return to program notes homepage
NOTE:  These program notes are published here for patrons of the the Madison Symphony Orchestra and other interested readers.  Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author.   last update: 7/27/15

Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
September 25-26-27, 2015
90th Season / Subscription Concert No. 1
Michael Allsen

This ninetieth season begins with a concert featuring the Madison Symphony Orchestra itself, and a soloist from the orchestra—principal clarinetist Joseph Morris, playing the Clarinet Concerto that Copland wrote for the great Benny Goodman.  The program opens with Beethoven’s rousing, heroic Leonore Overture No.3.  The orchestra’s showcase is Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony, composed at a phenomenally stressful time in the composer’s life—a work that struggles against, and eventually triumphs over a brooding musical motive that personifies “Fate.”

 

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Leonore Overture No.3, op.72a           

 

This overture—one of several Beethoven composed for the opera Fidelio—was composed in 1806, and was first performed in Vienna on March 29, 1806.  The Madison Symphony Orchestra has played the work on nine previous programs, beginning in 1936, and most recently in 2009. Duration 14:00.

 

Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio—originally titled Leonore—reflects Beethoven’s heroic ideals: it is a rather tangled story of Florestan, a young man wrongly and secretly imprisoned by the evil prison warden Pizarro.  Florestan’s wife Leonore spends most of the opera in disguise as a young man, Fidelio, who works at the prison as the jailer’s assistant.  In the end, as Pizarro is about to murder Florestan, Leonore—in hiding in Florestan’s dungeon—leaps between them, pistol in hand, to protect her husband.  The standoff is ended by the sudden arrival of the King’s minister.  Florestan is freed and reunited with Leonore, Pizarro is led away in chains, and the opera ends in rejoicing.

 

The opera and its overtures are also a case of Beethoven’s willingness to revise and re-revise his music.  The overture now known as Leonore No.2 was composed for the opera’s premiere in 1805. This first performance was a dismal failure, and Beethoven staged an equally unsuccessful performance of the opera in 1806.  The most important revision in the 1806 version was Beethoven’s substitution of a new overture, Leonore No.3, a streamlined and dramatically remodeled version of Leonore No.2.  Beethoven wrote the overture known by the somewhat misleading title Leonore No.1 in 1807, in anticipation of a performance of the opera in Prague, which never took place. (In the 1970s, Beethoven scholar Alan Tyson discovered that the composer made a few preliminary sketches for a fourth Leonore overture, yet another reworking of Leonore No.2!) After the failures of 1805 and 1806, and his abortive attempt to produce Fidelio in Prague, Beethoven put the opera on the shelf until 1814, when it was successfully produced with substantial dramatic and musical revisions.  This 1814 version—the version of Fidelio we know today—had an entirely new overture (the Fidelio Overture), which abandoned the “Leonore” music altogether.

 

Beethoven’s Leonore No.3 is certainly the best of the three earlier overtures, and it stands beside his symphonies as an orchestral masterpiece.   At least one writer has suggested that the very strength of this overture contributed to the failure of the 1806 version of Fidelio—by completely overshadowing the first act of the opera!  It is still, however, occasionally performed with opera today:  inserted as an interlude after the intensely dramatic rescue scene in Act II.  Leonore No.3 begins with a slow introduction: Florestan’s lament from Act II of the opera.  Tension builds until the introduction of the first Allegro theme, a syncopated and energetic melody.  The gentler theme that follows quickly gives way to a long section of development.  A trumpet call and a hymn of thanksgiving refer to the opera’s climactic moment, when Fidelio is saved by the courage of his wife, and the fortunate arrival of the minister.  The Allegro theme is reintroduced, hesitantly at first, and then triumphantly.  The overture ends with a massive transformation of this main theme. 

 

Aaron Copland (1900-1990)

Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra

 

Copland composed this work in 1947-48.  Benny Goodman played the first performance on a radio broadcast with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on November 6, 1950. This is the first performance of the work at these concerts.  Duration 16:00.

