Orpheus and Eurydice Overture
Dance of the Blessed Spirits; Dance of the Furies
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)
September 26, 27 & 28, 2014
Program Notes by Dr. Joella Utley
From the early 1600’s until the time of the Classical Era, opera developed into an ornate art form, which sought to “over-dramatize” action on the stage and display the virtuosity of the vocalists. German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck saw the need for reform and strove for a “noble simplicity” in both the music and the drama. His fresh approach was to be of great influence to many who followed, including Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz and Wagner. It was Rousseau who described Gluck’s operas as the beginning of a new era.
Largely self-taught, Gluck’s early operas were of the old school. He traveled widely but ultimately settled in Vienna where he became court composer to the Emperor and later was highly favored in Paris by Marie Antoinette.
His groundbreaking opera, Orpheus and Eurydice, was the first to replace the ornate, theatrical style with a direct and simple portrayal of the drama. This story theme, which had been dramatized by several before, is a Greek tragedy in which Orpheus’ beloved wife Eurydice dies. He is so grieved that the Gods allow him to journey to the underworld in an attempt to win her back from death. Gluck’s masterpiece premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on October 5, 1762.
On his harp Orpheus plays the lovely melody of “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.” The music depicts a calm, tranquil, pastoral mood so beautifully that it brings the spirits of the underworld to tears. Because they were so moved they gave him permission to lead his wife out of the underworld – on the condition that he not look at her until they had reached the land of the living. If he broke this rule, Eurydice would return again to death. Sadly Orpheus did look at his beloved wife after her pleas for him to acknowledge her. She died once again.
Contrasting with this lovely music is the “Dance of the Furies,” meant to represent the demonic spirits of Hades. This brings thoughts of a horrible cavernous place occupied by evil spirits. It was described in the printed score as “obfuscated with dark smoke illuminated by flames, which fill the entire horrible abode.”
Orchestral Suite No. 4, D Major, BWV 1069
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Bach wrote four orchestral suites, which he termed Ouverture. Although this title was initially coined for the opening music of French operas in the court of Louis XIV, Bach’s overtures (suites) were made up of a set of dance movements to be used in concert performances.
It is unclear exactly where and when these four suites were written. They may have been composed partly in Cothen when Bach was the Capellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold (1717-1723) and partly in Leipzig (after 1723). It is thought that Bach did not conceive of the four orchestral suites as a set. Some scholars feel that Orchestral Suite No. 4 was the earliest of the four and may have had its beginnings while the composer was in Weimar, around 1716.
Performance of these works could have occurred while Bach was in Cothen. Here he had a fine orchestra for which he wrote mostly secular music – as opposed to sacred music. Also during his Leipzig years Bach directed the city’s Collegium Musicum, a semi-professional assemblage of students and advanced musicians who met at the Zimmermann Coffeehouse, for evening concerts. Bach’s predecessor, Telemann, started this group of about forty musicians in 1702 to perform such concerts for the public.
The Orchestral Suite No. 4 begins with a stately opening, followed by a series of short dance movements: two bourrees, a gavotte, and a pair of minuets. The mood of the dances range from courtly, to cheerful, to the mysterious, and concludes with a brilliant Rejouissance (Rejoicing).
Prometheus Overture, Op. 43
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
The year was 1801 and Beethoven was involved in a flurry of activity. The Viennese had been stung by Austria’s defect at the hands of Napoleon and the French at the Battle of Hohenlinden. Early in the year benefit concerts were given for the Austrians wounded in the battle. Beethoven played and wrote music for these concerts, as did Haydn.
The court of Leopold II was becoming more interested in ballet, with the guidance of ballet master, Salvatore Vigano. Vigano’s wife was an extraordinarily talented ballerina, who was said to “disclosed to the eyes of the spectators, a hitherto unsuspected art” by her “natural, joyous, and unconstrained dancing.”
This ballet is based on the allegory of Prometheus, a Greek god, who tried to refine ignorant human beings through an understanding of life and the arts. Beethoven wrote the overture along with fifteen numbers and a finale for this two-act ballet. It was first performed at the Burgtheater on March 28, 1801 in Vienna with reasonable success. Over the years the ballet fell into obscurity, yet the overture has remained popular as an orchestral work.
Beethoven used the overture as a musical description of the ensuing drama of the ballet. The dramatic opening chords soon evolve into a fast running first theme played by the strings. After a quiet middle section the music returns to the full energy of the opening. Music from the overture was also used in the finale of the ballet.
Beethoven published the overture in 1804 but the complete score for the ballet was not published until long after his death.
Symphony No. 2, Op. 36, D Major
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven’s Second Symphony was born under tense circumstances. It was during this time that the thirty-two-year-old composer was coming to terms with the fact that he was growing deaf. In the summer of 1802 Beethoven’s physician, Dr. Johann Adam Schmidt, suggested that he retreat to a rural area for peace and quiet, hoping that would give him some healing. During those months Beethoven came to grips with his problem and decided that instead of giving in to weakness he would win in this life-and-death struggle with destiny. He would “seize fate by the throat” and not wither away.
This renewed grip on his life was the background for Beethoven’s Second Symphony and surprisingly it is one of his most cheerful and outgoing works. One would not believe the composer had been almost suicidal, as expressed in a letter to his brother, which he never sent. The work can still be identified as from the Classical style of Haydn, both in its instrumentation and form, but it also shows some advancing innovations.
The Adagio molto introduction gives way to the energetic and rhythmic Allegro con brio. The second movement, Larghetto, then brings a lyrical, peaceful repose played by the strings and woodwinds. As in his Symphony No. 1, Beethoven returns to a Scherzo for the third movement – a break from the usual Minuet and trio established by Haydn. This happy, capricious movement leads into the finale, Allegro molto, which explodes with energy and humor almost like a second scherzo – a trademark of this masterful composer.
The first performance was heard at an all-Beethoven concert at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on April 5, 1803, conducted by the composer.