Notes: November 15

Posted on Nov 15, 2013 in Program Notes
Notes: November 15

November 15 • Inauspicious Beginnings

Concert program notes by Dr. Suzanne Moulton-Gertig


Fidelio Overture, Opus 72c

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)


Dateline Vienna. November 20, 1805. How could anything go correctly? One week after Napoleon and his troops entered Vienna, the Theater an der Wien presented the première of the first version of Leonore, which would eventually become Fidelio by 1814 in its final version. This was incredibly poor timing; opera goers (and anyone else with any sense) had fled the city, leaving virtually only the French soldiers to attend (who possibly took umbrage with the plot of a man’s struggle for liberty against tyranny). Is there any question why the opera was canceled after only three performances? Fast forward to May 23, 1814, when, under the new title Fidelio (the name that Leonore uses as a disguised male while aiding her political prisoner husband to escape from prison), the opera reopens at the Kärtnertortheater in Vienna to great success and immense relief to its composer. This final triumph was no mundane accomplishment, however. Between the original première and the 1814 opening, Beethoven revised the opera twice, composed three more overtures, and was most likely swindled by the Theater an der Wien management in an 1806 revival of the production. With the Fidelio overture, Beethoven abandons the musical principles of the three Leonore overtures and composes a completely unique offering which is simpler and more succinct than its predecessors. In addition, unlike the Leonores, this overture is set in the key of E, the same key as the character Leonore’s main aria, which represents the hope and heroism of her role. The overture contains no thematic material from the opera itself, but musically attempts to portray the ideals of heroism, hope, and freedom.


Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 14

Samuel Barber (1910–1981)


Once in print, erroneous information dies a very slow death. Such is the case with the commission and debut of the Barber violin concerto. First, the old story which, if true, would have made this work one of very inauspicious beginning. For many years the following narrative was thought to be true: In the spring of 1939, Samuel Barber, who had just returned to the United States after spending three years abroad as a result of winning the Prix de Rome in composition, received a commission from a wealthy Philadelphia industrialist named Samuel Fels to compose a violin concerto for one of Barber’s Curtis Institute classmates (and Fels’ ward) Iso Briselli. This is where truth ends in the 1950s story of the work and fiction begins. According to early Barber biographer Nathan Broder, “When the movement was submitted, the violinist declared it too difficult … and Barber, who had already spent [his advance] in Europe, called in another violinist … who performed the work for the merchant and his protégé, to prove that the finale was not unplayable.” Enter musicological primary source research in the twenty-first century: In 2010, correspondence from the Samuel Fels Papersat Papers in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania refutes the Broder biography claim that violinist Iso Briselli rejected the concerto because he found the third movement too difficult. Barber gave Briselli the first two movements in the fall of 1939 and Briselli was pleased with them. In late November, Briselli received the final movement from the composer but, unlike the previous two movements, it was not well received. Far from being “too difficult,” as the Broder biography asserts, the movement, in particular, did not please Briselli’s violin coach, Albert Meiff who found it “unviolinistic.” At this juncture, Meiff proposes to have all three of them meet and have both first and second movements “in the violin part altered” (Meiff found fault with these, as well) and Barber to receive “advice” from Meiff on the third movement to make it more “violinistic” (which did not mean that it was not playable — even Briselli admitted to such). In the end, under considerable pressure from Meiff not to give the premiere at the insistence that it would hurt his career, Briselli relinquished the première. Subsequently, the work was enthusiastically embraced by violinist Albert Spaulding, who gave the first performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra in February 1940. Describing the concerto, British writer Richard Thompson says the following:

