Tonight’s program takes us to four very different places in musical history. Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony, written at the end of the Age of Enlightenment, is full of wit and elegance, gracefully balanced in structure. Weber’s Freischütz Overture, written only 30 years later, plunges us into the heart of the Romantic Age, with scenes of gothic terror and impulsive love. Another 80 years takes us to the Impressionism of Debussy’s moody sketches of the open sea (La Mer). And one more century later, at the turn of the 21st, Theofanidis’ Rainbow Body mixes contemporary sounds with echoes of a medieval monastery.
CARL MARIA VON WEBER
Born Eutin, Germany, 18 November, 1786; died London, England, 5 June 1826.Der Freischütz Overture
Weber’s opera Der Freischütz was premiered 18 June 1821 at the Berlin Schauspielhaus, the composer conducting. The Overture calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings. Its duration is about 10 minutes.
Der Freischütz, sensationally popular following its premiere, is based on a German legend of a young hunter who wants to win a shooting contest—both to become the local prince’s Head Forester and to marry the retiring Forester’s beautiful daughter. Doubtful of his own skills, he is persuaded by a treacherous friend, in league with the devil, to use magic bullets forged in the spooky Wolf’s Glen. Weber gave this fairy-tale plot a High Romantic treatment, with scenes of gothic horror, yearning love, a rousing Hunters’ Chorus, and a happy ending.
The Overture weaves themes from the opera into a dramatic structure that is musically satisfying in its own terms. The brooding opening bars lead to a quartet of horns playing a glowingly nostalgic chorale, conjuring up the opera’s world of hunters in an ancient forest. But the music turns ominous, then stormy, foreshadowing the Wolf’s Glen scene later in the opera. A soaring clarinet solo leads to music of joyful anticipation, taken from the aria of the heroine, Agathe, as she eagerly awaits her beloved Max. The stormy music returns, but just as all seems sunk in gloom a sudden ecstatic outburst takes us back to Agathe’s joyful theme to close the overture.
FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN
Born Rohrau, Austria, 31 March 1732; died Vienna, 31 May, 1809.
Symphony No. 94 in G (“Surprise”)
Composed in 1791 and premiered 23 March 1792 at the Hanover Square Rooms, London, the composer conducting. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets, plus timpani and strings. Duration about 23 minutes.
The SSO first performed the “Surprise” Symphony on 7 February 1920, John Schmidt conducting, at Mead Hall (on Ontario Avenue near 8th Street); it was the first symphony the orchestra played in concert. The most recent performance of the complete work was 10 March 1990, with guest conductor David Becker; the Andante alone was led by Guy Victor Bordo on 4 February 2001.
In 1791 Haydn, who had become one of Europe’s most celebrated composers, accepted an invitation to London for an extended visit. During his stay he composed six new symphonies (now numbered Nos. 93 through 98), which he presented in a series of concerts along with much more of his music. The visit was hugely successful, resulting in a return in 1794-95 with six more symphonies.
None was more rapturously greeted than the one in G major that soon became nicknamed “The Surprise,” in reference to a certain moment in the second movement. (Spoiler alert: the German nickname for the symphony is the Paukenschlag, i.e., the Kettledrum-Stroke.) The symphony overall “was simple, profound, and sublime,” declared one British critic; “applause was fervid and abundant,” noted another. The second movement was “particularly admired,” but as critics have often remarked, the entire symphony is filled with delightful surprises.
Like all but No. 95 of the twelve “London” symphonies, No. 94 begins with a slow introduction: a graceful, noble Adagio. It leads—surprisingly—into a very lively (Vivace assai) main section in 6/8 time, very dancelike and playful, though with a forceful vigor that anticipates Beethoven.
The second movement, marked Andante, is a set of variations on what seems to be a very simple theme, one that starts out with the same rhythmic pattern (but different melody) as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.” The variations express very different moods: stern, in a minor key; delicate, featuring a solo oboe; grandiose, with trumpets and kettledrums.
The third movement is labeled Menuetto but it’s nothing like a traditional Minuet. Instead of a slow, stately, aristocratic dance in 3/4 time we hear a very fast waltz with a galumphing peasant rhythm. The middle Trio section is rather more gentle, with a bassoon doubling the first violin part.
The Finale is likewise marked ‘very fast’: it’s a swirling, energetic romp, with striking syncopations, playful contrasts (loud vs. soft, strings vs. woodwinds), and vigorous support from timpani and brass.
Born Dallas, Texas, 18 December 1967.
