20 May 2015 New Friends, Familiar Faces

The Inner Voice: A Second Violinist’s Notes, by Jeffrey Wall


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Il dissoluto punito, o sia il Don Giovanni (The Rake Punished, or Don Juan): Overture, K.527

Act I, Duettino, La ci darem la mano (There we will take each other’s hand)

In January 1787 Mozart went to Prague to see for himself the sensation his opera The Marriage of Figaro had created, and found the reports not only true but underplayed. After being lionized at concerts (where he premiered his “Prague” Symphony and improvised on a theme from Figaro) Mozart returned to Vienna with a commission to write a new opera to be produced in Prague the following October.

Don Giovanni opened two weeks late but it was also a hit. According to the biographer Nissen, who married Mozart’s widow Constanze and had her input, the overture was produced in a single all-night session in which Constanze kept the composer amused with stories and plied with pens and punch; he finished just in time for the arrival of the copyist at 7 a.m. on the day of the show (the assumption is that Mozart had composed the work already in his mind, and was ‘merely’ copying it out). The parts allegedly did not arrive at the theatre until after the performance was to have begun, and the orchestra is said to have sight read it on the spot, a dicey proposition if true. Nissen quotes Mozart as saying, “True, a lot of notes went under the music stands, but for all that the overture went off really well.”

The slow introduction (Mozart’s first for an overture), with its ominous chords and slithery scales, is taken from the climactic scene in which the Don, having made so bold as to invite the statue of the man he has killed to dine with him, has the distinct displeasure of having the ‘stone guest’ show up and drag him down to Hell. The following Allegro is a manic sketch of a driven character in the manner of Giovanni’s Act I ‘Champagne Aria’. Since the overture does not actually end but runs into the first scene, a concert ending must be provided, a choice of which is now available: the anonymous standard conclusion published by Johann André a few years after Mozart’s death is now often replaced by one from the New Mozart Edition of the complete works.

In the ‘little duet’ La ci darem la mano Don Giovanni attempts to seduce Zerlina, an already affianced peasant girl on his estate, with a promise of marriage if she will just accompany him to his villa. The gentle and coaxing melody leads at last to her surrender, with a lilting coda as they prepare to waltz off to their ‘wedding’; but after the duet concludes the Don’s evil design is thwarted by one of his many past conquests, Donna Elvira, who bursts in to save Zerlina from sharing her own painful experience.

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

La Cenerentola (Cinderella): Act III, Non più mesta, accanto al fuoco staro (No more will I be sad, next to the hearth)

The ‘comic drama’ La Cenerentola (Cinderella), produced for the 1817 Carnival season in Rome, became one of Rossini’s most successful operas, though after a less than memorable first night. It essentially follows the familiar fairy tale, minus the magic: the pumpkin pulled by white mice is just a horse-drawn carriage driven by a valet (who stands in for the missing fairy godmother), the lost slipper is, well, lost—instead at the ball Cenerentola gives the incognito prince one of a pair of bracelets by which to recognize her—and incredibly, this is one opera that is more realistic than its source. In Non più mesta, the opera’s final number, Cenerentola forgives her father and nasty step-sisters (oh, it is a fairy tale after all!) and, in a blaze of vocal fireworks observes how becoming the wife of a prince has, in a flash, made her unhappiness a thing of the past.


 Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

I vespri siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers): Act V, Mercè, dilette amiche (Thank you, beloved friends)

Between March 1851 and March 1853 Verdi had delivered himself of three landmark operas: Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. He next contemplated King Lear, but was obliged to first fulfil a contract with the Paris Opéra, which turned out to be Les Vêpres siciliennes. His struggles with its indifferent libretto, the conventions of French grand opera and the Opéra’s management occupied him for a year and a half, and he predicted a complete failure to be the result. But Verdi’s perceived flaws—the libretto’s formulaic layout, political bias, weak finale and lack of dramatic truth—were just what an 1855 Parisian audience wanted, and the opera ran for fifty performances that season, prompting the composer to adapt it for the Italian stage.

‘The Sicilian Vespers’ is a euphemism for a massacre that occurred in Palermo in March 1282, when the population rose in revolt against the ruling French. Triggered by the indecent conduct of a few drunken French soldiers at Easter Monday evening celebrations, their murders ignited long-standing Sicilian resentment against the oppressive regime and unleashed ethnic cleansing throughout the city to the sound of the Vesper bells, resulting in two thousand French deaths overnight. The loss of Sicily had a domino effect on the empire of Charles I of Anjou and consequently significantly altered the course of European history.

