Franz Schreker

Franz Schreker: Ekkehard Overture, Op. 12 (1903)

Franz Schreker (1878–1934) was born in Monaco, where his father was an Austrian Court Photographer. He led a wandering life as a child before settling in Vienna after his father’s early death. He entered the Vienna Conservatory in 1892, and by 1900 was considered one of the rising stars of Austrian music. His first great success was through his operas, and in the 1910’s and 20’s he was the most performed new opera composer in German speaking theatres after Richard Strauss. His music was characterized by an extraordinary sense of orchestral color and variety and  by his gorgeous harmonic imagination. His operas were notorious for their highly sexualized plots and the decadent nature of his characters and stories. After the success of Strauss’ Salome and Elektra, it became commonplace in German opera houses to try to attract audiences with the shock value of the stories; no one was better at this than Schreker, and no one was better at writing music that exploited these tendencies than he was.

By the late 1920s there was some backlash against this style. The rise of the Nazis, who had very puritanical views of what music should be like, led to the dimming of his star. He adapted, and his last operas and music were written in a leaner and more direct style, but their modernism still was contrary to Nazi taste, and when they came to power Schreker was stripped of his official positions and his music was effectively banned from performance. It did not help that he was part Jewish by heritage; despite having no connection with his own Jewish background, his music was said to represent the decadence that they regarded as typically Jewish. His life destroyed, he went into a severe depression and died in 1934.

The Ekkehard Overture is an early work, while he was still developing his style, but in it one can already hear his extraordinary ear for orchestral sonority, the gorgeous melodies and harmonies that were to become his trademark, and his emerging dramatic sense. It is based on a widely read novel by Viktor von Scheffel, a Medieval Romance that tells the story of a monk named  Ekkehard who falls in love with a noblewoman. She rejects him, and after a heroic battle he is imprisoned ,but he escapes and attempts to overcome his passion for her by living as a hermit.  The opening, with its primitive, open sound is meant to suggest the medievalism of the story, while the stormy middle section relates to both his passion and his prowess on the battlefield. The quiet final pages bring us into the mood of the contemplative life that he chose after his escape from prison.

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25 (1831)

I.  Molto allegro con fuoco in G minor

II. Andante in E major

III. Presto—Molto allegro e vivace in G major

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) was among the greatest prodigies in music history. His Octet, written when he was 16, and his Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, written the following year, were masterpieces; in the history of music only Erich Wolfgang Korngold was writing music of comparable power and sophistication at such a young age.

By the time he wrote this Concerto, he was a grizzled veteran  composer of 21. He wrote it in a few days for himself to play in the fall of 1830 during a holiday in Rome, and he thought very little of it at the time. However, it was a great hit at the first performance, and it has remained solidly in the repertoire ever since. Its very familiarity has perhaps dulled its novelty; at the time it was written, it had several characteristics that made it quite different from the typical Concertos of its time. For one the piano comes in almost immediately at the beginning of the piece. This was highly unusual. Although Beethoven introduced the piano at the beginning of his last two Concertos, he handled it differently, for after a brief introduction of the soloist the orchestra goes on to do a normal exposition of the material without the soloist before the piano comes back in the usual way after a couple of minutes of music.

Mendelssohn’s Concerto dispenses entirely with the orchestral introduction, with the piano playing a primary role from the start of the piece. Another unusual feature is that he links all three movements of the work, creating a seamless transition from the first fast movement to the slower middle one and into the frenetic finale. That finale has long been a favorite of pianists for its brilliance and effectiveness, but the earlier movements are full of drama, color and great tunes.

Beethoven Statue

Ludwig van Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 (1807)

Beethoven’s Overture is based on an 1804 play by Heinrich Josef von Collin (not the one by Shakespeare!) on the life of the semi-legendary Roman figure Coriolanus. We are not sure if he wrote it as an overture to an actual production of the play, or if he was simply inspired by the story to write the music. We have not been able to ascertain an actual performance where the Overture was used, but the work was very popular at the time, and it certainly could have been written for a performance, although its premiere was at a private concert at the estate of Prince Lobkowitz at which Beethoven’s fourth Piano Concerto and fourth Symphony were also premiered. The story as told by Collin tells of Coriolanus’ exile from Rome and his attempt to lead a group of enemies of Rome to attack the city.  His mother pleads with him to spare the city, which he eventually does, and his quasi-heroic suicide is in remorse for wanting to attack and destroy what had once been his home. (In Shakespeare, of course, he is murdered.)

