04/09/14 Romantic Music for Orchestra: Go Big or Go Home

“Can the music convey meaning without the story?” (p. 220 of your book)

Hector Berlioz (1803–1869), French composer & conductor
– Unlike composers we’ve studied so far, he was *not* a child prodigy, and not a pianist, either — he played guitar and flute
– His father was a doctor and hoped he would become one, too

“At age 18, he was sent to Paris to study medicine, a field for which he had no interest and, later, outright disgust after viewing a human corpse being dissected.” (wiki)

– Began studying music at age 12, and taught himself from books. At age 23, went to the Paris Conservatory (school of music) to study composition.
– Liked to write dramatic music for very large orchestras, sometimes using 1,000 musicians in one concert, and became a conductor out of necessity:

Berlioz initially began conducting due to frustrations over the inability of other conductors – more used to performing older and simpler music – to master his advanced and progressive works, with their extended melodies and rhythmic complexity.

“Go Big or Go Home” could have been his motto!

Berlioz orch choir

Symphonie Fantastique, written in 1830
We use “fantastic” to mean really, really good, but in this case it is related to the idea of fantasy:
– Imaginative or fanciful; remote from reality
– Very strange, unusual, or unlikely
– Conceived by an unrestrained imagination; odd and remarkable; bizarre; grotesque

A very Romanticized idea of the symphony:
– Five movements instead of four
– Programmatic: telling a story throughout

Discussion of idée fixe by composer & conductor Leonard Bernstein

First movement: Daydreams – Passions
– Ideal form of idée fixe

Fifth movement: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath
– Mocking form of idée fixe

How did we get there?

Fourth movement: March to the Scaffold

Origins of the Symphonic Poem
– Opera overtures became popular as separate concert pieces (textbook, p. 204)
– Composers began writing single-movement concert pieces inspired by literature, legend, nature, patriotic themes, etc.
– Nationalistic composers sought to “free themselves” from standard forms such as the German symphony (textbook, p. 212)

Nationalism map

Bedřich Smetana, 1824-1884, Czech
– His music is associated with the Czech (a.k.a. Bohemian) struggle for independence from the Austrian empire
– Similarly to Beethoven, Smetana became deaf in 1874 but continued composing
Má Vlast (“My Country”): set of six symphonic poems composed between 1874 and 1879. Each piece highlights a different aspect of Czech culture: a castle, a river, the legend of a female warrior, the woods and fields, a city, a mountain

Vltava (German: Die Moldau) – river running through Bohemia and its capital city, Prague

Smetana’s description:

The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad [castle], and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe (or Elbe, in German).

River theme: 1:16
Castle: 11:23
River dies away: 12:20

Franz Liszt, 1811-1886, Hungarian

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 — written for solo piano then transcribed for orchestra

Very familiar music at 6:46

Rhapsody Rabbit

Rhapsody Rabbit from ackatsis on Vimeo.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1840-1893, Russian
Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy based on Shakespeare
Love Theme:

Finale: Things don’t go well, alas…

Claude Debussy, 1862-1918, French
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Inspired by a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé

The music of this prelude is a very free illustration of Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it. Rather there is a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of pursuing the timorous flight of nymphs and naiads, he succumbs to intoxicating sleep, in which he can finally realize his dreams of possession in universal Nature.


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