Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Overture to Nabucco

Giuseppe Verdi achieved astounding success as a musical dramatist with his ability to capture in music the psychological depth of his characters. He was the king of Italian opera through much of the nineteenth century and premiered works in all the major cities of Italy, as well as in Paris, St. Petersburg and Cairo. So in demand was he that he referred to the long period in which he produced a constant stream of operas as his years as a galley slave. He composed his first great success, Nabucco, as he mourned the untimely death of his first wife and two young children, and he expressed all his poignant longings in the chorus,Va, pensiero, of the exiled Israelites.

Born of stolid peasant and rural tradesman stock, Verdi was always unconventional without being openly rebellious. Although some of his most emotionally charged music involves religious characters and scenes, not to mention his great Requiem, he was not religious himself. After the death of his first wife, he lived for many years out of wedlock with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, marrying her only later in life. His sympathy for this unconventional lifestyle is reflected in his portrayal of Violetta and Alfredo’s relationship in La traviata.

Verdi’s streak of independence and attraction to politically compromising plots was often blocked by the Italian censors who passed on all stage representations. Un ballo in maschera, originally written about a true incident in the life of the playboy King Gustav III of Sweden, had to be reset in Boston about a fictitious colonial governor; and Rigoletto, based on a play by the French playwright Victor Hugo about King François I, had to be reset in Mantua about a fictitious duke.

Verdi was a staunch supporter of a united Italy. In 1861 as Garibaldi’s militias stormed their way north through the peninsula, “Viva Verdi (Vittorio Emmanuele Re d’Italia),” became a rallying cry for the patriots in support of the king of the new nation. Verdi himself served as a deputy in the country’s first parliament but found active politics disillusioning. Nevertheless, his operas are full of his social and political idealism, sometimes hidden, at others flamboyantly overt as in his brutal attacks on the Church and religious intolerance in Don Carlos. Personally, he liked nothing better than a life of quiet intimacy with Giuseppina and a group of close friends and associates in his beautiful rural villa at Sant’Agata in the Parma region of Italy.

In Nabucco, we get a glimpse of the composer at the unpromising beginning of his career. The year was 1842. His first two operas had been dismal failures and he had vowed never to write another note. The impresario Bartolomeo Merelli, however, presented the young Verdi with the libretto for Nabucco, which the composer patently ignored. When he casually looked through it five months later, he was hooked.

The plot of Nabucco, from the Book of Daniel – with significant non-biblical accretions – concerns the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. by King Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco), his Divine punishment of madness and repentance. Verdi encapsulates the essentials of the plot characterizing both the oppression of the Babylonians

with the homesick lament of the enslaved Hebrews from Act III, “Va, pensiero sull’ali dorate” (Fly, thoughts, on golden wings). This chorus not only became an instant sensation, but also became the “theme song” for the Risorgimento (the uprising for the unification of Italy).

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Finlandia, Op.26

Sweden relinquished Finland to the Russian Empire in 1809, where it became an autonomous duchy with significant control over its own affairs. Beginning in 1870, however, Russia gradually began to rescind Finland’s privileges and autonomy. While Swedish was the language of the educated and of the middle class, Russian repression aroused strong nationalist feelings and initiated a revival of the Finnish language. Jean Sibelius was born into this new nationalism and in 1876 enrolled in the first grammar school to teach in Finnish. Finland finally gained its independence towards the end of World War I.

Sibelius was by no means a child prodigy. He started playing piano at the age of nine but didn’t like it and took up the violin at 14. Although he had made some attempts at composition at 10, his ambition was to become a concert violinist. For his entire life he regretted not following this dream.

Sibelius’s first success as a composer came in 1892 with a nationalistic symphonic poem/cantata entitled Kullervo, Op.7, which was premiered with great success but never again performed in his lifetime. During the next six years he composed numerous nationalistic pageants, symphonic poems and vocal works, mostly based on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala. In appreciation, and in order to enable him to compose undisturbed, the Finnish government gave him a pension for life in 1897.

In February 1899 the Russian Imperial Governor published the notorious “February Manifesto,” designed to curtail Finland’s autonomy and facilitate its Russification. Among others restrictions, it imposed strict censorship and forced the closing of many newspapers. In order to support the dismissed staff, a three-day cultural festival was organized in Helsinki to raise funds for the Press Pension Fund. Sibelius provided the music for the grand finale in the form of a dramatic seven-tableaux spectacle depicting episodes from Finnish history. It culminated in a stirring patriotic anthem entitled “Finland Awake.” A year later, with some modification, Sibelius recast it as an independent tone poem,Finlandia. With its powerful opening and hymn-like middle section, it became the symbol of Finnish nationalism. Before 1917, in order to evade the Russian censor, it had to be performed under the euphemistic title “Impromptu.”

