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Take a deep dive alongside Michael Tilson Thomas into the delightful music of German and Austrian masters. Discovering Italy’s beauty was a rite of passage for many Romantics and Felix Mendelssohn was no exception. Inspired by everything from Roman ruins to sparkling coastal waters, his Fourth Symphony forms a series of sunny impressions. Perhaps the lasting legacy of the original play, Franz Schubert’s drama-filled Overture is quintessentially lyrical, from its theatrical start to its race-to-the-finish finale.
Approx. Duration: 10 minutes
Overture to Rosamunde, D. 797
Approx. Duration: 16 minutes
Five Pieces for Orchestra
The Obbligato Recitative
Approx. Duration: 26 minutes
Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, "Italian"
Andante con moto
Con moto moderato
Overture to Rosamunde, D. 797
Approximate duration: 10 minutes
Among the many frustrations in Schubert’s tragically short career, none came close to the difficulties he encountered in the world of theater music, with 16 failed operas in as many years. He had a habit of working with subpar librettos written by his friends; some scores he wisely abandoned midway and others he brought to fruition only to see them fizzle. A last-minute invitation in 1823 to compose incidental music for the play Rosamunde might have helped opened doors for Schubert in Vienna’s theatrical circle, but the drama by Helmina von Chézy was a flop. The play closed and Schubert’s music was lost for decades.
Schubert assembled nearly an hour of music for Rosamunde in a matter of weeks, pulling in some movements from existing works. To begin, he used the overture he had written a year earlier for Alfonso and Estrella, one of his failed operas. When Schubert’s editors prepared the Rosamunde selections for publication in 1891, they substituted a different overture, which Schubert had composed in 1820 for The Magic Harp, another short-lived production. It is not clear why the switch was made, or if it had any basis in Schubert’s wishes, but regardless the Overture to The Magic Harp has earned its place in the repertoire as a stirring prelude to Rosamunde.
To begin the overture, a slow and menacing phrase prefaces a wistful introduction in C minor.
The body of the overture enters with the bright contrast of C major, the main theme gliding over the light flutter of string tremolo.
A similarly restrained pianissimo presentation gives the contrasting lyrical theme a special luster, with woodwind duets in octaves supported by rustic, droning strings.
Article on the fate of The Magic Harp
Five Pieces for Orchestra
Approximate duration: 16 minutes
It was during the composition of the String Quartet in F-sharp minor in 1907—the last work to which he would assign a specific key signature for more than three· decades—that Arnold Schoenberg made the final break with the past. In response to his growing conviction that the old harmonic language based on the system of triadic tonality had simply worn out, Schoenberg took the decisive step in the Quartet's final movement. For appropriately enough—in this setting of a poem by Stefan George, which begins with the line (in English translation), "I feel air from another planet"—Schoenberg began to write music without a tonal center.
From the beginning, Schoenberg tried to make it clear that his abandonment of traditional tonality was not only a matter of historical necessity but also of individual need. "It is not a lack of invention or technical skill that has urged me in this direction," he wrote in 1909. "I am following an inner compulsion that is stronger than education, and am obeying a law that is natural to me, and therefore, more powerful than any artistic training."
While Schoenberg disliked the phrase "atonal"—he preferred to refer to the music of this period as "pan-tonal"—the public's reaction to it, whatever it was called, was unequivocal and overwhelming. In September of 1912 his first important atonal orchestral score, the Five Pieces for Orchestra, nearly caused a riot. Even in his generally favorable assessment for The Musical Times, Ernest Newman was forced to confess that Schoenberg was "perhaps the only man in the world who knows what the music is supposed to suggest." Ironically, for the London premiere, Schoenberg had reluctantly supplied descriptive titles for each of the movements.
Premonitions begins with a nervous theme in the muted cellos that will eventually generate most of the movement's musical material. The theme is developed in a freely rhapsodic style, with fugal ideas and augmentation pressing it to the tense climax.
