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Violin Legends: Gil Shaham Program Notes


Program Notes

FRI OCT 7, 8 pm • SAT OCT 8, 8 pm 

NEEME JÄRVI  conductor • GIL SHAHAM  violin 

GRIEG (1843–1907)

Suite No. 1 from Peer Gynt, Op. 46

• Morning Mood
• Ase’s Death
• Anitra’s Dance
• In the Hall of the Mountain King

MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Concerto in E Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64

• Allegro molto appassionato
• Andante
• Allegretto non troppo. Allegro molto vivace


DVOŘÁK (1841–1904) 

Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70

• Allegro maestoso
• Poco adagio
• Scherzo: Vivace
• Finale: Allegro

Suite No. 1 from Peer Gynt, Op. 46

Born: June 15, 1843, Bergen, Norway | Died: September 4, 1907, Bergen, Norway

Work composed: 1874–75

Premiere: Incidental music—February 24, 1876 as part of the play’s first production in Christiania (now Oslo); two concert suites published in 1888 and 1891

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals a2, triangle, strings

CSO subscription performances(complete Suite No. 1): Two previous subscription weekends

Premiere (Pike Opera House): December 1895, Frank Van der Stucken conducting

Most recent (Music Hall): February 1901, Frank Van der Stucken conducting. Individual movements of the Suite have been performed numerous times throughout the Orchestra’s history, including for Pops and community concerts.

Duration: approx. 15 min.

The great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) accomplished the near-impossible in his verse drama Peer Gynt (1867): he chose for his protagonist a man who was completely devoid of any positive qualities and made us care for that man deeply by the end of the play. Peer, a Norwegian peasant lad, is conceited beyond belief, a notorious liar, swindler, and womanizer, who betrays the love of his life and all his friends, and doesn’t hesitate to send others to their deaths so that he may live. But Ibsen showed how earnestly this unsavory character had struggled all his life to make sense of human destiny, and made this quest the focus of his play. Like Goethe’s Faust, Peer goes from one plane of experience to the next: his path leads him, in turn, to the kingdom of the Trolls, to America, and to the North African desert, before he finds his way back to the saintly Solveig, who has spent her entire life waiting for him patiently in the Norwegian mountains. As a result of his wanderings, Peer learns a great deal about what really matters in life and, more importantly, the reader or spectator may reflect on such issues as well.

One of the things that make Peer Gynt unique is its singular mixture of Norwegian local color and universal philosophy. When Edvard Grieg was asked to write the incidental music for the play’s first production, he complained that it was “the most unmusical of subjects.” The philosophical side of the drama was obviously hard to capture. The folkloristic element, on the other hand, positively cried out for musical treatment, and here Grieg, an enthusiastic student of his country’s musical traditions, was in his element. The incidental music to Peer Gynt strengthened his reputation as the greatest composer in Norway, and at the same time, it helped establish Ibsen’s masterpiece on the international stage.

Mallarmé began to conduct informal seminars at his home. At these regular Tuesday evening gatherings, he would expound and develop his unique concept of poetry. Debussy was a frequent participant in these seminars, and by the time of the poet’s death in 1898 the two men were close friends. In 1892 Debussy formulated the idea of attempting to reflect in music the fleeting emotions of “Faun”—which, in turn, had been derived from music. Just as the poem is not a specific translation of music into words, so Debussy’s idea was to write not a programmatic piece but rather a musical equivalent of the mysterious world of the poem. The composer originally planned a more extensive work, which was listed (but never played) on an all-Debussy concert in Brussels in March 1894. Its title was to have been Prelude, Interludes and Final Paraphrase for the Afternoon of a Faun.

Grieg extracted two suites from Peer Gynt, both comprising four movements. The first suite opens with the Prelude to Act IV, “Morning.” The sun rises over a landscape of North African desert—although the music would just as easily fit one of the drama’s Norwegian scenes. A pastoral melody, mostly over long-held, unmoving bass notes, unfolds quietly, waxing and waning in intensity.

