Subscription Concert No.872 A Series

Busoni: Lustspiel - Ouvertüre, op.38

Ferruccio Busoni: Born in Empoli (near Florence), April 1, 1866; died in Berlin, July 27, 1924

Like Franz Liszt two generations earlier, Ferruccio Busoni spent the first part of his career on the concert circuit as one of the most sensational piano virtuosos of his time. Also like Liszt, he arranged and transcribed numerous works for piano solo. Like Liszt in Hungary, Busoni left his native Italy relatively early to live abroad, eventually settling in Berlin, but retained many of his country’s musical mannerisms in his own compositions.

We do not know for what purpose the Lustspiel-Ouvertüre was written; maybe none at all. A Lustspiel, by the way, has nothing to do with the English word “lust”; it is simply German for a comic play. Comedy Overture would be a good translation. Written within the space of just a few hours, it bubbles over with jollity and joy. To some listeners it may bring to mind the spirit of Mozart’s Overture to Così fan tutte or Bizetʼs Symphony in C (both in the same key as Busoni’s overture), or perhaps the “pert and nimble spirit of mirth” in Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But it is Haydn the musical jokester who is truly hiding behind the curtains here. Though the work is clearly laid out in sonata-allegro form with three subjects, Busoni has wicked fun in thwarting listeners’ expectations as to what “should” happen. The music begins clearly in C major, but the second subject (solo clarinet), rather than appearing in the key of G major as most any “classical” symphony would, pops up in a very foreign key, A-flat major, by which time (barely a minute into the piece) we have already heard snippets of A-flat minor and E-flat major as well. The third theme (a chirpy affair for the winds) too is in a key far removed from C, E major. The development section focuses almost exclusively on the first subject. The recapitulation brings back all three themes, the third of which also serves as a mock-heroic coda.

The Comedy Overture was first heard on October 8, 1897 at an all-Busoni orchestral concert in Berlin. The composer revised the score for publication in 1904.

Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn)

Rheinlegendchen (Rhine legend)
Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (St. Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fish)
Revelge (Reveille)
Der Tamboursg’sell (The Drummer Boy)
Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the fine trumpets sound)

Gustav Mahler: Born in Kalischt, Bohemia, July 7, 1860; died in Vienna, May 18, 1911

In the first years of the nineteenth century, two young, German lyric poets, Clemens Maria Brentano and Ludwig von Arnim, arranged to publish a collection of German folk poetry. By 1805, the first volume had appeared; two more followed in 1808. Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), as the anthology was called, was immediately regarded as a valuable and significant contribution to the literature of German folk art, though it must be noted that it fell far short of scholarly rectitude. Heinrich Heine proclaimed that in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, “We feel the heartbeat of the German people. Here German passion burns and German jesting makes merry; here German love blooms. Here sparkle both true German wine and truly German tears. The book contains some of the loveliest flowering of the German spirit.”

Goethe, to whom the first volume was dedicated, highly recommended the collection both as reading material and as sources for composers to set to music. Those who heeded his call included Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Carl Friedrich Zelter, Robert Franz, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms (the famous “Lullaby”), Richard Strauss and even Schoenberg. But by far the composer most closely associated with the Wunderhorn poetry was Gustav Mahler. Over a thirteen-year period (1888-1901), he set no fewer than 24 of these poems. In fact, during this period, the Wunderhorn became almost exclusively Mahler’s source for vocal texts. Several also found their way into the Wunderhorn symphonies (Nos. 2, 3 and 4): “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” became a purely orchestral scherzo in No. 2; “Es sungen drei Engel” was composed for the Third, and “Das himmlische Leben,” originally intended to crown the Third Symphony, was placed as the concluding movement of the Fourth.

So deeply then did Mahler steep himself in the whole romantic world of this anthology that, in the words of program annotator Michael Steinberg, “Des Knaben Wunderhorn was more than a collection of poems on which to draw for song texts; rather, the anthology with its range and tone encompassing the scurrilous and the sentimental, the grotesque and the tender, the grim and the cute, barracks and meadow, the Romantic past and the insistent present, determined for more than a decade the affect and atmosphere of his music, the symphonies as well as the songs.”

Rheinlegendchen (Rhine legend) ̶ A waltz-like lilt, playful spirit and water images contribute to the seductive charm of this song, one of Mahler’s most popular works in his lifetime.

Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (St. Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fish) ̶ Alternately comic and sardonic, this piece describes St. Anthony preaching to the fish, who listen dutifully but afterwards resume all their bad old habits anyway.

Revelge (Reveille) ̶ In this sinister song, Mahler creates a terrifying vision of a parade of skeleton soldiers marching past the homes of their sweethearts.

Der Tamboursg’sell (The Drummer Boy) ̶ A grim death march accompanies the drummer boy as he reflects on life en route to the gallows. Anguished outcries, fearful rumblings and bleak visions combine in a song of gripping impact.

Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the fine trumpets sound) ̶ In one of Mahler’s most haunting, grimmest songs, the ghost of a young dead soldier returns to his sweetheart, who is reassured that they will soon be united “where the fine trumpets sound.”

Prokofiev: Symphony No.6 in E-flat minor, op.111

Ⅰ Allegro moderato
Ⅱ Largo
Ⅲ Vivace

Sergei Prokoviev: Born in Sontzovka (today Krasnoye), Ukraine, April 27, 1891; died in Nikolina Gora (near Moscow), March 5, 1953

Take another look at the title of this work: a symphony in E-flat minor. How many other symphonies in this key can you name? There’s one by another Russian, Nikolai Miaskovsky (also a No. 6), but beyond that it is the rare concertgoer indeed who can name any others. Still a third Russian, Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov (b. 1936, still living) has composed two symphonies in this key (Nos. 1 and 2). Two early twentieth-century composers, the German Felix Woyrsch (No. 3) and the American Philip Greeley Clapp (No. 9), pretty much round out the list.

Prokofiev completed his Sixth Symphony on February 18, 1947, but sketches for it go back to 1945, before the Fifth Symphony. The symphony was well received at its first performance on October 11, 1947, with Yvgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic, but just three months later the heavy hand of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, led by the notorious Andrei Zhdanov, cracked down on the music as being too opaque for the average citizen.

The symphony opens with a few strongly punctuated notes in unison in the lower range of the orchestra, unequivocally establishing the key of E-flat minor. Violins and violas, muted, sing a sad, wistful theme that might almost have come from folk song. The performance direction is Allegro moderato, but there seems to be something desultory, resigned, almost stoic about the music. The second theme, presented initially by oboes and English horn in the key of B minor, does little to dispel the mood. It too has a sad demeanor and a gently rocking quality. The performance direction is dolce e sognando (sweetly and dreamily). Finally, and suddenly, the somber mood is cast aside with the arrival of a forceful, upward-rushing gesture from the violins followed by the first fully scored passage of the symphony. Then comes the extensive development section. Prokofiev begins to work out the first theme, but then veers off in a different direction by introducing a new idea underscored by a persistent tick-tock effect heard most prominently in the piano and bassoons. Abruptly he returns to the first theme and develops it with almost feverish intensity, so much so that the recapitulation begins with the second theme, now sung quietly by the solo horn. Prokofiev also reintroduces the “tick-tock” subject from the development section. Only then does the first theme return, tentatively in the lower strings. The movement does not so much end as simply sputter out.

The central movement is even more oppressive in its dark coloring and densely packed textures. After a few introductory, brutally tortuous measures, violins, supported initially by a trumpet, spin out a long, wide-ranging theme that struggles mightily to be heard through the dense orchestration. Cellos and bassoons present a second theme similar in its long-breathed shape but far more conciliatory and lyrical in character. This rises to an intense climax. An episode of rumbling drums, an extended solo horn quartet, and then a real surprise: the distinctive, delicate sound of the celesta (combined with a harp) for just seven bars of music to accompany the return of the horn quartet. The celesta is heard once more, in the movement’s final two bars, but these two brief passages represent the only appearance of this instrument in any of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies.

The final movement brings perhaps the symphony’s greatest surprise of all. Gone are the tortured harmonies, the densely-packed orchestration, the fierce dissonance. This is a rollicking, happy-go-lucky movement considerably shorter in length and infused with optimism. The second theme has an almost circusy-flavor to it, with three woodwinds in unison playing a tune, interrupted by hiccups from the tuba, that must have brought tears of joy to Party officials. Prokofiev has great fun tossing the two themes about, at one point presenting both of them simultaneously. The only passage in a minor key is a reminiscence near the end of the symphony’s sad opening in E-flat minor. A raucous coda brings the symphony to a happy conclusion.

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

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