Lang Lang Gala Program Notes

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HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Roméo et Juliette, Dramatic Symphony, Opus 17 (1839) 

As a young student of composition in Paris, Berlioz was bowled over by performances of Hamlet and of Romeo and Juliet as performed by a touring English company. Before its arrival, the French had generally preferred their drama faithful to a classical tradition that had long since become stodgy. The experience of Shakespeare’s sweeping, fast-moving tragedies, opened many eyes—including the composer’s. (The fact that he was equally affected by the actress playing Ophelia and Juliet—Harriet Smithson, who was eventually to become his wife—only added spice to his excitement.) Shakespeare provided specific literary models for Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet and his Béatrice et Bénédict (based on Much Ado About Nothing); but even more, the Bard affected his entire aesthetic by suggesting ways of bringing together highly varied materials into a unified work of art. Just as Shakespeare combined prose and verse, high comedy and low, or even comedy with tragedy in a single work, Berlioz realized that he need not restrict himself to “pure” musical forms, but could mix elements from many different kinds of works.

Berlioz thought of it originally as a symphony based on selected incidents in Shakespeare, with a choral finale. But as he worked, he kept adding bits here and there to refer to portions of the play that wouldn’t fit in his symphonic framework. Eventually he frankly accepted that it would consist of various sections freely strung together, though he described the finished work (with light sarcasm) as a “dramatic symphony,” one in which the “feelings and passions are to be expressed by the orchestra.” 

The two orchestral passages included here begins with “Romeo alone,” depicting the young lover standing in the dark outside Capulet’s house listening to the sounds of merriment within and focusing his longing on Juliet.  It is followed by the sounds of the great party going on within the house, taking place early in the evening when Romeo and Juliet will meet in the balcony scene and affirm their soon-to-be tragic love. 

No score from the first half of the nineteenth century displays more clearly than the great orchestral movements from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet the expressive range won by the romantic era for purely instrumental music. The flexible treatment of musical ideas, the harmonic richness, and the delicate colors of the orchestration represent not only Berlioz’s most splendid musical achievement of the 1830s, but also one of the signal accomplishments of all romantic music, an inspiration and influence on all who followed him, including specifically and especially Liszt and Wagner.

 

BÉLA BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1931) 

By 1930, Bartók, who made his living as a virtuoso pianist far more than as a composer (since there were, in those days, too few performances of his music to pay the rent), must have felt the need for a new showpiece. Since 1927 his orchestral appearances had featured the Piano Concerto No. 1, composed the previous year. After the premiere in Frankfurt, he had performed it in London, Prague, Warsaw, New York, Boston, Budapest, Cologne, and Berlin. (America proved far from ready for Bartók’s most recent music; the Boston Symphony performance of the concerto, in February 1928 under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky, evoked an astonishing review from Musical America: “this work from first to last was one of the most dreadful deluges of piffle, bombast and nonsense ever perpetrated on an audience.”) 

A new concerto would give him another choice of repertory for orchestral bookings. He began the piece in the fall of 1930, but evidently worked most intently during the following summer. He had been scheduled to teach harmony and composition at the Austro-American Conservatory, a summer school near Salzburg, but when he arrived, he discovered that he had only a single student. Eventually his class load increased to three students; still, he was well paid for his time, which he put to good use in more creative ways. 

Bartók composed his concerto between the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets, and like those works, it makes extensive use of arch form; it is also replete with the devices of variation technique, which were always a central part of Bartók’s compositional approach. The last movement grows out of material from the first movement, varied in its rhythmic shape. The second movement, too, which has its own, simpler, arch shape, consists of a hushed Adagio surrounding a demonic Presto.

From early in his musical life, Bartók became familiar with the keyboard music of the Baroque masters, especially Bach and Scarlatti. The Second Concerto embodies the spirit of that music, especially in its rhythmic drive, built of tiny repeated cells—bustling eighth and sixteenth notes—reiterated energetically, and in its contrapuntal textures. Though the work contains some acerbic dissonances and complex chords, its basic harmonic plan is far simpler than that of Bartók’s earlier music, and strongly classical: the first and last movements are centered on G, the middle movement on C. 