During the next 26 years Sibelius composed the symphonies and tone poems that made him world famous. But in 1926, beset by a combination of bi-polar disorder and alcoholism, he quit composing, secluding himself in his home bordering the starkly beautiful Finnish forests he had so effectively described in music. He died 31 years later.

The snarling opening chords are clearly meant as a musical symbol of Russian oppression.

Gradually “Finnish” trumpets rouse the orchestra to resistance.

But the focus of this brief tone poem is the orchestral patriotic hymn.

The quasi religious tone is difficult maintain, however, and the piece returns to its militaristic defiance, an orgy of cymbal crashes. The hymn reappears as the concludes.

Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)

Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana

“It was a pity I wrote Cavalleria first. I was crowned before I was king.” Thus did Pietro Mascagni evaluate his own musical career, citing his youthful success in 1890 with Cavalleria Rusticana. He attempted to repeat this triumph in the remaining 55 years of his life but to no avail. The only one of his 15 other operas occasionally staged is L’amico Fritz, a gentle comedy, the opposite of grim and gritty Cavalleria. Sadly, in his later years, Mascagni became a mouthpiece for Italy’s Fascist government. In 1929 he took over as conductor at La Scala in Milan when Arturo Toscanini resigned in protest over the Fascist regime, and in 1935 he composed an opera Nerone as a tribute to Mussolini – although why anyone would want to be likened to the emperor Nero is anyone’s guess.

Mascagni came close to total obscurity. Responding to an advertisement for a one-act opera competition promoted by a publisher, he composed his masterpiece in only a few weeks but did not consider it suitable, choosing to send in an act from an earlier opera instead. His wife, however, submitted the score of Cavalleria without his knowledge, and the rest is history. Cavalleria is an adaptation of the novella by the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga, the originator and most important writer of the verismo literary movement. Verismo, or “realism,” portrayed the brutality of the social environment and characters of rural Sicily and Southern Italy.

The single act includes an adulterous love triangle, jealousy, betrayal and a duel to the death. The Intermezzo opens the final scene, as the people are in church celebrating Easter Sunday, just before the fatal duel.

The Intermezzo spins out a single theme.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Berceuse and Finale from The Firebird

“He is a man on the eve of fame,” said Sergey Diaghilev, impresario of the famed Ballets Russes in Paris, during the rehearsals for Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird.

In 1909 Stravinsky, viewed as a budding composer just coming out from under the tutelage of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, got what can be called his big break, thanks to the laziness of the composer Anatoly Lyadov. Early in the year Diaghilev had written Lyadov: “I am sending you a proposal. I need a ballet and a Russian one, since there is no such thing. There is Russian opera, Russian dance, Russian rhythm – but no Russian ballet. And that is precisely what I need to perform in May of the coming year in the Paris Grand Opera and in the huge Royal Drury Lane Theater in London…The libretto is ready…It was dreamed up by us all collectively. It is The Firebird – a ballet in one act and perhaps two scenes.” When Diaghilev heard that after three months Lyadov had only progressed so far as to buy the lined paper, he withdrew the commission and offered it to Aleksander Glazunov and Nikolay Tcherepnin, who both turned him down. In desperation he turned to the unknown Stravinsky.

Stravinsky finished the score in May 1910, in time for the premiere on June 25. It was an instant success and has remained Stravinsky’s most frequently performed work. Its romantic tone, lush orchestral colors, imaginative use of instruments and exciting rhythms outdid even Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, the Russian master of orchestration. It required an immense orchestra and the first suite Stravinsky extracted from the ballet in 1911 strained symphony orchestras’ resources. In order to make it more accessible, he assembled in 1919 a suite for the concert hall, modifying the orchestration to conform to the resources of a modest orchestra. He re-orchestrated the suite in 1945, adding some of the music omitted from the original ballet while retaining the reduced orchestration.

