|Classics 3: Tales of Tragedy|
Le Chasseur Maudit (The Accursed Huntsman)
A Belgian by birth who lived and taught most of his life in France, César Franck was one of the most influential music teachers of the period and a famous organist. Although he enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire at age 15, his maturation as a composer came late in life, his most lasting compositions from his 50s and 60s. Franck was an easy-going, unassuming person, who never knew how to promote his works. As a result, much of his music was either ignored during his lifetime or derided by doctrinaire academicians. He achieved worldwide recognition only in the last century. His students adored him, calling him “Pater seraphicus,” and his influence on the future of French music was enormous. He was appointed in 1871 as professor of organ at the Conservatoire, but his classes evolved into de facto composition classes for the succeeding generation of major French composers, including Vincent d’Indy, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson and Paul Dukas.
Franck based this symphonic poem, composed in 1883, on a ballad, Der wilde Jäger, by the German poet Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794). It proceeds as quintessential program music, telling the story in Leitmotifs, which Franck develops with new harmonies and orchestration to enhance the tension.
In the introduction to the score Franck printed the following synopsis:
It is Sunday morning. In the distance are heard the joyous ringing of bells and the chanting of the worshippers. Sacrilege! The savage Count of the Rhine sounds his hunting horn. A couple of details Franck leaves out of his synoptic poem: The opening theme is also a hunting horn, but innocent in tone and quite distinct from the Hunter’s defiant theme; and in the final, climactic measures, the church bells can be faintly heard in the demonic chaos.
Hallo! Hallo! The hunt takes its course over grain fields, meadows and moors. "Stop, Count, I beg you. Listen to the pious singing." "No!" Hallo! Hallo! "Stop, Count. I entreat you. Take care." "No!" And the chase goes hurtling on its way like a whirlwind.
All of a sudden the Count finds himself alone; his horse cannot move, his horn will not sound. A grim, implacable voice curses him: "Sacrilegious man," it cries, "be hunted forever by hell itself!"
Flames leap up from all sides. The Count, seized by terror, flees – faster, ever faster – pursued by a pack of demons, by day across abysses, at midnight through the air.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22
Composer, organist and pianist Camille Saint-SaŽns was a man of wide culture, well versed in literature, the arts and scientific developments. He was phenomenally precocious and gifted in everything he undertook. As a child prodigy he wrote his first piano compositions at age three and at age ten made his formal debut at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, where, after playing Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos as well as some solo works by Bach and Handel, he offered to play any one of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas as an encore – from memory. A child prodigy who grew to become a phenomenal polymath, Saint-SaŽns wrote articles and books on many scientific topics, including astronomy, biology and archaeology in addition to his composing and musicological studies. Although his music was often perceived as passé, he was the first composer to write an original film score in 1908 for L’assassinat du Duc de Guise (The assassination of the Duke of Guise).
In his youth he was considered an innovator, but by the time he reached maturity he had become a conservative pillar of the establishment, trying to maintain the classical musical tradition, conventional forms and harmony in France and expressing open disdain for the new trends in music, including the “malaise” of Wagnerism. He was supportive of some younger composers, but his visceral dislike of Debussy actually engendered endless headlines in the tabloid press. As an accomplished organist and pianist – he premiered his five piano concertos – he sported elegant, effortless technique. But neither his compositions nor his pianism were ever pinnacles of passion or emotion. Berlioz noted that Saint-SaŽns “...knows everything but lacks inexperience.”
Saint-SaŽns was a consummate craftsman and a compulsive worker. “I produce music the way an apple tree produces apples,” he commented. He was a proponent of “art for art's sake” but his views on expression and passion in art conflicted with the prevailing literary and emotive Romantic ideas. He wrote in his memoirs: “Music is something besides a source of sensuous pleasure and keen emotion, and this resource, precious as it is, is only a chance corner in the wide realm of musical art. He who does not get absolute pleasure from a simple series of well-constructed chords, beautiful only in their arrangement, is not really fond of music.” And also: “Beware of all exaggeration.”
Saint-SaŽns composed the Second Piano Concerto in 1868 at the request of the famed Russian pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein, who wanted to use it to advance his conducting career. The composer gave the first performance with Rubinstein conducting, and it was an instant success. Popular with virtuosi di bravura, it has become one of Saint-SaŽns’ most frequently performed major works.
The first movement, Andante sostenuto, opens with a lengthy introduction, a massive and splashy solo fantasia , which is followed by a thunderous entrance by the whole orchestra. The leisurely first theme is introduced by the piano and developed as an interplay between the soloist and the woodwinds, especially the flute. The second theme is also an interplay between piano and woodwinds. The movement becomes an increasing display of brilliant pianistic virtuosity, ending with a near-repeat of the solo fantasia, followed by massive orchestral chords, recalling the opening of the movement.
The second movement, Allegro scherzando, opens with a rhythmic ostinato on the timpani. The two catchy themes become pianistically more puckish with each repeat. The end of the movement is reminiscent of the whimsy of Mendelssohn’s scherzi.
