PROGRAM NOTES by Wojciech Milewski
Overture to Der Freischütz, Op. 77 (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber
Commonly accepted as the first important German Romantic opera, Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 Der Freischütz, or The Marksman/FreeShooter, paved the way for a brand new genre of nationalistic German opera known as Romantische oper, which we now associate with Richard Wagner. By today’s standards, it is considered quite tame, but at the time of its premiere it became an overnight success due to its emotional struggle between good and evil, its German national identity/character, its references to folklore, nature and pastoral elements, and its unearthly portrayal of the supernatural in the famous “Wolf’s Glen scene.” In fact, all of these new elements of Romantic-era music became so popular that by 1830 Der Freischütz was being performed in nine languages, and by 1850 it was being performed in venues as far as Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, and Sydney! Ironically, today it is a rare occurrence to find a fully-staged version of the opera outside of Germany, but the Overture and “Huntsman’s Chorus” have become popular stand-alone concert pieces. This may be thanks to conductor Carlos Kleiber, who in the 1970s and 1980s championed Weber’s overture. In fact, videos of Kleiber rehearsing von Weber’s overture are still standard material in most graduate conducting programs around the world.
Weber’s opera was a powerful source of national identity for Germans, as they could identify with the many national elements that have endured the test of the time. Most importantly, the story is based on the German legend of the Freischütz – a story in which a hunter is given seven magic bullets through a contract with the Devil. The first six will hit any target he desires, but the seventh is completely under the will of the Devil. Additionally, Weber and librettist Friedrich Kind set the story in a German forest around the time of the Thirty Year’s War, and used the German language to great effect.
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR:
– Emotional Struggle: The overture sets the dramatic mood and pace for the story that is about to unfold. The uncertain, abstract introduction in the strings leads to a pastoral, lyrical horn melody (representing the Hunter), which then gives way to the tumultuous Molto Vivace. From this point on, a struggle between good and evil ensues as we can hear in the two starkly different main themes. Can you hear how unsteady the Vivace section is at the beginning? This is due to the use of syncopations and offbeats, a technique used to great effect by Mozart. However, once the joyful theme enters, everything now seemingly falls on the beat and we feel a sense of calm. But not for long! These two themes continue to battle throughout the overture. They are actually taken directly from the arias of the opera’s two main characters, Max and his fiancé-to-be Agathe. The dark opening of the Vivace section comes to us from the part in Max’s aria in which he sings “But dark deeds ensnare me! Despair pulls me, torturing mockery…Oh does no ray shine through these nights?” This is followed by the theme from Agathe’s aria in which she sings about their future together “How sweetly I am charmed towards him! Could I dare to hope for this? Yes!” This emotional struggle continues not only throughout the overture, but underscores the emotional struggle of the whole opera making this overture a powerful stand-alone piece.
The Lark Ascending (1920-1921) by Ralph Vaughan Williams
The next piece on tonight’s program is a perfect bookend to the Romantic era thanks to its modern use of impressionistic harmonic elements, yet also its nostalgic and beautifully elegant pastoral nature. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral romance for violin and orchestra,” as it is subtitled in the score, was inspired by an 1881 poem of the same name by English novelist George Meredith. The topic itself was an intriguing choice for Meredith, as he focused on subject matter of social problems, character psychology, and shifting narratives in his novels. In the poem, Meredith pays homage to the song of the skylark and describes it in incredibly colorful and musical language. Undoubtedly, this played a large part in Vaughan Williams’ decision to use the poem as inspiration for his own piece. The Lark Ascending was written originally, beginning in 1914, for piano and violin. Vaughan Williams had to postpone finishing the work until after he returned home from his service in World War I. Upon his return, The Lark Ascending was the first piece he worked on, and he revised it heavily making it simpler in the violin passages and not as busy in the orchestral accompaniment; perhaps a respite from the war itself. Shortly after its initial premiere in 1920, Vaughan Williams created an orchestral version of the piece, which was premiered the following year. It has remained a favorite in the ears and hearts of British listeners since its premiere, having recently been voted as Britain’s all-time favorite piece of classical music in a poll conducted by the BBC. However, its popularity is not limited to the British Isles, as, in a 2011 radio poll of New Yorkers for preferences of music to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, The Lark Ascending ranked second!
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR:
– The piece begins and ends with an extremely lyrical violin cadenza which showcases every range of the instrument starting in the darker, lower register and working its way up to the highest and lightest ranges – a direct tribute to George Meredith’s language. The orchestra lilts along with the soloist throughout this initial passage. After another shorter cadenza to end the first section of the piece, we hear a very pastoral melody in the orchestral accompaniment that is presented by the flute and answered by the clarinet. This section is repeated soon after by the solo violin, but this time much slower; it certainly evokes a feeling of nostalgia for the melody we just heard. Like the song of the skylark, the solo violin yearns to hear the simple country tunes once more.
– Although the piece is written in the key of E minor, its heavy use of pentatonic scales (scales made up of only 5 notes) means that we are really free from a strong tonal center. This allows the music to take shape primarily through orchestral colors, timbres, and textures rather than through the use of harmonies that progress and evolve as in symphonic music of the 19th century. Undoubtedly, this is in large part thanks to the influence of Maurice Ravel, with whom Vaughan Williams studied in 1908. We hear Ravel’s influence in the way Vaughan Williams shapes colors in the textures of instruments as the piece moves along.
Selections from “My Fair Lady” by Frederick Loewe, arr. by John Whitney
The start to our second half gives us a different take on the idea of “Romantic” music – this time a bit more literally with selections from Lerner and Loewe’s charming musical, “My Fair Lady.” The show was loosely based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion” and tells the story of Eliza Doolittle who, with the help of Prof. Henry Higgins, takes speech lessons so that she may pass as a refined lady. Lerner’s linguistically entertaining and wickedly clever libretto is well complemented by Loewe’s music, orchestrated with delightful musical humor. Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison brought the original 1956 Broadway roles to life and the show became an instant success. A popular movie version followed in 1964, with a young André Previn conducting the movie’s soundtrack orchestra and starring Harrison alongside Audrey Hepburn.
This charming concert arrangement of the show’s music includes: “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” “On the Street Where You Live,” and the uproarious “Get Me To the Church On Time.”
Intermezzo* from Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) by Pietro Mascagni
From the Broadway stage, we take a sharp turn back in time and character to re-visit the stage of Romantic opera, this time through the genre of Italian verismo.* Mascagni’s 1890 one-act opera was one of 73 entries in an 1888 contest for young Italian composers who had not yet had a work performed on stage. They were invited to submit one-act operas, and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (“Country Chivalry”) easily won first place after receiving thunderous applause and encores at its Rome premiere on May 19, 1890. Arguably the first opera to draw upon the verismo literary movement, Mascagni’s work showcases many regional Sicilian characteristics, a quick narrative, and true-to-life emotions and impulses of its characters. The work has become standard repertoire on opera stages around the world, and is usually paired with Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci as a double-bill performance. Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana featured heavily in the plot of the 1990 hit film “The Godfather III,” a fitting parallel to the movie’s own verismo qualities. The intermezzo from the opera that we play tonight has become a popular stand-alone piece in orchestral halls.
Intermezzo: In the 19th century, opera composers sometimes wrote instrumental intermezzi as connecting pieces between acts of operas. In this sense, an intermezzo is similar to the entr’acte, and is usually very different from the material presented before or after. In Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, the intermezzo comes at a dramatic high-point when the action reaches its most tense moment. This beautiful, lyrical piece is in a completely different character, providing a respite for the listener.
Verismo: Italian term meaning “realism”; refers to a post-Romantic operatic tradition that sought to portray the world with greater realism through subject matter that had not been seen as a fit subject for literature/music up to that point, especially in showing the lives of the poor or immoral. Examples of verismo opera include Puccini’s Tosca, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and of course, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.
Dance Bacchanale from Samson and Dalila, Op. 47 (1877) by Camille Saint-Saëns
Staying in the operatic world, we now round out our trio of major Romantic-era operatic countries by playing an excerpt from Act 3 of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Dalila. The composer started the project in 1867 but only finished it in 1877 since Franz Liszt promised a premiere of the piece at the Weimar Theater in Germany. This delay was caused directly by the French public, who were extremely wary of having a Biblical subject represented operatically. In this particular scene near the end of the opera, the Philistines are celebrating the capture of Samson and are preparing a sacrifice to their God, Dagon. A party, known as a Bacchanale, begins onstage to celebrate their victory and they begin to dance. However, it is no typical dance as Saint-Saëns uses many musical devices (listed below) to show its sinister character directly. It is a lively show-piece for any orchestra, and keeps its energy high until the very end.
Fun Fact: The opera was first premiered in Weimar, Germany with a German translation as no opera houses in France wanted to premiere the piece! It was only in 1890 that Samson and Dalila first appeared on a French stage after having garnered an international following.
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR:
– Exoticism: The opening oboe cadenza is in the Phrygian mode, a very exotic choice of harmonic language. We have heard this Eastern-sounding mode on a previous concert this season in the Symphonic Dances from “Fiddler on the Roof.” This modal oboe cadenza sets the stage for what we are about to hear in the Bacchanale. Saint-Saëns also adds exotic instruments into the orchestra in the form of castanets to represent exotic textures. Just as in other Romantic operas of the time, particularly Russian operas, exotic choices of keys/modes and instruments were meant to represent the antagonists in the story (just as we heard in the Polovtsian Dances earlier this season).
– Use of off-beats and irregular phrasing: Saint-Saëns wrote the majority of this dance with a displaced downbeat meaning much of what we hear is actually half a measure off! This creates instability in the phrasing of the piece, which is another way for the composer to represent the antagonists musically. We just heard this in a very different, yet related, way on the first piece of tonight’s program, Weber’s overture to Der Freischütz. In doing so, Saint-Saëns creates tension within each phrase – something very frustrating for the listener (and the musicians playing) since it’s so hard to keep your foot tapping along to the beat! Can you feel this?
Selections from “Carousel” by Rodgers and Hammerstein, arr. by Walter Paul
Our concert closer tonight and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s personal favorite, this towering work – hailed by Time magazine as the “Best Musical of the 20th Century” in 1999 – was already a stage landmark shortly after its 1945 premiere. The show was based on Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 tragic play “Liliom,” and the two were very similar apart from the dramatically different ending and plot setting. Although the story borrows much from operatic and verismo literary roots, the hopeful ending Rodgers and Hammerstein crafted into “Carousel” is a fitting legacy to their collaboration, as the show has maintained an international presence since its premiere. The score to “Carousel” features many operatic elements, which can be heard in tonight’s medley, including recitative-like passages as well as many harmonic moments that can be directly linked to the influence of Richard Wagner. Listen for these moments especially during the transitions between the different songs.
Fun Fact: The 1956 movie, which was shot on location in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, was supposed to star Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra as the star-crossed tragic lovers Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow. The casting, like the romance itself, was doomed from the start; Garland dropped out before shooting began, and Sinatra followed soon thereafter. The two were replaced by the “Oklahoma!” film co-stars Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. This medley arranged by Walter Paul includes many of the show’s famous numbers, including: “If I Loved You,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “Mr. Snow,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”