Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Program notes: December 3

The VSO will present the third installment of its Masterworks Series at the Flynn Center in Burlington on Saturday, December 3, with a program conducted by Anthony Princiotti and featuring Concertmistress Katherine Winterstein playing Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2. Other works on the program include Beethoven's Coriolan Overture and Schumann's Symphony No. 2. Incidentally, these pieces are opuses 63, 62, and 61, respectively. We didn't plan that. Keep reading for the program notes or click here to purchase tickets. You can also learn more on our website.

Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

The Coriolanus of this work is the hero not of the Shakespeare play but of a tragedy by Heinrich von Collin, a Viennese dramatist of the day. Premiered in Vienna in 1802, the play was very successful, mainly due to the actors. By the time Beethoven wrote his overture, in 1807, Coriolan was seldom produced, and his composition came to be accepted almost from the start as a concert overture. Coriolanus, a Roman general of proud and reckless bravery, is exiled for his arrogant contempt towards the plebeians. In revenge, he joins Rome’s enemies, the Volscians, and leads them in an attack on his native city. Although he scorns many peace emissaries, his resolution finally waivers when his wife and son are sent to plead with him. In Collin’s version of the story, he yields to their pleas and then commits suicide. Beethoven did not attempt to outline the entire play; rather, he seized upon the critical moment of decision in the plot and translated it into music of power and nobility. Some commentators have noted that Coriolanus’ character—passionate, imperious, and iron-willed—had much in common with the composer’s.

Violin Concerto No. 2 in g minor, Op. 63
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

At the age of 12, Prokofiev entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory, producing at his examination a portfolio of compositions including four operas, two sonatas, a symphony, and various piano pieces. He was immediately accepted to study under Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. By 1914, at the close of his student days, the virtuoso pianist had already written two of his five piano concertos and his first violin concerto.

Prokofiev left his native Russia as the events of the Revolution unfolded, traveling through Japan and arriving in the United States in 1918. Meeting with a less-than enthusiastic reception in America, he left in disgust and settled in Paris. Prokofiev visited Russia in 1927, and returned for good in 1932. It was Stravinsky’s dry observation that Prokofiev’s return to his homeland was “a sacrifice to the bitch goddess, and nothing else. He had no success in the United States or Europe for several seasons, and while his visit to Russia had been a triumph…he was politically naïve…and when he finally understood his position there, it was too late.”

The “position” which Stravinsky mentioned referred to the widely-held belief that Stalinism (and its demand for music that glorified the Soviet worker) was responsible for the paralysis of creative urges in Russian composers. During the 1930s, Shostakovich and many others would be severely criticized by Stalin, and revolutionary Russia would turn out banal and uniform music born of fear. But the 1930s proved to be one of the most productive periods of Prokofiev’s life, and when he was asked in 1937 how it was that he could live and work under Soviet totalitarianism, he replied:

“I care nothing for politics—I’m a composer first and last. Any government that lets me write my music in peace, publishes everything I compose before the ink is dry, and performs every note that comes from my pen, is all right with me. In Europe we all have to fish for performances, cajole conductors and theater directors; in Russia they come to me—I can hardly keep up with the demand. What’s more, I have a comfortable flat in Moscow, a delightful dacha in the country, and a brand-new car. My boys go to a fine English school in Moscow….”

How do we account for Prokofiev’s seeming immunity in the face of crushing political pressures? It appears that the composer did not remain untouched by outside influences, but that much of what gave his music its personal stamp could remain with fewer modifications that required of other composers. His two violin concertos, written some 30 years apart, treat the solo instrument in essentially the same way. Each displays his ironic sense of humor, and his habit, especially in lyrical passages, of abruptly modulating to distant keys, or “tonal dislocation,” as some Soviet critics names it. Above all, each features the brilliant orchestration which gives Prokofiev’s music its characteristic stamp.

The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro moderato. The opening theme is heard in unaccompanied violin, and with the entrance of the orchestra we hear the first example of the abrupt modulation (from the opening g minor to b minor) that is a hallmark of Prokofiev. A second theme undergoes a like “dislocation,” and the two themes are used in the development.

II. Andante assai. Over pizzicato strings the solo violin sings the lyrical these which forms the basic material of the movement; once again, the harmonic twists and deft orchestration are unmistakably characteristic. A last recollection of the refrain is heard in the French horn.

III. Allegro ben marcato. A flash of the old Prokofiev returns with the incisive rhythms of the rondo finale. Bold effects and virtuoso solo writing stand out against the sparse scoring for the orchestra.

Symphony No. 2 in C Major
Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856)

Even in a time when Romantic excess excused a great deal of eccentric behavior, Schumann's family profile gave every indication that mental instability was part of his inheritance. His father August, like Robert shy and retiring, was a bookseller who enjoyed nothing more than sitting alone in his study smoking pipe after pipe while writing romantic novels. It was said that he had a "nervous disorder" and was quite deranged by the time of his death when Schumann was sixteen. Schumann's sister was mentally and physically challenged, and committed suicide at the age of nineteen. It is no wonder that poor Robert grew up with the fear (tragically realized) that he, too, would become insane.

