Program Notes: Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings

Program Notes: Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings

Read the program notes for this weekend’s concerts below!

403px-Richard_and_Cosima_WagnerSIEGFRIED IDYLL

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

In a Tweet: Life and art interweave in Richard Wagner’s mellifluous “musical birthday poem” for his wife.

The Back Story: Richard Wagner carried on a seven-year affair with Cosima von Bulow, the wife of a disciple of his, until her divorce enabled them to marry in 1870. As a combined Christmas and birthday present that year, Wagner secretly composed a serenade for her, drawing on his recently composed Siegfried, the third opera of his saga The Ring of the Nibelung. On Christmas morning, he sneaked a chamber ensemble into their home, set up the musicians in the stairway and conducted the world premiere, the sounds of which wafted into Cosima’s bedroom. “As I awoke, my ear caught a sound which swelled fuller and fuller,” she wrote in her diary. “No longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming, music was sounding, and what music! As it died away, Richard came into my room…and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so was the whole house.”

The Instruments: 1 flute, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 1 horn, 1 trumpet and strings

Siegfried and Brünnhilde as depicted by illustrator Arthur Rackham.
Siegfried and Brünnhilde as depicted by illustrator Arthur Rackham.

What to Listen For: For a “symphonic birthday poem” between a man and a woman whom were at last legally joined, the symbolism is unmistakable. The Idyll ties in with the opera Siegfried’s radiant closing scene, in which Siegfried and Brünnhilde, the hero and heroine destined for one another, finally meet and unite. The Idyll’s opening, with its melody and mellifluousness that dominate the piece, grows from the music in which Brünnhilde vows that she will forever devote herself to Siegfried’s well-being. The oboe tiptoes into the Idyll singing a German lullaby, no doubt alluding to Wagner and Cosima’s son Siegfried, who was 18-months old when Wagner unveiled the musical Christmas gift. The Idyll’s climax comes from Brünnhilde’s ringing salute to “Siegfried, radiant youth!” In this context, the reference is to the real-life Siegfried, who grew up to conduct his father’s music and compose his own. Siegfried, however, was far off when Wagner composed the Idyll, which ends as gently as a lullaby. One of Wagner’s most ardent admirers, Anton Bruckner, will get the spotlight in the Houston Symphony’s April performances of Bruckner’s massive Symphony No. 7.

The printed music for this work was donated by W. J. and Dorothy McCaine.


Antonin Dvořák
Antonin Dvořák

Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)

In a Tweet: Dvořák turned a recycled melody into a lyrical gem for violin and orchestra.

The Back Story: The young Antonin Dvořák learned from his mistakes. When a Czech theater’s singers and orchestra gave up trying to learn his folk opera, The King and the Collier—in which he had emulated the intricate style of Richard Wagner—the 32-year-old realized he was on the wrong track. Dvořák not only rewrote the entire opera in a simpler vein, but he also examined his other works, destroying several. So much for his Wagnerian urges. Amid the works he rejected, though, a string quartet contained a lilting, pensive melody that deserved a second chance. Dvořák expanded it into his Romance in F minor for violin and orchestra, which his full-length concertos have overshadowed unjustly.

The Instruments: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings

What to Listen For: Don’t call the Romance a vignette. This lyrical, expressive work clocks in at about 12 minutes, making it a little longer than the Adagio centerpiece of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto. The orchestra sets up a gently rocking pace and hints at the melody, then the violin steps in, spinning out the theme with a freedom and eloquence that far outshine that of the tune’s original incarnation. After a new, vaulting theme adds a tinge of yearning, the violin grows rhapsodic and urgent, and a brief, ringing declaration from the orchestra provides the work’s climax. Then, the violin brings back the opening melody, and Dvořák gives it new shadings on the way to the peaceful close. The Houston Symphony has another underappreciated violin work in store for January, when European performer Patricia Kopatchinskaja solos in Robert Schumann’s introspective concerto.


