinning wheel), Sicilienne (the actual prelude to Act II with one of the most famous flute solos in the symphonic repertoire) and La Mort de Mélisande (the Prelude to Act III).
The Czech Suite was one of several works Dvořák composed for small orchestra between 1875 and 1879 (the others being his masterful string and wind serenades). While scored for a Mozart-sized orchestra (much smaller than his symphonies), it has the beauty, sweep and grandeur of Dvořák’s larger works.
The Suite is in five movements, several of which are based on Czech dance forms. A tranquil Pastorale opens this work, essentially a prelude based on a simple descending theme passed around various string and wind sections. Next come two specifically Czech dance movements — a Polka, featuring a rising graceful theme in the violins, with a lively trio; and then a country minuet (“Sousedská”), opening with a decisive statement from clarinets and bassoons.
Romanze A short lyrical romance follows, featuring upper winds (flutes, oboes, English horn) and charming wind and string dialogues.
The finale is based on a boisterous Czech dance form, the “Furiant” (also used by Dvořák in other instrumental works), full of drive, syncopation and rhythmic flourishes, and ending in a fiery dash.
Beethoven was a great admirer of Shakespeare’s plays, and according to the composer’s secretary, Anton Schindler, planned to compose an opera based on Macbeth. Unfortunately, such a plan never materialized and aside from Schindler’s unreliable testimony, there is no evidence of any Shakespearean influence on this work. When Beethoven chose the story of Coriolanus as a subject for his overture, he turned instead to the play of his contemporary, Heinrich Joseph von Collin.
The overture was written in 1807 and premiered the same year in the residence of Prince Lobkowsky in Vienna. The overture depicts a specific moment from the tragic story of the Roman general Coriolanus — the moment when his mother tries to convince him to return to Rome, even though the city has cast him out as a traitor.
Overture to Coriolan
The overture begins with powerful and decisive unison in the strings, followed, in the third measure, by an explosive eruption of the entire orchestra. This motive is repeated many times during the course of the overture, clearly symbolizing the heroic nature of the protagonist. After the heroic first subject, Beethoven introduces a theme closely associated with the image of the young general’s mother.
While the first subject of Coriolan is in C minor (Beethoven’s most tragic key), the second subject is in E-flat major, picturing the inner world of a loving mother. This C minor/E-flat major key relation is one that Beethoven had used a few years earlier in his Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”. There, the second movement is a funeral march in C minor, and is surrounded by three movements in E-flat major.
A striking similarity between the ending of the “Eroica’s” funeral march and the Coriolan’s ending is the way in which the musical texture breaks apart. It seems as if there is no gravity anymore or, according to the tragedy, no point in living anymore. Thus, Coriolan stabs himself to death as the only way to reconcile honor, false betrayal and a son’s love.
Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio (originally entitled Leonore). It is the story of Florestan, a young man who is unjustly imprisoned. His wife, Leonore, disguised as a young man, Fidelio, helps her husband to escape and liberates all other prisoners who have been wrongly imprisoned. Leonore No. 3 Overture was one of four overtures that Beethoven composed for his only opera. The overture was composed in 1806, and was first performed in Vienna on March 29 of the same year.
Leonore No. 3 The overture begins with a slow introduction partially based on Florestan’s aria “In the Springtime of Youth” from Act II. The sonata allegro that follows the extended introduction, by its enormous power, variety of emotions and orchestral richness, could be compared with a symphonic movement.
A key moment in the overture is the trumpet call before the coda. This call corresponds to the moment in the opera, when Fidelio is saved by his courageous beloved Leonore. Although today most musicians consider Leonore No.3 to be the best of the three Leonore overtures, it is very rarely performed as an actual overture to the opera because its monumental character completely overshadows most of the plot of the opera. Instead, today the overture has its own independent place in the orchestral repertoire along with Beethoven’s symphonies.
Mozart completed Don Giovanni in 1787, and the opera was premiered in Prague on October 29, 1787. Don Giovanni is one of the three operas that resulted from Mozart’s collaboration with the great librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (the other two operas being Le nozze di Figaro and Cosi fan tutte). Mozart himself called his opera dramma giocosso (literally “merry drama”) and here in the overture we can see how drama and comedy shift as quickly and as unpredictably as only one man – Mozart – could do.
Overture to Don Giovanni
The overture begins with the Commendatore theme. The tragic chords of the very beginning, the following ostinato rhythm, as well as the ascending and descending lines in the first violins and flutes create the impression of something fateful to follow. Contrasting with the general dark mode of the introduction of the overture is the sonata allegro with its typical Mozartean wit and energy.
The second theme of the sonata allegro deserves special attention: its forte–piano contrast clearly represents the Don Giovanni–Leporello tandem. Originally Mozart designed the overture to lead directly to the music of the first act, showing that the overture is an inseparable part of the entire drama.
It is a well known fact that it took only one day for Mozart to complete the overture to the opera (and that day happened to be the day before the opera’s premiere). After the death of Mozart, Johann Andre adopted the end of the overture for concert performance, and it is Andre’s version that you will hear today.
Bach in a more festive mode, now with a wedding cantata, BWV 197, written in 1737. This is the opening chorus in D major. It begins with a rousing introduction for the orchestra with three trumpets, oboes, strings and timpani. A choral fugue follows with altos in the lead. A more lyrical middle section starts in the relative minor key. The piece ends with a repeat of the jubilant first section.
|Gott ist unsre Zuversicht,|
Wir vertrauen seinen Händen.
