Program Notes for 05/19/19 Concert, From the New World!

Leonore Overture no. 3

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Few composers, no matter how brilliant, have achieved both symphonic and operatic greatness, writes Chris Myers for the Redlands, California, Symphony. Ludwig van Beethoven was no exception. Despite being perhaps the most revered composer of all time and having revolutionized concert music with his symphonies, the opera, Fidelio–Beethoven’s sole contribution to the opera house–had a difficult birth and, though it remains in the repertoire, is commonly thought of in the opera world as a flawed masterpiece.

Beethoven composed his opera in German with spoken dialogue rather than recitative. The plot is a thrilling escapade embodying the themes of love and liberty so dear to Beethoven: Leonore disguises herself as a male prison guard named Fidelio in order to rescue her husband Florestan from his death in a political prison. The libretto was translated from a French text which had already been used in 1798 by Pierre Gaveaux for his opera Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal. Beethoven’s Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (Leonore, or The Triumph of Married Love) was retitled for the premiere at the insistence of the theater management, which was concerned that audiences might confuse it with Gaveaux’s piece.

Attendance at the initial 1805 production of the renamed Fidelio was limited due to the French military occupation of Vienna. Beethoven revised the piece, shortening it to two acts for an 1806 revival. This run was cancelled after the first performance when Beethoven got into an argument with the producers.

Eight years later, Viennese audiences (including 17-year-old Franz Schubert, who sold his textbooks to buy a ticket) finally experienced the final version of Fidelio. Beethoven found the creative experience to be unsettling, commenting to a friend that “this opera will win me a martyr’s crown”, and he never wrote an opera again.

But Fidelio/Leonore received a new overture each time it was revived during Beethoven’s lifetime.

The 1805 premiere opened with what has come to be known as Leonore Overture No. 2. For the 1806 production, he revised this piece into Leonore Overture No. 3 (first performance, March 29, 1806, at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna). This version is a grand symphonic work reflecting the dramatic arc of the opera. While generally considered to be the most musically satisfying of the four overtures, it doesn’t work dramatically in the opera house; the piece’s strong dramatic structure simultaneously gives away too much of the plot and overwhelms the rather light opening of the first scene.

Beethoven revisited the overture for an aborted 1808 production in Prague. This version, discovered after his death and initially mistaken for his first attempt, is known as Leonore Overture No. 1.

Finally Beethoven recognized the dramaturgical challenges his overtures presented and wrote a completely new work for the 1814 revival. Though musically less impressive than the previous Leonore overtures, this piece, known as the Fidelio Overture, is more effective at setting the tone for the first scene of the show.

The compelling drama of Leonore Overture no. 3 has earned it a life of its own in the concert hall, and opera conductors have frequently been unable to resist its charms and tried to squeeze it into productions. A performance tradition attributed to Gustav Mahler (though likely dating even earlier) opens the opera with the Fidelio Overture and then inserts Leonore no. 3 before the finale. While this allows opera audiences to enjoy the work’s brilliance, it has the unfortunate effect of interrupting the dramatic flow of the opera just as it comes to a climax. As with so many other great discarded songs, ballets, and overtures from the history of theatrical music, it seems that Leonore Overture no. 3 is tantamount to a strong actor miscast for his role. Opera’s loss is the concert hall’s gain, Mr. Myers writes.

 

Roman Carnival Overture

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Hector Berlioz grew up in a small town located between Lyon and Grenoble, France. His father was a noted physician who wanted his son to follow his profession. In his youth, Hector always had a keen interest in music–composing, playing the flute and guitar (but not the piano!). When he left home for Paris in 1821 it was for medical training. A turning point occurred when he attended his first performance at the Opéra: Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. He then spent his time copying Gluck’s scores at the Conservatoire. In 1824, he abandoned his medical studies and after a few years of private music study he became a student at the Conservatoire in 1826.

Berlioz’ first real success came in 1830 with his Symphonie Fantastique, writes Princeton Symphony annotator Gene De Lisa. After several attempts, Berlioz finally won the Prix de Rome which required him to live in Italy. He moved to Rome in March 1831. Italy proved to be a source of inspiration for many of his works, such as Harold in Italy.

In 1836, the composer began work on an opera loosely based on the memoirs of Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). The libretto reflected his own struggles as an artist. For various reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the work, its premiere at the Paris Opéra in September 1838 was a disaster. It lasted for only a few performances before Berlioz withdrew it.

Berlioz was never shy about repurposing his music. In 1843 he extracted two sections from Benvenuto Cellini to form a concert overture–or perhaps a new introduction to Act II. The premiere in 1844—of Roman Carnival Overture–was a resounding success.

The overture opens with a brief opening flourish that is a Saltarello–an Italian “leaping” folk dance in 6/8–from the carnival scene of Benvenuto Cellini. The full statement of this theme comes later.

After this opening, the setting immediately becomes tranquil. A solo English horn then introduces a reworking of the duet between Cellini and Teresa from the first act of the opera. Actually the second part of this theme is borrowed (so we hear a borrowing of a borrowing!) from a cantata, La Mort de Cléopâtre (the death of Cleopatra) that Berlioz wrote for one of his failed Prix de Rome competition attempts.

