|Texts on Music
BRUCKNER'S FIFTH SYMPHONY
A SYMPHONIC COSMOS
SOME PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON SCHUBERT'S SYMPHONY NR.9 "THE GREAT"
ANTON BRUCKNER AND THE NEW WORLD
ON FACING MAHLER'S SYMPHONY NO. 9
"LE NOZZE DI FIGARO" - A MUSICAL MIRACLE
BRUCKNER'S FIFTH SYMPHONY - A SYMPHONIC COSMOS
Among all nine symphonies by Anton Bruckner, the Fifth is arguably his most unusual, complex, challenging - and yet also his most
rewarding symphonic creation. With a duration of close to 80 minutes it is of unheard proportions, of unparallel artistic density
and of a compelling inner logic, that stretches from the opening soft pizzicati in cellos and double basses to the crowning
apotheosis of the final brass chorale.
Bruckner never heard a performance of what he called his "contrapuntal masterpiece". He had to miss the world premiere
in Graz conducted by Franz Schalk on 9 April 1894 because of illness. At any rate, Schalk at that time conducted a distorted version, with
countless changes in the instrumentation, a shortened Scherzo, a cut of 122 (!) bars in the Finale as well as an additional off-stage
brass band with cymbals and triangle for the end. What a crime to our ears of today...
This symphony is without any doubt the work of an uncompromising individualist. Much has been written about Bruckner's affiliation
to Catholicism, but I personally hear in this symphony first and foremost a creative artists facing and questioning the transcendental
borders of human existence. This artistic search sometimes shows itself as a simple dialectic process, but more often than not
also in soul wrenching outcries of doubt and despair, expressed through agonizing dissonances that give way to resolution only at the
But let me start somewhere else in my own personal story with Anton Bruckner. I was born in Linz, Austria, the center of all Bruckner
veneration, and so literally from kindergarten on it was virtually impossible not to be surrounded by his music. At the city´s concert hall
(the "Brucknerhaus") for instance, at the beginning of every single performance the audience is being called to the seats with the Chorale
theme from the Finale of his Fifth symphony. So from my earliest experiences as a boy on, Bruckner 5 was somehow subconsciously
part of every concert that I heard. However only years later, after maturing musically and personally did I start to understand the enormous
inner strength and artistic substance hidden in this music, going way beyond the mere sonic impact of its mesmerizing sounds.
Historically, this music evolves from a long tradition going back to Baroque times. The choice of key, for instance, from Bach on always
carried significant non musical implications. D Major, as an example, was considered to be an aristocratic key (after the Italian word "re", equivalent
to D, for king) or F Major the key for natural beauty such as in Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony". B flat Major, as in the case of this symphony, is the symbol for the Catholic trinity of Faith, Hope and Love. The same historic referrences apply to Bruckner's approach to form in this work: Even though
the work is extended to nearly 80 minutes of duration, it uses the same form model that Haydn established in his early symphonies: A slow
introduction followed by an Allegro, a contemplative second movement, a dance (Scherzo or Minuet) and a rousing Finale Allegro.
But let`s have a look at the symphony a bit more specifically now:
The first movement starts with a slowly moving scale in the lower strings, above which a sighing motif consisting of so-called "Palestrina suspensions" is heard. Unexpectedly the brass enters with a majestic upward moving signal, followed by a "Generalpause" - an extended moment of silence.
It is important to note that for Bruckner silence is as much a conceptual element as sound itself and is often used to juxtapose dynamically
contrasting blocks of sound. Later, in the early 20th century, Leos Janacek would use the same structural device in his operas. Bruckner extended
Haydn's classical model in the first movement by employing a 3rd principal theme in the exposition (instead of the customary 2),
an idea which was first used by Schubert in his 9th Symphony "The Great".
In the beginning of the second movement we hear the depiction of utter hopelessness. From a letter that Bruckner wrote in February
1875 while he was working on this movement we know that he went through a phase of depression at the time, after his 3rd and 4th symphony
had been denied a performance. It is easy to catch this atmosphere listening to the lonely oboe tune, accompanied by plugged strings only.