The ballet, taking its plot from bits of numerous Russian folk tales, tells the story of the heroic prince, the Tsarevich Ivan who, while wandering in an enchanted forest, encounters the magic firebird as it picks golden fruit from a silver tree. He traps the bird but, as a token of goodwill, frees it. As a reward, the bird gives Ivan a flaming magic feather. At dawn Ivan finds himself in a park near the castle of the evil magician Kashchey. Thirteen beautiful maidens, captives of Kashchey, come out of the castle to play in the garden but one of them in particular, the beautiful Tsarevna, captures Ivan’s heart. As the sun rises, the maidens have to return to their prison and the Tsarevna warns Ivan not to come near the castle lest he fall under the magician’s spell as well. In spite of the warning, Ivan follows and opens the gate of the castle. With a huge crash Kashchey and his retinue of monsters erupts from the castle in a wild dance, whose drive and clashing harmonies foreshadow The Rite of Spring.

In the Berceuse and Finale, the Tsarevich, with the help of the magic feather, calls the Firebird who overcomes Kashchey and tames the monsters by lulling them to sleep.

In the end the captives are freed from the spell and Tsarevich Ivan and the Tsarevna are married in a grand ceremony culminating in an apotheosis of the Firebird.

Max Bruch (1838-1920)

Kol Nidrei, Op. 47 “Adagio on Hebrew Melodies for Cello and Orchestra”

One of the hallmarks of nineteenth-century Romanticism in music was the rise of the virtuoso violin or piano soloist, influenced by those two great showmen, Niccoló Paganini and Franz Liszt. Nearly all composers of the period tried their hand at satisfying the insatiable demand for new virtuosic concertos, and some of them are remembered today primarily for their contribution to this genre.

Other instruments did not fare as well. The cello, which in the late Baroque and early Classical periods inspired many concertos, especially at the hands of Antonio Vivaldi and Luigi Boccherini, fell into disfavor in the nineteenth century. Only the concertos of Schumann, Saint-Saëns, Dvorák and Lalo have maintained their popularity. One other work for cello and orchestra from that period is Max Bruch’sKol Nidreii.

One of the minor figures of German late Romanticism, Bruch spent most of his career moving around Germany from one minor post to another. Only in 1891 were his talents finally recognized, and he became professor of composition at the prestigious Berlin Conservatory. Among his students were Ottorino Respighi and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Bruch was a musical conservative who, drawing his inspiration from Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, had little use for the musical innovations of the late nineteenth century. Since his youth, he had been a prodigious composer, best known for his choral works. Today, however, he is remembered mainly for his Violin Concerto in G minor, his Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, and Kol Nidrei, based on a melody from the Jewish liturgy for the evening of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

The prayer – in Aramaic – which releases Jews from all vows made during the year, has over the centuries been taken as a reason to distrust Jews. The text, however, refers not to vows made to other people, but only to those made to God, in recognition of the fact that human beings cannot adequately fulfill such promises. During the anti-Semitic persecutions of the past two millennia, Jews understood Kol Nidrei (All Vows) to annul forced conversions to Christianity, which would have been regarded as vows to God.

Bruch composed Kol Nidrei in 1881, while serving as conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic. According to his letters he became acquainted with the Kol nidrei (All Vows) and a few other Jewish melodies from the chief cantor of Berlin. He wrote” “…I became acquainted with Kol nidrei and a few other songs… in Berlin through the Lichtenstein family, who befriended me. Even though I am a Protestant, as an artist I deeply felt the outstanding beauty of these melodies and therefore I gladly spread them through my arrangement.”

After an orchestral introduction, the cello enters with the main theme, derived directly from the liturgical melody.

Thetheme for the second part is taken from Isaac Nathan’s 1815 anthology A Selection of Hebrew Melodies, Ancient and Modern, for which Nathan persuaded Lord Byron to provide English poetic texts. The result was Byron’s set of 28 poems called Hebrew Melodies. Bruch took his second theme from the melody from Byron’s poem “O weep for those that wept on Babel’s stream.”

David Popper (1843-1913)

Hungarian Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68

Born in Prague, the son of a cantor, David Popper became one of the outstanding cellists of the second half of the nineteenth century. He kept up intensive international soloist activities while serving first for five years as principal cellist with the Vienna Court Opera and member of the famous Hellmesberger Quartet, and in 1896 becoming professor at the Budapest Royal Conservatory.

Most of Popper’s compositions are for his own instrument. They are a means to an end, the goal being to present the cello at its most pleasing and advantageous. Some of his short pieces, such as Papillon, Tarantelle and Mazurka, were obligatory on any cello recital. By the time of his death, however, his name was nearly forgotten.

