Opening Concert program notes

Monday, July 27, 2020 , 6:30 PM

Smith: The Star-Spangled Banner

Bizet/Turner: Suite from Carmen for Horn Quartet

Massenet/Marsick: Méditation from Thaïs for Violin and Piano

Beethoven: Allegro (Finale) from Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

Some pieces from this concert will be introduced during the performance rather than with program notes.

Jules Massenet (1842-1912)

Méditation from Thaïs (1892-3),
Arranged by Martin Pierre Marsick

Massenet’s famous Méditation, arranged by Martin Pierre Marsick, featuring a seemingly endless melody sung lyrically by a solo violin and accompanied by harp arpeggios, appears as an Act II Intermezzo in his opera, Thaïs. While it is not set with text, the Méditation represents a key turning point in the opera, as it accompanies Thaïs’ decision to turn her back on the sinful ways of her past and make amends by becoming a nun. Thaïs had been visited by monk and former love interest, Athanael, who tried to convert her, apparently unsuccessfully. But then a kind of Coptic midlife crisis spurs her to change her mind. The opera freely mixes the religious and the erotic (a 1973 New Orleans production featured the first fully nude singer on the opera stage) and therefore has sparked controversy, but the sublime Méditation, frequently extracted, has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire.

The Méditation has been arranged for numerous combinations of instruments, most famously for violin and piano. Belgian violinist and composer Martin-Pierre Marsick (1847-1924) published this arrangement in 1894, around the same time as the opera’s premiere.

—Program notes by Jon Kochavi


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Allegro (Finale) from Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

For many years in musical histories, it was written that Beethoven placed the symphony at the summit of musical genres. More recently, it has been understood that Mozart and Haydn, in their last symphonies, elevated the genre to its modern status as a big, grand public work. Beethoven, meanwhile, has, from his time to ours, had a reputation as a revolutionary. But he himself never made any such claims. In his work, it is manifest that he founded everything he did on models of the past—especially Mozart and Haydn. The contemporary view is that Beethoven picked up the symphony where his predecessors left it and took it in his own directions. Call Beethoven then not a revolutionary but a radical evolutionary. That leaves the question of what he brought to the genre. A prime example of that is the last part of the Fifth Symphony.

Given that the Fifth has long been among the most celebrated and admired of all orchestral works, it is worthwhile to recall how innovative it was in his time. Its four predecessors—the modest First, big and exploratory Second, epochal Third, and generally calm and comic Fourth—had already traced a creative journey broader than most artists achieve in a lifetime. Clearly, with each symphony, Beethoven was determined to do something singular and new. Recall the raging Fifth and gently pastoral Sixth Symphonies, written one after the other. At the same time, for all their variety, there is an overall evolution in Beethoven’s thinking about symphonies. After the far-ranging and formally complex Third, in the Fourth, he simplified both the formal outlines and the material. In the Fifth, he kept that simplicity and directness but added an unprecedented intensity of expression.

Besides that emotional immediacy, what Beethoven brought to the symphony was an intensification of contrast, an expansion of development sections and codas within movements, and a tendency through his career of enhancing the weight and impact of a work’s finale, which became its goal and summation. The climax of the latter process was the Ninth Symphony, with its immense choral finale. But that approach is also seen in the Fifth, whose expansive and triumphant finale rivals the impact of its force of nature first movement.

Another element of Beethoven’s larger development seen in the Fifth is his determination to bring to instrumental music a sense of drama and implied narrative. Beethoven actually gave titles to only a few pieces, among them the Pathétique Sonata and the Pastoral Symphony, but he said that everything he wrote had an image or a story behind it, and he wrote the music to express that background. Famously, the implied story of the Fifth Symphony is a journey from the raging fatalism of the first movement to the triumphant finale—as it is often described, “from darkness to light.”

Still another element Beethoven brought to music (again founded on the past but broadened and intensified) was a determination to make the whole of a multi-movement piece more tightly woven than ever. A Beethoven work is founded on a few simple ideas, largely ones presented right at the beginning of the piece (they can be melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, even matters of texture and color), which underlie the unfolding of the whole. In the Fifth, the famous opening four-note tattoo will persist as a rhythmic motif in the work down to the final pages, constantly developed and transformed—such as the brass interludes in the second movement, where the motif is slowed down, and the horn theme of the third movement, where it is put into triple meter.

So the progression of darkness to light in the Fifth culminates in the triumphant brass fanfares that open the finale, a movement of unbridled celebration. For those who know the piece, imagine that finale’s opening without the mysterious fog that precedes it, as a transition from the third movement. Without that quiet stretch of strings and throbbing timpani, the finale would begin as something abrupt and almost crude, rather than an ecstatic blaze erupting out of searching and ambiguity. But amidst the joyousness, there is one more element weaving the symphony together that is at once structural and deeply emotional: in the middle of the finale’s triumph, an echo of the demonic third movement theme returns. That is one of the psychological masterstrokes in a work rich with them. As has been written, Beethoven knew that even in the midst of triumph, the demon can always come back.

—Program notes by Jan Swafford