Program notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason (www.shavergleason.com)
Schumann sought to unify the work through connections between the movements; not only do the four movements flow into each other without pause, but some themes appear in multiple movements, and new melodies often derive from the gestures of previous themes. This becomes apparent from the outset of Ziemlich langsam (“Rather slow”)—after an ominous chord, a creeping melody unfolds throughout the introduction. Eventually, the first violins stumble upon a climbing gesture that becomes the basis of the vigorous first theme. The contrasting theme, a thrilling arch that veers into major, is also closely related; Schumann develops both melodies throughout a tempestuous sonata process. The Romanze features a noble duet between solo cello and oboe, followed by a reprise of the opening of the first movement, which evaporates into a florid violin solo over gliding accompaniment. The oboe and cello duet concludes the movement, which leads directly into the stern Scherzo. The two contrasting Trio sections of the movement are based on the violin's solo from the Romanze. Taking his inspiration from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Schumann shrouds the end of the Scherzo in mystery before transforming the gesture from the first movement into one of triumph for the final movement, Lebhaft (“Lively”).
To call Felix Mendelssohn well-read would be an understatement; his parents hosted some of the finest minds of early nineteenth century Europe in their Berlin home, allowing the young composer to discuss art and literature at an advanced level from an early age. In this environment, he and his siblings became enchanted by a German translation of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, acting out scenes and teasing out deeper meanings. In 1826, at the age of 17, Mendelssohn's musical ideas for the play culminated in his Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, opus 21. Mendelssohn would later return to the play toward the end of his life, writing out full incidental music in 1842. This youthful concert overture, however, helped him establish his reputation as a compositional prodigy and secured his fame in England, the land of Shakespeare himself. The overture is among the most literal compositions that Mendelssohn ever wrote; the composer usually preferred to convey through his music more general feelings or impressions than specific details. In this case, however, he was encouraged by his friend A.B. Marx to include as much of Shakespeare's play as possible. As a result, each group of characters receives its own corresponding passage of music. The mystical opening wind chords and flitting scurrying strings represent the mischievous fairies. Galloping rhythms and horn blasts signify the Duke and his penchant for hunting. These give way to gently sighing lines from winds and strings to represent the young lovers, leading to a boisterous dance and the evocation of a donkey's bray for Bottom and his haphazard troupe. With the characters and their themes thus established, Mendelssohn does not let them play out according to the drama of the play, but rather according to their musical qualities, following the sonata form that was conventional for concert overtures.
Just as Mendelssohn makes a musical difference between the fairies and the humans in his overture, Igor Stravinsky musically distinguishes between the natural and supernatural realms in his breakthrough ballet, The Firebird, borrowing techniques from his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Human characters and settings are scored with tonal and modal melodies, which are considered “natural.” Magical creatures and realms, such as Kastchei’s garden, are accompanied by “artificial” pitch collections, such as the octatonic and whole-tone scales, and chromaticism. The Firebird capitalized on the Parisian taste for the exotic, being the first production of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets russes (“Russian Ballet”) to have entirely original music composed for it. The scenario, developed by choreographer Mikhaíl Fokine, drew upon multiple Russian folk tales, including that of Zhar-Ptitsa (the Firebird) and Kastchei the Immortal, an evil sorcerer. Several young Russian composers turned down the commission before it came before the 28-year-old Stravinsky. After watching a rehearsal for its 1910 premiere, Stravinsky noted that “the words ‘For Russian Export’ seemed to have been stamped everywhere, both on the stage and on the music.” He would eventually create three concert suites from the ballet, in 1911, 1919, and 1945; The Firebird Suite (1919 Version) is the most widely performed, preserving the thrilling climax of the ballet. It begins with the Introduction, evoking the mysterious setting of Kastchei's realm through its use of chromaticism in the creeping lines of the strings and rumbles in low brass and winds. The hero of the ballet, Prince Ivan, stumbles into Kastchei's garden while hunting and there encounters The Firebird and Its Dance, which flutters across the winds and strings. Prince Ivan captures the Firebird, who gives him a golden feather to call upon its services later. The suite continues with The Firebird's Variation, further establishing the unpredictable nature of the magical creature. Prince Ivan discovers thirteen princesses held captive by Kastchei and falls in love with one of them. They dance The Princesses' Khorovod, a Slavic round dance. Their simple, modal melody begins with a solo oboe, passes through the winds, then settles into the strings. The villain, enraged, performs the Infernal Dance of King Kastchei, with pounding timpani and bellowing brass punctuated by piercing strings. Prince Ivan calls the Firebird to his aid, and it puts everyone to sleep with a gentle Berceuse (Lullaby). This allows Prince Ivan to find the egg which contains Kastchei's soul and destroy it, thus breaking his spells and freeing his captives. With a noble horn solo based on a folk melody, everyone slowly awakens and joins the Finale, a majestic procession that becomes a triumphant celebration of Prince Ivan's wedding to his beloved princess.