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Great Romantics

Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Richard Wagner
b. Leipzig, Germany / May 22, 1813;
d. Venice, Italy / February 13, 1883 

Wagner was incapable of composing an opera that wasn’t on a grand scale – even a comedy. This ensured that The Mastersingers of Nuremberg is the longest, richest and most eloquent work of its kind. He created it from 1861 to 1867, and the first performance took place in Munich, Germany on June 21, 1868.

The title characters are merchants and tradesmen, residents of the German city of Nuremberg during the sixteenth century. Their principal diversion is vocal music. To gain entry to their exclusive guild, applicants must demonstrate talent for both composing and singing, and are obliged to do so within strict, traditional guidelines. Wagner’s hero is the wise, gentle cobbler Hans Sachs, an actual historical figure. He aids the young nobleman Walther von Stolzing in winning two things: a place among the Mastersingers, and the hand of Eva, the woman he loves. 

Wagner introduced Die Meistersinger with a sonorous and emotionally heartening prelude. It is constructed on two sturdy, noble themes for the Mastersingers; an expressive theme representing von Stolzing, which he will incorporate into the Prize Song that gains him entry into the guild; and a scherzo-like tune for the comic villain, Beckmesser. At the climax, Wagner layers all these melodies together, in a display of contrapuntal ingenuity worthy of Bach.


Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25
Felix Mendelssohn
b. Hamburg, Germany / February 3, 1809;
d. Leipzig, Germany / November 4, 1847 

Mendelssohn spent the years 1830‑1832 on a journey throughout Europe, one concerned with equal parts furthering his career and simple pleasure. En route to Italy during the summer of 1830, he stopped over in Munich, Germany. There he met Delphine von Schauroth, a seventeen-year-old pianist with whom he developed a strong mutual attraction. He continued on to Rome, where among other musical activities he sketched this concerto. He completed it on his return to Munich and dedicated it to his young lady friend.

The composer himself appeared as soloist in the première, which took place during an all-Mendelssohn concert in Munich on October 17, 1831. “My concerto was applauded long and loud,” he wrote home to his father. “The orchestra accompanied well, and the work itself was truly mad.” As for Delphine von Schauroth, time and distance gradually dissolved her relationship with Mendelssohn.

In many ways, the concerto reflects Mendelssohn’s role as a bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras. On the Classical side, the three movements follow fairly traditional models: sonata, song and rondo, respectively. But following a practice instituted by Beethoven, Mendelssohn directs that they be performed as a continuous whole. He did so primarily for artistic reasons, to give the concerto a greater sense of flow and cohesiveness. The concerto also employed another favourite Romantic practice: cyclical reference. The same brass fanfare introduces both the second and third movements, and the finale includes a brief quotation from the first movement.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25
1. Molto allegro con fuoco…
2. Andante…
3. Presto: Molto allegro e vivace


Symphony No. 3 in D Minor
Anton Bruckner
b. Ansfelden, Austria / September 4, 1824;
d. Vienna, Austria / October 11, 1896

Bruckner composed his first four symphonies from 1863 to 1872. Two of them bear numbers and two do not. Echoes of his Baroque (Palestrina) and Romantic (Beethoven Schubert, Wagner) role models may be detected in all of them, and forecasts of his mature style are there to hear, as well.  

It was only with Symphony No. 3 (the fifth he composed) that he truly began to hit upon the basics of his mature, individual symphonic style. Its primary characteristics include grandeur and elevated lyricism; a spectacular, organ-like use of the brass section; the ecstatic ruminations of the slow movements; the rustic dance rhythms of the scherzos; and the monumental conclusions of the finales. 

The Third underwent a difficult birth and adolescence. After completing it in March 1873, he secured permission from his idol, Wagner, to dedicate the symphony to him. He inscribed it “to the unreachable world-famous sublime master of poetry and music.” The first draft contained quotations from Wagner’s operas in three of its four movements, but later versions reduced them significantly.

Four years passed before the première, which the distinguished maestro Johann von Herbeck had agreed to conduct but who passed away before he could do so. Bruckner reluctantly stepped in to lead the début himself. The fateful date was December 16, 1877. The piece proved beyond his modest conducting talents, and it was disadvantageously placed at the conclusion of a lengthy concert. The deeply anti-Wagner Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick labelled it “A vision of how Beethoven’s Ninth befriends Wagner’s The Valkyrie and finds itself under her horse’s hooves...That fraction of the audience which remained to the end consoled the composer for the flight of the rest.”

The poisonous critical atmosphere played a role in this catastrophe, but the symphony’s new, grander style might also have perplexed or even alienated some of those audience members who had appreciated his previous works. Despite the disastrous launching, one year later it became his first symphony to be published. Several major revisions followed, the last in 1888/89. It is this final version, prepared in conjunction with his pupil, Franz Schalk, and edited by Leopold Nowak for the International Bruckner Society, that the VSO will perform at these concerts.

Symphony No. 3 in D Minor
Ed. Schalk/Nowak
1. Mehr langsam, Misterioso
2. Adagio, bewegt, quasi Andante
3. Ziemlich schnell
4. Allegro

 

Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson


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