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Shostakovich Centennial

Gabriel Fauré (b. Pamiers Ariège, France May 12, 1845; d. Paris, France November 4, 1924)
Pelléas et Mélisande Suite Op. 80—1898
In the spring of 1898, Gabriel Fauré was commissioned to write incidental music for an English-language production of Maurice Maeterlink’s Symbolist play, Pelléas et Mélisand, to be mounted later that summer in London.  Fauré was perpetually over-committed with professional duties. With only six weeks before opening night of the play to write and orchestrate the music, he enlisted one of his pupils at the Paris Conservatory, Charles Koechlin, to assist with the orchestration.  Fauré made so much use of his student’s labors, in fact, that many consider the end result to be a collaboration between the two composers.  It was Fauré, however, who conducted the theatre orchestra for the premiere on June 21, 1898, at the Prince of Wales’ Theater in Piccadilly.

Later that year Fauré decided to reorganize the play’s 19 pieces of incidental music into an orchestral suite. The original suite as performed in 1901 had only three sections: Prélude. Fileuse,  and La mort de Mélisande. In 1909 Fauré made further revisions, inserting a Sicilienne as a new third movement. Sicilienne is now the most famous music from the suite --a graceful, lilting dance form with an inspired melody, often compared with Fauré’s beloved Pavane dating from 1887.

The Prélude sets the stage for the suite, creating a moody atmosphere as Mélisande wanders through the shadowy forest at the beginning of the play.  A soaring, lushly-scored string melody dominates this opening movement.  Fileuse is a spinning song that originates from the music Fauré wrote for the introduction to Act III.  It depicts Mélisande at her spinning wheel in her tower, happy in the presence of Pélleas.  This movement is a lovely, singing solo oboe melody played over delicate flowing triplets in the rest of the orchestra.  

Sicilienne draws on the music performed just before Act II of the play.  Originally a piece for cello and piano, this orchestrated setting morphs it into a lovely, sunny duet for flute and harp.  The Death of Mélisande is somber music that preceded the play’s final act.  The melody is from a song sung by Mélisande, but here in the orchestrated version it is given to the low winds and trumpet, becoming ominously funereal in tone.  The piece ends poignantly, with a return to a lush string sound denoting goodness and light.  Debussy’s operatic version of this drama, written in 1902, may be better known than Fauré’s musical treatment; but this suite is an orchestral gem.

Dmitry Shostakovich (b. St. Petersburg, Russia September 25, 1906; d. Moscow, Russia August 9, 1975)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Opus 107—1959
Stalin had been dead six years when this Concerto was written, in July 1959; and yet his influence still pervaded Russian society.  Boris Pasternak, for instance, was forced to decline a Nobel Prize in literature for his anti-Stalinist novel, Doctor Zhivago, and nevertheless was summarily expelled from the Writers’ Union.  Shostakovich biographers believe that Pasternak’s fate significantly influenced the composer when he began his First Cello Concerto.  Stalin’s favorite song was the Russian folk Suliko and its theme plays a prominent part in the final movement of this concerto.

Shostakovich composed this magnificent concerto, with the famous Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich in mind. Rostropovich introduced the work at Leningrad on October 4 of the same year.  The great cellist was a personal friend of Shostakovich, and both of the composer’s cello concerti are dedicated to him.

Along with Stalin’s malign legacy, another inspiration for this work was Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony Concertante for cello and orchestra. Shostakovich incorporated many aspects of Prokofiev’s work into his own concerto, particularly the prominent role of the timpani throughout the piece.  The scoring is light, written for pairs of winds, piccolo, contrabassoon, a single horn, timpani, celesta, and strings.  The transparent scoring, with no other brass instruments besides the single French horn, highlights the intense solo cello line more thoroughly than many other concertos for that instrument.

Although the concerto consists of four movements, it is divided into two large parts: the opening movement, and then the three remaining movements, played without pause.  The main theme of the Allegretto first movement is built around a four-note motif that reappears many times throughout the movement.  Although Shostakovich himself referred to the theme as a jocular march, its humor is darkly grotesque and acerbic and comes rudely punctuated by four loud blows on the timpani.  The movement’s second, folk-like theme musically depicts deep grief stoically borne with great strength of will.  

