If the names Beatrice and Benedict (aka Benedick) sound familiar, it's possible you saw Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh play those roles in Branagh's 1993 film of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Opera lovers are less familiar with Berlioz's last stage work, Béatrice et Bénédict. Its bubbly overture, however, has become a concert favorite.
Berlioz became a passionate Shakespearean advocate in 1827 when he saw the Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia in a Parisian performance of Hamlet. As early as 1833, he considered a musical adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, but other projects intervened and he set the sketches aside -- for three decades.
Upon resuming the Much Ado project in 1860, he crafted his own libretto based on a French translation of the play. Berlioz was more attuned to tragedy than to comedy. Béatrice et Bénédict was a happy exception. His overture is brimful of good humor, further leavened by the charm of light opera.
A brilliant Allegro opens the movement, followed by a sedate, lyrical Andante, then another brisk Allegro. Two melodies from the opera provide the principal thematic material. After a hiccupy start, Berlioz moves to his Andante section. Horns and solo clarinet usher in one of those long-breathed melodies for which Berlioz is celebrated. This brief interlude establishes the romantic aspects of the opera as a complement to the sharp-tongued comedy of the outer sections. A shimmering transition anticipates the main body of the concluding Allegro, in which Berlioz develops the opening material at a breathtaking pace.
Soprano saxophone is not your everyday solo instrument. That was precisely the attraction for Heitor Villa-Lobos, whose imagination responded to unusual instrumental timbres. He wrote concertos for other largely neglected instruments, including harp, harmonica, and guitar. His colorful compositions, which include the famous series of Bachianas Brasileiras, have weathered changing musical tastes in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Villa-Lobos lived in Paris in the 1920s, absorbing the dizzying cultural atmosphere of this rich time in the French capital. He was stubborn in his loyalty to his native Brazil, however, asserting that he had learned music "from a bird in the jungles of Brazil, not from academics." After Paris, he was based in Rio de Janeiro for the rest of his life, though he continued to travel.
During his Paris sojourn, Villa-Lobos met the French virtuoso saxophonist Marcel Mule while guest conducting; Mule was playing in the orchestra. The leader of the Paris Saxophone Quartet, Mule also taught at Paris’ National Conservatory of Music. Several years later, Villa-Lobos heard Mule play again and was enchanted by the Frenchman’s distinctive sound. In 1948, he sent this Fantasia to Mule in Paris. Ironically, Mule never performed it, and the premiere took place in Rio in 1951. The piece remained unpublished until 1963.
Though the repertoire for soprano saxophone and orchestra is not large, the Fantasia is certainly the best-known example. Villa-Lobos preferred the title Fantasia because it freed him from traditional form and permitted focus on instrumental color. As in most of his music, he infused this Fantasia with Brazilian-flavored melodies, dance rhythms, and harmonies; for example, the first section introduces the Brazilian modinha, a type of sentimental song. Essentially, it adheres to a traditional fast-slow-fast arrangement, with considerable contrast between movements. The second and third sections are often played without pause. Villa-Lobos’s attention to the soloist’s articulation is meticulous throughout, and his finale requires extensive double-tonguing.
The score calls for solo soprano saxophone, three horns, and strings.
Okay, we all know his name from a slew of popular film scores: Jaws, The Paper Chase, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, The Towering Inferno, Superman, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial . . . the list is very long. What you may not realize is that he began writing for cinema in the early 1960s and has continued his long string of cinematic hits for more than forty years.
John Williams, it turns out, is also a composer of serious concert music, including a number of orchestral and choral works extending back to the 1960s and more than a half-dozen instrumental concertos. His Escapades for saxophone and orchestra is a relatively recent addition to this series of concerted pieces. In this case, however, it is a direct outgrowth of one of Williams’s film scores.
Master con artist on the silver screen
The source is Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, and Nathalie Baye. The plot is based on the autobiography of Frank Abagnale Jr., a teenager in New Rochelle, New York who conned his way into millions of dollars via check forgery, impersonation, and other crimes. His techniques were so sophisticated that the FBI – initially flummoxed by his criminal skill -- ultimately enlisted his assistance to pursue other felons.
In the composer’s words
Williams’s note in the published score to Escapades describes Catch Me If You Can as a ‘delightful departure’ for Spielberg and describes how his music took its impetus from the screenplay.
"The film is set in the now nostalgically tinged 1960s, and so it seemed to me that I might evoke the atmosphere of that time by writing a sort of impressionistic memoir of the progressive jazz movement that was then so popular. The alto saxophone seemed the ideal vehicle for this expression and the three movements of this suite are the result.
In “Closing In,” we have the music that relates to the often humorous sleuthing that took place in the story, followed by “Reflections,” which refers to the fragile relationships in Abagnale’s broken family. Finally, in “Joy Ride,” we have the music that accompanied Frank’s wild flights of fantasy that took him all around the world before the law finally reined him in.
