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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
March 11-12-13, 2016
90th Season / Subscription Concert No.6
Michael Allsen
These notes substantially revised 2/4/16

This program opens with Beethoven’s tense and dramatic Corolian Overture. We then welcome Emanuel Ax back to Overture Hall.  Mr. Ax has performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra three times, appearing in 1979 (Chopin, Piano Concerto No.1), 2005 (Brahms, Piano Concerto No.2), and 2008 (Chopin, Piano Concerto No.2).  On this program he plays Beethoven’s bold Piano Concerto No.4.  After intermission, we turn to the most intimate and happy of Mahler’s symphonies, the fourth.  Soprano Alisa Jordheim joins the orchestra for the final movement—Mahler’s joyous setting of a child’s vision of heaven.



Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Overture to Coriolan, Op.62


Beethoven composed this overture early in 1807, and the work probably received its premiere in Vienna, at a subscription concert in March of that year.  It has been performed several times by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, beginning with a performance at the University Stock Pavilion in 1942, and most recently in 1998.  Duration 8:00.


Coriolanus, a strong-willed and heroic Roman general, is most familiar through his title role in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, but the more immediate inspiration for this concert overture was a play by Beethoven’s friend Heinrich Joseph von Collin.  Collin’s Coriolan, a thoroughly Romantic tragedy, was a great hit in Vienna when it was first performed in 1802.  Beethoven admired Collin’s work, and even collaborated briefly with him in a planned (but never really started) opera based on Macbeth.  The overture was first played at a March 1807 concert, but a month later, Collin’s Coriolan was revived for one performance at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz, apparently with the express purpose of uniting the play with Beethoven’s music.


The overture is not directly programmatic, but conveys a clear sense of the stern pride and courage of Collin’s hero.  The overture, set in sonata form, is introduced by three explosive pairs of chords.  The main theme, introduced by the upper strings is almost violent, proceeding in short phrases and dramatic pauses.  The second theme, heard in upper strings and solo clarinet, is much more graceful.  The introductory chords reappear after the development and recapitulation.  In the coda, the main theme reappears briefly, only to be exhausted in the hushed closing passage.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Concerto No. 4 in G Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 58                 


Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto was composed in 1805-06.  Beethoven was the soloist in the first performance, in Vienna on December 22, 1808. Previous performances at our subscription concerts have featured Gunnar Johansen (1945 and 1970), James Tocco (1982), Christina Ortiz (1987), André Watts (2000), and Philippe Bianconi (2012). Duration:  33:00.


The fourth piano concerto is one of the finest products of what Beethoven’s biographers have labeled the “Heroic Decade”—the remarkably fertile period between 1802 and 1812 that saw the composition of much of his greatest music.  Concertos were the favorite genre of Beethoven’s Vienna audience, and like Mozart before him, Beethoven saw public performances of his piano concertos as a ready source of cash, particularly at a time when he was wrapped up in lengthy process of reworking the opera Fidelio.  It was performed for the first time at an Akademie—a concert staged for Beethoven’s benefit.  The program for this landmark event also included the premieres of his fifth and sixth symphonies, excerpts from his Mass in C and the concert aria Ah, perfido, together with premieres of two works with Beethoven himself at the piano, the hastily-composed Choral Fantasy, and the Piano Concerto No.4.  The concerto was apparently received with some reservation by the audience, perhaps due to its sometimes radical variations from Classical concerto outlines, and at least partly because the orchestra was badly under-rehearsed.  (The fact that it appeared near the end of a four-hour December concert in a poorly-heated theater can’t have helped!).  But at least one of those who heard it, the composer and critic Johann Reichardt, had admiring words to say about the concerto and Beethoven’s playing, describing a “new pianoforte concerto of immense difficulty, which Beethoven executed astonishingly well in the most rapid tempos.  He sang the [Andante], a masterly movement of beautifully developed song, with a profound melancholy that thrilled me.”


From its opening bar (Allegro moderato), the concerto goes beyond the Classical norms that are largely observed in Beethoven’s three earlier concertos.  Common practice was to provide an extended orchestral tutti before the soloist’s first entrance, but the fourth concerto begins directly with a quiet statement by the piano which the orchestra answers in an immediate change of key.  This sets up an underlying harmonic tension that is not completely resolved until the final bars of the coda.  Members of the audience at the first performance, where Beethoven was at the piano, reported that he played “impulsively and at a tremendous pace”—certainly a reference to the fiery passage-work that fills the transitions and development section of this movement, rather than its sublime themes.


True to Reichardt’s description, second movement (Andante con moto) is a “beautifully developed song”—sung in dialogue between piano and strings. Contrasts abound here: between the rich harmonies of the solo instrument and the spare octaves and unisons of the strings, and between the almost harsh rhythms of the orchestra and the piano’s more lyrical phrasing.  Only near the end, after a brief cadenza, do the strings join the piano in mood.


The final movement (Vivace) is set as a rondo, often considered to be the lightest of Classical forms, but there is nothing insubstantial about this movement.  All of the rhythmic energy of the rondo is here, but Beethoven employs harmonic complexity usually reserved for opening movements.  Not content to set up the conventional polite conversation between contrasting themes, Beethoven also expands the form to provide extensive development of his musical material.


Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Symphony No.4 in G Major


Mahler composed the opening three movements of his Symphony No.4 during the summers of 1899 and 1900.  The fourth movement was completed in 1892. The premiere took place in Munich, on November 23, 1901, with Mahler conducting the Kaim Orchestra. The symphony has been performed thee times previously by the Madison Symphony Orchestra: in 1969 (with Bettina Bjorksten as soloist), 1985 (Lorna Haywood), and 1998 (Helen Donath). Duration 57:00.


