Category Archives: Sibelius

Music for Romantics

APRIL 16, 2016 CONCERT — Music for Romantics / Loann Scarpato

The Romantic period in Western music history was long – about 100 years from the early 19th century on into the 20th – and so densely populated with composers, virtuosi, genres, and forms that it is impossible to characterize succinctly. Advances in the design and fabrication of musical instruments increased their power and brilliance, and ensembles grew in size. The sound and configuration of players that we think of as “orchestral” began in the Romantic era. The palette of instrumental color and the dynamic range available to composers expanded tremendously, encompassing effects from the ethereal shimmer of tremolando strings at the very edge of audibility to an overwhelming wall of sound punctuated by the blare of brass and undergirded by thundering percussion. Composers took advantage of these capabilities for many purposes, one of which was the full-on expression of emotion. In European literature and visual arts, the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and balance had given way to an aesthetic that favored freedom of individual expression, the more intense the better, and music followed suit. Certainly emotion had not been absent from earlier music, but beginning with Beethoven composers used everything at their disposal to portray the heights and depths of human feeling, and audiences were happy to be carried along, not only applauding and cheering but weeping, fainting, and even sometimes rioting as the occasion moved them.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) Preludio Sinfonico in A, Opus 1
One very direct musical correlate of emotion can be found in melody, especially when sung by the human voice or an instrument approximating it, and one of music’s greatest melodists was Giacomo Puccini. He could easily have been a character in one of his own operas. He was an unruly youngster, often expelled from school for misbehavior, and even as a conservatory student he was fined for skipping classes. Left fatherless at five, he helped his mother support their large family by earning money as soon as he could. At sixteen he was playing the organ in local churches and scandalizing the faithful by weaving operatic hits into his voluntaries. Like the young Brahms, he moonlighted as a pianist in altogether less reputable establishments, where he acquired the lifelong smoking habit that would eventually kill him. To keep himself in tobacco, he pilfered organ pipes and sold them for scrap metal. Then, to disguise the thefts, he had to improvise some rather odd music during services. Instead of assuming his father’s old position as church music director in his hometown of Lucca, Puccini headed for the bright lights and big cities of the opera world. His personal life was so chaotic as to lead one biographer to create a dedicated index entry for “Puccini, Giacomo – Affairs and scandals,” and there are quite a few listed. He was equally undisciplined in his work habits, preferring to hunt, drink, and play cards. He and a friend cheated by humming tunes whose pitches were a code that told what cards they were holding. Puccini composed so fluently that he was able to get away with procrastinating until the eleventh hour, and then he scrawled out his commissions in such haste that his illegible scores were the despair of copyists and publishers. After his operas made him wealthy, he owned multiple homes and liked fine clothes and fast cars, which he sometimes crashed. He wrote relatively little non-operatic music, most of it early in his life and none of it well-known, but it all sounds as if it belongs on the stage.

If, for instance, one were to imagine the Preludio Sinfonico as an opera scene and then asked to describe what sort of a scene it was, probably most people would say it sounded like a love scene, one with some pathos and yearning, perhaps involving unrequited love, or lovers parting, or lost love remembered. It was composed in 1882 as an examination piece for the Milan Conservatory when Puccini was 24. Although it owes something to Wagner and Massenet, who were both extremely popular in Italy at the time, it is recognizably Puccini from first note to last. The long melodic line seems to unspool endlessly, rising and falling back repeatedly without ever quite coming to rest. This is music that projects an intensely inward state and thus is “Romantic” to the core.

Listen to a performance by the Fulda Symphonic Orchestra, conducted by Simon Schindler.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) Helios Overture, Opus 1Helios

A painting of Helios in his chariot

“Silence and darkness – then the rising sun with a joyous song of praise – it wanders on its golden way – and sinks quietly into the sea.”

