Friday, October 14, 2011

Program notes: Masterworks Opening Night October 29

The 2011/2012 Masterworks season begins Saturday, October 29, with a Halloween-themed program guaranteed to send chills up your spine! In Saint-Saëns’ amusing Danse macabre, the xylophone portrays dancing skeletons, as Death plays on a violin tuned to a devilish pitch. Our frighteningly talented young piano soloist plays Rachmaninoff’s virtuosic Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, whose 24 variations weave an ever more diabolic spell on the listener. The Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) plainchant melody which appears in the Rhapsody also permeates Berlioz’ most famous work, Symphonie fantastique. The large forces required (8 timpani and 2 tubas, for starters) dramatize the composer’s haunting and ghoulish visions, culminating in the wild Witches’ Sabbath finale. Feel free to come in costume! Musically Speaking, our pre-concert talk, starts at 7 p.m. The concert begins at 8 p.m. Keep reading for the program notes!

Danse macabre, Op. 40
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

The ghoulish theme of a witches’ midnight sabbath was enticing to many nineteenth century composers (in addition to Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is a good example), and Saint-Saëns was one of them. Though in general he was a thoroughly serious composer, there was definitely an antic entertainer in Saint-Saëns’ personality, and in 1874 he produced an amusing variant on the genre, Danse macabre.

A crazy poem by Henri Cazalis is quoted in the score: “Zig and zig and zag, Death sets the rhythm/Striking a tombstone with his heel/Death at midnight plays a dance/Zig and zig and zag, on his violin/One hears the rattling bones of the dancers/But psitt! Suddenly the dance ceases/They push each other, they flee, the cock has crowed.” The harp strikes midnight. Death tunes up his fiddle, but the E string has been lowered a half step (this is called scordiatura) resulting in a discordant interval traditionally known as “the devil in music.” Two themes--a whirling waltz melody and an eerie melody that descends by half steps—are cleverly intermingled towards the end of the piece, when we hear the cock crow in the oboe.

To represent the rattling bones of the dancing skeletons, Saint-Saëns introduced the xylophone to the symphony. It was such a novelty that he actually wrote in the score where to purchase the instrument.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

“When composing, I am a slave. Beginning at nine in the morning I allow myself no respite until after eleven at night.” S.R.

If ever a virtuoso was said to have been able to possess the souls of his listeners, that virtuoso was Paganini. Scarecrow thin, extremely tall, and intensely absorbed in his spell-weaving, the violinist played music that simply no others could, and was able to switch instantly from pyrotechnical display to heart-rending melodiousness. A popular superstition held that he was in league with the devil. In fact, it has been determined recently that some of Paganini’s inimitable violinistic abilities were more Mendelian than Mephistophelian. Through the inheritance of a defective chromosome, Paganini became a victim of Marfan Syndrome, a disorder of connective tissue, also called Arachnodactyly or “spider fingers.” The excessive length and hyper extensibility of his finger joints was definitely key in the violinist’s attainment of a para-normal technique.

The element of virtuosity is at the heart of Paganini’s style, and it is fair to say that the popularity of his music waned when death brought his performances to an end. If his talents and personality are captured for posterity in any one work, that work would be his Ventiquattro capricci per violini solo, Op. 1. The caprices were potent enough to provide themes for new works by Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and, of course, Rachmaninoff.

Rachmaninoff composed his Rhapsody in midsummer of 1934 while living at his estate on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. Having left his native Russia after the October Revolution in 1917, he was, in 1935, to relocate permanently to the United States. Certainly 1934 must have been a time of decision-making for him, and perhaps it is no coincidence that the liturgical melody Dies Irae is woven through the Rhapsody, this theme being part of the Catholic Mass for the Dead which describes the events on the Day of Judgment. The original title of the work was Rhapsodie (en forme de variations) sur un thème de Paganini; although the title was abbreviated, the work comprises an introduction, the theme, and twenty-four brief variations, of which the seventh, tenth, and twenty-fourth feature the Dies Irae melody.

The piece opens with an eight bar introduction and a first variation titled Precedente. Then the Paganini theme is stated, aptly, by the violins, with the piano executing single note exclamations on the first beat of each measure. The variations are strikingly rhythmic, and the slow Variation 18 is a lyrically beautiful inversion of the theme. The variations thereafter pick up in tempo and character, leading to the final one, which is a thundering combination of the Paganini theme and the Dies Irae melody.

--Hilary Hatch

Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

In 1827, the 24 year-old Hector Berlioz attended a performance of Hamlet at the Odéon in Paris. Although he did not understand a word of English, the female lead, Harriet Smithson, captured his heart with her beauty and her voice. Berlioz sent the actress letter after letter but got no reply. He decided to write a great symphony to woo her with a portrayal of his love. The Symphonie fantastique, completed in 1830, is one of the most original and impassioned works in musical history. It anticipates Wagner’s leitmotif in its use of a recurring melody (which Berlioz called l’idée fixe) to represent Miss Smithson. Unusual orchestral colors and “special effects” abound—the Eb clarinet, chords in the timpani, the dialogue between English horn and oboe. In the last movement, the violins hit their strings with the wooden side of their bows in imitation of the rattling of skeletons. Chimes herald the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath)--the often-quoted plainchant melody from the Latin Mass for the Dead—in the low brass.

Miss Smithson was not present at the work’s premiere; when she finally heard it two years later, Berlioz himself played the drums, and it is said that each time their eyes met, he played with redoubled fury. The actress finally consented to marry her persistent suitor, but this marriage built on fantasy was not destined to last.

Berlioz provided notes to accompany his composition. First a general “argument,” then an explanation of each movement, as follows:

A young musician of morbid sensibility and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a fit of amorous despair. The narcotic dose, too weak to result in death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest visions, during which his sensations, sentiments, and recollections are translated in his sick brain into musical thoughts and images.

Part 1. Reveries, Passions. He first recalls that uneasiness of soul…those moments of causeless melancholy and joy, which he experienced before seeing her whom he loves; then the volcanic love with which she suddenly inspired him, his moments of delirious anguish, of jealous fury, his returns to loving tenderness, and his religious consolations.

Part 2. A Ball. He sees his beloved at a ball, in the midst of the tumult of a brilliant fete.

Part 3. A Scene in the Country. One summer evening in the country, he hears two shepherds playing a Ranz-des-vaches in alternate dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scene around him, the light rustling of the trees gently swayed by the breeze, some hopes he has recently conceived, all combine to restore an unwonted calm to his heart and to impart a more cheerful coloring to his thoughts; but she appears once more, his heart stops beating, he is agitated with painful presentiments; if she were to betray him!...One of the shepherds resumes his artless melody, the other no longer answers him. The sun sets…the sound of distant thunder…solitude…silence.

Part 4. March to the Gallows. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned to death and led to execution. The procession advances to the tones of a march which is now somber and wild, now brilliant and solemn, in which the dull sound of the tread of heavy feet follows without transition upon the most resounding outburst. At the end, the fixed idea reappears for an instant, like a last love-thought interrupted by the fatal stroke.

Part 5. Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath. He sees himself at the witches’ Sabbath, in the midst of a frightful group of ghosts, magicians, and monsters of all sorts, who have come together for his obsequies. He hears strange noises, groans, ringing laughter, shrieks to which other shrieks seem to reply. The beloved melody again reappears; but it has lost its noble and timid character; it has become an ignoble, trivial, and grotesque dance tune; it is she who comes to the witches’ Sabbath…Howlings of joy at her arrival…she takes part in the diabolic orgy…. Funeral knells burlesque parody on the Dies Irae. Witches’ dance. The Witches’ dance and the Dies Irae together.