Program Notes

Prepared by Michael Gesme

Overture to The Impresario, K. 486
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Scored for: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

During the time that Mozart was composing The Marriage of Figaro, a most unusual musical event was held in Vienna. Emperor Joseph II was hosting the Governor-General of the Netherlands at the Schönbrunn palace in early 1786 and was intent on showcasing his duo theatrical troops – one dedicated to Italian opera and the other to German opera and plays. He decided that a friendly musical competition was in order and engaged two of Vienna’s most prominent composers to participate. The court composer, Antonio Salieri, contributed a new Italian opera and Mozart produced a one-act Singspiel, The Impresario. A Singspiel is an operatic form that consists of dialogue interspersed with arias and ensembles, similar to musical theater. True to form for many last-minute composers, Mozart completed the work only four days before the first performance. Little is known about the reception of the two works, or who, if either, won the competition.

The plot for The Impresario is quite simple, rather silly, and was intended to poke fun at the intense rivalry that existed between the “primas” of the eighteenth century. It begins with two prima donna sopranos auditioning for the impresario (an Italian term for a producer or organizer) of a theater company – one is an experienced singer whose star has begun to fade, and the other is an unknown, but talented, young singer whose star is on the rise. The competition between the two ladies is fierce, each trying to discredit the other with back stabbing comments, and yet put on a good show for the impresario. All ends happily, if not abruptly, when the impresario decides to hire both ladies for the production. In the finale, all the characters join together in singing that artists should strive for honor in the service of their art. At least until the next audition . . .

The overture to The Impresario is a lightning fast and appropriately comic introduction to the opera that follows. The work is cast in sonata form with the first theme presented immediately in the violins. This section is most notable for its striking, and frequent, contrasts in dynamics. The second theme is a two-measure fragment that is tossed about the orchestra, and the closing theme is a lyrical statement first presented by the oboe and the bassoon and repeated by the strings. The middle section features the development of the first theme material set in numerous guises, ultimately leading to the recapitulation of the opening three themes rounded off with a brief coda.

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Concerto for Piano No. 1 in C major, Op. 15
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Scored for: 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

At the end of the eighteenth century, the young Ludwig van Beethoven began a musical career that would bridge the classical structure of composers such as Mozart with what would become the hallmark ideals of what has appropriately been dubbed romanticism. In 1792, he studied with Franz Josef Haydn, another master of Viennese classicism, but the studies did not last long. Beethoven had been inspired by the French revolution of 1789, and his liberal and humanistic ideals were beginning to surface in his composition. The ideals of personal and emotional freedom that he espoused were seemingly at odds with the staid structure and emotional restraint inherent in the classical style. The change in his compositional output was not abrupt; one still had to have his music accepted by the patron and the public in order to establish a career. However, even in his earliest compositions, we can see Beethoven looking to part with the old in small, but distinct ways, which, when compounded over a twenty year period, made manifest one of the largest transformations of compositional output noted in music history.

The five concertos that Beethoven wrote for the piano during the early point in his career are often viewed as a bold attempt to find artistic freedom and success in the musical capital of Europe, not only through the compositions, but in his own performances of the works as the featured soloist. Indeed, Beethoven was making an enviable name as a composer and an exciting pianist during his first years in Vienna (having moved there in 1792). His playing was regularly praised with such phrases as “tremendous . . . character, unheard of bravura and facility . . . great velocity of finger, united with extreme delicacy of touch and intense feeling.” It is easy to imagine a performer with this reputation handily tackling the complexities of his compositions and delivering consistently stellar performances. Perhaps even more importantly, he was a fantastic improviser, a skill that was still highly valued by those in the know, and he was famous for his rhapsodic on-the-spot improvisations performed during concertos written by himself and others. As Michael Steinberg, program note annotator for the San Francisco Symphony, comments, “in this C major work, with its grand scale (it would have been the longest composition of its kind his audience had ever heard), splendid orchestral style, and impressive and difficult piano writing, Beethoven gave the Viennese a humdinger.”

The Concerto for Piano No. 1 in C Major, was composed during a three year period spanning 1795-1798 and was premiered in April, 1800 with Beethoven as the soloist. The opening movement is perhaps simply described as march-like in character, beginning with a lengthy presentation of material by the orchestra alone. The soloist finally enters with a new theme, quiet and introverted, and a decided contrast to the orchestra, beginning an interesting musical discussion between orchestra and piano about how this piece is meant to proceed. A grand cadenza section concludes the movement and then we are on to the lyrically contrasting and emotionally exhausting second movement. Listen for the solo clarinet as a featured companion and musical foil to the piano. Now, on to the fun!

