by Jane Rausch
“Location, Location, Location” To celebrate its 49th Season, the Holyoke Civic Symphony plans to take its audience on a world tour by performing music inspired by Europe; Holyoke, Massachusetts; England; and the American Wild, Wild West.
We begin with Europe, and the compositions on today’s program, which span the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, portray evocative images of three nations – Scotland Czechoslovakia, and Austria.
FELIX MENDELSSOHN, the German composer, pianist, organist, and conductor of early romantic music, was something of an anomaly among his contemporaries. Far from experiencing the troubled life that characterized most composers of the Romantic Age, his existence was one of unhindered career fulfillment and domestic tranquility. Born in Hamburg to a prosperous Jewish family, Mendelssohn was initially raised without religion but was later baptized as a Reformed Christian. He grew up in a cultivated household nurtured by sympathetic parents who, while recognizing him as a child prodigy, fostered his musical ambitions without forcing him into a strange and grueling lifestyle. As a young man he enjoyed early success in Germany, where he revived interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and at twenty-six he became the musical director in Leipzig, the most important musical post in the country. He married, without the slightest opposition, the woman of his choice with whom he led a life of unblemished happiness heightened by five delightful children. Before reaching middle age, he had written finely-crafted symphonies, concerti, oratorios, and piano and chamber music that enabled him to become the most revered composer in Europe, and just when the first real clouds appeared on the horizon of his happiness, he died of an aneurism speedily and without pain at the age of thirty-eight.
Mendelssohn frequently travelled throughout the continent for pleasure and to perform. As a composer, conductor, and soloist, he was particularly well-received in Britain. His ten visits there – during which many of his major works were premiered – form an important part of his adult career. In 1829 while on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Karl Klingemann, he visited the Hebrides Archipelago and later Fingal’s Cave on the Island of Staffa. Marveling at the stunning scenery of the islands and the cave, he immediately set down the opening bars of what would become his overture on a postcard to his sister Fanny with the following note, “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily The Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.”
He completed the first draft of his Hebrides Overture toward the end of 1830, and it was premiered on May 14, 1832 by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The finished work was a “concert overture” meaning that it was not intended to introduce an opera or a theatrical piece, but designed to stand alone and be programmed as an overture in a concert hall. The Hebrides does not tell a specific story. Instead it depicts a mood and sets a scene, making it an early example of such musical tone poems. The work consists of two primary themes. The first includes the bars Mendelssohn wrote while visiting Fingal’s Cave and is played initially by the violas, cellos, and bassoons. This lyrical theme, suggestive of the power and stunning beauty of the islands, is intended to develop feelings of loneliness and solitude. The second theme, meanwhile, depicts movements at sea and rolling waves. The overall effect has been called one of the greatest seascapes of music.
BEDRICH SMETANA was a Bohemian composer of operas and symphonic poems who founded the Czech national school of music. (In the nineteenth century, Bohemia, with its capital at Prague, was a province within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and not until 1918 was it combined with Moravia and Czech Silesa to form the contemporary Czech Republic.) Smetana was born in the town of Litomysl east of Prague where, under Habsburg rule, German was the official language. He was introduced to music by his father, who had a natural gift for the violin and played in a string quartet. The boy gave his first public performance on the piano at the age of six. After his conventional schooling, he studied music under Josef Proksch in Prague.
Smetana began to compose his distinctive nationalistic music in 1848 and briefly participated in the Prague uprising of that year. Unable to establish his career in that city, however, he moved to Sweden where in 1856 he was appointed conductor of the Gothenburg Philharmonic Society. He remained in Sweden until 1861, when he returned to Prague to promote the establishment of the national opera house.
While in Gothenburg, Smetana set about writing four symphonic poems that reflected his love and nostalgia for Bohemia. In 1859 he composed the second of these pieces, Wallenstein’s Camp, which was intended to precede a play of the same name written by the German poet Friedrich Schiller. The play told the story of Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Bohemian military leader and politician who fought in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). Smetana had originally planned to follow this initial ‘prelude’ with a second piece, Wallenstein’s Death (also after Schiller, in both title and subject matter) but that piece was never written. We are left nonetheless with Wallenstein’s Camp, which is effectively a miniature symphony in one span but with four subsidiary parts.
Greatly influenced by the music of Franz Liszt, Smetana believed that extended symphonic music could portray an explicit story, and thus he invested each of the four parts of this symphonic poem with a specific occurrence or mood from Schiller’s play. First we hear the tumultuous dance of the soldiers in the camp, interrupted by a moralizing sermon from a Capuchin friar played by unison trombones. This section is followed by gentle nighttime music, a fiery call to arms, and a final stirring march. Smetana was just at the beginning of his career, but his adeptness at musical drama is clear in the intense, tight atmosphere that pervades the work from its opening notes, fiery polkas and fanfares that foreshadow his more familiar opera, The Bartered Bride.
In 1779 WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART was anxious to break free from the restriction imposed by his employer in Salzburg, the Archbishop Colloredo. His recent tour westward to Mannheim and Paris proved of decisive importance for it emboldened him to experiment with some of the instrumental forms and style he had encountered. The result was the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-flat Major – a deeply felt masterpiece for which there seems to be no precedent in the work he had written before.
Sinfonia concertante literally means “little symphony with cameo solos.” The form evolved from the Baroque concerto grosso. Unlike the concerto grosso, however, the instruments comprising the solo “group” (in this case the violin and viola) play with much more independence from one another. This hybrid genre between the symphony and the concerto achieved popularity beginning in the 1760s in the great musical centers of Europe and would come to be called a double concerto in the nineteenth century. Mozart’s experiment followed his five violin concertos composed in 1775, and musicologists regard it as his greatest concerted work for strings. The piece is scored for solo violin, solo viola, two oboes, two horns, and strings, the latter including a divided viola section, which accounts for the work’s rich harmony. Although the orchestra score is in E-flat, the solo viola part is actually written in D major, with instructions that the instrument be tuned up a half step “and perhaps a shade sharp” so that it would stand out more effectively against the orchestral timbre. The work treats the violin and viola solo parts equally, often having one instrument finish the melodic line begun by the other. The layers of supremely balanced dialogues which develop not only between the soloists, but also between winds and strings, and orchestra and soloists, weave together a tapestry of sound that is exquisitely Mozart.
In the opening tutti of the Allegro maestoso, Mozart announces six themes, and then true to the spirit of the concertante style, the soloists lavish more new melodies on the exposition and development. A notable feature of this movement is the use of the long dramatic crescendo that Mozart must surely have heard at Mannheim. The great C minor Andante, with its drooping phrases and poignant chromatic harmonies, bears comparison with any of the finest slow movements in Mozart’s later concertos. The nucleus of the movement, and perhaps of the whole work, is the final sixteen-bar cadenza which ends in a chromatic climax, before the orchestra quietly brings the movement to a close. The Presto then sets off at a tremendous pace and seems to exalt in a sense of freedom. This movement is in fact a rondo with two episodes, in which Mozart, again remaining true to the concertante principle, gives the soloists several melodies which they keep almost entirely to themselves. Instead of a joint cadenza, as in the first two movements, each of the solo instruments soars to the very top of its compass (the violin to top E-flat, the highest note Mozart ever wrote for the instrument) before the resolute concluding tutti which brings to an end this great and forward-looking masterpiece.