The work itself is a study in contrasts. The war-like character of the hero is made clear from the opening chords and by the aggressive nature of the first theme. This is contrasted with a later theme with a pleading motive that is said to represent the entreaties of Coriolanus’ mother to get her son to put off his attempt to invade and plunder Rome. The pleading theme eventually takes precedence, just as in the play he decides against the attack. The end of the Overture, in stark and quiet power, depicts his suicide.

The strength of the work comes in its directness and simplicity. Although the outline of the story is completely obvious, it is not necessary to know the play to respond to the drama of the music. The opening-a straightforward C minor chord-is scored in a way that is so powerful that one could not mistake the music for any composer besides Beethoven. The closing-as simple as the opening-uses the same material in a way that conveys a completely different musical message, and in its quietness is as powerful as the strong and vital opening.

Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith: Mathis Der Maler Symphony (1934) (Mathis the Painter)

I Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert)

II. Grablegung (Entombment)

III.  Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of Saint Anthony)

The Symphony was based on material that Hindemith (1895-1963) was using to compose the opera of the same name, based on the life of Matthias Grünewald (1470–1528), a painter of religious works during the German Renaissance. The central theme of the opera was Grünewald’s struggle to live as a free and independent artist in a time of great cultural repression. As Hindemith was working on the opera during the first years of the Third Reich in the 1930s, the possible connection to, and critique of, the Nazi regime was not lost on the government officials of the time. In the earliest days of the Reich there had been some effort to bring Hindemith into the Nazi fold, but the Symphony and opera that followed were considered a direct provocation and Hindemith, labeled as an “atonal noisemaker,” was forced to leave the country. The Symphony, which had been premiered by Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, was immediately determined to be “Jewish inspired” and was banned from further performance, and Furtwängler was censured and threatened for having performed the work.

The music itself was incorporated deftly into the opera itself; the first movement became the Overture to the opera; the second became an orchestral interlude in the last act; and the third became part of Scene 6 of the opera, where the material was further extended. Each movement is also directly inspired by a work of art by Grünewald, the Isenheim Altarpiece. The contrasts in the music are a direct reflection of the artist’s own vision of the struggle of his times – the frescos chosen contrast a mood of extreme serenity with depictions of the horrors and struggles of the early Reformation. Hindemith saw in these pictures, and these stories, reflections of the struggles of his own time, and in so doing, created the work that many consider his own masterpiece.

Mayumi Kimura Meguro

Mayumi Kimura Meguro: Hana O Tobashite (2018)

MusicaNova Composition Fellow Mayumi Kimura Meguro is an award winning classical and film composer and arranger whose clients include the United Nations, the University of Michigan, and the Parliament of Canada. Her works have been performed worldwide. Mayumi is a graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy and the recipient of the 2018 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award. In 2017 she graduated with honors from the University of Michigan as a triple major in Music Composition, Music Theory, and International Studies, with a minor in Marketing and Business administration. Mayumi is currently a Human Rights intern at the United Nations New York Headquarters where she works in the UN Human Rights Office as well as arranging and composing works for the UN Symphony Orchestra and the UN Singers Choir.

The MusicaNova Orchestra presented the Arizona premiere of Hana o Tobashite in March, 2109.  The work is a striking evocation of the suffering of everyday people in a war, based on her grandmother’s experience of the firebombing of Takamatsu city in World War II

Toshiko Yamaguchi, Meguro’s grandmother and a survivor of the attack, inspired the composition when she said: “This year I saw on the news that it is the 70th anniversary from the end of the war. From my own real experience… the first thing I remember is the hunger. There was nothing to eat. That is what I remember the most, that and the day of the bombing. (Takamatsu city was firebombed on July 3, 1945). Every night we would hear at least 2 sirens alerting us of fire bombings. In Japan the bombs were meant to burn and the houses in Japan were mostly made out of wood so they completely burned. The sky of our city was red… red, red.”

The composer describes her work: “I believe that there is a whole side of the history of Japan during World War II that remains untold. A story that does not speak about fanaticism for the emperor, suicide missions, and bloodthirsty political tactics. But rather the unspoken story of the misery, fear, and pain that was felt by millions of Japanese civilians like my grandmother through constant fire bomb attacks and starvation. This piece is my attempt at sharing, and reflecting on my grandmother’s side of the story during the war. It is my effort at taking away, at least for a couple of minutes, the political and military sides of war that our society constantly wants to focus on. Rather, it is my attempt to reflect, to honor, and to grieve for the people that all around the world suffer and are silenced by war. Not only in the past but in our world today. The last minutes of my piece serving as an elegy to all of these human lives.”