Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Overture to La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny)
(b. Le Roncole, near Busseto, Italy, 1813; d. Milan, 1901)
Composed in 1861.
Premiered on November 17, 1862 in St. Petersburg.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs plus piccolo, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, two harps and strings.
Duration: approximately 8 minutes.
Verdi, whose music was a symbol of the Italian unification movement, served the spring of 1861 as a representative to the first National Parliament. When his friend and political mentor, Camillo Cavour, died in June, Verdi’s interest in government waned, and he was again open to composing. At just that time, he received an offer from the Russian Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg to provide them with a new work. It had been three years since he had last written for the stage (A Masked Ball), and he was eager to return to composition. Certainly the proposed contract was lucrative enough to entice him, and it was made even more attractive because he was just then undertaking extensive costly additions and renovations to his beloved villa at Sant’Agata. He agreed to the Russian request, and suggested Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas as a subject, but that proposal was rejected by the St. Petersburg administration since it depicted a royal house in a negative light. Instead, Verdi turned to Don Alvaro, a Spanish play of 1835 by Don Angel de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas. Though its plot was an improbable sequence of events, Verdi was attracted to its strong, contrasting emotions, his most important criterion for a libretto. He sketched the scenario, sent it to his faithful poet Francesco Piave to be versified, and set to work on the music. When Verdi left for Russia in November, the opera was complete except for the orchestration. However, illness felled one of the principal singers, and the premiere was postponed until the following year. When La Forza del Destino was first given, in November 1862, it met with a mixed response. The music was generally acclaimed, but the libretto, with three violent deaths in the last scene, drew less praise. For the 1869 production at La Scala, Milan, Verdi made extensive revisions to the work, and it was at that time that the original, short prelude was expanded to the full Overture that is today among his best-known instrumental works.
The story is set in 18th-century Spain. Alvaro has accidentally killed the father of his beloved, Leonora, during the lovers’ attempted elopement. Separately, they flee. Leonora’s brother, Carlo, swears vengeance on both her and their father’s murderer. Leonora first seeks refuge at a convent, and then goes to live as a hermit in a cave. Carlo and Alvaro meet during a military encounter, and Carlo discovers the true identity of his adversary just after Alvaro is carried away, wounded. Alvaro joins the Church as a monk, but he is followed by Carlo who enrages Alvaro to the point of a duel. They fight near Leonora’s cave, interrupting her prayers, and she goes to see what is causing the commotion. As she emerges from her cave, the lovers recognize each other, and Alvaro cries that he has spilled the blood of yet another of her family. She rushes off to help her fatally wounded brother, but Carlo, with his last bit of strength, stabs Leonora, and she dies in Alvaro’s arms.
For this melodramatic tale, Verdi provided one of his most richly expressive scores. The Overture, utilizing several themes from the opera, reflects the strong emotions of the work, though it does not follow the progress of the story. It opens with a stern summons of six unison notes, after which appears the agitated theme that Verdi intended to represent Fate. This motto recurs throughout both the Overture and the opera as a symbol of the workings of destiny on the principal characters. The brief introduction is followed by an expressive, lyrical melody for woodwinds over pizzicato string accompaniment (sung later in the opera by one of Alvaro’s fellow priests) under which are heard the mutterings of the Fate theme. The violins then give an impassioned phrase from Leonora’s Act II prayer. The Fate theme reappears in a menacing guise before the woodwinds sing a reminder of the priest’s melody. Another of Leonora’s themes, given by clarinet over a rustling harp background, is interrupted as the brass intone a chorale. Leonora’s melody continues in a slower setting for full orchestra, and is then treated to another variation in staccato eighth notes combined with the Fate motive. An energetic coda brings this stirring Overture to a close.
Composed in 1856-1857 and 1880-1881.
Revised version premiered on March 24, 1881 in Milan.
Amelia Grimaldi has been raised by Jacopo Fiesco, a noble in 14th-century Genoa, though, unknown to her, she is the daughter of the city’s Doge, Simon Boccanegra. In the luminous aria Come in quest’ora bruna — How in this morning light the sea and stars shine brightly — Amelia recalls dim memories of her childhood and her long-dead mother as she awaits her lover, Gabriele, a political opponent of Boccanegra.
