PROGRAM NOTES: SDYS Chamber Orchestra with Caroline Goulding, violin
by Eric Bromberger
Overture to Così fan tutte, K.588
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 5 minutes
Così fan tutte has always been Mozart’s “other” great opera, the one people remember after they have thought of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute. Commissioned by Emperor Joseph II, Così fan tutte was premièred in Vienna on January 26, 1790 (the day before the composer’s 34th birthday) and was a great success, being produced ten times in that year alone. But the subject of the opera–the constancy (or, more accurately, the inconstancy) of women– has proven troublesome. The title Così fan tutte translates rather lasciviously “They all do it” (the article is feminine), and nineteenth-century audiences thought the whole thing immoral. Soon after its première, Così fell into a long obscurity from which it was rescued a century later by the young Richard Strauss, who recognized the sparkle and wit behind the at times acid-edged story.
Some of Mozart’s opera overtures have become staples of the concert hall, but the overture to Così has never become a particular favorite with audiences, who find it energetic and polished, but a trifle cool and detached. The brief overture opens with an Andante introduction, then rushes ahead at the Presto: rustling strings and chains of woodwind lines flow smoothly together, alternating with sections built on resounding chords for full orchestra. None of the music from the overture reappears in the opera, with one crucial exception: at the end of the Andante introduction, lower strings sound a solemn descending line that resolves into the huge chords that introduce the Presto. This music, which returns at the close of the overture, is taken from Don Alfonso’s aria near the end of the opera: “Tutti accusan le donne, ed io le scuso”: “All accuse women, and I excuse them.” That line becomes, in a sense, the moral of the opera, and Don Alfonso’s ringing words “Così fan tutte!” are set to the same chords that mark the end of the overture’s Andante introduction. Mozart clearly composed the overture after the opera was complete, and the one bit of music he included from the opera encapsulates the meaning of all that follows.
Violin Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Major, K.207
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Approximate Duration: 21 minutes
Mozart wrote all five of his violin concertos in 1775, when he was 19, and they were probably first played by the court concertmaster in Salzburg, the Italian virtuoso Antonio Brunetti. The First dates from April, and another followed every few months thereafter until the series culminated in December with the magnificent “Turkish” Concerto. Scholars have been unanimous in recognizing a steady improvement with each successive installment of this series, and their praise for the Fifth has been lavish indeed: Alfred Einstein describes it “unsurpassed for brilliance, tenderness, and wit.”
So what–by implication–does such a progression say about the Violin Concerto No. 1? That it must be inferior? Not necessarily, but it is important to remember that this was a transition period in Mozart’s creative career–only a handful of the 200 works he had written to this date remain in the active repertory. When he wrote this concerto, in fact, Mozart had virtually no experience writing concertos: he had written only five piano concertos (and four of these were arrangements of music by other composers, made when he was 11) and the Bassoon Concerto. The mastery of Mozart’s mature piano concertos–in which concerto form provides the setting for the most acute opposition of soloist and orchestra, subtle development of musical material, and careful integration of virtuosity into the symphonic argument–was still some years in the future. In fact, many have noted an element of serenade style in Mozart’s violin concertos: they breathe an atmosphere of easy charm, tunefulness, and relaxed spirits well-suited to their goal of providing pleasing entertainment.
Certainly the Violin Concerto No. 1 is memorable for its profusion of cheerful themes, and so fertile is Mozart’s imagination here that no theme ever seems to come back literally; rather they are always in the process of evolving, growing, becoming ever more melodic. The Allegro moderato opens with a brief but crisp orchestral introduction, and the soloist quickly enters on the orchestra’s opening gesture. This movement is full of non-stop energy: there is no episode at a slower speed or of more lyrical character. Instead, this movement sparkles along with a sort of breathless impetuosity. By contrast, the Adagio brings an unending flow of melody. The orchestra lays out the silky main idea, and when the violin enters it is at first only to accompany a repetition of this theme; soon the violin takes wing with its own soaring material, and this movement sings gracefully throughout. The finale, aptly marked Presto, offers the greatest wealth of themes: one hears new ideas all the way through, as if each turn of phrase sets off Mozart’s imagination with new possibilities. Mozart’s use of material borders on the prodigal here: certain themes flash past and then vanish (one wishes, for example, that the orchestra’s slashing 32nd-note snaps from the very opening might return, but they never do). With its blazing passagework and wide melodic skips, this is the most overtly virtuosic of the three movements, yet it too dances and sings happily all the way to the close. Mozart offers the opportunity for cadenzas at the end of all three movements.
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Opus 60
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 33 minutes
Over the second half of 1803, Beethoven composed his Third Symphony, the Eroica, and that white-hot symphony redefined what music might be. No longer was it a polite entertainment form–now it became a vehicle for the most serious and dramatic expression. Even as he was revising the Eroica, Beethoven began to have ideas for a new symphony, of similar scope and set in C minor, and he made some sketches for it. But he set these plans aside to take on another musical project based on the idea of heroism, the opera Leonore (later renamed Fidelio). Leonore occupied Beethoven for nearly two years, and it was not until 1806 that he had seen the opera through its première and revision.
