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PROGRAM NOTES - Haydn, Mendelssohn & Schumann
March 17 & 18, 2018

 

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Franz Joseph Haydn, 1732-1809

Symphony No. 102 in B-flat Major

The long life of Franz Joseph Haydn spanned one of the great upheavals in the economics of the musical profession. It marked the demise of the aristocratic “ownership” of music and musicians and the rise of the middle class as patrons, supporters and chief consumers of the arts. No one bridged this transition more effectively than Haydn, who spent most of his career as the valued erudite servant of an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat to become in his later years the darling of London's merchants – without offending either.

On New Year’s Day 1791, Haydn made the first of two extended trips to London at the invitation of the impresario Johann Peter Salomon and actually considered settling there for good. Salomon, violinist, conductor and concertmaster of his own orchestra, had been writing to Haydn for some time in an attempt to get him to come to London, but to no avail. When Haydn’s lifelong patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, died and the family disbanded the orchestra, the composer was suddenly a free agent. Capitalizing on the situation, Salomon personally went to Vienna to “fetch” Haydn with a princely lure of £1200, and Haydn bit. He composed numerous works for performance at Salomon’s concerts, primarily his last twelve symphonies (Nos. 93-104, known today as the “London” or “Salomon” symphonies). These performances, like most concerts of the time, went on for hours and were a mixed bag, including vocal, chamber and orchestral pieces. For the decade of the 1790s, their star attraction was Haydn’s music.

The Salomon concerts were so successful that a rival organization, the Professional Concerts, tried to seduce Haydn away from Salomon with even higher fees than he was already getting. Always a man of principle, Haydn refused, and the Professional Concerts hired his former student Ignace Pleyel to provide a new work for every concert, now openly suggesting that Haydn was past his prime anyway. But by 1793, the Professional Concerts had gone under, and the old man reigned supreme.

It is sometimes difficult from the vantage point of the twenty-first century to realize how innovative a composer Haydn was. While retaining the harmonic palette of high classicism, he added new ideas, on both a large and small scale, to make his works always sound fresh and exciting – even humorous – to his audiences.

Completed in 1794, Symphony No. 102 illustrates all the above descriptors. A placid slow introduction with growing hints of darkness bursts into cheery Allegro vivace. Haydn loved this effect and used it often, although his young rival, Mozart, preferred to start his symphonies without a slow introduction.

The Adagio movement is an orchestration of the second movement of the Piano Trio Hob. XV/26, composed in 1789, one of the few cases of Haydn’s self-borrowing. In the tradition of his Slovenian peasant forebears, Haydn preferred foot-stomping, so-called minuets, while Mozart in most of his symphonies adopted the more elegant, courtly style.

There follows the zany finale with its sudden juxtapositions of contrasting timbres, pauses and false endings – no wonder the Londoners demanded it being encored at the premiere. The Symphony has the dubious distinction of being known as the Miracle Symphony, since at the premiere a chandelier dropped from the ceiling – during the repeat of the finale – without bopping anyone.
 

Felix Mendelssohn, 1809-1847

Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64

As a mature artist, Felix Mendelssohn was acclaimed throughout Europe as a composer and conductor, especially in his native Germany and in England, where he had a private audience with the young Queen Victoria, who sang for him after he had played for her. His untimely death from unknown causes created a profound shock, and Mendelssohn societies promoting his music and ideas quickly sprang up all over middle and northern Europe.

Fortunately for the development of Mendelssohn’s prodigious talents, his carefully selected teachers were strict and demanding. Even as a mature artist, he was extremely self-critical, constantly requesting feedback and carefully perfecting his compositions. The Concerto in E minor had a long gestation period. Mendelssohn started the concerto in 1838 but did not finish it until six years later. He wrote it for his friend, the famed violinist Ferdinand David (1810-1873), concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig where Mendelssohn served as conductor from 1835 to 1843. The composer sought – and took – David’s advice on technical aspects throughout its composition. David finally premiered it in Leipzig in 1845, but Mendelssohn was ill and unable to attend. Now one of the staples of violin repertory, contemporaneous audiences considered the Concerto daring and innovative

From the first bar, the Allegro molto appassionato broke new ground. Instead of the usual orchestral exposition of the main themes, the violin enters at once with the principal theme on which the movement is built. For the second theme, the roles are reversed, with the winds introducing the theme. The cadenza, largely David’s creation, is placed unconventionally before the recapitulation. Relocating the cadenza away from its traditional place at the end of the movement stresses continuity with the second movement, which follows without pause.

The Andante emerges out of a single quiet bassoon tone, emanating from the last chord of the opening movement. It is joined by other instruments for a short transitional passage, after which the solo violin introduces the simple, almost religious theme.

Another transition, based on the opening theme of the Concerto, leads into the Allegro molto vivace. Mendelssohn saved the demonstration of the violin’s virtuoso possibilities for this sparkling Finale. After an orchestral fanfare for the winds, the soloist enters with a flourish followed by a delicate, dancing theme that dominates the movement and recalls the atmosphere of the teenaged composer’s first great hit, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Robert Schumann, 1810-1856

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op.97, Rhenish

In September 1850 Robert Schumann moved to Düsseldorf to take up his new position as the city’s municipal music director. It was the first time he had lived near the Rhine, the cradle of German legend and poetry. In the turmoil of the move, his creative frenzy – the manic half of his bipolar personality – bore considerable fruit, and before the end of the year he had composed the Cello Concerto and the Third Symphony, written between November 2 and December 9.

The Third is by far the most programmatic of Schumann’s symphonies. Delighted by the potential of his new position and the outgoing nature of the people, he wrote the symphony in homage to his new home. He took two side-trips to Cologne where he visited its famous cathedral, at that time still unfinished after 620 years of intermittent construction. He was awed by the majesty of the building, a Gothic masterpiece. Although not a Catholic, he added an extra movement (the fourth) to the Symphony to celebrate the installation of a new cardinal, originally designating it “In the character of a procession for a solemn ceremony.” (He later removed the subtitle.)

The Symphony is extremely accessible, with clear-cut singable melodies. Schumann, one of the most prominent and outspoken aestheticians of the Romantic era, deliberately focused on striking a balance, giving this work popular appeal without sacrificing the dictates of high art.

The Third Symphony is the only one of Schumann’s symphonies without a slow introduction. Instead, it opens with a lively, sweeping theme. The exuberant mood reflects the composer’s pleasure at his new surroundings while imitating the flow of the river. The theme may, in fact, have influenced Wagner, whose Leitmotif representing the Rhine in The Ring of the Nibelungen is in the same expansive mood, key and 6/8 meter.

The easygoing Scherzo opens with the cellos in the rhythm of the Ländler, the peasant forerunner of the waltz; it was originally subtitled “Morning on the Rhine.” The following third movement, a charming intermezzo, is really the "extra" one for a structure that usually at that time comprised four movements. After the main theme, Schumann goes on to state another one, which he develops more fully and whose first notes establish a recurring rhythmic pattern.

The scoring of the Symphony includes three trombones, although they remain silent for the first three movements. They then burst upon the scene suddenly in the fourth movement to maximum effect, introducing the principal theme as a fugue for the trombones and horns in the so-called “cathedral” movement, referring both to the composer's visit to the Cologne Cathedral and to the solemn contrapuntal style of the sixteenth century. Schumann develops the theme with additional contrapuntal flourishes, most certainly a nod to one of his idols, J. S. Bach.

In the fifth movement, we are back outside in the sunny Rhineland. Before the end, Schumann takes one more crack at the theme of the fourth movement, here transformed into the major mode and a faster tempo – but still contrapuntal.

 


Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017