PROGRAM NOTES by Daniel Maki Šárka from Ma vlast by Bedřich

by Daniel Maki
Šárka from Ma vlast
by Bedřich Smetana ( 1824 -1884)
Duration: Approximately 9 minutes
First Performance: possibly premiered December 10, 1876 or March 17, 1877
Last ESO Performance: These are the first ESO performances of the work
Although the Czech people have a proud and rich musical heritage that is
centuries old, it was not until the full flowering of nineteenth century romanticism, with
its glorification of ethnic identity and nationalist spirit, that the idea of a modern,
distinctively national Czech style came into being. Riding the wave of mid- nineteenth
century Czech nationalism, Bedřich Smetana proved to be the right genius at the right
time to assume the role of founding father of Czech music. Beginning in the 1860’s, by
writing a series of operas on Czech subjects and then a series of six symphonic poems
called Ma vlast (My Country), Smetana gave a musical voice to an entire rich culture.
Ma vlast was written between the the years 1874 and 1879, a period, incidentally,
during which the composer became completely deaf. Deafness notwithstanding, Smetana
created six masterpieces, each of which depicts a feature of the Czech landscape or some
aspect of Czech history or legend. The best known is the second of the set, which is a
kind of travelogue depicting the Czech Republic’s principal river, the Vlatava (usually
known in this country by its German name , the Moldau). Although they were originally
conceived as six independent works and stand quite well alone, Smetana eventually
began to think of them as a single work, and today they are often performed and recorded
in that way as well.
Šárka, the third work of the set, is based on the medieval Bohemian legend of the
Maidens’ War, a story which has been a vivid presence in Czech culture. (There is a well
known statue of the heroine Šárka in Prague, as well as a nature preserve that is named
after her.) It is a grisly tale, not for the faint of heart, and only for those who like their
feminism in the rawest possible form. Briefly put, the tale concerns a warrior maiden
named Šárka, who because of an unfaithful lover has declared war on all males of the
species. As one of the leaders of a female army, she ties herself to a tree to entrap Ctirad,
leader of the opposing male army. When Ctirad immediately falls in love with Šárka and
releases her, she gives him and his men mead laced with sleeping potion. When the men
fall asleep, Šárka blows a horn rallying her army and exacts her revenge by slaughtering
the entire sleeping army.
That dramatic tale is brilliantly and vividly conveyed in a series of musical
episodes that are almost cinematic in their effectiveness. At the beginning we sense
Šárka’s vindictiveness as she challenges the opposing army. We then hear such colorful
details as a lively march indicating the approach of the men, love music as the two
principals make contact ( she is represented by the clarinet and he by the cello), and then
dance music as the men enjoy their alcohol and finally fall asleep. (Listen for the snoring
in the bassoons.) Finally comes the inevitable horn call summoning the women to do
their evil deed. One last lyrical clarinet solo suggests either the triumph of our heroine or
that she is having second thoughts. In any case, the furious music of the coda leaves no
doubt about what is happening. Šárka’s theme cackles in the woodwinds and Ctirad’s
music has become a death rattle in the trombones. The deed is done.
* * *
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14
by Samuel Barber (1910 -1981)
Duration: Approximately 25 minutes
First Performance: February 7, 1941 in Philadelphia
Last ESO Performance: May, 2002; Robert McDuffie, violin; Robert Hanson, conductor
Samuel Barber’s place now seems secure as one of America’s leading lyrical
composers of the twentieth century. It could not, however, have been easy writing music
that was inevitably labeled “neo-romantic” at a time when the musical establishment was
moving full force in the opposite direction. As Barber himself modestly put it, “I just go
on doing, as they say, my thing. I believe this takes a certain courage.”
Barber’s Violin Concerto is an example of a beautifully lyrical work which
was neglected during the decades when so-called advanced musical opinion considered a
beautiful melody to be hopelessly old-fashioned and only the most radical techniques
would suffice. Despite its successful premiere in 1941, the concerto failed to find its way
into the standard violin repertoire and not even Isaac Stern’s fine recording with the New
York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in 1964 seems to have sparked much
interest. It has only been since Barber’s death that several new generations of violinists
have enthusiastically embraced it, turning it suddenly into one of the most popular of
twentieth century concertos.
The unusual circumstances surrounding the writing of the concerto are
interesting reading but somewhat complicated, and have received conflicting
interpretations. Those interested in a full account may refer to Barbara Heyman’s 1992
biography of the composer as well as an entire website devoted to the origins of the work,
which presents recently revealed new primary source material. What follows here is a
brief synopsis of what may legitimately be called a soap opera.
