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Program Notes: October 20, 2002

"Love Potions"

Tristan und Isolde (1856-1859)
Prelude (Vorspiel) to the Opera
Isolde's Liebestod

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

In the middle and latter half of the 1800's Germany was embracing a grass-roots nationalism similar to that of Italy earlier in the century. The movement encompassed political unity, and more so a national character and identity. This German character was championed by many artists and philosophers, but most vocal and committed was Wilhelm Richard Wagner by way of music and writing. This national character was one that cultivated and defined the mystical and metaphysical nature of the German people, of humankind for that matter, but was certainly not the devastating conclusion brought about by the Third Reich early in the 20th century.

An unusually bright man with many talents, Wagner devoted much of his life trying to mold and identify this national character. Not single-handedly, but surely outspoken, Wagner envisioned a pureness of heart and mind in this character. It followed that he believed all artistic endeavor be blended into a single, powerfully moving amalgam; taking away the boundaries between literature, philosophy, art, and music, and melding them into one unified art. The culmination of this was his Opera House and Festival at Bayreuth, of which in 1910 Stravinsky was moved to conclude the whole notion "sacrilegious."

But such was Wagner's ideal, and his 13 operas bear witness to it, combining metaphysical and mythical stories with music of quite a new nature regarding the artistic norm. Tristan und Isolde, which was composed between 1856 and 1859, may well be considered an ultimate expression of this ideal.

The story harkens back to the 12th Century Gaelic tale of Tristan, the Knight, and Isolde, the fair maiden. Fate brings them together, a love potion seals their hearts to each other, but reality makes them choose death and the beyond over separateness on earth. It's an old tale that Wagner idealized and took a few steps further, for, though the theme is common enough, Wagner identifies Love with Death, Daylight with Darkness, and Reality with the Unknown.

The Prelude indeed gives us a remarkable hint at how Wagner will proceed. The first three bars of music take us into a place that is dark and immensely yearning, full of uncharted pathos, and completely unrequited. We also will hear Isolde's Song of Death, but which is called Life-Death (Liebestod), in which the heroine rents her heart of the illusory trappings of mortality to be with her lover in death. We hear this song in a purely orchestral arrangement, but the instruments sing to us clearly enough.

he opera, and more specifically the extraordinary Prelude, has been considered by some to have changed the course of Western music. This is because of its startling ambiguity of key, a stark departure from the harmonic structures of the Classical era. The prelude takes about 16 bars to even begin giving us a feeling of where we are harmonically. The first three bars are composed of two very short, extremely chromatic themes, in which appears the "Tristan" chord, a chord that has no harmonic resolution in its context.

These two motives, (which Wagner called leit motifs - a musical phrase that represents an idea or emotion), and a third in bar 16, virtually make up the entire opera.

In the time and tide of Western music, admittedly this work had a resounding impact, and in the words of musicologist Bernard Jacobson, "The profoundly inward-looking style of this music established Tristan as the single most influential work of its time, weakening the grip of the classical key system and presaging the atonal explorations of the 20th century."

Piano Concerto No. 2 in f-minor, op. 21 (1830)

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

Fryderyk (he preferred the French spelling we recognize) Franciszek Chopin was born near Warsaw in 1810. By the age of 6 he was mastering the piano on his own. His talents were so instinctive and remarkable that, even with 4 years of private instruction, he was considered to have taught himself, and was quickly expected to become "Mozart's successor." After his 19th year, and after several successful concert debuts in Warsaw and abroad, Chopin was searching for a fortuitous career. And although Poland was divining him as their national composer, financial support was scant. Thus, he set out for "England by way of Paris" to seek his fortune.

"By way of Paris" became Paris and no further. Chopin's arrival there in 1831 met him with accolades. His reputation preceded him, especially garnished by Robert Schumann's universal endorsement of him as a genius. The Parisian Romantic ideal and its elitist circles appealed to Chopin, as did the woman author George Sand. And so Chopin quickly found fame, fortune, romance and a comfortable place for himself in Paris.

Though not particularly prolific, Chopin added a good number of greatly cherished masterpieces to the solo piano repertoire. His adventurous harmonic innovations held great influence over subsequent composers such as Debussy and Wagner. Yet an extraordinary pianist and improviser, Chopin chose to abandon his concertizing early in his career, eventually shying even from private social performances. Tragically, in 1849 he died of tuberculosis at the age of 39.

Chopin composed the f-minor piano concerto in Warsaw between 1829-30 at the age of 19. Though published as his second, it is actually his first chronologically. His two concerti, as well as a set of variations for piano and orchestra, were written chiefly to gain notoriety as a composer; seldom, in Chopin's day, were composers championed outside the orchestral realm.

The f-minor concerto is structured basically in the Classical sonata form, but the musicologist Tovey more accurately described it as "departure and return" from the basic form. Chopin's compositional gifts lied mainly in his highly expressive, harmonically rich writing. Both of the concertos reflect Romantic era trends with a high degree of ornamentation and virtuosity, and both works have finales that draw on Polish folk themes. Both have delighted audiences with their dynamic flourishes as well as their grace and charm. Notably, his music is quite often connected to romance and love, and especially the second movement in both concertos are ultimate expressions of romantic musings.

L'Arlesienne Suites No. 1 & 2
No. 1:   Prelude; Menuet; Adagietto; Carillon
No. 2:   Pastorale; Intermezzo; Menuet (from "La jolie fille de Perth"); Farandole

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

In 1857, eight years after the passing of Chopin, another great composer and pianist, Georges Bizet, was arriving on the scene, this time in Rome from Paris, as the recipient of the coveted Prix de Rome for composition. Bizet, also only 19, carried with him an already notable reputation as a brilliant musician and composer.

Born of musician parents, Bizet's early musical talents won him entry into the Paris Conservatoire just before his tenth birthday. His studies there brought forth his mastery of the piano and several excellent compositions. The most notable of those Conservatoire works is his Symphony in C.

In Rome he settled into a three year stipend garnered by the prize to compose, but though many works were planned and begun, only four pieces survived. He then travelled back to Paris, his home, and dedicated himself to composing.

From his return to Paris until his early death at age 36 in 1875, Bizet led essentially a troubled life. Included in these years was the Franco-Prussian War in which he enlisted in the National Guard. But he also suffered from ill health, depression, and lack of success by his standards. Though there are quite a few wonderful instrumental works by Bizet, he dedicated most of his attention to opera. Shortly before his death he completed Carmen, and though it's introduction to the world was not entirely enthusiastic, surely now it is recognized as the most popular opera ever written.

The Suites to L'Arlesienne (meaning "The Maid of Arles") were put together both by Bizet and his friend Ernest Guiraud from a larger body of Bizet's incidental music to Alphonse Daudet's play of the same title. The play premiered in 1872, and is the story of a man Frederi who cannot win the love of the Arles woman and so chooses death instead. The play generally failed to draw acclaim, but in no way because of the music. After the play's failure, Bizet orchestrated four of the pieces for a larger orchestra, constituting Suite No. 1, and after his death the second suite was prepared by Guiraud. They are both standard repertory in the concert hall.

The prelude makes use of an old military march, Marcho Dei Rei, which then turns over to an exquisite saxophone melody (which portrays the hero's simple brother), and then the sweetness of the music describing Frederi's love. Following this come intermission pieces, scene change music, and a menuet borrowed from another opera to complete the second suite. The Adagietto, portraying the love of two other characters in the play, is simply breathtaking in its tenderness. The Carillon is well remembered for its wonderful zest and originality, and it is hard not to get goose bumps at the amazing finale-round Farandole.

— Max Derrickson