Program Notes GSO Finale Concert, April 27th, 7:30pm, River Run Centre
David B. Knight
Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isoldeby Richard Wagner (1813-1883). It is difficult to pick one’s favourite from Wagner thirteen operatic dramas, when the list includes Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre,Siegfried, and Die Meistersinger, and Götterdämmerung.Nevertheless, one work stands out for its use of chromaticism and dissonance surprised many listeners when the work was first performed. Dealing with tragic love and desire, Tristan and Isoldeoffered unusual new music. Even Hector Berlioz, whose own Symphonie Fantastiquehad shocked many in 1830, was uncomfortable when he heard Wagner’s new work. Not so for every member of the audience at the first performance in Munich in1865. Significantly, many people were then, and others have been ever since, inspired by what Wagner wrote.
Right from the start, in the first two bars of the Prelude, we shall hear the now famous “Tristan chord”, a remarkable heart-rending dissonance. Other composers used similar chords but they—including Mozart and Liszt—immediately found a harmonic resolution which left the listener comfortable and perhaps pleased. Not so with Wagner. As you will hear, he defied convention by leaving the chord unresolved, which provides a surprising harmonic suspension. He then moves to a second chord and, again, it is unresolved. He thus creates a harmonic tension, a tension that remains unresolved for well over three hours, until the final cadences of the opera!
By this opera, Wagner opened new harmonic possibilities for subsequent composers to follow, including Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and continuing to Benjamin Britten and subsequently others too, even rock musicians. Today the opera is widely acknowledged as one of the top works in the operatic repertoire. While the tonal ambiguity may surprise the listener, the orchestral colours Wagner creates in the Prelude are truly marvellous to hear. Of Wagner’s work, the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said it was “overpowering in its simple grandeur”.
Wagner’s score was so new and, indeed, radical, that even he was surprised by it. He wrote, “I had the prelude to Tristan played to me for the first time . . . . This short prelude was so incomprehensibly new to the musicians that I had to guide my people through the piece note by note, as if to discover precious stones in a mine.” The work opens with the two unresolved “sighs”, possibly signifying insatiable longing, before proceeding langsam und schmachtend (slow and languishing, or soulful, or yearning) in a long, slow crescendo towards a wondrous climax and then continues as a decrescendo to a very quiet ending.
The orchestra then moves seamlessly into Liebestod, the opera’s final piece. Isolda sings this in the opera but it is often performed in orchestral concerts without the singer. Indeed, Wagner conducted the Prelude and Liebestodtogether in an orchestral concert, so we are in good company. The concluding music brings the desired resolution of the earlier harmonic suspension but, in Wagner’s words, there is not just resolution but also transfiguration.
Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola and Orchestraby Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959). When Martinů was 16, the people of the Czech town of Polička raised funds to send the promising young violinist to the Prague Conservatoire. He repaid them by doing so badly in his studies that he was expelled! He then played in the second violin section of the Czech Philharmonic but, realizing his real love to be composition, he also wrote music, the first major work being the patriotic cantata Czech Rhapsody. Despite praise, he knew he needed to learn more so, in 1923, he moved to Paris. He experienced success there but his homesickness grew to the point that in 1938 he decided to return to his home country; however, at that very moment the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia, so he stayed in Paris. When the Nazis occupied France in 1941, Martinů fled to the USA where he continued to compose.
Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra was commissioned by the Ukrainian-born American Jascha Veissi. He had moved to the USA in 1920, where joined the violins in the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. He was appointed Assistant Concertmaster in 1927. In 1931 Veissi changed violin for viola and became Principal Viola of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He also was a member of the famous Kolisch Quartet. Veissi met Martinů in the late 1920s in Paris and they kept in touch. The lovely sound of Veissi’s viola—a fine 16th century instrument made by Gasparo deSalò—inspired Martinů as he wrote the Rhapsody.Veissi held the performing rights to the Rhapsody for the premiere in 1953 and the following three years; thereafter it was performed by others and it remains one of the most performed works for viola and orchestra.
The work has two movements. Following an orchestral introduction the viola enters with a lyrical melody which is a wonderful reminder that Martinů felt the viola was the closest instrument to the human voice. The work is filled with lyrical writing though, fascinatingly, there are some sudden changes in mood. The rich collection of melodies included Moravian folk songs Martinů had learned as a child or they were themes he wrote in their style.
Listen for the snare drum beats. They evoke Martinů’s memory of when as a youngster he played a small drum while marching around the gallery of a church tower in Polička. The family lived in a small room in the tower and it was there the young Martinů was born and where he lived until the age of 11. Much revered as a major Czech composer, a museum in Polička celebrates his time in the city while Prague houses the Bohuslav Martinů Institute.
