PROGRAM NOTES - N, O & P Composers



[A] | [BA-BI] | [BL-BU] | [C] | [D-E] | [F-G] | [H] | [I-J-K-L] | [M] | [ ⇑ ] | [Q-R] | [S] | [T] | [V-W-Y]

Copyright 2006-2020 by Edward Lein;
please notify & credit if reprinting.

Neapolitan Songs
In the broadest terms, the genre of Canzoni Napoletane, or Neapolitan songs, consists of a large body of popular vocal music, with the distinguishing feature of having texts in the Southern Italian dialect centering around Naples. The genre became firmly established during the 1830s as the result of an annual songwriting competition in Naples, but there are songs in the dialect dating back perhaps into the 1100s. Although the competition ceased as an annual event in 1950, there are still a few singer-songwriters who carry on the tradition.

In the early part of the 20th Century the famous tenor Enrico Caruso popularized them, in the U.S. and elsewhere, by singing them as encore pieces, and a decade later "The Three Tenors" (Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras) helped keep them in our collective consciousness. As with the majority of popular songs, regardless of the language, most Neapolitan songs are about love, either lamenting unrequited or lost love, or joyously celebrating it.

In addition to Santa Lucia and Funiculì, Funiculà, the best-known Neapolitan songs in America likely are Torna a Surriento (Come Back to Sorrento) -- the lamenting variety -- and O sole mio (That Sun is All Mine) -- the celebratory kind. They have been recorded numerous times, and the tunes for these last two were given entirely new English lyrics and released as chart-topping hits by Elvis Presley, respectively as Surrender (1961), and It's Now or Never (1960), his best-selling single, ever.

Ernesto De Curtis (1875-1937): Torna a Surriento (Come Back to Sorrento)
Alternate English title: RETURN TO SORRENTO (if also used in the refrain)

                                                    Alternate last line of English refrain: My Life's at stake!

Eduardo de Capua (1865-1917): O sole mio (That Sun is All Mine)

J.K.J. Neruda: Trumpet Concerto in E-flat
Little is known about the composer born as Jan Křtitel Jiří Neruda (ca.1707-ca.1780) except that he came from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), and that he was a violinist and conductor working primarily in Prague and in Germany. In addition to one opera and a number of chamber sonatas and sacred choral pieces, Neruda wrote at least 18 symphonies and 14 concertos. His cello and bassoon concertos are still performed, but the Trumpet Concerto in E-flat is his best-known work. It was composed around 1750, the same year Neruda became the concertmaster of the court orchestra in Dresden, Germany, where he was known by the German translation of his name, Johann Baptist Georg Neruda. The Concerto in E-flat originally was written for the high register of the Corno da Caccia, a valveless hunting horn, but today it is almost always performed on trumpet or cornet.

Christopher Norton
Following early successes as a composer, concert pianist and rock musician in his native New Zealand,Christopher Norton (b.1953) moved to the United Kingdom in 1977 to study composition at York University. Also a successful arranger and record producer, his compositional output includes a wide variety of music styles ranging from orchestral pieces and ballets to pop songs and music for television programs, but he is most famous for his best-selling Microjazz series, called a “stimulating blend of contemporary popular genres and classical values.” Beginning as a series of piano pieces, the composer has expanded Microjazz to include works featuring the entire range of orchestral instruments.

Red Norvo: Dance of the Octopus (1933)
Red Norvo (1908-1999) began playing marimba professionally in 1925, making him a pioneer in the use of mallet instruments in jazz bands, and he continued performing and recording into the mid-1980s, when a stroke ended his career. Along the way, the Illinois native collaborated with many of the eras superstars, including Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Billie Holiday, Dinah Shore, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Frank Sinatra. He also scored several "number one" hits with his own band, and he and his wife, vocalist Mildred Bailey (1907-1951), became known as "Mr. & Mrs. Swing."

In 1933, Norvo was joined by Benny Goodman on bass clarinet, and a couple of other friends on guitar and bass, for a recording session that included Bix Beiderbecke's In a Mist, and Norvo's own Dance of the Octopus. As Beiderbecke's piece might be called impressionistic, Dance of the Octopus veers toward the surreal, and it's said that upon hearing the recordings the studio director ripped up Norvo's contract on the spot. But the recordings were released nonetheless, and continued to sell throughout the decade.

Eugene Novotney : Minute of News | Intentions: II. Proposal
Eugene Novotney (b. 1960) received his Bachelor of Music Degree in Percussion from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and his Master of Music Degree & Doctor of Musical Arts Degree from the University of Illinois with emphasis in Percussion, Composition, and Ethnomusicology, and has studied traditional folkloric percussion idioms in South America and Africa. He has been a member of the South Dakota Symphony, the Sioux City Iowa Symphony, the Champaign-Urbana Symphony, Sinfonia da Camera, and the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, and has served on the faculty of the University of Illinois and the University of South Dakota. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Music at California State University-Humboldt. His has released recordings on several different labels, and his compositions and arrangements have been performed internationally.

