There’s a pleasing symmetry about today’s concert: each half offers a seldom-heard programmatic composition by a French composer, followed by a canonic work in the Germanic tradition. From Messiaen’s colorful Hymne to a favorite Mozart concerto to Franck’s symphonic parable to Beethoven’s jovial Symphony No. 8, it’s a recipe to be savored.
(Born 10 December 1908, Avignon, France; Died 27 April 1992, Paris, France)
Composed: 1932, originally titled Hymne au Saint-Sacrement; reconstructed 1947 as Hymne
First performance: 1933; Paris, France (original); 13 March 1947; New York, New York (reconstruction)
Last MSO Performance: MSO premiere
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, suspended cymbals, triangle), strings
Approximate Duration: 12 minutes
Olivier Messiaen was one of the most important composers of the 20th century. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Paul Dukas and Marcel Dupré and later taught there (Pierre Boulez was his most famous pupil) while also serving as the organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité. Always religiously devout, many of his works are explorations of Roman Catholic mysticism.
Like many composers and musicians, Messiaen possessed a form of synesthesia, a neurological condition that caused him to experience intense colors when he heard music. Regarding his Hymne, the composer stated, “Two developments are undertaken. They employ modal sonorities which are colored so that they are either opposed or allied to each other: orange to blue, violet to purple and gold. The dominant color: orange.”
Originally set down in 1932 as Hymne au Saint-Sacrement, the composer stated at that time that the work was “dedicated to the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. It attempts to depict the marvelous gifts of communion: growth of love and grace, the force against evil and the promise of eternal life.” The score was lost in the 1944 liberation of Paris. At the urging of Leopold Stokowski, Messiaen reconstructed it from memory in 1947 and called it simply Hymne. Stokowski led its first performance, conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. On that occasion, the program notes quoted the composer as follows:
The work is based on two themes, with a middle and final development. The first theme ends with a burst of winds on the chord of the dominant appoggiatura. The second theme, more dreamy and very singing, built on the “modes à transpositions limitée,” utilizes only violins and violas soli. The middle development is polymodal, alternating with and opposing the more belligerent first theme and the more passionate second theme. The final development resumes the martial character and the “polymodality” of the first development, and concludes on a joyous fanfare of brass, surrounded by a brilliant shimmering of all the instruments of the orchestra in the tonality of B major.
Recommended Recording: Myung-Whun Chung, Orchestre Philharmonique de France (Deutsche Grammophon)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(Born 27 January 1756, Salzburg, Austria; Died 5 December 5 1791, Vienna)
First performance: late 1784 or early 1785
Last MSO Performance: July 1992; Jeffrey Siegel, conductor and piano
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings
Approximate Duration: 28 minutes
At the time he wrote his F major concerto, the 28-year-old Mozart was the most idolized pianist in Vienna. He had composed three piano concertos the previous season (1782-83), to draw attention to his own talents as a performer. These did him proud, so that in 1784 audience demand was high enough to warrant an additional six concertos. K. 459 was the last of these.
We don’t know exactly when Mozart premiered his Concerto No. 19, but musicologists posit that it was written for a series of Lenten subscriptions the composer held at Vienna’s Mehlgrube Casino in February and March of 1785. Then again, says Mozart scholar Neal Zaslow, the piece entered into his catalogue on 11 December may have been intended for a now-undocumented Advent concert. Still, everyone at least agrees that the work was first heard in late 1784 or early 1785.
The opening Allegro commences with a martial dotted-rhythm figure that pervades the entire movement, binding together its cheerful melodic material into an articulate whole. Here, and in the next movement, enjoy the interplay between the soloist and the winds (flute, oboe, bassoon). The second movement is somewhat unusual in its tempo marking: Allegretto in place of an Andante or Adagio. A gently flowing 6/8 meter highlights its liquid character; it’s almost as if there is no true slow movement in this work.
In his book on Mozart’s piano concertos, Arthur Hutchings deems the Allegro assai “one of Mozart’s greatest and most entertaining rondos” and Stanley Sadie noted that its textures are “enriched by fugato episodes and much semi-contrapuntal use of orchestra material against piano bravura.” Indeed, the mixture of light-hearted melodies and formal complexity is most impressive. Mozart himself thought highly of the work: It was one of the two piano concertos he performed in Frankfurt in 1790, at the festivities celebrating the coronation of Leopold II as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
Recommended Recording: Murray Perahia, English Chamber Orchestra (Sony Classical)
(Born 10 December 1822, Liège, Belgium; Died 8 November 1890, Paris, France)
First performance: 31 March 1883; Paris, France
Last MSO Performance: April 2003; Pinchas Zukerman, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, triangle), strings
Approximate Duration: 15 minutes
Though programmatic music—music based on a specific narrative or designed to evoke a particular images—dates as far back as the keyboard music of William Byrd (c1543-1623) and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (c1723), it reached its zenith in the 19th century: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique; The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas; Liszt’s Totentanz; Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre; any number of works by Richard Strauss. The list is extensive, and must include César Frank’s symphonic poem Le Chausseur maudit (The Accursed Huntsman).
