Born in Nelahozeves, Bohemia, September 8, 1841; died in Prague, May 1, 1904
The Scherzo Capriccioso — which translates as "capricious joke" — is one of Antonín Dvorák's most enduringly popular works. An ingenious expansion of the 3/4 dance-inspired scherzo movement commonly found in 19th-century symphonies from Beethoven on, it apparently came to the composer in a flood of inspiration between composing his Sixth and Seventh symphonies. He began sketching it on April 6, 1883 and in less than a month had completed its full scoring for large orchestra — one of the most colorful and imaginative orchestrations he ever devised.
Strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion (including harp): all their unique timbres are exploited for effects both brilliant and subtle. For example, midway through listen for a most unusual partnership: an eccentric duet between one of the highest woodwinds, the flute, and one of the lowest, the murky-toned bass clarinet. It is one of many spooky, mysterious moments — suggesting the presence of Czech goblins at play — in this fundamentally high-spirited celebration of the dance.
The entire work seems to be a battle for the home key of D-flat major to establish and maintain its supremacy in the face of continual onslaughts from foreign tonalities. And a playful duel is also waged between aggressive, rhythmically punchy ideas and smoothly lyrical ones. For instance, the scherzo's principal theme, previewed by horns, is a vigorously assertive tune, to which woodwinds respond with a gentle swirl of color. In utmost contrast is the second theme: a dreamy swaying waltz introduced by violins and oboes. The middle Trio section is led off by another flowing melody for the English horn; this is countered by a rhythmically quirky idea for violins, which leads to exciting developments of themes from both the Scherzo and Trio. A quiet interlude featuring a harp cadenza sets up an exhilarating Presto close to one of Dvorák's most playful masterpieces.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor
Born in Zelozowa Wola, Poland, March 1, 1810; died in Paris, October 17, 1849
Frédéric Chopin was the poet of the piano. For most of his career, he lavished his creative genius on this instrument alone, in the process transforming it — in effect if not in reality — from a percussion instrument into a mellifluous singer. In this quest, he was aided by recent advances in piano construction at the beginning of the 19th century. The introduction of pedals to sustain the sound, thicker strings and heavier hammers to make it more powerful, and thick felting on the hammers to make it softer and sweeter were advances he exploited to the fullest.
Other instruments, except the cello, did not much interest him. Only at the beginning of his career — before he had reached the age of 21 — did he create works for orchestra and piano: his two piano concertos, plus a handful of shorter works. The 1820s through 1840s was the great era of the touring virtuoso soloist: the pianists Liszt, Thalberg, Kalkbrenner; the violinist Paganini; and a quantity of operatic divas and divos, and the young Chopin initially aspired to join their ranks. Having made a brilliant debut in Vienna in 1829 at age 19, he returned to Warsaw to create the necessary vehicles for his conquest of Western Europe.
Written in 1830 shortly after the composer's 20th birthday, the First Piano Concerto was actually the second of his two concertos to be composed, but the first to be published. Chopin unveiled it at his farewell concert in Warsaw on October 11, 1830, and it was warmly embraced by the Polish audience. A few weeks later, he left Poland for good, traveling first to Vienna and then to Paris where he swiftly won celebrity.
But within a few years, Chopin virtually dropped his public performing career. Audience applause meant little to him, and his retiring temperament and frail health were a poor match for the life of a barnstorming virtuoso. Already in his two concertos, we hear something quite different from the overt showiness of his rival Franz Liszt's concertos. "His music has an intensity born of introspection," writes Chopin scholar Jim Samson. Chopin was the master of subtlety, of virtuosity that does not call too much attention to itself. And as a passionate lover of opera, he carried the traditions of bel canto opera — with its long cantilena melodic lines and elaborate ornamentation — over to the keyboard.
Chopin intended his Concerto in E Minor to be a more ambitious work than his Second Concerto, and he found it much more difficult to compose. He wrote to a friend: "My second concerto is finished, and I feel like a novice, just as I felt before I knew anything of the keyboard. It is far too original, and I shall end up by not being able to learn it myself."
At 40 minutes in length, this is indeed a large work, and we are introduced to its sprawling scale by the first movement's spacious orchestral exposition, which introduces all the thematic material before we hear a word from the piano. Its first subject is made up of two highly contrasted themes: the bold opening idea that embodies the Allegro maestoso tempo description and then a lovely curving melody, introduced by the violins, that is more typical of Chopin's lyrical genius. Even lovelier is the second-subject melody that Chopin marked cantabile or "singing": it rises and falls with a calmly entrancing flow and then is beautifully accented by solo flute and bassoon and delicate pizzicato strokes. After another Maestoso outburst, the orchestra tenderly subsides. From now on, this concerto will be in the pianist's hands, with the orchestra mostly in the background.
The pianist repeats the dramatic opening theme, but immediately melts it into rippling poetry. He then gives a more expansive treatment to the curving melody, adding beautiful pianistic embroidery. And when he eventually moves on to the rising cantabile theme, he proves that the piano, not the orchestra, has the key for unlocking its full beauty. The movement's development section is more an extended exhibition of supple-fingered piano virtuosity than a careful working out of themes. Then the orchestra returns to lead the recapitulation of the opening music.
