Prokofiev and SibeliusArlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
- Scherzo: Vivacissimo
- Karen Gomyo, violin
- Andante, ma rubato
- Finale: Allegro moderato
Composer: born May 22, 1813, Leipzig; died Feb. 13, 1883, Venice
Work composed: 1870
World premiere: Wagner led a small ensemble of 13 musicians in the premiere on his wife Cosima’s birthday, Dec. 25, 1870. The ensemble performed on the stairs outside Cosima’s bedroom in the Wagners’ home in Tribschen, Switzerland.
Oregon Symphony premiere: Mar. 14, 1915, with Mose Christensen conducting
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: May, 14, 2000, with Norman Leyden conducting
Instrumentation: flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet and strings
Unlike Wagner’s heroic, larger-than-life music dramas, the Siegfried Idyll could be described as “Wagner unplugged,” while scholar/critic Ernest Newman labeled it “a series of domestic confidences.”
Written as a combined Christmas and birthday gift for Wagner’s wife Cosima, Wagner’s original title was “Tribschener Idyll, with Fidi’s Birdsong and Orange Sunrise, as a Symphonic Birthday Greeting from Richard to Cosima.” (Tribschen was the Wagner’s home on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland; Fidi was the nickname of their 18-month-old son Siegfried). Wagner surprised Cosima with the idyll, going to great lengths to keep his rehearsals secret. At dawn on her birthday, Christmas Day 1870, Cosima was awakened by a small ensemble of 13 musicians arranged on the stairs and landing outside her bedroom.
The idyll, a musical love poem, is tender and intimate, full of private references known only to Wagner and Cosima. Cosima’s reaction to it was so profound she could not articulate it. In her diary, Cosima wrote:
“I can tell you nothing about this day, my children, nothing about my feelings, nothing about my mood, nothing, nothing. I shall merely inform you, plainly and simply, of what took place. A sound awoke me which grew ever stronger; I knew I was no longer dreaming, there was music, and what music! When it had died away, R. came into my room with the five children and gave me the score of his ‘Symphonic Birthday Greeting’ - I was in tears, so was everybody in the house. R. had placed his orchestra on the staircase, and thus our Tribschen is consecrated for all time.”
Most of the idyll’s themes are found in the opera Siegfried, but Wagner did not simply transfer themes from one work to the other. The first melody is heard in Act III of the opera, but it actually originated in a string quartet Wagner wrote for Cosima six years earlier. Similarly, the German folk lullaby “Schlaf’, Kindchen, schlafe,” played by solo oboe, was assumed to refer to the Wagners’ baby Siegfried. However, Newman discovered it was actually linked to the Wagners’ older daughter Eva. These and other musical references, whose meaning remained unknown to the outside world for many years, reveal the idyll’s levels of personal significance for both Wagner and Cosima.
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19
Composer: born Apr. 27, 1891, Sontsovka, Bakhmutsk region, Yekaterinoslav district, Ukraine; died Mar. 4, 1953, Moscow
Work composed: 1915-17
World premiere: Serge Koussevitzky conducted his orchestra in one of the Concerts Koussevitzky at the Paris Opéra on Oct. 18, 1923, with his concertmaster, Marcel Darrieux, as soloist.
Oregon Symphony premiere: Dec. 10, 1951, with James Sample conducting; Joseph Szigeti, violin soloist
Most recent Oregon Symphony performances: Jan. 6-8, 2001, with James DePreist conducting; Michael Foxman, violin soloist
Solo violin, 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tambourine, harp and strings
The first performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major was scheduled for November 1917 in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately for Prokofiev, the October Revolution swept across Russia that year, throwing the country into chaos. As a result, the Violin Concerto did not receive its premiere until 1923 in Paris.
A number of cultural celebrities were in attendance, including Pablo Picasso, composer Karol Szymanowski, dancer Anna Pavlova, pianist Artur Rubenstein and composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. Post-World War I Parisian audiences, who, according to musicologist Michael Steinberg “wanted their modern music to carry a certain shock value,” scoffed at the concerto’s lyricism and conventional format; composer Georges Auric’s sneering description of the concerto as “Mendelssohnian” summed up the Parisian point of view.
Prokofiev, however, had gone beyond the standard violin concerto format and put his own unique stamp on this time-honored musical genre. This was a kind of musical subversion, full of subtle and not-so-subtle surprises, which the Parisian audience clearly failed to appreciate. Audiences in Moscow, however, where the concerto was performed three days later in a version for violin and piano, received it with great enthusiasm.
