C2 16-17 Program Notes

OKC Classics II (10-1-16)


Antonín Dvořák

Carnival, Op. 92

Born: September 8, 1841, in Mühlhausen (Nelahozeves), Bohemia (now the Czech Republic)
Died: May 1, 1904, in Prague, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic)
Work composed: From July 28 to September 12, 1891
Work dedicated: To the Czech University of Prague (in the composer’s manuscript, though not in the printed score)
Work premiered: April 28, 1892, at the Rudolfinum in Prague, with the composer conducting the Orchestra of the National Theatre
Instrumentation: Two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, harp, and strings

Antonín Dvořák developed rather slowly as a composer and was still laboring in poverty and obscurity as he approached middle age. His lucky break came when the influential Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick took a shine to some of his pieces. In 1877, Hanslick encouraged the 36-year-old Czech composer to send some scores to Johannes Brahms, with whom Hanslick enjoyed warm relations. Brahms was so delighted with what he received that he recommended Dvořák to his own publisher, Fritz Simrock, who promptly published Dvořák’s Moravian Duets, commissioned a collection Slavonic Dances, and contracted a first option on all the composer’s new works. Dvořák and Brahms became personal friends, and Dvořák quickly gained the support of other important figures of the Brahms circle, including the violinist Joseph Joachim and the conductors Hans Richter (to whom Dvořák would dedicate his Sixth Symphony) and Hans von Bülow (who made Dvořák’s Hussite Overture a mainstay of his repertoire).

Thus was launched the career of the man who would be embraced as the quintessential Bohemian composer, both in his native land and beyond Czech borders. In 1883, he was invited to conduct in London in what would prove to be the first of nine visits to England; during one of them, in July 1891, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. This he added to a growing shelf of awards that already included the Austrian Order of the Iron Crown (bestowed in 1889) and an honorary doctorate from the Czech University of Prague (in 1890). In January 1891, he began teaching in the capacity of professor of composition and instrumentation at Prague Conservatory, and that June he was approached by Jeannette Thurber, a Paris-trained American musician who was by then a New York philanthropist bent on raising American musical pedagogy to European standards. She had founded the National Conservatory of Music in New York, incorporated by special act of Congress in 1891, and she set about persuading Dvořák to serve as its director. She succeeded, and in September 1892, Dvořák and his family moved to New York. He remained until 1895, though spending summers elsewhere.

Dvořák’s popular Carnival dates from this period when honors began falling on his shoulders, just as he was weighing Mrs. Thurber’s flattering offer. It was the second of a triptych of concert overtures meant to portray impressions of what a human soul might experience, in both positive and negative aspects. Nature, Life, and Love was his original name for the set, which was to be published under the single opus number 91, and it is in that form that the pieces were presented at their joint premiere. But the composer soon decided to publish them with more distinct identities, and when they appeared in print it was as three separate pieces: In Nature’s Realm (with the opus number 91 all to itself, composed from March 31 to July 8, 1891), Carnival (Op. 92, written from July 28 to September 12), and Othello (Op. 93, begun that November and completed on January 18, 1892).

Dvořák used the title Life (Carnival) in his sketches for the second of these pieces, and then gave it the provisional name A Czech Carnival, but later he opted for the more general Carnival. It does indeed depict the high-spirited tumult of a festive carnival setting—barkers and vendors, boisterous crowds, and even, in a gentle passage, what Dvořák said was “a pair of straying lovers.” In a letter to the publisher Simrock, Brahms judged this work to be “merry” and remarked that “music directors will be thankful to you” for publishing the overtures, which they are. Dvořák conducted the joint premiere of the three pieces in Prague in April 1892, and six months later he included them in the program he led at Carnegie Hall on October 21. That event was billed as a celebration (nine days late) of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of America, but it was surely of more compelling interest for officially introducing musical New York to its distinguished new member.

