Program Notes

Mendelssohn, Bernstein & Dvorak

An American Composer’s Perspective

For Musical Marvels, November 19, 2016 | Purchase Tickets to this Concert

© Robert Xavier Rodríguez

German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was one of the “Classical Romantics” of his day, along with Robert Schumann, Frédéric Chopin and Johannes Brahms.  These conservatives considered themselves the carriers of Beethoven’s legacy because they wrote symphonic works in the traditional Classical forms and genres that Beethoven favored.  They considered themselves musical adversaries of their more avant-garde contemporaries such as Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, who, likewise, traced their legacy back to Beethoven.  The progressive “Romantic Romantics” followed a completely different side of Beethoven: breaking traditional forms and basing music on extra-musical programmatic sources.  Of the traditionalists, Mendelssohn was, by far, the most conservative.  His works often seem boxed in by their tight formal restraints, with little of the wild Romantic passion, but everything he wrote was crafted in a masterly way and characterized by lyricism and clarity.

Like Mozart before him, Mendelssohn was a child prodigy, and he wrote some of his best music, notably the Octet for Strings and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while still a teen-ager.  He was a brilliant pianist and conductor, well-known both in Germany and in England, where he was a favorite at the court of Queen Victoria.  Even though Mendelssohn lived only a short time, he produced a substantial body of works which were and remain widely performed.

Written in 1831, when Mendelssohn was 22, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 dates from the same period as the Fourth ("Italian") Symphony.  The first movement, in Mozart’s favorite key for soulful tragedy, begins as if it were following the regular Classical sonata-allegro form for concertos, with a full orchestral exposition of the musical material.   Here, however, the orchestra does no more than a musical version of “…Heeeeere’s JOHNNY!,” as the piano immediately enters and takes the lead as piano and orchestra together present the themes.  The rapid, Beethovenian passage-work in minor key reveals a heroic intent, but the music is too gentlemanly to break into reckless abandon.  The graceful Andante that follows conjures up memories of the gentle and elegant novels of Mendelssohn’s contemporary, Jane Austen.  A brass fanfare then interrupts and ushers in a rollicking Rondo.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was the first American conductor to become the Music Director of a major American symphony orchestra, and he was the first American in the field of classical music to become an international superstar.  He was a complete musician: composer, conductor and concert pianist; plus, he had an unequalled genius for explaining complicated musical ideas in a few simple words.  A charismatic and sometimes controversial media personality, he was an important advocate for public awareness of classical music.  Through his widely televised Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, he was and continues to be an inspiration to the millions of baby-boomers who tuned in to his broadcasts as children.

Bernstein’s music was ahead of its time. When Bernstein was writing, his decidedly tonal scores were not considered sufficiently “modern” for the progressive wing of the musical establishment.  Between the 1950's and 90's, audiences for classical and popular music grew increasingly polarized and alienated from each other.  Bernstein was one of the few composers who brought the two together.  Continuing the tradition of Gershwin, Weill and Copland (and anticipating Sondheim), Bernstein effectively integrated jazz, Broadway and other popular styles into his concert music and created a unique synthesis of the two worlds. His music, therefore, enjoys the happy status of being performed and admired across widely disparate musical circles. 

Chichester Psalms (1965) is a 20-minute cantata for boy soprano or countertenor, solo quartet, SATB choir, two harps and orchestra.  The texts, sung in Hebrew, are drawn from Psalm 108, Psalm 100, Psalm 23, Psalm 131 and Psalm 133.  The connection to the Biblical David, the young singer of psalms, is clearly represented by the use of the high male vocal register as soloist and by the emphasis on the harp in the instrumental writing. 

The work was commissioned for a 1965 festival of the arts at the Chichester Cathedral, Sussex, England.  Since Bernstein had taken a sabbatical from his duties conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he was free to accept the commission.  Other commissioned works for the festival included stained glass windows by Marc Chagall, a sculpture by Henry Moore, a litany and anthem by W. H. Auden and the cantata Rejoice in the Lamb by Benjamin Britten. 

Bernstein characterized Chichester Psalms as “popular in feeling,” with “an old-fashioned sweetness along with its more violent moments,” and he called the last movement, “the most accessible, B-flat major-ish tonal piece I’ve ever written.”  There are pages which were originally written for Bernstein’s signature musical, West Side Story, and later cut.  And there are many more passages--- both fast-and-jazzy and slow-and-sentimental --- that sound as they if could come from dances by the Sharks and the Jets and love songs by Tony and María.

