Smetana, Weber & Rachmaninoff
Sat | Sept 16, 2023 | 7:30pm
Sun | Sept 17, 2023 | 3:00pm
The Avalon Theatre
Smetana’s Moldau and Weber’s Bassoon Concerto in F with soloist Jeffrey McCray set the pace for Rachmaninoff’s Symphony #2.
Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)
“Vltava” (“The Moldau”) from Má vlast (1875) 13 minutes
Flutes, piccolo, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, bass drum, cymbal, harp, strings
The GJSO last performed this work in 1993, David Dalton, conductor
Bedřich Smetana is considered the “Father of Czech music.” He developed a style of Czech opera and portrayed the landscapes of the Czech countryside and used folk song and story throughout his works. Smetana was born in 1824 and was a prodigy, performing his first piano recital at age six. He studied with local teachers until his father agreed to send him to Prague at age fifteen. He regularly skipped school to attend the many concerts throughout the city, including a piano recital by Franz Liszt. His father found out about his truancy and sent Smetana to live with family to finish his education. Smetana returned to Prague in 1843 where he took a job as a live-in piano teacher for a wealthy family. He continued his education at the Prague Music Institute where he studied composition. He embarked on an unsuccessful concert tour, returning to revolutionary upheaval in Prague in 1848. Over the next few years, Smetana tried to solidify his place in Prague’s music circles; he started a piano school and wrote several compositions. However, the failed uprising led to more political repression, many of Smetana’s works were not well received, and three of his four daughters died in two years. Feeling disillusioned and emotionally raw, Smetana moved to Sweden to pursue opportunities there. He wrote several orchestral works, with encouragement from Liszt who had become a close friend, and conducted regularly.
Smetana spent five years in Sweden, returning to Prague permanently in 1862, because he felt he needed to make his career at home. He wrote his first opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia in 1863 creating a Czech-style of opera, something that had not existed before. Smetana’s second opera, The Bartered Bride, after an initial lukewarm reception, became a great success. He was appointed director of the Provisional Theater, the city’s main opera house, but his tenure was filled with controversy due to his musical choices, the influence of Richard Wagner in Smetana’s later operas, and rivalries with other music directors. In the midst of this tumult, Smetana’s health began to fail. He began losing his hearing in 1874 and was completely deaf only a few months later. He resigned from the theater and left Prague for his daughter’s home in the countryside. He had begun work on a cycle of tone poems, Má vlast (My Fatherland), before he left Prague. He finished the cycle, as well as a string quartet and three other operas in his final years. Smetana’s health continued to deteriorate; he reported depression, insomnia, and hallucinations. In 1884 his family was forced to send him to an asylum where he died a few weeks later. Smetana had a hard time finding recognition as a composer early in his career, but by the end of his life, he had created a style of Czech opera and cemented his place as a towering figure in Czech music.
Smetana intended to write a single composition about the Vltava River and its course through the Bohemian countryside. Instead of only one piece, Smetana wrote a cycle of six, depicting various Czech landscapes and historical events. “Vltava” (“The Moldau”) is the most popular and well-known of the cycle. The piece musically depicts the river, beginning as two small streams, the two tunes join together, creating the main “Vltava” melody. Along the journey, various scenes are depicted along the riverbanks, including a hunting party, a wedding, a set of ruins, and a series of rapids, before the river passes the Vyšehrad, a castle on the outskirts of Prague. After a triumphant statement of the theme, the music dies away before two final chords.
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Bassoon Concerto in F Major, Op. 75 (1811) 19 minutes
Flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpet, timpani, strings, solo bassoon
This is the GJSO’s first performance of this piece
Carl Maria von Weber was a talented pianist, music critic, conductor, and composer, best known for his contributions to the development of German Romantic opera. He was born in 1786 into a musical family; his father was an orchestra director and his mother a singer. The family moved frequently as Weber’s father took various positions. Weber received a thorough musical education, including studying with Michael Haydn, younger brother of Franz Joseph. In 1798, Weber completed his first major works, an opera, now lost, and six piano works which were published. He wrote another opera two years later which was produced in Saint Petersburg, Vienna, and Prague. He also began writing articles of music criticism for the newspaper in Leipzig. At seventeen, Weber became the director of the Breslau Opera. He held the post for two years, leaving because he didn’t have enough time to compose. He spent the next few years writing mainly religious music. In 1811, as part of an extended concert tour, Weber met clarinetist Heinrich Bärmann, for whom he wrote several works.
