Program Notes: 14 June 2003

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Salzburg, 1756-Vienna, 1791): Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro

Even now the opera lover can tune to a broadcast of Le Nozze di Figaro and hear it introduced as "Mozart's delightful comedy of love and intrigue", or something similarly innocuous. But many present-day listeners, informed by recent scholarship, increasingly see Figaro as Mozart's biting-and deadly serious-commentary on class conflict, abuse of aristocratic privilege and issues of gender and sexuality, all of which were topics of hot debate amongst Enlightenment thinkers. And at least one modern scholar sees Figaro as an Enlightenment vision of the pastoral world as refuge for true lovers, much in line with the doctrines of Rousseau, and, we may add, Jefferson's view of the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right. Power, desire, truth: these eternal themes of human relationships are the focus of this, and the other operas, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, that Mozart composed in his partnership with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte.

In 1783 Mozart met da Ponte, who was lodging at the same house in Vienna. It is not unlikely that each man was struck by the other's intellectual brilliance. Mozart had been an accomplished keyboardist, violinist and composer since childhood; da Ponte, seven years' Mozart's senior, showed great facility in languages and literature at an early age. The meeting would lead to one of the greatest collaborations in the history of opera.

When Mozart suggested using Beaumarchais' Le mariage de Figaro as basis for a new comic opera, da Ponte accepted. He had some experience at converting established plays into opera, and the first Figaro play, Le barbier de Séville, had been set by Paisiello with great success. Moreover, Figaro was prohibited in Vienna as a subversive play, and Mozart foresaw that its staging as an Italian comic opera would catch public interest; smart business indeed. With the emperor in attendance, Le nozze di Figaro was first performed on 1 May 1786. It was a great triumph, receiving nine performances that season, only to disappear until Mozart's success with Don Giovanni caused its revival several years later.

Il barbiere di Siviglia (set by Paisiello and later, and more familiarly, by Rossini) sets the situation for the succeeding opera: Count Almaviva woos the young heiress Rosina under the nose of her guardian, the lawyer Dr. Bartolo, who had hoped to marry her himself. Almaviva is aided by the intriguing barber Figaro, whose profession gains him access to aristocratic households and sensitive (and therefore useful) information. In Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro the grateful Count has made the barber his valet; he has given his blessing for Figaro to marry Susanna, the Countess' maidservant. By this time, however, the Count's ardor for his wife has cooled and he now looks elsewhere for sexual fulfillment, and even though he has proclaimed that he will govern his estates by liberal Enlightenment principles, including the abolishment of the much-hated droit du seigneur, he is confident of obtaining it with Susanna this very night. In addition to his master, Figaro must now contend with enemies made along the way: the vengeful Bartolo and his old mistress Marcellina, and the Count's unctuous music-master Don Basilio. These are stock opera buffa characters and situations, but in the hands of da Ponte, the early advocate of Rousseau, and Mozart, the liberal Freemason, they portend much more.

The overture, whilst containing none of the opera's actual music, sets the mood and concisely narrates the plot. The tension is immediately palpable in the opening measures, which contain devices of intrigue: unison eighth-note passage-work; the low instrumental registers and hushed dynamics hint at the dark aspects behind the mask of comedy. Conflict between the characters, and indeed the war between the sexes, is shown toward the middle of the overture by the loud scale passages in lower strings and bassoons, very male in its tympani-accented thumping anger, only to be mocked by the same figure in the higher-pitched, feminine violins. In the measures that immediately follow, these same violins offer the sweeter melody of honesty and reconciliation. Mozart employs comic touches, such as the chattering woodwinds suggesting the magistrate Don Curzio's loose dentures and resultant stutter. Final resolution occurs at the overture's end when dotted-rhythms in horns, trumpets and timpani play the wedding march and the proclaim Figaro's broader theme, the triumph of love, virtue and truth that transcend the absolutist barriers of sex and station.

