On today’s concert, Ottorino Respighi’s colorful overture to his opera Belfagor is followed by Francis Poulenc’s good-humored setting of a well-known liturgical text. On the second half, we’ll enjoy one of the finest orchestral works by that most quintessential of Romantic composers, Robert Schumann.
(Born 9 July 1879, Bologna, Italy; Died 18 April 1936, Rome, Italy)
First Performance: 26 April 1923; Milan, Italy
Last MSO Performance: December 1979; Kenneth Schermerhorn, conductor
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam tam, triangle), harp, celeste, strings
Approximate Duration: 7 minutes
Born into a musical family in Bologna, Ottorino Respighi entered the Lice Musicale there at age 12, studying violin, viola and, later, composition. In 1900, he visited Russia for the first time; in St. Petersburg, he played viola in the opera orchestra and took lessons in composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Kosakov. (The latter experience proved to be a profound influence on the young Italian’s approach to orchestration.) He was in Berlin in 1908-09, absorbing much from that city’s abundant musical milieu and attending lectures by the composer Max Bruch. By his mid-30s, though, Respighi had settled permanently in Rome.
Respighi is best-known for The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome, musical depictions of his adopted city and virtuoso showcases in the art of symphonic instrumentation. His orchestral suites The Birds, Botticelli Triptych, and Ancient Airs and Dances are also popular. Nowadays, his eight operas are practically unknown, and none have entered the lyric theatre’s repertoire.
Belfagor, the composer’s fifth opera, was first performed at La Scala in 1923. Its libretto, by Claudio Guastalla, traces its heritage back to a 16th-century novella by Niccolò Machiavelli entitled Belfagor achidiavolo (Belfagor the Arch-Devil). The comedic plot finds Belfagor, an amiable demon, sent to earth to determine whether marriage is indeed a hell for mankind, as so many arrivals in the afterlife have claimed.
The delightful overture’s concert version dates from 1925. It opens in a mock-sinister vein that eventually gives way to gentle melodies accompanied by luxuriant harmonies. March rhythms and distant brass—not unlike those in The Pines of Rome, composed about the same time—are followed by woodwind solos, both lyric and playful, that conjure images of comedia dell’arte characters. Galloping rhythmic figures and scampering melodies carry the overture to its smiling conclusion.
Recommended Recording: Lamberto Gardelli, London Symphony Orchestra (EMI Classics)
(Born 7 January 1899, Paris, France; Died 30 January 1963, Paris)
First Performance: 21 January 1961; Boston, Massachusetts
Last MSO Performance: MSO premiere
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, strings, SATB chorus
Approximate Duration: 28 minutes
Francis Poulenc grew up in a family of pharmaceutical manufacturers. Their wealth afforded him a fine education and gave him an early sophistication, both musical and literary. He began piano lessons with his mother at age five, had memorized some of Mallarmé’s poetry at age ten, and had experienced The Rite of Spring at age 14. By the time he began composition lessons with Charles Koechlin, in his early 20s, he had already penned the song cycle Le bestiare (The Bestiary) and the sonata for two clarinets. In 1924, his ballet Les biches (The Does, a mildly derogatory term for coquettish young women), written for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, established him as a member of the “smart set.” In the ten years that followed, his music continued in his naturally ebullient vein.
In 1936, the death of his friend and fellow composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud in a car accident—and his reacquaintance with the singer Pierre Bernac—brought about a new maturity. The tragedy of Ferroud’s death—the crash was so violent he was decapitated—and a subsequent visit to Notre Dame de Rocamadour reawakened his childhood faith. The first fruit of that experience was the Litanies à la vierge noir (Litanies to the Black Virgin), written in the week after his pilgrimage and scored in a modal idiom for women’s voices and organ.
After his return to Roman Catholicism, Poulenc penned a steady stream of religious works over the next 25 years. “I am religious by deepest instincts and heredity,” he stated. “For me, it seems quite natural to believe and practice religion. I am a Catholic. It is my greatest freedom.”
Poulenc enjoyed freedom of another kind when composing his Gloria, using a variety of styles in the musical language of the piece. He boldly interpolated words into the final phrases that belonged earlier, and strove to blow the dust off the sacrosanct Latin text with misplaced accentuation. These deliberate distortions bring new life, casting fresh light on the meaning of the words. At the work’s premiere, the second movement caused an uproar, much to Poulenc’s bewilderment: “I was simply thinking, in writing it, of the Gozzoli frescoes in which the angels stick out their tongues; I was thinking, too, of the serious Benedictines whom I saw one day playing soccer.”
In the final movement, “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,” we are led through the whole gamut of religious experience: from the chant-like opening, through the “worldliness” of the tune with trumpets and drums, to an ethereal calm with the angelic sounds of the solo soprano floating above. The composer once said, “I try to create a feeling of fervor and, especially, of humility, for me the most beautiful quality of prayer... My conception of religious music is essentially direct and, if I may say so, intimate.”
The Gloria was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress. It was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Chorus Pro Musica, conducted by Charles Munch. Adele Addison was the soprano soloist.
Recommended Recording: Sylvia McNair; Robert Shaw; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (Telarc)
(Born 8 June 1810, Zwickau, Germany; Died 29 July 1856, Endenich (near Bonn), Germany)
Composed: 1841, 1851
First Performance: 6 December 1841; Leipzig, German (original version, as Symphony No. 2); 3 March 1853; Düsseldorf, German (as Symphony No. 4, Op. 121)
Last MSO Performance: October 2011; Edo de Waart, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
Approximate Duration: 28 minutes
Of the composers of the Romantic era, Robert Schumann is quite likely the most romantic. His music emphasized self-expression, is inherently lyrical, and often displays literary, extra-musical connections. Schumann was prolific as a composer, father (eight children), and writer (co-founder of the periodical, Neue Zeitung für Musik, “New Journal for Music”). In the latter role, he helped further the career of the young Johannes Brahms.
The Fourth Symphony began its life in 1841, as Schumann’s second symphony. Ten years later, it was revised and renumbered. It is this revision that is most often heard today. Over the decades, Schumann has sometimes been perceived as an inept orchestrator, particularly regarding textures that are too thick and the proper balance between melody and accompaniment. Some conductors, such as Leonard Bernstein, have trusted the composer. Others, such as George Szell, have seen fit to make adjustments.
Often hailed as one of his most original works, Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 is notable for its formal continuity and for the cohesiveness of its thematic material. Though cast in the traditional four segments, the composer called it a “symphony in one movement” and instructed that it be played without a pause. In various musical guises, three main motifs recur throughout:
The Allegro is dominated by the 16th-note motif, but, following the militaristic fanfare, a lyrical theme is introduced in the movement’s development section. The oboe and cello open the lyrical Romanza, then the introductory melody returns to blossom into a sumptuous passage, set in D major. In the middle section, a solo violin provides generous ornamentation; the oboe/cello melody closes the movement.
The tempestuous Scherzo is created largely from the first movement’s introductory theme (turned upside down) and martial theme; its trio is like the central section of the Romanza, but this time with all the violins playing arabesques. The 16th-note theme returns during the spellbinding transition to the Finale. The closing Allegro vivace is energetic, jubilant music, fueled by yet another version of the martial theme and the 16th-note motif. As the movement progresses, the music grows ever more exultant, ending in a whirlwind of delightful good humor.
Recommended Recordings: Leonard Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon, original orchestration); Riccardo Chailly, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Decca, Mahler edition)