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January 27, 2016

February 6, 2016 Program Notes

GIOACCHINO ROSSINI
Born Pesaro, Italy, 29 February 1792; died Paris, 13 November 1868.
The Barber of Seville: Overture
Written in 1813 as the overture for the opera Aureliano in Palmira, but repurposed as the overture of  Il Barbiere di Siviglia for ithe latter’s second production, in Bologna, premiered 16 August 1816.  The score calls for piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals and strings. Performance time is about 8 minutes. The SSO’s most recent performance was 4 February 2001, under the baton of Guy Victor Bordo.

Many a viewer of Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville has—reasonably enough—marveled at how brilliantly its overture sets the mood for the opera itself, a scintillating comedy in which the ardent young Count Almaviva, with the help of the wily barber Figaro, rescues the sassy but captive Rosina from her scheming uncle. But in point of fact, Rossini wrote the overture three years previously (when he was only 21) for a very different scenario: a drama of the Roman emperor Aurelian wooing Queen Zenobia of Palmyra; and he used it a second time in 1815 for a melodramatic tale of Queen Elizabeth of England and the Earl of Leicester! Rossini is said to have written an original overture for The Barber of Seville, but it was lost en route from Rome to Bologna for the second production, so the composer was forced to make a hasty substitution.

Thus, the opening bars of the overture (marked Andante sostenuto), presumably intended to be portentous and suspenseful, now strike us as tongue-in-cheek; and the headlong pace of the main Allegro con brio section now seems to foreshadow the wildly elaborate plots devised by Figaro to smuggle Almaviva into Rosina’s guarded household. However we interpret the possible meanings behind the notes, we can delight in Rossini’s spritely melodies—among the most familiar in all of classical music—and in the famous “Rossini crescendos” built into the score.

 

GORDON JACOB
Born London, 5 July 1895; died Saffron Walden, England, 8 June 1984
Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra 
Composed in 1955 and premiered 20 November of that year in Birmingham Town Hall with Denis Wick, soloist, and Rudolf Schwarz leading the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The score calls for pairs of flutes (one doubling piccolo), oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets; timpani, xylophone, tambourine, glockenspiel, cymbals, suspended cymbal, snare drum, triangle, strings, and solo trombone. Performance time is about 18 minutes.

The youngest of 10 children and a survivor of the trenches of World War I, Gordon Jacob had a long and distinguished career at the Royal Conservatory of Music (1924-66), teaching composition, theory and conducting, and was the author of widely used textbooks, especially Orchestral Technique (1931). He was a prolific composer, notably of orchestral, chamber and concert band music; as one commentator put it, he “provided many needy instruments with compositions to fill a void in their repertoire.” One of the “neediest” in the 1950s was the trombone, with very few concertos with orchestra to choose from. Today, many younger composers have filled in the gap, but Jacob’s Concerto for Trombone remains one of the most popular and most often recorded.

The first movement opens commandingly (Maestoso), with a timpani roll introducing a fanfare for the trombone that turns into a substantial solo statement, with rather tragic-sounding responses from winds and strings. But then the soloist launches into a fast-paced and cheerful version of the same material (Allegro molto). The writing for the trombone is extremely virtuosic, and the orchestration filled with colorful touches. A brief slow interlude takes us back to the Allegro molto, but the movement ends with a much shortened restatement of the opening Maestoso.

The slow movement (Adagio molto) is songful, with the trombone leading the way through passages with the most delicate string, wind and chimed percussion accompaniments. A middle section marked misterioso is indeed mysterious in its sinuous woodwind effects and the trombone playing muted. The finale in contrast is a lively march, full of playful wit, and featuring both a short cadenza early in the movement and a quite spectacular one near the end. 

 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born Bonn, 17 December 1770; died Vienna, 26 March 1827.
Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” Op. 55
Composed 1802-04 and first performed publically in Vienna, 7 April 1805, in the Theater an der Wien, the composer conducting. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration about 47 minutes. The SSO performed the “Eroica” Symphony most recently on 16 November 1996, Guy Victor Bordo conducting.

Is Beethoven’s Third Symphony really a detailed musical portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte—at least of his life before December 1804, when he shockingly betrayed democratic values by crowning himself Emperor of France? The evidence is sketchy. Beethoven’s enthusiasm for the Corsican upstart waxed and waned over the years of French military expansion, including several periods of war and peace with the Austrian Empire. In 1802 Beethoven was already scornful of Napoleon’s reconciliation with the Pope. Yet according to the composer’s friend Ferdinand Ries, as of October 1803 Beethoven wanted to dedicate his new symphony to Bonaparte—unless the Austrian Prince Lobkowitz paid him a handsome fee for exclusive performance rights, in which case Beethoven would title the symphony “Bonaparte.” In August 1804 Beethoven told his publisher that the symphony “is actually titled ‘Bonaparte.’” But according to Ries’s famous story, after Napoleon’s self-coronation in December Beethoven furiously tore up the dedication page.

