February 2016 Program Notes
By Steven Ledbetter
Introduction to Roméo et Juliette for Orchestra, Opus 17
Louis‑Hector Berlioz was born in La Côte Saint‑André, Isère, France, on December 11, 1803, and died in Paris on March 8, 1869. He composed his “dramatic symphony” Romeo and Juliet, with a text by Emile Deschamps after Shakespeare, over a period of several years, completing the score on September 8, 1839, and conducting the first performance on November 24, 1839, in the auditorium of the Paris Conservatoire. The score for the introduction calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, two tenor tubas, ophicleide (a now obsolete instruments usually replaced by bass trombone), timpani and strings. Duration is about 5 minutes.
As a young student of composition in Paris, Berlioz’s enthusiasm was kindled by a series of new literary and musical experiences, each of which had something to do with the music he was to write, either in style or choice of subject matter. What arrived in the 1820s was a series of utterly new experiences: Shakespeare and Beethoven.
Berlioz was simply bowled over by performances of Hamlet and of Romeo and Juliet as performed by a touring English company. It led directly to the creation of Romeo and Juliet, which was also a response to his discovery of Beethoven. Romeo and Juliet is not an opera, not incidental music for a play, but rather—as Berlioz labeled it—a “dramatic symphony,” fusing extended orchestral passages with some songs and choral passages.
The instrumental introduction begins as a fugue—not an academic musical structure, but an expression of strife, of the street combats between the two rival families of the Montagues and the Capulets. It grows in intensity until the sudden arrival of the Duke, with horns and trombones blaring out a repeated-note figure demanding an end to the fighting. His command is restated until a certain measure of temporary calm takes over the streets of Verona.
Concerto No. 2 in B‑flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 83
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He began sketching the Piano Concerto No. 2 in the late spring of 1878 and completed the score at Pressbaum, near Vienna, on July 7, 1881. After a private tryout with Hans von Bülow and the Meiningen Orchestra, Brahms gave the first performance on November 9, 1881, in Budapest, with Alesander Erkel conducting the orchestra of the National Theater. The orchestral part calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. Duration is about 46 minutes.
The two piano concertos by Johannes Brahms are works of, respectively, youth and maturity. Brahms himself wrote to his good friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, after the disastrous reception accorded the First in Leipzig, “A second one will sound very different.” No doubt at the time, he was simply reacting to the experience of hearing his own work with a sure awareness of how much he had grown during its gestation; another concerto would naturally reflect that accumulated experience and perhaps be accomplished with less strain. But it was more than two decades before Brahms returned to the medium of the piano concerto. In that time he himself had changed from a sensitive youth, a clean‑shaven stripling of great beauty with flowing blond locks, out of whom surged passionate and demanding music, into a portly and middle‑aged figure with the familiar full beard that may have served as a kind of mask, symbolizing his desire for personal privacy, whose music contained more repose and poignancy.
The D-minor concerto, coming at a time of disappointment, frustration and doubt, caused Brahms enormous trouble. He reused parts of it for his German Requiem and he waited years to hear it, only to have an openly hostile audience. Between the two concertos Brahms composed three major sets of variations—two for piano, on themes by Handel and Paganini, and one for two pianos, later orchestrated, on a theme attributed to Haydn—as well as three string quartets, three piano trios, two string sextets, the piano quintet, the first two symphonies, the violin concerto, and over a hundred small vocal and choral works, as well as the German Requiem and other choral works with orchestra.
By the time he came to write the Second Concerto, he had gotten over the fear of Beethoven’s ghost hovering behind him. The second concerto reached completion with fewer frustrations, and though Brahms (as usual) remained diffident about letting it out into the world without a private hearing first, he was self‑confident enough to indulge in the eccentricities of those who need not especially worry about what others think of them: the famous beard, probably the fullest in the history of music, was a recent acquisition. When he finished the piece on July 7, 1881, he wrote to Elisabeth von Herzogenberg that very day to describe his newly finished score coyly as “a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo”—thus jokingly describing one of the most monumental of all piano concertos, and one with a giant scherzo. Similarly he wrote his chamber music companion, Dr. Theodore Billroth that he had written “a few little piano pieces,” wondering whether he hadn’t “milked the B‑flat cow” a little too often (a reference, perhaps, to several earlier works in that key—a string sextet, a string quartet, and the Haydn Variations among them—as well as to the realization that three of the four movements in the concerto are in the tonic). But he surely recognized the new ease of his mastery, and he dedicated the concerto to his Hamburg teacher Eduard Marxsen, who had taught him, decades before, the elements of classical shaping and repose that he had now clearly mastered so thoroughly.
From the start, the concerto was well received, and Brahms performed it in twelve different cities, ranging from Hungary to the Baltic, during the winter of 1881‑82 (including two performances with different orchestras in his old home town of Hamburg). The response must have been especially sweet after the chilly reception accorded the First Concerto so long before.
