Victor Hugo wrote the play “Le Roi S’Amuse” (The King Amuses Himself) in 1832. Loosely based on historical figures, the plot involves a court jester to the king who schemes to help the king obtain a new mistress. The jester’s daughter is seduced by the king; upon discovering a plot to murder the king, she sacrifices her life for him. The play was banned in 1832 after just one performance (government censors believed that the play insulted the current king of France). Some 20 years later, the plot of “Le Roi S’Amuse” became the basis for Verdi’s Opera Rigoletto.
When the play was finally revived in 1882, the noted composer Léo Delibes wrote a ballet sequence of six charming dances and antique airs to be included as incidental music. They consist of a grand opening Gaillarde; a stately Pavane; a melodic Scène du Bouquet; Lesquercarde, a spritely tune; a sweet Madrigal; a wistful Passepied; and a final reprise of the Gaillarde.
This delightful overture is the precursor to Mozart’s last opera, and indeed one of his last compositions. It opens with three grand chords and a slow adagio evoking the high priest Sarastro and his attendants. A lively allegro, built on four repeated notes, is taken up in turn by strings, winds and brass.
The overture’s contrasting elements, by turns grandiose and playful, make a perfect introduction to the opera which also embodies them.
The violin concerto was Barber’s first significant commissioned work. Barber began composing the concerto in 1939 while on a trip to Switzerland. Upon the outbreak of World War II, he returned to the United States and completed the concerto later that year. The concerto was premiered by Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1941. Ever since then, it has been a staple of the violin concerto repertoire.
Barber provided these program notes for the premiere performance:
The first movement — allegro molto moderato — begins with a lyrical first subject announced at once by the solo violin, without any orchestral introduction. This movement as a whole has perhaps more the character of a sonata than concerto form. The second movement — andante sostenuto — is introduced by an extended oboe solo. The violin enters with a contrasting and rhapsodic theme, after which it repeats the oboe melody of the beginning. The last movement, a perpetuum mobile, exploits the more brilliant and virtuosic character of the violin.
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) completed the sketches for his viola concerto shortly before his death in New York from leukemia in 1945. He had been commissioned to write the concerto by William Primrose, the great Scottish violist. Bartók wrote to Primrose shortly before his death that the concerto had been fully sketched out and only required a few weeks to be orchestrated, but he died before this work could be completed. At the request of the Bartók family, it fell to Tibor Serly, Bartók’s close friend and colleague, to write the orchestrations and finalize the concerto for publication. It took four years for Serly to finish this task, owing largely to the fragmentary nature of Bartók’s sketches, which were written on 13 unordered pieces of paper. The concerto was premiered by Primrose in 1949. While a number of subsequent revisions have been done (including one by Peter Bartók, the composer’s son), the original Serly version has remained a beloved staple of the viola literature ever since.
The concerto has three movements, played without a break. The opening Moderato begins with a lyrical four-bar theme in the solo viola, accompanied by ‘cello and bass. The theme is taken up by the winds in turn, and appears several times in the course of the movement. A contrasting triplet-based theme appears twice, accompanied by syncopations in the orchestra.
A short declamatory section (lento parlando) and a bassoon solo serve as a bridge to the short second movement. Titled adagio religioso, it is a quiet sustained slow movement, with a short agitated middle section featuring woodwind trills. A sudden solo viola accelerando brings us to a lively allegretto, punctuated by horns and timpani.
The rollicking last movement is based on a Rumanian Scottish-influenced melody appearing in contrast. Brilliant viola bring this work to a satisfying conclusion.
This is first of Mozart’s last three symphonies, all of which he composed in 1788 in the miraculous span of just six weeks. Each of the three (No. 39 in E-Flat, No. 40 in G minor, and No. 41 in C Major) is a masterwork in its own right.
The E-flat Symphony is unique for its wind orchestration (one flute; clarinets instead of the usual oboes; bassoons; horns; trumpets), which gives it a mellow timbre and tone quality. It has a sunny character, full of optimism, stateliness and joy.
It opens with a grand adagio introduction, full of sweep and nobility. The following allegro has an 8-note theme interwoven among all sections of the orchestra. This theme becomes the basis for an impassioned development interspersed with violin scales.
Much of the second movement is based on a rising 4-note motif, to which are added impassioned violin outpourings and reflective wind choir passages. The Menuetto opens with a sweeping upward figure in the violins,interspersed with a graceful violin motif; the Trio has a folk-song Ländler quality, featuring clarinets, flutes, bassoons and horns.
