Conductor: Peter Oundjian
Guest Artist: James Ehnes, violin
Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
Strauss: Wind Serenade
Beethoven: Grosse Fuge
Overture, The Roman Carnival, Op. 9. . . Hector Berlioz
(Born December 11, 1803, in La Cote-Saint-André, France; died March 8, 1869, in Paris, France)
Hector Berlioz‘s originality and new conception of musical expression led the way directly to many of the innovations Liszt and Wagner were to make. When Berlioz won the Prix de Rome in 1830, he journeyed to Italy for an eighteen-month stay that eventually inspired many of his finest works. Among them was the opera Benvenuto Cellini, whose first performances were failures. (The composition was given new life when Liszt revived it years later.) Seeking to salvage some of the music, in 1843 Berlioz wrote an orchestral piece based principally on two themes he extracted from the opera, a long aria, “O Teresa, vous que j’aime,” and a wild Italian dance, the saltarello. The new work, a concert overture, he called The Roman Carnival. Some historians speculate that he wanted it to be used as an overture to the second act of the opera.
Written while Berlioz was completing his Treatise on Orchestration, the overture is remarkable for its startling and novel ideas that give it a marvelous sonority and vivacity. In his treatise, he suggested rescuing little-used orchestral instruments from neglect and giving them new roles. Here, he follows his own prescription, giving a leading theme to the violas in the introduction, and having the other strings, horns, clarinets, flutes and bassoons accompany them, reversing their two traditional roles. In the main body he chooses the English horn, another instrument not usually featured in orchestral literature, for a predominant role. Later, the bassoon, rarely used at that time to articulate thematic lines, echoes the aria theme against the saltarello in the second violins.
When Berlioz conducted this overture’s première at a concert in Paris on February 3, 1844, the wind instruments had not rehearsed, but the overture, nevertheless, was well received, so much so that it was immediately encored and even won over some of the composer’s enemies. With the success of The Roman Carnival, Berlioz suddenly became a popular composer whose works were heard throughout Paris.
The music opens with a brief English horn quotation from the saltarello, which serves as an introduction to Cellini’s aria. Much of the rest of the work is taken up with the whirling saltarello and fragments of the aria. The entire score has the daring and the brilliant orchestration that listeners associate with Berlioz.
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, in E minor, Op. 64 . . . Felix Mendelssohn
(Born February 3, 1809, in Free City of Hamburg; died November 4, 1847, in Leipzig, Saxony)
Touted by some as the “perfect” concerto, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with its romantic feeling, melodic polish and refinement is one of the most frequently performed and beloved of all violin concertos. Mendelssohn wrote this extremely popular work in 1844 for his friend Ferdinand David (1810-1873). The two musicians were born in the same house in Hamburg, less than a year apart, but they did not meet until Mendelssohn was sixteen. In 1835, when Mendelssohn became the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, he appointed David concertmaster, a post David was to keep for thirty-seven years.
As far back as 1838, Mendelssohn had written to David, “I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter. One in E minor is running through my head, and its opening gives me no peace.” Mendelssohn did not compose the concerto that winter, although David kept pressing him for it; he took five more years to complete the work. During that time, the composer and violinist held many consultations over the details of the work. Mendelssohn sent the score to his publisher in December 1844, but then revised it further. In the end, David was responsible for much of the character of the violin writing, and he probably even wrote most of the cadenza.
David was, of course, the soloist in the first performance at a Gewandhaus concert on March 13, 1845. Unfortunately, Mendelssohn was ill, and the Danish composer Niels Gade conducted. Two weeks later, David wrote to Mendelssohn, “I should have written you earlier of the success that I had with your Violin Concerto . . .. It was unanimously declared to be one of the most beautiful compositions of its kind.”
The concerto has three movements played without pause. Mendelssohn deviated from the traditional lineaments of the Classical concerto form with such success that this work was to influence the development and evolution of the concerto in the next century. The first movement, a melodious Allegro molto appassionato, begins in a highly original way. Deviating from the convention that the orchestra would first introduce the principal themes before the soloist enters, here the violinist immediately announces the theme on which the movement is based. Encompassing the highest, most brilliant range of the instrument in the first theme, the violin sings the lowest note in its range in the second theme. Again Mendelssohn changes the established structure of the concerto when he places the solo cadenza not at the very end of the movement as was traditional, but before the return of the first theme. A single, sustained note on the bassoon connects the first movement to the next movement, a simple and beautiful Andante, like one of the Songs without Words that Mendelssohn wrote for piano, although in the development section, Mendelssohn introduces a contrasting theme that can only be characterized as restless and agitated. The second and third movements have no pause between them either: a brief introduction, Allegretto non troppo, ushers in the brilliant finale, Allegro molto vivace. This final rondo begins with trumpet, horn, bassoon and drums with the violin joining in to answer them in arpeggios before declaring the first joyous theme. After the development section, the movement closes with melodic and rhythmic intensity.
Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments, in E‑Flat, TrV 106, Op. 7. . . Richard Strauss
(Born June 11, 1864, in Munich, Bavaria; died September 8, 1949, in Garmisch‑Partenkirchen, Germany)
Richard Strauss was the son of a renowned horn player, so he grew up with the sound of wind instruments all about him. In 1881, when he was seventeen, he composed this Serenade, an extraordinarily mature single movement in basic sonata form, in which he shows the first signs of his mastery of complex instrumental ensembles.
The Serenade, which has jaunty themes and is melodic and lyrical throughout, premièred in Dresden in 1882 under Franz Wullner’s direction. The renowned conductor/pianist Hans von Bülow attended the première and immediately after took Strauss under his wing, playing Strauss’s music, introducing him to influential members of the musical world, and helping him get his first professional engagements, thus, in effect, launching Strauss’s career.
One can hardly think of a “serenade for thirteen wind instruments” without thinking of Mozart’s Serenade for the same amount of instruments, K. 361, which must have provided young Strauss with the inspiration for the spirit and instrumentation for this delightfully fresh, youthful piece. The work, in sonata form, begins with a lyrical main theme announced by the oboe accompanied by clarinets and bassoons. The second theme, constructed from short phrases, is more energetic; the development introduces some chromatic harmonies. The themes return before the work ends sonorously.
Grosse Fuge (“Grand Fugue”) in B-Flat, Op. 133 . . .Ludwig van Beethoven
(Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Electorate of Cologne, Holy Roman Empire; died March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austrian Empire)
Beethoven wrote the Grosse Fuge in 1825, originally planning for it to be the finale of his String Quartet, Op. 130. At the first performance, on March 21, 1826, its great weight so unbalanced the preceding movements as to threaten to spoil their success, even though two of those movements were encored. Some of the composer’s friends thought that although the public found the Grosse Fuge too difficult at first, audiences would come to appreciate it on repeated hearings. Others suggested that Beethoven immediately write a new closing movement for the quartet, which he did when his publisher offered to issue the Fugue as a separate composition.
This gigantic movement is one of Beethoven’s most fiercely powerful pieces. The particularly complex form in which Beethoven cast it is not something external, selected and imposed on the material. The fugal structure is truly an important part of the heavy emotional burden of the music, rather than being just its vehicle. It accounts for the Grosse Fuge’s extraordinary nature and its importance among the incomparable masterpieces of Beethoven’s last years.
The Grosse Fuge’s intricacy and its greatness are such that the listener can hear it in several very different ways. It can be understood as an introduction followed by a long fugue or by a series of fugues. It equally could be read as a fugal theme with variations. It also might be thought of as a large-scale sonata-form movement in which each of the principal components is a fugue. It even might be analyzed as a cyclical work of four movements condensed into one: introduction, Allegro, slow movement and finale, each part, except the first, a fugue in its own right. Since each of these ways of thinking about the structure could be considered valid, every listener must make of this work what he will. The following is a simple guide to the principal sections of the work.
To begin, there is a thirty-measure Overture that introduces the main theme and some of the transformations in which this theme will be used later. The fugue proper starts off with its vigorous and rhythmic counter-subject in the first violin to which the music of the viola, playing the principal subject, seems at first to be only an accompaniment. The music slows to Meno mosso e moderato for a second fugue and then speeds up again for the big third fugue, Allegro molto e con brio. The long closing coda begins with all the instruments playing the principal subject in octaves and in long, sustained notes.
This work customarily bears its German name in English-speaking countries, but for no apparent reason. In January 1827, the ailing composer and his Viennese publisher went over the plans for it very carefully; in May, it was issued with a title in French, as was customary at the time, Grande Fugue. Much later, other publishers rendered this name into the German Grosse Fuge. In Beethoven’s earlier years, in fact, the designation “grand,” in whatever language, generally meant little if anything more than that the work stood alone, instead of being part of a set of three or six of the same medium, gathered under a single opus number. This usage seems to have fallen out of favor for a while, but it reappeared toward the end of Beethoven’s career with the Grand Sonata, Op. 106, published in 1819, and the Grand Quartets, Op. 127 and Op. 131, published in the 1820’s, as well as this Fugue.