Keys to the Heart
February 17, 2018
Program Notes by Endicott Reindl
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Clair de Lune
Composed in 1890
Suite bergamasque is arguably one of most famous, if not the most famous, piano suite penned by Claude Debussy. The whole suite is named for the bergamasque or bergamask, a reputedly clumsy dance performed by natives of Bergamo, Italy. Contained within this suite, is Clair de Lune, renamed for Paul Verlaine’s poems. Originally titled Promenade sentimentale¸ Debussy did not stray far from the meaning when renaming the piece, which translated means, “moonlight.” The poet Verlaine writes in the original poem of people looking fanciful like landscapes with charming masks, playing the lute and dancing, disguising any inner turmoil.
Originally written for the solo piano, composer André Caplet arranged the piece for the full orchestra. When Debussy was composing his famous melodies, he was struggling to make ends meet, towards the end of his Bohemian period. Debussy gained popularity as a composer after writing Clair de Lune, because of his tremendous professional growth. The movement stands out in contrast from the other movements in the suite as the other three were expressly written in Baroque style. Debussy’s use of compound meter shows contrast for his dance movements evoking the bergamask. Also as the third movement, it is the lyrical climax of the suite.
Debussy built complex harmonies to accompany a melody that is passed around sections of the orchestra, as arranged by Caplet. Debussy’s music suggests pausing and enjoying the company, and being present in the moment after a long evening of dance.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1
Composed in 1795
If Vienna was the golden city of music in the late 18th and early 19th century, Beethoven was one of the crown jewels in the city’s adornment. Forever immortalized as one of the masters of classical music, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 demonstrates his ability to incorporate the stylings of Mozart and Haydn into his own musical personality. When the piece was debuted, Ludwig, himself, was the solo artist, a rarity to have the composer also perform as the soloist during a debut. His first piano concerto was his third attempt at the concerto form, a form that proved challenging to Beethoven in his earlier days.
When breaking down the mechanics of this concerto, or dialogue, Beethoven had yet to champion the idea of the solo piano and the orchestra performing as one voice. Rather, there is a respectful distance between the two, existing as separate voices. In the first movement, the piece begins with an exploration of pomp and grandeur, with long brass and timpani phrases. Then, as we become comfortable with this endeavor, he switches into a second subject via the violins but in the key of E-flat, up from the original key of C. This subject continues until the piano is introduced as a softer, gentler form of the subject, as the winds continue to interrupt and change the key to G major.
The second movement contrasts the first with Beethoven orchestrating a slower and more “intimate” movement. Normally the trumpets and tympani are tacet but Beethoven also dropped the flutes and oboes leaving a less-than chamber sized orchestra. These drops in instruments are music to the ears of the clarinets, who now have the starring solo role. The finale is light-fingered and whimsical, as much as it is moderately paced and moving.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Composed in 1890
The adored yellow chrysanthemum, (crisantemi) is the inspiration for Puccini’s string elegy. Written in one night, the composition is scored for a string quartet, but is more frequently performed by a string orchestra. Better known for his contributions to opera, Puccini was also an accomplished orchestral composer. He was born into a musical family in Tuscany and gained musical success in his hometown. Later in life Puccini acknowledged that his true talent lay “only in the theatre,” and so his non-operatic works are understandably few, but more than one would imagine.
I Crisantemi is a single, darker-contrast, continuous movement. Puccini found his two melodic ideas, contained in the piece, worthy enough to repeat in the last act of his opera, Manon Lescaut. Apparently Puccini found imitation a form of flattery. The piece was composed in response to the death of the Duke of Savoy, Amedeo.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Symphony No. 4 “Italian”
Composed in 1833
Mendelssohn composed Symphony No. 4 in 1833 at the invitation of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London. He conducted the premiere and thanks to its success Mendelssohn’s music influenced British composition for the rest of the century. When composing the symphony, Mendelssohn wrote to his sister Fanny saying, “The Italian symphony is making great progress. It will be the jolliest piece I have ever done, especially the last movement.” The piece celebrates all that is Italy to the listener, especially the joy and temperament of the people.
The symphony is comprised of four movements, beginning with a joyful first movement in sonata form. The sonata form is a very traditional composition form of the time and even to today. It encapsulates an exposition of a theme, development of a theme, and then recapitulation of that theme. Moving from joyful expression, the second movement incorporates the theme of a religious procession as one might have witnessed in Naples. The movement is in the key of D minor, a common key for Gregorian Chant, still very popular at the time with the prevailing Catholic religion.
The third movement is a minuet, or dance, in which the French horns, in trio, carry the melody. The minuet was a social dance of the French for two people usually in ¾ time. The word was adapted for the Italian minuetto, meaning slender/small referring to the very small steps called for in the dance. Finally, Mendelssohn breaks free into forms of the saltarello and tarantella, both very popular dances in the 1800s and attributed to the customs of the people. Although widely popular, Mendelssohn always felt there was something missing from his work, looking to fine tune it for a number of years.