Franz von Suppé (b. Spalato, Dalmatia [now Croatia] April 18, 1819; d. Vienna, Austria, May 21, 1895)
Pique Dame Overture (1862)
Pique Dame, or Queen of Spades, is an operetta, a type of light, usually short, often farcical comic opera vastly popular in mid-19th century Vienna. By 1862 von Suppé was the most prominent Viennese composer of operettas, and is the earliest whose works are still commonly staged today. He came from a family with a musical pedigree, and a distant relative, the Italian opera composer Gaetano Donizetti, supervised much of his education in music. Consequently, von Suppé's music is strongly influenced by the techniques found in the best Italian opera styles of the day. A prolific composer, von Suppé specialized in music with a light-hearted, almost impish character, and the music to Pique Dame is a perfect example of his style. This operetta by von Suppé should not be confused with Tchaikovsky's later opera by the same name. The works have little in common except for their source: a story by Alexander Pushkin about a sinister countess who takes her secrets to the grave, and returns as a devious, vindictive ghost who taunts her murderer to suicide. While popular as a theatrical composer during his lifetime, today von Suppé is better known as a composer of light, fluid orchestral overtures. The strings begin von Suppé's overture to Pique Dame with a humorously sly and scheming theme in a moderate tempo. Soon harsh, loud chords by the full orchestra, complete with crashing cymbals, interrupt the cunning string theme. This melodramatic disruption is followed by a joyous gallop that highlights the flute and concludes the overture with vigorous, animated glee.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; d. Vienna, Austria, December 5, 1791)
Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622 (1791)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's death two months after completing this concerto left it as his final piece for orchestral instruments, and a testament to a long-standing friendship. Both it and his earlier Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581 (1789) were written to celebrate the genius of the virtuoso clarinetist, Anton Stadler (1753 - 1812).
Part of the appeal of the clarinet is the diversity of sound qualities it can produce in its different registers. The lowest notes have the warm, rich quality of a smooth and sophisticated baritone. The middle range gives the cool, deliciously smoky effect of a gifted torch singer, while the top register is as clear and bright as a coloratura soprano. The clarinet's distinctive sound can communicate high mirth at one moment and melancholy the next. Mozart loved the instrument and was one of the first composers to include it in the standard orchestral configuration of his symphonic works. It was Anton Stadler, however, who inspired Mozart to think of the clarinet as more than merely a voice in the texture of orchestral sound.
Stadler and his younger brother Johann were members of the Viennese imperial court orchestra and of the Kaiser's wind octet, where Anton Stadler reportedly played second clarinet. As a fairly new instrument. the clarinet was still undergoing modifications, and it may have been his experience as second clarinet that prompted Stadler to experiment with extending the instrument's lower, or chalumeau, register through the addition of length and several keys. The resulting instrument was called a basset clarinet, or basset horn. Mozart composed basset horn music as early as 1783, and Stadler's first performance of a Mozart work featuring basset horn took place in 1784. Although Mozart's family disapproved of Stadler, Mozart himself enjoyed Stadler's lighthearted nature and greatly admired the clarinetist's artistry. By 1895, they were members of the same Masonic Lodge, and close friends as well as musical colleagues.
The first indications of the clarinet concerto appear in a letter from Mozart to his wife Constanze on October 7, 1791, noting that he had “orchestrated almost the whole of Stadler's rondo.” Mozart gave Stadler the completed concerto on October 9th or 10th along with traveling money to Prague, and told the clarinetist to make use of the concerto at the benefit concert the artist had arranged in that city. The trip to Prague would have taken four days, so Stadler arrived in Prague on October 13th or 14th. According to Prague city records, Stadler's concert took place at the Royal Old City Theater on October 16th, 1791. With such a complex work, requiring great virtuosity on the part of the soloist, this compact timeline indicates just how magnificent a performer Anton Stadler must have been.
The autograph of Mozart's clarinet concerto has disappeared, lost, it is guessed, by Stadler on the European tour that began with the Prague benefit concert. The concerto we hear today is a version edited by Mozart's publisher so it could be played without Stadler's low extension.
