Dominico Cimarosa | Sinfonia from Il Maestro di Capella

Born: December 17, 1749, Aversa, Italy

Died: January 11, 1801, Venice, Italy

Domenico Cimarosa wrote over eighty operas, some of which, like his masterpiece, Il matrimonio segreto, were among the most popular of his time. The young Cimarosa’s musical talent was quickly recognized, and, thanks to a scholarship, he studied for about a dozen years at the Conservatory of Santa Maria di Loreto in Naples. His first operas were written for theaters in Naples, Rome and Florence, but his music soon attracted audiences throughout Europe. In 1787 he was invited to Russia, where he composed operas and religious works in the employ of Empress Catherine II. Four years later he was chosen by Emperor Leopold II of Austria to replace Antonio Salieri as Kapellmeister of the court in Vienna. Subsequently Cimarosa left that position and took a similar one with the King of Naples. But that came to an end when Cimarosa was jailed, and condemned to death, as a supporter of the French Republicans who had occupied Naples. Later banished by the King, Cimarosa tried to return to Russia. But his health was poor, and he died in Venice.

Overture from Il maestro di cappella

Composed: 1786-1792

Duration: 3 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, Timpani, Strings

Il maestro di cappella is a witty “operatic intermezzo” of some twenty minutes duration that was composed somewhere between 1786 and 1792 – no one knows for certain when – and was likely given its first performance in Berlin on July 2, 1793. Its title is sometimes translated as “The Music Teacher,” but is really more equivalent to the German kapellmeister, or master of the choir and/or orchestra for a church, court, or city.

The opera’s single singer, a bass-baritone, takes the role of a self-absorbed conductor rehearsing an orchestra, often imitating the sounds of the instruments in an attempt to improve their playing. His manner, however, offends the musicians, who proceed to enter at the wrong times, play poorly, and otherwise muck up the proceedings. The only version of the complete opera that has survived is a reduction for singer and piano accompaniment. The short, sparkling Overture, or Sinfonia, also exists in a version for string quartet. Several arrangements have been made that attempt to restore the Sinfonia, and the entire piece, to its orchestral original form. Cimarosa: Overture from Il Maestro di Cappella was provided by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Alberto Ginastera | Variciones Concertantes

Born: April 11, 1916, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Died: June 25, 1983, Geneva, Switzerland

Alberto Ginastera has emerged as one of South America’s most important composers. Early folk music-inspired works attracted an international audience, and travels to the United States in the 1940s (where he studied with Aaron Copland) and to Europe in the 1950s brought him into contact with all the prevailing musical trends. He taught at a number of institutions – probably the best known of his students is tango master Ástor Piazzolla – and founded and served as director of the Latin American Center for Advanced Musical Studies (1963-1971). After a fallow period in 1960s, his 1971 marriage to cellist Aurora Natola and a move to Switzerland inspired a resurgence, and his last years were among his most productive. Ginastera divided his catalog of music into three periods: “Objective Nationalism” (1934–1948, featuring prominent use of Argentine folk and popular music), “Subjective Nationalism” (1948–1958, in which the folk elements were subsumed within more advanced musical techniques), and “Neo-Expressionism” (1958–1983, where folk elements return in a modernist idiom employing twelve-tone and other styles).

Variaciones Concertantes, Op. 23

Composed: 1953
Duration: 25 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, harp, strings

One of the highlights of Ginastera’s second period of “subjective nationalism,” the Variaciones concertantes was written during a difficult time in the composer’s life. He had been forced to resign as director of the conservatory at the National University of La Plata due to political conflicts with the government of Juan Perón. For several years he largely supported himself by writing film scores, but also received a few commissions, including that for the Variaciones from the Asociación Amigos de la Música of Buenos Aires. That organization’s orchestra gave the work its premiere on June 2, 1953, with Igor Markevitch conducting, a very successful performance that did much to restore Ginastera’s reputation.

