PROGRAM NOTES | Sat July 11, 2020 | 11:00 pm
Copyright Susan Halperin
“Les Toreadors,” from Carmen Suite No.1
(Born October 25, 1838, in Paris; died June 3, 1875, in Bougival)
One of the most popular operas in the current repertoire is Bizet’s Carmen, which premiered on March 3, 1875, three months before the composer’s death. For some reason, it was long believed that the opera had failed and that Bizet had died of a “broken heart”; presumably, Carmen was labeled “obscene,” the music was declared to be “obscure,” “devoid of color,” “unoriginal and undistinguished in melody,” and the opera as a whole judged “altogether un-dramatic.” Strangely enough, Bizet reputedly denigrated it, calling it “trash,” but now it has become one of the most beloved operas in the world. It is true that many first questioned the violent passions and the moral ambiguities in the work, but in fact, Carmen had reached its thirty-seventh performance just two weeks after Bizet died of a cardiac condition from which he had suffered for some time.
The opera, set in Spain around the 1820s or 1830s, is a simply and directly told story of a Spanish Gypsy girl, Carmen, who did not care what fate was finally met by the men she chose to satisfy her great appetite for love. In its original form, Carmen was what the French call an opéra-comique, which has nothing to do with the idea of the “comic” as we understand it in English, but simply signifies that it has spoken dialogue. Shortly after the composer’s death, his friend Ernest Guiraud composed the recitatives in which the dialogue is now usually sung. Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy based the opera libretto on a story, Prosper Mérime, published in 1843.
The extremely recognizable and very melodic “Les Toreadors,” is the most famous extract from the opera. In Suite No. 1, it is the final number and most famous music.
(Born November 14, 1719, in Augsburg, Germany; died May 28, 1787, in Salzburg, Austria)
No one feels certain who wrote the Toy Symphony. This child-friendly work was attributed first to Franz Joseph Haydn and then to Leopold Mozart. Leopold Mozart, the father of Wolfgang, was himself a composer, pedagogue, and violinist. It is now disputed whether either of them wrote it as it has also been ascribed variously to Michael Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Rainprechter, and, most recently, to Edmund Angerer.
Each of its three movements highlights the sounds of various toys and instruments. One can hear noisemakers rattling throughout the first movement, while in the second movement, sounds of birds such as the cuckoo and nightingale call out; in the third, the trumpets make themselves heard.
Composed in the mid-1700s, the Toy Symphony first appeared with only the last name “Haydn” appended to it. Around that time, a story surfaced that Franz Joseph Haydn had composed the piece after buying several toys at a fair. He presumably then played the work for his children at a Christmas party. Because it did not appear in Haydn’s self-assembled catalog of his compositions, however, scholars became suspicious and started to try to figure out who else could have composed it.
The piece is now commonly credited to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s father and teacher, Leopold, who may have also composed a similar work, The Musical Sleigh-Ride. Throughout his life, Leopold hand-copied pieces he admired, and thus it came as no big surprise when it was recently established that Leopold’s Sleigh-Ride most likely originated in songs written by different musicians from around Berchtesgaden, a city that produced many toy musical instruments at the time.
It’s possible that the composer of the Toy Symphony wanted to remain anonymous because he, like the 19th-century composer of the Carnival of the Animals, Camille Saint-Saëns, did not want the work to be considered alongside his more serious compositions. Yet music professor, researcher, cellist, and conductor Seymour Benstock (1922-2015) in a 2013 book, Did You Know? A Music Lover’s Guide to Nicknames, Titles and Whimsy, concluded that the work is “partly” by Leopold Mozart, “with major contributions” by Franz Joseph Haydn’s younger brother, Johann Michael Haydn (1737-1806). The three movements were listed as part of a Divertimento or Symphonie Burlesque (Hob: II. 47), yet already this, too, is thought to be spurious.
The Toy Symphony appears under the name of Children’s Symphony (“Kinder-Sinfonie”) in Berchtolds-Gaden Musick, a collection of works by Edmund Angerer (1740-1794), an Austrian composer, church musician, and Benedictine monk. Angerer compiled Berchtolds-Gaden Musick, around 1765; it was a “hit” of its time. In 1922, a manuscript was discovered that seems to authenticate his claim to the work, although some argue that even this manuscript might be merely a transcription; nevertheless, Angerer’s Berchtolds-Gaden Musick is the oldest known record that exists of the symphony; it features “toy” instruments including toy trumpet, rattle, triangle, toy drum, whistle, quail, whistle cuckoo, whistle bird warbler for the nightingale, and an organ stop of high-pitched rotating bells (cimbelstern).
What is generally known as the Toy Symphony has three movements, but in Leopold’s version there are actually four additional movements, making a total of seven altogether, which would make the work fit the form of the more easy-going multi-movement cassation, popular in southern Germany and Austria at the time. A cassation is a work in a musical genre related to the serenade and divertimento; in it loosely joined together sets of short movements were played by chamber orchestras in outdoor performances. It is only in this three-movement form that the work popularly known as the Toy Symphony fits within the symphonic tradition.
The brief, amusing and lively work has three movements: Allegro, Menuetto with trio, and Finale: Allegro.
The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant, for Speaker and Orchestra
(Born January 7, 1899, in Paris; died there January 30, 1963)
Francis Poulenc was the youngest of the French composers who in 1920 were dubbed “The Six,” the group that was to turn French music away from stultifying formality, elevated pretense, and empty pomp. Poulenc, Milhaud, and Honegger, of this gifted sextet, went on to great careers, but the others are now not really performed. Poulenc was known during his lifetime as a man of urbanity and wit, qualities that appeared conspicuously in his music even when, late in life, he turned with increasing frequency to religious subjects. The pleasing good humor of his instrumental music and its melodic charm combined to make his works durable.
For one reason or another, about a dozen different beasts of land and sea became the subjects of his musical compositions. One was a ballet called The Model Animals, after the fables of La Fontaine. Babar, the little elephant of the famous children’s books by Jean de Brunhoff, also entered his catalog and in a quite unique way. One day in 1940, at a gathering of his large and prosperous family in a country house in central France, the composer was sitting at the piano playing some of his own music, when a four-year-old niece said to him, “Here, play this for me,” and tossed her Babar book onto the piano. Poulenc, amused, immediately began to improvise music appropriate to the story and pictures, and little by little, the children in the house gathered at the piano to hear Uncle Francis’ extraordinary performance.
Some time afterward, Poulenc committed these Babar improvisations to paper with the music and words carefully laid out to show the reader and pianist how they fit together. When it was published, he dedicated the work to his nine young relatives and their friends who had been there that day.
Jean Françaix arranged the work for orchestra. It is scored for piccolo and two flutes, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, two horns, two trumpets, trombone tuba, percussion, harp, and strings.