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Peer Gynt

Program Notes

Mozart: Don Giovanni Overture
Britten: Les illuminations
Grieg: Peer Gynt


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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Overture to Don Giovanni

Work composed: 1787
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: November 16, 1998; James DePreist, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 7 minutes

The day before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni, he hurriedly jotted down individual orchestral parts for the overture. According to several biographical accounts, the overture was finished – Mozart usually composed in his head before he wrote anything down – but, as was often his habit, Mozart did not commit it to paper until the last possible moment. When he led the orchestra in Prague’s Estates Theatre on October 29, 1787, Mozart conducted from memory.

Don Giovanni, Mozart’s second of three collaborations with the brilliant librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, tells the story of Don Juan, the world’s most famous seducer of women (legend credits him with more than 2,000 conquests). After the Don tries his luck with the noblewoman Donna Anna, her father, the Commendatore, challenges him to a duel; the Don subsequently kills him. In the opera’s final moments, the Commendatore’s ghost, in the form of a stone statue, returns to cast Don Juan into the eternal flames of Hell.

The overture’s slow introduction begins with two portentous D minor chords announcing the ghost’s arrival in the Don’s sumptuous villa. Ascending and descending scales plus formidable brass writing combine to foreshadow the opera’s powerful conclusion. Mozart contrasts this fateful beginning with an up-tempo section, whose lighthearted quality reflects da Ponte’s description of the libretto as an “opera giocoso” (comic opera). Don Giovanni’s enduring popularity rests in part on Mozart and da Ponte’s ingenious alternation of comic scenes with moments of grave import in their depiction of the Don’s flawed character.


Benjamin Britten

Les illuminations, Op. 18 

Work composed: 1939
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: October 1, 2011; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Dawn Upshaw, soprano
Instrumentation: soprano soloist and string orchestra
Estimated duration: 23 minutes 

The strong parallels between the lives of English composer Benjamin Britten and French poet Arthur Rimbaud enhance the joining of Britten’s music with Rimbaud’s rapturous prose poems. Rimbaud wrote the 42 poems later collected as Les illuminations between 1873 and 1875. The texts Britten set were composed while Rimbaud sojourned in London with his fellow poet and lover, Paul Verlaine. The texts have been compared to a travelogue, sparkling with the intensity of things and people glimpsed for the first time, the thrill of discovering new places, and the joy of sharing new experiences with a loved one. In a letter to soprano Sophie Wyss, who premiered the work in London on January 30, 1940, Britten described Les illuminations as “the visions of heaven that were allowed the poet, and I hope the composer.”

The cycle is organized, both thematically and musically, around a recurring line from one poem: “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” (“I alone have the key to this wild parade”). The soloist first declaims it with confident pride, but each time it returns, set with slight musical variations, its meaning shifts, perhaps suggesting that the key to the “wild parade,” i.e., life, can often elude one’s grasp.

When setting texts, Britten tended towards the numinous and obscure. Rimbaud’s abstract language provided an overall freedom, which fired his musical imagination, as well as an array of colorful images that lent themselves to dramatic musical treatments. English tenor Ian Bostridge, who recorded Les illuminations in 2005 for EMI Classics, concurs: “Britten’s use of French functions as a sort of theatrical mask. The role-playing it permits opens up a realm of freedom and fantasy which expands into and beyond Rimbaud’s linguistic virtuosity … Britten’s choice of Rimbaud is striking in so many ways: the overt homoeroticism; the identification with the predicament of the exile, Britten in (or close by) New York, Rimbaud in London, both cities evoked in ‘Villes’ in all their excitement and horror …”

Britten provided performance notes for Wyss, which have become invaluable clues to discerning the composer’s attitude towards his work. Regarding “Villes,” Britten wrote, “This poem, I believe, was written in London and certainly is a very good impression of the chaotic modern city life … I want it sung in a metallic and relentless fashion with the exclamation: ‘Ce sont des villes!’ somewhat sarcastically sung.” About “Royalty,” Britten said “[it is] pompous and satirical.The idea merely is that, given the right circumstances, it is in the power of anyone, however humble, to imagine himself King or God, whichever you prefer.” Referring to “Parade,” Britten again wrote to Wyss, “’Parade’ you will enjoy, because it is a picture of the underworld. It should be made to sound creepy, evil, dirty (apologies!), and really desperate.”

