Notes: February 19

Posted on Jan 4, 2016 in Program Notes
Notes: February 19

February 19, 2016 • Smash Hits!

Concert program notes by Natalie Piontek


MOZART: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, KV. 550

27 minutes

FUN FACT: Mozart wrote his first symphony when he was eight years old.

During one whirlwind summer in 1788, Mozart started and completed what would become three of his most popular symphonies. His Symphony No. 40 is the second of those three. Thought to have been an inspiration for Beethoven’s Fifth, it’s one of only two symphonies Mozart composed in a minor key.

Wolfgang-amadeus-mozart_as childA PRODIGAL TALENT

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose baptismal name is the tongue-twisting Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, was born in 1756 in Salzburg, Austria. A child prodigy, his compositional genius has been mythologized in literature as well as cinema. Miloš Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus is perhaps the most well-known biographical account of Mozart in popular culture.

Mozart began composing at age 5 and wrote more than 600 works by his young death at age 35. By the time he turned 18, he had composed 30 of his 41 symphonies. He could listen to a piece once and then write it down from memory—a technique he exercised the first time he listened to Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere. He transcribed the piece in its entirety later that same day.


Most will recognize the turbulent opening of the first movement; in addition to appearing in numerous television shows and films (“Gilmore Girls,” “Animaniacs,” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” to name a few) the movement’s exposition was one of the most popular ringtones in the 1990s.

The violins introduce the main theme, which begins on an offbeat. This technique creates a sentiment of yearning and instability, the feeling of a thought left unfinished. It’s an approach that would be repeated later by Romantic composers, who sought often to recreate such brooding sentiments in their compositions. Repeated eighth notes in the viola section drive this movement relentlessly forward.

The second movement, a dance-like Andante, is more characteristic of the lighthearted and sprightly music we’re used to hearing from Mozart. It opens in the contented key of E-flat major. Charming, descending scalar motives (in other words, the repeated patterns of descending notes) are exchanged between the woodwinds before this movement, too, moves into more gloomy territories, landing on a stormy chord in E-flat minor. After some more exchanges of the little scalar motives we heard previously—the strings included this time—Mozart eventually brings us back to comfortable grounds. The movement concludes in its home key of E-flat major.

One would be unlikely to classify the third movement as a dance upon hearing it, but the movement is indeed a minuet and trio in form. The movement doesn’t sound like a dance because of Mozart’s use of hemiolas: a technique in which two, three-beat groups are replaced by three, two-beat groups. The technique gives the music a feeling of being off-kilter and makes it difficult to distinguish the meter of the piece.

The first violins open the fourth movement, outlining the home key of the symphony with an arpeggio in G minor. This arpeggiated motive forms the crux of the movement and is repeated by each of the instrumental groups, modulated into numerous keys. Rapidly ascending scales are tossed between instruments, and the movement rushes to a fiery conclusion.


RACHMANINOFF: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

25 minutes

FUN FACT: Many of Rachmaninoff’s works incorporate what is known as the Dies Irae, the theme from the Medieval Mass of the Dead.

Known for his unusually large hands, Rachmaninoff could reach an astonishingly wide interval of a 12th on the piano keyboard between his thumb and pinky finger—most people can barely reach an octave!


Born in 1873 in Semyonovo, Russia, Sergei Rachmaninoff was a composer, conductor and concert pianist. He stood at an imposing 6’6″ and rarely smiled in photographs. He is most acclaimed for his contributions to the piano repertoire, which include four concertos (five if you count the Rhapsody), 24 Preludes, and two piano sonatas, among others.

800px-Sergei_RachmaninoffDIFFICULT BEGINNINGS

Rachmaninoff had a tumultuous career full of highs and lows. The 1847 premiere of his first symphony, conducted sloppily by composer Alexander Glazunov, was nothing short of a catastrophe. Critics mocked and quickly disregarded the work. Having spent two years composing this symphony, the 23-year-old Rachmaninoff fell into a deep depression after the premiere. It would be another 10 years before he would muster the courage to write his second symphony.

