PROGRAM NOTES: Obsession • Feb 1, 2020

Obsession: Mendelssohn & Berlioz

Full Program Notes

Program notes by Vincent Osborn ©2019

Sponsored by Pachel Foundation

MICHAEL DAUGHERTY Red Cape Tango from Metropolis Symphony (1993)
BORN: April 28,1954, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
WORLD PREMIERE: October 1, 1993, at the Palace Theatre, Albany; David Alan Miller conducting the Albany Symphony Orchestra

Michael Daugherty first came to national attention when Snap! – Blue Like an Orange (1987) won a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award in 1989. His use of poly-rhythmic counterpoint mixed with popular music of his youth has become a characteristic of his compositional style. He grew up playing keyboards in jazz, funk and rock bands. He went on to study at North Texas State University (now University of North Texas) (1972-76), the Manhattan School of Music (1976-78) and Yale University (DMA 1986).

Instead of striving to impress fellow composers and musicians, Daugherty’s intent is to ‘keep the people in mind.’ Using iconic figures in American pop culture as inspiration seems to be a preoccupation of his throughout his career: the opera Jackie O, Route 66, Dead Elvis (in which a bassoon soloist assumes the role of an Elvis impersonator, and which the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra performed in 2016 with bassoonist Jefferson Campbell as Elvis) and many other works. Daugherty states: “For me icons serve as a way to have an emotional reason to compose a new work. I get ideas for my compositions by browsing through secondhand book stores, antique shops, and small towns that I find driving on the back roads of America. The icon can be an old postcard, magazine, photograph, knick-knack, matchbook, piece of furniture or roadmap. Like Ives and Mahler, I use icons in my music to provide the listener and performer with a layer of reference. However, one does not need the reference of the icon to appreciate my music. It is merely one level among many in the musical, contrapuntal fabric of my compositions.”

Red Cape Tango is the fifth and last movement of his Superman-inspired Metropolis Symphony (the other movements are: Lex, Krypton, MXYZPTLK and Oh, Lois!). The first four movements involve things connected with Superman, but in this final movement Red Cape Tango, Superman is in the spotlight as Daugherty imagines music for Superman’s fight to the death with the super-villain Doomsday (created by Dan Jurgens), who is credited with killing Superman in the 1992 Death of Superman comic. Daugherty provides this description:

The principal melody, first heard in the bassoon, is derived from the medieval Latin death chant Dies irae. This dance of death is conceived as a tango, presented at times like a concertino comprising string quintet, brass trio, bassoon, chimes, and castanets. The tango rhythm, introduced by the castanets and heard later in the finger cymbals, undergoes a gradual timbral transformation, concluding dramatically with crash cymbals, brake drum, and timpani. The orchestra alternates between legato and staccato sections to suggest a musical bullfight.

HISTORY: The only other music of Michael Daugherty previously played by the DSSO was the fourth movement of Metropolis Symphony (Oh, Lois!) on September 24, 2005 (the opening work of the season). Markand Thakar conducted.

INSTRUMENTATION: Two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (two finger cymbals, two cymbals, chimes, snare drum, brake drum, castanets, marimba, tam-tam, tambourine), piano and strings.

FELIX MENDELSSOHN Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64
BORN: February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, Germany
DIED: November 4, 1847, in Leipzig
WORK COMPOSED: 1838-1844
WORLD PREMIERE: March 13, 1845, in Leipzig; Niels Gade conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra; Ferdinand David, soloist

When a violinist needs to choose a solo to perform with an orchestra the list can be quite lengthy. Nearly every composer has taken on the challenge of writing a concerto for the instrument hoping that it will achieve lasting success. The famous violinist Joseph Joachim told the guests at his 75th birthday party in 1906, “The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven’s. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.” Indeed, Mendelssohn’s concerto was an instant success at its premiere and soon considered one of the greatest violin concertos in the repertoire. It is the Mount Everest for the aspiring virtuoso violinist.