The front page of the composer’s own copy of the score has the words “titled Bonaparte” (in the copyist’s handwriting) violently scratched out; yet below, the words “written about Bonaparte” in Beethoven’s own penciled handwriting are found intact. When the symphony was published in Vienna, October 1806, a year after French troops occupied the city, it was titled Sinfonia Eroica (Heroic Symphony), with the subtitle “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”

Since Beethoven’s death many commentators have speculated that the symphony is autobiographical: that the “hero” is the composer himself, wrestling with despair over his impending deafness or over other personal losses, and finally refusing to become defeated. However one interprets it, the Third Symphony is certainly heroic in its proportions: far longer than any symphony written before it (including Beethoven’s first two), with some kind of tremendous turmoil portrayed in the first movement, followed by a massively powerful funeral march, a short but urgent scherzo, and a dazzlingly original finale that is a celebration of joy no less than the endings of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio and his “Choral” Ninth Symphony.

I. Allegro con brio. In contrast to the slow introductions of Beethoven’s first two symphonies, the Eroica begins with startling boldness: two strong chords in the home key of E-flat (i.e., Eb—G—Bb), followed by the cellos quietly playing a melody based on the three notes of that chord. It’s a theme of the utmost simplicity--until its fourth Eb slides down to a dissonant C-sharp, and the epic journey of the movement continues for nearly 700 bars, an unprecedented length but necessary for the drama to resolve itself. Along the way there will be both thunderous and delicate moments, with every step along the way surprising yet inevitable. Only a few special moments can be singled out here: for example, halfway through this sonata-form movement, in the Development section where traditionally only the preceding themes are further explored, a whole new theme is introduced. And just before the return of the opening music and its “simple” cello melody, a horn seems to jump the gun by introducing the theme in advance, against the whisper of the violins. Following this Return section a Coda (“tail-piece”) of again unprecedented length takes the music in quite new directions before the ultimate resolution.

II. Marcia funebre: Adagio assai. There have been countless speculations upon what Beethoven intended by placing a funeral march at this point in the symphony. If it represents the death of its hero, what are we to make of the quite vital third and fourth movements? Some have imagined a portrayal of one of Napoleon’s defeats in battle, or even—assuming that the hero is Homer’s Achilles—of the death and funeral of Achilles’ best friend Patroclus, as described in the Iliad, one of Beethoven’s favorite poems. Regardless of all the speculation, it is hard to imagine what could have followed the struggling, ultimately triumphant first movement more effectively than this powerful statement of grief.

One of many things to be noted about this movement is how constantly changing it is: in the rhythms that accompany the main march theme, in the shifting orchestral colors, and in the varied phrasing. There are also huge shifts in mood, from quiet grieving to soaring moments of hope or remembrance, to overwhelming anguish and back to near silence. Partway through the movement there is a shift to a major key with an uplifting theme for oboe and then flute, all leading to what seems like a triumphant outburst in a major key, but still subsiding back to the funeral march. Another episode takes the form of a relentless fugue which, when it pauses, leads to another, more shattering climax, with trumpets suggesting the Last Judgment heard in church music. Ultimately the main theme breaks down into fragments to end the movement.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace. Beethoven offers another amazing change of mood in this brief, swift-paced movement, bursting with vitality. A scherzo is a “joke” in Italian—and in music, a playful movement, usually in triple time, taking the place of the more traditional minuet in a symphony by Joseph Haydn and his peers. Beethoven had already used the term in his Second Symphony, but he had never written an orchestral movement so crackling with energy and with such forward drive as here. It begins quietly in the strings but soon oboe and flute join in, then raucously the whole orchestra, with some jolting syncopation. The Trio (middle section) features the three horns in what sound like joyful hunting calls. (The Eroica is the first symphony to use three horns, though Haydn had used two pairs in some of his symphonies to evoke scenes of the hunt.)

IV. Finale: Allegro molto. This movement is often called a “theme-and-variations,” but its structure is more unusual than that term may imply. (For one thing, the theme keeps returning in easily recognizable form, as in a rondo.) Its origin is complex as well. Back in 1801 Beethoven had written music for a ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, that featured as its finale a dance called an englische. This was a type of dance in which gentry and commonfolk joined together, rather than observe the usual class separation. Beethoven’s jolly tune for the finale was evidently written for the Greek god Prometheus to dance with his “creatures,” a pair of human statues he had brought to life.

Beethoven liked his tune enough for him to publish it separately in a set of contradanses, and also to write a set of variations on it for piano, his Op. 35 of 1802. For the piano variations he started out with just the bass line of the theme—the skeleton of it, so to speak—and wrote a few variations on that before introducing the tune itself, followed by many more variations. Now, for the finale of the Eroica Symphony he completely rewrote the piano piece, except for the dance theme itself and the bass line that precedes it. He seems to have associated his englische theme with democracy—everyone, high and low in society, dancing together, with the hero joining the crowd rather than remaining on his pedestal. Bringing joy to the people becomes the ultimate heroic act.

The finale begins with a wild outburst, as if to introduce something very grand: but instead, Beethoven humorously gives us just the bass line, played softly pizzicato. After a few variations for strings alone, the woodwinds introduce the englische theme, and the movement proceeds with a number of ingenious variations, including a fugal one. “After a pause, the tempo slows down considerably, and the theme is given a hymn-like treatment. More variations ensue, until the music seems about to trail off in a whisper—at which point the opening outburst is heard again, and the music plunges into an ecstatic final Presto.  

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