The Past is a lyric meditation based on the five-note motto played at the outset by a muted cello. Although the movement's contrapuntal complexities rival the most intricate inventions of Bach, the colors are as refined and subtle as anything in Debussy.
Colors is virtually free of traditional themes. The movement consists entirely in a series of gradually shifting harmonies and colors. The title of the dramatic fourth movement, Peripeteia, may refer to the Greek word meaning reversal of fortune, or the more common German Peripetie meaning denouement. In any event, the music is full of dramatic reversals in dynamics, rhythm and mood, especially the powerful climax.
The precise meaning of The Obbligato Recitative is also unclear, although the music does unfold with the eloquent expressiveness of speech. An unusually delicate coda brings the work to a close.
This program note originally appeared in the New World Symphony’s January 2000 program materials.
Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, "Italian"
Approximate duration: 26 minutes
At 20, Mendelssohn did what most young men from wealthy families did at the time: He embarked on a “grand tour” through Europe. Whereas Scotland inspired the stormy Hebrides Overture and the “Scottish” Symphony, a visit to sunny Italy sparked a symphony that, according to the composer, was “the jolliest piece I have ever done.”
Mendelssohn sketched part of that symphony while in Italy in 1830–31, and he completed the work in 1833, using it to fulfill a prestigious commission from the Philharmonic Society of London, the same group that had commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Mendelssohn made substantial revisions to the Symphony’s final three movements in 1834, and he intended to revise the first movement, too, but he postponed that task and finally suppressed the Symphony altogether. The work was published posthumously as the Symphony No. 4, although it was actually composed third.
Mendelssohn’s bright impressions of Italy are borne out by the bouncing themes and running triplet pulse of the Allegro vivace movement that opens the Symphony.
Still, this is no mere musical “postcard”—just note the finely wrought development section, which shows the work of a composer equally fluent in Bach’s formal counterpoint and Beethoven’s obsessive manipulation of recurring themes.
The Andante con moto may have been influenced by a religious processional Mendelssohn witnessed in Naples, an image that fits with the movement’s walking bass and grave harmonies.
The moderate pace and smooth flow of third movement resemble the minuets native to the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, as opposed to the more rambunctious scherzos popularized by Beethoven.
In the contrasting trio section, the horns and bassoons indulge in spacious phrases that impart an outdoor quality, until the mood turns momentarily menacing with the interjection of trumpets, timpani and a stern minor key.
For the symphony’s whirlwind finale, Mendelssohn borrowed lively rhythmic patterns from two Italian dances. He named the movement after the saltarello, a folk dance from central Italy defined by its fast triplet pulse and its leaping movements. Another dance with a similar rhythmic profile comes from the southern region of Taranto, on the heel of Italy’s “boot.” Legend holds that this manic tarantella dance could be used to ward off the effects of a poisonous bite from the area’s giant spider, the tarantula.
History of the tarantella dance
Letters Mendelssohn wrote while in Italy and Switzerland
-- Copyright © 2017 Aaron Grad
Aaron Grad is a composer, guitarist and writer based in Seattle. Besides providing program notes for the New World Symphony, he has been the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s program annotator since 2005 and also contributes notes to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Seattle Symphony.
Audio clips provided by Naxos of America, Inc.
Michael Tilson Thomas is Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy; Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony; and Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra. In addition to these posts, he maintains an active presence guest conducting with the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.
Born in Los Angeles, Mr. Tilson Thomas is the third generation of his family to follow an artistic career. His grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, were founding members of the Yiddish Theater in America. His father, Ted Thomas, was a producer in the Mercury Theater Company in New York before moving to Los Angeles where he worked in films and television. His mother, Roberta Thomas, was the head of research for Columbia Pictures.
Mr. Tilson Thomas began his formal studies at the University of Southern California where he studied piano with John Crown and conducting and composition with Ingolf Dahl. At age 19 he was named Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. He worked with Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen and Copland on premieres of their compositions at Los Angeles’ Monday Evening Concerts. During this same period he was the pianist and conductor for Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz.
