The Great Elopement
Thursday August 17 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | $22-$35
As concert openings go, there is hardly a better curtain raiser than the scintillating overture to The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Composed in early 1786 and premiered that May at Vienna’s Burgtheater, La Nozze di Figaro utilizes a brilliant libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s collaborator on Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. The source play by Beaumarchais provides the essential plot line in which two servants, Susanna and Figaro, get the better of their conniving master, Count Almaviva. In hindsight, some have seen Figaro’s inversion of conventional power structure as a timely prelude to the French Revolution. However, that was clearly not the intent of da Ponte, who actively removed much of the political language from Beaumarchais’ original in favor of straight-forward commedia dell’arte.
The overture to Figaro often appears as a standalone concert piece. Unlike other overtures that sample an opera’s principal themes, this example does not reference later melodies. Its bustling energy nevertheless perfectly sets the mood for a comic opera. The overture’s structure can be called “abbreviated sonata form”; in other words, it is a sonata form without a development section. The first theme in D major begins directly from the downbeat in rapid figures for unison strings and bassoons. This is answered by a new pattern in winds that rise gradually to a third motif, a fortissimo breakthrough for full orchestra. Shimmering scale runs and repeated D-major cadences provide a buoyant patter to mirror the imminent nuptial cheer on stage. Only the slightest of dramatic touches (chromaticism and minor-mode inflections) darken the transition to the second theme, which is an equally radiant duet in A major for violins and bassoons. At this point, sonata-form expectations would call for a development of the themes. As this might seem distracting or overly fussy in a mere overture, Mozart makes a brief retransition back to D major and recycles all of the material heard so far. The whole is rounded off by a triumphal coda.
Here, in just over four minutes, one can witness the stunning clarity and rhythmic force of Mozart’s mature style at its best. Whether or not he sweated to achieve such pearlescent scores, the finished work betrays no doubts or second thoughts. Indeed, the story goes that Mozart penned the entire overture, start to finish, in the final hours leading up to the opera’s premiere.
Continuing the evening’s theme of love on the move, the next work steps back several centuries to enjoy the tradition of medieval song. That tradition was well-established in the 12th and 13th centuries, particular in France. Ranging from itinerant poets to prominent members of society, trouvères (active in northern France) and troubadours (in the south) were typically from the higher social classes. Their poetry espoused the ideals of “courtly love” and nascent chivalric impulses that would define so much of European culture in the following centuries. Courtesy of research by bass Peter Walker, we will enjoy the anonymous 13th-century song “Voulez-vous que je vous chante?” (Would you have me sing for you?”). Because so many works exist without attribution, they are often referred to by title and source; this example appears in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal manuscript 5198 and is transmitted simply as a single-line melody. Short motives abound, and the vocal range is quite small, contributing a spontaneity and earnest simplicity that all serve the poet’s purpose. This song fits the genre known as a reverdie, a poem celebrating springtime and blossoming of love. Such music may have accompanied some festive dance, hence their repetitive design. Instrumentation remains an open question - and probably one that had as many answers as performances in its day. Modern performances must offer their own solutions, though some kind of strummed lute, harp, or psaltery seems requisite.
After arriving on the scene as a gifted child pianist, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) revealed a passion for literature sparked, no doubt, by being the son of a bookseller. Fortunately his father fostered his son’s precocious musical talent. But upon his father’s death, Robert was steered toward a more practical profession (the law) at the universities of Leipzig and Heidelberg. In truth, Schumann spent more time socializing with poets and composers, learning more about love than law. He maintained the façade of being a law student for nearly ten years before he openly pursued his musical ambitions both as pianist/composer and as a critic. Another passion emerged at this time, however, that brought Schumann both great joy and great pain. He had fallen in love with 16-year-old Clara Wieck, daughter of his Leipzig piano teacher. Forbidden to meet by Clara’s father, the lovers secretly pledged themselves to each other in Shakespearean fashion. Herr Wieck never acquiesced, but Robert and Clara did marry in 1840 without his consent and after much legal wrangling. The effect on Schumann was immediate. During 1840 alone he wrote over 130 songs, including several multi-song collections, Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und Leben.
