FRANZ VON SUPPÉ
Born Split, Croatia, 18 April 1819; died Vienna, 21 May 1895.
Poet and Peasant Overture
Composed 1846 and first heard in the Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 24 August of that year, the composer conducting. Tonight’s performance features flute, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, harp and strings. Duration about 10½ minutes.
Franz von Suppé, born in Dalmatia to parents of Italian, Belgian and Viennese background, achieved success as a conductor and composer of operettas in Vienna, during the same era as Johann Strauss Jr. But while some of Strauss’ stage works are still internationally popular, von Suppé’s are almost never performed outside of German-speaking countries. His overtures, on the other hand, were once a staple of the concert hall, and have been played in every conceivable arrangement for wind bands and salon orchestras. They contain tunes that almost everyone who has watched old cartoons (Popeye, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny) recognizes at once.
One of von Suppé’s earliest successes was his music for Dichter und Bauer (Poet and Peasant), a stage work variously described as a “comedy with music” and a “Vaudeville-Operetta”—perhaps it had more spoken dialogue than music. In it, a peasant wins a poetry contest over a professional poet. Whatever the merits of the play, the Overture is perfectly constructed and memorable from first note to last.
It begins quietly and solemnly with a tune for the brass, soon taken up by the full orchestra. From that fortissimo emerges a dreamily romantic melody for solo cello, with harp and woodwind accompaniment. A trembling in the strings and rumbling in the drums lead to a dramatic outburst that drives the overture onward. A couple of lyrical interludes ease the tension, but each time the pace picks up, and the overture ends with jubilation.
Born Somerville, MA, 8 March 1911; died Seattle, 21 June 2000.
And God Created Great Whales, Op. 229, No. 1
Premiered 11 June 1970 with Andre Kostelanetz conducting the New York Philharmonic. The score calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets,3 trombones, tuba, timpani, tam-tam, glockenspiel, vibraphone, chimes, bass drum, 2 harps, strings and tape of whale sounds. About 12 minutes in length.
A great deal of the Armenian-American Alan Hovhaness’s music has mystic or religious associations (Mysterious Mountain, Prayer of St. Gregory), and a fair number of his works evoke the natural world (e.g., his “Mount St. Helens” Symphony, No. 50). His 1970 work And God Created Great Whales combines these compelling interests, with recordings of the actual voices of whales seeming to rise uncannily from the orchestral waves of sound that represent both the cetaceans and the deep waters they inhabit.
The source of the tapes was a team of scientists who had been recording the calls of humpback whales, discovering them to be consistent in pattern like birdsongs and clearly a form of communication. Members of the team played their recordings for both the singer Judy Collins (who used them in her rendition of the folksong “Farewell to Tarwathie”) and the conductor Andre Kostelanetz, who commissioned Hovhaness to write a piece that incorporated the songs. And God Created Great Whales was premiered at a Summer Promenade concert in 1970, the same year that Collins released her Whales and Nightingales album and the scientists released Songs of the Humpback Whale—still the best-selling natural-sounds recording in history.
A kind of mood piece in one movement, And God Created Great Whales uses four excerpts from the recordings, to haunting effect. The third excerpt slows down the recording for a deeper pitch, but the fourth excerpt features the actual low sounds of these particular whales. The composer describes his work as follows:
“Free rhythmless vibrational passages, each string player playing independently, suggests waves in a vast ocean sky. Undersea mountains rise and fall in horns, trombones and tuba. Music of whales also rises and falls like mountain ranges. Song of whale emerges like giant mythical sea bird.”
Born Berlin, 15 August 1922; died New York, 1 February 2009.
Renaissance Concerto for Flute and Orchestra
Composed 1985-86 and premiered 10 May 1986 with Carol Wincenc, flutist, and the composer conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, which had commissioned it. The score calls for solo flute plus orchestral flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, chimes, tambourine, glockenspiel, triangle, renaissance drum, harp, harpsichord, and strings. Duration about 21 minutes.