The second movement, Moderato, includes a restrained introduction after which the solo cello sings a folk-like theme against the calm support of the background violas.  The rhapsodic second theme is highly expressive and leads to the movement’s dramatic close, with the cello and celeste playing a particularly ghostly duet.

The third movement, Andantino-Allegro, is a soliloquy for unaccompanied cello that recalls both the first movement’s four-note motto theme and the second movement’s theme, and that ingeniously prepares for the final movement.  The Allegro con moto finale is in rondo form and sums up the whole work.  The entire finale has a fierce rhythmic impetuosity that drives it persistently toward conclusion.  The mood is grotesque and dark, marked by savage interruptions from the timpani that add a maniacal tinge to the wind instruments as they emit screams in the highest notes of their register.  

The coda is based once again on those haunting four notes from the first movement.  The concerto’s ending is dramatically harsh and abrupt, with a flurry of virtuosic scale passages and octaves in the masterfully written solo cello part.   

Georges Bizet (b. Paris, France October 25, 1838; d. Bougival, France June 3, 1875)
Symphony in C—1855
Most music-lovers know that Wolfgang Mozart was a child prodigy who died tragically young; but fewer are aware of the French composer Georges Bizet’s very similar fate.  Precociously talented from an extraordinarily young age, Bizet entered the Paris Conservatory at age nine and proceeded to win every prize that famed institution offered. Unlike Mozart, his popular and critical reception was mixed before his death at the early age of thirty seven.  Following his death, however, several of his works were recognized as masterpieces, and the magnificent body of music that he created leaves us wondering what he might have accomplished had he remained longer in this world.  

Symphony in C was written during a one-month time span when Bizet was seventeen years old.  It is not mentioned in any of his numerous letters nor in contemporary reports of that year, so little is known about the early history of the work.  Even Bizet's early biographers were totally unaware that this symphony existed.  It was only in 1935, nearly eighty years after its creation, that the score was discovered in a box of materials donated to the archives of the Paris Conservatory.  

Perhaps Symphony in C was overlooked because it is remarkable not for its originality, but for the extremely skillful way Bizet refashioned the ideas of other composers.  One of Bizet's teachers at the Paris Conservatory was Charles Gounod, and  Bizet's Symphony in C bears a strikingly close resemblance to Gounod’s Symphony No. 1 in D major, which was premiered earlier in 1855.  In his work, Bizet incorporated fanfares, a fugato in the slow movement, prominent sequential development and characteristic rushing string figures -- all features of Gounod's composition.  Some have speculated that Bizet purposely suppressed his own symphony in deference to his professor's work.  Since it has resurfaced, however, Bizet's Symphony in C has far outshone Gounod's symphony in the repertoire.  It has built a reputation as a brilliant work that shows a grasp of unity and overall design that was remarkable for a seventeen-year old composer.

Bizet wrote melodies of supreme beauty and had innovative notions of how to combine instrumental sounds to create lush orchestral color.  Both of these traits were apparent in Symphony in C's first performance on February 26, 1935, under the baton of Felix Weingartner.  The lively first movement is built around two contrasting themes, the first blatantly Romantic, filled with gushing emotion, and the second more conservative and refined.  Listeners familiar with Bizet's most famous work, the opera Carmen, will immediately recognize Bizet’s gift for combining instrumental tone colors to heighten the dramatic contrast between these two themes.  

Perhaps the most famous theme from Symphony in C is the mournful, exotically haunting oboe melody from the Adagio second movement.  This elegant melody, sparsely accompanied by pizzicato strings, is briefly interrupted by the central fugal section of the movement.  The third movement is a very fast minuet, interspersed by short arioso sections that move at a more relaxed pace, while the last movement begins with violins in perpetual motion.  The Symphony’s finale again reminds us of the driving rhythms and dramatic excitement Bizet would later perfect in his famous opera Carmen.  He may have voluntarily suppressed this early work, but after its rediscovery, its promise was recognized, and it has become a constant favorite of orchestral audiences.
                                                                       Program notes by Dr. Beth Fleming



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