PROGRAM NOTES: SDYS Chamber Orchestra with Jinjoo Cho, violin
by Eric Bromberger
Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Opus 43
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna
Beethoven had many reasons to accept, in 1800, a commission for a ballet score based on the Prometheus myth: he had long wanted to write a work for the stage, the ballet would be created by the distinguished ballet-master Salvatore Viganò, and frequent performances would mean increased income for the composer. Doubtless the Prometheus story itself, with its tale of a hero bringing enlightenment to mankind, appealed to the young composer. He began work on the score during the second half of 1800, shortly after the première of the First Symphony and at the same time he was writing the “Spring” Sonata.
Prometheus had its first performance at the Burgtheater on March 28, 1801, and–despite some critical carping about the suitability of Beethoven’s music for dancing–the ballet had a reasonable success: it was performed over twenty times during the next two seasons. Beethoven published the overture in 1804, and it quickly became one of his most frequently- performed works, but the score to the rest of the ballet, which consists of sixteen separate numbers, was not published until long after his death.
The Prometheus Overture is extremely concise (it lasts barely five minutes) and powerful–it is easy to understand why this music was performed so frequently. Massive chords open the slow introduction, which leads without pause into the Allegro molto con brio. As that marking suggests, this goes at a blistering pace, introduced quietly by a moto perpetuo theme in the first violins. Woodwinds in pairs announce the bubbling second subject, by turns staccato and syncopated. Part of the reason for the conciseness of this overture is the fact that it has no development section: Beethoven simply introduces his ideas, recapitulates them, and the Prometheus Overture hurtles to its close.
Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64
Born February 3, 1809, Hamburg
Died November 4, 1847, Leipzig
“I would like to write you a violin concerto for next winter. One in E minor keeps running through my head, and the opening gives me no peace.” So wrote Mendelssohn to his lifelong friend, violinist Ferdinand David, in 1838, and that opening has given millions of music-lovers no peace ever since, for it is one of the most perfect violin melodies ever written. Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto seems so polished, so effortless in its easy flow that this music feels as if it must have appeared in one sustained stroke of Mendelssohn’s pen. Yet this concerto took seven years to write. Normally a fast worker, Mendelssohn worked very carefully on this music, revising, polishing, and consulting with David–his concertmaster at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra–at every step of its composition. He completed the score while on vacation in Bad Soden, near Frankfurt, during the summer of 1844, and David gave the première in Leipzig on March 13, 1845. Mendelssohn was sick at that time and could not conduct, so his assistant, the Danish composer Niels Gade, led the first performance.
We do not normally think of Mendelssohn as an innovator, but his Violin Concerto is as remarkable for its originality as for its endless beauty. So over-familiar has this music become that it is easy to miss its many innovations. These begin in the first instant: Mendelssohn does away with the standard orchestral exposition and has the violin enter in the second bar with its famous theme, marked Allegro molto appassionato and played entirely on the violin’s E-string; this soaring idea establishes the movement’s singing yet impassioned character from the very beginning. Other themes follow in turn–a transitional figure for the orchestra and the true second subject, a chorale-like tune first given out by the woodwinds. This concerto offers wonderful violin music: Mendelssohn played the violin himself, and he consulted with David at every point–the result is a concerto that sits gracefully under the violinist’s hand and sounds to its listeners as poised and idiomatic as it actually is. It is also easy to miss how deftly this concerto is scored: Mendelssohn writes for what is essentially the Mozart-Haydn orchestra (pairs of woodwinds, trumpets, and horns, plus timpani and strings), and he is able to keep textures transparent and the soloist audible throughout, but he can also make that orchestra ring out with a splendor that Mozart and Haydn never dreamed of. The quiet timpani strokes in the first few seconds, which subtly energize the orchestra’s swirling textures, are just one of many signs of the hand of a master. Another innovation: Mendelssohn sets the cadenza where we do not expect it, at the end of the development rather than just before the coda, and that cadenza–a terrific compilation of trills, harmonics, and arpeggios–appears to have been largely the creation of David, who fashioned it from Mendelssohn’s themes. The return of the orchestra is a masterstroke: it is the orchestra that brings back the movement’s main theme as the violinist accompanies the orchestra with dancing arpeggios.
