Program Notes for July 15th, 2009

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman


Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev

Symphony #1 in D Major (“Classical”) — (1917)

Sergei Prokofiev (b. Sontsovka, Ukraine, 1891; d. Moscow, 1953)
When Prokofiev completed his Symphony #1 in 1917, the 26-year-old composer had already acquired the résumé of an enfant terrible: composing by the age of five, playing Beethoven sonatas and writing an opera at the age of nine, composing a symphony at the age of eleven and another at seventeen (neither of them included in his final catalog of seven symphonies), spurning the tutelage of Rimsky-Korsakov and winning the Rubenstein Prize in piano at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. As the Revolution broke out in 1917, he continued to work feverishly on his “Classical” Symphony.

The subtitle “Classical” is Prokofiev’s own. Perhaps it symbolizes a stylistic retreat from the grittiness of recent works such as his Sarcasms for piano and his opera The Gambler. Prokofiev’s reputation at this time as a composer who cultivated bravura and irony is evidenced in a review of his Second Piano Concerto, where the critic noted an audience “frozen with fright, hair standing on end.” Prokofiev may also have meant the epithet “Classical” ironically. The Symphony is an elegant and, indeed, ironic latter-day view of the style of an earlier master of witty symphonic elegance, Joseph Haydn. Near the opening of Prokofiev’s first movement the D Major music suddenly falls through the tonal “safety net” to land unexpectedly on its feet, but in C Major; then it is thrust back just as abruptly into the original key of D Major. Had such a trick been conceivable in the eighteenth century (it was not), Haydn would surely have approved. The Larghetto movement is clean and lyrical, while the traditional dance-inspired movement is neither a minuet nor a scherzo, but a whimsical gavotte. A spirited Finale, full of latter-day Haydnesque wit, whirls the “Classical” Symphony to its conclusion. The composer learned much from his stylistic breakthrough in this work.

Even though a long period of Prokofiev’s exile intervened between the composing of his “Classical” Symphony and his ballet masterpiece Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev reused the “Classical” Symphony’s gavotte in his ballet, where if fits perfectly. Not long after completing the Symphony, Prokofiev left his homeland for nearly two decades. The “Classical” Symphony helped him to secure an international reputation.

Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy

Joseph Haydn
by Thomas Hardy

Symphony #101 in D Major, “Clock” (1794)

Joseph Haydn
(b. Rohrau, Lower Austria, 1732; d., Vienna, 1809)
Haydn spent most of his career as a musical servant of the Esterházy family, whose princes were members of the Hungarian nobility. Haydn presided over a substantial musical establishment, but he also felt isolated because of the distance of the family’s estate from the musical capital, Vienna. He was, therefore, forced to “become original,” as he himself put it. Haydn composed music on demand for four successive Princes of Esterházy, all named either Nikolaus or Anton. Symphonies, operas, concerti and chamber music flowed from Haydn’s pen in great quantity. In addition, he conducted concerts of other composers’ music and produced their operas. It was in this way that he became familiar with the latest musical trends and styles, despite his sense of isolation at the Esterháza estate.

In 1790 Haydn was finally freed from his Esterháza obligations by the new Prince Anton, who disbanded the orchestra (until 1794, when Anton died and his son, Prince Nikolaus, reconstituted the group). Haydn, by now famous and highly marketable, accepted an offer from the impresario Salomon, to participate in a series of concerts in London. Now at the height of his career as a writer of symphonies, the composer made two extended visits to London and produced a dozen symphonies for the London concerts. These twelve works were his last symphonies.

Symphony #101, dating from Haydn’s second London trip and first performed in the spring of 1794, abounds with surprises. It begins with a monumental, serious introduction that, like a jeweler’s setting, focuses attention on the arrival of the main section of the movement, a sparkling, gigue-style presto (“fast”). Now Haydn plays one of his favorite “gotcha” musical jokes on his listeners, by confounding our expectation. Setting up a pattern designed for dancing the gigue, he changes it now and then, leaving any would-be dancers wondering when to take the next step.

The andante, which gives the symphony its “clock” subtitle, features the “ticking” of eighth notes, which provides a framework for a veritable catalog of contrasting, unclock-like rhythms. The minuet movement shows once more the wisdom of D.J. Grout’s observation that Haydn “never wrote the same minuet twice.” This was quite a test, since most of his symphonies (more than 100) and string quartets (more than 75) have minuet movements, not to mention the dozens of trios that Haydn composed for his employer to practice his favorite string instrument, the baryton. The vivace (“lively”) finale, both, full of good-natured wit, drives the work to a cheerful conclusion.

Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Dvořák

Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104 (1894-95)

Antonín Dvorák
(b. Nelahozeves, 1841; d. Prague, 1904)
Dvorák is often viewed as a quintessentially Czech composer, but much of his popularity outside of his homeland is due to masterful handling of the traditional Western European forms of instrumental music. One commentator has colorfully explained the paradox as a meeting between the “Czech village and the constructive spirit of the Beethoven Sonata.”

Dvorák had the good fortune of attracting the attention of an important, established German composer, Johannes Brahms, who became the Czech composer’s champion and saw to it that German publishers paid attention. As late as 1894, only three years before Brahms’ death, and the very year in which Dvorák began his Cello Concerto in B Minor, Brahms undertook the thankless task of correcting a publisher’s galley proofs, in order to shorten the publication process for Dvorák’s Violin Sonatina. Dvorák composed his Cello Concerto in B Minor (really his second cello concerto, following an early attempt by thirty years) during his “American” period, and it remains one of his most-frequently-performed works. Enticed to America to become the director of the National Conservatory in New York, Dvorák responded to new cultural stimuli by composing an “American” String Quartet, a “New World” Symphony and an “American” Quintet. At the same time, the call of the homeland caused him to travel as far as Spillville, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska, to visit Czech enclaves.

In these culturally mixed circumstances he composed his Cello Concerto. The immediate stimulus was an American one. After hearing a performance of Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto #2, Dvorák reconsidered his doubts about the feasibility of composing for the medium. He now felt equipped to explore the relationship between a low-pitched instrument and a large orchestra, and he succeeded in numerous interesting ways. He devised arresting themes, sometimes casting them in the mold of his other American works. (One often wonders whether to say of his themes, “How American!” or “How Czech!”).

Having already composed nine symphonies, Dvorák painted his orchestral tone colors masterfully in the concerto. At one memorable point in the slow movement, the solo cello is accompanied by oboes and bassoons as well as by the orchestral cello section, but the soloist uses the bow, while the other cellists play without it (pizzicato). The slow movement quotes a fragment from Dvorák’s own early work, a song for voice and piano titled “Let me wander alone with my Dreams.” The song was a long-time favorite of the composer’s sister-in-law, Josephina, who had been one of his earliest pupils. When she died, shortly after the concerto was finished, the composer made a revised version of the ending of the concerto, honoring Josephina’s memory by referring to the song one last time.

Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.