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Program Notes


WED SEPT 21, 7:30 pm 

LOUIS LANGRÉE conductor • Lang Lang pianist

PROKOFIEV (1891–1953)

Concerto No. 3 in C Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 26

• Andante. Allegro
• Andantino. Allegro. Allegro moderato. Andante meditativo. Allegro giusto
• Allegro non troppo. Meno mosso. Allegro


SAINT-SAËNS (1835–1921)

Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78, Organ

• Part I: Adagio. Allegro moderato
• Poco adagio
• Part II: Allegro moderato. Presto
• Maestoso. Allegro

Concerto No. 3 in C Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 26

Born: April 23, 1891, Sontsovka, Ekaterinoslav, Russia | Died:March 5, 1953, Moscow

Work composed: 1921 (in Brittany)

Premiere: December 16, 1921—Frederick Stock conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sergei Prokofiev, pianist

Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, castanets, cymbals a2, snare drum, suspended cymbals, strings

CSO subscription performances: 16 previous subscription weekends 

Premiere: February 1936, Eugene Goossens conducting, E. Robert Schmitz, pianist

Most recent: May 2012, Long Yu conducting, Lang Lang, pianist

Duration: approx. 28 min.

Prokofiev worked on the Third Piano Concerto over an extended period. One of the themes dates from 1911, but it was only in 1916 that he determined to include it in a piano concerto. At that time he sketched out two themes for the first movement plus a theme and two variations for the second movement. He set the work aside but returned to it in 1918. He then decided to incorporate some material from a discarded string quartet. The first two themes of the concerto’s finale originated in the quartet.

While working on these materials, Prokofiev decided to leave Russia. He applied for a visa to visit America. The Soviet Commissar for Education was perplexed that the composer should want to leave his homeland so soon after the Russian Revolution, at a time that was being hailed as the beginning of a new age. But Prokofiev was apolitical, as indifferent to the Soviets as he had been to the Czarist aristocracy. The Commissar told the composer,

“You are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together. But I shan’t stand in your way if you want to go to America.”

The Commissar was convinced that Prokofiev would be disillusioned by life in a capitalist country. He was not wrong. After a difficult journey, involving 18 consecutive days on an overcrowded Siberian train with little food and inadequate sanitation, the composer embarked on the long trip across the Pacific. He continued to work on the piano concerto throughout the journey. When he arrived in San Francisco, he was detained and interrogated for three days. The authorities were suspicious of any Bolshevik. Prokofiev was finally allowed into the country. He went to New York, since he had been told that any artist hoping to make an impact in America had to start in that city.

His reputation as a musical revolutionary had preceded him. Thus the New York press was disappointed in his first performance, of one of his milder works: “The lion of the musical revolutionaries roared as gently as the gentlest dove. We waited in vain for those manifestations of musical extremes for which he is so famous.” Prokofiev decided to include bolder works on subsequent concerts. The fundamentally conservative New York reviewers were still not pleased: “Bolshevism in art.” “The epitome of Godless Russia.” “Like a charge of mammoths across some vast, immemorial Asiatic plateau.” “Mendelssohn with false notes.” “If that is music, I really believe I prefer agriculture!” “The recipe for this kind of composition is as simple as that for boiling an egg. Write anything that comes into your head, no matter how commonplace. Then change all the accidentals, putting flats in the place of sharps and vice versa and the thing’s done.”

Further discouraged by the cool reception his orchestral music received from the conductor of the New York Symphony, the composer decided to test his fortunes in Chicago. There he had better luck. Frederick Stock conducted the Chicago Symphony in his Scythian Suite, which received an ovation from the public. But the critics were as harsh as in New York: “A materialism equally as ruthless as Bolshevism.” “The red flag of musical anarchy waved tempestuously over the old Orchestra Hall yesterday as Bolshevist melodies floated over the waves of a sea of sound in breathtaking cacophony.”

Because of his popular (as opposed to critical) success and Stock’s support, Prokofiev was commissioned to write an opera for Chicago. Returning to New York to work, he finished Love for Three Oranges in October 1919. But his music still was having little success in the United States.

