Spencer Myer, piano
Katherine McLin, violin
Marc Moskovitz, cello
David Danzmayr, conductor
The Jon Mac Anderson Program Notes underwritten by Porter, Wright, Morris and Arthur, LLP
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 –1912): Four Novelettes
Instrumentation: Scored for strings and percussion
Duration: 15 minutes
Named for the poet Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born of an English woman and a Sierra Leone Creole. When young Samuel demonstrated promise as a violinist, his parents arranged for him to study at London’s Royal College of Music, though as a student he switched to composition and worked under the formidable English composer Charles Stanford (an aside: I would particularly encourage you to look into examples of Stanford’s music, which is always fantastic and attractive—a very under-performed composer!). As his reputation grew, no less than Edward Elgar helped the budding composer on his way and Taylor soon embarked on the first of four tours of America, where he was received by President Theodore Roosevelt (a rare even for people of color).
Taylor’s time in America, and the fact that his father was a descendent of African-American slaves, inspired him both personally and musically. On account of the struggles that he suffered as a man of color, he both considered immigrating to the United States and believed it his responsibility to help the African-American community gain a sense of dignity. While his musical style remained rooted in the European tradition of his training, he sometimes sought to blend that tradition with the music of his ancestors, not unlike Dvorak whose music Taylor’s sometimes echoes. Unfortunately, early on Taylor failed to secure rights to a number of his most popular compositions, and although he eventually became more worldly wise, he would always struggle financially. He did enjoy a measure of renown during his lifetime, which even included having a choral society named for him in Washington, D.C., but he didn’t have long to savor his success. Taylor tragically succumbed to pneumonia in England at age 37.
The Four Novelletten were a product of 1903 and aptly illustrate the compositional gifts his contemporaries recognized. Rather than reflect his African roots, this music breathes the air of Taylor’s European training through and through. Hints of Tchaikovsky and Berlioz are evident in the first movement, a 3/8 waltz marked Allegro moderato. Whatever the influence, the result reveals a composer capable of charming melodies and the lushest of harmonies, with the triangle and tambourine adding a brilliant sheen. Marked Valse, the third Novelette is an “official” waltz though its character is far removed from the more common festive type just experienced. Perhaps better regarded as a Valse triste (sad waltz) , Taylor calculates for maximum effect, setting his Andante con moto in the doleful key of A minor and handing the solo violin a gracefully falling melody, which he sets over a shimmering tremolo accompaniment. Twice the mournful waltz is interrupted by a festive interlude (piu mosso)—it will be hard to miss the tambourine!—but the triste character will have the final say. Taylor closes with a muscular Allegro molto, driven along by the rhythmic energy established in the lower strings. Taylor’s melodic flair and ever-active and inventive accompanying lines are evident throughout, revealing the solid foundation provided by his teacher Stanford and musical flair that no less Edward Elgar regarded as “genius.”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Concerto in C Major for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 56
Instrumentation: Scored for flute, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons horns and trumpets, timpani and strings
Duration: about 36 minutes
The year 1804 was one of great upheaval for Ludwig van Beethoven, whose life seemed always filled with tremendous ups and downs — mostly downs. In April of that year his contract with the Theater an der Wien was terminated and along with it the plans to perform his new opera Leonora (read more about his experience at the theater below). He also moved—or was forced—out of his rooms at the theater, where he had been living since the previous year. A month later Napoleon declared himself Emperor and when news of the event reached Vienna, Beethoven flew into a rage and violently scratched out the dedication to Napoleon on the title page of his Eroica Symphony. Matters went from bad to worse in early July when Beethoven had a falling out with one of his closest friends, Stephan Breuning, with whom the composer was then staying. Beethoven again moved out. Though their friendship was soon mended, and the Leonora project was eventually also revived, 1804 was indeed a turbulent year for the composer. In fact, in December he was to encounter Josephine Brunsvik, but that is, as they say, another story…
Somehow between the moving, the disappointments and temper tantrums, the cancelled musical plans and the disrupted friendships, Beethoven managed to find the presence of mind to compose, which speaks volumes about his level of concentration. Besides opening sketches for the Fifth Symphony and what would emerge as his Fourth Piano Concerto, Beethoven dispatched another concerto, this one for violin, cello and piano, the so-called “Triple” Concerto. This work is a curious outlier in Beethoven’s oeuvre, for we don’t know precisely why or for whom it was written. The instrumentation too is also curious—any number of concertos had been written by other composers for two or more soloists but never before had a piano trio been staged at the center of such a work. What we do know is that one of his wealthiest patrons, Prince Lobkowitz, not only opened his palace for rehearsals but put his personal orchestra at Beethoven’s disposal. For his efforts, Lobkowitz received the work’s dedication (he would also receive the dedications of the Eroica, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Op. 18 String Quartets). The court orchestra counted some of Europe’s most gifted musicians at its head, including its concertmaster Anton Wranitzky and the first cellist, Anton Kraft, both of whom probably took the solo parts in rehearsals of the Triple Concerto; it is nearly certain that Beethoven himself took the piano part and directed rehearsals from the keyboard.
