Romantic Spirit

Carl Maria von Weber

Carl Maria von Weber

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), one of first great composers of the Romantic era, was born in Eutin, Holstein and showed musical talent at an early age.  His mother was a singer and his father was involved in the directorship of various musical organizations. He was born with a congenital hip disease and could not walk until he was four years old, at which age he was already a capable pianist and singer.  Weber was related to Mozart by marriage, his father being the brother of the father of Mozart’s wife, Constance Weber.  The young Carl and his family moved a lot and Carl received most of his education from his father.  Some of his other teachers included oboist Johann Peter Heuschkel, composer Michael Haydn (Franz Joseph’s brother), and the renowned pedagogue Georg Joseph Vogler, also known as Abbé Vogler.

One of Weber’s early professional career highlights included the directorship of Breslau Opera in 1806 which ended shortly thereafter in 1807. In the 1810’s, he became successively director of the operas in Prague and Dresden.   He composed the first of his three illustrious final operas, Der Freischütz, in 1821, followed by Euryanthe in 1823, and finally Oberon in 1824.  Weber wrote his last opera for the English public and died of tuberculosis upon a trip to London in 1826 to finish the work and conduct the premiere.

Musically, Weber is remembered as the father of modern German Romantic opera and as a major influence to composer Richard Wagner.  Weber wrote full-fledge operas in the German language with recitatives, and pioneered the use of leitmotiv.   He was also revered as a master of orchestration by later composers.

The opera Euryanthe is based on the 13th-century story of count Adolar who makes a wager to Lysiart that Adolar’s bethroted, Euryanthe, will always be and truthful and faithful to him.  In the meantime the young Eglantine, who is in love with Adolar, learns from Euryanthe that Adolar’s sister had died in battle and that her soul would not rest until her ring was moistened with the tears of an innocent young maiden.  Eglantine shares this secret with Lysiart who then assists Eglantine in securing the ring from the tomb.  Lysiart shows it to Adolar, explaining that Euryanthe could not be trusted with such an important secret since she had shared it with him.  Adolar admits to losing the wager and runs into the woods searching for Euryanthe, intending to kill her.  A serpent gets in the way of Adolar and Euryanthe, and Euryanthe gets in front of it to protect Adolar.  Following this scene, Adolar cannot find the courage to kill Euryanthe and runs back to the court.  But at his return, Lysiart’s deception is exposed, and Euryanthe, whom all believed to be dead, comes back to the castle.  Her tears moisten the ring and the soul of Adolar’s sister can ultimately find rest.

Euryanthe has proven difficult to stage because of the weak libretto provided by poetess Helmina von Chézy.  The first production was successful but the shortcomings of the literary adaptation were already obvious to many.  The music though, with its uninterrupted musical flow, innovative chromatic harmonies and subtle orchestration, had set a new bar for German opera.

As was customary with many composers of that era, Weber wrote the Overture last.  Following an engaging opening featuring rapid arpeggios and scales, the first theme, taken from Adolar’s  aria “I trust in God and my Euryante”  is played.  The second theme is from Adolar’s other famous aria, “O bliss, I scarce can fathom”.  The development is preceded with music from the Ghost scene of the opera, featuring eight muted solo violins.  The Overture concludes with the return of the opening themes, in accordance with sonata-form structure.

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), the grandson of renowned philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and son of banker Abraham Mendelssohn, was born in Hamburg, Germany and brought up in a comfortable household with his financial, emotional, and intellectual needs being met from childhood.   His family moved to Berlin in 1811, and his early musical gifts were noted, as well as his prodigious facility in writing, drawing, and painting.  His sister Fanny, to whom he stayed close until her death, was also equally gifted.  His family was of Jewish origins but Protestant by conversion.

