Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (“The Mastersingers of Nuremberg”)
(b. Leipzig, 1813; d. Venice, 1883)
Prelude composed in 1862.
Prelude premiered on November 1, 1862 in Leipzig, conducted by the composer.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs plus piccolo, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.
Duration: approximately 10 minutes.
The composition of Die Meistersinger, which Ignace Paderewski called “the greatest work of genius ever achieved by any artist in any field of human activity,” was intimately bound to the ebb and flow of the most flamboyant period of Wagner’s life. He first conceived an opera based on the singing guilds of old Nuremberg during the summer of 1845, while he was taking a rest cure at the spa town of Marienbad just after finishing Tannhäuser. A reading of Georg Gervinus’ 1826 History of German Literature yielded ideas for both Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin, and rough scenarios for the two works were sketched by August. Wagner chose to tackle the serious Lohengrin first, perhaps because he still chafed from the failure of his only earlier comic opera, Das Liebesverbot of 1836. Then came his political activism and expulsion from Germany in 1849, and the years of financial struggle and marital distress, and the awesome labor that yielded up the first two and part of the third Ring operas, and the Wesendonck affair, and the composition of Tristan — and Die Meistersinger had to wait for them all.
In 1859, with Tristan newly completed, Wagner fled from the Wesendoncks in Switzerland to settle in Paris, still barred from returning home to Germany. The impetus to begin serious work on Die Meistersinger may have come from the lifting of the German edict against him in 1861, a time when he wanted to further his reputation and the performance of his works in his homeland. (He said that the new piece was to be “something thoroughly light and popular” designed for “rapid circulation through European opera houses.”) Once again allowed free travel, he visited Vienna, where he heard Lohengrin for the first time on May 31, 1861, then journeyed to Weimar to see Liszt, and ended his trip late in the year at Mainz, where he convinced his publisher, Franz Schott, to advance him 10,000 francs against the publication of the new opera, which he promised would be finished by the following October. After a thorough study of Johann Christoph Wagenseil’s Nuremberg Chronicle of 1697, from which he derived not only information about the customs, life and thought of the Medieval city but also the names for the members of his stage singing guild, and Jakob Grimm’s 1811 study, Ueber altdeutschen Meistergesang, the source of at least one of the opera’s melodies, Wagner completed the libretto in Paris in January 1862.
Hounded by creditors and eager to return to Germany, Wagner left Paris early in 1862, and found a small house along the Rhine at Biebrich, not far from Mainz and his publisher, Schott. It was there, in March, that he began the music for Die Meistersinger. Much of the first act was completed during the following months, but Wagner, who always lived far beyond his means, was again forced to put the work aside to earn enough money on various conducting tours to keep his creditors at bay. On one of those tour concerts, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on November 1, 1862, he introduced the Die Meistersinger Prelude with good success, though the opera itself was far from finished.
Just when his fortunes were at their nadir (he sneaked out of Vienna early in 1864 to avoid being thrown into debtors’ prison), he received a summons from the 19-year-old Ludwig II of Bavaria, who had mounted the throne only two months earlier upon the death of his father, Maximilian II. At their meeting in the Residenz in Munich on May 4, 1864, Ludwig, nearly insane with his worship of Wagner and his music, informed the composer that he wanted to be his patron, providing him not only with everything he required for his livelihood, but also with the ideal conditions for the performance of his works. Wagner pounced immediately on the offer. As soon as he had installed himself in splendor in Munich, he had Hans von Bülow, one of his greatest champions and interpreters, appointed to the staff of the opera, not just to conduct his music but also so that Wagner could have access to Bülow’s much-desired wife, Cosima, the daughter of Liszt. As soon as Bülow arrived, Wagner set him to work on producing the ideal Tristan, for which endeavor Cosima acted as secretary — and something more — to the composer. Grandiose and expensive plans were set in motion to construct a Festspielhaus at Bayreuth dedicated solely to his works. Factions formed against Wagner for the manner in which he was taxing the Bavarian exchequer as well as for his moral turpitude (a daughter, Isolde, which Bülow at first passed off as his own child, was born to Cosima and Wagner in April 1865), and he thought it prudent to leave Munich, despite Ludwig’s pleas to stay.
