Unexpected discoveries often illuminate Madison's musical life. A number await us this winter and spring. Here are six examples of wonderful novelties to come.
Madison Opera, Jan. 10-13, Overture Center's Playhouse
Often called an "English oratorio" and now promoted as an "English opera," this work is neither. It derives from the English genre of the "masque," a courtly concert entertainment. George Frideric Handel composed it in 1718 for private performance at Cannons, the estate of his patron the Earl of Carnarvon (soon Duke of Chandos).
Using the forces available, Handel scored the work for five singers (playing solo roles, joining as the "chorus") and a tiny "orchestra" including six string players (no violas). In later years, Handel revived it for London theaters, staging it, adding extra music and expanding the number of performers. Today, the common compromise is to use the 1718 score, but with chorus and enlarged string band.
While in Italy, Handel composed an Italian serenata on the ancient Sicilian story of the nymph Galatea and the shepherd Acis, whose love is brutally destroyed by the monstrous Polyphemus. For his English rewrite, he composed mostly new music, but amplified the cast by adding two other shepherds, Damon and Coridon (often boiled down to a single character).
Handel's score is pure delight: love, comedy, danger and resolution, cast in irresistible melody. Listen to the amorous "monster Polypheme" (bass) sing "O ruddier than the cherry" with sopranino recorder accompaniment. And hear in the choral passages foreshadowings of Handel's glorious choruses in his oratorios.
Madison Symphony Orchestra, Jan. 18-20, Overture Hall
Antonín Dvorak's first five symphonies are rarely heard, though some include really fine music. Addressing the genre early in his career, he required time and experimentation to assimilate his influences. Composed in 1880, in his initial flush of international fame, the Sixth is Dvorak's first fully mature symphony. In it, he has mastered the models of Brahms while successfully infusing them with his Czech personality.
Two typical qualities mark its four movements: a joy in life and an inexhaustible melodic fertility. (Brahms once said that Dvorak had enough ideas to match all other composers combined.) The gorgeous slow movement, despite brief dark moments, evokes the rural beauty he loved. The first movement soars, and the last one bursts with triumphant exuberance. For his scherzo, Dvorak - already famous for his Slavonic Dances - uses the infectious triple-meter pulse of the Czech furiant.
This score will make listeners want to hear more of it.
Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Feb. 22, Overture Center's Capitol Theater
Though Charles Gounod (1818-1893) left us only 10 finished operas, his Faust (1859) and Roméo et Juliette (1867) have immortalized him as a master of lyric theater. He also produced many songs and short vocal pieces, as well as numerous sacred works.
It may be news to most music lovers, however, that Gounod composed instrumental works, producing four string quartets and the charming Petite Symphonie for winds, plus two full-scale symphonies, both around the same time (1855). The First became the template used by Gounod's sometime student Georges Bizet. Barely a year later, the latter composed his own now-beloved Symphony in C, sometimes veering close to plagiarism in following his model.
Obsessed with opera, the 19th-century French public supported little symphonic writing, and between Berlioz and Saint-Saëns, few French composers contributed to the form. Gounod composed his two symphonies during a slump in his operatic career. But the dazzling success of Faust discouraged him from any further such writing.
There are melodic touches and turns of phrase in the Second Symphony that seemingly anticipate what Gounod would soon put into that operatic score. Still, both of his symphonies show a confidence in handling the form, on patterns already set by such Austrian masters as Haydn and Mozart. Some of the orchestral texture in the longer Second suggest Beethoven, notably in the scherzo, though its swinging main melody remains clearly French. And the main theme of the first movement is an irresistible waltz that Offenbach might have admired. Gounod was not ready to walk squarely in the path of the titan.
No masterpiece, then, but a very attractive supplement to the well-known Germanic literature of the period.
Madison Symphony Orchestra, March 8-10, Overture Hall
While the early 20th century generated some outstanding symphonic writing (think Mahler, Nielsen and Sibelius), in the century's central decades, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) emerged as the most significant contributor to the form, even transcending his Russian colleague Sergei Prokofiev. As his career progressed under the pressures of the Stalinist U.S.S.R., Shostakovich's compositions - especially his string quartets and symphonies - became increasingly charged with autobiographical implications and supposed secret messages.
Interpreting those implications has become a major indoor sport among musicologists, and especially for the Tenth Symphony. Its first ideas were conceived in 1946-47, after the end or World War II, but full composition was undertaken shortly after the death of Stalin in March 1953; the work was ready for performance by that year's end. Just how much the symphony became the composer's personal exorcism of Stalinism remains speculation.
