PROGRAM NOTES

ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK
Carnival Overture, Op. 92
Composed 1891
Duration ca. 9 minutes
Scored for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings

In the spring of 1891, the year he turned 50, Antonín Dvořák began writing a set of three concert overtures which were to express an elaborate biographical program. He originally intended the three overtures to be performed together and planned to call the composite work Nature, Life and Love. Eventually, however, Dvořák consented to their publication as separate pieces and settled on the titles In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello. Although the overtures remain loosely connected by a common melodic idea that appears in all three, each stands quite easily on its own. Carnival, the centerpiece of the set, has proved by far the most popular.

This overture is laid out in a broad A-B-A plan, opening with bustling, vivacious music whose festive character is quite in keeping with the title of the work. But with a clarion note from the French horn, an instrument the Romantic composers associated with the forest and magic, we are suddenly transported far from the carnival scene to a more pastoral setting. The section that follows is given over to the gentler voices of the English horn, clarinet and rustling strings. This woodland reverie proves short-lived, however, and we are soon returned to the opening material and a noisy conclusion.

 

FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN
Symphony No. 96 in D Major, Miracle
Composed: 1791

Duration c. 27 minutes
Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Haydn spent the first three decades of his career working in relative isolation as music director and resident composer at the rural palace of a princely Hungarian family with a devotion to the arts. During this time, he produced nearly 80 symphonies; works that helped spread his reputation throughout much of Europe. By 1790, that reputation was such that Haydn was able to undertake a step that marked a new phase in his career. Obtaining leave from his duties, he paid an extended visit to London, where he found himself treated as a celebrity, and where he presided at a series of public concerts featuring his music. This initial London sojourn, from 1790 to mid-1791, proved so successful that Haydn returned to the English capital in 1794-95, again appearing in a series of highly publicized and well-attended concerts.

The name “Miracle,” by which Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 has long been known, stems from an incident that occurred at one of those concerts. Our only detailed account of the event comes from Albert Christoph Dies, Haydn’s early biographer, whose Biographical Accounts of Joseph Haydn, published in 1810, describes it this way:

When Haydn appeared ... to conduct a symphony himself, the curious audience in the parterre left their seats and crowded toward the orchestra, the better to see the famous Haydn quite close. The seats in the middle of the floor were thus empty, and hardly were they empty when the great chandelier crashed down and broke into bits, throwing the numerous gathering into the greatest consternation. As soon as the first moment of fright was over and those who had pressed forward could think of the danger they had luckily escape and find words to express it, several persons uttered the state of their feelings with cries of “Miracle! Miracle!”

A contemporary newspaper report corroborates the main facts that Dies sets forth: that a chandelier fell during one of Haydn’s London concerts and, astonishingly, no one was hurt. But it also shows that this occurred on February 2, 1795 — not, as Dies says elsewhere, during the composer’s first visit to London three years earlier. The work Haydn presented on that later date was his Symphony No. 102. However, because Dies’s report was for so long accepted without scrutiny, the “Miracle” designation became erroneously but irretrievably attached to Symphony No. 96.

Symphony No. 96 may not be the true “Miracle” Symphony, but it reveals the high degree of originality and inventive treatment of thematic ideas that mark the dozen symphonies Haydn composed for England. From a musical standpoint, that is miracle enough.

The first movement begins, as in all but one of Haydn’s “London” Symphonies, with an introduction in slow tempo. There follows an Allegro based a confident theme that supplies all the ideas Haydn needs to build a rich and stimulating movement.

The ensuing Andante opens calmly enough, and then breaks without warning into a turbulent central episode in the minor mode. Still more surprising is the unexpected pause, followed by what is essentially an orchestrated cadenza featuring two solo violins, just before the end of the movement.

The minuet is robust and grandly scored, its central section given over largely to the oboe. Like the second movement, the finale opens in a genial vein, bursts suddenly into a tempestuous central section marked by minor-key harmonies and strong contrapuntal textures, then reverts to the pleasant tone in which it began.

 

EDWARD ELGAR
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, Enigma
Composed: 1898-99
Duration ca. 33 minutes
Scored for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings

The first recorded reference to Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” is found in a letter of October 24, 1898, written by the composer in humorous shorthand to his close friend August Jaeger:

I have sketched a set of Variations (orkestra) on an original theme: the Variations have amused me because I’ve labelled ‘em with the nicknames of my particular friends — you are Nimrod. That is to say I’ve written the variations each one to represent the mood of the “party” — I’ve liked to imagine the “party” writing the var: him (or her) self and have written what I think they wd. have written — if they were asses enough to compose — it’s a quaint idea & the result is amusing to those behind the scenes & won’t affect the hearer who “nose nuffin.”

“Amusing” in a typically English way and innocent enough, it would seem. But Elgar, intentionally or otherwise, created with this work one of the most tantalizing mysteries in music. For although he freely divulged the identities of the friends pictured in each of the fourteen variations, he designated the original theme that sets the entire piece in motion as simply “Enigma.” Elgar’s comments, provided in a program note for the work’s first performance, only deepened the mystery:

The enigma I will not explain — its “dark saying” must be left unguessed ... ; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme “goes,” but is not played. ... So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas ... the chief character is never on the stage.

Thus Elgar posed not one but two riddles: the “dark saying” represented in the single word “enigma,” and the identity of the “larger theme” that “goes” through the set. Elgar hinted that the latter was a well-known melody to which his original theme is a variant or counter-melody. His friends tried to hit upon what this familiar tune might be, offering up “God Save the King” and “Auld Lang Syne.” But the composer dismissed these and other guesses, and its identity remains a secret.

The programmatic nature of this theme — its “dark saying,” as Elgar alluded to it — has proved an even more intriguing puzzle. Did it represent Elgar himself? This seems unlikely, for he paints his own portrait in the final variation, “E. D. U.” (a paraphrase of “Edoo”, his wife’s nickname for him). More general themes have been proposed, among them friendship, religious devotion — Elgar was a practicing Catholic — and the trials and joys of musical creation.

Elgar never revealed the meaning of the “enigma,” and in all likelihood its true nature will never be known with certainty. Fortunately, this in no way diminishes the attractiveness of the Variations as music, and it to the music itself, as distinct from its attending mysteries, which we should now turn.

The “enigma” theme, which opens the set, begins and ends with halting phrases built from brief fragments of melody in the key of G minor. Between them is a more lyrical and continuous section in G major. The theme, then, reveals a clear A-B-A form, and this in turn shapes the variations that follow. Each has its own character and its own special charm. The crowning piece of the set is the ninth variation, “Nimrod,” portraying August Jaeger. As an editor at the London publishing house of Novello, Jaeger encouraged Elgar and championed his works long before they were fashionable. The deep friendship that grew between the two men finds reflection in the moving strains of this Adagio. Elgar recalls music from “Nimrod,” and also from “C. A. E.,” in the final variation, his own.