Program Notes: Mozart’s Dream

Program Notes, Laurie Shulman

Overture to The Bartered Bride 
Bedřich Smetana
Born: March 2, 1824 in Litomyšl, Czechoslovakia
Died: May 12, 1884 in Prague

 

The exuberant opening fanfare of Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride seems so familiar that one can hardly imagine the world of orchestral music without it. Yet this overture and the opera it precedes were landmarks for the nineteenth century. The Bartered Bride was the pivotal work toward the foundation of a Czech national opera. It was also the first comic opera for Czechoslovakia, and did much to spread Smetana’s reputation outside his homeland. The strong hold it has secured in international opera houses, and the immense popularity of the overture, are even more remarkable when we consider that The Bartered Bride was only Smetana’s second opera.

When visiting the German city of Weimar in 1857, Smetana took umbrage when a Viennese conductor made a disparaging remark about Czech composers. Conceding that Czechs were competent instrumental players, the fellow insisted that as composers they lacked individuality and national character. Incensed, Smetana determined to prove him wrong, and The Bartered Bride was the vehicle he chose as his proof. He completed it in 1865.

The opera celebrates ordinary people in ordinary situations, and as such breaks from the tradition of opera subjects focusing on the nobility. One of Smetana’s diary entries from 1865 reads:

I determined to try and see whether, if I succeeded in writing in a lighter style, I could not prove to all my opponents that I knew my way about very well in the minor musical forms, a thing they disputed, considering me to be too confirmed a Wagnerian to manage it. I sought also to preserve the national character of the music everywhere.

He did succeed admirably, beginning with the brilliant overture, whose music has a folk flavor but no actual folk tunes. Smetana hints at the material used for the marriage contract in the second act of the opera, thus binding the overture thematically with the drama. But the overture stands independently, vigorous, energetic music that celebrates the sheer joy of being alive. As such, it is fine tribute indeed to the ebullient spirit of Smetana’s mid-nineteenth-century homeland.

Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in C, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, tenor and bass trombone, timpani and strings

 

Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born: January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791 in Vienna, Austria

Mozart and the piano concerto

No 18th-century composer was more central to the development of the piano concerto than Mozart. If you think about it, he was a natural: an immensely gifted keyboard player with an equally virtuosic command of violin, who understood both the art and craft of orchestral composition. The remarkable development of his genius may be traced through his keyboard concertos, which, along with his operas, are regarded by most musicians and connoisseurs to represent the apogee of his achievement.

The conventional number of concertos for piano associated with Mozart is twenty-seven. Of those, the first seven are arrangements of works by other composers – sometimes a different composer for each movement, in a sort of pastiche. They are likely the result of assignments that Mozart’s father gave him to transfer keyboard sonatas to the orchestral realm, incorporating piano solo. The first original works date from the 1770s, when Mozart was still in Salzburg.

His move to Vienna in 1781 unleashed the richest period of his creativity, particularly in the areas of opera and the piano concerto. Seventeen concertos date from the Vienna years, concentrated in the first half of the decade. Beginning in 1782 and continuing through 1785, Mozart produced a steady stream of solo concertos that represent, collectively, one of western music’s greatest achievements. Among those seventeen was this weekend’s concerto.

 

Yin/Yang: a pair of concertos – but not peas in a pod

Mozart completed the great D minor concerto, K.466, and this one in C, K.467, within four weeks of one another. In so doing, he complied with a pattern that recurred several times in his career, pairing two works of like origin and genre, but vastly different in their atmosphere and overall message. Other such examples are the two piano quartets, K.478 in G minor and K.493 in E-flat, and the late string quintets, K.515 in C and 516 in G minor. Where the D minor piano concerto was passionate and stormy, the C major that followed is resolute and positive, unflinching in the majesty and supreme control of its outer movements. Though the two works are almost exactly contemporary, they are spiritual opposites.

With these two concerti, Mozart leapfrogged ahead of himself in form and in orchestration. His concept of the piano concerto expanded, not only in the length of the works themselves, but in his treatment of piano plus orchestra, which leans more toward symphony in these works. This concept was to dominate all his subsequent concertos.

