About this Recording
8.553263 - VARIOUS : Favourite Overtures


Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 - 1847)
Die Hebriden (Fingal's Cave), Op. 26
Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856)
Overture, Scherzo & Finale, Op. 52
Manfred, Op. 115

Carl Maria von Weber (1786 - 1826)
Der Freischütz

Antonín Dvořák (1841 - 1904)
Carnival, Op. 92

Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809, son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, the model for Lessing's Nathan the Wise, the epitome of tolerance in a generally intolerant world. In 1812 the family moved to Berlin after the French occupation of Hamburg and it was there that Mendelssohn received his education, in music as a pupil of Carl Zelter, for whom the boy seemed a second Mozart. As a child he was charming and precocious, profiting from the wide cultural interests of his parents and relations, excelling as a pianist and busy with composition after composition. In 1816 he was baptized a Christian, a step that his father took six years later, accepting what Heine described as a ticket of admission into European culture although it was one not always regarded as valid by prejudiced contemporaries.

Abraham Mendelssohn sought the best advice when it came to his son's choice of career. Cherubini, director of the Paris Conservatoire, was consulted, and, while complimenting Abraham Mendelssohn on his wealth, agreed that his son should become a professional musician, advice given during the course of a visit to Paris in 1825 when Mendelssohn met many of the most distinguished composers and performers of the day. In Berlin his career took shape, with prolific composition and activity as a pianist and as a conductor. His education was to include a period of travel throughout Europe, a Grand Tour that took him as far north as Scotland and as far south as Naples, his journeys serving as sources of inspiration.

In 1835 Mendelssohn was appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. There were, at the same time, other commitments to be fulfilled in a short career of intense activity. In Leipzig he established a series of historical concerts, continuing the revival of earlier music on which he had embarked under Zelter with the Berlin performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in 1829. At the same time he gave every encouragement to contemporary composers, even to those for whom he felt little sympathy. At the insistence of the Russian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV he accepted an official position in Berlin, but this failed to give him the satisfaction he had found in Leipzig, where he established the Conservatory in 1843 and where he spent his final years until his death at the age of thirty-eight on 4th November 1847, six months after the death of his beloved sister Fanny.

In childhood Mendelssohn had written thirteen string symphonies between the ages of twelve and fourteen. In what must pass for maturity, starting at the age of fifteen, he wrote five more symphonies for full orchestra. Symphony No.3 in A minor, opus 56, was the second in conception and the last in order of completion. Its first inspiration came from a visit to Scotland in 1829. In April Mendelssohn had arrived in London, after an unpleasant voyage from Hamburg. Two months later in a letter to his teacher Zelter he mentioned his plans for the summer, after the end of London season, a projected journey to Scotland, a country that figured largely in romantic imagination thanks to the work of Sir Walter Scott. Accompanied by his friend Karl Klingemann he travelled north. In Edinburgh he recalled the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the murder of her secretary David Rizzio in the palace of Holyrood, and in the ruined chapel first entertained the idea of a Scottish Symphony. Further north he could comment on the climate, remarking that the Highlands brew nothing but whisky, fog and foul weather, while the voyage by steamer to see the island of staffa and what he described as the odious Fingal's cave, made him sea-sick. In spite of this he immediately sketched the opening theme of the Hebrides Overture, which was later revised to be performed in 1832 in London, where it won immediate popularity.

In the autumn of 1830 Mendelssohn was in Italy and it was there that he completed, revised and later rechristened the Hebrides Overture. Two symphonies occupied his thoughts, while a third was commissioned for the Reformation centenary. The Reformation Symphony, No.5, was completed in 1832, and the Italian Symphony, No.4, in 1833. The Scottish Symphony was longer in intermittent gestation and was only finished in 1842 and given its first performance in Leipzig in the same year.

Robert Schumann must seem in many ways typical of the age in which he lived, combining a number of the principal characteristics of Romanticism in his music and in his life. Born in Zwickau in 1810, the son of a bookseller, publisher and writer, he showed an early interest in literature and later made a name for himself as a writer and editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a journal launched in 1834. After a period at university to satisfy the ambitions of his widowed mother, but still showing the wide interests of a dilettante, Schumann was able to turn more fully to music under the tuition of Friedrich Wieck, a famous teacher, whose energies had been largely directed towards the training of his beloved daughter Clara, a pianist of prodigious early talent.

Schumann's own ambitions as a pianist were to be frustrated by a weakness of the fingers, the result, it is supposed, of mercury treatment for syphilis, which he perhaps had contracted from a servant-girl in Wieck's employment. Nevertheless he wrote a great deal of music for the piano during the 18305, much of it in the form of shorter genre pieces, often enough with some extra-musical, literary or autobiographical association. The end of the decade brought a prolonged quarrel with Wieck, who did his utmost, through the courts, to prevent his daughter from marrying Schumann, bringing in support evidence of the latter's allegedly dissolute way of life. He might have considered, too, a certain mental instability, perhaps in part inherited, which brought periods of intense depression.