In recording the soundtrack for this entertaining film, I had the services of saxophonist Dan Higgins, to whom I’m indebted for his virtuosic skill and beautiful sound. My greatest reward would be if other players of this elegant instrument might find some joy in this music." – John Williams
Williams describes his score as having ‘sixties swagger; a regressive loop, if you like.’ He acknowledges its whimsical flavor. “Jazzy music connects us with tension as the FBI is closing in,” he has said. “Frank’s music is always conceiving a new scam. It’s in his character – that little musical trigger takes us off on a new escapade.” Hence: the work’s title. Williams’s progressive jazz style is at once a salute to the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker and “an opportunity to revisit a part of myself that’s been lying dormant for a couple of decades.”
Who knew? Everyone who loves Williams’s magical film scores will appreciate the subtle, sexy, sinuous lines of Escapades.
Instrumentation: three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, three clarinets (two doubling bass clarinet), optional tenor saxophone, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, vibraphone, glockenspiel, marimba, chimes, xylophone, suspended cymbal, bass drum, bell tree, sleigh bells, triangle, chimes, tambourine, harp, piano, celesta, solo alto saxophone, and strings.
High maintenance composer
Tchaikovsky was the quintessential neurotic. As disdainful as we might be of that condition, his transference of neurosis into music is precisely the quality that makes him the most popular composer of all in the concert hall. We love his music because it makes no bones about being emotional, forthright, direct, over-the-top, what have you. Something in his melodies and orchestration and expressivity reaches deep within our souls. Yet we are not offended by this intrusion because it remains a private communication as processed through our individual listening experience. Perhaps we feel superior because most of us are not plagued with the myriad problems that tortured this complicated man. Perhaps we feel grateful for being spared his emotional trauma. Most likely, something abstract in his suffering comes through, in ways that let us know he understands the crises each of us experiences and resolves from day to day, month to month.
In fact, Tchaikovsky did lead a tumultuous life that was chock full of exciting, sometimes cataclysmic events. The Fourth Symphony is a prime example, not only dating from a chaotic time of emotional havoc in his life but also mirroring his struggle with that havoc. By the symphony’s conclusion, we have a sense that, at least temporarily, he has bested adverse circumstances, finding acceptance, resolution, and even triumph.
The Fourth Symphony is directly linked to the momentous events of the year 1877 when he began his remarkable correspondence with Nadejhda Filaretovna von Meck, the wealthy patron who was to provide both emotional sustenance (via her letters) and financial security to the composer for more than a decade. The same year, a former student of Tchaikovsky's wrote to him with declarations of love and threats of suicide, inexplicably prompting him to propose to her, marry her, and leave her within a matter of months. Desperate for emotional stability and wrestling with the torment of his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky sought refuge in countryside, correspondence, and composition.
Though sketches for the Fourth Symphony were substantially complete before the abortive marriage, its history cannot be separated from the anguish of those few unfortunate summer months. More and more, Tchaikovsky turned to Mme. von Meck for spiritual guidance, as confidante, as muse. The F-minor symphony was the first work he dedicated to her, and he called it "our symphony" in their correspondence.
Symphonic programme revealed in letters
The nickname “Fate Symphony” comes from Tchaikovsky's writings. In a letter to von Meck, he sketched a programme, identifying the opening fanfare as "Fate . . . the sword of Damocles that hangs over our head", and describing the main theme as "feelings of depression and hopelessness." The second theme group he called "dream world. . . escape from reality." How appallingly real all this must have seemed to him upon realizing the magnitude of the mistake he had made in marrying! The first movement is long and complicated – and shattering.
Tchaikovsky effects a necessary change in atmosphere with a plaintive oboe solo in the slow movement supported initially by pizzicato strings. Eventually the celli, solo bassoon, and violins have their turn at the oboe’s elegant theme.
In many ways the most successful and individual movement is the scherzo, which features the orchestra section by section: first the entire string complement in a virtuoso pizzicato display, then woodwinds in lyric contrast, then boisterous brass. The three groups are brilliantly interwoven to conclude the movement.
Cyclic finale: references to the earlier movements
An orchestral exclamation point ushers in the finale, enhanced by triangle, cymbals and bass drum. If we weren’t persuaded about the clouds dissipating in the scherzo, Tchaikovsky leaves no doubt now. He plunges us headlong into a village festival – initially. Eventually he reminds us of the power of fate, restating the fanfare from the first movement. The finale also recalls elements from the second and third movements. Lethargy evaporates in the fiery, exciting conclusion – but Tchaikovsky’s preoccupation with fate and its effect on human destiny is the message that lingers in the powerful Fourth Symphony.
© Laurie Shulman, 2018