January 21-22, 2017
Greenwich Choral Society
Alfonso and Estrella Overture, Schubert
Mass in G major, D. 167, Schubert
Symphony No. 1, Op. 13 in G minor (Winter Dreams), Tchaikovsky
Alfonso und Estrella, D. 732 - Overture
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Schubert’s opera, Alfonso und Estrella, was composed in 1821-1822 with the libretto provided by Franz von Schober. Problems surfaced during rehearsals, and attempts by the two young collaborators to get the work staged were unsuccessful. The principal singers, unhappy with the opera, chose not to sing, and opera houses in Vienna, Berlin and Dresden refused to stage it. Schubert never heard the opera—its first performance took place in Weimar in June 1854, with Franz Liszt conducting.
The highly dramatic overture to the opera, however, displays the composer’s unique melodic gift as well as his musical descriptions of the dramatic settings and relationships taking place in the plot. The powerful, forceful opening depicts ominous plots involving the deposed King Froila and his son Alfonso, while the contrasting warm, lyrical passages mark the love between Estrella and Alfonso and their joyous response to the restoration of Froila’s court.
Mass No. 2 in G Major, D. 167
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Of the many remarkable qualities found in the Mass in G Major, one certainly must single out its melodies. Franz Schubert was a supreme composer of melody, as evidenced by his large number of beloved art songs and chamberworks. His greatest gift was one of beautiful melody, and his treasured melodies have probably never been equaled in their beauty and astounding variety of character. He wrote some 600 art songs (Lieder), most of which comprise a major portion of that genre. One thinks of the song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (1823); Die Winterreise (1827); and Schwanengesang (1828). As well, his religious works, piano music, chamber music and symphonies are filled with a richness of melodic and harmonic invention. Part of the Schubert biography is that of his total dedication to his life’s work, excluding almost all else as he responded to an incredible flow of musical ideas.
Schubert composed the Mass No. 2 in 1815, at age 18. It is the second Mass in his list of seven, and is based on the traditional Roman Catholic Mass. There are six movements, titled Kyrie; Gloria; Credo; Sanctus; Benedictus and Agnus Dei, employing chorus (SATB) and three soloists (STB), all singing in Schubert’s German Latin, and orchestra.
Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 13 “Winter Dreams”
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Tchaikovsky’s role as the most significant Russian composer of the 19th century was achieved despite a tidal wave of nationalism in his country that dictated a rejection of Western European influence in the arts. This influence had been initiated by Tzar Peter the Great (1672-1725), who, finding Russia in the early 18th century sadly lacking in cultural values, imported Western European ideals and examples in all the arts. This resulted in a nationalistic backlash that surfaced in the early decades of the 19th century. In Russian music, this was manifested in a movement that was led by composer Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), who felt that music in his country lacked its own cultural identity and should reflect its own “Russian,” not “Western,” values. To achieve this, he theorized that formal schooling in Western European music was an impediment to capturing the essence of the Russian character and was not necessary. He had little formal musical training himself, and through his music, his efforts spawned, in 1860, the “Group of Five.” Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Cui were all amateur musicians and composers, who had little or no formal music education but who had gained important recognition in Russian musical life.
Tchaikovsky followed a very different path. A very unhappy lawyer and clerk in the Ministry of Justice, the sensitive, shy, gloomy and neurotic young man took a gamble in 1863, quit his secure position, and enrolled in Anton Rubinstein’s newly formed St. Petersburg Conservatory. Rubinstein, renowned as a concert pianist and a major force in the development of professional music education in Russia, established the Russian Music Society in 1859 and the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862.
Tchaikovsky had great success there, and within two years was invited to teach harmony and theory at the Moscow Conservatory. He subsequently emerged from the 1860’s Russian “nationalist” movement as the clear leader, even though he was quite different in many ways from the “Group of Five,” including his more formal music education. Notwithstanding his excellent musical training, he could not have sounded more “Russian,” and he created a sense of national identity that has become one of the most treasured qualities of his music. That he accomplished this was undoubtedly due not only to folk references in his music, but also to his direct, sincere expressivity and genius at capturing the essence of Russian spirit.
The Symphony No. 1 proved to be an extremely difficult project for Tchaikovsky, and his efforts caused his near collapse, close to a nervous breakdown. Begun in 1866, his problem with the symphony was rooted in following his creative muse while at the same time adhering to established symphonic structure, especially that pertaining to first movement sonata-allegro form—exposition of themes; their development and their recapitulation. His gift for composing melodies offering rich, inventive and expansive opportunities for that symphonic treatment came to his rescue, but not without exhausting effort.
The first movement’s primary theme, played by flute and bassoon, is heard immediately over trembling strings, and then repeated in middle strings. After additional colorful, rhythmic elements are added, the songlike second theme is heard in solo clarinet. The impressive development section concludes with a break in the music, followed by an unusual transitional passage featuring horns accompanied with undulating lower strings, leading to the final section of the movement, the recapitulation, and a coda that offers a quick, last glimpse of the first theme.
The lovely second movement, Adagio, opens and closes with a string chorale; this includes a plaintive, typically Russian melody heard in solo oboe. Notable here as well is the soaring climax of the melody in a wonderful bit of orchestration, played by unison horns above increasingly active strings.
Tchaikovsky imported the melody from his C sharp minor Piano Sonata of 1865 for the third movement, Scherzo. This brisk music in triple time is nicely contrasted with a lilting waltz in the movement’s middle section trio, heard in a refreshing major key.
The dramatic final movement begins with a slow introduction that soon presents another plaintive Russian folk tune. This tune figures prominently in the fast main part of the movement as the second theme in this sonata form. Both the primary theme, heard when the fast tempo emerges, and the folk tune are utilized in brief, recurring contrapuntal passages. After a recall of the slow opening section, a brisk, energetic section provides a powerful conclusion to the movement.
– Richard Wolter
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