Symphony No. 8by Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). This symphony was composed in ten weeks, in August-November, 1889. The work was known as No. 4 until the 1950s when manuscripts of four early symphonies were published. His previously published symphonies were renumbered. Dvořák conducted the premiere in Prague on February 2, 1890. Soon thereafter he conducted the work in Frankfurt. Then, on the eve of being awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge, he conduct the symphony there.
Dvořák’s comment about the 1891 scene at Cambridge University is marvellous: “Nothing but ceremony, and nothing but doctors. All faces were serious, and it seemed to me as if no one knew any other language but Latin”. From personal experience I can reveal that this description still applies! The 400 year old tradition is known “scarlet day”, so called because scarlet gowns are worn instead of the normally worn black gowns. Flags are flown to mark the occasion and the bells of the University Church ring out as the procession of new honorary doctors go to and from the Senate House. And, yes, the ceremony is in Latin. Other composers to receive a Cambridge honorary doctorate include Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky (1893) and Edvard Grieg (1894). Interestingly, in 1876 Johannes Brahms was offered an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University but he declined to accept it for he feared crossing the English Channel!
Symphony No. 8 continued to be performed in numerous cities in Europe and in North America, not least in Chicago in August 1893, at a special Bohemian Day concert at the World’s Columbian Exposition, with Dvořák conducting. That audience gave the work “tremendous outbursts of applause,” according to the Chicago Tribune. Wherever it was performed the work receive rapturous acclaim.
Dvořák was well established by the time he wrote this symphony. His Moravian Duetsand Slavonic Danceswere best sellers and his early symphonies had been well received, especially No, 7 (as numbered today). The latter was a rather sombre, soul searching work which revealed both the composer’s personal struggles as well as something of the Czech nation’s growing struggle to become independent of the Hapsburgs. The moods ranged from intense calm to great turmoil. Clearly it hit the mark for it was a brilliant success. Four years later, in the summer of 1889, Dvořák removed himself from daily pressures by going to his secluded house in the Vysoká countryside for he felt ready to tackle a new symphony, one he felt would be “different from the other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way.” Soon he found that “Melodies simply pour out of me,” melodies that were grounded in his being a Czech, and he completed the work in short order.
German conductor Hans-Hubert Schönzeller agrees with numerous scholars who consider this symphony to be “the most intimate and original within the whole canon on Dvořák’s nine.” Some melancholic sections may reflect Dvořák’s sadness that three of his children did not reach adulthood but what always bubbles to the surface is his love for Bohemia and his pleasure at being Czech. Such is especially evident in the symphony’s final movement which, Schönzelle maintains, “breathes the spirit of Vysoká. . . . When one walks in those forests surrounding Dvořák’s country home on a summer’s day, with the birds singing and the leaves of trees rustling in a gentle breeze, one can virtually hear the music.” This noted, the music is not descriptive in the manner of Beethoven’s Sixth; nevertheless, landscape and folk music inspirations abound. You will be delighted by the numerous melodies. Indeed, in the words of Dvořák’s contemporary, the Czech composer Leoš Janácek, “You’ve scarcely got to know one figure before a second one beckons with a friendly nod, so you’re in a state of constant but pleasurable excitement.”
The symphony is in four movements. The opening movement is marked Allegro con brio (fast-ish and bright) but while the tempo does not change the mood certainly does. The opening conveys a feeling of deep seriousness, even sadness, the expression of which returns later, but then a joyous feeling bubbles up in a complex yet lovely mix of melodies. The movement concludes with an energetic coda.
The second movement,(Adagio – slow and stately) is a beautiful exploration of contradictions, some sombre, some playful, that build from the opening four-note motif. Mid-stream are optimistic fanfares which the music critic writer Tom Service says reminds him of the trumpet interruptions in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. After a powerful climax, the movement ends tenderly.
The third movement, marked Allegretto grazioso(moderately fast and graceful), is brilliant but not fast scherzo (in waltz time). It has a delightful lilt to it that makes one smile, perhaps especially when it reaches the section the sounds like a Bohemian folk dance wherein Dvořák has fun with the metre, placing 2 against 3. The movement ends with a fast coda in 2/4 time.
The final movement is marked Allegro ma non troppo (moderately fast). The opening trumpet fanfare are marvellous but we should note that during a rehearsal of this fanfare the great Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik said to the musicians, “Gentlemen, in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle – they always call to the dance!” With that in mind, the work proceeds: the fanfare subsides and a timpani passage introduces the cellists, who play the main theme. Seven variations are explored in an interesting mix of moods, from an impish flute solo to a droll march. The work winds down, as if Dvořák is about to bid us a quiet farewell, but then he catches his breath and so takes us in a wild ride (Più animato) to a rousing conclusion.