Throughout his youth, Schumann certainly gave every indication of being, at the least, "high-strung.” As a child he would creep to the piano in the middle of the night, where playing a series of chords would move him to bitter tears. The work of the Romantic writer Jean Paul was his gospel, and Schumann was the truest believer. At eighteen, he wrote to a friend: "If everybody read Jean Paul we should be better but more unhappy. Sometimes he almost clouds my mind, but the rainbow of peace and the natural strength of man bring sweet tears, and the heart comes through its ordeal marvelously purified and softened." The influence of Paul moved Schumann to create, and he tried both literature and composition at the piano. In the words of biographer Brion, "Nourished by the poets of that wonderful period, Schumann's work might well be regarded as a musical transcription of their work; but it went so much further, to become the supreme product of the German Romantic soul, revealing its genius at its most intense and most perfect." While Schumann played with his muses, the one person in the family who seemed to be fully functioning in her role was busy planning Robert's future; thus was Schumann sent by his mother to Leipzig to study law.

Some psychologists have expressed the belief that madness is an essential aspect of genius and that poetry, art and music are the external expressions of delusions. Regardless, the line between visionary and lunatic is a fine one, as the unfortunate Schumann was to demonstrate. Once he arrived in Leipzig, the active music world there was for him an irresistible magnet; law studies went out the window, and Schumann moved in with piano teacher Friedrich Wieck to study, practice and compose. His career as a pianist was cut short when Schumann invented a contraption to strengthen an injured finger and ended up rendering two fingers of his right hand all but useless. Undaunted, he moved directly into composing, an activity for which he was scantily trained. Lack of training was and never would be the slightest obstacle to Schumann's visions for music. He began to write whatever appealed to him, and started his own music magazine, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Through the forum of music criticism Schumann was to offer some of his most enduring contributions to music, from the "discovery " of Chopin to the nurturing of Brahms.

And then, of course, there was Clara. Clara Wieck was a prodigious talent who would evolve into one of the music world's great artists. But when Robert Schumann asked for her hand, she was his teacher's most promising pupil, and the teacher's eighteen-year-old daughter as well--two good reasons for Friedrich Wieck to carefully appraise the unsuccessful, radical idealist and find him a poor match for Clara. In spite of her father's every effort, the two were not to be kept apart and married in 1840 without his permission.

The first months of marriage were filled with the flush of youthful enthusiasm, and Schumann strove to make his new bride happy. One of her most ardent desires was that he be a symphonist..."It would be best if he composed for orchestra. His imagination cannot find sufficient scope on the piano...His compositions are all orchestral in feeling...My highest wish is that he should compose for orchestra--that is his field. May I bring him to it!" For all her brilliance, love clouded Clara's eyes when it came to Robert's strengths and weaknesses. He did not understand the instruments of the orchestra the way he did the piano, and was not truly equipped to translate the beauty of his ideas through an orchestral palette. His symphonies endure, flawed though they may be, as tribute to the freshness and exuberance of his genius.

Schumann's First Symphony was written in his first year of marriage during a period of creative energy and abundant optimism, and the next few years saw several efforts at orchestral works. In 1843 Schumann joined Mendelssohn as a teacher of piano, composition, and score reading at the newly founded Conservatory in Leipzig, and the following year saw a joint concert tour in Russia for Clara and Schumann. Inexorably, though, the dark forces of Schumann's mental illness had begun to manifest themselves. Ten years earlier Schumann had suffered a brush with melancholy, and feared for his sanity. He made no secret of his instability to Clara, who may well have seen herself as a much-needed guide through life for her beloved genius; in fact, he referred to her as his "right hand.” In 1844, depression, memory lapses, and finally a complete breakdown forced Schumann to give up all work. At the suggestion of a physician, they moved to the familiarity and quiet of Dresden, where Schumann began wrestling with his demons in the arena of his Second Symphony.

"I sketched it when I was still in a state of physical suffering; nay, I may say it was, so to speak, the resistance of the spirit which exercised a visible influence here, and through which I sought to contend with my bodily state." This sketch came together in one week in December, but the completion of the work struggled through ups and downs until October 1846, all the while Clara championing her Robert: "Where does he get all his fire, his imagination, his freshness, his originality? One asks that again and again, and one cannot but say that he is one of the elect, to be gifted with such creative power." Between the premiere of the work by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Mendelssohn on November 5, 1846 and its repetition eleven days later, Schumann made many alterations to his voicing and orchestration, most notably the addition of three trombones to the score.

The work, Schumann's longest symphony, is in four movements:

I. Sostenuto assai - Allegro ma non troppo - A trumpet motto opens the work, a "call to arms" which identifies the struggle at hand and recurs throughout the movement. The tempo increases, and the music illustrates Schumann's words: "The first movement is full of...struggle and is very capricious and refractory."

II. Scherzo: Allegro vivace - It was this scherzo which provided Schumann with a lesson in orchestration from Mendelssohn. Opening with a fiery whirling theme in the violins, Schumann continued to use the violins in the first trio section until Mendelssohn suggested the use of the naturally contrasting woodwinds. A second trio section is followed by a reprise of the opening material in combination with the fanfare of the very beginning of the Symphony.

III. Adagio espressivo - This is some of the most beloved of Schumann's orchestral writing, a beautiful melody heard first in the violins, then shared with oboe and the "melancholy bassoon". A fugal subject provides contrast, and the movement ends with the opening theme in major.

IV. Allegro molto vivace - The vigor of the closing movement is a reflection of Schumann's return to health: "In the finale, I first began to feel like myself again; and indeed, I was much better after I had completed the work." Recollections of the Adagio theme are heard, and the trumpet motto returns near the end, at first soft and then victorious.