Violinist Joshua Bell performs Concerto No. 3 by Saint-Saëns and Dvořák Concerto, under Maestro Gianandrea Noseda.
Dvořák: Violin Concerto
If Antonin Dvořák had been more obedient and had followed his parents’ path, the world might have gained the “Dvořák sausages” or “Dvořák delicacies. The Czech family of butchers may have lost an heir, but the music world gained a gifted composer. Either way, Dvořák was responsible enough not to rely on composition alone, especially in the early stages of his life. He studied violin, and later viola, and led the viola section of the Prague National Theater Orchestra. As did many composers, he participated in competitions with monetary prizes and won four consecutive Austrian Music Award prizes. The judging panel included Eduard Hanslick, an important music critic of the time, and Johannes Brahms. It was Brahms who was enthusiastic about Dvořák’s music and introduced him to the violinist Joseph Joachim, who encouraged Dvořák to write a violin concerto for him. Dvořák began to write the concerto in 1879, and sent the famous violinist the manuscript, which was returned to him with a fair amount of comments and suggestions for changes. (He noted that Dvořák certainly knew how to write for the violin, but that there were more idiomatic ways to express the composer’s intentions.) Dvořák vigorously went to work on revisions and in May 1880 informed his publisher that the work had been completed. Another set of remarks found its way to the final version of the piece, and Joachim organized a reading rehearsal of the concerto in Berlin in November 1882. However, Joachim never performed the concerto in public.
Among the lesser-known violin concertos, Dvořák’s Concerto in A Minor is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and special–rich in vast melodies, equipped with a lyrical second movement and a finale in a Czech character. It is hard to understand why the concerto did not gain popularity comparable to his cello concerto (although this concerto is heard more than the almost-never-performed piano concerto).
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”)
Difficult is the life of a modern composer! “I’m willing to pay money for this nightmare to end,” one listener shouted at the premiere of the new piece; “Why did this composer have to make such an effort to be original?” a critic noted; “It’s hard to believe that even great music lovers can handle such a long work,” wrote another critic. The year is 1804, the composer being attacked is Ludwig van Beethoven, and the event is the Third Symphony, “Eroica.” Whether a work by Stravinsky, Schoenberg or Beethoven, changes in style and form have always been controversial, but to our delight, history proves wiser and more tolerant.
But one can also understand those who opposed this symphony: it is fundamentally different from other symphonies written by Haydn, Mozart and even Beethoven himself. In many ways it portrays the structural boldness and breakthrough musical thought that has since become Beethoven’s trademark. An extremely long symphony (about 50 minutes), the first movement includes no less than six different subjects (the sequence in which they are presented is further testimony to the genius of the composer). The mourning in the second movement is also unusual, not to mention the groundbreaking fourth movement, which is composed of variations and themes. But for those who performed the premiere, all these innovations were strange, unusual and incomprehensible. The truth must be said: here and there the critics understood that “great moments are not missing in the symphony, which prove the energies and the talent of the composer, but eventually the feeling was that it would be better for Beethoven to return to the symphonic style of his earlier works, such as his septet in E-flat or the quintet in C that had attracted the audience’s attention in the past.” We all benefitted – Beethoven did not listen to this advice.
Weber: The Overture to Der Freischütz
“Overture,” almost like an “suit for an orphan,” comes in all kinds and sizes. An opera overture is one of the most open and varied forms of music literature. There are composers who set a more rigid form for their overture (such as Mozart, whose overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” fits almost exactly the form of a sonata) and other composers who used the opening to the opera to present an “appetizer” of the great piece itself.
Weber’s “Der Freischütz” includes a series of tunes from the opera itself. It is likely that more people are familiar with this overture in different arrangements and durations than those who have listened to the entire work. There is no doubt that the overture clearly reveals the “German” character of the work. The folk music style places Weber and “Der Freischütz” in the historical line of German operas, such as those that began with Louis Spohr and culminated in the work of Richard Wagner.
