Program Notes by Chris Morrison
Born: January 31, 1797, Vienna, Austria
Died: November 19, 1828, Vienna, Austria
Franz Schubert is one of the best-loved and most important composers of the nineteenth century, his music consistently marked by a remarkable melodic gift, rich harmonies, and an expansive treatment of traditional forms. During his short but extremely prolific career, he composed nine symphonies, dozens of chamber and solo piano works, and a host of operas and liturgical works. His songs, numbering over 600, virtually created the genre of the art song. He started composing in his teens, and some early works came to the notice of Antonio Salieri, who worked with the young composer on composition and music theory. After a couple of unhappy years spent as a schoolteacher by day and composer by night, Schubert decided to pursue a career as a full-time composer, leading a somewhat bohemian life while creating a vast number of compositions that, at the time, attracted little attention. Only gradually did his music win acclaim, inspiring a remarkable burst of creativity in the mid 1820s. By that time, however, he was suffering from the syphilis and (possibly) typhoid fever that would take his life at age 31.
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, D. 485
Duration: 28 minutes
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings
As he spent his days working as an assistant in his father’s school – a job at which he labored for three years, and which he deeply hated – the nineteen-year-old Schubert was already a prolific, if little-known composer. 1816 was an especially busy year for him musically, as it saw Schubert composing almost two hundred pieces of music, including over one hundred songs and, perhaps the highlight of the year, the Symphony No. 5. Mostly composed in September and completed on October 3, the work was first performed later in October at the home of Otto Hatwig, a violinist in Vienna’s Burgtheater orchestra, by an orchestra made up mostly of amateur musicians who were well-known to Schubert through their performances in the frequent musicales that took place at the Schubert house.
After the expressive weight of his previous symphony, the Fourth (nicknamed the “Tragic” and written just a few months before), the Fifth arrives like a breath of fresh air. It features the smallest orchestra of any of Schubert’s symphonies, and is the only one not to include clarinets, trumpets or timpani. Not so coincidentally, its orchestration matches that of the first version of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550. Schubert was thoroughly enamored of Mozart’s music, writing just a couple of months before starting on the Symphony No. 5, “O Mozart! immortal Mozart! what countless impressions of a brighter, better life hast thou stamped upon our souls!” Whether or not Schubert’s Fifth is a literal tribute to the earlier composer, it is difficult not to notice the strong Mozart influence on Schubert’s work.
Without Schubert’s usual slow introduction, the first movement of the Symphony No. 5 begins with a four-bar upbeat followed by a sprightly rising theme, heard first in the violins and then tossed back and forth between them and the cellos and basses. Later, in the development, the opening measures of the work reappear in a new guise. Then the main themes are heard again in this traditional, compact, sonata-form movement. The lyrical, song-like slow movement features two main themes, both repeated.
One can hear resonances of the Minuet from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in the corresponding movement of Schubert’s Fifth. Energetic and bold in its outer sections, the quiet, lovely, folksy central trio opens with bassoon and strings only, gradually accumulating instruments over drone notes from the lower strings. Once again in a traditional sonata-form, the sprightly finale makes much of its easy movement between high spirits, gracefulness, and drama.
Born: August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died: March 25, 1918, Paris, France
Claude Debussy was one of the most important and influential composers of his time. After more than a decade of studies at the Paris Conservatoire, his receipt of the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1884 allowed him two years of work in Rome. Visits to Bayreuth in 1888-89 brought him under the spell of Wagner’s music, which he later rejected, and the 1889 Paris World Exhibition exposed him to the music of Asian cultures. His famous, revolutionary Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894), as well as the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (premiered 1902) and the orchestral work La mer (1903-5), secured his reputation as one of France’s great composers. While his music – often tied to the label Impressionism, although he didn’t like the term – is appreciated for its sensuous beauty, it is also noteworthy for its fluid sense of tonality and the use of unusual scales like the pentatonic and whole-tone. These innovations were influential to many major musicians, from Igor Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen to Pierre Boulez and Bill Evans.
Petite Suite (orch. Henri Büsser)
Duration: 13 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion (cymbals, tambourine, triangle), harp, strings
Debussy had just left his student years behind when he composed the Petite Suite for piano four hands. Possibly originating in a request from publisher Jacques Durand for a piece that could be played by two skilled amateurs, the Petite Suite was first performed on February 2, 1889 by Debussy and Durand at a private salon concert in Paris. Several other arrangements of the Suite have been created over the years, the most familiar of which is the present orchestral version from 1907 by Debussy’s frequent collaborator, the long-lived composer and educator Henri Büsser (1872-1973).
The first two movements were inspired by poems from Fêtes galantes by Paul Verlaine, Debussy’s favorite poet. “En bateau” (Sailing) features a lovely flute melody over an accompaniment in rolled chords from the harp. Debussy hints at the whole-tone scale here, in undulating music based on Verlaine’s portrait of revelers on a boat contemplating romantic trysts on a moonlit night. A passage toward the end of the movement, says author Frank Dawes, “in the little pattern of semi-quavers contributed by the secondo player,” is “very like things in the later music used to symbolize ripples, eddies and whirlpools in water.”
The Verlaine poem that served as the basis of the second movement, “Cortège” (Retinue), is a portrait of a refined woman being ogled by her pet ape and an attendant carrying the train of her dress. Debussy’s setting is playful, festive, ironic, and insouciant. Returning to the words of Frank Dawes, the “Menuet” third movement “begins with suggestions of elfin pipes and horns … and the magical vanishing trick at the end has fairy horn-calls echoing faintly around the main melody.” Both the classical ballet and Paris’s popular musical theater are evoked in the lively closing “Ballet.”
