Notes: February 14

Posted on Feb 14, 2014 in Program Notes
Notes: February 14

February 14 • Young Love

Concert program notes by Dr. Suzanne Moulton-Gertig

Selections from The Sleeping Beauty (Spyashchaya krasavitsa)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

435px-Tchaikovsky_1906_EvansTchaikovsky had mixed success with staged works. In 1888, however, Tchaikovsky’s fortunes in the theatre were about to change. His mentor, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, a gifted creator of collaborations who was both a graphic artist and balletomane, as well as the Director of the Imperial Theatres, assembled a collaborative group that insured success.

Vsevolozhsky dreamed of the perfect ballet, with music elevated to the level of artistry his dancers and choreographers had already achieved. When his last official ballet composer retired in 1886, he seized the moment, calling a meeting with Tchaikovsky and first ballet master Marius Petipa. Thus began the greatest collaboration of Tchaikovsky’s career.

Based on the fairytale “La belle au bois dormant” by Charles Perrault, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty was composed in the months between Dec. 1888 and Sept.1889 and had its premiere in St. Petersburg’s famous Mariinsky Theatre on January 15, 1890.

The orchestral suite after the ballet is comprised of five movements from sections of Acts 1 and 2. The Introduction and La fée des lilas (The Lilac Fairy) are the first and last sections of the Pas de six from Act. 1. The entire scene represents the presentation of gifts to the baby Aurora at her cradle by the fairies. The Adagio: Pas d’action, more popularly known as the Rose Adagio, follows. In the original ballet, Aurora dances with the four Princes in turn, accepting from each the rose he offers her. The Panorama from Act 2 represents Prince Désiré’s journey in the Lilac Fairy’s boat through the enchanted wood to the palace where Princess Aurora is sleeping. The orchestral suite concludes with a return to Act 1 for the Waltz, one of Tchaikovsky’s best known and loved waltzes.


The Butterfly Lovers Concerto

Chen Gang and He Zhanhao (b. 1935) (b.1933)

Butterfly-1The Butterfly Lovers Concerto displays a musical synthesis of Eastern and Western musical traditions. Co-composed by He Zhan-hao and Chen Gang back in 1959 when both were students in the Shanghai Conservatory, it remains China’s most beloved violin concerto even today.

While the original work from 1959 was more traditional in oriental color, over the years the work was revised by Chen for dramatic purposes by way of greater contrasting tempi and dynamics to the melodies and predominant style that was taken from Shanghai opera.

The title itself belies the programmatic intent of the concerto. The story has its base in Chinese folklore from the Ming Dynasty. The tragic lovers are Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. The writer for the Yan Huang Performing Arts tells the tale and ties the events to the music further:

Liang Shanbo had been studying with Zhu Yingtai, disguised as a boy, for many years during which Ting-tai had fallen in love with Shanbo who was ignorant of her true gender. One day, Yingtai received the news that her family had arranged for her to marry a wealthy neighbor and she was forced to leave Shanbo. After a time, Shanbo, greatly missing his companion, attempted to visit Yingtai house where he found out from a servant that Yingtai was a girl and about to be married. Only then did he understand what Yingtai had so often tried to tell him, and in his bitter despair he fell ill and died. On learning of the death of Shanbo, Yingtai visited his grave and in her grief begged his tomb to open. There was a clap of thunder, the tomb broke open and Yingtai leapt into the grave, from which the two lovers emerged as butterflies and flew away together, finally reunited.