Prokofiev returned to Europe for the summer.

He came back to Chicago rejuvenated in the fall. He was full of high hopes for the premiere of Love for Three Oranges, in particular because huge amounts of money had been invested in the production. But the performance was repeatedly delayed, in part because Prokofiev demanded (and threatened to sue to obtain) additional financial compensation. By the time the dispute was settled, it was too late to mount the opera. Prokofiev went to California for the winter. He heard that Mary Garden, who had sung in the premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, had been named director of the Chicago Opera. A champion of new music, she insisted that the Opera’s contract with Prokofiev be honored. Love for Three Oranges was going to be produced the next season. Pleased with this knowledge, Prokofiev returned to Europe for the summer. At the suggestion of Russian poet Constantine Balmont, he took up residence in Brittany. There he finally brought to completion the piano concerto about which he had been thinking throughout the many months spent in America. He had already composed almost all the thematic material. He had only to supply the third theme for the finale and a subordinate theme for the first movement. He then assembled the concerto from the materials he had been collecting. When he returned to Chicago the following autumn, he brought with him the finished score. Stock agreed to conduct it with the Chicago Symphony. Prokofiev was soloist.

The performance was a smashing success. The reason may have had more to do with the notoriety surrounding the upcoming opera premiere than with the merits of the concerto. The Chicago public was eager to see the man whose opera was due to open in two weeks. Chicagoans were fascinated with Prokofiev because of his refusal, widely reported in the press two years earlier, to accept the generous support of American capitalism. According to the Musical Courier:

Florida and California [orange growers] are engaged in a struggle for the exclusive program rights to advertise their respective, favorite brands. The manufacturers of the California Sunkist oranges offer to supply the singers free with the succulent fruit, and the inventor of the Florida blood orange is willing to present one of them to every auditor every evening at the Chicago Opera, if the management will permit him to put up a lobby stand of the Florida bloods and placard it with a sign: “This succulent and healthful brand inspired Prokofiev and is used exclusively by him in this opera and at home.”

Since the composer had refused to allow his music to advertise oranges, he had become known as the man who had vetoed a lucrative way to promote his costly opera. Thus, when he stepped onto the stage to play his Third Piano Concerto, Prokofiev faced an audience who had come to see and hear the controversial man who dared to spend the Opera’s money but was unwilling to help it earn any.

Elated by the concerto’s success, Prokofiev performed it in New York five weeks later. There the public was not particularly interested in the Chicago Opera, or in the huge amount of money that had gone into its production, or in the advertising schemes of orange growers. What they perceived was a young composer who had dared to introduce his concerto (and his opera) in a rival city. The performance was destined to be a failure. The composer recorded:

“In Chicago there was less understanding than support; in New York there was neither.”

The opera imitated the concerto. Love for Three Oranges was a triumph in Chicago but a disaster six weeks later when the production moved to New York.

Prokofiev had spent most of the previous four years in the United States. Disheartened, he returned to Europe in March 1922. He said, “I was left with a thousand dollars in my pocket, a bad headache, and an overpowering wish to get away to some quiet place where I could work in peace.”

KEYNOTE: On purely musical grounds, it is hard to understand how the Third Piano Concerto could have provoked unfavorable reactions. A delightful and approachable piece, it has justly become one of Prokofiev’s most popular scores. Its rhythms are engaging, its tunes are attractive, and its orchestration is delightful.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the concerto is its variety, underlined by sudden jumps from one mood to another. The lyrical introductory andante, for example, has scarcely begun to develop when it is cut short by an allegro, dominated by an impish theme in the piano. The heavily rhythmic transition to the second theme is typical of Prokofiev’s brash side, but the theme itself is thoroughly lyrical. The brief introduction is expanded when it is recapitulated, as is the transition to the main theme.

