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October 10, 2009

October 10, 2009 Program Notes

CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS

Born Paris, 9 October 1935. Died Algiers, 16 December 1921.

PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2 IN G MINOR

Composed in April, 1868, at the behest of Anton Rubenstein, and first performed on May 6 of the same year, with Saint-Saëns at the piano and Rubenstein at the podium. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, cymbals, and strings. The work lasts approximately 24 minutes.

The Renaissance painter, Raphael, painted an artwork called The School of Athens, depicting the great Classical Greek thinkers and artists. At the center of the canvas two philosophers stroll in conversation toward the viewer. One of them, Plato, points upward. He is the transcendentalist, the philosopher who seeks meaning beyond our earthly existence, and finds beauty beyond the limitations and forms imposed by social conventions. The other, Aristotle, points toward the ground. He is the classical thinker, the one who seeks meaning down here in the natural world, and finds beauty within our "natural" formal limitations.

Plato and Aristotle could be chatting about Camille Saint-Saëns, and his Piano Concerto No. 2, but for the small matter that the French composer was twenty-odd centuries younger than they. In the course of those two millennia the ideas of Aristotle and Plato Had become prototypes of the two greatest cultural movements in Western civilization, Classicism and Romanticisim. By the time Saint-Saëns came into the world, their amiable conversation had turned into something more resembling a bar-room brawl between the proponents of classical and romantic styles. This was especially true in the world of music. Due in part to Richard Wagner's spectacular innovations in the field of romantic opera, and perhaps especially due to his even more spectacular arrogance, the music world had divided into two warring camps, the defenders of the Viennese classical faith of Mozart and Haydn versus the romantic firebrands.

Camille Saint-Saëns stayed clear of the fray. He saw the two aesthetic impulses much as Raphael did, as an amiable partnership. He was a true Renaissance man in his life and work. He was not only a musician, "pointing upward" to the ethereal beauty of sound, but also, like Aristotle himself, he was a scientist, "pointing down" to study the empirical world. (Even within his scientific work he divided his attention between earth and sky, since he remained active in both geology and astronomy all his life.) In his music career as well, Saint-Saënswas both a classicist and a romanticist. He remained dedicated to performing and studying Mozart throughout his life, and much of his composing derives from the classical emphasis on formal balance and elegance that he learned from the Viennese master. But he was also a child of the new age. As a young man he memorized a huge portion of Wagner's most romantic opera, Tristan und Isolde, and played it at the keyboard for the impressed composer. (Impressing Wager was no mean feat.) He befriended Wagner's friend and supporter, Franz Liszt, who claimed to have expanded the form and harmony of his own piano music to "transcendental" heights. Liszt's work influenced Saint-Saëns' compositional style as well.

We clearly see the influence of classical and romantic elements int he concerto, especially in the relationship of the individual solo instrument and the general orchestra. In a typical Mozart concerto, the orchestra may present the first thematic material as a complete and unified section, and then the solo instrument takes up the theme, repeating the same material and eventually exploring its musical possibilities. Thus the individual is in balance with the whole out of which it grows, much like an individual person is a product of his or her society, and lives ideally in a classical balance of individual prerogatives and the needs of society at large.

In the very first measures of his Second Piano Concerto, Saint-Saëns sets that classical balance on end. The concerto does not have the orchestra provide the theme for the soloist. Rather the solo piano begins alone. Moreover, the musical material is not the theme common to the solo and the ensemble, the indiviudal and the group; rather the concerto begins with a cadenza, which showcases the soloist. Moreover it is not a clearly defined thematic entity at all, but rather a sort of freely morphing toccata, starting in a Bach-like baroque style, and gradually progressing into a virtuosic display reminiscent of Liszt's romantic fantasies. Virtuoso solo work in a concerto is a clearly romantic phenomenon; it allows the individual voice of the solo to transcend the general sound of the orchestra. On the other hand, Saint-Saëns' orchestra here is a classically constructed ensemble, a delicate balance of pairs of winds and strings, unlike the elaborate orchestras of most or his romantic contemporaries.

The progression of the movements once again upends the classical sense of balance. A classical concerto of three movements would typically be fast, slow, fast, leaving us with a sense that the more lyrical, more personal inner movement was formally contained by a frame of lighter, more formally defined movements. Saint-Saëns disrupts that balance by starting with a slow movement, and getting progressively faster. The final movement presents a tempestuous tarantella, a very fast Italian dance that both pushes the concerto to a feverish climax, and allows the piano to finish the composition with a virtuoso flourish.

CÉSAR FRANCK

Born Liége, Belgium, 10 December 1822. Died Paris, 8 November 1890.

SYMPHONY IN D MINOR

Composed in 1886-88 and first performed at the Paris Conservatoire on February 17, 1889. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, bass clarinet, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets-s-piston, 3 trombones, tuba, 3 timpani, harp and strings. The work lasts approximately 37 minutes.

César Franck begins his Symphony in D Minor with a single germinal motif out of which the entire composition seems to grow. The three-note motif, with its mysterious, unresolved character, is the same melodic phrase which had intrigued composers before him. Beethoven used it in one of his late string quartets (Op. 135), and wrote into the score above it the question, "Must it be?" Wagner incorporated it in his Ring cycle as the questioning theme of fate, and Liszt made it the central theme of his tone poem, Les Préludes. Each of these composers, in his own way, was fascinated by the unresolved, enigmatic character of the motif.

Franck's first movement alternates between a slow, brooding treatment of this motif and a faster, more agitated development of it. The mood of the movement combines an almost religious sense of mystery with fervor and even joyous good humor.

The second movement unconventionally combines into one movement the second and third movements of a conventional symphony. Franck's second movement is both a slow songful movement, opening with harp and pizzicato strings joined by a melancholy English horn, and it is a playful scherzo, as we soon hear in the middle section string melody.

The third movement, the finale, recalls the English horn melody from the second movement and both the passionate and the questioning treatment of the motif from the first movement, and the symphony climaxes with a sense of joyous triumph. 

ALEXANDER GLAZUNOV

Born St. Petersburg, 10 August 1865, Died Paris, 21 March 1936.

THE SEASONS, OP. 67, NO. 3 AUTUMN

Composed in 1899, and first performed on February 7, 1900 in St. Petersburg. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, harp, timpani, percussion, and strings. The work lasts approximately 10 minutes.

Alexander Glazunov grew up and built his music career through the turbulence of Russian unrest and revolution. As a young composition student who wrote his first symphony at the age of sixteen, he impressed his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, who said that he seemed to improve by the hour. Later, as the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he impressed his students by his mastery authorities - for example, he refused to report the number of Jewish students enrolled - and his astounding musical memory. When a student played a composition for him to apply to the conservatory, after having been turned down years earlier, Glazunov listened patiently until he finished, went to the piano, and commented that the secondary theme of the composition he had auditioned with last time had been quite good. He then played the student's previous music from memory. The incident soon entered the annals of conservatory lore. Glazunov could also frustrate his more progressive students, most notably Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev, with his musical conservatism. He resisted the innovations that were to transform the music of the new century, but even when he brusquely disagreed with them, he continued to tirelessly support and promote his students.

Glazunov's ballet, The Seasons, is written as a set of four tableaux, each of which represents a season of the year. The scenario for the Autumn section of the ballet begins with a bacchanal, a rousing music depicting a drunken revel to celebrate the grape harvest. The music calms as the seasons, Winter and Spring, appear on stage, followed by the Bird, and the Zephyr. The dance resumes, increases in intensity, and ends in a shower of autumn leaves. Darkness descends, and the stars emerge, showing us the timeless beauty of the universe that hangs motionless above us, and beyond the constantly changing seasons.

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