e-Notes

Recently Posted

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra – Program Notes

Season listing | Biography | Program | Program Notes | Pre-concert talk

Saturday, April 29, 2017 at 7:30 PM
Yaniv Dinur, conductor Matthew Ernst, trumpet

Ludwig van BeethovenLudwig van Beethoven

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany.
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria.

Leonore Overture No. 3

Of the four overtures Beethoven wrote for his opera Leonore—later renamed Fidelio—only the one called Leonore no. 3 has gained favor both in the concert hall, where it is much loved, and in the opera house, where it is often played, inappropriately, just before the finale. That it is an intruder in the opera house, where it can too easily overshadow all but the greatest performances of Fidelio, is something Beethoven himself could easily have told us.

The Leonore Overture no. 3 is as dramatic as any music Beethoven wrote, and that is part of the problem. Placed before the curtain rises, it overshadows much of what follows. Playing it just before the final scene—a convention never sanctioned by Beethoven, but one loved by many conductors, including Mahler and Toscanini—is problematic because it first delays and then gives away the ending.

Despite its number, Leonore no. 3 is Beethoven’s second version of the overture. Although it is more concise and less symphonic than his first effort (the work we call Leonore no. 2), it does not avoid the dilemma of telling us everything about the opera, in music of unforgettable substance and power, before the curtain goes up. Beethoven ultimately understood the situation well and wrote his fourth and final overture to Fidelio—less powerful music, but better stagecraft. (Leonore no. 1 was written for a production in Prague that never took place; the score was discovered after Beethoven’s death, mistaken for his earliest effort, and assigned no. 1.)

In the concert hall, where it has ultimately retired, the Leonore Overture no. 3 is a miracle of dramatic music, as compelling as any symphonic poem in the literature. The overture tells, or at least distills, the essence of the story. Beethoven begins in the darkness of the prison cell where Florestan has been sent, unjustly. Florestan remembers brighter days, and the music, ignited by his hope, is filled with fire and action. The distant trumpet call of the tower guard, announcing Florestan’s reprieve, brings silence and then guarded optimism, but the trumpet sounds again, and freedom seems certain. At the news, the flute cannot contain its rapture. Beethoven then treats us to a full-scale, symphonic, utterly heroic recapitulation.

Franz Joseph HaydnFranz Joseph Haydn

Born March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Lower Austria.
Died May 31, 1809, Vienna, Austria.

Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major

Perhaps because Haydn was not a virtuoso performer himself (unlike his friend Mozart), he showed little interest in composing solo concertos. This was not so much a question of talent or skill—he was a perfectly decent pianist and violinist—as personal character. Haydn was not by nature a showman. Few of his compositions are ostentatious—in fact, much of his best music is actually much harder to play than it sounds, and the difficulties are not the more obvious, crowd-pleasing ones—the high wire acrobatics on which many a solo career depends.

Although Haydn wrote one hundred and eight symphonies, sixty-eight string quartets, and forty-seven piano sonatas, the catalog of his complete works lists a scant seventeen concertos composed over three decades—and most of those are lost. Many apparently were written quickly, for a single performance, and then set aside, with no eye to the future. Of those that remain—including two cello concertos and a concerto apiece for violin and piano (compared to Mozart’s groundbreaking twenty-seven)—the E-flat trumpet concerto is the most popular of all.

This is the last concerto of Haydn’s career; it also is one of the few instrumental works composed during the final years of his life, when he had given up writing symphonies and piano sonatas for good, and had begun to concentrate on vocal music. It was prompted, sometime in 1795 or early in 1796, by a request for a concerto from Anton Weidinger, a trumpet player in the Vienna Court Orchestra. Weidinger had spent his career perfecting an “organized trumpet” designed to fill in the gaps between the notes of the natural series; five or six holes drilled in the instrument and covered by padded keys provided the missing chromatic notes. In Weidinger’s hands, the natural trumpet became a melodic instrument, like the oboe or the flute. Weidinger toured Europe, demonstrating his invention, and became something of a celebrity (although his instrument was superseded by the valve trumpet after 1820). He eventually commissioned a concerto from Hummel that now rivals Haydn’s in popularity.

Oddly, Weidinger did not play the concerto Haydn wrote for him until March 1800, perhaps because he needed the four years after the work was completed to master its technical challenges. Haydn fully enjoys the advances of Weidinger’s invention. The soloist’s opening phrase, for example, would have been impossible to play on a natural trumpet in E-flat, since it contains six notes accessible only with Weidinger’s padded keys. The opening movement, in particular, is unusually showy and brilliant. The slow movement is richly lyrical, with the same melodic luxury one hears in The Creation that Haydn began the same year he wrote Weidinger’s concerto. The jubilant finale suggests that Haydn had not forgotten how to bring down the curtain in fine style.

Maurice RavelMaurice Ravel

Born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, France.
Died December 28, 1937, Paris, France.

