SCHUBERT REVISITED PROGRAM NOTES - For February 16, 2019
By Steven Ledbetter
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
King Stephen Overture, Opus 117
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, probably on December 16, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 27, 1827. He composed his overture to King Stephen in the late summer of 1811, between August 20 and September 13; it was first performed in Budapest on February 9, 1812. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, plus contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration is approximately 8 minutes.
A grand new theater was scheduled to be opened in Pest (a Hungarian city that later joined with its twin, Buda, on the other side of the Danube, to unite as Budapest). The festive opening was to take place under imperial sanction on the emperor’s name‑day, October 4, 1811. The first performance in the new house was to consist of a drama written on some subject in Hungarian history, preceded by a musical prologue and followed by a musical epilogue. The commission for the text was given to August von Kotzebue, who quickly turned out a play entitled Bela’s Flight, the prologue Hungary’s First Benefactor, and the epilogue The Ruins of Athens. The music for the evening was to be provided by Beethoven.
“Hungary’s First Benefactor” was Stephen I (reigned 1001‑38), who converted the country to Christianity, for which he was canonized soon after his death and, as St. Stephen, is the patron saint of the country. His crown remains a sacred symbol of Hungarian national identity. Beethoven’s music is frequently referred to simply as King Stephen, which is far more specific than Kotzebue’s title.
The texts Beethoven was to set arrived in a packet just before he set out for a much‑needed vacation at Teplitz. After three weeks of relaxing at the spa, he began composing the music, and completed both substantial works in the remarkably short space of three weeks. Soon, however, the opening of the theater had to be postponed. It finally took place on February 9, 1812, the Sunday nearest the Emperor’s birthday. The performances were repeated, before enthusiastic audiences, on the 10th and 11th as well. Beethoven was so enthusiastic about the texts that he actually wrote to Kotzebue, inviting him to write an opera libretto on any subject, “romantic, serious, heroic‑comic, or sentimental, as you please,” though he expressed a preference for a historical subject, “particularly one from the darker periods.” Nothing ever came of this proposal.
Though the first audience regarded Beethoven’s music as “very original, excellent, and worthy of its master,” neither King Stephen nor The Ruins of Athens has been performed with special frequency since then. Beethoven himself played fast and loose with the works, sending them to London, as partial fulfillment of a commission for three overtures from the Philharmonic Society, who surely expected newly composed pieces in return for their 75 guinea commissioning fee. In any case, they did not perform the works in their concerts at the time, evidently preferring Beethoven’s heaven‑storming mode in the style of Coriolan or Egmont.
About the Music
There is little question that the overture is the strongest part of the music for the prologue, much of which is quite perfunctory. A fanfare‑like introductory phrase is striking precisely because it avoids the normal harmonic concreteness of the fanfare; its descending fourths tease us enigmatically. Immediately Beethoven quotes a passage from one of the choruses, which is strongly Hungarian in color, particularly at the few moments when the first violins play, for they seem to be imitating the Hungarian cimbalom. The ensuing Presto offers a main theme filled with syncopations. A second theme in the woodwinds anticipates the coda of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It is extended with vigorous elaborations, but Beethoven evades the expected development and instead restates the slow introductory section before recapitulating. One more brief reference to that “Hungarian” music appears just before the coda, into which the composer pumps every excitement‑building device he can think of. The ending is no doubt overdone to modern taste, but Beethoven surely gauged correctly the civic pride and incipient nationalism of the opening night audience at the new theater, who cheered this overture, the first piece of music to resound in their hall.
She Was Here, four songs for soprano and orchestra
Osvaldo Golijov was born in La Plata, Argentina, in 1960. He composed She Was There, an orchestral version of four songs by Franz Schubert for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which gave the first performance in Ordway Hall on April 24, 2008. Dawn Upshaw was the soprano and Douglas Boyd conducted. In addition to the solo soprano, the score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo and alto flute), oboe and English horn, two clarinets (second doubling basset horn and bass clarinet), two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, trombone, percussion (one player: tuned glass, triangle, tam-tam, suspended crotales), harp, celesta, and strings. Duration is about 14 minutes.
Osvaldo Golijov studied with Gerardo Gandini and later with Mark Kopytman at the Rubin Academy of Jerusalem and with Franco Donatoni at Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy. In 1986 he came to the United States, where he earned his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania; his teachers there included George Crumb, Richard Wernick, and Jay Reise. He was a Fellow in composition at the Tanglewood Music Center in 1990, where he studied with Lukas Foss and Oliver Knussen.
In recent years, Golijov has been exploring what he calls the “roots and emanations of different musics,” drawing up sound imagery from his own wide-ranging background, including Jewish folk traditions as well as tango and other Latin American genres, not to mention the traditional musics of the Iberian peninsula and occasionally, as here, investigating the songs of Franz Schubert for one of his favorite artists, soprano Dawn Upshaw, for whom he orchestrated the four Schubert songs heard here.