For his concerto, Mozart chose an orchestral ensemble of flutes instead of more penetrating oboes, no brass instruments except for two horns, and a full complement of strings, to make it possible to hear the soloist distinctly above the ensemble. The first movement begins with flowing melodies that exploit the clarinet's rich tone in an atmosphere of gracious lyricism. It continues as the clarinet breaks free from the orchestral sound, and Mozart takes full advantage of the artist's technical command and the instrument's range with exciting, almost gymnastic leaps from the highest to the lowest notes possible. Another layer of contrast is added with a quick change to the minor mode and a melancholy melody. The Adagio second movement is undoubtedly one of Mozart's most sublime slow movements, as the clarinet spins a tale of deep lonliness and loss. Mozart had the ability to embody the sadness that may be found within beauty, and to make his music a profound expression of the transitory nature of life. This movement displays the exquisite singing quality of the clarinet and the musicality of the clarinetist. A reviewer wrote Stadler in 1784, “Never should I have thought that a clarinet could be so capable of imitating a human voice so closely as it was imitated by thee. Verily, thy instrument has so soft and lovely a tone that nobody who has a heart can resist it.”
The finale is a mercurial rondo that captures the chirpy, comical quality of the comedic clarinet. The opening rondo theme is presented by the clarinet, establishing an atmosphere of levity. Mozart contrasts the rondo theme with other melodies that are harmonically adventurous and unexpectedly moving. This movement again exploits the technical virtuosity of the clarinetist.
Mozart's Clarinet Concerto represents the height of the composer's creative powers. Spurred on by the delight of writing for his close friend, he instilled the concerto with a distinctive personality and established for future generations of composers the clarinet's character as a solo instrument. Bernhard Weber wrote in a review of the concerto's first performance in 1791, “Such an abundance of beauty almost tires the soul, and the effect of the whole is sometimes obscured thereby. But happy the artist whose only fault lies in an all too great perfection.” Audiences ever since have appreciated the fruits of this friendship between two supremely gifted men.
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (b. Votkinsk, Viatka district, Russia, May 7, 1840; d. St. Petersburg, Russia, November 6, 1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1878)
Tchaikovsky began work on his fourth symphony during the winter of 1876 and the work was mostly complete by the end of May, 1877. He delayed work on the orchestration of the piece until the autumn, finally completing the work in San Remo on January 7, 1878. This was a time of great upheaval for Tchaikovsky, and the conflicts in his life directly relate to the emotions conveyed in his music.
Tchaikovsky wrote both Eugene Onegin and the Fourth Symphony in a frenzy of activity during and in the aftermath of his catastrophic marriage. He was already at work on the Symphony when he received a letter from Antonina Milyukova claiming to be a former student of his. declaring her passionate love, and threatening to commit suicide if her love was not returned. This letter precipitated the composer's painful foray into married life. Tchaikovsky, scholars speculate, agreed to marry a woman he had in fact never met in an effort to provide himself with a socially acceptable means to hide his repressed homosexuality. On June 1, 1877 Tchaikovsky stopped work on the first three movements of this symphony and visited Antonina Milyukova for the first time. A day or two later he proposed. Only a few days after, they were married.
Nadezha Filaretovna von Meck had come into Tchaikovsky's life about eight months earlier, in December 1876. Wealthy, imperious, a recent widow, she loved Tchaikovsky's music almost to the point of obsession and fervently wished to devote some of her abundant wealth to the composer's support. Introduced by mutual friends via letter, the widow and the composer almost at once began a long, intimate correspondence. As a result, Madame von Meck endowed Tchaikovsky with a salary of 500 rubles a month, giving the composer years of much needed financial security. His eccentric benefactor insisted they never meet in person, but their mutually nourishing friendship lasted nearly 14 years. Tchaikovsky thrived in this extraordinary relationship that combined intellectual intimacy with absolute physical distance. Much of their early correspondence discusses Symphony No. 4, which Tchaikovsky refers to as “our symphony” because he intended to dedicate the work to his patroness.
