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Program Notes: December 4, 2010

Egmont Overture, Opus 84

Ludwig van Beethoven

(born Bonn, Germany, 1770; died Vienna, Austria, 1827)

Count Egmont (1522-1568) was a brilliant and popular military leader in the Spanish Netherlands. He empathized with his Protestant Dutch countrymen’s protests for autonomy and religious freedom against the ruling Spanish Hapsburgs. In an attempt to stop the unrest, the authorities beheaded Count Egmont and displayed his severed head skewered on a pike in the marketplace. Although this grizzly image plunged the oppressed Dutch briefly into despair, it soon became an emblem of “the struggle.” Egmont’s bravery became the symbol of heroism against oppression, and, many bloody years later, the Dutch finally won their independence.

In his 1787 play Egmont, the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe masterfully captured the despair, struggle, resolve, and triumph in Count Egmont’s martyrdom. When a new production of the play was being staged in Vienna in 1809, Beethoven eagerly accepted an invitation to compose incidental music, including an overture, some songs and entr’actes, and a final “Victory Symphony” that Goethe had specified in his text.

Beethoven considered Goethe to be one of the “great spirits of the age.” Like Goethe, Beethoven wrote about heroes and struggle, as in his recently completed Symphony No. 5 and his opera, Leonore (Fidelio). The Dutch struggle for freedom spoke to Beethoven’s Enlightenment philosophy and struck close to home for him, as he had endured Napoleon’s 1809 invasion of Vienna—the fourth assault on Austria in 18 years.

The Egmont Overture has one of the most dramatic openings in all music. Somber block chords wash over the listener like waves of grief, proceeding like a fractured hymn in the aftermath of a great tragedy. These huge chords are answered by pitiful cries from the woodwinds, as though pairs of hands, first one, then another, and then others are reaching up for some small sense of hope. The whole spirit-crushing sequence is repeated, even bigger, though slightly truncated. If ever there were doubt about Beethoven being one of the first Romantic Era composers, these few bars alone would put it to rest. He has summed up the people’s despair: “Count Egmont has been executed, and we know not what to do.” But the people do carry on, and they do hold the torch. The music gains momentum as their struggle gains strength and hope. Now we hear echoes of the fifth symphony’s similar struggle toward triumph. As in the symphony’s scherzo, the overture’s horns blast in indignation. After a brief moment of reflection, the overture’s coda refers unmistakably to the symphony’s. As Egmont’s memory energized the Dutch, brass-led triumph is winning the day in this music. Although the overture borrows its mood if not its notes from the symphony, in its rarified form the overture’s ending is even more thrilling.

Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Opus 44

Adagio non troppo
Recitativo: Allegro moderato – Allegro – Andante sostenuto
Finale: Allegro molto

Max Bruch

(born Cologne, Germany, 1838; died Friedenau [near Berlin], Germany, 1920)

Max Bruch first composed opera. He was exceptionally able at writing for voice—some of his sacred and secular choral works are exquisite—and this talent served him well throughout his long career. During his life, he occupied a respected place among Germany’s composers, and rose to become Chairman of the Royal Academy of the Arts in Berlin. But he was never as revered as Mendelssohn or Brahms, nor did he follow in the flashy avant-garde footsteps of Wagner and Liszt, the two main proponents of the “new German School” that stretched the limits of harmony and structure. Bruch generally chose to stay within the tonal harmonies of Mozart and Beethoven, not for any lack of compositional brilliance, but because his deepest desire was to write music that would be pleasing to his listeners. His gift was crafting rich, beautiful melodies.

It’s not surprising that Bruch turned to the violin in 1865 when he met the great violinist Joseph Joachim. Bruch felt compelled to write for the violin because it “can sing a melody, and melody is the soul of music.” His Violin Concerto No. 1 (1867) was an extraordinary success. In one of the great triumphs of his career, this work immediately took its place in the canon of violin concertos by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Bruch followed this success with seven more violin pieces, many of them as beautiful and sensuous as his first concerto, but, with the fickleness of fate, he became known and still is remembered almost exclusively for his first. This aggravated Bruch to no end. He was a meticulous composer who invested as much effort and tunefulness into his later violin works as his first. He would be pleased to know that his lovely Violin Concerto No. 2 (1877) is being performed tonight.

If Bruch is traditional in approaching melody and harmony, he is adventurous in structuring his second concerto. He composes the entire first movement in a slow tempo. He writes the middle movement in a vocal rather than instrumental form—a recitative—probably inspired by his writing for opera. This is, after all, a composition for the violin, which Bruch believed “can sing a melody.”

This concerto invites you in as though it were a big chair and a book by the fireplace—the book having an exciting last chapter. The third-movement themes are luxuriant and the harmonies comfortable. But the movement is deceptive. The solo violin writing, with all of its soaring and melting lines, can be exceptionally difficult to play. Its many cherishable pianissimo passages are no less challenging, demanding the touch and sensibilities of a poet rather than a pyrotechnician. The result is a wonderfully engaging piece.

