HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Le Corsaire (1844)

HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Le Corsaire (1844)

Following the break-up of his marriage in 1843 Berlioz busied himself with drawing together a manual for composers on how to write for the various instruments of the orchestra — intriguing in that, almost uniquely, he had become one of the first virtuoso orchestrators in musical history with no keyboard skills, and with scarcely any practical ability on any orchestral instruments either; he could apparently play the flute after a fashion and also had a little knowledge of the guitar, but he relied largely on flair, and had been known, for example, to write for clarinets notes outside their range. Nevertheless, his Treatise on Instrumentation became, with Rimsky ­Korsakov’s similar work, the seminal 19th century work on the subject.

In August 1844, still smarting from Harriet’s departure (although by now he had a new mistress), he took a recuperative holiday in Nice and, as if to reiterate his credentials, wrote while he was there one of his most virtuosic concert overtures, Le Corsaire, or The Pirate. Originally he called it La Tour de Nice, (The Tower of Nice), but then realised he needed a more flamboyant title and, feeding on his literary knowledge, named it Le Corsaire Rouge (The Red Pirate) after James Fennimore Cooper’s novel The Red Rover, but then, to Europeanise it, reduced it to Le Corsaire after a poem by Byron. The overture was premiered in January 1845 under its Nice title, and, finally as Le Corsaire, has remained a staple of orchestral repertoire together with most of his other concert-openers.

The overture begins with a scintillating flourish, testing the whole orchestra, before his characteristic lyrical introduction introduces a note of romantic wistfulness. The Allegro shortly reintroduces us to the opening flourish, leading to the main theme which has an irresistible swagger and later, following the development section, returns with still further brilliance. The coda brings the work to a flashing conclusion.

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EMIL von REZNICEK (1860-1945) Overture: Donna Diana (1894)

EMIL von REZNICEK (1860-1945) Overture: Donna Diana (1894)

Reznicek was born in Austria of Czech parentage and began conducting and composing during his Music Degree in Graz before moving to Berlin and then Prague, where he was Musical Director for the Prague Infantry. Here his operawas premiered in 1894, and it became his greatest success. Eventually settling in Berlin he toured all over Europe, including several visits to Russia and to Britain.

Unlike many musicians who were ensnared against their better judgment or left Germany to go into exile, he managed to remain aloof from the rise of the Nazis, remaining a working composer and conductor through the war until his death in August 1945 right at the end of the War.

He moved in exalted circles, counting himself a friend and colleague of Richard Strauss in the 1910s, although he did make fun musically of what he saw as Strauss’s overblown ego; apparently his symphonic poem Schlemihl (1912) can be seen as a direct parody of Strauss’s autobiographical Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Donna Diana overture. The opera as a whole is an adaptation of a comic play by the 17th century Spanish dramatist Agustin Moreto y Cavana, El Desden con el Desden, (Distain with Disdain), and the plot centres round Donna Diana, proud and haughty daughter of the Count Sovereign of Barcelona. She has several sincere suitors, including Don Cesar, but she rejects him with disdain time and time again; eventually he plays her at her own game and stands on his own dignity, whereupon she realises her mistake and succumbs.

The opera has fallen out of use, but the gloriously effervescent overture remains popular. It begins with a witty false start both rhythmically and in terms of key, but the first violins take charge and set off the bubbly first theme, which is quickly taken up by the full orchestra. Shortly the bubbly theme in the wind becomes a counterpoint to the serenely lyrical second theme in the upper strings. Both themes are also involved in the development, which features the woodwind while the violas draw the short straw and chatter away underneath. Soon the main themes return and the piece works itself towards a humorous conclusion.

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HAMISH MacCUNN (1868-1916) The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1886)

HAMISH MacCUNN (1868-1916) The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1886)

Hamish MacCunn was one of Scotland’s most distinguished musicians. As one of the first students to gain a scholarship to the Royal College of Music he studied in London with the twin pillars of the British musical establishment, Parry and Stanford, and later taught at the Royal Academy and the Guildhall School of Music.

Like a number of other similar RCM students, such as Vaughan Williams, his instinct moved him away from the somewhat Brahms-influenced teaching he had received and he developed his own voice, becoming a respected composer of operas which drew on his Scottish literary heritage, his masterpiece being Jeanie Deans, based on the central character of Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian.

