Born Doborjan, Hungary, 22 October, 1811; died Bayreuth, Germany, 31 July, 1886.
Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem No. 3
Composed 1844-54 and premiered in Weimar, 23 February 1854 by an orchestra conducted by the composer. The score calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, harp and strings. Duration about 16 minutes. The SSO’s most recent performance of Les Préludes was with guest conductor David Schripsema, 12 October 1991.
At the age of 35, Franz Liszt was Europe’s most famous piano virtuoso, but he was feeling the need to give up his life of touring in order to concentrate on composing. He and his companion, the Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, settled in Weimar, with Liszt holding the title “Kapellmeister Extraordinaire.” One of his first projects there was a large choral work called The Four Elements; but eventually he abandoned it, reworking its overture into a stand-alone piece he called Les Préludes.
When Liszt introduced Les Préludes at a concert in Weimar he called it a “symphonic poem” (symphonische Dichtung). His term (now more or less synonymous with the slightly older term “tone poem”) is still used to describe a musical piece that transforms its themes like a symphony but is usually in a single movement and based on some extra-musical source, such as a poem, play, novel, painting, historical character or even philosophical text. In the case of Les Préludes, Liszt claimed it was based on a poem of the same title by Alphonse de Lamartine. The poem does have parallels with the music, but the preface or “program” published with the score was evidently written by Carolyne: “What is our life but a series of Preludes to that unknown song whose first solemn note is tolled by death?” The preface continues with a description of several key stages of life: “the enchanted dawn of love”; the “storms” that interrupt it; an escape from turmoil to “the pleasant calm of pastoral life”; and “when the trumpet sounds” our protagonist “hastens to danger’s post, that in the struggle he may once more regain full knowledge of himself and his strength.”
The music conveys this program in a remarkably concentrated way, each section flowing into the next. Les Préludes begins as simply as possible, with a quiet C played pizzicato. There follows a brooding, yearning theme whose first three notes (C – B – E) are the basis for all the other themes of the piece. The opening builds dramatically to a heroic theme, followed by an ardent love scene. This is interrupted by magnificently stormy music, which subsides as the pastoral music in 6/8 time makes its appearance. Eventually we hear the call to battle, and the work ends with the grand return of the heroic theme.
Liszt published Les Préludes as his “Symphonic Poem No. 3” and wrote a total of twelve during his Weimar years. But it has always been his most popular orchestral work in the concert hall, and listeners of a certain age will recognize much of it as the soundtrack for the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, later a perennial on Saturday daytime TV.
A CENTURY OF SONG: SHAWN WEBER MCMAHON IN CONCERT
Tonight’s soloist tells us: “When I was approached about putting together a program with the SSO I immediately thought it would be enjoyable for both me and the audience to pick a song from each decade of the 20th century. I began looking through some of the most famous Broadway musicals and movies through the decades and began choosing some personal favorites.” The final selection doesn’t adhere strictly to one song per decade, but does give us a sampling of the rich treasures in the “Great American Songbook” – that loosely defined body of memorable songs from Broadway and Hollywood from the 1920s to the 1950s – and in the still-growing legacy of our most recent half-century.
George Gershwin: “Someone to Watch Over Me” (1926).
One of the absolute classics of the Great American Songbook, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and a jazz favorite as well, it was written for the musical Oh, Kay!, where it was sung by Gertrude Lawrence, playing a British bootlegger named Lady Kay. In the original production she sang the song to a rag doll.
Cole Porter: “Tale of the Oyster” (1929).
This satirical song, with Porter’s own lyrics, is from Fifty Million Frenchmen, where it is sung by the worldly-wise Violet in mockery of social climbers. Shawn Weber McMahon’s choice “allows me to tell a humorous story in song form. I come from a family of story tellers, so this is right up my alley!”
Gershwin: “I Got Rhythm” (1930).
With its tricky syncopation this song became an instant hit after Ethel Merman sang it in the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy, and it is still a standard for both pop and jazz musicians. (The composer wrote a set of variations on it for piano and orchestra in 1934.) Robert Russell Bennett did the original orchestrations for all of Girl Crazy (in those days a whole team typically worked on a show), and tonight’s jazzy arrangement by Bennett is close to what was heard on opening night.
Harold Arlen: “Over the Rainbow” (1939).
Notoriously, MGM chief executive Louis B. Meyer wanted to cut the song (lyrics by E.Y. Harburg) from The Wizard of Oz because it came too early in the picture and, he thought, suited a more mature character than Dorothy, played by Judy Garland. Fortunately – for Meyer as well as posterity – producer Arthur Freed persuaded him to keep it. For Ms. McMahon it was an early-childhood favorite and the first song she got to sing as a solo in her high school choir.
Leonard Bernstein: “Somewhere” (1957).
In West Side Story Maria and Tony sing “Somewhere” (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) after Tony has tragically killed Maria’s brother Bernardo during a gang fight. The two dream of “a place for us, somehow, some day, somewhere” away from ethnic strife.
Alan Menken: “Colors of the Wind” (1995).
In Disney’s Pocahontas the title character sings this celebration of nature (lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, the composer of Godspell and Wicked) to John Smith, asking him who the “savages” are, her people or his. Menken has won eight Academy Awards for his music for Disney films, beginning with The Little Mermaid; one of his recent projects is the TV series Galavant.
Andrew Lloyd Webber: “Memory” (1981).
Grizabella sings this melancholy song (lyrics by Trevor Nunn, with echoes of T.S. Eliot) near the beginning of the musical Cats; it is later reprised as the climax of the show.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez: “Let It Go” (2013).