The second movement is a set of variations, each of which has a different character as well as tempo. Most variations are separated by a distinctive chord progression, first heard in the winds just before the piano enters. The first variation is given to the solo piano, with flute and clarinet sounding the theme at the end. The second variation is scherzo-like and the third is an allegro moderato. Prokofiev marked the fourth variation meditativo. The fifth is another allegro. The movement closes with a varied restatement of the theme, in winds accompanied by piano.

Just as the middle movement is slow with fast interludes, so the finale is fast with slow interpolations. A slow passage in the winds introduces a new theme of considerable beauty. The material given at the outset is particularly engaging, because it seems unable to decide where its downbeats occur. The conclusion is brilliantly orchestrated.

—Jonathan D. Kramer


Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78, Organ

Born: October 9, 1835, Paris | Died: December 16, 1921, Algiers

Work composed: 1886

Premiere: May 19, 1886—Camille Saint-Saëns conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals a2, triangle, suspended cymbals, organ, piano four-hands, strings

CSO subscription performances: 11 previous subscription weekends

Premiere: January 1939, Eugene Goossens conducting, Parvin Titus, organist

Most recent: May 2016, Louis Langrée conducting, Thierry Escaich, organist

Duration: approx. 36 min.

Saint-Saëns voiced a complaint in 1871 that sounds very much like the grumbling of composers a century later:

Not so very long ago a French composer who was daring enough to venture onto the terrain of instrumental music had no other means of getting his work performed than to give a concert himself and invite his friends and the critics. As for the general public, it was hopeless even to think about them. The name of a composer who is French and still alive had only to appear on a poster to frighten everybody away. The chamber music societies, flourishing and numerous at the time, restricted their programs to the resplendent names of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn—and sometimes Schumann—as proof of their audacity.

If the complaint seems like those of today, so did the solution. In order to combat prejudice against contemporary French chamber music, Saint-Saëns and Fauré founded the Société Nationale de Musique, which was similar in purpose and activities to many composers’ organizations functioning today. Other leading members of the organization were César Franck and Édouard Lalo. The Society met with unexpected success. Not only was it responsible for the premieres of many fine new French compositions, but also it showed the public that such music was worthwhile. As a result, modern French music began to appear on other concert series. Before too many years had passed, the Society had 200 members, many of whom met regularly at Saint-Saëns’ house to discuss and play new music.

As the Society grew, so did its bureaucracy. In 1876 composers Vincent d’Indy and Henri Duparc were elected secretaries. D’Indy undertook the herculean task of putting the archives in order. Thus he became an important member of the Society’s administration. Once in this position of responsibility, he made a bold suggestion: that music by foreign composers be included in the Society’s concerts. Saint-Saëns was willing to allow music by Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Glinka, but he balked at the suggestion of the composer who really interested d’Indy: Wagner. Saint-Saëns understood that to start playing the music of this cult hero would be to return to the state of affairs the Society had been founded to remedy. He feared that the magnetic musical personality of Wagner would eclipse the works of the members. D’Indy, a devoted Wagnerian, was enraged. The ensuing rift between him and Saint-Saëns was never healed.

Their disagreements escalated over the succeeding years, and each enlisted allies. The proponents of d’Indy’s position were the composers most influenced by Wagner. They took as their leader César Franck. Franck had been a friend of Saint-Saëns and had dedicated his Quintet of 1880 to his colleague. But that piece also symbolized the rivalry between these two leading French composers: Franck’s work had been inspired by his passion for a particular woman, to whom Saint-Saëns was also attracted. Saint-Saëns heard rumors that Franck’s pursuit had been more successful than his own. His personal resentment of Franck fueled his professional jealousy: Franck had a circle of devoted disciples and students, while Saint-Saëns did not. And, a few years later, Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, which owed quite a lot to Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony, eclipsed its model in popularity.

Saint-Saëns understood that he was in the minority in the Society, and that those under the spell of Wagnerian aesthetics were both more numerous and more powerful than his own allies. Saint-Saëns resigned in 1886. He felt the Society had done its work. His departure, after 15 years as president, marked the end of an era.

The year 1886 ended an artistic era for Saint-Saëns as well. He conducted the premiere of the composition that was destined to be his last effort in the symphonic genre: his Third Symphony. In his remaining 35 years, he composed only a few incidental orchestral works (in addition to several works for soloist with orchestra). He turned his attention instead to the theater, writing seven operas, a ballet and incidental music to seven plays.

The Third Symphony (actually it was the composer’s fifth, since two youthful works were never numbered) is in many ways conservative. It looks backward to the heroic symphonies of Beethoven, and it all but ignores the new Wagnerian sounds that excited Franck and d’Indy. It was with no small sarcasm that composer Charles Gounod said, as Saint-Saëns mounted the podium to conduct the symphony, “There’s the Beethoven of France!”

The Organ Symphony was first heard in London. It had been written for the London Philharmonic, which managed to get it without paying a commissioning fee. Saint-Saëns had been invited to appear as guest conductor and piano soloist. He asked for a stipend of 40 pounds. The Philharmonic responded that it was a non-profit organization with limited funds. Saint-Saëns was offered an honorarium of 30 pounds plus the honor of writing a symphony for the occasion. Knowing that the orchestra was prestigious and that it was large, he agreed.

He dedicated the symphony to Franz Liszt, who died shortly after the premiere. Liszt’s style of orchestration is echoed in the symphony. In particular, Saint-Saëns took from the Hungarian composer’s tone poem Hunnenschlacht the idea of including an organ in the orchestra.

The symphony received splendid receptions at both its London and Paris premieres, but, apart for its influence on Franck, it had little subsequent impact on French music. Saint-Saëns understood that the Third Symphony represented a dead end. “I have given all that I had to give,” he wrote. “What I have done I shall never do again.”

KEYNOTE: The composer referred to himself in the third person in the extensive program note he provided for the London premiere:

This symphony is divided into parts, after the manner of Saint-Saëns’ Fourth Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and Sonata for Piano and Violin. Nevertheless, it includes practically the traditional four movements: the first, checked in development, serves as the introduction to the adagio, and the scherzo is connected, after the same manner, with the finale. The composer has thus sought to shun in a certain measure the interminable repetitions which are more and more disappearing from instrumental music. The composer thinks that the time has come for the symphony to benefit by the progress of modern instrumentation.

Saint-Saëns went on to list every instrument in the work’s large orchestra and then to give a detailed analysis of the symphony.

The first of the symphony’s two movements comprises an adagio (which Saint-Saëns called “plaintive”) which leads to an allegro moderato and, after a transition, to a full-fledged adagio (the composer described this section as “extremely peaceful and contemplative”). The second movement begins with the usual scherzo, complete with trio section. The second time the trio occurs, it becomes a transition (labeled “a struggle for mastery, ending in the defeat of the restless, diabolical element”) into the final section: a maestoso introduction (“triumph of calm and lofty thought”) to a fugal allegro. The organ helps delineate the implied four-part symphonic structure. It is silent in the first section, then enters at the start of the slow section. It is absent from the scherzo but marks the arrival of the finale with a massive C major chord.

Like Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, Saint-Saëns’ Third is cyclic. This means that certain important themes recur in different movements. It was appropriate for Saint-Saëns to omit formal recapitulations, since the main themes of the earlier sections recur in later sections. An additional source of unity is the symphony’s rhythmic style. In many places a tune can be felt either with or against the beat. Only by listening carefully to the accompaniment can we sense the beat, but the accompaniment is sometimes ambiguous or even nonexistent. This situation occurs, among other places, at the start of the first allegro moderato, at the beginning of the scherzo and at the transformation of the first movement’s first theme that is heard soon thereafter. The allegro moderato theme returns in the introduction to the finale and again toward the end of the symphony, each time with its relation to the beat changed. What was off the beat later falls on the beat.

The symphony contains many kinds of music, projecting many different moods. It is sometimes dance-like, sometimes intimate, and sometimes grandiose. It is a large, romantic work of a sort that was falling into disfavor in France. Yet it is a spectacular orchestral showpiece, and its return to popularity in our time is due largely to its ability to show off a virtuosic orchestra at its best.

—Jonathan D. Kramer