Come in quest’ora bruna How in this morning light
Sorridon gli astri e il mare! The sea and stars shine brightly!
Come s’unisce, o luna, How your light, o moon,
All’onda il tuo chiaror! Joins with the distant waves!
Amante amplesso pare It seems the fond embrace
Di due verginei cor! Of two virginal hearts!
Ma gli astri e la marina But what do the sky and sea
Che dicono alla mente Bring to the mind
Dell’orfana meschina? Of the poor orphan?
La notte atra, crudel, Memories of the dark and cruel night,
Quando la pia morente When the dying woman
Sclamò, “Ti guardi il ciel.” Exclaimed, “May Heaven watch over you.”
O altero ostel, soggiorno O proud palace, home
Di stirpe ancor più altera, Of a still prouder race,
Il tetto disadorno Yet have I not forgotten
Non obliai per te! My simple roof for you!
Solo in tua pompa austera But in your austere pomp
Amor sorride a me. Love smiles on me.
S’inalba il ciel, ma l’amoroso canto Dawn lights the sky, and still
Non s’ode ancora! I do not hear his loving song!
Ei mi terge ogni dì, come l’aurora He dries my tears each day
La rugiada dei fior, del ciglio il pianto. As the dawn dries the dew from the flowers.
Composed in 1851-1852.
Premiered on January 19, 1853 in Rome.
Il Trovatore, set in northern Spain at the beginning of the fifteenth century, is a tale of nobles and Gypsies and the vengeful circumstances that bring them together to share tragedy. In the story, Count di Luna has fallen in love with Leonora, a lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Aragon, but she is enamored of the trovatore (“troubadour”) Manrico, the Count’s enemy, who has appeared unexpectedly beneath her window to serenade her. They declared their love, and now every night she hopes to have him come to her again. Leonora sings of her longing for Manrico in the dramatic aria Tacea la notte placida — The peaceful night lay silent, and lovely in the quiet sky the silver moon shone there with joyous face.
Tacea la notte placida The peaceful night lay silent,
E bella in ciel sereno and lovely in the quiet sky
La luna il viso argenteo the silver moon
Mostrava lieto e pieno … shone there with joyous face.
Quando suonar per l’aere, Suddenly the silence of the night
Infino allor sì muto … was broken by
Dolci s’udiro e flebili the sweet and mournful sound
Gli accordi d’un liuto, of the lute,
E versi melanconici and the voice of a troubadour
Un Trovator cantò. sang out in mournful song.
Versi di prece ed umile, A humble voice in solemn prayer,
Qual d’uom che prega Iddio; the voice of a man
In quella ripeteasi who speaks to God,
Un nome ... il nome mio! then spoke a name ... my name!
Corsi al veron sollecita … I ran to the balcony ...
Egli era, egli era desso! it was he, it was he!
Gioia provai che agl’angeli Then there came a thrill of joy
Solo è provar concesso! such as only the angels feel!
Al core, al guardo estatico, To my heart, to my enraptured eyes
La terra un ciel sembrò! earth seemed a heaven.
Obliarlo! ... Ah! tu parlasti Forget him! Ah, you have spoken a word
Detto, ch’intender l’alma non sa. that my soul does not understand.
Di tale amor, che dirsi A love that words
Mal può dalla parola, can scarcely describe,
D’amor, che intendo io sola, a love I alone understand
Il cor s’inebriò! has enraptured my heart.
Il mio destino compiersi My destiny cannot unfold
Non può che a lui dappresso … unless I am with him.
S’io non vivrò per esso, Either I shall live for him,
Per esso morirò! or for him I shall die!
Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums) for Strings
(b. Lucca, 1858; d. Brussels, 1924)
Composed in 1890.
Duration: approximately 5 minutes.
