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Concert I, 2019-2020 season

Delight and Despair

Carnival Overture
Antonin Dvořák

In Catholic Europe (which included Dvořák’s Bohemia), Carnival was the celebratory season between the Feast of the Baptism of Christ on January 6 and Lent. Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday) is the end of this season. It was a time of entertainments in the streets and the theaters, and often a celebration of topsy-turvy social relationships: people went out in masks and behaved in ways that they could never have without some disguise. Nineteenth-century composers in particular really took to the idea of carnival: Berlioz wrote a Roman Carnival overture, Schumann wrote a piano suite based on Carnival, Saint Saens imagined animals in a carnival parade, the trumpeter Joseph Arban wrote the trumpet showpiece “Carnaval de Venise,” and so on. Most of these pieces explicitly reference Italy, and evoke not just the street hustle of the season but also specific characters in Italian street theatre. Dvořák’s overture is not Italian at all, either in its sound or in the scene it evokes. But it shares with many Carnival works some virtuosically fast and furious passages, prominent tambourine riffs, and contrasting material of a sweet and sentimental nature that one might hear as the emotional background to the external hurly burly.

Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 2
Sergei Prokofiev

Usually suites made from full-length ballets are written after audiences have heard the longer work. In this case, however, Prokofiev had trouble getting either the Bolshoi Ballet or the Leningrad School of Choreography to perform it, and he arranged the first two of the eventual three suites to drum up interest in the work. It’s hard to know whether this tactic was successful—the first performance in Moscow (to great acclaim, finally) was not until 1940, though it was premiered in Brno in 1938.

Prokofiev was an expert in writing narrative music: he wrote eight major operas, thirteen ballets, and a huge amount of film music. True to that side of his output, the music for this Suite tells its story with great clarity and paints its pictures vividly. In the first movement the clomping and pompous Capulets contrast with the more delicate Montagues; in the second, Juliet comes across as a sweet and whimsical girl, Friar Lawrence is perhaps surprisingly stolid in the third. The dances (movements 4 and 6) have little to do with Shakespeare’s story; Romeo and Juliet’s “lark or nightingale” moment alternates between lushly sensual and more coolly atmospheric (do the woodwinds represent birds?). The last movement, “Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb,” is nobly tragic rather than personally bereft, and it does not wallow, but there is no doubt about the pain depicted.

Prokofiev, like his contemporaries Shostakovich, Debussy and Ravel, was a master at using the instruments of the orchestra to create different colors. In this music we might notice especially the crucial role of the brass section, which defines the mood of all the most important moments in the work. Prokofiev also uses extremes of pitch to paint his world—the very low brass, bass clarinet, and contra bassoon have an unusual number of prominent moments, while the very high winds and strings are often thinly accompanied so that their contrast with the depths is emphasized.

Symphony No. 5
Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky is one of those composers whose works are especially tempting to read in light of his biography. His personal life has been mythologized as tragic: the myths center on his sexual orientation, his failed marriage and subsequent collapse, and the probably overblown rumors that his death was a suicide. These work in conjunction with the passionate, colorful, and often programmatic nature of much of his music to make us feel as though we have unparalleled access to a psyche at once tender and tortured. However, Tchaikovsky’s largely successful professional life, his many “purely” musical concerns, and the general indeterminacy of musical signification rather hijack the temptation to find direct parallels between the music and the life.

The Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s last-but-one, was written in 1888. It has no explicit program (that is, no story or series of pictures to which the music refers), but it does seem to move through an emotionally and narratively coherent set of moods. So listeners can attach a variety of particular stories to it without betraying its apparently essential character.

In some ways like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth grows out of a single motive (or “motto”) starting with three repeated notes heard at the very beginning of the piece and in every movement thereafter. However, while Beethoven used the “fate” motive as a kind of ominous reminder in every movement, Tchaikovsky changes the character of his motto. (Listen not only for the explicit repetitions of the motto, but also places where three or four repeated notes are important in the melodies.) While Beethoven’s whole first movement obsessively hammers at that four-note idea, the motto in Tchaikovsky’s first movement is clearly stated several times in the slow introduction and then apparently abandoned (but listen to the repeated notes at the beginning of the main tune).

As Beethoven does in his Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky interrupts the gorgeous tunes of his second movement with more martial music; both such interruptions remind us loudly and clearly of the motto. (Beethoven was more subtle about his motivic repetitions in his second movement).

Tchaikovsky’s graceful third-movement waltz comes from a different world than Beethoven’s ghostly scherzo; even the slightly gloomy reminder of the motto in the clarinet right at the end doesn’t dispel its charm. This waltz is already in a major key, so the opening of the finale with the motto in the major does not have the same liberatory effect as the dazzling emergence into the light at the beginning of Beethoven’s last movement. But Tchaikovsky’s splendidly exciting and various finale, with its motto-centered “bookends” does very satisfactorily complete the journey started by those three repeated notes about half an hour before.


© Mary Hunter 2019