In 1939, the industrialist Samuel Fels (yes, the man who manufactured Fels
Naptha soap) commissioned Barber to write a violin concerto for his adopted son Iso
Briselli, then a violin student at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
The offer was the then lordly sum of $1,000 - $500 down and $500 on delivery.
According to the standard version of the story, the first two movements of the concerto
were finished first and when Briselli saw them he said that he liked their lyricism but
complained that they were not showy enough to demonstrate his technical skill. Barber
assured him that the finale would contain the requisite fireworks and eventually did
indeed deliver a dazzlingly virtuosic movement. When he saw the finale, however, this
time Briselli objected that it was too difficult to play, whereupon Mr. Fels decided to
wash his hands of the whole affair (with Fels Naptha soap, no doubt) and demanded his
money back. To settle the dispute, it was decided that another Curtis student would be
given a few hours to learn the finale and would then play it before an august jury made up
of such dignitaries as composers Edith Braun and Gian Carlo Menotti as well as Mary
Louise Curtis Bok, founder of the school and daughter of Cyrus Curtis, publisher of the
Saturday Evening Post. Apparently the performance went well, with the jury deciding
that Barber deserved his full pay and that Briselli would renounce his rights to the first
performance of the concerto.
There is what Biblical scholars might call a Revised Standard Version of the story
which corrects a number of factual errors in the original. In 1982 Briselli, who had long
since given up his violin career, told Barber’s biographer Barbara Heyman that he had
never said that the third movement was unplayable, merely that it did not fit the style of
the first two movements and that he thought it was not musically substantial enough to
conclude the concerto. In Briselli’s defense, it can be said that the finale is remarkably
different in conception from the first two movements, and that Briselli’s technical
prowess had been respected. It is difficult to believe that he could not have mastered the
last movement. The new material that has recently come to light now suggests that the
jury held at Curtis was more to reassure the composer himself as to the playability and
effectiveness of the movement than to settle the dispute between the two parties.
Furthermore, when and Barber and Briselli decided to abandon the project, it was agreed
that Barber would keep the $500 down payment but forgo the rest. The world premiere
took place in Philadelphia in February of 1941 with the distinguished violinist Albert
Spalding as soloist.
In any case, we can now turn our attention to this beautiful work that Barber ever
after referred to as his concerto del sapone (soap concerto). Unlike most concertos which
begin with orchestral bluster, this one begins with a quiet and elegant melody in the solo
violin. Two other themes follow, the first introduced by the clarinet and containing a
distinctive short-long rhythmic figure often heard in Scottish folk music. The other,
marked scherzando (jokingly), is a bouncy figure heard in the solo violin. The movement
does contain a cadenza, but it is one that avoids the usual extremes of virtuosic display.
The slow second movement is Barber’s soaring lyricism at its poignant best. The
main theme, which is simple in construction but hauntingly beautiful, is first heard in the
oboe and only later given to the solo violin. The controversial finale is a dazzling
perpetuum mobile giving the soloist little rest. It proves that Barber could balance his
lyricism with spiky dissonance and rhythmic energy when the occasion demanded.
* * *
Symphony No. 7 in D minor
by Antonn Dvořák (1841 -1904)
Duration: Approximately 35 minutes
First Performance: April 22, 1885 in London
Last ESO Performance: These are the first ESO performances of the work
Musicians, like members of other professions, have their little jokes. One of the oldest,
now quite hoary with age, has been applied to various composers but when referring to
Dvořák reads as follows: how many symphonies did Dvořák write? Answer: Three.
Numbers 7, 8, and 9. The joke depends, of course, upon the fact that the composer’s last
three symphonies have come to be seen as the summit of his symphonic achievement
and, especially in this country, have become so popular as to overshadow the earlier ones.
(This is particularly unfortunate with the Sixth Symphony, which happens to be a
delightful, beautifully constructed work that deserves to be heard more often.)
In any case, it was indeed the Seventh Symphony which formed a major milestone in
Dvořák’s development as a symphonic composer. For various reasons, it was his first
effort at writing a symphony in the grandest possible manner and one that deliberately
sought to emulate the loftiest works in the great German tradition. Here the composer
would try to show the world that he was not merely a Czech nationalist composer but one
who was capable of incorporating his natural Slavic musical tendencies into a more
international (read German) style. Although it would be the Ninth Symphony, the famous
New World Symphony, that would become the most popular of all and has all too often
overshadowed all of his other works, among many musicians and scholars it is the
Seventh that has pride of place as Dvořák’s greatest achievement in symphonic form.
