Hugh Wolff, New England Conservatory’s Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras, has written these notes for his December 11 concert with the NEC Philharmonia. The program consists of two works: Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto and an instrumental suite from Hector Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet—works written a century apart, while both composers were still in their twenties.
Britten and Berlioz
In the spring of 1939, with Europe at the brink of another catastrophic war, the English composer Benjamin Britten set sail for America. This self-imposed exile of the twenty-five year-old ardent pacifist turned out to be artistically fruitful. Among the uncompleted works Britten brought along was a violin concerto. A few months later, he described it to his publisher as “without question my best piece. It is rather serious, I’m afraid.” Upon finishing the concerto just weeks after the outbreak of World War II, he wrote, “it is at times like these that work is so important – that humans can think of things other than blowing each other up!”
The concerto follows the unconventional form pioneered by Prokofiev in his First Violin Concerto: a warm and lyric first movement, a sarcastic and driven scherzo, and a finale of weight and power, yet ending quietly. A cadenza links the scherzo and finale. The latter is a passacaglia, a set of variations on a melody first heard ppp in the trombones under the violin at the cadenza’s end. The variations culminate in a D major apotheosis, which dissolves into a strikingly beautiful coda. A gentle pleading chorale of winds and plucked strings alternates with impassioned solo violin phrases. Unable to resolve this conflict, the violin rises to a final trill of F and G-flat (F-sharp) over D and A in the orchestra, creating an exquisite ambiguity of major and minor as the music fades out.
In 1827, an English theater troupe arrived in Paris to perform Shakespeare. Among the actors was Harriet Smithson, playing the leading roles of Ophelia in Hamlet and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. In the audience, twenty-four year-old Hector Berlioz was immediately smitten with Smithson, much as Juliet becomes smitten with Romeo in the play’s masked ball. The courtship, marriage and divorce of Berlioz and Smithson are a dramatic and colorful story for another time; Shakespeare remained a life-long passion for Berlioz.
The incentive to write something unusual and large scale came from Niccolò Paganini. After hearing Berlioz’s epic opera Benvenuto Cellini in 1838, Paganini sent Berlioz twenty-thousand francs, no strings attached, with a note reading, “Beethoven is dead, and Berlioz alone can revive him.” Freed from debt and able to let his fertile imagination wander, Berlioz embarked on an astonishingly original version of the Romeo and Juliet story. Calling his work a symphonie dramatique, he eschewed the obvious model of an opera. (He had been bitterly disappointed in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi.) So although it is a vocal work, the only singers are Friar Laurence, who sings just in the epilogue, and a chorus of Montagues and Capulets, who, like a Greek chorus, comment on the action throughout. The two protagonists and other important characters are represented by the orchestra alone. This extraordinary conceit is a precursor of Wagner’s leitmotif style, in which the orchestra helps reveal the characters’ inner feelings. In fact, the twenty-six year-old Wagner, present at the work’s 1839 Paris premiere, was overwhelmed by what he called the “completely new world” of the music. (Surely the first phrase of Tristan and Isolde is modeled on the beginning of Berlioz’s Romeo Alone movement.)
It is important to know that Berlioz based his Roméo et Juliette not on the original Shakespeare, but on the 1748 adaptation by David Garrick that was performed in Paris. This version differs from Shakespeare’s in two crucial ways. In the Garrick, Romeo is already in love with Juliet as the play begins. She is unaware, when they first meet at the Capulet’s ball, that Romeo is there to introduce himself and impress her. Even more striking, in the Garrick, Romeo is still alive when Juliet awakens in the graveyard after taking sleeping potion. Thus that scene includes Romeo’s astonishment as Juliet awakens, a wildly passionate moment of reunion, Romeo’s death from poison ingested before Juliet awakens, and her suicide. This movement is so unconventional—a through-composed fantasy that skirts the edge of atonality—that Berlioz himself recommended omitting it unless the audience is “familiar in every respect with the tragedy … and endowed with a highly poetic mind.” “Once in a hundred times” this may be the case, Berlioz wrote.
Tonight, we will perform only the orchestral music from Berlioz’s dramatic symphony—it contains all the key elements of the drama—and we will conclude with the movement Berlioz warned about. In order to guide you through it all, the music will be accompanied by surtitles with brief explanations of the action and lines from the Garrick version of the play. In this way, I hope to put Berlioz’s worries to rest!
December 6, 2013
NEC joins the rest of the world in mourning the death and celebrating the transformational life achievements of Nelson Mandela (1918–2013).
This year, we at the Conservatory are focusing attention on music that speaks truth to power—music that challenges the status quo, discharges the universal angst, and galvanizes the collective dream. There could be no better exemplar of speaking truth to power than Nelson Mandela. Over his lifetime, even after 27 years in prison, he was the embodiment of unwavering principal, commitment, endurance, reconciliation and forgiveness.
Brought up in South Africa, violinist Eriel Huang (second from right in photo), a member of the current class of Sistema Fellows and now spending a month-long residency in Venezuela, wrote the following reminiscence about Mandela in a letter to NEC President Tony Woodcock:
"I have a lump in my throat as I am writing this… I am over 10,000 km away from home and six hours behind the news that had trembled through the world. I can still vividly recall the day Mandela walked out a free man, fist raised with peace, victory and unity after being jailed for 27 years and never giving in to despair. I remember the day when people of all colours queued from sunrise to sunset to vote in the first democratic elections of South Africa.
For over 20 years I have memorized the faces and names and stories of friends and classmates who despite varying tones of skin colour played, studied, worked, cried and celebrated together.
Cry the beloved country, my beloved South Africa, for today our Tata has returned to his ancestors; but let us once again rise, rise to fight, fight with Madiba’s spirit alongside each other in unity for the freedom that he himself gave his whole life so deeply for.
‘I would like to be remembered not as anyone unique or special, but as part of a great team in this country that has struggled for many years, for decades and even centuries. The greatest glory of living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall.’—Madiba
How incredibly mystic the timing turned out to be, as I was doing my morning prayers I was thinking about my experiences here in Venezuela and how best to serve the people at home, and was singing ‘Irish Blessing’ amidst fellow fellows…when hours later I would be receiving the news of Tata…
I am humbled and grateful for the support, and the extraordinary experience here at this moment in time.”
2008 photo of Nelson Mandela courtesy South Africa The Good News
Leonidas Kavakos receiving an honorary degree from NEC and leading a masterclass. November 18, 2013
Photos: Andrew Hurlbut
NEC Choristers on the giant sign outside of WGBH!!