The Wasps Overture
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Born October 12, 1872, in Down Ampney; died August 26, 1958, in London
After a long and undistinguished period of music composition in England, a new school of interesting nationalist composers came into existence there in the early years of the 20th century. In their music, they gave traditional and historical English music a new place in musical life. They systematically collected and studied their country’s folk music and revived the great works that their countrymen had written from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Vaughan Williams was the greatest of these activist-composers who also wrote, taught, played, and conducted in concert halls, churches, theaters, and schools.
Vaughan Williams received a rigorous classical and musical education, studied in Berlin with Max Bruch, and, even after he had earned his doctorate from Cambridge University, went to Paris to polish his technique under the tutelage of Ravel. In the course of his long career, he composed nine symphonies, five operas, and a large number of works in almost every imaginable musical form.
In 1909, the Greek Play Committee at Cambridge University commissioned him to write incidental music for a production of Aristophanes’ satirical play, The Wasps. He composed an overture and seventeen pieces for tenor and baritone soloists with male chorus and small orchestra, which he later arranged for full symphony orchestra. Only the Overture, a brilliant compendium of many tunes in the style of folk songs, which begins with onomatopoeic buzzing, is now frequently played. The music debuted at the performance of the play on November 26, 1909, when it was a big success. A few years later, Vaughan Williams extracted what he called an Aristophanic Suite from his incidental music; the Suite premiered on July 23, 1912, with the composer conducting the New Symphony Orchestra at Queens Hall, London.
Generally, the only part of the Suite that has remained in the repertory is the Overture. At the overture’s beginning, the angry wasp sound indicates the dicasts (an ancient Athenian performing the functions of both judge and juror at a trial. A dicast was an Athenian citizen whose eagerness for litigation was reinforced by the pay he received for sitting on the judge’s bench.) The buzzing is followed by a sequence of upbeat melodies before more restrained music is introduced, but suddenly the wasps reappear as the tempo speeds up again. The melodies of the opening return as the overture closes in a spirited manner.
Even though the music contains no actual folk songs, it is infused with the spirit of English folk song. Vaughan Williams also could not include any ancient Greek scales or quotations from Greek music as they are no longer extant. A hint of the use of the whole tone scale is evident, but that can perhaps be accounted for because of the modal influence of folk-song. The musical themes derive from the characters in the play, and the overture, overall, is in sonata form.
It is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, harp, and strings.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn; died March 26, 1827, in Vienna
Early in his career, Beethoven took Mozart’s piano concerti as his model, expanding and adapting their form and idiom into his own style of execution and for the newly improved instrument that the piano of his time had become. Carl Czerny (1791-1857), Beethoven’s pupil and Liszt’s teacher, who is remembered now only as the composer of piano study material, wrote, “Beethoven’s playing was notable for its tremendous power, unheard of bravura and facility. He had practiced day and night during his youth and worked so hard that his health suffered. Beethoven’s playing of slow and sustained music made an almost magical impression on the listener and, so far as I know, has never been surpassed.” Beethoven viewed himself as Mozart had, as both pianist and composer.
Today both listeners and scholars understand Beethoven’s first three piano concerti as amplifications and modernizations of Mozart’s concerti. When young Beethoven made his first public appearance in Vienna, on March 29, 1795, at a concert for the benefit of the Widows and Orphans Fund of the Society of Musicians, he played this concerto in its first version. He had probably begun to work on it in 1793 or earlier, but two days before the concert, according to an account of the event by one of his friends, he had still not written out all the musical revisions. He worked on the last movement “while suffering from a severe colic, which frequently afflicted him. I relieved him with simple remedies as best I could, while in the next room sat four copyists to whom we handed page after page of music” from which they hurriedly prepared the parts for the accompanying orchestra.
