German Inspirations

March 28 & 29, 2015

Program Notes by Matthew Naughtin

Overture To Euryanthe, J. 291(1823)

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)

Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (“The Freeshooter”) took Vienna by storm in 1821. Weber, the great pioneer of romanticism in German opera of the early nineteenth century, was endeavoring in Der Freischütz to counteract the influence of Italian opera, which had dominated German opera houses since Mozart’s day. He found material for his librettos in folk legends, thus blazing a new trail along the dual paths of romanticism and nationalism, and he forged a direct link between the old German Singspiel (a native form of theater which combined singing with spoken dialogue) and Richard Wagner’s music-dramas that would follow.

The success of Der Freischütz led the director of the Imperial Opera in Vienna to commission Weber to write a Freischütz-like opera for his company. A Viennese literary lady named Helmine von Chézy offered her services in adapting a French romantic novel for the libretto and Weber, much to his later regret, accepted. Helmine (or, as Weber came to call her, “Das Chez”) was a blowsy, self-important “intellectual”, deficient in both talent and personal hygiene, who caused Weber no end of trouble and produced, in the opinion of David Mason Greene,  “one of the worst librettos ever foisted on a major operatic composer.” Weber, who was horribly ill with tuberculosis and suspected that his days were numbered, evidently lacked the energy to fight for a better book, and completed Euryanthe with grave misgivings. The theater was so packed for the Vienna premiere in October of 1823 that “Das Chez”, who arrived late, had to be lifted and passed to her seat over the heads of those already seated (the first “mosh-pit” perhaps?). Much to Weber’s amazement, the opera was wildly applauded, but attendance dropped off rapidly after opening night, and after two weeks Weber realized that it was a flop. It didn’t help that young Franz Schubert, who had ambitions for fame as an opera-composer himself, gave Weber and everyone else in earshot a blunt critique of the opera’s faults. This so enraged Weber that he retracted his offer to help the penniless Austrian stage his own Alfonso and Estrella in Germany and shouted ” Let the fool first learn something before he tries to judge me!” Discouraged, sick and exhausted, Weber went home to Dresden and spent the next several months just trying to stay alive. He did get moral revenge, though. Schubert was later commissioned to write incidental music for another masterpiece by Frau Chézy, her play Rosamunde, which was performed twice and then sank from sight so completely that the score was not seen again for 44 years, when it was discovered in the back of a closet.

The story of Euryanthe is too inane to recount here, but the overture contains some of Weber’s most brilliant and blood-stirring music. It begins with a fiery “rocket-theme” that shoots up in the violins and violas with consummate dash and élan and barrels along in a rousing march tempo. The violins play a sweetly lyrical second theme that is as romantic as the first theme is heroic, the driving triplets of the opening return, then the pace slows. Now, in a passage that anticipates the poetic effects of Richard Wagner’s early operas, eight solo violins play a pale, eerie melody drawn from a supernatural ghost scene in the opera. This is followed by a canonic build-up that leads back into the brilliant opening theme. Things hurtle merrily along until the brass and drums pound out a four-note fanfare that brings back the lyrical second theme, radiant and triumphant as chivalry and love conquer all (no matter how stupid the plot), and the orchestra shifts into high gear for an all-out sprint to the end.

Program Notes Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Naughtin

Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

Hindemith wrote Symphonic Metamorphoses in 1943. The first performance was given at Carnegie Hall on January 24, 1944 by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Artur Rodzinski.

Sometimes a composer just has to have some fun. Unfortunately, fun was in short supply for Paul Hindemith in 1940. The problem was his sense of humor. He had been kicking musical traditionalists in the pants for a while with outrageous theater pieces like Murderers, the Hope of Women and The Nusch-Nuschi that commented satirically on the hedonistic life-style of Berlin’s fashionable society. These, along with his association with Jewish musicians and his marriage to a Jewish woman eventually got him in trouble with the Nazi regime. His music was denounced as “decadent and degenerate” and banned from German concert halls. He was fired from his teaching position at a music school in Berlin and forced to leave Germany in 1938. He came to the United States in 1940 to accept a position as professor of composition at Yale University, a chair he held until 1953. Soon after he settled in New Haven the choreographer Léonide Massine suggested he look at the music of the German composer Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) as possible material for a ballet score. Hindemith liked the idea and made a few sketches, but Massine got cold feet and the project fell through. Hindemith, who admired the music of Bach, shared Bach’s distaste for letting good music go to waste. His publisher, B. Schott, had been prodding him for a flashy piece that would go over well with American audiences. Hindemith saw his chance, finally, to have some fun again. He pulled out his sketches for the von Weber project in 1943 and gave them their final shape as the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.