The work is crafted in the expected three movements (fast-slow-fast) but it takes some unusual turns. Most obvious is the heightened role of the cello, and at the other extreme, the almost subdued role given to the piano, which is especially curious given Beethoven’s virtuosic piano playing. Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s reliably unreliable biographer, suggested the role was intended for Beethoven’s young student, Joseph Rainer Rudolph, who would mature to become one of the composer’s staunchest supporters, but there is no evidence that Rudolph ever performed the work. On the other hand, Beethoven placed one of Europe’s greatest cellists, Anton Kraft, at the helm, and honored him with the introduction of most of the concerto’s melodic material. This is already evident at the outset, with the cellist’s presentation of the opening theme, which gains a certain nobility on account of its dotted rhythms. The C major first movement Allegro is a broad and largely lyrical affair, and although the development features a turbulent exchange among the soloists, Beethoven seems intent on taking advantage of the singing qualities of his string players. The A-flat Largo is certainly among the composer’s most heart-rending conceptions, and again features the cello ushering in its long-hewn theme. The movement’s mere 53 bars, however, serves as an all-too-brief diversion leading directly into the finale (we might lament the fact that Beethoven failed to see this beautiful material through to a full-fledged movement). Following the soloists’ exchange of arpeggios, the cellist segues directly into the C major Rondo alla Polacca, featuring, as its title implies, the Polonaise, a triple-time dance very much in fashion during the Napoleonic era and reflecting Beethoven’s playing to popular taste, something he was rarely prone to do. Beethoven serves up several different dance themes, as befits a rondo movement. These include the playful theme introduced by the cello at the start, another lyrical melody ushered in by the soloist’s quickstep rush of upward sixteenth notes, and deep into the movement, a stately, aristocratic idea given first to the violin and punctuated by Polonaise rhythm of the winds and horns, lending it a martial air. The movement also features brilliant virtuosic triplet passagework throughout and is capped by a brief but brilliant coda, lending a thrilling conclusion to Beethoven’s unusual and captivating work.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 “Scottish”
Instrumentation: Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and trumpets, four horns, timpani and strings
Duration: 40 minutes
There were few 19th century composers or conductors who did more for the development of music than the Berlin-born Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. In addition to composing seventeen symphonies, among them those composed as a precocious twelve-year-old, Mendelssohn worked tirelessly at the helm of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra. Leading one of Europe’s premiere ensembles, he raised the overall level of orchestral playing on the continent, revived the music of past masters such as Bach and Schubert, championed scores by his contemporaries, among them, Schumann and Berlioz, and helped establish symphony concerts as a public entity within Germany.
At the age of 20, with his first large symphony behind him, Mendelssohn headed to England, setting off a grand tour that continued with trips to Scotland, Wales and Italy. The sunny south proved revelatory, particularly in light of the wet and moody atmosphere he left behind and culminated with the spirited strains of the ‘Italian’ Symphony, a work dispatched with relative speed. The ‘Scottish’, however, was another matter. Following a visit to Holyrood Palace in July of 1829, Mendelssohn began drafting ideas for music inspired by the Scottish landscape in the hopes of capturing its essence in sound, but it would not be until 1842 that work on the A minor Symphony was finished. Various features proclaim this a product of the Romantic age, including its lush orchestration, unifying features—the opening theme, which dominates the first movement through its various transformations, returns at the symphony’s close—and Mendelssohn’s desire that the movements follow one another without pause. The name ‘Scottish,’ by the way, did not appear in the first published edition, though Mendelssohn referred to it as such in his correspondence.
The somber opening idea came to the composer in a flash while touring the chapel ruins in Edinburg where Mary Queen of Scots was crowned: “We went, in the deep twilight, to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved…Everything around is broken and moldering, and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found the beginning of my Scotch Symphony there today.” The evocative, brooding introduction is invested with a vocal quality, whose hymn-inspired theme is followed by an unaccompanied, unison violin phrase, perhaps Mendelssohn’s attempt to capture a sense of isolation. The playful, elfin character heard at the start of the Scherzo was a Mendelssohn specialty, although this scherzo, most unusually, is actually constructed in sonata form. Marked “fast but not too fast,” this charming movement opens with a pentatonic scale, a characteristic of Scottish folk music, while Mendelssohn’s bubbly accompaniment drives the music forward (take note of the delightful virtuosity of his scoring). The extended Adagio, a supreme example of Mendelssohnian sentiment, is built of two ideas—a broad, loving violin melody, which will find its way to the cellos where it fully unfolds, and the foreboding wind chords, the latter which gives way to a noble rendition and provides an effective contrast to the principal material. Mendelssohn will breathe still more life into his melody’s final phrase in the sumptuous coda.
On the title page of the finale Mendelssohn wrote Allegro guerriero, suggesting a bellicose programmatic content, a concept supported by the opening horn attacks and the air of agitation that follows. The movement, one of the composer’s strongest orchestral conclusions, has it all—driving rhythms, contrapuntal finesse, a rich development of ideas and an exciting reprise. Indeed, toward the end, as the coda swings to A major, Mendelssohn recalls his first movement in yet another transformation and brings the symphony to a triumphant conclusion. Still, whether the composer envisioned a battle scene, or any specific program for that matter, was never revealed. Indeed, it may be a challenge to sense anything Scottish at all (it should be noted that Mendelssohn harbored a general distaste for nationalism in any form—“No national music for me! Ten thousand devils take all nationality!”). Composer Robert Schumann, who was sent a score to review and believed he was looking at the ‘Italian’ Symphony, commented on the work’s “beautiful Italian pictures.” Scottish or not, Mendelssohn ultimately takes us on a stirring journey and perhaps comes the closest he ever would to capturing the sound of passion, nobility, isolation and triumph, the ideals at the very heart of the Romantic spirit.
(C) Marc Moskovitz