Program Notes for July 6th, 2010

21Program Notes By Ed Rutschman


Carl Maria von Weber

Carl Maria von Weber

Overture to Oberon (1826)
Carl Maria von Weber (b. Eutin, 1786; d. London, 1826)

Weber was a first-rank piano virtuoso, an important composer of orchestral music and one of the inventors of German romantic opera. Mozart’s wife, Constanze, was his cousin. His father was a composer, a colorful character who slipped the noble title “von” into the family name and eventually got himself and his son banished from the dukedom of Württemberg because of bad debt.

Near the end of his career, the composer responded to a diagnosis of tuberculosis by accepting a lucrative commission in London in order to provide for his family after his death. The result was his last major work, his 10th opera, Oberon. Combining singing and speaking in the manner of the German Singspiel (“Song/Play”), Oberon calls for seven singers and eleven speaking roles. Weber took 153 lessons in English before leaving Dresden in order to prepare for the task of setting an English-language text to music. He never realized his wish to convert the drama into a more usable form for the German stage, although it is now most often heard in a German translation, and Mahler later made some of the adjustments that Weber might have thought necessary.

The plot provided Weber with the Romantic images of the long ago, the far away and the unattainable that often inspired him, but the libretto is almost universally criticized for its clumsiness. Oberon, the king of the fairies, will not reconcile with his queen, Titania (and here ends all resemblance to Shakespeare’s use of the same two characters) until he finds lovers who are willing to face death. Two such lovers do appear, and all ends happily, but not before trips from Charlemagne’s kingdom to the Caliphate of Baghdad and a pirate camp in Tunisia. There is ample musical scope for prayers, a storm, a rescue, a nautical hijacking, slavery, another rescue and general rejoicing.

Weber composed his masterful overture to Oberon in three days, just before the premiere, by tying together musical themes from the opera. First one hears Oberon’s magic horn, then the music of Puck and other fairies. The prayer, the storm and the heroine’s address to the mighty power of the ocean (from the impressive aria “Ocean, thou mighty monster”) all provide musical themes. Nevertheless, Weber composed his overture in the expected classical sonata form. It remains a staple of the repertoire as an orchestral showpiece with compelling musical content.

Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev

Piano Concerto #3 in C Major, op. 26 (1921)
Sergei Prokofiev (b. Sontsovka, Ukraine, 1891;
d. Moscow, 1953)

When Prokofiev completed his Piano Concerto #3 in 1921, the 30-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 nine, completing a symphony at eleven and another at seventeen (neither of them included in his final catalog of seven symphonies), spurning the tutelage of Rimsky-Korsakov but winning the Rubinstein Prize in piano at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, earning a reputation for satire with works such as his Sarcasms for piano solo, and working feverishly to complete his first numbered symphony, the “Classical” Symphony. As the Russian Revolution broke out, he experienced a time of profound change in his personal life and in the world around him. Prokofiev left Russia in 1918 and traveled eastward for nearly half a year, heading through Siberia, Tokyo and San Francisco toward New York. He toured as a virtuoso pianist and accepted commissions for an opera and other works. When his American prospects dimmed, he settled in Paris. Only in 1936 did he return permanently to the USSR, and then he periodically clashed with the Soviet cultural authorities over the “formalism” of his music. He died on the same day as his nemesis, Josef Stalin.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto #3 was a long-time work-in-progress that stretched back for ten years. Sketches for the first movement date from as early as 1911, much of the second movement from 1913, and further important sections of the first movement from 1917. When Prokofiev had second thoughts about composing a string quartet in 1918, he recycled some of the material for use in the final movement of the concerto. Even so, there is a stylistic unity throughout that is one of the hallmarks of the composer’s style. Or perhaps, more accurately stated, it is the diversity of moods allowed by his style that makes the impression of unity possible. As if to prove a point, Prokofiev reused the Gavotte movement from his “Classical” Symphony (1921) in his ballet Romeo and Juliet (1936) with no loss of stylistic integrity.

The concerto opens in a calm mood with strongly lyrical qualities. As the strings begin to infuse the atmosphere with a nervous edge, the piano is soon launched on a nearly unstoppable trajectory—a highly unusual and quite thrilling way to begin a concerto. When the music returns later in the movement, the piano now participates in the run-up, in effect helping to launch itself this time around, and with even more energy than before. The movement concludes with a third “launching,” the most precipitous of them all. The middle movement of the concerto sports a theme with a chameleon-like set of variations; one is never quite sure what will be around the next corner. The final movement begins in a wry manner, like a sure-footed peasant dance. It proceeds to a wistful center section and concludes in a blaze of C-major glory. At the very end, there are just enough “wrong” notes to preserve the composer’s “bad boy” reputation.

Ludwig van Beethoven painted by Karl Joseph Stieler in 1820

Ludwig van Beethoven painted by
Karl Joseph Stieler in 1820

Symphony #2 in C Major op. 61 (1846)
Robert Schumann (b. Zwickau, 1810; d. Endenich, 1856)

Schumann was a leader in the first Romantic generation, that group of composers who came of musical age after the death of Beethoven but who could not escape his influence. Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi and Wagner were among his contemporaries. After his aspirations toward a career as a virtuoso pianist failed to materialize, he married the daughter of his piano teacher. Clara, who matured into one of the great pianists of the century (Liszt praised her “complete technical mastery” and “depth of feeling”), became his champion and his muse; it was she who urged Robert to move beyond his preoccupation with piano music and take up larger genres.

In 1841, Schumann succumbed to the symphonic bug: he composed two symphonies, which would eventually be published as Symphony #1 and Symphony #4, and sketched a third one. He completed his orchestral Overture, Scherzo and Finale and wrote the first movement of his Piano Concerto. By 1845, strong signs of his eventual mental breakdown were evident. Schumann found solace by immersing himself in the discipline of counterpoint and writing six fugues for pedal piano on the musical motif B-A-C-H (B-A-C-B). Later in the year he wrote to his good friend Mendelssohn that he was hearing trumpets and drums in his imagination—likely the first inklings of his new symphony, which begins with trumpets and ends with drums. Schumann finished the symphony, orchestrated it in 1846, and published it in 1847 as his Symphony #2.

Fittingly, it was Mendelssohn who premiered the work with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1847. Six years later the symphony reached the New World, as the New York Philharmonic took it up. A later conductor of the Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, championed the work in its original orchestration, undoing the tinkering of composer-conductors Gustav Mahler and Felix Weingartner.

Schumann preserved the four-movement symphonic structure that he had inherited from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but with some personal touches. The first movement begins with a softly intoned brass fanfare that returns, with increasing impressiveness, to crown the endings of the first, second and fourth movements. The second-movement Scherzo is not a triple-meter, minuet-inspired movement, but a lively quickstep march that is softened by two contrasting Trio sections of a more tender character. Only in the slow movement, marked Adagio espressivo, is there a hint of the deep pathos that defined Schumann’s own life as he was composing this piece. The final movement features a transformed version of the slow movement’s main theme as well as a quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (“To the Distant Beloved”), and a glorious restatement of the brass fanfare with which the symphony began.

Clara Schumann counted the Symphony #2 among her favorites of her husband’s works, as did Brahms, Moscheles and Tchaikovsky. The writer of the present program notes holds that view as well.

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.