Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Program Notes for Bridgeport Symphony November 17, 2012

Max Bruch
Violin Concerto No. 1
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Max Bruch still needs a good publicist. Outside of a handful of works, his music is seldom played and few people have any sense of his personality. But his music always has a distinctive sound and his works are designed with great formal imagination. His first violin concerto, written in his late 20s, is a work many musicians would rank at or near the top of the pile when considering favorite violin concerti from the 19thcentury.

Bruch named the opening movement "Vorspiel," which means “prelude,” but the word also bears the imprint of operatic influences. It opens with an ominous whispering from the timpani. A soliloquy entrance by the soloist creates a sense of innermost confession that is contrasted by the orchestral gestures that envelope it. The world of opera often contrasts individuals against a collective, and so this concerto is operatic in that sense also.

The soloist plays double stops (two notes at a time) in music of forceful, angered language as the sonata movement commences, but listen for the way that tenderness is woven into the fabric of the music without seams. The close of this movement builds into the most fabulous orchestral tutti in the concerto repertoire—paradoxically the soloist does not play during this passage but afterward revisits the confessional music of the opening as a transition to the second movement.

The second movement adagio brings into focus the special understanding that Bruch had for the human voice. He wrote four operas and numerous works for chorus, but in this movement he treats the violin soloist as if it were a human voice. The music sings to us and dances slowly from the rich darkness of E-flat major.

The triumphal attitude and gypsy flavor of the finale served as a model for the finale of the Brahms violin concerto written ten years after the Bruch Concerto.

If you are moved by this concerto, promise that you will seek out some other works by Bruch. Listen to his three symphonies, to the other two violin concertos, or to his Concerto for Clarinet, Viola, and Orchestra in E minor.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony is considered by many writers to be a dividing point in the history of symphonic music. It mapped a pathway for composers to access the realm of sonic philosophy.

Beethoven became fascinated with Napoleon. Legend has it that Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (1763-1844), a successful general in Napoleon’s army who later became king of Sweden and Norway, gave Beethoven the idea for writing a Napoleonic symphony while he was ambassador to Vienna for two months in the winter of 1798.

Beethoven continued to follow the news from France. After a successful coup, Bonaparte and Abbe Sieyes overthrew the French government late in 1799 and created the “Consulate;” which gave power, at least on the surface of things, to a Senate and a Council of Notables. Even though the first significant military action of the Consulate was to defeat the Austrian army in the summer of 1800, Beethoven saw the advance of the Napoleonic cause as having the potential to empower the common man and to end aristocratic governing. Talent, effort and creative ingenuity would win out over birthright in the transactions that comprised the commerce of daily life.

It was in 1803 that Beethoven wrote his third symphony. The manuscript of the score contained an unusual title page. “Not only I,” wrote Beethoven’s student Ferdinand Ries, “but many of Beethoven’s closer friends, saw this symphony on his table, beautifully copied in manuscript, with the word ‘Buonaparte’ inscribed at the very top of the title-page and ‘Luigi van Beethoven’ at the very bottom.”

Ries claimed to be the first to tell Beethoven that Napoleon, in 1804, had declared himself Emperor. With rage Beethoven tore the title page and prophesied that Napoleon would soon “tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; [and] will think himself superior to all men.” Beethoven changed his intended title for the work to “Sinfonia Eroica.”

The work may have changed with regard to its dedication, but it remained heroic across several dimensions. The length and the proportions of each of its movement exceeded all expectations of the time. It required virtuosic technical demands from the orchestra. It spoke in a new language of driving rhythms and extended syncopated accents. This was a symphony of quick textural shifts and unpredictable changes; the music of restlessness. 

The writer Anthony Burgess may be best known for his book “Clockwork Orange,” but he also frequently wrote about classical music. He called his 366-page novel “Napoleon Symphony,” written in 1974, a “novel in four movements.” Burgess consciously attempted to write historical fiction about Napoleon in the form of the Eroica Symphony; a work for which he had an engaging interpretation. In a poem that concludes the novel he described the first two movements as suggesting “some hero’s brief career.” In the first movement:
            “see him live and vigorous,
Striding the earth, stern but magnanimous,
In love with order, his regretful strife
Devoted to ennobling our life.
The Marcia Funebre: already dead,
The ironic laurels wilting round his head,
He’s borne to burial; we weep, we hear
The purple orators about his bier—"

Burgess then asks an obvious but often unasked question about this symphony: if the hero is dead in the second movement, then how are we to understand its third and fourth movements? Burgess chose an answer deeply nested in ancient history and mythology:

“In Plutarch’s Lives the heroes go in pairs—
One fabulous and one historic. There’s
The origin, one thinks, of this device:
The heroic is displayed not once but twice.”

The third movement is the hunting music of the Gods for Burgess, and the finale about the mythology of Prometheus. Prometheus, the cultural hero who stole fire and gave it to humans to use, was punished by the gods by being bound to a rock where an eagle tore out his liver each day…and each day it grew back to be torn out again the next day. Burgess observed that the bass line upon which the variations of the finale are based was taken by Beethoven from a prior work; the last movement of his ballet music “The Creatures of Prometheus,” Op. 43.

Even if one subscribes to an alternative view of this symphony’s content, it was nevertheless a work which seemed to forecast the complexity of an age in which seven coalitions were organized, defeated and reshuffled until Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815. But beyond its own time this work has always symbolized the heroic possibility as expressed in music.

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