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A Midsummer Night's Dream on the Waterfront About Beethoven

Program Notes


Dr. Beth Fleming

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Felix Mendelssohn Bartoldy
(b. Hamburg, Germany February 3, 1809; d. Leipzig, Germany November 4, 1847)
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream--Overture--1826, Nocturne and Scherzo--1842
Inspired by William Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream, Felix Mendelssohn completed his famous Overture in 1826. Originally the Overture was written and performed privately as a piano duet, when it was suggested that Mendelssohn should orchestrate it.  

A passionate literary scholar, Mendelssohn was bewitched by the works of Shakespeare, whose collected plays had been translated into German 25 years earlier. The Overture, written when he was only seventeen years old, exemplifies Mendelssohn's ability to create extraordinarily imaginative and atmospheric music within the context of traditional harmonic and formal structure.

Filled with delicacy, the masterful use of instrumental colors in the Overture translates the three worlds of the comedy's universe into music of singular distinction. It is not necessary to know the story of Shakespeare's play to enjoy Mendelssohn's colorful music. The abode of Titania and Oberon is introduced by gossamer, almost breathless, violin figures, which have an ethereal quality to them that defines the fairy world. With a facility fully equal to Shakespeare's, Mendelssohn moves back and forth from the fairy kingdom to the realm of humanity, mainly by contrasting minor keys with major key areas. The earthy world of Bottom and his primitive cohorts is depicted by a comical drone of open fifths, along with realistic representations of sounds such as a donkey's braying.

Seventeen years after the composition of the Overture, Mendelssohn rounded out the entire incidental score.  For a production of the play at the Royal Theater in Berlin in 1842 for William IV of Prussia, he added the sprightly Scherzo, the Intermezzo, Nocturne, and the celebrated Wedding March.   Although composed only four years before Mendelssohn's death, these numbers emanate a truly youthful energy, complementing the Overture's musical narrative with scenes of exceptional charm.  Mendelssohn, it is said, lived a life of perennial youth.  Certainly he was able to complete something begun long before without losing the sense of wonder and delight.  

The Nocturne and Scherzo are only two of the final thirteen pieces of music that Mendelssohn wrote to accompany the play.  The Nocturne is meant to occur at the end of third act, when sleep has quietly descended upon all in the drama; and it embodies one of the loveliest passages for the horn in all music.  This music is written to evoke the warmth and drowsiness of a lazy, mid-summer night.

In contrast, the Scherzo brings Mendelssohn's score to a climax of infinite delicacy, playfulness, and grace.  This music serves as a type of prelude to the play's second act, and the fairy world depicted in the play, with its chattering elves and their mischievous exploits, inspires music with a kind of fierce, other-worldly yet subtle energy.  Mendelssohn led something of a charmed and privileged life, and as a result he had the integrity and confidence in his own work that made him dare to be original.  His music, for the most part, reflects his own cheerful, successful, contented existence.  His joy in all that was refined, aristocratic, and sophisticated is clearly reflected in this selection of his works. 

Leonard Bernstein (b. Lawrence, Massachusetts August 25, 1918; d. New York, New York October 14, 1990)
  • On The Waterfront Symphonic Suite--1955
Leonard Bernstein quickly decided he did not enjoy writing film scores.  In 1954 at the early age of thirty-six, his prowess as one of the leading American composers had been recognized by a commission to write the score for one of the most prestigious projects of American film, Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront. The film, starring Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint, tells a redemptive story of union corruption on the docks of New York in startlingly intense, personal terms. Bernstein proved equal to the task by producing one of the great scores in Hollywood history, and receiving an academy award nomination for his troubles, but he would never consent to do another film project.

He wrote of his experiences in a chapter of his book The Joy of Music, mentioning that he was unprepared to have portions of the music abruptly cut, changed into a different order from what he first supposed, or even simply turned down in volume just as a theme was reaching its emotional heights.  As a composer, he believed that his work should remain intact as an enhancement to the film that he had composed it to support.  Since this wasn't possible in the world of film production, Bernstein proceeded to make sure that his music for On the Waterfront existed in a more permanent, unaltered form.

In 1955, Bernstein adapted the film's music to his own vision, a continuous 20-minute suite of symphonic music. The resulting On the Waterfront Suite consists of six continuously flowing movements.  It opens with a hauntingly eloquent horn theme that might be regarded as a musical evocation of a misty melancholy dawn over a grey New York skyline and dockyards.  The music grows in emotional depth as more instruments are added to the texture.  Alas, the tranquility is brusquely shattered by the 'rumble' music, marked Presto barbaro, which is strangely reminiscent of the distinctive West Side Story gang dances. In the film, this rumble music occurs during an early murder scene where an angry mob brutally throws an informer from a tenement rooftop.  The very prominent percussion in this section stabs out motoric rhythms that express the dockworkers' feelings of  dehumanization.

Bernstein's highly evocative and emotional score juxtaposes musical moments of exquisite tenderness and pathos with those of cold savagery. The poignant love theme that emerges in the Andante largamente, representing the Eva Marie Saint character, is one of the most beautiful melodies that Bernstein ever composed. The film's love theme is followed by a scherzo-like Allegro, and the suite concludes with a tragic development of the opening theme.

It is not necessary to know the film to understand or appreciate this score, yet its exquisite music perfectly captures the movie's themes of brutality and fragility.  As a suite separate from the action of the movie, Bernstein hoped it could easily be taken simply as a portrait of life in New York City. As such, it is one of the most distinctive symphonic portraits of an epic American scene.

Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, Germany December 16, 1770; d. Vienna, Austria March 26, 1827)
  • Symphony No. 5 in C minor ("Fate"), Opus 67
Just for a moment, travel back in a mental time machine.  Imagine yourself transported into the large, unheated Theater an der Wien where Ludwig van Beethoven premiered his Fifth Symphony on December 22, 1808, at what must have been one of the most extraordinary concerts in history. The marathon program included the celebrated yet volatile composer's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies; the Choral Fantasy, Op. 80; the Fourth Piano Concerto; parts of the Mass in C; and with several other works or improvisations, all by Beethoven.  Vienna was in the grip of exceptionally cold weather that year; there was a malfunction in the heating system of the hall, and contemporary reports mention that the musicians were woefully under-prepared. Yet it was in that hall that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony first leapt into the consciousness of listeners with its ominous, soon-to-be notorious knock of fate.  

Anton Schindler, the infamous embellisher of all Beethoven truths, was Beethoven's on-again, off-again assistant for many years during the last part of the composer's life.  It was Schindler who insisted that Beethoven once said of his Fifth Symphony "Thus Fate knocks at the door!"  Unfortunately, Schindler's well-documented unreliability makes it prudent to question if this was actually the composer's own statement or yet another of Schindler's erroneous elaborations or mistaken attributions.   In reality, it was one of Beethoven's students, Ferdinand Ries, who mentioned to Beethoven that the opening sounded to him as if it were fate knocking at the door.  Evidently Beethoven received this reaction with sarcasm; and one can only guess that the composer would be astonished that his student's fleeting impression has become so thoroughly associated with his great work.  

Beethoven began to sketch Symphony No. 5 early in 1804, immediately after completing the Eroica.  He continued to work on it sporadically for the next four years and completed the work in early 1808.  How wild the driving Fifth Symphony must have sounded to an audience that did not meet it as the most familiar of classical masterpieces. Instead listeners in the freezing Theater an der Wien that day encountered this aggressive, melancholy piece for the first time immediately following the spaciousness and warmth of the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Pastoral Symphony.  As Schindler noted, "the reception accorded to these works was not as desired, and probably no better than the author himself had expected. The public was not endowed with the necessary degree of comprehension for such extraordinary music, and the performance left a great deal to be desired."

Following this early indifference, the public only gradually began to come to terms with the Fifth. One of its earliest proponents, the poet and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann, wrote in his famous review of 1810 in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, "How this magnificent composition carries the listener on and on in a continually ascending climax into the ghostly world of infinity!...the human breast, squeezed by monstrous presentiments and destructive powers, seems to gasp for breath; soon a kindly figure approaches full of radiance, and illuminates the depths of terrifying night."   

It is in this Symphony in C minor that the listener encounters the genius of Beethoven through the musical manifestations of the composer's intimate thoughts, his secret sorrows, his intensely concentrated rage, his dejected reveries in macabre juxtaposition with his bursts of enthusiasm.  C minor was a very significant key to Beethoven, and it is appropriate to speak of a C minor "mood" when talking about his works.  By the time Beethoven wrote Symphony No. 5, he had already published a C minor violin sonata (Op. 30, No. 2), a string trio (Op. 9, No. 3), a string quartet (Op. 18, No. 4), a piano trio (Op. 1, No. 3), a piano concerto (Op. 37) and two piano sonatas (Op. 10, No. 1 and Op. 13, the Pathétique).  These C minor works are all particularly dramatic, threatening and rather defiant in character.  

The Fifth Symphony, however, while perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this mood, is more sophisticated than the earlier works in that it plays on the repeated juxtaposition of C minor and major.  The sense of a "power struggle" between tonic minor and major is played out across the entire symphony in a kind of musical competition between the forces of darkness and the avenging nature of light.

What makes the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony so dramatic and memorable is the violent contrast between the urgency of the knock-like eighth notes and the ominous freezing of motion in the unmeasured long notes.  The music starts out with a wild outburst of energy and then immediately crashes into a wall of musical stasis. Seconds later this same set of two measures is repeated; and then the whole movement take flight from this germinal idea.  

The second theme is announced by a horn call and, at first glance it seems more tranquil.  However, deep in the orchestra's cello and bass sections the initial rhythmic motive quietly yet persistently makes itself heard.  Everything about this movement is concentrated and intense and revolutionary.  After the development a small oboe cadenza momentarily interrupts to herald the recapitulation of this sonata-form movement.

Reposeful lyrical contrast sums up the second movement of this symphony.  Where the first movement was fire and breathless excitement, the second is all tender gentleness.  Many versions of this melody appear in Beethoven's sketchbooks, proving that he worked hard and long on the concepts behind this theme and variation movement.  Two beautiful themes intertwine and are varied in rondo-like fashion throughout the movement.  Listen carefully to the gently rising second theme in the clarinets and note the subliminal appearance of the fateful short-short-short-long rhythmic pattern reflected even in this oasis of peace.

The tripartite scherzo follows.  The main idea is based on an ominous arpeggio figure, but we hear also the omnipresent "Fate" rhythm, exactly as we heard it in the first movement. The central section, which replaces the customary trio, is a pounding fugato beginning in the cellos and basses, and then running through the rest of the orchestra.

Of particular structural interest is the inter-linking bridge passage that connects the last two movements. Over the atmospheric thrum of the drum heartbeat, the music climbs inexorably toward the tremendous assertion of C major triumph at the start of the finale. Probably one of the best musical depictions of "out of the darkness came great light," this transition from one movement to the next is spooky and exhilarating all at once.   

The epic grandeur of the finale, now with martial trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon added to provide greater orchestral depth and color, has irresistible drive and sweep.  That eventual victory is still some way off is suggested by the return of the ominous scherzo figure during the extended development.  In the end, after a long concluding passage of vigorously reiterated cadential chords ending with the single note C played fortissimo by the full orchestra, one senses that with faithful persistence, goodness triumphs over even the darkest fate in Beethoven's world.

 

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