In the Disney musical Frozen the ostracized Queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) “lets go” of the vestiges of her life in the royal palace and creates an isolated ice castle for herself. Written during the planning stages of the film by Anderson-Lopez and Lopez (a married songwriting team), it caused the filmmakers to rewrite the first part of the movie for a more sympathetic view of Elsa. Shawn Weber McMahon tells us: “’Let It Go’ was an obvious choice for me since it was my kindergarteners’ favorite song to sing last year!” It’s a thrill “watching a classroom of 5 and 6 year olds sing this song with all their hearts. They can do every movement from the movie.”
Born 27 January 1885, New York, NY; died 11 November 1945, New York.
“Scenario for Orchestra” on Themes from “Show Boat” (arr. Charles Miller)
The musical Show Boat, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, premiered at the Ziegfeld Theatre, New York, 27 December 1927. In 1941 conductor Artur Rodzinski commissioned the “Scenario” and premiered it with the Cleveland Orchestra, 23 October of that year. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 alto saxophones, 2 tenor saxophones, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, celesta, timpani, xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, chimes, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, sleigh bells, bones, Chinese tom-toms, gong, guitar, banjo, harmonica, harp, and strings. Duration about 20 minutes.
Show Boat not only was a landmark American musical of the 1920s but remains the only 1920s musical regularly revived today. Based upon the multi-generational 1926 novel by Edna Ferber, Show Boat was unusual for its mix of musical styles and serious treatment of themes like racial bigotry and marriage breakups in an age when Broadway musicals were either Vienna-style romantic operettas or jazzier light comedies. With songs like “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” and “Only Make Believe” the show was a sensation from the beginning, though it has had its share of controversy over its portrayals of the sympathetic-yet-stereotypical African-American characters.
In 1941 the renowned music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, Artur Rodzinski, asked Kern for a symphonic treatment of music from Show Boat. Kern dedicated the score to Rodzinski “with grateful regards,” and added a quotation from a radio broadcast of Winston Churchill (at a moment when Great Britain was besieged by Nazi Germany but America had not yet entered the war) saying that the British Empire and the United States together will be an unstoppable union that “like the Mississippi” will “just keep rolling along . . . to better days.” Rodzinski’s respect for the score is shown by the fact that he placed it last on a Cleveland Orchestra program that opened with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 followed by Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony and music from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Before the year’s end Rodzinski and Cleveland had recorded the piece for Columbia Records.
The Scenario opens with a kind of fantasia on “Ol’ Man River.” Beginning somberly, the music becomes more impassioned, before taking on an upbeat tempo suggesting the arrival of the Show Boat at a dock on the Mississippi in the late 1800s. A musical transition takes us to “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” originally sung by Julie, the biracial Show Boat star who is “passing” in a society that would not allow her to perform with whites. This section features a quartet of saxophones, especially in a portion marked “Tempo di Blues.”
More upbeat music followed by a hint of a calliope introduces the Show Boat’s lovable Cap’n Andy, followed by music for his sweet and innocent daughter, Magnolia. She is becoming attracted to the riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal, with whom she sings the duet heard next, “Only Make Believe.” A waltz phrase represents Magnolia’s vow of love to Ravenal, and leads to more waltz music, culminating in “You Are Love.”
Livelier music in the style known as a cakewalk suggests the departure of the Show Boat from its port. A fanfare takes us to the Midway of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, where Magnolia and Ravenal, now married, are living. Following some festive music, a melancholy transition leads to another Midway spectacle, a heavily rhythmic dance performed supposedly by natives of Dahomey, later revealed to be African Americans hired for the impersonation and eager to get back to their apartments.
Next, the tune “Why Do I Love You?” celebrates the young couple’s bliss (unaware that poverty and desertion lie in their future). A passage marked “Religioso” introduces us to Kim, their daughter who is being raised in a convent. Finally, various musical themes are reprised, and the Scenario ends with a return of “Ol’ Man River,” interwoven with the music of Magnolia’s vow.
A CENTURY OF SONG, PART 2:
Jason Robert Brown: “Stars and the Moon” (1995).
As described by our soloist, this is “another song that tells a story. It spoke to me – how often in life we think we know what we want and then look back and find we had it all along and didn’t actually appreciate it!” It originated in Brown’s first New York (off-Broadway) show, Songs for a New World, which has been described as a cross between a musical and a song cycle, with four singers and a rock band performing songs whose theme is “the moment of decision.”
Stephen Sondheim: “Send in the Clowns” (1973).
Lyricist-composer Sondheim wrote it for A Little Night Music, in which Desiree, an older woman, sings of her regrets in love. Originally performed by Glynis Johns, the song was popularized in the 1970s by both Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins, and is a favorite of pop, opera and jazz singers alike.
Lucy Simon: “Hold On” (1991).
In The Secret Garden (book and lyrics by Marsha Norman) Mary is an orphaned girl residing in a stern relative’s haunted mansion. When the relative threatens to send Mary off to a boarding school, the kindly chambermaid Martha advises her to “Hold On.”
Stephen Schwartz: “Defying Gravity” (2003).
In Wicked, Elphaba, the Witch of the West, is rather more sympathetic than she appears in The Wizard of Oz. In fully staged productions, as she sings “Defying Gravity” Elphaba defies both the tyrannical Wizard and Newton’s law by rising from the stage on a broomstick. Idina Menzel created the role on Broadway; the original version of the song includes duet passages with fellow witch Glinda.