The Three-Cornered Hat (El sombrero de tres picos) Suites

Suite 1 Introduction
Dance of the Miller’s Wife (Fandango)
The Corregidor, The Miller’s Wife, The Grapes

Suite 2 The Neighbors’ Dance (Seguidilla)
The Miller’s Dance (Farruca)
Final Dance (Jota)

Manuel de Falla

(born Cádiz, Spain, 1876; died Alta Gracia, Argentina, 1946)

In the late 19th Century, music flourished in Spain—but outside the concert halls. Spain’s beloved folk and popular music—flamenco, zarzuela, cante jondo, jota—was as complex as any “classical” music being composed elsewhere. But by the mainstream European definition of “classical,” Spain had contributed hardly any music since the Renaissance 400 years earlier. Oddly enough, a resurgence of “Spanish” classical music began not with Spanish composers but with foreigners. Georges Bizet, a Frenchman, composed his very Spanish opera Carmen in 1875. Emmanuel Chabrier, another Frenchman, wrote his España in 1883. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a Russian, wrote his Capriccio Espagnol in 1887. All of these great works incorporated the melodies and rhythms of Spanish folk music, but none were written by Spaniards.

The early 20th Century finally brought classical work from three gifted Spaniards, all of them influenced by the Spanish teacher, musicologist, and composer Felipe Pedrell (1841-1922). Pedrell inspired Isaac Albeniz, Enrique Granados, and Manuel de Falla to fashion a classical Spanish voice from folk and popular music dances and rhythms, the beautifully melancholic melodies of Andalusia, and the flamenco. Falla proved the most gifted at merging Western classical sensibilities with Spanish idioms, thanks to his studies in Paris from 1907-14 and his friendship there with Debussy, Ravel, and Dukas.

Falla based his ballet The Three-Cornered Hat on a novel of the same name by Pedro de Alarcón (1833-91). The story is an Andalusian folk tale but follows in the tradition of Spanish picaresque novels—the most famous being Cervantes’ Don Quixote—in which various characters have endless adventures of love and jealousy, buffoonery and gallantry, tragedy and banality, sketching the vast tapestry of the human condition.

Falla’s first version was a short 1916 chamber work with pantomime. Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes—the same impresario who staged Stravinsky’s great ballets—attended the opening and asked Falla to expand the work to a full-length ballet with full orchestra. Ernest Ansermet conducted the premiere in London in 1919, with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. The two suites that Falla derived soon afterward have become a staple of the orchestral repertoire.

There is no mistaking the work’s Spanish roots. Falla colors his melodies with typical Spanish ornamentation, preceding the main note by a quick flourish of extra notes. The harmonies and syncopations are quintessentially Spanish. In the first movement, Afternoon, Falla creates suspense in the glimmering strings by using the typically Spanish—and ancient—Phrygian mode (scale). In the Dance of the Miller’s Wife, the orchestra imitates a quick-strumming guitar in a flamenco fandango. The Neighbors’ Dance is a seguidilla, a couples’ dance, its melody flavored by the lovely Spanish flatted 2nd, which creates a modal sound. The Miller’s Dance is a man’s flamenco farruca requiring bursts of quick footwork. The Final Dance is mostly a jota, a castanet-clicking dance in 6/8 time, traditionally used to celebrate a community’s togetherness.

The music is a joyful pageant of brilliant colors, fast-changing rhythms, and driving excitement. But even with its exotic flavor, the piece maintains masterful balance and pacing. The Three-Cornered Hat helped Spain reclaim its rightful place in European classical music.

The Three-Cornered Hat

Suite 1. At home by the mill, a young miller struggles to teach a pet crow to tell time; his beautiful young wife succeeds. The bumptious Corregidor (magistrate), who wears a tri-cornered hat as a symbol of his position, notices the wife’s beauty and sneaks over to see her. While her husband hides and watches, the wife dances teasingly and offers the Corregidor grapes. When he tries to kiss her and falls down, the miller jumps out armed with a stick and chases him away.

Suite 2. That evening the young couple entertains their neighbors. As the miller dances for them, police enter and arrest him as revenge for having humiliated the Corregidor. Left alone, the miller’s wife should be easy prey for the Corregidor, but as he nears her house, he falls into the river. The wife hears his shouts, confronts him, and runs away. The exhausted Corregidor hangs out his wet clothes and hat to dry, and falls asleep in the miller’s bed. Meanwhile, the miller escapes from jail, returns home to find the Corregidor in his bed, and assumes that his wife is there, too. To get even, he dresses in the Corregidor’s clothes and hurries off to seduce the Corregidor’s wife. The Corregidor awakens to find his clothes gone, so he puts on the miller’s clothes. The police arrive to re-arrest the miller; they attack the miller-bedecked Corregidor instead. The miller’s wife returns and fights off the police to protect her “husband.” The miller returns, sees his wife fighting, and joins the fray to protect her. The Corregidor finally explains all. The miller’s neighbors toss the Corregidor up and down in a blanket.

—Max Derrickson