Written by Ronald Comber
Overture to “L’isola Disabitata” (The Desert Isle)
Although most of Joseph Haydn’s fame is based on his brilliant and innovative Symphonies and String Quartets, the majority of his time at the Esterházy court, from 1761 to 1790, was spent in the composition and preparation of Operas, both Italian and German. Opera played an enormous part in the social life of the Esterházy estates and Haydn was expected to write, prepare and perform new works on a regular basis.
Haydn might well have become famous as an Opera composer but for two things; he wrote to please the tastes of his employer instead of a cosmopolitan audience, and the Opera house at Esterháza burnt down in 1779, taking with it an unknown number of Haydn’s scores.
L’isola Disabitata was the last opera performed before the conflagration, but somehow the parts survived. Set to a libretto by Metastasio, the work was for many years only known for its dramatic Sturm und Drang overture. The musical world was duly taken aback when the work finally reached print in 1976 to discover that the opera was a forgotten masterpiece.
Concerto in A Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op.54
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)
Generally, when a composition is rejected by several generations of listeners in turn, receiving its just appreciation many years later, it is because the work was far ahead of its time, thematically or harmonically. Schumann’s Piano Concerto has only gained acceptance in this century for quite another reason.
It is difficult at this distance in time to imagine the musical pedantry inherent in the 19th Century. Composers, critics and musicians alike fought bitter lifelong battles over the most astonishing things, and in so doing, influenced the minds of concert-goers for years. For example, because a vast body of opinion believed that Felix Mendelssohn wrote the greatest music (he did write some of it), aspiring composers struggled even as late as the early part of this century to write just like Mendelssohn, despite the reality of musical progress.
Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto suffered an almost total eclipse for many years because of an established, though unspoken, definition of what a concerto must accomplish. According to the best traditions of the early Romantic period, a concerto must first be a showpiece for the soloist’s virtuosity, have brilliant passage-work, stunning ornamentation, and beautiful song-like melodies. Then, if there is room, the composer can put in something noble and uplifting, probably in the slow movement. (Beethoven’s concertos don’t count, for they are the work of a man who stood alone in the public eye, even then). Poor Schumann wrote a work devoid of any trace of deliberate virtuosity, concentrating solely on his own special brand of musical honesty in order to produce the gentlest, most introspective of concertos, and he paid the price.
The Piano Concerto in A minor was written in a slightly accidental manner, over a period of four years. The first movement was originally composed as a Concert Allegro for Piano and Orchestra in 1841, one of Schumann’s most creative years. It was only in 1845, when he was recovering from one of the nervous attacks that eventually led to madness and death,that Schumann decided to add two more movements to the Allegro. The new Concerto received its first performance in Dresden, on December 4, 1845. It was not a success. Nor was it a success when Clara Schumann performed it in London in 1856. The London press rather malignantly described her “…praiseworthy efforts…to make her husband’s curious rhapsody pass for music”. Franz Liszt championed the work for several years, but was eventually defeated. The critics and audience wanted musical thrills. Many years were to pass before the singular merits of the A minor Piano Concerto were finally appreciated.
The first movement, marked Allegro affetuoso, opens with an introductory flourish from the piano, leading to the gentle principal theme. As the movement unfolds, the piano assumes the role of co-executant – a voice coming up through the orchestra, rather than a soloist with orchestral accompaniment. Several times the piano accompanies other voices! This, by the way, is the first concerto in which such a thing was allowed to happen.
The second movement, marked Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso, is particularly ingratiating – the delicate staccato in the principal theme is beautifully offset by the warmth of the second subject.
The Finale, marked Allegro vivace, is more robust, running through a brilliant series of opposing themes and a strange but delightful hemiola to a satisfying conclusion.
Symphony No.1 in C Major
Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875)
Of all the works discovered only after a long period of obscurity, perhaps the most immediately popular find has been Bizet’s juvenile creation, the Symphony No.1 in C Major. Looked on by its author as a sort of glorified school exercise, it was, after its completion, merely bundled up with other papers, for which Bizet had no immediate use. Later, as his career flourished, and the piles of manuscripts grew and grew, astonishing things disappeared without a trace, only to be rediscovered many years later. After Bizet’s death, the manuscripts were divided up and given as mementos to his friends – a charming action on the part of his widow, unfortunately, spoiled by her failure to ascertain just what she was giving away.
It was not until 1933, when many of the manuscripts had reverted to the archives of the Paris Conservatoire (mostly in their original bundles, for manuscripts have little value except as keepsakes, to the uninitiated), that the Symphony in C Major was seen for the first time in eighty years. Its discoverer, the biographer, D.C. Parker, brought it to the notice of Felix Weingartner, who first edited the work, then conducted the world premiere in Basle on February 26, 1935. Incidentally, the bundle which contained the symphony also held the complete autographed score of Bizet’s opera The Fair Maid of Perth.
When I called the Symphony in C Major a juvenile creation at the beginning of this article, I used the most appropriate adjective on several accounts. Bizet started work on it four days after his seventeenth birthday, on October 29th, 1855, in a spirit of adulation towards Charles Gounod, whose Symphony in D had just taken the Parisian musical world by storm. Bizet’s enthusiasm prompted him to use much of Gounod’s formal structure, and even to borrow some of his themes. He had completed the work down to the last detail of orchestration by the end of November of the same year, and then, realizing that it was too derivative for public consumption, he put it aside, as we saw. (A few years later, Bizet was still struggling to escape Gounod’s musical influence. While in Rome, he wrote, “Gounod is an entirely original composer, and as long as one imitates him, one remains on the level of a pupil”.)
Youth, plagiarism and hero-worship must be put aside with their covering epithet “juvenile”, when the merits of the piece are examined. From the point of view of technique and inspiration, the quality of writing is fully worthy of the future composer of Carmen and of The Pearl Fishers.
The first movement, marked Allegro vivo, is basically comprised of two themes; a briskly cheerful melody, and a simple, elegant counter-melody. Rhythmic vitality is the key to this movement; it runs like a clock, and yet it is never mastered by time. The themes never plod along behind a metronomic pulse – they dance to it.
The second movement, marked Larghetto, is justly famous for having within it one of the most beautiful oboe solos in the repertoire, and for having a middle section of rustic, timeless beauty, worthy of Beethoven.
The third movement, marked Scherzo: Allegro vivace, is the perfect place to mention Bizet’s orchestration. His vivid senses of texture and colour always lend his music an effect like an enhanced stereo recording. This movement is a brilliant early example; from the sheer vivacity of the Scherzo proper to the bucolic charms of the Trio.
The fourth movement, the Finale: Allegro vivace, has all the nimble delicacy which one would normally associate with Mendelssohn. It is, after all, a derivative work. The wonder of it is that this is not a pastiche, nor is it a clumsy tribute to a great composer. This movement must, in the end, be treated as a separate work of great genius.
There are still several lost orchestral works by Bizet. What would they be like?