Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Egmont Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven, opens a set of incidental music pieces for the 1787 play of the same by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The overture is powerful and expressive, one of the last works of Beethoven’s middle period. It has become as famous a composition as the Coriolan Overture and is in a style similar to the Fifth Symphony, which he had completed two years earlier.
“The first casualty when war comes,” observed Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917, “is truth.” So when Napoleon invaded Vienna in May 1809, convinced that the Austrian Empire was the major stumbling-block to his domination of Europe, it is not surprising that censorship of literature, of the press, and of the theater were instituted immediately, writes Dr. Richard Rodda for the Kennedy Center.
The months until the French departed in October were bitter ones for the Viennese. The value of the national currency dwindled, food was in short supply, and freedoms were limited. Soon after the first of the year, with Napoleon’s forces gone, the director of the Hoftheater, Josef Härtel, arranged for the production of a series of revivals of the dramas of Schiller and Goethe, the great figures of the German stage. Appropriately, two plays that he chose dealt with the oppression of a noble people by a foreign tyrant, and of the eventual freedom the patriots won for themselves — Schiller’s William Tell and Goethe’s Egmont.
Beethoven was commissioned to write the music for Goethe’s play. (Adalbert Gyrowetz was assigned William Tell. Rossini’s setting of the tale was still two decades in the future.) Egmont, based on an incident from 1567, depicts the subjugation of the Netherlands to the tyrannical Spanish rulers, the agony of the people, and their growing defiance and dreams of liberty, and ends with Count Egmont’s call for revolution and his vision in the moments before his execution of eventual victory. Beethoven approached his task with zeal, out of both his unmitigated respect for the author and his humanist’s belief in the freedom and dignity of man.
The Hungarian film, Overture, by János Vadász, which won the 1965 Cannes Film Festival’s Short Film Palme d’Or, uses the complete Egmont Overture as the soundtrack for a series of images featuring a hatching bird, referencing the rebellious nature of Egmont fighting for freedom despite all barriers. The film, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) is often considered one of the most influential short films in film history and described as “among the most ingenious pairings of music and image in the history of the festival.”
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Les préludes is the earliest example of an orchestral work entitled “symphonic poem”. Premiered in 1854 and directed by Lizst himself, it is partly based on the composer’s 1844-45 choral cycle, Les Quatre Élémens (The Four Elements).
Settings from that choral cycle were later orchestrated, and an orchestral overture was written for them.
Les préludes is written for a large orchestra of strings, woodwind, brass (including tuba and bass trombone), harp and percussion. It comprises the following sections:
In bar three, one of the main motifs of Les préludes (the notes C-B-E) is introduced. During the introduction this motif is frequently repeated in different forms. It is, however, the head of a melody, which doesn’t appear in its full form until later. The melody was taken from the chorus piece Les astres (The Stars) in Les quatres élémens, where it is sung to the words, “Hommes épars sur le globe qui roule” (“Solitary men on the rolling globe”).
Musicologist Richard Taruskinpoints out that the sections of Les préludes “[correspond] to the movements of a conventional symphony if not in the most conventional order”. He adds that the music, “whilst heavily indebted in concept to Berlioz, self-consciously advertises its descent from Beethoven, even as it flaunts its freedom from the formal constraints to which Beethoven had submitted . . . The standard ‘there and back’ construction that had controlled musical discourse since at least the time of the old dance suite continues to impress its general shape on the sequence of programatically derived events.”
The full title of the piece, Les préludes (d’après Lamartine) refers to an ode from Alphonse de Lamartine’s Nouvelles méditations poétiquesof 1823.However, the piece was originally conceived as the overture to Les quatres éléments, settings of poems by Joseph Autran, which itself was drawn from music of the four choruses of the cycle. It seems that Liszt took steps to obscure the origin of the piece, and that this included the destruction of the original overture’s title page, and the re-ascription of the piece to Lamartine’s poem, which however, does not itself contain anything like the music’s opening “question”.
