Maestro's Musings

No one knows precisely where nomadic Gypsies came from. Some say their language, Romani, originated in Northern India.  Romanis migrated west across central Asia and Europe, settling in countries such as Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Spain, but they also established themselves in Africa, Australia and the Americas.

What is certain is that music remained central to their culture.  Our season opening concert includes Hungarian and Austrian music, and you will hear the Gypsy influences as their style traveled with them.

J. Strauss, Jr.: Der Zigeunerbaron Overture Op. 84

Our exuberant curtain raiser is the Overture to Johann Strauss Jr.’s operetta The Gypsy Baron. Strauss (1825–99) inherited his father’s mantle as Vienna’s “waltz king” but was increasingly drawn to the theatre. He longed for recognition as a composer of more substance than the delicious whipped cream of his waltzes or comic operettas like Die Fledermaus. More than any of his other stage works, The Gypsy Baron (1885) reflects Strauss’ desire to be accepted as a composer of serious opera.

The Gypsy Baron’s overture has both dignity and zest. Strauss includes themes from arias, choruses and entr’actes within the operetta. The Gypsy flavour is unmistakable, lending plaintive strains, swashbuckling spirit and vigorous rhythms.

J. Strauss, Jr.: Eljen a Magyar Polka, Op. 332

Éljen a Magyar! (in Hungarian: Long Live the Magyar!) is a polka schnell, one of dozens composed by Strauss the younger.  And we thought he was ONLY the “Waltz King!” It was first performed in Pest (that is the famed entertainment and nightlife area across the Danube River from Buda) in March 1869.  The work was dedicated "to the Hungarian Nation."  You won’t have any trouble staying awake during this exuberant piece, but be sure to listen for a short quotation from the Rákóczi March, which Berlioz had earlier utilised in his La Damnation de Faust. Speaking of which…

Berlioz, arr Liszt, orch CM: Rákóczi March from Damnation of Faust, Op. 24

The "Rákóczi March" (Hungarian: Rákóczi-induló) is the unofficial state anthem of Hungary. The first version of this march-song was probably created around 1730 by one or more anonymous composers as a lament complaining about the misfortune of the Magyars and the Habsburg oppression.  It soon became a popular folksong with more than 20 versions. Dozens of poets and composers have been inspired by this music, including Berlioz and Liszt. Berlioz composed his version in sketches made during travels through Passau, Vienna, Prague, and finally in Pest, where he completed and premiered the work to enormous success.  Berlioz inserted his version of the march in Part I of Berlioz’ grand “Lyric Drama” The Damnation of Faust.  Here, the aging scholar and poet sits alone in a rural area of Hungary, contemplating the renewal of nature.  Hearing peasants sing and dance, he realizes that their simple happiness is something he will never experience. An army marches past in the distance to the strains of the Rakoczy March, and Faust can't understand why soldiers are enthusiastic about glory and fame.

Tchaikovsky: Czardas from Swan Lake, Op. 20

A Csárdás is a traditional Hungarian folk dance that can be traced back to the 18th century, and was used as a recruiting dance by the Hungarian army. The name is derived from csárda, the old Hungarian term for tavern.  The Csárdás is basically characterized by starting slowly and ending VERY fast.  Swan Lake was Tchaikovsky’s first attempt at composing a full ballet. Incredibly, it was a colossal flop at its premiere, plagued by poor staging, a second-rate choreographer and a poorly prepared conductor!  The dancers complained that the music was un-danceable. Not until two years after Tchaikovsky’s death did Swan Lake receive a production worthy of its glorious score, and has since then become a staple of the repertoire for ballet companies and orchestras.  The Csárdás is one of a series of several national dances in the Act III ball.  It serves two functions in Swan Lake: first, it is a diversion to entertain guests attending the ball.  Also, for the choreographer, it is an opportunity for a soloist or members of the corps de ballet to show off! And what amazing music Tchaikovsky composed for this interlude!  His Csárdás is a miniature masterpiece, opening majestically and  with the exotic, sensuous Gypsy harmonies and rhythms, then moving to a whirlwind section with the pronounced flavor of hot paprika!  

Brahms: Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 3, 10

Music of the Hungarian people, the Magyars, dates back 2,500 years. The famed German pianist and composer Johannes Brahms became interested in folk music, and he mixed the folk tunes with his own unique style to yield a sort of hybrid. His 21 Hungarian Dances are recognisably Brahms, while obviously taken from folk sources. He refused to take credit for the melodies, referring to his pieces as ‘arrangements’. Almost all the pieces show sudden contrasts between calm restraint and explosive energy, although either may come first. Like the Hungarian language, which invariably is stressed on the first syllable, there is usually a strong accent on the first beat of each bar of music.

Very early in his career, when he was 20, Brahms joined the flamboyant Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi on a concert tour around central Europe and fell in love with the propulsive Hungarian gypsy-style numbers that were Reményi’s stock in trade. For the rest of his life, especially after he settled in Vienna, he haunted the cafés that featured this dashing, uninhibited music. It even infiltrated a number of his major concert works, notably the gypsy rondo finale of his Violin Concerto! He originally published his 21 Hungarian Dances as two batches of piano duets in 1869 (numbers 1-10) and 1880 (the remainder). He later arranged the first 10 dances for solo piano, and numbers 1, 3, and 10 for orchestra, while other composers, including Dvořák, orchestrated some of the other dances. The first set of dances were first performed by Brahms and Clara Schumann (concert pianist and wife of Robert Schumann) at a private concert in 1869. These dances were hugely popular and financially successful for Brahms. Other composers who have used csárdás themes in their works include Liszt, Strauss and Tchaikowsky.