In E major, the second movement is one of Chopin's celebrated nocturnes. Like the slow movement of his F-minor Concerto, this was inspired by his infatuation with a pretty young Polish soprano, Constantia Gladkowka, who had been a fellow pupil at the Warsaw Conservatory. Chopin described it as music "of a romantic, calm, and partly melancholy character. It is intended to convey the impression one receives when the eye rests on a beloved landscape that calls up in one's soul beautiful memories — for instance, on a fine moonlit spring night." The veiled sound of muted violins establishes a nocturnal hush, and the solo bassoon is a shadowy companion to the pianist/lover. Chopin's fondness for opera makes this movement a gorgeously ornamented aria for piano.
The Rondo finale is inspired by the Polish folk dance from Krakow known as the krakowiak. The piano introduces and lingers over its dashing refrain theme. In two of the episodes, the piano plays an almost equally memorable dance melody, with little whirling spins over a pulsing orchestral accompaniment. Throughout this finale, Chopin devises brilliant, high-speed figurations to let the pianist shine: opportunities to demonstrate that this very young composer/performer was more than ready for the big musical world outside Warsaw.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani and strings.
Symphony No. 7 in D Minor
Born in Nelahozeves, now Czech Republic, September 8, 1841; died in Prague, May 1, 1904
The Seventh Symphony was Dvorák's bid to make a big noise in the world. As a young composer, he had been hampered by living in Bohemia, then a rural backwater of the mighty Austrian empire, and for many years his fame was strictly local. In the mid 1870s, Brahms discovered him and generously used his power in the Viennese musical establishment to promote Dvorák's career. By 1883, the Czech composer was finally poised for international acclaim when his choral-orchestral Stabat Mater scored a major success in London.
The next year, Dvorák traveled there himself to conduct his music, and the adulation reached fever pitch. The composer remembered his reception at one of the British choral festivals: "As soon as I appeared, I received a tempestuous welcome from the audience of 12,000. … I had to bow my thanks again and again, the orchestra and choir applauding me with no less fervor. … I am convinced that England offers me a new and certainly happier future, and one which I hope may benefit our entire Czech art." London’s Royal Philharmonic Society promptly requested a new symphony for their 1885 concerts. Thus was born his Symphony in D Minor, composed between December 1884 and March 1885 and premiered by the Royal Philharmonic under the composer's baton on April 22, 1885.
It was a very big noise indeed, and today most commentators rank the Seventh as Dvorák's greatest symphony, if not the greatest piece he ever wrote. No less an authority than Donald Francis Tovey, the doyen of music writers, linked it with Schubert's "Great C Major" Symphony and Brahms' four symphonies "as among the greatest and purest examples of this art-form since Beethoven."
Dvorák would have been delighted to have this work mentioned alongside Brahms' symphonies, for Brahms was his model and mentor. Early in 1884, he had heard the German's recently completed Third Symphony and was bowled over. But though the Seventh was inspired by Brahms' Third, it is no copy. A more tragic work, it displays the dark defiance of the Czech underdog. Dvorák was intensely proud of his nationality and determined that his music stand apart from the dominant Austro-German school. While striving for a more universal tone, his Seventh still proudly flaunts its Czech origins, especially in its third-movement Scherzo in the style of the furiant dance.
The sonata-form first movement opens with a darkly murmuring theme in the low strings, with ominous diminished-seventh harmonies contributed twice by woodwinds. Dvorák said that this theme came to him while watching hundreds of Hungarian patriots demonstrating against the Austrian imperial regime disembark at the Prague railroad station; like the Czechs, the Hungarians suffered under Austrian domination. Soon the full orchestra attacks this theme with defiant force. But flutes and clarinets followed by violins soon sing a marvelous flowing melody, temporarily easing the tension. In a short but powerful development section, Dvorák probes the mysteries of his opening conspiratorial theme.
Many have called the slow second movement the finest the composer ever wrote. Its great beauty mingles sorrow with passionate protest. Dvorák had recently lost his mother, to whom he was very close, and the steady slide into insanity of his Czech colleague Bedrich Smetana also grieved him. This movement is full of ravishing, poignant melodies clothed in gorgeous orchestral hues. Notable among them are the opening theme for clarinet and bassoon, a soft rising-and-falling melody for the violins, and the haunting music for horns immediately following.
Dvorák scholar Otakar Sourek describes the third-movement scherzo as "a wild, unhappy dance in hard, syncopated … rhythms and dark orchestral coloring, in which the expression of wrathful defiance flares up with no less fury than in the opening movement." The inspiration is the traditional Czech furiant dance with its provocative cross-rhythms. Despite its lovely surface, the woodwind-dominated Trio section also shares in the agitation, its serenity troubled by "the incessant rumbling of the basses" (Tovey).
Defiance also drives the sonata-form finale, with its baleful opening theme jumping an octave, then collapsing back by a dissonant half step. The cellos soon offer a soaring melody, but it is the baleful theme that dominates the action. Miraculously, in the symphony's final moments, Dvorák transforms it from dark opposition to the voice of triumph in his blazing D-major conclusion.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes with second doubling on piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008
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