Sonata in G Major by Gioacchino Rossini
Rossini is best known for having composed some of the most memorable and beloved operas in the repertoire. Perhaps even more widely known are the opera overtures, heard frequently as independent works in concerts, on the radio, and in recordings. In all, Rossini wrote nearly forty operas between the ages of 19 and 38, among them Tancredi, L’italiana in Algeri, The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, La gazza ladra, Semiramide, and William Tell. After completing William Tell in 1829, Rossini took what has come to be called an “early retirement” from composing opera, spending the subsequent years in relative ease and material comfort.
As one of the few composers who reaped the financial rewards of his successes in his own lifetime, Rossini enjoyed superstar status throughout Europe in his day, though some found cause for repudiating his works on the grounds that they pandered to bourgeois taste or created tawdry effect. Such criticism, rooted in a more cerebral aesthetic, took aim at some of the musical devices Rossini developed and relied upon in his stage works, for example, the “frozen moment” trick in which several onstage characters register their exaggerated responses to the misunderstanding they find themselves embroiled in and the famous if now cliche Rossini crescendo.
Over the course of three days, Rossini, at twelve years of age, composed a set of six sonatas for four players, the so-called Six Sonate a Quattro. Originally scored for two violins, cello and bass, the Sonata No. 1 in G major is part of a set of six sonatas that are among Rossini’s most well known instrumental works. Brimming with youthful vitality and effervescence, the G major sonata displays the wit and charm of a precocious musical talent; some listeners find that it heralds the tunefulness and humor found in Rossini’s later work. The motivation for these pieces came during the summer of 1804 while Rossini was composing music to be performed at concerts held at Villa del Conventello near Ravenna, the home of the wealthy young patron Agostino Triossi. The work’s unusual scoring—a string quartet with double bass replacing viola—is best explained by the fact that Triossi himself was a skilled double bass player and that there was no violist available.
The genial first movement Moderato is concisely cast in a rudimentary sonata form, with a momentary contrasting development that returns to a repeat of the opening section. The Andantino features a lovely melody that receives charming punctuation by a legato bass line. Impish verve, rhythmic lilt, and technical brilliance characterize the final Allegro, an energetic rondo that hastens the piece to a close.
Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber
In the canon of both American and international classical music, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is a model of endurance, both in its status as an essential work in the repertoire and in its expression of unremitting and stoic restraint. Initially conceived as the second movement of String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11 when Barber was only in his 20s, the Adagio was written in 1936, and later adapted for string orchestra as well as for chorus. From the moment that Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra premiered the work in 1938 it became an immediate success—while also marking Toscanini’s first espousal of a composition by an American composer.
Ever since it was played during a radio broadcast of the funeral of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, the Adagio has earned an undisputed place in the collective imagination as the music most expressive of grief and mourning. It was played on the radio when the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was announced in 1963, and more recently performed in a ceremony at the World Trade Center to commemorate the victims of the September 11 attacks. It was played at the funerals of such prominent figures as Albert Einstein, Leonard Bernstein, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. It was also used in varying ways to heighten emotional intensity in films such as David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie.
About the Adagio, Aaron Copland has said: “It comes straight from the heart, to use old-fashioned terms. The sense of continuity, the steadiness of flow, the satisfaction of the arch that it creates from beginning to end. They’re all very gratifying, satisfying, and it makes you believe in the sincerity which he obviously put into it.” And yet, to another American composer, William Schuman, no matter how ubiquitous the piece might have appeared, the emotional response it elicits manages to remain eternally fresh: “For me, it’s never a warhorse; when I hear it played I’m always moved by it.”
In its basic structure, the piece forms a simple arch. Marked Molto adagio, espr. cantando [very slowly, singing expressively], the work begins pianissimo. As emotional intensity builds, the sequence ascends and the dynamics also increase. Harmonies shift, dissonances are created and resolved. After building to a fortissimo, the piece dies off into silence.
In a recent New York Times article about Barber’s centenary year, Johanna Keller has perceptively written: “If any music can come close to conveying the effect of a sigh, or courage in the face of tragedy, or hope, or abiding love, it is this.”
Romanza Concerto for Violin by William Bolcom
The Genesis of Romanza: A Conversation with Nadja Salerno- Sonnenberg and William Bolcom
Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg: When I started the Featured Composer Program for New Century, Bill was always there in my mind. It was just a question of seeing if he would be available, and thankfully he was. I told him that he could write anything, absolutely anything for us. He said he wanted to write me a concerto. I said, “Are you sure? Because it really doesn’t have to be for me. You can write a trombone concerto if that’s what you’ve got in your head right now. You can write a symphony for the orchestra, anything but a violin concerto.” And he said, “Why are you saying this?” And I said “Because I’m gonna have to LEARN your piece!!” And he laughed and said “Poor Nadja!” From that point on, I had absolutely nothing to do with how Romanza came to be. Bill told me it was already written in his head and all he needed to do was put it down on paper. You know, Bill still writes his music with pen and paper?? Not a computer. I think that’s fantastic really... until you get the music and have to learn it—with his handwriting!
