You've done a fine job with the programmes. As someone who writes them myself, I know the amount of work each one takes! It is an essential tool for a listener, as so much music requires context and understanding for true appreciation.
- Email from Michael Francis
Music Director, The Florida Orchestra
Music Director, Mainly Mozart, San Diego
Whether your audience is composed primarily of knowledgeable music lovers or occasional attendees, families with young children, or long-time patrons, I write notes that speak to a broad range of concertgoers. I always consult with potential clients to determine their ensemble's particular audience demographics, and tailor my notes accordingly. Below are two examples of my work. The Symphonie fantastique notes have an informal conversational tone, while the Beethoven Symphony No. 5 notes demonstrate a more standard annotating style.
Symphonie fantastique (Episode in the Life of an Artist), Op. 14
Composer: born December 11, 1803, La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France; died March 8, 1869, Paris
Work composed: Between January and April of 1830, although some of the material Berlioz included was written as early as 1819.
World premiere: François-Antoine Habeneck conducted the premiere in Paris on December 5, 1830. Two years later, on December 9, 1832, Habeneck, with Berlioz in the orchestra playing drums, conducted a substantially revised version, also in Paris.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas (ophicleides), 2 sets of timpani, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, bells, field drum, 2 harps and strings.
Estimated duration: 49 minutes
Hector Berlioz was an arrogant, selfish, vitriolic, self-obsessed man, and he drove poor Harriet Smithson, his unfortunate wife and the inspiration for his Symphonie fantastique, to drink and despair. Berlioz’ deficits as a human being notwithstanding, nothing takes away from the fact that at age 27, he wrote, by general agreement, the most amazing first symphony any composer has yet produced.
This feat is all the more surprising when we remember that Berlioz completed his Symphonie fantastique just three years after the death of Beethoven. When heard in that context, it is possible to appreciate how truly original this music is. Berlioz was no doubt inspired by Beethoven’s own symphonic innovations, especially Beethoven’s use of a program in his Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony, but, typically, Berlioz pushed the programmatic elements further than any composer before him.
Berlioz’ inspiration for the Symphonie fantastique was born from his obsession with Smithson, an Irish actress he first saw in a production of Hamlet in 1827. Berlioz spoke almost no English, so it seems likely that his violent infatuation with Smithson was carnal rather than courtly. (Berlioz and Smithson did not actually meet for another five years, after the premiere of the revised version of the Symphonie.)
What made Berlioz’ program so innovative and shocking to his audiences was the extent to which the story reflected autobiographical and literary elements. Along with Smithson, who was musically transformed into the idée fixe (recurring theme) of the symphony, Berlioz drew on plots from literature, most notably Faust, in his exploration of the gloriously ruinous nature of love. What audiences - both then and now - often misunderstood was the quintessentially Romantic nature of Berlioz’ program. He was not interested in a literal depiction of events, but rather the transformation of his emotional response to those events into music.
Berlioz insisted that his music could not be understood or appreciated without its accompanying program, which he provided to audiences at the first performances of the work. Its five movements, in roughest outline, proceed as follows: Part I: Dreams – Passions: Boy meets girl. Part II: A Ball: Boy obsesses about girl. Part III: A Scene In the Country: While strolling about the countryside listening to shepherds’ songs, boy convinces himself girl doesn’t return his love. Part IV: March to the Scaffold: In despair, boy takes a less-than-fatal dose of opium – enough to induce horrible visions and hallucinations – including a death march to the guillotine. Part V: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath: Still hallucinating, boy dreams his funeral is a witches’ Sabbath, and his beloved joins in the diabolical festivities.
Or, as Leonard Bernstein so eloquently put it, in one of his Young Peoples’ Concerts, “Berlioz tells it like it is … You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”
© Elizabeth Schwartz
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Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Composer: born December 16, 1770, Bonn; died March 26, 1827, Vienna
Work composed: 1804-08; originally commissioned by Count Franz von Oppersdorff for 500 florins, although Beethoven eventually dedicated the Fifth to Prince Franz Joseph Lobkowitz and Count Andreas Kyrillovitsch Razumovsky, patrons with whom he had a longer, more substantial relationship.
World premiere: Beethoven conducted the premiere on December 22, 1808, in a subscription concert that included the Sixth Symphony and the Piano Concerto No. 4, in the Theater-an-der-Wien.
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.
Estimated duration: 36 minutes
“This symphony invariably wields its power over men of every age like those great phenomena of nature … This symphony, too, will be heard in future centuries, as long as music and the world exist.”
— Robert Schumann
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is arguably one of the most iconic pieces of classical music ever composed, as well as one of the most iconoclastic. It has also come to represent the very essence of classical music itself. Music lovers know it backwards and forwards, and even those who have never attended an orchestra concert nonetheless recognize the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, as it is generally known, immediately.
Since it was first performed, on a cold December night in 1808 in Vienna, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has become a lens through which we have viewed music, society, and culture. Early audiences heard in its notes an exhortation of victory and triumph, whether literal or of a more internal, personal kind. As the 19th century progressed, Beethoven’s music, particularly his symphonies, became the standard against which every subsequent composer’s music was measured. During WWII, the Allies used the famous four-note opening as a signal in radio broadcasts of victory over the Axis powers. The Fifth Symphony even became an unforgettable part of the 1970s with Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band’s disco version, A Fifth of Beethoven.
Beethoven is famously said to have likened the four opening notes to the hand of Fate knocking at the door. In all likelihood, however, this description was fabricated by Anton Schindler, one of Beethoven’s early biographers, known both for his poor memory and his penchant for invention. Whether a representation of Fate or not, these four notes are the rhythmic seed from which the rest of the symphony develops. Beethoven, who left few clues as to his compositional process for the Fifth Symphony, did mention the creation of the theme that “begins in my head the working-out in breadth, height, and depth. Since I am aware of what I want, the fundamental idea never leaves me. It mounts, it grows. I see before my mind the picture in its whole extent, as if in a single grasp.”
The Fifth Symphony premiered with several other works, including the Sixth Symphony, the Piano Concerto No. 4 and the Choral Fantasy. In addition, listeners heard the concert aria “Ah, perfido,” and the “Gloria” and “Sanctus” from the Mass in C major. The four-hour concert challenged the endurance of even the most ardent Beethoven fans. To make matters worse, the orchestra was badly under-rehearsed and the hall poorly heated. Composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt, who attended the premiere, later wrote, “There we sat from 6:30 till 10:30, in the most bitter cold, and found by experience that one might have too much even of a good thing.”
The Fifth Symphony generated little comment at its premiere, but 18 months later, composer and critic E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote a lengthy review, in which he called it “one of the most important works of the master whose stature as a first-rate instrumental composer probably no one will now dispute … the instrumental music of Beethoven open[s] the realm of the colossal and the immeasurable for us.”
© Elizabeth Schwartz
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