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Program Notes: October 20, 2007

Polka and Fugue from the opera Shvanda the Bagpiper

Jaromir Weinberger

(born Prague, 1896; died St. Petersburg, FL, 1967)

It’s ironic that the composer who had written such exuberant, earthy, witty, and jocular pieces as the Polka and Fugue in his opera Shvanda the Bagpiper would eventually succumb to depression and suicide. But such is the tragic tale of Czech composer Jaromir Weinberger. Admitted to the Prague Conservatory at age 14, Weinberger soon gained international recognition for his compositions. At age 25 his reputation earned him a teaching post at Ithaca Conservatory in New York. Returning to Prague four years later, in 1926, Weinberger premiered his most beloved work, the folk opera Shvanda, which became the biggest operatic box office hit of the 20th Century. By 1931, it had been produced over 2,000 times in many cities and languages.

Yet at the height of his achievements, Weinberger’s peers described him as excessively gloomy, as he fell prey to what was most likely manic-depression. After Schvanda, only one of his other works, the oratorio Christmas, ever achieved more than moderate acclaim. He became a victim of his own success. When World War II made the Jewish Weinberger a refugee, he returned to the U.S. But despite his highly refined craft, he could find only modest approval for his late-Romantic aesthetics. By 1949 he and his wife moved to Florida, where they spent the rest of their lives in relative seclusion. His fame having ebbed away, his musical principles unappreciated, and stricken with cancer, his depression led him to take an overdose of sedatives. In recent years, however, Weinberger’s works have received renewed interest, with appreciation for a composer whose early fame was well-deserved.

Weinberger’s two-act opera Shvanda the Bagpiper is anything but gloomy. Based on a well-known early Czech folk tale, it tells the audacious and fantastic story of a simple farmer who is a notoriously gifted bagpiper. Shvanda and his wife are visited by Babinski, a thief on the run. Babinski’s tales of adventure lure Shvanda into agreeing to play his pipes for a mysterious Queen who is bewitched by melancholy (Polka). With her spell broken and happy again, she proposes to Shvanda, who accepts and gives her a kiss. His real wife arrives, displeased. Shvanda swears to her that if he kissed the Queen, he would go directly to hell. Hell obliges, of course, and there the gullible Shvanda is tricked into giving the Devil his soul. The thief Babinski arrives to save the day, bringing Shvanda his pipes, beating the Devil at cards, and trading his winnings for Shvanda’s soul and release (Fugue).

The music of the Polka and the Fugue became early companion pieces in the concert hall. They show why the opera was so incredibly popular. The Polka is instantly engaging, full of chromatic surprises, and as joyous as any piece in the repertoire. One of its most fun-loving moments comes as the main theme repeats and ever more instruments chime in with little snippets of jubilant chaos. Then, as the Polka is coming to a close, Weinberger implies a quote from the Wedding March in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Fugue showcases Weinberger’s love of counterpoint as well his superior orchestration. As the complicated fugue tools along, more instruments join in and the volume continues to grow, culminating in an extraordinary instant when both the Fugue subject and the Polka theme merge into a majestic and rousingly triumphant ending for Shvanda, and the listener.

Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

George Gershwin [Jacob Gershvin]

(born Brooklyn, NY, 1898; died Hollywood, CA, 1937)

It’s a wonderful story, about as American as one could hope for, about a poor kid from Brooklyn who made it big through tenacity and talent, and whose successes soon had the whole world singing with him. George Gershwin was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn and grew up cramped in a small home with three siblings and one piano (which young George played with increasing skill). At age 15 he dropped out of school to work on Tin Pan Alley, where he and dozens of other pianists sold songs for music publishers. While he was “plugging” songs for performers at the Alley, he continued his musical studies and composing, dreaming of making it big. By his early 20’s he had found some success with his own works on Broadway. In 1920, his first hit song, Swanee, sung by Al Jolson, netted him $10,000 in its first year alone. Then came success with shows in London. By age 24, the poor kid from Brooklyn had made it about as big as he might have ever dreamed. But the truly amazing part of the story was just beginning.

In the Roaring 20’s, jazz was earning respect on the street and on Broadway as a sophisticated popular music, but by and large it couldn’t find its place among the conservatory crowd. The Paul Whiteman Orchestra had some mild success bringing jazz into the concert hall, but Whiteman’s sanitized sound was only setting the stage for a jazz breakthrough, which came with Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin had played piano and written some music for Whiteman, but they had not had a serious collaboration. This changed dramatically one early January day in 1924, when George and his brother Ira learned through a felicitous glimpse at the New York Tribune that George Gershwin was to write a new jazz piano concerto for the Whiteman Orchestra.