In the summer of 1806 Beethoven accompanied his patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky to the prince’s summer palace at Troppau in Silesia. That September, composer and prince
paid a visit to the nearby castle of another nobleman, Coun Franz von Oppersdorff. The count was a musical enthusiast almost without equal: he maintained a private orchestra at his castle and would hire new staff for the castle only if they played an instrument and could also play in his orchestra. During that visit, the orchestra performed Beethoven’s Second Symphony, and the count commissioned a new symphony from the composer: Beethoven would receive 500 florins, and in return Oppersdorff would get the dedication, the first performance, and exclusive rights to the music for six months. Beethoven returned to Lichnowsky’s palace and set to work on the symphony, but he did not use his sketches for a symphony in C minor. Instead, he composed his Fourth Symphony from completely new material.
Beethoven’s business dealings could sometimes be slippery, and so they were now. The composer got his 500 florins, but all Oppersdorff got in return was the dedication– Beethoven went ahead and had the Fourth Symphony premièred in Vienna on March 7, 1807, at a private concert that also saw the première of the Coriolan Overture and the Fourth Piano Concerto. Only after the Fourth Symphony had been premièred did Beethoven return to the sketches for a symphony in C minor he had made right after completing the Eroica. We know it today as the Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, begun before but completed after the Fourth Symphony.
The Fourth Symphony has inevitably been overshadowed by the titanic symphonies on either side of it, a relationship best captured in Schumann’s oft-quoted description of the Fourth as “a slender Greek maiden between two Nordic giants.” The Fourth does seem at first a relaxation, a retreat from the path blazed by the Eroica. Some have been ready to consider the Fourth a regression, and others have specifically identified the influence of Haydn on it: the symphony opens with the sort of slow introduction Haydn often used, and it employs the smallest orchestra of any Beethoven symphony (it has only one flute part). But Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony is only superficially Haydnesque, and we need to be careful not to underestimate this music–the Fourth has a concentrated structure and enough energy that it achieves some of the same things as the Fifth, though without the darkness at the heart of that mighty symphony.
The originality of the Fourth Symphony is evident from its first instant–the key signature may say B-flat major, but the symphony opens in B-flat minor. Everything about this
Adagio introduction feels strange. Not only is it in the wron key, but soon it seems to be in no clear key at all. It is hard to make out any thematic material or direction. And the pace of this uncertainty is very slow–in his study of Beethoven’s symphonies, Richard Osborne quotes Carl Maria von Weber’s derisive review of this opening: “Every quarter of an hour we hear three or four notes. It is exciting!” Yet Beethoven knows what he’s about, and he does the same thing in the introduction to his String Quartet in C Major, Opus 59, No. 3, written at exactly the same time: both works begin in a tonal fog, but those mists blow away with the arrival of the main body of the movement, marked Allegro vivace in both symphony and quartet.
That transition is done beautifully in the Fourth Symphony. As the music approaches the Allegro vivace, huge chords lash it forward, and when the main theme leaps out brightly, we recognize it as simply a speeded-up version of the slow introduction. That shape, so tentative at the very beginning, takes a variety of hard-edged forms in the main body of the movement: it becomes the second theme as well, presented by bassoon and other solo woodwinds, and it also forms an accompaniment figure, chirping along happily in the background. This is a substantial movement (much longer than the first movement of the Fifth), and it drives to a powerful close.
The Adagio may be just as original. It opens not with a theme but with an accompaniment: the second violins’ dotted rhythms (outlining the interval of a fourth) will tap into our consciousness all the way through this movement. First violins sing the main theme, which Beethoven takes care to mark cantabile. Hector Berlioz’s comments on this melody may seem a little over the top, but they do speak to its air of great calm: “the being who wrote such a marvel of inspiration as this movement was not a man. Such must be the song of the Archangel Michael as he contemplates the world’s uprising to the threshold of the empyrean.” The second subject, of Italianate ease, arrives in the solo clarinet and preserves some of this same atmosphere. Throughout, Beethoven continually reminds the orchestra to play not just cantabile but also espressivo, dolce, and legato. At the close, solo timpani very quietly taps out the movement’s accompaniment rhythm one final time before the movement concludes on two surprisingly fierce chords.
Beethoven marked the third movement Allegro vivace, and this is in every way a scherzo: its outer sections are full of rough edges and blistering energy, and its witty trio is built on a rustic woodwind tune spiced with saucy interjections from the violins. This movement has an unusual structure: Beethoven brings the trio back for a second appearance (the structure is ABABA) and drives it to a fun close–two horns attempt a fanfare of their own but are cut off when Beethoven brings down the guillotine blade of the full orchestra.
Out of that emphatic ending, the finale bursts to life, and it goes like a rocket. This movement may be in sonata form, but it feels like a perpetual-motion with a basic pulse of racing sixteenth-notes that hardly ever lets up. There is some relaxed secondary material along the way, but even this is at high speed, and finally the movement races to a grand pause. Out of that silence Beethoven slows the movement almost to a crawl (the perpetual-motion theme feels as if it has become stuck in glue), then suddenly releases it, and lower strings rush the symphony to its powerful concluding chords.