Virtuoso Tour de Force – Program Notes

Overture to Tannhäuser
Richard Wagner
(b. Leipzig, 1813; d. Venice, 1883)

Composed in 1843-1845.
Premiered on October 19, 1845 in Dresden, conducted by the composer.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs plus piccolo, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings.
Duration: approximately 14 minutes

Though Richard Wagner is universally known as a composer, he also considered himself — as the author of the librettos for all of his operas, a huge autobiography and an avalanche of theoretical and philosophical tracts voluminous enough to literally fill a shelf — a poet and a man of letters. The sources of inspiration for his librettos were invariably the history and myths of Germany, and during a vacation in the early summer of 1842 at the northern Bohemian town of Teplitz, he devoured a wide variety of 19th-century retellings of the ancient tales of the legendary medieval singing contests in search of an operatic subject. The accounts, by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the Brothers Grimm, Heine, Ludwig Tieck and others, concerned a historical 13th-century Minnesinger (i.e., a German poet-musician of noble birth) named Heinrich von Ofterdingen, a contest of song held in 1208 at the Wartburg Castle, near Eisenach (Bach’s birthplace), and a (perhaps) mythical character called Tannhäuser who succumbed to the seductions of Venus in her mountain enclave and sought forgiveness through a pilgrimage to Rome and the love of a pure woman. Before he left Teplitz, Wagner had sketched an operatic scenario from these sources, and the following spring worked it into a full libretto titled Tannhäuser. The three acts of the opera were composed in 1844, while he was conductor of the Royal Opera House in Dresden; the orchestration was completed on April 15, 1845. Wagner directed the work’s premiere in Dresden on October 19, 1845.

The opera opens in a grotto in the Venusberg, a mountain where Venus, the goddess of love, is said by German legend to have taken refuge after the fall of ancient civilization. Tannhäuser has forsaken the world to enjoy her sensual pleasures, but after a year he longs to return home and find forgiveness. He invokes the name of the Virgin Mary, and the Venusberg is swallowed by darkness. Tannhäuser finds himself in a valley below Wartburg Castle, where he is passed by a band of pilgrims journeying to Rome. His friend Wolfram recognizes him, tells him how Elisabeth has grieved during his absence, and invites him to the Wartburg to see Elisabeth and to take part in a singing contest. Elisabeth is joyous at Tannhäuser’s return, and they reassure each other of their love. At the contest, however, Tannhäuser sings a rhapsody to Venus and the pleasures of carnal love that so enrages the assembled knights and ladies that Elisabeth must protect him from their threats of violence. Tannhäuser agrees to join the pilgrims to atone for his sins. Several months later, he returns from Rome, alone, haggard and in rags. He tells Wolfram that the Pope has said it is as impossible for someone who has dwelled in the Venusberg to be forgiven as for the Papal staff to sprout leaves. He considers going again to Venus, but withstands that temptation when Wolfram mentions Elisabeth’s name. Elisabeth, however, not knowing of Tannhäuser’s return and despairing of ever seeing her lover again, has died of grief. Her bier is carried past Tannhäuser, who kneels next to it, and also dies. As morning dawns, pilgrims from Rome arrive bearing the Pope’s staff, which has miraculously grown leaves.

The Overture to Tannhäuser encapsulates in musical terms the dramatic conflict between the sacred love of Elisabeth and the profane love of Venus. Wagner wrote of it, “At first the orchestra introduces us to the Pilgrims’ Chorus alone. It approaches, swells to a mighty outpouring, and finally passes into the distance. As night falls, magic visions show themselves. A rosy mist swirls upward, and the blurred motions of a fearsomely voluptuous dance are revealed…. This is the seductive magic of the Venusberg. Lured by the tempting vision, Tannhäuser draws near. It is Venus herself who appears to him…. In drunken joy the Bacchantes rush upon him and draw him into their wild dance…. The storm subsides. Only a soft, sensuous moan lingers in the air where the unholy ecstasy held sway. Yet already the morning dawns: from the far distance the Pilgrim’s Chorus is heard again. As it draws ever nearer and day repulses night, those lingering moans are transfigured into a murmur of joy so that when the sun rises the pilgrims’ chorus proclaims salvation to all the world.”

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major
Franz Liszt
(b. Doborján, Hungary [now Raiding, Austria], 1811; d. Bayreuth, Germany, 1886)

Composed 1839-1849; revised in 1853.
Premiered on February 17, 1855 in Weimar, conducted by Hector Berlioz with the composer as soloist.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs plus piccolo, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, cymbals and strings.
Duration: approximately 20 minutes.

