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by: Steven Ledbetter
In composing MITHRA, I was inspired by various elements of ancient mythology. MITHRA was the Iranian sun god, who represented obligation, love/affection and the battle against evil. The earliest references to mithraism date back to at least 1500 B.C., in pre-Zoroastrian Iran/Persia. This belief system, apart from Iran, received its widest followings in the ancient world, encompassing areas from India to the furthest regions in Europe, and eventually becoming the prominent religion of the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
Mithraism, in its long and varied history, influenced the traditions of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. MITHRA, with his 1,000 eyes and 10,000 ears, was considered the all-observing god, with rays of light emerging from his head much like a halo. He was the protector of the righteous and the archenemy of the evil forces.
Another side of MITHRA is “Mehr,” meaning “contract” or obligation as well as love and friendship. In the Iranian calendar, the seventh month is called “Mehr.” Both numbers 7 and 4 play important roles in the numerology of MITHRAism. For example, air, fire, earth and water were considered to be the four elements from which all things were created.
MITHRA was composed as one continuous movement in three interrelated sections. The extended opening solo flute is slow, meditative and ornamental in character, emulating the sound and melodic figures of the Persian NEY (a type of bamboo flute). The opening quasi-improvisatory passages of the solo flute present the main materials for the entire work. The first four notes in particular form the most important melodic motive in MITHRA. This motive permeates throughout the piece from the most fragile moments to the expansive peaks and climaxes; it is ubiquitous like MITHRA himself!
The second section is faster and extroverted, ranging from mysterious to processional and ultimately triumphant. It gradually grows and expands in speed, volume and intensity. The brass instruments play open intervals (4th and 5th), emulating the sound of the Persian DERAZ NEY, a type of Alpine horn used in ceremonies and rituals in ancient Iran. The middle section is concluded by a series of strokes alluding to the above-mentioned numerology (7 and 4) in MITHRAism.
The third section is slow, sharing many characteristics with the first section. The extended solo flute leads to the epilogue alluding to the MEHR (love) and affectionate side of MITHRA. The prominent harp part in the lyrical epilogue was inspired by the traditional use of zither in ancient Iran for the expression of love and friendship.
Chopin:Concerto No. 2 in F minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 21
Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin—or, as he called himself during his many years in France, Frédéric Chopin—was born in Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, probably on March 1, 1810, and died in Paris on October 17, 1849. He composed the F-minor concerto in 1829 and was himself soloist at the first performance, which was given in Warsaw on March 17, 1830. Besides the solo instrument, the score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, one trombone, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 32 minutes.
Chopin composed his two piano concertos within a year of each other, when he himself had barely finished his formal studies. He had begun composition work at the age of twelve with Jozef Elsner, director of the Warsaw Conservatory, in 1822. His pianistic talent had been recognized even earlier, when he played Gyrowetz concerto shortly before his eighth birthday. Already he had begun to compose piano pieces. Elsner hoped that Chopin would one day compose the great Polish national opera, but it was not to be. Eventually he realized that the young man had unique gifts and that it was useless to impose an outside taste on them.
In 1829, at nineteen, he went to Vienna and attracted attention with his overtly Polish works. He began the F-minor concerto on this trip (despite its numbering, it was the first of his two concertos to be written), and when he returned to Poland, he concentrated on finishing the piece. He wrote to a friend that his Adagio had been inspired by tender feelings for one Constantia Gladkowska, a vocal student at the Warsaw Conservatory, “whom I dream of.” He finished the work that winter and premiered it the following March.
It would be unrealistic to expect a piano concerto written by a budding young virtuoso in his teens to display a command of the symphonic style of concerto writing, especially because the most advanced concertos of the day—Beethoven’s, for example—were still unknown in Poland. Hummel’s flashy, decorative concertos provided the model for Chopin’s.
Yet despite the young composer’s relative inexperience, his concertos are extraordinary in that special way that makes his music personal and immediately identifiable. The opening begins with a series of typical concerto gambits, but when the soloist enters, Chopin’s personality at once takes over. While obviously influenced by the decorative art of Hummel and Moscheles, Chopin’s highly ornamented writing is far more expressive, far more poignant. In form, his first movement is simple and straightforward, but its content proclaims the budding master.
The slow movement already reveals the genius; Chopin’s teacher Elsner was right to praise its originality. It has a simple A‑B‑A outline that Chopin decorates with extraordinary freedom. The finale is related to the mazurka, that Polish country dance that Chopin made so wonderfully his own. The traditional mazurka was in triple time accompanied by strong accents on the second or third beat (when danced, the accents are reinforced by a strong tap of the heel). This movement is a rondo with several sharply contrasting themes in mazurka style, closing with a dramatic coda.
Schumann:Manfred Overture in E-flat major for Orchestra, Opus 115
Robert Alexander Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony, on June 8, 1810, and died in Endenich, a suburb of Bonn, on July 29, 1856. He wrote music for Byron’s Manfred—an overture and fifteen numbers, six of them musically complete, the rest serving as musical accompaniment to spoken text—during 1848 and 1849, himself conducting the first performance of the overture at a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert on March 14, 1852. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration of the overture is about 12 minutes.