Two songs reveal personal relationships in Britten’s past and present. “Antique,” celebrating the “Gracious child of Pan,” is dedicated “to K.H.W.S.” (Wulff Scherchen), a 14-year-old boy Britten met when the composer was 21. The arpeggiated accompaniment for this song, in which the players strum their instruments like guitars, evokes the sound of an intimate serenade. “Being Beauteous,” is dedicated “to P.N.L.P.” (Peter Pears), Britten’s lifelong partner. Its simple declamatory style highlights the sensuous lyrics, especially “circles of muffled music make this adored body rise, swell and tremble like a specter …”


Edvard Grieg

Complete Incidental Music to Peer Gynt, Op. 23

Work composed: 1875
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: First complete Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, snare drum, tam tam, triangle, xylophone, piano, organ, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 102 minutes

The extraordinary popularity of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt suites has given listeners a passing familiarity with some of Grieg’s music for Henrik Ibsen’s play, but Grieg’s complete incidental music is not often heard. Today, Grieg’s music has completely overshadowed Ibsen’s masterpiece. Originally four hours long and written in verse, Peer Gynt’s dense and surreal plot features a repellent Faust-like protagonist hell-bent in pursuit of his own desires.

In 1874, Ibsen wrote Grieg to ask if he would be interested in writing incidental music for a forthcoming adaptation of Peer Gynt for the stage. Grieg agreed, but Ibsen’s request became a bigger project than either man imagined. Ibsen’s original version, originally conceived as a quasi-epic poem, was not intended for theatrical production; adapting Peer Gynt into a suitable stage play became problematic. Ibsen sent Grieg a detailed letter explaining how he planned to make Peer Gynt performable. “How much music and for which scenes you will compose it I naturally leave entirely to you; in this a composer obviously must have a completely free hand,” Ibsen wrote.

Grieg took 18 months to write 26 movements for Peer Gynt. He worked slowly, weighed down by the inherent difficulties of the task. In his letters, Grieg expressed frustration with the work: “It is a terribly difficult play for which to write music … [Peer Gynt] hangs over me like a nightmare.” While the subject matter of Peer Gynt was challenging enough, Grieg was also referring to the inadequate resources of the theater orchestra, which necessitated artistic compromises.

Peer Gynt’s premiere on February 24, 1876 in Christiania (now Oslo) garnered praise for both play and music; one review characterized the music as expressing “bold originality.” Although Grieg wrote to congratulate Ibsen, he himself remained dissatisfied, particularly with the orchestrations. For subsequent productions in 1888 and 1892, Grieg revised his score and also published both Peer Gynt suites.

Grieg’s graceful, expressive style does not reflect Ibsen’s vision of Peer Gynt. Instead of a brute whose unmitigated selfishness was intended to portray the worst excesses of society, Grieg’s Gynt is more of an adventurer. Grieg’s portrayal of the female characters also tempers the Nordic horror of Ibsen’s play. Gynt’s mother Åse’s death music is heartbreakingly beautiful, but not dismal. Anitra, a Bedouin girl Gynt kidnaps, performs her famous dance, a lilting tune in the tempo of a waltz. Both of Solveig’s songs are gently sweet, in keeping with her faithful nature. Throughout, Grieg’s music, including In the Hall of the Mountain King, which Grieg confessed in a letter he hated because “it absolutely reeks of cow pies, exaggerated Norwegian nationalism, and trollish self-sufficiency!” is highly effective as drama: evocative, richly descriptive but not overly bleak.


© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com