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February 05, 2011

February 5, 2011 Program Notes

GUSTAV MAHLER

Born Kalischt/Kaliste, now Czech Republic, 7 July, 1860; died Vienna, 18 May, 1911.

Symphony No. 4

Composed 1899-1901 (the Finale in 1892) and premiered 25 November, 1901, the composer conducting the Kaim Orchestra of Munich, with soprano Margarete Michalek. The score calls for 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn),  3 clarinets (2nd and 3rd doubling Eb clarinet and bass clarinet respectively), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, sleigh bells, glockenspiel, tam-tam, harp, strings and, in the Finale, soprano voice. The symphony, approximately 55 minutes in length,, was performed by the SSO in combination with the Manitowoc Symphony,  led by Manuel Prestamo with soprano Evelyn La Bruce, in December 1989.

The music critic Andrew Porter once described a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony as “an adventure of enchanted melodies and sounds, a progress from a pastoral landscape, where the grass still bore prints Haydn and Schubert had left, through scenes of shadow and sadness, dispelled by large shouts of joy, to a vision of untroubled happiness.”

That vision of happiness comes most fully in a song, “The Heavenly Life,” sung by a soprano, which forms the astonishingly original but inevitable Finale of the symphony’s four movements. Mahler had written the music for the song, portraying a poor Catholic child’s view of heaven with its famous saints and delicious food, seven years before he began work on the rest of the symphony. The lyrics came from a collection of folk songs published early in the 19th Century, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (From the Youth’s Magic Horn). Mahler set more than a dozen of these poems to music, orchestrating the majority of them and even using some in movements of his Second and Third Symphonies. Indeed, he had planned to use “Das himmlische Leben” as the finale of his Third Symphony (1896), with the title “What the Child Tells Me” (in reference to previous movements in which flowers, animals, humankind, angels, and “love” speak to him and his listeners). He ultimately decided against it, though the Third, a colossal symphony in six movements and about 100 minutes in length, is filled with explicit and more hidden references to the song.

Instead, Mahler wrote a whole new symphony on a more “classical” scale—“only”  four movements and an orchestra without trombones or tuba, like that of symphonic music of Mozart’s day—though he used a harp, more woodwinds and a larger percussion section than anything imagined in 1790. The entire symphony grows out of—or evolves toward—“The Heavenly Life.” For an obvious example, take the sleigh bells that open the symphony and will be heard again (more frantically) to start each new verse in the Finale. More subtly, a new theme is stated by the flutes about halfway through the first movement: a bold confident theme that will be heard much later as part of the overwhelming outburst near the end of the third movement. This time the horns play the theme, prefaced by a triplet figure, and the whole phrase will be transformed into the more gentle statement on the clarinet that opens the Finale.

The first movement is “classical” too in being in sonata form, structured around G Major, though with a great many departures from the classical norm; it is one of the most complex and yet richly tuneful movements that Mahler ever wrote. The second movement is a Scherzo in triple time that is both ghostly and sprightly, with lovely interludes in the slow country-waltz rhythm called a Ländler. An especially unusual feature is a solo violin tuned a whole tone higher than normal, to sound like a village fiddle. A draft of the symphony referred to “Friend Haim” striking up a tune, in reference to a folk nickname for death, leading people off like the Pied Piper.

The slow movement that follows is essentially a set of variations on its serene opening theme with its underpinning of notes for the string basses, like a passacaglia, played pizzicato. But there is also a more anguished theme, one of yearning and despair, that is one of Mahler’s most unforgettable long melodies. After the movement seems to be subsiding into complete calm, the stunning outburst, like clouds parting to reveal a sunny or even heavenly radiance, takes us into the key of E Major, though we return to G Major as the vision fades.

The Finale, with its child’s view of heaven, has its own complexities. After all, the children feast on a lamb led to the slaughter (Herod is the butcher, while 
Saint Peter appropriately supplies the fish), and the music has moments of wild abandon as well as mystic calm. Finally, the key shifts one last time to the “heavenly” E Major, as the child sings of Heaven’s music (supplied by Saint Cecilia): “no music on Earth can compare to ours. . . the angelic voices gladden our senses, so that all awake to joy,” and the symphony fades into silence. Like the symphony overall, the Finale leads us to think of contrasts of Heaven and Earthly Life, serenity and agitation, simplicity and complexity, or what the mystic English poet William Blake called Innocence and Experience.

CARL MARIA VON WEBER

Born Eutin, Germany, 18 November, 1786; died London, England, 5 June 1826.

Concertino for clarinet and orchestra in Eb, Opus 26.