Just before Berlioz composed this overture he completed his influential treatise on orchestration – the Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Modernes. His description of the English horn is apt: “It is a melancholy, dreamy and rather noble voice, with a somewhat subdued and distant tone. This makes it superior to any other instrument when the intention is to move by reviving images and feelings from the past, and when the composer wishes to touch the hidden chords of tender memories.”

The English horn theme is picked up by others instruments, sometimes canonically. Note that the English horn still plays a countersubject as the texture thickens.

Next, we hear the woodwinds play a swirling rising and falling passage which sets the expectation for a loud section, by contrast. The meter does change with the return of the Saltarello but it is presented softly with muted strings.

We then hear the full Saltarello theme, now played fortissimo by the strings. In fact this music was originally written for Berlioz’ Messe Solennelle, which was then adapted into a Saltarello for his opera. It is interesting to compare this orchestral incarnation of the Saltarello with the opera’s carnival scene in Rome’s Piazza Colonna, which is presented by a full chorus. When performed at the proper tempo the music is very exciting with the chorus sounding something like Rossini’s “Factotum della città”.

Berlioz felt that one of the reasons his opera failed was because conductor François-Antoine Habaneck could not achieve the correct tempo. As Berlioz wrote in his memoirs: “’Faster! Faster! Put more life into it!’ Losing his temper, Habeneck would hit the desk and break his bow. In the end, after seeing him explode four or five times, I said to him with a coolness that exasperated him: ‘Sir, you might break another fifty bows but your tempo would still be too slow by half. This is a Saltarello.’” Habeneck was present at the premiere of the overture. After this resounding success Berlioz said to him “That’s what it sounds like!”

A brilliant coda brings the work to a rousing conclusion but not before we get one of Berlioz’ famous curveballs. Right before the final chord (we don’t know it’s the final chord yet) we hear a fortissimo chord which makes us think that perhaps a new section is coming. But it is not to be. The overture immediately resolves into the final A major chord.

Berlioz’ exceptional orchestrational talents–choosing the appropriate instruments, settings and keys (e.g. The carnival music is in F major in the opera but transposed to the more brilliant A major for the orchestra) are on full display here. Added to this is his harmonic adventurousness and rhythmic nuances which elevate the overture to a true work of art, Dr. De Lisa writes.

 

Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World”

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

Dvorák’s popular New World Symphony was composed in 1893 during the composer’s visit to the United States from 1892 to 1895. It is one of the most popular symphonies in the modern repertoire.

Dvořák was interested in the Native American music and African-American spirituals he heard in America. Upon his arrival in America, he stated:

“I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”

The symphony was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, and premiered on December 16, 1893 at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Anton Seidl. A day earlier, in an article published in the New York Herald on December 15, 1893, Dvořák further explained how Native American music had been an influence on this symphony:

“I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral color,” he wrote.

In the same article, Dvořák stated that he regarded the symphony’s second movement as a “sketch or study for a later work, either a cantata or opera … which will be based upon Longfellow’s Hiawatha ….” (Dvořák never actually wrote such a piece). He also wrote that the third movement scherzo was “suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance”.

Despite all this, it is generally considered that, like other Dvořák pieces, the work has more in common with folk music of his native Bohemia than with that of the United States. Leonard Bernstein said that the work was truly multinational in its foundations.

It has been claimed that the theme from the Largo (second) movement was adapted into a spiritual-like song, “Goin’ Home”, by African-American composer Harry Burleigh, whom Dvořák met during his American sojourn, and lyricist William Arms Fisher, but the song was actually written by Fisher and based on Dvořák’s  Largo theme. Musicologist Richard Taruskin, however,  states that it is unknown whether  or not there already existed a spiritual that was used by Dvořák. What is known for sure, however,  is that it has been popularized as a result.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong took a tape recording of the New World Symphony along during the Apollo 11 mission, the first Moon landing, in 1969.

Dvořák was influenced not only by music he had heard, but by what he had seen, in America. He wrote that he would not have composed his American pieces as he had, if he had not seen America. It has been said that Dvořák was inspired by the American “wide open spaces” such as prairies he may have seen on his trip to Iowa in the summer of 1893. Notices about several performances of the symphony include the phrase “wide open spaces” about what inspired the symphony and/or about the feelings it conveys to listeners.

Dvořák was also influenced by the style and techniques used by earlier classical composers including Beethoven and Schubert. The falling musical intervals of a fourth and the timpani strokes in the New World Symphony’s Scherzo movement evokes the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In his fourth movement, Dvořák’s use of flashbacks to prior movements is reminiscent of Beethoven quoting prior movements as part of the opening Presto of the last movement.

Reception

At the symphony’s premiere in Carnegie Hall, the end of every movement was met with thunderous clapping and Dvořák felt obliged to stand up and bow. This was one of the greatest public triumphs of Dvořák’s career. When the symphony was published, several European orchestras soon performed it. Alexander Mackenzie conducted the London Philharmonic Society in the European premiere on June 21, 1894. John Clapham, writing in The Musical Quarterly, says the symphony became “one of the most popular of all time” and at a time when the composer’s main works were being welcomed in no more than ten countries, this symphony reached the rest of the musical world and has become a “universal favorite.” It was performed [as of 1978] more often than any other symphony at the Royal Festival Hall, London, and is in “tremendous demand in Japan.”