Saint-Saëns: Violin Concerto No. 3
Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1835 and died in December 1921. He composed his Third Concerto for violin and orchestra in early 1880 and dedicated it to his friend violinist and virtuoso composer Pablo de Sarasate, who performed the premiere in Hamburg in October 1880. As in other violin concertos, the violinist for which the work was written greatly influenced the final result. At this stage of his life Saint-Saëns was a skilled composer, a skilled organist, a successful and esteemed teacher, a gifted writer of texts, a curious traveler, a man deeply engaged in philosophy, and was in the midst of a productive period during the time of writing this concerto. The works of Saint-Saëns demonstrate great orchestral skill, a clear sense of form and style (somewhat conservative), accessible melodic flashes and a sophisticated, though not groundbreaking, harmonic language (Saint-Saëns sounds as if the upheavals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not influence his style). Of the six works composed by Saint-Saëns for violin and orchestra, three are in the form of concerto (he also wrote Rondo Capriccioso, Romance in C Major, and a Concertante from 1880). The first and third concerti became part of the repertoire used by violinists around the world. As in the case of violin concertos (Dvořák, Brahms), the composer had no “problem” to consult with the designated violinist regarding technical matters relating to writing for the instrument, resulting in a violinistic concerto (notice the beautiful overtone line that finishes the second movement), and the popularity of the work among audiences in Europe and the United States (premiere in 1890 in Boston) was immediate.
Respighi: Pines of Rome
Before instagram, art in general and music in particular was a legitimate way to share subjective impressions of the artist, of his views, and sites he experienced. In the case of Pines of Rome, composer Ottorino Respighi chose to describe pines blossoming in four sites in Rome at different times of the day. The work was completed in 1924 and was performed that year under the direction of Bernardino Molinari (the mythological orchestrator of “Hatikvah”). In 1924, the music world dealt not only with issues of content, but also with issues of form. The place of large symphonic works was replaced by shorter works (Webern’s Five Pieces were already 11 years old, as was the Rite of Spring). Creative freedom was almost infinite, and a certain amount of daring and originality was required to return to the concept of the sound poem. This is not an epic work (from the school of Liszt or Strauss), but one that places at its center the description of nature, the description of light, the description of the city in which pine trees grow. You can say that Respighi did not idealize nature, unlike Beethoven he looks at it almost “objectively” – a talented composer looking at pines. What an original idea (though not new) and this creative freedom, in form and content, allowed the composer to write a liberated work, full of colors and perfectly orchestrated. The pines where kids play in the first movement; pines next to graves in the second movement; pines on top of the mountain next to the temple of Janus, discovered by moonlight; and pines where the ground they are planted in trembles while the unit of soldiers marching in is the modern version of the changing seasons of Vivaldi or Beethoven’s concept of wild nature. The fact that Respighi’s nature is framed within the boundaries of a modern urban city like Rome can provide a key to understanding the stylistic complexity of the work. There is no doubt that Respighi succeeds with this work in bringing an up-to-date, contemporary and fascinating version of nature in music.
Respighi: Fountains of Rome
Of the four works of Respighi anchored in Rome and its landscapes, the “Fountains of Rome” achieved the greatest success. Perhaps because it is a spectacular display of orchestral tones (a lesser-known detail in the biography of Respighi, who, like Dvořák before him, and Ödön Pártos after him, was a viola player before turning to composition. He began his career as a violist in Russia, and there had the opportunity to study with Korsakov, whose orchestral fingerprints can be found in the work). Perhaps it was due to the fact that Arturo Toscanini took it upon himself to premiere the work, which he later performed also in the United States, perhaps it was the “Italian” statement that appealed to the music lovers in the country of the boot, and perhaps the fact that the work is accessible, magical and interesting. Each of the four movements of the work presents a mood in the eyes of the composer identified with one of the Roman fountains. The spectrum of feelings expressed in a vast work: solemnity, gaiety, nostalgia, peace. It is interesting to listen to it with “non-programmatic” ears, and those who do so will likely find a balanced and varied multi-movement work that presents the immense beauty of the orchestra’s huge instruments.