[This one was particular fun to write because of the various time and subject connections between the composers and their music.]

Nearly all of the composers on tonight’s program were contemporaries–that is, almost all their lives overlapped, except that Wagner died 8 years before Prokofiev was born. Aside from sharing the common era of late romanticism, three of our four composers are represented with music from stage works deriving from the theme of forbidden love ending in tragedy.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was the first English composer to achieve international recognition after the early Baroque genius Henry Purcell. His fame in England was so great that he became the first composer to conduct recordings of all his major orchestral works, many of them twice. Elgar was known equally well for small salon pieces (his violin tidbit La Capricieuse still shows up often as an encore) and for such large pieces as the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius and his massive symphonies and concertos.

The Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47, fits neatly between these extremes. The exact date of its composition is not known, but it was introduced in 1905, six years after Elgar’s first (and still greatest) success with his “Enigma” Variations for orchestra. In this work, Elgar uses a string quartet (often, as tonight, principal players of the orchestra) as a contrast to the larger body of strings in the manner of a Baroque Concerto Grosso, reminding us once again of the enormous popularity of Handel’s music in England, even during an era like the turn of the 19th century when it was considered obscure and out of fashion in most of the music world. This is the only music on tonight’s program not written for opera or ballet.

Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953) gained his reputation as a purveyor of avant-garde music, harsh, edgy, driven by motor rhythms and dissonance. But Prokofiev himself characterized his output as being in several styles, one of which was lyrical. Romeo and Juliet may have surprised listeners who thought of Prokofiev as a scary composer, but if they had been listening carefully to his music, they would have heard plenty of beautiful melody along with the grotesqueries.

Prokofiev left Russia after the Revolution, lived in Europe and toured the U.S. extensively, and finally returned to his homeland for good in 1936. The Soviet system wanted accessible concert music, and some writers feel Prokofiev’s turn towards greater lyricism represents his caving in to official pressure. But the progression towards more lyrical music is apparent in his work even before he returned to Russia. And when the occasion demanded it, as in his three “War” Sonatas, Prokofiev could still write fiery, frightening music.

Romeo and Juliet was composed quickly during the summer of 1935. Excerpts from the score were performed in concert before the first complete ballet performance, which took place in Czechoslovakia in 1938. This well-known story deals with innocent lovers from feuding families.

Prokofiev may have been thinking of the concert hall as much as the ballet from the beginning of his work. When Romeo and Juliet proved so successful, he extracted three concert suites from the ballet score for orchestra and also published a remarkable series of ten scenes for piano. All of these suites, as well as collections of excerpts taken from all of them, have remained popular concert fare. In his own suites, Prokofiev arranged the pieces for musical reasons rather than following the action of the ballet, so it’s obviously not important to figure out what action is taking place during each piece of music. The composer’s liking for the Second Suite heard tonight was made obvious when he selected it for his only recording as a conductor.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) began his career as a composer of instrumental music, writing a symphony, two piano sonatas and other non-vocal works before turning to opera. Although he wrote only one mature instrumental composition of any size, his Siegfried-Idyll, he wrote large orchestral sections into most of his operas, which have found independent life in the concert hall.

Wagner wrote Tristan and Isolde (1857-9), both text and music, as a tribute to his love for Mathilde Wesendonck who, like Isolde, was committed to another. (Isolde and Tristan fall in love while Tristan is bringing her to an arranged marriage with an older man.) The conflict between Wagner and his wife Minna over his passion for Mathilde led to nasty scenes and conflicts until Wagner finally renounced Mathilde. But Wagner’s attempts to ennoble his adulterous passions met with greater success, leading to one of his most popular operas.

This four hour long tribute to the power of love begins and ends with long orchestral sections. The opening Prelude announces both the emotional context of the opera and its musical style, highly chromatic, the theme moving by half-steps. The concluding Liebestod (“love-death”) is equally chromatic, and highly dissonant. Some passages of this music, if isolated from their context, could be taken for Schoenberg. But the dissonances, and eventually the music, do finally resolve into the appropriate transcendence of Isolde’s death.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), born the same year as Wagner, is sometimes thought of today as a kind of musical adversary of Wagner’s. But Verdi had appreciation for Wagner’s achievements, and eventually absorbed some influences from him towards the end of his long life and career.

Aida is another story of forbidden love: an Egyptian general, Radames, betrothed to the pharoah’s daughter, Amneris, falls in love instead with her slave, Aida, whose people (Ethiopians) he is about to wage war against. The opera was composed in 1871 on commission from the Cairo Opera, and it was first performed there, with a cast which had been coached in Italy by the composer. Verdi also coached a second cast for the La Scala premiere six weeks later. Unlike the cases of his previous operas, the composer did not conduct the premiere, in part because the texture of his music had become so complex that it required a full-time professional conductor.
Since Verdi heard his first Wagner opera, Lohengrin, only six weeks before the first performances of Aida, there is none of Wagner’s influence in this music.

Verdi originally composed a full-length overture for Aida, but replaced it before the premiere with the briefer Prelude heard today. The chorus, representing the Egyptian army and people, has a major part in this opera, as we hear in the famous “Triumphal March.” Some of Verdi’s ballet scenes were added for Paris productions, where a ballet was mandatory. But in Aida the pageantry justified a ballet scene even in the original version.

–Leslie Gerber

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