The “Theme of Nature”

Although the three overtures Dvořák envisioned as the triptych Nature, Life, and Love ended up assuming discrete identities, the composer did conceive of them as a cycle. The musical result is that, notwithstanding their very different characters, the three are connected through a shared theme, which the Dvořák scholar Otomar Šourek has credibly labeled the “Theme of Nature.” It serves as the principal theme of the first piece in the triptych, In Nature’s Realm, and then makes return visits in the other two works. In the relaxed middle section of Carnival we hear it briefly recalled by the clarinet, and then echoed a few bars later by the English horn.



Pablo de Sarasate

Concert Fantasies on Carmen, Op. 25

Born: March 10, 1844, in Pamplona, in the Spanish province of Navarra
Died: September 20, 1908, in Biarritz, in southwestern France
Work composed: ca. 1882-83
Instrumentation: Two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, tambourine, harp, and strings, in addition to the solo violin

Violinists who grow up to be renowned soloists usually start studying their instruments when very young. So it was with Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navascuéz (called merely Pablo de Sarasate by those not given to strenuous exercise). He began violin lessons at the age of five and, encouraged by his musical father (who was a military band director), played his debut recital in his native Pamplona at the age of only eight. His exceptional talent inspired considerable interest in Spanish cultural circles and he was swept off to pursue advanced study first in Madrid, then at the Paris Conservatoire. He concluded his work at the latter in 1859, having garnered distinction in violin, solfège, and harmony, and he immediately embarked on the international concert circuit.

It was slow going at first, but by the 1870s Sarasate earned a spot among the leading virtuosos of his day. What’s more, his profound preparation in the workings of compositions—rather than just in the intricacies of violin playing—endeared him to many leading composers. Among those who dedicated important works to him were Max Bruch (his Violin Concerto No. 2 and Scottish Fantasy), Camille Saint-Saëns (Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 3, in addition to his Introduction et Rondo capriccioso), Edouard Lalo (Symphonie espagnole and Concerto in F minor), Henryk Wieniawski (Violin Concerto No. 2), and Antonín Dvořák (Mazurek, Op. 49). He was also immortalized by the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who in 1884 painted his Arrangement in Black: Pablo de Sarasate. Ironically, his championing of such once-modern works has become somewhat overshadowed by his dismissal of the Brahms Violin Concerto. “So what am I doing standing up here with my violin in my hand while the oboe plays the only melody in the whole piece?” he famously inquired in connection to its second movement; and although he remained an enthusiast of Brahms’ string quartets, he left the composer’s concerto to others.

Sarasate was almost universally applauded as a performer, noted for silken bowing, impeccable intonation, and a certain elegant nonchalance that made him the toast of the salon set. These attributes are evident in the nine recordings he made in 1904, which occasionally are available in historic compilations. Their sound is rather distant, but one discerns magnificent, heartfelt performances all the same. The Concert Fantasies on Carmen is not among them but his famous Zigeunerweisen is; few virtuoso violinists have made it sound quite as easy as did Sarasate, who tosses it off with insouciant abandon. As a composer he tended towards lightness; yet, even if his works don’t invite detailed musical analysis, a surprising number of them remain in the essential canon of the violin repertoire. Of his 54 compositions, the first 19 were mostly negligible paraphrases on themes from favorite operas, though a few of his later works in that form, most notably Concert Fantasies on Carmen, remain exemplars of their type.

Beginning in 1878, he turned to composing short works of considerable originality, most of them based on popular dance types of his native Spain. Along with jotas, boleros, habaneras, and zortzikos, we find more generalized Spanish dances. Those, of course, represent precisely the flavor that had helped boost Georges Bizet’s Carmen to triumph, although the opera’s success seemed far from assured when it was new. Many people assumed it would be quietly forgotten along with the rest of Bizet’s output. At the work’s premiere, in 1875 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, a group of fellow musicians crowded around Bizet after the first act to lavish praise on the piece they were hearing. Bizet responded, “You are the first to say such things, and I imagine you will be the last.” He was wrong, but unfortunately the tide turned too late for him to know it, and he died—of a broken spirit, some say—exactly three months later, at the age of 37. He could scarcely have imagined that a mere eight years later its melodies (or at least its Aragonaise, Habanera, Interlude, Seguidille, and Gypsy Dance) would be so celebrated that one of the world’s leading violinists would craft them into an elaborate virtuoso showpiece.

