Program Notes for Classical Roots, February 2

This concert’s program notes have been compiled from The Canadian Encyclopedia, Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, Peter Laki, Canadian Music Centre, and an interview with Stéphane Tétreault conducted for the PSO by Susan Oliver.


Marjan Mozetich’s Steps to Ecstasy

Marjan Mozetich, born in Italy in 1948 to a family with a strong Slovenian heritage, came to Canada with his family in 1952. He trained first in Hamilton, then at the University of Toronto, before returning to Europe to study composition privately. He is one of Canada’s best known and most broadcast composers. He has written music for theatre, film and dance, as well as symphonic and chamber works. His music has been premiered and performed by some of the world’s most esteemed orchestras and musicians. Mozetich has won numerous awards, including the 2010 Juno Award for Best Classical Composition of the Year, and the SOCAN Matejcek Concert Music Prize awarded to the most performed and broadcast composer in Canada (2002 and 2006).

Steps to Ecstasy was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and premiered by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in their Northern Ontario tour in the spring of 2001. A revised version was premiered by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in 2012. Like Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme (the next work on tonight’s program), Steps to Ecstasy is a work which evokes the music of an earlier era, being that of the Italian and German music of the Baroque era. There are many references in the work to the music of Bach and others, yet the work retains a contemporary feeling throughout.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme

Long before neo-classicism became a fashionable trend in the music of the 1920s, some composers had already discovered the lure of bygone ages and explored the ways in which styles from the past could be brought into line with their own artistic personalities. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a Romantic composer to the core, was among those who were deeply moved by 18th century music, with represented to them an ideal if distant world for which they felt great nostalgia.

After completing his orchestral fantasy Francesca da Rimini, Tchaikovsky needed a break from the fatal passions and the horrors of Dante’s Inferno. He turned (or, we might say, escaped) to the past, put on an imaginary powdered wig, and embarked on a composition that was clearly 18th century in its inspiration.

Tchaikovsky wrote his enduringly popular set of variations in 1876 for a colleague on the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory, the German cellist, composer and instructor Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. Tchaikovsky’s goal was not to write in an explicitly 18th century style, but to create a contemporary piece of music which would evoke the music of a century earlier. Especially in its current form, this is a virtuoso showpiece.

The work opens with a short orchestral introduction followed by the first presentation of the theme. Before and between the variations, we hear some transition passages with harmonic progressions that definitely belong to the year 1876. Each of these transition passages closes on the dominant – that is, with the equivalent of a musical question mark – after which the new variation arrives like an answer.

Some of the variations make use of the cello’s ability to sing long lyrical melodies, while others are extremely virtuosic in character. On several occasions, the cello launches into grandiose cadenzas. There is no shortage of spectacular trills and double stops, yet those bravura devices never obscure the ingratiating main melody.

This evening’s guest artist, cellist Stéphane Tétreault, spoke to interviewer Susan Oliver about the challenges of Tchaikovsky’s Variations. “It is definitely technically difficult,” he said. “It is an amazing work and one of the challenges would be to express the emotion that exists in the score adequately in a performance while still being cognizant of the technical. Some people in the classical world believe it is a rather secondary work by Tchaikovsky compared to a concerto or his symphonic works. It is on a smaller scale, shorter, so sometimes there is the preconceived perception Rococo Variations is a ‘cute’ piece, but if you delve deeper you can get to an emotional depth that can be almost as moving, touching, as transcending as his longer, considered greater works.”

The version in which the Rococo Variations have become famous is not the original one. After performing the work at its premiere and before it was published, Fitzenhagen made extensive changes to Tchaikovsky’s manuscript. He deleted one variation, re-ordered the others, substantially cut the coda and to a considerable extent re-wrote the solo part. Tchaikovsky acceded, albeit reluctantly at first, to Fitzenhagen’s many changes. The Fitzenhagen version remains the version universally performed today.


Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2

Johannes Brahms wrote his Second Symphony in a short, creative burst of energy during the summer of 1877. Writing his First Symphony had been an epic struggle extending over nearly twenty years. In contrast, the Second came together quickly, in the picture-postcard Austrian village of Portschach, where Brahms had rented rooms for a summer holiday. Brahms wrote to a friend that “So many melodies fly about, one must be careful not to step on them.” It was as if the success of his First Symphony had released Brahms from all his fears and doubts about finding something meaningful to say following the gigantic achievements of Beethoven. The Second Symphony was “a great, unqualified success” wrote the most influential Viennese music critic of the day. From the perspective of someone performing it, the Second Symphony might be described as ‘lush’, ‘Romantic’, ‘profound’, and ‘featuring long melodic lines.’

The Second is the most congenial and pastoral of the four symphonies that Brahms wrote. Brahms being Brahms, the symphony nevertheless conveys darkness as well as light. The first two movements in particular contain many deep and brooding passages. Before the symphony was published, Brahms went so far as to tease his friends that they would find his new work overwhelmingly sad, to the point where the musicians would have to wear black arm-bands. When one friend, after hearing the symphony, complained to Brahms about some of the more dissonant passages in the second movement, Brahms replied that this reflected his “habitual melancholy.”

There are few signs of such melancholy in the final two movements. The first of these is a light, joyful and uncomplicated Allegretto. This movement was so popular at the symphony’s premiere that the audience demanded that it be repeated. The final movement, a sunny Allegro, begins quietly but with suppressed energy. Very soon the full orchestra joins in, and the symphony closes with a triumphant brass fanfare.