Program Notes: Tchaikovsky & Barber
Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Dramatic Overture:
World Premiere December 14, 1911; Leipzig, Germany (16 minutes)
- Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a child prodigy who was often compared to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
- His ballet The Snowman, composed when he was 11, became a Viennese sensation.
- He was already conducting major opera orchestras in his early 20s.
- Korngold moved to America in 1934.
- He became one of Hollywood’s greatest film composers, winning two Oscars®.
You may have already heard many of Korngold’s works. The swashbuckling Errol Flynn movies from the 1930s and 1940s — The Sea Hawk, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, Anthony Adverse and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex — all featured Korngold’s sweeping, lush scores. In astounding duality, Korngold was a master composer of classical music and wrote his amazing Dramatic Overture when he was only 14. As an adolescent, he produced other scores that elicited praise from Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. The Dramatic Overture dates from the summer of 1911 when he was on vacation with his parents in the beautiful Austrian Tyrol. It was also the first symphonic work for which he completed the orchestration without assistance. When his former teacher Alexander Zemlinsky examined the score, he is said to have exclaimed in amazement, “Erich, did you really create this orchestration by yourself?” Zemlinsky’s astonishment was well placed. When the distinguished Hungarian-born conductor Arthur Nikisch led the premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on December 14, 1911, both the audience and critics were impressed that such a confident, skilled composition had come from the pen of a teenager. A large movement of about 14 minutes, the Dramatic Overture shows Korngold’s exemplary skill at handling a large Symphony and organizing a lengthy movement. Dramatic outbursts and sweeping romantic themes underscore the overture’s theatrical character, heralding the genius he would show as an adult for descriptive music, on stage and on the cinematic screen.
Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, Op. 38:
World Premiere September 24, 1962; New York, New York (26 minutes)
- Samuel Barber combines European modernism with a unique American style.
- He was multi-lingual and lived in Italy for many years.
- Barber’s Adagio for Strings is a classical music “top 40” hit.
- Barber was a singer before he was a composer, explaining why he favored lyrical themes.
- His warm, tonal vocabulary makes him one of the 20th century’s most beloved composers.
Barber’s work is one of the great American piano concerti. When Barber’s Piano Concerto was first performed in 1962, the New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg remarked, “It made a decided hit with the audience, and it may be that Mr. Barber has supplied a repertory piece.” The audience had good reason to be receptive. Barber’s piece is strong and virtuosic and was brilliantly premiered by pianist John Browning and the Boston Symphony under the baton of Erich Leinsdorf. Adding to the luster of this particular work were the circumstances of its commission. Barber’s publisher, the grand house of G. Schirmer, asked him to write a work in honor of their 100th year in business. They chose their composer well as the Piano Concerto earned Barber his second Pulitzer Prize in 1963. More than a purely virtuosic musical statement, it is exceptionally well written for the instrument. The Piano Concerto draws lyrical strength from the beauty and integrity of its melodies. His gift for orchestration colors the concerto with a rainbow of sound, and we can actually hear the dialogue between soloist and symphony as Barber develops his principal melodic ideas. Barber obviously gave careful thought to the pulse, for even his improvisatory, cadenza-like sections for solo piano have a clear sense of directional drive. This is not just music, nor a concerto solely for display. It is a living, breathing masterpiece that is filled with profound, melodic expression.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36:
World Premiere February 22, 1878; Moscow, Russia (44 minutes)
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was one of the greatest composers of the Romantic Era.
- Unlike his contemporaries, he was more in touch with Western forms and ideas.
- He is especially beloved for his ballets, concertos and symphonies.
- He always poured his emotions into his music, and connections to his life story can be found within their passages.
- Many of his compositions have other programs or narratives associated with them.
Tchaikovsky’s hugely popular Fourth Symphony needs little introduction. It is sometimes called the “Fate” Symphony, and the work earned its nickname from Tchaikovsky’s own description. At the start, a powerful brass fanfare represents this motif of fate. Over the course of four movements, we experience a gradual progression to a more tranquil state of mind. An elegant oboe solo dominates the slow movement, which is ruminative but less emotionally charged than the first movement. The Scherzo lightens matters considerably. Listen for section solos in the Scherzo: first plucked strings, followed by a woodwind choir and then all brass. After each section has its turn, the three are interwoven to conclude the movement in anticipation of the brilliant finale. By the time we reach the finale, Tchaikovsky has transformed his message to a blaze of optimism. The finale explodes with a brilliant, festive flourish in F-major, immediately declaring a positive resolution to all the uncertainty and challenges of the symphony’s first half. The fate motif from the first movement recurs. Presently, Tchaikovsky recalls passages from the second and third movements as well, intermingling them with the adapted strains of a traditional folk song. Every moment of this work’s journey is a pleasure, and it is indisputable that Tchaikovsky’s music still has a profound effect on audiences more than 140 years after it was first performed.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Born May 29, 1897, in Brno, Czechoslovakia | Died November 29, 1957, in Hollywood, California
Erich Wolfgang Korngold was not only one of the greatest film composers in Hollywood history but was also a child composition prodigy. He published a piano trio at age 12, and by the time he was 16, both Arthur Nikisch and Felix Weingartner had conducted his music in Vienna.