 

Clarinetist Benny Goodman, America’s “King of Swing,” was of course best known as the leader of one of the great swing bands of the 1930s and 1940s.  But when he was at the peak of his fame, Goodman—who had studied as a child with a clarinetist from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—took an increased interest in art music for his instrument.  He performed and recorded the classic works by Mozart, Weber, and Brahms, but he also took a strong interest in expanding the repertoire—and as a musical superstar, he had the money to do it.  From the late 1930s onwards, Goodman commissioned works from prominent European émigrés like Bartók and Hindemith, from Englishman Malcolm Arnold, and from American Morton Gould.  He also played early performances of new works for clarinet by Stravinsky and Bernstein.  In 1947, he approached Copland.  Goodman later wrote: “I made no demands on what Copland should write.  He had complete free rein, except that I should have a two-year exclusivity on playing the work.  I paid two thousand dollars, and that’s real money...”  For his part, Copland, who was about to leave on an extended tour of South America, purchased a trunkload of Goodman’s records to bring along.  Most of the concerto was composed while he was in Rio de Janeiro, and he completed it the next year when he returned to New York.  Aside from Copland’s close study of Goodman’s playing on record, the two did not really collaborate, though Goodman asked for and got a few minor revisions after he received the score: primarily a few passages that Goodman felt were beyond his technical comfort level when performing with an orchestra.  Then there was the problem of getting it performed.  Goodman was phenomenally busy, and needed time away from his jazz performances to prepare.  It wasn’t until two years later that Goodman finally had a chance to perform the concerto.  It quickly became and remains one of the standard works for the instrument.

 

The concerto is scored with deliberate simplicity, for strings, harp, and piano—Copland noted that “...I did not have a large battery of percussion to achieve jazzy effects, so I used slapping basses and whacking harp sounds to simulate them.”   The work is in two linked movements.  Copland described the wistful opening movement as “...simple in structure, based upon the usual A-B-A song form. The general character of this movement is lyric and expressive.”  The opening section has the clarinet above a gently insistent accompaniment, while in the contrasting middle episode the solo part is surrounded by a shimmering texture that clearly comes from the same pen that wrote Appalachian Spring.  After a return of the opening music, the clarinet gradually launches out upon a solo cadenza that links the two movements, and also serves to foreshadow some of the music of the second movement.  Copland calls this “a free rondo, with several side issues developed at some length.”  At least one of the “side issues” is a popular Brazilian tune Copland heard on the streets in Rio.  There is a nervous, almost flighty character to much of this music, and some notable moments of humor, as in a brief jazz duet between the clarinet and a slapping bass, or in a Rodeo-style hoedown.  It closes with a brilliant coda, with the clarinet in its highest register, and a final jazzy smear.

 

 

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, (1840-1893)

Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36                                                        

 

Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony was composed between May 1877 and January 1878.  The first performance took place in Moscow on February 22, 1878.   The work has been performed on four earlier Madison Symphony Orchestra programs, in 1978, 1992, 2001 and 2007.  Duration: 43:00.

 

Even during the most disastrous times in his personal life,Tchaikovsky was capable of profound musical creation.  In the spring of 1877, when he was hard at work on sketches for his fourth symphony and doing preliminary work on his opera Eugene Onegin, he received an increasingly passionate series of love letters from Antonina Milyukova, a conservatory student.  When she finally threatened to commit suicide if he refused to meet her, Tchaikovsky visited her, but firmly refused her proposals of marriage.  Within a few weeks, however, he relented, and they were married in July.  Just why Tchaikovsky—rarely a completely balanced individual in his own right—impetuously agreed to this marriage remains something of a mystery.  He may have wanted to silence nasty whisperings about his homosexuality.  He had in fact, announced to his family in the fall of 1876 that he intended to “fight my nature with all of my strength” and marry as soon as possible.  Whatever the reason, this marriage was an unmitigated disaster for both of them.  Within a few days of the wedding, Tchaikovsky found Antonina's presence unbearable, and he fled Moscow to Kamenka, making excuses about needing seclusion to compose.  His teaching position forced Tchaikovsky to return to Moscow in September, and he promptly attempted suicide.  Failing suicide, he left again, now to St. Petersburg, where doctors recommended a permanent separation from his wife and a change of scenery.   He fled to the small Swiss town of Clarens in October, and stayed away from Russia for nearly six months.  Though he made trips to Paris, Florence, and Vienna during this period, he found Clarens a congenial place to work.  He finished three large works there during the early months of 1878:  completing the Symphony No.4 on January 6, Eugene Onegin just a month later, and in a final burst of creative energy, composing the Violin Concerto during a 26-day period in March and April.  Several smaller works come from this same amazing period as well.

