Guiseppe Verdi: Overture to Nabucco
Premiere at La Scala in Milan on March 9, 1842
By the age of 28, Giuseppi Verdi had already experienced the pains of a man decades older. Only two years prior, Verdi had lost both of his infant children and his wife to illness. With these pains in his heart, there is probably no way Verdi anticipated the unparalleled success of his 1842 opera: Nabucco. The opera—which has the backdrop of the Babylonian captivity—takes on a life of its own outside of the concert hall. Just as the Jewish captives yearningly sing for a return to their beloved homeland, Italians of the 1840s were striving for a united Italy—a return to a united sense of Italianness.
Music critics in recent years have argued that Verdi's role in the Italian Risorgimento has been over-emphasized. Yet, the fact remains that Nabucco—especially the chorus, "Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate" ("Go, thought, on golden wings") was a political message. The politics of the chorus extends its hand even to the present day. "Va, pensiero" was almost made the national anthem of Italy, both in 1981 when an Italian journalist attempted to do so and again in 2009—this time led by an Italian senator.
You will hear the famous chorus beginning with an oboe and clarinet duet about three minutes into the performance (after the completion of the extended Allegro section). Here, you can imagine the exiled Jewish people yearningly singing for their return to Jerusalem, which the Italian people sympathized with during their nationalistic surge in the mid-1800s.
Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63
Premiere at the Teatro Monumental in Madrid on December 1, 1935
I. Allegro moderato
II. Andante assai
III. Allegro ben marcato
From 1918—1936, Sergei Prokofiev—a Russian-born and Saint Petersburg Conservatory-trained pianist and composer—lived a nomadic concert lifestyle. During that time span, Prokofiev performed and composed in places as diverse as London, Paris, the Bavarian Alps, Chicago, and—of course—cities in the Soviet Union (like Moscow and Leningrad). Yet, all the while, Prokofiev maintained a strong inner-connection with his homeland. His sense of his own Russian identity impelled him to make Russia his home again in 1936, bringing his children and reluctant Spanish wife Carolina along with him. The 2nd Violin Concerto—premiered in Madrid in December, 1935—lies directly on an important transitionary period of Prokofiev's life: at the end of his nomadic concert lifestyle and right before his extended return to the Soviet Union (from which he left for several international tours from 1936-38, but after 1938 he never left again).
Commenting on the concerto, Prokofiev wrote: “The number of places in which I wrote the Concerto shows the kind of nomadic concert-tour life I led then. The main theme of the 1st movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the 2nd movement in Voronezh (a Russian city about 500 km. south of Moscow), the orchestration was finished in Baku (located on the Caspian Sea), and the premiere was given in Madrid.” The influence of Prokofiev's audience in Madrid is evident in the third movement, which calls to mind a flamenco dance because of the violin's guitar-like percussive strumming and the accented clacking of the castanets. Even more revealing of the concerto's significance is the first movement’s opening violin melody. The isolated solo violinist plays a minor-mode melody for an extended period of time, while all the other instruments of the orchestra remain silent. The melody is contained within two octaves—from the violin's lowest note G to an F on top of the staff—making it fall directly in a comfortable range for a male's voice. As a man on the brink of returning home, the solo melodic line—in a register of a male voice, i.e. Prokofiev’s voice—can be read as Prokofiev's own emotive singing for his homeland, a Russia he will make his home again only a year later
With his permanent return, Russian audiences were privileged with Prokofiev’s musical gifts, among them, as music scholar Richard Taruskin argues, a “gift...for writing distinctively original diatonic melodies.” One of these melodies emerges in the second movement, where a pleading solo violin line floats over the repeated ostinatos of the winds and pizzicato strings.
Edward Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme, Enigma, Op. 36
Premiere at James’s Hall in London on June 19, 1899
On a Friday evening, after a long-day of fiddle teaching in Worcester (a job composers often begrudgingly accept), Edward Elgar sat down behind his piano and began to improvise. His wife, hearing what he was doing, commented on how much she liked the tune. "Eh! Tune, what tune?" Elgar responded, awakening from his improvisatory reverie. "Play it again, I like that tune," Alice encouraged him. Elgar, navigating through the piano keys, soon found the theme again, leading his wife to exclaim, "That's the tune!" Encouraged and inspired, Elgar decided to work with the theme through the lens of several friends—most of whom were musicians. Elgar told his wife aloud while tinkering with the melody, "Powell would have done this, or Nevinson would have looked at it like this." These inauspicious beginnings for a variation set would germinate into a work that would propel Elgar towards international prominence: the Variations on an Original Theme, commonly referred to as the Enigma Variations.
Elgar’s Enigma Variations have puzzled listeners and scholars alike for years. In the search to uncover the enigma—a hidden concept, either an abstract idea or a literal melody, embedded in the theme—scholars have repeatedly pursued questions like, “What is the inside knowledge that we are all missing?” or, “Has it something to do with the dedicated variations—each to one of his friends?" Suggested solutions range from Mozart's "Prague" Symphony to the hymn "Now the Day is Over" to even an abstract representation of Elgar himself—with "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" emerging as a plausible and supported solution in recent years (which would correspond with Elgar's taunt about the obviousness of the enigma). The enigma may never be solved. So, instead of worrying about it, a mission Elgar described as being over-questioned (“I wish people would drown themselves in ink and let me alone”), let’s turn to the significance of the music.
