Mendelssohn | Overture to A Mid Summer Night's Dream
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was the second of four children born to Jewish parents in Hamburg, Germany. Because the Mendelssohn parents were well aware of the problems faced by Jews in Germany, they baptized their children as Christians in
1816. Bartholdy, a Prussian name, was added to their surname later. Felix was living in Hamburg when Napolean retook the city in 1813. His family fled to Berlin where he studied piano with Ludwig Berger and composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter. Although Luigi Cherubini was at first unimpressed with the young man, he later wanted to take Mendelssohn on as a student, but the
composer’s father said no.
An especial favorite of Queen Victoria, Mendelssohn established his career in England. When he presented the London premieres of Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, he played them from memory, making him one of the first soloists to perform a concerto without music. In Scotland, he collected local folk songs and visited the Hebrides Islands. One of them, Staffa, inspired his Hebrides Overture based on the island’s Fingal’s Cave. While in Germany he served as the music director of Düsseldorf’s orchestra and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and founded the Mendelssohn-Orchesterakademie.
The composer’s output included five symphonies for full orchestra, twelve for string orchestra, and several concertos. His chamber music includes string quartets, piano quartets, string quintets, piano trios, a piano sextet, and an octet. He
also wrote oratorios, operas, choral works, a large output for the piano and organ, etc. He composed as an early German Romantic with elements of Classicism. His music’s graceful, elegant quality helped make the term "Mendelssohnian" an adjective in reviews and program notes, but he was capable of writing strong Romantic music, such as is in his symphonies, oratorios, and some of his church music.
Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826) is an astounding piece for a seventeen year old. It was unlike anything that preceded it and in many ways a trend setter. Structured in sonata form, it was the first "concert overture"–a "work intended
not to introduce a dramatic presentation, but to represent, complete in itself, a literary work, or story, or place" (Howard Posner)–and a forerunner of the tone poem. The overture is scored for a standard Classical orchestra plus an ophicleide, a low brass
instrument played with keys like a woodwind that has since been replaced by the tuba. In 1843, Mendelssohn made the overture a part of his incidental music for a performance of Shakespeare’s play.
In a note to his publishers, Mendelssohn wrote that the overture, "will...remember how the rulers of the elves, Oberon and Titania, constantly appear throughout the play with all their train...then comes Prince Theseus of Athens [who]
joins a hunting party in the forest...two pairs of lovers lose and find themselves; finally the troop of clumsy, coarse tradesmen, who ply their ponderous amusements; then again the elves, who entice all...When...all is happily resolved...the elves return
and bless the house, and disappear as morning arrives." John Mangum, Los Angeles Philharmonic annotator, provides a more musical description of the piece. The overture opens with four of the most evocative chords in music. They beguilingly invite the listener into the magical forest outside of Athens where the comedy plays out. Scurrying staccato strings depict the fairies
darting through the woods, and the full orchestra proclaims the noble lovers' music. A series of accented, fortissimo chords in the low strings and brass pound out an earthy rhythm for the Mechanicals before the orchestra gives us a musical picture of Bottom, braying after Puck's mischievous magic hastransformed him into an ass. After a development section, Mendelssohn
recapitulates the theme for the lovers, Bottom's hee-hawing, and the fairy music before a passage of gentle modulation in the winds opens the coda. The strings play a serenely beautiful transformation of the lovers' theme before the overture ends as it began, with those four magical chords.
Dawson | Negro Folk Symphony
William Dawson (1899‑1990) was born in Anniston, Alabama, the son of a former slave. At age thirteen (or fifteen), he ran away from home to attend Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Alabama where he studied music for seven years. As a classical and jazz trombonist, he was a member of the school’s band, orchestra, and choir and toured with all three. He also played with some famed jazz musicians. He combined teaching and studying music in 1921 when he moved to Kansas, studied at Washburn College, and taught in the Kansas City public schools. In 1922 he became Music Director at the Kansas Vocational College in Topeka and a year later the director of music at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri. Meanwhile, he attended the Horner Institute of Fine Arts in Kansas City, graduating in 1925. After moving to Chicago, he served as choir director at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and played trombone in the Chicago Civic Orchestra. He also enrolled in the Chicago Music College and the American Conservatory of Music where he sang in choirs and received a Masters Degree in composition in 1927.
From 1931 to 1956 he organized and led the music department at the Tuskegee Institute and trained the renowned Tuskegee Institute Choir, which sang at the opening of New York City’s Radio City Music Hall in 1932 and for Presidents Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. In 1946, the choir became the first African American ensemble to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Amid all those duties he found time to produce arrangements of African American spirituals and found Music Press under which he published his work.
A frequent traveler, Dawson spent much of 1952 exploring several countries in Africa. Four years later, at the behest of the United States State Department, he trained Spanish choirs in the African American spiritual tradition.
Given Dawson‘s many activities, it is no surprise that his composition output was limited. Most of his music is based on researching and arranging spirituals, but he also wrote the Negro Folk Symphony in 1934. Leopold Stokowski led the premiere of that work with the Philadelphia Orchestra that same year. Several performances followed, including one at Carnegie Hall and a radio broadcast. The symphony was well received but soon fell off the radar. Dawson revised it in 1952 after absorbing elements of African music on his trip to that continent. Stokowski recorded the score in 1964 with the American Symphony, and it is that 1952 version played in this concert.