In November 1865, Wagner, with munificent financial support from Ludwig, went to Geneva, where the first act of Die Meistersinger was at last completed in February 1866. In March, soon after Wagner’s estranged first wife, Minna, died in Dresden, Cosima, still married to Bülow, joined him; they moved into a luxurious house, Triebchen, on Lake Lucerne. For the sake of appearances, Cosima occasionally returned to her husband in Munich until the fall of 1868, when she settled finally at Triebchen. The Bülows were divorced in July 1870; Wagner and Cosima, already the parents of three children — Isolde, Eva (born in 1867) and Tristan (1869) — were married on August 25th. The composition and orchestration of Die Meistersinger were completed early in 1868, more than two decades after the idea was conceived. The opera’s premiere, conducted by Hans von Bülow in Munich on June 21, 1868, was a triumph.
The plot of Die Meistersinger centers around a song contest held in 16th-century Nuremberg on St. John’s Day (June 24th). The winner is to marry Eva, daughter of the goldsmith Veit Pogner. Walther von Stolzing, a young knight from Franconia who has fallen in love with Eva, vows to win the contest and her hand, even though he is not a member of the guild of Mastersingers. He is granted permission to compete despite the attempts of Sixtus Beckmesser, the town clerk and also a contestant, to discredit him for not knowing the ancient guild rules governing the composition of a song. Eva and Walther communicate their love to the wise cobbler Hans Sachs, who remains their friend and adviser despite his own love for the girl. Sachs helps Walther shape his musical and poetic ideas, which bring a new freshness and expression to the staid ways of the guild. (Walther and his new art, of course, represent Wagner.) Beckmesser, having stolen Walther’s poem, gives it a ludicrous musical setting, and makes a fool of himself at the contest. Sachs invites Walther to show how the verses should be sung, and the young knight is acclaimed the winner.
The Prelude, written between March and June 1862, was the first part of the score to be completed, and served as the thematic source for much of the opera. It opens with the majestic processional of the Mastersingers intoned by the full orchestra. A tender theme portraying the love of Eva and Walther leads to a second Mastersinger melody, this one said to have been based on The Crowned Tone by the 17th-century guild member Heinrich Mögling. The Prelude’s first section closes with the development of another love motive and phrases later heard in Walther’s Prize Song. The central portion is largely devoted to a cackling, fugato parody of the first Mastersinger theme that anticipates Beckmesser’s buffooneries. The Prelude is brought to a magnificent ending with a masterful weaving together of all of its themes.
Violin Concerto, Op. 14
(b. West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1910; d. New York City, 1981)
Composed in 1939.
Premiered on February 7, 1941 in Philadelphia, conducted by Eugene Ormandy with Albert Spalding as soloist.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, snare drum, piano and strings.
Duration: approximately 22 minutes.
Samuel Barber’s success as one of America’s greatest composers was both early and lasting. Born and raised in a small town on the outskirts of Philadelphia, he received a sound appreciation of music as a boy from his mother, a talented pianist, and from his aunt, the noted Metropolitan Opera contralto Louise Homer. In 1924, at the tender age of fourteen, he entered the first class enrolled at the Curtis Institute and received instruction in piano, voice and composition, winning the Bearns Prize in composition in 1928. Three years later he composed the sparkling Overture to “The School for Scandal”, which was premiered by Alexander Smallens and the Philadelphia Orchestra in August 1933, and secured for the young composer an immediate reputation. In 1935, Barber won both the Pulitzer Scholarship and the American Prix de Rome, enabling him to study in Europe. While abroad, he conducted, gave recitals (he had an excellent and well-trained baritone voice) and met some of the most important musicians of the day, including Toscanini, who became a champion of his works. The great Italian conductor premiered both the Essay for Orchestra and the Adagio for Strings during the 1938 season of the NBC Symphony, making Barber the first American composer whose works Toscanini conducted with that ensemble.