The impetus for the new symphony was a commission from the Philharmonic
Society of London. Dvořák’s success in London in 1884 as a conductor of his own music
resulted in his election as an Honorary Member of the Society and was a significant
opportunity to enlarge upon his growing international reputation. The commission would
require a new symphony that would be due the following year and would be a great
opportunity to present himself as a world figure. As he wrote to a friend in December of
1884, “ a new symphony for London occupies me, and wherever I go I think of nothing
but my work, which must be capable of stirring the world, and God grant me that it will!”
The primary musical inspiration for Dvořák’s new work was the hearing of the
Third Symphony of his close friend, mentor, and musical hero, Johannes Brahms, in
Vienna in December of 1883. For Dvořák, Brahms’s new work was the pinnacle of
musical achievement and something to be aspired to. As he wrote to his publisher, “I
don’t want to let Brahms down.”
Although the London premiere in April of 1885 was deemed a success, early
performances of the symphony were not as warmly received as some of the composer’s
earlier work. The reason would appear to be that audiences were expecting the rather
more cheerfully ethnic Dvořák of works such as the popular Slavonic Dances or the
joyful D major Sixth Symphony rather than the somber new symphony in the dark key of
D minor. Nevertheless, over time the Seventh Symphony would take its place as one of
the major works of the symphonic repertoire. As the redoubtable English scholar Donald
Francis Tovey once wrote, “I have no hesitation in setting Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony
along with the C major Symphony of Schubert and the four symphonies of Brahms, as
among the greatest and purest examples in this art-form since Beethoven.”
Dvořák’s biographers have speculated about the reason for the unusually intense and
heroic quality of the symphony, which some commentators have gone so far as to call his
“Tragic “ Symphony. Possible factors may have been the death of the composer’s mother
several years earlier, as well as his concern over the failing health of his mentor Bedřich
Smetana, who died in 1884. Perhaps more to the point, though, is the fact that Dvořák
seems to have been going through a personal crisis having to do with his identity as a
Czech musician. He was deeply patriotic, proud of his Czech heritage, and strongly
supportive of the growing movement of Czech nationalism, which reacted strongly
against any perceived oppression or condescension from the German speaking part of the
Hapsburg Empire with its center in Vienna. As Dvořák’s international reputation grew,
however, he felt the inevitable pull to become more German in his musical thinking, to
write operas on German rather than on Slavic subjects and perhaps even to move to
Vienna, the epicenter of the Austro-German musical universe. Though a minor point, his
disagreement with his German publisher Simrock over whether his scores should use the
German form Anton rather than the Czech form Antonín were symptomatic of the
problem. It seems that in the Seventh Symphony Dvořák shows his determination to
work out a solution to his internal conflict, writing music that was at once true to his
Czech heritage and yet employing the time-honored forms and procedures of the great
Austro-German tradition.
Given that background, it is not surprising that Dvořák said that the opening theme
of the first movement came to him at the Prague railroad station as a train brought in
several hundred anti-Hapsburg protesters from Hungary to attend a program at the
National Theater Festival in support of the movement for greater Czech independence.
The darkness and turbulence of this opening theme is only temporarily relieved by a
lovely second theme in the woodwinds, as the intense drama continues throughout the
first movement. Particularly striking is the sense of compact development, as one passage
seems to lead inevitably to the next. After a great climax, the movement winds down and
ends quietly with the opening theme restated.
The beautiful slow movement begins with a choral like theme of great serenity, but
a darker mood soon intrudes. In a note written on the sketch of the movement, Dvořák
wrote “from the sad times,” probably a reference to the death of his mother and the
premature death of his first three children.
The remarkable scherzo movement is one of the most effective since the
symphonies of Beethoven. It has some of the characteristics of the furiant, a fiery Czech
dance employing cross rhythms. The middle section or trio, as such a contrasting section
of a dance movement is usually called, provides variety by being in a major key before
leading back to the fiery opening section.
The stormy finale features a feeling of constantly driving forward motion, a
feeling of energy which the composer said reflected the strong spirit of the Czech people
toward political repression. Although at the very end of the movement the music turns
into a major key as many nineteenth century minor key symphonies do, it is not the
clearly triumphant sort of conclusion that works such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
present. To this listener at least, this remarkable symphony leaves the impression that
further struggle lies ahead.
* * *