Consistently rated among the greatest pianists of the 19th century, Clara Schumann née Wieck (1819-1896) also composed original music. She performed for nearly 60 years in a career that stretched from the debuts of Liszt and Chopin to the death of Brahms. Her technique was formidable and her range of repertoire wide. But for her marriage to an equally gifted and prolific musician, Clara Wieck would probably be more widely regarded as a pivotal force in European music. She admitted on several occasions that the demands of managing the Schumann household - eventually nursing her husband through the onset of his depressive collapse - meant that countless creative projects were shelved. The majority of her works were composed between 1830 and 1845; in other words, before her 26th birthday. Despite the merits of her own compositions, Clara has not been able to fully step out of the shadow cast by her prolific, brilliant, troubled husband.
In the mid-1840s Robert began suffering nervous episodes and displayed manic behavior. These traits would tragically resurface a decade later, leading to his confinement in asylum and early death. During this period Clara moved the family to Düsseldorf, where she composed three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22. The Romance was not a genre with fixed forms or expectations; like many works created in the mid 19th century, it prioritizes freedom of expression and emotion, allowing these elements (as well as occasional narrative plotlines) to determine the form. Clara dedicated them to her friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, and the pair included these works on a successful concert tour the following season. The first and third movements share many features, but tonight we hear the delightful second movement, Allegretto. Cast in ABA form, the outer sections decorate very simple harmonies in the minor mode, with occasional chromaticism and frequent melodic leaps determining the wistful tone. By contrast, the central B section turns to the major mode and introduces a more carefree feeling.
Robert himself had previously composed a similar set of Three Romances for Oboe and Piano, Op. 94. These were created in a burst of activity at the end of a very busy year, 1849. Schumann’s compositional output had been seriously disrupted by his psychological decline, and it is believed these Romances may have emerged in the midst of a manic episode. By his own account, he needed just five days to complete them. Robert presented these Romances to Clara as a Christmas gift, and they were among the last works written in Dresden. By the following spring he and his family had settled in Düsseldorf, where he would eventually be confined to an asylum and die in 1856.
The Romances make no pretensions to virtuosity. Their charm lies in the simplicity of Robert’s lyrical impulse. For instance, the second Romance could be a song without words, though the skipwise nature of the melodic line is perhaps better suited to the oboe than the human voice. Schumann, of course, was one of the preeminent composers of song, and all of his chamber music benefits from his “voice first” approach to composition. Counterpointing with the graceful melody, he allows the piano to unfold in unhurried eighth notes. The work’s middle section strikes a more impassioned stance, but the return of the A section and an ethereal, brief coda allow the piece to end with utmost repose. For the final work in the set, Schumann navigates a different mood: more mercurial, somewhat more dramatic. Tempo and character changes are frequent in this A minor duet. Here, the outer section is more lively, the middle section more reserved.
These works are often performed on violin or clarinet instead of oboe. Even Clara herself only programmed them with violinists. Despite this, Robert held strong feelings and denied repeated requests to allow them to be published for other instruments. “If I had originally written the work for violin or clarinet, it would have become a completely different piece.” Nevertheless, publishers ignored this request and they appeared in editions for violin and clarinet soon after the composer’s death.
Anders Hillborg’s O Dessa Ögon for soprano and strings was commissioned by Uppsala University and presented as a gift to Swedish patron-of-the-arts Anders Wall for his 80th birthday. The text is taken from poet Gunnar Ekelöf’s Sagan om Fatumeh, or Song of Fatumeh. Ekelöf (1907-1968) is highly regarded as the first exponent of surrealism in Swedish poetry. His earliest experiments, developed during a period living in Paris, eventually gave way to a more conventional, Romantic strain. But all through his turbulent career - mirrored by difficulties in his personal life - Ekelöf restlessly tinkered with language, syntax, and the very notions of poetic communication and meaning. He was influenced by T. S. Eliot and E. E. Cummings, among others.
