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Program Notes: October 16, 2010

Symphony No. 3 in A Minor Scottish, Opus 56

Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato
Vivace non troppo
Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai

Felix Mendelssohn

(born Hamburg, Germany, 1809; died Leipzig, Germany, 1847)

When Felix Mendelssohn turned 20, his father urged him to complete his education with a 3-year journey through Europe. Such a Grand Tour was common among children of wealthy 19th Century families, and Mendelssohn was indeed from a family of wealth—and of intellectual giants. Felix’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a leading Enlightenment philosopher. Many European cities held the Mendelssohn name in high regard, and, in a sense, young Felix had an open invitation to the world. He had already achieved remarkable successes as a composer, pianist, and conductor, and this trip brought promise of nurturing his musical endeavors and extending his reputation.

In April 1829, Mendelssohn set out through England and Scotland, returned through the major German cities, and ended his tour in Hungary and Italy. All the while, he kept up the hectic concert schedule that he would continue throughout his life. His travels not only secured his reputation as a first-rate pianist and composer, but provided the creative seeds for some of his best-known works, including The Hebrides Overture, the Italian Symphony, and the Scottish Symphony.

Mendelssohn was fascinated by Scotland’s haunted, misty landscapes, its people and history, the stuff of Romantic legend. A prodigious correspondent, he chronicled his travels in delightful letters to his family. Of Holyrood Palace, he wrote: “In the evening twilight we went today to the place where Queen Mary lived and loved….Everything is broken and mouldered [in the chapel close by] and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.” His inspiration would take 10 years to come to fruition, pushed aside first by the sunny luxuriousness of Italy and then by performing obligations, conducting, other compositions, and teaching. In truth, the delay may have been for the better, for by the time Mendelssohn got around to composing the symphony in 1842, he was a more mature composer.

Mendelssohn’s music can be described as Romantic in sentiment, with Classical leanings. His heroes were Handel, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Often seemingly light and breezy, his works typically make their impact through no-nonsense structure, delightful melodic invention, and elegant counterpoint (several independently moving but harmonically related lines of music performed simultaneously). While retaining these foundations in his Scottish Symphony, Mendelssohn also takes the bold step of expressing Scotland’s soul, its melancholy and cloudy days, its feisty and flirty folk music, its stalwart countrymen. It gives us a hint of what Mendelssohn might have done had he not died too young at age 37.

In this symphony, as in his Violin Concerto, Mendelssohn specified that all the movements be played without a break. His rationale is evident in the opening. A brooding theme, reedy and somber, introduces the symphony’s thematic kernels. He seems to want to let the themes flow and evolve through one continuous movement.

After the solemn introduction comes the Allegro, fashioned from the first theme. The impressions of Scotland continue with a tempest upon stormy seas. Here and throughout the symphony, Mendelssohn’s counterpoint and inner lines enrich his themes.

The second movement scherzo is a quicksilver romp in folk tune and dance, featuring dazzling counterpoint and a two-note rhythm known as the Scottish snap: short-long, short-long.

The Andante is one of Mendelssohn’s most stunning forays into pathos, echoing the exquisitely shadowed slow movements in Mozart’s late works. A steady string pizzicato surrounds a stretched-out version of the movement’s main theme, which itself is derived from the symphony’s opening theme. We sense changing light and colors. The main theme gradually arrives at a climax that is as heartrending as any in music.

From this melancholic mood, the finale breaks forth with intense vigor, light on its feet but almost warlike. The movement flows with lightning energy until an ingenious moment arrives. Although, reportedly, Mendelssohn thought bagpipes were awful, he would have been hard-pressed not at least to tip his hat to Scotland’s prized instrument. So he starts a pedal point—a drone of the pipes—over which wafts a wonderful intertwining of thematic bits, gently calming into the final coda. Here, again, comes a surprise: Mendelssohn turns the symphony’s opening theme into a heart-warming anthem. Far from the bombastic finale of a typical symphony, Mendelssohn leaves us with his own impression of Scotland: being deeply moved and glad for the visit.

Lucy of Lammermoor (Lucia di Lammermoor)

Gaetano Donizetti

(born Bergamo, Italy, 1797; died Bergamo, 1848)

In 1835, when Donizetti was 38 years old, he had already composed a remarkable 46 operas, but only four had gained any real popularity: Anna Bolena, L’elisir d’amore, Lucrezia Borgia, and Maria Stuarda. Part of the problem was the mediocre librettos that his opera companies supplied him, and part was that he had to work under the long shadows of Gioacchino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini. More than once, Donizetti composed an otherwise great opera that was overshadowed by a Rossini or Bellini masterpiece. For example, Donizetti’s Marina Faliero premiered just after Bellini’s extraordinary I puritani in 1834, and was all but forgotten for 130 years. When it was revived in the 1960’s, the world realized that it was just shy of a masterpiece, foreshadowing the great choruses and rich Romantic harmonies that would soon make Verdi famous.

When the 37-year-old Rossini unexpectedly retired in 1829 and Bellini died prematurely in 1835, Donizetti came to dominate the Italian opera world. His reign began in 1835 with his immensely successful Lucia di Lammermoor, and continued until 1842, when Verdi burst onto the scene with Nabucco.

Just as Englishmen were traveling to Italy in the 1800’s to rediscover the classics of the ancients in art and literature, Italian writers and artists were looking beyond their own storied past and often turning to England for the new and exotic. Italian opera composers sought more modern themes, with the added benefit that it would be harder for the authorities to censor a unique story of the faraway. As Donizetti and his new librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, looked to the British Isles, they seized upon the work of the Scotsman Sir Walter Scott, the world-class poet and internationally best-selling novelist.

