Program Notes for 10/13/19 Concert, Music and Mythology

Prelude to Act I of the opera, Lohengrin

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Wagner spent a great deal of time in the 1840s reading medieval German legends and epics in search of material that he might turn into a work for the musical theater. One such story was that of the knight, Lohengrin, and by the summer of 1845 it had captivated him. That August he drafted a prose outline of the plot, which remained very close to the final version that we see in the opera house.

Lohengrin is an astonishing mixture of genre types, writes Stephen Ledbetter, for the Aspen Music Festival. Wagner called it a “fairy-tale opera,” and, drawing upon one aspect of the Grail legend, one of the most significant sources of stories in the Middle Ages, Wagner added to that the legend of the Swan Knight who appears for combat on behalf of a damsel wrongfully accused of a terrible crime. The outward trappings are firmly historical, and it ends as a tragedy.

The title character comes from an ideal world, but longs for the earthly world symbolized by the woman whom he longs to marry, but he can remain only so long as she does not ask his name or origin. The prelude to the opera as a whole is filled with sustained, quiet music that Wagner said symbolized the Grail coming to earth.

Four solo violins soaring (in harmonics) high above the rest of the violin section (and the highest woodwinds only at the very first) create the shimmering opening. Eventually the lower strings join in, and gradually the remainder of the orchestra takes part as the Grail descends through several octaves. The sonority becomes richer, deeper, more varied, gradually building to a substantial fortissimo marked by a cymbal crash, whereupon the strings recede again into the upper registers and, at the end, the four solo violins can be assumed to carry the Grail back to its mystical heavenly realm.

Wagner composed the opera, Lohengrin, between 1846 and 1848. Franz Liszt conducted the premier at Weimar’s Grossherzogliches Hoftheater, on August 28, 1850. The Prelude to Act I is scored for three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, and strings.

The Midday Witch, Op. 108, B. 196

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

The Midday Witch is a symphonic poem written in 1896 by Antonín Dvorák, which was inspired by the Karel Erben poem Polednice, is based on the noon demon “Lady Midday” of Slavic mythology. It is one of a set of late orchestral works inspired by national themes which were written after Dvorák’s return to his native Bohemia from the United States.

Here is basically what happens in this very sad story: A mother warns her son that if he does not behave she will summon the Noon Witch to take him away. He does not behave, and the witch arrives at the stroke of noon. The witch, described as a horrible creature, demands the child. The mother, terrified that the witch has actually come, grabs her son, and the witch begins chasing them. Finally the mother faints, grasping her child. Later that day, the father arrives home, and finds his wife passed out with the dead body of their son in her arms. The mother had accidentally smothered their son while protecting him from the witch. The story ends with the father’s lament over the terrible event.

The piece is scored for the standard 19th-century symphony orchestra with the addition of a bass clarinet and a set of chimes.

Dvorák’s music follows the story closely and the orchestration is often used to illustrate characters and events: the oboe and bass clarinet are used to depict the misbehaving child and the witch respectively, while twelve strokes of a bell signal the coming of noon. During the witch’s chase, the music alternates between two different time signatures as a further dramatic device.

In Czechoslovakia, the story of the Midday Witch has been made into a modern-day thriller, backed by HBO, but as of 2016, not released internationally.

Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551 “Jupiter”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Mozart completed his Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K.551, on August 10, 1788. The longest and last symphony that he composed, it is regarded by many critics as among the greatest symphonies in classical music.

The work is nicknamed the “Jupiter” Symphony. This name stems not from Mozart but rather was likely coined by the impresario, Johan Peter Salomon.

According to James Keays, writing for the Redlands, California, Symphony, it was common during the classical period for composers to write primarily on demand, either at the request of an employer or out of the need to present a concert for the expressed purpose of raising money on which to live. This was especially true for large, time-consuming works such as operas and, to a slightly lesser extent, symphonies. Mozart did this especially after he moved to Vienna in 1781 and attempted to support himself solely through performance and composition.

The fact that, without a commission—and at a time (June 26 through August 10, 1788) when it would have been more financially sensible to write piano concertos—Mozart would compose his three greatest (and final) symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41) has long been a mystery. Most scholars  believed that the works were created out of an inner need–or, at the very least, for a projected concert that never took place, and that Mozart never heard the works performed. However, some research strongly suggests that Mozart did, in fact, perform the works either separately or as a set in 1789 at Dresden and Leipzig and again in 1790 in Frankfurt.

Trumpets and drums

The Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551, is, in terms of its architecture and the majesty of its gestures, an appropriate climax to the trilogy. Its popular subtitle, “Jupiter,” originated in London around 1821 and was probably inspired by the flourishes of the trumpets and drums in the first movement, gestures that evoked images of nobility and godliness in the minds of the audiences at the time. The name became permanent in 1823 when it was included on the title page of the first printed edition of a version for solo piano.

The first movement begins with a theme alternately martial and lyrical. A second contrasting one uses a chromatic scale as a central feature. This is followed by a closing theme borrowed from a concert aria written a few months earlier. The lyrical second and third themes serve perfectly to balance the somewhat bombastic flourishes found in the opening theme. It is the unexpected third theme that is extensively developed in the central part of the movement.

The beautiful second movement contains one of the longest themes Mozart would ever write—eleven bars. Furthermore, it is unusual in that the strings play with mutes throughout. The broad, stately minuet that follows could easily function as an actual dance in an imperial ballroom. It is the final movement that stands out as one of the most interesting symphonic movements written by any composer. It begins with a very simple four-note theme that could have been taken from a church work. What follows is a strict sonata form, but with so much use of fugal imitation that early 19th century German musicians referred to the entire work as the “symphony with the fugal finale.” The movement has also been described as Mozart’s most “learned” piece of music, in that it could easily serve as a textbook of fugal devices.

In the final coda, all five major thematic elements are played simultaneously, yet the overall effect is not a lesson in counterpoint, but a fitting conclusion to a dramatic symphonic movement.