Program Notes by Chris Morrison
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria
No reminder is really needed of the unique stature of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the history of Western music. His vast catalog of compositions – over 600 of them, including some 15 operas, 17 masses, 50 symphonies, 20 piano concertos, 23 string quartets, and much more – epitomizes the German-Austrian Classical style. His music is recognized and loved all over the world for its melodic, harmonic, and textural richness and beauty. The son of a well-known violinist and pedagogue, Mozart was one of the greatest prodigies ever, playing his first public concert at age five and composing his first music at seven. Before reaching the age of ten he had already played recitals in front of the likes of Marie Antoinette and King George III of England. He traveled throughout Europe through his teens. After failing to find a secure post elsewhere, and having grown dissatisfied with his career in Salzburg, Mozart moved to Vienna, where he spent the last decade of his life. While he enjoyed some successes with his new operas and piano concertos, life there grew more and more precarious, leading to his early death at age thirty-five.
Divertimento No. 11 in D major, K. 251
Duration: 26 minutes
Instrumentation: oboe, 2 horns, strings
The Divertimento No. 11 was composed for the twenty-fifth birthday (July 30) or the name-day (July 26) of Mozart’s sister Maria Anna, who went by the nickname Nannerl. This was one of three major incidental works Mozart wrote during that summer of 1776, the other two being the Divertimento in F major, K. 247 (written to celebrate the name-day of Countess Antonia Lodron, whose family were well known music patrons in Salzburg), and the Serenade in D major, K. 250, the “Haffner,” written for Siegmund Haffner, Jr. (the son of a rich Salzburg merchant) for the marriage of his sister. Often in need of quick income, Mozart took on a number of commissions for incidental works like this one during the 1770s and early 1780s. Alternately called divertimentos, serenades, cassations, or nocturnes, these works would serve as entertainment or background music for parties and social occasions.
The opening Allegro molto of K. 251 is a lively mini-sonata form movement with a short development of the playful main theme. In three-part form, the graceful Menuetto features an elegant central section for the strings only. Elegance is also the hallmark of the Andantino third movement, the only slow music in the piece. Strings dominate, with the oboe joining in for answering refrains of the main theme.
For the fourth movement, another Menuetto serves as the basis of a theme and three variations, the first two of which feature the oboe and violin respectively, with the third a playful embellishment of the melody by the second violin. The Rondeau’s scampering main theme is repeated several times, in between which Mozart shows off, yet again, his melodic inventiveness in this most elaborately developed movement of the Divertimento. A gallant “Marcia alla francese” concludes the work, and is sometimes also used to begin it.
Born: August 10, 1865, St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: March 21, 1936, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
Alexander Glazunov was well-known both as an educator and as a composer. He became a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1899, serving as its director from 1905 to 1928. Among his students were composer Dmitri Shostakovich and violinist Nathan Milstein. Glazunov started composing at age eleven. His work came to the attention of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who took Glazunov on as a private student. After the success of his First Symphony, composed at age sixteen, Glazunov won acclaim as perhaps the best-known Russian composer of the generation after Tchaikovsky. Eventually, he won honorary Doctor of Music degrees from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Glazunov’s catalog of compositions includes nine symphonies (the last unfinished), ballets, and five concertos, including the Violin Concerto that remains perhaps his most famous work. In the wake of the adventuresome music of Russian composers like Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky, Glazunov’s music came to be looked on as old-fashioned, although its reputation has grown over the years.
Chant du ménéstral, Op. 71
Duration: 4 minutes
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings, solo cello
Glazunov dedicated the Chant du ménéstral to Alexander Wierzbilowicz, solo cellist to the Tsar and a fellow professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. With Glazunov’s international reputation, the work won great popularity early in its life, especially when Beatrice Harrison, the then-famous seventeen-year-old British cellist, took up the piece.
The work’s title can be translated “Song of the Minstrel” or “Song of the Troubadour,” and there is something of a bardic quality to the cello’s plaintive, lyrical, almost improvisatory-sounding line. The orchestral accompaniment is lightly-textured but colorful, with rich string lines and several wind solos. A brief contrasting central section leads into a return of the poignant opening song, which moves from the winds back to the cello.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Viatka district, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia
Tchaikovsky has become one of music’s iconic figures, the composer of world-famous works such as the 1812 Overture, The Nutcracker, and Romeo and Juliet that even non-classical music fans recognize and love. These compositions as well as his symphonies, especially the “Pathétique,” his other ballets Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, and the Piano Concerto No. 1 are among the most-performed works in the repertoire. Tchaikovsky showed great musical talent as a youngster, but was being groomed for a career in law. Music ultimately won out, and after completing his studies, in 1866 he took a post teaching at the brand new Moscow Conservatory. Within a decade he was famous as a composer, but his unhappiness in an ill-advised marriage led to a suicide attempt. He won the financial support of Nadezhda von Meck, with whom he carried on a long correspondence without ever meeting her face-to-face. Tchaikovsky continued to great musical successes, traveling the world and meeting most of the major musical figures of his day. But anxiety and depression continued to plague him, and he died in 1893, a still-discussed death by cholera that may have been accidental or a suicide.