In 1883, the year that he graduated from the Milan Conservatory, Puccini submitted his first opera, the one-act Le Villi, to a competition sponsored by the publisher Edoardo Sonzogno. The work won nothing, but it did bring him to the attention of the composer and librettist Arrigo Boito, who, in turn, introduced him to the powerful publisher Giulio Ricordi. Ricordi sensed Puccini’s genius, and, on May 31, 1884, Le Villi was produced on his recommendation at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan with gratifying success. Ricordi started to pay the young composer a small monthly stipend against future revenues, and Puccini set to work on Le Villi’s successor, Edgar, based on a tale by the French poet Alfred de Musset. Edgar was not completed until 1888, however, and met with only a lukewarm response when it was mounted at La Scala the following year. Though Ricordi continued his payments, the years immediately after the premiere of Edgar were difficult for Puccini, who lived in virtual poverty much of the time, often subsisting on little more than beans and onions. (He couldn’t stand beans for the rest of his life.) Blaming his lack of success on poor librettos, in 1889 he turned to Manon, the novel by the Abbé Prévost which Massenet had used for his 1884 opera (not staged in Italy until 1893, however), and had Ricordi commission an opera text based on the story. The title Manon Lescaut was chosen to avoid confusion with Massenet’s opera. Both to keep his frustrations at bay and to make a gesture of good will to Ricordi, he composed three short pieces for string quartet in 1890 while waiting for the libretto to be finished: two Minuetti in old style and a miniature called Crisantemi — “Chrysanthemums.” They were published that same year. When Manon Lescaut (whose libretto went through several extensive revisions) was finally completed and premiered in 1893, it was a triumph.
Crisantemi is one of just a handful of non-operatic works by Puccini, which otherwise include an early Mass, a small setting of the Requiem text, a motet for soprano, a cantata, three brief orchestral scores, seven songs and a few pieces for string quartet and for piano. Crisantemi, written in memory of the recently deceased Amedeo of Savoy, Duke of the ruling house of Aosta (chrysanthemums are traditionally associated with funerals and mourning in Italy), is a wistful piece, filled with the bittersweet melancholy that so touchingly marks Puccini’s later operas. Indeed, so faithful is the manner of Crisantemi to his characteristic lyricism and pathos that he borrowed both of its themes for use in the tragic last act of Manon Lescaut.
Composed in 1893-1896.
Premiered on February 1, 1896 in Turin, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.
Four poor but high-spirited bohemians live together in a Parisian garret. Marcello, a painter, suggests that they smash a chair to fuel the waning fire on this chilly Christmas Eve, but Rodolfo, a poet, offers the manuscript of his latest work instead. The philosopher Colline arrives with the disappointing news that he has been unable to pawn a bundle of old books, but Schaunard, the musician, appears with food and fuel and some extra cash from a new patron. He suggests that they celebrate his good fortune at the Café Momus in the Latin Quarter. Rodolfo stays behind to finish an article. There is a knock on the door. Rodolfo opens it to find Mimi, his neighbor, whose candle has gone out on the way to her flat. Rodolfo, struck by the girl’s fragile beauty, relights the candle and asks her to tell him about herself, which she does in the tender aria Mi chiamano Mimì.
Si. Mi chiamano Mimì, Yes. They call me Mimi,
ma il mio nome è Lucia. but my name is Lucia.
La storia mia My story
è breve: a tela o a seta is brief: I embroider linen
ricamo in casa e fuori. or silk, at home or outside.
Son tranquilla e lieta, I’m contented and happy,
ed è mio svago and it’s my pleasure
far gigli e rose. to make roses and lilies.
Mi piaccion quelle cose I love those things
che han sì dolce malia, which possess such sweet enchantment,
che parlano d’amor, di primavere; which speak of love and springtime,
che parlano di sogni e di chimere, of dreams and visions,
quelle cose che han nome poesia. those things that people call poetic.
Lei m’intende? Do you understand?
Mi chiamano Mimì, They call me Mimi,
il perchè non so. why, I don’t know.
Sola mi fo il pranzo da me stessa. All alone, I make my own supper.
Non vado sempre a messa, I don’t always go to Mass,
ma prego assai il Signor. but I pray diligently to God.
Vivo sola, soletta, I live alone, quite alone
là in una bianca cameretta; there in a little white room;
guardo sui tetti e in cielo, I overlook roofs and sky,
ma quando vien lo sgelo, but when the thaw comes,
il primo sole è mio! the first sunshine is mine,
il primo bacio dell’aprile è mio! April’s first kiss is mine!
