Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Die Schopfung/The Creation, Hob. XXI:2 (1796-1798) The Representation of Chaos
World Premiere (private): 4/30/1798, Schwarzenberg Palace, Vienna; World Premiere (public): 3/19/1799,
Burgtheater, Michaelerplatz, Vienna.
Haydn was already world renowned, his fame cemented by his two sets of “London Symphonies,” wherein he showed he still had enough left in the tank to produce his greatest oratorios: “The Creation” and “The Seasons.” It’s interesting to note that the libretto for the former was originally meant for the composer whose mastery of the oratorio form inspired Haydn to emulate him in his own oratorios.
That libretto was originally written by Thomas Lidley for use by George Frideric Handel, based on John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” but went unused; it was then presented to Haydn while he was in London, where he was moved by the choral works of Handel (“Israel in Egypt” influenced “The Creation”). Performances of Handel’s music were pioneered in England by Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803), an amateur composer, director of the Viennese court library, leader of a group of nobility who sponsored private concerts for invited guests at the Schwarzenberg Palace, and eventual friend of not only Haydn (“The Creation,” “The Seasons”) but Mozart and Beethoven (who dedicated his First Symphony to him). Van Swieten took Lindley’s text and revamped it (going back to the Bible) for Haydn, who worked closely with him. Still, Haydn had doubts, which proved unfounded: “The Creation” was a hit from the start. It was also, in 1808, the last work he attended: he died in 1809.
In three parts, “The Creation” contains elements of the Handelian oratorio, Viennese Mass, the earlier Italian oratorio (such as Haydn’s own “Il ritorno di Tobia”), and the late-period Haydnesque symphony, all masterfully woven into one massive whole. Its greatness is established from the opening prelude: Die Vorstellung des Chaos” (“The Representation of Chaos”), an instrumental number set in C minor (uncommon in Haydn’s time to begin a choral work in the minor mode) and filled with dissonant chords and chord progressions and clashing harmonies, all to denote the “Chaos” producing Heaven and Earth. Although under superior restraint and control, this is, in terms of tonality and contrapuntal treatment, the most un-Haydnesque passage in all his music – the witty Haydn with his biggest “surprise” ever.
Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884): The Bartered Bride, B. 131, T. 93 JB. 1:100 (1862-1866; rev. 1866, 1868-1869, 1869, 1870)
World Premiere (orig.): 5/30/1866, Provisional Thea., Prague, composer cond.; premieres of revised versions: 10/1866, 1/29/1869, 6/1/1869, 9/25/1870, all at the same venue.
Smetana was a Czech nationalist who fought in the civil wars engulfing Bohemia, wrote pieces that extolled the virtues of being Bohemian – especially “The Moldau” (part of his Ma vlast/My Fatherland series of symphonic poems) – and systematically set about to establish himself in his homeland as conductor, critic and, finally, composer.
He was named Principal Conductor of Prague’s leading theatre, the Provisional, where he tried to establish the national opera of Bohemia with his comic opera Prodana nevesta (The Bartered Bride – literally, The Sold Bride). Originally a two-act opera with spoken dialogue set to an original libretto by Karel Sabina (1813-1877; also librettist of Smetana’s first opera), it morphed over time (1866-1870) into a three-act opera with recitatives replacing spoken lines. One of the few operas set in a circus (Act III), it tells the story of young lovers, ambitious parents and a conniving marriage broker, with a “love conquers all” ending. Initially a failure – it didn’t help matters that the premiere took place during a heat wave, on a holiday that had people leaving Prague for the countryside, and under threat of an impending invasion by Prussian forces – it gradually, through revisions and time, became the national opera of Bohemia (now, Czech Republic) that Smetana had hoped it would be, even though he wound up writing seven more operas (including a fragment). No fewer than five film adaptations (including two silents!) and one for television have been made of the opera, and several minor Czech composers have been inspired to write their “takes” on portions of the opera.
Although he utilized only one folk-tune, Smetana used folk-rhythms in many of the other numbers of the opera, giving it a folkloric flavor. Two of those numbers, a Polka and a Furiant, will be played tonight. These dances are Czech (Bohemian) in origin. Added to the third (1868-1869) version of the opera, the Polka, concluding Act I, is a vibrant Bohemian dance in duple time propelled forward by dotted rhythms and accented phrasing. The Furiant, added to the fourth (1869) version and moved to follow the Act II Opening Chorus in the final version, is a quick, lively Bohemian dance punctuated by accents that shifts the metric feel between duple and triple within this triple-time dance.
Charles Gounod (1818-1893): Faust (1852-1859, rev. 1860, 1869)
“King of Thule” and the Jewel Song
World Premiere (orig.): 3/19/1859, Theatre Lyrique, Paris, Adolphe Deloffre, cond.