Reflecting on his creative process in the writing of Chichester Pslams in a time of upheaval and divisiveness in musical styles, the composer sent the following poem to the New York Times:

For hours on end I brooded and mused 
On materiae musicae, used and abused; 
On aspects of unconventionality, 
Over the death in our time of tonality...
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos 
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos 
Played with the forearms, the fists and the palms -- 
And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.
... My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet. 
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.

Czech composer Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) was a contemporary of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), who generously opened professional doors for his younger colleague.  Dvořák’s music is in the German symphonic tradition, and it reveals Brahms’ influence.  Dvořák followed the example of Bedřich Smetana (1824 -1884) in celebrating his Czech heritage, and he often incorporated Czech folk idioms in his work.  An important step in Dvořák’s career was a residency in the United States as Director of the New York Conservatory of Music (the Juilliard of its day).  During this period, the New York Philharmonic commissioned Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor "From the New World," Op. 95 and gave the premiere performance in Carnegie Hall in 1893 with the composer present.   Since Dvořák’s first four symphonies were not published until 1950, the “New World Symphony” is still known by veteran concert-goers as Symphony No. 5. 

While Dvořák was in the States, he continued his life-long habit of steeping himself in the folk music around him.  In the “Symphony from the New World,” Dvořák drew from the Native-American, Afro-American and Anglo-American melodies that he found.  One important link between those three traditions is the pentatonic scale.  It is, therefore, not surprising that many of the major musical motifs in the symphony could be transposed to the key of G-flat and played on the black keys of the piano. 

Throughout his U.S. visit, Dvořák urged his American students and colleagues to make use of the rich body of indigenous materials of their own country rather than to base their music on European models.  It is important to note, however, that in his symphony, Dvořák did not quote any actual folk melodies (although one major theme in the first movement does sound suspiciously like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”).  Dvořák’s declared aim was, rather, to do what Spain’s greatest composer, Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), set out to do in his music.  In all of his work, Falla only quoted one actual folk song (“De los Alamos Vengo,” in his Harpsichord Concerto).  The rest of Falla’s oeuvre is what the composer described as “imaginary folk music.”  Using the same approach, Dvořák here achieved a mighty fusion of cultures --- as much Czech as American --- but always revealing his own distinctive musical personality.

The first movement has a slow introduction (Adagio) which breaks into a genial succession of themes (Allegro molto), developed in Classical sonata form. The justly-celebrated Lento contains one of the most beloved English horn solos in the orchestral literature.  It is introduced by a series of low wind chords that create a “Once upon a time…” atmosphere similar to the high wind chords of the opening of Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  There has been long been conjecture about a link between this movement and some music Dvořák might have written for a projected dramatic work based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem Hiawatha.  If so, it is likely that this theme was from a love scene between Hiawatha and Minnehaha.  The third movement (Scherzo –molto vivace) is believed to contain some ballet music from Hiawatha, but its musical roots are fundamentally in Beethoven, with some Czech dance rhythms added.  The Brahmsian finale (Allegro con fuoco) is a skillful interweaving of themes from the first three movements enriched by a refreshing flow of new material, leading to a brilliant coda.

Following the premiere, The New York Times ran the following review:

 “…the fundamental melodies of the symphony are beautiful, as well as full of character; the development is clear and logical, and the symphony, as a whole, is symmetrical, powerful, and intensely interesting. We are inclined to regard it as the best of Dr. Dvorak’s works in this form, which is equivalent to saying that it is a great symphony and must take its place among the finest works in this form produced since the death of Beethoven... We Americans should thank and honor the Bohemian master who has shown us how to build our national school of music.

Soon, George Gershwin (1898-1937) and Aaron Copland (1900-1900) came along.  With their jazzy and, in Copland’s case, folk-inflected music, they fulfilled Dvořák’s hope, and a truly American symphonic tradition was born.  

Robert Xavier Rodríguez has served as Composer-in-Residence for the Dallas Symphony and the San Antonio Symphony.  He holds an Endowed Chair in Art and Aesthetic Studies and is University Professor and Director of the Musica Nova ensemble at the University of Texas at Dallas. His 131 compositions are published by G. Schirmer.