Throughout the concerto Brahms reworks the traditional relationship between soloist and orchestra, so that his “classical” forms are anything but sterile repetitions of past composers. So thoroughly and in so many original ways did piano and orchestra interact that many commentators thought of the work as a “symphony with obbligato piano” rather than a concerto. But Brahms was simply expanding imaginatively on the concertos of Mozart and Beethoven, both of whom found many varied ways to combine the orchestra (or parts of it) with the soloist.
Still, the symphonic construction, the wide‑ranging harmonic sweep, the complete omission of the traditional cadenza at the end of the movement (replaced, in a sense, by a kind of solo “cadenza” at the very opening!), the enormous demands made on the pianist in terms of sheer fingers, not to mention dynamics and musical interpretation, the greater clarity and variety of orchestral color and expressive mood, while still showing the composer’s unsurpassed powers of variation, linking and development of ideas from one another—all these features made the opening movement a capstone for the concerto repertory.
The most unusual feature of the Second Concerto is the presence of a full‑scale scherzo movement, making it one of the few four‑movement concertos in existence. (Brahms had earlier toyed with, and rejected, the notion of a scherzo for the Violin Concerto.) Brahms explained the addition in a letter to his friend and chamber music partner Billroth by saying that the opening movement—in a rather broad, not very fast, tempo—was “too simple”; he wanted something passionate as a change of pace before moving on to the slow movement, with its ravishing cello solo. He wrote both of the first two movements with endings clearly designed to generate audience applause. (The tradition of not applauding between movements is a very recent one, and one that certainly does not reflect the response demanded of listeners in these two sections.)
The slow movement begins with that wonderful cello solo, which gradually becomes intertwined with other ideas; it is so characteristic of a sustaining instrument like the cello that the piano never attempts it, but offers either to decorate it or to simplify it. Like the opening, the Finale is “fast but not really fast,” with a touch of lightheartedness and an occasional bow to the gypsy music that was so popular a style in the romantic era.
Suites No. 1 and 2 from Romeo and Juliet for Orchestra, Opus 64bis, Opus 64ter
Sergei Sergeyevitch Prokofiev was born in Sontzovka, near Ekaterinoslav in the Ukraine, on April 23, 1891, and died in Moscow on March 5, 1953. He composed the ballet Romeo and Juliet in 1935 and 1936. The first performance took place in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1938; the Bolshoi performed the piece for the first time on January 11, 1940. In the meantime Prokofiev had already compiled two orchestral suites in 1936 (he later added a third in 1946), and these had made much of the music familiar even before the triumph at the Bolshoi. Prokofiev himself gave the first United States performance of music from Romeo and Juliet when he conducted the Second Suite with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on March 25 and 26, 1938, on his last visit to the US. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, cornet, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, tenor saxophone, optional viola d’amore, timpani, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, harp, piano/celesta and strings. Durations are about 27 and 30 minutes.
Prokofiev was already an experienced ballet composer when, in the mid‑1930s, he began to work on a full‑length version of Romeo and Juliet. He had attained a firm reputation in the West as a composer of advanced tendencies, but his early music had never been well received in the Soviet Union, where art that did not appeal to the broadest masses was suspicious. After his return to Moscow in 1933, his musical style underwent a process of simplification as he turned his attention to larger audiences than before.
The proposal for a Romeo ballet came from the Kirov Theater in 1934. When the Kirov backed out of the production, Prokofiev signed a contract with the Bolshoi in Moscow. But upon delivery of the score, the company declared the music impossible to dance to, and the contract was broken.
In an attempt to salvage music in which he put great faith, Prokofiev arranged two orchestral suites of selections from the ballet. These became exceedingly popular and eventually brought pressure for a full theatrical production. In the end, the ballet became one of the greatest triumphs in the career of the composer and of the ballerina, Galina Ulanova, who was the first Juliet. Her success was ironic, since all through the rehearsal period, Ulanova had insisted that Prokofiev’s music was “strange” and that she simply could not conceive how the love of Romeo and Juliet could be expressed in it.
The suites present music in a different order from their appearance in the ballet. Suite No. 1 includes the segments known as Folk Dance, Scene, Madrigal, Minuet, Masks, Romeo and Juliet and the dramatic Death of Tybalt as a close. For the most part these are decorative dance numbers with little connection to the ballet’s plot.
Suite No. 2 contains more of the dramatic numbers: The Montagues and the Capulets (the two rival families in Verona), Juliet the young girl (representing Juliet before she has been overwhelmed by love), Friar Laurence, Dance, Romeo and Juliet before Parting (Romeo leaves Juliet’s room after their one night together, both unaware that this is the final parting), Dance of the Maids from the Antilles (a set piece unrelated to the plot of the ballet) and Romeo at Juliet’s Grave.
The score reveals the mellowing of Prokofiev’s earlier style (a process that was to continue in the 1940s), but it is rich in color, accessible without being vapid, and lyrical throughout. The full ballet combines formal dance and divertissement with psychological and dramatic studies of the principal characters in a way that goes back to and continues from Tchaikovsky, highlighting the dramatic essence of the work with its combination of both “personal” and “public” music. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet remains the most successful and perhaps the greatest narrative ballet to come from Soviet Russia.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)