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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 authorlast update: 7/27/15

Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
November 20-21-22, 2015
90th Season / Subscription Concert No. 3
Michael Allsen

This all-French program begins with a colorful set of Valses nobles et sentimentales by Ravel.  Cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio then makes her first solo appearance at these concerts, playing a late Romantic work, the Cello Concerto No.1 by Saint-Saëns. (Ms. Sant’Ambrogio appeared with us in 2001 as part of the Eroica Trio.) After intermission, we turn to one of the works that defined French Romanticism, an immense programmatic work by Berlioz, the Symphonie Fantastique: the disturbing story of an obsessive young artist who goes to Hell…literally!


Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Valses nobles et sentimentales


Ravel composed this set of pieces in 1911 for solo piano, and Louis Aubert premiered it on May 9, 1911.  A year later, Ravel created the orchestral version heard here for use as a ballet score, and conducted the first performance in Paris on April 22, 1912.  We have performed the Valses nobles et sentimentales once previously, in 1981.  Duration 15:00.


Ravel was fascinated by the waltz and created two major works based upon the dance, his famous tone poem La Valse (1920) and the slightly earlier set of eight Valses nobles et sentimentales.  While La Valse takes its inspiration from Imperial Vienna in the age of Johann Strauss II, Valses nobles et sentimentales reaches back to the very beginning of the waltz’s popularity—and to the music of Schubert, whom Ravel admired.  In 1823, Schubert published two sets of piano works that use the dance form that was just beginning to take hold in Vienna: collections titled Valses nobles and Valses sentimentales.  Ravel later wrote: “The title Valses nobles et sentimentales sufficiently indicates my intention of writing a cycle of waltzes after the example of Schubert.  Following on the virtuosity of Gaspard de la nuit [a 1908 piano work by Ravel], I use here a distinctly clearer style of writing.  This makes the harmony more concrete and causes the profile of the music to stand out.”  In fact, the harmony of Ravel’s set is distinctly modernist, rather than Schubertian, causing trouble at its premiere in 1911.  Ravel goes on to describe this unusual concert, sponsored by the Société Musicale Indépendante, a group that promoted contemporary music. The Valses were presented anonymously in order to let the critics focus on the music itself: and many were disturbed by what they heard as a dissonant parody, and the work received several boos.  Worst of all, only a few of those present guessed the correct composer!  Undeterred, Ravel returned to the Valses a few months later, when the ballerina Natasha Trouhanova asked him for a ballet score, for an ambitious series of ballets she was creating to works by modern French composers.  He orchestrated his piano works in March 1912, and conducted the ballet, under the title,Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs (Adelaide, or the language of flowers) in April at the Théâtre du Châtelet.  While the ballet was a minor hit, it is largely forgotten today; but Ravel’s brilliantly-orchestrated Valses nobles et sentimentales—a set of eight little orchestral jewels—remains a standard concert piece today.


The first waltz (Modéré—très franc) begins the set on a forceful, swirling note.  The next (Assez lent—avec une expression intense) is more impressionistic, with a series of delicate woodwind solos.  Waltz No.3 (Modéré) has a more humorous tone with its gentle cross-rhythms, and the same tone—with just an edge of sarcasm—is maintained in the fourth (Assez animé). Ravel describes the next waltz (Presque lent—dans un sentiment intime) as “intimate”—a quiet piece with a series of woodwind solos and an abrupt ending. The sixth waltz (Assez vif) is the briefest of the set, with unsettled harmonies and an inconclusive ending that must have baffled his conservative critics.  The more substantial seventh (Moins vif) has a mysterious opening, but builds to a lilting Viennese-style waltz that sounds very much like a rough draft of his later La Valse.  The set ends with a quiet Epilogue: all hazy shifting harmonies with occasional hints of a more forceful waltz that never manages to emerge.


Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Concerto No.1 for Cello and Orchestra in A minor, Op.33


Saint-Saëns wrote this work in 1872 and it premiered on January 19, 1873 in Paris, by cellist Auguste Tolbecque.  Previous Madison Symphony Orchestra performances of the concerto have featured Jenska Slebos (1955) and Parry Karp (1983).  Duration 19:00.