William Bolcom: I didn’t want a usual concerto. This is why I’ve liked serenades, divertimenti, and all the forms that allow soloists in other roles than the usual soloist vs. orchestra one. There is some virtuosity for the soloist in Romanza, but that is not the point of the piece. The point is, rather, the emotional climate that the piece generates. It’s not as anti-virtuosic as, say Berlioz’s Harold In Italy, but the soloist is more an actor in a play than the usual concerto’s technically brilliant hero, vs. enormous orchestral forces. In Romanza, maybe the soloist doesn’t prevail. It’s a sweet-sad ending, but still wins in a non-heroic way. At least I feel that way about the piece.
The challenges of Romanza:
NSS: For me the most challenging part of learning a contemporary work is “getting it.” No one has played it before; you have nothing to refer to. You have not heard what it sounds like with the orchestra or even a piano reduction. You are out in the cold. And when I learn a piece, so, so many of my decisions technically are based on what I want to do musically. So in essence I learn the notes and figure it out as best as I can, and then later I really have to just relearn the piece.
WB: The piece is powered by a sort of tension between direct lyricism and something darker. You get directly appealing, I hope, musical ideas with something hidden and mysterious behind them.
The style of Romanza:
NSS: I think that since Bill knew he was writing this piece for me, he infused it with how he hears me as a player. It’s always incredibly interesting to see how people think of you as a performer.
WB: As I look at it again I realize I’m touching on the early Romantics stylistically without ever really sounding like them. But Nadja is a bold performer who for me invokes the grand style, so I thought this musical world of grand gestures would be terrific for her; the idiom is heated rather than dispassionate, joyful and desolate at once, full of emotional extremes, which ought to be fun for her.
Working with each other:
NSS: I have always, always loved Bill’s music because it is so incredibly varied. He has a spectacular spectrum of styles, colors, intricacies, and emotions. His music is emotional, for me at least, and that is why I react to it so strongly. When I met him, I was shocked at how genuine a guy he was. He could not have been more warm, and enthusiastic and fun. He is truly a great, great guy that happens to be intensely talented.
WB: I loved working with Nadja on the Third Violin Sonata in the 1990s. At first in rehearsal she was diffident but soon berated me (rightly) for not practicing enough. The solo part for Romanza was actually foisted on her; I don’t think she’d wanted a solo piece for this commission. I just wanted to do it, and I’m glad she has gone along with the gag!
Octet for Strings in E-flat major, Op.20 by Felix Mendelssohn
Mendelssohn wrote his Octet in 1825, the same year Beethoven composed his String Quartet in B-fl at major (Op.130) which originally ended with the Great Fugue. At 55, Beethoven was nearing the end of his career; the 16-year-old Mendelssohn was just starting his. Much ink has been spilled over who was “modern” and who was “conservative,” who was “Classical” and who was “Romantic.” Mendelssohn never tried to explode Classical forms the way Beethoven did in his late quartets, with unconventional movement sequences and dramatic interruptions. Yet the younger composer infused those forms with a new energy in ways that were absolutely unheard of. He invented
a whole new genre with his Octet, which calls for what can be considered either a large chamber group or a small orchestra.
Mendelssohn noted in his manuscript:
This Octet must be played by all instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character.
Yet there were really no other “pieces of this character” to speak of. True, Louis Spohr had written some works for eight string players, but those were double quartets, conceived as dialogs between two separate groups. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, treated his eight players as a single, integrated unit, which was a totally unprecedented procedure.
As for the young prodigy’s melodic style, one need only compare the Octet’s opening with Haydn’s Quartet in B-flat major from Op.76, known as the “Sunrise” on account of its gently ascending first theme. Mendelssohn was apparently inspired by that opening, but Haydn’s theme is to Mendelssohn’s what a sunrise would be to a solar flare. The Octet begins with a true stroke of genius, with a continuation that is in every way worthy of that exceptional opening.
In all four movements, Classical gestures are similarly magnified and expanded upon. The second movement, in C minor, is full of Romantic feeling. It begins and ends in a gentle pianissimo, evoking a nocturnal mood, but there are some extremely powerful emotional outbursts in between. The third movement is the first in a long line of Mendelssohnian scherzos in a very fast tempo and of a light and impish character. It is cast in a modified sonata form and is, therefore, not really a scherzo structurally speaking. Felix didn’t take the time to relax in a contrasting
trio section as one might have expected in a scherzo. In the concluding Presto, finally, the young composer pulled out all the stops. He wrote a brilliant fugue, partly as a bow to the music of the Baroque which he had already begun to study and which would play such an important role in his later life. The quote from Handel’s Messiah (“And He shall reign for ever and ever”) cannot be missed. But there is also plenty of playfulness in the movement, along with some harmonic surprises that would have made Handel—and probably Beethoven, too—raise his eyebrows in disbelief mixed with admiration.