Liszt sketched his two piano concertos in 1839, during his years of touring the music capitals of Europe, but they lay unfinished until he became court music director at Weimar in 1848. The first ideas for the E-flat Concerto appeared in a notebook as early as 1830, but the score was not completed, according to a letter from Liszt’s eventual son-in-law, the pianist/conductor Hans von Bülow, until June 1849; it was revised in 1853. The premiere was part of a week of gala concerts honoring the music of Hector Berlioz at the Grand Ducal palace in Weimar, thus allowing the French composer to conduct while Liszt played. A memorable evening!

Liszt required of a concerto that it be “clear in sense, brilliant in expression, and grand in style.” In other words, it had to be a knockout. While it was inevitable that the E-flat Concerto would have a high degree of finger-churning display, it was not automatic that it should also be of fine musical quality — but it is. Liszt undertook an interesting structural experiment in the Concerto by fusing the substance of the concerto form with the architecture of the symphony. (“Music is never stationary,” he once pronounced. “Successive forms and styles can only be like so many resting places — like tents pitched and taken down again on the road to the Ideal.”) Though the work is played continuously, four distinct sections may be discerned within its span: an opening Allegro, built largely from the bold theme presented immediately at the outset; an Adagio that grows from a lyrical, arched melody initiated by the cellos and basses; a vivacious, scherzo-like section enlivened by the glistening tintinnabulations of the solo triangle; and a closing Allegro marziale that gathers together the motives of the preceding sections into a rousing conclusion. Of the finale, Liszt wrote, “It is only an urgent recapitulation of the earlier subject matter with quickened, livelier rhythm, and contains no new motive…. This kind of binding together and rounding off of a whole piece at its close is somewhat my own, but it is quite maintained and justified from the standpoint of musical form.” Béla Bartók judged this Concerto, because of its grandiose recall and interpenetration of themes in the finale, to be “the first perfect realization of cyclical sonata form.” It was this formal concept — a single-movement work in several sections utilizing just one or two themes — that Liszt was also to use in his tone poems of the following two decades and in the Second Piano Concerto.

Liszt’s First Concerto drew much criticism when it was new: not for its novel formal construction — but for its innovative use of the triangle. When the piece was first performed in Vienna in 1857, the powerful critic and redoubtable Wagner-Bruckner-Liszt hater, Eduard Hanslick, called it, disparagingly, the “Triangle Concerto.” Liszt rushed to the defense: “As regards the triangle I do not deny that it may give offense, especially if struck too strong or not precisely. A preconceived disinclination and objection to instruments of percussion prevails, somewhat justified by the frequent misuse of them…. In the face of the most wise proscription of the learned critics I shall, however, continue to employ instruments of percussion, and think I shall yet win for them some effects little known.”

Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Opus 60, B 112
Antonin Dvorák

Composed 1880.
Premiered on March 21, 1881 in Prague, conducted by Adolf Čech.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs plus piccolo, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 40 minutes.

For the extraordinary man who described himself as “just an ordinary Czech citizen,” patience had its reward — Dvorák was nearing forty before he received any satisfying recognition for his music. In 1877 he submitted his set of Moravian Duets to a government commission in Vienna that was seeking to identify and encourage new composers throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The charming Duets scored a palpable hit. The conductor-pianist and commission member Hans von Bülow wrote to Dvorák, “Next to Brahms, [you] are the most God-gifted composer of the present day.” Brahms, also on the panel, adopted Dvorák as a protégé — he told his publisher, Fritz Simrock of Berlin, that he was to add the Czech composer to his roster, and commission from him some Slavonic Dances to be issued immediately. (Much of Simrock’s profit, as may be imagined, came from Brahms’ music.) The Dances and three Slavonic Rhapsodies for orchestra were completed and published in 1878, and proved to be among Simrock’s most popular and lucrative ventures. (Dvorák sold these works for a flat fee, and did not share in the considerable fortune generated by his own music.) “I can hardly tell you, esteemed Master,” Dvorák wrote to Brahms, “all that is in my heart. I can only say that I shall all of my life owe you the deepest gratitude for your good and noble intentions towards me, which are worthy of a truly great man and artist.” Dvorák’s renown, which was to carry him through, as he called it, “the great world of music,” dates from his meeting with Brahms and the international success of the evergreen Slavonic Dances.

On November 16, 1879 Dvorák was in Vienna for a performance by the Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Hans Richter of his Slavonic Rhapsody No. 3, “which was very well received,” he reported. “I was called before the audience. I was sitting beside Brahms at the organ and Richter pulled me forward. I had to come out. I must tell you that I won the sympathy of the whole orchestra at a stroke and that, of all the new pieces they had tried, and Richter told me that there had been sixty, my Rhapsody was liked the best. Richter actually embraced me on the spot and was very happy, as he said, to know me, and promised that the Rhapsody would be repeated at a special concert at the Opera House. I had to assure the Philharmonic that I would send them a symphony for the next season. The day after the concert, Richter gave a banquet at his house, to which he invited all the Czech members of the orchestra. It was a grand evening which I shall not easily forget for as long as I live.”