For this concert, titled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” Whiteman planned to feature his arrangements of all sorts of music, focusing on their “jazz” elements, with the marquee piece being a concerto by the up-and-coming “jazzer” George Gershwin. With only a month to compose the piece, Gershwin wrote furiously while Ferde Grofé (Whiteman’s staff arranger and the composer of the Grand Canyon Suite) turned Gershwin’s two-piano score into an arrangement for piano and orchestra. By the time of the concert on February 12, 1924, Whiteman’s “Experiment” had all the makings of a disaster, but instead made musical history. With Gershwin at the piano, Rhapsody in Blue captivated that inaugural audience. From its famous opening clarinet glissando, through its jazzy riffs, through the unforgettable big-tune rhapsody with its jaunty half-hitch of the small riff at its end, through its ebullient finale, Rhapsody in Blue became an instant hit.

Its impact was far-reaching: Soon classical composers were writing “serious” music using jazz idioms. For all intents and purposes, Rhapsody in Blue legitimized jazz as serious musical expression, and made our young hero from Brooklyn more famous than he might ever have imagined.

Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Opus 95 (From the New World)

Antonín Dvorák

(born Nelahozeves, Bohemia {now Czech Republic}, 1841; died Prague, 1904)

From the late 1850’s into the 20th Century, our young nation had been searching for the identity of “American music.” Ironically, one of “American music’s” greatest masterpieces was composed by a visitor from the very Old World city of Prague.

In 1892, the New York socialite Jeanette Thurber coaxed Bohemia’s greatest musical treasure, composer Antonín Dvorák, to direct her newly formed National Conservatory of Music in New York. Because of Dvorák’s commitment to musical nationalism, Thurber hoped that he would help America find its own national style. Dvorák’s three years in America, 1892-95, proved prolific, producing the “New World” Symphony, String Quintet in Eb, String Quartet in F, and the quintessential Cello Concerto. However, despite endless arguments to the contrary, his New World Symphony did not inaugurate an “American” national style of music.

Dvovák completed his Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) in May 1893. Ever since, people have debated the American-ness of the composer’s inspirations. He explicitly discussed his interest in “Negro and Native Indian” music, and spoke of his deep affinity with Longfellow’s epic poem Hiawatha (about the noble native Indian) and the superb Negro spirituals that he learned from students at the Conservatory. Although he suggested that the middle movements of the Symphony were inspired by scenes from Hiawatha, no direct quotes of American music can be found. To address two of the often-raised questions about the symphony: Dvorák composed the famous Goin’ Home tune of the Largo movement before one of his students added words. And what might sound like a hint of Yankee Doodle in the third movement is, rather, music characteristic of his Czech homeland. In truth, Dvorák was most inspired by the invigorating spirit of America. His Symphony’s energy and lilting folk-like tunes absorb the indomitable “feel” of the New World.

The Symphony was an astounding success at its premiere in December 1893, giving American audiences cause for cheer and pride. The New World may be the most popular symphony ever written.

Each movement has its own introduction – a clever innovation on Dvorák’s part – and then motives from each introduction are used in all the movements. The first movement’s slow and instantly memorable introduction opens the Symphony’s door to a vast musical landscape. When the first theme is fully introduced with an unforgettably bracing horn call, the effect is utterly sweeping and wonderfully in motion, as Dvorák paints tonal pictures of the New World’s natural grandeur. When the clarinet introduces the second theme, the music gains momentum, creating a more intense, yet quieter, dramatic effect. The rest of the movement displays Dvorák’s mastery of melodic development. Parts of the two main themes can be heard in virtually every measure as the movement races toward its exultant conclusion.

The solemn, infinitely affecting introduction to the Largo is one of the most breathtaking moments in all of music, and is followed by two of the most gorgeous themes. Combined with Dvorák’s lushly Romantic harmonies and sense of poignancy, the Largo is one of those rare musical moments that approach bliss.

The third movement is a wonderful example of the classic two-trio scherzo (a fast movement, usually in triple time, with sections often structured as ABACA) perfected by Beethoven, but Dvorák adds an intricate pattern of repetitions that almost make it a rondo (a fast movement often structured as ABACAB´A). Although we may feel its structure, we are more enraptured by Dvorák’s uncanny genius with tunefulness and pacing. After the short introductory motive, the Scherzo sprints off in a stiff gait, and then marvelous rhythmic and melodic tricks tumble before us. The trios are exquisitely charming woodwind celebrations. Near the end, we begin to hear how cleverly Dvorák uses material from the other movements.

The Finale brings back the dramatic energy of the first movement, but with a greater bristling urgency. With amazing facility, Dvorák weaves together a rhapsody that combines new themes with themes from previous movements. Near the end of the Finale, the brass play the once-solemn introduction from the Largo, but with many times the intensity, while the timpani pound away and the strings shoot upwards like rockets. Even more exciting is the coda, when the first movement’s horn theme and the Finale’s first theme are crushed together in grinding counterpoint. From this tension, the Symphony breaks free to its thrillingly triumphant ending.

— Max Derrickson