The Four Seasons in the Basilica

Program Notes

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Summer Evening

Zoltán Kodály
(Born 16 December 1882; Kecskemét, Hungary; Died 6 March 1967; Budapest, Hungary)

Composed: 1906, revised 1929-30

First performance: 22 October 1906; Budapest, Hungary (original); 3 April 1930; New York, New York (revised)

Last MSO performance:

Instrumentation:

Approximate duration: 18 minutes

Like his Hungarian compatriot and contemporary Béla Bartók (1881-1945), Zoltán Kodály immersed himself in the rural folk music of his country, traveling out into the villages to ask the peasants to sing their indigenous songs as recorded them on a phonograph. Much of his life was devoted to music education – the renowned “Kodály method” – and to the Hungarian musical traditions that influenced, shaped, and colored his compositions.

Summer Evening [Nyári este] was written the year after he finished his education at the Academy of Music in Budapest. First performed at a graduation concert there, the tone poem was later revised at the behest of Arturo Toscanini, who conducted it with the New York Philharmonic. This is the version we hear today.

Kodály’s piece, like the work by Wagner on this concert, could easily be classified as an idyll. Here you’ll find no percussion or brass (except the horns that are blended into the woodwind section) and, despite its picturesque title, no particular program. The composer stated that “it was conceived on summer evenings, amid harvested cornfields, by the ripples of the Adriatic.”

Set in an elaborate sonata form – not the loose rhapsody we might expect, given its title – Kodaly employs four felicitous themes. The first is sounded by the English horn, then taken up by the strings; limpid, long-breathed, and quietly expressive, it is the most important. The second theme is a two-bar phrase by oboe, then flute, then strings. Kodaly’s Magyar roots are evident in the violin triplets of the third theme. A heavily accented oboe melody makes up the final theme, joined by the full orchestra and a quick upward flourish.

In the development section, the music becomes tense and the calmly nocturnal atmosphere is dispelled for a time. At the recapitulation, though, there’s a sense of relaxation as we again hear the four themes, unwinding into a muted, ethereal ending.

Recommended recording: Antal Dorati, Philharmonia Hungarica (Decca)

 

Siegfried Idyll

Richard Wagner
(Born 22 May 1813; Leipzig, Germany; Died 13 February 1883; Venice, Italy)

Composed: 1870

First performance: 25 December 1870; Lucerne, Switzerland

Last MSO performance:

Instrumentation:

Approximate duration: 18 minutes

Richard Wagner composed the Siegfried Idyll as a surprise birthday gift for his new wife Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt and the ex-wife of conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow. Their relationship had begun in the summer of 1864, when she visited him at Lake Starnberg for a week – without her husband. The following spring, she gave birth to Wagner’s first child, on the same day Bülow conducted the first orchestral rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde, 10 April 1865.

Wagner’s wife, the actress Minna Planer, died early in 1866. In April of that year, Wagner moved into Tribschen, a house near Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. Cosima first visited the residence in May 1866 and moved there permanently in November 1868. By the time they were married, on 25 August 1870 – soon after her divorce from Bülow – Richard and Cosima had had three children together: Isolde, Eva, and Siegfried.

Cosima was born on 24 December 1837. She preferred, however, to celebrate her birthday on 25 December. On Christmas morning of 1870, thirteen musicians sneaked into the house to give the first performance – on the stairs and landing outside her bedroom – of what was originally titled Tribschen Idyll. She later noted in her diary: “As I awoke, my ear caught a sound, which swelled fuller and fuller. No longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming. Music was sounding – and such music! When it died away, Richard came into my room… and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem.”

The Idyll was, in fact, played three times that day. Following the early morning premiere, the household enjoyed breakfast, then the players repeated the piece, followed by the bridal march from Lohengrin, Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20, and yet another performance of the Idyll. The work’s main melody – sometimes referred to as the “Starnberg” theme – dates from early in the relationship between Cosima and Richard. Wagner later used it for the Brunnhilde/Siegfried duet in Act 3 of Siegfried. The second theme, introduced by the oboe, pays homage to his son Siegfried and is based on the lullaby, “Schlafe, Kindchen, schlafe” (Sleep, child, sleep).