The concerto is quite clearly divided between the first two lyrical movements and the explosively energetic finale. The opening allegro, in G major, is dominated by the long expansive melody which the soloist unfolds right at the outset, without any sort of orchestral introduction. The most important subsidiary idea is a clarinet melody with a short-long rhythmic stress, sounding almost Scottish in its inflections. These two themes feature in the central development section, and after a full recapitulation and short accompanied cadenza, (Barber is known to have had an aversion to conventional cadenzas), both melodies also appear in the quiet coda.The long, beautiful, and dark toned principal melody of the second movement is given in turn to oboe, cello, clarinet, violins and horn before the solo violin makes its first entry. The soloist dominates the more agitated middle section, which ends with another accompanied cadenza, and then remains in the foreground during the impassioned return of the first section.Barber’s own program note for the first performance in 1941 contains something of an understatement: ‘The last movement, a perpetual motion, exploits the more brilliant and virtuoso characteristics of the violin.’ In fact, what the listener hears are racing triplet figures which are maintained for page after page by the soloist, only interrupted by driving off-beat accents or cross-rhythms in the orchestra. The movement is all rhythmic drive, with the soloist’s final gear change from triplets into semiquavers near the end significantly increasing the excitement and impetus.”

Portrait of Samuel Barber by Carl Van Vechten / Library of Congress


Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

435px-Tchaikovsky_1906_EvansAfter the first performances of his fifth symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote to his patroness, Madame Nadejda von Meck in November of 1888, “I find the symphony a failure. There is in it something repellent, something superfluous, patchy and insincere. Am I really played out, as they say? Can I merely repeat and ring the changes on my earlier idiom? Last night I looked through our Symphony [the fourth]. What a difference! How immeasurably superior it is! It is very, very sad.”  From this statement, it is clear that here is an individual plagued by self-doubt who is convinced that he is out of musical ideas. It is interesting that one of the composer’s most revered symphonic works should be so defamed by its creator. It is little wonder that this symphony mirrors all the powerful and contradictory emotions the composer was suffering at the time of its composition, and greater wonder that Tchaikovsky did not recognize those emotions as they are played out so poignantly in his symphony. Although he fashioned no special program for the Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s sketchbooks indicate an overall plan with a recurring theme to resemble a continuing struggle with Fate that wrestles from despair (in the minor key) to a major-key release. This Fate theme plays an essential role in each of the four movements and changes in spirit throughout the symphony. Writer Richard Rodda explains the four movements linked by the Fate theme:

The ‘Fate’ motto theme [is] given immediately at the beginning by unison clarinets as the brooding introduction to the first movement. The sonata form proper starts with a melancholy melody intoned by bassoon and clarinet over a stark string accompaniment. The woodwinds enter with wave-form scale patterns followed by a stentorian passage for the brass that leads to a climax. Several themes are presented to round out the exposition: a romantic tune, filled with emotional swells, for the strings; an aggressive strain given as a dialogue between winds and strings; and a languorous, sighing string melody. Again, the brasses are brought forth to climax this section. All of the themes are treated in the development section. The solo bassoon ushers in the recapitulation, and the themes from the exposition are heard again, though with changes of key and instrumentation. After a final climax in the coda, the movement fades, softer and slower, and sinks, finally, into the lowest reaches of the orchestra. At the head of the manuscript of the second movement Tchaikovsky is said to have written, “Oh, how I love … if you love me…,” a sentiment that calls to mind an operatic love scene. (Tchaikovsky, it should be remembered, was a master of the musical stage who composed more operas than he did symphonies.) The expressiveness of the opening theme, hauntingly played by the solo horn, is heightened as the movement proceeds through enriched contrapuntal lines and instrumental sonorities. Twice, the imperious Fate motto intrudes upon the starlit mood of this romanza. If the second movement derives from opera, the third grows from ballet. A flowing waltz melody (inspired by a street song Tchaikovsky had heard in Italy a decade earlier) dominates much of the movement. The central trio section exhibits a scurrying figure in the strings which shows the influence of Léo Delibes, the French master of ballet music whom Tchaikovsky deeply admired. Quietly and briefly, the Fate motto returns in the movement’s closing pages. The finale begins with a long introduction based on the Fate theme cast in a heroic rather than a sinister or melancholy mood. A vigorous exposition, a concentrated development and an intense recapitulation follow. The long coda uses the motto theme in a major-key, victory-won setting. This stirring work ends with a final statement from the trumpets and horns, and closing chords from the full orchestra.”