Program Notes: The Colburn Orchestra Plays Berlioz, Dvořák and Mussorgsky

Violinist Francesca dePasquale plays Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra by Antonín Dvořák | Photo: Howard Pasamanick

The following program notes are for The Colburn Orchestra's performance of Roman Carnival by Hector Berlioz, a violin concerto by Antonín Dvořák and Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky and orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. The performance can be viewed online here.

Le carnaval romain, Op. 9 "Roman Carnival"
by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Hector BerliozFrench romantic composer Hector Berlioz is remembered best for his orchestral works and, in particular, for his passionate study of western instruments. He was also a key figure in the development of program music-- musical compositions that are intended to tell a story or depict something non-musical, such as bird-song, a painting, or a poem. Berlioz stands out in this regard with the popular Symphonie fantastique, his well-known program symphony, which is a testament to his adventurous, innovative use of instruments and sound. In Symphonie fantastique Berlioz wrote with especially exotic orchestration; in addition to a full wind and brass section, the piece also calls for two ophicleides, an unusual family of bugle-type instruments that are commonly replaced by tubas in most modern performances. Berlioz put his knowledge of instruments into writing in his Treatise on Orchestration. This work, in which he made a systematic study and analysis of Western musical instruments and their role and potential in the symphony orchestra, proved to be an indispensable reference utilized by composers as well-known as Mahler, Elgar, Debussy, Puccini, and Strauss. In the course of writing his Treatise, Berlioz improved and refined his own orchestration techniques and even revised his own orchestration of Symphonie fantastique as well as his popular Harold en Italie for final publication. The work being performed tonight, Le carnaval romain, was composed in 1844.

The overture is a stand-alone concert piece for symphony orchestra but is made up of material and themes from Berlioz's first opera, the technically challenging and rarely performed Benvenuto Cellini. The opera on which this overture is based was born of inspiration garnered from two years of study in Italy. This sojourn was a result of Berlioz's winning the prestigious Prix de Rome, a French scholarship for students of the arts, including categories in painting, sculpture, architecture, engraving, and musical composition. The prize included a five year stipend and required the winner to spend two years studying in Italy. It is our good fortune that Berlioz took the lovely melodies of the opera and made a condensed version of sorts in the Le carnival romain, else some very lovely melodies might be lost to obscurity.

Arguably Berlioz's most exuberant and striking orchestral work, Le carnival romain has become a popular concert favorite. The overture begins with a short, fanfare-like introduction played by the strings and brass, followed by the first theme which is presented by the solo English horn, accompanied by violas with delicate brush-like strokes. This theme, which is taken from a love duet from Benvenuto Cellini, is then presented again by the viola section, with a light accompaniment by the winds and pizzicato strings. Finally, the whole orchestra joins in playing this beautiful melody, with festive march-like flavor as the percussion section is added. The second section of the piece is more lively, the stately long melodic lines of the previous section replaced by streams of notes in rapid succession in quick, gigue-like runs. The musical material of this section comes from a later part of Benvenuto Cellini, a raucous carnival scene which provides the overture's name. The work draws to a close with loud, fast, and energetic passages particularly noticeable in the strings, brass, and percussion, bringing the piece to a triumphant and exuberant conclusion.

by Colburn Conservatory student Matthew Cohen, violist in the Artist Diploma program

Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 53
by Antonín Dvořák

Antonín DvořákAntonín Dvořák composed his Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 in the summer of 1879, during a period in his life when he was gaining international recognition, due in part to a growing friendship with Johannes Brahms. In 1877, Brahms wrote a letter to his publisher, Simrock of Berlin, convincing him to publish Dvořák's music. This not only cemented the friendship between the two composers, but it began a flood of publication and performances of Dvořák's works. On New Year's Day 1879 Dvořák heard the famous violinist Joseph Joachim play Brahms' Violin Concerto with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Brahms himself. This inspired Dvořák to compose his own violin concerto which he subsequently dedicated to Joachim.