--Intermezzo Weekend Concerts, Saturday, June 24, 2006 (UNF Percussion Quintet)
--Intermezzo Weekend Concerts, Sunday, October 8, 2006 (UNF Percussion Ensemble, featuring Matt Wardell)

Anders Nyberg
South African Freedom Songs: Slyahamba / Freedom is Coming / We Shall Not Give Up the Fight

Composer and choral conductor Anders Nyberg (b.1955) divides his time between his native Sweden and South Africa. His acclaimed versions of South African songs of praise and protest have been performed globally and translated into a number of different languages.

--February 10, 2008 (UNF Chorale & UNF Chamber Singers

Fernando J. Obradors: El vito
Fernando J. Obradors (1897-1945) was a self-taught Catalan composer and conductor. Although he wrote orchestral music and music for the stage, he is most remembered for his songs which perfectly capture the essence of the classic Spanish poetry on which they are based. In El vito, for example, one can easily imagine a fiery señorita dancing on a tavern table before an audience of appreciative bullfighters!

--Summer Serenade, July 25, 2007 (Lindsey Tuller & Clinton Weinberg

Richard Peaslee : Nightsongs
Richard Peaslee (b. 1930) lives in Seattle, Washington, but he was born in New York City, and he has written music for numerous theatrical productions in his hometown, as well as in London, England, and Paris, France. In addition to receiving degrees from Yale University and the Juilliard School, he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. His concert music has been performed by a number of major orchestras throughout the United States, and Lincoln Center’s Composers’ Showcase presented a career retrospective at Alice Tully Hall. Peaslee has composed for film (e.g., Marat/Sade, 1967) and television, and he received an Emmy nomination for his music to the PBS series, The Power of Myth (1988).

Nightsongs, for flugelhorn and/or trumpet, was written in 1973 to fulfill a commission from trumpeter Harold Lieberman.

Krzysztof Penderecki: Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 (1952)
In 1960, the performance of Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima catapulted the relatively unknown music professor to the forefront of avant-garde composers, realizing, in a work charged with microtonal clusters, extreme registers and a wealth of other novel performance techniques, a musical experience that for many captured the horror and pathos of atomic devastation. Since then Penderecki has become one of history's most awarded composers, winning not only numerous composition prizes and commissions, but also receiving honorary degrees and memberships from prestigious universities and conservatories around the globe, and national orders from Germany, Monaco, Austria and Spain in addition to his native Poland.

Beginning in the mid-1970s his compositional language matured to include tonal, even Romantic, harmonic and melodic elements. Although this direction was often decried by shortsighted critics as dulling his youthful cutting edge, Penderecki ignored them and continued on his own path, and thus perhaps even foreshadowed current trends among much younger composers.

Although his Sonata no. 1 is a student work reminiscent of Bartók, the precocious teenager nonetheless created a work of surprising maturity, expertly drawing on his training as both violinist and pianist.

--Music @ Main, December 8, 2008 (Piotr Szewczyk, violin & Christine Clark, piano)

Daniel Perttu: Tonospheres
Daniel Perttu is Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Composition at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, where he is also the Coordinator of the Music Theory Program. Previously he served as Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Composition at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he was the Coordinator of the Music Theory Division. Dr. Perttu completed his Doctor of Musical Arts degree at The Ohio State University, has a Master of Arts degree in composition, and a Master of Music degree with a double major in instrumental conducting and bassoon from Kent State University.

His music has been performed in 20 of our 50 states, as well as in China. These performances have occurred in arts festivals, new music festivals and concerts, Society of Composers Conferences, College Music Society Conferences, and solo recitals at the national and regional levels. About this evening's piece Dr. Perttu has commented, "Tonospheres blends both tonal and atonal techniques to construct a piece whose drama lies in the tension between these two approaches to composition."
More at

--Music @ Main, May 12, 2009 (VnC Duo)

Lloyd Pfautsch : Songs Mein Grossmama Sang
Lloyd Pfautsch (1921-2003) was the founder of the Dallas Civic Chorus, a longtime professor of sacred music and director of choral activities at Southern Methodist University, a gifted baritone soloist, and a widely performed composer, especially of sacred choral music. His decidedly secular Songs Mein Grossmama Sang offer a humorous retelling of popular nursery rhymes. Culled from author David Morrah's 1953 collection, Fraulein Bo-Peepen, and More Tales Mein Grossfader Told, the text's bilingual mix does for German what Miss Piggy did for French.

--Music @ Main October 5, 2009 (Jacksonville Masterworks Chorale)

Ástor Piazzolla

Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992) pretty much single-handedly reinvented the Argentine national dance, the tango, transforming it into a new style aptly called nuevo tango ("new tango").

Born in Argentina, Piazzolla spent most of his childhood in New York, and there he gained exposure to and a fondness for jazz and classical music. But through his father's influence he also gained proficiency on the bandoneón, a type of concertina that is a staple of Argentine tango ensembles, and when he returned to Argentina in 1937 he played with some of the leading bands in Buenos Aires.