Scott’s exceptional talent for historical fiction produced such works as Ivanhoe and Rob Roy. Scott claimed that he based The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) on an actual event from 1664 involving the Dalrymple family in Lammermoor, Scotland. Lucy Dalrymple was in love with a penniless man, but her family coerced her into marrying another for family pride and riches. The manipulations turned poor Lucy mad, and she stabbed her unwanted husband on their wedding night. The novel had it all—a clandestine love affair, an evil relative, a feudal bargaining of love for wealth, insanity, murder, and suicide. Donizetti and Cammarano’s addition of ghosts and curses made the tale even more exciting for their countrymen.

Italians, still seething from Napoleon’s Kingdom of Italy (1807-14) and his rule of the Austrians, were struggling against their own malevolent rulers and desperately seeking autonomy. They understood Donizetti’s cloaked stand for freedom in Lucia, and the Scottish tale hit home.

For their opera, Donizetti and Cammarano took a few liberties with the novel. Of course, they Italianized the names. (For tonight’s performance, the names and text are changed back to English.) To pack more power into the story, they transformed Lucia’s penniless lover, Edgardo, from Scott’s country bumpkin into a ruined Lord, robbed of his father and his fortune by Lucia’s brother, and sworn to an oath of vengeance against the whole family—but making an exception for the beautiful Lucia. Cammarano wrote a concise libretto, which Donizetti matched with brilliant music.

The most memorable point in the opera comes after Lucia has gone insane and killed her new husband. Her “mad scene” is one of the fabled moments in opera history, and it gained Donizetti particular fame. But opera is typically more about music than story, and Donizetti achieved several musical breakthroughs in Lucia. He was one of the first composers to expand the baritone role to equal or exceed that of the tenor, and to do away with recitative (the relatively dull sung narrative) by tunefully blending the narrative into the next aria. Lucia is one of the first operas to use the chorus as a separate, "collective voice" character with its own opinions, rather than merely echoing the lead character’s sentiments. Donizetti also began to blur the traditional operatic format to make his story more realistic. For example, at the end of Act I Part I, Lucia and Edgardo meet secretly before Edgardo must leave on a long journey. They pledge their love and dread their forced separation. Rather than ending the scene with a grand chorus that would have been the usual practice of the time, Donizetti closes with a beautiful duet (The gentle breeze shall bear to you) between the lovers.

How the October 16, 2010 excerpts fit into the story of
Lucy of Lammermoor (Lucia di Lammermoor)

Main Characters Miss Lucy Ashton (Lucia)
Sir Edgar Ravenswood (Edgardo), Lucy’s lover
Lord Henry Ashton (Enrico), Lucy’s brother and Edgar’s enemy
Raymond Bidebent (Raimondo), the Ashtons’ chaplain
Lord Arthur Bucklaw (Arturo), Henry’s choice to marry Lucy
Alice (Alisa), Lucy’s servant

Setting: In and near Ravenswood Castle, Lammermoor, Scotland, late 1500’s

  1. Cavatina (Act I Part 1): Crushing and deadly torment (Cruda, funesta smania) — Henry

    Lucy’s brother, Henry, has been trying to persuade Lucy to marry the rich Arthur, but cannot sway her. He has just discovered that she is, instead, in love with his sworn enemy, Edgar. He rails at Lucy’s betrayal of her family.

  2. Duet (Act I Part 1): Where my father in dishonor (Sulla tomba che rinserra)... The gentle breeze shall bear to you (Ah! Verranno a te sull’aure) — Edgar, Lucy

    At their secret meeting place, Edgar has told Lucy that he must leave for France to negotiate for Scotland’s future. Before departing, he wants to end his feud with Henry and ask for Lucy’s hand in marriage, but Lucy insists that he still keep their love a secret. The hotheaded Edgar becomes enraged with the whole family and remembers his oath of vengeance against them. Lucy calms him, and they make a solemn vow to each other under Heaven, exchanging rings as husband and wife.

  3. Trio, sextet, and Act I finale: Here is your husband (Ecco il tuo sposo)… Who restrains me at this moment? (Chi mi frena in tal momento?)… Now begone, you wretch (T’allontana, sciagurato) — Edgar, Henry, Lucy, Raymond, Arthur, Alice

    Henry has been intercepting Edgar’s letters to Lucy from France, and he has forged a letter saying that Edgar has fallen in love with another woman. Thus has Henry manipulated Lucy into marrying Arthur, in the presence of their chaplain, Raymond, and Lucia’s servant, Alice. Confused, exhausted, and pitiful, Lucy signs the contract. She is now officially married to Arthur. Edgar has heard about what he believes to be Lucy’s faithless act, and he returns at just this moment to confront her. All six characters voice their own sentiments over this turn of events.

  4. Aria (Act II): From the chamber that had been waiting (Ah! Dalle stanze ove Lucia) — Raymond

    Returning from Lucy’s bedchamber, Raymond tells the wedding guests the terrible news: Lucy has stabbed and killed her groom, Arthur, and is now frail and insane.

  5. Aria and Act II finale: You before God’s throne are flying (Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali) — Edgar, Raymond

    The wedding guests and Raymond tell Edgar that Lucy has killed her husband, called for Edgar, and died from madness. Seeking to be reunited with Lucy in heaven, Edgar stabs himself and dies.

—Max Derrickson