Conducting this movement actually poses quite a challenege as the rhythm of the oboe is in 4, against which the strings play in a thythm of 6. Later
in the movement different sections of the orchestra play in 2 against 3, 4 against 6 or sometimes even 6 against 8, so that is becomes a tough
decision for the conductor which group to abandon(!) The second theme in this movement, by contrast, is a lush hymn for which great sensuality
and beauty of sound is required.
With the third movement it becomes especially apparent how Bruckner has enlarged Haydn's model: Whereas the standard structure of such
a movement used to be A B A - Trio - A B A, Bruckner infused the principle of sonata form into it and thus created A B A D (development section)
A B A Coda - Trio and a repeat of everything up to the Trio. It is also fascinating to see that this movement starts with exactly the same 3 notes as
the second movement, only played much faster now: Propelled from the earlier despair into the frenzy of a whirling Scherzo dance.
The Finale is what lifts this symphony up to the sublime.
Legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler once labelled this movement as the "greatest Finale in the entire orchestra literature, including
Beethoven 9". In fact it is hard to resist the overwhelming impact of this music. Beethoven 9 is a point of referrence for Bruckner as well, as he
continues the tradition of quoting each preceding movement at the outset of the Finale. The main section of this movement, quite different from the
Beethoven model, is a mighty double fugue - meaning that two different themes are piled on top of each other simultaneously.
Bruckner had given up composing for six years when he was in his thirties to study counterpoint in Vienna with Simon Sechter, and in this movement
he uses all imaginable possibilties of theme manipulation that he had learned there. Without intending to become too technical, these include inversion, canon, transposition, extension, fraction, and stretta of the original themes, to name a few. I think it is fair to say that since Bach this level of
polyphonic writing had not been reached.
The Finale builds and builds until at the very end the entire brass section comes in with a final rendition of the Chorale theme (the same that sent me
to my seat as a boy in Linz...) and the symphony finishes in life affirming jubilation.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to invite you to suspend time for the next 80 minutes, to join us in a mystical journey into great artistic depths,
to open yourself to Bruckner - and to be rewarded with the blessings of this incomparable masterwork.
Christoph Campestrini, June 2012 (all rights reserved)
SOME PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON
SCHUBERT'S SYMPHONY NR.9 "THE GREAT"
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to this performance of Franz Schubert's Symphony Nr.9 with the Orchestre symphonique de Québec. This is a work especially close to my heart, and I would like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts about it with you.
Schubert 9 is a huge, epic work and at the same time a most individual, personal statement of a composer at the hight of his artistic accomplishment. It is rooted in the structure of the 18th century classical symphony, but at the same time it opens the door wide into the Romantic world of the 19th century. Schubert died without ever having heard this work, and because of its link to the Romantic symphony it is an especially touching coincidence, that after Schubert's death it was re-discovered by Schumann and then recommended to Mendelssohn, who conducted the posthumous world premiere of it.
It is a work full of melancholy and joy, drama and and lyricism, simplicity and complexity all at once. In its character it is closely connected to the city of Vienna (which also happens to be my home city), containing numerous Austrian dances such as Ländler, Waltzes, Galopps and Marches.
The structure of the first movement already shows an absolutely new invention in symphonic writing, featuring three instead of the customary two principal themes. (This practice, by the way, was later carried on by Anton Bruckner in his symphonies). At the very beginning, the symphony starts with a simple melody played by 2 French Horns, which later returns triumphantly at the end of the movement. Schubert' s use of orchestration shows another great innovation: In addition to the highly unusual use of 2 French Horns playing by themselves at the beginning, he is also one of the first composers to employ trombones in all movements of a symphony. Previously trombones were used mostly as enhancement for climaxes, but in this symphony they are used to a much larger extent, especially strikingly in a misterious piano passage in the first movement.
The second movement, Andante con moto, to me conveys the image of a ballerina dancing while her eyes are filled with tears. The opening theme is being played by the solo oboe and is one of the many examples, in which Schubert succeeds in depicting human loneliness so touchingly. The atmosphere is similar to the one in "Winterreise", his late song cycle about taking farewell, which was written at about the same time. Another reference to Schubert's Lieder (of which he wrote more than 600) can be found in the 2nd theme of this movement, a song without words in consoling major tonality. About 2/3 into the movement the music suddenly builds up to a tremendous climax, a catastrophy of Shostakovichan proportions. After a prolonged moment of silence (a so-called "Generalpause"), the music recaptures again and fades away melancholically at the end of the movement.
