Fairytales and Legends

February 28 & March 1, 2015

Program Notes by Matthew Naughtin

Scheherazade, Op. 35 (1888)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

This is the story of Scheherazade:  The Sultan Schahriar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. The Sultana Scheherazade, however, saved her life by entertaining her husband with fascinating tales. Consumed with curiosity, the Sultan postponed the execution from day to day, eager to hear the next story, until, after a thousand and one nights, he relinquished his bloody vow completely.

Russia is cheek-by-jowl with the Orient and Rimsky-Korsakov, like many other Russian composers, was powerfully influenced by the cultures of the Middle East. He wrote Scheherazade during the summer of 1888, and it was first performed in St. Petersburg in November of that year. Rimsky-Korsakov discouraged attempts to link the music to specific events in the stories. He wrote:  “I meant the titles of the movements to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path my own fancy had traveled…all I desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond a doubt an oriental narrative of numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders.”

That said, let’s disobey Rimsky and imagine the pictures this brilliant music is painting:

I. The Sea and the Vessel of Sinbad—The music begins with the menacing figure of the Sultan in the trombones, tuba, lower woodwinds and strings. Then, shining out clearly against rich chords from the harp, we hear the voice of Scheherazade in the solo violin, beginning in tremulous tones the first of her many stories. The long swell of the sea rolls in great waves from the depths of the orchestra. We are on the ship of Sinbad the Sailor. We see the bellying sail, the white-capped green-blue of deep water, the brazen sun hanging in a brazen sky. A fabulous story is being told, “a painted ship on a painted ocean”…the ship lies becalmed in the heat of midday, strange birds fly overhead, awful shapes move dimly in the deeps, a short, fierce storm rages, then subsides, we hear Scheherazade’s voice spinning the story on and on. The sea heaves up again like a restless giant, then, as it calms once more, the Sultan falls asleep and Scheherazade has postponed her fate for a day.

II. The Tale of the Prince Kalender—Kalenders were members of a cult of wandering mendicant Islamic monks vowed to poverty, chastity and humility. After Scheherazade’s violin introduces us to the Prince, we hear him telling his story in the solo bassoon. He is awkward, grave, a bit clownish, but dignified in his poverty. Suddenly there are fierce fanfares in the muted trombone and trumpet and we are thrust into a scene of wild barbaric splendor. The whirl and pomp of a magnificent parade engulfs us in opulent splendor. Perhaps we are seeing the Prince’s former life, when he ruled in glory and absolute power. The prince’s quavering voice returns, telling us, a bit regretfully, of the beauty and majesty he once enjoyed.

III. The Young Prince and the Young Princess—No explanations needed here. This is a simple, human story of young love that could happen anywhere in the world. It is some of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most lyric and beautiful music, and is often played separately from the suite.

IV. Festival at Baghdad. Sinbad’s Ship is Wrecked on the Rock—The Sultan blusters into the bedroom again, and Scheherazade begins her final story, a glowing description of the life and color of a Middle Eastern festival. Wild dancers, bright clothing, the din of the marketplace, rare perfumes mingling with the penetrating smell of spices and the scent of the crowds—the Orient comes to life here in sound. Themes return from the earlier movements, all woven into the powerful, driving rhythm of the festival, which never slackens: Scheherazade, the Sultan, the Kalender Prince, the Young Prince and Young Princess all reappear. Finally after driving to new climaxes and bewildering kaleidoscopic swirls of color, the orchestra puts us once more at sea in the middle of a howling gale. We sink beneath the waves—only to hear Scheherazade’s voice calling us back from the world she has created. The Sultan speaks again, but now softly, gently. He has renounced his terrible vow and the solo violin rises to the top of its range to end the suite in serene, glowing triumph.

Program Notes Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Naughtin

L’Arlesienne: Incidental Music to Alphonse Daudet’s play, Op. 23; WD 28

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

After the financial collapse of his Théâtre-Lyrique in 1868, the Parisian impresario Léon Carvalho declared bankruptcy and moved on to a new theater, the Théâtre du Vaudeville. There, having failed to prosper staging operas, he revived an old-fashioned genre known as mélodrame, in which the words of a spoken play were accompanied by live instrumental music. In 1872 Carvalho commissioned the novelist Alphonse Daudet to adapt his short story L’Arlésienne (“The Girl from Arles”) into a three-act staged drama with music. The young composer Georges Bizet was engaged to supply the musical underscoring.

