Program Notes By Ed Rutschman
Overture to La scala di seta(“The Silken Ladder,” 1812)
Gioachino Rossini (b. Pesaro, Italy, 1792; d. Paris, France, 1868)
In the early nineteenth century, Rossini ruled both the comic and the serious hemispheres of the world of Italian opera. Early on, he dazzled audiences with his mastery of the conventions of opera, juggling the sometimes-conflicting elements of storytelling, characterization, and musical cohesion. He served the needs of superstar singers and used the orchestra as his accomplice in supporting these operatic conventions.
Rossini got an early start. He composed his first opera at the age of eighteen and worked prolifically until he retired abruptly from the operatic arena at the age of thirty-six. La scala di seta was his sixth opera, one of five the composer premiered in 1812, the year in which he celebrated his twentieth birthday. (It always amused him that he could celebrate on the proper date, February 29, only every four years.) Early on, audiences and critics noted the freshness that he injected into his musical portrayal of dramatic plots. Indeed, the French novelist and essayist Stendhal, who wrote a biography of Rossini, went so far as to claim that Rossini’s early works were his best. Stendhal took his art seriously. He later described a syndrome, which now carries his name, involving stressed physical reactions when viewing a heavy dose of artistic masterworks.
Rossini identified his La scala di seta with the label, farsa comica. The “silken ladder” of the title is a crucial plot device in this comic farce. It allows young Giulia and Dorvil, who are secretly married, to meet every night. Giulia’s father, who does not know of the marriage, wants her to marry Blansac. If Giulia could succeed as a matchmaker by pairing Blansac with Lucilla, all might be well. Things go wrong before they get right, but eventually the silken ladder conveys two men (Dorvil and Blansac) to meet two women (Giulia and Lucilla). Giulia’s father forgives his daughter’s scheming and blesses the two couples.
The overture to the opera is itself a masterpiece of comic timing: When the first violins try to announce the beginning of the comedy, the full orchestra suddenly jumps in, but only for one note. A change of mood reveals a tender scene, perhaps between Giulia and Dorvil. Another quick scene change reveals a fast, agile melody that suggests the “stage business” of farce, and this mood prevails throughout the rest of the overture. It begins in the violins, grinds to a halt, and gets a fresh start with the solo oboe, all in passages that showcase virtuoso playing.
Before long, Rossini introduces his trademark “Rossini crescendo,” in which the entire orchestra starts softly, gets gradually louder while repeating short rhythmic patterns, and eventually erupts with a volcano of activity. At the end of the overture there is a second eruption, longer and perfectly timed for comedy. If the first crescendo was the “straight line,” the second is the punch line.
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, op. 31 (1943)
Benjamin Britten (b. Lowestoft, 1913; d. Aldeburgh, 1976)
Britten frequently composed songs and operatic roles for his life partner, tenor Peter Pears. The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, written for Pears and the legendary horn player, Dennis Brain, is particularly brilliant.An introductory Prologue, for horn alone, and an offstage Epilogue (the same music, used twice) frame six poems drawn from literature of the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. The poets speak of twilight, the moon, sleep, perils of the night, and other subjects, under the umbrella of the title, Serenade.
Each movement is a memorable vignette. As the afternoon shadows lengthen in the setting of Cotton’s Pastoral, we observe how “a very little, little flock / Shades thrice the ground that it would stock.” In Tennyson’s Nocturne, we can hear “the horns of Elfland faintly blowing.” Blake’s Elegy and the anonymous Dirge are both frightening in their intensity, their moods finally dispelled by the hunting music of Ben Jonson’s Hymn to the “Goddess excellently bright.” After the magnificent setting of Keats’ Sonnet, the horn, as Peter Pears once said, “winds the Serenade to stillness.”
Piano Concerto #1 in E♭ Major (1856)
Franz Liszt (b. Raiding, 1811; d. Bayreuth, 1886)
At the age of eight Franz Liszt played for Carl Czerny, who had been Beethoven’s protégé. Liszt had been playing the piano for only two years, but he already knew a substantial number of pieces. Czerny found the young Liszt’s playing to be undisciplined and confused, but he also recognized the astonishing talent of a “natural.” In his autobiography he recalled that it seemed as if Nature had “created a pianist.” Liszt studied with Czerny for fourteen months and never again took piano lessons. By the age of 15 he had composed the first version of his Transcendental Etudes. In 1838, when Schumann reviewed a revised version, he believed that perhaps a dozen pianists, at most, would be able to play them. Inspired by the feats of the violin virtuoso, Paganini, Liszt developed new pianistic techniques for playing powerful scales and octaves, and he gave the illusion of using three hands to play some passages. There were other innovations as well: Liszt gave recitals from memory, played with his profile on view to the audience, and composed music that required a newer, stronger instrument to make its full effect. Liszt’s biographer Alan Walker has called him “the first modern pianist.”
