A Symphony of Colors

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Overture to Fidelio

Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, underwent numerous major revisions by the composer before he arrived at the final version we know today. The overture to the opera underwent even greater transformations. There are four different overtures, all of them popular in the concert hall. The first three are called Leonore (Nos.1, 2 and 3), after the original title of the opera, and the fourth is known as Fidelio, Beethoven's final title.

The complex plot is a paean to marital fidelity and political justice. Leonore disguises herself as a young man, Fidelio, in order to free her husband Florestan who has been incarcerated unjustly as a political prisoner.

Beethoven's difficulties with the earlier versions (the three Leonore overtures) stemmed from the fact that they were too dramatic and explicit, and thus giving away the most dramatic and exciting moments of the opera.

The final version, the Fidelio overture, is neither very dramatic nor very closely related to the opera itself. In that sense it could be called a generic overture, similar to many of Rossini's. However, being by Beethoven, it is nevertheless a well-crafted and enjoyable – if somewhat lightweight – composition.

By the nineteenth century, opera overtures were generally constructed in sonata allegro form, similar to the opening movement of a symphony. In a rather surprising digression from tradition, Beethoven constructed the Fidelio Overture on two very brief motivic ideas, stated up front in the orchestral opening and the slow horn call. Example 1 Because they are so different rhythmically, they are all that is needed to give contrast and dynamic energy to the short work, which he continually transforms throughout. After he introduces the two motives, a long, slow passage reflects the dramatic intensity of the opera, followed by a sprightly allegro theme based on the first orchestra motive. Example 2 Beethoven continually transforms these two kernels, concluding the Overture by stating them in reverse order, thereby reflecting the happy outcome. Example 3

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14

The lyricism of Samuel Barber and other Neo-Romantics – including William Schuman, Howard Hanson and Leonard Bernstein – were sidelined after World War II by the academic dominance of atonality and serialism in American classical music. Although Barber and his “retro” colleagues eschewed the avant-garde in favor of old-fashioned tonality and lush melodic lines, they introduced into their music harmonies and intervals that would have shocked the audiences of the late nineteenth century.

Barber showed early on a prodigious talent for composing – at ten he composed his first opera. He was encouraged, but not pushed, by his family, especially his aunt and uncle, contralto Louise Homer and composer Sidney Homer. The two served as his mentors for more than 25 years and profoundly influenced his aesthetic development. At age 14 he enrolled in the newly founded Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied voice, piano and composition, graduating in 1934. Two of his early compositions, a Violin Sonata in 1928 and his first published large-scale work, The School for Scandal Overture (1931), won him prizes and, more importantly, public performances that brought him to the attention of the leading conductors of the day.

During the height of the Depression in 1935, Barber won the prestigious American Prix de Rome, which gave him the opportunity of two years of study and work at the American Academy in Rome, where he rubbed shoulders with other young artists and an enlightened and progressive faculty. One of the first products of this sojourn was the Symphony No.1, completed in 1936.

In early 1939, Samuel Fels, a wealthy Philadelphia soap manufacturer, commissioned Samuel Barber to write a violin concerto for his protégé, the young violinist Isaak (changed to Iso) Briselli. Barber’s commission was a hefty $1000 and he received half of it in advance.

This was Barber’s first major commission, and he immediately set out to fulfill it. But commissions, while usually sought after by composers, clearly carry their own conditions and risks. Things did not go according to plan, and what actually happened became a Cause célèbre. Since all the protagonists have died, it remained for a paper trail to ascertain whose version was the true one. In the process, a lot of egos got nicked.

According to Barber’s biographer Nathan Broder, by the end of the summer of 1939 the composer sent Briselli the first two movements, written in a conservative lyrical and romantic style. Briselli, however, considered them “too simple and not brilliant enough” and refused to accept them. Barber supposedly took his revenge by making the third movement fiendishly difficult. When he resubmitted it, Briselli declared it unplayable, and Fels wanted his advance commission back. At that point in the story, Barber summoned Herbert Baumel, a young violin student from the Curtis Institute of Music and an excellent sight-reader, and gave him the manuscript and two hours to prepare. Accompanied by a piano, the student supposedly demonstrated that the movement was indeed playable. The unanimous verdict was that Fels had to pay the rest of the commission. Barber, however, forfeited the second half and, in exchange, Briselli relinquished his right to the first public performance and never performed the concert in public.

Briselli, some 40 years later, told a different story, and a paper trail collected by his friends and supporters has essentially corroborated his account. According to Briselli, he was enthusiastic about the first two movements but his violin coach, Albert Mieff, was not and even wanted to rewrite the violin part so that it would be more in keeping with the technical expectations for a concerto, citing Brahms collaboration with Joachim as a precedent. Moreover, Briselli found the third movement too lightweight – rather than too difficult – and suggested that Barber expand it. The composer refused and he and Briselli mutually decided to abandon the project with no hard feelings on either side. For a while there was even talk of Briselli suing Barber for defamation of character over the composer's version of the controversy. (A full account of Briselli's side can be found on his website www.Iso Briselli.com.)

The Concerto was finally premiered by Albert Spalding and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1941 and was a popular success from the start. The first movement, Allegro, opens with an expansive, lyrical theme on the violin. Example 1 The second theme functions also as a brief refrain throughout the movement. Example 2 The whole ambiance of the movement suggests that of a quiet discussion, with only occasionally raised voices in the middle, and ending in a tranquil whisper after a short cadenza for the soloist.