A composer, teacher, and organist, Franck was one of the leading figures in French musical life in the second half of the 19th century. Born in Liège, in his mid-teens he became a naturalized French citizen in order to gain entry into the Paris Conservatoire. As a composer, his output was modest, with most of his major works dating from his final decade. As a teacher, he was highly esteemed—dubbed “Pater Seraphicus” by his students, who included Ernest Chausson, Henri Duparc, and Vincent d’Indy. As an organist, he was a gifted improviser, and presided over the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll instrument at the Basilica of Saint Clotilde (Paris) from 1858 to his death in 1890.
In 1882, having completed the oratorio Les Béatitudes (his magnum opus) and a choral/orchestral “biblical scene” based on the Genesis story of Rebecca, Franck turned for inspiration to a ballad by the German poet Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794). Der wilde Jäger (The Wild Huntsman) is a cautionary tale about a Count of the Rhine who insists on violating the Lord’s Day by engaging in his favorite sport, even forcing his peasants to join him.
Franck’s “noisiest work” (Rey Longyear) follows the story closely. Though set in one continuous movement, there are four distinct sections. The descriptions that follow are the composer’s own.
“It was Sunday morning; from afar sounded the joyous ringing of bells and the glad songs of the people.”
“The chase dashes through cornfields, brakes, and meadows. Stop, Count, I pray! Hear the pious songs! No! And the horsemen rush onward like the whirlwind.”
“Suddenly the Count is alone; his horse will go no farther; he blows his horn, but his horn no longer sounds... A lugubrious, implacable voice curses him. ‘Sacrilege!’ it says. ‘Thou shalt be forever hunted through Hell.’”
“The flames dart from everywhere. The Count, maddened by terror, flees, faster and faster, pursued by a pack of devils.”
Recommended Recording: Riccardo Muti, Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI)
Ludwig van Beethoven
(Baptized 17 December 1770, Bonn, Germany; Died 26 March 1827, Vienna, Austria)
First performance: 27 February 1814; Vienna, Austria
Last MSO Performance: May 2015; Daniel Cohen, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trombones, timpani, strings
Approximate Duration: 26 minutes
Conventional wisdom has it that the greatest Star Trek films are the even-numbered ones, while the greatest Beethoven symphonies are the odd-numbered ones. While we may chuckle at that statement, there’s a common—and not entirely misguided—notion that Beethoven’s odds are progressive and forward-looking, while his evens are backward-looking and regressive. The former certainly are better-known, more highly esteemed, and more frequently performed and recorded. Just as Robert Schumann opined that the Fourth Symphony was like “a slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants” so, too, the Eighth is sunnier, more compact, and more genial than its neighbors, the sturdy Seventh and the colossal Ninth.
Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies were composed about the same time—and premiered on the same concert in 1808. His Seventh and Eighth symphonies bear a similar relationship. Completed only four months apart, No. 7 was premiered on 8 December 1813. No. 8 had its first hearing on 27 February 1814 at a concert that also included No. 7 and Wellington’s Victory, Op. 91. Writing in the 19th century, Sir George Grove (1820-1900)—founding editor of the music encyclopedia that still bears his name—related: “It was not well received, much more applause being given to the Seventh Symphony, the Allegretto of which was re-demanded. The non-success of his pet work greatly discomposed Beethoven, but he bore it philosophically; and… he remarked, ‘That’s because it’s so much better than the other.’”
The vibrant opening theme, which dominates the first movement, is soon followed by a second, more lyrical tune. This motif is brief as well. The similarly compact, sometimes-blustery development section tosses the themes from one section of the orchestra to another. Then at the outset of the recapitulation, Beethoven plays a clever musical joke by burying the main theme in the bassoons, cellos, and double basses while the rest of the orchestra blares fff above.
The insistent 16th-note staccato accompaniment of the Allegretto scherzando parodies the ticking of a chronometer, an early version of the metronome. The device was invented by Beethoven’s friend Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who had also constructed several of the ear-trumpets used by the near-deaf composer. Trills, accents, and sudden ff tremolos add to this short movement’s mischievous character.
In his earlier symphonies, Beethoven had cast the third movement as a scherzo, replacing the traditional Classical-era minuet and trio. Here, he returns to the older form and invests it with good humor. Listen for the comically out-of-sync passages, courtesy of the horns, trumpet, and timpani. In the trio, woodwinds and scurrying cellos provide counterpoint to the dolce horn melody.
Surely among the most jovial pieces of music the master ever wrote, the Allegro vivace finale is worked out with brilliant ingenuity. Tchaikovsky called this movement “one of the greatest symphonic masterpieces of Beethoven.” Cast in sonata-rondo form, it boasts one of the longest codas in the composer’s output. The symphony concludes in good humor, with an extended passage of loud home-key harmony.\
Recommended Recording: Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)