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Schubert, Mozart & Dvořák

Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485
Franz Schubert
b. Vienna, Austria / January 31, 1797
d. Vienna / November 19, 1828

First performed by the RPO on December 16, 1937; Guy Fraser Harrison, conductor.  Last performed on January 20, 2007; James Gaffigan, conductor.

In 1808, Schubert began a five-year term of study at Vienna’s Choir School of the Imperial Chapel. He received a thorough musical education there. The student orchestra, in which he played the viola, performed symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Naturally for a budding composer involved with an orchestra, he began writing music for it to play. His earliest works for large forces date from this period.

After graduation, and at his family’s insistence, he continued his education with the aim of following his father into the profession of schoolmaster. During the three miserable years he spent training and teaching, he found consolation in composing. He created nearly 400 works, great and small, including three further symphonies, before abandoning the classroom for his true calling, music.

Schubert composed his Fifth Symphony in 1816. It is a genial and thoroughly refreshing piece, the finest of the first six. It contains just enough hints of darker emotions – forecasting the “Unfinished” Symphony in B Minor of 1822 – to lend it substance. After one private performance soon after its completion, it vanished for 50 years.  

In 1867, the English musicians Sir Arthur Sullivan and Sir George Grove made a pilgrimage to Vienna, specifically in search of forgotten nuggets of Schubertiana. They brought to light this symphony, the orchestral selections from the incidental music to the play Rosamunde, and other treasures.

Constructed on themes radiating youthful optimism, the first movement is brisk and as light as a feather. The second movement displays Schubert as a lyrical genius of song, operating here in a mode of gently reflective melancholy. Moments of emotional unease crop up, but they are soothed into submission by the music’s gentle onward flow. The outer panels of the following menuetto bear their share of shadowy feelings, too. The central trio section, on the other hand, brings the sweet freshness of a spring morning. Schubert clears the air for good with a flashing, carefree romp of a finale.

Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat Major, K. 495

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
b. Salzburg, Austria / January 27, 1756
d. Vienna, Austria / December 5, 1791

First performance by the RPO.

Recent research has shown that Mozart composed all or part of six horn concertos. Only three of them have survived in their full, original forms, and the rest exist in various incomplete states. Most of them resulted from his friendship with the horn player Joseph (Ignaz) Leutgeb, whom he had known since the time they were both members of the court orchestra in Salzburg. Like Mozart, he had toured as a solo performer before settling in Vienna. Unable to make a living through his playing alone, he opened a tiny cheese shop with money borrowed from Mozart’s father. His retail income allowed him to continue making solo appearances. He was slow in paying back the loan, however, a situation from which Mozart was obliged to rescue him!

Mozart and Leutgeb must have been exceptionally close, and surely shared a pointed sense of humor, since the manuscript scores of the horn concertos are laced with affectionate insults aimed at the soloist. Caustic comments aside, Mozart’s horn concertos are heavenly pieces. They show that Leutgeb must have been an agile and poetic performer. Mozart completed the work known as Concerto No. 4 on June 26, 1786. The second movement Romanza is exceptionally lyrical, while the concluding rondo inevitably brings echoes of the hunt.

Concert-rondo for Horn and Orchestra in E-flat Major, K. 371

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart

First performed by the RPO on April 4, 1987; Jerzy Semkow, conductor; with Herman Baumann, horn.  

Mozart began his first horn concerto (probably not written for Leutgeb) in 1781, but he left only sketches for two movements. The cheerful concluding rondo that you will hear at this concert was reconstructed in its original form by Prof. Marie Rolf of the Eastman School of Music, who added back in 66 measures that had been missing until 20 years ago. Erik Smith then completed the orchestration.

Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World,” Op. 95

Antonín Dvořák
b. Nelahozeves, Bohemia / September 8, 1841
d. Prague, Bohemia / May 1, 1904

First performed by the RPO on February 25, 1926; Howard Hanson, conductor.  Last performed on October 11, 2008; Christopher Seaman, conductor.

Dvořák belonged to the second generation of Romantic nationalist composers. Bedřich Smetana (1824 1884), through his operas and symphonic poems, had founded the Czech branch of this folk flavored movement. Dvořák took up where Smetana left off, bringing the style to the height of its sophistication and worldwide popularity.

Such was Dvořák’s fame by the early 1890s that he was invited to become the first Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. His arrival in the autumn of 1892 marked the beginning of a three year period spent almost entirely in America. He found much here that fascinated him. He developed a particular interest in the music of African-Americans and Native Americans, one reflecting his love for his homeland’s native culture. “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what we call Negro melodies,” he told the New York Herald. “This can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, merry, gracious, or what you will. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot find a thematic source here.”

Statements such as these led to confusion as to whether he used authentic African-American and Native American melodies in the works he composed in America, the first of which was the Symphony in E Minor. Four days before the premiere, which took place in New York on December 16, 1893, he made his methods and goals perfectly clear: “It is this American folk spirit that I have tried to reproduce in my new Symphony. I have not actually used any of the melodies. I have simply written themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, and orchestral color.”

Following a short, expectant introduction, the opening movement proper presents two themes. The first is bold and commanding. It is the idea that binds the entire Symphony together, appearing at least briefly in all four movements. The second subject appears on solo flute. It is as sweet, restful, and haunting a theme as Dvořák ever penned. The development section focuses on the first subject, leading to a powerful, dramatic coda.

A solemn brass chorale ushers in the slow movement. The English horn then gives out the main theme, a tranquil melody that gives eloquent voice to the homesickness that Dvořák felt throughout his stay in America. Words were later added to it to create Goin’ Home, a song in the style of a spiritual. The middle section is increasingly agitated, climaxing in a grand combination of the Goin’ Home theme with the opening movement’s first subject.

The following Scherzo bustles with dynamic dance rhythms, both old world and new. Two separate Trios provide graceful contrast. The Finale surges ahead urgently, its unfolding shot through with episodes of nostalgic expressiveness. Dvořák interleaves new themes with fleeting reminiscences of melodies from each previous movement, en route to a stirring yet eventually enigmatic conclusion.

© 2011 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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