Richard Strauss – Don Juan
It is no small irony that the inspiration for Richard Strauss’ first great tone poem was a man who learns hard lessons about the dangers of sensual excess. Strauss, after all, was the same composer whose 1905 opera, Salome, set off street riots due to its combination of ravishing beauty and a shocking, necrophilic ending.
No such challenging content, however, can be found in Strauss’ Don Juan, a 20-minute, one-movement work penned in 1889, when the composer was only 24 years old. For most of his life prior to the composition of Don Juan, Strauss had in fact been most heavily influenced by the pastorally pleasing music of composers such as Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. While he was well-acquainted with the influential operas of Richard Wagner, Strauss’ own boundary-breaking voice and gift for melody did not fully display itself until he decided to tackle one of the great legends of history.
At the time, few people in the audience would have been unfamiliar with the story of the amorously insatiable rogue, Don Juan. Lord Byron’s epic poem of the same name was known to most readers; Mozart’s had written an opera, Don Giovanni, based on the story; Molière had given the world a popular play on the subject.
Still, none had approached the subject with the ravishing orchestral brilliance applied by the young Strauss. Based specifically on a poem by the Hungarian-German author Nokolaus Lenau, Strauss’ music follows both a narrative and formal structure, combining sonata form with a dramatic sense of story that culminates with Don Juan’s demise.
There are numerous versions of the tale of this womanizing rake. In Lenau’s version, the Don is something of a frustrated idealist, searching for the one perfect woman who could be everything he was looking for in the opposite sex. Ultimately, he comes up empty, challenges the son of a rival suitor to a dual, and then drops his sword and embraces death. The “illusive ideal” is not to be found in this life.
The premiere was a huge success from Strauss’ standpoint – an immediate standing ovation with half the people cheering and the other half booing. Richard Strauss’ career was made.
Antonin Dvořák – Romance for Violin and Orchestra
A talented violinist from an early age, Antonin Dvořák would eventually become known throughout the world for several works that highlight the glories of that instrument. One such showpiece is the Romance for Violin and Orchestra, a beautiful miniature that had its founding in the slow middle movement of a string quartet he wrote in 1873.
In the years soon after the composer hit sudden fame in 1874 with his patriotic cantata, Heirs of the White Mountain, Dvořák undertook an effort to winnow down his best earlier works for presentation to the now-eager public. With little interest shown in the string quartet, he transcribed the slow movement originally for violin and piano, with the idea that it could serve as a home parlor piece; he also scored it for violin and orchestra. In the process, he added an introduction and amplified the luxurious accompaniment to help highlight one of the most beautiful melodies he ever would write.
Camille Saint-Saëns – Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso
Perhaps only in Mozart was a talent equal to Camille Saint-Saëns evident at such an early age. By age two, Saint-Saëns was playing the piano and demonstrating absolute pitch. By age three, he was composing and reading music; by five, he was reading opera scores and Beethoven sonatas. His first solo recital, given at the tender age of ten, presented challenges rarely taken up by musicians twice his age: a Mozart concerto, a Beethoven concerto, a Prelude and Fugue by Bach, and four other works…all performed from memory. At that concert, young Camille’s mother was asked, “What kind of music will he be playing when he’s twenty?” To which she replied, “He will be playing his own!”
Today, Saint-Saëns is indeed remembered for a bevy of great works in diverse forms: His monumental Third (“Organ”) Symphony; his playfully evocative orchestral suite The Carnival of the Animals; the Biblically based grand opera, Samson and Delilah; an array of fine concerti for various instruments and orchestra. Among those well-known works is a ten-minute tour-de-force for violin and orchestra, the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.
This short work was the product of the composer’s relationship with another great musical prodigy and composer of the time, Pablo de Sarasate (whose own music appears elsewhere on this program). In 1859, Sarasate approached Saint-Saëns with the request for a violin concerto that he could play. Despite the fact that Sarasate was only 15 years old at the time, he was already an acclaimed virtuoso; and the elder composer was quite flattered by his request. Saint-Saëns soon produced his First Violin Concerto in A Major.
Four years later, Saint-Saëns produced another work in compact form for Sarasate. Structured in two halves, the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso serves as a showpiece for all that the violin can do in the hands of a great master, while boasting some of the most vivid and memorable melodies that the French composer ever wrote.
Tchaikovsky – Romeo & Juliet Overture-Fantasy
If ever there were an artist whose life matched his art, it may have been Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky. An extremely focused composer, Tchaikovsky endured numerous personal hardships; lived a frustrated life as a mostly closeted homosexual; and died relatively poor. This torment came through in many of his works; yet so did the composer’s passionate, almost naive romanticism and joy for all things Russian, all things beautiful and good. Tchaikovsky infused his music with an intensity and passion that gives every note significance. His gift of melody is perhaps unmatched by any other composer; his music is at once complex and appealing, deep yet ‘catchy.’
Those attributes are best-known from his two trios of larger-scale works: his last three symphonies; and his three ballets, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. But they are on abundant, if smaller-scale display in his Overture-Fantasy inspired by William Shakespeare’s great drama, Romeo and Juliet.
At the time when the composer began to work on the music, he had yet to compose a work of public consequence, but his newfound friendship with the composer Balakirev inspired Tchaikovsky to exert special effort in writing and polishing the new work. Indeed, when Tchaikovsky encountered difficulty beginning the work, Balakirev even suggested a few bars of music to start with; within six weeks of Balakirev’s suggestion, Tchaikovsky had completed the first version of Romeo and Juliet, which premiered in 1869.
A vivid and emotionally powerful work, Romeo and Juliet builds on lush, dramatic themes interpolated from the Shakespearean play, within a fairly strict Sonata form. According to the Grove Dictionary, this structural approach “created a situation that suited Tchaikovsky ideally,” by reigning in the composer’s tendency toward “excesses” while allowing him the emotional space to create passionate, exciting music.
Pablo de Sarasate – Carmen Fantasy
In the late 19th century, composers across Europe became enamored with the folk music of Eastern Europe’s nomadic gypsies. Typified by rhythmic flexibility, exotic harmonies, and colorful ornamentation, gypsy music can be viewed, in a way, as the 19th century’s iTunes: a repository of international folk styles, unabashed tune-borrowing, and attention-grabbing musical trickery (as well as often blinding speed). No wonder that composers of the so-called Romantic school, with their focus on pictorial, narrative and emotional expression, would find this music so appealing.
In 1875, the French composer Georges Bizet premiered what would become the most famous gypsy-inspired work of classical music ever: his opera, Carmen. Endowed with glorious marches, sultry arias, and a captivating tale of a gypsy woman whose free-spiritedness brings about her own demise, Carmen has become one of the most-performed operas in the world; its melodies have bled into popular culture through everything from Saturday morning cartoons to adult thriller movies.
Eight years after the opera’s premiere, a rising Spanish violin virtuoso named Pablo de Sarasate seized on its swelling popularity to bolster his own. Despite building his Carmen Fantasy around the catchy, even jaunty melodies of the opera, this was no phone-it-in cover treatment for Sarasate: His Fantasy has since endured in no small part because it is known as one of the most challenging works in the entire violin repertoire. Full of dazzling finger-tricks and exotic embellishments that hearken to the music’s gypsy inspiration, Sarasate’s short five-movement work is arguably the more true reflection of the culture that Bizet sought to highlight in his opera.