Saint-Saëns was among the most successful French musicians of his generation:  a prolific composer, one of the great organists of the nineteenth century, a piano virtuoso, a teacher, and a highly opinionated, eloquent, and sometimes acerbic critic.  (He was just as sarcastic about the Wagnerian wannabes of his own generation of French composers as he was about younger “modernists” like Debussy.)   Saint-Saëns, a staunch French nationalist, was also an active player in the sometimes rough world of French musical politics.  He was among the founding members of the Société Nationale de Musique, a group formed in 1871, directly after France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.  The Society’s goals were to promote and defend the cause of French music, and it sponsored countless performances over the next fifty years of works by nearly every major French composer.  Despite the fact that he was increasingly one of the more conservative members of the group, as its long-time leader Saint-Saëns constantly championed performances of works by his more avant-garde countrymen.


He had one of the longest compositional careers of any major composer, writing hundreds of works over a period of nearly seventy years, from the time he was sixteen years old until nearly the day he died.  Among these hundreds of works are several fine pieces for cello: two sonatas, a suite, two concertos, and four smaller works.  Among those, his first cello concerto has remained his most widely-performed cello piece, and has become one of the standard concertos for the instrument.  The concerto was composed in 1872 for the French virtuoso Auguste Tolbecque, principal cellist of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra. 


Written at the very time the National Society of Music was created, the concerto is a thoroughly French and Romantic piece.  Though it is cast in the traditional three-movement form, each movement flows gracefully into the next. Saint-Saëns dispenses with the traditional orchestral introduction:  the orchestra plays a single abrupt chord, and the cello launches boldly into the first movement (Allegro non troppo) with a striking melody that swoops downward over two octaves.  This melody forms the basis for much of the concerto’s thematic material.  After the soloist and woodwinds change roles briefly, the solo introduces a much more lyrical theme, and then plays a brief but intense cadenza.  An orchestral passage with decoration by the cello serves as a kind of development, and there is an abbreviated recapitulation before this movement ends quietly.  The strings begin the second movement (Allegretto con moto) with a delicate dance rhythm—almost an antique minuet—which serves as background to a lovely lyrical melody from the cello.  The central section moves to a waltz-like feel, and there is a rather free solo passage.  The minuet returns with even more elaborate variations from the cello.  A quiet solo forms a bridge to the final movement (Allegro non troppo), where the cello returns to the distinctive theme  of the opening bars.  The mood subsides quickly, and the cello introduces a much more subdued contrasting idea.  If the solo part played a rather restrained role in the previous two movements, it becomes a flashy virtuoso showpiece at the end: the cellist is able to display the entire range and technical facility of the instrument.  Beginning with a long exposed passage in the lowest range of the cello, the soloist gradually moves higher, and eventually introduces a brilliant new theme at the very end.


Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Symphonie Fantastique (“Fantastic Symphony”), Op.14


Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, which he subtitled “Episode in the Life of an Artist,” was written between 1829 and 1830.  It was premiered on December 5, 1830 at the Paris Conservatoire, under the direction of François-Antoine Habeneck.  Previous Madison Symphony Orchestra performances were in 1973, 1983, 1997, and 2006. Duration 55:00.


If we were to paint a picture of the archetypical Romantic Composer, we could probably use Hector Berlioz as a model.  Six feet tall, with huge mop of hair and a passionate personality, Berlioz was nearly always in a state of emotional upheaval—upheaval reflected in his copious writings and larger-than-life compositions.   All of his compositions illustrated his passions, but none is more directly (and disturbingly) autobiographical than his Symphonie Fantastique.  The story behind this work reads like a Hollywood screenplay...


Scene 1:  Paris, 1827.  Berlioz (a young Gérard Depardieu? Johnny Depp in a red wig?), a passionate young composer, sees Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the first time.  He is in ecstasy over the play, despite the fact that the performance was in English, a language he does not understand.  What really makes an impression on him, however, is Harriet Smithson, the English actress in the role of Ophelia (if contemporary descriptions of her are accurate, Rosie O’Donnell would be perfect…).  Berlioz is immediately obsessed with Smithson, and writes to her with a marriage proposal almost immediately—the first of dozens of love letters.  She leaves Paris in 1829 without ever replying.


