Chamber Orchestra (2018)

Chamber Orchestra (2018)

Oct 25, 2018

Chamber Orchestra (2018)

The Chamber Orchestra, made up of members of the CU Symphony Orchestra, performs smaller works for chamber orchestra, including symphonies and other works by classical composers and modern chamber works.

Performance date and time: 

Thursday, Oct. 25, 7:30 p.m.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: "Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48"; Ludwig van Beethoven:"Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 (“Pastorale”)"

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Program Notes

Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48

In the autumn of 1880, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky worked simultaneously on a pair of orchestral compositions that could hardly be more different: his concert overture 1812 and his Serenade for Strings. The 1812 Overture (as it is widely known) is one of numerous entries in Tchaikovsky’s catalogue that were written to celebrate official occasions and might have been expected to fall from view immediately thereafter. More typical was the fate of his occasional piece Music for a Tableau Vivant of Montenegrins Receiving the News of Russia’s Declaration of War on Turkey, also from 1880; that score has been lost, but it’s hard to imagine one would hear it much even if it survived. Tchaikovsky penned 1812 for the inauguration of a cathedral and had no expectations for it beyond that. He informed his patron Nadezhda von Meck, “The overture will be very loud and noisy, but I wrote it without warmth or love, so it will probably not have any artistic merit.” It went on to become hugely popular, of course, especially among people trying out new speaker systems.

In the same letter the composer said:

“The Serenade, by contrast, I wrote from an inner compulsion; it is deeply felt and for that reason, I venture to think, is not without real merit.”

Some weeks later, after being treated to a surprise performance of the Serenade by students and professors at the Moscow Conservatory, he told her, “At the moment I consider it the best of all that I have written so far.” Tchaikovsky was not alone in that opinion. Even Anton Rubinstein, his former principal teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory — and often a stern critic of his achievements — told the publisher Pyotr Ivanovich Jurgenson (so Jurgenson informed Tchaikovsky): “This is the best thing Tchaikovsky had written. You can congratulate yourself on the publication of this opus.” Jurgenson published the score in January 1881, and within a few years it was showing up on concert programs in New York, Paris, Prague, Hamburg, London and Berlin.

At first Tchaikovsky was unsure about the forces he would use; perhaps it would be a full symphony orchestra, perhaps a string quartet. He ended up splitting the difference. By the time he finished the third movement, he had decided it would be a work for string orchestra, thereby maintaining the unified timbre of a quartet but expanding to the forces of an orchestral string section with double basses. In the autograph of the full score, Tchaikovsky noted: “The greater number of players in the string orchestra, the more this will be in accordance with the composer’s wishes.”

The Serenade for Strings is a gracious piece that stresses comfort rather than tension. Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck that the first movement was crafted to imitate the manner of Mozart, although it’s hard to figure out precisely how he viewed it that way. It seems more redolent of a latebaroque overture (at least in its formal layout), with a stately introduction repeated at the end to bookend a more spirited, dance-like center. What strikes the listener most forcefully, however, is not the work’s architecture but rather the sheer sumptuousness of the sound, which Tchaikovsky achieves at the opening by having his players produce double-stops to achieve chords of up to nine voices (counting octave doublings), an effect that can also be accomplished by simply dividing the upper string sections.

The second movement is a graceful Waltz. It was encored at the first public performance, and Tchaikovsky would report ensuing encores of that movement in his letters to von Meck. The Elegy is built from ascending melodic phrases, keeping it from being a downer; when the violins sing its main theme, this movement seems no less balletic than a waltz. For his Finale, Tchaikovsky draws on two Russian folk tunes. The second, which launches the lively Allegro con spirito section, takes on added significance at the very end. There Tchaikovsky recalls the stately music from the first movement, which now reveals that it shares its melodic contour with the skittering folk song.

Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68

When Ludwig van Beethoven comes to mind, one may think first of monumental power and even violent ferocity, but the Pastoral Symphony offers a very different glimpse of the composer. Beethoven had reason to feel ferocious, having tasted more than his fair share of disarray and anguish. He had begun losing his hearing by late 1802—a great adversity for anyone, but a catastrophe for a musician. In the six years since, his deafness had increased dramatically. What’s more, in March 1808 a raging infection threatened the loss of a finger, which would have spelled further disaster for a composer who was greatly attached to the keyboard. He was surrounded by a nervous political climate: Vienna had been occupied by Napoleon’s troops since November 1805, and the civic restlessness would erupt into violence within months of the Pastoral Symphony’s premiere. Whatever confusion these circumstances engendered in Beethoven’s personal life could only have been exacerbated by his habit of constantly moving from one lodging to another. In the course of 1808 alone—the year of the Sixth Symphony— he hung his hat at no fewer than four addresses. On the other hand, this was not Beethoven’s whole life. He spent his summers mostly in rural areas surrounding Vienna, which is how he found himself installed in the village of Heiligenstadt during the summer of 1808, while working on the Sixth Symphony.

Beethoven voiced the opinion that listeners were generally restricted in their experience of a work if they expected in advance to hear some image depicted. His sketches for the Pastoral Symphony are littered with jottings that reinforce such ideas: “The hearers should be allowed to discover the situations,” “All painting in instrumental music is lost if it is pushed too far,” and so on. Nonetheless, tone-painting and “situations to discover” exist bountifully in this symphony, and Beethoven clearly condoned the use of the title Pastoral. Inscribed at the head of a violin part used in the first performance (and only parts were available at that time, since the orchestral score was not published until 1826) are the words “Sinfonia Pastorella / Pastoral-Sinfonie / oder / Erinnerung an das Landleben / Mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung als Mahlerei” (“Sinfonia Pastorella / Pastoral Symphony / or / Recollection of Country Life / More an Expression of Feeling than Painting”). Each of the symphony’s five movements also carries an individual description: “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings upon Arrival in the Country,” “Scene by the Brook,” “Merry Gathering of Country Folk,” “Thunderstorm” and “Shepherd’s Song; Happy and Thankful Feelings after the Storm.” Numerous compositions have been cited as prefiguring the programmatic bent of Beethoven’s Pastoral, including Haydn’s early Symphonies No. 6 (Le Matin), No. 7 (Le Midi) and No. 8 (Le Soir); a piano fantasia by Franz Jakob Freystädtler called A Spring Morning, Noon, and Night and a five- movement symphony by Justin Heinrich Knecht titled Le Portrait musical de la nature. Such pieces were characteristic of the age, an epoch nursed by the back-tonature philosophy of Rousseau and Herder. In Beethoven’s Sixth, nature found its supreme musical mirror.

—Program notes courtesy of the New York Philharmonic


Gary Lewis


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