Masterworks 3

Verdi Instrumentation 
2 oboes 
2 clarinets 
2 bassoons 
4 horns  
2 trumpets 
3 trombones 
tuba (originally, Verdi scored this for cimbasso, a type of tuba)  
two harps 

Giuseppe (Fortunino Francesco) Verdi

(Born in Roncole, near Parma, Italy, 1813; died in Milan, 1901)

Overture to La Forza del Destino

In 1861, Verdi received a commission from the Imperial Theater of St. Petersburg for a new opera.  Like Nabucco and many of his previous operas, Verdi turned again to a loosely veiled theme of Italy’s current struggle that had consumed much of the 19th C. – of Italy’s Independence and Unification.  He also returned to one of the great librettists of the day, Francesco Maria Piave (1810 – 1876), a long-time friend and librettist for nine of Verdi’s previous operas.  Piave based his La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny) on an 1835 Spanish drama, Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (“Don Alvaro, or the Power of Fate”), by the Spanish Enlightenment author and politician, Ángel de Saavedra.

La Forza follows the plight of two ill-fated lovers, Alvaro and Leonora, and Verdi sets the story into the larger context of Italy’s quest for independence from Hapsburg Austria around 1850.  The opera begins with Alvaro and Leonora being hopelessly in love, but Leonora’s father, a Spanish Marquis (dignitary), cannot accept Alvaro’s “half-caste” Peruvian-Incan blood as a sufficient lineage for his daughter, and so, the two lovers attempt to elope.  The father discovers their plan and confronts them, during which Alvaro’s gun accidentally fires and kills the father.  Thus is set into motion the current of Fate that will dog the steps of the two lovers forever.  Leonora’s brother, Carlo, vows a bitter vengeance against both her and Alvaro.  The lovers separate in despair; Alvaro to Spain’s army to aid in Italy’s struggle (this detail was, in part, why Verdi chose this play to adapt); Leonora to the church, soon retreating to a cave as a hermit in the Spanish mountains near a church in Córdoba, Spain; Carlo determined to hunt them down.

Alvaro is relentlessly pursued by Carlo.  His hounding leads Alvaro to the church to take his vows, but even this sanctuary cannot abate Carlo’s blind hate.  Over the course of about 6 years, Fate has kept Alvaro and Leonora apart, both assuming the other dead, with Leonora fading away in torment in her cave and Alvaro still distraught over the fateful accident that changed their destiny.  Meanwhile, Carlo finds Alvaro again and goads him into a sword fight, ending in Carlo’s mortal wounds.  He pleads for his last rites, but Alvaro refuses, and as it so often happens in opera, Fate has arranged for them to find each other just outside Leonora’s cave.  Unaware of the cave’s occupant, Alvaro beseeches its “hermit” to administer rites to Carlo.  In a flash of recognition, all are stunned to see each other once again, and shocked by the realization that they are ruined by time and regret.  Yet hate, ever powerful, leads Carlo to manage his last strength into avenging his father by fatally stabbing Leonora.  The opera ends in a moving trio between the lovers and a priest as Leonora’s last breaths ebb away into Destiny’s currents.

Verdi’s original 1862 version of La Forza del Destino came with a fairly short and simple prelude as the curtain opener.  But by 1869, Verdi extensively reworked the entire opera, including writing this full-scale Overture that we hear tonight.  Both the opera, and its masterful Overture, have been a mainstay in opera and concert halls since.

The new 1869 Overture intertwines themes from the opera into its fabric – specifically, the swiftly rising motive of “Fate” that we hear just after the opening chords.  But first, Verdi gives us three opening salvos, proclaimed in the brass, to act as calls to attention to the audience and to symbolize the crushing power of Fate.  The chords are repeated and then we are swept into Verdi’s extraordinary musical journey of fate and tragedy as the violins and cellos simmer with the “Fate” motive – the four rapidly rising notes that repeat three times, giving the feel of the waves in a tempestuous tide.  Meanwhile, the trombones, bassoons and basses thrum out racing heartbeats beneath.  Following the second round of those introductory brass chords comes a gentle theme in the winds.  This theme is Alvaro’s song, when he leaves Italy’s war and searches for a new life.  Cleverly, Verdi uses the Fate motive as a countermelody underneath – the effect is exciting and tragic, as Alvaro’s hopes try to survive Fate’s undertow. 