Not universally liked
The contemporaneous critic Eduard Hanslick, who believed in “absolute music”, lambasted Les préludes. In an 1857 article, following a performance in Vienna, he denounced the idea of a “symphonic poem” as a contradiction in terms. He also denied that music was in any way a “language” that could express anything, and mocked Liszt’s assertion that it could translate concrete ideas or assertions. The aggrieved Liszt wrote to his cousin Eduard “The doctrinaire Hanslick could not be favorable to me; his article is perfidious”. Other critics, such as Felix Draeseke, were more supportive.
Early performances in America were not appreciated by conservative critics there. At an 1857 performance of the piano duet arrangement, the critic from Dwight’s Journal of Music wrote:
“What shall we say of Lés preludes, a symphonic poemby Liszt . . . The poetry we listened for in vain. It was lost as it were in the smoke and stunning tumult of a battlefield. There were here and there brief, fleeting fragments of something delicate and sweet to ear and mind, but these were quickly swallowed up in one long, monotonous, fatiguing melée of convulsive, crashing, startling masses of tone, flung back and forth as if in rivalry from instrument to instrument. We must have been very stupid listeners; but we felt after it as if we had been stoned, and beaten, and trampled under foot, and in all ways evilly entreated.”
Nevertheless, the work is more recently rated by Australian musicologist Leslie Howard as “easily the most popular of Liszt’s thirteen symphonic poems.”
In the beginning of 1859 Les préludes was successfully performed in New York City. Karl Klauser, New York, made a piano arrangement, which in 1863 was submitted to Liszt. In a letter to Franz Brendel (September 7, 1863), Liszt wrote that Les préludes in Klauser’s arrangement was a hackneyed piece, but he had played it through again, to touch up the closing movement of Klauser’s arrangement and give it new figuration. Liszt sent Klauser’s revised arrangement to the music publisher Julius Schuberth of Leipzig, who was able to publish it in America. In Germany, due to the legal situation of that time, Breitkopf & Härtel, as original publishers of Les préludes owned all rights on all kinds of arrangements. For this reason, in 1865 or 1866 Klauser’s arrangement was published not by Schuberth but by Breitkopf & Härtel.
Besides Klauser’s arrangement, there were further piano arrangements by August Stradal and Carl Tausig. Liszt made his own arrangements for two pianos and for piano duet. There were also arrangements for harmonium and piano by A. Reinhard and for military orchestra by L. Helfer. In recent times Matthew Cameron has prepared his own piano arrangement of Les préludes.
Music camp tradition
A performance of Les préludes concludes each summer camp session at the Interlochen Center for the Arts. The piece is conducted by the president of the institution and performed by the camp’s large ensembles.
Overture to the opera, La Forza del Destino
Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Giuseppe Verdi was to Italian opera what Beethoven was to the symphony, writes Lori Newman for the New Mexico Philharmonic. He was considered a national treasure, serving as the successor to the great Italian opera composers Donizetti, Rossini, and Bellini. Verdi became the most influential opera composer of the 19th century, and during his lifetime also became the most monetarily successful, thanks to the newly adopted implementation of royalty payments.
He was considered a nationalist composer, but unlike the nationalism found in the music of Dvorak or Mussorgsky, Verdi’s use of nationalism is found in the use of nationalist plots in many of his operas, especially those written during the quest for Italian unification. In doing so, he was able to popularize Italian opera by placing it firmly at the center of national culture, Ms. Newman explains. “Viva Verdi” became a phrase associated both with Verdi’s music and the political climate of the time. Verdi’s name was an acronym for Victor Emmanuel King of Italy (Vittorio Emmanuele Re d’Italia).
The libretto for La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny) was written by Verdi’s frequent collaborator, Francesco Maria Piave. Piave based his four-act libretto on the 1835 Spanish play, Don Alvaro, o La fuerza del sino, by Angel di Saavedra (1791–1865), who was influenced by Victor Hugo. Into this, Verdi inserted a scene from Friedrich Schiller’s (1759–1805) Wallenstein’s Camp, as translated by Andrea Maffei, which the composer had long wished to set.
