Overture to L'italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers)
One of the most prolific opera composers of all time, Gioacchino Rossini had written 39 operas by the time he was 37 – then took “early retirement.” For the rest of his long life he composed only sporadically and, except for church music, mostly small works tossed off for the entertainment of his friends (He published over 150 of them in collections, which he called Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age).
L'italiana in Algeri is the madcap story of two lovers, Isabella, trapped in Algiers after her ship has been wrecked in a storm, and Lindoro, taken earlier as a slave by the not overly bright Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers. Isabella lures Mustafa into joining the “prestigious” order of the Pappatacci, a sect whose members allow their wives to do anything they please, and manages to escape from under his nose with all the other Italian “expats.” Rossini wrote the opera in 1813 as a favor for a friend, the impresario of a Venice theater, and took less than four weeks to finish it.
Rossini had his own system for overture writing: never before the evening of the first performance. In his memoirs he recalls, “I wrote the overture to La gazza ladra on the actual day of the first performance of the opera, under the guard of four stage-hands who had orders to throw my manuscript out of the window, page by page, as I wrote it, to the waiting copyist – and if I didn’t supply the manuscript, they were to throw me out myself. Nothing excites inspiration like necessity; the presence of an anxious copyist and a despairing manager tearing out handfuls of his hair is a great help. In Italy in my day all managers were bald at thirty.”
Of course, Rossini didn’t have to start his overtures “from Adam and Eve.” He had perfected a template that has been a surefire audience pleaser for nearly two centuries: a slow introduction, here a lovely oboe solo, followed by a spirited allegro containing three themes, & one of them a closing theme that ramps up the tempo and dynamics (the so-called “Rossini rocket”). He also usually included at least one daredevil woodwind solo that continues to turn up on orchestra auditions. In L’italiana the principal oboe gets a cantabile and staccato workout.
One more thing: Since Rossini seldom used themes from the opera in the overture, if he got too backed up, he could always recycle an overture from an earlier opera – comedy or tragedy, it didn’t make much difference.
Violin Concerto E minor, Op. 64
If ever there was a composer born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it was Felix Mendelssohn. He was raised in affluence and comfort, his precocious musical talent recognized and nurtured by his culturally sophisticated and highly supportive family. His home was a Mecca for the artistic and intellectual elite of Germany who also encouraged the prodigy and his talented sister Fanny. One of his admirers was the formidable grand old man of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Fortunately for the development of Felix's rare abilities, his carefully selected teachers, however impressed they may have been with him, were demanding. His strict training, especially in fugue composition, familiarized him with the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, who at the time was dismissed as a mere pedagogue. In 1829, Mendelssohn was central to a Bach revival with an historic performance of the Saint Matthew Passion in Berlin, virtually rescuing the great composer's music from the counterpoint classroom.
As a mature artist, Mendelssohn was acclaimed throughout Europe as a composer and conductor, especially in his native Germany and in England, where he had a private audience with the young Queen Victoria, who sang for him after he had played for her. His untimely death from unknown causes created a profound shock, and Mendelssohn societies promoting his music and ideas quickly sprang up all over middle and northern Europe.
Unlike Mozart, Mendelssohn was extremely self-critical, constantly requesting feedback and carefully perfecting his compositions. The Concerto in E minor had a long gestation period. Mendelssohn started the concerto in 1838 but did not finish it until six years later. He wrote it for his friend, the famed violinist Ferdinand David (1810-1873), concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig where Mendelssohn served as conductor from 1835 to 1843. The composer sought - and took - David's advice on technical aspects throughout its composition. David finally premiered it in Leipzig in 1845, but Mendelssohn was ill and unable to attend. Now one of the staples of violin repertory, the Concerto was considered daring and innovative at the time of its composition.
From the first bar, the Allegro molto appassionato opening broke new ground. Instead of the usual orchestral exposition of the main themes, the violin enters at once to present the principal theme on which the movement is built. Mendelssohn gives the second part of the theme to the orchestra. For the second theme, the roles are reversed, with the winds introducing the theme. The cadenza, largely the creation of David, is placed unconventionally before the recapitulation. Relocating the cadenza away from its traditional place at the end of the movement stresses the continuity with the second movement, which follows without pause.