From an Admirer

Near the end of his life Camille Saint-Saëns penned a brief memoir of Sarasate:

Years have now passed since there once called upon me Pablo de Sarasate, youthful and fresh-looking as the spring, and already a celebrity, though a dawning moustache had only just begun to appear. He had been good enough to ask me, in the most casual way imaginable, to write a concerto for him. Greatly flattered and delighted at the request, I gave him a promise and kept my word with the Concerto in A major …. Subsequently I wrote for him a Rondo capriccioso in the Spanish style and later on the Concerto in B minor. … Those who were in the habit of attending my Monday musical soirées have not forgotten the brilliant effect produced by my illustrious friend. This was so markedly the case that for several years afterwards no violinists could be prevailed upon to perform at my house, so terrified were they at the idea of inviting comparison. Nor did he shine by reason of his talent alone, but also because of his brilliant intellect and the inexhaustible animation of his conversation which was invariably interesting and suggestive.


Johann Strauss, Jr.

Overture to The Gypsy Baron (Der Zigeunerbaron)

Born: October 25, 1825, in Vienna, Austria
Died: June 3, 1899, in Vienna, Austria
Works composed: 1885
Works premiered: October 24, 1885, at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna
Instrumentation: Two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tubular bells, harp, and strings

Sorting out all the musical Strausses can take some perseverance. In the beginning was Johann Strauss (1804-1849, later known as Johann Strauss, Sr.). The son of a dance-hall proprietor, he developed into an accomplished violinist and then a terrifically successful orchestra leader and bandmaster, composing a multitude of waltzes, quadrilles, polkas, and other dances. He made up his mind that his three sons (Johann, Josef, and Eduard) should become businessmen or soldiers, and certainly not musicians. In this regard, and this regard only, he was a failure, since all three grew up to be successful composer-conductors; and his failure was perpetuated when Eduard’s son, Johann III, carried on the waltz profession until his death in 1939.

The other famous musical Strausses were apparently sprung from separate family trees altogether: the waltzing Strausses, the eminent hornist Franz Strauss and his composer-son Richard (whom we meet later in this concert), and the operetta composer Oscar Straus (who dropped the final “s” that appears on his birth certificate to help differentiate his lineage)—these were three unconnected clans. Unconnected genealogically, that is. There were musical connections, such as when Richard Strauss conducted Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus in a 1920 Vienna production, or when he incorporated a theme by Eduard Strauss into his own opera Der Rosenkavalier.

Johann Strauss, Jr. inhabits the sphere of lighter music, but that didn’t prevent him from being deeply admired by many more “serious” musicians of the day. Richard Strauss remarked that in an era “when everything surrounding him had already evolved towards the complex and the premeditated, [he] was one of the last to have primary inspiration.” Gustav Mahler (who had conducted Die Fledermaus in Hamburg) complimented Strauss’s waltzes for “their uniqueness and delightful inventiveness.” Johannes Brahms is said to have never missed a performance of Die Fledermaus. Jules Massenet observed that “Brahms is the spirit of Vienna, but Strauss is the perfume.”

 Johann Strauss, Jr. began achieving success as an orchestra leader at the age of 19, and he quickly achieved such popularity as to emerge as something of a rival to his more established father. Initial uneasiness over this situation was overcome, and when Johann Sr. died in 1848, Johann Jr. merged his late father’s orchestra into his own. From 1863 to 1871 he served as director of Viennese court balls, just as his father had, and when he relinquished the position he merely handed off the reins to his brother Eduard.

