Program Notes By Eric Bromberger

Slavonic Dances, Opus 46

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

Success came late to Dvořák.  For years he labored in obscurity, supporting himself and his family as an orchestral violist and teacher, and then came the break: his music attracted the attention of Brahms, who alerted his own publisher, Simrock, to the talents of this unknown Bohemian composer.  Simrock commissioned a set of Slavonic Dances from Dvořák, suggesting that he model them on Brahms’ own vastly popular Hungarian Dances.  Dvořák composed a set of eight dances for piano four-hands between April and August 1878 and then orchestrated them.  They were an instant success and quickly traveled around the world–performances followed in Germany, France, Italy, England, and even distant America.  Simrock paid Dvořák only a modest fee for this music, and the publisher did quite well financially on its tremendous success.  For his part, Dvořák got something much better than money: he achieved worldwide fame, and the Slavonic Dances, Opus 46 were really the music that launched his career.  Simrock of course wanted another set of dances, and nine years later Dvořák wrote a further set of eight, which were published as his Opus 72.

This concert opens with four dances from Opus 46, heard in their original form for piano four-hands.  No. 1 in C Major is in the form of a furiant, an old Czech dance in which the meter changes constantly; Dvořák does not change meters constantly here, but the outer sections blaze along in 3/4, while the A-major middle section moves to 3/8.  No. 2 in E Minor is in the form of a dumka, an old dance of Ukrainian origin in which light and dark episodes alternate.  This one gets off to a somber beginning, then alternates this with much faster material.  No. 7 in C Minor is in the form of a skočná, known as a “hopping dance” or “spring dance.” Marked Allegro assai, it begins with a canonic presentation of the principal theme, and this sets the pattern for the entire dance: that opening theme returns in a variety of forms, some presented canonically, some not.  After all this color and excitement, the dance seems to wind down, then suddenly comes to an emphatic close. The famous No. 8 in G Minor is another furiant.  Marked Presto, it bursts to life with a powerful, decisive beginning that quickly leaps between major and minor modes.  The brief central episode moves to G major and flows serenely before the return of the opening material and a very abrupt–and exciting–close.

Dolly Suite, Opus 56

Born May 13, 1845, Pamiers, France
Died November 4, 1924, Paris

In the spring of 1891, Gabriel Fauré was invited by the Princesse Edmond de Polignac to visit a city he had always dreamed of seeing–Venice.  The invitation came at a good time.  Fauré had just been through a difficult period that had seen the death of both his parents, his own extended illness, and financial worries.  In Venice he recovered his health and enjoyed the companionship of sympathetic friends, including the young wife of a wealthy banker, Emma Bardac, who would later become Debussy’s second wife.  Fauré was particularly taken with Emma’s step-daughter Hélène, nicknamed Dolly, and between the years 1894 and 1897 he wrote a suite of six duets for piano-four hands for the little girl.

Music for duo-pianists written for both children and adults appears to have exercised a particular charm for French composers–other notable examples are Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants, Debussy’s Petite Suite, and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite.  The six movements of Fauré’s suite require little detailed comment.  The music opens with a poised and elegant Berceuse (which means lullaby).  This gives way to the fancifully-named Mi-a-ou, which–with its short phrases, asymmetric rhythms, and surprising accents–might seem to suggest the influence of Satie, if that idea were not absurd.  In the graceful Le jardin de Dolly, the melody flows between players over a luxurious accompaniment.  Longest of the movements, Kitty-Valse was a present from Fauré to Dolly on her fourth birthday.  In Tendresse (“Tenderness”), the upper voice plays either with one hand or in octaves, while the lower voice has a much more complicated accompaniment.  The final movement, Le pas espagnol, reminds us of the apparently universal love for Spanish music among French composers.  It dances brightly on its quick 3/8 meter all the way to the dizzying upward rush that brings the suite to its close.

Trio in B-flat Major for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, Opus 11

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

Beethoven wrote this gentle trio in 1798, during his first years in Vienna.  Much of his early chamber music included piano, perhaps to give Beethoven more opportunities to perform in his adopted city.  This particular combination of instruments is unusual, and Beethoven may have written it with the Austrian clarinet virtuoso Joseph Beer in mind (almost exactly a century later, Brahms would write a trio using these same three instruments for the German clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld).  Aware that this combination of instruments might mean infrequent performances, Beethoven also prepared a version in which violin replaces the clarinet.

The Allegro con brio opens with a jaunty unison statement four octaves deep.  The music seems so innocent and straightforward that it is easy to overlook Beethoven’s harmonic surprises: when the second theme arrives, it is in the unexpected key of D major, which sounds striking after the F-major cadence that preceded it.  The Adagio is based on one central idea, heard immediately in the cello and marked con espressione.  This song-like melody is quickly picked up by the clarinet and embellished as the movement proceeds.  Beethoven must have had a particular fondness for this theme, for he used it–in slightly altered form–in his Septet of 1800 and his Piano Sonata in G Major, Opus 49, No. 2, written in 1795.

