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The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Born in Paris, October 1, 1865; died in Paris, May 17, 1935
Though The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a mainstay of children's concerts, you certainly don't have to be under twelve to love this little masterpiece of musical storytelling and dazzling orchestration. Its composer, Paul Dukas, was a classmate of Debussy at the Paris Conservatoire and became a music critic of the highest discrimination and ideals. Unfortunately, such refined critical faculties did not assist his work as a composer. He destroyed more of his pieces than he published, leaving at his death a very slender musical legacy of beautifully crafted music.
Americans are inclined to think of this story in terms of Mickey Mouse struggling against dozens of pail-toting brooms in the Disney film Fantasia, but it actually comes from a ballad by the great German poet Goethe, Der Zauberlehrling. While the sorcerer is away, his apprentice thinks he knows enough of his master's magic to command the broom to perform his household chores for him. But the broom does its job too well and brings so much water from the river that it soon floods the house. Too late, the apprentice realizes he doesn't remember how to undo the spell. In desperation, he chops the broom in two, but this produces two brooms working at an even faster pace. The floodwaters continue to rise. At the height of this catastrophe, the sorcerer returns and, uttering the correct incantation, restores all to order.
All these events can be easily followed in Dukas' brilliant score. The music begins in tranquility, with hazy harmonies from muted strings and woodwinds suggesting the magical aura of the sorcerer's house. Three times during the piece we hear the magic spell intoned by muted trumpets snarling two dissonant chords: for the apprentice's first casting of the spell, his unsuccessful attempt to stop the chaos, and the sorcerer's successful intervention. The broom is wittily slow to come to life, but, once aroused, its quirkily hopping automaton of a theme is unstoppable. The piece concludes with a final orchestral blast of this theme's first four notes.
Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, "Turkish"
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born in Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; died in Vienna, December 5, 1791
Although he eventually chose to concentrate on the keyboard, the young Mozart was almost equally gifted as a violinist, admired for the beauty and purity of his tone. As concertmaster of the Prince-Archbishop Colloredo's court orchestra, he played the principal violin part and led the orchestra from his chair. He was soon to grow deeply frustrated with this role, but between 1773 and 1775, it inspired him to write his five violin concertos, as well as a number of other works with prominent solo violin parts for him to play. The last three of these concertos, all written in 1775 when he was 19, rank among his earliest masterpieces. With these beguiling works—so perfectly written to display the violin's purest singing tone—we experience the first flowering of his mature creative genius.
Dated December 20, 1775, the Violin Concerto in A Major is the last of the group. Full of surprises and shifts of emotional tone, it shows Mozart playing freely and creatively with the concerto norms of his day. It is nicknamed "Turkish" for an exuberant episode of "alla Turca" ("in the Turkish manner") music that Mozart inserted in its vivacious finale. Such music—with its exotic leaping melodies, menacing unison passages, drone basses, and the clatter of drums and cymbals—was very fashionable in Europe during the late-18th century. But this music really isn't "Turkish" at all; rather, as Mozart scholar Neal Zaslow explains, it actually came from Hungary. If Mozart had given his courtly audience a dose of real Turkish music—so utterly unlike the European musical aesthetic—they would have probably run screaming from the room and the archbishop issued a stern reprimand!
The first movement opens with music of charm and insouciance. The orchestral violins merely sketch the principal theme with pert ascending notes. Likewise, the winsome second theme with its humorous repeated notes is but a preview of what the soloist will do. Now comes Mozart's first surprise. Instead of entering in this mood and tempo, the soloist floats in with a dreamy romance over rustling orchestral strings in a much slower tempo. Eventually, he shifts up to the Allegro tempo and transforms the orchestral pencil sketch of the principal theme into a soaring, full-color melody. And then he expands the second theme into music of great charm. A brief development section deepens the music's expressiveness before the violin reprises its rapturous theme.
Movement two is an early example of Mozart's almost painfully beautiful slow movements, which yearn for something more than ordinary life can give. The long-spun melodic lines are continually punctuated by little sighing figures in the orchestra. In the movement's middle section, poignant harmonies intensify the mood to the brink of tears.