In his 1954 study of the composer, Nathan Broder wrote as follows of the genesis of the Violin Concerto: “In the summer of 1939, after a visit to England and Scotland, Barber settled down in the village of Sils-Maria in Switzerland to work on a violin concerto, which had been commissioned by a wealthy Philadelphia merchant for a young protégé. This progressed slowly and he set off for Paris, planning to complete the work there during the fall. But he had hardly arrived in Paris when all Americans were warned to leave. He sailed for home, and word reached the ship before they arrived in New York that German troops had invaded Poland.... When the first two movements of the Violin Concerto were finished and shown to the violinist, he complained that the music was too simple and not brilliant enough for a concerto. Barber promised that the finale would provide ample opportunity to display the artist’s technical powers. But when this movement was submitted, the violinist declared it too difficult. The sponsor demanded his money back, and Barber, who had already spent it in Europe, called in another violinist, Oscar Shumsky, who performed the work for the merchant and his protégé, to prove that the finale was not unplayable. The upshot of the matter was that the composer was obliged to return half the fee and the young violinist relinquished his right to the first public performances. These performances were given in 1941 by Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.”
A rather different version of this story, however, was revealed in The New York Times of June 29, 1980 by one Herbert Baumel, a violin student at the time at the Curtis Institute, where Barber was on the faculty as professor of orchestration. According to Mr. Baumel, the violinist who remained unnamed in Nathan Broder’s account was Iso Briselli, and the commissioning industrialist was soap manufacturer Samuel Fels. On seeing the score, Briselli declared the finale “unplayable” and Fels refused to pay Barber the $500 still outstanding on the commission. A piano student, Ralph Berkowitz, asked Baumel if he could play the movement for a few friends. “I looked it over,” Baumel said, “practiced it for an hour or so, and returned to the school in the afternoon to play it.... I proved to their delight that I could play it at any tempo they wanted me to. Now Barber would be able to collect the full sum.” (A further addendum to this convoluted tale appeared in an article by George K. Diehl in the November 1995 issue of The Strad, in which the author claimed that Briselli expressed concern only about the finale’s musical appropriateness, not about its technical difficulty. Briselli, a gifted violinist who appeared as soloist on numerous occasions with the Philadelphia Orchestra, played the finished Concerto privately, but never performed it in public.)
The change from the warm lyricism of the Violin Concerto’s first two movements to the aggressive rhythms and strong dissonances of the finale is actually a microcosm of the stylistic evolution Barber’s music underwent at the outbreak of World War II. The style of the works of the early years — the Overture to “The School for Scandal” (1932), the Essay for Orchestra (1937), the Adagio for Strings (1938), those pieces which established his international reputation as a 20th-century romanticist — was soon to be augmented by the more modern but expressively richer musical language of the Second Symphony (1944), the Capricorn Concerto (1944) and the ballet for Martha Graham, The Serpent Heart (1946), from which the orchestral suite Medea was derived.
The Concerto’s opening movement, almost Brahmsian in its nostalgic songfulness, is built on two lyrical themes. The first one, presented immediately by the soloist, is an extended, arching melody; the other, initiated by the clarinet, is rhythmically animated by the use of the “Scottish snap,” a short–long figure also familiar from jazz idioms. The two themes alternate throughout the remainder of the movement, which follows a broadly drawn, traditional concerto form. The expressive cantabile of the first movement carries into the lovely Adagio. The oboe intones a plangent melody as the main theme, from which the soloist spins a rhapsodic elaboration to serve as the movement’s central section. The return of the main theme is entrusted to the soloist. Moto perpetuo — “perpetual motion” — Barber marked the finale of this Concerto, and the music more than lives up to its title. After an opening timpani flourish, the soloist introduces a fiery motive above a jabbing rhythmic accompaniment that returns, rondo-like, throughout the movement. A whirling coda of vertiginous speed and virtuosic brilliance brings this splendid Concerto to a dazzling close.
Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Opus. 88
(b. Nelahozeves, Bohemia, 1841; d. Prague, 1904)
Composed in 1889.
Premiered on February 2, 1890 in Prague, conducted by the composer.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs plus piccolo, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 36 minutes.
You would probably have liked Dvořák. He was born a simple (in the best sense) man of the soil who retained a love of country, nature and peasant ways all his life. In his later years he wrote, “In spite of the fact that I have moved about in the great world of music, I shall remain what I have always been — a simple Czech musician.” Few passions ruffled his life — music, of course; the rustic pleasures of country life; the company of old friends; caring for his pigeons; and a child-like fascination with railroads. When he was in Prague during the winters, he took daily walks to the Franz Josef Station to gaze in awe at the great iron wagons. The timetables were as ingrained in his thinking as were the chord progressions of his music, and he knew all the specifications of the engines that puffed through Prague. When his students returned from a journey, he would pester them until they recalled exactly which locomotive had pulled their train. Milton Cross sketched him thus: “To the end of his days he remained shy, uncomfortable in the presence of those he regarded as his social superiors, and frequently remiss in his social behavior. He was never completely at ease in large cities, with the demands they made on him. Actually he had a pathological fear of city streets and would never cross a busy thoroughfare if a friend was not with him. He was happiest when he was close to the soil, raising pigeons, taking long, solitary walks in the hills and forests of the Bohemia he loved so deeply. Yet he was by no means a recluse. In the company of his intimate friends, particularly after a few beers, he was voluble, gregarious, expansive and good-humored.” His music reflected his salubrious nature, and the late New York Times critic Harold Schonberg concluded, “He remained throughout his entire creative span the happiest and least neurotic of the late Romantics.... With Handel and Haydn, he is the healthiest of all composers.”
Dvořák was nearing fifty when he wrote his Eighth Symphony, when his early years of struggle and poverty were being ameliorated by the honors that were coming his way. The Symphony was dedicated to the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, the official sponsor of an Academy encouraging the arts in Bohemia with that most powerful of all stimuli — money. The stipend Dvořák received as part of an award (the Austrian Iron Cross, Third Order) allowed him to concentrate on composing and disseminating his works without the distractions of other duties. In December 1889, Dvořák, his faithful wife in tow, boarded a train for the official recognition ceremonies in Vienna. More than a little apprehensive about the disparity between his humble background and the opulent extravagance of Vienna, he made it, palpitations aplenty, through his interview with the charming Franz Josef, who showed a sincere interest in the composer and the musical situation out in the provinces of Bohemia.
Only a few months later, Dvořák was awarded an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University as a result of his enormous popularity in Britain. (He was the first musical god in England since the demise of Mendelssohn nearly half a century earlier.) His own account of the event gives an indication how he viewed such rituals, whether in the hushed groves of academe or the glittering halls of the Habsburg palace: “It was all frighteningly solemn, nothing but ceremonies and deans, all solemn-faced and apparently incapable of speaking anything but Latin. When it dawned upon me that they were talking about me, I felt as if I were drowning in hot water, so ashamed was I that I could not understand them.” The picture of him as merely a shuffling country bumpkin, however, unaware of his special gift and of his international notoriety, is dispelled by his next sentence: “However, when all is said and done, that Stabat Mater of mine [performed as part of the investiture ceremony] is more than just Latin.” Wisdom and modesty have seldom found a happier marriage in a great man.
