Chautauqua Symphony Notes for Week Nine

Overture to Guillaume Tell

Gioachino Rossini

Gioachino Rossini, the earliest of the geniuses of the bel canto style, was born in Pesaro on Feb. 29, 1792, and died in Paris on Nov. 13, 1868. Although he composed many tragic operas as well as non-operatic works, he is still most honored for his brilliant comic operas, especially the immortal Barber of Seville of 1816. Guillaume Tell was Rossini’s last opera, composed when Rossini was at the height of his powers. Based on Schiller’s play, the opera received its premiere at the Paris Opéra on Aug. 3, 1829. Although the opera is seldom performed today, its overture has continued to be a popular favorite with audiences. It is scored for piccolo, flute, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani, percussion and strings.

The 1830 revolution in France caused the downfall of King Charles X. Prior to his demise, however, the monarch had signed a contract with Rossini that guaranteed the composer a lifetime annuity with the proviso that he write four new operas over a period of eight years. Such a generous offer was not surprising, given that Rossini was at the pinnacle of his mastery of the operatic stage and honored throughout the world.

But with the revolution came the annulment of the contract. Thus did Guillaume Tell (William Tell), an opera composed in 1829 based on a play by Friedrich Schiller, become his operatic swan song. The composer was 38 years old and would live almost another 40 years, never to open another opera.

Guillaume Tell is rarely performed today, despite the fact that it is a genuine masterpiece. Italian bel canto lyricism and French grand opera spectacle find here a superb synthesis. When it was performed during Rossini’s lifetime, it often was heavily cut, so much so that when the composer was informed that Act 2 was to be performed, he is alleged to have responded: “Indeed! All of it?” Modern-day performances of this opera in any form are even rarer, although its ballet music occasionally is heard. Its overture, however, is a different story.

Indeed, this may be the most celebrated opera overture ever composed. Composed in four clearly articulated sections, the first part makes exquisite use of five solo cellos — a sonority whose beauty was not lost on Tchaikovsky when he penned his 1812 Overture. The serenity of the first section is interrupted by a raging storm, an event that plays a role in the opera itself. The storm abates, followed by a pastoral scene that features a ranz des vaches (Alpine cattle call), played by the English horn with elaborate counterpoint in the flute.

Horn and trumpet fanfares appear with no warning to usher in the final section, a music loved by all who recall the radio and television incarnations of “The Lone Ranger.” This lively coda — a quick march — actually was composed during Rossini’s earlier days in Venice. Originally a part of the music for Act 2 of Guillaume Tell, Rossini withdrew the march from the opera. Fortunately for us, he did not remove it from the overture.

Troubadours, Variations for Guitar and Chamber Orchestra 

John Corigliano

American composer John Corigliano was born on Feb. 16, 1948, in New York City. According to his website, he “continues to add to one of the richest, most unusual, and most widely celebrated bodies of work any composer has created over the last 40 years.” Among his prodigious output may be counted three symphonies and eight concertos, as well as over 100 chamber, vocal, choral and orchestral work, most of which have been performed and recorded. His score for “The Red Violin” (2005) was heard at Chautauqua on Thursday with Joshua Bell as soloist. Corigliano serves on the composition faculty at The Juilliard School of Music and holds the position of distinguished professor of music at Lehman College, City University of New York.

His “Troubadours” (Variations for Guitar and Chamber Orchestra) was composed for guitarist Sharon Isbin in 1992-1993 and received its first performance on Oct. 10, 1993, with Isbin as soloist and Hugh Wolff leading the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. These performers subsequently recorded the piece, which is scored for solo guitar, two flutes (piccolo), two oboes (English horn), two clarinets (bass clarinet), two bassoons, two horns, two percussionists, piano (optional) and strings.

Composer John Corigliano offers the following program note for “Troubadours”:

“For me, the compositional process starts well before the generation of actual musical ideas. ‘Troubadours’ began with guitarist Sharon Isbin. She asked if I would write her a concerto, and I was decidedly lukewarm about the idea. The challenges of writing for a highly idiomatic instrument that I didn’t fully understand were augmented by my dislike of most ‘idiomatic’ guitar music, as well as my fear of writing a concerto for an inherently delicate instrument.

“But Sharon persisted. She sent me scores, tapes and letters with ideas on the kind of concerto it could be. When I received a letter from her some years ago with articles about the age of the troubadours, and particularly some celebrated women troubadours, I started thinking about the idea of serenading and of song. Slowly the conception of a troubadour concerto began to form.

“During this process, the crystallization of what I love most about the guitar took place. It is an instrument that has always been used to speak directly to an audience. Lyrical, direct and introspective, it has a natural innocence about it that has attracted amateurs and professionals, young and old.

“It is very hard to preserve this sense of innocence in the music world we live in. Performers are held to razor-sharp recording standards as they compete with each other for superstardom. Composers have such arsenals of techniques from the past, present, and other cultures, that the idea of true simplicity (in contrast to chic simple-mindedness) is mistrusted and scorned. So the idea of a guitar concerto was, for me, like a nostalgic return to all the feelings I had when I started composing — before the commissions and deadlines and reviews. A time when discovery and optimistic enthusiasm ruled my senses.

“Therefore, ‘Troubadours’ is a lyrical concerto. It does not ‘storm the heavens,’ and its type of virtuosity is quite different from that of my other concertos. By writing for chamber orchestra, with some of the instruments placed offstage, I was able to achieve the balance I desired between soloist and orchestra.

“ ‘Troubadour’ was the name given to the poet-musicians of southern France whose art flourished from the end of the 11th until the end of the 13th century. While this work utilizes some of the flavor of that time in the solo writing and percussion, it is more concerned with the idea of the troubadour rather than a display of early techniques.

“The concerto is a series of free variations on an original troubadour-like melody. The last phrase of this melody, however, is an actual quote of the final phrase of the song ‘A chantar’ by Comtessa (Beatriz) de Dia (late 12th century). ‘Troubadours’ is in three parts, with a cadenza separating the second and third part. The outer sections are slow, the central one fast. The main theme resembles many troubadour tunes in that it is basically stepwise and revolves around two tonal centers each a step apart. This stepwise descending melody forms the building blocks of seven chromatic chords that run through the work.

“These chords first appear in string harmonics, fading in and out of nothingness. They soon dissolve into each other as a background for a series of descending lines in the oboe, violins, clarinets and flutes. These variants of the troubadour tune float slowly downward surrounded by the cloudy chords. The solo guitar fades in and out with fragments of its theme, as if from a distance. The downward lines finally disappear, and the soloist is left alone to play the central troubadour theme. The orchestra slowly joins the soloist in lyrical variations as the cloudy harmonies return.

“The second section is announced by an offstage percussionist. (One of the two onstage players has gone backstage to join an oboe and two bassoons.) This trio of double-reeds and drums acts as a raucous shawm band. (Shawms were ancestors of oboes and bassoons — much reedier and coarser than today’s refined instruments.) The band interrupts the onstage soloist and orchestra in a series of multiple conversations, and as they reach a peak, two offstage French horns add to the interplay.

“This cacophonous climax is followed by an extended solo cadenza in which the guitarist changes the mood from boisterous to intimate. At the very end of the cadenza, the guitar introduces a slow, ornamented variation of the troubadour tune, accompanied by a simple chaconne-like seven-chord progression again derived from the descending note pattern of the theme. This pattern repeats as the orchestra slowly joins the soloist, but the seven-note chaconne progression begins to change into the original chromatic cloud-chords as the more abstract descending variations of oboe, clarinets, violins and flutes float downward and the opening textures return.

“This slow change from the innocent harmonies and lines that started at the end of the cadenza to the more abstract hazy filigrees and sonorities that opened the work is possible only because they are generated from the same ingredients. The change is not one of material or technique, but one of attitude. The innocence of the earlier chaconne is gone, replaced by another kind of expression. The loss of one is balanced by another.

“ ‘Troubadours’ ends as it began, in clouds of memory.”

Symphony No. 4 in A Major, op. 90 (“Italian”)

Felix Mendelssohn

(Jacob Ludwig) Felix Mendelssohn (Bartholdy) was born, Feb. 3, 1809, in Hamburg and died Nov. 4, 1847, in Leipzig. Mendelssohn was one of the most important composers of symphonies in the first half of the 19th century. The “Italian” symphony received its premiere May 13, 1833, in London under the baton of the composer. It is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.

Of the five mature symphonies by Mendelssohn, the one designated as the fourth has proved to be the most popular with audiences and is the one that is most frequently performed. The “Italian” symphony had its origins during Mendelssohn’s 1830-1831 sojourn in Italy. It received its first performance in May 1833 in London with its composer, who also was one of the first renowned conductors, directing that city’s Royal Philharmonic Society orchestra.

It may strike us as curious that the composition of this work was a difficult task for its brilliant young author, especially given the piece’s seemingly effortless melodic beauties and boundless energy. Mendelssohn grew up as a child prodigy, and he usually found composition to come to him with relative ease. But as he matured, Mendelssohn became more self-consciously aware of the work of other composers — both contemporaneous and from previous generations. This awareness led him to evaluate his own efforts with a more critical eye and ear. Throughout his life, Mendelssohn believed that the “Italian” symphony was an imperfect work in need of revision. But for some reason — one suspects that his instincts overruled his intellect — he never revised the piece. The judgment of history has found the work to be a perfect specimen of its kind.

The first of the symphony’s four movements is a brilliant Allegro vivace of high spirit. Among its arresting features are the rapid-fire woodwind chords that introduce and subsequently accompany the first theme. The more solemn “Andante con moto” is alleged to have been inspired by a religious procession that the composer observed while in Naples.

The stolid “walking” bass line and rapid changes of harmony give this movement a distinctly “Baroque” feel. This feature is not surprising in light of the composer’s lifelong interest in the music of Bach, the culmination of which came in his landmark 1829 performance of the monumental Passion According to St. Matthew.

The third movement of the “Italian” symphony is marked “Con moto moderato,” and it follows the ternary design (ABA) characteristic of the traditional minuet and trio. The finale, marked “Presto,” is identified in the score as a saltarello — a leaping Italian dance. In point of fact, however, Mendelssohn makes use of two dances in this finale. The saltarello with which it opens is identifiable by its staccato articulation. The second dance, a tarantella, is uses the smoother legato (connected) articulation. A primary attraction of this movement is how skillfully the composer brings these dances together in counterpoint.

A highly interesting and unusual feature of the finale is that it ends in the minor mode. One can identify any number of multi-movement works that begin in the minor mode and that end in the major. But to my knowledge, at least, the “Italian” symphony is the only work that reverses this process.

Musicologist David B. Levy is a professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He has also taught at the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. A Beethoven scholar, he founded the New Beethoven Research group and has lectured widely throughout the United States and Europe. Levy will give a pre-concert lecture at 6:45 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18, in the Hurlbut Church sanctuary.

Tags : Chautauqua Symphony NotesChautauqua Symphony OrchestraIsbin and Italian
David Levy

The author David Levy