Piazzolla also began the serious study of composition with noted composer Alberto Ginastera, and for an early symphony he won a grant in 1953 from the French government to study in Paris with legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger, whose illustrious students ranged from Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter to Quincy Jones and Burt Bacharach, found Piazzolla's music was well-crafted but too derivative of Bartók, Stravinsky and Ravel. When she finally got him to play for her some of the music he wrote for his cabaret band, she convinced him to toss out his other works and concentrate on what was uniquely his own.

When he once again returned to Argentina in 1955, his "new tango" style, though still infused with traditional elements, also added characteristics of jazz and incorporated contrapuntal techniques and formal elements adapted from his classical studies. These changes were met with resistance in his homeland, but Europeans and North Americans were captivated by them, and Piazzolla's international career blossomed. It is estimated that he composed over a staggering 3,000 pieces, and recorded about 500 of them himself!

Études tanguistiques. 3rd Étude
Piazzolla's six Études tanguistiques ("Tango Studies") were composed in 1987, and have also become popular in a transcription for solo violin. The 3rd Étude is a florid virtuoso piece with quickly shifting textures that sometimes give the impression that more than one flute is playing!

--Music @ Main, February ,17 2009 (Noteworthy Duo)
--Music @ Main, April 8, 2009 (UNF Clarinet Choir)

L'histoire du tango
      Bordel 1900 | Café 1930 | Nightclub 1960 | Concert d’aujourd’hui
The first two movements of the flute and guitar suite L'histoire du tango ("History of the Tango") trace the development of the tango from its early roots at the fringes of society (Bordel 1900) to the somewhat more polite style that became the most popular dance throughout the whole of Argentina (Café 1930). The last two movements exemplify Piazzollo's own significant contributions to the form, with his revolutionary inclusion of elements from jazz (Nightclub 1960), to Concert d’aujourd’hui ("Concert of Today") in which he adapts the dance into his own brand of classical concert music of the 1980s.

--Music @ Main, February ,17 2009 (Noteworthy Duo)

Piazzolla included Oblivión in his soundtrack score composed for Marco Bellocchio's 1984 film, Enrico IV ("Henry IV"), and it is one of Piazzolla's more traditional (i.e., less jazzy and/or Bartókian) tangos, and one which has become among his most frequently performed and recorded pieces, in varying instrumental arrangements.

--Music @ Main, April 28, 2009 (enhakē)

Invierno Otoño Verano on YouTube: Primavera Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas:
      Primavera Porteña | Verano Porteño | Otoño Porteño | Invierno Porteño

Although perhaps inspired in some way by Vivaldi’s famous concertos, the movements of Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas ("The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires") originally were not conceived as a suite. The Spring movement was composed in 1965, Autumnn 1969, and Summer and Winter both in 1970, and they were originally scored for violin (viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón. The piano trio version is by José Bragato (1915-2017), a cellist who often performed with Piazzolla.

-- Promenade! Art Walk Concert, 12/05/2012 (MinYoung Cho, Boyan Bonev & Eun Mi Lee)

Juan Bautista Plaza : Siete canciones venezolanas
At the tender age of 16 years, Venezuelan composer, educator and ethnomusicologist Juan Bautista Plaza (1898-1965) was appointed choirmaster at his school in Caracas, and he continued in that post even after he entered University, ostensibly to study law and medicine. But music won out, and in 1920 he was sent on scholarship to Rome, Italy, becoming a Master of Sacred Composition (1923). He returned to Caracas as the choirmaster of the cathedral (1923-1947), and was also a professor at the Escuela Nacional de Musica (1924-28/1936-62). In 1936, Plaza began studying and cataloging a large collection of Venezuelan colonial music, eventually published in 12 volumes in 1943, making him a central figure in the growth of Venezuelan Nationalism. He was a prolific writer and lecturer, and produced daily newspaper articles and hundreds of radio talks for the general public.

Plaza's Siete canciones venezolanas ("Seven Venezuelan Songs," (1932) are on Spanish texts by Venezuelan poet Luís Barrios Cruz (1898-1968). The songs are an example of Plaza's brand of música criolla, drawing on popular Venezuelan songs and dances of partially European origin, and they may well have been inspired by Siete canciones populares españolas (1914), by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946).

Amilcare Ponchielli: Stella del marinar! (from La Gioconda)
Amilcare Ponchielli (ah-meel-KAHR-ray pong-KYEL-lee, 1834-1886) was an unassuming but influential Italian composer and teacher whose students included Puccini, Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), and Umberto Giordano (1867-1948). Ponchielli’s best-known work is the opera, La Gioconda (“The Happy Woman,” 1878, revised 1880). Even those unaware of the opera itself might still be familiar with its famous ballet music: The Dance of the Hours was choreographed for tutu-wearing hippos in Disney’s animated feature, Fantasia (1940), and also provided the tune for comedian Allen Sherman’s chart-topping paean to summer camp, Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (1963).