Beginning in 1813, Weber took a series of jobs working for opera companies, settling in Dresden in 1817, where he hoped to establish a German opera tradition. His most famous work, Der Freischütz, premiered in Berlin in 1821 and was performed throughout Europe. Weber was invited by the Royal Opera to compose and produce a work for them in 1824. He traveled to England in 1826, where he completed Oberon and conducted the premiere performance. Weber had contracted tuberculosis prior to his trip. Although he conducted thirteen performances of his new opera, his health quickly deteriorated, and he died in his sleep in London on June 5, 1826. Weber’s operas greatly influenced the development of later German Romantic operas including the first use of leitmotifs, which came to great prominence in the works of Wagner. In his short life, Weber left behind a trove of beautiful works which influenced many composers in the Romantic tradition.
As part of his concert tour, Weber arrived in Munich in March 1811. There he met the court’s virtuoso clarinetist, Heinrich Bärmann. Weber wrote a concertino for Bärmann which was enthusiastically received. Immediately after the performance, Maximillian I, King of Bavaria, commissioned two clarinet concertos from Weber for Bärmann. The other musicians in the orchestra asked Weber to write works for them as well. The bassoonist, Georg Friedrich Brandt, was the only one who was successful. Over two weeks in November, Weber wrote the concert which Brandt premiered in Munich in December. Brandt performed the works three more times in Vienna, Prague, and Ludwigslust, with Weber at the Prague performance. After hearing the work, Weber made significant edits which were included in the version published in 1822. Around forty years later, the publishing house released a new, edited version which changed notes, dynamics, and articulations, and was filled with mistakes. In 1986, English bassoonist and musicologist William Waterhouse wrote an article comparing the different editions of the work. He edited and revised the concerto, publishing a restored version in 1990 which is closer to Weber’s initial composition. The work is one of the most important pieces in classical bassoon repertoire and features Weber’s operatic style to showcase the bassoon throughout.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1908) 45 minutes
Flutes, piccolo, oboes, English horn, clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbal, snare drum, glockenspiel, strings
This is the first performance of this symphony by the GJSO
Sergei Rachmaninoff was a Russian pianist, composer, and conductor. His lush romantic works are among some of the most popular for symphony and piano. Born in 1873 into an aristocratic and musical family, Rachmaninoff began piano lessons at age four. After an unsuccessful beginning at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Rachmaninoff graduated from the Moscow Conservatory where he composed orchestral and piano works. Under the tutelage of his piano instructor Rachmaninoff became a virtuoso performer. Rachmaninoff’s early works were well received; however, his First Symphony was a critical disaster. Always prone to depression, the harsh reaction to his work sent Rachmaninoff into a four-year period where he composed almost nothing. Although he was unable to write, Rachmaninoff took the post of assistant conductor for an opera company, beginning this part of his career. Following a year of therapy, he eventually completed Piano Concerto No. 2 which became a rousing success and one of his best-loved pieces. After this triumphant return, Rachmaninoff was again in demand as a performer, composer, and conductor, traveling widely, spending time at the Bolshoi Theater and in Germany and the United States.
During the turmoil of the 1917 October Revolution, Rachmaninoff and his family wanted to leave Russia, however he was unable to obtain visas. When he was invited to perform a series of concerts in Scandinavia, the family took the opportunity to leave the country, taking only a few small suitcases with them into self-imposed exile. Rachmaninoff received several job offers in the United States, including from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Although he initially turned down the jobs, eventually Rachmaninoff decided that opportunities in America might help him support his family. They relocated to New York in November 1918. He quickly organized a series of piano recitals, the first less than a month after his arrival, which featured an arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The next years featured a demanding performance schedule throughout the United States and Europe. Due to his heavy performance load, Rachmaninoff’s compositional output slowed dramatically; he completed only six works after 1918. By late 1942 Rachmaninoff was suffering from ill-health and the family relocated to Beverly Hills following his doctor’s suggestion. In 1943 Rachmaninoff and his wife became American citizens; he died one month later.
It is somewhat remarkable that there is a second symphony by Rachmaninoff because of his history with the form. His first attempt was an unmitigated disaster causing a years-long depression during he which he didn’t compose. After therapy and a successful tenure as conductor of the Imperial Opera, he returned to composing. He took his family to Dresden for three years, where he slowly worked on his second symphony. After numerous revisions, Rachmaninoff conducted the premiere of the work in Moscow in 1908 to great acclaim. Rachmaninoff said he composed to express his feelings; this work shows his moody and somber side, but also has warm and romantic moments. The opening motto in the low strings is utilized throughout each of the movements. The symphony is filled with beautiful melodies and dramatic moments and is an emotional triumph.