Roman Carnival, Op. 9 Hector Berlioz (1803-69)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Prelude to Act III of Edgar Giaccomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Pines of Rome Otto Respighi (1879-1936)
The Pines of the Villa Borghese
Pines Near a Catacomb
The Pines of the Janiculum
The Pines of the Appian Way
The small French village of La Côte Saint-André was the birthplace of Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). His father sent him to Paris to study to become a medical doctor, but it was not long before the young man turned instead to counterpoint and composition at the Paris Conservatory. In 1827 Hector attended a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which the British actress Harriet Smithson played the role of Ophelia. The young composer was so smitten that he sent her letters of introduction in hopes of meeting her, but she left Paris in 1829 without the two ever meeting in person. Berlioz wrote in his Memoirs, “The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent, nay her dramatic genius, was equaled only by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted.” Berlioz’s unrequited admiration inspired him to write one of his most popular works, the “semi-autobiographical” Symphonie Fantastique. Two years after the premiere, through an unusual set of circumstances, Smithson attended a Berlioz concert and reportedly was one of the few in the audience who did not realize that she was the subject of the Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz and Smithson finally met the next day and were married the following October; unfortunately they were not happy for long and formally separated in 1844, the same year that the composer conducted the premiere of tonight’s overture.
From an 1838 opera failure, Berlioz brought forth two overtures, the original Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, and the overture that he conjured from other salvaged sections of the opera in 1843. The Roman Carnival demonstrates Berlioz’s love of timbres, with every instrumental group featured at some point. The English horn plays a primary theme in the first section, a transformation of a love song from the opera; the bassoons are tapped to repeat the theme near the end of the piece. In the middle, swirls of sounds in the woodwinds accelerate into a passage that is reminiscent of the innovations in Symphonie Fantastique. Not only does Berlioz exhibit his mastery of orchestration, but he also constructs some charming passages of polyphony involving the love theme and what I would call the party theme. This energetic and memorable depiction of a carnival atmosphere has a well-deserved life of its own.
The same year that Berlioz fought to salvage material from his failed opera, women in Kentucky were fighting their own battle. A law was finally passed in 1838 that allowed women to attend school under certain conditions.
At age fourteen, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), moved alone from his home near Great Novrogod, Russia, to study at the Moscow Imperial Conservatory. At his 1892 graduation, he was a co-winner of the Gold Medal for Piano along with Josef Lhévinne and Alexander Scriabin. Recognition came early when Tchaikovsky commissioned the teenager to write a piano transcription of excerpts from Sleeping Beauty. When he was only nineteen, Rachmaninoff achieved great success with the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2, which sold thousands of copies. He grew to hate the piece because it was requested so often during his performance tours. When the family lost their estate and aristocratic way of life as a result of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Rachmaninoff, his wife, and two daughters traveled by open sled to Finland that December, taking only a few of his compositions and sketchbooks. In 1918 they moved to the United States where Steinway & Sons gave Rachmaninoff a piano. He played forty concerts in just four-months’ time. He was often homesick, and after buying a home in 1921, the Rachmaninoffs set up housekeeping with Russian customs, Russian servants, and Russian guests. Since his primary means of supporting his family was concertizing, he was only able to complete six more compositions between 1918 and his death in 1943.
An undistinguished premiere of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony in 1897 caused the composer to experience depression and writer’s block. He tended towards melancholy anyway and was often obsessed with death. The tall, dark pianist/composer/conductor was once described by his colleague Igor Stravinsky as “a six-and-a-half foot scowl.” A psychiatrist used hypnosis to help Rachmaninoff re-gather enough confidence to return to composition in 1900, and the following year he appeared as soloist for the Moscow premiere of Piano Concerto No. 2. Rather than making the pianist wait through an entire orchestral exposition, Rachmaninoff jumps right into the C minor concerto with soft chords in the piano that crescendo dramatically while strings and clarinets introduce the primary theme. Its grandness eventually concedes to a gentle piano passage as the soloist presents the romantic second theme. Before the tempo accelerates again, there is some delightful interplay for the piano, oboe, and clarinet. Following a brief development, the primary theme returns fortissimo in unison strings; it sounds so noble, accompanied by the pianist’s strong, declamatory chords. It is a majestic moment. When the second theme is recapitulated, the French horn has a chance to shine.
Similar to the second movement of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, a somber chord progression introduces the second movement, abruptly changing the mood. A simple series of arpeggios (broken chords) played by the pianist accompany a poignant clarinet melody used as the basis for several “popular” songs in the last half of the twentieth century, including “All By Myself” sung by Harry Nilsson.
Strings and winds scamper into the last movement but soon give way to a virtuosic passage for the soloist, whose bravura playing continues throughout the movement. After the exploration of the initial scherzando theme, the tempo becomes more moderate as oboe and violas introduce an exotic romantic theme. (Yes, this one is familiar to your neighbor, also, so please resist humming along during the performance.) Rachmaninoff definitely knew how to write timeless melodies. But lest we wallow too long, he makes sure to playfully change the mood several times between repetitions of the passionate melody. There are numerous extended solo piano passages. As a pianist himself, Rachmaninoff knew how to write idiomatically for the instrument, how to showcase virtuosity, and how to temper the showmanship with artistic lyricism. The result is an extremely satisfying work for the pianist, the orchestra, and the audience!
