Notes by Bruce Lamott
Cherubini, Overture to Démophoon
Though he was born in Florence in 1760, for the last fifty years of his life the Italian-born Luigi Cherubini adopted the French version of his name, Marie-Louis-Charles-Zénobi-Salvador Cherubini. His first French tragédie lyrique, Démophoon, marks a similar Italo-Frankish transformation, marking the beginning of a career that will lead him to become a dominant figure in the Parisian music scene and acclaimed by Beethoven, among others, as the greatest living composer. Having been introduced to the social circle of Marie Antoinette by his friend, the violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti, Cherubini received his first commission by the Paris Opéra, Démophoon, composed to a three-act French libretto by Jean-François Monmartel (after Metastasio’s Italian opera seria Demofoonte) and first performed at the Académie Royale de Musique (the Paris Opera) on December 2, 1788. The next month, he became music director of the Thèâtre de Monsieur, backed by king’s brother (the Count of Provence, later Louis XVIII). Given these royalist credentials, it is remarkable that Cherubini’s operas continued to be produced during and well after the Revolution, and he survived with his career (and head) intact.
The Overture to Démophoon begins in the gloom of the French tragédie lyrique and ends with the sunny conventions of the composer’s first love, Italian opera buffa. Ominous chords in C minor introduce funereal fragments underscored with dotted rhythms, using the gestures resembling the accompanied recitatives of Gluck, another expatriate lionized by the French. The arioso in the first violins that follows is set over an accompaniment of melancholy undulations in the second violins, but is interrupted by a fanfare by the full orchestra. The Allegro Spiritoso breaks out of an ominous diminuendo with turbulent rising scales emphatically punctuated by the winds, brass, and timpani.
In a brief episode in the “learned” polyphonic style, Cherubini heightens the contrast between the legato undulation of the lower strings with the agitated violin figuration that overtakes it. A tumultuous two-bar descent of the violins then leads to an idyllic respite of three-note sigh figures in the bucolic key of G major. Thematic development begins, not with the theme of the Allegro Spiritoso, but to the undulating accompaniment and arioso melody of the introductory Lent. This once again allows a crescendo to rise from pianissimo to fortissimo with the full ensemble and the rising scales of the opening theme. This theme undergoes a brief “development,” modulating three times before giving way to the agitated theme of the violins.
A sustained low G underlies a quiet transition ending with the idyllic three-note sigh figure, setting up our anticipation of a return (recapitulation) of the opening theme in C minor. But instead, Cherubini foils this expectation by winding up with a curtain-raising “Mannheim crescendo” in C major followed by a few comic opera cadential clichés, ending the overture—like the opera itself—with a happy ending, an Italianate lieto fine.
Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64
When the sixteen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn visited Paris in 1825, he was introduced to Cherubini, then 64 and director of the Conservatoire. After hearing his Piano Quartet in B minor, Op. 3, the irascible Cherubini commented, “This lad is rich; he will do well. He has already has done well, but he spends too much of his money, and he puts too much fabric into his clothes.” Not surprisingly, when Cherubini suggested that young Felix remain in Paris to complete his musical education with him, his father declined.
Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 2, 1809, in the same house in which Ferdinand David was to be born on June 19 in the next year. The two became friends as teenagers, and David eventually became Mendelssohn’s concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and the inspiration for his E minor Violin Concerto (Now known as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, though he had written an earlier one when he was thirteen).
More than an inspiration for the piece, David was its midwife and co-parent, as Mendelssohn had little experience as a violinist and relied on David for many suggestions and alterations. David played the premiere on March 13, 1845, and mentored the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, who first played the work the following year with Mendelssohn conducting and performed it some 200 times thereafter in his illustrious career.
The qualifying term appassionato in the tempo of the first movement already reveals its identity as a work of musical romanticism. The soloist enters almost immediately, not with a display of overt virtuosity, but with a lyrical melody played over an urgent and mysterious accompaniment. Like Mendelssohn, who wrote to David that “There’s [a concerto] in E minor and its opening won’t leave me in peace,” we too may find that it follows us out of the theater.
There is no question that the soloist is front and center throughout the concerto, with none of the first-among-equals pecking order found in many concertos of the Baroque and even Classic periods. The orchestra, in the words of critic Michael Steinberg, is a “provider of accompaniment, punctuation, scaffolding, and a bit of cheerleading.” The woodwind choir of flutes, clarinets, oboes, and bassoons is particularly prominent, playing chorale-like harmonizations that may stem from Mendelssohn’s experience as an organist. This is especially evident in the second theme of the first movement, when after a flurry of mounting technical challenge, the soloist descends to such simplicity that it’s playable by anyone holding a violin and a bow: a sustained G on the lowest open string. This accompanies a 4-part choir of clarinets and flutes in placid harmonic plateau in G major that momentarily relieves both the energy and the appassionato quality of the minor key.
Another feature of this concerto is found in surprising manipulations of conventional concerto procedures. The violin begins the cadenza surreptitiously in the middle of the piece, before the first theme re-enters (recapitulation), rather than at its traditional location near the end (coda). Exiting the concerto, a barrage of arpeggios (which concerned Mendelssohn for tiring the soloist) turns into a transition back to the opening theme with the roles reversed from the opening: the solo violin provides the turbulent accompaniment while flute, oboe, and first violins carry the lyrical melody.
In an almost impish “gotcha” moment, Mendelssohn drives the end of the first movement into an accelerating stretto of Più presto – Sempre piu presto – Presto only to land on a single softly sustained B in the bassoon, turning the second-most important note (dominant) in the key of E minor into the least stable (leading tone) pitch of the coming key of C major. This applause-killing moment—as well as the brief interlude linking the second and third movements—forces our emotions to accumulate without release until the very end.
Schubert, Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944, “The Great”
Regardless of how many symphonies Schubert might have written had he lived longer than age 31, it’s hard to imagine a symphony that could have rivalled this one for the title “the Great.” Written in the wake of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, whose premiere in Vienna on May 7, 1824 predates Schubert’s composition by only a year, it clearly reflects the 28-year-old’s admiration for the idolized composer, but as Robert Schumann observed, “He avoids imitating the grotesque forms, the bold proportions which we find in Beethoven’s later works; he gives us a creation of the most graceful form possible, yet full of novel intricacies; he never strays far from the central point and always returns to it.” We are indebted to Schumann for discovering it among the scores owned by Schubert’s brother Ferdinand, who in turn commended it to Mendelssohn, who conducted its first public performance (and at that, with cuts) with Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra on March 21, 1839, eleven years after the composer’s death.
Schubert began the symphony in the summer of 1825 in Gmunden, during one of the happiest times in his life, thanks to a few months’ abatement of the venereal disease—probably syphilis—that would claim him three years later. Nestled among mountain peaks alongside the swan-filled Traunsee, the landscape itself may have inspired the “Alpine” flavor of the unusual opening for two horns in unison. This is not a conventional slow introduction as is found in some Haydn and Beethoven symphonies, but a fully formed 8-bar theme that appears in a series of variations culminating with a seamless transition into the Allegro that follows. Its reappearance in the final measures of the movement in fortissimo unisons attest to its significance to the movement as a whole.
Here a note of “historically informed performance” is in order. Schubert wrote the opening Andante with the alla breve, sometimes called “cut time,” time signature: two beats per measure in a gentle, relaxed pace. However, later editions in the nineteenth century were printed as 4/4, or “common time,” or four beats per measure at the same pace, resulting in a tempo twice as slow as Schubert indicated. This discrepancy can be heard between interpretations by traditional “intuitive” conductors such as Bernstein, Muti, and Böhm and “historically informed” conductors such as Harnoncourt and Mackerras and, of course, McGegan. Performed as Schubert intended, the seventeen measures of triplets which precede the Allegro magically become the woodwind triplets in the third measure of the Allegro, creating an intensified continuation of the opening rather than the escape from a ponderous introduction. Even Schumann appreciated this rhythmic sleight-of-hand: “The passage from this [Andante] into the Allegro is wholly new; the tempo does not seem to change [italics mine] yet we reach port, we know not how.”
In the second measure of the opening horn theme, Schubert introduces a rhythmic motive (DAH-di-dum) that repeats five times in eight measures, the fifth time pianissimo and half as fast as the preceding one, like a distant and prolonged echo. This motive permeates much of the rest of the movement, often in opposition to repeated chords in triplets that animate slowly changing harmonies. Such motivic development was also a hallmark of Beethoven, notably in his Fifth Symphony.
The sonority of the Early Romantic orchestra is exploited throughout the symphony, and Schubert tests the limits of the period instruments of his day—so much so, in fact, that the London Philharmonic Society laughed it out of its first rehearsal. Schumann noted “the brilliancy and novelty of the instrumentation,” writing that “we must grant that he possessed an extraordinary talent in attaining to such idiomatic treatment of the single instruments as well as of the orchestral masses—they often seem to converse like human voices and choruses….”
The prominent independence of the woodwind parts, the antiphonal opposition of the strings to woodwind and brass choirs, and the unusual use of trombones in mysterious solo passages, kaleidoscopic pairings of solo winds, and passages in the style of military bands keep the instrumental textures constantly in flux. Schubert’s sudden modulations challenged the makers of woodwinds to modify their instruments to keep them in tune during ventures into remote keys. While Beethoven was the first to introduce trombones into the symphony (Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth), he used them sparingly and only for a single movement. Schubert, however, wrote for trombones throughout both his Unfinished and Great C Major Symphonies.
The listener can’t help but concur with Schumann’s appraisal of the symphony as a whole: “All must recognize, while listening to this symphony, that it reveals to us something more than mere beautiful song, mere joy and sorrow, such as music has ever expressed in a hundred ways, leading us into regions which, to our best recollection, we had never before explored…. Here we find, besides the most masterly technicalities of musical composition, life in every vein; coloring down to the finest gradation; meaning everywhere; sharp expression in detail; and in the whole a suffusing romanticism such as other works by Franz Schubert have made known to us.”