In addition to the nearly five hundred pieces of dance music he published, Johann Strauss, Jr. scored important successes as a composer of operetta and light opera. Die Fledermaus has proved the most enduring, but Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) and Eine Nacht in Venedig (A Night in Venice) remain in the active repertoire even outside German-speaking lands. The three-act operetta The Gypsy Baron, to a libretto by Ignaz Schnitzer, sports a complicated plot. A young gentleman tries to reclaim his family’s ancestral landholdings, which had been confiscated by the government to punish his father for collaborating with the Turks. He is stymied, however, when he discovers that the properties have been homesteaded by Gypsies. While trying to deal with the situation he falls in love with a lovely Gypsy girl. One would think he would marry her and that would be that—but no. To everyone’s surprise, it turns out that she is of noble birth (the daughter of a Turkish Pasha, no less!), so now their class difference places her out of his orbit. He goes off to fight in a war against Spain, and distinguishes himself so heroically that he is ennobled, thus removing the obstacle preventing his marriage … and allowing him to restyle himself as the Gypsy Baron.

The operetta’s overture is infused with an exotic flavor, employing evocative rhythms, unusual harmonic references, and colorful touches of orchestration to summon up the Hungarian-Danube world in which the action unrolls. But this is Johann Strauss, Jr., after all, so of course the music cannot resist wending its way to an ingratiating waltz.

A Glimpse of Strauss

Ignaz Schnitzer, the librettist of The Gypsy Baron, spoke with a Viennese journalist about his experience collaborating with Johann Strauss, Jr., and provided a vivid glimpse into the composer’s private musical world:

Strauss plays the piano mostly when guests are present, after supper. This is not done to make himself heard but simply because he feels the urge to make music. If one does not want him to play one has only to ask him not to do so. … When playing, he becomes so heated and involved in the music that one has to ask him to stop lest he become sick from nervous tension. … He mostly improvises on the piano and plays serious music such as fugues; seldom dance music. If an original idea comes to mind he notates it immediately in a handy notebook. … One comment [by Strauss] about the scoring of The Gypsy Baron is typical: “Look, all this I scored from memory; that’s the way I prefer to compose. Others get into the habit of composing at the piano; but then they do what the piano wants them to do, not what they want to do. He who doesn’t have it here—and he pointed to the heart—won’t be able to squeeze it out of the piano either.


Richard Strauss

Der Rosenkavalier Suite

Born: June 11, 1864, in Munich, Bavaria, Germany
Died: September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Work composed: The opera Der Rosenkavalier, from which this suite is extracted, was written in 1909-10, being completed on September 26 of the latter year; the suite, by an unidentified arranger, dates from 1944.
Work premiered: The opera was first presented on January 26, 1911, at the Dresden Court Opera; this suite was premiered at the Vienna Konzerthaus- Sall on September 28, 1946, with Hans Swarowsky conducting.
Instrumentation: Three flutes (third doubling piccolo), three oboes (third doubling English horn), two clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet (alternatively three clarinets with third doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, side drum, ratchet, cymbal, bass drum, celesta, two harps (the second ad. lib.), and strings

The fifth of Richard Strauss’ operas, Der Rosenkavalier instantly captured the hearts of opera-goers when it was unveiled, in 1911. The librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, compared it to Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, much as he compared their opera Die Frau ohne Schatten to Die Zauberflöte. The allusion was apt; along with Le nozze di Figaro it stands as opera’s most delicate treatment of a universally sensitive subject—how youth and age do, or do not, mix in the arena of love.