Giuseppe Verdi (Le Roncole, 1813-Milan, 1901): Don Carlo Introduction and Scene, "Ella giammai m'amo," Act IV

During the 19th century it was common practice for opera libretti to derive from the works of great playwrights and poets. Verdi's Shakespearian operas include Macbeth, Othello and Falstaff; his Byronic operas include I due Foscari and Il corsaro; Ernani derives from Hugo, and La traviata from Dumas fils. But Verdi seems to have had a special affinity for the plays of Friedrich Schiller, the source for no less than four operas: Giovanna d'Arco, I masnadieri, Luisa Miller and Don Carlo.

In 1850, when Verdi was negotiating the composition of Les vêpres siciliennes with the Paris Opéra, Don Carlos was suggested as an opera subject. Fifteen years later it came up again as a scenario by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle. Verdi accepted it, with the revisions he demanded, including the spectacle of the auto-da-fé in Act III. He found the play congruent with his own values: individual and national freedom and resistance to oppression from throne and church, interaction of personal and political destinies, and dramatic complexity of relationships.

It was no easy task to transform Schiller's sprawling drama into a cohesive opera libretto, and Verdi's demands on du Locle (Méry died in June, 1866) were severe. Don Carlos was too long; it was said, amongst other things, that opera goers would miss the last trains out of Paris. In truth it was very long, so entire numbers were cut in rehearsals. The premiere at the Opéra on 11 March 1867, on which so much time and money had been lavished, was still disappointing to Verdi, who held that Italian houses gave livelier performances with far less rehearsal time.

Nonetheless he was fond of this grand opera in the French style, his longest and darkest score, and was loath to cut it. In 1882 he revised it himself, still Don Carlos in French. The first act was removed and numbers were revised. The four-act version, now known as Don Carlo in Italian translation, was performed at La Scala in 1884, and this shorter version held the stage for many years. But in recent decades the five-act version, in either French or Italian, has regained favor and is now most often performed.

Despite Friedrich Schiller's place in German letters, Don Carlos (1787) is rarely performed, and almost never outside Germany. In fact, it is by dint of Verdi's operas based on his work that Schiller holds the stage today. He is best known the world over for his ode "An die Freude," several stanzas of which were set by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony. The writing of Don Carlos increased his interest in historical investigation, and further historical writing would follow, but his protagonist bore little resemblance to the actual Infante Carlos, only son of Philip II of Spain, a 14-year-old hunchback, possibly epileptic, mentally unstable and violent. It is true that he was briefly betrothed to the 13-year-old Elisabeth de Valois, daughter of Henry II of France, and she did marry the 32-year-old Philip, bringing about peace between the two nations. The historical Carlos accepted this with no ill will, but he became more unstable and violent for whatever reasons, and died at the age of 23.

Schiller's dramatic purposes and Enlightenment political sentiments needed more than this. He drew upon a fictional narrative, Histoire de Dom Carlos, fils de Philippe II, by the anti-clerical Abbé César Vichard de Saint-Réal (1639-92). The abbé, and thus Schiller, transformed the neurotic Don Carlos into a progressive Hamlet, a brooding intellectual whose energies are channeled into the cause of Flemish liberation from Spanish tyranny, and resisting his father, who, for reasons of state, married Carlos' beloved Elisabeth. The histories of other personages were altered or invented, such as the ancient and fanatic Grand Inquisitor; the liberal Marquis of Posa, who shares Carlos' ideals; and Princess Eboli, who loves Carlos. Schiller, and later Verdi, created what the scholar Julian Budden sees as a biblical Samuel-King Saul-Jonathan-David axis, in the form of the Grand Inquisitor-Philip-Carlos-Posa relationship. This afforded a complex interconnection of relationships, and both Schiller and Verdi portray the Spanish king in a most human way, caught between obligations of the church and the kingdom, and the ideals of his only son, whom he loves but must imprison and put to death.

In Act IV, the act in grand opera when dramatic focus shifts to the intimate, Philip's awful burdens include the realization that his young bride's heart lies elsewhere, and this leads to even more desolate realms of self-awareness. His introduction and scene "Ella giammai m'amo!" is a old- fashioned, formal ternary structure: introduction and exposition, a middle section followed by a final section that recapitulates the musical and dramatic material of the exposition-very appropriate for Philip's kingly station and reactionary world view, both of which imprison his humanity.

Carlisle Floyd (Latta, SC, 1926). Susannah: aria, "Hear me, O Lord"

Carlisle Floyd studied composition with Ernst Bacon at Syracuse University, earning his BA in 1946 and his MA in 1949. He studied piano with Sidney Foster and Rudolf Firkusny. His teaching career began in 1947 at Florida State University, where his two-act opera Susannah received its first performance in 1955. It is typical of Floyd's music in its accessible style, almost an American type of what Hindemith called Gebrauchsmusik, or "music for practical use." Floyd's harmonies are simple but fluid. His melodies derive from American folk and hymn tunes, but his sources are far-flung: act I of Susannah begins with a quotation from J. S. Bach's E-major violin partita, which is almost immediately transformed into a country fiddle tune.

Floyd has composed operas with the limited resources of small opera companies in mind. Casts and orchestras are kept small: no heckelphones or Wagner tubas in his scoring. Lighting and other technical needs are simple. Likewise, his plots are simple and appeal to all audiences, with realistic narratives and characters.

Susannah is based on the story of Susannah and the Elders in the book of Apocrypha. In New Hope Valley, a Tennessee mountain hamlet, pretty Susannah Polk (soprano), an innocent girl of 19, has aroused the jealousy of the Church Elders' wives. She and her poor family are disdained by the villagers; she is seen as a possible wanton, and her brother Sam (tenor) as a drunk. An Elder's son, Bat McLean (tenor) is pressured by his parents into "confessing" his seduction by Susannah; conscience-stricken, he warns her.

Sam overhears and advises patience, urging her to attend a revival meeting led by Olin Blitch (bass-baritone), an itinerant preacher. Susannah rejects his public appeal to repentance, and visits her at home to counsel her in person. He is attracted to her and, urged on by her reputation, makes advances; despite her revulsion she allows him to spend the night.

Blitch has destroyed Susannah's standing in the community and is now stricken with remorse ("Hear me O Lord", the aria on our program). He realizes that her alleged sinful nature was based on malicious gossip. But the villagers are unmoved by his protestations of Susannah's innocence. Her brother Sam learns of these events, and shoots and kills the preacher. The villagers attempt to drive Susannah out of town, but she menaces them with Sam's shotgun. She seductively draws Little Bat to her in order to slap his face; he runs off as the curtain falls.

The role of Susannah was sung by Phyllis Curtin at the prèmiere, in Tallahassee, and at its first New York performance, by the City Opera in 1956. Susannah has been widely performed throughout the United States, and in 1966 it was the only contemporary work to be in the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera's national company during their inaugural season.

Verdi: Macbeth. Aria, "Come dal ciel precipita," Act II.

"This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man," Verdi said in a letter to his librettist, Francesco Piave, on 4 April 1846. "If we can't make something great out of it let us at least try and do something out of the ordinary." The tragedy was Shakespeare's Macbeth, which Piave was transforming into a libretto for Verdi. True to form, the composer was making all manner of demands on his librettist: keep the verses short; keep the style noble and lofty, except for the witches' scenes, which "must be trivial but in an extravagant original way." Three weeks later Verdi complained to Piave that Lady Macbeth's recitative was too long and not "lofty" enough; there were too many lines in the duet between Macbeth and Banquo-"Oh, how prolix you are!" Verdi was no easy man to work with, especially in the case of the long-suffering Piave, his most frequent collaborator.

