Overture to The Merry Widow
Born – April 30, 1870 in Komárno, Hungary
Died – October 24, 1948 in Bad Ischl, Germany
This comic operetta was premiered at the Theatre an der Wien in Vienna on December 30, 1905.
Franz Lehár studied violin at the Prague conservatory and pursued composition on his own. He served as bandmaster for the Austro-Hungarian army and navy and eventually found employment in Vienna, a rich cultural center with a high demand for music, operas, and entertainment.
Lehár’s name was suggested when an in-house composer for the Theater an der Wien produced an unsatisfactory score for the Merry Widow libretto. Although the theater manager doubted that a Viennese composer could produce an authentic-sounding Parisian score, when Lehár presented him with a bubbly galop after only a few hours, he was completely convinced. The operetta was instantly popular, ran for over 400 consecutive performances, and became Lehár’s most famous work. The overture perfectly previews the operetta, full of intrigue, lost love, and renewed passion.
Danse Macabre, op. 40
Born – October 9, 1835 in Paris, France
Died – December 16, 1921 in Algiers, Algeria
This piece was written for voice and piano in 1872, but later orchestrated. It was first performed in Paris in 1874.
Saint-Saëns was a musical innovator when it came to form and special effects. The tone poem, unlike a classically structured work, follows a very specific plot. Based on a poem in which the Devil appears with his fiddle at midnight to raise the dead and accompany their dancing until dawn, Saint-Saëns uses rather silly, yet novel, musical ideas to convey a spooky scene.
When the harp strikes midnight, the devil tunes up his fiddle. The score calls for the top two strings of the violin to be tuned in a tritone, known as the “Devil’s interval” in early Baroque music. Joyfully-dancing skeletons are depicted by the bony xylophone, an instrument so new that Saint-Saëns wrote in his score where to purchase one. The Dies Irae – usually a somber Gregorian chant describing the “day of judgment” – becomes a cheerful tune played by the woodwinds. Suddenly a rooster crows, and dawn breaks. All the ghouls and ghosts return to their graves and the devil slinks away.
Night on Bald Mountain
Modest Mussorgsky, arranged by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Born – March 21, 1839 in Karevo, Russia
Died – March 28, 1881 in Saint Petersburg, Russia
This piece was completed on St. John’s Eve, June 23, 1867, but not published until 1885. It was introduced to audiences in 1886.
Mussorgsky’s life was full of turmoil and mental breakdowns. Self-taught as a composer, with a flair for innovation and an almost violent use of texture and color, he began many projects only to fail to complete them or have them performed. One such project is St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain, based on Russian mythology describing a Witches’ Sabbath. Mussorgsky was immensely proud of his work and declared that it was not to be rearranged in any way, but the piece was met with sharp criticism and remained unperformed until after Mussorgsky’s death.
Luckily, Rimsky-Korsakov recognized the value of this early Russian tone poem and rewrote the work. The piece opens with ominous strings: a gathering of witches, sorcerers and spirits, which Mussorgsky described as “Subterranean sounds of supernatural voices. Appearance of the spirits of darkness.” The music ebbs and swells, contrasting the cries of the woodwinds to howls of the brass as more spirits join the dark celebration. At the height of the terrifying night, Mussorgsky wrote “the bell of the village church, sounding in the distance, disperses the spirits of darkness.” A clarinet heralds the break of dawn and all is calm.
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major
Born – October 22, 1811 in Raiding, Hungary
Died – July 31, 1886 in Bayreuth, Germany
The first sketches and drafts for this concerto date from 1832, and the work was premiered at the Grand Palace of the Duke in Weimar, Germany on February 17, 1855, with Liszt playing the solo and Hector Berlioz conducting.
A flamboyant showman and a contemplative artist, Liszt was a man of stark contrasts. He was at ease performing for thousands of fans in crowded concert halls, yet renounced his lavish lifestyle when he took up holy orders from the Catholic Church and became a priest. In his compositions, he created new musical forms when the old ones could not contain his virtuosity; but he also struck a balance between the piano soloist and the symphonic orchestra.
In his Première Concerto Symphonique pour Piano et Orchestre, he intended to write a work that was symphonic in nature, with four movements played without pause and intelligent dialog between the orchestra and the piano. The colors and textures range from subtle to gaudy, harmonies from simple to complex and unresolved. From the delicate conversation between the clarinet, bassoon, viola, and piano in the first movement to the bombastic fanfares of the brass in the fourth movement, Liszt ensured that his concerto would carry his own signature style along with the musical substance of the old masters.
The first musical motive, a seven-note theme in the strings, returns many times throughout the concerto in various modulations, tempos, and colors. Each time it returns, it leads the listener in a new and unexpected direction: thundering octaves, an imposing cadenza, a new lyrical theme, or a floating recitative. When asked what this theme meant, Liszt sang his own lyrics: “Das versteht Ihr alle nicht, ha-ha!” which translates to “None of you understand this, ha-ha! ” with the “ha-ha” firmly punctuated by the winds and brass.
The second movement, a recitative, focuses on a piano melody unfolding over muted strings. Just as the seven-note theme seems to be bringing the concerto full circle, a triangle breaks the reverie. Like a classical scherzo, the springing third movement is light and rhythmic, prominently featuring the delicate percussion instrument throughout.
A cadenza connects the third and fourth movements and the theme returns with full martial treatment. In true Liszt fashion, the march features all the dazzling pyrotechnics the pianist is capable of while fitting together themes from the previous three movements in a combination of genius, poetry, and the element of surprise.
Born – March 7, 1875 in Ciboure, France
Died – December 28, 1937 in Paris, France
Bolero was commissioned for a ballet troupe in Paris and first performed at the Paris Opera on November 22, 1928 with Walter Straram conducting. Arturo Toscanini premiered the concert version on November 14, 1929 with the New York Philharmonic.
While on vacation near his hometown, Ravel tapped out a melody on his piano, asking his colleague if the tune had a “certain insistent quality.” The tune became the foundation for Bolero, an exercise in dynamics and color, which Ravel never intended to become popular. At the debut, Ravel refused to stand and be acknowledged for the audience applause; backstage, he told Toscanini that it was too fast. Toscanini replied that his tempo would be the only saving grace of the piece, which was otherwise too simple.
Beginning pianissimo with only the thin texture of snare drum and flute solo, Ravel gradually builds the melody into grotesque exaggeration with full strings, winds, brass, and extended percussion section, including a crashing tam-tam. Interesting colors abound: the saxophone and oboe d’amour contribute to specific rounds of the theme. The intriguing melody echoes Spanish and Arabic rhythms and intervals but is unique to Ravel’s style. How to end a piece that has no development, only repetitions in C major? Ravel abruptly modulates to E major and the melody immediately implodes upon itself, crashing to a sudden resolution. Ravel sardonically said, “I’ve written only one masterpiece, Bolero. Unfortunately, there’s no music in it.” Surely audiences around the world would disagree.