The third movement is a gigantic Scherzo, enlarged from a simple dance to extended symphonic proportions. Outside Vienna one can find places called "Heuriger", which are cosy little inns serving wine of the year at tables overlooking the vineyards and the nearby city. (Just as a side note, Vienna is the only European capital that grows wine inside its city borders). In these places to this very day, music like in this Scherzo is being played for the guests. It is characterized by spirited dance rhythms performed with ever so slight tempo modifications in order to convey its "gemütlich" character. For the performer it is a special challenge to achieve the lightness and at the same time the flexibility required in this style. The trio section of this movement, by contrast, is a lyrical chorale played by the woodwinds in which Schubert touches us with the most beautful harmonic turns imaginable.
After Schumann had discovered this symphony, he published an enthusiastic article about it, in which he discussed the proportions of this work, making the famous reference to its "heavenly lengths". This pertains in particular to the last movement (Allegro vivace), which with 1154 bars is one of the longest ever written. This brings up the essential question for a conductor how to deal with the many repeat signs prescribed in this work. My personal approach to this question is to examine a repeat for its dramatic impact to the entire work and to spare the stamina of the orchestra by playing it only where it is essential for the overall dramatic context. This last movement, for instance, I usually perform without any repeats.
In the middle of it, seemingly out of nowhere, Schubert quotes a melody from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. This is relevant since at the time it was considered the greatest challenge for anybody attempting to write a symphony, to step out of the shadow of Beethoven. Schubert in this work by all means has found a particularily individual way of doing that.
Throughout this movement a single musical theme (a motif d'appel) is continuously propelled forward. It builds and builds until at the very end it comes back being transformed into 4 low notes played by the entire orchestra. This is an especially striking moment and whenever I conduct it I am reminded by the remarks of the eminent old conductor Josef Krips, who labelled this passage as "Schubert knocking at the doors of heaven". The symphony finally finishes triumphantly, rounding off a cathartic journey that had started 55 minutes before with a simple tune in the French Horns.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is our pleasure inviting you to explore together with us the miraculous world of Schubert`s Ninth Symphony.
ANTON BRUCKNER AND THE NEW WORLD
I still vividly remember a performance of Bruckner's extensive Eighth Symphony that I heard at Carnegie Hall in the late 1980s. It was Herbert von Karajan's last visit to New York with the Vienna Philharmonic, and this concert turned out to be one of the most outstanding artistic experiences imaginable, something the German language refers to as a "Sternstunde." It was the perfect blend of a conductor's lifelong experience with a composer close to his heart and a world class orchestra's total dedication in response. There was a sense of the extraordinary in the air.
Still under the spell of this incomparable musical performance, I walked down the aisles of the hall and overheard the following comments from a middle aged New York couple to each other: "Mesmerizing conductor – fantastic orchestra – but does this music come from another planet?"
I am still not sure whether this comment on Bruckner was meant as a compliment or criticism, but it certainly played along the lines of a cliché held up for many years, suggesting that performing Anton Bruckner in North America was considered to be risky in terms of audience acceptance and success.
Within recent years of course this has changed drastically. These days there are many outstanding and well-attended Bruckner performances all over the United States and Canada. At the same time, however, it is still worth asking why it took a longer time for Bruckner's music to be accepted outside the immediate cultural environment in which it was composed.
Generally speaking, composers can be grouped in two categories; in the first, the composer's work may have an immediate appeal on listeners at a first hearing, but with each new encounter the fascination constantly diminishes (no names will be cited for this group). Bruckner certainly belongs to the opposite category (along with Joseph Haydn, by the way) in that his music does not necessarily reveal itself to a full extent at first hearing, but with each new exposure the fascination keeps growing.
Now what are some of the components that make this music so different?