He also became a distinguished conductor, working for many years with the famous Carl Rosa Opera Company, whose mission was to present opera in English, and thus it came about that he was entrusted with conducting the first English-language performances of Wagner’s Tristan and lsolde. Sadly MacCunn died at the early age of 48 having ruined his health through overwork.

The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, written in 1887 while he was still a teenager, is a concert overture which expresses the spirit of Scotland as Finlandia had done for Finland, but without the same defiant agenda. The title also comes from Scott — The Lay (Song) of the Last Minstrel.

0 Caledonia! Stern and wild,

Meet nurse for a poetic child!

Land of the heath and the shaggy wood,

Land of the mountain and the flood…..

It begins with a typically Scottish melody incorporating ‘Scotch snaps’ and rapidly develops into a more symphonic style. Its chief lyric melody may well be familiar to those who recall the 1970s Scottish TV series Sutherland’s Law, starring Ian Cuthbertson. The development begins with galloping strings over which the brass provide a more rollicking version of the opening theme. The work ends in a blaze of Scottishness!

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HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Roman Carnival (1844)

HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Roman Carnival (1844)

Berlioz’s father, a doctor, who had a clear idea of the path he expected his son to take, discouraged him vehemently from learning the piano, a decision which Berlioz later described as both an advantage and a curse. In 1821 his father pressed home his agenda and packed him off to Medical School in Paris, but he spent most of his time either watching opera or in the library of the Paris Conservatoire copying out parts from Gluck operas. He abandoned his medical studies in 1824 and within a couple of years had gained entry to the Paris Conservatoire.
Always deeply inspired by classic poets and dramatists including Shakespeare and Byron, in 1829 he attended a performance in Paris of Hamlet and immediately fell head-over-heels for English actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. Her initial failure to reciprocate led him to produce one of his great masterpieces, the feverishly romantic and trailblazing Symphonie Fantastique in 1830. In 1833 Smithson succumbed and they were married, but the marriage was always doomed and in 1843 they separated, although Berlioz continued to provide for her until her death in 1854.
His unique imagination led him into a huge range of acclaimed works, such as Harold en Italie for viola and orchestra, (based on Byron and written for the violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini), operas including Romeo et Juliette, Beatrice et Benedict (based on Much Ado About Nothing), La Damnation de Faust and the immense, Wagnerian-scale, Les Troyens (The Trojans), together with the flamboyant Grande Messe des Morts and the exquisite L’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ).
We can be grateful, however that he didn’t possess the ‘Midas touch’ all the time; his opera Benvenuto Cellini, inspired by the sixteenth century sculptor and adventurer, proved to be so difficult to perform and uninspiring for audiences that it has failed to find regular performance to this day. Indeed, he wrote engagingly of his failure in his memoirs in 1834: ‘1 had been greatly struck by certain episodes in the life of Benvenuto Cellini and had the misfortune to believe they would make an interesting and dramatic subject for an opera.’ Nevertheless his overture Benvenuto Cellini passed into concert use, and in 1844, in order to make sure at least a little more of his opera would remain in regular hearing, he crystallised some of its material into the concert overture Roman Carnival. It is written for large orchestra and uses several themes from the opera, the main Allegro representing its carnival scene. The slow introduction includes one of the most famous of all solos for the cor anglais, which is taken up by the violas and then all strings in canon before the carnival arrives. There are few more flamboyant works in the whole of orchestral music!

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DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75)  Festive Overture, Op 96 (1954)

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75) Festive Overture, Op 96 (1954)

Shostakovich was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, but the legacy he left was hard-won in the face of hard-faced political sanction which not only nearly ended his composing career but also became a threat to his life.

His early works showed a new and original talent and, as a virtuoso pianist and able conductor too, he developed a three-pronged career. Composing was always his first love, however, and by the time of his death aged 68 in 1975 he had made hugely sign1ficant contributions to a number of genres including orchestral music (fifteen symphonies and six concertos), chamber music (fifteen string quartets), piano music (in particular the 24 Preludes and Fugues), the theatre (operas and ballets) and even film music.

In 1936 his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was produced in Moscow and attended by Stal.in, who apparently reacted with horror to its uncompromising idiom, and a campaign was set up by Pravda to vilify his work, describing dissonances and lack of recognisable structure, and many of Shostakovich’s friends and colleagues were pressurised into denouncing him. Shostakovich was ordered to ‘reject formalist errors and in his art attain something that could be understood by the broad masses’. his income from new commissions was cut drastically and he actually feared for his life as he was made to withdraw his Fourth Symphony.

