Classical Cornerstones Program Notes

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CARL MARIA VON WEBER (1786-1826)
Overture to Oberon (1826) 

Weber was marked for the theater from birth. His father was a professional actor, and much of his all‑too‑brief career was spent as a conductor in opera houses all over Germany. He himself began composing for the theater at the age of twelve. Weber eventually came to cherish the goal of creating a true German opera, a goal he substantially accomplished in his last three works, Der Freischütz (1821), Euryanthe (1823), and Oberon (1826). 

Unfortunately, because Weber composed Oberon for London, when the English theater was perhaps at an all-time low, the opera suffered the fate of general neglect. It was based on a German classic poem by Wieland, but the plot and the production were filled with unnecessary spectacle to delight the eye of the “tired businessman.” By the time Weber realized what an artistic hodgepodge he had gotten into, it was too late to withdraw from the project. He consoled himself with the idea that he would completely recompose the work for the German theater, in order to do the subject justice. Alas, his death two months after the premiere put an end to that dream. 

Still, the music was glorious. Weber wrote the overture last, using some of the main themes to hint at the dramatic elements of the story. The opera involves a test of constancy between two lovers, Huon and Rezia. Periodically we hear the magic horn of Oberon blowing. At the end of the overture we hear a grand triumphal procession in the court of Charlemagne. In between a theme in the cellos depicts the awakening of Huon’s love for Rezia. Later a theme in clarinet theme evokes the love between the principals. Given the presence of Oberon and Titania, we may naturally expect some fairy music as well; Weber obliges us with elements that might have influenced the young Mendelssohn and certainly did influence Arthur Sullivan when he came to compose Iolanthe. Despite the ludicrous libretto with which he was saddled, Weber mined from it wonderful images that he turned to musical jewels.

 

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Divertimento for string orchestra (1939) 

The success of the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste, composed for the Basel Chamber Orchesta in 1936 led to another commission from the Swiss ensemble. In November 1938, Sacher asked Bartók to write a new work for string orchestra. He also apparently requested that the new work be somewhat easier to play than the earlier composition. This caused Bartók difficulty for a time. By July 1939 he had decided on a work that recalled the Baroque concerto grosso, with its dialogue between larger and smaller instrumental groups. 

But he found it difficult to begin. Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938 had cast a shadow over all of Eastern Europe. His Viennese publisher was Nazified, and Bartók sought a new publisher elsewhere. Many of his friends began leaving for England or America, but Bartók was too strongly tied to his native land to consider leaving at once. Moreover his mother, to whom he was intensely devoted, was clearly failing. 

That summer, Sacher invited him to be his guest at his Alpine chalet near Basel. Here he completed the entire score in just fifteen days of intense concentration. Two weeks later, the world exploded in war. When Bartók’s mother died that December the last remaining tie to Hungary had been cut. He moved to the United States, where he was to die in 1945, an exile from the land that had vibrated in the very core of his being. 

The Divertimento is one of his most accessible pieces, filled (especially in the outer movements) with rhythms and melodies that evoke Hungarian folk music and dance and fiddling. 

The first movement opens with a melody that grows and grows in the first violins over repeated notes in the other instruments. Solo instruments, appearing after a massive outpouring of block chords in a huge wall of sound, introduce a tiny new idea that is playfully extended—though occasionally cut short by block chords. The recapitulation—in the tradition of Hungarian folk‑fiddling evoked here—is so free as to sound improvisatory. 

The slow movement is one of those wonderful Bartókian “night music” pieces that form so characteristic and memorable a part of his personality. Here, if anywhere, the composer’s suppressed concern for the political madness of the distant outside world is expressed in music that is dark and shadowy, played on muted instruments. This movement belies the title of the work; there is nothing here that could be described simply as “diverting.” 

The final rondo, though, is as lively and unbuttoned a folk dance as Bartók ever composed, a vibrant, ringing contrast to the music of the middle movement. It reflects the good‑humored character of the folk dance, exploiting techniques of popular fiddle‑playing in more refined form, even to the point of giving the principal violinist a kind of gypsy‑violin solo and later on suggesting a slightly tipsy episode sandwiched between two wild‑eyed Vivacissimo passages, the second one bringing the Divertimento to its vigorous close.

 

GYÖRGY LIGETI (1923-2006)
Piano Concerto (1988) 

György Ligeti studied composition with leading composers in his native Hungary, starting with Ferenc Farkas at the Kolzsvár Conservatory in his late teens (1941‑43) and Pál Kadosa in Budapest during the summers of those same years. After the end of the war he continued studying in Budapest, at the Academy of Music, with Farkas and Sándor Veress, graduating in 1949. But at the time, Hungarian music under the domination of the Soviet Union’s demands on the arts, including music. Ligeti was very interested in the latest musical techniques, but he deemed it prudent to suppress his own most advanced works. He pursued research in Romanian folk music, which strongly influenced the simpler pieces that could be published in the early 1950s. He was appointed professor of harmony, counterpoint, and analysis at the Academy of Music in 1950, retaining that position until he left Hungary in 1956 during the short-lived uprising against Soviet control that made that possible. 

