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Program Notes for Valentine's Day: Romeo + Juliet

Russlan and Ludmilla: Overture
Mikhail Glinka
b. Novospasskoye, Russia / June 1, 1804
d. Berlin, Germany / February 15, 1857

Sporting melodies patterned on folk music, and scored in lavish orchestral colors, Russlan and Ludmilla established the Russian national school of opera. It premiered in St. Petersburg in 1842. The wedding between Ludmilla, daughter of the grand prince of Kiev, and Russlan, a knight in the prince’s service, is disrupted when the bride is abducted by Chernomor, an evil magician. Russlan locates the magician’s castle, cuts off Chernomor’s beard, the source of his evil power, then revives Ludmilla with the help of a magic ring. Glinka sets the scene with the perfect curtain-raiser: brisk, compact and tuneful. Based on themes that reappear in the opera, it presents a capsule summary of the plot, complete with happy ending.

Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85
Sir Edward Elgar
b. Broadheath, England / June 2, 1857
d. Worcester, England / February 23, 1934

The “War to End All Wars” changed Europe forever, not only on the map, but in the hearts and minds of its citizens. For Elgar, the leading English composer of the pre-First World War era, the effects of the political upheavals and battlefield carnage were nothing less than devastating. The warmth and confidence that illuminate and helped to popularize such pieces as the Enigma Variations (1899) and the overture Cockaigne (1901) diminished markedly, never fully to return.

Several musical movements sprang up or came to full flood in that post-war period, all of them rooted in recent events. Elgar represents those composers who longed for the comfortable optimism of the past, but sensed it was irretrievably lost. He gave voice to his world’s saddening, to its growing inwardness and pessimism. Others turned to the lean textures and buoyant optimism of Neo-Classicism. Meanwhile Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples deconstructed traditional musical procedures in their pursuit of new means of expression.

In the warm, noble voice of the cello, Elgar found the perfect medium to express his brooding, nostalgic post-war emotions. The premiere of his Cello Concerto took place in London on October 27, 1919. Elgar himself conducted, with Felix Salmond – the performer who had given him technical advice on it, and to whom it is dedicated – playing the solo part.

It is a restrained piece, at least in comparison with the more outgoing virtuoso concertos of the nineteenth century. After a brief introduction, the first movement is founded on two themes, both melancholy in character. The scherzo-like second movement follows without a pause. For all its brilliance, it is far from carefree. The succeeding section is an interlude of searching meditation. The concerto then concludes with an energetic, if hardly exuberant, final rondo. A heartfelt coda recalls earlier material, before the concerto ends with a final statement of the rondo’s main subject.

Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod
Richard Wagner
b. Leipzig, Germany / May 22, 1813
d. Venice, Italy / February 13, 1883

By 1857, Wagner had become totally exhausted by his intensive labors on The Ring of the Nibelungs. He took a break after completing the second act of Siegfried, the third opera in the cycle. His plan was to refresh himself by composing one or two brief, easily-produced operas whose anticipated success would help prop up his shaky finances. Instead, his “rest period” gave birth to two of his grandest works: the searing love-drama Tristan and Isolde, and the mammoth comic opera, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (1868). He then proceeded to complete the Ring cycle.

Tristan premiered in 1865, six years after he completed it. With its morbid storyline and lengthy periods of unresolved emotional and musical tension, it is a seminal work for one direction which music would take, the one followed by Mahler, Schoenberg and Weill, among many others.

Based on a medieval English legend, the plot tells of the all-consuming passion which develops, as the result of a love-potion, between Tristan, a Cornish knight, and Isolde, an Irish princess. Their circumstances make it impossible for them to have a normal romantic relationship. It is only in death, with the cares and restrictions of earthly life behind them, that they can know true peace and fulfillment.

This concert will feature a two-part sequence that joins together the opera’s opening and closing moments and removes the vocal part from the conclusion. The Prelude is filled with restless romantic yearning. Isolde performs the concluding Liebestod (Love-Death) after Tristan has died. In it, her farewell to life, she sings ecstatically of the vision she sees in her mind of the perfect love that awaits them in the afterlife. After its radiant climax she falls dead at Tristan’s side; the other characters remain to pray for the lovers.

Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy-Overture
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
b. Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia / May 7, 1840
d. St. Petersburg, Russia / November 6, 1893

The appeal of William Shakespeare’s plays transcends every consideration of time and place. The poignant story of the star-crossed lovers of old Verona, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, offspring of two families whose blood feud dooms the couple’s love to a tragic end, has cast a powerful spell of inspiration on scores of composers, from many lands and across four centuries.

Settings of this, his first great tragedy (it dates from the 1590s), date back at least as far as 1750, when Thomas Arne and William Boyce composed funeral dirges for a production in London. Among the most successful later settings are the dramatic symphony of Hector Berlioz (1839) and the full-length ballet by Sergei Prokofiev (1935). The central themes have been adapted into other musical forms, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical West Side Story (1957) standing proudly at the head of the line. It transplants the essence of the play into the world of warring New York City street gangs.

The single most popular setting, however remains Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture. In addition to its own high musical and dramatic values, its success springs from bypassing the thorny problem of setting Shakespeare’s words. Instead, Tchaikovsky succeeded in capturing every important facet of the play’s spirit: its turbulence, its romance and its pathos.

It was composer Mily Balakirev, mentor to many Russian artists, not just his fellow members of the folk-based St. Petersburg school, who suggested the play to Tchaikovsky for musical treatment. Tchaikovsky created the first version in a fever of inspiration in 1869. Balakirev’s sharp criticisms led him to revise it twice; it reached its final form in 1880. All three versions are available on CD. It’s fascinating to follow Tchaikovsky’s progress toward the lean, carefully structured and emotionally powerful concluding edition.

Romeo and Juliet opens with a solemn chorale theme characterizing the lovers’ friend Friar Laurence. The Fantasy-Overture proper contrasts two themes. The first is a nervous, often violent subject depicting the conflict between the rival families (the clash of cymbals could well represent duelling swords). The second is the passionate, soaring love theme for Romeo and Juliet, truly one of Tchaikovsky’s most inspired lyrical creations. The stark final climax is followed first by a somber funeral march, then by a radiant, nostalgic apotheosis of the love theme. This coda has no equivalent in Shakespeare, but it does give the music a satisfying sense of transfiguration.

© 2006 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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