The Hebrides Overture

The Hebrides Overture

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).

Symphony No. 4 in G Major

While Mahler wrote most of his 4th Symphony in 1900, he had really started it 8 years earlier – and with the last movement, no less!

Mahler was enchanted by “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (the Youth’s Magic Horn), a well-known collection of German folk poems, many of which Mahler set to music. Mahler arranged one of these poems, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”) in 1892 and wanted to use as a last movement for one of his symphonies. But his 3rd symphony was already lengthy, and it took him until 1900 to finally use it as the foundation for this lyrical 4th Symphony. The song tells of the wonders of heaven from a child’s point of view, with its angels, beauty, dancing, endless food of all types (listen for the bleating lamb and bellowing ox!) and “heavenly music that is not of this earth.”

The first three movements, which Mahler composed in 1899-1900, take much of their thematic material from the last movement. Most notable is the way in which the symphony starts, with sleighbells – the first time time they were ever used in an orchestra. Even though Mahler did not have an explicit “program” for his 4th Symphony, one can almost conceive of the first movement as a depiction of the earthly life – full of pleasant beauty, but interrupted with wails and shrieks, and discordant harmonies in the middle section.

For the second movement, though, we have a clue – Mahler described it as “Death strikes up” – almost like a a danse macabre – and uses a violin purposely tuned a whole tone up to disturbing effect. In typical Mahler fashion, these unsettling moments are interspersed with pastoral interludes, punctuated by raucous clarinets.

The lovely third movement is made up of eight variations – opening and closing with great beauty and calm, but interspersed with moments of utter, tragic despair. Towards the end of the movement there is a sudden orchestral thunderclap, through which we may perceive the very gates of heaven itself.

And then on into the last movement, the vocal solo to be sung with “childlike simplicity” – a vision of a child’s view of the sublimity of heaven. The symphony ends in utter calm and contentment.

“Linz” Symphony

“Linz” Symphony

The itinerary says it all:

Oct. 27, 1783, 9:30 a.m: Mozart (then twenty-seven years old) and his wife, Constanze, leave Salzburg, where they had been visiting Mozart’s father. Heading back to their home in Vienna, they spend the first night of their journey in Vögelbruck.

Oct. 28: They arrive in Lambach in time for Mozart to play organ during the morning Mass.

Oct. 29: Opera and party in Ebersberg.

Oct. 30, 9:00 a.m: After three busy days on the road, they arrive in Linz, where they stay with Count Johann Joseph Anton Thun-Hohenstein.

Oct. 31: Mozart dashes off a quick note to his father: “….On Tuesday, November 4th, I am giving a concert in the theater here. And, as I didn’t bring a single symphony with me, I’ll have to write a new one at breakneck speed, since it has to be finished by that time. I must close now, because I have to get to work.”

Nov. 4 (four days later): Mozart conducts the premiere of his new symphony with Count Thun’s orchestra.

The Impresario

The Impresario

Mozart’s one-act comic opera “der Schauspieldirektor”, or The Impresario, was originally composed in 1786 as a “Singspiel” – a German type of play interspersed with various musical numbers – at the request of Emperor Joseph II for a private performance at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Mozart wrote The Impresario at around the same time as The Marriage of Figaro.

It contains marvelous music – a well-known overture, and four vocal numbers. The original libretto, however, presents a number of challenges in mounting a full-fledged production. For this performance, we are fortunate indeed to have an English adaptation authored by William J. Brooke, who also happens to be our stage director and play the title role of Impresario (all at once!). In his adaptation, the first two solo arias are largely sung in the original German; the trio and finale are done in English, as is the dialogue.

The story itself is about the woes of an opera company director (Scruples). His scheming assistant (Bluff), who longs to sing bass roles on stage, engages a banker (Mr. Angel) to financially “rescue” the opera company’s upcoming season. In return, Mr. Angel merely requests Scruples to showcase Mr. Angel’s two paramours (Madame Goldentrill and Miss Silverpeal) each of which happens to be an opera singer, and each of which thinks she should be the prima donna for the upcoming opera season!

Of course theatrical and musical fireworks ensue, before leading to a most unlikely (yet satisfactory) conclusion.

“La Cenerentola” Overture

“La Cenerentola” Overture

Rossini composed his opera based on the Cinderella story in 1817, one year after writing the Barber of Seville, at the age of 25. Rossini “borrowed” the music for this overture from one of his unperformed operas – standard practice at the time – and it works remarkably well in this context.

As with most Rossini overtures, it opens with a slow section in which one can almost imagine the scolding stepmother and the heroine scrubbing the floors. The following allegro is light and lively. It prominently features the winds (particularly the clarinet, his favorite instrument), as well as two versions of the famous long “Rossini crescendo” presaging a happy ending to the story.

Symphony No. 1 in C Minor

Symphony No. 1 in C Minor

By the time Brahms finally completed his first symphony, in 1976, he was 43 years old. The long gestation of this symphony is related to two factors – Brahms’ own self-criticism of his work and the public’s expectation that Brahms would continue “Beethoven’s inheritance” and produce a symphony of depth and scope equal or superior to Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony.