In 1840 Schumann and Clara married, with the permission of the court. The year brought the composition of a large number of songs and was followed by a period during which Clara encouraged her husband to tackle larger forms of orchestral music, while both of them had to make adjustments in their own lives to accommodate their differing professional requirements and the birth of children. A relatively short period in Leipzig was followed, in 1844, by residence in Dresden, where Wagner was now installed at the Court Theatre, his conversation causing Schumann to retire early to bed with a headache. In 1850 the couple moved to Düsseldorf, where Schumann had been appointed director of music, a position the demands of which he was unable to meet, a fact that contributed to his suicidal depression and final break-down in 1854, leading to his death in the asylum at Endenich two years later.

Schumann completed his first symphony early in 1841 and it was performed on 31st March that year by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Mendelssohn. In April he set to work on an Overture, intended as part of an orchestral suite, to which he added a Scherzo and a Finale, to be performed in Leipzig on 6th December. The Finale was later revised by the composer. The overture opens with a brief introduction, marked Andante con moto, based on a brief motif of dramatic implication. An Allegro follows, with an initial theme that might well have sounded familiar to Mendelssohn, although Schumann never had quite the lightness of touch of that composer. The Scherzo and its Trio are scored more heavily than might have been expected, the woodwind assuming some prominence in the latter section, before the insistent rhythm of the Scherzo reasserts itself. The Trio makes a brief re-appearance before the final bars, in which the opening rhythm is recalled. The Finale has an imposing fugal opening, in a movement that seems to justify the composer's own reference to the work as a symphonette. There is an imposing cheerfulness about the music and a coherence of structure that enables it, as Schumann intended, to stand on its own, if this were to be required.

Schumann set to work on Manfred, based on the dramatic poem by Lord Byron, whose work Schumann's father had published in translation. A hero with whom Schumann himself might have identified, as Hebbel had identified in some measure with his villain Golo, Manfred seeks oblivion for some mysterious crime, wandering as an outcast in the Alps, attempting death and summoning spirits to his aid, finally to, deny the power of evil demons over him, before death takes him. The Byronic hero and the Caspar Friedrich landscape exercised fascination over a number of nineteenth century composers, of whom the most distinguished was to be Tchaikovsky. Schumann devised a libretto based on the German translation of Manfred by the Silesian pastor Karl von Suckow, a series of fifteen scenes, preceded by an Overture, the last again more effective and hence more often heard than the work that it introduces. The first complete performance of Manfred was in Weimar in 1852 under the direction of Liszt, who included, as an intermezzo, Wagner's Faust Overture, this in the absence of the composer, who felt unable to undertake the journey from Düsseldorf. The Overture, however, had been given earlier concert performances, in Leipzig, by the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Schumann and in Weimar.

Carl Maria von Weber, a cousin of Mozart's wife Constanze, was intended by his father to emulate his distinguished relative's early success. Franz Anton Weber was a man of varied abilities and professions and at the time of his son's birth had been employed as Kapellmeister to the Bishop of Lübeck at Eutin in Holstein. A year later he set up the Weber Theatre Company and embarked on a peripatetic existence, during the course of which Carl Maria pursued his fitful musical studies. He was to exhibit extraordinary precocity and in 1804, at the age of eighteen, became Kapellmeister in Breslau. Further appointments followed, with work at the opera-houses of Prague and Dresden, and a career in which he showed his virtuosity as a pianist, his innovative ability as a conductor and his creative power, above all in the composition of Der Freischütz, the first German romantic opera.

The story of Der Freischütz includes many of the essential elements of German romanticism, the forest, the huntsmen, magic and diabolical intervention. The opera was written between 1817 and 1821 and was first staged in the latter year in Berlin, where it was an immediate success. The marksman of the title, Max, is urged by Caspar to enlist the support of Samiel, the ghostly Great Huntsman of the forest, in order to win the hand of Agathe, denied him if he fails in a shooting contest. With the midnight help of Samiel in the Wolf's Glen at the heart of the forest, Max helps to cast the magic bullets which in the final act kill Caspar, his evil counsellor, and would have killed his beloved Agathe, had it not been for divine intervention. She survives, however, to become Max's bride.

The Overture to Der Freischütz gives initial prominence to the four French horns, instruments associated with the huntsman. The slow introduction is followed by a rapid section of mounting excitement in C minor, leading to a major conclusion, as the first act opens to find Max dejected at his lack of success, as his companions shoot at the target.