Taken out of context the charming soprano showpiece “Mercé, diletti amiche” would seem ill-sorted with such a dark story—supposedly a Sicilian dance, it is actually a Spanish bolero in rhythm and tempo—but it is entirely within the grand opera tradition of what Wagner called ‘effects without causes’; Verdi merely gave the Opéra what it wanted and what the libretto required. The excuse for its presence is the wedding of two of the Sicilian plotters; the bride-to-be thanks her guests for their gifts and kind wishes and looks forward to happy days for Sicily. The wedding, however, never takes place as the ringing of Vespers launches the bloody revolution.

 La traviata: Act 1, Duet, “Un dì, felice, eterea, mi balenaste innante” (One day you appeared, happy and ethereal, before me)

Of the five operas most frequently performed in North America from 1981-2001 (according to Answers.com), no fewer than four were opening night disasters: The Barber of Seville, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, and La traviata (the exception? La Bohème). The reasons vary, although only The Barber achieved pre-eminence without undergoing changes. In the case of La traviata—which means roughly ‘the lady led astray’, referring to the consumptive courtesan who is the heroine—the main problem seems to have been an unsatisfactory cast. Only the prima donna was vocally up to performing her role that night in 1853; but unfortunately her generous size caused the opera’s tragic climax, the announcement of her imminent demise from the wasting disease, to be greeted with howls of derision. Only after some tightening up and with a cast approved by Verdi was La traviata successful in 1854.

The Act I duet comprises the young swain Alfredo’s first declaration of love for the ‘traviata’ Violetta, and her half-hearted protestation of its inadvisability.

 Rigoletto: Act III, Quartet, Bella figlia dell’amore (Fair daughter of love)

Rigoletto was Verdi’s fourteenth opera in nine years: he had become famous and wealthy, and selective as a less established composer could not be. Nonetheless his decision to set Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse, a play banned in Paris after one performance, was a bold one.

This story of the French king Francis I and his hunchback jester Triboulet (or Triboletto in the Italian translation) was founded in fact, but the stage portrayal of a royal personage as a rapist did not sit well with the nobility in Europe. After a bitter struggle with the censors all the names were changed to protect the guilty, the setting of the opera moved from Paris to Mantua, the King demoted to a Duke and the title changed from La maledizione (The Curse) to Rigoletto, as the jester was now called. Nonetheless, Verdi managed to retain the dramatic integrity of the play. The premiere, on March 11, 1851, was a stupendous success.

In the first act the dissolute Duke of Mantua has been pursuing Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda. The Duke’s court retinue, resentful of Rigoletto’s barbed jokes at their expense, to get even with him kidnap Gilda and deliver her to the Duke. When she is returned, her honour compromised, Rigoletto hires a cutthroat (Sparafucile) to kill the Duke. But Gilda still loves the Duke, and Rigoletto, to demonstrate the nobleman’s infidelity, disguises her as a man and takes her to the inn where the Duke is making advances on Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena. At this point, the four join in a quartet, the Duke wooing Maddalena inside the establishment, Gilda and Rigoletto observing them from outside, each character expressing his own contrasting emotion in one of opera’s most deservedly famous numbers. Subsequently in accordance with their agreement Sparafucile delivers to Rigoletto a body in a sack to be dumped in the river; but to his horror the jester discovers that the disguised Gilda has been mistaken for the Duke, and that with his scheming he has destroyed his only joy.


Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

1877—the year the Fourth Symphony was composed—is invariably referred to as ‘The Year of the Crisis’ in Tchaikovsky biographies. In July the composer precipitately married a former student from the Moscow Conservatoire where he was a professor, and thereby drove himself to the brink of suicide, eventually suffering a nervous breakdown and leaving her permanently after eleven weeks. Yet it was less the marriage than the circumstances which had prompted it that coloured Tchaikovsky’s most accomplished and innovative work to date.

Self-loathing, fear of exposure of his homosexuality and the unattainability of a normal family life had spawned depression in the summer of 1876, an emotional upheaval serious enough to prevent his writing anything for months. The solution he hit upon was to marry someone—anyone—not only to stop the rumours which were already spreading, but apparently in the misguided hope that marriage would somehow help him to cure what he termed his “pernicious passions”. Merely taking this decision enabled him to compose again—in the autumn he produced the fine symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini (notably about two lovers suffering in Hell for their illicit affair)—but his underlying distress remained. He began the Fourth Symphony in or around December.