The second movement is “Aase’s Death.” Peer had an ambivalent relationship with his mother Aase, to put it mildly. In the first scene of the drama, we see the two of them arguing vehemently and Aase calls her son a liar and a ne’er-do-well. As a response, Peer lifts her up and puts her on the mill-house roof, from where she is unable to come down without help. Later, as she lies dying, Peer sits next to her, and spins out a lively fantasy about taking her on a wild horseback ride to Soria-Moria Castle, where she will be greeted by St. Peter with due reverence. The music, in total contrast with these tumultuous goings-on, is a lament for strings alone (all but the basses playing with mutes). Its simple yet poignant melody is repeated three times, increasingly louder and louder; then a related, chromatically inflected theme fades out the movement in pianissimo.

The third movement, “Anitra’s Dance,” is in a “Tempo di Mazurka.” This may be geographically incorrect, given the fact that the mazurka is a Polish dance and this scene of the play is set in a desert oasis in North Africa. Yet the seductive melody and playful chromaticism of the movement are perfectly in character for the episode, in which Peer, posing as a prophet and smoking his long pipe in the tent of an Arab chieftain, enjoys the song and dance of a group of Arabian girls, and singles out one of them, Anitra, for special attention. The strings (once again muted, except for the basses) are joined only by a triangle.

The suite ends with one of Grieg’s most popular melodies, “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Peer has met a woman clad in green who has taken him to the palace of her father, the King of the Trolls. Peer almost becomes a Troll himself, and almost accepts the kingdom and the hand of the Troll princess. He backs out at the last minute, however, frightened at the prospect of having to give up his human identity (but not before impregnating the princess). The grotesque music of the mountain people becomes more and more menacing as it grows in volume. At the end of the movement, Peer is nearly killed by the angry Trolls.

—Peter Laki


Concerto in E Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64

Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany | Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Work composed: 1838– Sept. 16, 1844

Premiere: March 13, 1845, Leipzig—Neils Gade conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Ferdinand David, violinist

Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

CSO subscription performances (complete Suite No. 1): 27 previous subscription weekends 

Premiere: February 1895 (Pike Opera House), Anton Seidl conducting, Eugène Ysaÿe, violinist 

Most recent: April 2014, Juanjo Mena conducting, Augustin Hadelich, violinist

Duration: approx. 26 min.

In 1840 Mendelssohn was “invited”—that is, summoned—to the court of the new King of Prussia, Frederick William IV. The King wanted to make patronage of the arts a major priority of his regime and he therefore brought poets, painters, musicians and intellectuals to Berlin. Frederick William meant well, but he was a dreamer who had more ideas than he could ever put into practice. He wanted Mendelssohn, for example, not only to become head of music at the Royal Academy of the Arts but also to start a new conservatory that would be the center of German musical life.

The composer’s family urged him to accept the post. His mother, who was recently widowed and living in Berlin, was particularly eager for her son to return to the city where he had spent his childhood. Mendelssohn was reluctant, because he had never liked Berlin and because he was sure his liberal ideas would clash with the King’s conservatism. Furthermore, he knew that he would have little time for composing the music he most wanted to write. One of his many projects was a concerto he had promised his old friend, the violinist Ferdinand David. But in the end Mendelssohn accepted. The composer was excited about working in Germany’s largest city, and he looked forward to performing with and composing for Berlin’s large ensembles.

After complicated negotiations concerning his exact duties and title, Mendelssohn moved himself and his family to the Prussian capital in 1841. He took a leave of absence for one year from his position as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Concertmaster Ferdinand David, for whom Mendelssohn was writing the Violin Concerto, took over as conductor. When the composer remained in Berlin, David was succeeded by Ferdinand Hiller and then Neils Gade, to whom fell the honor of conducting the premiere of the concerto when it was finally ready in 1845.

Once in Berlin, Mendelssohn encountered a series of frustrations. The orchestral musicians were not as accomplished as those in Leipzig, and they were hostile to him. In addition, the bureaucrats with whom he had to deal at court were evasive and uncooperative. Of the Minister of Arts, through whom all Mendelssohn’s requests had to be channeled, the composer said, “He seems to have sworn death to every free intellectual endeavor. He is afraid of a mouse.” Adding to Mendelssohn’s unhappiness was the unexpected death of his mother in 1842.