The aria-like second movement begins in melancholy, gradually building emotional tension, punctuated by almost threatening outbursts from the orchestra. It opens with an extended cantabile oboe solo over muted strings. Example 3 The violin's entry is considerably delayed, more than three minutes into the movement; but shortly after its entrance there is a sudden intensifying of the drama. Example 4 After a brief cadenza, the volume diminishes, but there remains a stubborn undercurrent of melancholy as the violin repeats a variation on the opening oboe melody. The movement concludes with orchestra and soloist sharing the climactic reiteration of the theme and a coda whose sadness is so intense as to become menacing. Example 5

The rondo third movement, Presto in moto perpetuo, presents a stunning contrast. It is terse and fiery, placing tremendous demands on the soloist, who has to play at a breathless tempo for 110 measures without a break. Example 6 Throughout the perpetual motion, Barber subtly changes the meter and every so often inserts a jazzy syncopated refrain. Example 7

An irony of history repeating itself: Russian violinist Meiff, Briselli's long time teacher and coach, who declared the first two movements of Barber's Concerto unviolinistic and not showy enough, was a student of Russia's foremost violinist Leopold Auer, whose greatest claim to fame was declaring that Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto was "unplayable."

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde, Prelude and Liebestod

Few musical works had such a profound effect on the development of Western music in the late-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries as did Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Completed in 1859, it had to wait six years to find a sponsor for the production of this nearly five-hour extravaganza. It was not the length of the opera, however, that was groundbreaking, but rather the composer’s stretching the limits of the tonal language that had characterized Western music since the mid seventeenth century. The opening measures of the Prelude introduce a chord progression that was literally meant to be a musical representation of unfulfilled sexual tension and does not resolve until the final cadence, four hours later, when Tristan and Isolde are finally united in death.

With 20/20 hindsight, we know that by the late nineteenth century, composers were approaching the limits of traditional tonal harmony and were well on their way to discarding it altogether. But Wagner’s audience and colleagues lacked that perspective.

The legend that served as the basis for Wagner’s libretto dates from the medieval romance of Tristan and Iseult, but Wagner changed it significantly in his libretto. While in the original story the ingesting of a love potion brings about the forbidden and fatal attraction between Tristan and Iseult, in Wagner’s version the two are already smitten with each other before the action begins and the love potion might just as well have been water. Only their belief that it is a death potion allows them to indulge in their passion. The unresolved chord sets up the grand symbolic message of the opera that it is not in the satisfaction of carnal passion that provides release but only a “marriage” in death.

The Prelude plus Liebestod (love-death) is actually an instrumental mini-version of the opera, opening with the unresolved harmony, Example 1 which is resolved four hours later at the end of Isolde’s musical monologue as she sinks lifeless over the body of her lover. Example 2

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Suite from The Firebird

“He is a man on the eve of fame,” said Sergey Diaghilev, impresario of the famed Ballets Russes in Paris, during the rehearsals for Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird.

In 1909 Stravinsky, viewed as a budding composer just coming out from under the tutelage of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, got what can be called his big break, thanks to the laziness of the composer Anatoly Lyadov. Early in the year Diaghilev had written Lyadov: “I am sending you a proposal. I need a ballet and a Russian one, since there is no such thing. There is Russian opera, Russian dance, Russian rhythm – but no Russian ballet. And that is precisely what I need to perform in May of the coming year in the Paris Grand Opera and in the huge Royal Drury Lane Theater in London…The libretto is ready…It was dreamed up by us all collectively. It is The Firebird – a ballet in one act and perhaps two scenes.” When Diaghilev heard that after three months Lyadov had only progressed so far as to buy the lined paper, he withdrew the commission and offered it to Aleksander Glazunov and Nikolay Tcherepnin, who both turned him down. In desperation he turned to the unknown Stravinsky.

Stravinsky finished the score in May 1910, in time for the premiere on June 25. It was an instant success and has remained Stravinsky's most frequently performed work. Its romantic tone, lush orchestral colors, imaginative use of instruments and exciting rhythms outdid even Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, the Russian master of orchestration. It required an immense orchestra and the first suite Stravinsky extracted from the ballet in 1911 strained symphony orchestras’ resources. In order to make it more accessible, he assembled in 1919 a suite for the concert hall, modifying the orchestration to conform to the resources of a modest orchestra. He re-orchestrated the suite in 1945, adding some of the music omitted from the original ballet while retaining the reduced orchestration.

The ballet, taking its plot from bits of numerous Russian folk tales, tells the story of the heroic prince, the Tsarevich Ivan who, while wandering in an enchanted forest, Example 1 encounters the magic firebird as it picks golden fruit from a silver tree. Example 2 He traps the bird but, as a token of goodwill, frees it. As a reward, the bird gives Ivan a flaming magic feather. At dawn Ivan finds himself in a park near the castle of the evil magician Kashchey. Thirteen beautiful maidens, captives of Kashchey, come out of the castle to play in the garden Example 3 but one of them in particular, the beautiful Tsarevna, captures Ivan’s heart. Example 4 As the sun rises, the maidens have to return to their prison and the Tsarevna warns Ivan not to come near the castle lest he fall under the magician’s spell as well. In spite of the warning, Ivan follows and opens the gate of the castle. With a huge crash Kashchey and his retinue of monsters erupts from the castle in a wild dance, whose drive and clashing harmonies foreshadow The Rite of Spring. Example 5 With the help of the magic feather Ivan calls the Firebird who overcomes Kashchey and tames the monsters by lulling them to sleep. Example 6 In the end the captives are freed from the spell and Tsarevich Ivan and the Tsarevna are married in a grand ceremony culminating in an apotheosis of the Firebird. Example 7

Program notes copyright by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn