Carl Maria von Weber: Overture to Der Freischütz (“The Marksman”)
Weber was only 34 years old when, in 1821, he achieved extraordinary international success with his operatic ghost-story, Der Freischütz. We should remember when this was: Napoleon had only just died in exile on the Atlantic island of St Helena, Rossini was all the rage, Beethoven had not yet started his Ninth Symphony, Schubert had not yet written his Unfinished Symphony, yet with this one piece, Weber launched a new kind of musical Romanticism which would go on to influence composers as different from one another as Liszt, Berlioz, Chopin, Wagner, Brahms and even Tchaikovsky.
Partly this is a matter of changing taste. The plot of Der Freischütz, with its eerie setting deep in the ancient German forest, its fairytale elements of magic and the supernatural, the Faustian idea of selling your soul to a devil, and a conflict between good and evil for the hand of a beautiful young girl… all of this belongs to the fashionable new style of Romantic Melodrama. Throw in some terrific tunes, and what could go wrong? The piece was a smash hit all over Europe and very soon found its way to the United States.
And yet it was much more than that. Something about Weber’s way of writing for the orchestra announced a new way of writing German music. Perhaps it was the wonderful interweaving of the four French horns at the opening, the terrific darkness of the low strings, or the peculiar folk-like pathos of the woodwind solos, but a new style was somehow born in this piece – and especially in this overture – which would eventually lead – many years later – to the High German Romanticism of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Brahms’s First Symphony and even the symphonies of Mahler.
Weber died suddenly in London in 1826. He was only 39 years old, and Beethoven and Schubert were still alive in Vienna and composing masterpieces. Nearly 20 years later, after a patriotic press campaign, Weber’s remains were brought back to the city of Dresden for reburial, where the young Wagner gave a ringing speech by his graveside, declaring, "A more German composer than you has never lived!"
Serge Prokofiev: Sinfonia concertante for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 125
Prokofiev’s musical life can be divided into three chapters: childhood and youth in Imperial Russia before the 1917 Revolution; nearly 20 years of living in Europe and America as piano virtuoso and brilliant young composer; and the last period of his life, back in his beloved homeland, now the Soviet Union, ruled over by Joseph Stalin.
In the mid-1930s, while Prokofiev and his family were still in Paris, and he was visiting the United States almost every year, he began a cello concerto for one of his most famous fellow Russian emigrés, then living in America, Gregor Piatigorsky. He did not finish it however, until after his return to Moscow. There, the Soviet first performance was not a great success and the piece was quickly forgotten as the catastrophic events of World War II unfolded.
Only after the war did Prokofiev’s new young friend, Mstislav Rostropovich (soon to become one of the greatest cellists in history), take the piece up again, and it was his performance which persuaded the composer to rewrite the piece completely (though using some of the same tunes and ideas) as a much grander and very different composition. To give the listeners some feeling of how far away this music is from the original version, Prokofiev gave it a new title: Symphony-Concerto (usually translated as Sinfonia concertante). The work is definitely still a concerto, with a hugely difficult and virtuosic solo part, but it is also at the same time a symphony, an orchestral epic.
The late great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, a personal friend of the composer, once described the awe-inspiring sound of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante as “like the sun coming up over a village in Ancient Russia.”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
What could there possibly be to say new and fresh about one of the most famous and best loved pieces of music ever written?!?
Well, one answer might be to return to the very beginning of the 19th century when – at an extraordinary and tremendously long gala-style concert in Vienna (called an "Academy") – the still-young composer unveiled a whole series of new and now familiar masterpieces, all on the same evening, including this symphony and the Sixth Symphony (the Pastoral) as well as the Fourth Piano Concerto. Unfortunately, it was the middle of winter, the theatre was extremely cold, the concert lasted around 4 hours, and Beethoven had not had time to rehearse any of the pieces properly. The music was extremely difficult, all unfamiliar, and the performances were full of terrible mistakes.
In short, the occasion of the premiere of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was a disaster.
What a long way we have come since then! Nowadays there is scarcely an hour of daylight where this symphony is not being played somewhere by somebody. There is simply no other piece like it.
One fascinating reason for this turnaround was a famous article in the German press, by a writer and composer still famous in his own right today, E. T. A. Hoffmann. (Even if you have never heard of him, you will certainly know his stories; two ballets, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Délibes’s Coppelia, are based on them, as well as Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffmann).
Hoffmann was a huge admirer of Beethoven, and without ever having heard a performance of the symphony, he opened the orchestral score and was astonished by what he found:
I have before me one of the most important works by the master whose pre-eminence as an instrumental composer it is doubtful anyone would now dispute. In this symphony, Beethoven has unveiled before us the immeasurable, setting in motion a machinery of awe, fear, terror, pain, awakening that infinite yearning which is romanticism…
Hoffmann’s article created a sensation, not only in Germany but around the Western world from Paris to New York. His conviction that this was music unlike anything anyone had ever heard before helped to persuade people that this symphony had changed the course of musical history.
– San Diego Symphony Creative Consultant GERARD MCBURNEY