The composer was overworked and depressed. He was required to teach, compose for the Royal Theater and for church services, and conduct an orchestra and a chorus. During his years in Berlin he also was required to write incidental music—mostly empty and now all but forgotten—for productions of Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus and of Racine’s Athalie. The one exception was the wonderful music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he had begun at the age of 17 and now completed on commission from the King.

Mendelssohn was ready to quit. But the King flattered him and charmed him into staying. His work load was lightened and he was given the freedom to travel. But the King turned out to be duplicitous—much of what he promised never materialized, including the promised conservatory. Mendelssohn returned temporarily to Leipzig, where he did succeed in founding a new conservatory. This school, which had been planned some time earlier, fulfilled all the ideals that Frederick William had wanted for Berlin but was unwilling to implement. The stellar faculty included violinist David (who was still waiting patiently for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto), composer Robert Schumann and music theorist Moritz Hauptmann.

Mendelssohn returned to his official duties and unofficial frustrations in Berlin. He found the social environment at the court oppressive, and his health was beginning to suffer (he died three years later at the age of 38). King Frederick William pretended to be puzzled when he learned that his amply paid servant wanted complete freedom, but he finally acquiesced—on condition that Mendelssohn be available for future commissions and performances. The composer left Berlin for good in 1844. No longer required to compose patriotic works, church hymns and incidental music, he was finally able to complete the work he had begun six years earlier—the magnificent Violin Concerto.

KEYNOTE. Although Mendelssohn was himself a violinist and had previously written another violin concerto (at the age of 15), he repeatedly sought the advice of his friend David. As a result the E Minor Concerto is a masterful integration of virtuosity and musicality. It is full of melodic lines that spin seemingly effortlessly from the violin yet nonetheless exploit fully the technical potential of the instrument. The finale in particular presents unabashed bravura and true melodiousness integrated in one of Mendelssohn’s wonderfully impish scherzos. It is this combination of virtuosity and lyricism that has endeared the concerto to generations of violinists and listeners.

The concerto also has its share of innovations. Consider, for example, the manner in which the movements are linked together. A bassoon holds one note over from the last chord of the first movement, creating a harmonic link into the second movement. That movement goes without pause into a transitional section that ties it to the finale.

The first movement includes a written-out cadenza. Traditionally, the cadenza is left to the soloist to improvise, compose or choose. It usually occurs just before the close of the first movement, at a point where the forward motion of the concerto stops for a while so that the soloist can show off his or her virtuosity. This extended, unaccompanied passage usually has little to do with the structure of the piece. Mendelssohn sought to integrate the cadenza into the form, so he placed it earlier in the movement. It serves as the transition from the development section to the recapitulation. Now that the cadenza had an important structural role, its form and harmonies could no longer be left to the whim of the soloist. Thus Mendelssohn wrote down exactly what the soloist should play, taking care (and asking David’s advice) that it should nonetheless give the virtuoso ample opportunity to show off his skill. There is no cadenza in the second or third movements, but the perpetual motion of the finale gives the violinist constantly imaginative figuration that promises to dazzle and simultaneously delight listeners.

—Jonathan D. Kramer


Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70

Born: September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, near Prague | Died: May 1, 1904, Prague

Work composed: December 13, 1884–March 17, 1885; revised May 1885

Premiere: April 22, 1885, London—Dvořák conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

CSO subscription performances (complete Suite No. 1): Two previous subscription weekends

Premiere (Pike Opera House): December 1895, Frank Van der Stucken conducting

Most recent (Music Hall): February 1901, Frank Van der Stucken conducting. Individual movements of the Suite have been performed numerous times throughout the Orchestra’s history, including for Pops and community concerts.

Duration: approx. 35 min.

When fame began to come to Antonín Dvořák, his reputation spread rapidly. Brahms, who knew the Czech composer and his music, introduced him to the publisher Simrock, who subsequently brought out several of his scores. Brahms also secured performances of Dvořák’s music in Germany. These successes in Germany led to exposure in England, which in turn led eventually to an invitation to the United States.

