Camille Saint-SaŽns 1835-1921
Camille Saint-SaŽns
Camille Saint-SaŽns
Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61

Composer, organist and pianist Camille Saint-SaŽns was a man of wide culture, well versed in literature, the arts and scientific developments. He was phenomenally precocious and gifted in everything he undertook. As a child prodigy he wrote his first piano compositions at age three and at age ten made his formal debut at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, playing Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos. In his youth he was considered an innovator, but by the time he reached maturity he had become a conservative pillar of the establishment, trying to maintain the classical musical tradition in France and expressing open disdain for the new trends in music, including the “malaise” of Wagnerism. His visceral dislike of Debussy made endless headlines in the tabloid press. As a performer – he premiered his five piano concertos – his technique was elegant, effortless and graceful. But neither his compositions nor his pianism were ever pinnacles of passion or emotion. Berlioz noted that Saint-SaŽns “...knows everything but lacks inexperience.”

Saint-SaŽns was a consummate craftsman and a compulsive worker. “I produce music the way an apple tree produces apples,” he commented. He was a proponent of “art for art's sake” but his views on expression and passion in art conflicted with the prevailing literary and emotive Romantic ideas. He wrote in his memoirs: “Music is something besides a source of sensuous pleasure and keen emotion, and this resource, precious as it is, is only a chance corner in the wide realm of musical art. He who does not get absolute pleasure from a simple series of well-constructed chords, beautiful only in their arrangement, is not really fond of music.” And also: “Beware of all exaggeration.”

Saint-SaŽns’ large and diverse output includes chamber works for most orchestral instruments. Although his music was often perceived as passé, he was the first composer to write an original film score in 1908 for L’assassinat du Duc de Guise (The assassination of the Duke of Guise).

The Violin Concerto No. 3, composed in 1880, was dedicated to the violinist Pablo de Sarasate, who premiered it the same year. It is one of Saint-SaŽns’ most elegant works, a display of virtuosity without the excessive showmanship that dogged so many late-nineteenth-century violin concertos.

The opening movement is at times both dramatic and tender. Written in an abbreviated sonata form without a formal recapitulation, it opens with the soloist, rather than the orchestra. Example 1 Saint-SaŽns then spins out a series of new musical motives, some loosely based on the opening few notes, but he delays the traditional cantabile second theme. Example 2 He reserves the pyrotechnics until the end of the development section but does not give the soloist a cadenza.

Perhaps the most conservative of the three movements is the second, a lovely Andantino, almost a lullaby. Example 3 The second half of the theme sounds more in the style of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto and Scottish Fantasy than French. Example 4 The middle section introduces a new melody. Example 5

The Finale, Allegro non troppo, is the most dramatic and technically challenging movement. It opens with an introduction in the form of a sparkling cadenza foreshadowing the principal theme of the movement and punctuated by menacing orchestral exclamations and timpani rolls. Example 6 & Example 7† The movement is also in sonata form with an array of themes, Example 8 including a new one introduced in the middle of the development section. Example 9 After a recapitulation of the three main themes, a lively coda with a rush to the finish allows the soloist to whip the audience into a mood for cheers and standing ovation.
Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93

Premiered in Vienna at an all-Beethoven Musikalische Akademie (self-promoting concert) in February 1814, the Eighth Symphony suffered from comparison with the Seventh, which was very popular at the time and had preceded it on the program. Beethoven had a giant orchestra for the occasion: “At my last concert in the Large Redoutensaal there were 18 first violins, 18 second violins, 12 cellos, 7 double basses, 2 double bassoons” he noted in his diary.

After the rhythmic spree of the Seventh, the new symphony sounded tame and much more traditional – not what the audience expected from Beethoven. Unfortunately, this unfavorable comparison is still made today, although Beethoven insisted that the Eighth was the better of the two. The reviewer of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitschrift was perceptive in his appraisal of the symphony and its lukewarm reception: “This reviewer is of the opinion that the reason does not lie by any means in weaker or less artistic workmanship...but partly in the faulty judgment that permitted the symphony to follow the one in A Major, partly in the surfeit of beauty and excellence...if this symphony were performed alone, we have no doubt of its success.”

Beethoven began working on the Symphony in the summer of 1812, immediately after finishing the Seventh, while he was taking the cure at the baths of Teplitz and Carlsbad in Bohemia. The Eighth Symphony’s more traditional structure harks back to the composer’s early symphonies in which he paid tribute to the spirit of his Viennese predecessors, especially Haydn. The orchestration and development, however, belong to the mature Beethoven. And while the Seventh is powerful and dramatic, the Eighth is good-natured, cheery and humorous – as if the composer needed a rest from the tension of the earlier symphony. The first movement gets right down to business with no slow introduction. Example 1 Its second theme follows right on the heels of the first with a minimal bridge passage. Example 2 The contrast comes in the development as Beethoven shows a dark side of his two optmtimistic themes. Example 3

Of special interest has always been the second movement, which by tradition would normally be slow but which Beethoven marks an Allegretto scherzando. Some musical historians claim that its rigid ostinato repeated chord is a tribute to the inventor of the metronome, Beethoven’s sometime friend and rival Johannes Nepomuk Mälzel. Example 4 The movement ends with an unexpected abruptness. Example 5