Giaccomo Puccini (1858-1924) was born into a musical family that had served as organists and composers for the Cathedral of San Martino in Lucca, Italy, for five generations. At fourteen he took over as organist, but a few years later he became enamored of opera when he walked the twenty miles to Pisa to see a production of Verdi’s Aida. He was hooked and at age twenty-two enrolled in the Milan Conservatory. In 1884 Ricordi, a music publisher, was impressed by Puccini’s first attempt at opera, La Villi, and commissioned a second. Despite Edgar’s unsuccessful premiere at La Scala in 1889, Ricordi continued to encourage Puccini, who finally achieved public and critical acclaim with Manon Lescaut in 1893. Today Puccini’s operas are among the most-often performed throughout the world, with La Bohème, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly being perennial favorites. In his sixties, the composer was treated for throat cancer; because too much time elapsed following an initial misdiagnosis, he did not do well with radiation treatments. He died in Belgium in 1924, leaving his final opera, Turandot, incomplete. Puccini was the most commercially successful opera composer in history at that time, with his estimated worth being the equivalent of about $200 million.
Edgar was Puccini’s first full-length opera and his second work for stage. Problems with unsympathetic main characters and a weak plot contributed to its lack of success, but in this Prelude to Act III, one sees the gift of lyricism that has made Puccini so popular. The Prelude thankfully survived the cut when Puccini revised the opera, reducing it from four acts to three. (Some of the discarded music eventually became part of Tosca). In the matter of just a few minutes, the composer takes us from a mysterious, suspenseful introduction, through two alternating themes, to a triumphant and joyous conclusion. With appealing dialogue between the strings and the woodwinds, the Prelude could easily pass as the introduction to a Hollywood blockbuster film. Prepare to be captivated by this enchanting orchestral miniature.
In the same year that Puccini died (1924), Robert Frost received the Pulitzer Prize, and the first winter Olympics were held in Chamonix, France. The music world noted the premieres of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Respighi’s The Pines of Rome.
The father of Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) taught him violin, viola, and piano, and in 1900 Ottorino traveled from his native Bologna, Italy, to St. Petersburg to play viola in the Russian Imperial Theater Orchestra. While there, he studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov for about five months, and two years later he studied composition in Berlin with Max Bruch. In 1913 Respighi moved to Rome to become Professor of Composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, and he remained in Rome the rest of his life. He was also a musicologist who specialized in early Italian music, producing scholarly editions of works by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). This interest in music of the past is evident in his popular three suites titled Ancient Airs and Dances. His other most familiar compositions are sometimes referred to as The Roman Trilogy, although the works were not conceived as a group and are generally performed individually. Fountains of Rome (1915-16), tonight’s Pines of Rome (1923-24), and Roman Festivals (1928) reflect the colorful orchestration Respighi absorbed from his studies of Russian music with Rimsky-Korsakov as well as the occasional muted timbres and exotic scales of the Impressionist palette. Pines of Rome premiered in Rome in 1924, and Toscanini conducted the New York Philharmonic in the American premiere two years later. Respighi wrote program notes for this concert [in the third person] that provide insight into his compositional thought processes: “In Pines of Rome he uses Nature as a point of departure, in order to recall memories and vision. The centuries-old trees which so characteristically dominate the Roman landscape become witnesses to the principal events in Roman life.”
Respighi also included the following notes in the orchestral score: “The Pines of Villa Borghese (Allegretto vivace). Children are at play in the pine grove of the Villa Borghese, dancing the Italian equivalent of “Ring Around a Rosy”; they mimic marching soldiers and battles; they chirp with excitement like swallows at evening; and they swarm away. . .Pines Near a Catacomb (Lento) …we see the shadows of the pines which crown the entrance of a catacomb. From the depths rises a dolorous chant which spreads solemnly, like a hymn, and then mysteriously dies away. The Pines of the Janiculum (Lento). . .The full moon reveals the profile of the pines of Gianicolo’s Hill. A nightingale sings. The Pines of the Appian Way (Tempo di marcia). Misty dawn on the Appian Way. Solitary pines stand guard over the tragic campagna. The faint unceasing rhythm of the numberless steps. A vision of ancient glories appears to the poet’s fantasy: trumpets blare and a consular army erupts, in the brilliance of the newly risen sun, toward the Sacred Way, mounting to a triumph on the Capitoline Hill.”
This tone poem could easily be mistaken as incidental music for a Biblical epic filmed by Cecil B. DeMille. From the beginning, “The Pines of the Villa Borghese” launches us into a whirlwind of sound and colors as the children twirl around, taunting each other with typical childhood rants. Brief flirtations with dissonance in the brass and slashing strings are about as “modern” as Respighi gets, despite the fact that this music was written ten years after the premiere of The Rite of Spring and fifteen years after Schoenberg’s initial experiments with atonality. On the other hand, at the end of the third section of Pines of Rome, Respighi incorporated an electronic recording of “a real nightingale really singing in real Rome” (as Leonard Bernstein said in one of his Young People’s Concerts). This was thirty years before Ussachevsky (A Piece for Tape Recorder, 1956) and Varèse (Poème électronique, 1958) really explored the idea of combining live and recorded music in performances. One final observation about this amazing work is that my familiarity with Respighi’s music enriched my experience of traveling on the Appian Way, with its majestic pines lining both sides of the ancient road; it was the music in my head that brought the history to life for me. Perhaps it will do the same for you some day.