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October 01, 2013

October 2013 Program Notes


Born Rohrau, Austria, 31 March 1732; died Vienna, 31 May, 1809.

Armida: Overture

Haydn’s opera Armida was composed in 1783 and premiered 26 February 1784 at the Esterhazy family’s Court Theatre, Haydn conducting. The Overture calls for flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, harpsichord continuo, and strings, and lasts about 7 minutes.

Jerusalem Liberated, Torquato Tasso’s 1581 epic poem of the First Crusade, was a favorite across Europe for centuries, especially for its subplot featuring the sorceress Armida and her enthralled lover, the crusader knight Rinaldo. Like Circe in the Odyssey, Armida cast a magic spell over the crusaders, turning some into animals and luring Rinaldo to her enchanted garden, from which he is eventually rescued. Many composers have created operatic versions of the story, including Lully, Handel, Gluck, Rossini and Dvorak as well as Haydn, whose Armida was his penultimate opera and reportedly his personal favorite.

Armida was the last of the operas Haydn wrote for his longtime employer, Count Esterhazy, whose great estate near the Austrian-Hungarian border had its own opera house and distinguished musicians. It was a great success during Haydn’s lifetime, in several European capitals as well as on the estate, but fell into obscurity until the score was published in 1965. Since then it has been revived successfully and recorded with such distinguished artists in the title role as Jessye Norman and Cecilia Bartoli.

The overture, or sinfonia as it was originally called, begins with martial music suggesting Rinaldo and the crusaders. A gentler section in triple time is followed by stormy music, and the overture ends with another reference to the martial fanfare of the beginning. 


Born Rohrau, Austria, 14 September 1737; died Salzburg, 10 August 1806.

Andromeda and Perseus: Overture

The opera was completed in 1787 and premiered on 14 March of that year at the Salzburger Hoftheater (Salzburg Court Theatre). The score calls for 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets in C, timpani, harpsichord continuo, and strings. Duration is a little under 6 minutes.

The music of Michael Haydn is much less familiar to the general public than that of his older brother Franz Joseph, but he was a highly regarded composer during his lifetime, based in Salzburg for most of his career while turning down attractive offers from other cities. He was especially famed for his vocal music, mostly for church performance, though he also wrote over 40 symphonies and a great deal of chamber music. Mozart was an admirer, and contributed an introduction to a Michael Haydn symphony that until the early 20th century was believed to be Mozart’s “Symphony No. 37.”

Michael Haydn wrote a number of Singspielen (operas in German, usually comic, with some spoken dialogue) but only one opera seria (opera in Italian on a serious, often mythological theme): Andromeda and Perseus. According to Greek legend, the princess Andromeda was chained to a rock at the edge of the sea, to be devoured by a sea monster, but was rescued by the hero Perseus. In Haydn’s opera complications ensue when Perseus asks Andromeda’s father, King Cepheus, for her hand in marriage as a reward for saving her, but she is already engaged to her uncle Phineus. In most versions of the myth Phineus comes to a bad end, but in opera seria forgiveness and reconciliation are most often triumphant, as is the case here, though of course the hero gets the princess.

Haydn’s overture—here too called a sinfonia—does not paint a specific picture of storm and sea, but it is vigorously dramatic, anticipating the first scene of the opera, where Andromeda is already chained to the rock and the sea monster is approaching amid a tempest. But the same wind is about to blow Perseus’ ship to shore, so the music may be conveying his heroic resolve. In musical shape the overture is a freely constructed sonata form, with the opening theme returning after a dramatic pause.


Born Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, 2 January, 1837; died St. Petersburg, 29 May 1910.

Overture on Three Russian Folk Songs

Composed 1857-58 and first performed at a university concert in St. Petersburg in January 1859. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets; 3 trombones, timpani and strings. Duration is about 8 minutes. 

Though less well known today than several of his fellow Russian nationalists, Mily Balakirev is a key link between his mentor, Mikhail Glinka, the first great composer to make extensive use of Russian folk music rather than simply follow Western European traditions, and the composers of Balakirev’s own generation and beyond. Balakirev was a mentor himself of Peter Tchaikovsky and the founder of the musical group that came to be called “The Five,” whose other members were Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Cesar Cui. Balakirev encouraged all of them to cultivate musical styles that were individual and yet richly steeped in Russian traditions.

The Overture on Three Russian Folk Songs opens vigorously with just a hint of what will be the second of the three themes. What follows is a lovely Andante featuring the song “The Silver Birch,” first played by flute and clarinet in unison. The next section, much faster, is actually in sonata form using the other two folk melodies as its A and B themes. Each tune would become much more famous in compositions by other Russian composers: “In the Fields Stands a Birch Tree,” here first played by solo clarinet, is a prominent theme in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony (1878) and “At the Feast,” stated by the oboe, appears in the climactic Fair Scene of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka (1911). Balakirev ends his overture wistfully with a return to the serene “The Silver Birch.”


Born Tikhvin, Russia, 18 March, 1844; died near Luga, Russia, 21 June, 1908.