The violins open the allegro Finale with a fast 8-bar melody, taken up in turn by the entire orchestra. After an entertaining development (with sudden forays into keys wildly unrelated to E-Flat!), a final recapitulation brings the symphony to an optimistic and dramatic close.
This symphony was composed by Dvorak in a short span of several months in 1889. A sunny, cheerful work, it alternates major and minor keys in each of its four movements.
Dvorak wrote this work in a new style, transitioning from traditional symphonic structure (exposition-development-recapitulation) towards a more poetic musical structure, stitching together many melodic and thematic fragments (particularly evident in the first movement).
The symphony opens with a wistful theme in G minor by ‘celli, clarinets, bassoon and horn. The violins lead an energetic transition to G Major; a clarinet theme in minor keys is interspersed several times in the movement, which ends on an optimistic note.
The second movement is more introspective. Beginning softly in the strings, upper winds join in to combine in a duet. Singing passages in C Major, first in the winds and then in the strings, lead to rousing climaxes featuring brass and timpani.
The third movement is a graceful waltz, bracketed by a folk-melody trio and a sudden vivace at the end. A rousing trumpet flourish starts off the last movement. A series of string variations feature ‘celli and violas, abruptly followed by a rousing orchestral Allegro. Midway through the movement, Dvorak gives the winds a contrasting restless theme in C minor. The “theme and variations” return in the strings and woodwinds; the main Allegro theme then reappears. Led by surging horns, trumpets and trombones, the symphony accelerates to a triumphant close.
In 1936, after a performance of “Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District,” an article in “Pravda,” the Russian newspaper of the time, publically denounced Shostakovich. The article, often attributed to Joseph Stalin, entitled “Muddle or Music,” claimed that Shostakovich had “missed the demands of Soviet Culture to banish crudity and wildness from every corner of Soviet life.” It went on to say, “The danger of this tendency in Soviet music is clear. Leftist ugliness in opera is growing from the same source as leftist ugliness in painting, poetry, pedagogy, and science. Petit bourgeois ‘innovation’ is leading to a gap away from true art, science … literature.”
During this time period in Soviet history, all art was expected to fit within the confines of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism dictated that everything be in support of Communism. Music and art were to enhance and support the government, not cause tension or spur acts of rebellion.
Shostakovich feared for his life, as artists who flew in the face of social norms often found themselves executed or banished. Perhaps the only thing that saved him was the fact that in the early 1930’s Shostakovich had written a score to a movie entitled “Counter Plan,” which was released for the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution. One song from that score, “The Morning Greets Us,” gained international acclaim and became the first Soviet song to be considered a hit. This is perhaps the only thing that saved Shostakovich from a gruesome fate.
Composed between April and July of 1937, the 5th Symphony was Shostakovich’s response to the events of the year before. Premiered on November 21, 1937, it was received with thunderous applause that lasted more than half an hour.
Shostakovich had no choice but to claim that the piece was nationalistic in nature. In fact, Shostakovich likely viewed the piece as his chance to regain favor with the Communist party. The last movement quotes a song Shostakovich wrote earlier in the 1930’s, based on a poem by Pushkin, which deals with rebirth. Later on in his memoirs, however, he explained that he wrote the piece in direct response to the persecution and oppression that existed under Stalin’s rule. Since the time of its premiere this symphony has become one of the staples of the classical repertoire and is considered one of the greatest works of the 20th century.
As you listen, you will hear moments of terror, pain, pleading, and downright despair; but out of these moments, Shostakovich gives us wonderful glimpses of hope and in the last movement a feel of redemption and even victory.
The Four Last Songs were among Richard Strauss’ last works. He composed them in 1948, shortly before his death. They are all set to poems, three of them by Hermann Hesse — Frühling (Spring), September, and Beim Schlafengehen (While Falling Asleep) — and one of them by Joseph von Eichendorff — Im Abendrot (At Twilight). These were not initially conceived of as a set of songs, but published in that form after his death and premiered in 1950.
The words and music are calm and contemplative; the last three songs evoke an acceptance of death. The music features melodic interplays between the soprano and the orchestra, subtle chromatic shifts, and lyrical horn passages.
The Carmen Suites are two suites of orchestral music drawn from the music of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen and compiled posthumously by his friend Ernest Guiraud. They adhere very closely to Bizet’s orchestration.