This is the inscription the Danish composer wrote in the score of his Helios Overture. It’s an example of a new genre that arose during the Romantic era, the free-standing concert overture, often with an extra-musical “program” or plot (like, for instance, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture that we performed in May 2012 or the Brahms Academic Festival Overture from Dec. 2012). Nielsen wrote the piece in 1903 while on a trip to Athens. From his room overlooking the Acropolis he could see the sun rising out of the Aegean and was inspired to set to music the legend of the Greek sun-god. Each day, according to the myth, Helios drove across the sky in a gleaming golden chariot pulled by four fiery horses. Along the way he kept track of his great herds of white cows and sheep (the clouds) as well as the doings of mortals on the earth below. At day’s end he boarded a ship with his chariot and tired team. They rested during the night as they sailed back around the world to Helios’ eastern palace, where they would begin their journey anew. The piece is a great crescendo-diminuendo, rising out of the darkness in C to a scintillating climax in E and then returning to shadows and back to C. Oddly, at its first performance it was not altogether well received, because to listeners accustomed to excesses of bombast and sentimentality, it didn’t sound “Romantic” enough.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) Karelia Suite, Opus 11: Movement 3, “Alla marcia”

Coat_of_arms_of_historical_province_of_Karelia_in_Finland.svgThe Karelian coat of arms

This is an example of another phenomenon of the Romantic era, the use of music as a vehicle for the expression of nationalist feelings. Finland in Sibelius’ day had had a long history of domination first by Sweden and then by Russia. A movement for Finnish independence was gathering strength, and Sibelius was right in the thick of it. In 1893 he was asked to write incidental music for a series of historical tableaux to be presented at a “lottery soirée,” a form of entertainment cum fundraiser cum political rally that has no counterpart today. Ostensibly held to benefit various charities, these gatherings were actually demonstrations of Finnish solidarity in the face of Russian hegemony, with music, drama, dancing, plenty of eating and especially drinking, and hundreds of door prizes. Lavish tableaux vivants dramatized Finnish myths, history, and landscapes to the accompaniment of specially composed music.

Karelia is a region of southeastern Finland, much contested between Sweden and Russia, that represented the cradle of Finnish civilization, the homeland of its ancient myths and epics, and the symbolic center of the burgeoning nationalist movement. The “Pro Carelia” lottery included eight tableaux depicting events in Karelian history from 1293 to 1811. The soirée, the elaborately produced scenes, and Sibelius’ music were a smashing success with the well-lubricated audience. By the time the evening ended with the singing of the Finnish national anthem, Sibelius said the music could barely be heard for the cheering, stamping, and shouting. He later arranged three of the musical episodes into the Karelia Suite. The “Alla marcia” depicted troops marching to besiege an ancient castle. Sibelius originally titled this section “March to an Old Motive,” but the old tune has never been found. Taken out of context, this is “easy listening;” in its original setting, it was immensely effective protest music.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) Messa a Quattro Voci con Orchestra (Messa di Gloria)

Lucca-italy-Torre_Guinigi-view6A view of Puccini’s home city of Lucca in Tuscany

Puccini wrote the Mass in 1880 as his graduation piece for the first music school he attended in his Tuscan hometown, Lucca. The “Credo” movement had been composed two years earlier. He wasn’t required to submit a liturgical composition; an instrumental or theatrical piece would have been equally acceptable. But given his work habits, perhaps it’s not surprising that he chose a composition for which a third of the labor had already been done. The Mass clearly shows the melodic gifts that would make Puccini’s operas so affecting, as well as his assured handling of instrumental color and texture. It’s particularly gratifying for the choral singers, to whom Puccini assigns passages that in an opera would be solos or ensembles sung by the principals: the “Crucifixus” and “Et unam sanctam” sections of the “Credo,” for instance, and the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” part of the “Gloria.” Musical programming practices seem to have been quite free in Italy at the time, even when performances took place in church, where Puccini’s Mass had its only hearing during his lifetime. On that occasion, he inserted a completely unrelated composition into the middle of the Mass, because it suited the event (the feast day of Lucca’s patron saint). In that spirit, we are taking the “Gloria” movement out of its liturgical sequence and performing it last, because it makes a most suitable finale.