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PROGRAM NOTES: Czech Philharmonic

by Eric Bromberger

Taras Bulba

Born July 3, 1854, Hukvaldy, Moravia
Died August 12, 1928, Moravska Ostrava, Czech Republic

Has there ever been a more horrific piece of music than Janáček’s Taras Bulba? Across its 24-minute span, a father murders his son, one of the main characters is tortured and screams in pain as his enemies dance in joy before the spectacle, and the title character is nailed to a tree and burned to death. Virtually every minute of this music brings one more bloody horror, yet for Janáček this was heroic, optimistic music, and he made his intentions clear in a concise statement: “In it I celebrate a prophecy of Slavonicism.” Clearly there is a story behind all this, and it is complex.

In 1835 Nikolai Gogol published a novella loosely based on the historical figure of Taras Bulba, who had led Ukrainian Cossacks in a seventeenth-century revolt against the repressive Poles. Though he was killed in the course of the fighting, Taras Bulba–and Gogol’s depiction of him–have remained vivid in the popular imagination across the centuries: Hemingway is reported to have called Taras Bulba one of the ten greatest novels ever written, and it was the basis for an epic 1962 movie starring Tony Curtis and Yul Brynner. But Janáĉek was attracted to Gogol’s tale for reasons very different than Hollywood filmmakers.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Janáček was sixty years old. He was a respected but virtually unknown provincial composer, and–like Smetana and Dvořák before him–he was a passionate believer in the cause of Czech nationalism. Janáček saw in the Russian army a great hope: fellow Slavs, they would defeat the Germans and in the process liberate the Czechs from centuries of oppressive Hapsburg rule. In 1915 Janáček began work on a piece of music he at first referred to as a “Slavonic Rhapsody” that would depict the exploits of a great Slavic leader against foreign domination. By the time Janáček completed the score on March 29, 1918, of course, the Russian army was no longer a player in World War I–the Communist Revolution had swept that nation and its army in an entirely different direction. But Janáček’s Slavic nationalism was rewarded all the same: the republic of Czechoslovakia was proclaimed in 1918, three years before Taras Bulba was premièred on October 9, 1921.

Janáĉek may have called this music a “rhapsody” but it is really a tone poem in which each of the three movements depicts the death of a main character. Andri was Taras Bulba’s younger son, who–like his brother Ostap–was called home by his father to take part in the fighting. While studying in Poland, however, Andri had fallen in love with a young Polish woman, and–reunited with her during the siege of Dubno–he abandons his cause to fight for the Poles. His reward for this betrayal is death: his father tracks him down in battle, Andri accepts his fate and kneels, and his father beheads him. The opening of the first movement depicts Andri’s love for the young Polish woman, and mournful solos for English horn, oboe, and violin suggest that his conscience is troubled even as he falls in love. The music gradually accelerates, and to the sound of ringing bells trombones make a fierce entrance–this music, associated with Taras Bulba himself, is menacing and overpowering. A brief reminiscence of the love music leads to the dramatic close.

In the second movement, Ostap has been captured by the Poles, who celebrate as he is tortured and executed. His father, disguised, manages to infiltrate the mob, and when Ostap screams out in pain, asking if his father is there, Taras Bulba shouts out encouragement to his dying son and then disappears into the crowd. Though this movement begins quietly, tensions build quickly, and Janáček depicts the celebration of the Poles with a wild mazurka accompanied by the sound of a triangle. Ostap’s screams of pain are heard in the shrieks of an E-flat clarinet, and the movement concludes at the moment of his execution.

The final movement brings the death of Taras Bulba himself: the Poles capture him, nail him to a tree, and burn him to death. But even as the flames billow up around him Taras Bulba retains his composure and looks forward calmly to the triumph of his peoples’ cause (this is “the prophecy of Slavonicism” that Janáček described as the essence of the music). Marked Con moto, the movement opens with dark premonitions. Trombones recall the music associated with Taras Bulba in the opening movement, and this rises to a climax as dramatic timpani strokes depict his being nailed to the tree. But now the mood changes sharply: organ, harp, and bells enter as Taras Bulba proclaims his faith in his people, the movement drives to a heroic climax, and Janáček’s Taras Bulba comes to its conclusion on a violent final page that seems to mix equal measures of tragedy and triumph.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major, S.125 FRANZ LISZT
Born October 22, 1811, Raiding, Hungary
Died July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany

Both of Liszt’s piano concertos took a very long time to complete. He first sketched the music that would become his Piano Concerto No. 2 in September 1839, just as he turned 28. But he then shelved these sketches as he resumed the life of a traveling virtuoso and did not return to them until 1849, when he was music director in Weimar. Even then, when he was devoting much of his time to composition, this concerto took shape slowly–he revised it several times over the next twelve years, finally completing it in 1861, twenty-two years after he had made his first sketches. The concerto was first performed on January 7, 1857, on a pension fund concert to benefit the members of the Weimar Orchestra. Curiously, Liszt–the greatest pianist on the planet–was not the soloist. That part was taken by one of his students, Hans von Bronsart, and Liszt, seriously ill at that time with a leg infection, almost had to drag himself into the hall to conduct the performance.

The most striking feature of this concerto is that it is in only one movement. Gone completely is the three-movement sonata-form structure of the concerto as it had been refined by Mozart and Beethoven. Liszt respected those concertos and performed them, but he also believed that a composer should not repeat the past (as he felt Brahms was trying to do). Instead, Liszt evolved a new form–though one that had its roots in the music of Schubert–in which one fundamental theme becomes the basis for an entire work. That theme is transformed across the span of the work, reappearing in completely different guises and for different expressive purposes. Some have suggested that this music is not really a piano concerto at all but instead a symphonic poem in which the piano has a prominent part, and Liszt himself referred to it as a Concerto symphonique at the 1857 première, only settling on the more traditional title when the music was published in 1863. One early critic, William Apthorp of the Boston Evening Transcript, was so struck by Liszt’s method and sense of form in this concerto that he described it glibly (but accurately!) as “The life and adventures of a melody.”

To serve as the basis for such an extended musical adventure, a melody must be remarkable, and the impressive thing about Liszt’s basic theme is that it at first seems so unremarkable. This subdued little tune is sung at the very beginning by a handful of woodwinds, and Liszt specifies that it should be dolce, soave (the Italian soave does not translate as our “suave” but “gentle, sweet”). The piano does not make a grand entrance but slips in almost unnoticed, touching on that opening melody only as part of a series of arpeggios. But from this unassuming opening, Liszt builds a remarkable and varied structure, and one of the pleasures of this music lies in following the ingenious ways this simple opening is transformed across the concerto’s twenty-minute span. It can be stamped out by full orchestra one moment, but seconds later it has become a lyric cello solo, and presently it becomes something else. Liszt does employ some secondary material, and this also goes through similar transformation, all woven into the evolution of the opening idea.

The concerto drives to a stirring climax when Liszt transforms his theme into a powerful military march that blazes tautly to life. But this is not the final destination. Instead, the theme continues to evolve, and Liszt spins a magical, lyric transformation he marks appassionato before this imaginative, exciting music rushes to its resounding close.

Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Opus 95 “From the New World”

Born September 8, 1841, Muhlhausen, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904, Prague

When Dvořák landed in America in the fall of 1892 to begin his three-year tenure as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, his new employers tried to turn his arrival into a specifically “American” occasion: they timed his arrival to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America, and the composer himself was to mark that occasion by writing a cantata on the poem The American Flag. Shortly after arriving, Dvořák announced his intention to write an opera on Longfellow’s Hiawatha, and soon “American” elements–Indian rhythms, spirituals, and a birdsong he heard in Iowa–began to appear in the music he wrote in this country.

These elements touched off a debate that has lasted a century. Nationalistic American observers claimed that here at last was a true American classical music, based on authentic American elements. But others have pointed out that the musical characteristics that make up these “American” elements (pentatonic melodies, flatted sevenths, extra cadential accents) are in fact common to folk music everywhere, and that–far from being American–the works Dvořák composed in this country remain quintessentially Czech. Dvořák himself left contradictory signals on this matter. At the time of the première of the “New World” Symphony, he said: “The influence of America can be felt by anyone who has ‘a nose.’” Yet after his return to Europe, he wrote to a conductor who was preparing a performance in Berlin: “I am sending you Kretzschmar’s analysis of the symphony, but omit that nonsense about my having made use of ‘Indian’ and ‘American’ themes–that is a lie. I tried to write only in the spirit of those national American melodies.” Perhaps safest is Dvořák’s simple description of the symphony as “Impressions and greetings from the New World.”

Composed in the first months of 1893, Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony had an absolutely triumphant première on December 16, 1893, by the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall–one New York critic observed tartly of the thunderous ovation that followed each movement: “the staidness and solemn decorum of the Philharmonic audience took wings.” That occasion has been described as the greatest triumph of Dvořák’s life, and the surprised composer wrote to his publisher Simrock: “I had to show my gratitude like a king from the box in which I sat. It made me think of Mascagni in Vienna (don’t laugh!).”

One of the most impressive aspects of this music is Dvořák’s use of a single theme-shape to unify the entire symphony. This shape, a rising dotted figure, first appears in the slow introduction, where it surges up in the horns and lower strings as a foreshadowing of the Allegro molto: there the shape is sounded in its purest form by the horns. This theme (actually in two parts–the horn call and a dotted response from the woodwinds) becomes the basis for the entire movement: when the perky second subject arrives in the winds, it is revealed as simply a variation of the second part of the main theme. The third theme, a calm flute melody in G major that has been compared to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” seems at first to establish a separate identity, but in fact it is based–at a much slower tempo–on the rhythm of the main theme. That rhythm saturates the movement: within themes, as subtle accompaniment, or thundered out by the full orchestra. Dvořák drives the movement to a mighty climax that, pushed ahead by stinging trumpet calls, combines all these themes.

Solemn brass chords introduce the Largo, where the English horn sings a haunting melody that was later adapted as the music for the spiritual “Goin’ Home.” More animated material appears along the way (and the symphony’s central theme rises up ominously at the climax), but the English horn returns to lead this movement to its close on an imaginative stroke of orchestration: a quiet chord built on a four-part division of the double basses. The Scherzo has sounded like “Indian” music to many listeners–and for good reason: Dvořák himself said that it “was suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance, and is also an essay I made in the direction of imparting the local color of Indian character to music.” The pounding opening section gives way to two brief trios, and in the coda the symphony’s central theme boils up one more time in the brass.

After a fiery introduction, the sonata-form finale leaps to life with a ringing brass theme that is, for a change, entirely new. But now Dvořák springs a series of surprises. Back come themes from the first three movements (there is even a quotation–doubtless unconscious–of “Three Blind Mice” along the way). The movement drives toward its climax on the chords that opened the Largo, and it reaches that soaring climax as Dvořák ingeniously combines the main themes of the first movement and the finale. At the end, the composer has one final surprise: instead of ringing out decisively, the last chord is held and fades into silence.