Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture

The plays of William Shakespeare were one of the major literary influences on the composers of the nineteenth century, including Tchaikovsky, who wrote fantasy overtures based on three of them. Two of these, to Hamlet and The Tempest, are seldom heard today, but the third, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, has become one of the most popular orchestral compositions ever. The psychological drama of youthful passion and thwarted love consummated in death was an ideal theme for Tchaikovsky, resonating through many of his subsequent works.

Composed in 1869, it was one of Tchaikovsky’s earliest orchestral works, written at the suggestion of his friend and mentor, the composer Mily Balakirev, who wrote out a detailed scenario for the composer to follow. Balakirev criticized Tchaikovsky’s original version, especially the lack of musical reference to Friar Laurence: “You need something here along the lines of a Liszt chorale...with old Catholic character,” he wrote the composer, who sat down to rewrite the work to his mentor’s satisfaction.

A second version, published in 1871, still did not satisfy Balakirev, and Tchaikovsky sat on the score for nearly ten years before bringing out the final version in 1880, the one we are most familiar with. Although Balakirev was still hypercritical, especially of the coda, by then Tchaikovsky had enough self-confidence to resist him. He always regarded the overture highly and once referred to it as his best orchestral work.

The psychological drama of youthful passion and thwarted love consummated in death was an ideal theme for Tchaikovsky, resonating through many of his subsequent works. He always considered the overture highly and once referred to it as his best orchestral work.

Tchaikovsky’s Overture is not a tone poem; there is no attempt to tell the story of the doomed lovers, only to present the major themes of the play in musical guise. The chorale-like introduction recalls the serenity of Friar Lawrence’s cell, Example 1 followed by the Friar’s theme. The composer transformed the ambience from the Roman Catholicism of the play into a Russian Orthodox modal melody in the woodwinds. But this serenity is broken by a fiery allegro representing the recurrence of the old enmity between the warring families. Example 2 Finally, the love theme is introduced by the muted violas and English horn. Example 3

In the development, the tender love music is harshly interrupted by the furious outbursts of street brawls that are combined with the Friar Lawrence theme. Example 4 The fury is overcome by the love theme, only to fade away into a despairing, broken lament. Example 5
Jean Sibelius 1865-1957
Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47.

First Movement: Allegro moderato

When Sweden relinquished Finland to the Russian Empire in 1809, it became an autonomous duchy with significant control over its own affairs. But in 1870 Tsar Alexander II gradually began whittling away the Finns’ privileges and autonomy. While Swedish had continued to be the language of the educated and of the middle class, Russian repression aroused strong nationalist feelings and initiated a revival of the Finnish language. Jean Sibelius was born into this nationalistic environment and in 1876 enrolled in the first grammar school to teach in the Finnish language.

Sibelius was by no means a child prodigy. He began playing piano at nine, didn't like it and took up the violin at 14. Although he also started composing at ten, Sibelius’s ambition was to become a concert violinist and throughout his adult life regretted not following his dream. Lifelong addiction to alcohol produced a persistent tremor in his hands that precluded a concert career.

Sibelius’s first success as a composer came in 1892 with a nationalistic symphonic poem/cantata titled Kullervo, Op. 7. The work met with great praise but was never again performed in his lifetime. During the next six years he composed music for numerous nationalistic pageants, symphonic poems and vocal works, mostly based on the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. In appreciation and in order to enable him to compose undisturbed, the Finnish governing council gave Sibelius a pension for life in 1897. For the next 28 years he composed the symphonies and other orchestral works that made him famous. In 1926, at the age of 60, he suddenly ceased composing for reason never disclosed – although probably from the combined ravages of alcoholism and bipolar disorder. His pen remained silent until his death, 31 years later.

Sibelius wrote the Violin Concerto as a testimony to this failed ambition to become a violinist, pouring into it every known technical difficulty and then some. He composed it on a commission in 1903, premiered in Helsinki, and then withdrew it. Violinist Karl Halir, under the baton of Richard Strauss, premiered Sibelius’s thoroughly revised version in 1905 in Berlin. Violinists and audiences have loved the Concerto from the start, especially its Gypsy-like warmth.