He  rapidly formed ties with the leading avant‑garde composers, including Stockhausen, and worked for a time at the electronic studios of the West German Radio in Cologne, an experience that was surely to have an effect on the kind of music he soon began creating for traditional instruments. In 1960 the International Society of Contemporary Music held its quadrennial festival in Cologne, where Ligeti’s Apparitionswas performed, creating a sensation. Overnight he was catapulted into a position of leadership among contemporary composers. After 1960, Ligeti taught all over the world and became one of the most honored composers of the age, culminating in the 1986 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, a $150,000 prize endowed by a Louisville philanthropist, the largest such prize in the world. (He used the money to endow a foundation for the support of younger composers.) His music reached an audience of millions, in a way he did not approve, when it was used in the soundtrack of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

Gradually Ligeti’s music responded to a fascination with fractal mathematics and the elaborate computer images, in which fairly simple formulas are reapplied to themselves over and over again, creating a complex structure out of a surprisingly simple basic principle. Beyond this, he was fascinated by the natural overtones of musical instruments, which add color to musical instruments in performance. But Ligeti often chose to reinforce these “mistuned” overtones by having those very pitches played as if they were fundamental pitches, producing still more complex aggregations of pitches that create denser sonorities and complex colors. 

All of these elements can be found in the Piano Concerto, composed between 1985 and 1988, after a long delay (it had already been commissioned in the late 1970s). Unable to get started on the Piano Concerto he completed only two short harpsichord pieces and the Horn Trio in the next four years. Then he began a series of Piano Etudes, which emphasized the piano’s percussive quality and suitability for polyphonic structures. It was in composing these short but extremely demanding pieces that he found his way into the Piano Concerto. 

The first movement (Vivace molto ritmico e preciso) is filled with energetic activity at a fast clip, filled with driving pulses and varied percussive sounds, partly influenced by American minimalism. 

It is followed by music that could hardly be more different (Lento e deserto), almost devoid of activity, open “empty” sounds with the piano marching gingerly along in a low register. A sudden explosion by a fierce horn call brings in sustained cries from higher woodwinds and rapidly reiterated percussion, eventually returning to the deserted quality of the opening. 

The third movement (Vivace cantabile) opens with a piano trill and a lyrical melody in the right hand, while other instruments contribute motoric elements. Despite the rapid tempo, there is an impression of songfulness. The faster-moving instruments gradually overwhelm the more lyrical lines, then die away into silence. 

The Allegro risoluto, molto ritmico is made up of assertive brief statements that seem unrelated at first, disjunct, separated by shorter or longer silences. The piano demands recognition as the true power here, with powerful chords that  knock the others down, until they scurry away, defeated. 

The finale, Presto luminoso, races along, still maintaining its control over the rest of the ensemble, either swatting the “flies” buzzing around, or taking over briefly in solo moments, without pause right up to the final sharp crack on the last notes.

The Ligeti Piano Concerto calls for an extraordinary virtuoso as soloist, but not in the David-and-Goliath manner of the big Romantic piano concertos. Here the piano is part of the ensemble throughout, but is without question the dominant figure.

           

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 96 in D major, The Miracle (1791) 

Haydn’s two extended visits to London, the first one beginning in January 1791 and the second ending in August 1795, made the Viennese realize that they had a truly great composer in their midst. , a composer who aroused unprecedented enthusiasm from the large musical public in London. He almost certainly made his debut in the concert series of Johann Peter Salomon, the impresario who had brought him to London. Over and over again the reviews noted that Haydn’s music was both “pleasing” and “scientific,” thus  identifying Haydn’s unique accomplishment: creating music that was both immediately accessible and yet fully satisfying to connoisseurs. 

The nickname for the symphony, The Miracle, is known only in England. It apparently came from an event at one of Haydn’s concerts. When he took his place at the piano to direct the performance (conductors at the time did not stand in front of the orchestra) the audience rushed forward to get a good look at him—just as a great chandelier came crashing down in the place where many people had been sitting. This happy circumstance was instantly hailed as a miracle. Whether or not the tale is true, the anecdote apparently got connected to the wrong symphony! 

Still, the nickname The Miracle might justifiably be applied to Symphony No. 96 purely on the grounds of its musical riches, were it not for the fact that Haydn composed eleven other symphonies for his London audience, each of which, in its own way, could be called miraculous. 

Haydn chose to begins with a slow introduction, lending weight to the opening while quieting the enthusiastic audience with a loud first chord, thus ensuring that everyone would hear the actual (quiet) beginning of the movement proper. 

The main material of the Allegro is not so much melodic as rhythmic—though Haydn uses this purposely restricted material in a richly imaginative way. Particularly telling is the pick-up of three eighth-notes, which accumulate potential energy, releasing it on the downbeat to propel the music forward. That particular motive becomes ubiquitous as the movement proceeds. Haydn’s development takes us through the relatively dark key of C major, sequencing to land solidly on an F-sharp, followed by a surprising silence lasting almost three measures. Now, we certainly expect a recapitulation, but Haydn has a delicious surprise: a false reprise in G, which may sound convincing enough at first until he brings us around to the real return, signaled with a quiet scale passage in the first violins, not the horns and trumpets of the purposely misleading joke. 

The Andante is a delicious, lighthearted play featuring woodwind obbligatos and the unusual presence of trumpets and timpani. It takes on a more serious tone with a turn to the minor and the more “academic” air of a fugato for the middle section. Near the end we have a delightful surprise: Haydn pauses on the chord that normally introduces the cadenza in a concerto, and suddenly two solo violins seize the moment, then other instruments demanding to be heard--taking off on a written-out ensemble cadenza, even closing with the traditional trills. 

The minuet is Austrian to the core, from the sturdy grandeur of the main section, which would not have been out of place in any Viennese palace, to the gracefully countrified Ländler of the Trio, with the oboe singing over the simple “oom-pah-pah” of the strings. 

The final movement is one of those pieces in which Haydn employs all the means and all the elements of music to build up to what one writer of the day called “the highest degree of comic art.” Every idea is designed to mislead the listener in trying to guess what will come next and then boldly surprise with something different—yet still totally logical. 

 

© Steven Ledbetter