For one, it is the sheer scope of Bruckner' symphonies. At a time when we are used to musical jingles of thirty seconds in TV or internet commercials, it can become a challenge following a musical structure of up to eighty minutes in several movements. These symphonies are built like Gothic cathedrals. From each angle of the church the perspective and the relationship to the center (or the main motif in Bruckner) changes considerably. So only by walking through all the naves of the church (or by listening to all movements of the symphony) can we understand the structure of the entire artwork.
There has always been much talk about the religious quality of Bruckner's music. It is true that as a person he was a devout Catholic and that large parts of his school education at the St. Florian monastery were of religious content. Looking at his symphonies, however, I feel that there are also many other sources of inspiration that are often overlooked.
There is, for instance, a huge amount of Upper Austrian folk music. Bruckner himself had worked for many years as a dance fiddler in local inns to prop up his moderate income as a schoolteacher. This job was called "Bratlgeiger", which literally means a violinist playing in exchange for little more than a meat dish (!). During these years he familiarized himself with an extended repertory of local dances that later became the source for some of the second subjects in the outer movements of his symphonies. In this he followed the role model of Schubert or even Lanner and Strauss, who also managed to imbue simple dance rhythms with a more melancholic and sometimes even dramatic side.
Another important source of inspiration was the idea of nature. From the nineteenth-century perspective, nature was the projection of a serene, idealistic paradise that stood in contrast to human imperfection. We find an example for this at the second subject in the first movement of his Fourth Symphony, which Bruckner referred to as the "Tsih-tsih-beh" call of the great titmouse ("Kohlmeise"). This symbol for innocence comes back throughout the entire movement.
Without plunging into the depths of psychoanalysis, I think it is still safe to say that Bruckner as an individual experienced a sense of alienation from society throughout his life. As an Upper Austrian conversing in discernible dialect, he never became part of the aristocratic circles so essential for artists in his new home town of Vienna. In addition, due to the stark opposition to his work from fellow composer Johannes Brahms and music critic Eduard Hanslick, and on a personal level due to his unwanted status as a lifelong bachelor, the theme of an outsider in opposition to society rings clearly in many of his works.
In this sense, the incredibly dissonant extension of his harmonies (technically speaking, by adding sevenths, ninths and elevenths to chords that traditionally used to consist only of thirds and fifths) can be easily read as the outcry of an isolated outsider. Because of these enormously dissonant harmonies, it also becomes understandable why at the end of so many movements he keeps repeating the tonic (or original) harmony for so many bars on end. This is almost as if to reassure himself over and over again that a resolution is possible to the earlier horrendous dissonances and that, yes, all can be well in the end.
Another important trademark of Bruckner's music is his extensive use of polyphony. The basic hierarchy in the structure of a romantic symphony usually consists of a predominant melody and a subordinate accompaniment. Bruckner, on the other hand, uses several simultaneous ongoing lines of equal importance, an approach with roots in Palestrina and Bach. Throughout many of his adult years he still took counterpoint lessons with Simon Sechter in Vienna, and some of these exercises eventually found their way into his symphonies.
The emotional core of his symphonies is often found in the slow second movements. At this point I feel he often shares his most intimate feelings. A little motif (such as the oboe in the Sixth Symphony) can keep coming back with ever so slight changes for two, four and sometimes even eight bars. In moments like this it is up to us to adapt to Bruckner's own pace, so that in turn he can enchant us with the long unfolding arches that make his slow movements such a magnificent experience.
Bruckner in North America: From a conductor's perspective there is an immensely rich potential in performing his symphonies in the New World, simply because of the incredibly high level of so many American orchestras. From a technical point of view (aside from any spiritual considerations), Bruckner's symphonies are plainly difficult to put together; and, because of the sheer ability of so many American musicians, it often becomes an immensely gratifying experience to work on this repertory in the United States.
However, some important adaptations in the balancing of the orchestra often have to be made. Brass sections all over generally enjoy playing this repertory very much, because of the prominent role and the rich chorales that are assigned to them in these works. String players find sometimes that their individual contributions can be lost in passages of the entire orchestra because of the massive sound of the winds. In this case it is absolutely essential for the conductor to make sure that a proper balance between the sections in the orchestra is guaranteed (even if this may mean risking some mean looks from the brass...). I often say to brass sections in Bruckner that it is most important to sing out the lines, and to avoid blaring or screaming. When the brass sections try to sing the chorales, usually the overall balance works much better.
