On May 1, 2, and 3, 2020, we had planned to present our final program of our 19-20 season. Piano Power was set to begin with Weber’s fine Overture to “Euryanthe”—an enduringly popular overture to a failed opera. The next work was a showcase for the members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra—Stravinsky’s colorful (and challenging) Petrushka, one of the great series of ballet scores he wrote for the Ballets Russe. Finally, we were to welcome back the phenomenal Yefim Bronfman, who would have made his fourth appearance with the orchestra. His previous visits were in 2003 (Beethoven, Piano Concerto No.3), 2008 (Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No.3), and 2014 (where he played both the second and fifth concertos by Beethoven).

Although we were not able to present these concerts as planned due to the coronavirus pandemic, we invite you to read through Michael Allsen’s program notes below, and watch recordings of performances by other orchestras at the end of the story.

Program Notes

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Overture to Euryanthe                                            

Weber wrote the opera Euryanthe in 1822-23, and wrote the overture in September and October of 1823—completing it just a few days before the opera’s premiere on October 25, 1823, at the Kärnthnerthor Theater in Vienna. The Madison Symphony Orchestra has played the work on six previous concerts between 1927 and 1991. Duration 9:00.

In November of 1821, Weber’s groundbreaking new opera Der Freischütz was performed at in Vienna. Despite some severe cuts by local censors, this performance matched the reaction to the Berlin premiere six months earlier, and Weber promptly received a commission from the impresario Domenico Barbaia for a new opera to be performed during the 1822 season in Vienna. Even before he completed Freischütz, Weber had been searching for the subject of a new German “grand opera” and had made some initial plans for an opera on the medieval Spanish epic El Cid. On receiving the commission from Barbaia, he began to search in earnest for a librettist. His initial hopes of collaborating with Friedrich Kind—the librettist for Freischütz—were crushed after a bitter argument between Weber and Kind, possibly sparked by Kind’s jealousy. Weber then made the unhappy choice of Helmina von Chézy, one of his associates at the court of Dresden, who suggested another medieval legend: that of the princess Euryanthe of Savoy, whose faithfulness to a jealous husband is put through many unjust trials until she triumphs in the end (essentially, Othello with a happy ending!). Chézy’s libretto for Euryanthe was confusing and improbable at best, and was subjected to continual revisions during the opera’s composition. Weber’s duties as Kapellmeister (music director) at Dresden, problems with the libretto, and Weber’s increasingly strained relationship with Chézy delayed the opera’s premiere until of October of 1823. It was—to put it mildly—a bomb. Weber later remarked that: “My Euryanthe should be called Ennui-anthe.” (Chézy would later hand Schubert one of his many theatrical flops—her play Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus, for which Schubert wrote nearly an hours’ worth of incidental pieces. The play has not survived, but thankfully Schubert’s music has!) Despite the dismal libretto, however, Euryanthe contains some of Weber’s finest music, and several attempts have been made to revive (or resuscitate) Euryanthe with a revised libretto, including one by Gustav Mahler in 1904. It has been produced and recorded a few times in the last few decades, but despite the best efforts of Weber’s later champions, the opera Euryanthe is known today primarily for its fine overture.

The overture begins with a forte passage for the full orchestra, and the martial music that follows is from an Act I aria by Euryanthe’s jealous husband Adolar. A more melancholy second theme is also drawn from one of Adolar’s arias. The spooky music for muted violins that follows is associated the ghosts Emma and Udo—a pair of frustrated lovers who had committed suicide rather than live apart. (Their main role in the opera is in fact to explain the tortured plot to the audience, and to act as a deus ex machina in the final scenes.) Weber wraps the overture up with a rather solemn fugal development and a rousing recapitulation.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Petrushka Suite (1947 version)

Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka was written in Switzerland in 1910-11, and was first performed during a performance by the Ballets Russe in Paris, on June 13, 1911. In 1947, Stravinsky published a suite for concert performance. The suite has appeared twice previously on these concerts, in 1971 and 1998. Duration 32:00.

 “Only a straw-stuffed puppet, this modern hero!” – Wallace Fowlie

In 1911, the Parisian public expected great things of young Igor Stravinsky. There was an ongoing craze for Russian music and ballet, fueled by the shrewd impresario Serge Diaghilev, who had brought Stravinsky to Paris two years earlier. Stravinsky’s Firebird (1909)—his first ballet score for Diaghilev’s dance company, the Ballets Russe—had been an enormous success, and by 1911, he was already beginning work on the revolutionary score for Rite of Spring. According to his autobiography, his second work for the Ballet Russe, Petrushka, began as a sort of compositional coffee break between Firebird and Rite of Spring:

“Before tackling Rite of Spring, which would be a long and difficult task, I wanted to refresh myself by composing an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the most important part—a sort of Konzertstück. In composing the music, I had in mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggi. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet. Having finished this bizarre piece, I struggled for hours, while walking beside Lake Geneva, to find a title which would express in a word the character of my music and consequently the personality of this creature.