The finale, marked Allegretto and titled Tema: Pria ch’io l’impegno, is a set of variations on a theme announced at the beginning by the piano.  This sprightly tune was originally a vocal trio in the opera L’amor marinaro (also known as Il Corsaro, or The Corsair) by the Austrian composer Joseph Weigl, and that title translates: “Before I begin work, I must have something to eat.”  The opera had something of a vogue in Vienna at the time (it was premièred there on October 15, 1797), and Hummel and Paganini later wrote variations of their own on this same theme.   Beethoven’s movement consists of the theme, nine variations, and a coda.  The first variation is for piano alone, but the second is for clarinet and cello duet, virtually the only time in the entire trio when the piano is silent.  Subsequent variations alternate between major and minor keys, and a coda based on Weigl’s theme brings the trio to a quick-paced conclusion.

Born March 4, 1678, Venice
Died July 26/27, 1741, Vienna

Are Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons the most popular work in the classical literature?  The evidence seems to suggest that–it has been recorded over a hundred times.  Only Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Ravel’s Bolero approach that number.  Yet sixty-five years ago, hardly anyone had heard of The Four Seasons.  It was a recording of this music that led to the revival of interest in baroque music after World War II, and today new recordings appear all the time.  A mark of its popularity is that–in addition to the violin version–the current catalog lists arrangements for flute, recorder, trombone, brass quintet, guitar trio, electronic synthesizer, and koto ensemble.

The Four Seasons are the first four concertos in the set of twelve Vivaldi published in 1725 as his Opus 8, which he nicknamed Il cimiento dell’ armonia e dell’ inventione (“The Battle between Harmony and Invention”).  Each of the four is a small tone poem depicting events of its respective season, and in the published score Vivaldi printed the four anonymous sonnets his music was intended to depict (the poems may have been written after the music was composed, however).  The Four Seasons are thus one of the earliest examples of program music, but audiences should not expect the kind of detailed musical depiction of a composer like Richard Strauss.  Strauss, who once said that his highest aim was to write fork music that could never be mistaken for a spoon, was a master at painting scenes with an orchestra.  Vivaldi’s music, written nearly two centuries earlier, can seem a little innocent by comparison: his fast movements tend to depict storms, the slow movements shepherds falling asleep.  But this music is so infectious and appealing, the many little touches so charming, that The Four Seasons seem to have an air of eternal freshness about them.  Certainly these four concertos continue to win new friends for baroque music every day.

Each of the four is in the standard form of Vivaldi’s concertos–the first movement opens with a ritornello, or refrain, that will recur throughout the movement; between its appearances, the soloist breaks free with florid, virtuoso music of his own.  The slow movement is usually a melodic interlude, while the finale–dynamic and extroverted–is sometimes cast in dance forms.

Spring marches in joyfully with a buoyant ritornello, and soon the solo violin brings trilling birdsongs and the murmur of brooks and breezes.  Thunder and lightning break out, but the birds return to sing after the storm.  In the slow movement a shepherd sleeps peacefully while his dog keeps watch; the dog’s quiet “Woof! Woof!” is heard throughout in the violas.  Nymphs and shepherds dance through the final movement, which shows some relation to the gigue.  But the movement is no wild bacchanal, and Spring concludes with this most grave and dignified dance.

At the beginning of Summer the world limps weakly under a blast of sunlight–the ritornello is halting and exhausted.  Soon the solo violin plays songs of different birds–cuckoo, dove, and goldfinch–and later the melancholy music of a shepherd boy, weeping at the prospect of a storm.  The Adagio depicts more of his fears: buzzing mosquitoes and flies (quiet dotted rhythms) which alternate with blasts of thunder.  The concluding Presto brings the storm.  A rush of sixteenth-notes echoes the thunder, and lightning rushes downward in quick flashes.

The jaunty opening of Fall depicts a peasants’ dance, and the solo violin picks up the same music.  Soon the violin is sliding and staggering across all four strings–the peasants have gotten drunk and are collapsing and falling asleep; the Adagio molto, an exceptionally beautiful slow movement, shows their “sweet slumber.”  The final movement opens with the sound of the

orchestra mimicking hunting horns.  Vivaldi’s portrait of the hunt is quite graphic–the violin’s rushing triplets depict the fleeing game that finally collapses and dies from exhaustion.

The beginning of Winter is one of the most effective moments in The Four Seasons: quick turns in the orchestra “shiver” with the cold, and later vigorous “stamping” marks the effort to keep warm.  In the wonderful Largo, a graceful, melodic violin line sings of the contented who sit inside before a warm fire while outside raindrops (pizzicato strings) fall steadily.  In the concluding Allegro, the solo violin shows those trying desperately to walk over ice.  The ice shatters and breaks and strong winds blow, but Vivaldi’s music concludes with a sort of fierce joy–this is weather that, however rough, brings pleasure.