The exposition begins with a flute solo against a background of soft tremolo on the strings, followed by a beautiful melody on the oboe which represents a peaceful, sunny spring day. The solo violin, accompanied by the harp, sings a simple and graceful love theme and enters into a dialogue with the cello, which renders into music the first encounter of Shanbo with the girl Yingtai at a wayside arbor. A free cadenza leads to a lively rondo, in which the solo violin alternates with the orchestra. Three happy years of close affinity pass quickly, and the two young students have to return to their homes. An Adagio utters their reluctance to part. The development opens with ominous foreshadows on the gong, cellos and bassoons. Brasses break in with a fierce and malicious theme, the theme of feudal forces. The violin pours out first the anxieties of Yingtai in free rhythm and then her protest in powerful syncopated chords. The two themes-the protest theme and the feudal forces theme-are woven into a climax of conflict. Yingtai protests against an undesired marriage. In the Adagio that follows, a duet for violin and cello evokes the longing of Shanbo and Yingtai for each other when they visit in the girl’s parlor. The music shifts abruptly into sari-ban (free rhythm) and kuai-ban (fast tempo). Yingtai pours out her grief to the heavens at Shanbo’s tomb after his forlorn death, The device of jin-la-man-chang (singing freely upon a rushing accompaniment), borrowed from Shaoxing and Beijing operas, ushers in another climax. After the violin finishes its last plaintive phrase, the whole orchestra bursts into a powerful tutti. The tomb opens, and in plunges Yingtai. The music swells to the largest climax of the concerto. The flute and harp imbue the recapitulation with a celestial bliss. The love theme reappears on the violin con sordino (muted). Out of the tomb fly a pair of butterflies, which are believed to be the transfigurations of the deceased lovers, whose true love was perpetuated in a verse:

A rainbow shines and flowers flourish.

Amid the flowers butterflies flutter
In pairs that never sever.
The spirits of Liang and Zhu never perish. 


Romeo and Juliet, Suite No. 2, Op. 64

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)

ProkofievWhile once deemed too modern for ballet, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was to become an enduring treasure of twentieth-century music. By the time the composer began work in 1935 on his ballet based on the great Shakespearean tragedy, other composers had already offered a number of successful compositions on the theme. Preceding Prokofiev’s ballet were at least fourteen operas, Berlioz’s symphony, and Tchaikovsky’s fantasy overture.

Problems plagued Prokofiev in his quest to stage the ballet. Originally slated for the Kirov Ballet, the company backed out of their contract with the composer. Prokofiev then approached theater director Sergei Radlov of the Bolshoi Ballet to stage the debut of the work. That relationship was not to bear fruit, for Radlov ultimately rejected the ballet, declaring the music impossible for dancing. After another broken contract with the Leningrad Ballet in 1937, and further political troubles for the composer in the Soviet Union, the ballet was accepted by Czechoslovakia’s Brno Opera in 1938, where it had its debut on 30 December 1938. Eventually, in 1940, the work returned to the Soviet Union to the company for which it was originally intended. The Kirov Ballet staged the work, finally giving the ballet the critical acclaim it deserved. In the interim, Prokofiev arranged two orchestral suites, as well as ten solo piano pieces from the ballet, which were performed in Moscow during 1936–37. Eventually the ballet, along with its orchestral and solo offspring, became so popular that the composer set about arranging a third orchestral suite in 1946.

The second of the three suites is comprised of seven sections, most of which are descriptive of scenes from the Shakespearean play. No. 1 “The Montagues and Capulets” depicts the two Veronese noble houses, “both alike in dignity”, but in constant turmoil due to a long-standing feud. The second section, “The Young Juliet”, musically portrays Lady Capulet summoning her very young daughter to tell her of young nobleman Paris’ offer of marriage. In Friar Lawrence (No. 3), when Juliet’s father resolves that she will marry Paris, Juliet turns to the friar in despair, threatening to take her own life unless Lawrence can help her. This solemn section is followed by the sprightly “Dance” (No.4) with its lively oboe melody. In “Romeo and Juliet before Parting”, the Prince of Verona has ordered Romeo into exile after the death of Tybalt. Romeo and Juliet spend a final night together and, as the dawn breaks, they take leave of one another sadly, and Romeo leaves the city. No. 6 is another dance, this time an elegant one where young girls bring lilies to Juliet’s window on the slated morning of her wedding to Paris.

Finally, in “Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb”, having taken the drug given her by Friar Lawrence and in all semblance of death, Juliet is placed in the Capulet tomb. Lawrence’s message to Romeo is delayed, and the latter is told by his servant that Juliet is dead. Romeo procures a poison, and consumes it at her side. Awakening to find him dead, she grasps his dagger and kills herself. Discovered by both families and Friar Lawrence, the heartbroken families, in light of their children’s tragedy, resolve their differences now having lost “a brace of kinsmen.”