The Presto, alla breve finale is a tarantella, too fast for human feet by far. The tarantella theme is contrasted with an equally lively subsidiary theme in duple time. It is full of crashing chords and glittering runs, which received – not unexpectedly – the warmest praise from Franz Liszt.
Macbeth, Op. 23
Richard Strauss came from an extremely conservative family. His father, Franz Joseph, the principal horn player in the Munich Court Orchestra, considered Brahms a radical and Wagner’s music beyond the pale, forbidding his son to listen to it. Richard assimilated the music of the early and middle nineteenth century in his early works, composing as a committed classicist. But he soon discovered that the musical language taught by his father was too confining for his own fertile mind.
Strauss quickly found his voice through his own unique development of the tone poem, or symphonic poem, a purely instrumental rendition of a text, usually poetic or narrative in nature. The term “symphonic poem” had been coined by Liszt in 1854 for compositions accompanied by a program that the audience was supposed to read before listening to the music. Although nineteenth-century Romantics did not all use Liszt’s term, the genre had become a standard medium for Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, reaching its apex with Strauss.
Strauss’s musical rendering of specific texts is far more detailed than Liszt’s, although it is often difficult to follow without a “road map.” The anecdotes about his attempts at narrative music are many: “I want to be able to describe a teaspoon musically,” he is said to have commented. In the decade between 1886 and 1898 he produced a string of tone poems that made him a household name, the first being Aus Italien and Macbeth.
Composed in 1887 and revised two years later upon the advice of conductor Hans von Bülow, Strauss was inspired by a stage production of the tragedy in German. But rather than tell a detailed story as he did in his later, more developed tone poems, he attempted in Macbeth to recreate the high points of the plot, the general atmosphere of the play and the personalities of the two principal characters. He actually labeled these last two themes in the score: Macbeth; and Lady Macbeth (flutes and oboes), a theme far more benign than she deserves. Included in Strauss’s label for Lady Macbeth is her invocation to the dark powers to unsex and empower her to persuade her husband to kill King Duncan.
That being said, there are definite references to the action of the play. These include Duncan’s murder, combining the dastardly couple’s two themes, a couple of battle scenes, particularly the fateful duel between MacDuff and Macbeth, preceded by Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene.
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 (Till Eulenspiegel's merry Pranks)
When Richard Strauss took up composition, he began as a committed classicist but soon discovered that the musical language was too confining for his fertile mind. After immersing himself in the music of Richard Wagner and the late Romantics, he soon found his voice through his own unique development of the tone poem, or symphonic poem, a purely instrumental rendition of a text, usually poetic or narrative in nature. The anecdotes about his attempts at literary music are many: “I want to be able to describe a teaspoon musically,” he is said to have commented. In the ten years between 1888 and 1898 he produced a string of tone poems, beginning with Don Juan (1888-89), that made him famous.
In between the continuing series of weighty tone poems – Tod und Verklärung (1888-89), Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) and Ein Heldenleben (1897-98) – Strauss allowed himself an outlet for his ironic and humorous side. Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, composed in 1894-95, recounts in music the exploits of a well-known character from German folklore, an itinerant liar, imposter, practical jokester and general troublemaker. As he was run out of one town after another, Till lived by his wits, traveling and passing himself off as everything from handyman to priest. He was apparently based on a real figure, a fourteenth century peasant from Brunswick named Tyll Eulenspiegel. And while the real Till apparently died of the Black Death, Strauss makes his anti-hero swing from the gallows.
The music opens with four introductory bars (“Once upon a time” Strauss wrote on the score) followed by Till’s energetic first theme familiar to all concertgoers as a warm-up for the horns. The clarinet then introduces a second lighter, more mischievous theme – already hinted at in the "Once upon a time" introduction, leading up to his first prank. Strauss intricately weaves and transforms these two themes into the fabric of the musical narrative of Till’s antics. Yet, the composer was uncharacteristically vague when it came to describing all the details of the story. Only the first pranks and the ending are spelled out.
Till first creates havoc galloping through the market near the city gate and upsetting the stalls. He then reappears masquerading as an unctuous priest (including a musical wink). He transforms himself into a lothario but soon falls truly in love, only to be angrily rejected (with a “raspberry” on the muted trumpets). Furious, he grandly swears vengeance on the world. Till goes on to mock some pompous pedagogues, portrayed by four mocking bassoons and a bass clarinet.
Till is now in full tilt, the orchestra bouncing his theme from one instrument to the other. His unspecified pranks portrayed by a polka, a couple of waltzes and a final madcap, frenzy comes that to an end when he is arrested and hauled before a court whose questions are represented by four pompous orchestral blasts. Till whimpers and shrieks pitiably in defeat and the trombones proclaim his death sentence and those muted trumpets repeat his rejection in love, this time a putdown. We hear his last gasp, a flute trill. The epilogue begins quietly with a reprise of the “once upon a time theme;” the spirit of Till – like Stravinsky’s Petrushka – cannot be suppressed as he lives on to bedevil the Establishment.
In Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche Strauss had a hidden agenda. He saw himself as Till, fighting the “bankers and merchants of low taste” who controlled the artistic life of his home town, Munich.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017|