Stephen Hough Plays Mendelssohn

Program Notes

L. Boulanger: Of a Sad Evening
L. Boulanger: Of a Spring Morning
Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No. 1
Schumann: Symphony No. 1, “Spring”

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Lili Boulanger
1893–1918

Of a Sad Evening
Of a Spring Morning

Works composed: 1917–18

First Oregon Symphony performance

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, sarrusophone (or contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, bass drum, castanets, cymbals, tambourine, tam-tam, timbales, triangle, celeste, harp, and strings

Estimated duration: 11 minutes (Of a Sad Evening); 5 minutes (Of a Spring Morning)

Women composers, like other female creative artists, have had to fight battles their male counterparts do not. Even today, a woman artist, writer, or composer often gets evaluated on criteria that have little or nothing to do with her work, and everything to do with her gender, her appearance, or her life circumstances. Lili Boulanger was no exception.

The younger sister of composer and pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught composition to many of the 20th century’s most distinguished composers, Lili Boulanger revealed her enormous talent at a very young age. A musical prodigy born into a musical family, she became the first woman to win the coveted Prix de Rome, France’s most prestigious composition prize, in 1913, at the age of twenty. Boulanger’s compositional style, while grounded in the prevailing aesthetics associated with Debussy, is nonetheless wholly her own. Her music features rich harmonic colors, along with archaic modal tonalities, hollow chords (open fifths and octaves), ostinato figures, running arpeggios, and static rhythms.

Along with her tremendous musical ability, Boulanger was born with a chronic, debilitating intestinal illness, probably Crohn’s disease. Today there are drugs and other therapies to manage this condition, but in Boulanger’s time the illness itself had neither name nor cure, and its treatment was likewise little understood. Throughout her short life, Boulanger suffered from chronic abdominal pain, bouts of uncontrollable diarrhea, and constant fatigue; all these symptoms naturally impacted her stamina and her ability to work. Contemporary reviews of Boulanger’s work always emphasized her physical fragility, often in lieu of a thoughtful assessment of her music.

Despite illness, Boulanger continued composing, even on her deathbed. Of a Sad Evening and Of a Spring Morning are two of the last works she wrote. The two works treat the same opening melodic and rhythmic theme in different ways: in Of a Sad Evening, the tempo is slow and the mood elegiac, while the same melodic/rhythmic fragment receives a cheerful, puckish treatment in Of a Spring Morning. Of a Sad Evening cannot escape being interpreted as Boulanger’s own musical obituary, and perhaps also an elegy for the soldiers lost in WWI, while Of a Spring Morning can be heard as a nostalgic reflection on happier days gone by.

 

Felix Mendelssohn
1809–47

Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25

Work composed: 1830–31

Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: November 12, 1991; Norman Leyden, conductor; Bella Davidovich, piano

Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Estimated duration: 21 minutes

Felix Mendelssohn may not have been an iconoclast, like Ludwig van Beethoven, but he did stretch musical expectations on occasion, particularly in the opening moments of the G Minor Piano Concerto. The solo piano announces itself with an almost defiant aura (piano concertos of this period usually began with a long orchestral introduction before the soloist entered). The agitated Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) of G minor dominates the outer movements, while the rhapsodic central section features an intimate duet between piano and strings. In another break from convention, Mendelssohn links all three movements without pause, presenting the concerto as a unified whole.

The last movement has a “look what I can do” quality, as the soloist executes dazzling runs of shimmering notes. The soloist’s virtuosity is on full display here, and the pianist hardly gets a moment’s rest as the music catapults forward to an exuberant conclusion.

Mendelssohn performed the solo part at the concerto’s premiere in Munich on October 17, 1831.My concert took place yesterday and was much more brilliant and successful than I had expected,” wrote Mendelssohn to his father the day after the premiere. “The affair went off well, and with much spirit … My concerto met with a long and vivid reception. The orchestra accompanied well and the work itself was really quite wild.”

The G Minor Concerto became a standard of the repertoire of several virtuoso 19th-century pianists, including Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt. Opus 25’s popularity led to an “incident” described by Hector in which an Erard piano, which had been used to perform the concerto 30 times in a row, became possessed by the music and could not stop playing it – sans pianist – until it was unceremoniously chopped up with an axe and burned. Berlioz ends his “anecdote” with a nod and a wink: “Such a fine instrument! We were heartbroken, but what could we do?”

 

Robert Schumann
1810–56

Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 38, “Spring”

Work composed: 1841

Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: January 14, 2013; Christoph König, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, and strings

Estimated duration: 30 minutes

“I wrote the symphony in that rush of spring which carries a man away even in his old age, and comes over him anew every year. Description and painting were not a part of my intention, but I believe that the time in which it came into existence may have influenced its shape and made it what it is.” – Robert Schumann

Why would anyone compose a symphony with the subtitle “Spring” during the month of January? In the midst of the darkest, coldest time of year, thoughts of spring can ease the harshness of winter. As Robert Schumann sketched out his First Symphony during four hectic days in January 1841, his longing for spring in the midst of a bitter Leipzig winter inspired him. Spring and its associations of love, fertility, and new beginnings were foremost in Schumann’s thoughts; he was a newly married man, having wed Clara Wieck in the autumn of 1840. “After many sleepless nights comes prostration,” Schumann wrote in his diary after completing the orchestration for the “Spring” Symphony, in February 1841. “I feel like a young woman who has just given birth – so relieved and happy, but also sick and sore.” The reference to childbirth was not accidental; that winter, Clara was pregnant with their first child, Marie.

Schumann tended to immerse himself in particular genres over specific periods of time. In 1841, he composed no less than four works for orchestra, and scholars have come to call 1841 his “symphonic year.” Before 1841, Schumann had been known for piano music, songs, and chamber works; some considered him more critic than composer, because of his writings in Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik and the fact that he had not yet produced the pinnacle of compositional achievement, a symphony. In 1839, Clara wrote in her diary, “it would be best if he [Schumann] composed for orchestra; his imagination cannot find sufficient scope on the piano … His compositions are all orchestral in feeling … My highest wish is that he should compose for orchestra – that is his field!”

Schumann’s musical ideas for the “Spring” Symphony came from a poem by Adolph Böttger, which begins with the lines “O wende, wende deinen Lauf/Im Thale blüht der Frühling auf!” (O turn, O turn and change your course/In the valley spring blooms forth!) The symphony opens with an instrumental setting of these two lines: the brasses, in Schumann’s description, “summon to life,” while the orchestra reveals a valley glowing with spring flowers. Schumann originally wrote a descriptive title for each movement, rather than a simple tempo marking. The Larghetto was originally called “Evening,” and its graceful, somewhat elegiac main theme, played first by the violins and later by a solo horn and oboe, are a tranquil backdrop against which the energy of the Scherzo (“Merry Playmates”) creates a marked contrast. The last movement, “Farewell to Spring,” begins with a grand orchestral flourish, followed by a dainty theme for strings, which Schumann cautioned should not be “played too frivolously.”

Felix Mendelssohn conducted the premiere with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on March 31, 1841. “The performance of the symphony went magnificently,” writes Gewandhaus Orchestra historian Alfred Dörffel. “The listeners were extraordinarily excited … the success with all present was such that the symphony was much discussed and Schumann was viewed in a much different light and recognized to a greater degree than previously.”

© 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