Lukas Foss (born Fuchs) was a multi-talented composer, conductor and pianist. Fleeing the Nazi regime in 1933 for Paris, he and his parents moved in 1937 to the U.S., where he became a citizen. He studied at the Curtis Institute of Music, where Leonard Bernstein was a classmate; later he played the prominent piano part in the first recording of Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” Symphony, and Bernstein recorded three of Foss’s works (Song of Songs, Time Cycle, Phorion). Foss was an important orchestra-builder: as music director he brought greater prominence to the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and from 1981 to 1986 the Milwaukee Symphony. In 2003 he led a chamber ensemble at the Weill Center.
Foss’s compositions show a great variety of influences over the course of his career, from the Neoclassicism of Hindemith and Stravinsky to 12-tone modernism, jazz, Americana in the manner of Ives or Copland, aleatory (“chance”) techniques, and eventually postmodernism, in the sense of mixing old and new styles, often quoting from older composers. His Renaissance Concerto might be called postmodern, with its blending of Renaissance, Baroque and very contemporary styles, but like all Foss’s best music it shows a quirky individualism that takes it beyond any label.
1. Intrada. The first movement is “entrance music,” with the soloist announced by a pair of trumpets stationed on platforms above the orchestra. (They are like ghosts from the Renaissance, conductor Kevin McMahon suggests.) Much of the movement is essentially a dazzling flute cadenza, interrupted on occasion by a cheerful dance tune in the winds, based on a piece by William Byrd. After a series of outbursts from the trumpets, amid swirls of sound from the harp, the movement ends quietly.
2. Baroque Interlude (After Rameau). This movement is very delicately scored and features a harpsichord whose music harks back to a piece by Jean-Philippe Rameau. It has a brisk, steady Allegretto rhythm and could be considered the scherzo of the concerto.
3. Recitative (After Monteverdi). The concerto’s Lento slow movement, partly derived from Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 opera Orfeo, calls for four players—violin, viola, cello and flute—to be stationed at the back of the stage to create ghostly echoes of the soloist and the rest of the orchestra. Throughout the concerto but here most prominently the orchestral flute is like an eerie reflection of the soloist, who sometimes uses the glissando technique to glide from note to note.
4. Jouissance. The movement title means “enjoyment” or “pleasure” and recalls the title Réjouissance (“rejoicing”) that J.S. Bach and others often gave to finales and dances. The movement, marked Allegro non troppo (not too fast), starts out boldly, strings and brass dominating, with a theme played in canon, i.e., as a round. The solo flute takes up the theme, sometimes using flutter-tonguing. After a brief return of the brass, the flute has a hushed duet with a renaissance drum, the soloist sometimes merely clicking the keys. The strings take up new tunes which the flute elaborates upon, all in an absolutely steady tempo, though with tricky syncopations. The “round” theme returns and various instruments take up the strings’ themes. At one point the flute alone plays, “shadowed” by a tambourine. The concerto ends ultra-quietly with the soloist walking offstage during the final moments.
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born Salzburg, Austria, 27 January 1756; died Vienna, 5 December 1791.
The opera was composed in 1770 and premiered 26 December of that year at the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan, the composer conducting. The Overture is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 horns and strings. Duration about 6 minutes.
Mitridate, Re di Ponto (Mithridates, King of Pontus) was Mozart’s fifth work for the stage, and the first of his operas to be premiered in Italy. He was 14. But he did have some assistance from a Czech composer, Josef Mysliveček, who befriended the youth and his father when they were in residence in Bologna.
Its complicated plot in 3 acts was based very loosely on the historical Mithradates VI, ruler of a kingdom on the Black Sea. In the opera Mitradate, a tragic figure, must deal not only with invading Romans but the fact that both of his grown sons are in love with his new fiancée. The production was a hit, running for 21 performances, but then was left neglected until the 20th Century.