Based on the play, Angelo, tyran de Padoue (1835) by Victor Hugo (1802-1885), and with a libretto by Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), La Gioconda is a complicated soap opera. Set in Venice against a backdrop of the 17th Century Roman Inquisition, we find that “Gioconda” is in love with the exiled “Enzo” who, however, loves “Laura,” and that Laura returns Enzo’s love—but since Enzo has now been banished from Venice, Laura has been forced into an arranged marriage with “Alvise,” the local Inquisitor (and that isn’t even the complicated part…). When Enzo sneaks back into Venice, Gioconda overhears him plotting to elope with Laura. So, naturally, Gioconda at first decides to stab Laura to death, but then opts to rat her out to Laura’s villainous spouse, Alvise.

Aboard Enzo’s ship and just before she is rudely interrupted by a disguised Gioconda, Laura prays for safe passage in Stella del marinar!

Will Gioconda have a change of heart when she realizes that it was Laura who saved her mother from being burned as a witch? Will Laura trick her husband by drinking a sleeping draft instead of poison? Will Gioconda end up in the arms of Alvise? Check out La Gioconda (on CD or DVD, or on YouTube) for the answers to these and many more questions! (TIP: Two of these questions are true.)

--Intermezzo Sunday Concerts, November 18, 2007 (Bella Voce Cabaret)

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Before he had any formal training as a composer, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was already famous as one of Les six, a group of young Parisian composers and pals who were linked to Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie, and who were regarded by their admirers as the antidote to the perceived excesses of both Germanic Romanticism and Gallic Impressionism. Of their group (the others being Honegger, Milhaud, and the virtually forgotten Auric, Durey, and Tailleferre), Poulenc’s music remains the most frequently performed. Although the musical influences of Stravinsky and the Parisian dance-hall are often present, Poulenc’s unpretentious style remains clearly his own, characterized by effortless melody, distinct rhythms, and novel yet gorgeous diatonic harmonies.

Selected Songs: Voyage à Paris | Hôtel | Rosemonde | Mazurka

Besides making him one of the great choral composers of the 20th Century, Poulenc's affinity for the human voice makes him Fauré’s successor in the realm of the French art song. Beginning in 1935, Poulenc had a very successful performance career accompanying French baritone Pierre Bernac (1899-1979), for whom he wrote about 90 songs.

Among Poulenc’s favorite poets was Guillame Apollinaire (1880-1918), and both Voyage à Paris and Hôtel are from the five settings of Apollinaire’s verses included in Poulenc’s 1940 song cycle, Banalités. One might say that the first of these paints the French capital as the “City of Carnival Lights,” while the seconds paints a languid picture of sun streaming in through partially opened shutters on a slow riser, whose ambition is as yet as ill-defined as the smoke circles he blows.

Another Apollinaire poem, Rosemonde, in which the poet reminisces about, well, stalking a woman through the streets of Amsterdam for a couple of hours, was specifically chosen with the audience for a 1954 Dutch recital in mind.

Mazurka is from Mouvements du Coeur ("Stirrings of the Heart," 1949), seven songs by six different composers commissioned in commemoration of the 100th death anniversary of Chopin, especially appropriate as we celebrate Chopin’s 200th birth anniversary this year [2010]. In it, French poet Louise Vilmorin (1902-1969) uses a refrain that recalls the children’s song, Ainsi (This is How They Go), as she depicts the antics of flirtatious young dancers as if they were predictable movements of puppets.

        Mazurka ("Les bijoux aux poitrines")        

-- Music @ Main 3/24/2010: Nocchiero & Biernacki

In addition to his mastery of vocal music, Poulenc had a special affinity for wind instruments, and his mature chamber works featuring winds are among the most gratifying for both performers and listeners. The Élégie (1957) is something of an anomaly among Poulenc’s compositions in that it flirts ever so gently with serialism (by way of Stravinsky more than Schoenberg). Understandably somber, the darkly attractive work pays tribute to the truly extraordinary British horn virtuoso Dennis Brain (1921-1957), who lately had died in a car crash at age 36.

--Intermezzo Sunday Concerts, January 13, 2008 (Aaron Brask, horn)

Sonata, Op. 143 (1940-48):
      I. Allegro-Tempo di marcia. II. Cavatine. III. Ballabile. IV. Finale
Poulenc, himself a pianist, had a much-lauded talent for writing for wind instruments, but he apparently felt a little less secure writing for solo strings: while working on his Cello Sonata, Op. 143 (1940-1948), he enlisted the advice of French cello virtuoso Pierre Fournier, to whom the work is dedicated. The advice paid off, such that in this duo for cello and piano Poulenc created what author and critic David Hurwitz identifies as the composer's "biggest and most important solo sonata."

Rosephanye Powell: Sorida (Zimbabwe)
Rosephanye Powell, associate Professor of Music at Auburn University, is an internationally recognized composer and arranger of choral music as well as a successful soprano soloist. Sorida is based on a greeting of the Shona language of Zimbabwe, and this original composition uses percussion and layered vocal patterns to capture the spirit of African music.