The Symphonic Metamorphosis is, quite simply, a “fun” piece of music, a pouring forth of high spirits and joyous sounds. Even the title is a joke, of sorts, its grandiose verbosity belied by the playful puckishness of the music it describes. Hindemith used tunes from Weber’s piano works and a melody from his Overture to Turandot. He deliberately picked melodies that were not, as he put it, “Weber at his best.” This gave him more latitude for play. As the word “metamorphosis” implies, the melodies, while recognizable, are expanded and transformed with imaginative harmonies and orchestral colors. The brightly orchestrated first movement is based on the fourth of Weber’s Eight Pieces, Op. 60 for piano duet, a vigorous gypsy-flavored verbunkos march that von Weber marked “All’ Ongarese” (“Hungarian Style”). The second movement’s theme came to Hindemith’s hand by a circuitous route. In 1809 Weber was writing incidental music for an adaptation by Schiller of Turandot, an 18th-century play set in China by Carlo Gozzi. Looking for an authentic oriental tune, Weber found the melody in the 1767 Dictionnaire de musique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who had, in turn, gotten it from a priest who had traveled in China. It’s unlikely that this melody (whose third bar wanders into distinctly un-Chinese tonalities) is very authentic. Nonetheless, Hindemith has great fun writing a series of variations on it that gradually build in intensity until the trombones break loose with a jazzy syncopated riff that lights a fire under the brass section and sets off a thundering timpani solo. The movement ends with piccolo, timpani and percussion fading away into a whimsically enigmatic Oriental mist. The graceful third movement is based on a swaying, melancholy Siciliano from Weber’s six Piéces faciles, Op. 3 for piano duet. The final March uses two themes from No. 7 of the Eight Pieces, Op. 60. In a final masterful metamorphosis, Hindemith truly transfigures Weber’s rather banal march tunes to create one of the most exciting and brilliant marches in the orchestral repertoire.

Program Notes Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Naughtin

Symphony No. 2 In D Major, Op. 73 (1877)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

If the First Symphony was a work of thunderclouds, mists and majestic mountain vistas, the Second Symphony is filled with sunshine and easy-going Gemütlichkeit (comfortability). Brahms wrote it during a happy summer stay at the pleasant resort of Portschach on the edge of a large Alpine lake, and the sparkle of the sun on calm lake waters seems to have seeped into the music and filled it with an inner glow. The first movement is one of Brahms’ happiest inspirations, both in its folk-song-like beauty and the subtle craft with which it is constructed. The first three notes in the cellos and basses (D, C-sharp, D) are the germ from which the whole structure of the movement grows. This melodic seed reappears in various guises: fast, slow, upside-down, etc. throughout the fabric of the music. Especially lovely is the tender second theme that sings out in the violas and cellos and sounds very reminiscent of Brahms’ familiar Lullaby.

The second movement is darker in tone and presents Brahms in a more introspective mood. The summer sun has disappeared behind the mountains, evening shadows are lengthening across the lake, and we feel the chill of an alpine twilight. The cellos sing a melody that is nostalgic in tone, with a curious tendency to emphasize the second and fourth pulses of the bar so that it feels as if the rhythm shifts over one beat to the left. The tempo moves into a gently swinging 12/8 section which becomes serious-minded and explores some neo-Baroque fugal byways before it is joined by the movement’s first theme and gradually led back into the Romantic mood of the beginning. The movement ends in a gradual fade into darkness with the timpani throbbing forebodingly as night descends. The third movement brings morning sunshine. The oboe sings one of Brahms’ most wistful, ingratiating melodies in a rustic setting for woodwinds and pizzicato cellos. The strings enter with their own high-spirited variation on the oboe’s tune as the meter switches from three beats to one beat per bar. Capricious good humor carries us along as Brahms switches slyly back and forth between rhythmic and melodic variations in a scherzo that has just the right balance of tenderness and playfulness.

The final movement begins with a Brahmsian joke: the strings begin the movement sotto voce (“in an undertone”) whispering the main theme, which begins with those same three notes that opened the symphony. The mood is mysterious and ghostly for about twenty bars until Brahms jumps out from behind the couch in a forte outburst from the whole orchestra that is the musical equivalent of shouting “Boo!” He then leads us on with a huge grin into a movement that is as robust and high-spirited as anything his hero Beethoven ever wrote. The second theme is a gorgeous, full-hearted tune that begs to be sung in an outdoor beer-garden with steins a-swinging, and we are reminded again of the three-note motive that has permeated the symphony from beginning to end. After some swings from sunlight to shadow and back again, Brahms can’t resist playing his joke one more time in the recapitulation as he prepares us for an ending that surpasses in sheer athletic exuberance anything else he ever wrote. He gets so carried away toward the end, in fact, that he has to stop twice in between gales of orchestral laughter to catch his breath. Finally, with trumpets and horns blazing out the second theme in triumph, he drives on to the final radiant chord in the trombones in a climax of truly Jovian power.

Program Notes Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Naughtin