Mahler’s fourth symphony represents a kind of peaceful interlude in his series of works:  not only is it something of a miniature by Mahler’s standards (a work of less than an hour’s duration, scored for a relatively modest orchestra), it is almost completely upbeat and joyful.  This is not the fierce, triumphant joy that closes the second symphony, nor is it the exaltation that ends the third—here, it is a simple, childlike joy that pervades most of the symphony and reaches its purest expression in the fourth movement’s song.


The joy of this symphony does not reflect the stress of Mahler’s life at the time.  In 1898, he accepted the post of Music Director for the Vienna Philharmonic, at that time the best orchestra in the world.  Mahler’s authoritarian style did not please the musicians, and his unorthodox and highly personal interpretations drew fire from conservative Viennese critics.  (The upside of all this controversy was that ticket revenues soared, and that management loved him!)  He eventually resigned his post in 1901.  Mahler’s output as a composer fell in 1898, even during his preciously-guarded summer holiday.  In the summer holiday of 1899, however, he experienced a burst of creativity and sketched out much of the opening three movements, finishing them the following summer.


One of Mahler’s inspirations in this period was Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Boy’s Magic Horn,” 1805-1808) a collection of German folk-poetry, collected and heavily editedby the German poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, together with some of their own poems.  These texts, filled with folk-religion and fairy-tale imagery—an idealized version of country life—were hugely popular among the German Romantics.  Several composers—Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms among them—set Wunderhorn texts to music.  But the collection was a particularly potent source of inspiration for Mahler, generating several song-settings and playing a role in the creation of his first four symphonies, three of which include solo settings of Wunderhorn poems.  These texts seem to have had a special significance for Mahler, who viewed these simple, sometimes naïve poems as symbolic of events in his own life.


The three movements written in 1899-1900 were composed to complement a work written some eight years earlier.  In 1892, Mahler wrote an orchestral setting of the poem Das himmlische Leben (“The Heavenly Life”)—a text drawn from the Wunderhorn collection.  His setting of this poem went through two different incarnations before it found a home in the Symphony No.4.  It was originally an independent song for soprano and orchestra, but then in 1896, Mahler included the piece as the seventh movement of his enormous Symphony No.3, with the title “What the Child Tells Me.”  He abandoned this plan, and set the movement aside.  It eventually found a home as the core of Symphony No.4.  The opening three movements serve as preparation for this sublime song—according to Mahler:  “In the first three movements, there reigns the serenity of a higher realm, a realm strange to us, oddly frightening, even terrifying.  In the finale, the child, who in his previous existence belonged to this higher realm, tells us what it all means...”


The opening movement is set in a highly complex sonata form.  The opening bars set a pastoral mood with a chirping combination of flutes and sleighbells—a motto that serves to mark off the sections of this form, and which will reoccur in the finale.  The exposition continues in perfectly Classical form, as two main ideas are introduced.  The first of these is a lilting melody introduced by the strings and picked up by the solo horn and woodwinds.  The second, much more sonorous and flowing, is heard in the cellos.  A wry little episode for oboe, bassoon, and clarinet rounds off the exposition, and the sleigh bells begin a lengthy development section which works out the material laid out previously, and moves gradually towards one of the few forceful moments in the symphony, led by the trumpets—a moment that quickly subsides.  The recapitulation, also signaled subtly by the motto, brings back the main thematic material, but out of order and in transformed fashion.  The clearest statement of the opening theme is reserved for the very end, just before a brief, sparkling coda.


Mahler’s original title for the second movement was Freund Hein spielt auf (“Friend Hein plays”).  “Hein,” a figure from Austrian folk mythology, was a demonic fiddler who led people into Hell with his playing.  Also in the background of this deliberately spooky movement is an 1872 self-portrait by the Romantic painter Arnold Böcklin—a picture that shows the artist listening as the figure of Death fiddles just behind his shoulder.  True to the subject-matter, much of the scherzo is carried by fiddling from a solo violin.  (Mahler directs that the violinist tune all strings a whole-step high, and play “like a country fiddler,” creating an uncommonly shrill effect.)  This brilliantly-orchestrated movement is a series of contrasts between the slightly macabre music of the scherzo and contrasting episodes of lighter character.


In comparing the second and third movements, Mahler wrote in a letter:  “The scherzo is so uncanny, almost sinister, that your hair may stand on end.  Yet in the following Adagio, where all complications are dissolved, you will feel that it really wasn’t all that sinister...”  This quiet and serene movement is a pair of interlocked theme-and-variations forms, one dominated by string sonorities and the other by woodwinds.  The movement explodes briefly with trumpets and horns at the end, but is quickly hushed.   The fourth movement follows after a brief pause.


The culmination of this work, Mahler’s setting of Das himmlische Leben, is simplicity itself—the stanzas of the poem are set in an uncomplicated strophic form—essentially the same music with some variation for each stanza of poetry.  This poem seems to call for a very direct setting, with its innocent images of a heaven populated by friendly saints, where the tables are overflowing with the best food (a Romantic German take on The Big Rock Candy Mountain!), and where heavenly music resounds.  The movement begins with a clarinet solo, which introduces the tune sung by the soprano.  After the opening stanzas, the orchestra enters with a frantic-sounding version of the first movement’s motto.  The next stanzas, dealing with the death of St. John’s “little lamb” (Christ), are set in a minor key and again set off by a statement of the motto.  Major tonality returns again for the stanzas detailing the heavenly feast, which are punctuated by woodwind motives.  After a brief moment the motto returns, but the orchestra continues with a quiet passage, that leads into the final stanzas, now in a luminous E Major—this serene mood remains until the final chord quietly dies away.


program notes ©2016 by J. Michael Allsen