Daudet’s melodramatic story was based on an actual event that occurred in the family of his friend, the poet Frédéric Mistral. Frédéri, a Provençal farm lad from Le Castelet, falls hopelessly in love with a girl from the nearby town of Arles (who never appears onstage). When a friend tells him that the “Arlésienne” is the mistress of an aristocrat, Frédéri is devastated and reluctantly agrees to marry Vivette, the local girl favored by his domineering mother. On the day of his wedding Frédéri is maddened to hear that his deceitful friend has run off with the girl from Arles and commits suicide. His younger brother, who has been suffering from dementia, is jolted to his senses by the tragedy and Frédéri’s mother, losing one son, regains another.

Bizet wrote 27 musical numbers to accompany the play, some of them only a few measures long. He had a small orchestra of 26 players at his disposal, including a piano and an off-stage harmonium that Bizet played himself to accompany the chorus, and worked wonders of inventive sonority with limited resources. He included three traditional Provençal tune in the score to add some authentic local color. These were the Marcho dei Rei (Royal March), the  Danse dei Chivau-Frus (Dance of the Frisky Horses) which became the well-known Farandole, and the beautiful lullaby Er dou Guet that is used to characterize Frédéri’s young brother (called ‘l’Innocent’).

During tonight’s program, you will hear six of the most beautiful numbers from the incidental music.

Program Notes Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Naughtin

Overture to William Tell (1829)

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

Opera was changing rapidly in the first decades of the 19th century. Mozart had broken new ground with The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787). The old opera seria (“grand” opera in which everything was sung) and opera buffo (comic opera with sung arias interspersed with spoken dialog) were giving way to more dramatically and musically sophisticated stage works that would culminate in the “music-dramas” of Richard Wagner. Rossini’s career spanned this period of transition, and going down the catalog of his 40-some operas is like viewing the historical strata at an archaeological dig. Right at the bottom of the trench, in the old-style opera buffo layer, are silly farces like La Scala di Seta (“The Silken Ladder”) and L’Italiana in Algeri (“The Italian Girl in Algiers”). Somewhat below the midpoint is The Barber of Seville (1816), the comic masterpiece that Beethoven loved. At the very top is his last opera, William Tell (1829), foreshadowing Wagner’s operas in its dramatic structure. By the time Rossini began work on Guillaume Tell, he had established himself as the supreme composer in opera-besotted Paris and, at age 37, was already thinking of retiring. Unfortunately, the premiere on at the Paris Opéra on August 3, 1829 was received with relative indifference. Rossini himself termed it a “quasi-fiasco.” When the Director of the Opera threatened to cancel Rossini’s contract for future productions, Rossini replied: “Don’t worry yourself, my good monsieur. I’ll cancel the contract at once, and, if you like, I’ll add that I’ll never write another opera as long as I live.” Sadly, he kept his word. He lived out his last 39 years writing some occasional pieces and sacred music, but no operas, and enjoying, despite various ailments, the cultural and gustatory delights of his beloved Paris.

The story of the 14th century Swiss patriot William Tell, who (according to legend) led a rebellion against the hated Austrian occupying power, famously shot an apple from atop his son’s head and then killed the tyrant Gessler who forced him to endanger his son, seemed made to order for the theater. The German poet Friedrich Schiller wrote a play based on the legend which was premiered in 1804. Rossini’s opera drew its libretto from the Schiller play, and though it has never been his most popular work, it is in many respects his finest—simple, emotional, and eminently dramatic. The brilliant overture, with its romantic cello-ensemble introduction, rip-roaring thunderstorm, lyrical Swiss “Ranz de Vaches” solo for English Horn, stirring trumpet calls and exhilarating final galop (baby-boomers: think “Hi-Yo Silver!”), is a familiar and beloved staple of the symphonic repertoire.

Program Notes Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Naughtin