The Overture to Mitridate is in an older Italian style that calls for three separate sections, played in quick succession. The opening Allegro is vigorous and commanding of attention; the Andante grazioso is indeed extremely graceful, with only the flutes accompanying the strings; and the Presto, with a more dancelike rhythm, brings the Overture to a brisk close. Even though the style would have seemed ‘old-fashioned’ by the time Mozart wrote his mature overtures (like the one for The Marriage of Figaro, 16 years later), there is a charm to the Mitridate curtain-raiser and a voice that is already distinctly Mozart’s.
Born Zwickau, Saxony, 8 June 1810; died Bonn, 29 July 1856.
Symphony No. 1, in Bb major (“Spring”), Op. 38
Composed 23 January to 20 February 1841 and premiered 31 March by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Felix Mendelssohn conducting. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle and strings. Duration about 30 minutes.
Robert Schumann composed mostly piano music during the first decade of his maturity, with a “year of song” shortly before he married Clara Wieck, the celebrated concert pianist whose controlling father had tried for years to keep them apart. Schumann had attempted to write a symphony in his youth, but now in the joy of his first months of marriage, and with Clara’s encouragement, he composed his Symphony No. 1 within less than a month—in fact, he completed the initial piano score in an astonishing four days. No less than Felix Mendelssohn, Schumann’s friend as well as an eminent composer and conductor, led the very successful Leipzig premiere just over a month after Schumann completed the orchestration.
Schumann himself called the work his “Spring Symphony,” and said he was influenced by a “Spring Poem” by Adolf Böttger, another Leipzig friend—the last line reads “Im Thale blüht der Frühling auf!” (“In the valley spring is blossoming!”) Schumann even gave names to the four movements: “Spring’s Beginning,” “Evening,” “Merry Playmates” and “Full Spring.” But for the actual premiere and subsequent publication he dropped all the references to spring, preferring to let listeners form their own impressions. (Program annotators, however, cannot resist telling all.)
1. Andante un poco maestoso – Allegro molto vivace. The symphony opens with a magnificent fanfare for horns and trumpets, repeated by most of the orchestra, and then answered by an outburst of almost frightening power from the full orchestra—adding trombones, timpani and two more horns. It’s very easy to imagine Schumann portraying the arrival of spring as a force of nature—or sudden joy over that arrival. As the introduction continues, the music becomes quieter and, after a lovely flute solo, almost breathless with anticipation as we accelerate into the main section of the movement, marked “very lively.” Schumann’s main theme has the same rhythm as the opening fanfare but much faster—and perhaps not coincidentally, it’s the same rhythm as Böttger’s poem in the original German.
This main section is in sonata form, with a more gentle secondary theme for the woodwinds, and—more unusual—a new yearning theme in the development section, first played by the oboe. But the driving, exuberant main theme dominates the movement. At one point the music slows down for a restatement of the fanfare; but it’s quickly back to tempo like a colt leaping from a gate, slowing down one final time for a gentle passage with yet another new theme shortly before the triumphant ending.
2. Larghetto. The slow movement is technically a rondo, in which a very long-limned melody is played first by the violins, later the cellos, and finally an oboe and horn. But in experience it seems like a single ongoing stretch of gorgeous melody and harmony, constantly evolving in its colors and textures. One unusual feature just before the end is a choir of trombones hinting at the theme of the next movement—and in fact, this slow movement leads directly into the Scherzo.
3. Scherzo: Molto vivace. Schumann’s Scherzo is unusual too in the way it’s structured. The main theme is bold and in a minor key, answered by a gentler counter- theme in a major key. A much faster contrasting section (Trio I) perhaps suggests one of the merry games Schumann originally envisioned for this movement. After a return to the bold theme and its counter-theme, the tempo picks up again (Trio II) for another “game.” But after the second return to the opening of the Scherzo, the movement settles down to a quiet close, with wistful recollections of Trio I.
4. Allegro animato e grazioso. A brief fanfare-like introduction takes us into the Finale, more dancelike and perhaps less intensely driven than the first movement but equally joyful. Midway through, the tempo slows down for yet another fanfare, for horns alone, followed by a rhapsodic flute cadenza, then picks up again, in a race toward the “full spring” of the conclusion.