Composed 1811, and premiered 5 April of that year, in Munich, with clarinetist Heinrich Baermann and the composer conducting. The score calls for flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings. Its duration is a bit under 10 minutes.

Weber’s friendship with the virtuoso clarinetist Heinrich Baermann led to his composing several works for him, beginning with the Concertino (“Little” Concerto) and including two full-fledged Concertos and a Quintet for clarinet and string quartet—all of them staples of today’s clarinet repertoire. In comparison to its fellow woodwinds, the clarinet has more distinctly different-sounding lower, middle and upper registers. Weber’s clarinet music, like the masterpieces of Mozart and Brahms, exploits the colors of each register, from most mellow to most brilliant, and yet calls for an absolutely seamless continuity from one register to the next. 

The Concertino, written when the composer was only 24 (in the year of Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio and Rossini’s earliest operas), is structured as a theme-and-variations in one movement, highly Romantic in its mercurial mood changes. After a strikingly somber introduction—declamatory, then richly melancholy as the clarinet enters—the soloist launches the genial main theme, moderately paced in 4/4 time. The first variation is more rapid and virtuosic; the second slows down in tempo but has the clarinet playing in triplets. The third variation is swifter, more dazzling than the first, while the fourth is extremely slow as it displays the clarinet’s lowest or chalumeau register. In the jaunty finale the tempo shifts to 6/8 time, and the clarinet is allowed a lyrical moment in between cascades of notes that display the instrument’s range and the player’s brilliance. At the world premiere in 1811 the King of Bavaria was pleased enough with the Concertino and Baermann’s performance to commission Weber to write two three-movement clarinet concertos later that year.

MANUEL DE FALLA

Born Cadiz, Spain, 23 November, 1876; died Alta Gracia, Argentina, 14 November 1946.

The Three-Cornered Hat Suite No. 2

Composed 1916-19, the complete ballet was premiered in London in 1919, with Ernest Ansermet conducting the Ballets Russes Orchestra. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn,  2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, castanets, tam-tam, xylophone, harp, celesta, piano, and strings. The suite, which lasts approximately 12 minutes, was last performed by the SSO on 9 January 1988, with guest conductor Mario Benzecry of Argentina.

The Three-Cornered Hat (El Sombrero de Tres Picos) began life as a two-act pantomime-ballet with small orchestra called The Corregidor and the Miller’s Wife, based on a popular 1874 novella by Pedro de Alarcon. Serge Diaghilev, the famed impresario of the Ballets Russes, which had already premiered works by Stravinsky and Ravel, saw a performance in Madrid and commissioned Falla to expand it for his ballet company. The new and retitled version was premiered with sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso and choreography by Leonide Massine, who also starred in the role of the Miller. The scenario is about a lecherous Corregidor (a local governor or magistrate) who tries to seduce a Miller’s Wife. She and her husband play tricks on the official, who then has the Miller arrested, but the latter escapes, and thanks to a mix-up in clothing the Corregidor is arrested by his own men and all ends well for the couple.

Of the two suites drawn from the 30-minute ballet, the Second is by far the more popular. The first of its three numbers, The Neighbors’ Dance, is labeled Seguidillas, in reference to a type of Spanish dance. (Opera fans will recall the playfully seductive Seguidilla the gypsy Carmen sings to arresting officer Don Jose in Act I of Bizet’s Carmen.) The music, with its gentle triple rhythm and sinuous opening melody,  evokes a starry, perfumed Andalusian night as the neighbors celebrate St. John’s Eve in front of the Miller’s house.

The second excerpt, The Miller’s Dance, portrays the Miller pretending to be both bull and bullfighter. Massine, the original Miller, wrote in his autobiography that “I began by stamping my feet repeatedly and twirling my hands over my head. As the music quickened I did a series of high jumps, ending with the turn in mid-air and a savage stamp of the foot as I landed. The mental image of an enraged bull going into the attack unleashed some inner force which generated power within me.” The dance opens with an dramatic cadenza-fanfare for horn followed by a more smoldering cadenza for English horn, then moves into a farruca, a Flamenco dance in fiercely emphatic 4/4 time.

The Final Dance, the longest of the three numbers, uses yet another traditional Spanish dance form, the jota, which tends to move back and forth between 3/4 and 6/8 time. We hear the extravagantly joyful celebrations of the Miller, his Wife, and the villagers, who toss the Corregidor in a blanket.  Listening to Falla’s  brilliant music, with its dazzling orchestrations, tricky syncopations and intensely Spanish flavors, one might be reminded that the composer had already met and learned from Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, among other French composers who evoked Iberian moods in some of their own most memorable music.

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