Perhaps Verdi's inherently prickly nature was exacerbated by his veneration of Shakespeare, and Macbeth in particular. The bloody melodrama and gloomy Scottish setting appealed to an era that was fascinated with all things Scottish, a by-product of the Romantic cult of early times, enshrouded in the mists of myth and distant historical memory. No wonder that the Scottish Play was Shakespeare's most popular tragedy in Verdi's time. There are other reasons, especially the popular fascination with what the historian Garry Wills calls liminal states of mind, those border regions that lie between consciousness and unconsciousness, sanity and madness, waking and dreaming, and life and death. Melancholia, madness, somnambulism, dreams, séances and apparitions excited the popular imagination; Macbeth's brooding soloquies, Banquo's ghost, the three witches and Lady Macbeth's madness and suicide (women's madness became a stock operatic item also) were sure guarantors of a full house; so was a gore- saturated stage. All these were stock-in-trade for Italian opera of the 19th century. But Verdi, with his peerless theatrical instincts, incorporated all these items into a firmly- paced and emotionally genuine narrative.

Banquo's "Come dal ciel precipita" (Act II) is a deeply moving romanza for baritone in a strong supporting rôle, a Verdi hallmark. In the wooded grounds of Macbeth's castle, gangs of hired murderers hide in wait for Banquo and Fleance, who now enter. Introduced by nervous string tremolos, Banquo advises caution on his son Fleance. Dirge-like lower brasses and bassoons in the gloomy key of F minor set the mood as Banquo, in measured notes, meditates on this night, much like that of Duncan's murder. "A thousand anxious imaginings herald misfortune," he sings, as Verdi's harmonic scheme brings an anxious moment in the surprising move to A-flat minor, and then to the parallel major; the shift back, not to F minor but to the unexpected F major, underscores the "phantoms of terror" that oppress Banquo's mind.

The ballet music for Macbeth continues the mood of the witches and their cauldrons that opens Act III. It contains "Scottish" dotted rhythms, and musical colors that suggest the gloom of Scottish heaths and mists, and invokes the supernatural stage action; there are also lyric episodes. The ballet closes with a witches' round-dance whose rhythms recall those of the Ronde du sabbat in Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique. Macbeth's first performance, at Florence on 14 March 1847, was successful. Verdi sold the score to Ricordi for 18,000 lire, compared with 2500 lire he received for Nabucco just a few years earlier. He revised it for Paris in 1865, where it was performed at the Théâtre-Lyrique in French translation.

Ludwig van Beethoven (Bonn, 1770-Vienna, 1827): Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

In 1813, just five years after Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was first performed, E.T.A. Hoffmann declared that his music "sets in motion the lever of fear, of awe, of horror, of suffering, and wakens just that infinite longing which is the essence of romanticism." Beethoven was "a completely romantic composer" who no longer composes by design or shape, "but, following the so-called dæmonic method, he dashes everything off exactly as his ardently active imagination dictates it to him . . . Can there be any work of Beethoven's that confirms all this to a to a higher degree than his indescribably profound, magnificent symphony in C minor?"

Hoffmann's reception of the Fifth typified idealism, a new idealist æsthetic current amongst theorists, critics and audiences of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. An outgrowth of the 18th-century sublime, it bestowed upon instrumental music a new prestige, the highest expression of a musical and artistic ideal. Idealist thinkers believed that instrumental music exercised a power of imagination, which Beethoven's favorite intellectual Immanuel Kant called Geist, or "spirit," that was beyond the explicitly descriptive power of language, and could only be manifest in the higher ideal of musical form; it transported the listener to the infinite realm of pure spirit, beyond the constraints of words and concrete images. Aesthetics of idealism notwithstanding, Hoffmann's hagiographic tone would become the very stuff of what Sir George Grove called "the Beethoven religion" that prevailed over the public imagination throughout the 19th century; the Fifth Symphony was amongst its most venerated objects of worship.

