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Program Notes - Appalachian Spring

Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, D. 485
Franz Schubert

b. Vienna, Austria / January 31, 1797
d. Vienna / November 19, 1828

 

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 – foreshadowing 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. The Fifth Symphony received its second reading in London during 1873.

Constructed on themes radiating youthful optimism, the first movement is brisk and as light as a feather. The second movement displays Schubert the 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. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 11
Richard Strauss

b. Munich, Germany / June 11, 1864
d. Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany / September 8, 1949

Strauss’ reputation rests above all upon his large-scale, neo-Wagnerian operas and tone poems, but in fact he revered Mozart above all composers. He followed his idol in composing concertos for horn. They combine Neoclassical graciousness with a robust Romantic flavor. Concerto No. 1 was inspired by the skill of his father Franz, Principal Horn in the court orchestra of Munich. Richard’s unsurpassed understanding of this instrument (as a member of the orchestra as well as a solo instrument) may be traced to this source. Completed in 1883 when the younger Strauss was just 19, Concerto No. 1 is the boldest, most individual work he had created up to that time. Its three compact movements are played as a continuous whole. They offer an appealing balance of heroic and lyrical elements.


Appalachian Spring: Suite
Aaron Copland
b. Brooklyn, N.Y. / November 14, 1900
d. Peekskill, N.Y. / December 2, 1990

During the 1930s, Copland and celebrated choreographer Martha Graham developed a mutual sense of admiration, based on their shared interest in simple, natural expression. Their first opportunity to collaborate came when arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissioned Copland to write a score specifically for Graham’s company.

It remained nameless until Graham announced, shortly before the debut, that she had decided to call it Appalachian Spring. She took this name from The Dance, a poem by American author Hart Crane (1899-1932). She admitted that she had chosen it simply because she liked the sound of it, and that it had no connection with either the location or scenario of the ballet. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on Copland. “Over and over again,” he said in 1981, “people come up to me after seeing the ballet on stage and say, ‘Mr. Copland, when I see that ballet and when I hear your music I can just see the Appalachians and I just feel spring.’ Well I’m willing if they are!” The premiere took place on October 30, 1944 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C., with Graham dancing the part of the bride.

The scenario unfolds during the early nineteenth century, on the site of a Pennsylvania farmhouse which has just been built as a pre-wedding gift for a young couple. Here is Copland’s own synopsis: “The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, which their new domestic partnership invites. An old neighbor suggests, now and then, the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.” The music climaxes in a set of variations on Simple Gifts, a hymn tune associated with the Shakers, a New England religious sect.


Semiramide: Overture
Gioachino Rossini

b. Pesaro, Italy / February 29, 1792
d. Passy, France / November 13, 1868

Beethoven was the greatest composer of the early nineteenth century, but Rossini was by far the most popular. As the novelist Stendahl wrote of him in 1824, “Napoleon is dead; but a new conqueror has already revealed himself to the world; and from Moscow to Naples, from London to Vienna, from Paris to Calcutta, his name is on every tongue. The fame of this hero knows no bounds save that of civilization itself.”

In 1822, Rossini signed a contract with the Fenice opera company of Venice. In return for the enormous sum of 5,000 francs, he would provide them with two operas for their winter season. For practical reasons, he decided that the first of them would be Maometto II, a historical drama which had already flopped in Naples. He agreed to revise it for Venice, but other projects kept him from doing so. By the time it hit the stage, Venetian audiences knew all about his laziness and his attempt to foist a previous disaster on them. The premiere was a total fiasco. Shamed, Rossini set out to repair his reputation. In just 33 days he composed the grand dramatic opera Semiramide. Its triumphant debut on February 3, 1823 redeemed him with Venetian audiences; it quickly made the rounds of opera houses across Europe.

The plot, based on a story by Voltaire, is an improbable variation on the legend of Oedipus. Set in ancient Babylon, it tells of how Queen Semiramide helps poison her husband, but later unwittingly falls in love with her long-lost son. He avenges his father’s death by killing her, albeit accidentally. Rossini introduces this bloodthirsty melodrama with music of contrasting good humor and brilliance. One of his most elaborate overtures, it is based on themes from the opera proper. Particularly striking are the hymn-like melody for horns, and the stirring passages where Rossini gradually increases the volume. Here and elsewhere, he used this device so often and so effectively that it earned him the nickname “Mr. Crescendo.”

© 2006 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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