By 1880 Dvorák had already completed five symphonies — all unpublished — but did not feel them representative of his best achievements, so he chose to write a new work for Vienna. He could not take up the score until the following August, but once begun he progressed rapidly on it: the sketch was completed in just three weeks and the orchestration in another three (on October 15, 1880), though the composer’s student and biographer Karel Hoffmeister noted that the music “had been slowly maturing in Dvorák’s mind.” Dvorák took the score at once to Vienna to play at the piano for Richter, who, the composer wrote to his friend Alois Goebl, “liked it very much indeed, so that after every movement he embraced me.” The premiere, by Richter and the Philharmonic, was set for December 26th.

Shortly before the scheduled premiere date, Richter informed Dvorák that the performance would have to be postponed because there was no time to rehearse and perform the music in the Philharmonic’s busy schedule. (The Philharmonic was, and is, a self-governing orchestra whose members are mainly employed as the ensemble of the Vienna Opera. Their heavy commitments allow them to give only a limited number of concerts every season.) The premiere was put off until March, Richter counseling that introducing such a grand and worthy new work during the frivolous carnival season of January and February was inappropriate. Pleading personal and family problems, however, Richter once again canceled the first performance, and Dvorák started to ask some questions of his Viennese friends. It seemed that there was sufficient anti-Czech feeling in those politically volatile days of the Dual Monarchy to cause local resentment against a young Czech composer who would have two important premieres in successive years. Dvorák, who had no taste for such quintessentially Viennese political machinations, gave the honor of the Symphony’s premiere to the Prague Philharmonic and conductor Adolf Čech, with whom he had played in the viola section of the orchestra of the National Provisional Theater in Prague earlier in his career. The work was first heard on March 25, 1881, in Prague. Despite his difficulties in getting the Symphony produced, Richter remained its ardent champion. Dvorák inscribed the score with a dedication to the conductor, and had Simrock send him one of the first copies. “On my return from London I find your splendid work awaiting me, whose dedication makes me truly proud,” Richter wrote to Dvorák in January 1882. “Words do not suffice to express my thanks; a performance worthy of this noble work must prove to you how highly I value it and the honor of the dedication.” Richter finally conducted the Symphony on May 15, 1882, in London.

Following soon after the appearance of the widely popular Slavonic Dances, Dvorák’s Sixth Symphony scored another immediate success. “No sooner was it published,” wrote Karel Hoffmeister, “than it made its way abroad to Leipzig, Rostock, Graz, Cologne, Frankfurt, New York [in 1883; Dvorák conducted it there in 1892, during the first year of his American sojourn] and Boston, finally attracting even the reserved public of England.” Though Dvorák had written five (then unpublished) symphonies before this one, the score was issued as “Symphony No. 1,” a situation arousing some surprise among audiences at the music’s maturity and accomplishment. “The Symphony showed itself to be a ripe work by an experienced composer whose artistic development had led him to his own individual form of expression,” wrote Frantisek Bartos. “With its maturity, individuality, sure touch and masterly construction of symphonic form, the composition proved itself to be the work of a master.”

The Symphony No. 6 splendidly combines elements of the symphonic tradition as transmitted by Brahms with what Otakar Šourek called Dvorák’s “process of idealization” of Czech folk music. This characteristic style of Dvorák, uniting two great streams of concert and vernacular music, richly illumines the Symphony’s opening movement. The influence of Brahms (particularly of his Second Symphony of 1878) is clear in the music’s sylvan sonorities, motivic development and careful control of the ebb and flow of the lines of tension, while the folk quality is heard in the tunefulness of the themes and the many harmonic plangencies. Music so rich in reference is bound to excite the imagination of certain commentators, and Šourek heard in this movement “the humor and pride, the optimism and passion of the Czech people come to life, and in it breathes the sweet fragrance and unspoiled beauty of Czech woods and meadows.” Following the first movement are a lovely Adagio (Tovey claimed to “know of few pieces that improve more on acquaintance”) and a fiery Furiant, filled with the same powerful shifting accents borrowed from Bohemian dance that enliven so many of the Slavonic Dances. The bracing last movement, according to Hans-Hubert Schönzeler, “is the most convincing finale Dvorák ever wrote.”

In his book on Music in the Romantic Era, the famous critic and scholar Alfred Einstein wrote admiringly of Dvorák’s style: “Dvorák took over the heritage of absolute music quite naively, and filled its forms with an elemental kind of music of the freshest invention, the liveliest rhythm, the finest sense of sonority — it is the most full-bodied, direct music conceivable, without its becoming vulgar. He always drew from the sources of Slavic folk dance and folksong, much as Brahms had drawn from German…. Everything is childlike and fresh.”