Tragedy and Triumph: Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
1756-1791
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Overture to Don Giovanni, K. 527

Throughout his short career, Mozart wrote nearly 20 operas, many of which – especially the three with libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte – changed the face of opera forever and raised the bar for future composers. By the time Mozart died, the old form of the opera seria, with its formulaic libretti, strict dramatic and musical constraints, the casting of castrati as the hero/lovers and the proliferation of da capo (ABA) arias, was dead as well. Mozart’s groundbreaking operas demanded new ears and open minds; their plots often challenged the accepted social and political order; and the music blossomed into a wealth of new aria forms and stunning ensembles.

Many poets, playwrights and composers have tackled the popular story of Don Juan, the rake who seduced his way across Europe only to end up dragged into hell unrepentant by the statue of the murdered father of one of his victims. Mozart composed Don Giovanni in 1787 on a commission from Prague, subtitling it “A Comic Drama.” In reality, Da Ponte and Mozart made the opera as amusing as possible within a serious dramatic setting, transforming the mood of the source play, El burlador de Sevilla (The Trickster of Seville) by seventeenth century playwright Tirso de Molina. Maintaining this balance has always been the challenge to conductors and stage directors.

Most opera composers of the period composed special music for opera overtures, unrelated to the music of the opera itself. Mozart, however, manages to convey the intensity of the drama, and hint at its highlights, without giving away the elements of surprise and excitement of the music and the action. The Overture opens with a sustained chord for the entire orchestra in d minor, portending the doom of the hero. Example 1 Unlike his other opera overtures, however, he incorporates one theme from the opera itself, the sweeping scales that accompany the denouement as the Commendatore drags Don Giovanni down to Hell. Example 2 After setting up the tragedy, Mozart then goes on to lighten the mood, although still not suggesting broad comedy. Example 3 Don Giovanni, after all, is only "comic" in the sense that by the end, the villain gets his just deserts and the majority of the rest of the cast is still alive.
Max Bruch 1838-1920
Max Bruch
1838-1920
Max Bruch
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26

One of the hallmarks of nineteenth-century Romanticism in music was the rise of the virtuoso violin or piano soloist, epitomized by those two great showmen, Niccoló Paganini and Franz Liszt. The demand for new virtuosic concertos inspired nearly all composers of the period to try their hand at this new kind of bravura work. One composer remembered primarily for his contribution to this genre was German composer, conductor and music teacher Max Bruch.

One of the minor figures of German late Romanticism, Bruch had a singularly peripatetic career moving around Germany from one minor post to another. Only in 1891 were his talents finally recognized, and he became professor of composition at the prestigious Berlin Conservatory. Among his students were Ottorino Respighi and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Bruch was a musical conservative who, drawing his inspiration from Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, had little use for the musical innovations of the late nineteenth century. Since his youth, he had been a prodigious composer, best known for his choral works. Today, however, he is remembered mainly for the Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Kol Nidrei
Bruch began work on the Concerto in 1857 but finished it only in 1866. Then once again, immediately after the premiere, he revised the manuscript upon the advice of the great violinist Joseph Joachim, who premiered the revised version two years later. Joachim called it the “richest and most seductive” of the Romantic violin concertos – quite a compliment from Europe’s leading virtuoso.

Originally, Bruch called the first movement Introduzione-Fantasia because, lacking much of a development section, it does not conform to the traditional sonata form; he finally settled on the simpler title, Prelude. The melancholy mood of the first movement is intensified by the slow tempo and brooding presence of the timpani, which opens the movement and literally provides a heartbeat throughout. Example 1 The Adagio, which follows without pause is the heart of the whole work, intensifying the emotional tone set in the previous movement. Example 2 The fiery Finale, Allegro energetico is aptly named. Its pyrotechnics may have inspired Brahms, who composed his Violin Concerto with its folk-like finale more than ten years later. Example 3 & Example 4
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64

Throughout his creative career, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's inspiration went through extreme cycles, tied to his frequent bouts of deep depression and self-doubt. In mid-May 1888 he wrote to his brother Modest that he was convinced that he had written himself out and that he now felt neither the impulse nor the inclination to compose. By the end of the month, however, he set about "...getting a symphony out of my dulled brain, with difficulty." Inspiration must have started to flow, for by the end of August, the massive Fifth Symphony was finished.

As was the case with most of Tchaikovsky's compositions, the premiere of the Symphony – in St. Petersburg, with the composer conducting – earned mixed reactions. The audience liked it, critics panned it and fellow-composers were envious. Modest believed that the problem with the critics lay with his brother's lack of confidence as a conductor. Tchaikovsky himself, however, was never at ease with the Symphony, and wrote to his benefactress, Nadeja von Meck: "Having played my symphony twice in St. Petersburg and once in Prague, I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure. There is something repellent in it, some exaggerated color, some insincerity of construction, which the public instinctively recognizes. It was clear to me that the applause and ovations were not for this but for other works of mine, and that the Symphony itself will never please the public." For the rest of his life he felt ambivalent about its merits, although after a concert in Germany, where the musicians were enthusiastic, he felt more positive.

The mood of the entire Symphony is set by the introduction, a somber motto in the clarinets that reappears throughout the work and hints at some hidden extra-musical agenda, Example 1 a quote from a trio in Mihail Glinka's opera, A Life for the Tsar, on the words "Turn not into sorrow," Perhaps the motto reflects the melancholy and self-doubt Tchaikovsky experienced when he started composing the Symphony; certainly its mood is maintained throughout most of the work, where it casts a pall over whatever it touches. Some biographers have identified it with the Fate motive that appears throughout the Fourth Symphony, which is unrelentingly pessimistic. In the Fifth, the reincarnation of the motto from e minor to E major at the end of the Finale suggests the composer's reversal to a more positive frame of mind. The first theme is a resolute march, almost a grim procession through adversity. Example 2 A second beautifully orchestrated theme reveals how many ways there are to represent a sigh in music. Example 3 The second movement, marked Andante cantabile, contains one of the repertory's great horn solos, Example 4 followed by a more animated theme for solo oboe. Example 5 The middle section of this ABA form features the clarinet in yet another poignant theme, Example 6 broken up by the tragic motto Example 7 before a return to an embellished version of the opening themes.

The third movement, a waltz based on a street melody the composer had heard in Florence ten years before, also has an undertone of sadness, and towards the end the somber motto is again heard, Example 8 & Example 9 the mood continuing into the Finale.

The last movement presents the motto as the focal point of a final struggle between darkness and light, symbolized by the vacillation between its original E minor and E major. Example 10 The stately introduction mirrors the opening of the piece, although in an ambiguous mood and mode. Example 11 With the Allegro, the key returns decidedly to the minor, but the tempo picks up into a spirited trepak, a Russian folkdance. Finally, following a grand pause, the key switches definitively to E major – Example 12 with great pomp and fanfare – for a majestic coda based on the motto and a final trumpet blast of a version in E major of the first movement march. Example 13

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2014