Born: January 6, 1856, Capua, Italy
Died: June 1, 1909, Naples, Italy
While he was a significant figure in bringing the music of Richard Wagner to Italy, Martucci is mostly remembered today for having raised the profile of non-operatic music in the land of Verdi and Puccini – his Symphony No. 2 was once praised as “the beginning of the renaissance of non-operatic Italian music.” Well-known in his day as a composer as well as conductor, pianist and teacher (among his more famous students was Ottorino Respighi), Martucci was a child prodigy who entered the Naples Conservatory at age eleven, eventually becoming piano professor there after several years as a touring pianist. After a stint as teacher at the Bologna Conservatory and as founding conductor of the city’s Liceo Musicale Bolognese orchestra, he returned to Naples to head the Royal Conservatory of Music. He didn’t start composing until he was sixteen, and wrote almost nothing but piano music for years. Eventually he produced two symphonies, two piano concertos, chamber music, and songs, but never an opera.
Notturno in G-flat major, Op. 70/1
Duration: 7 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, harp, strings
Martucci focused on short piano pieces in the early years of his composing career. Later in life he returned to writing such miniatures. He gave the premiere of the original piano version of his Notturno in 1891, and ten years later he orchestrated the piece. Shimmering muted strings and a gently pulsating chords set the nocturnal mood as they accompany a heartfelt melody in the violins, marked espressivo and with more than a hint of Wagner about it. After the introduction of a second theme and a passionate climax, the opening theme returns, and the melodic line ascends for the work’s peaceful conclusion. Languorous and melodic, the work makes an impact in both its piano and orchestral guises.
Born: September 4, 1824, Ansfelden, Austria
Died: October 11, 1896, Vienna, Austria
Throughout his composing life, Anton Bruckner concentrated almost exclusively on symphonies, dubbed “cathedrals in sound” and on a monumental scale, and religious works reflecting his deep faith. Known for being a rather naïve, awkward individual – conductor-pianist Hans von Bülow described him as “half genius, half simpleton” – Bruckner received his first musical education from his schoolmaster father. For many years, Bruckner served as a teacher and organist. He didn’t embark on his first orchestral compositions until he was nearly forty, and some degree of fame eluded him until he was over sixty. During those years, while teaching at the Vienna Conservatory and Vienna University, he worked steadily away at symphonies, masses, and choral works. By 1886 he was sufficient known that he was awarded the Order of Franz Joseph. Despite some detractors, Bruckner is regarded by many as one of the greatest composers of symphonies. As musicologist Deryck Cooke has written, “Bruckner created a new and monumental type of symphonic organism, which abjured the tense, dynamic continuity of Beethoven, and the broad, fluid continuity of Wagner, in order to express something profoundly different from either composer, something elemental and metaphysical.”
Duration: 24 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings, organ (ad libitum), SATB choir and soloists
Over the course of his career, Bruckner composed much sacred choral music, including three masses, a Requiem, and a number of motets and Psalm settings. One of the greatest of these is the Te Deum, which Bruckner himself regarded as “the pride of my life.” A setting of the Te Deum text, a hymn of praise probably written in the fourth century CE and often attributed to early Christian writers like Saint Augustine and Saint Ambrose, Bruckner’s Te Deum was begun in May 1881, as he was putting the finishing touches to his Symphony No. 6. He set the work aside to compose his Seventh Symphony, but returned to it in late 1883, completing it in 1884.
Dedicated “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam” (to the greater glory of God) “in gratitude for having safely brought me through so much anguish in Vienna,” the Te Deum was first performed at Vienna’s Kleiner Musikvereinssaal on May 2, 1885 – with just two pianos instead of the full orchestral accompaniment. Bruckner was anxious to hear his new work performed, and couldn’t wait until a performances with orchestra could be assembled (which finally happened in early 1886). The Te Deum became one of his most popular works, and was even published in 1885 by Theodore Rättig, who paid Bruckner 50 gulden, supposedly “the only money he ever earned as a composer in the whole of his life.” Gustav Mahler was also a fan, and in his score crossed out the lines where Bruckner describes the instrumentation and replaced it with “for the tongues of angels, God-seekers, tormented hearts, and souls purified in the fire.”
The work, in five movements, has something of an arch form. The opening “Te Deum laudamus” is in a powerful C major. Strings playing an insistent rhythmic pattern in fifths accompany the unison entry of the chorus, and then the soloists. More serene in tone, the “Te ergo quaesumus” features the tenor soloist and a soaring solo for the violin (perhaps Bruckner’s reference to a similar solo in the “Benedictus” of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis) in a plea for God’s assistance. Bruckner’s favorite key of D minor is employed in the third movement, “Aeterna fac,” a furious outburst with strong rhythms and an unresolved conclusion.
The fourth section, “Salvum fac populum tuum,” starts as a repeat of the “Te ergo quaesumus,” but this time with the women of the chorus accompanying the tenor’s plea for mercy. A bass solo leads to a section that recalls the work’s beginning. Bruckner returns to C major for the concluding “In te, Domine speravi.” Opening with the four vocal soloists, the music soon moves into a rousing contrapuntal section, a fugue with two subjects that resolves in a chorale on the words “non confundar in aeternum” (here Bruckner quotes an idea from the slow movement of his Seventh Symphony). The opening string pattern returns as the work ends in a blaze of glory.
Bruckner was once asked how he would, on his death, greet God in heaven. He replied, “I will present to him the score of my Te Deum.”