Rimsky-Korsakov is best known for large-scale works – operas and symphonies, as well as chamber works, which are staples of Russian romantic music. Less-well known, however, is that he initially embarked on a career with the Russian navy.
After retiring from the service, he was appointed Inspector of Music Bands of the Navy in 1873 and held that post until 1884. During that time he familiarized himself extensively with wind and brass instruments, and composed a number of concert pieces to elevate the musical level of navy band performances. One of the pieces he wrote was the concerto for trombone and military band, a 3-movement work first performed in 1878.
The concerto shows off both the lyrical and technical aspects of the trombone. It opens right away with a heroic solo theme; moves to an introspective and lyrical middle movement; and ends in a rousing last movement heralded by trumpets and snare drum.
Instantly recognizable, this work is taken from Wagner’s opera “The Valkyries,” his second opera in the Ring cycle. The “Ride” is a musical tone poem in which the Valkyries – warrior daughters of Wotan, king of the gods – ride through the air bringing back the souls of dead heroes to Valhalla, the home of the gods. The scenery is foreboding – towering, craggy mountains, a stormy thundering sky. All of this is brought to life in Wagner’s electrifying and dramatic orchestration.
César Franck was 66 when he completed the Symphony in D minor, his only symphony.
It premiered the next year, on February 17, 1889, nine months before the composer’s death. Performed by the orchestra of the Paris Conservatory under the direction of Vincent d’Indy, it was a complete catastrophe. Only now, more than 130 years later, can we see that the features which caused the negative turmoil at the premiere are precisely what cause our admiration today: the symphony’s then atypical three-movement structure, its extremely dense (at times almost Wagnerian) texture, and its organ-like overall sound.
The symphony is in three movements with the first having probably the most peculiar structure of the three. It is a richly modified sonata movement in which, not the themes, but the two tempos (Lento and Allegro non troppo) define the development. The heavy and dark introduction sets the main question of the symphony and a quick answer follows at the beginning of the Allegro. The symphony’s first surprise occurs when, in the middle of the allegro exposition, Franck returns us to the very beginning of the story by reintroducing the entire introduction, this time not in D minor, but in F minor. A second Allegro non troppo takes over leading us successfully out of the darkness. The final appearance of the Lento at the very end of the first movement brings a bright apotheosis.
The second movement is a unique hybrid of an old ballad and a scherzo that is directly derived from the ballad material. The scherzo starts as a harmless tremolo in the strings and grows monumentally toward the end of the movement. The expressive solo of the English horn at the very beginning of the movement was only one of the specific reasons for the conservative audience of Paris rejecting the work — in those days an English horn solo would be expected in an opera but not in a symphony.
The third movement begins with a stormy tremolo in the strings that is quickly interrupted by five short and powerful chords leading us to a movement that is simply a triumph of thematic richness and formal fantasy. This is also the movement in which the global plan of the symphony is revealed to us in the form of the reappearing ballad, but now heroic and with full-pipe organ volume.
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.
Schubert composed his Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”) in 1822 and kept it a deep secret for the rest of his life. Even after the composer’s death in 1828, the premiere of the symphony had to wait an additional 37 years until 1865 when it was performed in Vienna under the direction of Johann Herbeck.
The two-movement structure of the “Unfinished” Symphony has raised many questions and debates during the past 150 years. All resulting theories and assumptions have their strong and weak points. Some of today’s theorists have concluded that Schubert in fact completed the work by writing what is known today as the First entr’acte of the incidental music to “Rosamunde”. This theory is based on the fact that both symphony and entr’acte are in the key of B minor, a fairly rare key for a symphony even in the beginning of the nineteenth century. A second argument supporting the ‘Rosamunde’ theory is that at the time he composed the symphony, Schubert had to complete, in a very short time, some incidental music. According to the theory, Schubert sacrificed the finale of his symphony in order to secure his income.
A second theory as to why the composer did not write a third and fourth movement for his most famous instrumental work is based on a very simple and purely aesthetic observation: these two movements say everything the composer had to say. In his book Schubert: A Musical Portrait, Alfred Einstein argues that “He [Schubert] had already written too much that was “finished,” to be able to content himself with anything less or with anything more trivial.”
The first movement begins with an introduction, based on an 8-measure motive, which although not having the status of an independent theme, plays a significant role in the unfolding of the first movement. The themes of the sonata allegro are of a rich singing quality and each complements rather than contrasts with the other. This is a movement in which the romantic intensity is masterfully mixed with tender lyricism. The movement ends in darkness and pessimism: the opening motive is broken to short segments without gravity and without hope.
After the intensity and the dramatic force of the first movement, the second movement presents even more imaginative compositional and melodic structure. Here we have virtually everything the listener can desire to hear in a romantic work – almost “lied”-quality melodies, heroic frescoes, explosive climaxes, and sudden harmonic shifts.
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.
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.
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.