Mendelssohn was appointed principal conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835 and soon named his childhood friend Ferdinand David as the orchestra’s concertmaster. In a letter dated July 30, 1838, Mendelssohn wrote to David, “I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter. One in E minor runs through my head, the beginning of which gives me no peace.” But then why did it take six years to complete? Most likely the reason for the delay falls into the simple category of ‘life getting in the way of life.’ Nevertheless, Mendelssohn and David maintained regular correspondence during those years with the result being the first violin concerto that was composed with the input of a professional violinist, influencing many future collaborations. The manuscript is dated September 16, 1844, with Mendelssohn continuing to seek advice from David until the premiere on March 13, 1845.

The standard form for concertos is three movements, fast-slow-fast, to which Mendelssohn adhered. However, he also included innovative and interesting features that were new to their time. One distinct aspect comes at the very opening of the work; the normal practice would use an extended introduction by the orchestra previewing the major themes of the first movement, but Mendelssohn has the soloist enter almost immediately. Another innovation of this concerto is that it is through-composed, meaning all three movements are connected melodically and harmonically, and they are played attacca (there are no pauses between movements). In the days of Mozart and Beethoven it was common for composers to leave the cadenza unwritten and the soloist would be required to improvise it. However, that practice became a rare occurrence after Mendelssohn’s concerto as the cadenzas are written out (although we might suspect that David was responsible for creating the cadenza in this concerto). Mendelssohn created a challenge for future composers to think of the concerto as a whole instead of three separate sections.

In 1989 the autograph manuscript of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto was found in a library in Kraków, Poland (which can be found on, that lead to some skepticism about the published 1862 edition. The tempo marking of the first movement is written Allegro con fuoco rather than the more commonly used Allegro molto appassionato. This informs the performer about the character of the piece. The former means ‘with fire’ and the latter means ‘a lot of passion’, two very different characters indeed. Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is frequently performed and because each soloist brings to it their own personality, every performance is fresh and enjoyable. In the words of musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey, “I rather envy the enjoyment of anyone who should hear the Mendelssohn [violin] concerto for the first time…”

HISTORY: Tonight’s performance of this concerto is the orchestra’s tenth on the Masterworks Series. The soloists in the previous performances were Nathen Milstein (1940), Patricia Travers (1946), Mischa Elman (1952), Joyce Flissler (1961), Fritz de Jonge (1968), Miriam Fried (1978), Stephanie Chase (19890 Livia Sohn (1998), and Erin Aldridge (on January 19, 2008).

INSTRUMENTATION: Two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings

HECTOR BERLIOZ Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
BORN: December 11, 1803, in La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France
DIED: March 8, 1869, in Paris
WORLD PREMIERE: December 5, 1830, in the Salle du Conservatoire in Paris; François- Antoine Habeneck conducting a large orchestra comprising members of the orchestras of the Nouveautés, Théâtre-Italien, and Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. Berlioz revised the piece considerably after the premiere, and the new version (which is nearly always heard today) was unveiled on December 9, 1832, again with Habeneck conducting.

Hector Berlioz was born in a small town near the French Alps and didn’t discover music until he was twelve and learned flute, guitar and taught himself to play drums (by that age Mozart had written about 8 symphonies, numerous violin and piano sonatas, four piano concertos and various other works). He left home at the age of 18 and moved to Paris to follow in his father’s footsteps and study medicine. After another five years, at 23, he finally enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire and four years later he redefined orchestral music with his composition Symphonie fantastique by creating a programmatic and impressionistic work that was decades ahead of its time, only six years after the great Beethoven finished his ground-breaking Ninth Symphony!

In 1827 Berlioz experienced a Shakespeare play for the first time, a production of Hamlet. He left the theater head over heels in love with the Irish actress who played Ophelia, Harriet Smithson. He sent her numerous love letters but none were answered and she left Paris without them ever meeting. Talk about unrequited love! The full title of Berlioz’s work is: Symphonie fantastique: Épisode de la vie d’un artiste, en cinq parties (Fantastical Symphony: An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts). Most consider this an autobiographical symphony written to express his love for Smithson. It’s the story of a gifted artist with a very lively imagination, who is in the depths of despair because of an unrequited love, poisoning himself with opium and the effects of the drug. Leonard Bernstein described it as the first example of psychedelic music. “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”