The Faust legend dates back to the 16th century and is based on the historical figure of Johann Georg Faust (1466 or c. 1480/81-c. 1541), German alchemist-astrologer and dabbler in black magic, who may have even been two “Fausts” (Johann and Georg), hence the two disparate birth years. His fame (or infamy, if you will) began spreading in the late 16th century, solidified by Christopher Marlowe in his 1589/92 play, “The Tragicall Histoy [sic] of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus,” and immortalized by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in his his influential two-part dramatic prose drama (a non staged play), “Faust. Eine Tragodie/A Tragedy” (Part One: 1790s-1806, rev. 1828-1829; Part Two: completed by 1831). Goethe’s Faust inspired Hector Berlioz to write his 1828-1829, 1845-1846 legende dramatique, “La damnation de Faust.” Franz Schubert (“Gretchen at the Spinning-Wheel”), Robert Schumann (the secular oratorio, “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust”) and Richard Wagner (“Faust Overture”) preceded Berlioz, while Franz Liszt (“A Faust Symphony”), Arrigo Boito (opera “Mefistofele”), Gustav Mahler (Symphony No. 8), Igor Stravinsky (“Soldier’s Tale”) and Ferruccio Busoni (opera “Doktor Faust”) were among those after him to be inspired by Goethe’s treatment.
Likewise Gounod, whose “Faust” many consider the definitive operatic treatment of the legend. Perhaps best known for his “Ave Maria” that combines an original melody of his to the Prelude No. 1 in C Major from “The Well-tempered Klavier” of J. S. Bach (1853), Gounod wrote a dozen other operas, with “Romeo et Juliette” coming in a close second in popularity to “Faust.” The five-act tragedy has a libretto by Jules Barbier (1825-1901) and Michel Carré (1821-1872), based on the latter’s play, “Faust et Marguerite,” in turn loosely based on Goethe’s “Faust,” Part One. After a successful initial run at the Theatre Lyrique, “Faust” was fitted with recitatives replacing spoken dialogue for a European tour. For its Paris Opera premiere in 1869, Gounod had to shoehorn in the obligatory Act V ballet (“Walpurgisnacht”) in order for “Faust” to be allowed to play at the Opera. “Faust” also made history by becoming the opera that opened the original Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in 1883.
“Il était un roi de Thulé” (There was a King of Thule), the Act III ballad (aria) for Marguerite, with a text based on a 1774 poem, “Der Konig in Thule,” by Goethe, who later included it in “Faust,” and the Jewel Song that follows, “Ah! je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir!” (“Ah, I laugh at seeing myself so beautiful in this mirror!”), are the two most popular parts of the opera, having attained fame far outstripping the opera’s popularity, which isn’t as great as it once was. Both arias – it is considered one aria in two parts in the score – are sung by Marguerite, who first ruminates on the stranger she’s just met (Faust) and wonder if he is a faithful man; then, when she sees jewels for the first time in her life and tries them on, she fantasizes how they make her look like a princess and that stranger would then fall for her.
Samuel Barber (1910-1981): Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24 (1947; rev. 1950)
World Premiere: 4/9/1948, Eleanor Steber, soprano, Boston Sym. Orch., Serge Koussevitzky, cond.
World Premiere (rev.): 4/1/1950, Steber, Dumbarton Oaks Chamber Orchestra, Washington, D. C.
The man forever known as the “Adagio for Strings” composer was more than a one-hit wonder. Samuel Osborne Barber II was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (for the opera “Vanessa,” 1958, and Piano Concerto, 1962) and winner of the 1947 New York Music Critics’ Circle Award (Cello Concerto), while another opera, “Antony and Cleopatra,” was commissioned to open the Metropolitan Opera’s new house in New York City’s Lincoln Center.
American-trained soprano Eleanor Steber (1914-1990) commissioned Barber to compose “Knoxville,” which sets excerpts of “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a 1938 short prose by James Agee (1909-1955) which ultimately serves as a preamble to his posthumously published, Pulitzer Prize-winning (1958) autobiographical novel, “A Death in the Family” (authentic version, 2007). Steber sang the world premieres of both the original and revised versions and made the first recording of it (for Columbia,1950).
Barber’s self-described “lyric rhapsody” for high voice and lightly-scored orchestra nostalgically depicts the idyllic last year Agee, then 6 in 1915, experienced his family being whole, as his father died in a car accident in 1916 and his family left his native Knoxville forever. By a tragic coincidence, Barber was enduring his father’s deteriorating health while writing this in 1947. “Knoxville” doesn’t tell a story so much as it paints a dreamy, lush picture of a hot summer night in the American South as seen through the eyes of a young boy (Agee), who notes family members sitting around, talking about nothing important or in particular, yet he then gets serious, alluding to the impending tragedy awaiting his family. The work is in rondo form with an introduction.
Jerome Kern (1885-1945) & Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960): Show Boat (1926-1927)
World Premiere: 11/15/1927, National Thea., Washington, D. C.; Broadway Premiere: 12/27/1927,
Ziegfeld Thea., 1 1/2 years, 572 perfs.
