Opening Weekend // September 2015

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, op. 35

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in Votinsk, Russia and died on November 6, 1893 in Saint Petersburg. He remains one of the most popular composers of all time, beloved especially for his symphonies, ballets, and concertos. His Violin Concerto was composed in 1878 and received its first performance in Vienna on December 4, 1881 with Russian virtuoso Adolph Brodsky as soloist and Hans Richter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Its first reviews were devastating, yet over the course of time it has become one of the most popular works in the concerto repertory. This work was last performed by the Winston-Salem Symphony in October, 2008.

The initial inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was a performance of Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole for violin and orchestra given by the great virtuoso, Yosif Kotek, sometime in late 1877 or early 1878. Tchaikovsky worked quickly on the new concerto, starting on March 17, 1878, taking a mere eleven days to sketch it out. The complete score was finished by April 11. How many works of such magnitude can claim such a short gestation period? Kotek, who served as technical advisor to Tchaikovsky (who was not a violinist), gave a private performance of the piece in Clarens, Switzerland on April 3.

Despite Kotek’s important role in the genesis of the piece, Tchaikovsky chose to dedicate it to Leopold Auer, professor of violin at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg. Auer, however, not only rejected the dedication, but went on to declare the concerto unplayable, advising all other violinists to shun it. Adolph Brodsky ignored Auer’s judgment and gave Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is world premiere with orchestra on December 4, 1881 in Vienna. A scathing review by Eduard Hanslick in the Neue Freie Presse may be have been attributable in part to the fact that Brodsky was allowed only one rehearsal with orchestra. The orchestra parts, as it happened, were filled with so many mistakes that the conductor, Hans Richter, asked the orchestra to play pianissimo throughout the entire work. Hanslick may also have been comparing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with that of Brahms (a work that was composed at the same time as Tchaikovsky’s, and which had had its premiere in Leipzig in 1879). A closer reading of Hanslick’s review, however, reveals a decidedly anti-Russian bias:

The Russian composer Tchaikovsky is surely not an ordinary talent, but rather an inflated one, with a genius-obsession without discrimination or taste. Such is also his latest, long and pretentious Violin Concerto. For a while it moves soberly, musically, and not without spirit. But soon vulgarity gains the upper hand, and asserts itself to the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played; it is pulled, torn, drubbed. The Adagio is again on its best behavior, to pacify and to win us. But it soon breaks off to make way for a finale that transfers us to a brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian holiday. We see plainly the savage vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell vodka. Friedrich Vischer once observed, speaking of obscene pictures, that they stink to the eye. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.
translation by Nicholas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective (Seattle, 1953)

This virulent anti-Russianism may also be found in other Viennese reviews, but the fact that the composer’s Russian confidante and patron, Madame von Meck, also was displeased with the Violin Concerto indicates that its national character was not its only problem. Tchaikovsky was, of course, deeply wounded by such hostility. Time, however, proved to be the Violin Concerto’s best ally. In 1893, Auer himself finally performed the “unplayable” concerto (with modest revisions), and went on to teach it to all of his most gifted pupils, among whom we may count some of the great virtuosi of the 20th century—Efram Zimbalist, Mischa Elman, and Jascha Heifetz. But Auer’s change of heart came too late in one sense. The composer dedicated the work, appropriately, to the courageous Brodsky.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto shares one important feature with another romantic concerto—the one for violin by Felix Mendelssohn. I refer here to a cadenza in the first movement that is written out by the composer and placed at the beginning of the recapitulation rather than at the end. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, virtuoso showpiece that it is, is filled with many of the lovely melodies one associates with the composer’s most popular ballet scores. The melody of the Canzonetta (a substitution for the original slow movement, which was later issued independently as his Meditation, op. 42) surely ranks among Tchaikovsky’s most felicitous ideas. The solo part in the beginning of this movement is played with a mute, which not only softens the instrument’s dynamic range, but alters its tone color. The fiery Allegro vivacissimo finale, so despised by Hanslick, nowadays is admired and beloved for its indomitable sense of fun, as well as for the sheer excitement it is able to generate.

Program Note by David B. Levy © 2008/2015

Hector Berlioz
Symphonie fantastique, op.14

Hector Berlioz was born on December 11, 1803 in La Côte-St.-André, near Grenoble and died in Paris on March 8, 1869. A leading figure in French romanticism, his early Symphonie fantastique, remains his most popular score. Its premiere took place on December 5, 1830 at a special concert produced by the composer in the Salle du Conservatoire, Paris, with François-Antoine Habeneck conducting. The work is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets à pistons, 3 trombones, 2 tubas (originally ophicleides), timpani (4), percussion, 2 harps, and strings. This work was last performed by the Winston-Salem Symphony in October, 2006.

The dividing line between imagination and reality in Berlioz’s life was scarcely perceptible. Such was also the case between his art and his life. What creative outlet would this most sensitive of individuals have found had he fulfilled his father’s desire that he become a physician? The young artistic soul knew better. He risked all to follow his muse, doing so with an integrity rarely equalled in history. He lay bare his innermost fantasies in the shape of melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that would rock the musical establishments of his time, and that jar and surprise even today. Posterity has judged Berlioz to belong to the Pantheon of greatness, but not without a struggle. The Symphonie fantastique, composed in 1830 (revised in 1831), was the work that launched his controversial career. It remains to this day his most popular work.