“The work has a subjective Argentinean character,” Ginastera wrote of his Variaciones. “Instead of employing folklore material, an Argentinean atmosphere is obtained by the use of original melodies and rhythms … whose expressive tension has a pronounced Argentine accent.” The piece is in twelve sections and takes the form of a theme and variations, in which each variation highlights one or more solo instruments.

1. Theme for Cello and Harp: over versions of what came to be known as Ginastera’s “symbolic chord,” the notes of the guitar’s open strings (E-A-D-G-B-E), the solo cello presents the slow, contemplative main theme.

2. Interlude for Strings: of a somber character.

3. Playful Variation for Flute: a scampering variation over busy accompaniment.

4. Variation in the Style of a Scherzo for Clarinet: has the rhythm of a malambo, a competitive dance of the Argentine gauchos.

5. Dramatic Variation for Viola: the longest variation in the work, with a haunted, elegiac tone.

6. Canonic Variation for Oboe and Bassoon: an expressive duet in two parts.

7. Rhythmic Variation for Trumpet and Trombone: another short, brilliant malambo.

8. Perpetual Motion Variation for Violin: a showpiece, very lively and rhythmic.

9. Pastoral Variation for Horn: accompanied by sustained chords in the strings.

10. Interlude for Winds: a counterpart to the earlier Interlude for Strings.

11. Reprise of the Theme for Double Bass: with the harp accompaniment from the work’s opening.

12. Variation-Finale in Rondo Style for Full Orchestra: the malambo rhythm returns, as the winds and brass exclaim and the timpani pound over repeating string phrases, bringing the work to an exciting conclusion.

Ilja Zeljenka | Musica Slovaca

Born: December 21, 1932, Bratislava, Slovakia

Died: July 13, 2007, Bratislava, Slovakia

One of Slovakia’s major composers, Zeljenka incorporated many of the major musical trends of the twentieth century into his compositions. Initially influenced by the avant-garde, in the early 1970s Zeljenka found his adventuresome, dissonant music suppressed by the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, leading him to turn to a more accessible idiom spiced by the folk music of his native region. From 1961 to 1968 he was employed by Czech-Slovak Radio in Bratislava, during which time he became a much sought-after composer of music for movies (he ultimately provided music for over one hundred films), and from 1985 he served as a lecturer at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. He composed several symphonies and string quartets, three operas, piano and chamber music, and works for electronic media.

Musica Slovaca

Composed: 1975

Duration: 6 minutes:

Instrumentation: strings, solo violin

Musica Slovaka was one of Zeljenka’s relatively few works to reach an international audience. Originally composed for violin and string orchestra and dedicated to the Slovak Chamber Orchestra, the work is also sometimes heard in arrangements for string quartet as well as violin, cello, and guitar quartets. This lively piece consists of a returning melody, or ritornello, possibly based on an authentic folk dance from Čičmany – a village in northern Slovakia renowned for its folk architecture – with solo violin cadenzas between each repetition of the main theme.

Ludwig van Beethoven | Violin Concerto

Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany

Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

One short biographical sketch on Beethoven begins “The events of Beethoven’s life are the stuff of Romantic legend, evoking images of the solitary creator shaking his fist at Fate and finally overcoming it through a supreme effort of creative will.” Those biographical details, however, such as the deafness that plagued his last three decades of life, his stormy love affairs and his famous ill temper, are dwarfed by his artistic output, which is one of the monuments of music history. He literally mastered and transformed all the musical forms of his day, and extended the range and depth of expression available to composers. Beethoven was no Mozart-like prodigy, although even in his teens he was composing and playing in orchestras. But by his twenties – after studies with the likes of Franz Josef Haydn and Mozart’s legendary nemesis Antonio Salieri – both his compositions and piano playing had garnered considerable attention. It was around the age of 30 that Beethoven first noticed his encroaching deafness, but soon thereafter began the second, or “middle,” of his creative periods, which included groundbreaking works like the Eroica Symphony, the Appassionata and Waldstein piano sonatas, and the opera Fidelio. After a period of relative musical inactivity in the late 1810s, he entered his so-called “late” period, highlighted by the Ninth Symphony and the late string quartets and piano sonatas, in which his music gained a new, very personal depth and freedom.