Scene 2:  Paris, 1830.  Berlioz has just completed the Symphonie Fantastique, an enormous five-movement programmatic work, which details his obsession with Harriet, including a drug-induced dream sequence in which he kills her and goes to Hell.  The work is controversial, but highly successful.  Berlioz is happy for the time being, and has a new love interest, the pianist Camille Moke (Gwyneth Paltrow).


Scene 3:  Paris, 1832.  Berlioz, dumped by Camille, is despondent and considering suicide.  Harriet is in town again, and an English gossip columnist talks her into attending a performance of the Symphonie Fantastique.  (The inspiration for Berlioz’s symphony is an open secret, and her presence at the concert is sure to stir things up...). Harriet savors the attention, and begins to pay some serious attention to Berlioz.  The two are married a year later.


Epilogue.  Like most affairs based upon obsession, the real thing turns out to be not as good as the fantasy.  Within a year of their marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Berlioz are miserable.  They stick together for ten years, but are eventually divorced in 1844.  Berlioz does not feel truly free of the relationship until 1854, when Harriet dies.  He is married to his second wife a few weeks later.  [Note:  I’m not making any of this up!  -M.A.]


The work that grew out of this strange affair, the Symphonie Fantastique, is a landmark in the history of Romantic music.  Written for a huge orchestra, this work uses orchestral effects and even instruments that had never been used in a symphony.  (This is, for example, the first appearance of the tuba—or rather its ancestor, the ophicleide—in a piece of orchestral music.)  Even more striking is the programmatic idea behind Berlioz’s score.  This is not the first programmatic symphony—Berlioz himself credits Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony as inspiration—but it is the first in which the extra-musical story line is so explicit.   In a story that has echoes of Goethe’s dark Faust, Berlioz musically describes his obsession in great detail, even going to the extent of publishing a written program as an aid to the audience’s imagination.  To illustrate his affair, he creates a musical idée fixe (literally “fixed idea” or “obsession”) representing his changing view of his beloved.  This idea appears in each movement, but each time in a different character: as a flowing Romantic melody in the opening movement, as a lilting waltz in the second, as a shepherd’s song in the third, and in the fourth movement, it is the last thing the condemned artist thinks of before the blade of guillotine drops.  Its final appearance is as a mocking dance in the “Witches’ Sabbath” movement. The program Berlioz wrote to accompany the Symphonie Fantastique is as follows:


“Part  I:  Reveries—Passions.   The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has imagined in his dreams, and falls desperately in love with her.  Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears in the mind’s eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.  This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe.  That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every moment of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro.  The passage from this state of melancholy reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its moments of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations—this is the subject of the first movement.


“Part  II:  A Ball.  The artist finds himself in the most varied situations—in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of nature;  but everywhere, in the town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.


“Part  III:  Scene in the Country.  Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz de vaches [shepherd’s song] in dialogue.  This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found reason to entertain—all come together to afford his heart an unaccustomed calm, and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas.  He reflects upon his isolation;  he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over.  But what if she were deceiving him!  This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the Adagio.  At the end, one of the shepherds takes up the ranz des vaches;  the other no longer replies.  Distant thunder—loneliness—silence.


“Part  IV: March to the Scaffold.   Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium.  The dose of narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions.  He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned to death and led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution.  The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is sometimes somber and fierce, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled sound of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor.  At the end, the idée fixe returns for a moment, like a final thought of love before the fatal blow.


“Part  V:  A Witches' Sabbath.  He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, and monsters of every species, all gathered for his funeral; strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer.  The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness;  it is now no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial and grotesque.  It is she, coming to join the sabbath … a roar of joy at her arrival.  She takes part in the devilish orgy—funeral knell—burlesque parody of the Dies irae—sabbath round-dance—the sabbath round-dance and the Dies irae combined.”


program notes ©2015 by J. Michael Allsen