In 1969, after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, he was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That year he also made his New York debut with the Boston Symphony and gained international recognition after replacing Music Director William Steinberg in mid-concert. He was later appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra where he remained until 1974. He was Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic from 1971 to 1979 and a Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1981 to 1985. His guest conducting includes appearances with the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.
His recorded repertoire of more than 120 discs includes works by composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Prokofiev and Stravinsky as well as his pioneering work with the music of Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Steve Reich, John Cage, Ingolf Dahl, Morton Feldman, George Gershwin, John McLaughlin and Elvis Costello. He also recorded the complete orchestral works of Gustav Mahler with the San Francisco Symphony.
Mr. Tilson Thomas’ television work includes a series with the London Symphony Orchestra for BBC Television, the television broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts from 1971 to 1977 and numerous productions on PBS’ Great Performances. Mr. Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony produced a multi-tiered media project, Keeping Score, which includes a television series, web sites, radio programs and programs in schools.
In 1990 Mr. Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony were presented in a series of benefit concerts for UNICEF in the United States, featuring Audrey Hepburn as narrator of From the Diary of Anne Frank, composed by Mr. Tilson Thomas and commissioned by UNICEF. This piece has since been translated and performed in many languages worldwide. In August 1995 he led the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra in the premiere of his composition Showa/Shoah, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Thomas Hampson premiered his settings of poetry by Walt Whitman, Renée Fleming premiered his settings of the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the San Francisco Symphony premiered his concerto for contrabassoon entitled Urban Legend. As a Carnegie Hall Perspectives Artist from 2003 to 2005, he had an evening devoted to his own compositions which included Island Music for four marimbas and percussion, Notturno for solo flute and strings and a new setting of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Other compositions include Street Song for brass instruments and Agnegram, an overture for orchestra.
Among his many honors and awards, Mr. Tilson Thomas is a Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, was Musical America’s Musician of the Year and Conductor of the Year, Gramophone Magazine’s Artist of the Year and has been profiled on CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Nightline. He has won 11 Grammy Awards for his recordings. In 2008 he received the Peabody Award for his radio series for SFS Media, The MTT Files. In 2010 President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the United States Government.
Dean Whiteside was born in New York City and trained in Vienna at the University of Music and Performing Arts. He is in his third season as the New World Symphony’s Conducting Fellow, where he leads a variety of performances and serves as assistant to Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Mr. Whiteside is founder and director of the Nashville Sinfonietta, hailed by The Tennessean as “a virtuoso band.” He opened the Blair School of Music’s 2013-14 season directing a multimedia realization of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross called “innovative” by The Tennessean and “deeply meditative and satisfyingly original” by ArtsNash.
Mr. Whiteside’s European debut came in 2011 after winning the Jorma Panula Blue Danube Masterclass and Competition. As guest conductor he has led the Juilliard Orchestra, Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier, Orlando Philharmonic, Polish Baltic Philharmonic, Rousse State Opera Orchestra, Sibiu Philharmonic, Wiener Kammerorchester and Zagreb Philharmonic, as well as the Vanderbilt Orchestra on a five-city tour of China. He has served as Cover Conductor to MTT and the San Francisco Symphony.
Mr. Whiteside’s awards include the 2017 Mahler Conducting Fellowship, Bruno Walter Memorial Foundation Conducting Scholarship, David Effron Conducting Fellowship, Bayreuth Festival Scholarship, David Rabin Performance Prize, and Second Prize and the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra Prize at the Sixth International Competition of Young Conductors Lovro von Matačić. He has received fellowships from the Aspen Music Festival, Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Castleton Festival and Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich.
Mr. Whiteside has worked closely with such conductors as Bertrand de Billy, Fabio Luisi, Lorin Maazel, Jun Märkl, Kurt Masur, Jorma Panula, Leonard Slatkin and Robert Spano. He began his conducting studies with Robin Fountain at Vanderbilt University.