After about a minute, the next theme arrives, beautiful, beleaguered, hovering above tremolo strings (quickly repeated notes in the strings creating a shimmering effect).  This is Leonora’s aria in Act II when she pleads “Deh, non abbandonar signor, per pietà” (“Lord have mercy on me, do not leave me”).  She searches for comfort with her pining melody, but she must sing over her fear and agitation, as represented by the tremolo strings.  Here, too, the inexorable Fate motive reappears and begins to agitate the moment even more.  A fourth theme is soon after introduced, energetic and wonderfully lyrical, and heard first in the clarinet over the accompaniment of two harps.  And yet again, the Fate motive crawls into its musical fabric.  A brief brass chorale appears, reflecting the prayers of the Monastery in Córdoba, and then, the previous themes and Fate race to an exhilarating finish.  The pacing and balance alone are stunning achievements, but most memorable is this Overture’s emotive strength – once it launches into its first theme, the listener is entirely swept up in Verdi’s swirling currents of Destiny.

Program notes © Max Derrickson

Shostakovich Instrumentation

three flutes (3rd doubling piccolo)
two oboes
cor anglais
three clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet)
two bassoons
four horns
two harps

Dmitri Shostakovich

(Born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1906; died in Moscow in 1975)

Violin Concerto No. 1, A minor, Op. 77/99

  1. Nocturne – Moderato
  2. Scherzo – Allegro
  3. Passacaglia – Andante – Cadenza
  4. Burlesque – Allegro con brio

In 1948, in the midst of completing his now beloved Violin Concerto No. 1, political favor turned viciously against Shostakovich and others, through a series of Party dictates.  Artistically, the most brutal was the enforcement of the 1946 “Zhadnov decree.”  These new standards were a power and control technique – they demanded the government’s complete management over artistic output, and singled out Shostakovich as having violated Party Socialist goals with “formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies in music.”  Along with many other artists, the once “darling composer” of the State was made to suffer public humiliation.  Stalin’s continued bullying of artists left its effects on artists like Shostakovich, even long after the dictator’s death in 1953.  By the end of his life, as friend and composer Kristopf Meyer said, these traumas had left Shostakovich’s face “a bag of tics and grimaces.”

But the worst immediate repercussion of the 1948 Zhadnov shamings was Shostakovich’s being fired as Professor at the Moscow Conservatory.  Without that job, Shostakovich soon had to resort to writing music for theatre and films (already screened by the censors) to pay the rent, and lightweight political propaganda works to curry at least a little favor back with the Party.  Certainly, his compositional output was terrifically challenged – a heavy and sardonic work like his Violin Concerto wouldn’t have found any official friends in the thick of that political disgrace.  But Shostakovich didn’t stop writing more serious art music entirely, instead, writing “music for the desk drawer” that kept his musical intellect and skills sharp, but which had to wait for performance.  And this was the drawer that became the home of the Concerto until 1955, after Stalin had died, and politics had cooled down for Shostakovich.

The Concerto was dedicated to, and first performed by, the great Ukrainian violin virtuoso David Oistrakh.  When the work was finally presented in 1955, it received a new catalog number, Op. 99, and had since undergone a few revision suggestions from Oistrakh.  Despite the slight changes, Shostakovich wished that the work remain as Op. 77 to place it in the correct chronological order of his output – but “99” seemed to linger with it its publication.  Today, the audience may see either opus number, or even “77/99.”