Russian critic Israel Nestyev said he heard “the vibration of all the joy of living, all the love of sunshine and nature” in the Violin Concerto No. 1. The lyricism for which this music is rightly celebrated is a departure from the witty, ironic style we usually associate with Prokofiev. However, Prokofiev’s darker side is not completely subsumed. Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti was intrigued by “its mixture of fairytale naiveté and daring savagery.”
The first and third movements live up to Nestyev’s characterization. In the Scherzo, however, Prokofiev utilizes every possible string technique to create tension and agitation. At the time, several of these techniques were new and daring, particularly spiccato (staccato bowing) and sul ponticello (bowing close to the bridge, which produces a buzzing, nasal tone). Polish violinist Paweł Kochański, who was to have premiered the concerto in November 1917 in St. Petersburg, advised Prokofiev regarding violin technique. In combining the conventional virtuosity and lyrical melodies of a typical violin concerto with the in-your-face, avant-garde techniques of the Scherzo, Prokofiev expanded the definition of the violin concerto itself.
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
Composer: born Dec. 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland; died Sept. 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland
Work composed: 1901-02, begun while Sibelius was living in Italy; dedicated to Baron Axel Carpelan, who financed Sibelius’ sojourn in Italy
World premiere: Sibelius conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic on Mar. 8, 1902.
Oregon Symphony premiere: Dec. 1, 1947, with Werner Janssen conducting
Most recent Oregon Symphony performances: Sept. 21-23, 2002, with James DePreist conducting
Instrumentation:2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings
Estimated duration: 44 minutes
The reception of Sibelius’ music outside Finland is an interesting study in changing cultural tastes. Revered at home (Sibelius’ birthday is a national holiday), Sibelius was often ignored or dismissed abroad. In 1940, composer Virgil Thomson derided Sibelius’ Second Symphony as “vulgar, self-indulgent and provincial beyond all description.” Today it is Sibelius’ most popular and most recorded symphony.
In this buoyant, optimistic music, Finns heard the echoes of their own struggles for independence from Russia, and over time the Second Symphony has been understood as a metaphor of liberation. Robert Kajanus, founder and conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, is primarily responsible for this interpretation, when he said, not long after the symphony’s premiere: “The Andante strikes one as the most broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent. … The finale develops towards a triumphant conclusion intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future.”
For his part, Sibelius considered his symphonies “absolute” works, with no underlying narrative. In a 1934 interview, he explained, “My symphonies are music conceived and worked out solely in terms of music, with no literary basis. I am not a literary musician – for me, music begins where words cease. A scene can be expressed in painting, and a drama in words, but a symphony should be music first and last.”
Forty years earlier, however, Sibelius expressed a very different opinion. As a young composer, Sibelius was much influenced by Liszt’s music, particularly his tone poems, and Sibelius acknowledged this debt in 1894 when he characterized himself as “a tone painter and poet. Liszt’s view of music is the one to which I am closest.” This comment is particularly significant given that when Sibelius began writing what became the Second Symphony, he thought of it as a tone poem based on Don Juan. Only after he was well into composing did Sibelius come to think of this music as a symphony.
The genesis for the second movement is particularly intriguing. Sibelius wrote in his diary regarding a dream he’d had about Don Juan: “I was sitting in the dark in my castle when a stranger entered. I asked who he could be again and again – but there was no answer. … At last the stranger began to sing – and then Don Juan knew who it was. It was death.”
On the opposite page of his diary, Sibelius wrote down the opening theme of the Andante. The ominous portent of this theme grows in intensity, but just as it achieves its greatest tension, Sibelius introduces a lyrical melody that suggests Dulcinea. However, the initial underlying tension never fully dissipates.
© 2010 Elizabeth Schwartz
Program Notes by Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a Portland-based free-lance writer, researcher and musician. In addition annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony and other ensembles, she has also contributed to NPR’s Performance Today (now heard on American Public Media). Schwartz also co-hosts The Portland Yiddish Hour, heard at 10 a.m. Sundays on KBOO 90.7 FM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recommended Recordings by Michael Parsons
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Herbert von Karajan-Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 423613
Otto Klemperer-Philharmonia Orchestra
2-EMI Classics Great Recordings of the Century 67896
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1
Andre Previn-London Symphony Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 447758
Alceo Galliera-Philharmonia Orchestra
EMI Classics Great Recordings of the Century 62889
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2
Leonard Bernstein-Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
3-Deutsche Grammophon 474936
Sir John Barbirolli-Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
James DePreist-Oregon Symphony Orchestra
These selected recordings are available at Classical Millennium, located at 3144 E. Burnside in Portland.