May 25, 2017 • When In Rome
Concert program notes by Betsy Schwarm
Capriccio Italien, op. 45
Peter Tchaikovsky (1841 – 1896)
Peter Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien is a musical souvenir of the winter of 1879/1880, which the composer spent in Rome.
In a letter to his friend and patron, Nadezhda von Meck, he related that some of the melodies used in the caprice were borrowed from published collections of Italian songs. Others were songs the composer had heard in the streets of Rome, and the brass fanfare that begins the caprice was played every evening at the army barracks across the street from his hotel. Throughout, there are ever-changing musical moods, like an assortment of memories from a busy vacation.
After the opening brass fanfare, various contrasting melodies make their appearance. A flowing, song-like theme first introduced by strings is followed by a perky triple-meter dance melody setting oboes and flutes in contrast to one another before the melody moves to the full orchestra.
Next is a graceful theme with downward flowing triplets more reminiscent of Naples than of Rome, and ultimately a propulsive tarantella with skipping dotted rhythms and an irrepressibly driving energy, charging to the most-spirited conclusion possible. (Did you see the Chalet dancers perform the tarantella dance during tonight’s tailgate?)
Its vibrant spirit was well-received when it premiered in Moscow in December of 1880.
Piano Concerto no. 1 in g minor, op. 25
Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)
Felix Mendelssohn’s first piano concerto premiered in Munich on October 17, 1831. The concert was a full program of Mendelssohn’s works, including his Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, his Symphony No. 1 in c minor, and the new concerto.
He wrote the concerto quickly to have something that might showcase both his compositional abilities and his keyboard skills. In a letter to his family back home, Mendelssohn reported that the audience was delighted on all accounts.
The first movement opens with a brief rising phrase for orchestra alone, charging upward as if leaping into the sky. The soloist joins promptly with torrents of the most rapid passagework imaginable, eventually contrasted by a calmer, more song-like theme. However, the opening turmoil soon returns, now cast in ever newer colors.
Rather than coming to a full pause before the second movement, Mendelssohn has the trumpets abruptly declare that a new gate has been thrown wide open, and the action continues straight onwards. Here, all is peaceful with cellos presenting a theme on which the soloist will elaborate. Brief periods of greater drama arise, but in general, Mendelssohn clearly intends to have a calm interlude in the center of the concerto.
Another brass fanfare leads the action, again without pause, into the final movement. The anxiety of the opening movement and calm of the second movement are replaced by brilliance and sparkle, especially from the soloist, whose phrases recur in the woodwinds. It’s all laughter and high spirits, and mostly perpetual motion leading to closing fireworks.
Fountains of Rome & Pines of Rome
Ottorino Respighi (1879 – 1936)
Having spent three years in Russia studying orchestration with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Ottorino Respighi came home determined to craft exciting symphonic scores in the spirit of Rimsky’s famed Scheherazade.
This intention is vividly displayed in Respighi’s three most famous works: The Fountains of Rome (1917), The Pines of Rome (1924), and Roman Festivals (1929). The first two of those are on tonight’s program. All are vivid instrumental tone poems using various sections of the orchestra, and in brief passages, even soloists chosen from those sections, to evoke the spirit of the scenes the composer had in mind.
The Fountains of Rome
Of Fountains, Respighi explained that he intended to capture the personalities of four of the Eternal City’s famed fountains, each at a different and specific time of day.
In the first of the four movements, the Fountain of Valle Giulia is imagined by the composer as a pastoral scene with cattle passing by through the mists of dawn. He renders this with birdcall-like effects from the woodwinds, bell-like details from the celesta, and gently flowing themes from all.
The more boisterous second movement depicts mythical sprites indulging in a mid-morning dance in the waters of the Triton Fountain. Heroic horns launch the action with nimble themes to follow, punctuated by more determined contrasting passages.
The third scene also bears a connection to myth, as the view of the Trevi Fountain at midday brings to Respighi’s mind an image of Neptune and his chariot. All begins peacefully, with focus on the English horn, though bolder passages will soon follow.
However, Respighi does not close the entire work with high drama. Rather, for the fourth and final movement, he evokes a sunset scene. Birds warble in the woodwinds and bells toll across the waters of the Villa Medici Fountain before settling into the stillness of the evening.
The Pines of Rome
Of Pines, Respighi wrote “the century-old trees which dominate so characteristically the Roman landscape become testimony for the principal events in Roman life.”
Those “events” ranged from the shrill cries of frolicking children to the thundering approach of Caesar’s army, with a recorded nightingale — Respighi strongly preferred to have an actual recording, rather than just a piccolo in imitation — singing his sweet song in the interim.
The Pines of Rome premiered in 1924 in the city whose name it bears. It was a spectacular success, and within two years, Toscanini conducted the work with the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall.
The Pines of Rome is structured in four movements, each with its own subtitle, though they are played without pause, so that the music flows uninterrupted from beginning to end.
In the first, “The Pines of Villa Borghese,” children play in the pine groves, with sparkling activity for the full orchestra, though most prominently and repeatedly from the brass.
For contrast, the second section “The Pines near a Catacomb,” sets mournful hymn-like phrases against a dark tapestry of mostly string tones.
A lighter mood returns for the third section “The Pines of the Janiculum,” in which Respighi attested that he was imagining a moonlit scene with nightingales singing. Here, the piano that Respighi included in his orchestra comes brilliantly into the spotlight and the clarinet is awarded a lengthy and lyrical solo passage. The oboe (nightingale) sings as the movement comes to a close.
Immediately afterward, the scene moves to “The Pines of the Appian Way” with visions of the ancient past and the Roman army approaching the capital city. At first the army is quite distant, but the relentless tread of many booted feet become clear long before the splendor of brass and percussion brings those soldiers into imagined view. Respighi has crafted the grandest of grand finales.