Pavane for a Dead Princess

Maurice Ravel was born in the French Pyrenees, only a few miles from the Spanish border, a geographical boundary he often crossed in his music. Even though his family moved to Paris while he was still a baby, Ravel came by his fascination with Spain naturally, for his mother was Basque and grew up in Madrid. (His Swiss father inspired in his son a love for things precise and mechanical that carried over into his impeccable music, provoking Stravinsky to dismiss him as a “Swiss watchmaker.”)

One of Ravel’s earliest pieces—written just after he left the Paris Conservatory in 1895—was a habanera for two pianos, the first indication that he would join that group of French composers, which includes Bizet, Lalo, and Chabrier, who have written some of our best Spanish music. The habanera was Ravel’s first music to be performed publicly, in March 1898, and, despite the two pianists’ inability to stay together, it made a strong impression on Claude Debussy, who was in the audience. (He hadn’t yet met the composer whose name would one day be linked with his own.) Debussy asked to borrow the score, and his La soirée dans Grenade (Night in Grenada), written five years later, suggests that he studied it carefully. (The suspicious similarity of the two pieces contributed to the eventual falling-out between the composers.)

Like the Habanera, the Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a dead princess) was conceived as piano music and benefited greatly from the translation to a full orchestral score. The piano piece was an instant success. Ravel later realized that music of such apparent ease—a simple melody over broken chords—is doomed to a life at the hands of amateur pianists, and so eleven years later he rescued

the Pavane and rescored it for the modern virtuoso orchestra. A pavane is a slow processional dance from Padua (Pava is a dialect name for Padua). According to an old Spanish tradition, however, it was performed in church as a stylish gesture of farewell to the dead. As to the identity of the dead princess, Ravel finally admitted he picked the title because he liked the sound of the words.

Modest MussorgskyModest Mussorgsky

Born March 21, 1839, Karevo, Russia.
Died March 28, 1881, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Pictures at an Exhibition (Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel)

When Victor Hartmann died at the age of thirty-nine, little did he know that the pictures he left behind—the legacy of an undistinguished career as artist and architect—would live on. The idea for an exhibition of Hartmann’s work came from Vladimir Stassov, the influential critic who organized a show in Saint Petersburg in the spring of 1874. But it was Modest Mussorgsky, so shocked at the unexpected death of his dear friend, who set out to make something of this loss. “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,” he is said to have asked, paraphrasing King Lear, “and creatures like Hartmann must die?”

Stassov’s memorial show gave Mussorgsky the idea for a suite of piano pieces that depicted the composer “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly, in order to come closer to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.” Mussorgsky worked feverishly that spring, and by June 22, 1874, Pictures at an Exhibition was finished. Mussorgsky may well have had an inflated impression of Hartmann’s artistic importance (as friends often do), but these Pictures guaranteed Hartmann a place in history that his art alone never could have achieved. There’s no record of a public performance of Pictures in Mussorgsky’s lifetime, and the composer didn’t even play the work on his extensive 1879 concert tour, perhaps finding it too personal for the stage. It was left to Rimsky-Korsakov, the musical executor of Mussorgsky’s estate, to edit the manuscript and bring Pictures to the light of day.

The thought of orchestrating Pictures evidently never occurred to Mussorgsky. But it has intrigued musicians ever since his death, and over the years several have tried their hand at turning Mussorgsky’s black-and-white pieces into full color. The earliest was that of Rimsky-Korsakov’s student, Mikhail Tushmalov, conducted (and most likely improved) by the teacher himself. In 1915, Sir Henry Wood, an eminent British conductor, produced a version that was popular until Maurice Ravel unveiled his orchestration in 1922.

Although Ravel worked from the same Rimsky-Korsakov edition of Pictures that Tushmalov and Wood used (he had tried without success to find a copy of Mussorgsky’s original, which wasn’t published until 1930), his orchestral version far outstrips theirs in the brilliance of its colors and its sheer ingenuity.

Ravel was already sensitive to Mussorgsky’s style from his collaboration with Igor Stravinsky on an edition of Khovanshchina in 1913, and, since most of his own orchestral works started out as piano scores, the process of transcription was second nature to him. Ravel remained as faithful as possible to the original; only in the final Great Gate of Kiev did he add a few notes of his own to Mussorgsky’s.

The success of Ravel’s edition inspired still further efforts, including one by Leopold Stokowski that was popular for many years. Mussorgsky’s Pictures also has been rescored for rock band, brass ensemble, acoustic guitar, massed accordions, and even rearranged for solo piano by Vladimir Horowitz. (Essentially a piano transcription of Ravel’s orchestration—a translation of a translation, in other words—Horowitz’s Pictures are far removed, stylistically, from Mussorgsky’s). But Ravel’s orchestration remains the best-known guide to Mussorgsky’s picture collection.