His reply was the Fifth Symphony, which he subtitled A Soviet Artist ‘s reply to just cnt1c1sm; it met with the approval of Ministry of Culture, and, by extension Stalin but it is fair to say that the work is full of sardonic humour, including a delicious nose-thumbing violin solo in the Allegretto second movement and the authorities w re just too blinkered to notice.

Certainly his cycle of fifteen symphonies ranks as one of the finest of the twentieth century; apart from the Fifth, No 7 harrowingly describes the appalling conditions suffered by the people of Leningrad during the Siege of 1941, and the Tenth is a trenchant assertion of his spirit written in the months after Stalin’s death in March 1953 and includes a vitriolic portrait of the dictator in the second movement.

The Festive Overture was written in 1954 for the 37th anniversary of the Revolution and premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre under Vassili Nebolsin. It was written rapidly at Nebolsin’s request for a work to begin his celebratory concert – the conductor thoughtfully gave Shostakovich a whole three days’ notice! It begins with a fanfare before launching into an energetic Allegro which the composer said was based on Glinka’s scintillating overture Ruslan and Ludmilla. The overture is free from any acerbic comment, demonstrating instead Shostakovich’s infectious high-spirits.

In case you’re wondering why the fanfare sounds familiar, it was used several decades ago as the theme music for the BBC’s occasional five -minute filler slot ‘Great Moments in Sport’.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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PETER ILICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)  Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet (1880)

PETER ILICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet (1880)

It is fair to say that no Shakespeare play has inspired a greater number of composers than Romeo and Juliet; indeed it is also arguable that, of all musical adaptations from the Bard, few surpass in quality those based on the timeless story of the two ‘star­cross’d’ young lovers, whose youthful passion is destroyed by their families’ hatred of each other.

At least twenty four operas, including those by Gounod, Bellini and Delius (A Village Romeo and Juliet, from which comes the wonderful Walk to the Paradise Garden), have been based on the story, with varying degrees of faithfulness to the play, together with numerous orchestral representations, including Berlioz’s Symphonie Dramatique; one of the very finest of all adaptations is Prokofiev’s superb ballet, whilst of many attempts to distil the play’s modern resonances surely the greatest is Bernstein’s West Side Story, with libretto by Stephen Sondheim, arguably the finest of all stage musicals.

Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture joined the list of masterpieces inspired by the play with the premiere of the original version in early 1870; the idea had been suggested to him in 1869 by the composer Balakirev, who knew of Tchaikovsky’s passionate response to a huge range of literary works, the plays of Shakespeare in particular; Tchaikovsky was also to write symphonic poems based on Hamlet and The Tempest. In addition he had a lifelong predilection for stories of Love blighted by Fate – Francesca do Rimini and the Manfred Symphony follow a similar theme – mirroring his own life, which followed a disastrous progress through initial conventional relationships towards his abortive attempt at marriage despite his own undeniable homosexuality. His own inescapable conclusion was that Fate is an even more potent force than Love, which gave him a special affinity with the story of Romeo and Juliet. The premiere of the original version was, however, unsatisfactory, and Tchaikovsky immediately set about a major revision of the work, postponing its publication for a while. His mentor Balakirev remained sceptical about the work following the revision, and Tchaikovsky too was still dissatisfied, so in 1880 the maturer composer, now at ease in the sponsorship of his benefactor Nadezhda van Meck, came back to the work and made a second, smaller revision which at last satisfied him and met with Balakirev’s approval. The final version distils the essence of the play completely; it is only partially chronological in terms of the events of the play but crystallises the main elements into a magnificently taut structure. The work is dedicated to Balakirev, but the premiere of the accepted version did not take place until 1886. Since then it has achieved a vast popularity and has become virtually the epitome of romanticism in music.

Reverent clarinets and bassoons begin the work with a portrait of Friar Laurence; his role in the play is pivotal – he secretly marries the young lovers, believing in the maturity of their love, and then vainly attempts to make good after Romeo has killed

Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in revenge for the death of Mercutio.