Il primo sole è mio! The first sunshine is mine,
Germoglia In a vase
in un vaso una rosa; a rose is coming into bloom;
foglia a foglia petal by petal
la spio! Così gentil I watch it! The scent
il profumo d’un fior. of a flower is so sweet.
Ma i fior ch’io faccio, ahimè! ... But the flowers I make, alas,
i fior ch’io faccio, ahimè! the flowers I make
non hanno odore! have no smell!
Altro di me non le saprei narrare: There’s no more I can tell you about myself:
sono la sua vicina I am your neighbor
che la vien fuori d’ora who comes to bother you
a importunare. at the wrong moment.
Composed in 1901-1903; revised in 1904.
Premiered on February 17, 1904 at La Scala in Milan.
In 1887, Pierre Loti published Madame Chrysanthème, a semi-autobiographical account of the bitter-sweet, temporary marriage of a French naval officer to a geisha. Stories of similar weddings of French, British and American officers to Japanese girls were common at the time. Mrs. Irvin Henry Correll, wife of a Methodist missionary, carried such a tale to her brother, John Luther Long. Long wrote a novella based on Mrs. Correll’s story for American Century Magazine in 1898 which came to the attention of the flamboyant playwright-producer David Belasco. Belasco based a touching one-act play on Long’s theme, titling it Madame Butterfly. Puccini saw Belasco’s drama in London in 1900, and was overwhelmed by its sad simplicity, exotic flavor and theatrical effect, even though he could understand little of the English text. He negotiated with the playwright for more than a year to obtain the rights to the play, occupying his time with a study of the customs and culture of Japan, and then worked quickly to finish the score, which he came to regard as his finest creation.
The opera is set in Nagasaki, Japan, around 1900. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, an American naval lieutenant, contracts with a local marriage-broker to wed the fifteen-year-old geisha Cio-Cio-San, known as Madame Butterfly. After just a few days, however, Pinkerton leaves Japan and Butterfly. Three years pass with no word from him. Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid, has abandoned hope for his return, but the former geisha remains certain that her husband will come back, as he promised, Un bel dì — “One Fine Day.” Pinkerton does eventually return, but only to ask Butterfly to let him and his new American wife adopt the baby that she has borne him. Butterfly is shocked at the request, but agrees to surrender the child if Pinkerton will come back in a half-hour to claim the boy for himself. Left alone, Butterfly determines that the only honorable action is ritual suicide. She calls the child to her, smothers him with kisses, and then blindfolds his eyes and places a small American flag in his hand. She steps behind a screen. A moment later, a knife is heard falling from her lifeless hand to the floor. Pinkerton, too late, arrives, calling her name.
Un bel dì vedremo One lovely day we’ll see
levarsi un fil di fumo a thread of smoke rise
sull’estremo confin del mare. at the distant edge of the sea.
E poi la nave appare — And then the ship appears —
Poi la nave bianca then the white ship
entra nel porto, romba enters the harbor, thunders
il suo saluto. Vedi? its salute. You see?
È venuto! He’s come!
Io non gli scendo incontro. I don’t go down to meet him.
Io no. Mi metto là Not I. I place myself there
sul ciglio del colle e aspetto, at the brow of the hill and wait,
e aspetto gran tempo I wait a long time,
e non mi pesa but the long waiting
la lunga attesa. doesn’t oppress me.
E ... uscito dalla folla cittadina And ... coming out of the city’s crowd,
un uom, un picciol punto a man, a tiny speck,
s’avvia per la collina. starts towards the hill.
Chi sarà? chi sarà? Who will it be? Who?
E come sarà giunto — And when he arrives —
che dirà? che dirà? What, what will he say?
Chiamerà Butterfly He’ll call “Butterfly”
dalla lontana. from the distance.
Io senza dar risposta Without answering him
me ne starò nascosta, I’ll stay hidden,
un po’ per celia partly to tease him,
e un po’ per non morir and partly not to die
al primo incontro, at our first meeting,
ed egli alquanto in pena and a little worried,
chiamerà, chiamerà: he’ll call, he’ll call
Piccina mogliettina, “Little wife,
olezzo di verbena — verbena-blossom,”
i nomi che mi dava the names he gave me
al suo venire. when he came here.