His meteoric career expanded to cinema in 1929 when he began working with the Austrian director Max Reinhardt. Inevitably, involvement in the film industry took him across the Atlantic to Hollywood. Because of the rise of Nazism, Korngold eventually settled permanently in Southern California, changing his citizenship in 1943.
Korngold’s Dramatic Overture was an early masterpiece, written when young Korngold was only 14. The influence of Richard Strauss is apparent in Korngold’s lush, post-romantic themes and extravagant deployment of the large orchestra. The structure is free but linked to sonata form with a slow introduction and distinct themes that dominate the allegro section.
When the Overture was premiered, listeners debated which specific drama was intimated by the generic title. An apocryphal story holds that Korngold’s father, the prominent music critic Julius Korngold, started a rumor that Erich had based the piece on William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Other listeners, including Korngold’s son, Ernst, years later, interpreted its dramatic content as hewing to that of The Tempest. Korngold himself never identified a particular play, making his piece and its inspiration a mystery.
Instrumentation: two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, xylophone, harp and strings.
Piano Concerto, Op. 38
Born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania | Died January 23, 1981, in New York City, New York
Barber is best known as a composer of vocal music and with good reason. His aunt was the prominent contralto Louise Homer, and young Barber boasted a fine baritone voice. In fact, he intended to be a professional singer and came to composition relatively late. However, his careful study of the voice and innate understanding of its capabilities governed even his instrumental compositions. Barber has a gift for marrying the percussion of Béla Bartók with the heavy chromaticism and brilliant pianism of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin. For the premiere, the composer provided the following remarks about the first movement.
“The Concerto begins with a solo for piano in recitative style in which three themes or figures are announced, the first declamatory, the second and third rhythmic. The orchestra interrupts to sing the impassioned main theme, not previously stated. All this material is now embroidered more quietly and occasionally whimsically by piano and orchestra until the tempo slackens and the oboe introduces a second lyric section. A development along symphonic lines leads to a cadenza for soloist and a recapitulation with fortissimo ending.”
The slow movement, Canzone, has taken on a life of its own. Barber published it separately for flute and piano as Opus 38a. Alvin Ailey choreographed it in 1969 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as Poeme. Mikhail Baryshnikov was also attracted to this lovely, lyrical movement, commissioning new choreography for Washington’s National Ballet in 1981. In the Concerto, the oboist is a close runner-up to the flute as co-star. Undulating piano figuration smooths the flow of this music.
For the finale, Barber chooses 5/8 meter. Any irregularity seems to disappear with Bartókian efficiency as the pulsing energy of this Allegro molto sweeps us along. An ostinato in the lower register of the piano establishes perpetual motion. Midway through the movement, clarinet and xylophone relieve the tension in a striking duet. The soloist has only a momentary reprieve, however, driving the concerto relentlessly to its conclusion with an exhilarating burst of energy.
Instrumentation: three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, small side drum without snares, tom-toms, triangle, tam-tam, xylophone, crotales, whip, harp, solo piano and strings.
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Pennsylvania | Died January 23, 1981, in New York City, New York
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is inextricably entwined with the emotional state of his life during the year of 1877. That was the year 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. 1877 was also the year that Antonina Milyukova, a former student of Tchaikovsky’s, wrote to him with declarations of love, inexplicably prompting him to propose to her, marry her and leave her within a matter of months. Thereafter, Tchaikovsky sought refuge in the countryside, in his correspondence and in composing. Increasingly, Tchaikovsky turned to Madame von Meck for spiritual guidance, as confidant and as muse. This symphony was the first work he dedicated to her. He called it “our symphony” in his letters to her.
In one letter to Madame von Meck, he sketched a program, identifying the opening brass fanfare as “Fate…the sword of Damocles that hangs over our head.” The second theme group he calls a “dream world…escape from reality.” A third theme combines musical elements from the other two and allows Tchaikovsky to develop his material into a colossal and intense opening movement.
The slow movement features a powerful oboe solo, one of that instrument’s outstanding moments in symphonic literature. Tchaikovsky abates the tension of the first movement but does not obliterate its impact. The passionate conclusion is a reminder of the tumult that opened the symphony. The delightful Scherzo features the orchestra section by section: first strings in a virtuoso pizzicato display, then woodwinds in lyrical contrast and then boisterous brass. The quotations from the first three movements make the symphony a cyclic structure. Despite references to the “fate” motif, Tchaikovsky succeeds in erasing any uncertainty in a fiery, exciting conclusion. Scholars and musicians are still debating the extent to which the Fourth Symphony is an emotional autobiography for its composer. Regardless of its connection, the piece remains a fixture in classical repertoire that inspires listeners with its brilliance.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, piccolo, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum and strings.
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2023