Commissioned and premiered by the Houston Symphony, Robert Spano conducting, 8 April 2000. The score calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (2nd doubling Eb clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, conga drums, cymbals, suspended cymbals, Chinese cymbal, gong, claves, chimes, glockenspiel, triangle, vibraphone, harp, piano and strings. Duration about 13 minutes. The SSO performed Rainbow Body at its 4 October 2003 concert, Guy Victor Bordo conducting, with the composer in attendance.
Rainbow Body has been performed by over 150 orchestras (including the SSO when the work was only three years old). Its Texas-born composer, Christopher Theofanidis, has written operas, choral works, concertos, a symphony, ballets and chamber music for leading American musical organizations, including the Aspen Music Festival and the Atlanta and Pittsburgh Symphonies. He is also Professor of Music at Yale University.
The title refers to a concept in Tibetan Buddhism, where the dying body of an enlightened being dissolves into light and energy. But the music itself is directly inspired by a hymn by a Christian mystic, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), the abbess of a German monastery who was also a scholar and composer: her music was rediscovered in the late 20th Century and is treasured today. Her “Ave Maria, O auctrix vite (“Hail Mary, source of life”), specifically the melody of its refrain, “Quem inspiravit Spiritus Dei” (“On whom breathed the Spirit of God”) is heard in full three times in Rainbow Body.
Fragments of the hymn first appear in the bass clarinet and cello solos that seem to rise from the depths of the orchestra in the first bars. Soon the strings play the full melody—ethereally in their upper registers. After some interludes, including a brilliant, rapid passage for upper woodwinds and piano, the hymn is heard again, warmly in the lower strings. Mysterious, almost frightening outbursts in the brass and some military rhythms take us in yet other directions, but the piece ends with a radiant return of the hymn, proclaimed by the full orchestra.
Born 22 August 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France; died Paris, 25 March 1918.
La Mer (The Sea)
Composed 1903-05, and premiered 15 October 1905 with the Orchestre Lamoureux, Paris, led by Camille Chevillard. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3
trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tamtam, glockenspiel, 2 harps and strings. Duration 25 minutes.
Countless composers before Debussy had attempted to portray bodies of water in music—mostly flowing brooks, jetting fountains and placid lakes. True, Mendelssohn portrayed the rough offshore currents of Scotland in his Hebrides Overture, and Wagner evoked a stormy sea to symbolize the mental torments of his Flying Dutchman. There was even a Belgian composer, Paul Gilson, who in 1892 wrote four “symphonic sketches” he called La Mer, though in a far more conservative style than Debussy’s. (One movement was titled “Sailors’ Songs and Dances.”) But for music that conveys the sense of being out in open water from sunrise to midday, with the endless bobbing of waves and finally a terrific squall, no human element in evidence: nothing previous to Debussy’s La Mer is truly comparable.
Since Debussy too subtitled his three movements “symphonic sketches,” the modern listener is very likely to think of Impressionist art when hearing La Mer –or perhaps the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, greatly admired by Debussy. Impressionist artists like Claude Monet sought to capture ever-fleeting moments in time in ever-changing light, rather than to give an unrealistic monumental solidity to ephemeral things. Debussy had no intention to “tell a story” in music, but as he himself wrote: “The sound of the sea, the outline of a horizon, the wind in the leaves, the cry of a bird—these set off complex impressions in us. And suddenly, without the consent of anyone on this earth, one of these memories bursts forth, expressing itself in the language of music.”
1. De l’aube à midi sur la mer. (From dawn to noon on the sea). The opening passages suggest a gray dawn, but a constant restlessness will drive the movement forward to a blaze of noonday light. Debussy’s musical themes are fragmentary but vivid and memorable as they pass themselves from instrument to instrument, constantly evolving into new motifs and taking on new “colors.”
2. Jeu de vagues. (Play of the waves) This is the freest in form of all the movements, though with a pulse always in 3/4 time however much it speeds up and slows down. If La Mer were a three-movement symphony this would be the scherzo.
3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer. (Dialogue of the wind and the sea) The opening is menacing, as if to suggest a storm threatening. As the movement progresses one deeply haunting theme stands out: it is first stated by the oboe with other reeds, then very tenderly by flute and oboe, and finally with grand passion by the full orchestra. The final surge of the score toward its climax and conclusion is one of the most exciting in any piece of music.
In La Mer practically every instrument of the orchestra has one or several standout moments—including the cymbals and other percussion. One may remember especially the flute arabesques, the melancholy English horn solos, the sweeping melody for the cellos in the first movement, the soaring trumpet in the last, the harps everywhere—but La Mer is so rich in detail there is always more to discover, another unexpected nuance to enjoy. One fan of La Mer, the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, went so far as to list this 25-minute orchestral poem alongside Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung as one of his very favorite pieces of music.