Hillborg responds to Ekelöf’s text with a stunningly powerful meditation in music. The soprano lines are largely static in the style of medieval plainchant, moving slowly and by the smallest of intervals. Behind the voice, strings create a vibrant background wash of sound. Hillborg deftly creates his harmony ex nihilo, beginning with a single tone that gradually expands to include a shimmering chord of four to five pitches (for instance, an F-minor triad with added D and E-flat). The stasis generally projected by the voice makes those moments when it grows more effusive that much more expressive. One of the finest moments occurs at the song’s exact midpoint. Over the text “Det är din älskades ansikte” (“it is the face of your beloved”), which opens the poem’s second stanza, Hillborg leads the voice and strings slowly upward to a climactic breakthrough. The voice leaps from D to A-sharp while the strings simultaneously slide sideways chromatically - and unexpectedly - from A minor to F-sharp major. At the very end, after so much planar motion both in voice and strings, the final phrase moves in undulating fashion, freely leaping from one register to another and from harmony to harmony.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) life was filled with turmoil. Some of it reaches all the way to his childhood, when he dreaded being separated from family as he attended private school. A major event occurred with his mother’s death, and it is from this time that his first serious compositional efforts date. Throughout his late teens and early twenties, he vacillated between intense attachments and feelings of complete isolation. He also wrestled with his obvious homosexuality, going so far as to marry a doting admirer in 1877 partly to cover or even suppress his true feelings. The situation, as can be imagined, was a complete disaster; within weeks both bride and groom were estranged and bordering on nervous collapse. Not surprisingly, Tchaikovsky self-identified with characters from certain dramatic story lines, such as Romeo and Juliet and Eugene Onegin, that mirrored his own tragic situation.
Some years earlier, in 1869, Mily Balakirev actually suggested the concept of a Romeo and Juliet Overture to Tchaikovsky. At first the work proceeded very quickly, and the premiere occurred in early 1870. However, it was shelved after receiving critical scorn. Tchaikovsky undertook substantial revisions, though the core of the overture’s two main themes remains from the original version. The first main theme presents jagged, punctuated thrusts of the warring Capulets and Montagues. It is followed by the signature love theme (second theme) - one of the composer’s most beloved lyric creations. At Balakirev’s urging, a powerful hymn-like introduction suggesting Shakespeare’s Friar Laurence was added, and the contrapuntal development of the main themes was further enhanced. Finally, after his failed marriage to Antonina Milyukhova, Tchaikovsky returned to the score one final time to add a coda in 1881. Tonight we are pleased to present an arrangement for piano and strings by violist and composer Vladimir Mendelssohn. This arrangement was commissioned by Staunton Music Festival and premiered in August 2015, with Mendelssohn himself performing.
The final work on tonight’s program represents the culmination of a great effort, spanning two continents and roughly three hundred years. Our performance of Thomas Beecham’s music for The Great Elopement, or Love in Bath, may not be a world or American premiere, but it is about as close as one can get.
The great English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) led the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for decades. As such, he was involved in hundreds of performances and recordings of standard orchestral literature, from the Viennese classicists - Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven - to Schumann, Berlioz, Sibelius, and Richard Strauss. However, Beecham also had a deep fondness for George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), the German-born and Italian-trained Baroque composer who spent the majority of his life in London. Compared to other conductors of later generations, Beecham had no particular interest in restoring Handel to any kind of historical authenticity. He eschewed what he considered the pedantic opinions of musicologists and scholars, and kept his energies centered on bringing Handel’s music back to the concert hall. His esteem for the Baroque composer is obvious. For Beecham, Handel was “the great international master of all time . . . He wrote Italian music better than any Italian; French music better than any Frenchman; English music better than any Englishman; and, with the exception of Bach, outrivalled all other Germans.”
