by Max Raimi
ROSSINI WILLIAM TELL OVERTURE
It is fascinating to compare the overture and symphony on this evening’s program. Both feature a passage from darkness into light, but the Italian, Gioacchino Rossini, has a decidedly lighter touch then his Germanic contemporary Ludwig Van Beethoven. For one thing, the darkness in Rossini’s overture is merely a summer thunderstorm, hardly comparable to the existential desperation from which Beethoven’s Fifth emerges. For another, in Rossini everything is about song. Just as it has been said that Beethoven treated the human voice as an instrument in his vocal works, Rossini typically calls upon the orchestral musicians to sing upon their instruments.
A classic example of this opens the overture. It features one of the great cello solos in the literature, as the principal soars above an ensemble of his fellow cellists. It is quite easy to imagine this gorgeous melody being entrusted to an operatic tenor. The ensuing thunderstorm is one of the most famous examples of tone painting in classical music: we feel the sheets of rain pelting us and shiver from the wind. The next section, a depiction of the peaceful countryside featuring a famous English horn solo accompanied by bird calls in the flute, is even more famous. It has been appropriated by everybody from Spike Jones to Bugs Bunny to conjure up a scene of pastoral serenity.
The final episode is the most famous moment of all, one of the most immediately recognizable excerpts ever created by a classical composer (“Hi-ho Silver!”). It is hard to say something new about such beloved music, but I can offer one observation. The famous “galloping” tune features a bowing technique in the strings known as “ricochet”. We use our bows almost like a drumstick, attacking the string in such a way so that the bow bounces quickly to create the galloping rhythm. Indeed, our bows strike the string not unlike the way a horse’s hooves pound along the ground; Rossini takes us beyond tone painting to an actual physical reenactment.
In the world of classical music, we often have a conflicted relationship with music that enjoys such sensational popularity. We tend to be a bit suspicious of it; our instinct is to be condescending. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that this music is universally known and appreciated precisely because it is truly great.
MOZART CONCERTO FOR CLARINET, K. 622
As it was left unfinished and is the final work in his catalogue, Mozart’s Requiem is widely revered as a musical last will and testament. While I love the Requiem I do not share this view; Mozart was never at his most characteristically Mozartean in his church music. Among the candidates for Mozart’s definitive final statement as to what he regarded as beautiful, I would nominate another masterpiece from his last days—this concerto.
Mozart’s music, dramatic to the core, was perhaps at its most transcendent in the theatrical forms of the opera and the concerto. Mozart wrote this work for a beloved friend, the great clarinet virtuoso Anton Stadler, and the clarinet emerges in it as a fully drawn operatic character. Whereas a lesser composer may have contented himself with showcasing the soloist’s technical skill, this concerto truly defines the soul of the clarinet, its liquid melodiousness, playful agility, and astonishing range of tone colors and emotions. It was the first concerto for clarinet to enter the repertoire and no subsequent work has ever come close to equaling it. We are fortunate to have our colleague Stephen Williamson playing the solo part this evening; he is a brilliant exponent of his instrument’s possibilities.
K. 622 is cast in the standard three-movement concerto structure, with a lively yet profoundly songful opening movement, a slow movement of unearthly serene beauty, and a dancing rondo in conclusion. The rondo form features a recurring melody; this tune must be quite memorable so we can instantly recall having already heard it when it returns. One of the great joys of Mozart’s rondos is his genius in navigating the moment when we are about to return to the familiar rondo theme and the home key. To come home is always a satisfying experience, and Mozart often teases us lovingly, delaying the moment of satisfaction to enhance the joy we feel. It is virtually impossible to listen to this music without smiling.
BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY #5, OPUS 67
Beethoven’s Fifth may be the first symphony ever written that truly solves a central problem inherent in the four-movement structure: How can four different episodes cohere into a single unified narrative? Beethoven’s solution lies in the iconic first four notes. These four notes famously dominate almost every measure of the first movement, imbuing it with an obsessive tension. With more subtlety, the pattern of three short notes and one long also appear at crucial moments throughout the rest of the piece.
A brilliant example of this is in the second movement. The great climaxes of this movement startle us with brass outbursts in C Major, the key that will ring in triumph at the end of the symphony. However, the melody we hear the brass intone in the second movement features three relatively short notes followed by a note five times as long—the exact rhythmic formula that begins the whole symphony, only in a slower tempo. Beethoven, then, is simultaneously referencing the very beginning and the very end of his symphonic journey, showing us at the same instant where we have come from and foreshadowing where we are going.
The third movement is marked “Scherzo”, Italian for “joke”, but good humor is in rather short supply. The horns break open the furtive overall mood by shouting out a variant of the unifying four-note idea from the first movement. It always strikes me as an almost vicious parody of the beginning of the symphony; the joke is a rather cruel one. The movement closes in astonishing fashion; the whole grammar of Beethoven’s language seems to break down, the cause-and-effect logic of classical harmony appears to have collapsed, and we are for a time in a state of stasis that nearly suggests death. Without this passage, the triumph of the finale would seem arbitrary, unearned. But every moment in the symphony is hard-won, not a single note seems anything short of inexorable.
So then, we are not merely propelling ourselves when we play this music; an irresistible force pulls us along every step of the way. As it surges forward, the excitement of its logic and momentum drives the musicians to expend energy we may not have realized that we had had at the outset. To perform this intense, demanding music is a grueling exercise, yet somehow I always seem to have more energy when I have finished the symphony than I had when I began it.