The strings enter ominously, their harmonic tensions the first stirrings of the tragic conflict, which soon breaks into open battle between the Montagues and Capulets. The initial skirmish subsides into the first flowering of the love-at-first-sight between Romeo and Juliet which crosses the divide between the families, the famous theme introduced by cor anglais and violas. This in turn leads to a rocking, lullaby-like motif in muted strings which suggests the extreme youth of Juliet – in the play she is a mere fourteen years old. The love theme returns, but the conflict bubbles again with still greater venom; at its height the trumpets sear through the conflict with Friar Laurence’s theme, now in anguish that the marriage of the lovers is being destroyed by the feud. A final burst of passion – perhaps as they celebrate their wedding night against the backdrop of Romeo’s inevitable exile – is rudely shattered by the bitter culmination of the feud.

After an eloquent pause the epilogue begins with the timpani quietly articulating a funeral march, above which the cellos’ and first violins’ sadly contorted fragments of the love theme express the torment of the families as they realise the devastating consequences of their actions. Friar Laurence, having finally proved powerless to prevent the tragedy, offers a benediction, before upper strings sing a melancholy version of Romeo and Juliet’s theme, ascending harp chords counteracting the bassoons’ dark descent. Crashing, unpredictable chords bring to a cataclysmic end one of the greatest of all compositions inspired by the universal genius of Shakespeare.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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OTTO NICOLAI (1810-1849)  Overture: The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849)

OTTO NICOLAI (1810-1849) Overture: The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849)

Otto Nicolai was an almost exact contemporary of Frederic Chopin, and their dates ar almost identical. Both died far too young, destroying immense potential for future development, Nicolai from a stroke only two months after the first performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor (Die Lustigen Weiber van Windsor) at the age of only thirty eight .

Nicolai had been a child prodigy, who, having run away from home aged sixteen when his divorced parents’ estrangement began to affect him deeply, found greater support with his adopted family, who sent him to Berlin for his musical training with Mendelssohn’s teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter. By twenty-one he had had the first of his two symphonies performed, and begun working in the Prussian embassy in Rome. He began to have opera librettos offered him and vied with Verdi in popularity; indeed, he turned down the libretto which became Verdi’s first major success, Nabucco. He wrote a number of operas in Italian, including Rosmonda d’Jnghiltera (‘Rosamond of England’) and JI Proscritti (The Banished or The Exiled), which Verdi turned down. Many of his operas were melodramas or tragedies, and The Merry Wives, his only opera in German, was also his first and last comedy, based, of course, on Shakespeare ‘s play of the same name.

By 1841 he had become Court Composer in Vienna and a major figure on the Viennese musical scene. In 1842 Nicolai and some musical friends who met regularly at the local hostelry discussed the prospect of beginning a professional symphony orchestra in Vienna and the result was the Vienna Philharmonic, today known as Die Wiener Philharmoniker, which was to be, and remains, based in the Golden Salle of the Musikverein in Vienna. Reluctantly Nicolai accepted the post of conductor, and so today is known as the founder of one of the great orchestras of the world. Its annual New Year’s Day Concert, offering unequalled performances of music by the Strauss Family, is broadcast from the Musikverein live round the world . Incidentally, it has one of the most rigorous of all orchestral recruitment procedures; each new member serves an apprenticeship of three years in the orchestra, and only when that has been passed can an application for a permanent place be submitted! The 150th Anniversary of the orchestra in 1992 saw a wonderful performance on New Year’s Day of the Merry Wives overture conducted by the great Carlos Kleiber, and in 2017 the 175th included magical choruses from the opera. Apart from Nicolai’s masterpiece, however, many of his works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, piano and voice have disappeared virtually without trace.

The libretto follows Shakespeare’s comedy in chronicling Sir John Falstaff’s shameless mistreatment of the ladies in his life, and their subsequent revenge.

The overture begins with an atmospheric introduction, which leads into a scherzo-like Allegro not dissimilar to the magic conjured by Mendelssohn in his overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including, as that work does also, a theme which for a short while brings everything down to earth, although the donkey-braying is not quite so overt!

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Overture Cosi Fan Tutte (1790)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Overture Cosi Fan Tutte (1790)

One of the greatest artistic partnerships in musical history reached the last of its great trio of operas with the composition of Cosi fan Tutte (‘Thus do all Women’) in 1790. Mozart had met Lorenzo da Ponte at the home of Baron von Wetzlar in Vienna in 1783 and the two were immediately intrigued by each other’s genius. Da Ponte was Court Poet to Emperor Joseph II in Vienna and his duties included writing operatic plays (libretti) for Court Composer Antonio Salieri, who had introduced him to the Emperor; we have become familiar with a version of the rivalry between Salieri, a workaday composer who nevertheless retained the Emperor’s favour, and Mozart, the maverick genius, through Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, which of course became an Oscar-winning film in 1984.

