Musical Director's notes and sound files for the Summer Term

 

Alexander Borodin: Symphony No. 1 in E flat

 

Alexander Borodin

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Symphony No. 1 in E flat

Borodin was by profession a chemist, and confined his musical activities to vacations and spare hours. He became a competent cellist and pianist during his boyhood, and began writing songs and other short pieces, but he had no training in composition until he was nearly 30. His instruction began in 1862, when he met Mily Balakirev and, like many other Russian musicians of his day, came under the influence of that composer’s strong personality. Balakirev was one of the most important and influential musicians in 19th-century Russia. An ardent nationalist, he passionately advocated compositions based on dramatic and folklore ideas, which he viewed as a means to impart a decidedly Russian character to music. In time he assumed the role of leader and spokesman of a group of nationalist composers that included not only himself and Borodin but Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky. For a while he also strongly influenced Tchaikovsky.
With typical presumption, Balakirev took it upon himself to direct Borodin’s development as a composer. Under his new mentor’s guidance, Borodin began writing a symphony in the autumn of 1862, his first orchestral piece and first large-scale composition. Though he completed most of its opening movement before the end of the year, the rest of the work followed slowly, due to Borodin’s professional obligations. Not until 1867 was the full score complete. Balakirev conducted its initial performance, early in 1869. The symphony’s enthusiastic reception greatly encouraged Borodin, spurring him to further ambitious compositions.
The symphony follows the standard four-movement design, beginning with an introduction in slow tempo (Adagio) that prefaces the first movement proper. Balakirev’s influence is evident at once in the Russian flavour of the low-voiced melody played during the early moments of this prelude. Borodin uses the same theme, but harmonised and scored more brightly, during the Allegro that forms the main body of the movement. The other ideas that make up this portion of the symphony also have a pronounced Russian accent, and one can only admire the boldness with which the relatively inexperienced Borodin handles them. The movement’s tranquil conclusion, after much highly energetic music, is an original and effective touch. The second movement is a scherzo, lightly scampering and enlivened by some complicated rhythms, with a more relaxed central episode providing an element of contrast and a suggestion of Russian folk music. The broad slow movement that follows brings further evidence of the symphony’s nationality. The finale owes much of its interest to lively and occasionally complex rhythmic play, which lends the music considerable energy. Some commentators have noted the closeness of this movement to the symphonic manner of Robert Schumann, whose music Borodin openly admired. That may be true, but the overall freshness and vitality of Borodin’s invention renders any stylistic debt largely irrelevant.



Benjamin Britten: Matinées musicales


Benjamin Britten

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Matinées musicales

Matinées musicales was composed as a companion piece to the immensely popular Soirées musicales at the request of Lincoln Kirstein and the American Ballet Company. Like its predecessor it draws on themes by Gioachino Rossini, and the ‘double bill’ was choreographed by Balanchine for a South American tour. The first performance of Matinées musicales took place on 27 June 1941 in the Teatro Municipale Rio de Janeiro, under the leadership of the ballet orchestra's Emanuel Balaban. There are five short movements:


1. March (from William Tell, act 1, "Pas de six")


2. Nocturne (from Rossini's Soirées Musicales, nr. 10 "La pesca")


3. Waltz (from Rossini's Soirées Musicales, nr. 4 "L'orgia")


4. Pantomime (from Rossini's Soirées Musicales, nr. 2 "Il rimproveso")


5. Moto perpetuo (Gorgheggi e solfeggi)


Matinées musicales has great charm, with Britten's orchestration allowing the sparkling melodies and humour plenty of room to come through. Perhaps the most successful of the five movements is the slow Nocturne, topped with celeste and doubled clarinets, a lovely piece of music, perfect for the ballet. The March is enjoyably cheeky, the Waltz turns quite briskly and the Pantomime dances with a winsome oboe solo. All that and the effervescent finale show why the music of Rossini was an obvious choice for these skilful arrangements.



Jules Massenet: Suite No. 4 Scenes pittoresques

 

Jules Massenet

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Suite No. 4 Scenes pittoresques

Massenet was a prolific composer. In addition to his huge operatic output, for which he is primarily known, he also wrote 200 songs, oratorios, a piano concerto, and various orchestral works, including seven suites. Some of these suites focus on a theme, for example Scenes napolitaines, Scenes alsaciennes, and Scenes dramatiques (after Shakespeare). The fourth suite, Scenes pittoresques, consists of four unrelated but perfectly matched character pieces. It was first performed in 1874, and has proved to be one of Massenet's most popular concert works.
The brief first movement is a lightly-textured Marche in which the theme is restated several times with various decorative contrapuntal materials woven around it by different instruments. The second movement (Air de Ballet) is a wistful, almost melancholy waltz which features the cello section, who provide the melody exclusively. The third movement (Angelus) is more extended and features bells-like sounds by the horns, as well as string chords which imitate an organ. The memorable main theme is hymnal in character and appears several times, vividly evoking a French cathedral. The Finale (Fete bohème) opens with a fanfare and a lively Bohemian-inspired festival dance in triple time. It is in rondo form, with contrasting episodes interspersed throughout. The final statement of the theme, complete with percussion, brings the suite to a rousing conclusion.

 

 

 


Johann Strauss II: Overture to Die Fledermaus

 

Johann Strauss II

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Overture to Die Fledermaus

In addition to the nearly 500 pieces of dance music he published, Strauss scored important successes as a composer of operetta and light opera. Die Fledermaus has proved the most enduring of these works. It was based on a French script, Reveillon (the term refers to a long, festive dinner on the eve of a holiday), by Offenbach’s librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, refashioned for Viennese tastes by two German writers, Carl Haffner and Richard Genée. It proved a perfect tonic for a Viennese audience eager to have a good time. At the premiere of the operetta, conducted by Strauss, the overture was interrupted several times by applause. One Viennese critic called it the "pièce de resistance" of the operetta. It's a sumptuous glimpse of the memorable melodies that await the Die Fledermaus audience.
The Overture to Die Fledermaus provides a potpourri-style foretaste of several of the operetta’s principal tunes, including a weepy, crocodile-tears lament when the husband says farewell to his wife, supposedly to start his eight-day stretch in jail for some misdemeanor, but actually to attend a party, to dance, drink, and flirt before arriving at the jail. The overture is dominated by a polka and an infectious waltz whose bustling melody is announced initially by the strings, playing staccato and low in their range, before it is taken up by the entire orchestra. Other tunes are interspersed, but these two indelible melodies return to bring this overture to its buoyant end.

 

 


 

 

 


 

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