These varied traditions often become the starting point for his writing, though they appear in his work in different stages of transformation, turning into something else entirely or even disappearing altogether, though remaining as the basic ground for the varied textures and musical “behaviors” in his compositions.
About the Music
One of the most striking elements of She Was Here is Golijov’s command of orchestral color, often recasting the original piano accompaniments into a quite different guise. All of these poems are well known to those at home with German literature. The first is one of the most famous of Goethe’s small lyric poems, capturing enormous depth of feeling in a metrical pattern limited to just two to four syllables per line. Mignon’s song comes from his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. The poems by Rückert and Collin are independent lyrics.
The composer has written the following regarding She Was Here:
Among the new musical worlds that Schubert predicted are the vastness of Russia; the lyrical minimalism of Philip Glass (as in the slow movement of the Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, the opening of the Fantasy in C for violin and piano, and the beloved song "Nacht und Träume"); the fragility and intimacy of Hugo Wolf, and, beyond him, the ambiguous scent of the Vienna of Alban Berg, 100 years after Schubert's own disappearance (in "Dass Sie Hier Gewesen"); the irony of Stravinsky and Kurt Weill (in "Lied der Mignon"); and, perhaps most daringly, the sound of longing for a sweet, peaceful death ("Wandrers Nachtlied").
These orchestrations were written at a time of loss and sadness. But Schubert brings consolation, especially in the last two songs, when he shows that past, present and future, in time, are only illusion. At least while the music lasts.
Über allen Gipfeln
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
|Traveler’s Night Song
Above all the treetops
|Lied der Mignon
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt,
Ach! der mich liebt und kennt,
Only one who knows longing
Ah, he who loves and understands me
|Dass sie hier Gewesen
Dass der Ostwind Düfte
Dass hier Tränen rinnen,
Schönheit oder Liebe,
— Friedrich Rückert
|That She Was Here
That the east wind's fragrance
That tears are running here
Beauty or love,
|Nacht und Träume
Heilge Nacht, du sinkest nieder;Nieder wallen auch die Träume,Wie dein Mondlicht durch die Räume,Durch der Menschen stille Brust.Die belauschen sie mit Lust;Rufen, wenn der Tag erwacht:Kehre wieder, heilge Nacht!Holde Träume, kehret wieder!
— Matthäus von Collin
|Night and Dreams
Holy night, you sink down,and dreams, too, float down,like your moonlight through the rooms,and through the silent hearts of men.They listen with delight, And cry, when the day awakens:Come back, holy night! Sweet dreams, come back!
English translations by Steven Ledbetter
WOLFGANG AMADÈ MOZART
Alleluia, from Exsultate, Jubilate, K.165
Wolfgang Amadé Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. He composed Exsultate, jubilate in Milan in January 1773; the first performance took place there on January 17 in the Church of the Theatines, with the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini as the soloist. In addition to the soprano, the score calls for two oboes, two horns, strings, and organ continuo. Duration is about 3 minutes.
The Mozarts, father and son, made their second visit to Italy in 1772, and Wolfgang’s opera Lucio Silla was premiered in Milan that December. The star of that ill‑fated performance (almost everything that could go wrong did) was a young and very handsome castrato named Venanzio Rauzzini, who not only had a superb soprano voice, but was also a fully-rounded musician. Taken with Rauzzini’s artful singing, Mozart composed for him his Exsultate jubilate, regarded by many as the first absolute masterpiece of the 16-year-old composer. The cantata’s three major sections are laid out in a fast‑slow‑fast pattern (with a recitative preceding the slow section). The expressiveness and sheer vocality of Mozart’s melodies have made the work a constant favorite with both singers and audiences.
Symphony in B minor, D.759, Unfinished (completed by Brian Newbould)
Franz Peter Schubert was born in Liechtental, a suburb of Vienna, on January 31, 1797, and died in Vienna on November 19, 1828. The score of the two movements of his unfinished B minor symphony is dated October 30, 1822. A scherzo exists in fairly complete piano sketch, and the first nine measures of the scherzo, fully scored, are on the reverse of the last page of the second movement. An additional page of score, containing 11 measures, recently turned up in Vienna. The first performance of the Unfinished was given under the direction of Johann von Herbeck in Vienna on December 17, 1865, with the last movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 in D, D.200, appended as an incongruous finale. The two completed movements call for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets in pairs, three trombones, timpani, and strings. With regard to this completed Newbould version, see the explanation below. Duration is about 43 minutes.