Wie er unsre Wege führt,
Wie er unser Herz regiert,
Da ist Segen aller Enden.
|God is our confidence,|
we trust in His hands.
How He leads our ways,
how He directs our hearts,
that is the ultimate blessing.
Composed between 1800 and 1803, this work can be viewed as both the culmination of the first phase of Beethoven’s orchestral writing and as a major advance towards the work of his “heroic” period.
First Movement While outwardly classical in style, this symphony is full of drama, contrast and lyricism. It begins in a grand style, with an opening Adagio based on rising and falling scale motifs. The opening section segues into a sparkling Allegro con brio starting in the lower strings, with dramatic drive and dynamic contrasts.
Second Movement The lovely theme of the second movement Larghetto is one of the most recognizable passages in classical music – a lyrical rising melody played first by the strings in a high register, and then echoed by the winds. A short development section uses the opening theme as a backdrop to evoke an unsettled and then stormy mood before returning to the opening’s calm lyricism.
Third Movement The joyous Scherzo has sudden dynamic contrasts and a lovely Trio featuring the winds.
Fourth Movement The symphony concludes with a brilliant Allegro molto, which is based on a fiery short opening string motif and punctuated with a dramatic stop. Rich harmonic improvisation and use of the opening motif characterize this movement, which ends with a triumphant flourish.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) composed his “Spring” symphony – his first major orchestral work – when he was 31. He wrote it at a happy time in his life, shortly after his marriage to the former Clara Wieck, who encouraged him to pursue orchestral composition.
Schumann was initially inspired to write the symphony by a poem describing “springtime” (he initially even put names to the movements, before removing them so as not to have the work appear to be programmatic). But the “Spring” appellation stuck, and the work displays an appropriate heady optimism and beauty. Schumann sketched it in a mere four days, and it was premiered in March 1841 in Leipzig by Felix Mendelssohn.
The symphony is in four movements. The opening Andante is heralded by a horn and trumpet call (“like a summons to awakening”), which becomes the basis for the sprightly theme which follows. The second movement is a dreamy larghetto (initially titled “evening”), with a lyrical theme repeated by violins, ‘cellos, and solo oboe and horn.
Scherzo A passage in the trombones serves as a bridge to the unique third movement, a fast scherzo with 2 delightful contrasting trios.
Allegro animato e Grazioso The fourth movement is based on a graceful and witty theme begun by the violins, with subtle counterthemes in the winds. An intense accelerando leads to a triumphant climax.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was active as a composer and teacher in the first part of the 20th century. He played a number of instruments, including piano, violin and trombone, and is best known for his large-scale orchestral work, “The Planets.”
Holst composed many other works which were emblematic of early 20th-century British music – including a number of pieces for band which have become staples in the concert band repertoire.
He wrote the First Suite in E-Flat Major in 1909. It is a three-movement work based on the musical theme which opens the first movement, the “Chaconne” – itself a throwback to a slow triple-meter dance from the 17th-18th century. The opening 8-bar low brass melody is repeated 15 times, with variations in instrumental combinations, mood, and tonality. The following Intermezzo is a lively variation on the opening melody, but completely different in feel – reminiscent of an English folk song.
March The closing March, whose second theme is also based on the “chaconne” theme, has a distinct “military” air about it. Instrumental ruffles and flourishes, and multiple interwoven melodies, lead in the end to a grand climax.
Fingal's Cave The Hebrides are probably the best-known group of Scottish islands off the west coast of Scotland. They are composed of the oldest rock formations in the British Isles. Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa is the most famous of all the caves. Nowhere else is there a sea-cave formed completely in hexagonally-jointed basalt. The size, sounds, colors, and remarkable symmetry of this 227-foot cavern is viewed by a natural crude walkway that allows exploring visitors to go far inside. The impact of the cave on all those who enter it is likely to be remembered for life.
In the 1800’s it was common for wealthy young men to undertake a “Grand Tour” of Europe to gain perspective on life. Felix Mendelssohn, being from a wealthy family, went on such a tour. His tour lasted four years and took him through most of the major countries and cities of the time. During his travels he went to Scotland, where he visited the Hebrides and the renowned Fingal’s Cave with his friend Klingemann. In order to see the rock formations, they set out on the newly introduced paddle steamer service. The sea was wild, the weather bad, and all the passengers were ill. Here Klingemann tells of the adventures at Staffa:
“We were put out into boats and lifted by the hissing sea up the pillar stumps to the celebrated Fingal’s Cave. A greener roar of waves surely never rushed into a stranger cavern – its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, and absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide gray sea within and without.”
With conditions such, Mendelssohn can hardly have enjoyed seeing Fingal’s Cave since he was so seasick. However the visit to Staffa, and the sight and sound of the Atlantic swell tumbling into the cave, made a profound impression on him. Tremendously affected by the loneliness and beauty of this immense place, he quickly wrote down what would later become the opening notes of an overture. The most striking aspect of this overture was its successful tone-painting. Mendelssohn portrays overcast skies, gray seas, and barren a landscape. We can hear the breaking of the waves, almost see the basalt columns and strange colors, and above all, experience the overwhelming vastness of the cavern.
Mendelssohn worked on this composition for many years fine tuning his musical decisions. He wanted the listener to be immersed in the experience, just as he had been when he viewed the cave. Among the numerous sketches, four complete versions with distinct titles exist of this work: The Hebrides Overture (1829), Overture to the Solitary Island (Die einsame Insel) (1830), The Isle of Fingal (1832), and Fingal’s Cave (Fingalshöhle) (1835).