The famous Andante to the C major concerto achieved pop-hit status as part of the soundtrack to Bo Widerberg’s 1967 film Elvira Madigan. It is unique among Mozart’s concerto slow movements. Gentle triplets provide pulsing accompaniment beneath seamless, shimmering melody. This music is long-winded in the best sense. The strings play with mutes, further sweetening the sound. Philip Radcliffe has written:

In this movement, if anywhere, Mozart can be seen as the forerunner of the 19th century. The dissonances in the second subject have the vivid foretaste of Schumann and the way in which they gently melt into the major key is equally prophetic of Schubert. The variety of phrase-lengths gives a fascinatingly rhapsodic feeling to the music and there is much unobtrusive skill in the way in which the background of throbbing triplets is shifted periodically from one tone-color to another.

What a surprise to discover that such ineffably lovely music is in sonata form!

The finale returns to the grandeur of the opening movement, perhaps with a touch of mischief, but equally bright, assertive and confident in its demeanor. Mozart’s balance of superb orchestral writing, brilliant pianistic passages, and delicate woodwind commentary is masterful.

Both outer movements allow for a solo cadenza.

Instrumentation: flute, two oboes, two bassoons, pairs of horns and trumpets in C, timpani, solo piano and strings

 

Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op.70
Antonín Dvořák
Born: September 8, 1841 in Mühlhausen, Bohemia
Died: May 1, 1904 in Prague

 

When Dvořák’s beloved mother died in December 1882, his immediate musical response was the intensely emotional Piano Trio in F-minor, Op.65, one of his deepest, most profoundly tragic compositions. Next he undertook a symphony, because the Philharmonic Society of London had requested one on the heels of Dvořák’s first, highly successful trip to England. When he set to work on the English commission late in 1884, the painful emotional loss he had suffered was clearly still with him. The D minor symphony was serious and tragic, probably the darkest-hued symphonic canvas that Dvořák ever painted.

One year prior, Dvořák had heard Johannes Brahms’s Third Symphony in Vienna. That work made an enormous impression on him, and the seeds for his own new symphony were planted. By December 1884 he was immersed in the piece, writing to his friend Judge Antonín Rus:

I am just occupied by the new Symphony (for London) and everywhere I go I think of nothing else than my work, which must be such as to shake the world, and with God’s help it will be so!

The symphony caused him considerable trouble. He composed three different beginnings before one of them satisfied him. Part of the challenge was his desire to release himself from the stereotype of Czech music. Even though his audiences loved that aspect of his work, with the D minor Symphony he strove to meet more international musical standards.

 

Viennese models: Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert

The result is a powerful composition that takes Beethoven and Brahms for its models, rather than Slavonic folk music. Only the last two movements have a specifically Czech flavor. Dvořák’s deft orchestration and rich melodies also recall Schubert in a symphony that is exceptionally well-written for strings. The work was received with great enthusiasm at its London premiere, and critics compared it favorably with Schubert’s “Great” C-major Symphony and with the Brahms Third. The composer’s biographer John Clapham has written: “Without doubt this must surely be Dvořák’s greatest symphony.”

 

Slow movement and scherzo: interior power

One of the symphony’s strengths is the power of its inner movements. Poco adagio is nothing short of sublime, a glorious movement by any standard. In F major, it is framed by a section that returns to close, eloquent in its expression of peace and faith. Dvořák skillfully shifts back and forth from this serene music to a more anxious mode, resolving to a tranquil atmosphere. On its heels, the angry Scherzo vivace bursts forth. Its nervous agitation derives from Dvořák’s clever superimposition of two tunes, one in 6/4 meter, the other in 3/2. The pull of cross-rhythms is like that of a Czech furiant, and the effect is electrifying.

Dvořák sustains the tension in his finale, which navigates smoothly amid a profusion of themes. Cast in sonata form, the finale boasts a spine-tingling development section and startling harmonies that return at the close.

 

Numbering confusion

The Seventh Symphony was mistakenly known as No. 2 for many years because it was the second of Dvořák’s symphonies to be published. Seven is the correct and accepted modern numbering.

Instrumentation: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in B-flat, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings

 

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2021