06 Feb 2017

Program Notes: Schubert “The Great”

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Program Notes: Halekulani Masterworks Schubert “The Great” 
Saturday, February 18 @ 7:30 pm and Sunday, February 19 @ 4pm
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2017

Concertgoers will be in for a rare treat with Maestro Joseph Swensen joining the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra on Saturday and Sunday, February 18 & 19 at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. Not only is Joseph Swensen a talented violinist who will apply his talents as a soloist on Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3, but he will simultaneously act as the conductor on the concert which also includes Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro Overture, as well as Schubert’s “Greatest” Symphony, No. 9. The Maestro has many ties to Hawaii and we are extremely happy to host him as our guest artist on this enticing Halekulani Masterworks program. Rune Bergmann, originally scheduled to conduct, was forced to withdraw due to a family illness. He will join the HSO in the 17-18 Season.

Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K.492
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born 27 January, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
Died 5 December, 1791 in Vienna, Austria

 Approximate duration 4 minutes
First performed by the HSO in 1907

 

The Marriage of Figaro was the first of Mozart’s three collaborations with the Italian poet Lorenzo da Ponte.  Da Ponte crafted his superb libretto from Caron de Beaumarchais’s French play, Le mariage de Figaro, which is actually part II of a Figaro trilogy.  Beaumarchais’s drama was considered subversive by the Viennese monarchy. In order for the libretto to clear the imperial censors, da Ponte had to make some adjustments.  He downplayed the political aspects of the drama and capitalized on its inherent comedy.  In his music, Mozart matched and surpassed da Ponte’s admirable achievement.  Mozart was at the height of his powers in 1786, and there are many who rank this opera as his supreme masterpiece.

The overture is remarkable for several reasons.  First, it includes no actual themes from the opera. All its music is completely independent of the musical drama, except in the sense that the overture’s key of D major is the dominant tonality of the opera.  Second, in spite of this thematic independence, the music captures the comic, effervescent atmosphere of the opera with exquisite skill.  Third, Mozart — always a master of formal structures — has written a tightly unified sonata form movement without an ounce of pedantry.  To the contrary, his overture is brimful of joy and enthusiasm, sounding as spontaneous as if it were jotted down on the spur of the moment.

The music of the overture is so familiar that it requires no introduction.  Those who are fortunate enough to be discovering it this evening for the first time will be delighted with Mozart’s verve and energy.  Others who know it well may smile as they recognize a technique in the coda as Mozart builds toward the decisive final chords.  We call it a “Rossini crescendo” — but Mozart understood how to create the same excitement and momentum with consummate artistry, in this case six years before Rossini was born.

Mozart scored the overture for woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs, timpani, and strings.

Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, K. 216
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart

Approximate duration 24 minutes
First performed by the HSO in 1978

The year Mozart was born, 1756, his father Leopold published a violin method called Versuch einer gründliche Violinschule [A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing]. The book was well-received and established Leopold’s authority and reputation as a string pedagogue.  As difficult as it is for us to place this information in context, to some extent Wolfgang grew up identified through his father’s fame. He became an expert performer on violin and viola as well as piano, and by age 14 had been named Konzertmeister in the Salzburg Court Orchestra.  For a while, he contemplated a career as a concert violinist.

With that background, we can better assess the remarkable fact that, between April and December, 1775, 19-year-old Wolfgang composed four (!) concerti for violin and orchestra.  Even though he likely wrote them for Antonio Brunetti, concertmaster of the Salzburg orchestra, these concerti surely reflect Mozart’s own string technique in his late ’teens.

The G major concerto, K. 216, was the third to be completed that year; the autograph is dated 12 September. More self-assured than its two predecessors, the Third Concerto shows a more convincing command of form and interaction between soloist and orchestra.  The main theme of the Allegro derives from an aria in the opera Il rè pastore, K. 208, which Mozart had just completed in April, 1775. Among other details, Mozart gives the oboes and horns a more significant role than in earlier concerted works.  As Stanley Sadie has observed, this was the first concerto movement in which Mozart gave the soloist thematic material that had not been previously stated in the orchestral introduction. This introduction of fresh themes would characterize all the later piano concerti.

Other foretastes of the mature piano concerti are present. The Mozart specialist Philip Radcliffe compares the sustained, vocal melody of the slow movement to the famous “Elvira Madigan” theme in the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467.  Pizzicato basses, muted strings, and a duet of flutes replacing oboes provide gentle support to the elegant solo cantilena.  The Rondeau finale, a bubbling movement in 3/8, is interrupted by two episodes in duple time.  Mozart further surprises us by avoiding fireworks in favor of a quiet, unassuming conclusion to this graceful movement.  His emphasis is on melody, tone quality, and surpassing musicianship.

All three movements in K.216 provide opportunities for a cadenza, and the third movement has several additional places that invite Eingänge [brief improvised embellishments, like mini-cadenzas]. For these performances, Mr. Swenson plays his own cadenzas.

The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two horns, solo violin, and strings.  The oboes play in the outer movements, and are silent in the slow movement.  The flutes are only used in the second movement. In the 18th century, most wind players played more than one instrument. Mozart almost certainly expected that his oboists would switch to flute for the slow movement. In these performances, of course, the Hawai’i Symphony’s regular flutists and oboists play their respective parts.

