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Mozart, Poulenc & Saint-Saëns

Symphony No. 31 in D Major, “Paris,” K. 297 (300a)
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
b. Salzburg, Austria / January 27, 1756
d. Vienna, Austria / December 5, 1791

First performed by the RPO on January 18, 1929; Eugene Goosens, conductor.  Last performed on December 3, 1994; David Loebel, conductor.

Longing to escape from the tyrannical, unappreciative grip of his employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg, in September 1777, Mozart and his mother set out to find him a new job. They arrived in Paris the following March. Over the next six months, Wolfgang and his music drew an indifferent response. To make matters worse, his mother died in July.
One of the few bright spots of the Parisian period was his association with the Concert Spirituel, a series of public musical events managed by Jean Le Gros. This impresario commissioned several works from Mozart. They included a sinfonia concertante for wind instruments (which was not performed) and a symphony, which was, with great success, on June 18, 1778.

The positive reception sprang from Mozart’s understanding of Parisian audiences’ taste. French orchestras were larger than those in Salzburg, and Mozart was delighted to take full advantage of the additional forces and instrumental colors available to him there. (This is his first symphony to include clarinets). He also bowed to the local preference for symphonies with three movements rather than four. Le Gros didn’t care for the slow movement, so Mozart composed a second one.

Concerto for Two Pianos
Francis Poulenc
b. Paris, France / January 7, 1899
d. Paris / January 30, 1963

First performed by the RPO on December 14, 1950; Erich Leinsdorf, conductor; with Arthur Whittemore and Jack Lowe. Last performed on April 5, 1986; Jerzy Semkow, conductor; with Katia LaBeque and Marielle LaBeque.

The young Poulenc led the life of an irreverent musical prankster. He and five other similarly-minded French composers banded together as Les Six (The Six), and took aim squarely at the pompous musical establishment of the day. As time passed, the range of feelings in his music expanded greatly, embracing warmth, drama, and religious feeling. He also composed successfully in larger forms.

This concerto is a transitional work, combining the impudent humor of his early style with the blossoming vulnerability of the mature composer. It was commissioned by Princess Edmond de Polignac (Winnaretta Singer), a wealthy American-born Parisian patron of the arts. She maintained a luxurious salon where the pieces she commissioned from numerous composers were given either their final run-throughs or world premieres. As well as possessing much money, she clearly had excellent taste, requesting works from the like of Stravinsky (Renard), Ravel (Pavane pour une Infante défunte) and the spiritual godfather of Les Six, Erik Satie (Socrate).

She asked Poulenc for a two-piano concerto in order to give him and his boyhood friend Jacques Février something they could perform together. In it he sought to recreate the joyful atmosphere of her salon. To put himself in the right mood, he played through concertos by Mozart, Liszt, and Ravel. He completed his new piece in time for him and Février to give the premiere at the International Festival of Contemporary Music in Venice on September 5, 1932. Désiré Defauw conducted the Orchestra of La Scala. “I must say without any modesty at all that the first performance was impeccable,” Poulenc stated. “It was an outright success, for the work is gay and straightforward.” Thirty years later he and Février made a recording of it, just one year before the composer’s death.

A brusque start propels the opening movement on its way. At first the atmosphere is brisk and cheeky, punctuated by percussion instruments. A dreamy languor insinuates itself before long, only to be sent packing by the return of the bustling opening material. Poulenc stated that the gently rippling writing for the pianos in the final section was influenced by the Balinese gamelan music he had heard at the Paris Colonial Exposition in 1931. The second movement (intended as an homage to Mozart, Poulenc’s favorite composer) begins and ends as a gentle, slightly bittersweet reverie. In between, Poulenc ventures into more animated and passionate territory. A dashing finale with Gershwin-like touches of jazz concludes the concerto.

Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, “Organ,” Op. 78
Camille Saint-Saëns
b. Paris, France / October 9, 1835; d. Algiers, Algeria / December 16, 1921

First performed by the RPO on March 3, 1927; Eugene Goossens, conductor.  Last performed on October 11, 2003; Christopher Seaman, conductor.

Music was only the foremost of Saint-Saëns’ many interests. This 19th-century Renaissance man also developed a working knowledge of several sciences, published volumes of poetry, saw his plays produced on the stage, and wrote reams of newspaper articles on many different topics, while somehow finding time to travel extensively. He led a full musical life, as well. It included conducting orchestras, giving recitals on both the piano and the organ, preparing new editions of music by earlier composers, and composing nearly 300 works of his own.

During a period in French music when composers’ reputations rested first of all with their degree of success in the emotional world of opera, Saint-Saëns proved himself a maverick by preferring the cooler, more abstract realm of instrumental music. He composed the first four of his five symphonies between 1850 and 1859. Since he felt that only two of them were worthy of publication, his final symphony (the work to be heard on this program) has come to be known as No. 3.

The lightness and grace of the early symphonies reflect his love of Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. By the time he came to compose No. 3, in the early months of 1886, he had absorbed another, quite different influence: the drama and brilliance found in the music of Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt. In this symphony, Saint Saëns adopted a compositional practice that Liszt had originated: basing a large-scale composition on the continuous transformation of a handful of short themes. On Liszt’s final visit to Paris in April, Saint Saëns played him a draft of the symphony. Liszt died on July 31, without having a chance to hear the completed piece. Saint Saëns dedicated it to his memory.

The symphony was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society. Saint Saëns traveled to England to conduct the premiere himself. It took place in St. James’s Hall on May 19, 1887. It won a tremendous success, setting the seal on his popularity in England. On the same program, he re-affirmed his reputation for versatility by performing the solo part in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Sir Arthur Sullivan conducting. The symphony’s Parisian debut one year later drew equally strong praise, from audiences if not the press.

Together with the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz (1830) and César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor (1889), it is one of the cornerstones of 19th-century French orchestral music. The composer saw it as something of a climax in his career, stating, “I have given all that I have to give. Whatever I have done I shall never do again.” It is his longest purely instrumental work. He continued to compose for the rest of his long life, but he never again attempted anything so grand.

Although it consists of the four movements standard to most symphonies of the period, Saint Saëns groups them into two pairs, with a full stop only at the halfway point. The lavish orchestration includes a piano (two players) and an organ, which participates only in the second and fourth sections. The “king of instruments” adds a warm, atmospheric glow to the former, and an overwhelming sense of spectacle to the latter.

© 2011 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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