By November 1861, La forza del destino was complete except for the orchestration, which Verdi usually finished after experiencing the acoustics in the proposed theater. The final product is Verdi’s most sprawling, dramatically intricate opera.
The premiere was planned for the first part of the 1861–1862 season, but the prima donna became ill and the production was postponed. The premiere, on November 10, 1862, was not as successful as Verdi had wished, and the next year he began altering the score. On February 27, 1869, a revised version with additions by Antonio Ghislanzoni, was first performed at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.
Verdi and Piave created a tangled tale in which the characters come together through coincidence. Melitone and Preziosilla provide asides and comic elements, as the three main characters Donna Leonora, Don Carlo, and Don Alvaro play out their tragic parts.
The chorus, appearing in nearly every scene, is of greater importance than in any other of Verdi’s operas, Ms. Newman writes. The chorus has some of the most famous numbers in the opera, including, “Compagni, sostiamo” (new for 1869) and “Rataplan, rataplan,” both found in Act III.
One of the major differences between the 1862 and 1869 versions is the overture. In the first version, we find a concise prelude. Verdi expanded this in 1869 to a lengthy assemblage of melodies from the opera, stressing a three-note motive that is often called the “fate” motive, and a rising, four-note scale associated with Leonora. Verdi was not concerned with overall structure in this potpourri of tunes.
The finale of the last act underwent the greatest changes between versions. In the original, Alvaro kills Carlo in a duel, Leonora enters to be reunited with Alvaro only to be stabbed by the dying Carlo, and Alvaro throws himself from a mountaintop (this was not the lighthearted Italian opera the St. Petersburg audience expected). In the revised version (more likely to be staged today), the duel occurs offstage, as does Carlo’s stabbing of Leonora, who returns to the stage for the trio, “Non imprecare, umiliati.” Alvaro prays over the dying Leonora and as the mode shifts from minor to major, he does not commit suicide, but rather exclaims that he has been redeemed.
Capriccio Italien, Op. 45
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Capriccio Italien, a fantasy for orchestra in A major on themes from folksongs, was composed between January and May 1880. It was inspired by a trip Tchaikovsky took to Rome with his brother Modest as respite from the composer’s disastrous marriage with Antonina Miliukova.
While in Rome, the composer wrote to his friend Nadezhda von Meck: “I have already have already completed the sketches for an Italian fantasia on folk tunes for which I believe a good fortune may be predicted. It will be effective, thanks to the delightful tunes which I have succeeded in assembling partly from anthologies, partly from my own ears in the streets.”
Returning to Russia, Tschaikovsky set about the instrumentation of the fantasia, and it wasn’t long before he wrote his publisher Pyotr Jurgenson to send him a metronome: “The Italian Fantasia (which I am scoring) cannot be issued without metronome markings,” the composer wrote.
Conductor JoAnn Falletta says: “We are hearing foreigners’ views of Italy. . . . [however,] Capriccio Italien has great power, even though it’s practically a pops piece, Tchaikovsky knows what the instruments can do in a virtuoso way. He brings them to their limit in the most thrilling fashion. He has a gift for mixing families of instruments just right – like cantabile strings along with mighty brass. I hear the ballet element in everything Tchaikovsky writes, in his sense of rhythm. You can practically dance to both these scores!”
The piece, initially called “Italian Fantasia” after Mikhail Glinka’s Spanish pieces, was originally dedicated to the virtuosic cellist Karl Davydov and premiered in Moscow on December 18, 1880, with Nikolai Rubenstein conducting the Imperial Russian Musical Society.
Scoring and summary
The Capriccio is scored for: 3 flutes (3rd doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 cornets in A, 2 trumpets in E, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), tuba, 3 timpani, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, glockenspiel, harp and strings.