Mussorgsky chose eleven of Hartmann’s works for his set of piano pieces. He owned the sketches of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, which were combined in one “picture”; most, though not all, of the other works were in Stassov’s exhibition. Some of the original pictures have since disappeared. (Of the four hundred Hartmann works exhibited, less than a hundred have come to light; only six of those in Mussorgsky’s score can be identified with certainty.)

Mussorgsky referred to Pictures as “an album series,” implying a random, ad hoc collection of miniatures, but the score is a coherently designed whole, organized around a recurring theme and judiciously paced to progress from short pieces to a longer, majestic finale—creating a kind of crescendo effect like that of Schumann’s Carnaval. Mussorgsky had no use for the conventional forms of the earlier classical masters— “I am not against symphonies,” he once wrote, “just symphonists, incorrigible conservatives.” We don’t know when Mussorgsky settled on the overall layout of his picture series, but a letter he wrote to Stassov suggests that he had worked on at least the first five in order, and apparently had the entire set in mind when he started.

Mussorgsky begins with a promenade, which takes him into the gallery and later accompanies him as he walks around the room, reflecting a change in mood from one picture to another. (Despite his considerable girth, Mussorgsky apparently was a fast walker—the promenade is marked allegro, rather than andante [Italian for “walking”]—and Mussorgsky was precise in his tempo markings.)

  1. Gnomus. Hartmann’s drawing, which has since been lost, was for a Christmas tree ornament— “a kind of nutcracker, a gnome into whose mouth you put a nut to crack,” according to Stassov’s commentary in the catalog. Mussorgsky’s music, with its awkward leaps, bizarre harmonies, and slippery melodies, suggests the gnome’s “droll movements” and “savage shrieks.”
  2. The Old Castle. Two drawings of medieval castles are listed in the catalog, both sketched while Hartmann was in France, just before he met The music gives song to the troubadour standing in front of the castle. Mussorgsky’s melody, which Ravel memorably gives to the alto saxophone, is clearly indebted to Russian folk music, despite the provenance of the castle.
  3. Tuileries: Hartmann lived in Paris long enough to get to know the famous park with its squabbling children and their
  4. Bydlo. Stassov describes a Polish wagon (“bydlo” is Polish for cattle) drawn by oxen. Although Mussorgsky wanted the piece to begin fortissimo— “right between the eyes,” as he told Stassov — Rimsky- Korsakov switched to a pianissimo opening followed by a crescendo to create the illusion of the approaching cart and the tread of hooves.
  5. Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells. Hartmann designed costumes for a ballet, Trilbi, in 1871. The music depicts a scene where “a group of little boys and girls, pupils of the Theatre School, dressed as canaries, scampered on the stage. Some of the little birds were wearing over their dresses big eggshells resembling breastplates.”
  6. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. Mussorgsky owned these two drawings entitled “A Rich Jew in a Fur Hat” and “A Poor Jew,” to which he gave proper names. Hartmann, whose wife was Polish, visited Sandomierz, in southern Poland, in 1868; there he painted scenes and characters in the Jewish ghetto, including these two men, as well as Mussorgsky begins with the commanding Goldenberg; Ravel makes Schmuyle’s whining reply wonderfully grating.
  7. The Market Place at Limoges. Hartmann did more than a hundred and fifty watercolors of Limoges in 1866, including many genre pictures. In the margin of his score, Mussorgsky brings the scene to life: “Great news! de Puissangeout has just recovered his cow . . . Mme de Remboursac has just acquired a beautiful new set of teeth, while M. de Pantaleon’s nose, which is in his way, is as much as ever the color of a peony.”
  8. Catacombs: Sepulcrum Hartmann, a friend, and a guide with a lamp explore underground Paris; to their right in Hartmann’s watercolor is a pile of skulls.
    Con mortuis in lingua mortua. At the end of Catacombs, Mussorgsky penciled in his manuscript: “Con mortuis in lingua mortua” (With the dead in a dead language), signaling the start of this mournful rendition of the Promenade.
  9. The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba-Yaga). Hartmann sketched a clock of bronze and enamel in the shape of the hut of the witch Baba-Yaga. Mussorgsky concentrates not on the clock, but on the child-eating Baba- Yaga herself, who, according to Russian folk literature, lived deep in the woods in a hut on hen’s legs, which allowed her to rotate to confront each approaching (Incidentally, Stassov’s first impression of Hartmann was of him dressed as Baba-Yaga at a masked ball in 1861.)
  10. The Great Gate of Kiev. Hartmann entered this design in a competition for a gateway to Kiev that was ultimately called off for lack of funds. Hartmann modeled his gate on the traditional headdress of Russian women, with the belfry shaped like the helmet of Slavonic Mussorgsky’s piece, with its magnificent climaxes and pealing bells, finds its ultimate realization in Ravel’s orchestration.
Share on Facebook

Comments are closed.