--Intermezzo Sunday Concerts, February 10, 2008 (UNF Chorale & UNF Chamber Singers)

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Great Russian composer, pianist and conductor admired as one of the finest composers of the 20th century, whose music, including the delightful Peter and the Wolf and the exuberant “Classical” Symphony, is widely performed and recorded. Prokofiev thought of himself primarily as an opera composer, and he started early: he wrote his first opera when he was only nine years old.

Jax Symphony Notes Sergei Prokofiev
Soviet Russian composer and pianist
Born: 1891, Sontzovka, Ukraine
Died: 1953, Moscow

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26
Composed in 1921
Premiered in Chicago in October 1921
ca. 28 minutes

Biographer Simon Morrison reckons the concert music of Sergei Prokofiev is played more often in America than that of any of his contemporaries. To put some of Prokofiev’s achievements in perspective, he wrote the "Classical" Symphony No. 1 in 1917, three years before Stravinsky took up neoclassicism, and completed his brilliant Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1921, three years before Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and five years before Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Abandoning the political uncertainty of his homeland after the Russian Revolution, Prokofiev set out for the United States in 1918. He was well-known in Europe as both pianist and composer, and he met with similar successes in America. But a delay in the production of The Love of Three Oranges by the Chicago Opera brought financial hardship. Moving to France in 1920, Prokofiev completed a commission for Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, and Chout (The Buffoon) premiered to great acclaim in May 1921. By summer's end Prokofiev had finished his Piano Concerto No. 3, having sketched all but two of the work's main themes through the previous decade. When he returned to the States for the October opera premiere he carried the new concerto with him, and both works were well-received in Chicago.

Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto is the most-performed of the five he wrote, and among all 20th-Century concerted works for piano and orchestra only those by Rachmaninoff, Gershwin and Ravel rival its popularity. A solo clarinet begins the expansive melody that provides an introduction to the driving, toccata-like principal theme of the sonata-form first movement; the contrasting secondary theme is a quirky gavotte punctuated with castanets, and the lyrical melody from the introduction returns for development. The second movement presents a balletic theme with five variations. Prokofiev’s finale is a rondo (ABACA-coda), but the gorgeous "C" segment becomes an interpolated slow movement that might have made Rachmaninoff proud, with an eerie midsection akin to the “night music” Bartók was beginning to explore.

Prokofiev identified four compositional precepts that guided him: (1) a commitment to Classical structures and developmental techniques, (2) a quest for new sonorities and melodic shapes, (3) rhythmic drive, and (4) lyrical expressiveness; he might have added: (5) a sense of humor. No work exemplifies these better than his Piano Concerto No. 3.

Jax Symphony Notes Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63 (1935)
1. Allegro moderato / 2. Andante assai / 3. Allegro, ben marcato

In 1935, Prokofiev was commissioned to write a concerto for French violinist Robert Soetens, who would give the premiere in Madrid that December. In 1932, Soetens' partner for the premiere of Prokofiev's Sonata for 2 Violins had been Samuel Dushkin, for whom Stravinsky had written a concerto—this no doubt provided additional incentive for Prokofiev. The reception of Prokofiev's previous, relatively opulent Violin Concerto No. 1 had been disappointing. Though completed in 1917, its first performance wasn't until 1923, by which time the fashion-conscious Parisians dismissed Sergei's lyricism as old-hat, preferring instead Igor's new-hat Octet played on the same concert.

Listen Up: Prokofiev said he wanted this follow-up concerto "to be altogether different from No. 1 in both music and style.” He uses a smaller orchestra, but nonetheless retains a similar lyric warmth heated to virtuosic frenzy as needed. The soloist opens the sonata-form first movement with a brooding theme in G minor, balanced by a tender tune beginning in B-flat Major; the aforementioned "frenzy" occupies the transitions and development, and the movement ends with rather ominous pizzicatti. The gorgeous slow movement manages a simultaneous restraint and effusiveness that might make Rachmaninoff weep; and although not named “Aria” as are the two middle movements of Stravinsky's concerto, one suspects Prokofiev was demonstrating his take on how a Neoclassical aria should sound. The finale assumes the air of a danse macabre with castanets (perhaps in deference to the premier audience), and races to a thrilling conclusion. The concerto was, and remains, a huge hit.

Jax Symphony Notes Selections from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 (1935):
Montagues and Capulets / The Child Juliet / Masks / Death of Tybalt / Romeo at the Grave of Juliet on YouTube

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.

And so begins the most famous play in the world ... with a spoiler.

William Shakespeare penned these lines circa 1595, and through the centuries his epic tragedy has inspired more authors, composers and filmmakers than any other secular work. Yet as late as 1935, Sergei Prokofiev apparently became the first to write a ballet about the ill-fated lovers. With his Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev composed the only full-length ballet that approaches the popularity of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker.