Although Joachim had long been aware of Dvořák's music, the two met for the first time when Dvořák visited Berlin later in 1879 to hear Joachim's quartet play two of his works. While there, he took the opportunity to consult Joachim about his concerto -- just as Brahms had done in the past. By the end of the summer Dvořák completed the concerto, with numerous revisions and corrections made by Joachim. However, even these changes were not enough to satisfy Simrock, who wanted a new recapitulation for the first movement which did not lead straight into the second movement. This view was most likely seconded by Joachim, but Dvořák refused to make this change and the work was finally published as submitted in 1883, four years after its completion. Although Joachim was enthusiastic about the work, he never performed it publicly. It was instead Dvořák's friend and Czech violinist, František Ondříček, who gave the premiere on October 14, 1883 in Prague.

The concerto is a highly lyrical and rich work, even by Dvořák's standards. Dvořák had long been inspired by the music of Wagner and Liszt, but by this time his music refers back to classical models, being more clarified and simple. At the same time, his own musical roots and the Czech influence in his music are very prominent, as he incorporates Czech national music and folk songs into his work. The Violin Concerto, while still holding onto the Germanic concerto form, has distinct harmonic characteristics and is infused with traditional Czech melodies. Dvořák's violin concerto also bears the unmistakable influence of Felix Mendelssohn's earlier op. 64 concerto (1844), which broke with classical formal tradition by delaying the opening orchestral tutti and having the soloist take center stage at the onset of the work. Dvořák takes this path, and the first movement begins boldly, with a forceful unison statement consisting of just a few chords given by the orchestra. The solo violin answers in a pensive and bittersweet melody filled with longing. The exchanges between orchestra and solo transition into the flowing second theme, suggest a Brahmsian character. A cadential flourish leads into the main section of the movement, where the solo part is replete with virtuosic passages in runs and double stops. The movement closes with the solo violin giving a gentle echo of the opening theme, providing a beautiful bridge that flows directly into the second movement.

The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, is also reminiscent of Brahms and its plaintive but heartfelt melodies evoke the image of the countryside, colored with numerous unexpected harmonic surprises. At the end of the movement, the horns recall the opening theme while the violin embellishes serenely above them, providing a beautiful farewell.

The Finale is a joyous dance, heavily infused with Slavic rhythms and folk melodies. Like the Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, written just one year earlier, this movement uses the furiant as the prevalent and most frequently recurring dance. Each time the dance returns in a different mood or color, once even imitating the drone of bagpipes. Contrasting episodes include a waltz followed by another Czech folk song, the more melancholic dumka. The solo part is filled with brilliant virtuosic writing and the lively music dances to a fiery, exhilarating finish of Dvořák's most beloved pieces.

by Conservatory sophomore Bora Kim, violinist and pianist in the Bachelor of Music program

Pictures at an Exhibition
1874, for solo piano; Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel in 1942
by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Modest Mussorgsky (top), Maurice Ravel (bottom)In the aftermath of the French Revolution and the subsequent dissolution of many of its multi-nation empires, 19th- century Europe was swept up in a wave of nationalism that spread across the entire continent. In the 1850s, Russia's involvement in the nationalist movement was readily apparent in its artistic scene. When Peter the Great ruled the country, he sought to bring Russia up to speed with its Western European neighbors by importing great artistic talents to St. Petersburg from the cultural centers of Italy, France and Germany. This tradition continued well into the nationalist era, with famous Western composers like Berlioz and Verdi traveling to St. Petersburg to premier their works. In the 1850s, disenchanted with the dominance of Western culture in Russia and overcome with a deep nationalistic fervor, a group of Russian artists united to create a national art that was free from Western influence. Five composers rose to the forefront of this movement. These men, Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov were at the time christened as "The Mighty Handful" by prominent critic Vladimir Stasov and are known today simply as "The Five."