A sea-change in his career occurred in 1848, when he moved to Weimar to become the Director of Music at the court of the Grand Duke. Perhaps surprisingly, it was only after Liszt had discontinued his touring career and settled down in Weimar that he completed his Piano Concerto #1, a work that is now an important staple in the touring pianist’s repertoire. When Liszt premiered this concerto in 1855 (revised in 1856 and published in 1857), he was at the height of his pianistic powers.
The four-movement concerto shares thematic material among its movements, often by transforming a theme so that its character becomes quite different. For instance, the tender, lyrical theme that begins the second movement returns as a march in the final movement. At the beginning of the concerto, the piano launches into action immediately, and there is rarely a break for the soloist before the first movement ends with quiet brilliance. The remaining movements connect to each other without pause, but they are clearly distinguished in mood: a slow movement of great expressiveness, a fast, skittish third movement, and a finale that is labeled marziale (“march-like”). The third movement begins with a soft, delicate part for the triangle, and Liszt carefully specified in the score that the instrument must be played with precision and resonance, not “clumsily.” The critic Eduard Hanslick used his review of an 1857 performance in Vienna to fire a shot in a much larger war between the followers of Brahms and the devotees of Liszt and Wagner: the derogatory nickname, “Triangle Concerto”, stuck. At the very first performance of the concerto, in Weimar, Liszt was the soloist and Berlioz the conductor.
Serenade #2 in A Major, op. 16 (1858-59, revised 1875)
Johannes Brahms (b. Hamburg, 1833; d. Vienna, 1897)
Brahms completed his first orchestral works (two serenades and Piano Concerto #1) in the years 1858-59, when he held an annual, three-month appointment as music director at the small court of the Prince of Lippe in Detmold, near Hannover in present-day Germany. It was only later that he turned to the symphony, the orchestral form (along with the concerto) for which he is best known.
In fact, the composer administered his works for orchestra in two doses. As a young composer well aware of the symphonic shadow of Beethoven, Brahms hesitated for a long while before completing a symphony. His first published orchestral works were the two serenades and concerto already noted, all of which appeared in print in the early 1860s. Stung by the poor reception of the concerto, he waited more than a decade to compose his Variations on a Theme of Haydn and to revise the Serenade #2, both of which appeared in print in the mid-1870s, as preparation for the giant step—as he saw it—of composing symphonies. The Serenade #2, in its 1859 form and the 1875 revision, is unique in belonging to both stages.
As a genre, the serenade had a centuries-old track record, much longer than the symphony. Traditionally, “serenade” connoted a friendly musical greeting, either respectful or amorous, and an out-of-doors locale. It could be vocal or instrumental. It denoted a time of day, as in the Italian greeting buona sera (“good evening” but also “good afternoon”), and it further implied a pleasant, gentle atmosphere. The instrumental serenade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shared some elements with the symphony: a series of separate movements that include dances, slow movements, formal movements constructed in sonata form, and a rousing finale. The symphony usually had only one movement of each type; a serenade might have more movements but a lighter general tone. Mozart’s Haffner Serenade, for instance, has eight movements and lasts nearly an hour. His Symphony #41, ‘Jupiter’, consists of half the number of movements and lasts half as long.
Brahms placed his five-movement Serenade #2 squarely within these traditions, while putting his own stamp on the genre. On his title page, Brahms called specifically for a “small” orchestra (really a Beethoven-sized orchestra of woodwinds in pairs and a pair of horns), but there are no trumpets or timpani and, unusually, no violins. The serenade’s five movements include both the minuet, a staple of the eighteenth-century symphony and a scherzo, a spin-off of the minuet that was a regular feature of the nineteenth-century symphony. The emotional center of the Serenade is the middle movement, a slow movement fueled by the repetition and development of the lilting melodic pattern stated by the strings. In the easy-going final movement, Brahms added the piccolo to his small orchestra.
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.