Overture on Russian Themes, Op 28

Composed 1866 and revised in 1880; the final version was premiered in Moscow 8 May, 1880, the composer conducting. The score calls for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, tambourine, harp and strings. Performance time is 12 minutes.

Like Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov used three traditional Russian melodies for his own Overture on Russian Themes, citing his mentor’s Overture on Three Russian Folk Songs as one of his “ideals” in writing the piece. (In Russian the titles are almost the same: Balakirev’s “Russian Folk Themes” vs. Rimsky’s “Russian Themes.”) Balakirev in fact conducted the first performance of Rimsky’s overture in its original form, at the Free School in St. Petersburg.

Despite Rimsky’s admiration for Balakirev’s piece, his Overture on Russian Themes is structured rather differently. It opens solemnly with an arrangement of the traditional hymn known as “Slava” (“Glory”), familiar to modern audiences for its use in the Coronation Scene of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov (1869), though Beethoven had already used it in the Scherzo of his Second Rasumovsky Quartet (1806). It’s followed by a quicker-paced tune called “At the Gates”—also familiar because Tchaikovsky chose it for the central episode of his 1812 Overture (1880)—and another, “Ivan Is Wearing a Big Coat,” immediately after. The three themes are ingeniously interwoven in the rest of the piece, until the solemn opening with “Slava” returns in expanded form, capped by a Vivace treatment in the final bars. 


Born Nelehozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic), 8 September 1841; died Prague, 1 May 1904.

Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104

Composed 1894-95 and first performed 19 March, 1896 by the London Philharmonic, the composer conducting, with cellist Leo Stern. The work is scored for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets. 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle and strings, in addition to the solo cello. Performance time is approximately 40 minutes. The SSO played the Dvorak Cello Concerto most recently on 11 May, 2002, with Guy Victor Bordo conducting and Mark Kosower the cellist.

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto—written soon after his last symphony, the “New World”—was the last of the works he composed during his three-year sojourn in the United States. It is universally recognized as one of Dvorak’s greatest compositions, with all the dramatic power, melodic abundance, and formal and emotional complexity of any of his nine symphonies. For many listeners it stands supreme among works written for cello and orchestra.

Though (or perhaps because) he had written a cello concerto in his youth which he had abandoned without orchestrating it or having it performed or published, Dvorak resisted the pleas of his cellist friend Hanus Wihan to write a concerto for him. Dvorak presumably had some acquaintance with the cello concertos of Joseph Haydn, Robert Schumann and Camille Saint-Saens, and certainly had heard Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello of 1887, but it was not until his last year in New York, when he heard the premiere performances of Victor Herbert’s Second Cello Concerto, that he realized that the instrument had expressive possibilities he had never imagined. (Herbert’s concerto, neglected for decades, has now been recorded by the likes of Lynn Harrell and Yo-Yo Ma.) Dvorak consulted with Wihan on details of the cello writing, but firmly rejected his friend’s proposals for cadenzas in the first and last movements. Wihan was not able to take part in the London world premiere (the honor went to English cellist Leo Stern, who also premiered the work with the Chicago Symphony), but Dvoak dedicated the published score to him.

As with concertos of the Classical era, Dvorak opens with the orchestra alone playing the full exposition, the opening section of a sonata form. Clarinets begin with a moody version of the first theme, soon to be restated more forcefully. The second main theme, expansively lyrical, is first heard as a horn solo, continued in the clarinet. After the exposition is complete, the solo cello enters dramatically, taking up each theme in turn. The middle section of the movement (the development of the thematic material) takes us to distant places, both tonally and emotionally, seemingly yearning or haunted in mood; when we come to the reprise of the opening section, we are startled to hear the second theme, the lyrical one, played first, now triumphantly by the full orchestra, before the opening theme returns to end the movement.

The Adagio that follows has an abundance of lyrical themes, with the cello entwining with woodwinds as if playing chamber music. The middle section transforms a tune that Dvorak took from one of his early songs for soprano, called “Leave Me Alone” or “Let Me Be Alone,” said to be a favorite of his beloved sister-in-law Josefina Kaunitz, of whose serious illness Dvorak learned while he was writing the concerto. The Adagio has some moments of high drama but many more tender and rhapsodic passages: for example, a flute accompaniment to the cello that suggests birdcalls, or a mellow passage for horn trio.

The finale begins with a suspenseful marchlike rhythm, followed by the cello’s entrance with a bold Czech-flavored theme, repeated by the full orchestra. This movement is in rondo form, with that bold theme returning after each contrasting interlude, but the form is used with great freedom and subtlety on Dvorak’s part. Toward the end of the concerto the tempo slows greatly to a serene transformation of the rondo theme, and next we hear the initial theme of the whole concerto (again with clarinets) and another transformation of the “Leave Me Alone” melody. These bars were composed after Dvorak’s return to Bohemia, at which time he received word of Josefina’s death, and commentators have found a deep personal meaning in those quotations. Only after an indescribably moving passage for the cello, which rises to a final high note, does the full orchestra return for a triumphant ending.


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