As a member of this group, Mussorgsky was not only a prime player in the forging of a new Russian musical identity, but he was also able to actively participate in the larger Russian artistic community. It was through this participation that he came to know the artist Victor Hartmann. Stasov introduced Mussorgsky and Hartmann in 1870 and the two became fast friends, sharing an interest in recapturing intrinsically Russian qualities in their respective art forms. When Hartmann died suddenly in 1873, he left an unfillable hole in the Russian arts community. In honor of the artist, Stasov and others organized an exhibition of 400 of Hartmann's works to be held in St. Petersburg in February and March of 1874. It is from this exhibition that the titular pictures were culled for Mussorgsky's 1874 composition "Kartinki s vïstavki" ("Pictures at an Exhibition").

Pictures at an Exhibition was originally composed for solo piano and serves as a musical representation of a viewer's journey through an exhibit. The version you will be hearing today is a 1942 orchestration by French composer, Maurice Ravel. The opening movement, entitled Promenade, shows the viewer walking into the gallery to view the first piece of art. When the Promenade movement recurs throughout the piece, it indicates the viewer moving from one painting to the next. The Promenade theme recalls a Russian folk melody in its simplicity and its use of asymmetric meter.

The first movement, Gnomus (The Gnome), depicts a lost design for a nutcracker formed from a gnome with large teeth, "clumsily running with crooked legs." The movements of the gnome can be heard in the lurching quality of the music, which starts and stops in a seemingly random manner.

After an interlude of the Promenade theme, the second movement, The Old Castle, depicts another lost picture of Hartmann's, this time showing a medieval castle and a troubadour who sings a melancholy song. This theme can be heard in the bassoon and alto saxophone melodies.

Another Promenade interlude leads to a lively movement entitled Tuileries (Dispute between Children at Play). This painting, also lost today, showed the Jardin des Tuileries near the Louvre in Paris with a group of children playing under the supervision of their nursemaids.

The next movement, Bydlo (Cattle), is derived from a picture of oxen pulling a cart. The movement begins softly in a piano dynamic before building to a climactic forte and receding once again to piano, as though the cart is passing by the listener on the street.

The Promenade theme is heard once again before an effervescent movement called Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. Hartmann's picture for this movement survives today. It shows a costume design for the 1870 ballet Trilby. Through Ravel's expert use of quirky, ornamented woodwind melodies, the listener can easily imagine the unhatched chicks dancing across the stage.

The next movement, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle (originally entitled by Stasov Two Polish Jews: One Rich, One Poor), is likely based on two separate extant portraits of inhabitants of the Warsaw ghettos, one rich and one poor. One can hear the pomposity of the rich man in the tutti melody at the beginning and end of the movement. The poor man complaining about his lot in life can be heard in the rattling trumpet melody in the middle section.

We hear the Promenade again as the viewer moves on to the next picture in the exhibition, The Market at Limoges (The Great News). Stasov described this movement as, "French women quarreling violently in the market." Their arguments can be heard in the snide melodies that are passed between the woodwinds.

Without pause, the listener moves onto the next movement, which consist of two pieces, The Catacombs and Cum Mortuis in Lingua Morta (With the Dead in a Dead Language). The first section depicts Hartmann's painting of himself traveling through the Parisian catacombs with a lantern. The second section presents an eerie variation on the Promenade theme, perhaps leading the listener on his own journey through the catacombs.

After this mysterious interlude, the leader is plunged into the raucous movement, The Hut on Fowl's Legs (Baba-Yaga). This extant drawing shows Hartmann's design for a clock in the form of Baba-Yaga's hut on fowl's legs. Baba-Yaga is a terrifying figure in Russian folklore, a witch who grinds human bones to a paste and eats them.

The climactic upwards scales of the previous movement suddenly give way to a glorious and triumphant choral movement called The Great Gate of Kiev. The picture that inspired this movement survives today and is an architectural plan for a monumental gateway into the city of Kiev in honor of Tsar Alexander II. The Great Gate is designed in the ancient Russian style, with a colorful cupola adorning the top, shaped like a Slavonic warrior's helmet.

Written by Briana Lehman, bassoonist in the Artist Diploma program of the Colburn Conservatory of Music.

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