This would be a daunting task for any composer. For Brahms, it was almost paralyzing. After 15 years of struggle and rewriting, his Symphony No. 1 in c minor was finally completed.

The symphony opens with a turbulently powerful melody underscored by the relentless pounding of the timpani and basses. The movement is dark and brooding, angry and restless.

The second movement is also introverted and reflective in nature, although it warms at the end with a sense of hope with the beautiful violin solo, echoed by the French horn.

The third movement, different from a frantic Beethoven Scherzo, reminds us more of Schumann’s Landler movements, placing us in a calm wandering state.

The immense finale is Brahms’ clearest homage to Beethoven in this symphony. Even the key of c minor, with its twist to C major at the end, can be considered parallel to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in d minor. As with Beethoven’s masterpiece, Brahms’ finale begins with a dramatic introduction and choral theme. Then what follows is one of the most famous and moving melodies in all of Brahms’ writing; a melody with a clear resemblance to the famous “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. When one thinks of the First Symphony, it is this beautiful melody that often comes to mind.

Hungarian Dances

Hungarian Dances

The root of Brahms’ music lies in the tension between the duple and the triple rhythmic pulse. The inspiration for this can be traced back to his great fondness for the so-called “gypsy” music of Hungary.

In 1852, as a nineteen-year-old pianist, the young Brahms accompanied the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi, whose musical style was greatly influenced by the verve and freedom of the gypsy violin. Brahms developed a great affection for this style and in 1869 wrote his Hungarian Dances for piano duet based upon Magyar folk melodies. He later orchestrated many of these Dances and they are part of our standard repertoire today.

Night on Bald Mountain

Night on Bald Mountain

This supernatural fantasy for orchestra was composed by the Russian composer Mussorgsky in 1867 and re-orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1886.

Notes from Mussorgsky’s own score make clear its programmatic nature. It starts with subterranean sounds from supernatural voices. Then, there is the appearance of the spirits of darkness, and after them, of Chernobog (the black god). The piece builds to the glorification of the Black God and Black Mass; a witches’ sabbath follows. At its height, the sabbath is interrupted by the distant sounds of a bell in a little village church, which disperses the spirits of darkness as daybreak ensues.

Symphony No. 34 in C Major

Symphony No. 34 in C Major

Wolfgang on his hometown:
“Salzburg is no place for me.”

On its residents:
“One can’t have any proper social intercourse with those people.”

On the court musicians for whom he composed:
“Coarse, slovenly, dissolute…”

On his employer, Hieronymus Colleredo (Prince Archbishop of Salzburg):
“[He] glorifies himself through his dependents, robs them of the service and pays them nothing for it!”

Tonight’s symphony was the last Mozart was to write in Salzburg. It’s a happy piece.

“Eroica” Symphony

“Eroica” Symphony

This is the symphony which truly defined an age – Beethoven’s “heroic” period, in which many of his great works were composed – as well as the beginning of the “Romantic” period of classical music.

The Eroica is a break from the past. A massive work, it is the longest symphony composed up to that point, making substantial demands on players and audiences alike. Beethoven began composing the Eroica in 1803. He initially called the symphony “Bonaparte,” even writing a dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte as the exemplar of a new age of freedom and liberty; but he angrily tore that up in 1804 when Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor. Instead, Beethoven re-dedicated this work more generally as a “Heroic Symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man.”

The “Eroica,” as it came to be known, was first publicly performed 200 years ago in Vienna in April 1805. We are pleased to help usher in its next century of performance.

The first movement, after starting on two crashing chords, is built on a rising and failing 10-note theme, first taken up by the ‘cellos and then by the winds. Several melodic counter-themes introduced by the winds follow; a series of striking chords punctuates the first section. There is a massive development section in which these themes are expanded, culminating in a crashing series of syncopated chords played by the entire orchestra. A lengthy transition, with an intentional “false entrance” played by the horn against hushed violins, brings us to the recapitulation of the opening theme; a striking coda heralded by the opening theme in the second violins brings us to the end of this movement.

The second movement Funeral March evokes many emotions – grief, despair, defiance, anger and rage on the one hand; warm remembrance, hopefulness, and triumph on the other – before ending in a broken hush. The Scherzo is notworthy for its quick, light and playful character; the Trio for its sonorous horns evoking hunting calls.

After an introductory rush of notes, the last movement’s theme begins simply with plucked strings, is picked up in turn by the winds, and is expanded with a series of variations. A flowing melodic theme is then introduced by the winds. Beethoven then takes us through a number of renditions, including fugal treatments, solo flute and violin passages, and triplet and minor-key variations. A reverent interlude is introduced by the woodwind choir (could this be a hymn of praise to the “hero”?). After a murmuring transition, Beethoven abruptly switches gears again; there is a culminating Presto, with musical climax upon climax hurtling relentlessy to a triumphal conclusion.

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