In the early 20th century, Handel’s operas had not yet come back into fashion, but Beecham knew and appreciated many of those works. He decided to excerpt some of his favorite passages from a dozen operas and reorchestrate them for a modern symphony orchestra. In the end he produced several collections, including a work originally titled The Great Elopement in 1945. The score was intended to accompany a ballet by the same name, though the projected collaboration did not materialize. Beecham himself developed the plot scenario, apparently based on episodes from real life. Set in Bath in the 18th century, The Great Elopement centers on the love affair between Elizabeth Linley, daughter of a prominent composer, and playwright Richard Sheridan. In 1770 the real-life Miss Linley was engaged to a wealthy older man. She was clearly against the marriage and broke off things rather abruptly, much to her father’s chagrin. Instead, she eloped to France with the dashing Sheridan, soon to be famous as the author of The School for Scandal (1777).
In Beecham’s conception, we witness various episodes from this whole social “event”, including a hunting dance, several love scenes, and the entrances and exits of persons circulating around the baths and gardens. The pompous cad, Beau Nash, presides over the action and facilitates the growing love between young Elizabeth and Richard. While the entire ballet was never staged, Beecham maintained a fondness for the music. He created two suites of movements drawn from The Great Elopement, now also known as Love in Bath. He programmed these suites extensively throughout his career. The music was first performed on an American radio broadcast on April 7, 1945, just weeks before the end of World War II; audiences in Rochester, New York, enjoyed the public premiere a few days later.
A score for The Great Elopement was published by Mills Music in New York in 1948, but the performance parts - to our best knowledge - were never printed. Beecham’s orchestral librarian copied out parts by hand, and he apparently toted these around to fuel his concert programs. In fact, music from The Great Elopement had a place on Beecham’s final concert in 1960. Almost certainly it has not been performed in the United States since Beecham’s death. Moreover, it is very unlikely that American audiences would have heard it live since that Rochester concert in 1945. Tonight’s performance marks an important resurrection of this music, and many hands had a role in bringing it to fruition.
Around 1997 Beecham’s widow bequeathed thousands of items, including scores, parts, and newspaper clippings about her husband, to the University of Sheffield. This donation inspired the creation of the Sir Thomas Beecham Music Library at the University. Among the cataloged items are the handwritten parts for The Great Elopement. As this is not a lending library for such items, our only access required an on-site visit to inspect and potentially photograph all of the relevant music. We looked for assistance from our friend, violinist Benjamin Gilmore, concertmaster of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. Gilmore, in turn, connected us with the Philharmonia’s music librarian, Kenneth Chung, who agreed to go to Sheffield and examine these materials. To our great relief, everything was intact, complete, and in excellent condition. After several hours photographing each part, and with the generous assistance of the archivists at Sheffield, Kenneth had secured everything we needed to make tonight’s performance a reality. We dedicate this concert to Kenneth for his kind and expert assistance.
The final piece to this puzzle involves Happenstance Theater and their development of choreography and pantomime to enliven the musical results. As noted earlier, The Great Elopement/Love in Bath was originally conceived as a ballet with many movements and many characters loosely based on the historical elopement of Richard Sheridan and Elizabeth Linley. In what may be the first event of its kind, Happenstance Theater will provide tonight a visual staging of Beecham’s conception. As noted by Mark Jaster, co-artistic director of the Happenstance company:
Our production is a selection of music from the full suite, and we have simplified the original concept to one that could be presented by our five players on a small stage in front of the orchestra. Otherwise, the Happenstance staging pretty much follows Beecham’s original scenario. The action is set in and around a party hosted by the celebrated dandy, Beau Nash. At the party Mrs. Linley intends to introduce her daughter Miss Linley to the Squire, a rich old bachelor. Mrs. Linley hopes to marry her daughter off to this squire. Sheridan, a friend of Nash, is also in attendance at the party. Sheridan and Miss Linley meet and fall instantly in love, and Nash facilitates their elopement that very evening with the services of a drunken pastor. Mother is furious when she finds out, but ultimately accepts, and all live happily ever after… Except that historically, married life wasn’t quite that simple for the Sheridans!
© Jason Stell, 2023