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61

Composed: 1806

Duration: 44 minutes

Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, solo violin

One part of the story of this greatest of violin concertos is Franz Clement, a remarkable but largely forgotten musician who was much admired in his time. A prodigy who performed at the Vienna Imperial Opera House at age nine, Clement was all of thirteen when Beethoven heard him play for the first time. Beethoven was so impressed that he wrote the young violinist an effusive letter that reflects some of Beethoven’s own aspirations at that point in his life: “Continue along the road on which you have already made such a fine and magnificent journey. Nature and art have combined to make a great artist of you. Follow them both and, never fear, you will reach greatness, the highest goal that an artist can desire in the world. All my good wishes for your happiness, dear child, and come back soon so that I can hear your clear, magnificent playing once again.”

Clement lived up to the high hopes that Beethoven and others had for him, eventually becoming concertmaster and conductor of the Vienna Opera. He also conducted the premiere performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in April 1805. Not long thereafter, Clement requested of Beethoven a violin concerto for a benefit concert. Beethoven worked quickly, completing the work in just a couple of months late in 1806. (This period of time was one of the most productive in Beethoven’s life. The quantity and quality of his compositions were staggering: in just 1805 and 1806 he wrote, along with the Violin Concerto, the first version of his opera Fidelio, the Second and Third Leonore Overtures, the Symphony No. 4, the Piano Concerto No. 4, the three Rasumovsky Quartets, and the Appassionata Piano Sonata.)

As was often the case with Beethoven, he was revising and reworking the Violin Concerto right up to the time of its premiere, which took place in Vienna on December 23, 1806, with Clement as soloist and Beethoven conducting. Legend has it that Beethoven took so long in finishing the work that Clement never had an opportunity to rehearse with the orchestra. The first performance was by most accounts a bit of a fiasco, poorly received by critics and audience alike. Lending some bad taste to an already difficult performance, Clement supposedly played one of his own sonatas between the first and second movements of the concerto – playing on one string of his violin while holding the instrument upside down! After that unfortunate premiere, the concerto was pretty much ignored, played only perhaps half a dozen times in the subsequent thirty years. It was only in 1844, when another great violinist, Joseph Joachim (himself a prodigy and then only thirteen years old) played the concerto under Felix Mendelssohn’s direction, that the work became the concert staple it now is.

Of the concerto’s first performance, one critic wrote: “The musical argument is often quite loose, and the unending repetition of certain rather ordinary passages might easily become wearisome.” That assessment seems faintly ridiculous today, but there is a hint of truth in it insofar as the music, especially in the first movement, does unfold slowly and generously. A series of five strokes on the timpani starts the work. After the woodwinds introduce the main theme of the movement, a second, scale-like theme in clarinet and bassoon leads into another woodwind idea. It is actually quite some time before we hear from the violin soloist, who spins out a gentle, lyrical line, embellishing and commenting on the main themes. That opening five-note rhythm pervades the development section, as soloist and orchestra continue to embroider the main themes, and a forceful statement of it leads into the recapitulation. Towards the end of the movement Beethoven left a spot for a solo cadenza, but didn’t compose one himself; numerous others have written cadenzas for use here, the most popular being those by Joseph Joachim and the young Fritz Kreisler. A quick crescendo and coda close the movement.

The second movement is a theme and variations on a chorale-like melody, with lovely lyric episodes mixed in. The soloist continues its graceful and florid embellishments of the melodic line here. Only at the end of the movement does the tension increase somewhat, preparing us for the Rondo finale, the opening tune of which is played by the soloist entirely on the G string (the lowest string on the violin), giving the melody a wonderfully rustic flavor. This dance-like melody predominates, with occasional appearances of another, slightly sentimental tune. Beethoven saves a surprise for the listener at the end: after some brilliant display, and as the music gradually fades out with phrases reminding us of the finale’s main tune, the orchestra interjects with two loud chords that bring the work to a sudden close.

Chris Morrison is Content Coordinator and Producer at KNCJ Public Radio.