Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)
Overture to Alcest (1767)
Gluck, together with his librettist, the poet and diplomat Ranieri da Calzabigi, is now chiefly remembered as one of the great reformers in the history of opera. Ideas that were hinted at in the first fruit of their partnership, Orfeo (1762), were voiced without reserve in Alceste (1767). Their stated aim was a ‘sublime simplicity’ (una bella sempicita) in which words, music and instrumentation should combine to help interpret the action, and not merely embellish it. The preface to Alceste, signed by Gluck but drafted by Calzabigi, is one of the most famous documents in the annals of opera:
“When I undertook to write the music for Alceste, I resolved to divest it entirely of all those abuses, introduced into it either by the mistaken vanity of singers, or by the too great complaisance of composers, which have so long disfigured Italian opera and made of the most splendid and most beautiful of spectacles the most ridiculous and wearisome. I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments. In short, I have sought to abolish all the abuses against which good sense and reason have long cried out in vain.”
The plot of Alceste loosely follows Euripides’ tragedy, and concerns Admetus, King of Pherae, whose life will only be spared if someone is willing to die in his place. Calzabigi wrote his play during the period of court mourning, following the death of Emperor Franz Stefan. To contemporary audiences, the self-sacrifice of Admetus’ wife, Alcestis, would have recalled the widowed empress Maria Theresia. Certainly Alcestis’ music is as unrelievedly sombre as Maria Theresia, whose protracted mourning lasted for fifteen years.
As Gluck himself indicated, later in the preface, an overture should “apprise the spectators of the nature of the action that is to be represented”, and the magnificently gloomy overture to Alceste does exactly that. It is the first truly tragic introduction to an opera and the ancestor of an illustrious line, from the overture to Don Giovanni to Brahms’ Tragic Overture.
© Stephen Strugnell
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Nuits d’Ete, Op 7 (1840-41)
Le spectre de la rose
Sur les lagunes
At one time people extolled the brassy brilliance of Berlioz in the belief that there was no more to his music than that. Today, however, we are equally aware of its inspired quietness. Even some of his grandest works make their most memorable effects by stealth. Thus in his Requiem the soft swishing of six pairs of cymbals in the Sanctus is as important as the outburst of the four brass bands in the Dies Irae. Yet not until he composed The Childhood of Christ did the French public recognise the restraint and chasteness of Berlioz’s output. The shock was so great that they thought he had mended his ways and changed his style - to which Berlioz patiently replied that it was only his subject he had changed.
But one thing that never altered was his devotion to song as an expression of his deepest musical feelings. The human voice inspired his most haunting and characteristic melodies, with their long spans and asymmetrical phrasing, their ability to compress a lifetime of melancholy into a few lines of music. Within his largest operas and choral works he always left space for things such as Hylas’s homesick lament in The Trojans or Marguerite’s ballad in The Damnation of Faust, whose simplicity of utterance strikes straight to the heart.
The most moving of all his songs are the six that form Les Nuits d’Ete and which he assembled as his Op 7, though as an orchestrated entity they date from later in his career than their low opus number implies. To call them a song cycle would be misleading, since they form no kind of narrative the way Schubert’s Schone Mullerin and Winterreise do. Yet they are undoubtedly unified by their subject matter, which explores aspects of romantic love, and by the fact that they are all based on poems by Berlioz’s friend Theophile Gautier, author of Histoire du Romantisme and proponent of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’.
Their structure moreover makes it essential that they be sung as a set, because only then can we appreciate that the music, after the pastoral sweetness of the opening song, sinks into an abyss of sadness from which it does not rise until (and even then somewhat uncertainly) it lands upon the ‘Unknown Island’ of the final song. The seemingly peaceful title of the work, Summer Nights, thus needs to be treated with caution. For Berlioz, such nights did not necessarily imply warmth and happy love but just as possibly the chill of a lagoon or the darkness of the grave.
Though the cycle An die Ferne Geliebte (To the distant loved one) by Berlioz’s adored Beethoven must surely have been a model for these songs, the music anticipates Mahler, Ravel, and Britten in its subtle use of the orchestra as accompanist, rather than the traditional piano. Not being a pianist, Berlioz was in this respect a pioneer, and nobody surpassed his ability to find the right instrumental shading for the mood of each song. Ideally, the music demands more than a single singer to do it justice. Berlioz himself specified different voices, though today a soprano or mezzo-soprano who has confidence in her compass and emotional range may tackle all six songs, as Maggie Teyte, Regine Crespin, and Janet Baker all did.
