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Cellos & Tchaikovsky

Felix Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847)

The Fair Melusine Overture, Opus 32  (1833)


The feminine water spirit has been a fixture of European folklore for at least the last millennium. In a version first recorded in 14th century France, Melusine, Melior and Palatyne were the daughters of a forest spirit and a mortal man who grew up on the lost isle of Avalon. For having taken revenge on their long-absent father, Melusine was condemned by her mother to take the form of a serpent from the waist down, sometimes with two tails (as she appears in the original Starbucks logo), sometimes with only one. Over time, Melusine became synonymous with the generic female spirit of lakes and rivers, a freshwater mermaid.


For his concert overture, The Legend of the Beautiful Melusine, Mendelssohn establishes the burbling river waters at the outset in undulating arpeggios that support the main theme. In his biography The Mendelssohns: Three Generations of Genius, Herbert Kupferberg writes, "That Wagner knew and appreciated Mendelssohn's music very well was demonstrated in his prelude to Rheingold, whose opening motif is repeated note for note (though at a much slower tempo) from Mendelssohn's Fair Melusine Overture—presumably an unintentional resemblance but nonetheless a striking one." Rheinmaidens anyone? Soon the gentle undulations give rise to a Mendelssohnian signature dotted rhythm, evoking tempestuous river rapids, that is thematically developed in classical sonata-style.


The playwright Franz Grillparzer  brought Goethe's version of the tale to the stage, inspiring Mendelssohn to compose his overture in 1833. It surfaced again in Smetana's Vltava (Moldau, 1874-79). The poet Nikolaus Lenau observed, "There is the sound of such a dreamy life and such an underlying sadness in this piece that I was completely entranced."


Max Bruch (1838 - 1920)

Kol Nidrei  (1881)

Kol Nidrei—more reliably transliterated as Kol Nidre—is the ancient declaration recited at synagogue  before the beginning of the evening service on Yom Kippur,  the Day of Atonement. While not a prayer per se, it has over the centuries accrued a deep emotional significance. Its name, in Aramaic, not Hebrew, is taken from its opening words, meaning "all vows."  The declaration has had an uneasy relationship with Hebrew liturgy, and was removed from the prayer book in many Western European Jewish communities in the 19th century. 

The melody, which appears in various forms, is at its most familiar in the opening theme. Its phrasing suggests an ancient cantorial utterance, a 'sob' of penitence. Indeed the melody has enjoyed a life of its own, sometimes as the setting for other Hebraic liturgical texts.

The melody that dominates the second half of Bruch's work was written by English composer Isaac Nathan, son of a Canterbury cantor. O Weep for those that wept on Babel's stream is among the thirty verses Lord Byron contributed to a collaborative collection published, in 1815, as Hebrew Melodies.

In 1889, Bruch himself wrote in a letter to cantor and musicologist Eduard Birnbaum that he had be been introduced to the Kol Nidre by the Lichtenstein family of Berlin, adding, "Even though I am a Protestant, as an artist I deeply felt the outstanding beauty of these melodies and therefore I gladly spread them through my arrangement." In 1929, the ethnomusicologist Abraham Zvi Idelsohn—regarded as the 'father' of modern Jewish musicology—wrote, "In his presentation, the melody entirely lost its original character. Bruch displayed a fine art, masterly technique and fantasy, but not Jewish sentiments. It is not a Jewish Kol Nidre which Bruch composed."

A small number of other important settings of Kol Nidre exist. In an interview published by Reform Judaism magazine, Marsha Bryan Edelman explains, "The main theme in the sixth movement of Beethoven's String Quartet, Op. 131, also appears to be based on the Kol Nidre melody. Beethoven was apparently approached by leaders of the Jewish community in Vienna to compose music for the inauguration of a new synagogue. Since they were looking for music of a "Jewish character," they supplied the composer with what they considered important examples of Jewish music, among them Kol Nidre. The commission was never completed, but since this is the only formal connection that can be established between Beethoven and the Jewish community, this brief contact is the likely source of the composer's inspiration."

