Day 32 – Four Composers (CD 32)

When I first looked at today’s album, I thought, “Oh what fresh hell is this?”

I continued, uninterrupted. (I’m gracious with my own time that way.) “Is this is a mistake? I’ve already heard Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture! In fact, I’ve seen that very album cover already – in this very box se! Is this a printing error? Did the makers include this album twice?”

Then I asked the ultimate question, the one on everyone’s lips, “Why does God hate me?”

I’m not a fan of Showboat Tchaikovsky, a opinion that has not been swayed by my four (count ’em!) previous encounters with the Russian, to wit:

Day 7

Day 13 (1812 Overture!)

Day 17

Day 27

And yet, here Pyotr is again with another Reiner-conducted rendition of the Overture to the 1812 Overture, Op. 49 – which, I am ashamed to admit, is starting to grow on me.

The 1812 is actually quite stirring in its final three or four minutes starting just after the cello’s low-tone, Eeyore-like notes signal the end…but then (at 9:06) the faint strains of La Marseillaise (the French national anthem) rallies the troops…followed by a furious whirlwind of violins…the bells ring out…the cymbals crash…the tympani is pounded like a cheap steak…and then – glory be! – the trumpets herald triumph!

I feel like standing up and saluting something.

Or breaking out my musket and defending something.

The French flag? The Russian nation? I dunno.

Okay. Maybe it’s the fact that I have Breakfast Blend coffee coursing through my veins, or that I sat down out here just after the sun rose and I’m susceptible to stirring. But I actually had to stop this five times, bring it back to the aforementioned 9:06 mark, and listen to the end. Five times! I shit you not.

I was almost sad when Track Two arrived and Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Overture started playing.

The Objective Stuff

From his entry on Wikipedia,

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was a Russian composer of the Romantic period. He was the first Russian composer whose music would make a lasting impression internationally. He was honored in 1884 by Tsar Alexander III and awarded a lifetime pension.

Although musically precocious, Tchaikovsky was educated for a career as a civil servant. There was scant opportunity for a musical career in Russia at the time and no system of public music education. When an opportunity for such an education arose, he entered the nascent Saint Petersburg Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1865. The formal Western-oriented teaching that he received there set him apart from composers of the contemporary nationalist movement embodied by the Russian composers of The Five with whom his professional relationship was mixed.

Tchaikovsky’s training set him on a path to reconcile what he had learned with the native musical practices to which he had been exposed from childhood. From that reconciliation, he forged a personal but unmistakably Russian style.

From its entry on Wikipedia,

The Year 1812 Solemn Overture, Op. 49, popularly known as the 1812 Overture, is a concert overture in E♭ major written in 1880 by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to commemorate the successful Russian defense against Napoleon’s invading Grande Armée in 1812.

The overture debuted in Moscow on 20 August 1882 (Julian date: 8 August 1882), conducted by Ippolit Al’tani under a tent near the then-almost-finished Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which also memorialized the 1812 defense of Russia. Tchaikovsky himself conducted another performance at the dedication of Carnegie Hall in New York City. This was one of the first times a major European composer visited the United States.

The 15-minute overture is best known for its climactic volley of cannon fire, ringing chimes, and a brass fanfare finale. It has also become a common accompaniment to fireworks displays on the United States’ Independence Day. The 1812 Overture went on to become one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular works, along with his ballet scores to The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake

From his entry on WIkipedia,

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847), born and widely known as Felix Mendelssohn was a German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early Romantic period. Mendelssohn’s compositions include symphonies, concertos, piano music, organ music and chamber music. His best-known works include the overture and incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Italian Symphony, the Scottish Symphony, the oratorio St. Paul, the oratorio Elijah, the overture The Hebrides, the mature Violin Concerto and the String Octet. The melody for the Christmas carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is also his. Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words are his most famous solo piano compositions.

A grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family. He was brought up without religion until the age of seven, when he was baptised as a Reformed Christian. Felix was recognised early as a musical prodigy, but his parents were cautious and did not seek to capitalise on his talent. His sister, Fanny, received a similar musical education and was a talented composer and pianist in her own right; some of her early songs were published under her brother’s name.

Mendelssohn enjoyed early success in Germany, and revived interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, notably with his performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829. He became well received in his travels throughout Europe as a composer, conductor and soloist; his ten visits to Britain – during which many of his major works were premiered – form an important part of his adult career. His essentially conservative musical tastes set him apart from more adventurous musical contemporaries such as Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Charles-Valentin Alkan and Hector Berlioz. The Leipzig Conservatory, which he founded, became a bastion of this anti-radical outlook. After a long period of relative denigration due to changing musical tastes and antisemitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his creative originality has been re-evaluated. He is now among the most popular composers of the Romantic era.

Mendelssohn suffered from poor health in the final years of his life, probably aggravated by nervous problems and overwork. A final tour of England left him exhausted and ill, and the death of his sister, Fanny, on 14 May 1847, caused him further distress. Less than six months later, on 4 November, aged 38, Mendelssohn died in Leipzig after a series of strokes. His grandfather Moses, Fanny, and both his parents had all died from similar apoplexies. Felix’s funeral was held at the Paulinerkirche, Leipzig, and he was buried at the Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof I in Berlin-Kreuzberg. The pallbearers included Moscheles, Schumann and Niels Gade. Mendelssohn had once described death, in a letter to a stranger, as a place “where it is to be hoped there is still music, but no more sorrow or partings.”

Wow. He was only 38.

From its entry on Wikipedia,

Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture The Hebrides was composed in 1830, revised in 1832, and published the next year as his Op. 26. Some consider it an early tone poem.