Mendelssohn hated applause between movements, and he tried to guard against it here by tying the first two movements together with a single bassoon note (this has not always stopped audiences, however). The two themes of the Andante might by themselves define the term “romanticism.” There is a sweetness about this music that could–in other hands–turn cloying, but Mendelssohn skirts that danger gracefully. The soloist has the arching and falling opening melody, while the orchestra gives out the darker, more insistent second subject. The writing for violin in this movement, full of double-stopping and fingered octaves, is a great deal more difficult than it sounds.
Mendelssohn joins the second and third movements with an anticipatory bridge passage that subtly takes its shape from the concerto’s opening theme. Resounding fanfares from the orchestra lead directly to the soloist’s entrance on an effervescent, dancing melody so full of easy grace that we seem suddenly in the fairyland atmosphere of Mendelssohn’s own incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Several other themes appear along the way (Mendelssohn combines some of them in ingenious ways), but it is the sprightly opening melody that dominates as the music seems to fly through the sparkling coda to the violin’s exultant three-octave leap at the very end.
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Opus 11
Felix Mendelssohn may have been the greatest prodigy in the history of music. His talents as a pianist, his sense of form, and his musical instincts rivaled–perhaps even surpassed–those of the young Mozart. Though his family was wary of a career in music, they recognized the boy’s talent very early and did all they could to encourage it: they arranged to have the finest professional musicians in Berlin perform his music as soon as it was written, and they hired one of the best musical pedagogues available, Karl Zelter, to teach the boy composition. Zelter put the boy through a rigorous apprenticeship, and Mendelssohn had written countless works before he was finally allowed to publish his official Opus 1, a piano quartet, when he was fourteen.
As part of the boy’s training, Zelter had made Mendelssohn write a series of symphonies for strings, and twelve of these survive (they are occasionally still performed). Late in 1823 Mendelssohn wrote a thirteenth symphony for strings, in C minor, and then pressed on to arrange it for full orchestra, which in this case meant Mozart’s classical orchestra. He completed what would be his first “official” symphony on March 31, 1824, a month after his fifteenth birthday. The young composer led the première at a private concert the following November 11. To help celebrate the nineteenth birthday of Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny, the family had hired a professional orchestra, and that première took place in the family home in Berlin. The first public performance, by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, had to wait until February 1, 1827.
Karl Zelter was an extremely conservative teacher (he loathed the music of Beethoven, then still active in Vienna) and insisted that Mendelssohn compose in strict classical forms. And so Mendelssohn’s First Symphony is very much in the manner of Haydn and Mozart. Unlike his teacher, young Mendelssohn admired Beethoven, and he chose Beethoven’s own favorite “dark” key of C minor for his first symphonic effort. The opening Allegro di molto gets off to a fierce and dramatic beginning, and this makes the flowing second subject all the more attractive. Young Mendelssohn takes this movement through some remote keys before closing firmly in C minor. The Andante, also in sonata form, is based largely on its chorale-like opening theme for strings, while young Mendelssohn sets the Menuetto in the unexpected meter 6/4. Its trio section, another chorale-like melody but this time in A-flat major, makes an extended return to the opening material. Mendelssohn marked the finale Allegro con fuoco, and certainly there is plenty of fire at its vigorous opening. Along the way comes a gentle song for solo clarinet over pizzicato strings, and the boy demonstrates his contrapuntal abilities with several extended fugato passages. At the very end, Mendelssohn suddenly (and unexpectedly) shifts to C major and drives his First Symphony to its powerful conclusion in that key.
A NOTE ON EDITIONS: When Mendelssohn led the London première of his First Symphony on May 25, 1829, he dropped the Menuetto movement and substituted his own orchestration of the Scherzo from his Octet for Strings. The symphony is today performed and recorded in both these versions. At this concert the San Diego Youth Symphony plays Mendelssohn’s original version, with the Menuetto as the third movement.