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33
Duration: 18 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings, solo cello
By the time Tchaikovsky composed his Rococo Variations in December 1876, he had emerged as one of the world’s leading composers. But he had also experienced some recent setbacks, including ill-received performances of his opera Vakula the Smith and tone poem Romeo and Juliet. And worse was to come the following year, with the constant worries about public exposure of his homosexuality leading to his disastrous July 1877 marriage to his student and admirer Antonina Ivanovna Miliukova, and subsequent suicide attempt and nervous breakdown.
So it was a turbulent time for the composer, and while there is little sign of desperation or insecurity in the lovely Rococo Variations, there certainly was in the work’s genesis. Tchaikovsky composed the Variations for German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, principal cellist of the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society and Tchaikovsky’s colleague at the Moscow Conservatory. After completing the Variations, Tchaikovsky gave the score to Fitzenhagen for his input and revisions. Some of the latter were trifling, but Fitzenhagen also changed the order of the variations, and dropped one entirely. Tchaikovsky wasn’t pleased with these changes, but his lack of self-confidence at that time forced him to let them stand. His original version of the work was eventually published in 1941 and is occasionally performed, but Fitzenhagen’s edition is the form in which the work is generally heard today.
After introductory flourishes from the strings and French horn, the cello presents the graceful main theme, followed by a transitional theme in the wind choir and a closing phrase from the strings. The theme is Tchaikovsky’s own, and was not actually a product of the Rococo, that graceful, highly decorative style in the arts that flourished in the early to mid-eighteenth century. The seven variations range from energetic (Nos. 1, 2 and 5) to delicate (Nos. 3 and 6) to sweetly melancholy (No. 4). Variation 7, the longest of the set, opens with a short cadenza for the solo cello, which then plays a soulful variant of the main theme over string pizzicati (plucked notes) and a few embellishments from the winds. A short, playful coda then concludes the work.
Born: October 25, 1838, Paris, France
Died: June 3, 1875, Bougival, France
Best remembered for Carmen, perhaps the world’s most popular opera, Georges Bizet grew up in a musical family and started studying at the Paris Conservatoire at age nine. During his ten years there he won multiple prizes, including the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1857. The latter prize allowed him to spend almost three years in Italy, the only significant period that he spent outside of Paris. Bizet’s compositional life was largely one of failure, and he was forced to make his living as a teacher, accompanist, and arranger. Some works, like the opera Les pecheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) received some slight attention, but many others, like the now-familiar Symphony in C major (only given its premiere in 1935), were never heard during his lifetime. After many struggles with theater directors and singers, as well as some controversy regarding its subject matter, Carmen finally made it to the stage in 1875. While fellow composers like Massenet and Saint-Saëns loved the work, audiences were lukewarm, and only after Bizet’s death from a heart attack at age 36 did the opera catch on with the public.
Symphony in C major
Duration: 30 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
“You were the beginning of my life as an artist. I spring from you. You are the cause, I am the consequence.” Bizet wrote this effusive tribute to his teacher Charles Gounod, the composer of the famous opera Faust. Gounod was also a teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, which Bizet entered as a precocious nine-year-old and where he studied for some nine years. Bizet started the Symphony in C major on October 29, 1855, four days after his seventeenth birthday, and finished it in about a month, probably as an assignment toward the end of his studies at the Conservatoire.
Bizet was greatly influenced by his work with Gounod, and more or less modeled his Symphony on the Symphony No. 1 in D major that Gounod had composed at the end of the previous year. Although he borrowed melodies from it for later compositions, Bizet perhaps deliberately suppressed his symphony because of its numerous similarities to Gounod’s. It wasn’t performed during his lifetime, and remained totally unknown until 1933. Apparently Bizet’s widow, Geneviève Halévy, gave the score of the work to composer Reynaldo Hahn, who donated it amongst many other manuscripts to the Paris Conservatoire library. There the score was finally rediscovered by French musicologist Jean Chantavoine.
After conductor Felix Weingartner led the Symphony’s first performance in Basel, Switzerland, on February 26, 1935, the work became an immediate hit and quickly became a part of the standard repertoire. It was even turned into a famous ballet by George Balanchine in 1947. Although Bizet thought much more highly of his much-later Symphony in C major (1871), subtitled “Roma,” over which he labored for many years, the student work he created in mere weeks has remained by far the more popular work, praised by one commentator for its “spontaneity, freshness, charm, melodiousness, elegance, and technical skill.”
The first movement opens with a three-note motto that pervades much of what follows. Oboe and flutes present a contrasting, more relaxed melody that also features heavily in much of the ensuing development section. After the second movement’s introduction, the oboe takes up a lovely, sinuous tune. Strings then take up a songlike melody of their own. A slow contrapuntal section is among the debts Bizet pays to his teacher Gounod’s Symphony No. 1, which features a similar interlude. The oboe theme then returns before the movement’s gentle close.
The third movement’s enthusiastic main melody is heard first on its own, then remains as counterpoint to a new idea introduced by the strings. A new version of that opening theme is featured in the movement’s central section, presented over a folksy drone. A flurry of string activity gets the final movement off to a flying start. Woodwinds and brass then present a lively march. After a short lyric interlude for the strings, the scurrying movement of the opening returns, and the Symphony concludes energetically.