The Concerto is first and foremost a herculean exhibition of musicianship for the soloist.  Even Oistrakh, who was considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th C., asked Shostakovich to allow a break for “the violinist to be able to wipe his brow.”  The soloist is nearly constantly playing, and the solo part runs a huge gamut of emotions – most extraordinarily, though, is the feeling of vulnerability.  This is a modern piece, a work of sadness, and loneliness, absurdity, humor and madness.  And hauntingly beautiful.

The first movement is titled by Shostakovich a “Nocturne,” not in the Romantic sense but in the feel of emptiness that accompanies night, and the darkness that can trouble the soul.  In the beginning we hear the bass instruments in their low registers.  This theme feels as though it’s in slow motion, darkly colored, searching, without any particular tonal center.  The violin soon joins in.  There is no bravura with it, just a lone voice, singing, sounding somewhat haunted, also wandering.  The entire movement, in fact, will carry on in this way, certainly with variety of colors and hues and additional themes, but the effect will consistently remain chilling and static.  This, in part, is the great challenge for the soloist.  The soloist must hold our attention and keep leading us through the movement; must make us hear its lone voice singing into the darkness.  Indeed, though the solo part isn’t especially tuneful, it is deeply lyrical, beautiful in the way that moonlight gets refracted through water.  Several moments make the hair raise on our necks:  Listen especially for the entrance of the solo bassoon after about a minute, lending a brief moment of a hopeful duet with the soloist, only to die away.  The ending, too, is spinetingling, as the music slips away, and the harp and celesta (a keyboard instrument that strikes metal plates instead of strings) play driftingly in the stratosphere, giving over at last to one of the few non-dissonant chords in the movement.

The second movement scherzo is wildly different.  Bracingly fast, the scherzo evokes a complex array of moods: among them anger, bumbling, sneering, abandon.  The soloist plays immediately with octaves evoking the slashing of a knife.   At the beginning, a flute and bass clarinet are the soloist’s only accompaniment for an extended period, and during the entire movement, Shostakovich explores a myriad of colors in the winds.  A wild moment arrives at about one minute, when the soloist plays a set of upward glissandi (sliding the note upward on the fret board), as though steam is escaping.  In another half-minute, listen for the violin playing octaves, in what will sound, perhaps, like the first melodic motive in the movement – this is Shostakovich’s musical signature: D-S-C-H (the notes D, Eb, C, and B), the German/English spelling of his first initial and the first three letters of his last name, but here, transposed a little higher.  This is likely the first time Shostakovich would use this motive, and it will begin to pervade his later works more and more (particularly, in his Eighth Quartet and his Tenth Symphony).  The reasons for its first appearance here are unclear, but clearly deliberate.   The music and the soloist soon lead us into a sort of danse macabre to the close.

The addition of a middle third movement here is an unconventional element in the concerto structure, especially that it is a passacaglia.  Passacaglias were first used in the Baroque Era and are typically a set of variations based on a repeating bass line.  This is indeed how Shostakovich uses it here, and the movement is essentially the first uninterrupted moment of solid, tonal harmony to our ears.  That bass line begins with the String basses, cellos, and timpani, highlighted by blazing horns (à la Tchaikovsky’s opening “Fate” motive in his Fourth Symphony) lasting 17 bars.  This opening is powerful and almost frightening – like the slow advance of something unstoppable and colossal.  The first variation features the winds in a gorgeous chorale-prelude, and we feel that Shostakovich has perhaps tamed the unstoppable with beauty.  The second variation introduces the solo violin with the sweetest, most content moment of the Concerto.  A poignant, and heroic, moment arrives at about 5:30 minutes after the start, when, amidst full orchestral strings and tuba, the violin takes for itself the repeated bass line theme and plays it in octaves.  Soon, the violin takes on the powerful horn-call triplets from the opening of the movement, and turns them into whimpers – this, in preparation for an extended cadenza.

Without a break, the soloist wanders, it seems, into No-Man’s land, and begins a 4:30 minute cadenza.  At its start, the violin is soft and seems terribly vulnerable, slowly drifting out of the themes from the passacaglia.  Soon, the soloist’s song sounds as though it’s trying to find its way in an unknown world.  But in increments, fury takes hold, and we then behold one of the most extraordinary shows of virtuosity and musicianship in any cadenza.  As its vigor begins to crackle with electricity, the music dives into the final movement (and incidentally, this is where Oistrakh asked Shostakovich to give the violinist a break to “wipe his brow”).

The finale to this great Concerto is subtitled “Burlesque,” which for Shostakovich likely meant exaggerated, frantic, and a little bit of a humorous parody (not a strip tease, though that would not have been out of character for Shostakovich, either).  The crazy-fast tempo itself surely gives the feel of exaggeration and franticness, and it seems that the parody may be about the typical kind of happy ending for Concertos – music of high spirits and solving all problems that came in the music before.  What Shostakovich does instead is turn the finale into a train heading for what might be derailment.  And it is wildly fun.  Oistrakh said he felt it to be “a joyous folk party, [with] even the bagpipes of traveling musicians.”  Others called it a “kicking-Stalin gopak” (gopak is a rustic Russian dance) – given that, one can see why it was prudent that Shostakovich let the premiere wait.  Listen for those Oistrakh bagpipes at about two minutes into the movement, with open interval drones in the horns, and whining, reedy winds above.  Also, listen for a marvelous moment about one minute after the “bagpipes,” when Shostakovich creates a canon (a melody which is overlayed by its repetition in another instrument) of the passacaglia theme, beginning in the clarinets and mirrored in overlap by solo horn one bar later.  All the while, save for the first bars of “rest” for the soloist, the violin is playing almost constantly with virtuosity and breathlessness.  The final section marked Prestissimo (extremely fast) is one of Shostakovich’s most exhilarating endings.

Program notes © Max Derrickson

Berlioz Instrumentation
2 flutes (one doubling piccolo)
2 oboes (one doubling cor anglais) (in movement III, the first oboist plays briefly offstage)
2 clarinets (one doubling E♭ clarinet)
4 bassoons
4 horns
2 cornets
2 trumpets
3 trombones
2 ophicleides (modern performances use tubas)
4 timpani (played by several players)
snare drum (used in movement IV)
bass drum
bells in C and G
2 harps (used in movement II)

Hector Berlioz

(Born in La Côte-St.-André, Isère, France in1803; died in Paris, France in 1869)

Symphonie fantastique (Episode de la vie d’un Artiste…en cinq parties) (“Episode of the life of an Artist… in five parts”), H. 48, Op. 14

Part I:  Dreams – Passions

Part II: A Ball

Part III: A Scene in the Country

Part IV: March to the Scaffold

Part V: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

When the Symphonie fantastique premiered in 1830 with Berlioz conducting, he insisted that a literary program be distributed to the audience (that translated program is reprinted below).  He explained that the program was “…indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic outline of the work.”  This story tells of a troubled young artist who sees a woman, his “Beloved,” who embodies all his ideals in a mate, and he becomes disturbingly obsessed with her.  Both the thought of her and a musical representation of his Beloved plague him with increasing amplitude (what Berlioz called a double “idée fixe”).  His obsession leads him to try poisoning himself with opium, but the dose is insufficient.  Instead, it plunges him into horrible dreams where he murders his Beloved and he witnesses his own execution followed by a graphic and hellish funeral attended by witches and ghouls of the grimmest sort.

Astoundingly, the Symphonie’s program was semi-autobiographical.  In 1827, Berlioz’s fascination with Shakespeare brought him to see a performance of Romeo and Juliet by a visiting English troupe.  There he saw for the first time his own Beloved, the Irish actress Harriet Smithson.  After three years of obsessing about Harriet, Berlioz wrote his Symphonie in order to get her attention.  He continued to obsess for three more years until they married in 1833.  Unlike his symphonic hero, however, Berlioz’s obsession did not end in murder or suicide attempts, but his marriage ended in divorce in 1844.