Pablo de Sarasate
Pablo de Sarasate

Pablo Sarasate (1844-1908)

In a Tweet: A charismatic violinist transformed Hungarian melodies into a showpiece relished by generations of virtuosos.

The Back Story: During a time when most violin virtuosos were flamboyant yet crude, performer-composer Pablo Sarasate eclipsed them by virtue of his silkiness and polish. Carl Flesch, a leading 20th-century violinist and teacher, witnessed Sarasate’s charisma when Flesch was a student: “With awe, as if he were a supernatural phenomenon from a wonderland ever inaccessible to us, we boys looked up to the small, black-eyed Spaniard. …It was a unique experience to see this little man stride on to the platform with genuine Spanish grandeza, superficially calm, even phlegmatic…[then] play with unheard-of sovereignty and, in a rapid climax, put his audience into astonishment, admiration and highest rapture.” Gypsy Airs, which probably grew from the zesty folk bands he heard during an 1877 trip to Hungary, was one of many showpieces Sarasate composed to help whip up the frenzy.

The Instruments: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle and strings

Pablo de Sarasate, as caricatured in Vanity Fair in 1889.
Pablo de Sarasate, as caricatured in Vanity Fair in 1889.

What to Listen For: Gypsy Airs begins with a czardas, which is a Hungarian dance that also inspired Franz Liszt, Johann Strauss and others. The first section, slow and free, allows the soloist to show off his tone and swagger. The pace quickens in the second part, which sets off salvos of violin pyrotechnics. The heart-on-its-sleeve tune that follows is actually not the work of gypsies. Rather, it comes from “There’s Only One Lovely Maid in the World,” a popular song whose composer, Elemer Szentirmay, wrote Sarasate after the work’s publication asking for credit. (Sarasate obliged in the next edition.) After reveling in the tune, the soloist takes off at a dash. The rapid-fire bowing, stratospheric flights and other fireworks make for a dazzling finish. In April, the Houston Symphony and violinist Caroline Goulding will set off more violin fireworks when they perform Max Bruch’s Concerto No. 1.

The printed music for this work was donated by Ann & Kevin Casey.


Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)

In a Tweet: As a young composer beginning to make his name, Dvořák poured his gift for melody into his Serenade for Strings.

The Musikverein in Vienna opened in 1870 and is the home of the Vienna Philharmonic.
The Musikverein in Vienna opened in 1870 and is the home of the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Back Story: Dvořák’s rewrite of his opera, The King and The Collier, premiered in November 1874, winning the young composer much-needed praise. More good news came in early 1875, when a Viennese troika that included Johannes Brahms awarded him an Austrian prize for talented, needy artists. Not only did the money come in handy, since Dvořák had a wife and young son to support, but his career gained its first toehold outside his Czech homeland. In May of that year, Dvořák created his melodious Serenade for String—in less than two weeks. When a member of the Vienna Philharmonic tried that summer to persuade the high-profile group to perform the new work, his colleagues shot the idea down, thinking the composer was too obscure. But the 1876 premiere in Prague magnified Dvořák’s reputation at home, and performances in other Czech cities gave his reputation an additional boost.

The Instruments: strings

What to Listen For: The mellow opening sets the tone for the entire piece, which unfolds in five concise movements. The pace picks up gradually as the waltzing second movement leads to the dashing third. Then, Dvořák turns inward. Even though the Larghetto’s main melody aims downward, it never sounds downcast. Instead, its depth enhances the music’s richness and soul. The finale unleashes the excitement that listeners know so well from Dvořák’s most jubilant Slavonic Dances. But here, Dvořák offers parting glances of the Larghetto’s lyricism and the opening’s serenity before the last burst of rowdiness. Dvořák will cap off the Houston Symphony’s classical season with the May premiere of The Cosmos: An HD Odyssey, which will meld the “New World” Symphony with NASA video of the heavens.

©2015 Steven Brown

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