April 9-10, 2022
La Gioconda (Act III Finale – Dance of the Hours)
Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886)
Based on a novel by Victor Hugo, La Gioconda trades in the storied conventions of grand opera; rejection of unwanted advances, betrayal, drugs, murder, and suicide. It is also filled with showcase arias in the coloratura and bel canto styles and is one of the few operas to feature leading roles for every voice type. These are some of the qualities that have made La Gioconda a continuous hit since its premiere at La Scala in 1876. The ballet, Dance of the Hours, which closes Act III, has been a hit in its own right – in the opera, as a separate item in ballet programs, and as a concert piece on orchestral programs and recordings.
In addition, Dance of the Hours has been a source for numerous parodies and comical adaptations. Most famous perhaps is Walt Disney’s animated version in his 1940 concert film Fantasia, with soloists and a corps de ballet of ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators. Then there is an infamous account in Mel Brooks’s History of the World Part 1, in which Madeline Kahn as the Roman Empress Nymphia sings to the Ponchielli tune while selecting male companions for her evening’s entertainment. There’s Allan Sherman’s droll comic take on a homesick letter from an “unhappy camper,” Hello Muddah – Hello Faddah. And who could forget a setting of the final prestissimo by Spike Jones and his City Slickers to the running of the Indianapolis 500, breathlessly narrated by Doodles Weaver. It seems that Dance of the Hours has enjoyed far more mileage than Ponchielli could have possibly imagined when he composed it.
Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
Delius is arguably the first composer of European background (born in England of German-Dutch lineage) to have been initially influenced by the music of African-American workers he heard singing in Florida while he was unsuccessfully pursuing the occupation of orange plantation manager. Despite his father’s wishes to make a business man of him, the young Delius turned to music. The nearest large city to the plantation was Jacksonville, which in the 1880s enjoyed an eclectic cultural milieu, and where virtually every nightlife hang-out was staffed by talented singing African-American employees. The classical music of the time was served by various community ensembles, church musicians, and the town band. The town was rarely silent. Although Delius spent only two years in Florida, his earliest major work for orchestra, Florida Suite memorializes this period in his life.
Upon returning home in 1886, Delius enrolled for musical study at Leipzig Conservatory. After intermittent success with performances of his early works, he was discovered by the conductor Thomas Beecham. Independently wealthy due to an inheritance from his family’s pharmaceutical company, Beecham could afford to lead a career entirely of his choosing and champion any composer who struck his fancy. Delius was one such composer. Beecham gave premieres of orchestral works, operas, and numerous shorter pieces and miniatures of Delius, as well as a large representation of phonograph recordings.
Delius’s works range from prophetic and visionary, such as the large scale oratorios Mass of Life, and Sea Drift (set to some of the same texts of Walt Whitman as used by Vaughan Williams in A Sea Symphony) to the sentimental and bucolic, such as Brigg Fair and Over the Hills and Far Away. Delius developed the growing use of a compositional style referred to as through composed, continuous writing with little differentiation of traditional form, to which he added a kind of bemused ambiguity at being unable to find his way, but not really minding that he’s lost in the corner into which he has painted himself. This may explain why the appeal of Delius has been somewhat limited to a niche audience of devoted listeners, to the utter neglect of the larger musical public who prefer to follow a more defined formal layout. English critic Philip Heseltine, (also a composer known by the pen-name Peter Warlock) put it best – “There can be no superficial view of Delius’s music; either one feels it in the very depths of one’s being, or not at all.”
Delius wrote four concertos, the earliest of which was the Piano Concerto in 1897, revised several times and the least recognized of his works. Better known are the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, the Violin Concerto, and the Cello Concerto, which he declared to be his favorite, from a mature period in Delius’s life from 1915, 1916, and 1921, respectively. These pieces fall just short of the tragic period during which Delius’s health collapsed due to syphilis which he had contracted in Paris at the turn of the century, robbing him of his sight, mobility, and much of his speaking ability. He became dependent on his amanuensis Eric Fenby to take down his final works by dictation, a difficult and trying occupation portrayed in the BBC TV film by Ken Russell, A Song of Summer.
