Program Notes: Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture, Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1, Shostakovich Symphony No. 1

Program Notes, ©2013 Lori Newman

Program Notes

Felix Mendelssohn         The Hebrides Overture, op. 26 (1830 – 1832)
(Born 1809, Hamburg, Germany; died 1847, Leipzig, Germany)

Felix Mendelssohn once stated, “It is in pictures, ruins, and natural surroundings that I find the most music.”  Perhaps no work and no surrounding were as equally matched for compositional success as Mendelssohn’s trip to Scotland and the writing of his Hebrides Overture.  Mendelssohn was a child prodigy who came from a well-off family, thereby enabling him to travel often.  He greatly enjoyed his various sojourns throughout Europe, and the 1829 walking tour of Scotland with his friend, Karl Klingemann, was no exception.  Mendelssohn was only twenty years old when he and Klingemann traveled to the Hebrides Islands, off the west coast of Scotland, and later to Fingal’s Cave, on the Island of Staffa.  After seeing the stunning scenery in the Hebrides, he composed the opening bars of his overture, sending it to his sister Fanny with the following note, “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily The Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.”  The following day he and Klingemann ventured to Fingal’s Cave (named after the character Fingal, from a third-century Gaelic tale), having to row there in a skiff, and sat at the mouth of the awe-inspiring, sea-level, basalt-rock formation and marveled.  Mendelssohn was dreadfully seasick on his trip to the cave, but was able to appreciate the magnitude of the formation nonetheless.  Klingemann wrote that Mendelssohn “[got] along better with the sea as an artist than as a human being with a stomach.”

Mendelssohn completed the first draft of his Hebrides Overture in Rome, toward the end of 1830.  He was unhappy with his first attempt and continued to revise the work for the next three years.  Of particular distress to Mendelssohn was the middle section about which he said, “The forte, D Major middle section is very silly and the entire so-called development tastes more of counterpoint than of whale oil, seagulls and salted cod.”  Whale oil notwithstanding, the work premiered on May 14, 1832, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  Mendelssohn was still not happy with the work, and revised it further until it was finally published in 1833.  The two titles (Hebrides and Fingal’s Cave) provide an interesting dilemma – it is believed that a publisher added the Fingal’s Cave title, thinking it would be a more recognizable name than The Hebrides.  Further complicating matters, it seems the score and orchestral parts contain differing names, some indicating Fingal and some Hebrides.

Mendelssohn’s work was a new type of overture which emerged during the nineteenth-century, referred to as the concert overture.  Concert overtures are not drawn from a stage work or opera, but rather, are stand-alone works to be programmed as an overture in a concert hall.  Other composers of famous concert overtures include Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms.

Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture is not programmatic, in the sense that it does not follow a narrative or tell a story; but it is thoroughly evocative of the sea and the scenery Mendelssohn experienced during his time in the Hebrides and Fingal’s Cave.  The opening motive that Mendelssohn sketched and sent to his sister after viewing the Hebrides, is a mysterious, arpeggiated fragment outlining the key of b minor. The motive is repeated several times, rising higher and higher.  It begins in the lower depths of the orchestra for maximum drama, with the bassoon, viola, and cello receiving the melodic material.  As the theme rises, the violins take over, while the lower voices begin an undulating pattern of sixteenth notes that is present throughout most of the work, representing the ebb and flow of the sea, while dramatic crescendos and sforzandi allude to crashing sea waves upon rocks.

The second theme is a more sprawling and soaring melody in the major mode, and as the always quotable Sir Donald Francis Tovey stated, is “the greatest melody Mendelssohn ever wrote.”  This second theme is again introduced by the lower instruments (bassoons and celli), maintaining the mysterious nautical tone of the overture.  The opening motive is later transformed to a martial rhythm in the orchestra before beginning a somewhat jauntier section filled with dotted rhythms and staccato statements.  This section begins with very soft iterations of the opening fragment answered by militaristic figures from the winds.  It then modifies and truncates the opening motive into short staccato statements passed throughout the orchestra before the clarinet returns the peaceful ambiance with its statement of the expansive second theme, leading directly into the extended coda.  The work ends with a repeated, haunting statement of the opening motive in the clarinet, passed onto the flute that has the last word with its ascending b minor arpeggio, accompanied by pizzicato strings.

