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Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
February 14-15-16, 2020
94th Season / Subscription Concert No.5
Michael Allsen

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Our opener for this concert is Berlioz’s exciting Le Corsaire, a concert overture that displays his consummate mastery of writing for the orchestra. We then welcome violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth, who play the Brahms Double Concerto—the same work that the duo performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 2001. The duo appeared again with the orchestra in 2010, when Ms. Forsyth played Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, Mr. Zukerman played Mozart’s fifth violin concerto, and the two performed together on the rarely-heard The Muse and the Poet by Saint-Saëns. Mr. Zukerman has also appeared as a soloist with the orchestra in 1974 (Sibelius, Violin Concerto), 2001 (Mozart, Violin Concerto No.3), and 2007 (Bach, Violin Concerto No.1—a program he also conducted). We close with Copland’s powerful third symphony, his largest orchestral score.

 

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Overture Le Corsaire, Op. 21

 

Berlioz’s Le Corsaire (“The Pirate”) was first composed in 1831, but not completed until 1844. He subsequently revised the score, and the final version was premiered in Paris in April of 1855. It has been performed twice previously by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, in 1986 and 1999. Duration 9:00.

 

Both the music and the title of this rousing orchestral overture had a complicated evolution. It was first sketched out in 1831, when Berlioz was still flush with the success of winning the prestigious Prix du Rome from the Paris Conservatoire.  He finished the score nearly 14 years later, when he was staying in Nice. It was first performed in Paris on January 19, 1845, with the title La Tour de Nice—a reference to a ruined Roman tower that Berlioz frequented during his stay in the Provençal resort city. Berlioz was unsatisfied with this version, and made extensive revisions to the overture in 1851, changing the title to Le Corsaire Rouge, and then simply to Le Corsaire. According to Romantic tradition, the inspiration for this title came from an incident in 1831, when Berlioz was washed overboard on a sea voyage during a violent storm. He was saved and befriended by a Venetian “corsair” (or at least a tough-looking guy). A more likely source is Romantic literature: Berlioz was an admirer of both Byron’s Le Corsaire, and James Fenimore Cooper’s pirate novel The Red Rover. Cooper, the best-known American writer of the early 19th century, spent much of his life in Paris, and the 1827 novel The Red Rover was also published in French as Le corsaire. By happy coincidence, Cooper’s story also features a ruined tower on the coast that accords nicely with Berlioz’s original concept.

 

Given all of the title changes, we can’t take any programmatic explanation too seriously—though critic Donald Francis Tovey called it “as salt a sea-piece as has ever been written.” The work certainly stands on its own merits as an exciting piece of concert music. It is set in a loose sonata form, beginning with a brief introductory flourish comes back several times in the course of the piece. The expansive string theme that follows is much slower and more songlike. The other main theme is introduced after woodwinds impetuously speed up the tempo. Throughout, Berlioz is able masterfully to make use of the sound resources of an expanded orchestra. He calls for a string section of “at least 59 players” to balance off the winds and brasses!

 

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra in A minor, Op.102 (Double Concerto)

 

Brahms composed this work in the summer of 1887. He conducted the public premiere in Cologne on October 18, 1887, with Joseph Joachim, violin, and Robert Hausmann, cello. The concerto has been performed three times previously at these concerts. The first performance, in 1949, featured Walter Heermann—the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s second conductor—on cello and his brother Emil on violin. A performance in 1970 featured Thomas Moore, violin, and Lowell Creitz, cello. Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth were soloists in our most recent performance, in 2001. Duration 34:00.

 

The Double Concerto—Brahms’s last work for orchestra—was composed to heal a broken friendship. Though Brahms’s personality was an enigma even to his closest associates, it is safe to say that by the 1880s, he had settled comfortably into curmudgeonhood. Though he could certainly be amiable and sociable, he could also be blunt and prickly to friends and colleagues, especially when he perceived that there was some injustice involved. One of his oldest and closest friends was the violinist Joseph Joachim. They had been friends since 1853, and in 1878, Brahms composed his only violin concerto specifically for Joachim. In 1881, Joachim went through a bitter divorce, and hurled nasty accusations of infidelity at his wife. Brahms defended her in their circle of mutual friends, and wrote a haughty letter in her defense, which—to Brahms’s chagrin—was read as evidence in court. Joachim was furious, and broke off their decades-long friendship.