Tutto questo averrà, All this will happen,
te lo prometto. I promise you.
Tienti la tua paura, Keep your fear to yourself.
io con sicura fede l’aspetto. With certain faith I’m waiting for him.
Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Opus 90, “Italian”
(b. Hamburg, 1809; d. Leipzig, 1847)
Composed 1831-1833; revised 1834-1837.
Premiered on May 13, 1833 in London, conducted by the composer.
Instrumentation: pairs of woodwinds, horns and trumpets, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 27 minutes.
Felix Mendelssohn never learned how to take it easy. As a boy, he was awakened at 5:00 every morning to begin a full day of private tutelage, exercise, social instruction and family activities — the busy regimen he learned as a child shaped the rest of his brief life. Inactivity was anathema. Two months of bed rest occasioned by a leg injury in London in 1829 were more painful for the confinement they necessitated than for the medical condition. Throughout his days, Mendelssohn preferred travel to quiet life at home: he trooped across Europe, from Vienna to Wales, from Hamburg to Naples, and was welcomed and admired at every stop. Some of his journeys inspired music — the first of his ten trips to Great Britain, for example, which included a walking tour of Scotland (during which he enjoyed “a half-hour of inconsequential conversation” with Sir Walter Scott), gave rise to the “Scottish” Symphony and the Hebrides Overture.
When he was 21, Mendelssohn embarked on an extensive grand tour of the Continent. He met Chopin and Liszt in Paris, painted the breathtaking vistas of Switzerland, and marveled at the artistic riches (and grumbled about the inhospitable treatment by the coachmen and innkeepers) of Italy. “The land where the lemon trees blossom,” as his friend Goethe described sunny Italy, stirred him so deeply that he began a musical work there in 1831 based on his impressions of Rome, Naples and the other cities he visited. The composition of this “Italian” Symphony, as he always called it, caused him much difficulty, however, and he had trouble bringing all of the movements to completion. “For the slow movement I have not yet found anything exactly right, and I think I must put it off for Naples,” he wrote from Rome to his sister Fanny. The spur to finish the work came in the form of a commission for a symphony from the Philharmonic Society of London that caused Mendelssohn to gather up his sketches and complete the task.
The new Symphony was met with immediate acclaim at its premiere on May 13, 1833 in London, and was one of the series of British successes that helped enshrine Mendelssohn in the English pantheon of 19th-century musical genius as Queen Victoria’s favorite composer. Mendelssohn, however, was not completely satisfied with the original version of the Symphony, and he refused to allow its publication. He tinkered with it again several years later, paying special attention to the finale, but never felt the work to be perfected. It was only after his death that the score was published and became widely available. Despite Mendelssohn’s misgivings, the “Italian” Symphony has become one of the most enduring and popular pieces in the orchestral repertory, declared to be virtually perfect by the demanding British critic and scholar Sir Donald Tovey; it was a special favorite of that cantankerous curmudgeon and one-time music critic, George Bernard Shaw.
Mendelssohn cast his “Italian” Symphony in the traditional four movements. The opening movement takes an exuberant, leaping melody initiated by the violins as its principal subject and a quieter, playful strain led by the clarinets as its subsidiary theme. The intricately contrapuntal development section is largely based on a precise, staccato theme of darker emotional hue but also refers to motives from the main theme. A full recapitulation of the exposition’s materials ensues before the movement ends with a coda that recalls the staccato theme from the development. The Andante, in the style of a slow march, may have been inspired by a religious procession that Mendelssohn saw in the streets of Naples, but it also evokes the chorale prelude sung by the Two Armed Men in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The third movement, the gentlest of dances, is in the form of a minuet/scherzo whose central trio utilizes the burnished sonorities of bassoons and horns. The finale turns, surprisingly, to a tempestuous minor key for an exuberant and mercurial dance modeled on the whirling saltarello that Mendelssohn heard in Rome.
©2012 Dr. Richard E. Rodda