Without any doubt there is a great sense of spirituality in Bruckner's music. Interestingly enough, the fascination with spirituality has found its way also into many American compositions of today. "Musica celestis" by Aaron J. Kernis or "On the Transmigration of Souls" by John Adams are just two works that can serve as examples in this respect. Both of these, by the way, also make for great combinations with Bruckner symphonies on a program.
Likewise, I have also experienced that American audiences always have reacted strongly to the spirituality in Bruckner and often have been deeply touched by it. Because of the strong message behind this music, I am confident that his music will keep resounding with American audiences for many generations to come.
Christoph Campestrini, August 2010 (all rights reserved)
ON FACING MAHLER'S SYMPHONY NO. 9
The Symphony No.9 by Gustav Mahler is one of the most astounding works of art in the history of western culture.
There are certainly other works that have been equally pivotal for the advancement of the history of music, but I cannot think of any other symphony that sums up in a similarly rich way the experiences of an entire composer's life and at the same time reaches such an unparalleled metaphysical and transcendental outlook on human existence.
I have been fascinated with this wondrous score since I first encountered it as a teenage boy in a televised concert performance by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. It took many years of respectful, distant studying, however, before I finally dared to plunge into the adventure of conducting it myself.
With these words I would like to describe what kind of questions and challenges a conductor is faced with before this score and what the process of arriving at a personal interpretation of this symphony looks like, before it becomes possible to step on stage and to conduct it.
Mahler Nine is without any doubt a symphony of farewell. It was composed after the composer's "annus horribilis" 1907, when his young daughter died of diphtheria and he was diagnosed with an eventually fatal heart defect. It is the last symphony that he was able to finish, and in each of the four movements he looks back at a specific aspect of life.
The opening irregular pulse in the cello and French horn establishes an atmosphere of frailty right away. It has been compared to Mahler's own deathly sick, irregular heartbeat; and no matter whether this connection is conscious or an allusion, whenever I start a performance this image lingers with me strongly. Then the second violins come in with a quotation from Beethoven's Sonata No. 26, op. 81a, "Les Adieux" (the farewells). It is fascinating to know that Mahler as a pianist had played this sonata during his graduate recital at the Vienna Academy of Music, and that it had remained especially dear to him ever since.
The main theme of the first movement is Mahler's farewell to human love, expressed by a longing and melancholic music. For dramatic contrast, however, he also conceived strangely eerie textures in this movement (often labeled "schattenhaft" or "ghostlike"). These passages eventually became the seeds of inspiration for the Second Viennese School of Webern, Berg and Schoenberg, all of whom revered this symphony greatly. In its harmonic language, Mahler stretches tonality to its limits and thus prepares the grounds for the idea of atonality, as laid out in the famous "Harmonielehre" by Schoenberg. The flute solo right before the end, for instance, consists of an eleven-tone row with the twelfth missing note being played by the solo violin right after it. It is no wonder that Schoenberg proclaimed Mahler a saint!
From a conductor's perspective, it is a huge challenge in this movement to maintain the clarity of its complex structures, while making sure at the same time that the "Les Adieux" theme gets its needed expressivity and melancholy. With a duration of 28 minutes, it is also essential not to get lost in the countless refined details of orchestration (i.e. the same music being played by different instruments in different dynamics) and to keep the movement as a whole in perspective.
My favorite moment in the movement is the same as Alban Berg's: Right before the recapitulation the trombones come in with a thunderous version of the irregular heart beat theme ("mit höchster Gewalt"), to which the orchestra responds with an eerie Funeral March. Interestingly enough, this section happens exactly at the "Golden Mean," an ancient arithmetic structural principle, according to which not only Egyptian pyramids but also many scores by Beethoven and Bartok have been constructed.
An especially touching moment in this movement is the quotation of Johann Strauss' Waltz "Freuet Euch des Lebens", which used to be played at every year's opening ceremony of the Vienna Academy of Music during Mahler's student days. In this context it serves as the symbol for Mahler remembering the happiness of his youth, now long gone.
