Rossini — Overture to Il Signor Bruschino
You’ve heard his music everywhere, from Bugs Bunny to bath soap commercials to orchestra halls. The skipping, tinkling tunes of Rossini run through our heads like classic one-liners.
What is it about Rossini’s music that makes it so enduringly popular, more than 140 years after his death? Perhaps it is the ear-to-ear grin that shines through his every musical phrase. At his best, Rossini created diversionary music, the kind of stuff that’s made to lift the heart and lighten the load. Be it an aria, a march, a dance or a chorus, each of Rossini’s works glow with a giggling light-heartedness that is rarely heard elsewhere.
Indeed, when Rossini, late in life, finally penned a ‘serious’ work, he felt compelled to beg forgiveness from on high: “Dear God,” he scrawled in the score of his Petite Messe solonnelle, “Here it is, finished, this poor little Mass. Have I written sacred music or damned music? I was born for opera buffa (comic opera), you know it well! Little science, some heart, that’s all. Be blessed, then, and grant me a place in Paradise.”
Whether Rossini received his place in heaven, no mortal knows. But his musical creations have assured him worldly immortality.
During his lifetime, Rossini was almost entirely celebrated as a composer of operas, of which there were many. His first opera, “La cambiale di matrimonio” (The Marriage Contract), was performed when he was just 18 years old. Within three years, his name was virtually synonymous with Italian comic opera — both at home and abroad.
One of his first major successes came with “Il signor Bruschino, ossia Il figlio per azzardo” (Signor Bruschino, or The Accidental Son), which premiered in Venice in 1813. Though significantly shorter than most of his later operas, this one-act farce already displayed many of the compositional signatures for which Rossini would become known, starting with the brief and vigorous overture.
The overture is perhaps best-recognized by its signature trick: a repeating motif in which the second violins tap their bows on their music stands. Beyond that, this is quintessential Rossini: a little false bluster, a lot of levity, and a couple of thrilling crescendos to tie it all up.
Haydn — Symphony No. 45, “Farewell”
His given name was Franz Joseph; but to generations of classical music devotees, he is known as Papa. It was a nickname that came into favor during Franz Joseph Haydn’s lifetime in the late 1700s, in the long period when he served as Kapellmeister for the Hungarian Court of Eszterházy. At the time, ‘Papa’ was simply a term of endearment for the composer and orchestra leader, who often served as a kind of father-figure to his younger musicians. Yet the name stuck for centuries, for a symbolic reason: When it comes to the core musical form of the orchestral canon, all roads lead back to Haydn and his brilliant innovation known as the symphony.
Actually, the origins of the symphony dated back far prior to Haydn’s birth in 1732. Derived from an ancient Greek word that referred to harmonious or concordant sound, ‘symphony’ was originally a term that referenced various instruments, particularly those that could produce more than one tone at the same time. As a term referencing a musical form, ‘symphony’ began appearing widely among the works of 16th and 17th century composers, who seemed to use it loosely and interchangeably with other words; most often it referenced collections of sacred vocal works.
By the time Haydn appeared on the musical landscape of Austria, the word ‘symphony’ most often applied to a three-movement instrumental work in which two fast movements sandwiched a central, slow movement. In 1759, Haydn himself penned his First Symphony in this form; his Second Symphony, written sometime within the following three years, also plays out in three movements.
But with his Third Symphony, Haydn introduced what probably seemed, at the time, a minor innovation: the inclusion of an additional middle movement in the form of a Minuet. Then highly popular as a courtly social dance form, the minuet had already made its way into the music of other classical composers such as Bach and Handel. But in adding a bit of dance music to his symphonies (and also, later, his innovations in what would become known as sonata form), Haydn established what would eventually become the primary long-form structure of orchestral music for more than two centuries.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that he left behind plenty of examples. In his lifetime, Haydn penned 104 “numbered” symphonies and an actual total of 108 symphonies – a far cry from Beethoven’s nine or Brahms’ four.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a relatively small handful of those many symphonies have endured as staples of the orchestral repertoire. Among those, one of the earliest is the 45th, written in 1772.
Haydn spent much of his career working as the court composer for Nikolaus Esterházy, a Hungarian prince who allowed the composer considerable creative freedom, demanding only that he produce new music regularly. Nonetheless, the relationship wasn’t always entirely carefree.
Haydn and his orchestra had spent that summer at the prince’s remote countryside castle, and as the weeks dragged on, the musicians began to grumble about getting home to their families. Haydn dealt with the issue by writing this symphony.
In the first three movements, the composer employs his signature techniques to exquisite form. But it is the final movement that provides the work’s clever raison d’être. After a vigorous opening typical of Haydn’s finales, the music suddenly shifts to a slow adagio. One by one, the musicians stop playing and exit the stage quietly, leaving just two violinists.
If the legends are true, the prince got the message: It is written that the very next day, the entire court returned to civilization.
Joaquín Rodrigo — Concierto de Aranjuez
Unlike the other two composers on tonight’s program, Rodrigo was a born-and-raised Spaniard, and one of the few such men to gain international fame as a composer during the 20th century. Blind from the age of three, his world was one of sound and texture; his musical creations attest to his sensitivity to the world around him. While it would be ironic to speak of his music in terms of “colors,” Rodrigo managed to evoke in his music a vivid sense of Spanish culture and life perhaps matched only by the music of Manuel de Falla.
The obscurity of Spanish musicians on the international stage was at least partly owed to the second-rate musical education available in the country at the time. So it’s no surprise that Rodrigo felt it necessary to seek his training in Paris. He studied first under the great composer Paul Dukas at the Ecole Normale; after that, at the Paris Conservatoire and the Sorbonne. Finally, after living out the Spanish Civil War in France and Germany, Rodrigo returned to Madrid in 1939, at the age of 38. Despite spending most of his formative years abroad, Rodrigo never forgot the music of his home, and he endeavored throughout his remaining years to write music reflecting his country’s unique character.
Proof that he never lost touch with his roots can be found in his first and, to this day, most popular concerto, the “Concerto de Aranjuez” for guitar and orchestra. Premiered just one year after he returned to Spain, the Concerto is both a showpiece for guitar — almost unparalleled in its idiomatic and virtuosic deployment of the instrument — and a great work of Spanish art. The work’s popularity has endured almost unabated since its premiere; indeed, it is only in recent years that audiences and critics have begun to grant Rodrigo’s other compositions the praise they deserve.
Program notes provided by Joe Nickell