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The Romantics: Elgar / Wagner / Franck

DPO Alive, Notes by Neal Gittleman

Romantic Roots

I owe my appreciation and understanding of 19th century romantic music to Professor Robert Bailey. A world-renowned expert on the music of Wagner, Bailey now serves as the Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Music at New York University. In 1975, when I was in my senior year at Yale, Bailey taught Music 43, the course on 19th century music.

Prior to that semester I could really take or leave romantic music. My personal tastes ran more to the medieval, baroque, and contemporary: Machaut, Josquin, Monteverdi, Bach, Bartók, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Copland, Bernstein. Not much in-between (except for Beethoven, of course). The only romantic composer whose music really resonated with me was Mahler.

Bailey’s course was a revelation. He took us through the high points of the romantic era: Schubert and Schumann’s song-cycles, Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, the piano music of Liszt and Chopin, a bit of Bellini, lots of Wagner, plus a quick survey of Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, and Strauss. But most important, he illuminated for me the fundamental principles of romanticism in music: the romantics’ veneration of a triumverate of nature, love, and art; the concept of the romantic hero; the focus on emotion and drama over form. Anyone who has read my program book articles about romantic music has simply received watered-down versions of the romantic gospel according to Robert Bailey.

"The Romantics" was the title of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2009-2010 season, the season from which these live recordings come. No symphony orchestra needs an excuse to play works of the romantic era. But an intense season-long focus on romantic masterworks (both famous and not-so-famous) gave me a chance to go back to my class notes from three decades earlier and made me nostalgic for Dr. Bailey’s erudition, humor, and passion. This all-romantic CD doesn’t have a formal dedication. But if it did, I’d dedicate it to Robert Bailey, with thanks for opening my ears to the wonders of romantic music and giving me the tools to understand it in my head and feel it in my heart.

Sir Edward Elgar, In the South, op. 50

According to my careful and copious class notes, Prof. Bailey never once uttered the name Elgar—an oversight that’s easily forgiven. The "main-line" of 19th century romanticism runs from Beethoven through Weber and Berlioz, Schubert and Schumann, to Brahms and Liszt and Wagner and Mahler and Strauss. Elgar is, at best, a minor addendum. ("Oh, yes, and there’s Elgar writing romantic music in England, too.") By the time Elgar made his big splash with the Enigma Variations in 1899, Debussy had already opened the door to the 20th century and it was all too easy to ignore Sir Edward’s contribution.

Few U.S. orchestras play Elgar regularly, and when they do, it’s usually the Enigma Variations or perhaps the Cello Concerto. Loving the Enigma Variations as I do, I decided to get to know other Elgar works, which led me to the 1904 tone-poem In the South. I remember my first reaction to hearing the piece: "Wow!" And the second: "Where have you been all these years?"

Inspired by a vacation trip to Alassio, a beautiful town on the Italian coast halfway between Genoa and Nice, In the South is one of Elgar’s most brilliant orchestral scores. It has a distinctly Straussian feel to it, with a vigorous opening theme reminiscent of Ein Heldenleben. It also has some of the most tender and beautiful love music you’ll ever hear—Tristan and Isolde minus the angst. And it’s a perfect illustration of Elgar’s mastery of orchestration, full of delicate chamber music sonorities within the context of a massive late romantic orchestra. Why isn’t it played more? Beats me!

Richard Wagner, Overture to Part I of Goethe’s Faust (1840)

You can be sure that Prof. Bailey mentioned Wagner’s name many times in class. And he spent most of one lecture taking us through the fascinating tale of Wagner’s Faust Overture. Here’s the short version: Wagner wrote the piece you’ll hear on this CD in Paris in 1840, after hearing a rehearsal of the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Paris Conservatory. Fifteen years later, after finishing the operas Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin, Wagner let Franz Liszt goad him into revisiting and revising the overture.

Wagner’s Faust Overture is rarely heard, and when it is, it’s always the revised version of 1855. This is the first-ever recording of the original version, done from a score and parts that I prepared in the early 1980s as my Masters thesis project at the Manhattan School of Music.

Though a minor work by a major composer, the 1840 version of the Faust Overture is a linchpin in Wagner’s career. You’ll hear a lot of Beethoven in it, but also hints of important things to come—a little Rienzi, some Flying Dutchman, and a surprising appearance by a motive later to appear in Tristan and Isolde. It’s Wagner’s first mature work and marks the beginning of his long journey to The Ring, to Tristan, and to Parsifal.

César Franck, Symphony in D minor

Franck’s name never came up in Music 43, either. But at one time the Franck Symphony was one of the most popular, most frequently heard orchestral works. The Dayton Philharmonic’s repertoire history is Exhibit A: regular, like-clockwork performances in 1943, 1945, 1949, 1953, 1958, 1963, and 1967. Then the symphony went "out of fashion" and performances became less frequent. When I led the orchestra in the November 2009 performances that appear on this CD it was the first time we’d taken the symphony off the shelf in 17 years!

The Franck Symphony wasn’t popular at first. It was poorly received at its 1889 premiere. Audiences weren’t quite sure what to make of it. Three movements instead of the usual four. A strange mix of themes evoking both Beethoven and Wagner. An unusual approach to instrumentation that treats the orchestra like a massive pipe organ (which was, after all, Franck’s main instrument) and gives prominent roles to the English Horn, Bass Clarinet, and Harp. Nicholas Slominsky’s delightful compendium of bad reviews, Lexicon of Musical Invective, quotes a particularly nasty 1893 critique in Le Ménestrel of Paris: "The Symphony in D minor by César Franck drags slowly, painfully... This music is morose and pompously generates tedium." But somehow, despite all that, in the mid-20th century, perhaps as a reaction to mid-20th century modernism, audiences clamored for the Franck Symphony.

Now, with Franck again of fashion, seems the perfect time to bring his bold and vivid symphony back into the repertoire. This is a great, old-fashioned symphony, with big soaring melodies, high drama, and brilliant use of a broad, colorful orchestral palette. Le roi est mort. Vive le roi!

Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra
Neal Gittleman, Music Director & Conductor
Richard C. McCauley, Chairman

Sir Edward Elgar
TRACK 1 - 22:44 - In the South, op. 50

Richard Wagner
TRACK 2 - 11:57 - Overture to Part I of Goethe’s Faust (1840) WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING

César Franck
TRACK 3 - 18:45 - I. Lento; Allegro ma non troppo
TRACK 4 - 10:49 - II. Allegretto
TRACK 5 - 10:35 - III. Allegro non troppo

Paul A. Helfrich, President
Neal Gittleman, Music Director
Patrick Reynolds, Assistant Conductor
Hank Dahlman, Chorus Director
Elizabeth Hofeldt, Junior String Orchestra Director

With thanks to the American Federation of Musicians Local 101-473 for their assistance
Marketing Director and CD Creative Direction: David S. Bukvic
Recorded and Mastered: Lloyd Bryant
The DPO wishes to thank Classical 88.1 WDPR for their continuing support of the Orchestra and broadcasting of its concerts
© ? 2010 All Rights Reserved Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra
Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws

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