 

In 1887, Robert Hausmann, the cellist in Joachim’s string quartet, approached the composer with a possible means of healing the break: a concerto for violin and cello. Brahms broke the ice with a short, cautious note to Joachim at the end of the summer: “I should like to send you some news of an artistic nature, which I heartily hope might more of less interest you.” Joachim’s reply was a bit warmer: “I hope that you are going to tell me about a new work, as I have read and played all of your latest works with real delight.” The two began to correspond regularly, and within a few weeks, they met on neutral ground—Clara Schumann’s home in Baden-Baden—and did finishing work on the concerto together. Brahms, Joachim, and Hausmann gave a private performance in Baden-Baden, and in October, they gave a public performance in Cologne. Brahms and Joachim were reconciled, and remained on friendly terms until Brahms’s death in 1897.

 

This work was not particularly successful in its day, and remains one of the least often-played of his orchestral works. In the 1880s, most audiences preferred their concertos flashy and outwardly virtuosic. Like his second piano concerto, the Double Concerto is not an openly showy piece, but concentrates on development and a careful interplay between the solo and orchestral parts. It was also a fairly unorthodox piece—no other piece of its time uses the combination of violin and cello. He was certainly aware that it was unusual. In a letter to his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, written as he was completing the score, Brahms wrote that he was “…just now writing down a thing that does not yet figure into [my] catalogue—but neither does it figure into other people’s catalogues. I leave it to you to guess the particular form of the idiocy.” To his publisher, he referred to the Double Concerto as “my latest piece of folly.” All self-deprecation aside, this is a profound work, and one which reflects Brahms’s peculiar musical interests. He was fascinated by 17th and 18th-century music and often adapted earlier forms to fit his own purposes, as in the wonderful chaconne finale of the Symphony No.4. Some writers have connected the Double Concerto with the Baroque concerto grosso, and Brahms probably also had Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante (for violin and viola) and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in mind in composing the work.

 

Brahms’s “piece of folly” begins with a forceful passage in the orchestra (Allegro), and—as in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto—there are lengthy solo passages at the opening. The orchestra briefly gives the first theme at the outset, and the cello begins its cadenza with the last few notes of this theme. The orchestra then hints at the second theme, and the violin spins out its own solo from this. Finally the two soloists join together to bring in the orchestra—an equal partner in this business. The short exposition is given almost entirely to the orchestra, and concentrates on the two themes and a distinctive syncopated transition. By contrast, the development is long, stormy, and—aside from a brief orchestral passage in the middle—carried by the two soloists. The solo parts assist in recapitulating the main ideas, and the movement closes with a long developmental coda.

 

The second movement (Andante) begins with a simple horn call, and the soloists introduce a lush melody, playing in unison. The woodwinds introduce a contrasting, rather folklike idea, but it is the main theme that dominates throughout, parceled out between the cello and violin, and eventually restated by both soloists together.

 

While the opening movement was thickly scored, the orchestra largely stays out of the way in the finale (Vivace non troppo). The cello leads off with a Gypsy-style melody and is answered by the violin. The movement is set as a rondo, though one with a hearty helping of development. Three main contrasting episodes are introduced along the way: a slow-paced melody from the cello, a fierce dotted theme, and a set of rather gentle syncopations. There are many playful moments in this movement, and it concludes with a satisfying coda.

 

Aaron Copland (1900-1970)

Symphony No.3

 

Copland composed the Symphony No.3 between August 1944 and September 1946. The premiere was played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Serge Koussevitsky, on October 18, 1946. The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s previously played the work in 2000. Duration 42:00.

