Program Notes: 1,001 Nights: Scheherazade
Jacksonville Symphony 2022/23 Florida Blue Classical Series
Franz Liszt’s Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem No. 3:
(World Premiere February 23, 1854; Weimar, Germany)
- Franz Liszt is celebrated as one of the 19th century’s greatest virtuoso pianists.
- He is credited with inventing the piano recital as we know it. Music historians also regard him as the inventor of the symphonic poem.
- He was also an influential patron and mentor of younger composers, particularly after 1850.
- His early career was mostly performing. From the late 1840s, he concentrated increasingly on composition.
Les Préludes was inspired by a prose interpretation of a poem by Alphonse de Lamartine. Liszt was a pioneer in writing orchestral pieces that were not symphonies. He preferred writing freeform pieces that were inspired by a painting, a poem or an idea and coined this specific method of composition. He would often accompany a single-movement orchestral piece with a written program that the audience was intended to read prior to hearing the performance. Such a program was not the same as the printed program notes that you are reading. Rather, it was a poem or other literary source intended to stimulate the listener’s imagination and subsequent grasp of the music. Today they are called symphonic poems, and Les Préludes is the finest one that Liszt composed. His score presents widely varied emotional states over the course of 16 minutes. Listen for pastoral beauty, spiritual tumult, sweeping passion and some truly memorable melodies.
Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, Op. 50:
(World Premiere November 25, 1888; Paris, France)
- Gabriel Fauré was a student, a contemporary and a colleague of legendary French composer Camille Saint-Saëns.
- Fauré spent most of his early career as a church organist and private music tutor.
- Large forms like symphony and concerto did not appeal to him. His finest music is in his songs and chamber music.
- He was deaf for the last 20 years of his life.
This seven-minute jewel encapsulates all the features that make Fauré’s music so popular. With heartwarming melodies throughout and a distinctly French flair, the Pavane charms from beginning to end. Pavane is a 16th century dance that originated in Italy and became popular as well in France, Spain and England. When he composed his Pavane in 1887, Fauré spent the summer of this year in Dieppe on the Normandy coast. His hostess was Countess Elizabeth Greffulhe who entertained the nobles of Parisian society during the season. The Pavane was his only new piece that summer. He wrote it at the behest of Jules Danbé, conductor at the Opéra Comique in Paris, which had burnt on May 25 of that year. Awaiting its reconstruction, Danbé formed the Danbé Concerts Orchestra. No program has survived to document Danbé’s premiere, but it clearly pleased listeners, for the conductor Charles Lamoureux had added the Pavane to his repertoire by the following spring. This piece features a lovely, plaintive melody and delicate orchestration, highlighting Fauré’s gift for elegant composition.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade:
(World Premiere November 3, 1888; Saint Petersburg, Russia)
- Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov spent his career as an officer in the navy, but his passion was music.
- A superb orchestrator, he is considered a premier composer of the late 19th century.
- Eventually, he composed operas and wrote a treatise on orchestration.
The exotic harmonies of Eastern culture exerted a strong influence on Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition style. He derived a great deal of musical inspiration from the story The Thousand and One Nights, which was part of a collection of Middle Eastern and Indian stories whose date and authorship is unknown. This story tells the tale of Sultan Shakriar who is determined to put each of his wives to death after their first day of marriage. Clever Sultana Scheherazade saves herself one night after another by captivating her husband with different fairy tales and adventures. Driven by curiosity, the Sultan repeatedly postpones her execution, eventually abandoning his plan. Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece features an obbligato role for the Jacksonville Symphony’s concertmaster, Adelya Nartadjeva, whose recurring solo violin line represents the spellbinding voice of the Sultana. Scheherazade’s music is sinuous and seductive. The sultan’s theme, in the brasses, is barbaric and forceful. Colorful solos for nearly every instrument ingeniously weave together the different melodic lines that connect the music and evoke the magical spirit of The Thousand and One Nights. This piece perfectly demonstrates that Rimsky-Korsakov’s writing is enchanting and a perfect blend of exoticism and vivid orchestral color.
Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem No. 3:
Born October 22, 1811, in Raiding, Hungary | Died July 31, 1886, in Bayreuth, Germany
Although we might think of the Hungarian-born Liszt as a piano virtuoso first and a composer second, he had considerable impact on his era in other respects. Liszt is credited with inventing the piano recital as we know it. He was also an influential patron and mentor of younger composers, particularly after 1850. As an orchestral composer, Liszt eschewed traditional symphonies for the most part, favoring instead a new type of composition: the symphonic poem.