Yet, during the long setback he experienced following the first symphony’s premiere, Rachmaninoff also fell in love—with his first cousin, Natalia Satina. Rachmaninoff and Natalia’s relationship was frowned upon by their families, but the two married nonetheless.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution forced the composer to depart his homeland. Rachmaninoff immigrated to the United States, where he conducted concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra, performed as pianist, and lived until his death at age 69.


Rachmaninoff wrote his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini after the 24th and last caprice from Paganini’s 24 caprices for solo violin. Written as a set of 24 variations, the work features the Dies Irae, the ominous theme from the medieval Mass of the Dead. Like Paganini’s Caprices, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a virtuosic showpiece.

The variations run the gamut of emotions: playful and serious, serene and turbulent, plaintive and exuberant. Rachmaninoff opens the work with an introduction and the first variation, which, unusually, precedes the main theme. Rachmaninoff varies Paganini’s theme in almost every way imaginable in an extraordinary display of compositional virtuosity. He writes the theme backwards, slows and quickens the tempo, and inverts rhythms. He modulates the theme into the major key and turns it upside down to create the gorgeous and sweeping Romantic melody in the famous 18th variation. The 18th variation is often performed as a standalone work in its own right.

The 24th and last variation is perhaps the most technically daunting of all the variations. Before performing it himself, Rachmaninoff drank a glass of crème de menthe to calm his nerves. Rapid ascending and descending passages in octaves daunt even the finest pianist. However, not one to take himself too seriously, Rachmaninoff finishes this tour-de-force of a movement with a soft, humorous little quote of the main theme.


STRAVINSKY: The Firebird Suite (1919)

23 minutes

FUN FACT: Stravinsky is famously rumored to have had an affair with iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel. This affair was the subject of the 2009 mainstream film, Coco et Igor.

Stravinsky originally conceived The Firebird as a ballet; the Firebird Suite is a selection of movements from the full production. Stravinsky made three different orchestral suites from The Firebird—one in 1911, one in 1919, and one in 1945. The 1919 Firebird Suite (performed tonight) remains the most popular.


Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky, born in 1882 in Oranienbaum, Russia, championed the Modern era of classical music. His music experimented with atonality, extreme dissonance, and, in his ballets, barbaric and unpleasant imagery. The Rite of Spring, a ballet that Stravinsky premiered to a Parisian audience in 1913, was so radical that the audience rioted during the performance. The piece ended midway through because the dancers couldn’t hear the music over the enraged audience.


Stravinsky’s music is classified into three periods: the Russian period, the Neoclassical period, and the Serial period. From the Russian period we recognize composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Stravinsky in fact studied under the tutelage of Rimsky-Korsakov while attending university). The Russian period is characterized by the use of Russian folk songs and melodies, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite is one of the hallmark works of this period.


The story of The Firebird comes from Russian folktales and focuses on the hero, Prince Ivan. Ivan strays into an unknown forest, the “enchanted garden of Kastchei,” where he finds and kidnaps the firebird. The firebird, desperate to escape, provides the Prince a magical feather in exchange for her freedom. It is this magical feather that aids Ivan in defeating the evil Kastchei and winning his princess.

The Firebird Suite is composed in five movements or tableaus. The work opens with an ominous statement and rumblings in the low strings, which immediately transport the listener into Kastchei’s mystical forest. The brass and winds follow soon after, enriching the soundscape. The violins perform tremolos, a technique in which the bow is moved back and forth quickly on a string, and glissandi, where the finger slides up and down a string, to create the haunting atmosphere.

The Firebird is full of Stravinsky’s characteristically evocative wind writing. After hearing the brooding music of Kastchei’s forest, we are introduced to the firebird, which is portrayed colorfully by the flute, clarinet and piccolo. The lines between the three woodwinds are intricately interwoven, with one instrument picking up the tail end of an arpeggio where the other leaves off. The parts are technically and rhythmically devious, and for this reason they often make an appearance on orchestral audition lists. Flourishes in the harp and strings make this movement even more colorful.

The trumpets and low brass take over in the demonic third tableau, Kastchei’s Infernal Dance (do you recognize this movement from the score for Disney’s Fantasia 2000?). The final tableau showcases Stravinsky’s talent for creating beautiful melody, and the entire orchestra comes together to sing the firebird’s lovely pastoral theme.