The Ukrainian enfant terrible abandoned post-revolutionary Russia for the Decadent West in 1918. As his star grew brighter, Prokofiev received recurring invitations to resume permanent residency in Soviet Russia. By the mid-1930s, with performance royalties waning and homesickness waxing, Prokofiev began to take the invitations seriously. In January 1936, the Soviets denounced Shostakovich, their heretofore favorite composer, providing an unexpected lure: Prokofiev jumped at the chance to become the biggest sturgeon in the pond. That spring he settled his family in Moscow.

Prokofiev returned to Mother Russia carrying his most recent disappointment: Romeo and Juliet. The ballet already had been rejected by both Leningrad's Kirov Theater and Moscow's Bolshoi. The biggest obstacle was Prokofiev's happy ending, with Juliet reviving in time to stop Romeo from drinking poison. The composer said this was necessary because, you know, dead people can't dance. The Soviet ballet companies remained unconvinced, however, and feared government censure for corrupting the beloved story. Prokofiev eventually restored The Bard's dénouement, and the revised ballet premiered in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1938. Two years later the Kirov gave the Russian premiere, and Romeo and Juliet finally danced onto the Bolshoi's stage in 1946. Since then it has never left the international repertoire.

While still struggling for his own happy ending with the star-crossed score, Prokofiev was determined to get the music before the public, even without toe-shoes. He performed selections as 10 Pieces for Piano, Op. 75, and arranged two orchestral suites; he later culled a third suite to coincide with the first Bolshoi production. It is common to mix movements from the suites to suit the needs of individual concerts—which brings us to now.

1. Montagues and Capulets combines the ominous Introduction to Act III with Dance of the Knights, which introduces the Capulet clan during the Act I ballroom scene. It is the ballet's best-known music, and its bellicose haughtiness aptly conjures the feuding families. The blustering halts as Juliet enters and greets Paris, an older suitor who wishes to marry her. She dances a minuet with him, and the chilly formality is brilliantly underscored with viola portamenti tracing a filigree of flute melody against an icy background including harp, triangle and celesta.

2. The Child Juliet takes place that afternoon before the ball, as the exuberant Juliet and her friends tease the nursemaid while they primp and preen. Lady Capulet interrupts their frolic, hoping to persuade Juliet to accept a marriage proposal from the wealthy Paris.

3. Masks takes us to the Capulet's ball along with disguised, party-crashing Montagues: Romeo, his cousin Benvolio, and Mercutio, Romeo's best friend.

4. Death of Tybalt moves into the morning streets soon after Romeo and Juliet secretly marry. Tybalt, Juliet's cousin, has challenged Romeo to a duel, but Romeo refuses because he alone knows they now are related. Mercutio accepts the challenge, but turns the duel into a comical dance. Amid the hijinks Tybalt surreptitiously stabs Mercutio. When Romeo realizes that Mercutio is dead, he pursues and kills Tybalt, punctuated by 15 violent chords. The Capulets bear their slain kinsman before the Prince of Verona to demand justice. Romeo is spared execution, but is banished.

5. Romeo at the Grave of Juliet presents the heart-wrenching grief of the teenaged groom who has no idea that his bride soon will rouse from her drug-induced trance. Amid death-theme variations comes a recollection of young love as Romeo prayerfully tries to resurrect Juliet's seemingly lifeless body. Laying her again to rest, he downs a fatal draught. Juliet awakens—Romeo's prayer has been answered too late.

Romeo Bids Juliet Farewell, Op. 75, no. 10
Prokifiev's ballet, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 (based on Shakespeare’s play), was composed during 1935-36, but the premiere was delayed due to worries with Stalin’s regime. Prokofiev reworked some of the ballet music as Romeo and Juliet: Ten Pieces for Piano, Op. 75, which he first performed in 1937. --Intermezzo Sunday Concerts, March 18, 2007 (Gary Smart)

Prokofiev's Sonata No. 2 in D major for Violin and Piano, Op. 94a (1943), is the composer's arrangement of his Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op. 94 (1942). The adaptation for violin was made at the request of a close friend of Prokofiev's, the legendary David Oistrakh (1908-1974), one of the greatest violinists of the 20th Century.

Jax Symphony Notes Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, op. 100
      1. Andante (B-flat Major)
      2. Allegro marcato (D Minor)
      3. Adagio (F Major)
      4. Allegro giocoso (B-flat Major)
Composed in 1944
Premiered on January 13, 1945, at the Moscow Conservatory, conducted by the composer
ca. 44 minutes (13', 9', 13', 9')

I was returning to the symphonic form after a break of sixteen years.
The Fifth Symphony is the culmination of an entire period in my work.
I conceived it as a symphony on the greatness of the human soul.