Mendelssohn’s instrument of predilection was the piano, which he began learning at age 6.  He studied composition under Carl Friedrich Zelter, a conservative musician who rejected the new music of Beethoven, Berlioz, and Schumann.  He instilled in young Felix the love of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach – largely forgotten at that time.  Mendelssohn resurrected Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in a Berlin performance in 1829, at the age of 20, and reinstated the Baroque master as a marking figure of music history.  Mendelssohn had a tremendous respect for the music of the past.  His music, though Romantic in appearance, is classical in structure and conception.  As a conductor, Mendelssohn was also named the director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835. In 1843, he founded the Leipzig Conservatoire, which reflected his traditional and conservative views on music composition.

Mendelssohn died in 1847 at the early age of 38 from a series of strokes, probably the result of nervous problems and exhaustion.  His beloved sister Fanny had preceded him in death only four months earlier.  As a composer, Mendelssohn embodied Classical refinement with a moderate sense of Romantic sensibility.  An interesting aspect of his musical style is that Mendelssohn reached compositional maturity at an early age, and that his style evolved little from that point on.

The composer began contemplating writing his violin concerto in 1838, as indicated through his correspondence with violinist and close personal friend Ferdinand David, whom he knew from his childhood.  In a series of letters, Mendelssohn asked David for technical advice for the piece, leaving nothing to chance as to the playability and quality of this work.  Mendelssohn had previously written a Violin Concerto in D minor in his early years of composition, between the ages 12 and 14, but he wanted this particular accomplishment to be the solo violin work for which he would be remembered.  Mendelssohn finished the piece in 1844 and it was premiered by David on March 13, 1845.  Niels Gade conducted the premiere because Mendelssohn was sick.  The concerto was a popular and critical success and has remained one of the most admired violin concertos of the repertoire since then.

Not known for his groundbreaking approach to composition, Mendelssohn here nevertheless accomplishes some firsts that have had a significant impact on the composition of future concertos.  First, the solo violinist comes in after only two bars of orchestral introduction, doing away with the concept of the double-exposition championed by earlier composers (namely, to have the main tunes of the movement played first by the orchestra, then by the soloist.)  Second, Mendelssohn wrote out the whole cadenza, and inserted it right before the recapitulation of themes, making it an integral part of the composition and not simply an empty showcase of virtuosity coming in right before the end.  Lastly, Mendelssohn linked the three movements of the piece with musical transitions, moving away from the usual succession of independent movements preferred by earlier composers.

As noted, the first movement, Allegro molto appassionato, begins almost immediately with the first theme haunting and lyrical played by the soloist.  The contrasting second peaceful and radiant theme in G major is then introduced by the woodwinds under a pedal note from the solo violin. The tumultuous development ensues, leading into the cadenza, itself leading directly into the recapitulation.

The second movement, Andante, is connected to the first through a sustained B played by the solo bassoon.  The movement, in ABA form, contrasts a lyrical first theme in the key of C major, reminiscent of the style of one Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, and an animated and introspective middle section in the key of A minor.  The opening material is brought back at the end of the movement, once again leading into a transitional section, Allegretto non troppo, serving as direct transition to the last movement.

The finale, Allegro molto vivace, is a marvel of elegance and lightness.  It is in the style of Mendelssohn’s ubiquitous scherzos and light “fairy music” compositions. The opening theme in E major, filled with leaps and quick arpeggios and scales, demonstrates the agility that the violin can display.  A second theme with dotted-rhythms provides an agreeable contrast.  The concerto ends gloriously in the key of E major.

Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1843-1893) was a composer of a later generation, and one of the most important musical figures of the late 19th century.  He was brought up in a comfortable household and showed signs of musical abilities early on, composing his first short pieces for the piano as a teenager.  Both of his parents had some artistic and musical training. He entered the School of Jurisprudence partly because of family insistence, and later landed a position at the Ministry of Justice.  At 25 years old he entered the new Saint Petersburg Conservatory and graduated in 1865.  It was a trademark of Russian musicians of that era to have begun or pursued their professional life in some other fields than music and enjoyed a musical career aside of their primary employment – though Tchaikovsky did devote himself solely to music later on.