The end of the first movement is especially captivating. Three of the four movements in this symphony end softly (a principle that is shared with Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique," another farewell symphony). In the case of the first movement, this happens through a magnificent orchestral effect, with the last soft note being played only by the piccolo and the strings in pizzicato and harmonics at the same time. It feels as if the soul were about to take off.
The second movement is a compendium of Austrian folk dances. In the overall concept of the symphony, it stands for the farewell to the simple pleasures of country life. We know that for Mahler his exposure to nature in summer retreats such as Steinbach, Maiernigg and Toblach always served as an essential source of inspiration throughout his symphonic oeuvre. This movement starts with a Ländler marked "etwas täppisch und sehr derb" (somewhat clumsy and very coarse), followed by two contrasting waltzes in different tempi. The trio section is again a Ländler, but this time much slower and more longing in character.
It is absolutely vital for the conductor to work out a precise concept of tempo relationships in this movement. Even though I thought I had done so, I remember that at my first performance of this movement my tempo for the beginning was way too fast for the celli and bassoons to really sound clumsy and coarse. It is one of several instances where it is important to realize that, in spite of a careful preparation, PLAYED music often does take much more time and space than THOUGHT music. That holds true, by the way, for conductors and composers alike.
The sudden end of this movement is especially charming: Mahler uses a small fragment of the theme simultaneously played by the highest and lowest wind instruments, the piccolo and the contrabassoon. Bruno Walter, the conductor of the posthumous world premiere of this symphony, used to turn to his musicians at this point and to say, "Gentlemen, the dance is gone now!"
The third movement bears the dedication "To my Brothers in Apollo" and is Mahler's response to allegations by critics that he knew only to write kitschy melodies, but had no sufficient knowledge of counterpoint. If he ever needed to prove his command of polyphony (did these critics ever look at his Fifth Symphony???), certainly he did so in this movement. Within the framework of a grim double fugue he explored the sophisticated heights of applied counterpoint, including imitation, augmentation, reduction, stretto and inversion of the original theme. This is Mahler's farewell to urban intellectualism and at the same time the portrayal of a distinctly decadent society.
In technical terms it is probably the most demanding movement of the symphony. An experienced and well-meaning colleague once advised me to start the rehearsals on this symphony with this movement, so that the orchestra immediately gets to know the most difficult part and enough time is allowed to work on it. Yes, it really does make a difference...
In contrast to the grim character of the double fugue there is a miraculously beautiful trio section, played by the solo trumpet. Mahler at his best is sometimes capable of opening up heavenly beautiful spheres that immediately captivate us and can move us to tears. The last movement of his third symphony is such an example, and likewise the trio of this movement. In performance the first trumpet player sometimes can get a bit nervous at this spot, so an encouraging smile from the conductor is often much more appreciated here than an authoritarian cue.
The movement finishes with a virtuoso Stretta, in which the different motifs from the beginning are piled on top of each other in irregular three-bar sequences. After the final notes of this movement have been reached in performance, everybody usually takes a deep breath and a few seconds to recover again.
What lies ahead now is a challenge of an altogether different character: The fourth movement is the farewell of Mahler's very own soul, the swan song of his life. It starts out with a beautiful chant played (or rather sung) by the entire string section. The great challenge for conducting this movement is to maintain an inner calmness that allows the music to unfold in its profound beauty without ever getting hurried or rushed.
My own memories of this music go back to my student days at Juilliard. There, as part of the advanced ear-training class, we had to present an end-of-the-year project, performing a major work from the twentieth century by memory in the French solfège system. I picked this movement and was singing and also playing on the piano all 24 minutes of this miraculous music. The lesson that I learned then was that there is a huge difference between studying a complex score just mentally and actually physically performing it. Whenever I conduct this movement now, there are certain harmonic progressions that I still feel literally in the position of my hands on the piano.
In contrast to the outpouring emotional music from the beginning, Mahler also uses a more sparse and thin texture for contrast, often in very simple lines of extreme opposing range (such as the high violins and the low contrabassoon). In these moments he reaches a very eastern, almost Buddhist level of awareness in the form of a transcendental meditation, and we feel the process of disembodiment gradually taking its course.