The symphony is in the conventional four-movement pattern, but Shostakovich seems to shatter it as he writes. The first movement carries sonata form to tonal and structural extremes in threatening moods. The scherzo is a frenzy of violence. The slow movement is a brooding ramble, and the finale a groping from sentimentalism through frantic folksiness, toward forced survival.
The work can be understood less in terms of structure than through motivic devices. The very opening notes become a germinal element for the entire work. The third movement introduces a musical signature the composer developed for himself out of notes for the German spelling of his name: Dmitri SCHostakovich. The German notation, D-S-C-H, equals our D-E flat-C-B. Once in your ears, that motto becomes a beacon through what follows.
Shostakovich also devised another motto, E-A-E-D-A, representing the name of a former student (Elmira Nazirova) with whom he had a vigorous correspondence while he composed this movement. Does the interaction of the two mottos enshrine their dialogue? In the finale, the ultimate proclamation of D-S-C-H apparently asserts the composer's personal survival of his ordeal.
A very great symphony this is.
Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, March 22, Overture Center's Capitol Theater
For too many years Madison has been starved for the symphonies of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). WCO music director Andrew Sewell bravely breaks the hex with an early example outside the official nine, and with an orchestra smaller than is usually mustered for this composer.
As symphonist, Bruckner was extending, perhaps fulfilling, the direction in which Schubert was moving before his so-untimely death. His format is that of the classic symphony, but infused with Schubert's delight in constant key shifts. Bruckner's first movements are bold expansions of sonata form, in advanced harmonic interplay. The slow movements can be rhapsodies based on the kind of broad, arching melodies Bruckner loved, brought to almost ecstatic climax. The scherzos follow Schubert's dance foundation in the Austrian ländler, but carried to dramatic, sometimes ferocious intensity, in sharp contrast to the pastoral gentleness in "trio" midsections. The finales eclipse all previous composers' efforts to sum up the entire work in a drama of thematic struggle and triumph.
Bruckner adored the operas of Richard Wagner, from which he learned how to adapt rich and powerful orchestral techniques back into symphonic writing. He frequently bursts into lofty brass chorales, and, as a professional organist and church composer, his music is deeply spiritual. He explores all the contrapuntal possibilities of his themes and ideas. His most typical characteristic is to replace the steady flow of musical ideas, from one segment to another, with block-like modules that superficially sound disjunctive, but are carefully calculated to build toward final destinations with cumulative logic and epic grandeur.
In 1863, Bruckner composed his first two symphonies, ones he chose not to make part of his official works in the form. The Symphony in F minor is known as either the "No. 00" or the "Study Symphony," while this one in D minor - of which he thought enough to make a revision in 1869 - is known as the "Nulte" or "Zero" (No. 0) Symphony. The latter, in its Madison premiere, displays all the techniques Bruckner would polish to perfection later, but it stands distinctly on its own merits, especially for those who already love Schubert's "Great" C-major Symphony.
Rachmaninoff: Kolokola ("The Bells"), Op. 35
Madison Symphony Orchestra, April 5-7, Overture Hall
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was, like Leonard Bernstein, a threefold musician. He was one of the greatest pianists of all time. He was a highly esteemed conductor. And he was a composer, the full scope of whose legacy is still gaining recognition.
As composer, Rachmaninoff is remembered today for his piano concertos, his solo piano pieces and some of his orchestral works. He did create some important chamber music, but his vocal output is underappreciated. He composed a vast number of art songs (mostly to Russian texts), three one-act operas and a large amount of choral music. Most of the last category is short pieces with Russian texts. But three major works - composed with his first two symphonies and first three piano concertos already achieved - stand out. Two are a cappella settings of Russian Orthodox rituals: the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 31 (1910) and the widely admired All-Night Vigil (or Vespers), Op. 37 (1915). In between came a work he considered his best music, his setting of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe, scored for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, mixed chorus and large orchestra.
The writings of Poe were even more influential abroad than in America. Rachmaninoff was excited to read Poe's poem "The Bells" in a Russian translation by Konstantin Balmont, a Symbolist poet of note. The four sections of the poem form a quasi-symphonic contemplation of life, through the messages of bells: birth, marriage, terror and death. As a Russian, Rachmaninoff was highly sensitive to the omnipresent symbolism of church bells, and he responded to Poe's mercurial writing with special insight.
Rachmaninoff set Balmont's Russian text; in English-speaking situations, a substitute has been used. Ironically, it is not Poe's original but a re-translation to match Balmont's Russian rhythms.