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Andrews University Symphony Orchestra
February 24, 2001
Romantic Masterworks

The three romantic masterworks heard on tonight’s concert all brought triumph to their creators in the end, but had circumstances in the life of each composer not been altered, we would likely not have these works today.

Verdi: Overture to Nabucco | Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in d minor, Op. 120 |
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor, Op. 18

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Overture to Nabucco

After a long apprenticeship in the provincial towns of Italy, the young Giuseppe Verdi had finally reached Milan, experienced success in the production of his first opera, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, at La Scala in 1839, and with that success a commission for three more operas.  Tragedy struck, and added to the loss of his two children, was the illness and death of his beloved wife, Margherita in July, 1840.  Despite the composer’s emotional devastation, La Scala demanded the commission of a comic opera for the fall season be fulfilled.  Not surprisingly, the ensuing work Un giorno di regno was not a success and was withdrawn after only one performance.  Verdi vowed to never compose music again.  However, Merelli, La Scala’s impresario, persuaded Verdi, against his will, to take home a libretto for Nabucodonosor.  In the composer’s words:

On the way home I felt a kind of indefinable malaise, a very deep sadness, a distress that filled my heart.  I got home and with an almost violent gesture threw the manuscript on the table, standing upright in front of it.  The book had opened in falling on the table; without knowing how, I gazed at the page that lay before me, and read this line: Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate.  I ran through the verses that followed and was much moved, all the more because they were almost a paraphrase from the Bible (Psalm 137: By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion), the reading of which had always delighted me.

While still determined not to compose, Verdi felt compelled to set to music the dramatic conflict of the Hebrew slaves and their Babylonian captors.  Following the triumphant premier of Nabucco at La Scala, March 9, 1842, Va Pensiero, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves, was heard on the streets–overnight becoming a symbol of the Italian quest for liberty.  One of Verdi’s great operatic innovations, demonstrated most effectively in this work, is the importance he gives the chorus.  The result is to make Nabucco not only a drama of people, but a drama of a people.

The overture, written at the last moment, is a dramatic assortment of themes taken from the opera–primarily choruses and themes trumpeting military exercises to come.  The stroke of genius, however, is the opening chorale on the lower brass, vividly symbolizing the steadfastness of the Hebrews in the face of Babylonian persecution.

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Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 4 in d minor, op. 120

Ziemlich langsam-Leghaft
Romanze: Ziemlich langsam
Scherzo: Leghaft

Prior to his marriage in 1840, Robert Schumann had composed primarily for the piano. With enthusiastic encouragement from his wife, Clara, in 1841 he threw much of his creative energy into orchestral works. His first symphony, Spring, was completed in a few days in January of 1841 in Leipzig. Encouraged by the positive reception of the work’s premiere conducted by Felix Mendelssohn, Schumann continued headlong into other orchestral projects, including a symphonic suite, and a work for piano and orchestra. He offered his D minor symphony to a packed audience on December 6, 1841, but this work’s premiere had the misfortune of being programmed alongside works composed and performed by Franz Liszt. At the time Liszt’s presence was so formidable that nothing else could survive his dominating personality—certainly not something as intellectual as a symphony. The cool reception to Schumann’s work caused him to withdraw it for some 10 years. In the meantime he completed two other symphonies which were numbered 2 and 3. In 1851, Schumann, now music director for the city of Düsseldorf, brought out the abandoned piece. He revised it, particularly providing extensive re-orchestration, and enjoyed the successful premiere of the reincarnation of the work, now Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120, on March 1, 1853.

First entitled Symphonic Fantasy, the work is significant in the history of the symphony. Instead of the traditional independent movements of the classical symphony, this composition forms an inter-connected whole, written to be performed with little or no break. Listen for the reappearance and reworking of principal themes throughout the work. The introductory theme for strings and bassoons also appears in the second movement; the principal theme of the first movement is also prominent in the finale; the flowing violin solo of the Romanze appears recast in the trio of the scherzo.

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Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor, op. 18

Adagio sostenuto
Allegro scherzando

Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1954 edition) predicted: “The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favour;” nothing could be farther from the truth in 2001. Rachmaninoff’s music is greatly loved by pianists and audiences alike. We of the twenty-first century love our piano concertos–that great dialoging/dueling of piano and orchestra—and there’s rarely a lack of enthusiasm for another hearing of “Rach II.”

Composed ten years after Rachmaninoff’s first piano concerto, Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 was nearly  not written. In 1897, the twenty-four year old composer suffered a severe blow to his creative confidence. The premiere of his first symphony was a total fiasco. The orchestra was badly prepared and the critics were merciless.  Fellow composer and critic César Cui wrote, “If there were a conservatory in hell, Rachmaninoff would get the first prize for his Symphony, so devilish are the discords he places before us.”  These events caused the composer to fall into such a black depression that he was unable to compose for two years.  He even went so far as to destroy the score of the symphony (fortunately the piece survived through the preservation of manuscript parts). Rachmaninoff had promised to write a second piano concerto for the people of London who had so appreciated his first, but his melancholia prevented it. Fortunately, friends put him in touch with a Dr. Dahl, a psychologist who sought to restore the composer’s self-confidence through hypnosis. The treatment was no doubt enhanced by the fact the doctor was also an amateur musician. In a darkened room he would repeat over and over such phrases as “You will begin your will work with great facility...the concerto will be of excellent quality.” The treatment was a success and by the fall of 1900 the composer’s creativity was again flourishing. The second and third movements were completed and he performed them to great acclaim at a Moscow concert. This gave him the confidence to complete the first movement by the next spring. In gratitude to Dr. Dahl, the work was dedicated to him.

After an unusual introduction consisting of a series of increasingly intense, rich chords from the piano, the work unfolds in a most gratifying way, full of wonderful dialog between piano and orchestra (no dueling here), soaring melodies, and refined turns of harmonies. After the reflective second movement, the finale brings us to the triumphant final statement in C major. Although the concerto is essentially melancholy, it ends on a note of affirmation.

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Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2001.
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Program notes home Alphabetical Index of Composers Chronological Index of Concerts