Berlioz and Prokofiev

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WHAT IS IT ABOUT?

Featured Artists: Lorin Maazel, Conductor Susan Graham, Mezzo-Soprano Program HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture to Benvenuto Cellini (1838) Hector Berlioz's opera Benevenuto Cellini is based on Vita di Benvenuto Cellini, the probably not-too-reliable autobiography of the outrageously flamboyant goldsmith, medal-and coin maker, sculptor, metal-worker, and libertine who lived in Italy 1500-1571. This larger-than-life character appealed to the Romantics and held a special fascination for Berlioz, whose own over-the-top, crazy personality led him to bizarre behavior (musically distilled in Symphonie fantastique, among other works). Berlioz read Cellini's memoir in 1833 when it appeared in translation. He wrote: "I had been very struck by a number of episodes in the life of Benvenuto Cellini and had the misfortune to believe it would make an interesting and dramatic subject for an opera." Auguste Barbier and Léon de Wailly collaborated on the libretto, along with some additional help from the renowned French Romantic poet Alfred de Vigny. The opera was premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1838, but the poor performance resulted in a decidedly mixed response from the audience. Berlioz sarcastically wrote: "The Overture was extravagantly applauded, the rest was hissed with admirable ensemble and energy." The setting for the opera is 16th century Rome, during Carnival and Ash Wednesday, and involves not only the love story of Cellini and the innocent young Teresa, but also the creation of one of Cellini's masterpieces, a bronze sculpture titled "Perseus with the Head of Medusa." Disguises, abductions, murder, an explosion in the foundry during the casting of the statue, reconciliation, forgiveness from Pope Clement VII, reuniting of lovers--it's all in Berlioz's work. The overture opens with a dazzling musical portrait of the artist, then previews themes from the opera--the solemn strains being a reference to the Pope, lyrical passages associated with figures from Carnival, and the usual musical fireworks from this master of orchestration. Berlioz isn't the only one to have attempted to portray Cellini in music: Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin did so with the short-lived Broadway musical, Firebrand of Florence. SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Symphony No. 7 (1951-52) Prokofiev had left Russia just after the 1917 Revolution and returned from his world travels in 1933. In the years that followed the composer was incredibly productive, creating some of his most magnificent scores...like the Fifth Symphony and the stunning Romeo and Juliet Ballet. But this period also witnessed the denunciation of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Soviet authorities--an action that cast a pall over all composers with its campaign against those who were not toeing the artistically "appropriate" line. The worst time for Prokofiev came in 1948 when his Sixth Symphony was denounced for excessive "formalism," and he became an outcast, like his compatriot Shostakovich. The Moscow Composer's Union concurred, branding many of Prokofiev's major works as "anti-Soviet." That same year his estranged first wife Lina was arrested for espionage and sent to Siberia for nine years. Turning to a "safer" sphere, the composer of Peter and the Wolf wrote his Seventh Symphony for the Soviet Children's Radio Division. It evolved into the larger composition you'll hear, and, like all of his works, displays his mastery of colorful orchestration, lyricism, and wit. The conductor of the premiere suggested during rehearsals that if Prokofiev reworked the ending to sound more upbeat and uplifting his chances for a higher-value Stalin Prize would be increased. Prokofiev relented and published the revised coda as a supplement to the work. The Seventh Symphony did, in fact, win the Stalin Prize worth 100,000 rubles. HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) La mort de Cléopatre, scène lyrique (1829) For four years Berlioz pursued the Prix de Rome, instituted by Louis XIV and awarded by the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris; and it was considered the ultimate prize for composers. For his first attempt, Berlioz submitted La mort d'Orphée, which was roundly rejected by the jury; the second year he entered Herminie and won second prize (it was understood that a composer had to win second prize, before he could win first prize--usually the following year). With sarcasm he wrote: "Since the gentlemen [of the committee] have decided ahead of time to give me the first prize, I don't see why I would be compelled, as was the case the year before, to write in their style and with their sensibility, instead of letting myself go with my own feelings and the style that is natural to me. Let's be serious artists and compose a distinguished cantata." His entry in 1829 was the present cantata La mort de Cléopatre, a setting of Pierre-Ange Vieillard de Boismartin's text. The composer wrote: "The subject was 'Cleopatra after the Battle of Actium.' The Queen of Egypt clasps the asp to her bosom and dies in convulsions; but before dying, she invokes the spirits of the Pharaohs and in holy fear demands to know if she, a queen of crimes and dissipations, may hope to enter those mighty vaults erected by the shades of monarchs distinguished by their fame and virtue. Here was an idea worth expressing in music." The baffled jury, not used to a style so contrary to what was expected, gave no prize that year. (It wasn't till 1830--Berlioz' fifth attempt--that he finally won first prize with a conventional work entitled La mort de Sardanapale.) The sonorities of La mort de Cléopatre are unmistakable Berlioz. Worthy of note are the intense tragic tone and distress, as well as triumph, of the Egyptian queen as she recalls her years of glory before going to eternal darkness. Berlioz described the piece as "somber, broad, sinister and lugubrious: a great voice breathing a menacing lament in the mysterious stillness of the night." The 20th century composer Edgar Varèse refers to its "violent beauty." A favorite concert piece of mezzos, it gives the soloist unending opportunities to express powerful emotions, ending with the words: "By leaving life... Cleopatra becomes worthy of Caesar again." SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Scythian Suite (1915) Think of the Scythian Suite as The Rite of Spring on steroids. Bolder, louder, wilder, no holds barred--with a scenario more than a little reminiscent of Stravinsky's work: primitive tribes--the Scythians of the title--enemy gods, an idol worshipped by ancient celebrants. The story behind the Suite is a fascinating one. Prokofiev's mother had treated him to a graduation present after he completed his training at the St. Petersburg Conservatory: a tour through Western Europe. In London he was introduced to the great impresario Serge Diaghilev, whose staging of Stravinsky's ballet Rite in 1913 had caused one of the most notorious riots in all of classical music. Diaghilev's acclaimed Ballets Russes were performing in England, and the young man seized the opportunity to hook up with the man who might be able to advance his career. Diaghilev was impressed with Prokofiev, and after lengthy negotiations, the two men settled on a ballet with a prehistoric theme. When Diaghilev received the score, then called Ala and Lolli (names of the idol and a warrior, respectively) he rejected it as uninteresting. Not one to be discouraged, Prokofiev reworked the score into a concert piece, the present Scythian Suite. The first movement tempo marking is Allegro feroce--setting the tone with forceful brass and percussion sounds. There is also martial music, with occasional forays into more delicate writing, ending in a finale marked "tempestuoso."

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