The composer was ambivalent about this rapidly achieved fame. He was grateful that his music was widely appreciated, and he was pleased with the additional income from conducting engagements. But he felt that he still remained “a simple Czech musician.” The more he saw of foreign cultures, the stronger his own nationalistic identity became. Although never deeply involved in politics, he found himself increasingly in sympathy with movements aimed at preserving his homeland and its culture. His music reflected his identification with Bohemia.

In the early 1880s, the time of his rise to fame, Dvořák was involved with his opera Dimitrij. This work had been a success in Prague, and a performance was contemplated in Vienna. But, as there were just then strong anti-Czech feelings in Austria, the promoters decided not to risk mounting a Czech nationalist opera. The composer was instead urged to write a new opera specifically for Vienna. He was given two German librettos from which to choose. At the same time the influential critic Eduard Hanslick advised him to drop the new national traits in his compositions if he wanted increased appreciation in Vienna. Brahms suggested that he move to Vienna, which was considered (by Austrians, at least) as the musical center of the world. Furthermore, Dvořák had trouble convincing his new publisher Simrock to print the titles of his works in Czech as well as German, and the two had heated exchanges over whether to publicize the composer’s name in its German form (Anton) or in the original Czech (Antonín).

Something was wrong, Dvořák felt. He had gained fame partly because of his Bohemian nationalism, but now everyone wanted him to renounce it. After some thought, the composer decided not to write a German opera. He thereby sacrificed a major career advancement in order to remain faithful to his musical nationalism. He stayed a resident of Prague, and he insisted that his compositions be published as Czech music by a Czech composer. He refused to speak German unless necessary, and he declined an invitation from the German Artists’ Club.

The energies he could have put into writing a German opera went instead into his very Czech Seventh Symphony. This work was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society, which had elected Dvořák an honorary member. But there is nothing English about this symphony. He wanted the new piece to further his reputation in England without compromising his national identity. He wanted it to be his finest effort.

The work in fact did turn out to be what is generally considered Dvořák’s best symphony. Several factors combined to make it his symphonic masterpiece: the composer’s determination to compose on the highest level for England; the model of Brahms’ Third Symphony, which Dvořák had recently heard premiered and which had impressed him; his deepening Czech nationalism, which is expressed in the piece; the dedication and hard work he had intended to put into the composition of a grand opera. With this symphony the composer seemed to be saying: I am bringing into the world a musical statement of myself, a Czech composer; this work is also a statement of the Czech spirit; it compromises nothing to the tastes of German or Austrian or English musicians or audiences; I was asked to forsake my homeland and its music, and this composition is my response.

KEYNOTE. Czech nationalism is everywhere evident in the symphony’s melodies—not quite folk tunes, they nonetheless share with Bohemian peasant songs certain inflections, certain scales, certain rhythms that come perhaps from the speech patterns of the Czech language. The music does express the spirit of the Czech people, more deeply than more self-consciously nationalistic music (such as Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances). The themes of the first movement, for example, seem to show the many-sided character of Dvořák’s people. The first theme—sometimes dark, sometimes mysterious, sometimes triumphant—contrasts with the second theme, alternately gentle, dance-like and happy.

These folk influences do not preclude compositional sophistication. Notice, for example, the often intricate interweaving of elaborate figurations in the second movement, which is rich in counterpoint and pungent dissonances.

The third movement betrays its national origins most clearly. The Czech dance called the furiant provides the basic rhythm, in which six-beat measures are subdivided sometimes 2+2+2 and sometimes 3+3. From these conflicting rhythms comes great excitement: we never quite know which grouping will come next. Particularly engaging are the passages in which both rhythms are played simultaneously.

The finale, without overtly referring to the materials of the earlier movements, sums up the variety of moods in the symphony. We hear a contrast of the tragic with the carefree (as in the first movement) in the two main themes. The sophisticated counterpoint from the second movement is often heard as well, as is the rhythmic vitality from the scherzo.

Not always when a composer sets out to create a substantial work does he succeed. But in the Seventh Symphony Dvořák did indeed make a deeply felt and finely crafted artistic statement. That he wanted to give the London Philharmonic a work worthy of their commission was no doubt a secondary inspiration. More significant was his sense of obligation to express his people’s spirit. The national identity of Bohemia does indeed flow through this music.

Jonathan D. Kramer