Schubert’s most popular symphony is also the most mysterious—and it was the very last of his eight symphonies to reach performance. The fact of its incompleteness, combined with the expressiveness of the two movements that were finished, gave rise to endless speculation: Why would a composer abandon a work after so splendid a beginning? Schubert finished the two complete movements in 1822 and sketched a third, even to the point of orchestrating the first 20 bars. But then he gave it up. And by the time he died in 1828 the manuscript was no longer in his possession; it remained concealed for more than 35 years. The rediscovery and first performance of the Unfinished in 1865 was a revelation to all present—and it has never lacked for performances since that day.
Actually, Schubert left a large number of works unfinished after February 1818 (when he completed his Symphony No. 6 in C Major, D.589). These included two symphonies, the one in B minor that we know as the “Unfinished” and one in E minor/major that was more fragmentary, though several musicians have completed it.
It has been reasonably suggested that the mature Schubert (he had just turned 21 when he finished the Sixth Symphony) had begun to change his view of the expressive and technical requirements of a symphony. His earliest works were certainly inspired by Haydn and Mozart, whose symphonies he had performed in his school orchestra. Evidently encounters with Beethoven’s music left him dissatisfied with the kind of work he had written earlier.
The whole function and point of the symphony as a musical form needed rethinking. The fact that a majority of the uncompleted works are in minor keys suggests, too, that Schubert had difficulty finding a suitable ending to such works—especially after the example of such symphonies as Beethoven’s Fifth, which seemed to struggle from C minor to its triumphant conclusion in C major. How many such solutions could there be? In this light, Schubert’s failure to finish even the scherzo of the B minor symphony may have been a kind of despair: unable to conceive an appropriate finale for the symphonic structure he had started, he simply dropped the work totally when he realized that its completion was beyond him.
When he evidently gave up working on the piece, after October 30, 1822, Schubert gave his manuscript of the two surviving movements to his school friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner of Graz. It was no doubt at Anselm’s suggestion that the Styrian Musical Society of Graz awarded Schubert a Diploma of Honor—to which he responded with a letter of thanks and the promise to send “one of my symphonies in full score.” In the end, it was the two completed movements of the B minor symphony he gave away.
After Schubert died, in 1828, his fame gradually grew as more and more of his music reached performance. By 1865 the existence of the unfinished symphony was an open secret. Admirers of his music scoured Vienna, looking for lost pieces and finding many. Eventually Anselm Hüttenbrenner was persuaded to part with the 40-year-old manuscript. At the premiere, the originality of the score, never heard except in its composer’s imagination, captured all hearers.
About the Music
The two movements that Schubert left are rich in his characteristic melodic expressiveness, bold in harmonic adventure, warm in orchestral color. The first movement contained an idea of such pungency that no less a musician than Johannes Brahms, who edited Schubert’s symphonies for the Breitkopf edition of his complete works at the end of the 19th century, couldn’t believe that Schubert intended it; he edited it out of existence!
The movement opens with a mysterious whisper in the low strings, made still darker by the soft tremolo of the violins’ melody over the plucked ostinato in the basses. Soon oboe and clarinet sing a keening, lonely melody. At first the listener might take this for a slow, minor‑key introduction to a symphony, but eventually it becomes apparent that this is the very body of the work—an entirely new kind of symphonic mood. The opening ideas build to an emphatic climax and drop out, leaving bassoons and horns holding a single note, which suddenly melts into a chord that brings a second theme of ineffable yearning. There follow a series of dramatic outbursts and a dying away in the new key when suddenly oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns sing out a sustained unison B (over a plucked descending line in the strings) designed to lead back to the repeat of the exposition (the first time) or on to the development (the second time). The development is based largely on the dark opening theme, converted to a sighing lament and later to a powerful dramatic outburst. After so much attention in the development, Schubert dispenses with it at the beginning of the recapitulation, starting instead with the violins’ tremolo and the plucked bass notes.
The second movement brings in a bright E major, a key that is particularly striking after the darkness of B minor. Here, especially, the wonderful flexibility of Schubert’s harmony leads us on a poignant musical journey that ends in mystery, with a sudden final skewing to a distant harmonic horizon left unexplained (though if Schubert had found a way to complete the score, the harmonic adventure would certainly have been clarified before the end).
But that was not all he wrote. The reverse side of the score page that ends the second movement contained 20 measures in full score of the Scherzo, and Schubert’s piano sketch for the symphony contained still more (including a theme for the Trio). It was not the full movement, but it offered enough so that Brian Newbould and Mario Venzaga could reconstruct something very like what Schubert had in mind.
That leaves the problem of what Schubert might have done for a finale. With no hint as to his possible approach to a final movement, Newbould suggested using a movement in the home key, B minor, drawn from a work composed about the same time: the Entr’acte No. 1 from his incidental music to Rosamunde, D.797, as a closing movement.
When Schubert died so prematurely, the poet Grillparzer noted, “Music has here entombed a rich treasure, but still fairer hopes.” Schubert never achieved his fairer hopes with the B minor symphony, but scarcely a richer treasure can be found anywhere.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)