Composer and author, Jan Swafford, has a perfect description of the final movement of the Concert for Piano in C Major. He comments that “all Beethoven’s concerto finales are rondos, and rondo finales were supposed to be light, rhythmical, quirky, with lots of teasing accompanying the periodic return of the rondo theme. Beethoven plays that game to the hilt, but pushes it: his rondo theme goes beyond merely folksy to a rumbustious, floor-shaking barn dance. The contrasting sections are largely given to brilliant virtuosity. On its last appearance, the rondo theme enters in the wrongest of wrong keys, B major, before getting chased back to the proper C major. For a telling last touch, there is a brief return to lyrical and touching. That’s been the undercurrent all along of this concerto that on the surface purports to be militant and exuberant and more or less conventional, but also has an inner life prophetic of much Beethoven to come.”

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Symphony No. 4 in A Major “Italian”
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Scored for: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

A description of the life of Felix Mendelssohn is as far removed from your typical romantic composer as one could imagine. When examining the lives of Berlioz or Wagner or Chopin, there is a consistent pattern of struggle; struggle for daily existence, an inner struggle trying to put music on paper, and for many, a struggle searching for artistic appreciation and success. Mendelssohn, by contrast, was born into an upper middle class family with means, a tremendous passion for the musical and literary arts, and lofty educational goals for their children. Being born with a silver spoon in the mouth could only begin to describe the upbringing that Felix and his sister Fanny were privy to. The Mendelssohns would sit around in the evenings and read Shakespeare plays aloud, and there were weekly concerts held at their home on Sunday afternoons featuring friends and family. It is said that when the young Felix had completed his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (arguably his most well-known composition) his father paid to have an entire orchestra available in order that his son would have the opportunity to hear the work.

With such support and constant praise for his efforts, and the talent to back it up, he quickly attained notoriety and great success as a performer, composer, teacher and scholar. In many respects, history has been unkind to Mendelssohn because we are frustrated that he was actually . . . well . . . happy. The noted music historian Philip Hale once lamented, “What might he not have accomplished if he had been poor and less respectable?” Taking a cue from Edward Downes, program note annotator for the New York Philharmonic, “Perhaps the time has come to forgive him for being happy.” For the wealth of music he left behind, the rediscovery of the works of J.S. Bach and their promotion, and his legacy as a music director and teacher, we should be grateful, as we have been made rich through his efforts. With works such as his Violin Concerto and the Italian Symphony, he has earned his rightful place in the musical canon and we should not begrudge him the fact that he enjoyed himself in the process.

Many of Mendelssohn’s symphonic compositions were inspired by his travels throughout Europe. From each place that he visited, he gathered nuggets of musical gold that he refined and processed. Such was the case with his Symphony No. 4 “Italian”. At age 21 he struck out on a multi-month journey, traveling through Germany, Austria, and ultimately Italy. His timing could not have been better as he was able to experience carnival time in Rome. “This is Italy,” he wrote in October 1830. “What I have been looking forward to all my life as the greatest happiness is now begun, and I am basking in it.” From a later manuscript Mendelssohn described his time in Italy: “The whole country had such a festive air that I felt as if I were a young prince making his entry.”

The first movement of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, Allegro vivace, is bursting with the festive energy that he experienced on his journey. The glorious violin theme that opens the movement signals the many adventures that are to come on his expedition. As the movement unfolds before our ears, like a portrait of the Italian landscape, the mood becomes less insistent, if only for a brief moment, as the second theme appears in the clarinets. The sonata form continues with the development section, featuring music from the first two themes, and introducing a third theme initially presented in canonic fashion in the string section. The opening themes return and we are breathlessly whisked away to the movement’s conclusion. The traditional slow movement follows, Andante con moto, which was inspired by religious processions that Mendelssohn witnessed while he was in Naples. In this stately march it is not difficult to hear echoes of the simple Gregorian chants that were undoubtedly sung during the procession. Granted these chants undergo a profound transformation under the romantic pen of Mendelssohn, but the simplicity of melody and the lack of trumpets and timpani in this movement show a deliberate, perhaps respectful, restraint on the part of the composer.

The third movement, Con moto moderato, is closer in spirit to the eighteenth-century minuet than to the typical, and considerably faster, scherzo movement that was fashionable at the time. The movement begins with a lyrical violin melody and is contrasted in the second section (the trio) with music presented by the horns and bassoons. The first part returns as expected and in the brief coda section there is a suggestion of the trio music once again as all comes to a delicate and peaceful close. The finale, Saltarello. Presto, is based on a traditional Italian dance. Many liken this dance to another of similar characteristic known as the tarantella—a wildly exciting and vigorous dance, supposed to drive from the body the poison of a tarantula’s bite. When the dancer was exhausted and fell to the ground, he was either dead or cured. Charles O’Connell describes the saltarello as follows: “[It is] a rather rowdy and certainly vigorous dance, done by men and women in pairs, in which arms and legs are used as violently, if not as elegantly as possible. The dancers circle about, approaching and retreating, with the woman manipulating her apron, now in inviting gestures, again as if to repel her suitor. Meanwhile rapid and exhausting steps, with hops and skips, soon have the dancers breathless. It is a dance of quite vigorous and abandoned character, but definitely not lascivious or lewd.”