An interesting side note: In 1889, Theo Wangemann, a representative of the American inventor Thomas Edison, visited the composer in Vienna and invited him to make an experimental recording. Brahms played a version of his first Hungarian dance on the piano. The recording was later issued on an LP. Although the spoken introduction to the short piece of music is quite clear, the piano playing is largely inaudible due to heavy surface noise. Nevertheless, this remains the earliest recording made by a major composer!

We’ll hear the first, third, and tenth of the Hungarian Dances, which are the three Brahms himself orchestrated. In the key of G minor, No. 1 alternates a sensuous, swaying melody with very animated music. The orchestration contrasts the bright sparkle of woodwinds against the silky smoothness of strings. Like most of the Dances, the melody is derived from a traditional Hungarian tune, a Csárdas. Led by two oboes, No. 3 is a charming country-style dance in D minor, with a theme borrowed from a wedding dance by Hungarian composer Rizner. It eventually accelerates into a bold Vivace section in the major before returning to the oboe melody. In E major and a Presto tempo, No. 10 is a vivacious, extroverted piece, again based on a Hungarian wedding dance.


Our second half features the music of Hungarian composer, pianist, conductor, and teacher, Franz Liszt (October 22, 1811 - July 31, 1886 – born exactly 200 years ago next Saturday!)
Liszt was one of the most brilliant and provocative figures in music history. As a pianist, conductor, composer, teacher, writer and personality, his impact and influence upon European music can hardly be exaggerated. His life was a veritable pagan wilderness wherein flourished luxuriant legends of love affairs, illegitimate children, encounters with great figures of the period, and hairbreadth escapes from a variety of romantic murders! In his youth and early manhood, he received the sort of wild and unbuttoned adulation that today is seen only at the appearances of a select handful of rock music stars.

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody #2, S. 359

By 1848, the 37-year old Liszt had made his fortune, secured his fame, and decided that he had been touring long enough, so he gave up performing, appearing in public during the last four decades of his life only for an occasional benefit concert. He chose to settle in the small but sophisticated town of Weimar, Germany, where Johann Sebastian Bach held a job early in his career. Once installed at Weimar, Liszt took over the musical establishment there, and he elevated it into one of the most important centers of European musical culture. He stirred up interest in such neglected composers as Schubert, and encouraged such younger ones as Saint-Saëns, Wagner and Grieg by performing their works. He also gave much of his energy to his own original compositions, and created many of the pieces for which he is known today — the symphonies, piano concertos, symphonic poems and choral works. Liszt had composed before he moved to Weimar, of course — his total output numbers between 1,400 and 1,500 separate works — but the early pieces were mainly piano solos for use at his own recitals. His later works are not only indispensable components of the Romantic musical era, but they were also an important influence on other composers in their form, harmony and poetic content.
Hungarian-born Liszt was strongly influenced by the music heard in his youth, particularly Hungarian folk music, with its unique gypsy scale, rhythmic spontaneity and direct, seductive expression. These elements would eventually play a significant role in Liszt's compositions. Although this prolific composer's works are highly varied in style, a relatively large part of his output is nationalistic in character, the Hungarian Rhapsodies being an ideal example.

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, S.244/2, is the second in a set of 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies by Liszt, and is by far the most famous of the set. Few other piano solos have achieved such widespread popularity, offering the pianist the opportunity to reveal exceptional skill as a virtuoso, while providing the listener with an immediate and irresistible musical appeal. It is considered one of the most technically demanding works in the solo piano repertoire. In both the original piano solo form and in the orchestrated version this composition has enjoyed widespread use in animated cartoons. The first such appearance was as part of a piano solo by Mickey Mouse in The Opry House in 1929 where he has to deal with an animated piano intent upon making life difficult for him!

Liszt: Piano Concerto #1 in E flat, S. 124

Liszt composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, S.124 over a 26-year period! Sketches for the main themes date from 1830 (when he was only 19), the first version dates 1849, Liszt made further edits in 1853, the first performance finally came in 1855, and final edits took place just before being published in 1856! The concerto consists of four movements, which are performed without breaks in between, and lasts approximately 20 minutes. It was premiered in Liszt’s town of Weimar with the composer himself at the piano and Hector Berlioz conducting. It was a concert Liszt organized as a tribute to Berlioz, and Berlioz’s spectacular fifty-minute Symphonie fantastique completed the programme.

Liszt required of a concerto that it be "clear in sense, brilliant in expression, and grand in style." In other words, it had to be a knockout.Though the work is played continuously, four distinct sections may be discerned within its span: an opening Allegro, built largely from the bold theme presented immediately at the outset; an Adagio that grows from a lyrical, arched melody initiated by the cellos and basses; a vivacious, scherzo-like section enlivened by the glistening tintinnabulations of the solo triangle; and a closing Allegro marziale that gathers together the motives of the preceding sections into a rousing conclusion. Liszt used this concept of a single-movement work in several sections with just a few themes in his tone poems of the following two decades and in his Second Piano Concerto. It is easy to be dazzled by the virtuosic flying octaves in this concerto (and do they ever dazzle!) and hear the unusual prominence accorded the triangle, but this concerto reminds us Liszt was a genius!

An interesting note: It is said that Liszt and his son-in-law, the brilliant pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, put words to the two opening measures: “Das versteht ihr alle nicht, haha!” (None of you understand this. Ha-Haaa!) You’ll hear it clearly at the very beginning!

Posted on October 5, 2011 and filed under October 15, 2011 ● Opening Night.