Overture to the opera, Semiramide
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
“Fun” may be the best way to describe a Rossini opera overture. Gioachino Rossini was a master of long, expectation-building crescendos, sparkling, virtuosic woodwind solos and musical jokes, which included sudden, loud, out of place chords. These operas would have been considered popular entertainment-drama mixed with sports, in the form of the vocal acrobatics of the singers, writes Timothy Judd for The Listener’s Club.
Semiramide was Rossini’s final Italian opera. Its libretto was based on a Voltaire tragedy. The music took the form of a return to vocal traditions of Rossini’s youth, and was a melodrama in which he “recreated the baroque tradition of decorative singing with unparalleled skill”, writes critic Richard Osborne. The ensemble-scenes (particularly the duos between the characters Arsace and Semiramide) and choruses are of a high order, as is the orchestral writing, which makes full use of a large pit orchestra.
After this splendid work, one of his finest in the genre, Rossini turned his back on Italy and moved to Paris. His last operas were either original compositions in French or extensively reworked adaptations into French of earlier Italian operas.
Musicologist Rodolfo Celletti sums up the importance of Semiramide by stating: “(It) was the last opera of the great Baroque tradition: the most beautiful, the most imaginative, possibly the most complete; but also, irremediably, the last”.
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, 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. Two years before this he had already received the prize at the Conservatorio of Bologna for his cantata, Il pianto d’Armonia sulla morte d’Orfeo.
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 19th century.
A characteristic mannerism in Rossini’s orchestral scoring is a long, steady building of sound over an ostinato figure, known as a “Rossini crescendo”, which earned him the nickname of “Signor Crescendo”.
Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 in C-sharp Minor
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 in C-sharp Minor is the second in a set of nineteen Hungarian rhapsodies by composer Franz Liszt, and is by far the most famous of the set.
In both the original piano solo form and in the orchestrated version this composition has enjoyed widespread use in animated cartoons. Its themes have also served as the basis of several popular songs.
Hungarian-born Liszt was strongly influenced by the music heard in his youth, particularly Hungarian folk music, with its unique gypsy scale, rhythmic spontaneity and direct, seductive expression. These elements would eventually play a significant role in his compositions. Although this prolific composer’s works are highly varied in style, a relatively large part of his output is nationalistic in character, the Hungarian Rhapsodies being an ideal example.
Composed in 1847 and dedicated to Count László Teleki, Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 was first published as a piano solo in 1851. Its immediate success and popularity on the concert stage soon led to an orchestrated version, arranged by the composer in collaboration with Franz Doppler, and published by Schuberth. In addition to the orchestral version, the composer arranged a piano duet version in 1874, published by Schuberth the following year.
Offering an outstanding contrast to the serious and dramatic lassan (the opening section) the following friska holds enormous appeal for audiences with its simple alternating tonic and dominant harmonization, its energetic, toe-tapping rhythms, and breath-taking “pianistics”.
The piece consists of two distinct sections.
The lassan forms a brief but dramatic introduction. Although beginning on the C-sharp major triad, C-sharp minor is soon established as the home key. From this point on, the composer modulates freely, particularly to the tonic major and the relative major. The mood of the lassan is generally dark and melancholic, although it contains some playful and capricious moments.
The second—or friska—section opens quietly in the key of F-sharp minor, but on its dominant chord, C-sharp major, recalling a theme from the lassan. The alternating dominant and tonic harmonies quickly increase in volume, the tempo increasing as the friska’s main theme (in F-sharp major) is approached. At this point, the friska begins its journey of ever-increasing energy and pianistic (or orchestral) bravura, still underpinned by alternating tonic and dominant harmonies.
The orchestral version of the rhapsody produced by Liszt and Doppler is scored for an orchestra consisting of piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in B-flat and A (doubling on the piccolo clarinet and clarinet in D), two bassoons, four horns in F, two trumpets in D, three trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, harp, and strings, and is raised by a semitone to D minor/G major. Another orchestral arrangement, one semitone below (C minor/F major) by Karl Müller Berghaus, also exists.
Hollywood and the Hungarian Rhapsody
TheHungarian Rhapsody no. 2 is well-known due to its frequent use in animated cartoons.
Piano Concerto no. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E-flat Major, popularly known as the Emperor Concerto, was his last completed piano concerto. Written between 1809 and 1811 in Vienna, it was dedicated to Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven’s patron and pupil. The first performance took place on January 13, 1811 at the palace of Prince Joseph Lobkowitz in Vienna, with Archduke Rudolf as the soloist, followed by a public concert on November 28, 1811 at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, with Friedrich Schneider as soloist. On February 12, 1812, Beethoven student Carl Czerny (pianists will remember Czerny’s finger exercises!), gave the Vienna debut of this work.
The epithet of Emperor for this concerto was not Beethoven’s own but was coined by Johann Baptist Cramer, the English publisher of the concerto.
The 40-minute concerto is scored for solo piano, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in B-flat(clarinet I playing in A in movement 2), two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani in E-flat and B-flat, and strings. In the second movement, 2nd flute, 2nd clarinet, trumpets, and timpani are tacet (meaning, they do not play).
The concerto is divided into three movements: Allegro in E-flat Major, Adagio un poco mosso in B major, and a seven-part rondo (allegro) in E-flat major.
Born in Bonn, then the capital of the Electorate of Cologne and part of the Holy Roman Empire, Beethoven displayed his musical talents at an early age and was taught by his father Johann van Beethoven and by composer and conductor Christian Gottlob Neefe. At the age of 21 he moved to Vienna, where he began studying composition with Joseph Haydn and gained a reputation as a virtuoso pianist. He lived in Vienna until his death.
By his late 20s, Beethoven’s hearing began to deteriorate, and by the last decade of his life he was almost completely deaf. In 1811 he gave up conducting and performing in public but continued to compose.