It’s easily the most intimate of Wagner’s works and is, coming from the pen of such an arrogant, extravagant man, uncharacteristically restrained. The title page of the published score refers to “Fidi-Birdsong and Orange Sunrise.” Fidi was a term of affection for the year-old Siegfried, and the sunrise was, in Cosima’s words, the “incredibly beautiful, fiery glow” of the bedroom wallpaper when struck by the morning sun. The Siegfried Idyll – apparently this title dates from an 1877 performance in Meiningen – commemorates both the third music drama of Wagner’s Ring cycle and his son, who bore his father’s name into the 20th century.

Recommended recording: Sir Georg Solti, Members of the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca)

 

The Four Seasons

Antonio Vivaldi
(Born 4 March 1678; Venice, Italy; Died 28 July 1741; Vienna, Austria)

Composed: c. 1720-23

First performance: undocumented

Last MSO performance:

Instrumentation:

Approximate duration: 37 minutes

Antonio Vivaldi was the most original and influential Italian composer of his generation. A pioneer of programmatic orchestral music, he also made substantial contributions to musical style, violin technique – his contemporaries were more apt to praise him as a violinist than as a composer – and to the art of orchestration itself.

Nowhere are these benefactions more apparent than in The Four Seasons [Le quattro stagione], one of the best-known works in the whole of classical music. From television commercials to film soundtracks to the ringtones of mobile phones to touristy concerts in Prague, its familiar strains are ubiquitous. With its affecting harmonies, cantabile melodies, foot-tapping rhythms, and evocative musical depictions, is it any wonder Vivaldi’s music never fails to please?

The concertos that comprise The Four Seasons are the first four such works in a larger collection entitled Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention). For each three-movement “season,” Vivaldi penned a descriptive sonnet, inspired by the landscape paintings of the Italian artist Marco Ricci (1676-1730).

Though thoroughly programmatic, the outer movements of these works nevertheless adhere to the ritornello form often found in Baroque concertos: The opening ritornello (Italian for “return”) theme depicts the general emotional mood of each fast movement, then recurs to separate the various descriptive episodes; thus, the music fulfills both the demands of creating a logical, abstract form while depicting sharp-focused images of nature. The slow middle movements are almost operatically melodic in style.

The poems Vivaldi used to preface the four concertos, when they were published in Amsterdam in 1725, are somewhat pedestrian – at least in translation – but it is the composer’s musical imagination that interests us here. In addition to the sonnets, the score has descriptive phrases printed in. These are given below.

SPRING. Concerto in E major, Op. 8, No. 1

Allegro

Spring’s awakening – Song of the birds – The springs gush out – Thunder – Song of the birds

Largo e pianissimo sempre

The sleeping goatherd – Rustling of foliage and plants – The barking dog

Allegro

Country dance
 

SUMMER. Concerto in G minor, Op. 8, No. 2

Allegro non molto

Languor caused by the heat – The cuckoo – The turtledove – The goldfinch – Gentle zephyrs – Various winds – The north wind – Young countryman’s lament

Adagio – Presto

Flies and bluebottles

Presto

Summer storm
 

AUTUMN. Concerto in F major, Op. 8, No. 3

Allegro

Dance and song of country folk – The toper – The sleeping drunkard

Adagio molto

The sleeping drunkards

Allegro

The hunt – The fleeing beast – Guns and hounds – The fleeing beast is slain
 

WINTER. Concerto in F minor, Op. 8, No. 4

Allegro non molto

Frozen shivering in the icy snow – Dreadful storm – Running and foot stomping because of the cold – Winds – Chattering of teeth

Largo

Rain

Allegro

Crossing the ice – Moving carefully and anxiously – Falling to the ground – Striding bravely on – The sirocco – The north wind and all other winds

Recommended recording: Anne-Sophie Mutter, Trondheim Soloists (Deutsche Grammophon)