To begin, Elgar not only dedicated each of the variations to his friends, but also composed the variations through the lens of each one of his friends. Elgar described the process in a private letter, “...in each Variation I have ‘looked at’ the theme through [underline Elgar’s] the personality (as it were) of another Johnny…” The idea is complicated. How does a composer represent another through a work? Composing in the reflective-of-another way was shaped through the relationships Elgar had with the friends he depicted. For example, Elgar performed chamber music often with the pianist Hew David Steuart-Powell (H.D.S-P.). According to Elgar, Steuart-Powell preferred diatonic (read non-chromatic, non-dissonant) music to chromatic music. So, what does Elgar compose for his second variation dedicated to Steuart-Powell? In a whimsical manner, the exact sounds Steuart-Powell does not like. Elgar explains, “His characteristic diatonic run over the keys before beginning to play is here humorously travestied in the semiquaver [read sixteenth notes] passages; these should suggest a Toccata, but chromatic beyond H.D.S-P.'s liking.”
In a piece displaying Elgar’s compositional prowess (theme and variations have a long history as a compositional form composers from Handel to Schoenberg have endeavored to master) one variation stands out for its affect on the listener: the 9th, "Nimrod," dedicated to Elgar’s close friend and advocate August Jaeger. Before receiving international popularity from the Enigma Variations, Elgar was toiling in relative obscurity—with local fame and recognition only in London and the surrounding areas. Discouraged, Elgar renounced music several times, lamenting in a letter addressed to none other than Jaeger, "No—I'm not happy at all: in fact never was more miserable in my life...No thank you—no more music for me—at present." Yet, Jaeger's "clear, ennobling, sober and sane voice" (as Elgar described it) was ever-present. It is therefore fitting Elgar wrote the reflective, moving adagio variation to portray Jaeger: the variation can be read as a form of sincere gratitude from Elgar to Jaeger for his support. Jaeger was probably honored by the quality of the work dedicated to him: the Nimrod variation has been beloved for its beauty and has been oft-excerpted out of the variations to be played on its own.
I. Theme, Andante (leads into the first variation without pause)
II. Variation I, L'istesso tempo "C.A.E.": Elgar’s wife, Alice. The variation contains the whistle-call Elgar performed for his wife upon arriving home (heard in the oboes and bassoons).
III. Variation II, Allegro "H.D.S-P.": Hew David Steuart-Powell, a pianist whom Elgar played chamber music with.
IV. Variation III, Allegretto "R.B.T.": Richard Baxter Townshend, a frequent guest at Hasfield (a manor owned by W.M.B. and visited often by the Elgars). The rising build from a low register to a higher one in the variation represents the time R.B.T. impersonated an old male amateur theater performer while at Hasfield. He did so by flying his low voice occasionally into the soprano range.
V. Variation IV, Allegro di molto "W.M.B.": William Meath Baker, a sportsman and lover of music. A boisterous, breezy variation, the shortest of the set.
VI. Variation V, Moderato "R.P.A." (leads into the sixth variation without pause): Richard Penrose Arnold, an amateur pianist. Serious, vibratoed sounds in the low strings are often interrupted by the cheeriness of staccatoed woodwinds in the variation.
VII. Variation VI, Andantino "Ysobel": Isabel Fitton, a violin student of Elgar and an amateur violist. The variation contains a short, reflective viola solo, from which Elgar says is "built a pensive and, for a moment, romantic movement."
VIII. Variation VII, Presto "Troyte": Arthur Troyte Griffith, an architect, artist, and stage designer. Colleagues of Troyte called his social manner very quiet and his speech as curt, which makes the grandiose, heroism of the variation witty (similar to the whimsicality Elgar employed in the second variation portrayal of H.S.S-P.).
IX. Variation VIII, Allegretto "W.N." (leads into the ninth variation via a held-note in the first violins): Winifred Norbury, secretary to the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society. Elgar said the variation depicts the eighteenth-century Norbury house. Also, the winds' trills and fluttering sounds are meant to represent Norbury's laugh.
X. Variation IX, Adagio "Nimrod": August Jaeger, a close friend and supporter of Elgar's. The variation doesn't fail to make a listener get those "musical chills" at the last fortissimo chord of the piece—an experience so idiosyncratic to the phenomenon of listening to music.
XI. Variation X, Intermezzo: Allegretto "Dorabella": Dora Penny, close friend of the Elgars. Elgar's nickname for her, "Dorabella," comes from Mozart's, "Cosi fan tutti." Her minor speech defect (a stutter) is heard in the woodwinds.
XII. Variation XI, Allegro di molto "G.R.S." (leads into the twelfth variation without pause): George Sinclair, a cathedral organist. Elgar revealed that the opening of the variation chronologically represents Dan's, Sinclair's bulldog, jump into the River Wye for a stick (which Sinclair threw), the subsequent paddling for the stick, and the glorious, self-satisfied bark upon emerging from the river victorious.
XIII. Variation XII, Andante "B.G.N.": Basil Nevinson, a cellist represented by the moving solo cello line found in both the opening and closing of the variation. The cello's soli evoke the same slow, beautiful string sound aesthetic as the opening of the Nimrod variation.
XIV. Variation XIII, Romanza: Moderato "* * *" (Romanza): The mystery of these asterisks, unlike the mystery of the enigma behind the theme, has been solved by a consensus of music scholars: these asterisks take the place of Lady Mary Lygon, a former fiancé of Elgar who set sail on a ship for Australia in April, 1899 (hence the wave-sounds emulated by the strings, the winds' evocation of an out-at-sea breeze blowing through the boat's deck, and the brass's declaration of the boat's coming into the port).
XV. Variation XIV, Finale: Allegro Presto "E.D.U.": Elgar, nicknamed Edu by his wife. The self-portrait variation includes references to the Alice and Jaeger variations, two very influential people in Elgar's life. Elgar said that he wrote a bold, vigorous sounding finale as an audible rebuke to the friends who were uncertain of and discouraging to the composer's future at that time.
Program notes written for the North Shore Symphony Orchestra by Timothy Diovanni