-– Sergei Prokofiev

Prokofiev was at the height of his creative powers and popularity when he composed his Fifth Symphony in 1944. He had returned to his Motherland in 1936, following an 18-year sojourn in the West after the Russian Revolution. It seems incredible that anyone would have departed Paris to set up housekeeping in Moscow during Stalin's Reign of Terror, but the Great Depression had pared the homesick composer's income and quashed prospects for new productions of his ballets and operas. Prokofiev already had made extended visits to the USSR to concertize, teach, and collaborate on commissions, and Soviet officials had proffered ingratiating invitations encouraging his return. Imagining himself immune from politics and with complete faith in his talent, Prokofiev headed "home."

The intervening years before the premiere of the Fifth Symphony on January 13, 1945, had been very productive. Even after Hitler's 1941 invasion had edged World War II within twenty miles of Moscow, Prokofiev composed relatively unabated. He moved among various safe havens set up by the Soviet Composers' Union; during a summer's month in 1944 the short score of his new symphony emerged in the last of these. By autumn he was safely back in Moscow, and finished the orchestration in November.

When Prokofiev mounted the podium for the first performance he was greeted like a conquering hero. Only two weeks prior had seen the successful premieres of his Piano Sonata No. 8 and Ivan the Terrible, Part 1. As the 53-year-old composer raised his baton and the ovation faded, everyone suddenly could hear booming artillery celebrating the Soviet Army's advance into Germany. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter recalled, "He waited, and began only after the cannons had stopped. There was something very significant in this – something symbolic.”

The symphony's first movement unfolds as a straight-forward sonata form, with an expansive principal subject transitioning into the sweeping second theme. The dominant motif in the closing section is a quick flourish followed by rapidly repeated notes; similar motifs provide a unifying element among the movements. Like Brahms in his Fourth Symphony, Prokofiev restates the opening in the home key as the development begins, but, like Tchaikovsky, lets full-bodied melodies rather than motivic fragments dominate the discourse. Brasses herald the recapitulation, and the coda becomes a victory celebration, complete with thunderous percussion imitating cannon-fire – recalling those salvos from before the performance.

For the galloping second movement Prokofiev salvaged music from his original "happy ending" version of Romeo and Juliet (Nos. 53-54 in Simon Morrison's restoration of Prokofiev's original score).

The slow movement presents a waltz-like theme Prokofiev drew from his score to an unrealized film of Pushkin's Queen of Spades. Signaled by piano reiterating a percussive rhythmic figure, the middle section includes a funereal cortège that becomes martial and menacing, after which the reprise of the waltz soothes like a lullaby. An "icy" coda closes the movement, the polar opposite of Wagner's Magic Fire Music.

Prokofiev's finale is a playful rondo. It begins with a calm introduction recalling the main tune from the first movement, and ends with a frantic coda that plunges headlong, driven by manic clockwork to a final big bang.

The symphony earned Prokofiev a Stalin Prize and got him onto the cover of TIME magazine following the Boston premiere that November. Sadly, he never conducted again after his triumphant Moscow performance. Shortly thereafter Prokofiev suffered a concussion (or stroke?) from which he never fully recovered. Slowed, yes – but with over two dozen works yet to come.

©2014 by Edward Lein.

Giacomo Puccini
Giacomo Puccini (JAH-koh-moh poo-CHEE-nee, 1858–1924) came from a long line of Italian church musicians, and it was assumed he’d inherit the “family business” in Tuscany. But a fateful trek from Lucca to Pisa to see Verdi’s Aïda convinced Puccini to give up organ pedals for footlights, and he became the only real successor of Verdi in the realm of Italian opera. When he died of throat cancer the whole of Italy went into mourning, and no opera composer since has enjoyed the same kind of sustained international following that Puccini still has. Puccini is reckoned to be the most popular opera composer in America, with his Madama Butterfly (1904) and La bohème (The Bohemian, 1896) ranking as the two most-performed operas in the United States.

O mio babbino caro (from Gianni Schicchi)

The one act of Gianni Schicchi, Puccini’s only comic opera, was first performed in 1918 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera along with his two other one-act operas, Il tabarro and Suor Angelica. Together the three comprise Il trittico ("The Triptych"), and the composer insisted that they should only be performed as a group—but even during his lifetime this wish was ignored.

Fleshed out from a few cryptic lines in Dante’s Inferno, Gianni Schicchi, the most popular of Il trittico, tells the tale of a crafty Florentine who helps a dishonest family fake a counterfeit will when the lately deceased head of their clan bequeaths his fortune to the local monastery rather than to his greedy distant relatives (and who could blame him?). Gianni’s plot ultimately benefits the reprobate heirs, but in his scheming he tricks them out of the deceased’s mansion and favorite mule for himself (and who could blame him?).

But at first Gianni had been unwilling to assist the disagreeable bunch. Only things changed when he found out his daughter, “Lauretta,” couldn't marry her beloved (the nephew of an elderly cousin of the deceased) unless their scheme worked. The turning point: Lauretta’s tuneful entreaty, O mio babbino caro ("O, My Dear Beloved Papa"). With a daughter who sings so beautifully, of course Gianni had to agree. (And who could blame him?)