The work closes with a finale in the rondo form Mozart favored for his concertos. In this form, a refrain melody keeps returning in the home key while, in between, episodes of contrasting music explore other keys. Here the refrain tune is a courtly minuet ending with a little teasing upward flourish. Midway through the movement comes Mozart's "Turkish" surprise. Since he didn't have percussion in his small ensemble, he cleverly asked the cellos to thump their instruments with the wooden side of their bows to produce the drum-and-cymbals effect. This delicious episode adds the finishing touch to Mozart's most lovable violin concerto.
Symphony in D Minor
Born in Liège, then Belgium, December 10, 1822; died in Paris, November 8, 1890
Though he lived to nearly 70 and was one of the Paris Conservatoire's most remarkable teachers, César Franck was largely ignored by the French musical establishment during his lifetime. His Belgian birth contributed to his outsider status; in order to become the Conservatoire's professor of organ in 1871 he had to take out French citizenship. Moreover, Franck was a gentle, unworldly man—serious, sincere, and a fervent Catholic—and thus was poorly equipped to deal with the frivolous and highly politicized Parisian musical scene in the second half of the 19th century. But if he was unable or unwilling to fight for recognition, his devoted pupils—among them men soon to become famous themselves, such as Vincent d'Indy, Henri Duparc, Paul Dukas, and Ernest Chausson—were eager to proclaim his greatness. To them, he was almost a living saint—"Pater seraphicus" they called him—and Beethoven's true heir. Their proselytizing and the strength of his late works, including the D Minor Symphony, made him famous within a few years of his death in 1890.
Presiding for decades at the console at St. Clotilde's Church in Paris, Franck contributed greatly to the celebrated French organ repertoire. A very late bloomer as a composer, he created all the works for which he is remembered during the last decade and a half of his life. His only symphony was written between 1886 and 1888 when he was in his mid-sixties. And one can hear the sumptuous sound of the organ, swelling rank by rank, in its rich orchestral textures and pealing brass climaxes.
Franck's musical idols were Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt. It was his reverence for Beethoven that inspired him to write a symphony—a form French composers of the 19th century rarely attempted. Berlioz's symphonies had been highly unconventional programmatic works, but Franck determined to write a "traditional" symphony, based on thematic development and following, though very freely, the established German symphonic forms. But it is Liszt's influence we hear most. Franck prominently uses Liszt's and Berlioz's principle of a motto or "idée fixe": a theme that recurs in different guises throughout the work. In Franck's hands, several motives and themes return in later movements to unify the work.
The first of these—a three-note questioning motive in the low strings—launches the opening movement. This question generates a lengthy slow introduction, brooding but also expectant. The questioning idea then erupts into a bold Allegro, but Franck immediately short circuits that and reprises the slow introduction in a higher key. After this, the Allegro finally takes wing and soon introduces us to the second of the symphony's motto themes: an optimistic tune rocking around the note A, which is introduced fortissimo by the full orchestra. After developing his materials, Franck recapitulates the slow introduction, its original brooding quality now transformed into a blaze of brass. A short but powerful coda decisively changes the question into a ringing affirmation in D major.
By contrast, the second movement is all French subtlety and delicate scoring, a combination of slow movement and scherzo. Harp and plucked strings outline the theme, then the English horn sings it in full: a grave and melancholy melody with an old-fashioned modal flavor. The remainder of the movement is devoted to variations on this theme. An extended section of rapid, fluttering string patterns contribute a scherzo lightness while retaining the theme's outline.
The finale opens boldly with an exultant tune that sounds oddly familiar. We find out why later in the movement when the first movement's optimistic second theme returns and proves to be a close cousin. Reminiscences of earlier music keep reappearing, led off by the return of the second movement's grave dance. The closing coda reprises the opening question motive, now combined with the optimistic theme and elevated by harps. But it is the finale's own exultant theme that finally sweeps aside nostalgia for a joyous conclusion.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008