The G major Symphony, in its warm emotionalism and pastoral contentment, mirrors its creator. It was composed during Dvořák’s annual summer retreat to the country at Vysoká, and his happy contentment with his surroundings shines through the music. Those months in 1889 were so richly productive for the composer that he confessed a certain frustration to his friend Alois Göbl because his head was “so full of ideas” that he simply could not write them down quickly enough. The Symphony is the most overtly nationalistic of the nine he composed, and displays its flood of folk-derived themes with directness and candor. This characteristic is enhanced by the new direction that Dvořák pursued in the structural foundations of the work. It departed from the carefully integrated, fully developed musical architecture that had underlain the previous symphonies, a preoccupation which reached its apogee in the magnificent, brooding Symphony No. 7 in D minor. The Eighth Symphony is based unashamedly on its beautiful melodies, with little true development. In this, the work recalls the symphonies of that greatest of melodists, Franz Schubert, and in mood and technique it is a true heir to that hallowed tradition. Hermann Kretschmar even thought that the work should not be classed with Dvořák’s symphonies at all, but rather belonged to the category of the symphonic poems and Slavonic Dances.
Dvořák was absolutely profligate with themes in the opening movement. In the exposition, which comprises the first 126 measures of the work, there are no fewer than eight separate melodies which are tossed out with an ease and speed reminiscent of Mozart’s fecundity. The first theme is presented without preamble in the rich hues of trombones, low strings and low woodwinds in the dark coloring of G minor. This tonality soon yields to the chirruping G major of the flute melody, but much of the movement shifts effortlessly between major and minor keys, lending a certain air of nostalgia to the work. The opening melody is recalled to initiate both the development and the recapitulation. In the former, it reappears in its original guise and even, surprisingly, in its original key. The recapitulation begins as this theme is hurled forth by the trumpets in a stentorian setting greatly heightened in emotional weight from its former presentations. The coda is invested with the rhythm and high good spirits of an energetic country dance to bring the movement to its rousing ending.
The second movement is one of the most original formal conceptions in late-19th-century symphonic music. It comprises two kinds of music, one hesitant and somewhat lachrymose, the other stately and smoothly flowing. Some have interpreted these strains as tonal pictures of a crumbling ruin (the opening section resembles “The Old Castle” movement of the Poetic Tone Pictures for Piano, Op. 85) and a peasant wedding. This may be. But looked at in the abstract, as pure music, the movement also points forward to the interest of many 20th-century composers in creating a work from disparate types of music. The compositions of Mahler, Ives and Stravinsky, among others, are filled with instances of what seems to be two different pieces pushed up against each other for the dramatic effect their juxtaposition creates. In this movement, Dvořák built two blocks of music that are different not just in key and melody, but in their total conception. The first is indefinite in tonality, rhythm and cadence; its theme is a collection of fragments; its texture is sparse. The following section is greatly contrasted: its key is unambiguous; its rhythm and cadence points are clear; its melody is a long, continuous span. The form of this movement is created as much by texture and sonority as by the traditional means of melody and tonality. It is a daring and prophetic type of music-making from a composer who is usually regarded as an arch conservative, as the critic for The New York Times recognized in 1892. “The music of the symphony,” he wrote following the New York premiere on March 12th, “is certainly modern and strange enough to meet the demands of the most modern extremists.”
The third movement is a lilting essay much in the style of the Austrian folk dance, the Ländler. Like the beginning of the Symphony, it opens in G minor with a mood of sweet melancholy, but gives way to a languid melody in G major for the central trio. Following the repeat of the scherzo, a vivacious coda in faster tempo paves the way to the finale.
The trumpets herald the start of the finale, a theme and variations with a central section resembling a development in character. The bustling second variation returns as a sort of formal mile-marker — it introduces the “development” and begins the coda. (One point of good fun in this variation: note how the horns, pulling the low woodwinds along with them, ascend to their upper register and blow forth an excited trill generated by the pure joy of the surrounding music.) This wonderful Symphony ends swiftly and resoundingly amid a burst of high spirits and warm-hearted good feelings.
Dvořák’s Czech biographer, Karel Hoffmeister, observed of the G major Symphony, “It is not profound. It awakens no echo of conflict or passion. It is a simple lyric singing of the beauty of our country for the artist’s consolation. It is a lovable expression of a genius who can rejoice with the idyllicism of his own forebears.”
©2012 Dr. Richard E. Rodda