Program Notes for 02/09/2020 Concert, Dazzling Music

Overture to the opera, The Barber of Seville

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

If the music of Rossini’s overture to The Barber of Seville seems to have a peculiar amount of “swashbuckling” surge and vigor for a comic opera prelude, it may be because the same overture had originally been composed for an earlier opera, Aureliano in Palmira, a historical work whose subject was the Crusades, writes Wayne Reisig for AllMusic. It is believed that the same overture was called into use two more times before settling into the waiting room of the good barber Figaro.

Owing to its transposed origins, the overture contains no material from the opera, The Barber of Seville. It is, however, most successful in its function, that of providing a feeling of deliciously nervous anticipation for the action to follow. Its wealth of vivacious and varied themes and its feeling of impetuous momentum render it one of the best opera overtures penned by anyone, Reisig writes.

Two brash chords herald the beginning, followed by a scampering yet hesitating figure which figures through most of the introduction; a contrasting central section is a sunny lyrical tune which could easily have been an aria. The intro seemingly drifts into sleepyness until the opening chords jolt the music back to reality. A slightly grotesque Neapolitan dance takes center stage and is followed by a more jovial theme tossed between woodwinds and horns. Then begins one of Rossini’s best crescendos, its headlong propulsion almost breakneck. A dramatic and sonorous chord progression in the coda suggests the overture’s more serious origins, leading to the heartily assertive major key close of one of opera’s most popular and best-written overtures.

In addition to being identified with one of the world’s most famous comedic operas, this overture has made jocular appearances in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the Beatles’ film, Help, and a Seinfeld episode. Therefore, the music is inextricably linked with high-spirited humor.

Rossini’s life

Gioachino Antonio Rossini was born into a family of musicians in Pesaro, a town on the Adriatic coast of Italy that was then part of the Papal States. His father, Giuseppe, was a horn player and inspector of slaughterhouses. His mother, Anna, was a singer and a baker’s daughter.

Rossini’s father was sympathetic to the French Revolution and welcomed Napoleon’s troops when they arrived in northern Italy. When Austria restored the old regime, Rossini’s father was sent to prison in 1799, where he remained until June 1800. Rossini’s mother took him to Bologna, where she was making a living as leading singer at various theatres of the Romagna region. Her husband would ultimately join her in Bologna.

Rossini remained at Bologna in the care of a pork butcher while his father played the horn in the orchestras of the theatres at which his wife sang.

The composer’s first opera, La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract), was produced at Venice when he was a youth of 18 years.

Between 1810 and 1813 at Bologna, Rome, Venice and Milan, Rossini produced operas of varying success, most notably La pietra del paragone and Il signor Bruschino, with its brilliant and unique overture. In 1813, Tancredi and L’italiana in Algeri were even bigger successes, and catapulted the 20-year-old composer to international fame.

According to the Oxford History of Western Music, “Rossini’s fame surpassed that of any previous composer, and so, for a long time, did the popularity of his works. Audiences took to his music as if to an intoxicating drug—or, to put it more decorously, to champagne, with which Rossini’s bubbly music was constantly compared.”

Rossini took existing operatic genres and forms and perfected them in his own style. Through his own work, as well as through that of his followers and imitators, Rossini’s style dominated Italian opera throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.

Capriccio Brillante on the Jota Aragonesa

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)

Mikhail Glinka left his native Russia for a European concert tour in the spring of 1844 after he was discouraged by the unfavorable reception of his opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), in St. Petersburg. Glinka intended to visit France and Spain and to become fully absorbed in each country’s musical traditions. New orchestral compositions, which would be called fantasies pittoresques, would be written from the inspiration of folk melodies collected while away from Russia, writes Chris Boyes for the website AllMusic.

After spending nine months in France, Glinka arrived in Spain in the summer of 1845. He first settled in the village of Valladolid. While there, Glinka became acquainted with Felix Castilla, a local merchant who was also an adequate guitarist. Castilla played for Glinka a traditional folk tune, the “Jota Aragonesa”, along with its many variations. This melody would become the basis of the only work that Glinka managed to complete during his time in Spain, the Capriccio Brillante on Jota Aragonesa. The piece came to be known also as the First Spanish Overture.

The Capriccio was modeled in the sonata form, as many of Glinka’s earlier compositions had been. Yet, due to the tradition of the Jota Aragonesa and its variations, the Capriccio also had the sense of a free form, based on multiple variations. Glinka’s later works would eventually stray away from sonata form in favor of freer, variational forms. Thus, this piece is often viewed as a transitional work in Glinka’s catalog. The orchestration of the Capriccio is notable in its wide use of the multiple colors possible in an orchestral setting. Glinka does not resort to doubling parts excessively to produce a lush, full sound. The enormous amounts of instrumental combinations that Glinka goes through is quite amazing. Also of note is the use of harp and pizzicato strings to convey the sound of the acoustic guitar.

Glinka wished to hear the freshly composed orchestral work while he was still in Spain, but this was not possible. The primary orchestra of Madrid was busy at the time with a ballet. Glinka was also worried that the Spanish public would not appreciate his attempt to integrate the Spanish sound into the Western tradition of music. Glinka was finally able to hear his work performed in 1848 in Warsaw, due to the graciousness of the Governor of Warsaw. The Capriccio was later given its first public performance in 1850 in St. Petersburg.

Glinka was the first Russian composer to gain wide recognition within his own country, and is often regarded as the fountainhead of Russian classical music. Glinka’s compositions were an important influence on future Russian composers, notably the members of The Five (Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin), who took Glinka’s lead and produced a distinctive Russian style of music.