 

At the very time he was going through his tragic marriage with Antonina, Tchaikovsky was forging a much longer-lasting and in many ways more significant relationship with another woman, Nadezhda von Meck.  Madame von Meck was an enormously wealthy widow who became attracted to Tchaikovsky’s music and began to write to him in 1877.  Tchaikovsky eagerly seized upon this relationship, and for the next fourteen years they carried on a deeply personal correspondence, each sharing their most innermost thoughts with the other.  They purposely never met one another in person—it is reported that they did run into one another by chance on at least two occasions, but never spoke.  (Though this may seem to have been a curious and barren relationship, is it really so far from countless semi-anonymous romances conducted by email and texts in our own time?) The benefits to Tchaikovsky were boundless:  here was a woman who was not even remotely interested in a conventional marriage or physical relationship, but who nonetheless wanted to share his intellectual and emotional life.  Beyond the emotional support he craved, Madame von Meck also became his patron, granting him an annual salary that allowed him freedom from teaching duties to compose.  This passionate long-distance relationship continued until 1891, when it was broken off, apparently at her insistence.

 

The Symphony No.4 is perhaps the greatest work of this calamitous period, and its success did much to restore Tchaikovsky’s confidence.  The work is a masterpiece in purely musical terms, but the composer himself invited a much more personal interpretation.   In explaining the work to Madame von Meck, he wrote:  “I should be sorry if symphonies that mean nothing should flow from my pen, consisting only of a progression of harmonies, rhythms and modulations.  Most assuredly, my symphony has a program, but one that cannot be expressed in words; the very attempt would be ludicrous...shouldn’t a symphony reveal those wordless urges that hide in the heart, asking earnestly for expression?”  Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky continued his letter with a long and detailed description of the program.  Although he never mentions the disastrous marriage in this letter—she was, after all, intimate with the details, and had given him financial support throughout the episode—his narration is painfully autobiographical.  

 

The opening movement begins with a massive statement by the brass and woodwinds.  In his narration, Tchaikovsky described this theme as “...Fate, the inevitable force which halts our aspirations towards happiness.”  If the opening theme is angry and powerful, the cantabile second theme is more resigned.   “The feeling of despondency and despair grows ever stronger and more passionate.  Isn’t it better to turn from reality and lose ourselves in dreams?”  As an answer to Tchaikovsky’s plea, there is a dreamlike interlude of happiness and relaxation, marked by a lilting oboe solo.  This dream is of course rudely shattered by Fate, with a mighty recapitulation of the opening material.

 

The second movement, marked “Andantino in the manner of a song,” presents a lovely but dejected melody in a very free set of variations.  Tchaikovsky describes the movement as “another phase of suffering.”  As narrator, he sits alone late at night, recalling happy and sad scenes from his youth.  “How sad, yet sweet, to lose ourselves in memories of the past.”  The melody stated in the opening by the oboe, returns in undecorated form at the very end, played in darker tones by the bassoon.

 

The outer sections of the scherzo (Allegro vivace) are dominated by light pizzicato playing by the strings.  Here, Tchaikovsky describes the music as “fleeting arabesques” coming into the mind of a man who has drunk just a little bit too much wine before falling into a troubled sleep.  There is a central episode, lightly played by woodwinds and brass; the narrator's brief memory of a drunken peasant singing with a distant military band.

 

The famous opening passage of the finale provides a technical display for the strings and woodwinds, but it also represents the narrator’s observations of the festive and rather frenzied happiness of those around him.  Darker moods intrude, in the guise of a minor-key Russian folk melody played by the woodwinds, but these are always overcome by exuberance.  The movement’s climax comes with a restatement of the “Fate” theme from the first movement.  Even this forbidding theme is conquered by the festive opening melody, and the symphony closes with a brilliant coda.  In Tchaikovsky’s words, “Rejoice in the happiness of others, and life will still be possible.”

________

program notes ©2015 by J. Michael Allsen