Many people believe that the show that changed the course of Broadway musicals was “Oklahoma!” That may well be – the frivolous, fluffy musicals dropped in number precipitously soon after – but it was not the first “integrated” musical, where story, songs, dances, acting and directing are integrated into a cohesive entertainment: “Show Boat” preceded it by some 16 years. Although it maintains some aspects of the 1920s musical comedy – humor provided by a secondary couple, lots of slapstick, comic songs, etc. – it also deals with such serious topics as racism, marital abandonment, alcoholism, prejudice and revenge. That’s due to the creators’ insistence on being faithful to their source: the 1926 novel “Show Boat” by Edna Ferber (1885-1968), Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “So Big” (1924), who originally was horrified when asked for the rights (she thought a light musical treatment would destroy her book), but was soon placated by Kern and Hammerstein. The gestation period took longer than typical (more than a year) but was worth it: a respectful adaptation of a book with serious subjects, treated seriously.
Originally four-and-a-half hours long when it had its first out-of-town tryout in the nation’s capital, “Show Boat,” in two acts, managed just over three hours by the time it reached Broadway two days after Christmas. Kern, one of the Big Five of Broadway composers in the first half of the 20th century, was already well-known for his successful “Princess Theatre” shows that sowed the seeds for the integrated musical; while Hammerstein, a former law student, showed promise as a talented lyricist and book writer, both functions which he served for “Show Boat.” Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., the “glorifier of the American Girl” thanks to the Follies that bear his name, was the unlikely producer of this, his greatest success. Sammy Lee was the “dance director” (now called “choreographer”) and Zeke Colvan the listed director, though was little more than stage manager, with Hammerstein being the de facto director.
Tonight’s medley of hits from “Show Boat” include “Why Do I Love You?,” “You are Love,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ dat Man of Mine,” “Make Believe,” “Bill” – written for another Kern musical, “Oh, Lady! Lady!!,” from 1917, with lyrics by Sir Pelham Grenville “P. G.” Wodehouse (1881-1975), but dropped for being too sad for that frivolous “Princess” musical – and, most famously of all, “Ol’ Man River,” a mild protest song (in disguise) sung by Joe, a black stevedore seemingly nonchalant about life who actually suppresses a frustration with the surrounding racism he endures.
George Gershwin (1898-1937): “Embraceable You” and “Someone to Watch over Me”
Arguably the most popular American composer of all time, both in terms of pop music and classical music, Jakov Moisheevich Gershowitz – no one ever called him “Jake” – is another of the Big Five of Broadway composers. (In case anyone’s interested, the other members of this exclusive club are Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers.) Unlike the other four, Gershwin yearned to be taken seriously as a classical composer, despite not having any formal musical training beyond a handful of piano lessons he clearly did not need, being a naturally gifted pianist. The Gershwin family purchased a piano for older brother Ira Gershwin to take lessons, yet it was George who took to it as a fish to water. (Ira felt relieved and focused on reading and writing.) When still in his teens, George became a songplugger: first of others’ songs, then tried his own hand at it. From there, he would have his songs interpolated in Broadway shows by other composers, with “Swanee” becoming his first mega-hit (thanks to Al Jolson, who promoted it vigorously). From there it was a small step to fashioning an entire Broadway score – then Broadway hits. Yet at the same time (1924), he wanted to conquer the concert hall – and began with “Rhapsody in Blue,” which maintains its classic status to this day, nearly a century later. Ever progressive, Gershwin first established the Roaring ’20s Broadway fluff, beginning with “Lady, Be Good!” (also 1924); yet three years later, having already conquered that realm, he wanted to write the first integrated musical – and very nearly succeeded: “Strike Up the Band” closed out of town due to audiences staying away from its sarcastic tone, which left the path open for “Show Boat” to become the first.
Undeterred, the Gershwins – Ira having established his own career as lyricist and becoming his brother’s
most frequent collaborator – went on to “Of Thee I Sing,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for all involved (book writers, lyricist) except George, as he “only” wrote the music. Four years later, the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward created the three-act folk opera “Porgy and Bess,” George’s magnum opus. Less than two years later, he was dead of a brain tumor. What he could have accomplished had he lived even a little longer, one can only imagine. He was planning on a Broadway musical based on American history, a jazz ballet and a jazz-drenched symphony. And he was determined to conquer the film musical, which he got into only the last year of his life. Still, he managed close to 700 songs in his short life of 38 years.
The Gershwins originally wrote “Embraceable You” for an unproduced 1928 operetta, “East Meets West.” Never one to waste a song, it was included in their 1930 musical comedy, “Girl Crazy,” where a young ingenue named Ginger Rogers sang and danced to it. The choreography? Done by Fred Astaire – before their first pairing in the 1933 film “Flying Down to Rio.” Billie Holiday’s 1944 cover was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2005. (“Girl Crazy” also introduced a total unknown named Ethel Merman, who, after belting out “I Got Rhythm” on Opening Night 10/14/1930, was not unknown any longer.)
As for “Someone to Watch over Me,” it was written for the show “Oh, Kay!,” a “Princess”-styled musical (note the use of “Oh” and exclamation points) starring Gertrude Lawrence, who sang the song to a rag doll Gershwin saw in a toy store shortly before Opening Night 11/8/1926. The song was early in Act II, yet originally was in the Prologue to Act I during out-of-town tryouts; when the Prologue was ditched, George wanted to save the song and so moved it to Act II. It became, like “Embraceable You,” a Gershwin classic.