 

By the war years, Copland was a familiar name on the American musical scene, and was widely-recognized as the leading American composer. His great trilogy of American-themed ballet scores—Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944)—were (and remain) enormously popular works, and many of his other works for the 1930s and early 1940s were frequently performed by American orchestras. This period also marks something of a golden age for American symphonies: most of the other prominent American composers of the period put their finest efforts into the form. This period saw the production of excellent symphonies by Howard Hanson, David Diamond, Virgil Thomson, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, and even young Leonard Bernstein. It was rather widely expected that Copland write a symphony. His first two symphonies—the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra of 1924 (a student work) and the Short Symphony of 1933—were fairly small works that were not widely known. In 1944, Copland’s friend Barber wrote to him: “I hope you will knuckle down to a good symphony. We deserve it of you, and your career is all set for it.”

 

In fact, by the time of Barber’s letter Copland had already received a commission from the Koussevitsky Foundation to write a symphony. The Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitsky was one of the most forward-looking American orchestras of the period, programming dozens of new works by European and Soviet composers. Koussevitsky and his wife Natalie were independently wealthy and used much of their wealth to commission new works, eventually founding a foundation that still exists to fund new music. Their generosity helped to support many European émigrés—Hindemith, Milhaud, Stravinsky, and Bartók among them—but they were also patrons to many Americans. The score for Copland’s Symphony No.3 is dedicated “to the memory of my dear friend Natalie Koussevitsky.”

 

Copland clearly set out to do something suitably impressive for such a prestigious commission. It is a large work and refers to traditional symphonic outlines in its layout, but Copland uses a series of innovative musical forms for the individual movements. The Symphony No.3 is not a programmatic work, and does not use audibly “American-sounding” material: folk tunes or Jazz-style gestures. (In a series of remarks about the symphony, Copland complained rather grumpily of being “pigeonholed” as a “composer of symphonic Jazz” or a “purveyor of Americana.”) However, the Symphony No.3 clearly comes from the same musical world as the great “American” ballets of the late 1930s and 1940s: expansive, optimistic, and robust. About a month after the premiere, Virgil Thomson, a former Copland student, published an extended review of the symphony in the New York Times. Thomson seems to have captured the essence of the Symphony No.3 when he wrote: “The nature of the work’s expressivity is as plain as a newspaper editorial. It is pastoral and military, the two these being contrasted through three movements which do not differ much from one another either thematically or emotionally. They are resolved in the fourth by a transformation of the chief military material into a hymn and of the first theme, hitherto pastoral and meditative, into a sort of triumphal affirmation of faith in the pastoral virtues.”

 

The first movement (Molto moderato) is laid out in the form of an arch, moving towards a brassy central section. He alternates between rather quiet music in the strings and woodwinds and a more strident theme from the low brass. The opening string music and the brass theme appear later in the symphony as a unifying device. The second movement (Allegro molto) is a more traditional three-part scherzo, with lively outer sections surrounding a more sedate trio. Copland was very interested in the symphonies of Shostakovich at this time, and the rather manic main theme of this movement seems to be a nod to his Russian contemporary.

 

While brass dominate much of this symphony, the third movement (Andantino quasi allegro) is given over almost entirely to strings, woodwinds, harp, and celesta. Copland called this movement “the freest of all in formal structure”—it is a kind of organic transition from one idea to the next. After a brief introduction this metamorphosis begins with a reference to the trombones’ theme from the first movement, now played as a high whisper from the violins. The finale begins with a reference to one of Copland’s most enduring works, the Fanfare for the Common Man of 1942. This theme is stated in quiet fragments by the woodwinds until emerging full volume in the brass and percussion. The body of the movement is set in a rather loosely-adapted sonata form, contrasting highly animated music with more lyrical material. The whole moves towards a jubilant and massive coda.

[NOTE: The following program note by Copland himself does not appear in the printed MSO notes for this concert, but I have included it here for interested readers. - M.A.]

 

“Inevitably the writing of a symphony brings with it the question of what it is meant to express. I suppose if I forced myself, I could come up with an ideological basis for my symphony. But if I did, I’d be bluffing—or at any rate adding something ex post facto, something that might or might not be true, but which played no role at the moment of creation. Harold Clurman put my meaning well when he wrote recently that music is a ‘reflection of and response to specific worlds of men: it is a play, it is speech, it is unconscious result and conscious statement all at the same time.’ Anything more specific than that in relation to so-called absolute music is suspect. In other words—to use a well-worn phrase—I prefer to let the music ‘speak for itself.’

