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May 2017 Program Notes

By Robin Hillyard

 

Our three composers for this concert are all European and from the 19th century. In that sense, there are some obvious parallels to be drawn between their lives and music. But we should also note that the changes that occurred in the social order and the musical world were far more sweeping than in any previous century. And the cultures of the three nations represented are also somewhat varied. Perhaps Russia and France were, at least for the upper classes, culturally related, but Germany—especially in the protestant parts—was distinctly different. One big difference was the form of government. France was a Republic; Russia was ruled by a Czar (or emperor). Germany was not really a true country at all, at least not in the modern sense, but a confederation of smaller states.

 

Perhaps a more significant difference was the more mundane financial aspect of life. In general, the days of noble (or ecclesiastical) patrons of the arts were gone, but Tchaikovsky actually had a patron, Nadezhda von Meck. Somewhat surprisingly, though to a much lesser extent, so did Debussy—the very same woman. Still, a struggling financial situation was common to each of these three composers: none had quite made the grade for the more lucrative career in performing, despite early hopes (this was less true for Tchaikovsky for whom a performance career had, despite his undoubted talent, never been a serious option). Just how Schumann survived financially is something of a mystery (more on this below).

 

Each of the pieces to be performed comes from the early-to-middle periods of their composer’s career and, perhaps for this reason, there is an undeniable freshness in each of them.

 

Petite Suite, Debussy, 1862-1918 (L65) (1886-89), orch. Büsser (1907)

 

While many of Debussy’s more mature compositions, La Mer for example, are products of the relatively peaceful pre-war Twentieth century, it’s appropriate to note that his childhood belonged to a very turbulent era. (Achille)-Claude Debussy was born in St. Germain-en-Laye, just 20 km from Paris, in August of 1862. His first eight years were under the “Second Empire,” ruled by Napoleon III, but this final episode of the French monarchy ended with its defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1870. Debussy’s father was caught up by this conflict and was actually imprisoned for a year in 1871. It’s rather fortunate then, for us, that the family still managed, with a little outside help, to get Claude enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire in 1872. Even then, there were long odds against his becoming a major figure in the world of music, as his professors were not overly impressed, especially with his performance. He did manage to win a prize for accompaniment, however and that helped him get teaching and accompanist gigs that kept him, barely, in the musical world.

 

That all changed when von Meck hired him in 1880 to teach her children and to partner her in piano duets. Together, they traveled quite extensively, throughout France, to Italy, Vienna, even to Russia where of course they met up with Tchaikovsky. Her patronage gave him the opportunity to concentrate more on composition. He entered the competition for the Prix de Rome in 1883, finishing as runner-up (to no-one you’ve heard of!) but was successful in 1884. Now, during his two years in Rome, he was free to really live and to compose.

 

He wrote Petite Suite for piano, four hands, the very combination that he was so familiar with from his time with von Meck. It may have been commissioned as a piece accessible to amateur pianists, as the writing is, for Debussy, unusually simple. And despite his mastery of orchestration, he allowed his friend Henri Büsser to write the orchestral version—the result being the exquisite, sensitive score that we play.

 

There are four movements to this suite, the first (En bateau) being a Barcarolle, a simple boating song. This was perhaps a small homage to Chopin whose F# major Barcarolle was one of Debussy’s favorites. Listening to the lovely flute solo at the beginning makes it hard to believe that this piece wasn’t written for orchestra from the first. And, even lovelier are the flute scales that accompany the strings when the opening theme is repeated later in the movement.

 

The titles of the second (Cortège—Procession) and third (Minuet) movements belie their respective depths. One would expect the second movement to be somewhat somber and serious. Not a bit of it. This is clearly a very light-hearted, joyous procession. The minuet, at moderato a little slower than typical minuets, has grace and elegance that brings to mind renaissance music. Yet, it also has intensity and a depth of melodic invention. Gone too is the usual formula of a minuet-and-trio, with its repeats and (unrepeated) da capo. The movement does have a trio section, however, after which the minuet reappears, but the repetition, with its echoes, is quite distinct from the earlier music.

 

The suite ends with a ballet, in a flamboyant D major, alternating between duple time and waltz.

 

Concerto for Violin in D Major, Tchaikovsky (1840-93), Op. 35 (1878)

Allegro moderato—Andante (“Canzonetta”)—Finale: Allegro Vivacissimo

 

Tchaikovsky wrote his Violin Concerto, one of the most popular and frequently-performed of the genre, while in Switzerland, recovering from the depression evoked by his unwise and disastrous marriage to Antonina Miliukova. It may have been inspired by Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole with which Tchaikovsky and a friend had been amusing themselves—certainly the lyricism and general optimism of that work are captured here in this concerto. The work seems to have effected a quicker cure than any amount of rest or medication could have achieved.