The joyous Scherzo has sudden dynamic contrasts and a lovely Trio featuring the winds.
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.
Johannes Brahms composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. He was at once a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Baroque and Classical masters. His thorough study of music of the past had given him a reverence for form. He also had hands-on experience with vocal music, having conducted choirs for many years; in 1863 he had been appointed conductor of the Vienna Singakademie. Brahms had already completed his Deutsches Requiem when he wrote Schicksalslied in 1871. Its premiere confirmed his growing European reputation, and led many to believe that he had conquered Beethoven and the symphony, even though his four great symphonies were not yet written.
Brahms came across the text of Schicksalslied in a friend’s library in 1868, and it made an immediate impression on him. The poem by Friedrich Hölderlin was originally part of the novel Hyperion. It had only two verses. The first describes the peaceful life of the gods, the second the suffering of mankind. Brahms wrestled with his desire to be faithful to the poet, which would mean ending his musical setting with the despairing text of the second verse. At first he wanted to create a three-part form with a reprise of the first verse, but felt this would be contrary to Hölderlin’s dark intention. He compromised by adding an orchestral coda without text, referring only in the music to the bliss of Hölderlin’s initial vision.
The orchestral introduction immediately sets up the fate motif with an inexorable, repeated triplet pattern in the timpani. The next section is gentler, foretelling the poet’s description of beatific celestial calm. When the chorus enters, the main theme is first given to altos alone, then to the full chorus. With the second theme the melody in the strings soars above the singers.
Everything changes as the poem depicts the fate of man, “plunging blindly into the abyss,” with no hope of rest. The strings swirl in rushing sixteenth notes, there are unstable diminished chords, the winds blast, and the singers have a jagged vocal line. The tumult dies down, only to return again. A constant low C (pedal point) in the celli and timpani, held for 54 measures, leads to Brahms’ final section. The music of the introduction reappears, this time with new orchestration, and now in the key of C major – a long way from its original iteration in Eb major. For an orchestral work to end in a key so different from that of its opening was very unusual, perhaps even revolutionary.
|Ihr wandelt droben im Licht
Auf weichem Boden, selige Genien!
Rühren Euch leicht,
Wie die Finger der Künstlerin
Schicksallos, wie der schlafende
Säugling, atmen die Himmlischen;
in bescheidener Knospe,
Ihnen der Geist,
Und die seligen Augen
Blicken in stiller
Doch uns ist gegeben,
Auf keiner Stätte zu ruhn;
Es schwinden, es fallen
Die leidenden Menschen
Blindlings von einer
Stunde [zur] andern,
Wie Wasser von Klippe
Zu Klippe geworfen,
Jahrlang ins Ungewisse hinab.
|You walk above in the light
on soft ground, blessed spirits!
Glistening, divine breezes
touch you lightly,
just as the fingers of the fair artist play on
Free from fate, like the sleeping infant,
celestial spirits breathe;
in its modest bud,
and their blessed eyes
gaze in calm,
Yet we are given
no place to rest;
we suffering humans
vanish and fall
blindly from one
hour to the next,
like water flung
from cliff to cliff
endlessly down into the unknown.
Édouard Lalo (1823-1892) was a prominent French romantic composer. He attended the Paris Conservatory and was active as a string player and teacher. He became well-known as a composer of orchestral and chamber music, including such works as the Symphonie Espagnole for violin and orchestra, his symphony in G minor, and the D minor ‘cello concerto.
This concerto is in three movements. A slow opening 8-bar orchestral theme (Prelude-Lento) leads to a fantasy/recitative between the solo ‘cello and the orchestra, before jumping into the dramatic main theme (Allegro maestoso). The middle movement has two contrasting sections – a romantic wistful Andantino, followed by a sprightly Spanish-style Allegro presto; both are repeated, with the movement ending in soft pizzicati by soloist and orchestra. The last movement opens with a somber ‘cello recitative (Introduction-Andante); after a brief orchestral statement in the minor key, the ‘cello sets the tone for a joyous rondo in D major (Rondo-Allegro vivace). The Rondo features brilliant solo passagework set off by contrasting orchestral sections.
Rossini composed this overture for his 1829 tragic opera William Tell (his last opera before a 40-year retirement). The opera is based on the story of William Tell, the Swiss crossbowman who shot an apple off of his son’s head, and sparked an uprising against Austria that led to Swiss independence in the 14th century.
The overture is one of the most recognizable classical works ever composed, due to its use in many non-classical contexts in television and film. The work is in four sections, and can be viewed as almost a mini-tone poem.
It starts with a sunrise scene, played by solo ‘cellos and basses. The second section depicts a sudden Alpine storm (reminiscent of the storm on the lake which enabled Tell to escape his Austrian captors). The third section evokes a bucolic Swiss mountain scene, complete with birds and lyricism. The concluding section is a quick march – the return of the victorious Swiss from their campaign against the Austrians – but modern popular culture has attached a quite different type of hero to it.