After the premiere, Beethoven revised the concerto and finalized its form into its present version for his visit to Prague in 1798. Although it actually came first in order of composition, it is known as Piano Concerto No. 2 because it was second in order of publication. It was not published until 1801. Beethoven often played it in later years, too, and around 1809, he wrote out a long first-movement solo cadenza, which, until then, he had usually improvised at each performance. Beethoven undervalued this charming concerto, which may have been why he held it back until after his later concerto had had a public hearing. He told his publisher, “I don’t consider it one of my best works.”
The first movement is a long and thoroughly developed Allegro con brio, in which the piano does not enter until after the orchestral exposition. After a traditional virtuoso display opportunity for the piano and an interesting dialogue between piano and orchestra in which they interact with exchanges of fragments of themes, just before the end of the first movement, is a substantial and demanding cadenza for the piano, which Beethoven wrote out completely. In the second movement, a serious and expressive Adagio, the soloist and orchestra share a pensive dialogue on a single subject. A syncopated refrain that returns several times dominates the highly rhythmic final rondo, Molto allegro.
The accompanying orchestra includes flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and strings.
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Ludwig van Beethoven
In Beethoven’s fertile creative life, no time was more productive than the years 1805 and 1806. During these two years, in his mid-thirties, Beethoven proved he was not just another young composer of great promise but the mature possessor of musical powers without precedent.
He completed Piano Concerto No. 4 sometime around the middle of 1806; he performed as soloist in its March 1807 premiere in one of a pair of private concerts devoted entirely to his music at the palace of his generous friend, Prince Lobkowitz. In August 1808, the concerto was published with a dedication to Archduke Rudolph, the Emperor’s youngest son, who had been studying piano and composition with Beethoven since 1804. Beethoven was eager to give a public performance of the concerto, but he had difficulty in getting a hall on a good date. A single official of the Imperial Court was both director of theaters and supervisor of charities; he finally gave Beethoven free use of the Theater-an-der-Wien on December 22, 1808, in exchange for his services at three benefit concerts.
Concerto No. 4 had difficulty joining the standard repertoire. Its immediate antecedent, Piano Concerto No. 3, is easier to play, and Piano Concerto No. 5 is more imposing. Both overshadowed this work, but finally, about a decade after Beethoven’s death, Mendelssohn established a place for Concerto No. 4 in the concert repertoire in his second season as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus (Draper Hall) Orchestra. On November 3, 1838, Robert Schumann wrote, “Today Mendelssohn played the G-Major Concerto of Beethoven with a power and polish that transported us all. I took a pleasure in it such as I have never before enjoyed, and I sat in my seat without moving a muscle or even breathing.” The enormously difficult concerto differs greatly from the usual virtuoso concerto of this time, as the purpose of all its difficulties is to express the composer’s complex ideas and not to show off the pianist’s skills. The orchestra does not just fill musical time and space around the soloist but participates fully and equally in a dialogue between orchestra and piano.
The first movement, Allegro moderato, does not open with the conventional orchestral exposition of the principal ideas, which until that time the soloist traditionally restated, weighted somewhat differently. Instead, here the piano begins with an ambiguous phrase, almost as though in mid-sentence. The orchestra answers, and only then begins the main theme. Phrases and musical sentences in piano and orchestra are often telescoped, run together as though in a rush to proceed to a new idea before having finished the old one. The ideas are warm, personal, witty, heroic, and severe, as the conversation takes many turns. This movement, by defying audience expectations, came as a shock to the audiences of the time; some even asserted that they were listening to ravings of a lunatic.
The second movement, Andante con moto, is also startlingly original. The piano persistently answers loud and forceful statements of the orchestra’s strings until the orchestra is calmed, as the alternations of solo and tutti draw closer together. The piano develops the musical ideas with passion and depth. A cadenza comes at the end of the movement; the music then runs without pause into the taut Rondo finale, Vivace. Characterized by a very rhythmic theme, the finale demonstrates how a simple subject can yield many rich variations and how masterfully, yet unpredictably, the piano and orchestra can relate to each other.
The work is scored for an accompanying orchestra of flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.