Though his temperament was fundamentally undramatic, Schumann longed to write a successful opera. Shortly after completing his one real opera, Genoveva, in 1848 (but before hearing a performance), he tried another theatrical approach, turning to one of the most influential of Romantic poets, Lord Byron, to produce a musical setting of his poetic drama Manfred. He read Byron’s play (in a German translation) on July 29, 1848. Joseph von Wasielewski, his concertmaster in Düsseldorf recalled that on one occasion the composer read aloud from Manfred, and “his voice suddenly failed him, tears started from his eyes, and he was so overcome that he could read no further.”
Byron’s play was written in 1816-17, inspired by Part One of Goethe’s Faust. Inspired by the image of a seeker, a striver, who never achieves contentment, he created in Manfred, a principle character subject to an orgy of guilt and remorse for reasons that remain unexplained. (It seems to reflect Byron’s feelings about his own incestuous summer liaison in 1813 with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, a fact that was not known to Schumann, and would have horrified him.) Byron’s romantic language struck him, too, in the aftermath of the sudden death, eight months earlier, of his good friend Felix Mendelssohn.
Within a week he began preparing an adaptation of the drama for musical setting, though not as opera. He kept the spoken dialogue, alternating it with fifteen brief musical numbers—vocal, choral, and orchestral. He composed the overture late in October and completed drafting the rest of the score in November. It was finally performed in June 1852, only because of the generous championing of Franz Liszt, who directed the performance in Weimar. The hybrid nature of the work has prevented it from having many performances, but the overture has long been regarded as one of Schumann’s finest orchestral achievements, and he himself referred to it as one of his “most powerful children.”
The fast chords, played off the beat and suggesting a headlong rush, begin the piece, only to turn suddenly to a slow introduction with an intensely chromatic line and unstable harmonies. A few bars later, a melody in the violins anticipates what will be the main theme of the Allegro. The dark E-flat minor key and the intense thematic development both contribute to the success of this overture in capturing the personality of Byron’s anti-hero. An ending that restates the dark opening music rounds off the work musically even as it signals defeat for the principal character.
Schumann:Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Opus 120
Schumann composed the D minor symphony in 1841, but substantially revised it ten years later, when it was published as his Symphony No. 4. Schumann conducted the premiere in Düsseldorf on December 30, 1852. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 28 minutes.
In date of conception, Schumeann’s D-minor symphony is actually his second, but he withheld the work from performance for a decade and in the meantime composed the symphonies we know as “Nos. 2 and 3.” The first version of what became Symphony No. 4 was so striking in its originality that Schumann hesitated even calling it a symphony. The close-knit interlocking of material and the linking of the movements without pause (in a day when it was common, even expected, for the audience to applaud between movements) made him reluctant to link this work with the mighty nine of Beethoven, in whose shadow he knew he was walking, so he first called it a “Symphonic fantasy.”
By the time he reworked the symphony for performance, in 1851, Schumann was conducting the orchestra in Düsseldorf which was to give the premiere. Terribly indecisive as a conductor, Schumann had learned not to trust his players with exposed solos; he reorchestrated the work totally so that no wind or brass player (except for one brief moment in the flute) lacks the support of some other instrument. The result has been generally deplored over the years, and many conductors have tacitly rescored Schumann, eliminating most of the doublings or, at the least, adjusting the dynamics so that the “superfluous” instruments play much more softly than the “leading” instrument at any given moment.
But Schumann also made structural changes in 1851 that strengthened the work as a whole, particularly in a transition linking the slow introduction of the first movement to the Allegro and a similar connection between the third and fourth movements. In its final form, it is one of the most ingenious and successful achievements in formal continuity produced in the nineteenth century. Three principal musical ideas recur in different guises throughout the work, creating a sense of unity rare at this period.
The first of them, the somber opening idea heard in strings and bassoons at the outset, fills most of the slow introduction until the violins introduce a new figure that gradually speeds up and suddenly turns into the main theme of the Allegro. It dominates the movement, continuing into the development, where it accompanies a martial fanfare figure that constitutes the third of the recurring ideas. That is followed by the welcome relief of a fresh lyrical melody introduced, unexpectedly, in the development section.
The Romanze begins with oboe and cello singing a lyrical ballad, but no sooner is it stated than the introductory theme of the first movement returns. It soon develops into a lush passage in the major enriched by lavish ornamentation on the solo violin.
The stormy Scherzo is built primarily on the opening theme (turned upside-down) and the martial figure of the first movement. It alternates with a section of languishing and drooping melodies bringing back the violin solo of the Romanze, now sung by the entire violin section. The movement seems about to end when string tremolos and the first movement’s opening theme lead directly into the finale, which is compounded of yet another version of the martial theme and the first-movement main theme. This is richly developed into one of the most fully satisfying climaxes of any large Schumann work. Thus, despite the years of worry that it gave him, and despite the problems it presents us in choosing which version of the score to perform, the Schumann Fourth remains one of the great touchstones of Romantic sensibility.
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