ONE OPERA, THREE BONUS OVERTURES
Leonore Overture No. 3
Beethoven wrote only one opera, but he wrote it three times over a period of ten years. Finally, in 1814, the opera Fidelio took its final form. The revisions left a legacy of four overtures: the three Leonore overtures and the overture to Fidelio that's played before the opera today. Of the Leonore overtures, named for the heroine, the third (from 1806) is the most popular.
Fidelio, or The Triumph of Conjugal Love is an 'escape opera' and its hero is Florestan, a political prisoner: "In the springtime of life, happiness has deserted me. I dared to speak the truth boldly, and these chains are my reward." The tune of this aria, from the beginning of Act II, establishes the mood for the slow introduction of Leonore Overture No.3. Beethoven gives the somber theme to the clarinet; once the overture is underway, it's transformed for flute and violins.
The overture encapsulates the scenario of the opera, including a last-minute reprieve announced by dramatic trumpet calls. This is the moment that everyone waits for in the opera: the rescue. In the opera this is signaled by a faint and distant trumpet fanfare, announcing the arrival of the government minister who has the power to save Florestan. Leonore, Florestan's wife, sings: "You are saved, thank God!" Florestan's enemy, Pizzaro, is dismissive. Then the trumpet sounds again, closer.
In the overture, this moment is captured perfectly. Unfortunately, it's too effective at foreshadowing the climax of the opera. To put it another way, if you were to hear this overture before the opera it would act as a spoiler. Which is why Beethoven abandoned this masterpiece to write yet one more overture – a much simpler prelude – in 1814. The dramatic, symphonic qualities that make Leonore No.3 satisfying in the concert hall don't work so well in the theatre when what's needed is a curtain raiser. It's a good thing that it took Beethoven several attempts to realize this: the result is three marvelous additions to the orchestral concert repertoire.
It's difficult to imagine that this tuneful, vibrant music was once banned. But it was banned - Ligeti was granted only a single rehearsal in Budapest in 1951 and the work didn't receive a public performance until 1971.
What harm did a communist government see in music such as this, based on genuine folk melodies and drawing on the spirit of village bands? Ligeti explains: "Under Stalin's dictatorship, even folk music was allowed only in a 'politically correct' form, in other words, if forced into the straitjacket of the norms of socialist realism..." Major-minor harmonizations were welcome and modal orientalisms à la Khachaturian were allowed, but "Stravinsky was excommunicated."
Ligeti's problem was that he had transcribed folk songs and immersed himself in the authentic sounds and style of traditional music-making. But, he said, the "peculiar way in which village bands harmonized their music, often full of dissonances and 'against the grain'," was regarded by the authorities as incorrect. A single "wrong" note (a foreign F sharp heard in the context of F major in the fourth movement) was reason enough for the apparatchiks to ban the entire piece.
The concerto is in four movements, played without pause, that alternate between slower, vocally inspired music, as in the first movement, and lively (vivace) dance-inspired music, such as the second movement. In that contentious fourth movement you can hear a village fiddler in toe-tapping mode. In the plaintive third movement ("slow but not too much") the horns play without the aid of their valves – using only lip pressure to change note - perhaps to evoke the sound of the alphorns Ligeti had heard in his childhood, echoing from mountain to mountain.
ANYTHING YOU CAN DO...
Cello Concerto in B minor
The Dvořák Cello Concerto is perhaps the greatest cello concerto in the repertoire, and we owe its existence to an Irish-born, German-trained American. His name was Victor Herbert and his own claim to fame is based on the operettas he wrote for Broadway before World War I - Babes in Toyland was one. But he was also the principal cellist in the New York Philharmonic and his compositions included cello concertos for himself to play.
Dvořák - who was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York - heard the second of these concertos in April 1894. Seven months later, after spending the summer holidays in Bohemia, he returned to America with the idea of writing a cello concerto for his friend Hanuš Wihan.
Herbert's role in this was to provide, through his own concerto, a demonstration that it was indeed possible to compose for a solo cello against the relatively large orchestra of the 19th century. You'll see three trombones in Dvořák's orchestra; there's a tuba, three horns and two trumpets; and the shrill sound of the piccolo is heard among the pairs of woodwinds. (Haydn, writing cello concertos a century earlier, would have kept his orchestra small: perhaps two oboes and a pair of horns.)
Dvořák (and Herbert before him) makes this work by avoiding unfair competition. When the soloist is playing, the accompaniment comes mainly from the contrasting sound of the winds; when the full orchestra plays it has the stage to itself. It's the orchestra which introduces the main musical ideas of the first movement - a broad opening theme and an achingly beautiful theme for the horn - after which the solo cello can make its own heroic entrance over the lightest of accompaniments.
The second movement ("slow but not too much") has the same qualities that we love in the Largo from the New World Symphony: tender, singing and heartfelt. Apart from a brief outburst, the mood is overwhelmingly serene. The finale shifts and swerves between stormy drama, nonchalant elegance and glittering display. This time it's the cello who introduces the principal theme, in what turns out to be a conversation, rather than a contest, between soloist and orchestra.
Yvonne Frindle © 2011
Illustrations by Charles Krenner © 2011
Ludwig van Beethoven
By the time he was 32 years old, Beethoven was at the beginning of a brilliant career. Then he learned the awful news: he was losing his hearing, irreversibly. It's a testament to Beethoven's courage that he dismissed thoughts of suicide, and went on to complete eight more symphonies and many other great and powerful works, including the opera Fidelio.
Ligeti's journey as a composer mirrored the diversity and rapid changes in 20th century musical style, embracing the simplicity of folk song, the complexity of avant-garde techniques, and much in between. His prominence jumped in 1968 when Stanley Kubrick used his music in the film 2001 - A Space Odyssey, including the luminous Lux æterna. The Romanian Concerto, composed in 1951, reflects the rich influence of folk dance.
Dvořák was born near Prague and died in that city. This made him a Bohemian composer at a time when the region was under the thumb of the Austrian empire. He lived through an era when nationalistic feeling dominated, and folk traditions, previously dismissed, were nurtured as a source of identity. His big break came in 1878 with the publication of his Slavonic Dances. And yet some of Dvořák's best-known music was stimulated not by the sounds of Bohemia but by an extended visit to America: the New World Symphony and the Cello Concerto in B minor.
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CityMusic with Heather Headley at Masonic Auditorium (May 28)
Mike Telin, clevelandclassical.com, June 2, 2015
On Thursday, May 28 at Masonic Auditorium, CityMusic Cleveland, under the direction of Avner D....