Following the huge, overtly subversive success firstly of Figaro (1786) then Don Giovanni (1787) da Ponte wrote a third Italian Opera Buffa (comic opera) libretto, probably on his own initiative rather than having been commissioned, and, it is thought, nevertheless showed it first to Court Composer Salieri, who made an attempt but gave up. Mozart took on the project in1789 and the opera was premiered on 26 January 1790 in the Burgtheater in Vienna. Unfortunately, its initial run was curtailed after only five performances by the death of the Emperor. A handful of further performances followed that summer after the period of national mourning, but after that the opera was not performed again before Mozart’s death on 5 December 1791.

Figaro and Giovanni had covered controversial subjects, and Cosi was no exception; its action concerns a scurrilous, and nowadays unacceptable, wager between Don Alfonso and two military officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, that within a day he can prove that no woman can stay faithful to her lover. Ferrando and Guglielmo confidently challenge the bet, agreeing that they will feign being called up to war but reappear almost immediately in what they hope will be impenetrable disguise and woo their own lovers, Dorabella and Fiordiligi. They duly return disguised as full-bearded Albanians and begin the wooing; the ladies’ maid Despina is bribed into helping with the plot by Don Alfonso, and, sadly, the ladies within a short while agree to marry, unwittingly, each other’s original lover. Finally, Ferrando and Guglielmo engineer their return in part-disguise and the ladies realise how they have allowed themselves to be tricked. All is put right, with each sadder and wiser in realising that they have, in the end, at least coped with life’s vagaries.

The opera contains many musical gems, perhaps the most sublime being Soave sia il vento (May the wind be gentle), a vocal quintet, including Alfonso, sung as the officers leave their lovers for the ‘war’. Before the resolution of the opera the three men bitterly reiterate the Cosi fan tutte motto, which appears twice in the overture, first as the forte chords at the end of the introduction, and again just before the coda. The body of the overture comprises busy, conspiratorial material in the strings – in similar style to the opening of Coriolan – which is complemented in the woodwind and punctuated by military fanfares in the full orchestra.

One interesting sidelight: Mozart was constrained to write the role of Fiordiligi for da Ponte’s mistress Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, whom he disliked; apparently, according to the 20th century critic William Mann, it was her habit to drop her chin on low notes and throw back her head on high ones, so Mozart filled her showpiece aria Come scoglio (Like a rock) with constant leaps from low to high to low with the result that in singing the aria her head bobbed up and down like a chicken!                                                           

Notes by HDJ 27 January 2018

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Beethoven  (1770 – 1827) Overture Coriolan Op 62 (1807)

Beethoven (1770 – 1827) Overture Coriolan Op 62 (1807)

Many composers in the nineteenth century were to be inspired by Shakespeare, from Berlioz (Beatrice and Benedict, Romeo and Juliet), to Tchaikovsky (Hamlet, another great Romeo and Juliet,) to Verdi (Falstaff), and it might be thought that Beethoven’s Coriolan was an early example, drawing on the harrowing tale of the Roman Coriolanus, whose revolt against the Roman establishment had resulted in tragedy, but in fact his inspiration was a play written in 1802 by an Austrian Civil Servant, one Heinrich Joseph von Collin, a friend of the composer but – somehow – unaware that Shakespeare had written his version in 1607. The source for both plays was the true story of Caius Martius as told in Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans; some five hundred years BC, he rose to fame by sacking the Volscian city of Corioli, enemy of Rome, and was honoured with the name Coriolanus and the status of Consul, but then through arrogance lost the loyalty of the Roman Senate and people and defected to the Volscians. Intent on destroying Rome, in both plays he is persuaded against an attempt by his mother Volumnia; however, in Shakespeare’s play the Volscians perceive his betrayal as treason and murder him, whilst in Collin’s Coriolan is stricken by remorse at his failings and takes his own life.

Collin’s play was first performed on 24 November 1802 in Vienna and remained current for some three years, but a brief single-performance revival in 1807, possibly to try Beethoven’s overture as a prelude to the play, was eclipsed by a rising tide of admiration throughout Germany for Shakespeare’s version, and Collin’s play disappeared virtually without trace.

Beethoven, fascinated firstly by the conflicts of loyalty which faced Coriolanus / Coriolan and the personal flaws which proved his downfall, and secondly by the relationship between the Consul and his mother, decided to write the work despite the fact that no further performance of the play was officially planned; there was no commission and there would be no incidental music, unlike the circumstances surrounding the composition of his music for another political play, Egmont, two years later.

Thus, in effect, Coriolan was written as a stand-alone concert item, and its gravitas and subject-matter raise it to the status of an early tone-poem in all but name. Beethoven clearly also identified with Coriolan’s anger and desperation, his deafness, which had caused him to contemplate his own suicide in 1802, having by 1807 become almost complete.

The work, in the tragic key of C minor, could scarcely begin more dramatically or with more searing intensity; the strings then set off a darkly conspiratorial figure which will pervade much of the piece. Two species of muscular tied rhythms fight each other – one imagines that Brahms must have admired this piece as these passages surely presage similar muscularity in the later composer’s symphonies and piano concertos. A lyrical theme depicts Volumnia’s pleading with Coriolan to avoid attacking Rome, but music of complete defiance soon dismisses it. More conspiracy ensues with lower strings and bassoon working away underneath, but once again this is rudely thrown aside. The structure of the piece is sonata form; the exposition of the material to date leads to a development and then a recap, before the crisis is reached and the opening string theme is unravelled in desolation by the cellos as Coriolan’s life ebbs away.                                     

Notes by HDJ 27 January 2018

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Rossini (1792 — 1868) Overture Semiramide (1823)

Rossini (1792 — 1868) Overture Semiramide (1823)

Rossini, as his music suggests, was one of the most flamboyant composers in the history of music; world—famous as a composer after just five birthdays, he retired from composing before his tenth birthday and subsequently became a gourmet of note, inventing, amongst other dishes, the steak dish Tournedos Rossini. You will have guessed, of course, that he was born on 29 February, and that his fame actually arrived when he was in his early twenties. By the age of 38 he had written thirty-eight operas, but in 1829 he put down his pen and wrote little thereafter except the odd private chamber work until his death nearly forty years later.

His masterpiece The Barber of Seville was written and premiered in 1816 when he was only 24 (6!) and in 1817 he completed no less than three operas, including The Thieving Magpie; where certain geniuses such as Beethoven laboured long and hard over their creations, chipping and honing their way towards perfection, Rossini achieved a reputation as one of the most prodigiously swift of all composers, although he was also known for world-class laziness, and the tale he told of the composition of the Thieving Magpie Overture is a prime example.

Very often he recycled material from other compositions for his overtures but on this occasion he chose to write a piece which reflected the plot of the opera; unfortunately, as his story shows, he left it rather late: I wrote the overture to The Thieving Magpie on the day of its opening in the theatre itself (La Scala, Milan) where I was imprisoned by the director and under the surveillance of four stage hands who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below . . . In default of pages, they were ordered to throw me out of the window.

Semiramide (Sem—i—ram—i—day) is one of Rossini’s finest operas. Based, like Tancredi, on a tragedy by Voltaire and set in Babylon, the work is one of a series of more serious operas (Opera Seria) inspired by the dramatic sbprano Isabella Colbran, following his line of comic operas (Opera Buffa), which had included The Barber of Seville and Cinderella (La Cenerento/a). Colbran became his mistress and then his wife, and she created the principal female roles in many of his Opera Seria.

The plot concerns Semiramide, Queen of Babylon, who wishes to marry Arsace and make him King, only to discover that he is her son. Eventually Arsace does succeed to the throne reluctantly when he kills Semiramide, “mistaking her in the dark for his rival Assur.

The overture to Semiramide too is, fittingly, one of Rossini’s finest, again using material from the opera, making it un-recyclable. It begins with solo timpani followed by quietly obsessive lower strings and crescendi, then there is a beautiful horn serenade with pizzicato accompaniment in the strings. The Presto begins with first violins in a theme which is at once softly energetic and elegant and shortly punctuated by brilliant woodwind comments, which leads to a strident climax with flashing upward scales. The second subject, marching strings accompanying virtuosic woodwind solos, leads then to scampering first violins in Rossini’s signature crescendo towards a further climax with military brass and woodwind — not for nothing was Rossini known as ‘Il Signor Crescendo’. All this repeats in the home key before a tragic ending.

Notes by HDJ

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