Euryanthe, a grand heroic-Romantic opera, was completed in 1821, using a libretto by Helmina von Chezy, the eccentric author of the unsuccessful Rosamunde, now remembered only for Schubert's incidental music. The libretto of Euryanthe was no more successful. Derived from a romance of the thirteenth century, it uses the tale of the husband driven to test his wife's fidelity. Adolar, Euryanthe's husband, wagers on his wife's constancy with the ill-disposed knight Lysiart. Matters are complicated by the jealousy of Euryanthe's friend Eglantine, secretly in love with Adolar, and by the restless ghost of Emma, Adolar's Sister. Lysiart and Eglantine are eventually thwarted in their evil designs, and Euryanthe is re-united with Adolar in final happiness at the end of a tale as improbable as it is complex.

The Overture to Euryanthe opens strongly with the full orchestra, leading, after a drum roll, to a theme that is to reappear as Adolar's second act aria. There is a gentle passage for muted violins and violas, followed by a recapitulation, after which the curtain rises on the great hall of King Ludwig's palace, where knights and nobles are assembled.

Weber's last opera, Oberon, with a libretto by Planché after Wieland, was written for London and staged at Covent Garden in 1826, at a time when the composer was already seriously ill. He died in London the day before his planned return home to Germany, two weeks after his last appearance as conductor in the opera-house. Like Euryanthe, the opera has a medieval origin in a chanson de geste, embroidered by Wieland, who knew his Shakespeare. The piece opens with Oberon asleep, separated, as Puck informs us, from Titania, with whom he has quarrelled, to be reconciled only if they can find a constant couple, a search that ends in the proved fidelity of Huon of Bordeaux, who with the aid of a magic horn survives to be united once more with his beloved Reiza.

The Overture to Oberon opens, as it must, with the sound of Huon's magic horn, answered in the slow introduction by muted strings. The rapid section of the overture opens with a lively theme for the violins, while the horn is used again to introduce a secondary theme for the clarinet.

Antonín Dvořák must be considered the greatest of the Czech nationalist composers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and he certainly enjoys the widest internationa1 popularity. His achievement was to bring together music that derived its inspiration from Bohemia's woods and fields with the classical traditions continued by Brahms in Vienna.

Dvořák was born in 1841 in a village of Bohemia, where his father combined the trades of inn-keeper and butcher, which it was expected that his son would later follow. As a Child he played in his father's village band, his early training as a violinist in the hands of the village schoo1master. Schooling in Zlonice, where he was sent at the age of twelve, lodging with an uncle, allowed instruction in the rudiments of music from Antonín Liehmann. Two years later he was sent to Kamenice to learn German, but the following year the needs of his family made it necessary for him to return to Zlonice, where his parents had now settled, to help in the butcher's shop. Liehmann continued his lessons and persuaded his father to allow him to study in Prague. In 1857 he entered the Prague Organ School, where he was able to remain for two years.

Dvořák at first earned his living in Prague playing the viola in a band led by Karel Komsak, which was later to form part of the Provisional Theatre orchestra, established in 1862. He was to become principal viola-player and to continue as an orchestral player for the next nine years, for some time under the direction of Smetana, who exercised considerable inf1uence on Dvořák's parallel work as a composer. In 1871 he found himself able to resign from the Provisional Theatre orchestra and to marry. At this time he took a position as organist at the church of St. Adalbert, taught a few pupils and otherwise devoted himself to composition. It was through the encouragement of Brahms, four years later, that his music was brought gradually to the attention of a much wider public. In particular Brahms was able to persuade Simrock to publish Dvořák's Moravian Duets. Their success was followed by the publisher's request for a further set, the first series of Slavonic Dances, Opus 46, also composed for piano duet, but orchestrated at the same time by the composer. The same year, 1878, saw the composition of the three Slavonic Rhapsodies, Opus 45.

From this time onwards Dvořák’s fame was to grow and he was to win particular popularity in Germany and in England, visiting the latter country on several occasions land fulfilling commissions for choral works for Birmingham and Leeds. In 1891 he was appointed professor of composition at Prague Conservatory and the following year accepted an invitation to go to New York as director of the new National Conservatory. The period in America gave rise to one of his best known works, the Symphony From the New World. By 1895 he was back again in Prague, teaching at the Conservatory, of which he became director in 1901. He died two years later.

The Carnival overture has enjoyed much greater success. Originally given the title <Life>, this work was intended as a trilogy of symphonic poems. The cheerful Carnival finds only a passing place for the theme, which assumes more importance in Othello, which has themes associated with jealousy and love, developed in the Allegro con brio that follows the introduction.

Close the window