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PROGRAM NOTES: SDYS Chamber Orchestra with Ning Feng, violin

by Eric Bromberger

Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K.492 (1786)

Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

The Marriage of Figaro, based on the Beaumarchais play that had been banned for its theme of social injustice and its portrayal of servants outsmarting their masters, had its première in Vienna on May 1, 1786, and promptly began a successful run. In many respects, Figaro marked the high point of Mozart’s success during his lifetime. On a visit to Prague the following year to conduct the opera, Mozart reported that “here nothing is talked of but Figaro, nothing played but Figaro, nothing whistled or sung but Figaro, no opera so crowded as Figaro, nothing but Figaro.”

Mozart customarily composed the overtures to his operas last, and that was probably the case with The Marriage of Figaro, though there is no evidence that he had to stay up all night before the final rehearsal to get it done, as was the case with Don Giovanni. Mozart’s overtures were usually in sonata form, but he abandoned that form here, and for good reason. The Marriage of Figaro is witty, brilliant, and wise, and it needs an overture that will quickly set its audience in such a frame of mind. This overture is very brief (barely four minutes), and Mozart drops the development section altogether. He simply presents his sparkling themes (there are six of them, even in so short a space!), recapitulates them, and plunges into the opera. Evidence suggests that he had originally begun to compose a D-minor Andante as an interlude at the center of the overture, but saw that it would be out of place and crossed it out.

From the first instant, when this music stirs to life, to its sudden explosions of energy, the overture has delighted all who hear it and is the perfect lead-in to the comic escapades (and human insight) that will follow. Faced with having to choose a performance marking for his players, Mozart dispensed with any description of the emotional character he wanted from a performance. He simply chose one word, and it is perfect: Presto.

Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Minor, Opus 37 (1861)
Allegro non troppo; Moderato
Allegro con fuoco

Ning Feng, violin

Born February 17, 1820, Verviers, Belgium
Died June 6, 1881, Mustapha-lez-Alger, Algeria

The Belgian violinist-composer Henri Vieuxtemps had a career quite similar to that of his contemporary, the Polish violinist-composer Henryk Wieniawski. Both were child prodigies, both studied in Paris, both spent extended periods in Russia, both toured America, and both taught at the Brussels Conservatory in the final years of their lives. Vieuxtemps loved to travel, and so embarked on concert tours that took him throughout Europe and brought him to America for three extended visits; one of the results of his time in America was his encore piece Souvenir d’Amérique, a set of comic variations on “Yankee Doodle.” Ironically, Vieuxtemps’ love of travel led to his death. Riding in an open carriage while on vacation in Algeria, he was struck on the head by a rock thrown by a drunk and died of complications from that injury.

Vieuxtemps is part of the tradition of great Belgian violinist-composers that includes his teacher Charles de Beriot and his student Eugene Ysaÿe. As might be expected, Vieuxtemps wrote primarily for the violin–his compositions include seven violin concertos (of which the Fourth and Fifth are the best-known), a violin sonata, string quartets, and a number of short works for violin. He composed his Fifth Violin Concerto shortly after returning to Paris from his second American tour in 1857. The concerto–which is quite compact–has an unusual form. Its movements are performed without pause, and the first movement is substantial, lasting about eleven minutes, but the cadenza and second and third movements combine to span only about eight minutes. The Allegro non troppo begins with the customary orchestral introduction, and the solo violin makes an unexpectedly subdued entrance. Vieuxtemps writes beautifully for his own instrument here, combining an elegant lyricism with passages of extraordinary virtuosity. The long first movement leads directly into the cadenza (Vieuxtemps composed two different cadenzas for this concerto), which in turns flows without pause into the Adagio. Vieuxtemps borrowed the main theme of this movement from the opera Lucile, composed in 1769 by his countryman André Grétry. Early in that opera, four characters join to sing “Ou peut-on être mieux,” a quartet in praise of domestic happiness, and some of that happy spirit infuses this lyric movement. Vieuxtemps originally intended to conclude the Fifth Concerto at the end of this movement but eventually decided to add fast movement. This blazing finale, marked Allegro con fuoco, whips past in barely a minute.

Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K.385 “Haffner” (1782)
Allegro non troppo; Moderato
Allegro con fuoco


For Mozart, July 1782 brought some of the best of times, and some of the worst. On the 16th of that month, his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio was produced in Vienna after nearly a year of intense work. The Abduction–Mozart’s first opera in German–was a huge success: it was at that première that Emperor Joseph II complained that the opera had “too many notes,” only to be met with Mozart’s famous reply: “Exactly as many as are necessary, Your Majesty.” Mozart was quite busy with other matters as well, arranging the opera for wind ensemble, revising an earlier wind serenade, and preparing for his own marriage to Constanze Weber on August 4. But back in Salzburg, that marriage had been frostily opposed by Mozart’s father Leopold, who had cut off all communication with his son for a time.

And now, in the midst of this frantically busy month, came a letter from Leopold, and it brought a request. In Salzburg, Sigmund Haffner, the son of a prominent family, was being elevated to the nobility. Six years earlier, in 1776, when one of the Haffner daughters was married, the family had asked Wolfgang to compose music for that occasion, and he had responded with the Serenade in D Major, K.250, nicknamed the “Haffner” Serenade. Now, the family wondered, could Wolfgang supply music for the ennoblement ceremony?

The composer nearly exploded. Some sense of his thorny relation with his father burns through his reply: And now I’m supposed to produce a new symphony? How is such a thing possible?

You have no idea how hard it is to arrange something like that for winds so that it really suits them and yet loses none of its effect. Oh well, I must just spend the night over it, otherwise it can’t be done–and for you, dearest father, I’ll make the sacrifice. You’ll definitely get something from me in every mail–I’ll work as fast as possible–and so far as haste permits, I’ll write well.