After a brief bugle call, inspired by a bugle call Tchaikovsky heard daily in his rooms at the Hotel Constanzi–next door to the barracks of the Royal Italian Cuirasseurs–a stoic, heroic, unsmiling melody is played by the strings. Eventually, this gives way to music sounding as if it could be played by an Italian street band, beginning in the winds and ending with the whole orchestra. Next, a lively march ensues, followed by a lively tarantella, a Cicuzza.
The brothers were there during Carnival, and, despite calling it “a folly,” the composer was able to soak up Italian street music and folk songs which he then incorporated into his Capriccio. This enables some “bright primary colors and uncomplicated tunefulness.”
Tschaikovsky decided to make his own arrangement for piano duet (4 hands), and it appeared in print during September 1880. But the first performance of the Capriccio was the orchestral one conducted by Rubenstein, in December.
Jurgenson also published two arrangements made by Eduard Langer, for piano duet (March 1884), and for two pianos and eight hands (April 1898) as well as an arrangement by Henryk Pachulski for piano, two hands (October 1899).
Other notable early orchestral peroformances included: London, Crystal Palace, November and December 1885; New York, Metropolitan Opera House, October and November 1886; Hamburg, Ludwigsgarten, January, 1888; and Warsaw, January 1892, conducted by Tschaikovsky.
Peer Gynt Suite no.1
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) wrote his five-act allegorical drama Peer Gynt in 1867 while living in Italy. It tells the story of the downfall and subsequent redemption of a Norwegian peasant anti-hero. Unlike Ibsen’s previous dramas, it was written in verse and wasn’t originally intended for stage performance.
However, in 1874, Ibsen changed his mind and wrote to his friend and compatriot Edvard Grieg to ask if he would compose the music for a production of the play. Flattered to have received the invitation, Grieg agreed at once, but doubt soon set in, according to the Classical FM website.
Much as he admired the drama as a literary work, Grieg found composing for it a difficult task.
“Peer Gynt progresses slowly,” he wrote to a friend in August 1874, “and there is no possibility of having it finished by autumn. It is a terribly unmanageable subject.”
As work continued, Grieg began to be drawn into the drama and, as his wife noted, “the more he saturated his mind with the powerful poem, the more clearly he saw that he was the right man for a work of such witchery and so permeated with the Norwegian spirit”.
The music was completed in the autumn of 1875, and the play’s lavishly staged premiere took place on February 24, 1876 in the Mollergaden Theatre, Christiania (now Oslo), with the orchestra conducted by Grieg himself.
Though a triumphant success, the performance prompted the composer to complain bitterly that the Swedish management of the theatre had given him specifications as to the duration of each number and its order: “I was thus compelled to do patchwork… In no case had I opportunity to write as I wanted… Hence the brevity of the pieces,” he said.
When Peer Gynt was revived in Copenhagen in 1885, Grieg took the opportunity to re-orchestrate much of the music. For both this and a subsequent revival in 1902, he added new pieces, according to the Classical FM site.
The score was published in 1908, a year after Grieg died, with 23 individual numbers lasting a total of nearly 90 minutes. Not surprisingly, given the length of both drama and incidental music, full-scale productions are rarely mounted and the original score with soloists, chorus and melodrama is far less well known than the two suites that Grieg assembled in 1888 and 1893.
Second to Grieg’s piano concerto, the Peer Gynt Suite No.1 is the composer’s most popular work, and of its four movements, “Morning” and “In The Hall Of The Mountain King” are among the most loved of all short orchestral compositions.
The movements Grieg chose for his suites bear no relation to the chronology of the play: “Morning”, the first piece in Suite No.1, is the prelude to Act 4; “The Death Of Åse”, second in Suite No.1, comes from the end of Act 3; “Anitra’s Dance”, third in Suite No.1, is from Act 4; and “In The Hall Of The Mountain King”, fourth in Suite No.1, comes from Act 2.