The Andante emerges out of a single quiet bassoon tone, emanating from the last chord of the opening movement. It is joined by other instruments for a short transitional passage, after which the solo violin introduces the simple, almost religious theme. The middle section in the minor mode turns slightly darker.
Another transition, based on the opening theme of the concerto, leads into the Allegro molto vivace. Mendelssohn saved the demonstration of the violin’s virtuoso possibilities for this sparkling Finale. After an orchestral fanfare for the winds, containing a rhythmic motive that the composer reuses for throughout the movement as part of other themes, the soloist enters with a flourish followed by a delicate, dancing theme that dominates the movement and recalls the atmosphere of the teenaged composer's first great hit, the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream. The orchestra answers with a development of the opening fanfare. The soloist then plays a new, more lyrical melody – also based on the fanfare - in counterpoint with the first theme, now in the orchestra, Later, their roles are reversed.
Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, “Italian”
Felix Mendelssohn is one of a handful of composers whose families recognized and nurtured their gifts. He had inherited the intellectual gifts of his grandfather, the eminent Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, while his banker father provided all the material comforts of a young aristocrat. The Mendelssohn household was a Mecca for the intellectual elite of Germany, and the many family visitors fawned over the prodigy and his talented sister Fanny. Fortunately for the development of his rare abilities, his carefully selected teachers were demanding and strict.
One of the results of the financial security of the Mendelssohn family was Felix’s ability to travel extensively in what was then considered the "civilized" world – Western Europe and Italy. Some of his most successful orchestral compositions represent musical travelogues of such trips: the “Scottish” and “Italian” symphonies and The Hebrides Overture. An added perk to all this travel was that family connections, and Felix’s reputation as a Mozartian Wunderkind attracted the attention to his music throughout Europe. Queen Victoria herself had several audiences with the young composer, during which he play and she sang.
Traveling to Italy in 1830, Mendelssohn stopped in Weimar, where he spent two weeks talking with the forbidding grand old man of German literature, the 80-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was a heady experience for the young composer, and he continued on to Italy in high spirits. He was at once completely captivated by the sights and sounds of the sunny country and wrote home “...what I have been looking forward to all my life as the greatest happiness has now begun, and I am basking in it.” He immediately set about composing the “Italian” Symphony, whose premiere he conducted in London in 1833 at the invitation of the London Philharmonic Society.
The first movement, Allegro vivace, opens with a buoyant theme reflecting the sparkle of the Italian sunshine and the young composer’s rush of excitement . The contrasting second theme is a lilting figure for two clarinets playing in parallel thirds.
The Andante con moto second movement is in a darker mood. It was composed after a visit to Naples, where Mendelssohn was greatly depressed by the poverty he saw. The doleful woodwinds and plodding staccato on the cellos and double bass may depict a religious procession he is known to have witnessed in the city streets.
The charming and graceful the Con moto moderato third movement lightens the mood again and uses the traditional scherzo and trio form . The finale, Saltarello: presto with its driving triplets is based on the nineteenth-century folk version of a medieval Italian dance. In fact, Mendelssohn may have taken the two dance themes from folk music he had heard at a Roman carnival, in which he participated during his visit and described in detail in his letters & . But this is one of those assumptions that is more guesswork than demonstrable fact . Both themes provide a difficult staccato workout for the upper winds reminiscent of the scherzo from the Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. The middle part of the movement, however, is dominated by a new melody for the violins, also in triplets.
It is seldom that an audience has the opportunity to hear a composer’s early drafts of a work. But that is exactly what we do hear every time we attend a concert with this popular work on the program. Mendelssohn was dissatisfied with the Symphony, never again conducted it after the premiere and refused to publish it. It is not clear what displeased him in such a joyous work; perhaps its spontaneity went against the grain of his rigid academic training. In any case, he sat down in 1834 to revise it, rewriting the three last movements and commenting in a letter that he could not get the first movement right “In any way, it has to become totally different.”
As part of the commission, the original score was left with the London Philharmonic, and it is this version, published posthumously in 1851 (hence the high opus number), that became the public favorite; the later version was included in volume 28 of the collection of Mendelssohn’s unpublished manuscripts and was performed for the first time in 1992 and first recorded in 1998.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2015|