The Cello Concerto received an auspicious premiere in 1921 by the Vienna Philharmonic with the celebrated Russian cellist Alexandre Barjansky as soloist, Ferdinand Löwe conducting. The artist for whom Delius composed and to whom he had dedicated the work, Beatrice Harrison, gave the British premiere with the London Symphony under Eugene Goosens in July 1923, as well as the U.S. premiere in October 1927 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. Despite this array of forces, the Cello Concerto was dismissed with mixed reviews and did not receive a recording for more than forty years until Jaqueline du Pré took it before the mikes in 1965 with Sir Malcom Sargent and the Royal Philharmonic. The soloist in the current program, Paul Watkins, has recorded the Cello Concerto with the BBC Symphony under Sir Andrew Davis.
The Cello Concerto is a single movement work in sections played without pause. Like many of Delius’s instrumental works, it is bucolic in nature, comprised of mostly sustained tempi, and largely of an ambiguous longing and autumnal mood, the very qualities his devotees admire, and which his non-devotees greet with ambivalence at best. To each their own.
Symphony No. 3 in F Major,
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Born to a Hamburg family in which his father was a working musician, Brahms undertook the study of the piano, and achieved some accomplishment on violin and cello. Rumors have persisted over the years that Brahms was forced by poverty to seek employment as a pianist in brothels. Probably untrue. Though not wealthy, the Brahms family was reasonably well off. By his teens, young Brahms was playing recitals and chamber music professionally, and the brothels in Hamburg were strictly regulated by the authorities – no minors allowed.
Brahms displayed an early precocity for composition and a scholarly interest in older music, preceeding Bach and dating back to the Renaissance. As for his more immediate peers, he developed a fascination for Schumann, and arrived on his doorstep at around the age of 20. The two were immediately taken with each other and quickly developed a close relationship in which Schumann became a mentor to the young Brahms. And there was Frau Schumann, Clara, an accomplished pianist and a composer in her own right. Much has been speculated about the nature of their relationship, but we may assume that it was platonic, and the two remained very close throughout their lives. Schumann left a surprisingly full legacy of memorable works considering that his life was tragically cut short by acute mental illness, a suicide attempt, and commitment to an institution where he died at the early age of 46. He none-the-less left a lasting impression on Brahms.
Though it may be said that Brahms had established himself as a highly successful composer in the early stages of his career, he spent more than half his life creating his first great masterpieces, the Symphony No. 1, and many of the works that followed, the remaining symphonies, as well as the Violin Concerto, the Second Piano Concerto, numerous songs, sonatas, and chamber music, among others. The Third Symphony is the only one of his four, to not end in a triumphant chorale or fanfare, unless one considers the ending of the Fourth the triumph of grim prophecy. Brahms took the unusual step of ending the Third in a mood of calm reconciliation of the conflicting moods he had expressed throughout the course of the piece.
The Third Symphony announces itself with the juxtaposition of two motifs, a three note ascending figure on F, A-flat, F, imbedded in wind-brass chords, signifying the self-proclaimed motto of Brahms’s life of unmarried bachelorhood, frei aber froh (free but happy), and a two-bar descending figure drawn from a brief transitional moment in Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony. These two brief captures undergo significant variation and development through the outer movements of the Symphony. The second movement combines elements of theme and variation with modified sonata form. A second theme characterized by a repeated two plus three- note figure makes a surprising return and undergoes further evolution of character in the Finale. The third movement, a kind of melancholy waltz seems to recall with sadness, regretful memories of opportunities long ago missed. The fourth movement begins in quiet murmuring, like hushed gossip until it bursts out fully voiced. New material asserts itself along with themes from the first and second movements. At two points Brahms appears to channel himself far into the future to prophetically utter a resemblance to the tune Take Five by 1950s jazz artist Dave Brubeck. After all this agitated hubbub, Brahms settles it all down to a quiet peaceful conclusion. The premiere of Brahms’s Third Symphony was given in December 1883 by the Vienna Philharmonic to great acclaim under Hans Richter.
– Richard Schneider