There were mixed reactions at the premiere on December 5, 1830. Perhaps the music was a bit too much for the Parisian public, but most disappointing for Berlioz was that Smithson did not attend. After the premiere Berlioz won the Prix de Rome competition, which earned him national recognition and a subsidy to study in Rome for two years. Symphonie fantastique underwent some major revisions during that time. After returning to Paris in 1832 Berlioz arranged a second premiere and sent Smithson tickets for the best seats in the house. She soon realized that the music was about her and recognizing the talent of Berlioz, agreed to finally meet him. He began to woo her and then out of desperation he produced a vial containing a lethal dose of opium and swallowed it before her eyes. She became hysterical and agreed to marry him, after which he produced a vial with the antidote and swallowed that. They married in 1833 and by 1840 their relationship was failing. Harriet was jealous of Berlioz’s fame and her own decline as an actress took its toll. Her health deteriorated and she began to drink heavily. Although Berlioz remarried he continued to visit and care for Harriet until her death in 1854.

Symphonie fantastique “tells the story of an artist’s self-destructive passion for a beautiful woman. The symphony describes his obsession and dreams, tantrums and moments of tenderness, and visions of suicide and murder, ecstasy and despair.” Berlioz himself wrote the program notes, which he describes as “indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic outline of the work”:

The composer’s intention has been to develop, insofar as they contain musical possibilities, various situations in the life of an artist. The outline of the instrumental drama, which lacks the help of words, needs to be explained in advance. The following program should thus be considered as the spoken text of an opera, serving to introduce the musical movements, whose character and expression it motivates.

Part One: Reveries, Passions—The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a celebrated writer calls ‘the surge of passions,’ sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being of whom he has dreamed, and he falls hopelessly in love with her. Through a bizarre trick of fancy, the beloved image always appears in the mind’s eye of the artist linked to a musical thought whose character, passionate but also noble and reticent, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.

The melodic image and its human model pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. This is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first allegro. The passage from this state of melancholic reverie, interrupted by a few fits of unmotivated joy, to one of delirious passion, with its movements of fury and jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolation—all this is the subject of the first movement.

Part Two: A Ball—The artist finds himself in the most varied situations—in the midst of THE TUMULT OF A FESTIVITY, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but wherever he is, in the city, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and troubles his soul.

Part Three: Scene in the Fields—Finding himself in the country at evening, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue [a ranz des vaches is a tune sung or played by a Swiss herdsman]. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently disturbed by the wind, certain hopes he has recently found reason to entertain—all these come together in giving his heart an unaccustomed calm, and in giving a brighter color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that soon he will no longer be alone. . . . But what if she were deceiving him! . . . This mixture of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the ADAGIO. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. . . . The distant sound of thunder . . . solitude . . . silence.

Part Four: March to the Scaffold—Having become certain that his love goes unrecognized, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed the woman he had loved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing HIS OWN EXECUTION. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled noise of heavy steps gives way without mediation to the most noisy clangor. At the end of the march, the first four measures of the IDÉE FIXE reappear like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part Five: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath—He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful assembly of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, all come together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, outbursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and reticence; now it is no more than the tune of an ignoble dance, trivial and grotesque: it is she, come to join the sabbath. . . A roar of joy at her arrival. . . . She takes part in the devilish orgy. . . . Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the DIES IRAE, SABBATH ROUND-DANCE. The sabbath round and the Diesirae combined.

Symphonie fantastique is an achievement that is virtually inconceivable and a huge leap forward in music. Berlioz was a virtuoso whose instrument was the orchestra. His “Treatise on Instrumentation” continues to be a valuable tool for composers today. Berlioz began his formal music studies in a country with minimal symphonic tradition and within four years he created a masterpiece that is as fresh and exciting as it was nearly two hundred years ago.

HISTORY: This work was performed five times previously by the DSSO, once each by the Orchestra’s five previous Music Directors: Hermann Herz (1955), Joseph Hawthorne (1977), Taavo Virkhaus (1985), Yong-yan Hu (1995), and Markand Thakar (October 16, 2010), (Yong-yan Hu led the fourth movement (March to the Scaffold, on a Family Halloween Concert on 1997).

INSTRUMENTATION: Two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes (one doubling English horn), two clarinets (one doubling E-flat clarinet), four bassoons, four horns, two cornets, two trumpets, three trombones, two tubas, four timpani, percussion (cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, chimes), two harps and strings