Desperate for his father’s approval of his marriage, Mozart set to work on the music for the Haffners in what little spare time he had (his father’s approval would arrive–grudgingly–on August 5, the day after he and Constanze were married). While he missed sending something “in every mail,” he did manage over the next couple of weeks to turn out a six-movement serenade consisting of an Allegro, a march, a slow movement, two minuets, and a rondo-finale. He finished and dispatched the last of these movements on August 7, three days after his marriage, and then–with other things on his mind–completely forgot about this music.

He remembered it the following winter. Mozart had scheduled an academy of his own music at the Burgtheater in Vienna on March 23, 1783. It would be a long concert indeed: Mozart played one of his piano concertos, there were arias and other orchestral movements, and Mozart played some solo piano music. He needed a festive orchestral work to open this program, and now he remembered the serenade he had written the previous summer for the Haffners. He wrote to his father, asking to have the manuscript sent from Salzburg. Mozart’s music could impress even its creator, and he wrote back to his father: “My new Haffner symphony has positively amazed, for I had forgotten every single note of it. It must surely produce a good effect.”

It should be noted, though, that what Mozart received from Salzburg was not a symphony, but a serenade. To convert it to a symphony, he made a number of changes, eliminating the opening march (this survives as his March in D Major, K. 408) and one of the two minuets (this has been lost). He also added flutes and oboes to what was now a four-movement symphony. What we know as the “Haffner” Symphony had its first performance at the Burgtheater concert, an evening that was by all accounts a huge success. Mozart described it to his father: “The theater could not possibly have been fuller and all the boxes were taken. What pleased me most, however, was that his Majesty the Emperor was present, was delighted and applauded me loudly.”

The “Haffner” Symphony explodes to life, then seems to overflow with festive energy across its compact (twenty-minute) span. Something of Mozart’s performance before the emperor may be evident from the performance instructions he sent his father the previous summer: “The first Allegro must be played with great fire, the last–as fast as possible.” We feel that “great fire” from the first instant, when the violins make their two-octave leaps and the music races ahead on trills, a firm little march-rhythm, and blazing runs. This symphony is in the “violinist’s key” of D major, a key that sits comfortably under the hand and has a particularly resonant sound, and the writing for violins in the outer movements of this symphony is particularly brilliant. In the course of the movement Mozart three times gives the violin part the unusual marking sciolte: “in a free and easy manner.” This music is hardly “easy,” but that marking does suggest some of the festive quality Mozart wanted in a performance. He builds this Allegro on only one theme–the powerful opening–and this undergoes some impressive contrapuntal extension before the movement races to its ringing close on great D-major chords.

Mozart left no marking for the second movement, and later editors have marked it Andante. It too is in sonata form, contrasting the elegant opening with an active second idea from the second violins and violas. The development is quite brief, and Mozart rounds the movement off with a recapitulation that continues to develop the material. The Minuet returns to the manner (and the key) of the opening Allegro–its powerful beginning makes the same two-octave leap that brought the symphony to life–but the graceful trio draws us into a world of polished elegance.

We should remember Mozart’s instruction that the finale should be “as fast as possible.” He marks it Presto, and it often feels like a perpetual-motion for the combined violin sections, which are given passages of virtuoso brilliance. This movement is just plain fun, with its racing violins, great explosions, surprising little adventures along the way, and the final rush to the sizzling close.

No wonder Joseph II was delighted and applauded so loudly. Over two centuries later, this symphony still has that effect on audiences.

The Comedians, Opus 26 (1938)
Comedians’ Galop
Little Lyrical Scene


Born December 30, 1904, St. Petersburg
Died February 16, 1987, Moscow

In 1938, the year he completed the first version of his opera Colas Breugnon, Dmitry Kabalevsky was asked to provide music for a production at the Central Children’s Theater in Moscow of Daniel’s play The Inventor and the Comedians. Long interested in music for children, Kabalevsky was happy to write music for this play, which tells the story of a band of traveling comedians. Two years after the play was produced, he took ten numbers from his score, changed their order slightly, and arranged them as an orchestral suite called The Comedians. Daniel’s play appears to have disappeared, but nearly eighty years later Kabalevsky’s colorful suite remains one of his most popular works.

Kabalevsky’s finest music is marked by exhilarating energy, a nice sense of irony, and a genuine melodic gift–some of the best music in this suite, in fact, comes in its slow movements. Despite the furious energy of much of this music, textures remain transparent throughout, and the quiet movements offer sensitive writing for solo winds. The ten pieces in The Comedians are admirably concise: the entire suite lasts barely a quarter of an hour.

The Prologue, appropriately marked Allegro vivace, races along on dotted rhythms and the bright color of the xylophone. Comedians’ Galop has become the most famous part of the suite: with its evocation of pratfalls and tumbling clowns, this movement has joined Julius Fucik’s Entry of the Gladiators as some of the greatest circus music ever written.

A leisurely March leads to a somber little Waltz in which the dance tune is passed easily between different instruments. The mock-serious Pantomime, with its ponderous chordal accompaniment, is all the more effective for keeping its tongue in cheek, while the Intermezzo–colored by the sound of varied instrumental duets–comes to a surprising close with a dark string resolution.

The winsome Little Lyrical Scene leads to two movements that show the influence of other composers. Some have heard echoes of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony in the Gavotte, but this graceful music, with its haunting clarinet duet and ironic turns of phrase, bears more fully the imprint of the composer who influenced so much Soviet music–Gustav Mahler. The Scherzo, full of graceful string passages punctuated by wind solos, evokes the atmosphere of Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores.

Kabalevsky rounds off his suite with a blazing Epilogue. This brings back the theme of the Prologue, now in a grand restatement, and the music rushes to a knock-out conclusion.