Liszt was an educated and literate man. He perceived an opportunity to merge different facets of romantic sensibility through program music. Descriptive overtures such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s Coriolan (1807) and Felix Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides (1829) prompted his thinking. In 1854, he coined the term “symphonic poem,” itself a combination of musical and literary terminology, as the subtitle for his latest orchestral work, Tasso. Eventually, he endowed the repertoire with a dozen examples of this new genre, all composed during the 13 years he spent in Weimar, Germany, from 1848 to 1861. Liszt’s widespread influence is eminently clear in the many tone poems of his younger contemporaries, most notably Richard Strauss.
If we sought one symphonic poem that both encompassed the sweeping passions of 19th century romanticism and embodied the tempestuous career of Liszt, Les Préludes would surely fit the bill. It has a bewildering and complex history. Les Préludes began as an overture to four choral settings of poetry by Joseph Autran. By the time Liszt completed the score in 1854, he had discarded the choral pieces, which were never published, and reworked the overture to comport with the verse and philosophy of a more prominent French poet: Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869). Liszt’s score acquired the heading Les Préludes (d’après Lamartine), connecting his music to the poet’s Méditations poétiques, a collection of 24 poems published in 1820. The link is strengthened by the composer’s famous remarks at the front of the score:
What is our life but a series of Preludes to that unknown song, the first solemn note of which is sounded by Death? The enchanted dawn of every existence is heralded by Love, yet in whose destiny are not the first throbs of happiness interrupted by storms?
The preface, which is more Liszt than Lamartine, provides the composer with latitude for widely contrasting emotional states: love and passion as well as the pastoral calm of nature’s beauty and spiritual conflict. They all find their way into the music. Through a process called thematic transformation (yet another Lisztian innovation), he moves through these widely varied states using only two basic themes. If Les Préludes is the only one of Liszt’s symphonic poems to have found a permanent place in classical repertoire, it deserves that berth because of its sweeping grandeur, poetic themes and inspired orchestration.
Instrumentation: The score calls for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani, side drum, cymbals, bass drum, harp and strings.
Pavane, Op. 50:
Born May 12, 1845, in Pamiers, Ariège, France | Died November 4, 1924, in Paris, France
This little seven-minute jewel encapsulates all the features that make Fauré’s music so popular. The title derives from the Italian pavana, a 16th century court dance in quadruple meter, usually slow and processional, and favoring continuous repetition of simple step patterns.
Keen to market this modest composition, Fauré added an optional chorus. He chose a text by Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fézensac who had become an important literary adviser. Montesquiou was a poet, essayist and art critic. He was also wealthy and first cousin to Countess Greffulhe. Fauré’s goal was to make the Pavane both danceable and singable, thus suitable for performance in the Countess’ elegant salon. The original instrumental version without chorus, which we hear at these performances, is ultimately more successful, benefitting from the inherent tastefulness of the composer’s first inspiration.
Instrumentation: woodwinds and horns in pairs, plus strings.
Born March 18, 1844, in Tikhvin, near Novgorod, Russia | Died June 21, 1908, in Liubensk, near Saint Petersburg, Russia
When he began to work on Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov had recently completed his friend Alexander Borodin’s unfinished opera, Prince Igor, whose music is heavily tinged with Eastern cultural elements. The exotic harmonies of Eastern culture exerted a strong influence on Rimsky’s own symphonic suite. In his memoirs, My Musical Life, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote of Scheherazade:
I had in view the creation of an orchestral suite in four movements, closely knit by the community of its themes and motives, yet presenting, as it were, a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Eastern character…All I desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Eastern narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders.
Curiously, in later life, Rimsky-Korsakov spoke of aversion to an overly specific program for the Suite. While he acknowledged that the solo violin represented the silken voice of the gifted Sultana as she related her stories, he held that his technique was a musical unifier, rather than a programmatic device. The composer wanted the story to act as a catalyst for each individual listener’s imagination rather than having us interpret the music as a literal illustration of the literary program.
Scheherazade was sketched in Saint Petersburg in early 1888 and completed during the summer while Rimsky-Korsakov was on holiday in the country. It was contemporary with his Russian Easter Overture, and the two works were premiered on the same concert that December. Along with his Capriccio Espagnol, Rimsky-Korsakov felt that Scheherazade and the overture, “close[d] a period in my work, at the end of which my orchestration had attained a considerable degree of virtuosity and warm sonority without [Richard] Wagnerian influence, limiting myself to the normally constituted orchestra used by [Mikhail] Glinka.”
Rimsky-Korsakov rightly regarded Scheherazade as the peak of his orchestration achievement. Perhaps the greatest marvel of this suite is that the composer succeeded so completely in evoking the lush, exotic culture of his subject. His work is a veritable festival for the orchestra, creating a unified celebration of a cherished and timeless story.
Instrumentation: three flutes (two doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones (third doubling bass trombone), tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, harp and strings
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2023