Myths, Monsters, Faeries, & Fantasies – March 16, 2019
by Monty Carter, Program Annotator
WOW. All the things we get to be and do together tonight!
We get to be a sneeze! We get to hee-haw! to flitter and flutter in light and darkness, goading and foreboding ~ frisky and frolicsome ~ imperial and ethereal. We will be consumed by this music, inspired and empowered.
So don’t just sit there. Prepare to be devoured!
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847):
Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826)
Since they were little kids, Felix and his sister Fanny were enthralled by the language of music and the music of language. They read Shakespeare in the original English as well as their uncle Wilhelm Schlegel’s German translation. Hands down, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was their favorite. And hands on keyboard, they performed Felix’s Overture for it that he composed for two pianos in his teens and orchestrated not long after. Sixteen years later, he composed incidental music for the entire play at the request of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, drawing from the themes and spirit of the original Overture.
“The course of true love never did run smooth.” What Shakespeare expresses in nine words, Mendelssohn conveys in four chords: E major, B major, A minor, E major. Between those soul-searching sequences at the Overture’s opening, midpoint and conclusion, fairies dance, lovers sing, hunters call, and craftsmen…craft. Mendelssohn exudes the intensity of expression, rhythmic turbulence and lyrical leaps of his contemporaries. But in dramatic lightness, he is untouchable.
Fanny remarked that her brother identified with every single character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Does that make Felix Mendelssohn the Robin Goodfellow – the mischievous “Puck” – of the Romantic era? If you’re talking spry, then you betcha! You’ll know when he’s replaced Nick Bottom’s noggin with the head of a donkey when you hear the braying of the horns and fiddles.
Anatoly Lyadov (1855-1914):
This portion of tonight’s program is brought to you by a batch of nightmares, an episode of sleep paralysis, and your food going terribly bad overnight. For that you can thank Kikimora, a scary Slavic phantom who gives household spirits a bad name.
She grew up in a rocky mountain, and received her education from the wise old cat who told her creepy fairy tales all day long. In seven years she was all grown up, tall and dark, her head the size of a thimble and body as thin as a straw. Now Kikimora devotes her night hours to spinning hemp, reeling yarn, and styling her silken dress – while plotting evil against all of humanity, of course.
“Give me fairies and dragons, mermaids and goblins, and I am thoroughly happy,” Anatoly Lyadov said. The Russian composer was filled to the brim with imagination. Aspiration, however, didn’t come as naturally to him. He started многочисленный [Russian for “umpteen”] unfinished projects in his life. He kept very busy as a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, keeping whippersnappers like Sergei Prokofiev in line.
Kikimora is a lovely symphonic poem taken from an opera that he didn’t finish. You don’t want the phantom in your household, but you’ll savor her mischief here in the Missouri Theater.
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967):
Háry János Suite (1927)
To engage in the fine arts is to connect with the immortal. But how we wish we could travel back in time just to be a fly on the wall and witness mortal moments in the lives of great composers: J.S. Bach composing his Coffee Cantata with a steaming stein by his side and a tune-lovin’ toddler on each knee … Six-year-old Wolfgang Mozart appearing before the Archduchess Josepha, improvising a cadenza, then improvising a smooch … Ludwig van Beethoven pounding his piano in the wee hours, his patience and hearing fading fast.
Or instead of a fly on the wall, let’s be a butterfly in the air, hovering in a Hungarian countryside in the early 1900’s as two close friends pass by. Pioneers in ethnomusicology, they are “songcatchers” devoted to native folksong traditions. Their names are Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, and they share a passion for connecting music and people.
Háry János is a Singspiel, a comedic folk opera by Kodály based on János Garay’s madcap epic, The Veteran. It was first performed in Budapest in 1926, and the orchestra suite was created the following year. Háry János was a real person, a foot soldier at the time of the Napoleonic wars. After his release from the army, he returned to his home village in southwest Hungary, where he worked as a potter by day, and by night told sky-high tall tales in the town tavern about all his military exploits.
To Kodály, Háry was a creative artist: “He does not lie, he creates a tale; he is a poet,” he said. “What he relates has never happened, but he has lived it through, and so it is truer than truth.”
Our Fairy Tale Begins with a sneeze. (We weren’t kidding earlier.) In Hungarian tradition, a story told after sneeze is always true! The 2nd movement’s Viennese Musical Clock is no cheapo timepiece; it’s the Emperor’s own. Song, the 3rd movement, is a folk tune that Bartók discovered in Háry’s native Tolna county, which Kodály introduces in utmost coolness: solo viola. The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon is resounding, exhilarating, terrifying and hilarious, concealing a sneaky parody of the Marseillaise. The Intermezzo is lovingly arranged from the first piano method book in Hungary, written by István Gáti. It’s an irresistible example of the verbunkos, the Hungarian dance idiom of the 1800’s. The Suite’s grand finale is the lavishly festive Entrance of the Emperor and His Court.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971):
Suite from Petrushka (1911, revised in 1947)
What inspired this ballet? As Stravinsky put it, “In composing the music, I had in mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet.”
The poor puppet’s name is Petrushka, but he’ll also answer to “Punch,” “Pulcinella,” or “Polinchinelle.” The composer described him as “the immortal and unhappy hero of every fair in all countries.” This puppet’s in a mood.
So was Stravinsky. Not a bad mood, just a need for a change of scene. At 28 years old, he was now a permanent celebrity after the mega-success of his ballet, The Firebird, produced by Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev at the Paris Opera, 1910, and he had begun work on their next big thing, The Rite of Spring, which changed the world. But he needed a break in between, so he started writing a concert piece for piano and orchestra. Diaghilev wasn’t happy to hear Stravinsky was taking a break from The Rite of Spring, but he instantly saw the profit potential of Petrushka and negotiated another ballet commission from Stravinksy on the spot. A puppet star was born.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827):
Overture from The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 (1801)
If Greek mythology held sway, all love songs would be music of the liver. Emotions were thought to emanate from there instead of just northeast of it. That’s why the rebel Titan Prometheus was chained to a mountaintop and served up daily as a liver pâté to the eagles as punishment for his mercy and benevolence to humans, smuggling fire from the sun to warm and vitalize us.
Speaking of warmth and vitality, the music of Beethoven was a mastery of classicism that became something different by conscious choice. The choice was to go on living, to go on creating, to hear his inner calling with adamant clarity regardless of the loss of his outer hearing. The Beethoven we cherish, the music meant not merely to touch the heart but to liberate it, to look fate in the eye, to deliver the soul from sorrow, is Beethoven by choice.
This period of resolve is referred to as the Middle Period in the composer’s life and work, heralded by the Third Symphony (“Eroica”). But a healthy portion of the Eroica’s vim and vigor, including material in its final movement, is thanks to The Creatures of Prometheus, the ballet Beethoven composed between his first and second symphonies. It was commissioned by Salvatore Viganò, a celebrated Neopolitan choreographer, for presentation at the Vienna Court Theater for the empress Maria Theresia.
The Creatures of Prometheus came to life at the eve of Beethoven’s Middle Period but also not long after ballet’s emergence as a performance art in its own right, independent of opera. Ballet and Beethoven shared some fire. Prometheus stole plenty to go around.