Overture to Macbeth
William Henry Fry
b. Philadelphia, PA / August 19, 1813
d. Santa Cruz, Virgin Islands / December 24, 1864
Fry was the first American-born composer to work in such large musical forms as opera and symphony. He composed his first orchestral overtures by the age of 20, while he was still a student. Hearing touring companies perform the operas of such composers as Bellini, Rossini, and Auber not only inspired him to begin composing operas of his own, but showed him the style that he would use in creating them. His opera Leonora (the first grand opera by an American composer to be produced in the US) was performed with great success in Philadelphia in 1845. Another, Notre Dame de Paris, was given a gala benefit production in the same city in 1864, in aid of soldiers wounded in the Civil War.
Fry’s orchestral works include many pieces with descriptive titles and programs: The Breaking Heart, A Day in the Country, Niagara, Evangeline, The Dying Soldier, and so forth. Santa Claus (Christmas Symphony) premiered in New York on Christmas Eve, 1853, and on many subsequent occasions.
Fry worked as the European correspondent for the New York Tribune from 1846 to 1852. After returning to New York, he switched to the role of the same newspaper’s music critic – possibly the first such writer in America. He used that platform, and his widely-admired series of lectures on music, to encourage American composers to follow his example and create works inspired by their homeland’s culture, rather than slavishly following European models.
He composed the Overture to Macbeth in 1864, the final year of his life. There is no record of its being performed until it was recorded for an all-Fry CD on the Naxos label in 1999. Portraying the events and characters of Shakespeare’s play about the rise and fall of the treacherous, bloodthirsty king of Scotland, it is a work of high drama, bountiful energy, and impressive orchestral color.
Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 7
b. Leipzig, Germany / September 13, 1819
d. Frankfurt am Mein, Germany / May 20, 1896
The daughter of gifted musicians, Clara Wieck received a superb musical education in the major musical centers of Germany. She made her public debut as a pianist at nine, and had won the admiration of prominent musicians such as Chopin and Spohr while she was still a teenager. She and Robert Schumann had known each other since childhood. They overcame her father’s opposition and were married in 1840. Robert died 16 years later. Clara helped maintain his reputation as a composer, performing his music faithfully and brilliantly throughout the remainder of her distinguished international career. She gave her support to many musicians, Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, and Joseph Joachim among them.
She was active as a composer from early on. Her principal areas of interest were songs and piano solos. She regularly included the latter in her own recitals. Apart from a march composed for a friend’s anniversary in 1879, she ceased composing after Robert’s death.
Her sole surviving work involving the orchestra was the Piano Concerto in A Minor. She composed it between 1833 and 1836, that is, between the ages of 14 and 17. She wrote the finale first, which Robert orchestrated for her. She went on to add the remaining two movements, which she scored herself. The premiere of the complete concerto took place in Leipzig on November 9, 1835, with the composer as soloist and Mendelssohn conducting.
As with Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Robert’s first symphony and other compositions from this era, the movements of Clara’s concerto are performed without pauses between them. The first is bold and dramatic, with contrast provided by a lovely, poetic second theme. The second movement is a tender Romanze during which the orchestra remains silent. It opens with the piano playing solo, then a cello enters to engage the soloist in an expressive duet. Timpani and brass herald the exultant mood and bracing rhythms of the finale.
Kleines harmonisches Labyrinth VII
b. Jerusalem, Israel / July 4, 1980
Gilad Rabinovitch holds a master’s degree in composition and musicology from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Hebrew University. He is a doctoral student in composition at the Eastman School of Music and was awarded a Sproull Fellowship, the most prestigious doctoral fellowship granted by the University of Rochester. Awards include the Mozart prize from the Austrian Cultural Forum in Tel-Aviv and first prize in the Chana Yador-Avni memorial competition's choral category.
The composer has written the following introduction to this work:
“The piece is part of a series of pieces written as a humble tribute to J.S. Bach, whose music has been to me a constant source of inspiration, learning, and delight. The series is named after an organ piece (dubiously) attributed to the Leipzig master, which explores the limits of his harmonic system.
“My series of tributes is a 21st-century exploration of harmony, counterpoint, textures, rhythms, and timbres, drawing from a common source of raw materials. The pieces also share some techniques for transforming these raw materials. However, each piece is set in motion differently, yielding musical results that are unpredictable to me.
“This seventh labyrinth opens with a long flute cadenza presenting the curved and elaborate melody that served as a point of departure for the entire series. It is immediately followed by a rudimentary and sparse building block in the strings. The processes of the piece are triggered by this unlikely juxtaposition and the interactions that it creates.”
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36
Ludwig van Beethoven
b. Bonn, Germany / December 15, 1770;
d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827
Catastrophe struck while Beethoven was working on his Second Symphony, during the summer and autumn of 1802. There had been signs of growing deafness for some time, indications which he had done his best to ignore and conceal. But it was only at that time that conditions deteriorated to the point where he was made to realize that he would probably lose his hearing. This left him devastated, terrified, and deeply ashamed.
On the advice of his doctor, he took rooms in Heiligenstadt, a quiet village near Vienna, the more comfortably to work on his new symphony. But despair overcame him, and in a moving letter to his brothers Carl and Johann, one which came to light only after his death, he set down his feelings. Here is an excerpt:
“Though born with a fiery, active temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was soon compelled to withdraw myself, to live life alone. If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing. Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, ‘Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.’ Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I had possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed…I was near to putting an end to my life. Only art, only that held me back, and it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt called upon to produce.”
This “Heiligenstadt Testament” may have served as a kind of emotional release, since the symphony he wrote at the time bears no trace of the dark emotions at play within him. Its highly successful first performance took place on April 5, 1803.
In the substantial introduction to the first movement, the opening call to attention alternates with soulful musings, all the while creating a pleasant sense of expectation. Soon it’s off to the races in a vivacious and carefree allegro. Even the second subject is closer to a restrained fanfare rather than the typical lyrical outpouring. In the serene, glowing meditation of the second movement, Beethoven demonstrates how convincingly he could relax, although his love for sharp and sudden shifts in dynamics pops up even here.
He had continued contemporary practice by labeling the light-hearted third movement in the First Symphony a minuet. Here he presents the first official scherzo (joke) in a Beethoven symphony. It is less genteel and more rhythmically complex than any comparable movement by Haydn or Mozart. Its nature lies closer to a country fairground than any ballroom. The party mood continues and intensifies in the truly rambunctious, “unbuttoned” finale. All pretense at courtliness and powdered wigs is cast firmly aside, in music whose energy and drive never flag from first bar to last.
© 2012 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.