Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): “Le nozze di Figaro”/”The Marriage of Figaro,” K. 492 (1785-1786), Overture
Completed two days before its premiere, “Figaro” is the first of an unofficial trilogy of Mozart operas (the others: “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi fan tutte”) with libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838), born Emanuele Conegliano. (Da Ponte eventually became a priest and the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia in New York City, where he also became a naturalized American citizen.) The four-act opera buffa is based on the second of an official trilogy of politically charged, revolutionary, semi-autobiographical comedies about Figaro, a jack-of-all-trades who does not heed the authoritarian rule of the nobility. This made the plays “dangerous” for the royals in power, who banned them for a time. (The plays became wildly popular nonetheless.) The Beaumarchais play on which “Figaro” is based was first performed publicly in 1784, six years after it was written, due to censorship problems, but ran for 68 performances – compared to a paltry nine for Mozart’s opera, which, however, was still deemed a success.
Da Ponte left out the more volatile politics of the Beaumarchais original but left in the social tensions between the characters, reflecting their social standing. This imbues the opera buffa genre with a seriousness hitherto unknown, expanding its range to make the characters more realistic with added depth, all wonderfully brought out through Mozart’s incomparable music. The story concerns Figaro, the former “Barber” of Seville who helped Count Almaviva attain Rosina’s hand in marriage in the first play (and Rossini’s opera, which came after Mozart’s), now preparing for his own marriage to Susanna, maid to Rosina – now, the Countess, who bemoans the loss of love from her husband, who lusts after Figaro’s fiancée. Through a whole series of mistaken identities, awkward situations, suspicions, wild excuses, even wilder coincidences, and outright lies and deception, it all somehow comes out just fine in the end: Figaro and Susanna marry, Susanna keeps her virtue safe from the Count, and a most repentant Count asks his patient and forgiving wife for her pardon. Through all this, the action never lets up for a moment, foremost in the ensemble numbers that push the plot along ever-forward – most especially the Act II finale, 20 minutes of nonstop built-up tension and action, and the Act III sextet, reportedly Mozart’s favorite number of the entire opera.
The opera’s “crazed” atmosphere is present from the start with this effervescent, bubbling overture. In the opera’s home key of D major and truncated sonata form (three main themes, but no development) with coda, it was to have included a slow interlude in the middle, but lack of time precluded that. Yet afterwards, Mozart realized that the overture was perfect just the way it was: containing no melodies from the opera itself but setting up “mood lighting” that captures the spirited essence and hijinks of this comic opera.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Siegfried-Idyll, WWV 103
(1870, rev. 1878)
Both a surprise Christmas (12/25) and birthday (12/24) present for his wife Cosima Liszt-von Bulow-Wagner (1837-1930), “Siegfried-Idyll” was originally titled “Tribschen-Idyll, with Fidi’s Bird-Song and the Orange Sunrise, as Symphonic Birthday Greeting. Presented to his Cosima by her Richard” – Tribschen being where they were living in exile in Switzerland, “Bird-Song” and “Orange Sunrise” presumably family incidents worth remembering, and “Fidi” the nickname for their son Siegfried, named after the title hero of the third of Wagner’s four operas making up the “Ring” cycle who was then 18 months old. Originally for small orchestra, “Tribschen-Idyll” was played Christmas morning, gently awakening mother and son. Performed exactly four months after their wedding (the second for both), it was meant as a private work, but Wagner, driven by dire financial circumstances, was eventually forced to sell it. So in 1878, he retitled it “Siegfried-Idyll” and expanded the orchestration from 13 to 35 players, the version usually played today. It quotes a German lullaby, “Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf” (Sleep, Little Child, Sleep), a reference to the couple’s daughter, Ewa (named after another Wagnerian operatic character), and includes several motives from an unfinished chamber work, which, in turn, were incorporated into the final scene of Act III of “Siegfried,” twenty years in the making, completed 1871 and premiered 1876.
Tender, delicate, intimate and peaceful throughout, “Siegfried-Idyll” is not typical Wagner. He had intended to convey his love for wife and family. (They stayed married until his death.) One of his rare non-operatic works, it does have an operatic connection – but only after it was composed as a stand-alone. Even the original 13-player version has a symphonic quality that’s surprising, considering the small number of players, thanks to his expert use of instrumental combinations, producing amazing tone-colors. In its twenty-minute running time, it never rises above the serenity it establishes from the start.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Symphony No. 4 in A Major-A Minor, “Italian,” Op. 90
(1830-1833, rev. 1834-1835 and thereafter)
Composer, pianist, violinist, violist, cellist, organist, singer, conductor. Classical scholar and avid reader of poetry, philosophy, literature and drama. Linguist, traveler, athlete. Critic, painter, draftsman. Master chess, cards and billiards player. Music historian who single-handedly revitalized interest in Bach via his revival of the latter’s “St. Matthew Passion.” A prolific writer, leaving behind hundreds of letters that reveal a keen mind and perceptive observations on life. And he was dead at the age of 38, after a series of strokes.
This was Mendelssohn, who came from a rich family who afforded him the best that life could offer. Called “the Mozart of the 19th century” by none other than Robert Schumann, he was officially Jakob Ludwig Felix Dessau ben-Abraham Mendelssohn-Bartholdy – Felix at birth, Jakob and Ludwig at baptism, age 7 (he was born Jewish), Dessau being the original family name (after the city), ben-Abraham after the Jewish custom, Mendelssohn being the by-then accepted family name, and Bartholdy being his mother’s maiden name which his parents hyphenated after “Mendelssohn” since he was 3.
His Symphony No. 4 in A Major is, chronologically, the third of seven symphonies (five complete) for full orchestra, written after he composed thirteen symphonies for strings. Art, nature, personal experiences, contact with the Italian people all figure into this, his most popular symphony, which he called “Italian” in his letters, as it was partially inspired by his 1829-1830 travels through the British Isles and Italy. This inspiration proved more fluid than that of Scotland on his Symphony No. 3, which through fits and starts was finally finished in 1842.
The sonata-form first movement, Allegro vivace, is full of the excitement the composer felt during his visit to Italy, painting an evocative soundscape with a dominating principal theme that is energetic and bouncing yet very concise. The second movement, Andante con moto, is based on a chant-like Czech pilgrim song he heard while in Italy, cast in a march-like tempo and rhythm and thus evoking a solemn pilgrims’ procession, full of restraint and nobility. The scherzo-and-trio movement, Con moto moderato, was inspired by “Lilis Park,” a humorous-yet-sensual love poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for Goethe’s fiancee Lili Schönemann (Mendelssohn’s depiction of Italy being the country of great lovers?); in his November 1830 letter to his sister Fanny, he states that “I want to turn Lilis Park into a scherzo for a symphony.” The famous finale (Saltarello. Presto), in sonata form (but no expositional repeat), uses the dance forms of saltarello and tarantella, both in 6/8 time. The saltarello is a lively, Tuscany-originated, medieval-Renaissance couple’s dance of leaps, hops and skips (saltare: to jump, leap). The tarantella, first heard in the development section, is a couple’s dance that gets faster and faster; it comes from Taranto, a town in southern Italy, where medieval legend has it that, if bitten by the spider, or tarantula, one must dance increasingly faster until the poison is completely sweated out or the person dies. Mendelssohn heard these rhythms while in Rome (saltarello) and Naples (tarantella) and combines them in the recapitulation to propel the symphony to an exhilarating finish – most unusual, in the parallel minor (A minor) of the home key!