--Intermezzo Sunday Concerts, November 18, 2007 (Bella Voce Cabaret)

La bohème: O soave fanciulla | Donde lieta
Italian libretto: Luigi Illica (1857-1919) and Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906)

The story of La bohème comes from the semi-autobiographical novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème ("Scenes in the Life of a Bohemian"), by Henri Murger (1822-1861), and it loosely serves as the model for the Broadway musical, Rent. The sad tale centers around the on-again, off-again romantic relationship between Rodolfo, a struggling writer, and the delicate Mimi, who ekes out a meager living making needlework flowers.

As the curtain opens, it is Christmas Eve and Rodolfo and his roommate are getting ready for a jolly night out with their friends. Rodolfo decides to finish a bit of work on his own first, but his solitude is interrupted by a neighbor, Mimi, whose candle has gone out on the stairway. Rodolfo is taken with her beauty, so, as his friends call for him from outside to hurry along, he hangs behind to get better acquainted with the distressed damsel. Alone, the pair share their life stories, with some of the most beautiful music ever written for the stage--so, really--how could they not fall in love?

O soave fanciulla
In their duet, O soave fanciulla, which ends the first of the opera's four acts, Rodolfo begins his seduction routine, reciting lines he may well have used many times before. Only, this time he realizes he actually means what he's saying.

Donde lieta
In Mimì’s 3rd Act aria, Donde lieta, the consumptive heroine resigns herself to the notion that it might be best if they separated amicably, alluding to souvenirs of happier times. (But by the end of the scene they decide not to part until spring—who could be sad then, when the world is in bloom?)

Chi bel il sogno di Doretta (from La rondine)
Puccini’s one foray into operetta has had less success than his operas, but for La rondine (“The Swallow”) Puccini created one of his most memorably soaring arias. In context, Chi bel il sogno di Doretta (“Doretta's beautiful dream”) is a newly composed song introduced at a cocktail party by “Prunier,” a poet and composer. But he has no ending for his song, so he invites “Magda,” a demimondaine who harbors her own romantic dreams, to join him at the piano to make up an ending. Magda’s contribution becomes one of those tunes you can’t get out of your head (despite being almost impossible to sing), so one might assume that the song became a hit!

--Music @ Main, February 10, 2009 (Mu Phi Epsilon Student Recital)

Nessun dorma (from Turandot)
Based on a folktale from The Arabian Nights, Puccini’s exotic final opera, Turandot, was left unfinished at his death, but that hasn’t stopped its 3rd-act aria, Nessun dorma (“None shall sleep”), from becoming the biggest-ever “crossover” hit, owing primarily to the international commercial success of Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007). Although he rarely performed in stage productions of the entire opera, Nessun dorma became Pavarotti’s signature song, and when he was too sick to receive his Lifetime Achievement Award during the 1998 Emmy broadcast, the legendary Aretha Franklin (b. 1942) stepped in and provided a soulful live tribute performance of the aria (in the original key!), in a thrilling, non-operatic style uniquely her own.

Máximo Diego Pujol
Suite Buenos Aires: Pompeya | Palermo | San Telmo | Microcentro
In 1989 the Argentine Composers' Union named Máximo Diego Pujol (b. 1957) as their country's "Best Composer of Classical Music," and his harmonically rich works have won composition awards in Colombia, France and Martinique. Pujol is influenced by his homeland's most famous composer of tangos, Ástor Piazzolla, and in his Suite Buenos Aires, Pujol specifies more immediate inspiration. With this work the composer offers a personal tour of his hometown, beginning in the respective working-class and Italian neighborhoods of Pompeya and Palermo, then through the fashionable San Telmo area with its cafés and antique shops, and ending in the bustling Microcentro, the city's business and commercial hub.

Henry Purcell
Dido and Aeneas (Complete Opera in Concert)
Henry Purcell (PER-sul), who has been called "England's finest native composer," was born in 1659 and died in 1695, and in between he established his place among the greatest of Baroque composers by marrying contemporary Continental trends with a distinctly English sensibility. Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689), on a libretto by Nahum Tate (1652–1715) and based on a story from the fourth book of Virgil's Aeneid, was originally written for performance in a girls’ boarding school. It has since become one of the earliest operas still performed on a regular basis.

Dido, the widowed Queen of Carthage, entertains the Trojan Prince Aeneas who has been shipwrecked on his way to found a new Troy (i.e., Rome) in Italy. Dido and Aeneas fall in love, but a nasty bunch of Witches will have none of it and plot to destroy Dido's happiness. The head Sorceress conjures a storm while the royal couple are out hunting. Amid the confusion as the courtiers scurry back to town, a witch impersonating the god-messenger Mercury orders Aeneas to immediately set sail for Italy. Aeneas reluctantly obeys and abandons Dido. The broken-hearted Dido cannot bear her lover's betrayal and dies from grief. The opera ends as her death is lamented by a chorus of mourning cupids.

--Intermezzo Sunday Concerts, UNF Opera Ensemble, March 4, 2007

No comments:

Post a Comment