The First movement is by far the weightiest. It explores Sibelius's particular take on sonata form with the themes evolving from one another without a true development section. It opens with the soloist introducing a stunning theme Example 1 that is continually broken up into its motivic elements – particularly the opening three notes Example 2 – and transformed throughout the movement. The orchestra introduces a second theme, which Sibelius subsequently uses as a refrain. Example 3 The third important theme grows out of the opening three notes of the piece concluding in a dance that totally animates the movement from its brooding melancholy. Example 4
Claude Debussy 1862-1918
Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy
Claire de lune from Suite bergamasque

As a budding composer, Claude Debussy disliked the piano because its percussive tone did not allow for the subtle gradations in dynamics and timbre he was seeking. Although most of his early works are songs, he gradually mastered the piano’s shortcomings until it became his major means of expression.

Debussy composed the Suite bergamasque in 1890 while he was still fairly unknown and published it after extensive revisions only in 1905. By that time, after L’après-midi d’un faune, Pelléas et Mélisande and the String Quartet, he had become famous – or notorious. The order and number of movements in the Suite was probably affected by publishing, rather than musical considerations, since even the titles were not finalized until it went to print. The Suite belongs to a tradition of French keyboard music dating back to the eighteenth century with the keyboard works of the Couperin family and especially Jean-Philippe Rameau. These are short pieces evoking a mood, an image or even the personality of a specific individual. Like so many of Debussy’s subsequent works, they are deliberately referential, containing programmatic, visual or musical allusions that would have been readily familiar to his audience.

Debussy took the title from the first stanza of Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine’s poem, which Debussy had already set twice to music, where the image of the disguised players may have contributed to the title of the suite
Votre ‚me est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Your soul is a chosen landscape
Where charming masked and costumed figures go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.

The significance of the title bergamasque is uncertain. Bergamo is about 25 miles northeast of Milan, considered the traditional home of white-faced clown Harlequin of the commedia dell’arte, the street theater dating from the sixteenth century; Debussy had always been a fan of the tradition.

The third movement, the famous Claire de lune, is Debussy’s most used – and abused – composition. Because of its familiarity, it can evoke superficial salon music, unless played with great care. The movement was not born with this name; the original title was Promenade sentimentale, which Debussy changed just before publication.

Although the theme is universally familiar to concertgoers and piano students, it may not be so obvious that after the first statement of the main melody Example 1 this five-minute piece has no harmonic resolution until the very end. It wanders through a series of subsidiary melodies, maintaining a high level of musical tension for such a languid piece. Example 2

Richard Rodgers 1902-1979
Richard Rodgers
Richard Rodgers
Carousel Waltz from Carousel

works for the Broadway musical stage. From 1919 to 1943, in collaboration with Lorenz Hart, he wrote songs and shows modeled on Tin Pan Alley style but with more up-to-date and often cynical lyrics. His final collaboration with Hart was Pal Joey in 1940, which shocked audiences because of its theme of an extra-marital affair. After Hart’s death, Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II in 1943 to create Oklahoma!, considered the first American vernacular opera. This success was followed by Carousel, The King and I and South Pacific, ending with The Sound of Music in 1959, shortly before Hammerstein’s death. Ironically, the great team, Rodgers and Hammerstein, loathed each other personally and carried on their collaboration strictly in writing. But after Hammerstein’s death Rodgers never managed to light the spark he had had with his major collaborators.

Carousel, adapted from Frenec Molnár’s play Liliom, opened in April 1945. The Carousel Waltz opens Act I and evokes the sleazy carnival world of the anti-hero Billy Bigelow.
Carlos Gardel  1890-1935
Carlos Gardel
Carlos Gardel
Tango por una cabeza (by a {Horse’s} Head)

Arr. For Violin and Orchestra by John Williams

Singer, songwriter and actor Carlos Gardel was born either in France or in Uruguay, and became one of the most prominent influences in the development of the tango. While he made his home in Argentina, he became through his music the adopted son of all of Latin America. He died in a plane crash in Colombia 1935.

As is always the case with folk celebrities, myths around his life abound. In 1915 he was shot and wounded in a barroom brawl (fact), according to some by the father of Che Guevara (probably myth).