At the center of the plot, set in mid-18th-century Vienna, we find the Marschallin, a princess who, in the absence of her husband (a military man of some eminence), is having an affair with Octavian, an attractive young count. The Marschallin’s boorish cousin, Baron Ochs, hopes to ensnare Sophie, the lovely daughter of a nouveau riche gentleman with access to well-born circles. In an act of courtship, Octavian (disguised as a maid) is sent to offer Sophie a silver rose on behalf of Baron Ochs. But, when Octavian arrives to present the rose, he and Sophie fall in love with each other at first sight. After various complications, the ardor of youth wins out. Ochs withdraws his bid for Sophie and, with enormous dignity and insight, the Marschallin accepts that young Octavian is better suited to love Sophie than a woman of her own advancing years.

Hofmannsthal’s libretto is the stuff of greatness—Strauss remarked that it practically set itself to music—but the addition of Strauss’s score turned Der Rosenkavalier into one of opera’s most enduring masterpieces. The Viennese setting is suggested by the use local dialect and seductive waltzes. The latter is an anachronism, since the action is set about a century before the “Waltz Era,” but, with music like this, who can seriously complain?

The premiere of Der Rosenkavalier was one of the great events of operatic history. No pains had been spared by director Max Reinhardt and designer Alfred Roller in creating the most magical experience imaginable, and the Dresden Court Opera scheduled no fewer than 33 full-orchestra rehearsals totaling about a hundred hours. Critics were hostile: Hofmannsthal’s libretto was dismissed as humorless and Strauss’s music as superficial. One is surprised to find, as late as 1924, Cecil Gray writing in A Survey of Contemporary Music, “The divinely innocent and virginal Mozartean muse cannot be wooed and won like an Elektra or a Salome; all we find in Der Rosenkavalier is a worn-out, dissipated demi-mondaine, with powdered face, rouged lips, false hair, and a hideous leer.” Audiences, however, adored the piece, calling the performers to the stage for 10 curtain calls after the second act and 20 after the third. As a result, Der Rosenkavalier was accepted as an operatic standard immediately, and in its first year it was given more than fifty performances in Dresden as well as productions in Nuremberg, Munich, Basel, Hamburg, Milan, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, and Amsterdam. It has not shown the slightest sign of diminishing in the affection of opera-lovers in the century since.

Strauss remained ever fond of it, partly on esthetic grounds and partly because his royalty payments earned him a fortune. The music was pressed to all sorts of uses through arrangements and transcriptions. The first orchestral suite appeared in 1911, directly on the heels of the premiere, and quite a few others were released in ensuing decades. Strauss himself created two separate “waltz sequences” using music from his opera, the first in 1911, the second in 1944. The Rosenkavalier Suite played here was mostly made by an unidentified arranger in 1944. It is widely held to be (at least in large part) the work of the conductor Artur Rodziński. Strauss approved this arrangement and it was published in 1945 by the firm of Boosey & Hawkes.

Reassuring the Composer

Strauss was worried that his score for Der Rosenkavalier, brimful as it is with complex motivic inter-connections (much in the spirit of his symphonic poems), might prove too subtle for theatergoers. When he expressed his concern to his librettist, Hofmannsthal wrote back in a spirit of complete reassurance, which would prove to be well founded:

Its blending of the grotesque with the lyrical will to a great extent correspond with your artistic individuality to produce something which will be strong enough to keep its place in the repertoire for many years, perhaps decades. … Your fear lest the work should prove too subtle gives me no anxiety. The progress of the action is simple and intelligible enough for even the most unsophisticated public; a fat, elderly, self-satisfied suitor, favored by the lady’s father, supplanted by the handsome young fellow—surely that is the ne plus ultra of simplicity. But the working out must be, I fancy, as I have made it—entirely free from anything trivial and conventional; the lasting success of a piece depends upon its working of the coarser and finer elements of the public, for it is the latter which creates the prestige without which no piece can live, any more than it can without popular appeal.


Earlier forms of these notes appeared in the programs of the New York Philharmonic and are reprinted with permission; © New York Philharmonic.

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony. From 1990-2000 he wrote about music on staff at The New Yorker, and in 1999 he received the prestigious ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award for his feature writing in Chamber Music magazine, which he serves as Contributing Editor.

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