The brilliantly orchestrated Negro Folk Symphony uses several authentic folk melodies, but they are not generally well known, and the composer employs them in an excerpted, fragmentary way. He called the opening horn motif of the first movement, “The Bond of Africa,” the “missing link [that] was taken out of a human chain when the first African was taken from the shores of his native land and sent to slavery.” The motif’s serious and bluesy color permeates the work, beginning with a slow prelude. The rest of the first movement is in sonata form whose somber opening theme leads to a passage of hustle and bustle with a quick, sprightly figure in the oboe for the second theme. The result combines upbeat vigor with an underlying warning and sadness before ending in robust triumph. The second movement, “Hope in the Night” in ABA form, begins with three gong strokes representing the Trinity that Dawson said “guides the destiny of man.” A sad English horn solo, based on the “missing link,” suggests slavery and leads to a sad processional. The lively B section symbolizes children playing, only to be interrupted by a loud outburst that leads to a long, sad, yearning passage. A derivative of A develops the processional and “children” themes until a screeching chord calls a halt. There follows a gloomy, even tortured processional leading to doom. Movement Three is based on the elements of two spirituals altering moods. It sounds more like a frenzied toccata, than the sonata that it actually is.
Rimsky-Korsokov | Scheherazade
Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov was one of Russia’s leading composers, joining Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin, Modeste Mussorgsky, and Mily Balakirev in a group known as the Russian Five, the Mighty Handful, and other appellations. He composed in the usual forms, but his greatest focus was on the orchestra and opera. His orchestral output includes three symphonies, four concertos, and several opera suites. The most famous are Capriccio Espagnol, Russian Easter, and Scheherazade. He wrote fifteen operas, though only the Golden Cockeral has caught on in the West.
Rimsky-Korsakov was a master orchestrator who helped complete unfinished works of other Russian composers. His reorchestration of Modeste Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudonov helped the opera earn the approval of the international music establishment, though Mussorgsky’s original, more nativist scoring has held sway in recent years. He also produced a performing edition of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and helped Alexander Glazunov finish Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, and used material from Mussorgsky’s uncompleted The Fair at Sorochynsk for Night on Bald Mountain, a piece often attributed to Mussorgsky.
Much of Rimsky-Korsakov’s work on Prince Igor took place in 1888, and it is possible that its Eastern coloring planted the seed for the Eastern-tinted Scheherazade composed that same year. Scheherazade’s four movements are drawn from the ancient Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights (or The Arabian Nights). Upon the score, the composer wrote:
The Sultan Schahriar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. The Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatim, for a 1001 nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.
Apparently, the couple fall in love for real and live proverbially happily ever after.
That the sea plays a role in the work is clear from its titles as well as the music, especially in the outer movements. In the composer’s words, Scheherazade consists “of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures from The Arabian Nights scattered through all four movements of my suite” (suite refers to the whole piece). They are presented as follows.
“The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship.” The presence of the sea is strongest here, though the movement opens with the stern theme of the Sultan. One can hear and feel the ocean waves surging, particularly in the strings. Intermixed is Scheherazade’s narrative portrayed by the solo violin, as she tells the story of Sinbad, a Middle Eastern sailor whose sea voyages lead him into encounters with monsters and magic. Like fellow Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, Rimsky-Korsakov was a synesthete (one who associates musical effects with colors), and he reportedly heard E-major, the key of this movement, as representing the blue sea.
“The Kalandar Prince” refers to a class of monks turned beggars and storytellers who wandered the countryside and were treated with a respect similar to that afforded idiots. One of those beggars is the main character here, as represented by the bassoon. This music is not narrative so much as a description of the prince’s appearance, plus songs, dances, and even a battle, with the piccolo referring back, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, to “a sort of sketch of Sinbad’s bird, a roc” (a large bird of prey in Middle East mythology).
“The Young Prince and the Princess” characters are unnamed. The first theme represents the prince in a warm melody in the violins. The second is the princess, portrayed by the clarinet accompanied by side drum. This is music of love and rapture.
“Festival at Baghdad, The Sea” begins with a festival and a rehashing of some of the earlier music, before changing the scene to a ship drawn by a magnetic force to a huge rock upon which stands a bronze statue of a warrior, resulting in an epic shipwreck. The work ends with Scheherazade concluding her tale, now assured of peace and survival.
Rimsky-Korsakov had originally planned to identify movements by the titles, Prelude, Ballade, Adagio, and Finale, but fellow composer Anatoly Liadov convinced him to go with the descriptive ones. Later he eschewed those titles in an effort to shift audiences’ attention away from the scene painting and storytelling to the “symphonic.” In his words he wanted
these hints merely to direct the listener’s fancy onto the path that my own imagination had traveled and to leave more minute and concrete detail to the mood of each listener. All that I desired was that the hearer, if he enjoyed my composition as symphonic music, should carry away the idea that it is beyond the shadow of a doubt an Oriental tale composed of numerous and varied fantastic stories, and not merely four movements played one after the other and composed on themes common to all four movements.