The Hungarian Rhapsody uses a few Hungarian Rom (Gypsy) tropes, but many of the melodies reflected the popular ditties played by itinerant musicians in Viennese coffee houses and restaurants. Moreover, the Austro-Hungarian Empire encompassed a disparate collection of ethnic groups whose musical traditions tended to conflate. For the true Hungarian idiom, the world would have to wait for the ethnomusicological fieldwork of Béla Bartók. In all, it is a spectacular showcase for cello technique and expressiveness.

The standard form of rhapsodies of Liszt and Brahms drew from the Verbunkos, a recruiting dance of the Austrian Imperial Army in the eighteenth century. The typical trajectory of these traditional pieces involved a dialogue between a sultry, slow opening (lassu), followed by a fast conclusion (friss). Because it employs the concerto-like dialogue between orchestra and soloist, Popper’s rhapsody toggles between the two styles. The opening passage employs the traditional device of an iambic rhythm accented on the initial short beat.

The soloist repeats the orchestra’s melody with considerably more virtuosic flair.

Of course, no Hungarian rhapsody would be complete without a plangent, whining minor melody.

The Rhapsody is actually a medley, and Popper’s approach is to start each tune slowly, gradually ramping up the tempo.

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome)

Ottorino Respighi was one of the most imaginative orchestrators of the first part of the twentieth century. While most of his musical studies were undertaken in Italy, he spent two crucial years in Russia where he took lessons in orchestration from Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Respighi developed a masterful technique in the use of instrumental colors and sonorities. Firmly rooted in the late-Romantic tradition, he maintained this style with only marginal influence from the revolutionary changes in music that occurred during his lifetime.

Respighi was a musical nationalist, keenly interested in reviving Italy’s musical heritage, especially its instrumental music. Beginning in 1906 he undertook to transcribe and arrange music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, editing the works of Claudio Monteverdi and Tomaso Antonio Vitali. In 1917 he published the first of his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, based on Italian and French lute music, mostly from the early seventeenth century. In 1927 he composed Gli uccelli (The Birds), a five-movement suite using eighteenth-century keyboard works imitating birdsongs. Indeed, most of his works are based on the music of the past.

Composed in 1924, Pini di Roma is the second in Respighi’s trilogy of tone poems inspired by different aspects of the city of Rome and its history. The score, describing four widely separated locations in the city, contains a detailed description of this programmatic music:

The Pines of the Villa Borghese (a country estate with enormous grounds belonging to one of Rome’s most notable Renaissance families): Children playing in what are now public gardens, they mimic marching soldiers and battles,  twittering and shrieking like swallows, then they swarm away and the scene changes abruptly to…

Pines near a Catacomb (the underground burial sites for the early Christians): “We see the shadows of the pines, which overhang the entrance to a catacomb. From the depths rises a mournful chant which reechoes solemnly, like a hymn, and then dies away mysteriously.” A long trumpet solo  is followed by a more military sounding theme combined with the chant, suggesting the tension between the ancient Roman empire and its Christian martyrs.

The Pines of the Janiculum (the highest hill in Rome, but not one of the famous seven, the location of a cult worshiping the god Janus): “Moonlight and the song of a nightingale enfold the pines on the Janiculum hill with mystery.” This movement features a beautiful clarinet solo.  The voice of the nightingale is provided by a recording.

The Pines of the Appian Way (one of the great Roman roads leading south from the city): “Misty dawn on the Appian Way. The tragic country is guarded by the solitary pines. Indistinctly, incessantly, the rhythm of innumerable steps….visions of past glories: trumpets blare, and the army of the Consul advances brilliantly…in the rising sun…mounting in triumph the Capitoline Hill.” The English horn gets center stage in this movement  – that is until the rest of the brass crash onto the scene.

Ironically, while Respighi uses the giant pines as symbols of Rome’s ancient past, these trees are relative newcomers to the eternal city. The species was introduced from Sardinia, probably in the seventeenth or eighteenth century.

There has been some controversy regarding Respighi’s political affiliation. The fact that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was particularly fond of the composer’s “Roman” tone poems and that Respighi accepted various honors from the Fascist government has led to the conclusion that Respighi was a Fascist supporter himself. His supporters, however, cite the composer’s intervention in 1931 to save Arturo Toscanini from a Fascist mob in Bologna, and his remarks against the regime for threatening the conductor. There is also an allegedly hidden anti-Fascist message in the final scene of his opera Lucrezia, written in 1935-6, when Fascism was at its height: “Death to the tyrants, you be leader, Brutus! – Freedom, to Rome!”

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016 |