After an opening spray of sound from the piano, the trumpet introduces the first important motive, and the piano follows at once with another. The very sound of the first movement comes as a surprise: only the winds and percussion play along with the piano. The string sections sit patiently, doing nothing. (There is an obvious model in Stravinsky’s 1924 piano concerto with winds and percussion.) The first movement itself is laid out in an arch form consisting of several small arches (opening ABA with the full ensemble, in which the B section is marked by triplet movement in the piano part; a central section featuring the solo piano in a concertino arrangement with individual instruments or small groups; and a closing ABA). The large closing section mirrors the opening section melodically: that is, the themes heard at the outset return played upside-down (the technical term for this is “in inversion”) and backwards (“retrograde”). 

The strings, which had nothing to do throughout the first movement, enter all by themselves at the beginning of the second, muted, played without vibrato, and laid out in spacious chords of piled-up fifths. This first part of the movement is again in a small-scale arch form, the string passage alternating with a foreboding dialogue between the solo piano and the timpani:

Strings—Dialogue—Strings—Dialogue—Strings. 

The piano and timpani seem ready to begin another dialogue when they suddenly explode into a demonic Presto, buzzing with energy that fills the middle section of the movement. It races to a halt on a sustained trill, whereupon the Adagio returns, with the piano, strings, and timpani now commenting simultaneously. 

Bartók’s interest in balanced structures is equally evident in the finale, a complex rondo. But beyond that, he balances the concerto as a whole, building the rondo largely out of themes and textures from the opening movement. The main thematic section (a motoric passage built on the interval of the minor third) is new, but the contrasting sections are all derived from the first movement. Bartók often changed the rhythmic character of the themes substantially, so they are easier to see than hear, though the first appearance of the opening motives, now converted to smoothly rolling triplets, is straightforward enough. 

Whether the listener is conscious of the derivations or only takes them in on a subconscious level, Bartók’s symmetrical plan shapes the balance of the concerto. While the resulting work is a complex one at many levels, it is nonetheless far simpler in its harmonic complexity than many earlier Bartók compositions. In that respect, the Second Piano Concerto also clearly points the way toward the composer’s late music.

 

SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet, Ballet in four acts, Opus 64, selections from Suites No. 1 and 2 (1936) 

Prokofiev was already an experienced ballet composer when, in the mid‑1930s, he began to work on a full‑length version of Romeo and Juliet. He had attained a firm reputation in the West as a composer of advanced tendencies, but his early music had never been well received in the Soviet Union, where art that did not appeal to the broadest masses was suspicious. After his return to Moscow in 1933, then, his musical style underwent a marked process of simplification as he turned his attention to larger audiences than before. His considerable success in this change may be indicated simply by listing some of the works composed in those first years back in Russia: Lieutenant Kije, the Second Violin Concerto, Romeo and Juliet, Peter and the Wolf, and the film score for Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky

The proposal for a Romeo ballet came from the Kirov Theater in 1934. When the Kirov backed out of the production, Prokofiev signed a contract with the Bolshoi in Moscow. But upon delivery of the score, the company declared the music impossible to dance to, and the contract was broken. 

In an attempt to salvage music in which he put great faith, Prokofiev arranged two orchestral suites of selections from the ballet. These became exceedingly popular and eventually brought pressure for a full theatrical production. In the end, the ballet became one of the greatest triumphs in the career of the composer and of the ballerina, Galina Ulanova, who was the first Juliet. Her success was ironic, since all through the rehearsal period, Ulanova had insisted that Prokofiev’s music was “strange” and that she simply could not conceive how the love of Romeo and Juliet could be expressed in it—but she eventually learned! 

The suites present music in a different order from their appearance in the ballet. Suite No. 1 includes the segments known as Tableau, Gavotte, Masks, and the dramatic Death of Tybalt as a close. For the most part these are decorative dance numbers with little connection to the ballet’s plot. (The Gavotte is the best-know part of this score, because Prokofiev originally composed it as the third movement of his popular “Classical” Symphony.) 

Suite No. 2 contains more of the dramatic numbers: The Montagues and the Capulets (the two rival families in Verona), Juliet the young girl (representing Juliet before she has been overwhelmed by love), a Dance, and The Tomb of Juliet, where the tragic story comes to its close. 

The score reveals the mellowing of Prokofiev’s earlier style (a process that was to continue in the 1940s), but it is rich in color, accessible without being vapid, and lyrical throughout. The full ballet combines formal dance and divertissement with psychological and dramatic studies of the principal characters in a way that goes back to and continues from Tchaikovsky, highlighting the dramatic essence of the work with its combination of both “personal” and “public” music. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet remains the most successful and perhaps the greatest narrative ballet to come from Soviet Russia.

 

© Steven Ledbetter