Erich Wolfgang Korngold: ``Much Ado About Nothing`` Suite

(Transcription for Violin and Piano by the composer)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is well known to classic movie buffs as the composer of scores to such adventure films as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk. However, Korngold at one time held an honored position in European opera and concert music that originated in his youth. This Wunderkind composed his first major work, the pantomime ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman), at the age of 11 and went on to write a series of successful operas, culminating in Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), completed when he was only 23.

The Austrian-born Korngold got involved in Hollywood film scoring in 1934, when Max Reinhardt arranged with Warner Brothers to make a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Korngold adapted the music of Mendelssohn for this project but then went on to compose a string of 18 original film scores — most of them “swashbucklers.” These melodramatic adventures were not far removed from the Viennese operatic stage from which Korngold had come, and his late- Romantic, Wagner/Strauss style fit them perfectly.

Back in 1919-20, Korngold had composed orchestral incidental music for a stage production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which was premiered the following year. While composing music for the play, he was also adapting some of it as a suite for orchestra, which he also adapted for violin and piano. Here are the movements:

  1. The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber. Through music, we hear the variety of thoughts running through the bride’s mind on the eve of her wedding – some sweet and lyrical, some jumbled and fearful, but ending quietly and at peace.
  2. March of the Watch (Dogbert and Verges). Very much in the style of Prokofiev, the music is a comic march, with the pretense of bravery and loyal duty. But frequently, the Watch soldiers trip over themselves or each other.
  • Intermezzo: Garden Music. Against a gently rolling piano background comes a lovely, lyrical pastorale in three parts, the second of which seems to make the violin’s melody into a bird song. Triumphantly, an echo of the opening music gives us a heroic, passionate reprise before the quiet close.
  1. Masquerade (Hornpipe). Comic and energetic comes a sailor’s dance. Both players are kept busy with their parts, which project jollity and a humorous, playful Punch-and-Judy ending to the suite.

Claude Debussy: ``Syrinx`` for Solo Flute

Claude Debussy (1863-1918) is best known to us for his musical style, which has been called “Impressionism.” In its day, the Impressionist movement was considered revolutionary Its artists and composers famously rejected traditional forms and procedures in favor of more personal expressions of “feelings” and sketchy outlines. Suggestion, rather than definition pointed the way. In music, the classical forms and ensembles were mostly put aside, although some composers, notably Debussy, had a gentlemanly respect for older composers of their day (e.g., Franck and Saint-Saens). We even find some chamber music sprinkled through has legacy, notably his last three completed works, which were a cycle of three sonatas (for cello, flute, and violin), each partnered (in classic tradition) with a piano.

The origin of the flute solo, Syrinx, was a 1912 play, Psyche, by Gabriel Mourey. The solo was to be part of incidental music, which Claude Debussy (1863-1918) planned but never wrote. The composer dedicated the piece to Louis Fleury, who premiered it in December 1913. The original title was Flûte de Pan, but that was changed because it duplicated the title of the opening song of Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis. “Syrinx” means pan pipes, and the legend goes that Syrinx was an Arcadian girl whom Pan pursued and changed into a bunch of reeds, becoming the pipes of Pan.

Louis Fleury, French flautist and pupil of Paul Taffanel at the Paris Conservatoire. Claude Debussy dedicated Syrinx to him in 1913, and Fleury performed the première.

Nino Rota

Nino Rota: Trio for Flute, Violin, and Piano

One of the best-loved 20th-century Italian composers was Nino Rota (1911-1979). He composed in every genre, vocal and instrumental, concert stage and film, and his personality was as cherished as his music. Rota resisted following new trends (like serialism in its various systems). Instead, he composed from the heart, and that is what has communicated to listeners.

Rota was a child prodigy. At the age of 11 he composed an oratorio, which was performed in his home town, Milan, and in Paris. He attended the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia in Rome, graduating at the ae of 18. At the urging of conductor Arturo Toscanini, Rota moved to the United States in 1930 to attend the Curtis Institute (Philadelphia) on scholarship. Returning to Milan in 1932, Rota studied literature, earning a degree in 1937.

Then began a long career of teaching in higher education and composing “serious” music and movie scores (chiefly with director Federico Felini). From 1950 to 1978 Rota was Director of the Liceo Musicale in Bari. The year following his retirement, Rota died, leaving a sizeable catalog of music for the concert hall and the theater.

Completed in 1958, Rota’s Trio for Flute, Violin and Piano begins with a splashy toccata-like display as its opening theme. By contrast, the lyrical second theme is led by the flute. The first theme dominates a development, which pours into an abbreviated reprise of the movement’s opening.

Andantino sostenuto marks the central movement of the Trio, which opens with a slow, smooth reminiscence of the first movement. This evolves into new a complex of ideas that seem to separate the instrument for a time, proceeding into a more static, dreamy atmosphere, which concludes the Andante.

An almost comic gallop opens the Allegro vivace finale, and we are immediately alerted to the virtuosic demands of the piano part. The flute plays a contrasting theme before the ensemble returns to the galloping idea for the final roundup and the trio’s farewell flourish.

Franz Schubert: Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat, D. 929

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote only two complete piano trios.  Both date from 1827, and the second, in E-flat, was completed in November.  This would place it just after Winterreise and exactly one year before the composer’s early death.  The trio was very successful.  Schubert probably heard several performances of the work, and it was published by Probst in Leipzig in late 1828.

This trio has sometimes been called “Schumannesque.”  Indeed, Robert Schumann himself wrote a commentary on it, characterizing the first two movements:  “The first movement . . . is eloquent of extreme anger and passionate longing; the Adagio [actually Andante con moto] . . . a sigh, rising to spiritual anguish.”  Schumann summed up the work as “masculine and dramatic.”

Schumann’s colorful interpretation is only one point of view.  Alfred Einstein’s conception was that this work, alongside the “Trout” Quintet, represents “the purest blend of the ‘sociable spirit’ with that of true chamber music.”  The “sociable spirit” is easy to grasp in this work.  It appears prominently in reminiscences of popular art songs and folksongs such as might have been heard during a “Schubertiad,” an informal Schubert Evening in a friend’s home.  In this connection, the theme of the Andante was reputedly a Swedish folksong Schubert had heard during a musical evening at the home of the Frolich sisters.

Epilogue . . .

The modern-day “adventure” or “action” movie is roughly the equivalent of lyric-dramatic opera around 150 years ago (the “Golden Age.”) Some composers were eminently cut out for this; others were not. A few recent composers have worked successfully in both film and concert music; two are represented in this concert. Erich Korngold composed successful scores for 19 swashbuckling adventure movies. However, immediately following completion of each film score, he would set to work on a chamber-music composition. Nino Rota integrated his work in films with that of concert music – scarcely admitting any difference between them. Between 1933 and 1979, Rota composed the music for 171 movies, notably in collaboration with Federico Fellini, but also for two movies in the American Godfather film cycle.

Claude Debussy composed a respectable body of concert music and one treasured opera, Pelléas et Melisande, which is still in the repertoire. Alas, he died nearly a decade before sound films were introduced. 

Franz Schubert tried to produce about 20 serious and comic operas. None were notably successful. His true place was in intimate home gatherings where he played the piano in his chamber works and songs. These events were called “Schubertiads.”

Program notes by Dr. Michael Fink