Masterworks #1 (New World Symphony) Program Notes

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)

Overture to The Barber of Seville

It is hard to understand today why the premiere of The Barber of Seville in Rome in February 1816 was such an unmitigated disaster. True, the overture we know today was not at the time part of the opera, and another opera called The Barber of Seville, by the aging Giovanni Paisiello, although dated, was considered a classic in Italy. But the simple ebullience and mischievousness of Rossini’s opera buffa did not deserve the vituperation and hostility it encountered.

Following the disastrous premiere, Rossini made a number of modifications and added the overture we know today. According to the composer, the original overture was lost, but there is considerable doubt whether he ever wrote one specifically for this opera.

Although the Overture sounds appropriate for the spirit of the libretto, its melodies do not recall a single theme from the opera proper. And no wonder! This was its third reincarnation. Rossini, like his overworked predecessors, including Bach and Handel, made good use of musical recycling. The two previous operas it served were Aureliano in Palmyra and Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, both very serious works, and both failures. Nevertheless, Rossini was composing within a formula for the operatic overture that included a slow introduction,

followed by a rousing allegro to get an audience in the mood for a high drama and a suspenseful plot–be it tragic or comic.

Many Rossini overtures have been perennial favorites of audiences and musicians even after the operas themselves had been cast into oblivion. For over a hundred years, the only one of his operas in the standard repertoire in major opera houses has been The Barber of Seville. But Rossini’s snappy rhythms, catchy tunes, and the famous “Rossini Rocket,” which revs up tension by gradually adding instruments to the ensemble, have turned many of the overtures into household tunes – and even cartoon soundtracks (for Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker).

An interesting side light: The Barber of Seville was premiered in New York in May 1819, but in English. On November 29, 1825, it was performed again: this time it was the first performance in America of opera in Italian!

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major

Franz Liszt was a man of paradoxes and extremes who could only have flourished in the Romantic period. He was both superficial showman and a contemplative artist, mystic and hedonist, genius and poseur, saint and sinner. He broke many a commandment and many a heart, exhibiting incredible flamboyance in his virtuoso piano performances before adoring audiences, yet longing for a life of religious asceticism. He fathered numerous illegitimate offspring but ended up taking minor orders in the Catholic Church with the right to the title Abbé Liszt. He witnessed first-hand the cultural and musical transformation of Europe but unfortunately never wrote his life’s memoirs, being “too busy living it.”

Like most of Liszt’s compositions, the Piano Concerto No.1 had a long gestation with the earliest sketches dating from 1830. Liszt completed it in 1849, only to revise it twice more before the publication in 1856. Liszt had a lifelong penchant for either creating innovative musical forms or breathing new life into classic ones. In listening to this well-known work, consider how different it is in form and musical development from the more classic mid-century concerti of Mendelssohn, Schumann or Brahms.

The concerto is played without a pause but still comprises four distinct movement, which are also linked thematically. It opens Allegro maestoso with a majestic theme, or motto, on the strings, from which Liszt derived all the other themes in the work.

When once asked about the meaning of this theme, Liszt sat down at the piano and sang to it: “Das versteht Ihr alle nicht” (None of you understands that), without any further elaboration. The piano enters almost at once with a series of bravura passages in octaves followed by a spectacular solo display. A second melody, a little waltz tune à la Chopin follows,

but that is only a brief diversion. In many concertos, the soloist develops a special relationship with one of the orchestral instruments; here, it is the clarinet, which introduces another secondary theme.

Piano and clarinet now reverse roles to complete it.

After a return to the stormy motto and a bombastic cadence motive, the opening section fades into silence.

The second movement, marked Quasi adagio, opens with a dreamy melody on muted strings, which is taken up by the piano in a cantilena that has been compared to a Bellini aria.

To reinforce the operatic association, Liszt marks certain passage for the piano as “Recitativo.”

This movement is almost completely turned over to a single musical idea, but near the conclusion Liszt introduces a new melody on the flute.

The witty third movement, Allegretto vivace, is the equivalent of a classical scherzo and introduces a delicate rhythm played on the triangle that raised the ire of the staid Viennese of the nineteenth century, especially that of the dean of music critics, the acerbic Eduard Hanslick, who called it derisively the “Triangle Concerto.”

A piano cadenza on the opening theme serves as a bridge to the fourth movement, Allegro marziale animato, in which the themes from the Adagio and Allegretto are combined ingeniously for a grand recapitulation.

It begins with an energized transformation of the theme from the second movement,

along with the little flute melody that had at the time seemed like an afterthought.

After a reprise of the “triangle” theme,

the movement concludes with cadence passage from the first movement.

Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)

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 incontrapuntal relationship to each other.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016 |