 

A Word on Mozart’s Name

Mozart was born in Salzburg on 27 January 1756 and died in Vienna 5 December 1791, not quite thirty-six years old. He was baptized with the names Joannes Chrysost[omus] Wolfgangus Theophilus. His parents gave him the names Johann and Chrysostom because he was born on that saint’s day. Wolfgang was the first name of Mozart’s maternal grandfather. The name ‘Theophilus’ (Greek for ‘beloved of God’) came from the godfather, Joannes Theophilus Pergmayr, a Salzburg businessman and local official. Days after the boy’s birth, Leopold  referred to his infant son as Gottlieb (the German for Theophilus). ‘Amadeus’ is the Latinate form.

In letters, the composer signed his name variously as ‘Mozart,’  ‘W.A. Mozart,’ ‘Wolfg. Amad. Mozart,’ ‘MZT,’ ‘Wolf. Amdè Mozart’ and, most frequently, ‘Wolfgang Amadè Mozart.’  As a boy in Italy, he occasionally signed in the Italianate spelling: ‘Wolfgango Amadeo.’ Despite Peter Shaffer’s stage play Amadeus and Miloš Forman’s even more popular film, Mozart did not use the name Amadeus.

In recent years, the spelling ‘Wolfgang Amadè Mozart’ has supplanted the old-fashioned ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’ in common usage and printed programs. The glory of his music remains unchanged.

– L.S. ©2017

 

 

Symphony No. 9 in C, D. 944 (“The Great”)
Franz Peter Schubert
Born 31 January, 1797 in Liechtenthal, Vienna, Austria
Died 19 November, 1828 in Vienna

Approximate duration 48 minutes
First performed by the HSO in 1930

 

 

From the standpoint of orchestration, rich thematic material, and sheer majesty, the “Great” C major is the undisputed pinnacle of Schubert’s symphonic maturity.  Maurice J.E. Brown, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, calls it “his greatest masterpiece.”  Harold Truscott considers the C major Symphony “a summing up of Schubert’s instrumental thinking from 1811 onwards.”  Schubert himself thought the work represented his striving for the highest art.

Ironically, he never heard the symphony performed.  He began composing it in 1825. Despite travels to Steyr, Linz, Salzburg, and Gastein, he still found time to work on the symphony. After he presented the manuscript to Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikifreunde [Society of the Friends of Music] in 1826, he was rewarded by a stipend “in recognition of his achievements and for further encouragement.”  In 1827, Schubert had the manuscript copied for the Gesellschaft, still vainly seeking a performance.  The Vienna Philharmonic rejected the work, deeming it overly long and too demanding for the players.  Even after Schubert’s death in 1828, his brother Ferdinand was unsuccessful in his attempts to sell the score to a publisher.

 

Posthumous discovery

That changed when Robert Schumann called on Ferdinand Schubert during the winter of 1838-1839.  Schumann examined the score and was awed by its genius. The discovery prompted his famous letter to Felix Mendelssohn that has given musical posterity the phrase “heavenly length.” (Schumann was describing Schubert’s inexpressibly lovely Andante.)  Mendelssohn conducted the premiere of the symphony with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on 21 March, 1839. Even with extensive cuts, it still created a sensation.  Publication followed in 1840, and the “Great” C major has been standard symphonic repertoire ever since.

 

Haydn and Mozart? Or Beethoven? Schubert’s role models

We do not know for certain whether Schubert ever heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He may have been present at its historic premiere in May 1824. Beethoven’s final symphony was certainly a model for the younger Viennese composer.  Indeed, Beethoven had wrought a powerful influence on Schubert as early as his Fourth Symphony (“Tragic,” in C minor, D.417), composed in 1816.

In his earliest symphonies, Schubert relied more heavily on Haydn and Mozart for his inspiration and formal guidelines.  After the Fourth, he evidenced a freer approach to the symphony, exercising more personal discretion in areas like modulations, formal structure, and proportion, all of which we have come to associate with the romantic (as opposed to classical) symphony.  These factors reach their apogee in Schubert’s Ninth. It is the strongest symphonic link in the continuum from Beethoven to Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler.

About the music

Schubert was clearly emulating Beethoven’s enormous scale. Though he would not have placed such labels as ‘classic’ or ‘romantic’ on his own music, the duality between the two styles is one of the “Great” C major’s most compelling fascinations.  Scoring details such as the use of trombones in all four movements make it unusual.  Formal departures from the norm, for example the full sonata form of the scherzo movement, break from tradition and confirm the individuality of the symphony.

Even the slow introduction, brought to such perfection in the late Haydn symphonies, takes on new character in Schubert’s asymmetrical, heroic opening horn theme.  Its second measure dotted rhythm provides the impetus for the entire Allegro to follow; his re-integration of that theme into the development section and the coda is one of many felicitous touches in this work so suffused by genius.

The balance of the symphony adheres to classical models. Principal oboe has the main theme in the Andante con moto, which balances march-like elements and brief string outbursts with wistful woodwind writing. In climactic moments, the brasses play with surprising force. Schubert’s writing almost foreshadows Mahler.

Vigorous rhythms drive the Allegro vivace portion of Schubert’s Scherzo. He balances the rambunctious opening gesture with a gentler Austrian Ländler [a slow waltz]. The central Trio transports us to the world of folk song and rural village dancing.  Schubert’s sudden key changes and gentle use of the brass add interest throughout.

The grand finale is like a force of nature: as if Schubert had gathered up all world energy and invested it in his orchestra. The glory of Alpine Austria and the great outdoors pulses through this Allegro vivace, bringing Schubert’s magnificent symphony to an exuberant close.

The score calls for woodwinds, horns, and trumpets in pairs, three trombones, timpani, and strings.

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