“One day, I leapt for joy. I had indeed found my title—Petrushka, the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair in all countries. Soon afterwards, Diaghilev came to visit me in Clarens, where I was staying. He was much astonished when, instead of sketches of the Rite, I played him the piece Petrushka. He was so much pleased with it that he would not leave it alone and began persuading me to develop the theme of the puppet’s sufferings and make it into a whole ballet.”

Stravinsky’s hero, Petrushka, is one of the stock characters of the puppet shows that were a feature of fairs in Russia. He is a close cousin to Harlequin of the Commedia dell’Arte—a vulgar, low-class clown—but here he takes on a tragic role. The scenario that Stravinsky and Diaghilev created is set at a Shrove-tide fair (Mardi Gras or Carnival season in our part of the world) in St. Petersburg, complete with gypsies, dancing bears, masqueraders, and a puppet show. The puppets— Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Blackamoor—suddenly come to life. The ballet, which was partly done in pantomime, is a tragic love triangle between these three characters, in which Petrushka is killed. At the close of the ballet, the Showman reassures everyone at the fair that Petrushka is merely a puppet, but when he is alone, Petrushka’s ghost appears to make fun of him. The ballet ends as the Showman flees in terror.

Petrushka was a hit in Paris, and again a year later in England. Diaghilev took the Ballets Russe on an extensive tour of the United States in 1916. This was the first exposure to Stravinsky’s music for audiences in New York City, Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and many other American cities. Though some audience members (and many critics) were bewildered by its “ultramodern” score, Petrushka awas generally well-received on this side of the Atlantic. (It’s a sad commentary on our country at this time to note that the music was, in fact, much less controversial in America that the fact that a black character, the Moor, won out over the white Petrushka!) The ballet remained in the company’s repertoire until it was disbanded in 1929.

The score was published in 1912, and Petrushka was frequently played as a concert work. However, the fact that the ballet ended with a long, quiet episode, and the enormous size of the orchestra required made this a problematic concert piece. In 1947, Stravinsky completely revised Petrushka as a concert suite, setting it for a much smaller and more manageable orchestra, clarifying several problematic passages, and re-ordering the original four tableaux into eleven movements, which are played without pauses. At least part of Stravinsky’s rationale seems to have been simply to renew his copyright on the piece. (He had been furious when Walt Disney freely adapted the score to Rite of Spring in the animated Fantasia in 1940.) In any case, the suite works wonderfully as a concert work.

The opening and longest movement, The Shrove-tide Fair, shows the whirl of activity at the fair, as people gather around to see the Showman bring his puppets to life with a flute. Stravinsky’s music is based upon at least one, and possibly several Russian folk tunes. This opening section leads directly to the Russian Dance, as the three puppets dance a wild trepak for the fairgoers. Petrushka shows this miserable puppet in his miserable cell, cursing and mooning over the Ballerina, who eventually pays him a visit, and dances briefly with him, before leaving him alone. The Blackamoor shows Petrushka’s rival lounging in his room, which is elegantly furnished. The Ballerina announces herself with a cornet fanfare and then dances a little mechanical solo for the Moor. The two then dance an insipid Valse together, to a pair of tunes that Stravinsky borrowed from the successful Viennese waltz composer Joseph Lanner. A jealous Petrushka bursts into the room, and struggles with the Moor briefly, before the Moor tosses him out the door.

At this point in the 1947 suite, Stravinsky brings together a reminiscence of the opening music, and the climactic scene where Petrushka is chased down and murdered by the Moor—Shrove-tide Fair and Death of Petrushka. The suite closes with a series of dances drawn from the fourth of the ballet’s tableaux. The Wet Nurses’ Dance is based on two Russian tunes, the first introduced by solo oboe, and the second by oboe, trumpet, and finally full orchestra. Peasant with Bear has the peasant characterized by shrill clarinet, and the bear by solo tuba. Gypsies and a Rake-Vendor has a rather drunken merchant enter with two Gypsy girls—he tosses banknotes to the crowd and his girlfriends dance seductively. This is followed by a robust Dance of the Coachmen, which is also based on Russian folk material. The suite’s wild final dance, Masqueraders, is actually the music that leads up to Petrushka’s death in the ballet. The music brings together a flurry of images—dancers dressed as a devil, a goat, and a pig taunt the crowd before everyone joins in a frenzied final dance.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Concerto No.1 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op.15