The last page of this movement is probably the most touching page of music that I know. In the original manuscript Mahler wrote on top of it: "Oh beauty! Love! Farewell! Farewell! World, farewell!" In the first violins he then quotes a melody from his Kindertotenlieder to the words "The day is beautiful up at these heights".
Melodically he thins out all the lines and gradually slows down all action by stretching the original motif into long single notes, marked "ersterbend," until the music finally dies away in peaceful acceptance. It is absolutely impossible to describe the magic effect of this music in words. For the conductor, the orchestra and the audience alike, in a good performance at this point the world comes to a halt and for a moment we are granted a glimpse into eternity.
Christoph Campestrini, August 2010 (all rights reserved)
"LE NOZZE DI FIGARO" - A MUSICAL MIRACLE
(These comments were written as "Conductor's Notes" for the program book of a new production of "Le Nozze di Figaro" at Yale University in February 2010)
Welcome to this Yale Opera production of Mozart's opera buffa "Le nozze di Figaro"! Why is it that 225 years after its conception we still remain in awe over the musical wonders in this exceptional score? Here is an attempt to look at a few of the musical components that make this such a unique masterwork.
First, we find in this score a psychological exploration of its characters through music that was unheard of in the history of music before.Through the underlying texture in the orchestra we hear a detailed characterization of the protagonists on stage, that in its psychological dimension goes way beyond a mere accompaniment in the traditional sense. "Porgi amor", the entrance aria of the Countess at the beginning of act 2 for instance, depicts a moving state of loneliness
using a major (and supposedly happy) key in one of its saddest occurrences throughout the literature. Susanna's aria in act 4 on the other hand, is a charming play on her fiance, in which the fine line between teasing him and showing her real affection is expressed through playful woodwind lines and yearning sighs in the violins. As a third example Cherubino's aria "Non so piu" is the perfect psychogram of a 17 year old boy in the midst of puberty, with breathless gasps and sudden unexpected harmonic shifts all over.
This opera is also a collection of some of the most memorable operatic tunes in the repertory. They serve to showcase the beautiful voices of our talented young singers you are about to hear tonight, but each tune also has a specific function to propel the development of the story.
In this production we have been especially careful to work out the different vocal demands that Mozart requires of the singers in the style of recitative, aria and ensemble. Recitatives are an explicit replication of spoken language and require a careful balance of speed, colour and intonation - just like in our everyday use of language. In the ensembles it was important to finetune the balance of leading melodies as opposed to their counterlines or merely filling voices. It is simply breathtaking how Mozart manages in these ensembles to express multiple emotional states simultaneously by putting contrasting musical lines on top of each other.
In the arias we had to find a tasteful application of vocal ornaments ("abbellimenti"), which was a standard practice at the time. This means that in addition to what is written in the score, passages of special importance are highlighted by further musical decoration and sometimes even vocal improvisation (called "Eingänge"). We have carefully worked on these details and each singer has found an individual solution for his or her part.
Another defining element in this opera is the use of classical dance forms. They are an integral part of Mozart's language and need to be carried out with an intimate knowledge of their individual style. Examples for this are the "Minuetto" in Figaro's aria in act 1, the "Siciliana" in the first chorus appearance, the "Marcia militare" (military march) in Figaro's 2nd aria and "Marcia nuziale" (wedding march) at the end of act 3, as well as the "Fandango" during the ballet music at the wedding ceremony.
A final important question to consider in this opera is the relationship between contrasting tempi. Not only are different sections of a single musical number built in corresponding tempo relationships, but there is an overlapping tempo strategy even over broader stretches of musical numbers. The most famous example of this is the Finale of act 2, in which 10 different time signatures (and musical sections) are united through a single ongoing pulse.
During the performance it is now up to us to connect all these different musical threads into a single whole, in order to express the great kaleidoskop of human emotions that Mozart has put into this score. We hope that we will reach your minds and hearts and at the same time manage to carry on to you the great joy that we all felt in exploring the miraculous world of "Le Nozze di Figaro."
Christoph Campestrini, February 2010 (all rights reserved)