Gardel composed Tango por una cabeza in 1935 to lyrics by his long-time collaborator, the Brazilian Alfredo Le Pera, who died together with Gardel in the plane crash. It has become one of the most popular tangos, and has been used in many films and TV programs. John Williams incorporated it into the music of Schindler’s List and Scent of a Woman, and an arrangement for violin and piano or orchestra for Itzhak Perlman.
Leonard Bernstein 1918-1990
Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein
Overture to West Side Story

Arr. Maurice Peress

West Side Story was Leonard Bernstein’s attempt to demonstrate that it was possible to write a serious musical, an attempt that succeeded beyond all expectations. With lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins as director and choreographer, it opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957 and ran for over 1000 performances. The movie was just as spectacular a success, as was the recording.

But its birth was not easy. Originally, The show had been conceived six years earlier as a conflict between Jews and Catholics during the Easter-Passover celebrations and at one point was to be called East Side Story. Although Shakespeare’s archetypal “Montegue/Capulet” clan war was finally switched to Anglo/Puerto Rican gangs on the Upper West Side, still no backers could be found; it became notorious for having been turned down by nearly everybody because no one thought that such a tragic story was suitable material for a musical.

Casting was another problem. Robbins, a perfectionist, wanted a cast of 38 who could both dance and sing – a nearly impossible demand in those days, but now the rule rather than the exception. Being first and foremost a choreographer, he finally settled on dancers who could sing—as opposed to singers who could dance. When Bernstein, unencumbered by staging issues, re-recorded West Side Story in 1988, he used opera singers for the main roles: Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras, Tatiana Troyanos and Marilyn Horne.

The overture, which was not in the original score, strings together some of the most popular melodies from the musical. Originally scored for 31 players, heavy on the winds and percussion in 1965, conductor Maurice Peress arranged the overture for symphony orchestra.

The Overture encapsulates the central themes of the plot, although not in order of occurrence. It begins with the quintet “Tonight,” in which Maria’s romantic anticipation of her first night together with Tony, contrasts with the Jets’ preparation for the rumble against the Sharks and the Anita’s eager but worldly fantasy of her tryst with Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. Example 1 There follow “Maria;” then “Mambo” Example 2 from the school dance where Tony and Maria first meet; and “Somewhere There’s a Place for Us.”
Camille Saint-SaŽns 1835-1921
Camille Saint-SaŽns
Camille Saint-SaŽns
Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah, Act III

At the behest of Franz Liszt, Samson and Delilah, Camille Saint-SaŽns’s best known opera, was premiered in Germany – and in German – in December 1877. It did not reach Paris until 1890. The opera is adapted from the biblical story of Samson, lured by the Philistine seductress Delilah into revealing the source of his superhuman strength – his long hair, whereupon she proceeds to cut it off as he sleeps and blinds him for good measure.

The Bacchanale is the ballet, part of the Philistines’ celebratory frenzy after Delilah’s victory over their seemingly invincible enemy, the Hebrews. From a dramatic point of view, the music appropriately portrays the reckless abandon that always precedes a calamity. For when the Philistines bring out the blind and shackled Samson to gloat over him, he calls upon God to give him one final burst of strength to overcome his enemies. In a final suicidal sacrifice he uproots the pillars of the pagan temple, bringing destruction on the Philistines.

In 1877, at the time the opera was written, all Europe was taken with a fascination for the exotic and foreign. Homes were decorated like Chinese pagodas and composers wrote dozens of Middle Eastern-sounding music. As France was deeply involved in the colonization of North Africa, Saint-SaŽns spent the years 1880-81 travelling, including trips to resorts in Algeria (then a French colony) and Egypt. The music he heard while abroad gave him first-hand knowledge of an entirely new musical language with its own scales, rhythms and theory, and he made sincere attempts to integrate them into his own works (the Suite algérienne and the Fifth Piano Concerto “The Egyptian”). But the popular Bacchanale, written before his North African sojourns, abounds with themes that frankly reflect exotic clichés rather than the real McCoy. Of the two big oboe solos, the first still rings truer than the second – which everyone knows although not necessarily where it comes from. Example 1 & Example 2

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2015