Brahms’s first piano concerto was composed between 1854 and 1859. He was the soloist in the first performance in Hanover, on January 22, 1859. Previous Madison Symphony Orchestra performances have featured Howard Stein (1939), Gunnar Johansen (1951), William Masselos (1967), Howard Karp (1974), Ruth Laredo (1984), David Buechner (1996), and Peter Serkin (2009), and Garrick Ohlsson (2016). Duration 45:00.

In a letter written just after his second performance of his first piano concerto, Brahms wrote to his friend Joseph Joachim: “My concerto has been a brilliant and decisive…failure.” Joachim had conducted the premiere in Hanover, where it met with a polite but indifferent reaction from the audience. Five days later, Brahms played the concerto again in Leipzig, and heard a “perfectly distinct hissing from all sides” at the conclusion of the third movement. Why was this brilliant work such a flop? At least part of the reason seems to be Brahms’s place in musical politics of the day. Just a few years earlier, in an editorial in his musical journal, Robert Schumann had hailed young Brahms as a new standard bearer for the more conservative party of Romantic musicians—as an antidote to the music of radicals like Franz Liszt. This work, Brahms’s first large orchestral piece, did not match the expectations of either clique. The concerto lacked the showy “thrills and chills” heard in the works of Liszt, and demanded by most audiences, but its passionate nature seems to have been a bit too much for the conservatives.

This virtuosic and fiery piece is a complete contrast to the more intellectual and symphonic second concerto he wrote twenty years later, but both works now are part of the standard repertoire. A young Brahms was clearly wearing his heart on his sleeve in Concerto No.1. In the aftermath of Schumann’s article, he felt pressure to compose a large, symphonic work, and almost immediately began work on a symphony in D minor. The opening three movements were finished by 1854, but Brahms was dissatisfied with the orchestration, and transformed the movements into a large-scale sonata for two pianos, which he performed at private gathering with Clara Schumann. Still unsatisfied, he took the advice of his friend Julius Grimm, and combined the two conceptions of the work to create a piano concerto. (The original second movement was abandoned in favor of the present Adagio, but this music would resurface years later as part of his German Requiem.) He was still tinkering with the concerto late in 1858, just prior to its embarrassing early performances, and made several more changes prior to its publication. Just as this trying process of composition and revision was playing itself, Brahms was struck with an enormous emotional blow. His teacher and mentor Schumann threw himself into the Rhine in 1854, in an attempted suicide. Schumann survived, but spent the rest of his life in an insane asylum. Brahms’s relationship with Robert’s wife Clara had always been a close and affectionate one, but with Schumann’s insanity and death in 1856, it became a complicated affair, tinged with some guilt on both sides. Some writers have even traced the great emotional outcry at the beginning of the concerto to Brahms’s anguish over Robert’s death and his guilty love for Clara.

The opening movement (Maestoso) is a large-scale sonata form, and makes the most of Brahms’s emotional and thoroughly Romantic themes. In the orchestral introduction, there are two contrasting ideas—one vehement and the other much more calm. The piano enters with a placid melody and the music gradually intensifies, eventually returning to the passionate mood of the opening. A horn call motive introduces a long and stormy development section, and this horn call will pervade much of the rest of the movement.  In a letter to Clara Schumann, Brahms referred to the Adagio as “a lovely portrait of you.” This movement opens with a flowing melody in the bassoons, setting a quiet mood that is maintained throughout the movement. The piano answers this melody, and the rest of the movement continues a gentle dialogue between soloist and orchestra. The contrasting middle section is announced by the clarinet, and after an almost meditative cadenza, there is a return of the opening idea. The last movement (Allegro non troppo) is a rondo, meaning that a single theme returns throughout, in alternation with contrasting music. In this case, the main idea is a syncopated opening theme that was clearly inspired by Gypsy music. This theme serves as a counterweight to several secondary ideas, two cadenzas, and a large central fugue that develops the main theme.

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program notes ©2019 by J. Michael Allsen

Videos of Performances

Carl Maria von Weber: Overture to Euryanthe
Performance by Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra

Igor Stravinsky: Petrushka
Performance by London Symphony Orchestra

Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor
Performance by Hélène Grimaud and the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra