Program Notes for 10/14/18 Concert, Arabian Nights

Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Richard Wagner was a German composer, theater director, polemicist, and conductor who is chiefly known for his operas. Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works in the romantic vein of Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer, Wagner revolutionized opera through his concept of the Gesamtkuntswerk (“total work of art”), in which music was subsidiary to drama.

But in later life, Wagner’s thoughts on the relative contribution of music and drama were to change again, and as a result, he reintroduced some more traditional forms into his last few stage works, among them Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

As Peter Laki, writing for the National Symphony Orchestra, tells it,the action of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (“The Master Singers of Nuremberg”), completed in 1867 and first performed the following year, revolves around a singing contest and the question of what makes a good song. The opera reveals Wagner’s bright, joyful, and humorous side—qualities we don’t often see in his works. There are no curses, love potions, or murders this time, only a story of rivalry between a good and a bad singer (Walther von Stoltzing and Sixtus Beckmesser, respectively) for the hand of a lovely maiden (Eva Pogner). The wise poet Hans Sachs harbors tender feelings for Eva, but willingly steps aside in favor of his young friend Walther. (Sachs, a cobbler and poet, was a historical figure who lived in Nuremberg in the 16th century; many of his works have been preserved.)

The prelude (overture) anticipates four of the opera’s main melodies. After devoting a separate section to each of them, Wagner ingeniously combines the four in a final section where they can all be heard simultaneously.

The first two themes are associated with the guild of the master singers. The first a march and the second a fanfare, they are heard throughout the opera whenever Hans Sachs and the other masters enter as a group or the guild is mentioned. The third theme is a variant of the song with which Walther wins the singing contest and, with it, Eva’s hand. Finally, the fourth theme is introduced in conjunction with a funny, irreverent version of the master singers’ melody as the apprentices imitate the masters and poke fun at them. This episode alludes to the scene in Act III where Beckmesser presents himself as a contender in the singing contest while people in the audience shake their heads in disapproval: Scheint mir nicht der Rechte (“Doesn’t seem the right one to me”). The combination of these four themes brings the prelude to a glorious climax that, in the opera, leads directly into the beginning of Act I (the congregation singing a chorale in church); however, it is highly effective with a concert ending, too, Laki writes.


Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Although Franz Schubert only lived to age 31, he left behind a vast body of work, including more than 600 secular vocal works (mainly songs), seven complete symphonies, sacred music, operas, incidental music for plays, and a large body of piano and chamber music.

Born to immigrant parents in suburban Vienna, Austria, Schubert’s uncommon gifts for music were evident from an early age. In 1808, at age eleven, he became a pupil at a well-known Vienna music school, where he became acquainted with the orchestral music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Leaving the school at the end of 1813, he returned home to live with his father, where he began studying to become a schoolteacher; despite this, he continued his studies in composition with Antonio Salieri (immortalized in the movie Amadeus) and still composed prolifically. In 1821, Schubert was granted admission to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde as a performing member, which helped established his name among the Viennese citizenry. He gave a concert of his own works to critical acclaim in March of 1828, the only time he did so in his career. He died eight months later at age 31, possibly due to typhoid fever.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 is scored for one flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and strings. Of all of Schubert’s symphonies, it is written for the smallest orchestra.

In character, the writing in this symphony is often said to resemble Mozart; Schubert was infatuated with the composer during 1816, when he composed it. On June 16 of that year, he wrote in his diary, “O Mozart! immortal Mozart! what countless impressions of a brighter, better life hast thou stamped upon our souls!” This is reflected particularly in the lighter instrumentation, as noted above. Indeed, the instrumentation matches that of the first version (without clarinets) of Mozart’s 40th symphony. For another example, there is a strong similarity between the opening themes of the second movement of D. 485 and the last movement of Mozart’s Violin Sonata in F major, K. 377.

The symphony consists of four movements: allegro, andante con moto, menuetto (allegro molto), and allegro vivace.

Appreciation of Schubert’s music while he was alive was limited to a relatively small circle of admirers in Vienna, but interest in his work increased significantly in the decades following his death. Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms and other 19th-century composers discovered and championed his works. Today, Schubert is ranked among the greatest composers of the 19th century, and his music continues to be popular.



Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Scheherazade, Opus. 35, is a symphonic suite composed by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888 and based on the collection of folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights).

The work combines two features typical of Russian Music in general, and of Rimsky-Korsakov in particular: dazzling, colorful orchestration and an interest in the east, which figured significantly in the history of Imperial Russia. The name “Scheherazade” refers to the main character Shaharazad of the One Thousand and One Nights.

Scheherazade consisted of a symphonic suite of four related movements that form a unified theme. It was written to produce a sensation of fantasy narratives from the Orient.

Initially, Rimsky-Korsakov intended to name the respective movements in Scheherazade “Prelude, Ballade, Adagio and Finale”. However, after weighing the opinions of fellow composer Anatoly Lyadov and others, as well as his own aversion to a too-definitive program, he settled upon thematic headings, based upon the tales from The Arabian Nights.

The composer deliberately made the titles vague so that they are not associated with specific tales or voyages of Sinbad the sailor. In a later edition, Rimsky-Korsakov did away with titles altogether, desiring instead that the listener should hear his work only as an Oriental-themed symphonic music that evokes a sense of the fairy-tale adventure, stating: “All I desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond a doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements.

He went on to say that he kept the name Scheherazade because it brought to everyone’s mind the fairy-tale wonders of Arabian Nights and the east in general.


The work consists of four movements:

  1. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship

Largo e maestoso – Lento – Allegro non troppo – Tranquillo (E minor – E major)

This movement is made up of various melodies following a general A B C A1 B C1 form. Although each section is highly distinctive, aspects of melodic figures carry through and unite them into a movement. Although similar in form to the classical symphony, the movement is more similar to the variety of motives used in one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s previous works, AntarAntar, however, used genuine Arabic melodies as opposed to Rimsky-Korsakov’s own ideas of an oriental flavor.

  1. The Kalandar Prince

Lento – Andantino – Allegro molto – Vivace scherzando – Moderato assai – Allegro molto et animato (B minor)

These variations on a theme only change by virtue of their accompaniment, highlighting the piece’s “Rimsky-ness”, in the sense of simple musical lines allowing for greater appreciation of the orchestral clarity and brightness. Inside the general melodic line, a fast section highlights changes of tonality and structure.

III. The Young Prince and The Young Princess

Andantino quasi allegretto – Pochissimo più mosso – Come prima – Pochissimo più animato (G major)

Movement three is the simplest in form and melodic content. The inner section is said to be based on the theme from Tamara, while the outer sections have song-like melodic content. The outer themes are related to the inner by tempo and common motif, and the whole movement is finished by a quick coda return to the inner motif, balancing it out nicely.

  1. Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman

Allegro molto – Lento – Vivo – Allegro non troppo e maestoso – Tempo come I (E minor – E major)

This movement ties in aspects of all the preceding movements as well as adding some new ideas, including an introduction of both the beginning of the movement and the Vivace section based on Sultan Shakhriar’s theme, a repeat of the main Scheherazade violin theme,and a reiteration of the fanfare motif to portray the ship wreck. Coherence is maintained by the ordered repetition of melodies, and continues the impression of a symphonic suite, rather than separate movements. A final conflicting relationship of the subdominant minor Schahriar theme to the tonic major cadence of the Scheherazade theme resolves in a fantastic, lyrical, and finally peaceful conclusion.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s literary inspiration

The One Thousand and One Nights (or, more colloquially, The Arabian Nights) has a history as storied as the tales themselves, writes Calvin Dotsey for the Houston Symphony. Indian, Persian and Arabic sources have been suggested for individual tales, and the first references to collections of “One Thousand Nights” are found in documents from the 10th century. The earliest surviving manuscript comes from 14th century Syria, which Antoine Galland freely adapted to create a French version, introducing the Nights to Europe for the first time in the early 18th century. It was likely a translation of Galland’s version that inspired Rimsky-Korsakov.

The individual stories of the Nights are famously unified by a frame story: the cruel Sultan Shahryar, convinced of the faithlessness of all women, takes a new bride every night only to have her executed at dawn, until one, Scheherazade, saves herself and wins his heart by telling stories, being sure to end each night in the middle of a tale. Rimsky-Korsakov would name his suite after her. He recalled composing it in his memoirs:

“The program I had been guided by in composing Scheherazade consisted of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures from The Arabian Nights, scattered through all four movements of my suite: the sea and Sinbad’s ship, the fantastic narrative of the Prince Kalandar, the Prince and the Princess, the Baghdad festival and the ship dashing against the rock with the bronze rider upon it … I meant these hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy… All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other … ”

The “frame” story

The one tale that Rimsky-Korsakov definitely wrote into the score is the “frame” story, which is vividly depicted through music. The suite begins with a growling depiction of Shahryar (the sultan), and Scheherazade soon replies, represented throughout the suite by a solo violin. She is often accompanied by a harp, evoking the centuries old traditions of bards accompanying themselves with this ancient instrument. She then conjures images of “the sea and Sinbad’s ship.” The waves are evoked by a gently rocking accompaniment in the cellos as the violins play a sinuous, chromatic melody in E major. As a synesthete who associated musical sounds with colors, Rimsky-Korsakov heard E major as the deep, dark blue of the sea. This depiction of the vast, beckoning ocean was also likely inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s time as an officer in the Russian navy, during which he sailed as far as Rio de Janeiro.