The sketch was completed in May of 1877. At the same time, Pushkin’s poem Eugene Onegin fired Tchaikovsky’s imagination, and he began to turn it into an opera, beginning with the scene in which the naive young girl Tatyana pours out her passion in a letter to the callous Onegin, only to be cruelly rejected. At this point, Fate intervened (to Tchaikovsky’s way of thinking): he began to receive importunate love letters from one Antonina Milyukova. Identifying her with Tatyana and determined not to play Onegin, and remembering his vow of the previous summer, Tchaikovsky fatalistically assumed the character of bridegroom. His revulsion for the physical aspect of marriage was compounded by the discovery that his wife knew not one note of his music and was intellectually utterly uninteresting to him. Three weeks later, he left for the country—alone—where he began to score the symphony. A week after his return he was standing in the freezing Moscow River, trying unsuccessfully to contract a fatal case of pneumonia. Within days he fled hysterically to his brother in St. Petersburg.

The diagnosis of the physicians was an overdose of matrimony, and Tchaikovsky was advised to get away; accordingly, he went off to Europe for six months, where he was able to finish orchestrating the symphony, completing it in January, 1878. The premiere, in his absence, took place in Moscow on February 22. Its reception was muted.

Oddly, throughout all of this there was another woman in Tchaikovsky’s life, who had fallen in love with him through his music. The widow Nadezhda von Meck was everything his wife was not: wealthy, cultured, intelligent, platonic and somewhere else. She had commissioned some arrangements from Tchaikovsky at the end of 1876, paid handsomely and declared her devotion to him. The voluminous correspondence between them which began during the composition of the Fourth Symphony extended over 14 years, and is biographically invaluable. Moreover, she insisted that she and Tchaikovsky never meet, so that she might continue to love the “ideal musician/man” that she had fantasized. Von Meck afforded Tchaikovsky a distant but sympathetic shoulder throughout his troubles—and she could afford more: after he dedicated the Fourth Symphony to her, his “beloved friend”, she provided him with a generous monthly stipend which permitted him to compose full-time.

Upon request, Tchaikovsky provided his patron with a detailed programme of what he called “our symphony”; it was intended for her alone, and the composer in his letter does not seem entirely comfortable with it. Nonetheless, if some of the details seem contrived, the central point does not: the fanfare which begins the symphony and recurs at several points represents Fate, the invincible force which “ensures that peace and happiness shall not be complete and unclouded, which hangs above your head like the sword of Damocles and unwaveringly, constantly poisons the soul.” Tchaikovsky had written a tone poem ten years earlier, entitled Fatum (Fate); Fate was also to be the unspoken subject of his Fifth Symphony ten years later. This is of course the Fate that made him different, the capriciousness of which he must have seen in his twin brothers, of whom one was gay and the other straight.

The moderate waltz movement that follows the introduction is characterized by the composer as “languishing fruitlessly” under the force of Fate, the hopelessness growing until with a new theme (clarinet) one can “turn away from reality and submerge oneself in day-dreams”. An even more attractive dream (violins and timpani) is shattered by the return of Fate. “Thus all life is an unbroken alteration of hard reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness…No haven exists…”. For one of his colleagues, Tchaikovsky gave his programme a different twist: he said it was the same as the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven. While there is no overt programme for the Fifth, Beethoven’s famous ‘V-for-Victory’ motive, which also reappears to interrupt his first movement several times, had long been likened to “Fate knocking at the door”.

The second and third movements have been called intermezzi; Tchaikovsky’s programme for the Andantino may be summarized as ‘Melancholy memories and weariness’—followed by incipient intoxication in the scherzo. This is a tour-de-force of orchestration, with its contrasted sonorities of pizzicato strings followed by woodwinds and brass alone.

In the finale the composer tries to find joy among the festivities of the people; a folk song is passed like a bottle from group to group, repeated against numerous varied instrumental backgrounds (when rehearsing this movement in England, Tchaikovsky, whose English was limited, exhorted the orchestra from the podium, “Vodka! More vodka!”). Fate the killjoy again appears, but the celebrations of the people continue regardless.

©Jeffrey Wall 2015


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