At any rate, the opening Villanelle demands both charm and wistfulness in its evocation of the dew-covered lilies and baskets of wild strawberries which are insufficient to conceal the transience of young love. For Berlioz - and again the singer needs to reflect the fact - the Spectre de la Rose meant more than it did to Weber in his Invitation to the Dance, though the story (of a rose returning as a spectre to haunt the dreams of the girl who wore it to her first ball) is the same.
But if the first two songs are to some extent equivocal, Sur les lagunes is not. Here the twin images of movement and sea, the ocean swell beneath the bereaved singer’s feet, are profoundly conveyed by way of the music’s grim F minor tonality, by the chillingly repeated three-note figure and the poem’s heartfelt refrain, “Ah without love to go off to sea.” As for Absence, the separation here is a matter of mountains and valleys, no less engulfing in their loneliness and in the desolation of empty space provided by the vast declamatory cadences of the melodic line.
After this grandly floating melody, Au cimetiere sinks us to the depths and to an almost tactile presence of death and doom, of white tomb and pale dove. Then, in L’ile inconnue, the nightmare passes and benign sea breezes blow us to the faithful shore where people love forever. Towards the end, however, the pace slows and a recognisable musical quotation from Absence suggests that things are perhaps less promising than they seem.
© Conrad Wilson
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Symphony No 2 in C
Finale - allegro molto vivace
Schumann began his second symphony (really his fifth large symphonic work) at a personally troubled and disturbed time. He was suffering the after-effects of a nervous breakdown and already showing some of the symptoms which were to haunt him for the rest of his tragically short life. He wrote in his household book complaining of "severe dizziness" and "singing in the ears" and, with Clara unwell too, the unhappy and telling phrase "the hypochondria of a married couple" occurs for the first time.
The symphony itself was sketched remarkably quickly. Just before the Christmas of 1845 Schumann wrote of being "struck with symphoniaca" and, in a state of feverish excitement, completed the sketch of the first movement in three days. By 28 December the sketch of the whole Symphony was complete. The orchestration took much longer and the full score was not completed until October 1846, three weeks before its Gewandhaus premiere on 5 November. Mendelssohn, rehearsing and conducting the work with his usual meticulous care, performed his last service for Schumann; he died a year to the day later, on 5 November 1847 - a coincidence not lost on the superstitious Schumann.
Reflecting, as it does, Schumann's state of mind, this is not an easy Symphony to either listen to or conduct. Writing to a conductor in 1848 Schumann himself makes this point:
“It was written in December 1845, while I was still half sick and I feel as though one must hear that in it. Nay I may say it was, so to speak, the resistance of the spirit which exercised a visible influence here and through which I sought to contend with my bodily state. The first movement is full of struggle and is very capricious and obstinate ... It was only in the last movement that I began to feel myself again and only after completing the whole work did I actually feel better. But otherwise, as I said before, it reminds me of a dark time. That my melancholy bassoon in the Adagio, written into that place with special affection, did not escape you, gave me the greatest pleasure.”
In a very compelling way, the symphony can be seen as the composer's own battle with mental instability: restless and troubled in the obsessive rhythm of the first movement, increasingly feverish in the moto perpetuo scherzo (here, as in Beethoven's Ninth, placed second to intensify the feeling of mounting frenzy), dark and haunting in the C minor Adagio and finally breaking into an uneasy victory in the Finale.
Binding the Symphony together are a number of recurrent ideas. Foremost of these is the 'motto' theme, softly intoned on the brass at the outset. This reappears at the close of both the first and second movements and sounds out triumphantly in the coda of the Finale. The solemn string scales which underpin this theme influence much of the subsequent material, notably in the scherzo's two trios. As a final dramatic touch, the strange, disquieting melody of the adagio reappears in an inspired transformation as the second subject of the Finale.
© Stephen Strugnell
Secret love stories lie hidden here as Robin Ticciati continues his season-long pairing of Berlioz and Schumann. Berlioz’s ultra-Romantic songs were first orchestrated for his mistress, the singer Marie Recio. Schumann’s symphony pays tribute to the composer’s devoted wife Clara by including a melody which sets the phrase “Take, then, these songs of mine” from Beethoven’s love songs, An die ferne geliebte. To open, music by one of Berlioz’s idols – Gluck, in tempestuous mode.