Closely connected though they were, Tchaikovsky did not tell Madame von Meck about his plans for marriage until three days before the wedding. He then confessed “I have lived thirty-seven years with an innate aversion to marriage. . . In a day or two my marriage will take place. What will happen after that, I do not know.” What happened was the inevitable; the marriage lasted less than three months, its end hastened by Tchaikovsky's discovery that Antonina was a moral blackmailer who knew nothing about music and had lied in her initial letter to him. It concluded with Tchaikovsky's attempt to kill himself by standing waist deep in the frigid waters of the Moscow River, hoping to contract a fatal chill.
Tchaikovsky's failed marriage accounts for the time lapse between the completion of Symphony No. 4 as a concept and its final orchestration. The resumption of work on his music brought him back from the depths of despair. On December 21, 1877 he wrote to Madame von Meck:
I am working hard on the orchestration of our symphony and am quite absorbed in the task. None of my earlier works for orchestra has given me so much trouble, but on none have I lavished such love and devotion. Gradually I have fallen more and more under the spell of the work and now I can hardly tear myself away from it.
In their correspondence, Madame von Meck asked Tchaikovsky what the symphony was about. He responded that the opening fanfare was “fate, or the decisive forces which prevent our hopes of happiness from being complete and unclouded, which is suspended over our heads and perpetually poisons our souls.” To another correspondent, fellow composer, Sergei Taneyev, he wrote:
Of course my symphony is program music, but it would be ridiculous to give the program in words. Ought this not always be the case with a symphony, the most lyrical of musical forms? Ought it not express all those things for which words cannot be found but nevertheless arise in the heart and cry out for expression? …In reality my work is a reflection of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I have not, of course, copied Beethoven's musical content, only borrowed the central idea.
There are indeed many parallels between Beethoven's Fifth and Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphonies. Just as Beethoven uses a motto that serves as a structural marker throughout his entire symphony, so does Tchaikovsky write his own Fate fanfare to punctuate his work. Tchaikovsky modulates to surprising keys at surprising times, much like his admired predecessor. His orchestration (pairs of wind instruments, four French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum and strings) is very similar to Beethoven's.
The first movement of the symphony begins with all four horns and the bassoons sounding a loud note in unison octaves. This is followed by a descending line in the lowest voices, and gradually the woodwinds are added in yet another octave presentation of a slow, repeated syncopated chord. Two very loud short notes from the entire orchestra are followed immediately by complete silence. All of this comprises Tchaikovsky's Fate motive. After the movement's slow, dramatic start, its main melody is heard in the strings, beginning just as the tempo becomes faster and more animated (moderato con anima). Toward the end of the movement the ominous Fate fanfare returns once again, to bring the music full circle.
The Andantino movement is a melancholy song introduced by a solo oboe accompanied delicately by the strings. In its lament, we can hear great depth of feeling. The music builds to a height of grieving; and the movement ends with the solo bassoon bringing back the plaintive opening oboe melody in a similar, yet hauntingly altered voice.
Tchaikovsky's Scherzo is novel particularly because of his orchestration. A perpetual pizzicato in the strings begins the movement. Tchaikovsky then systematically gives first the woodwinds and then the brass highly distinctive assignments of material that matches the plucked string sound. Gradually the texture diminishes until all that is left is the hush of the string pizzicato.
The finale is more complex, both emotionally and musically. A folk song entitled “There Stood a Little Birch” is presented simply yet elegantly, and is interrupted by the harsh Fate fanfare. There follows a free rush of music that swings chaotically between dark emotion and a mood of festivity until it reaches a defiantly triumphant, heroic and very emphatic conclusion - one that beats all records for the number of cymbal crashes per minute. Even the Fate fanfare is eventually overpowered by the atmosphere of triumph. From movement to movement, Tchaikovsky has taken the listener on a sonic journey through darkness into ever more brilliant light, once again mirroring the psychological journey Beethoven traced in his Fifth Symphony.
The Symphony was first performed with his mentor Nikolai Rubenstein conducting, at a Russian Musical Society concert in Moscow on February 22, 1878. Soon thereafter, Tchaikovsky wrote to his confidante, Madame von Meck, “In my heart of hearts I feel sure this is the best thing I have done so far.”