As extraordinary as its program may have been, this is one of the most eyebrow-raising musical works in the repertoire.  As some music historians have said, “modern music began with the Symphonie fantastique.”  For the first time in musical history, Berlioz pioneers the compositional technique of an idée fixe as a symphonically unifying theme, here used as a musical representation of the Beloved, who is “…passionate, noble and shy.”  It’s first heard about ten minutes into the first movement, and in itself is a bit odd for a theme that will glue an entire symphony together – it’s a disjointed and almost un-melodic melody of about 7 measures.  Throughout the symphony it appears in many contexts, surrounded by ingeniously bold, sometimes wild, harmonies.  This is a masterpiece of opposites – alongside his highly creative developments of motives that range through a host of extreme emotions, Berlioz nonetheless maintains a pacing and balance that are spellbindingly controlled.

And the Symphonie’s instrumentation and orchestration will transform sound possibilities for a century to come.  Twentieth-century French composer Oliver Messiaen said that the Symphonie fantastique began other composers’ first, genuine awareness of timbre in the orchestra.  Extremely precise about the colors he wanted, Berlioz scored for a range of unusual instruments and for new and different playing techniques.  For the first time, for example, we hear four timpanists creating chords (thunder in the third movement), and in the fourth movement, Berlioz scored for “ophecliedes” (a variation of the tuba, and the first time this class of bass brass instrument found a place in the orchestra).  Messiaen’s case in point was the church bells in the last movement.  These were shockingly new in the symphony, but without them, we might never have heard the famous 18 tuned anvils of Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold (1869) or the wonderful array of instruments in Mahler’s symphonies some 70 years later (such as mandolins, sleigh bells, or a giant wooden box hit with a hammer).

The first three movements are full of wonderful surprises, both musically and sonically, but the last two movements truly topple music history’s expectations and are extremely exciting to hear.  Part IV, the “March to the Scaffold,” is as graphic as any music there is until, perhaps, Schoenberg and Webern at the turn of the next century, and Berlioz’s is certainly more fun to hear.  The depiction of the artist marching to the guillotine is as tense and horrifying as the story told by Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829), or Camus’ The Stranger (1942).  The extreme terror, pain, even the crowd’s excitement, as the hero is being led through the mocking and jeering crowds towards decapitation is palpable in Berlioz’s music.  Part V, the “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” dance, has a true stroke of brilliance by employing, but parodying, the tune of the Dies irae (Day of Wrath) – here, famously played by the ophecliedes/tubas – a very old chant from the Catholic Mass for the Dead.  The rough and grisly celebration of ghouls and monsters is breathtakingly alive and Berlioz manages to capture its perversion and sinister-ness in sound.  And all through the movements, the idée fixe weaves incessantly, obsessively, in and out, again and again in one guise or another, making the Symphonie fantastique a miraculously unified symphony.

Amazingly, even an obsession can be transformed into great art.

Berlioz’s Literary Program:

Part I:  Dreams – Passions

The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman that embodies all the charms of the ideal being in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her.  Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears before the mind’s eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.

This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe.  That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro.  The passage from this state of melancholic reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its gestures of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolation – this is the true subject of the first movement.

Part II: A Ball

The artist finds himself in the most varied situations – in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but everywhere, in town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.

Part III: A Scene in the Country

Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue.  This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found some reason to entertain – all concur in affording his heart an unaccustomed calm, and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas.  He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. –But what if she were unfaithful to him! –This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the Adagio.  At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies.  – Distant sound of thunder – loneliness – silence.

Part IV: March to the Scaffold

Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium.  The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions.  He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution.  This procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffed noise of heavy steps give way without transition to the noisiest clamor.  At the end of the march the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear, like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part V: Dream of a Witches Sabbath

He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, come together for his funeral.  Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer.  The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial, and grotesque; it is she, coming to join the sabbath. – She takes part in the devilish orgy. – Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, sabbath round dance.  The sabbath round dance and the Dies irae are combined.

Program notes © Max Derrickson