His personal life was difficult and he suffered severe bouts of depression throughout his life.  Tchaikovsky married unhappily in 1877 and separated shortly thereafter.  In the same year, he began a correspondence with a wealthy patron named Najeda von Meck who supported him financially to such an extent that he was able to commit himself entirely to composing for the next thirteen years.  The two never met but maintained a strong relationship through their letters.  Tchaikovsky died from cholera in 1893 after drinking un-boiled water, only nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony.  Many have speculated that he may have done so purposely.

His Fourth Symphony was composed between 1877 and 1878, during that tumultuous time following his marriage and separation and the beginning of his correspondence with Najeda von Meck.  For that reason, many see a programmatic aspect to the music, a perspective reinforced by the fact that Tchaikovsky provided a program for it to von Meck.  From a purely compositional perspective however the music itself does not require a program to be appreciated.  Tchaikovsky himself stated that whatever program there might have been for this work, or any other work of his for that matter, it was itself insufficient from the obvious standpoint that music had to be used to express it.  In that sense, Tchaikovsky drew comparisons between his Fourth Symphony and Beethoven’s Fifth – Tchaikovsky’s favorite symphony from the great German master.

The composition mixes elements of European musical traditions, such as the form of the different movements, as well as Russian idioms pertaining mostly to the length of traditional Russian melodies and the repetitive aspect of Russian music.  European music of the nineteenth-century, especially of the German tradition, was based on motives or short thematic cells rather than long blown-out melodies.  Hence, developing those elements was intricate to their music.  Tchaikovsky though incorporated much longer basic melodic materials, hence his thematic development needed to be treated differently.  Melodies had to be repeated and re-orchestrated, and transitions between melodies in various keys approached in a different way.

The first movement, Andante sostenuto, begins with was has been deemed the Fate motive – an impressive horn fanfare heralding the tumultuous musical battle ahead.   Tchaikovsky explained that this motive stood for the fatal power which prevented one from attaining happiness. A Moderato con anima then begins the movement proper, with an engaging theme of a dance-like quality (or in the movement of a waltz, as the subtitle of this section suggests). A second theme, first introduced by the clarinets, provides contrast to the intense rhythmic intensity of the beginning of the movement. A peaceful closing theme introduced by the violins ensues, leading to the dynamic conclusion of the exposition, itself leading into the passionate development introduced by yet another fate fanfare.  The last section of the movement, the recapitulation, is also heralded by the same fate motive.

The second movement, Andantino in modo di canzone, is a beautiful example of the lyrical and expansive quality of Tchaikovsky’s melodies.  It begins with the melody played by the solo oboe and accompanied by plucked strings (pizzicato).  The cello section takes it on next, followed by the solo bassoon, and finally the upper strings.  A contrasting middle section, piu mosso, ensues, only to lead back to the opening melody, a tempo, and once again alternatively played by different instruments and sections, shortly thereafter.   The movement ends quietly.

The Scherzo is unusual in that it features the string orchestra playing plucked strings the whole way through.  The middle section (meno mosso) scored only for woodwinds instruments, has an atmosphere of light military band music.  It also features one of the most difficult piccolo solos of the symphonic repertoire. The opening string pizzicato material is brought back in the last section, and woodwinds are added on at the end.

The last movement, Finale: Allegro con fuoco, is energetic and fiery as its title indicates. It is based on the traditional Russian melody In the Field Stood a Birch Tree.  Of all the movements of this symphony, this one is probably the most Russian sounding of them all.  It begins in the key of F major, which is more luminous than that of the beginning movement.  Fate here is giving way to acceptance that if joy and comfort cannot be found in one’s existence, perhaps it can found by looking at others and rejoicing in their joy – even though the dark fate motive is heard again in the movement.  The symphony ends brilliantly in an avalanche of scales and quick impressive figurations.

 The piece was premiered in Moscow on February 22, 1878, and is dedicated a mon meilleur ami (to my best  friend), Nadeja von Meck.
©Marc-André Bougie, 2013