All posts by Douglas Meyer

Fanny Mendelssohn – Overture

Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix, was born in Hamburg in 1805. She first learned piano from her mother, and later studied in Paris and Berlin. Her musical training and talent were comparable to that of her brother. She performed weekly at her parents home in Berlin and wrote more than 400 works, most of which were never published. Although her father and brother discouraged her from publishing, her mother and her husband, artist Wilhelm Hensel, eventually persuaded her to submit some works for publication.
Most of Fanny Mendelssohn’s compositions were songs, piano pieces, and chamber music; she also wrote cantatas and oratorios. The Overture, one of her few orchestral pieces, is written in a Classical style.

“The work boasts bold modulations, a finely controlled rise and fall of tension, and scoring of a resourcefulness bordering on the quirky – some very low pedal notes for the horn, and a trumpet fanfare appearing from out of the blue.” (THE TIMES, March 10, 1994)

In her own words…
“I’m beginning to publish…and if I’ve done it of my own free will and cannot blame anyone in my family if aggravation results from it…then I can console myself with the knowledge that in no way did I seek or induce the kind of musical reputation that might have brought me such offers. I hope I shall not disgrace you all, for I am no femme libre…If it [my publication] succeeds, that is, if people like the pieces and I receive further offers, I know it will be a great stimulus to me, which I have always needed in order to create. If not, I shall be at the same point where I have always been.”

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale”

It was Beethoven’s deep love of nature that was the inspiration for his Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale.” Countess Theresa of Brunswick, a student and close friend of Beethoven, wrote: “He loved to be alone with Nature, to make her his only confidante. When his brain was reeling with confused ideas, Nature at all times comforted him.” Others reported that Beethoven refused lodging without nearby trees, could not be dissuaded from long daily walks even in heavy rain (for which he refused an umbrella), that he wandered around jotting down themes in his ever-present sketchbooks, and that he assumed a frightening presence by lapsing into the appearance and behavior of a vagrant. In a letter he wrote, “My bad hearing does not trouble me here.”

Anton Felix Shindler reported that Beethoven’s favorite book was a copy, dog-eared from use, of Christian Sturm’s Reflections on the Works of God in the Realm of Nature and Providence from which he copied passages such as: “One might rightly designate Nature the school of the heart; she clearly shows us our duties toward God and our neighbor.”
Heiligenstadt in Beethoven’s time

Although completed in the summer of 1808 in Weisenthal, near Heiligenstadt (then a rural resort near the bank of the Danube), sketches for the Pastoral are found in Beethoven’s notebooks as early as 1803. The most telling are two attempts that year to transcribe the sound of a stream, which eventually would emerge as the undulating introduction to the second movement. Although Beethoven provided descriptive titles for each movement, he cautioned against interpreting his intentions literally. He wrote in his sketchbooks: “The hearers should be allowed to discover the situations.” “Pastoral Symphony: no picture but something in which the emotions are expressed which are aroused in men by the pleasure of the country, in which some feelings of country-life are set forth.”

Beethoven said from the outset that his sixth symphony be titled “Pastoral Symphony, or a recollection of country life. More an expression of feeling than a painting.” The label is found in a letter Beethoven sent to his publisher in 1809. The titles of each movement were published in the program book at the first performance and on the engraved first violin part.

I. “Erwachen heiterer Gefühle bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande” (“Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country”) – Beethoven draws us in immediately with a gorgeous flowing theme over a rustic open-fifth drone (think rustic bagpipes).

II. “Szene am Bach” (“Scene by the brook”) – The mood of calm contentment continues as the strings invoke the sound of a gently babbling brook. Barely a minute from the end of the movement, the steady lilting activity halts as Beethoven introduces three bird-songs: a nightingale in the flutes, a quail in the oboes and a cuckoo in the clarinets. Lest there be any doubt, he actually labels each one in the score.

III. “Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute” (“Merry gathering of the country folk”) – We encounter country folk for the first time, intruding upon the solitude with a lusty peasant dance, though not for long. Nature will soon reassert itself to show who’s really the boss

IV. “Gewitter, Sturm” (“Storm, Tempest”) – Augmenting the instruments used so far, Beethoven adds a piccolo, trombones and tympani to add wind, rain, thunder and lightning to his musical portrayal of Nature’s tempest. The movement ends in a ravishing transition of a gently rising flute scale which signals the subsiding storm, parting clouds and the glorious light of the sun upon Nature’s pastoral landscape.

V. “Hirtengasang. Frohe, dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm” (“Shepherds’ song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm”) – The final movement is perhaps the most heartfelt of all. It begins with an Alpine hunting call that evolves effortlessly into a bucolic Rondo, perhaps one of the simplest of Beethoven’s works, completely saturated with the joy of Nature.

Honegger: Pastorale d’été

There must have been a remarkable sunrise on one August morning in 1920, when Arthur Honegger put pen to paper to capture a musical image of the resort village of Wengen in the Bernese Alps. Nestled beneath the Eiger and Jungfrau mountains the village is filled with typical Swiss houses and farmsteads and from car-free streets and alleys the view of the massive Alps invited sounds of the Alphorn, songs of birds and wildlife and the deep drone of alpine mountainscapes for Honegger.

At the head of the score the composer inserted a quote from the French poet Arthur Rimbaud: “J’ai embrassé l’aube d’été” (“I embraced the summer dawn”) and he titled his piece Pastorale d’été (Summer Pastoral). The music begins with a languorous soaring theme by the horn, which is then taken up by the strings. Flute and clarinet tell us the birds are already singing. The middle section is lively and is colorfully orchestrated and the harmony shifts as if one is turning one’s head toward another view. The main theme returns to close the piece with the peaceful sounds of the opening. The work was dedicated to Alexis Roland-Manuel a French composer/critic, and Professor of Aesthetics at the Paris Conservatory.

Pastorale d’été was first performed on 17 February 1921 at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, conducted by Vladimir Golschmann. The work won a Prix Verley, a prize decided by the audience members present at the concert. The work is for chamber orchestra made up of strings and single winds: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn.

Handel: Scherzano sul tuo volto from Rinaldo

Scherzano sul tuo volto: Rinaldo (1711), was Georg Frideric Handel’s first London opera with a specially-written libretto partially derived from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata (1581). The drama is set during the siege of Jerusalem at the time of the First Crusade around1099.

Almirena, the daughter of the general of the Christian forces, has been promised in marriage to Rinaldo once the city of Jerusalem has been taken. In “Scherzano sul tuo volto” Rinaldo and Almirena celebrate their mutual devotion, but their happiness turns out to be short-lived as the enchantress Armida will soon abduct Almirena in an attempt to take Rinaldo for herself. The scene is a pleasant garden grove as Almirena sings:

The charming graces
Play in your face in their thousands.
The little Cupids
Laugh on your lips in their thousands.

In the lovely fire
Of your eyes
Love adds sweet sparks
To his powerful dart