 

Much as he wanted to avoid too much seriousness in the composition, he nevertheless conceived and orchestrated it on an operatic scale. In the long first movement especially, the orchestra is frequently called on to play very short phrases which are passed around the sections, very reminiscent of his opera Eugene Onegin, which he had recently completed.

 

The second movement entitled “Canzonetta” (little song) is a refreshingly amiable set of variations but which was not the original slow movement of the concerto. Once he was persuaded to replace the original, he wrote the canzonetta in just a day.

 

Typical of a concerto third movement, the virtuosic finale is primarily a showcase for the soloist’s technique, yet there is plenty of scope for lyrical interludes, especially from the woodwinds.

 

Symphony No. 1 (“Spring”), Schumann (1810-56)), Op. 38 (1841)

Allegretto—Moderato (poco allegretto)—Adagio—Allegro non troppo)

 

Robert Schumann was born in the eastern German city of Zwickau (at that time in the Kingdom of Saxony) and now not far from the Czech Republic. This central area of Europe seems to have produced more than its fair share of musicians—Bach, Handel, Schumann, Wagner, Dvorak, Mahler, to name just a few—and musical instruments. Schumann inherited a love of literature, in addition to music, from his parents. His father was a translator of Walter Scott and Byron. Like Tchaikovsky, he was destined for a respectable legal profession, but found it unendurably dull. He began his studies at Leipzig and even went to Heidelberg to see if he would enjoy it more there. By 1830, he was back in Leipzig and was now more determined than ever to create a musical career for himself. He began studying with his former teacher, Friedrich Wieck, who assured him that he would be a successful concert pianist after a few years’ study with him. Unfortunately, Schumann developed a problem with a finger—there were no botox injections in those days—and reluctantly he steered his studies more towards composition. In any case, Wieck had little patience for Schumann, believing that his daughter Clara’s prospects were much better (in that he was correct). His opinion of Schumann went further downhill when he discovered that the two were having trysts. Relations reached rock bottom when the two lovers announced their intention to marry. Wieck’s resistance might not have been entirely due to disaffection. The income that Clara was earning and would continue to earn for years to come was quite significant.

 

Schumann concentrated almost exclusively on piano music until the year 1840, the year that he finally married Clara, when his oeuvre underwent a sudden flowering of vocal music: 138 songs!  Towards the end of the year he even began to think about a symphony. At that time, Beethoven had been dead only 13 years but apparently Schumann didn’t share his protégé Brahms’ fear of being compared to Beethoven (the latter was 35 before he wrote his first symphony). Not only that, but this symphony, the “Spring,” has many elements of a Beethoven symphony and is written very much in the “classical” style. For any composer, this would be a magnificent effort, but for someone with no prior experience of writing for orchestra, it is outstanding not only in its melodic and rhythmic invention but its sheer brilliance in coloring. And, almost unbelievably, he sketched the whole symphony in a burst of activity between Jan 23rd and Jan 26th!  Admittedly, the orchestration took longer—he completed that on February 20th. By March 6th, he had shown the score to Mendelssohn whose encouragement and detailed editing helped carve the symphony into final shape. It was performed just a year later at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on March 31st.

 

The first movement is a lengthy sonata form movement with multiple themes and sections, i.e. the “fully loaded” version. While the trend was away from having a slow introduction (considered optional in sonata form), which had been at its most omnipresent perhaps under Haydn, Schumann opted for a full-scale introduction, with a quasi-restatement later. The intro gradually accelerates into the exposition which itself is repeated in its entirety. The development introduces a new rising legato theme over the strings’ development of the Morse code rhythm. We are interrupted, so to speak, by the recollection of the introduction mentioned above and then comes the recapitulation, similar to but not identical to the exposition. There follows a most lyrical and elegant coda which itself comes to a conclusion with a very regal sounding fanfare in the brass.

 

The larghetto exemplifies perhaps some of Schumann’s new-found interest in song. It is in the traditional style of a theme and variations, and includes some very sensitive string writing overlaid at times by beautifully lyrical woodwind chorales. Whether the rather novel manner of ending is intended to depict a death, there are some clues leading to that conclusion. The beginning of the end, so to speak, is intoned by the trombones (in earlier days more commonly found in a requiem mass than a symphony) and is followed by somewhat wistful sighs.

 

The scherzo is very much in the Beethoven tradition—the scherzo of the Eroica comes to mind—and again we have the “full Monty” in form: the minuet itself, with appropriate repeats, two trios, and a long coda.

 

The finale is a rollicking tour de force of orchestral effects, including a flute cadenza and is, perhaps slightly unusually, also in sonata form. The recapitulation occurs just after the flute cadence and the main theme is transferred from the strings to flute and bassoon. Again, there is a substantial coda, which brings the symphony to a rousing conclusion with the help of the full brass section.