The first sketches date from 1804 and are intermixed with those of the Fourth Piano Concerto, whose opening rhythms the Fifth Symphony shares. But work on the new symphony stopped as other compositions engaged Beethoven's energies in those years. By 1806 Beethoven again turned his attention to symphonic composition. The C-minor symphony's planned finale, a movement of Mozartean pathos, was discarded and a new, utterly triumphant finale took shape. By that time he had made the acquaintance of Count Franz von Oppersdorff, who wished to act as Beethoven's patron and thus obtain his latest works. Oppersdorff paid advance fees for the new symphony in C minor. In 1807, however, Beethoven interrupted work on it to compose a mass for the Esterházy family. In March 1808 he wrote Oppersdorff, informing him that the new symphony would soon be ready once the parts had been copied. The count sent more money, but Beethoven, who could be less than scrupulous in business, dedicated the C-minor symphony and its companion, the Sixth Symphony (Pastorale), to Prince Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky. Oppersdorf was compensated by receiving the Fourth Symphony, and disappeared from Beethoven's life. The two new symphonies were performed at a concert on 22 December 1808, at the Theater an der Wien.

The Fifth is Beethoven's first minor-key symphony, and his "C minor mood" has been much commented upon. It is much different from that of Mozart, for whom this key had aspects of sublimity: melancholy, terror, otherworldliness. Beethoven, however, used C minor as a stormy, heroic tonality; his works in this key include the String Quartet Op. 18, no. 4; the Pathétique Sonata; the Third Piano Concerto; the Eroica Symphony's funeral march; the overture to Collin's drama Coriolan; and, of course, the Fifth Symphony-all well-known works full of high intensity bordering on vehemence.

The sudden shifts from C minor to C major in the Fifth, which occur within the first and third movements, and between the third and fourth movements, recall Haydn's late minor-key symphonies, which employ this tonal scheme; so does the beginning of The Creation, where the sudden, glorious breaking-forth of the parallel major happens on the words "And there was light." The association of minor-to-major with darkness-to-light was a common enough trope during the Classic Era. But Beethoven's uses of it in the Fifth are particularly momentous, especially in the unexpected full force of the Finale's triumphant opening measures, a moment which he reserved for the first use of the piccolo, contrabassoon and trombones in the symphony.

The extreme gestures and vehement energy are typical of Beethoven's "heroic period." They are also the rhetoric of the revolutionary orator, for Beethoven was captivated by the sentiments, rhetoric and music of the French Revolution. This captivation shows in the slow movement's fanfares and the augmented winds and martial spirit of the Finale, all of which recall the music of the Revolutionary fêtes and stage works; moreover, the conductor and period-performance specialist John Eliot Gardiner believes that the first- movement motive of the Fifth derives from the rhythms of Cherubini's Hymne au Panthéon of 1794, music Beethoven probably knew and respected. (Gardiner is more credible than Beethoven's factotum, Anton Schindler, a notoriously unreliable source, whose well-traveled Beethoven quote, that the world's most famous musical motive represents "Fate knocking at the door," is probably apocryphal.)

Additionally, the expanded wind section and more aggressive brass and timpani writing are straight from the opera house, especially the horn-and-trumpet fanfares in the slow movement, the long timpani lead-in to the Finale, and the grand wind sonorities with which the Finale begins. Overall, the musical language of the Fifth may be the most operatic Beethoven employs in any of his symphonies. No wonder, for Fidelio had its première just a few years before, and he was now writing more music for the stage. The so-called "rescue opera", a fashion imported from Revolutionary France, had an especial influence-Fidelio was of this type-and the entire Fifth Symphony, with its gripping opening movement, moody and unsettled slow movement, dark and brooding scherzo and triumphant finale, has the dramatic, narrative qualities of grand opera. Nonetheless the Fifth's structure is purely symphonic, and derived from well-tried practices. The motives that tie the entire work together are short, two or four measures, typical of Classic-era melodic construction. The first-movement exposition and development are extremely tight, again a Haydn hallmark. The fugato writing in the Scherzo's trio recalls the young Beethoven's mastery of J. S. Bach at the keyboard. But Beethoven's repetitive hammering- out of the motives; the intense and unrelenting energy followed by periods of unsettled reflection, especially in the slow movement; and the unexpected shifting of gravity to other structural points, such as the coda of the outer movements-all these are the compositional methods of a revolutionary architect in music. After two centuries Beethoven's Fifth Symphony still has the power of transport.

- Henry Wyatt