It was inspired by one of Mendelssohn’s trips to the British Isles, specifically an 1829 excursion to the Scottish island of Staffa, with its basalt sea cave known as Fingal’s Cave. It was reported that the composer immediately jotted down the opening theme for his composition after seeing the island. He at first called the work To the Lonely Island or Zur einsamen Insel, but then settled on the present title. However, in 1834, the year after the first publication, Breitkopf & Härtel issued an edition with the name Fingalshöhle (Fingal’s Cave) and this title stuck, causing some confusion.

Being a concert overture, The Hebrides does not precede a play or opera, but is instead a standalone composition in a form common for the Romantic period. Dedicated to King Frederick William IV of Prussia, then Crown Prince of Prussia, the B minor work became part of the standard orchestral repertoire and retains this position to the present day.

These two performances (1812 Overture and The Hebrides) were recorded on January 7, 1956, in Orchestra Hall, Chicago. Fritz Reiner was about 68 when he conducted the performances.

From his entry on Wikipedia,

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was a Hungarian composer, virtuoso pianist, conductor, music teacher, arranger, and organist of the Romantic era. He was also a writer, philanthropist, Hungarian nationalist, and Franciscan tertiary.

Liszt gained renown in Europe during the early nineteenth century for his prodigious virtuosic skill as a pianist. He was a friend, musical promoter and benefactor to many composers of his time, including Frédéric Chopin, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Camille Saint-Saëns, Edvard Grieg, Ole Bull, Joachim Raff, Mikhail Glinka, and Alexander Borodin.

A prolific composer, Liszt was one of the most prominent representatives of the New German School (German: Neudeutsche Schule). He left behind an extensive and diverse body of work that influenced his forward-looking contemporaries and anticipated 20th-century ideas and trends. Among Liszt’s musical contributions were the symphonic poem, developing thematic transformation as part of his experiments in musical form, and radical innovations in harmony.

From its entry on Wikipedia,

The Mephisto Waltzes are four waltzes composed by Franz Liszt from 1859 to 1862, from 1880 to 1881, and in 1883 and 1885. Nos. 1 and 2 were composed for orchestra, and later arranged for piano, piano duet and two pianos, whereas nos. 3 and 4 were written for piano only. Of the four, the first is the most popular and has been frequently performed in concert and recorded.

Associated with the Mephisto Waltzes is the Mephisto Polka, which follows the same program as the other Mephisto works.

The most popular of the series and, along with the third Waltz, most praised musically, the Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke: Erster Mephisto-Walzer (“The Dance in the Village Inn: First Mephisto-Waltz”), or the First Mephisto Waltz, is the second of two short works he wrote for orchestra under the title Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus Faust. While the work preceding it, Midnight Procession (Der nächtliche Zug), is rarely given (though both works have been recorded together), the waltz has been a concert favorite, with its passion, sensuality and dramatics generating an emotional impact. James Huneker described the work’s “langourous syncopated melody” as “one of the most voluptuous episodes outside of the Tristan score”.

The first Mephisto Waltz is a typical example of program music, taking for its program an episode from Nikolaus Lenau’s 1836 verse drama Faust [de] (not from Goethe’s Faust).

This was recorded on December 10, 1955, in Orchestra Hall, Chicago. Fritz Reiner was about 67 when he conducted the performance.

From his entry on Wikipedia,

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was a German composer, pianist, and conductor of the Romantic period. Born in Hamburg into a Lutheran family, he spent much of his professional life in Vienna. He is sometimes grouped with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the “Three Bs” of music, a comment originally made by the nineteenth-century conductor Hans von Bülow.

Brahms composed for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, piano, organ, voice, and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works. He worked with leading performers of his time, including the pianist Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim (the three were close friends). Many of his works have become staples of the modern concert repertoire.

Brahms has been considered both a traditionalist and an innovator, by his contemporaries and by later writers. His music is rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Classical masters. While some contemporaries found his music to be overly academic, his contribution and craftsmanship were admired by subsequent figures as diverse as Arnold Schoenberg and Edward Elgar. The diligent, highly constructed nature of Brahms’s works was a starting point and an inspiration for a generation of composers. Embedded within those structures are deeply romantic motifs.

From its entry on Wikipedia,

The Tragic Overture, Op. 81, is a concert overture for orchestra written by Johannes Brahms during the summer of 1880. It premiered, under Hans Richter, on 26 December 1880 in Vienna. Eight days later, it was repeated at the University of Breslau on a program with the premiere of the Academic Festival Overture. Most performances last between twelve and fifteen minutes.

Brahms chose the title “tragic” to emphasize the turbulent, tormented character of the piece, in essence a free-standing symphonic movement, in contrast to the mirthful ebullience of a companion piece he wrote the same year, the Academic Festival Overture. Despite its name, the Tragic Overture does not follow any specific dramatic program. Brahms summed up the effective difference in character between the two overtures when he declared “one laughs while the other cries.”

This was recorded December 14, 1957, in Orchestra Hall, Chicago. Fritz Reiner was about 69 when he conducted the performance.

The Subjective Stuff

Recording quality: 5 (for all compositions)
Overall musicianship: 5
CD booklet notes: 2
CD “album cover” information: 4 (lots and lots of really tiny print)
How does this make me feel: 5 (Tchaikovsky) / 5 (Mendelssohn) / 4 (Liszt) / 3 (Brahms)

I was most surprised by how much I enjoyed the entire album. It was like a “greatest hits” of all the biggies. If I had to hear an entire album of Brahms, I would have dozed off. Ditto for Liszt. And my opinion of Tchaikovsky is not unknown in these parts. He’s a showboat.

Of these four performances, I was shocked by how much I enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture this time around. And I was totally captivated by Mendelssohn, who’s composition The Hebrides Overture sounded like a contemporary movie soundtrack.

I’m going to explore more Mendelssohn in a future project.

I’d listen to this CD again.

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