Perhaps the most fascinating setting of Kol Nidre is Arnold Schoenberg's, calling for speaker, chorus and orchestra. Composed in 1938, after the composer had exiled himself to Los Angeles and returned to the faith of his fathers, it uses the traditional melody and words of the Kol Nidre, ending on the words 'we repent."


Piotr Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)

Variations on a Rococo Theme in A, Opus 33  (1887)


Neo-classicism became a popular alternative to the avant-garde for many of the greatest 20th century composers. There are numerous examples of such diversionary conceits in the 19th century as well. Delibes' ballet music for Le Roi s'amuse (1882) embraces original music from the late 16th century. Grieg's Holberg Suite (1884), Chabrier's Pièces pittoresques (1881), and even Debussy's Suite bergamasque, (1890) all pay homage to the Baroque.

Tchaikovsky's cello concerto in the form of variations is based on an original theme, but written in the spirit of his beloved Mozart. It was composed for and with the help of a Moscow Conservatory colleague, the German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who gave the premiere in late 1877 with Nikolai Rubinstein conducting. Fitzenhagen convinced the composer to reorganize some of the variations (much to the temporary outrage of Tchaikovsky's publisher) and to delete the eighth altogether, leaving the version used for this program. To underscore the 'rococo' character of the piece, Tchaikovsky called for an orchestra much reduced from his typical scoring.


Lasting about twenty minutes in performance, the theme and its seven variations make room for two solo cadenzas in the fifth. The variations are linked by connecting passages that give the work a continuous line, twice stopping only briefly. After a brief orchestral prelude, the cellist plays the elegant theme six times before introducing the linking material that connects to the first variation, in triplets. The brisk second variation presents rapid-fire repartée between soloist and orchestra. The next variation, in C Major, takes a contemplative tone. The livelier fourth variation returns to A, ending with a trill that carries into following variation in which the cello takes a dramatic fall, like Humpty-Dumpty, to a low E; the orchestra takes over to set up the shorter first solo cadenza. Yet again the theme emerges on the orchestra, and in turn a second cadenza—like the first, attributed to Fitzenhagen—gives the soloist his most luxurious moment in the spotlight. The next variation, in D Minor, puts a melancholy face on the theme, ending with high harmonics. The steeplechase final variation, choked with 32nd notes, challenges the orchestra, particularly the solo flute, to keep up right to the final flourish.   


Piotr Tchaikovsky  (1840 - 1893)

Suite for Orchestra No. 3, Opus 55


Valse Mélancolique


Theme & Variations


This finest of Tchaikovsky's four orchestral suites opens with a plush elegy, marked molto cantabile, that alludes to his earlier Serenade for Strings, Op 48, but with grander symphonic pretensions. The composer wrote to his publisher, "There never was a work of greater genius than my new Suite," cheekily adding, "Such is my usual disinterested attitude towards my offspring." The second movement begins with a low pulsing 3 / 4 time, followed by a disarmingly dark string phrase abruptly truncated that disguises the work's haunting principal theme on flutes. The Scherzo, molto vivace, puts on a vivacious call-and-response between orchestral sections; its chattering central section engages snare drum, tambourine and triangle.  


The final movement's dozen variations are spectacular for their variety. The original theme and its variations are presented in A-B-A form. The third variation flatters the flute in the A sections and clarinet in the B. The fourth variation alters the theme; its middle section explodes briefly on the ancient Dies Irae melody. The fifth variation is dressed up in counterpoint. The seventh variation takes the form of a chorale. The melancholy cor anglais opens the eighth variation in similar character. The ninth features four horns. A solo violin caprice dominates the first and third sections of the tenth variation. Low winds and strings support the lushly scored eleventh. A timpani stroke and heralding horns launch the extravagant build-up to the last variation, a grand polacca, which, taken together, comprises the final third of this movement in most extrovert terms.


Hans von Bülow conducted the first performance in St. Petersburg on January 24, 1885.  Moscow followed soon after. The composer was on top of the world. After the premiere, he wrote to his patron, Nadezhda von  Meck,"I have never before experienced such a triumph. I saw that the entire mass of the audience was moved, and grateful to me. These moments are the finest adornment of the artist's life."

Program notes by Scott MacClelland



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