Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila, op. 47
Camille Saint-Saëns (1853-1921)
The opera Samson et Dalila follows the Biblical story from the book of Judges. Samson, a leader of Israel, is seduced by the beautiful princess of the Philistines. She learns that the secret of his great strength lies in his hair, which has never been cut. She traps him, cuts his hair and leads him into captivity. The Philistines blind him and bring him to their great temple. Here the Bacchanale occurs, as the Philistines are celebrating their triumph over Samson.
The opening, seductive oboe solo leads to music for dancing. The rhythms grow more and more intense, and the woodwinds introduce a theme that sounds like a snake charmer’s tune. In the middle is a lovely string melody, but the snake charmer theme holds sway as the dancers reach new heights of abandon. After the wild display, Samson prays for his strength to return and then pulls the temple down on his captors.
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 (1807)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven wrote several overtures to stage works that are stand-alone pieces in the concert hall. The Coriolan Overture was written for the 1804 play by Heinrich Joseph von Collin, not the Shakespeare play, as commonly thought. However, both plays are based on the historical figure, Roman general Gaius Marcius Coriolanus.
Beethoven does not try to tell the story in linear fashion; instead, he reaches deeper to portray the character of the man and the turmoil within him. The Overture is in C minor, a significant key for Beethoven, one he uses to express tragedy and conflict, and the whole work revolves around two themes.
The first conveys the conflict of an honored and brilliant Roman general who makes political enemies in Rome. He is disdainful of the common people and the senators who want to help them through changes in the laws. His enemies put him on trial and exile him. He flees to the very province he conquered and convinces their army to follow him to Rome to exact his revenge.
Beethoven portrays the conflict between Coriolanus’ anger and desire for revenge with the principles of duty, honor and loyalty by which he has lived his whole life. The second theme is gentle, but it is also insistent and tinged with pleading urgency.
This theme represents his mother, who begs him to turn from his destructive path. The Overture ends very quietly, as Coriolanus resolves the conflict as honorably as he can, and falls on his sword.
Hungarian March from The Damnation of Faust, op. 24 (1846)
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
The Hungarian March is also known as the Rakoczy March. In the early 1700’s, this folk tune became the favorite marching song of the army of Prince Francis Rakoczy II, who led an unsuccessful uprising against Austria. In 1846, Berlioz was on tour in central Europe, and a Hungarian friend requested that he arrange the Rakoczy March. The composer premiered the piece at a concert in Budapest. Later he wrote this in his autobiography, about the concert:
“First the trumpets give out the rhythm, then the flutes and clarinets softly outlining the theme, with a pizzicato accompaniment of the strings, the audience remaining calm and judicial. Then, as there came a long crescendo, broken by dull beats of the bass drum, like the sound of distant cannon, a strange restless movement was to be heard among the people; and as the orchestra let itself go in a cataclysm of sweeping fury and thunder, they could contain themselves no longer, their overcharged souls burst forth with a tremendous explosion of feeling.”
Violin Concerto No. 1, Sz. 36 (1907–8)
Bela Bartók (1881-1945)
Bela Bartók is considered one of the most important composers of the twentieth century. He displayed musical talent very early and began studying piano at the age of five. He continued playing and began composing throughout his chil
dhood, and he was accepted into the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest in 1899.
He was a fine pianist, whose reputation spread all over Europe, and in 1907 he returned to the Royal Academy as a piano professor.
Bartók began writing this violin concerto in 1907 for Stefi Geyer, one of the students at the Academy, with whom he was in love. She did not return his feelings, and although she accepted the concerto, she never performed the piece. She bequeathed the manuscript to Swiss conductor Paul Sacher and violinist Hansheinz Schneeberger to be performed after her death, and the premiere took place in 1958.
This concerto is unusual in its form. It has two movements, instead of three, and it does not follow any of the normal conventions for concerti. Instead, it is more like a rhapsody, organically flowing from one theme.
Bartók said the first movement is the “idealized Stefi, celestial and inward.” Stefi herself later described the first movement as a portrait of “the young girl he loved.” The gentle opening theme is pianissimo, stated alone by the soloist. The violin is joined by the string section, giving the feeling of a string quartet. The movement is lush and romantic as it grows to its shimmering conclusion.
The second movement is said to represent Stefi Geyer as the sparkling virtuoso violinist. “Cheerful, witty, and amusing,” Bartók called it. Stefi referred to the movement as a “tribute to the violinist he admired.” Its main theme is actually the theme of the first movement, only turned around. The violin again enters alone, but this time it is loud and confident, and this leads to a fast-paced scherzando.
Carmen Suite No. 1 (1882)
Georges Bizet (1838–1875)
Bizet completed his opera, Carmen, in 1874, and it was first performed by the Opera Comique in Paris in 1875. It was considered a complete failure, mostly because the audience of the Opera Comique was expecting a happy ending. It played to dwindling audiences until the management resorted to giving tickets away.
In October 1875, the opera was staged again in Vienna, and this time it was recognized for the masterpiece that it is, but unfortunately the composer passed away before he could witness his success. Both suites were arranged posthumously by Bizet’s close friend, Ernest Guiraud.
The plot centers around Don Jose, an upright officer who is engaged to his childhood sweetheart. Carmen, a gypsy, is arrested, then seduces Don Jose into letting her go. She promises to meet him.
Don Jose gives up everything for her – his commission, his girl and his family. But after six months, Carmen tells him she does not love him anymore and leaves to chase after a bull fighter. Outside the bull fight ring, Don Jose tries to convince her to come back, but she rejects him, and in a fit of rage, he stabs her. The composer juxtaposes the horror of the murder with the cheers of the crowd during the bull fight.
The first Suite contains music from six different scenes, but not in the same order as in the story. A Prelude sets the Spanish tone, introducing us to the tragic fate theme, which appears throughout the opera. It leads without pause into the Aragonaise, based on the Spanish dance, the jota. In the opera, this is played as Act IV begins and the crowd gathers to watch the bull fight. The Intermezzo is from Act III, a tender theme as Don Jose expresses his love for Carmen. The Seguedille is the song and dance from Act I, where Carmen seduces Don Jose, as he turns away from his sweetheart and his life as a soldier. “Les Dragons d’ Alcala” is the marching song of Don Jose’s regiment, prelude to Act II.
This Suite concludes with the famous “Toreador Song” from Act IV, depicting the spectacular parade as the bull fighters march to the ring.
—notes compiled by Betty Taylor Cox