Since one scherzo is enough, Beethoven wrote an old-fashioned Minuet as the third movement, with an unusual duet between the horns and solo clarinet in the Trio. Example 6 & Example 7 The symphony ends with a Finale full of Haydnesque humor and surprises, the chattering opening sounding a little like a burlesque à la Rossini. Example 8 The highlight is a long coda bursting with energy and vitality making it clear that we are in the era of Beethoven and not of Haydn. The prolonged and repeated final cadence, however, seems almost a parody of symphonic grandiosity.
Richard Strauss 1864-1949
Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss
Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 (Death and Transfiguration)

Richard Strauss came from an extremely conservative family. His father, Franz Joseph, the principal horn player in the Munich Court Orchestra, considered Brahms a radical and Wagner’s music beyond the pale, forbidding his son to listen to it. Richard assimilated the music of the early and middle nineteenth century in his early works, composing as a committed classicist. But he soon discovered that the musical language taught by his father was too confining for his own fertile mind.

In June 1888 when the young Richard Strauss attended a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Bologna, Italy – the first Italian production of the opera – he was totally captivated, much to the disgust of his father. A year later Richard composed Tod und Verklärung, a tone poem that pays homage to Tristan.

Strauss quickly found his voice through a unique development of the tone poem, or symphonic poem, a purely instrumental rendition of a text, usually poetic or narrative in nature. The term “symphonic poem” had been coined by Liszt in 1854 for compositions accompanied by a program that the audience was supposed to read before listening to the music. Although symphonic poem had become a standard genre for the nineteenth century Romantics, including Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, reaching its apex with Strauss, they did not all use Liszt’s term nor his particular technique. Wagner had taken musical narrative to a different plane in his Gesamtkunstwerk fusion of the arts, epitomized in the his music dramas. Strauss was to create his own take of this fusion, both in his purely instrumental tone poems and operas.

Strauss’s tone poems are far more detailed than Liszt’s, and often difficult to follow without a “road map.” The anecdotes about Strauss' attempts at narrative music are many: “I want to be able to describe a teaspoon musically,” he is said to have stated. In the ten years between 1888 and 1898 he produced a string of tone poems, beginning with Aus Italien and Macbeth. Don Juan, completed in 1889, was the first to be publicly performed, catapulting him to international recognition.

Strauss tried to convey in music the minutest details of the story that underlies Tod und Verklärung. According to the composer, the tone poem describes the last hours of a man – presumably an artist – who has aimed to achieve the highest ideals. Strauss wrote:
“The sick man lies in bed, asleep, with heavy, irregular breathing; friendly dreams conjure a smile on the face of the deeply suffering man; he wakes up and is once again racked with horrible pain; his limbs shake with fever. As the attack passes and his pain subsides, his thoughts wander through his past life; his childhood passes before him, the time of his youth with its strivings and passion; then, as the pain begins to return, there appears to him the fruit of his life’s journey, the ideal which he strove to realize, to present artistically, but which he has not been able to complete, since it is not for man to accomplish such things. The fatal hour approaches, the soul leaves the body to find in everlasting space those things gloriously achieved which could not be fulfilled here below.”
Strauss considered this scenario vital to an understanding of the work; his friend and mentor Alexander Ritter expanded this description into a 62-line Romantic poem that was later printed with the published score.

Strauss’ homage to Wagner is readily apparent in his use of a specific Leitmotiv to represent each element in the program. As with Wagner, the listener must learn the musical code in advance in order to follow the roadmap of the plot, a feat that purely verbal program notes are ill equipped to provide. Without the roadmap, however, listeners must be willing to conjure their own images for each theme, bringing them in line with the program as detailed above. In a real sense – the composer’s insistence not withstanding – knowing the plot in addition to the wealth of musical clichés we have internalized through familiarity with both Romantic classical music and film music, enable a pretty clear understanding of the music.

Some landmarks along the way: As the work opens, a throbbing ostinato in the violas, and later the timpani, suggests the rhythm of the dying man’s heartbeat and pulse, combined with the sufferer’s sighs portrayed by the strings. Example 1 Two important themes, representing aspects of the sick man's life and pleasant memories are an oboe solo Example 2 followed by a flute solo. Example 3 Together they reappear throughout the tone poem in different guises as different stages of his life's journey. The idyll is suddenly interrupted by a loud timpani crash representing the attack of pain. Example 4 Strauss then takes the listener through his protagonist's musical biography, using transformations of the flute and oboe themes. Example 5 & Example 6 & Example 7 The tone poem’s “big theme,” representing the sick artist's ideal, however, does not materialize until more than halfway through the piece. It is a culmination of life's experiences is a grand melody played by the entire orchestra. Example 8 Just as the heartbeat motive derives ultimately from "Siegfried's Funeral Music" from Wagner's Götterdämmerung, The sick artist's "ideology" theme remains tonally ambiguous until the last measures of the work, exactly like the Love-death motive in Tristan. Example 9
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2015