 

“One aspect of the symphony ought to be pointed out: it contains no folk or popular material. During the late twenties, it was customary to pigeonhole me as a composer of symphonic jazz, with emphasis on the jazz. More recently, I have been catalogued as a folklorist and a purveyor of Americana. Any reference to jazz or folk material in this work was purely unconscious.

 

“For the sake of those who like a purely musical guide through unfamiliar terrain, I add a breakdown by movements of the technical outlines of the work:

 

“I. Molto moderato. The opening movement, which is broad and expressive in character, opens and closes in the key of E Major. (Formally, it bears no relation to the sonata-allegro [form] with which symphonies usually begin.) The themes—three in number—are plainly stated: the first is in the strings; the second in related mood in violas and oboes; the third, of a bolder nature, in the trombones and horns. The general form is that of an arch, in which the central portion is more animated, and the final section an extended coda, presenting a broadened version of the opening material. Both the first and third themes are referred to again later in the symphony.

 

“II. Allegro molto. The form of this movement stays closer to normal symphonic procedure. It is the usual scherzo, with first part, trio, and return. A brass introduction leads to the main theme, which is stated three times in Part I: at first in horns and violas, then in unison strings, and finally in augmentation in the lower brass. The three statements of the theme are separated by the usual episodes. After the climax is reached, the trio follows without pause. Solo woodwinds sing the new trio melody in lyrical and canonical style. The strings take it up and add a new section of their own. The recapitulation of Part I is not literal. The principal theme of the scherzo returns in a somewhat revised form in the piano solo, leading through previous episodic material to a full restatement in the tutti orchestra. This is climaxed by a return to the lyrical trio theme, this time sung in canon and in fortissimo by the entire orchestra.

 

“III. Andantino quasi allegro. The third movement is the freest of all in formal structure. Although it is built up sectionally, the various sections are intended to emerge one from the other is a continuous flow, somewhat in the manner of a closely knit series of variations. The opening section, however, plays no role other than that of introducing the main body of the movement. High up in the unaccompanied violins is heard a rhythmically transformed version of the third (trombone) theme of the first movement of the symphony. It is briefly developed in contrapuntal style, and comes to a full close, once again in the key of E Major. A new and more tonal theme is introduced in the solo flute. This is the melody that supplies the thematic substance for the sectional metamorphoses that follow: at first with quiet singing nostalgia, then faster and heavier—almost dance-like; then more childlike and naïve, and finally more vigorous and forthright. Imperceptibly, the movement drifts off into the higher regions of the strings, out of which floats the single line of the beginning, sung by solo violin and piccolo, accompanied this time by harps and celesta. The third movement calls for no brass, with the exception of a single horn and trumpet.

 

“IV. Molto deliberato (Fanfare)—Allegro risoluto. The final movement follows without pause. It is the longest of the symphony, and closest in structure to the traditional sonata-allegro form. The opening fanfare is based on Fanfare for the Common Man, which I composed in 1942, at the invitation of Eugene Goosens, for a series of wartime fanfares introduced under his direction by the Cincinnati Symphony. In the present version, it is first played pianissimo by flutes and clarinets, and then suddenly given out by brass and percussion. The fanfare serves as preparation for the main body of the movement which follows. The components of the usual form are here: a first theme in animated sixteenth-note motion; a second theme—broader and more song-like in character; a full-blown development and a refashioned return to the earlier material of the movement, leading to a peroration. One curious feature of the movement consists in the fact that the second theme is to be found embedded in the developments section instead of being in its customary place. The development, as such, concerns itself with the fanfare and first theme fragments. A shrill tutti chord, with flutter-tongued brass and piccolos brings the development to a close. What follows is not a recapitulation in an ordinary sense. Instead, a delicate interweaving of the first theme in the higher solo woodwinds is combined with a quiet version of the fanfare in the two bassoons. Combined with this, the opening theme of the first movement of the symphony is quoted, first in the violins, and later in the solo trombone. Near the end, a full-voice chanting of the second song-like theme is heard in horns and trombones. The symphony concludes on a massive restatement of the opening phrase with which the entire work began.”

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program notes ©2019 by J. Michael Allsen