|MASTERWORKS VII: Worlds Apart|
Overture to Guglielmo Tell (William Tell)
Between 1810 and 1829 Gioacchino Rossini wrote an astonishing 38 operas. Then, at age 37, he quit. For the rest of his long life he concentrated on his avocation as a gourmet cook and grew appropriately in bulk. He composed only sporadically and, except for church music, mostly small works he tossed off for the entertainment of his friends. He published over 150 musical miniatures in a collection that he called Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of old age).
Rossini’s final opera, Guillaume Tell, based on a play by Schiller, was written in 1829 for the Academie Royale de Musique with the intent to conquer the Paris opera scene. Rossini had aspired to a ten-year contract to produce operas in Paris, composed specifically for a French audience – as opposed to his previous productions that were merely translations of Italian operas written for Naples. Unfortunately, the revolution of 1830 overthrew France's King Charles X, and Rossini was forced to cool his heels for six years. Guillaume Tell had already forced him to revamp his style considerably to conform to French taste and new composers were assuming the Parisian limelight while he was stalled. The opera, nearly 4 hours long, premiered in 1829, but Rossini immediately tinkered with it in rehearsal and subsequently shortened it. Since he had acquired considerable wealth from his Italian operas, the effort required to "keep up with the Jonses" may simply have not been worth it.
The Overture – the finale of which became the signature theme for The Lone Ranger, one of radio’s longest running shows – is different from any other Rossini wrote. It is programmatic, suggested by the alpine setting and the finale of the opera (although not using the same music): the alpine sunrise, for five solo celli, the storm, the clearing skies and the shepherd’s song of thanks for English horn – all with a strong, and probably non-coincidental, relationship to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, the trumpet call to arms and the rush of the soldiers. Many later nineteenth century opera composers adopted this type of overture, notably Verdi in Nabucco and La forza del destino and Wagner in The Flying Dutchman and Die Meistersinger.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
|Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart|
Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218
There is some controversy among scholars whether Mozart himself actually gave the first performance of his five known violin concertos, but there is no question that he was a master violin player in his childhood. In fact, his father, Leopold – ever the "backstage mom" – was frequently after him to show off his skills by writing a virtuoso concerto for the instrument: “You yourself do not know how well you play the violin,” he wrote to his son. When Mozart finally did write concertos for the instrument in 1773-75, he wrote a bunch of them; his five concertos are only 12 Koechel numbers apart. At that time, Mozart was in Salzburg, under the employment of Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo for whom he both composed and served as violinist in the court orchestra. Mozart hated his employer who was a strict taskmaster and had no truck with his young musician, however talented. Although Mozart was more than seven years in the Archbishop’s employ, he spent nearly three of them on furlough, performing around Europe and none too diplomatically looking for another job. In 1781 when Mozart finally broke with the Archbishop – whose aide kicked Mozart down the stairs – he left for Vienna for good. The Archbishop commented "Mag er geh'n, Ich brauch' Ihn nicht!" ("Let him go, I don’t need him!").
Already by 1774, Mozart was apparently quite negligent about his violin playing and possibly wrote the concertos for one of his friends, the court violinist Antonio Brunetti, whose abilities were limited, or for Franz Kolb, another Salzburg violinist and family friend. After 1775 Mozart occasionally performed them himself.
These were relatively modest concertos by a youthful master, written at a time when the popularity of virtuoso violin concertos had gone into decline. After the flourishing of the Baroque violin concerto by such masters as Antonio Vivaldi and Giuseppe Tartini, the genre went into partial hibernation until Beethoven awakened it with a new kind of virtuosic writing that was to set the stage for the great romantic concertos of Mendelssohn, Bruch and Tchaikovsky, not to mention the great showman Niccolò Paganini. Mozart left no cadenzas for the concertos; most players either write their own or borrow one from the pen of any number of great violinists. In Mozart’s time a performer would certainly have been expected to improvise his own.