Ludwig van Beethoven    Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, op. 15 (1796 – 1797)
(Born 1770, Bonn, Germany; died 1827, Vienna, Austria)

Many successful composers of the 18th and 19th centuries relied on both their proceeds as composers, as well as monies received from their careers as instrumental soloists.  Beethoven wrote the first four of his piano concertos as vehicles for his solo piano career, giving the premiere performance of each of the Piano Concertos 1-4.  (He was unable to premiere his last, and arguably most famous, Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb Major, “Emperor,” due to his failing hearing.)

The Piano Concerto No. 1 is a misnomer twice over.  Beethoven’s first attempt at the piano concerto genre was written when he was just fourteen years old; it was never published and the score was lost, leaving only the solo piano part as evidence of its existence.  His next piano concerto, begun in 1788 is the Piano Concerto in Bb Major (published as No. 2), while the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major was written between 1796 and 1797.  The numbering inconsistency is a theme found throughout music history; the Bb Major was published after the C Major, thereby reversing the numbering from chronological to publication date.  A note on the dates of composition: There is some debate as to the composition and premiere dates of the C Major Piano Concerto, some listing it as written and premiered in 1795, but stronger evidence exists for the dates of 1796-1797 for its composition, and its premiere given in Prague in 1798.  What is not disputed is that Beethoven was definitely the soloist at the concerto’s premiere.

It would now be an appropriate time to mention Beethoven’s influence on the development, popularity, and future of the piano as a mainstay musical instrument.  His predecessors and competitors in the piano concerto genre were Haydn and Mozart – who grew up and began their studies on the harpsichord, later switching to piano as it became more readily available.  Beethoven and his contemporaries were the first to grow up with the piano as the keyboard instrument of choice, and because of this, his piano writing is incredibly well-suited for the instrument.  This is not to denigrate the piano works of Haydn and Mozart, but Beethoven had an intimate relationship with the piano and his knowledge of how to write for the instrument was unmatched at the time.  He implored piano makers to make their instruments stronger and to increase the instrument’s range.  They happily complied, enabling Beethoven to write the piano masterpieces on a developing instrument we now take for granted.

Beethoven’s first two piano concertos are more similar to Mozart than to Haydn in structure and setting.  The first movement opens with a seemingly simple melody sung sweetly by the first violins.  The melody is then repeated by the full orchestra, with the addition of the winds, in a forte and more accented style, setting up a much more contrapuntal introduction for the piano soloist.  The second theme, in the unlikely key of Eb Major, is soothing and initially devoid of the martial tone of the first theme, until it approaches the piano’s entrance.  The piano enters with completely new material, lacking the military style of the orchestra’s introductory themes, and only occasionally performs any of the orchestra’s thematic material.  The cadenza of the first movement is long, complicated, and showy, all things a cadenza should be.  Beethoven wrote three cadenzas for the first movement, most likely written well after the concerto’s premiere – likely after 1804 based on the range used in the cadenzas.  The second movement is in three-part form and is contemplative and unhurried in nature.  Beethoven chooses to remove the flutes, oboes, trumpets, and timpani from this movement as not to add any extremes of range or sound to his musical poem.  The third movement is in the typical sonata rondo form, with the piano introducing the playful rondo theme and the orchestra answering in-kind.

It’s an odd dichotomy to imagine the brusque, ornery, and arrogant composer we have all heard tale of being insecure regarding his own compositions.  But so unsure was he of the worth of his first attempts at the piano concerto, he included the following statement in a letter to the publishers Breitkopf and Härtel, who had inquired about his upcoming works, “…one of my first concertos [No. 2 in Bb] and therefore not one of the best of my compositions is to be published by Hofmeister, and Mollo is to publish a concerto [No. 1 in C Major] which, indeed was written later, but which also does not rank among the best of my works in this form.”

Dmitri Shostakovich          Symphony No. 1 in f minor, op. 10  (1924 – 1925)
(Born 1906, St. Petersburg, Russia; died 1975, Moscow, Soviet Union)

Like many of the composers discussed in this particular NMPhil program book, Dmitri Shostakovich was a child prodigy who came from a musical home, much like Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn.  He had initially rejected the idea of musical studies, but when he began studying piano with his mother at the age of nine, it was impossible to deny his inherent talent.  In 1919, at the age of thirteen, he was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he studied piano and composition.  The years following the Russian Revolution were very tough on funding of the arts, and things did not get much better after the New Economic Policy of Lenin was introduced in 1921.  The Shostakovich family suffered financial hardships as Dmitri continued his studies at the Conservatory.  To earn extra money, Shostakovich began playing and improvising piano for silent films, having to pass an elaborate test to be deemed worthy of the position.  Some analysts feel this type of music makes its way into much of Shostakovich’s early music, especially the scherzo movement of his First Symphony.