There remains a tendency to claim that Berlioz composed with more enthusiasm and inspiration than skill or care. Idiosyncrasy has been confused with lack of discipline. Berlioz, however, cared only for expressivity, even at the risk of exploring uncharted waters. But he did not travel without a compass. This took the form of Gluck, Weber, Mozart, and Beethoven. Adam Carse once characterized Berlioz as an individual “whom Nature, perhaps rather capriciously, decided to make a Frenchman.” Berlioz was French from head to toe, however, as evidenced by many places in his scores that reveal his indebtedness to Gossec, Leseuer, Mehul, Meyerbeer, and others who flourished in France. His literary Gods were Virgil, Goethe, and Shakespeare. The last figure especially fired his imagination. Berlioz found in Shakespeare a true dramatic kindred spirit, and it is here that reality and fantasy in the Symphonie fantastique merge.

Berlioz had fallen in love with an Anglo-Irish actress, Harriet Smithson. Her Parisian performance as Ophelia in Hamlet on September 11, 1827 so beguiled the young composer, that he was unable to separate the actress from her role. She knew nothing of him as yet. He wrote letters to her and made other efforts to bring his name to her attention, but by the time she left Paris in 1829, the two had not met. All the while, the Symphonie fantastique, which Berlioz called an Episode from the Life of an Artist, was taking shape. The music and its program evolved simultaneously. Much of its thematic material already existed in other contexts. The opening theme of the first movement’s introduction was a melody from a setting of a text by Florian entitled Estelle et Nemorin (1823). The cantata Herminie (1828) provided the theme known as the Symphony’s idée fixe. An excerpt from his opera, Les Francs-juges (1826) became the Marche au supplice. Additional literary inspiration came from Nerval’s translation of Goethe’s Faust.

After the Symphonie fantastique’s first performance in Paris on December 5, 1830, Berlioz recalled that the second, fourth, and fifth movements “created a sensation.” A printed program was issued to the audience. Berlioz did so out of an awareness that his work contained radical elements and a fear that his expressive purposes would not be understood. When Berlioz composed the rarely-performed sequel to the Symphonie fantastique entitled Lélio, or the Return to Life in 1832, he revised his program, indicating that only the titles for each movement be issued to the audience when the Symphony is performed without the monodrama, Lélio. As fate would have it, Harriet Smithson had returned to Paris in 1832 in time to hear the first performance of both parts of the Episode in the Life of an Artist, and Berlioz contrived to have her present for the concert. She realized that she was the idée fixe, the object of his affection and suffering. Berlioz and Smithson became married in 1833, only to drift apart by 1842. Harriet was not Ophelia.

The premise of the Symphonie fantastique is an opium dream. Beset with doubts and jealous love, the artist attempts to commit suicide, but succeeds only in achieving a hallucinatory state marked by strange visions. His beloved takes the form of a melody (the idée fixe) that returns in each movement:

  1. Reveries; Passions
  2. A Ball
  3. Scene in the Country
  4. March to the Scaffold
  5. Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

Berlioz characterized the idée fixe as “passionate but at the same time noble and shy.” It first appears at the onset of the Allegro agitato e appassionato assai in the first movement, rendered by the unison violins and flute. Berlioz’s program tells that this movement depicts expressions “of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations.” Many of these emotional states may be perceived by listeners. The second movement, A Ball places the artist in the midst of a gay party. The middle section of its tripartite structure centers on a transformed version of the idée fixe. The Scene in the Country opens with a dialogue between the English horn and an off-stage oboe, representing the artist and his beloved respectively. This Alpine “ranz des vaches” leads to a calm musical paragraph that is interrupted by angry lower strings, stirred up by the image of the idée fixe in the woodwinds. The calm follows this jealous storm, but by movement’s end, the English horn call is answered only by silence and distant thunder, an effect that Berlioz achieves with four timpani. The spectacular March au supplice fills in the gap of any story line that may be followed. The artist dreams that he has murdered his beloved and is now being led to his own execution for the crime. This movement is a clinic in orchestral color. Two themes dominate, the first of which is a sinister descending minor scale, while the second is a patriotic-sounding march in the brass instruments. The first theme at one point is given a “sound-color-melody” treatment (to use a Webernesque term that points out Berlioz’s advanced orchestral thinking), giving each note, or group of notes, its own unique timbre. The movement ends with a brief recollection of the idée fixe in the clarinet before blade falls. The head rolls into the basket, followed by the cheering of the mob.

The last movement, which may have been inspired in part by Carl Maria von Weber’s opera, Der Freischütz (a work for which Berlioz later would compose recitatives to replace the spoken dialogue), completes the nightmare. Here is a panoply of ghoulish orchestral gestures representing a musical Walpurgisnacht. The tempo picks up with a final, horrible transformation of the idée fixe, now squawed raucously by an E-flat soprano clarinet. Tolling church bells reveal the purpose of this hellish revel, the artist’s funeral procession. The famous medieval plainchant, Dies irae, normally only heard at funerals, never before in the concert hall, is solemnly incanted by tubas and bassoons. Each phrase is answered by horns and trombones and mercilessly mocked by the woodwinds. The witches begin their contrapuntal dance of celebration, which climaxes with its combination with the Dies irae. In a final brilliant orchestral stroke, one can sense rattling bones and the fires of hell as produced by the violins and violas as they bounce their bows with the wooden side (col legno) on their strings.

Berlioz, the first true master of modern orchestration, calls for an immense orchestra for his day, comprising two each of flutes, oboes, and clarinets (with doubling on piccolo, English horn, and E-flat clarinet), four bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, two tubas, (originally ophicleides), four timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, bells, two harps, and strings. The astounding effects created by these forces seem all the more impressive when one contemplates that this work was composed only three years after Beethoven’s death. The Symphonie fantastique was a work that took the symphony in a bold new direction which paved the way for not only Berlioz’s later works, but those of Liszt, Wagner, Richard Strauss, and many others.

Program Note by David B. Levy © 2006/2015

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