Symphony in D Minor

César Franck (1822-1890)

The Symphony in D Minor is the most famous orchestral work, and the only mature symphony, written by the nineteenth-century French composer César Franck.

After two years of work, the symphony was completed in August of 1888. It was premiered at the Paris Conservatory the next February, conducted by Jules Garcin. Franck dedicated the symphony to his pupil, Henri Duparc.

The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, two cornets, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings.

Musical politics

César Franck’s fame and reputation rest largely upon a small number of compositions, most of them composed toward the end of his life. Of these, the Symphony in D Minor was one of his last works. It was first performed only a year before Franck died.

The fact that Franck finally chose to write a symphony is itself unusual, given the rarity of the form in nineteenth-century France, which considered the symphony a mainstay of German music. It is likely that the genesis of the Symphony in D Minor followed upon the success of his influential Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra, composed in 1885.

In addition, the success of several works by other French composers had nudged the symphonic form back into favor with the French concert-going public, beginning with the 1857 Symphony for piano by Franck’s friend Charles-Valentin Alkan, with whom Franck had shared concerts in Paris in the late 1830s and to whom Franck dedicated his Grande Piece Symphonique. The Third (Organ) Symphony by Camille Saint-Saëns, and the Symphony on a French Mountain Air (in fact a work for piano and orchestra) by Vincent d’Indy, both written in 1886, had further helped to revive the symphony as a concert piece in France, a state of affairs which had existed since the appearance of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique in 1830. Both these works, however, sought to create compositional distance from the symphonic form and sound of the German romantic idiom (exemplified by Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner) through several “French” innovations, including integrating piano (and in the case of Saint-Saëns, the organ) into the orchestra, and using a cyclic thematic style.

Like the earlier works of Saint-Saëns and Berlioz, as with his own compositions, Franck also made use of a cyclic structure in the composition of his symphony. Indeed, the Symphony in D Minor remains the most outstanding example of cyclic symphonic writing in the Romantic tradition. However, Franck also used a typically “Germanic” sound, eschewing both the novelties of orchestration (with one notable exception) or nationalist thematic inspiration that Saint-Saëns and d’Indy had used to differentiate their own symphonic works. As a result, Franck’s Symphony in D Minor can be seen as the union of two largely distinct national forms: the French cyclic form with the German romantic symphonic form, with clear Wagnerian and Lisztian influences.

Due in part to this unexpected fusion, the piece was poorly received upon its first performance. More importantly, however, the reception of Franck’s symphony was greatly affected by the politicized world of French music following the split in the Société Nationale de Musique, which had been founded by Saint-Saëns in 1871 in the anti-German spirit aroused by the Franco-Prussian War, to promote a French style of music.

The 1886 split was driven by the Société’s decision to accept “foreign” (i.e. principally German) music and an admiration for the music of Richard Wagner by some of its younger members (notably Franck himself and D’Indy). This unacceptable betrayal of French music led several conservative members of the Société, led by Saint-Saëns, to resign; Franck himself thereon assumed the presidency. The resulting environment was poisonous. The controversy permeated the Conservatoire de Paris and made it very difficult for Franck to get his symphony premiered. His score rejected by the leading conductor Charles Lamoreax, Franck resorted to the conservatory orchestra which was obliged to play faculty works. Even then, rehearsals were desultory and reaction negative.

Sitting in on a rehearsal, where the players were resistant and uncooperative, Conservatoire director Ambrose Thomas is supposed to have remarked in reaction to the second movement (and quoted by Vincent d’Indy, in his biography of Franck) “name a single symphony by Haydn or Beethoven that uses the English horn!” (This may well be apocryphal and used by d’Indy – who was firmly in the Franck camp – to mock the conservative Thomas, since Haydn had very famously used English horns in his own Symphony No. 22, “The Philosopher”.

Politics continued to determine the popular reaction to the symphony’s first performance. Critics saw the work as a clumsy attempt at orchestral writing that departed too stridently from the classical symphonic form and harmonic rules of Haydn and Beethoven. Contemporaries, mostly allied with the conservative faction of the Société Nationale de Musique, were unsparing. The noted music critic, a close friend and voluminous correspondent of Camille Saint-Saëns, Camille Bellaigue (1858-1930) dismissed it is as “arid and drab music, without . . . grace or charm,” and derided the principal four-bar theme upon which the symphony expands throughout as “hardly above the level of those given to Conservatoire students.” And Charles Gounod, also making implicit reference to the idea of a dogmatic German style, wrote of it: “incompetence pushed to dogmatic lengths.”

Regardless, within several years of its composition, the symphony was regularly being programmed across Europe and in the United States. It received its American premiere in Boston  in January 1899 under the baton of Wilhelm Gericke.


In a departure from typical late-romantic symphonic structure, the Symphony in D Minor is in three movements, each of which makes reference to the initial four-bar theme introduced at the beginning of the piece. The omission of the standard Scherzo movement is in part compensated for with a scherzo-like treatment in the second movement.

  1. Lento; Allegro ma non troppo.

    An expansion of a standard sonata-allegro form, the symphony begins with a harmonically lithe subject that is spun through widely different keys throughout the movement. This simple theme forms the thematic basis for the cyclic treatment in the rest of the work.

  2. Allegretto.

    Famous for the haunting melody played by the English horn above plucked harp and strings. The movement is punctuated by two trios and a lively section that is reminiscent of a scherzo.

  3. Finale: Allegro non troppo

The movement begins with possibly the most joyful and upbeat melody Franck ever wrote and is written in a variant of Sonata form. The coda, which recapitulates the core thematic material of the symphony, is an exultant exclamation of the first theme, inverting its initial lugubrious appearance and bringing the symphony back to its beginnings.