In 1924, Shostakovich suffered a bit of a setback when he was refused admission to the post-graduate piano program because of “insufficient maturity.”  He considered transferring to the Moscow Conservatory where he had several friends and colleagues, but chose to remain in St. Petersburg to finish his studies.

His First Symphony was assigned as a graduation assignment in 1924, and he finished it, complete with orchestration, in July of 1925.  The Symphony shows influence and pays deference to other Russian greats such as Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Scriabin, and Prokofiev.  Shostakovich dedicated his First Symphony to his good friend and fellow music student who studied at the Moscow Conservatory, Mikhail Kvadri, who was later arrested and assassinated in 1929 as the Communist regime became more and more oppressive and violent.  The First Symphony was premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic on May 12, 1926, conducted by Nikolai Malko.  Shostakovich was just shy of his twentieth birthday.  Shostakovich’s mother recalls this account of the premiere:

All went more than brilliantly — a splendid orchestra and magnificent execution!  But the greatest success went to Mitya [Shostakovich]. The audience listened with enthusiasm and the scherzo had to be played twice. At the end Mitya was called to the stage over and over again. When our handsome young composer appeared, looking almost like a little boy, the enthusiasm turned into one long thunderous ovation. He came to take his bows, sometimes with Malko, sometimes alone.

Soon after the premiere, the esteemed conductor Bruno Walter received a copy of the score and recognized its brilliance, premiering it with the Berlin Philharmonic in November of 1927.  When Leopold Stokowski premiered the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Shostakovich officially became a composer of international renown.

The first movement begins with a duet between muted trumpet and bassoon, later joined by the rest of the winds and pizzicato strings.  This introduction serves to state many of the symphony’s most important themes.  The clarinet begins the main theme which is then passed throughout the orchestra.  The flute introduces the lovely second theme which is characterized by large leaps within the confines of a very legato melody.  In general, the opening movement has a rather herky-jerky feel to it; just as it begins true momentum, Shostakovich always surprises by switching to a slower theme, or changing the texture to resemble chamber music instead of tutti orchestra.  This is not the bombast we would later associate with Shostakovich’s symphonies.

Shostakovich chooses to reverse the slow movement with the scherzo, making the frolicsome scherzo the second movement instead of the third.  After a brief introduction, the clarinet introduces the sprightly scherzo theme which is then passed around and fragmented to other sections of the orchestra.  The middle section is a chorale theme, but one that gives the illusion of suspended time with the help of the eerie string accompaniment.  Shostakovich adds the piano to this movement, and in the more rollicking sections it could certainly be mistaken for a piano concerto rather than a symphonic movement.  The triple forte section that follows the serenity of the middle theme is clearly where we can hear the influence of Shostakovich’s silent film accompanying career.  This was the movement that was played twice at the premiere, and there’s certainly no question as to why.

The slow movement opens with an oboe solo which is poignant and expressive, but also thematically related to the march theme of the first movement.  The second theme, also introduced by the oboe, has a funereal quality to it with its dotted rhythms and minor sonorities.  Both themes combined with brass fanfares collide leading into what appears will be a serene and somber ending, until a snare drum roll takes over and leads into the finale without pause.

The finale combines many previously heard themes as well as introducing new thematic material.  It’s a study in contrast, from dynamic, to texture, to mood, to tempo; the movement constantly keeps the listener wondering what Shostakovich has in store for them next.

In 1924 Shostakovich wrote of his First Symphony as a bothersome Conservatory assignment by saying, “Now I’m writing a symphony (Conservatory task for this year), which is quite bad, but I have to write it so that I can have [be] done with the Conservatory this year.”  Many students remember the loathing of being forced to complete a task just for the sake of graduation; however, few produce a final assignment that is considered revolutionary in their given field, and one that is still being written about and studied some eighty-five-plus years later.

The trajectory of Shostakovich’s career was not his own; he (as well as other Soviet composers and artists) was at the mercy of the Communist regime and its agenda, which was always changing.  Scathing articles were written about Shostakovich’s music in the Communist newspaper Pravda, and at a performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Stalin and his cronies outwardly mocked the performance.  Shostakovich went from golden child to outcast in ten years – denounced for his use of formalism (anything that smacked of Westernism), and found himself reduced to the Communist Party’s compositional puppet.

 

 

Switch to our mobile site