Program notes for January concert

January 14, 2019 – notes compiled by Caroline Faflak

Overture to The School for Scandal

Samuel Barber

Born – March 9, 1910 in West Chester, Pennsylvania

Died – January 23, 1981 in New York City

This piece was composed in 1931 and first performed on August 30, 1933 with Alexander Smallens conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

Samuel Barber was in the first class admitted (in 1924) to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.  By age 21, he was finishing his studies and beginning his career in composition. He was a harsh critic and scrapped any works that weren’t up to his exacting standards. The works he did publish  – including his two Pulitzer Prize-winning works, the opera Vanessaand his first piano concerto – quickly became favorites in America and abroad.

In a letter to his parents, Barber mentioned that this first orchestral composition was “an effort to work at.”  Nonetheless, after its successful debut his reputation as a neo-Romantic American composer spread quickly.

Not an overture in the theatrical sense, the piece is more in the vein of a classical French overture, designed to contribute a sense of gravitas to a more formal event.  Ironically, the event in this case is less formal and more comedic.  The School for Scandalby English playwright Richard Sheridanis a satire on the social manners of 1777, and the piece is a “musical reflection of the play’s spirit,” with snappy rhythms, unexpected outbursts, and a wide melodic range.

Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58, G major

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Born – December 16, 1770 in Bonn, Germany

Died – March 26, 1827 in Vienna, Austria

This concerto was first performed in March, 1807 at a private concert in the home of Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz. It received its public premier on December 22, 1808 at Vienna’s Theater an der Wein.  Beethoven, himself, was the soloist at both performances.

 Composed in the middle of his life, this concerto marked Beethoven’s final public performance.  As his increasing deafness made performing and rehearsing nearly impossible, Beethoven originally sought out other soloists to perform, but the concerto proved too difficult.  Furious, Beethoven performed it himself at a concert that was already over-booked with his other premiers, including the 4thand 5thsymphonies, his Choral Fantasy, and movements from his Mass in C.  Too innovative for 1808 audiences, the program was coolly received, perhaps in part because the concert lasted over four hours in a frigid church!

The concerto remained obscure until Felix Mendelssohn revived it in 1836, nine years after Beethoven’s death.  Since then, it has become a favorite technique of composers to begin a concerto with the soloist – in this case with simple chords and repeated notes.  The second movement is one of Beethoven’s shortest; only five minutes long, it is a dialog between the piano and strings alone.  Beethoven’s biographer likened the second movement to Orpheus (the piano) taming the wild beasts (the unison strings.) The rondo, traditional in form and rambunctious in character, begins without pause after the second movement.

Symphony in D Minor

César Franck

Born – December 10, 1822 in Liège, Belgium

Died – November 8, 1890 in Paris, France

This symphony was premiered on February 17, 1889 conducted by Jules Garcin and the Paris Conservatory orchestra.

For most of his life, Cesar Franck was a performer –beginning as a touring prodigy and later becoming a professional organist and professor at the Paris Conservatory.

This symphony, Franck’s only mature symphonic composition, was written just two years before his death. Harshly received and highly controversial, it was denounced even by his wife for being too passionate and sensual.  The Paris conservatory orchestra only reluctantly performed it.  To Franck’s critics, it was a betrayal of pure French music to combine German Romantic methods and the textures and colors of Liszt and Wagner with French cyclic form.

Unabashed romanticism abounds in this symphony. Borrowed from a late string quartet of Beethoven, the opening three-note theme (dubbed by Beethoven,”Must it be?“) feverishly permeates the first movement.  The second movement includes both a slow section and a scherzo. An English horn solo provides the slow theme (another controversial move, as the English horn was not a popular instrument during Franck’s time) while the strings have a swiftly moving line underneath.

Like Beethoven’s ninth symphony, the final movement elaborates themes from the previous movements.   Chaos occurs just before the end with harp arpeggios accompanying the “Must it be?” theme.  A triumphant crescendo concludes with a jubilant brass version of the second theme.

 

 

 

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