April 7, 2017 • Prost!
Concert program notes by Betsy Schwarm
Der Freischütz Overture
Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826)
Contrary to frequent opinion, Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) did not invent the idea of grand German-language opera presenting grand German-flavored tales.
That honor belongs to Carl Maria von Weber. Weber was composing, conducting, and promoting German opera when Wagner was just an infant, and of his nine completed dramatic scores, the most successful was Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter).
Premiering in Berlin June 18, 1821, Der Freischütz is a darkly romantic tale of a young huntsman who finds himself, unknowingly, in league with the devil as he attempts to win a shooting contest. Good fortune saves both Max and his beloved Agathe. The work was an instant triumph. Its supernatural elements were much in vogue at the time and its struggle between good and evil seized the emotions of listeners. The work was so popular that it achieved the notable tribute of being parodied by other composers!
The opera’s overture, opening tonight’s concert, features musical themes borrowed from the body of the drama itself. Most obvious of these is the leading lady’s Act Two prayer and subsequent song of joy that her sweetheart is well. As such, the overture offers a fine perspective on the opera’s changeable moods, from the ominous drama of the opening lines through ebullient delight, culminating in the ever-popular happy ending.
Clarinet Concerto no. 1 in f minor, op. 73
Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826)
The three works for clarinet and orchestra of Carl Maria von Weber were all composed for Heinrich Joseph Bärmann, clarinetist of the Court Orchestra in Munich.
In March of 1811, Weber met Bärmann while in Munich on tour, and was immediately impressed. Since a concert of Weber’s works was planned for early April, the composer decided to write a short concertino for Bärmann to perform. The two concertos followed afterward, undertaken at the specific request of the Bavarian king, Maximilian I.
Weber’s Clarinet Concerto no. 1 opens determinedly in the minor key of its title, with much suspense and tension. Mindful of expectations of the day, Weber lets the orchestra set the scene before the soloist joins the action. Here, the most dramatic statements are generally for the orchestra, the soloist providing more poignant commentary with quick runs and trills to punctuate the action.
The slow second movement is sweetly lyrical. Melancholy in mood, its long legato phrases test the soloist’s breath control.
For the final movement, Weber lets the sunshine in, with a bright and bouncy rondo of lively energy briskly propelled through a sequence of ever-changeable melodies. Thus, he ends the concerto far from the dark moods of its opening pages.
Ein feste Burg and Jesu, joy of man’s desiring
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)
That most revered of composers, Johann Sebastian Bach never composed for the standard symphony orchestra. Some of its instruments had yet to be invented, while others existed only in less refined forms.
Moreover, in Bach’s own time, instrumental ensembles were much smaller than the grand orchestras to which modern audiences have become accustomed. Bach never imagined having more than a dozen or so instruments in a single place. Today, even six dozen musicians only make for an ensemble of moderate size.
Those facts have not prevented orchestral conductors from including Bach’s works in their concerts. They simply have to use transcriptions. In a transcription, all the melodies and harmonies of the original piece are transferred to different instrumental choices. The original creative vision is given new, likely richer colors, even as the basic concept and overall shape remain recognizably the same. A keyboard work may become an orchestral work, but the original creative vision is still there at its heart.
As Bach himself occasionally transcribed his own works to suit different performing resources, it seems likely that he would have approved such transcriptions being made of his works by others, presuming that those “others” treated his original creations in a respectful fashion.
Tonight’s concert includes two transcriptions of Bach compositions: English-born conductor Leopold Stokowski’s reimagining of the old Lutheran hymn Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress), which Bach had featured in his Cantata no. 80, as well as American Arthur Luck’s transcription of Jesu bleibet mein Freude (Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring), from the Cantata no. 147.
Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Weber
Paul Hindemith (1895 – 1963)
Paul Hindemith was German born, but, like many of his countrymen left his troubled homeland in the 1930s. By 1940 he had made his way to New York City.
There, he took a score that he’d originally intended as a ballet and reshaped it into an orchestral suite. Thematic material for each of the four movements was borrowed from music by Carl Maria von Weber: the second movement scherzo from Weber’s theatrical music for Turandot, the other three from various works for piano four-hands (two musicians play on a single piano). Given the inspiration, and the fact that, in Hindemith’s care, all the melodies undergo a certain amount of development and evolution, the final work was given the title Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Weber. It premiered in New York City in 1944.
The first movement sets stern and forthright moods in contrast to quieter, mellower ones, with a march-like theme for woodwinds and xylophone occupying the center pages. Woodwinds again earn the spotlight in the two middle movements, especially flute, clarinet, and even bassoon.
The second movement Scherzo sparkles with chimes and gong to create an Oriental sound. By comparison, the third movement finds most of the orchestra in restful mood, though not the principal flutist, whose lines are of virtuosic complexity.
The final movement is a propulsive march, complete with snare drum to drive it forward. Hindemith’s most frequently performed work, the Symphonic Metamorphosis showcases his fine touch for balancing orchestral resources.