The Concerto No. 4 in D, dating from October, 1775, opens with a classic double exposition, the first theme a military rhythm answered directly with a much more graceful response. The second theme remains in D major. The exposition concludes with a third theme, whose elements the soloist will develop later in the movement. Upon entering, the soloist's customary role is to decorate the main theme, but here he introduces a new secondary theme. After finally getting to the orchestra's original second theme, the soloist begins the development section by spinning out a poignant theme in the minor based on one of the orchestra's little closing motives.
The flowing slow movement opens with an orchestral introduction featuring the two oboes, the only winds scored in the work. Thee soloist ,however, dominates the rest of the movement, relegating the orchestra to the background. Instead of the customary ABA form, Mozart devises a complex theme that incorporates a string of melodies, repeating it with minor variations.
The Finale is a combination of a rondo and sonata form, with a curve ball thrown in. It opens with a dance-like phrase in 2/4 time – most likely a gavotte – followed by a completing phrase in fast 6/8 time. After the development section, a middle section contains an entirely new melody known as “Strassburger,” which is how Mozart and his father referred to this concerto in their correspondence. The "Strassburger" section is a complete little ABA form within the larger rondo, the B section beginning as follows. After finishing with the "Strassburger" section, the movement continues with a reprise of the dual-tempo rondo with a spot for a cadenza.
This concerto is an example of how a modest piece conceived by a superior creative mind can delight by bending the rules of formal structure.
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”
Antonín Dvořák’s sojourn in the United States from 1892 to 1895 came about through the efforts of Mrs. Jeanette B. Thurber. A dedicated and idealistic proponent of an American national musical style, she underwrote and administered the first American music conservatory, the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Because of Dvořák’s popularity throughout Europe, he was Thurber’s first choice for a director. He, in turn, was probably lured to the big city so far from home by both a large salary and convictions regarding musical nationalism that paralleled Mrs. Thurber’s own.
Thirty years before his arrival in New York Dvořák had read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha in a Czech translation and was eager to learn more about the Native American and African American music, which he believed should be the basis of the American style of composition. He also shared with Mrs. Thurber the conviction that the National Conservatory should admit Negro students.
While his knowledge of authentic Native American music is questionable – his exposure came through samples transcribed for him by American friends and through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show – he became familiar with Negro spirituals through one of his students, as well as indirectly via the songs of Stephen Foster. He incorporated both of these styles into the Symphony No. 9, composed while he was in New York.
Just as Dvořák never quoted Bohemian folk music directly in his own nationalistic music, he did not use American themes in their entirety. Rather, he incorporated characteristic motives into his own unsurpassed gift for melody. Nevertheless, any listener with half an ear can discern fragments of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in the second theme of the first movement, as well as “Massa Dear” (also known as “Goin’ Home”) in the famous English horn solo in the second movement. We can deduce the importance of these musical motives from the fact that they appear as reminiscences in more than one movement, especially in the finale. The symphony, however, is hardly an American pastiche; the second motive in the largo movement is a phrase of wrenching musical longing that many listeners interpret as the composer’s nostalgia for his native Bohemia. Other melodies, such as the principal theme of the first movement, seem to have no particular origin beyond the composer's inspiration.
It is curious that Dvořák seemed to make no distinction between the folk music of American slaves and American Indians. While the second movement uses a theme from African America spirituals, the composer also claimed that it had been inspired by Longfellow’s epic, perhaps by Minnehaha’s forest funeral. The third movement as well, in its rhythmic thumping, its use of the pentatonic scale and the orchestration dominated by winds and percussion is meant to portray an Indian ceremonial dance described in Longfellow’s poem. Incidentally, Dvořák had also intended to compose an opera on Hiawatha, which never even approached completion. But his symphonic use of what he believed to be an authentic Native American musical idiom may have represented his initial ideas for the opera.
One of the most important features of the Symphony is its thematic coherence. Whatever the origin of the melodies, they all have a modular characteristic in that they can be mixed and matched in many different ways. In the finale Dvořák brings nearly all of the Symphony's themes together, sometimes as one long combined melody, sometimes in contrapuntal relationship to each other.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018|