Winter 2005


Winter Concert 2005

Sunday, March 13 • 3:00 PM, Spanos Theater

With Spring around the corner, the Cal Poly Symphony will present a concert of music that struggles between darkness and light.
The program will begin with Richard Wagner's Charfreitagszauber ("Good Friday Spell") from his opera Parsifal, which alternates between personal anguish and universal salvation.
Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain will follow, portraying the cavorting of witches and the ancient Slavic god of darkness - the Chernobog.
The Program will conclude with Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 5, "Reformation," which begins musically where Wagner's work left off and resolves the struggle.

Richard Wagner - Good Friday Spell

It is telling that Wagner did not call Parsifal, his last stage work, an opera or a music drama, but rather a stage-consecrating festival drama.   Unlike earlier works, Parsifal does not center on redemption through love; it is fixed on redemption through suffering, atonement and compassion in the context of a religious drama.   To Wagner, this drama was not an entertainment; it was sacred theater similar (in his mind) to that of ancient Greece, where philosophy, religion and ideals were consecrated through words and music.

The seeds for this culminating work were first sown when Wagner read Wolfram von Eschenbach's thirteenth-century poem, Parzifal in 1845.   For years afterwards, this powerful text both intrigued and puzzled him with contradictions and dramatic problems.   Finally, on a visit to the Wesendonck estate near Zurich in the spring of 1857, he awoke and looked out upon the garden.   As he recounts in his autobiography, "The garden was breaking into leaf, the birds were singing, and at last, on the roof of my little house, I could rejoice in the fruitful quiet I had so long thirsted for.   I was filled with it, when suddenly it came to me that this was Good Friday, and I remembered the great message it had once brought me as I was reading Wolfram's Parzifal ... out of my thoughts about Good Friday I swiftly conceived an entire drama in three acts, of which I put a hasty sketch on paper."

While the music for this drama was not finished until 1879, Good Friday remained the emotional and spiritual crux of the entire drama, and evoked some of Wagner's most sublime music - the Good Friday Spell from the third act.   Because the concert piece on today's program encapsulates, in a way, the entire drama, a very brief synopsis is in order.

Parsifal is set in the territory and castle of the Knights of the Grail, Monsalvat, in Gothic Spain.   The Knights are keepers of the Holy Grail and the Spear that pierced Christ's side on the cross.   Prior to the start of the drama, their leader, Amfortas, had succumbed to desire for the bewitching Kundry, and while so distracted, lost the spear to his enemy, the magician Klingsor.   Klingsor wounded Amfortas with the spear, and the wound will never heal until the spear is regained.  

The young Parsifal, raised as a simple fool in the forest, happens upon the Knights and witnesses Amfortas' agony and the Eucharist that is performed with the Grail.   He does not understand, but is overcome with pity.   Illumination comes to him slowly at first, as he grapples with what he has witnessed, but then he is also tempted by Kundry (who is controlled by Klingsor).   As she tries to seduce him, he realizes that Amfortas had tread this path before and he rejects her.   Klingsor appears, hurls the spear at him, but it halts above Parsifal's head.   Klingsor's castle collapses in ruins.  

The simple fool now knows he must heal Amfortas with the spear and so wanders for years looking for the Knights.   He finally stumbles, exhausted, upon the lands of Montsalvat on Good Friday and is recognized by one of the Knights.   He is baptized by the Knight, goes to cure Amfortas' wound with the spear, and takes his place as the new leader of the Knight's congregation.

The Good Friday Spell is taken from the scene outlined above, where Parsifal finds Montsalvat on Good Friday.   It weaves together many Grundthemen (musical ideas associated with people or ideas, also called leitmotiven) from the drama to convey his wonder at the beautiful meadow, his memory of Amfortas' agony, and his purpose.

The music begins with Parsifal's own motive, a fanfare in brass, and then builds to a climax with music associated with the idea of the "pure fool."   At the climax, the whole orchestra quotes the Dresden Amen - composed by J.G. Naumann in the 18th Century for use in Dresden churches - which in this drama symbolizes the Holy Grail.   After a benediction in the strings, the woodwinds play a peaceful rendition of the "faith" motive.   This beautiful chorale is passed to the strings, where it becomes anguished and is transformed into the music that recalls Amfortas' agony - Parsifal must remember his purpose, after all.   From this low point emerges an exquisite melody for solo oboe and clarinet that evokes the beautiful meadow.   This music becomes the main focus of the work, and is intercut with reminders of the spear, Amfortas' pain, and the power of the Grail.   Agony and salvation are shown, through the music, engaged in one last struggle.


Modest Mussorgsky - Night on Bald Mountain

Upon the death of Modest Mussorgsky in 1881, his friends and colleagues began the arduous task of preparing performance editions of his works.   Chief among them was Rimsky-Korsakov, who prepared editions in the hopes that Mussorgsky's music would reach the widest audience.

The motivation behind these editions was honorable, but the alterations of Mussorgsky's compositions in the process were often severe.   Rimsky-Korsakov altered whole scenes in Mussorgsky's operas, composed new music to be inserted into them, and changed much of what was brilliantly idiosyncratic about his poorly understood colleague's music.   In his view, he was correcting "absurd, disconnected harmony, ugly part-writing, sometimes strikingly illogical modulation" in order to salvage music of true merit.   This belief was based on the majority view of Mussorgsky during his lifetime: a technically inept amateur whose genius was tarnished by a lack of training.

In the 19th century, Russian musicians were seeking a national style independent of the Western (specifically German) influence that had dominated it.   Both Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky were considered part of the 'Moguchaya Kuchka' ('Mighty Handful'), the nickname given by the critic Vladimir Stasov to the leading followers of Mily Balakirev.   The five composers in this group spearheaded the effort to create a nationalist style, and all were, more or less, self-taught.   While Rimsky-Korsakov submitted himself later in life to rigorous technical studies, Mussorgsky found "the quest for artistic beauty for its own sake ... sheer puerility."   He wanted to reflect in music the life he saw around him: crude, raw, undisciplined and true.   Rimsky-Korsakov became a professor of composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and became a highly influential teacher of orchestration, while Mussorgsky achieved his artistic goal in his masterwork of Russian opera, Boris Godunov, and later descended into dissolution and drinking.   In these two men we see the two extremes of the Kuchka - technical mastery on the one hand and untutored originality on the other.   No wonder, then, that one man felt it his duty to preserve his friend's reputation through correcting him.

The version of Night on Bald Mountain played today demonstrates the relationship between these two men.   Mussorgsky's rough and crude musical language - perfectly suited to the theme - is smoothed out by a master of orchestration.

The subject matter of this work comes originally from pre-Christian Ukraine.   Midsummer Night was an important fertility festival, an appeasement to the god Kupalo to ensure a good harvest.   With the coming of the Christian Church, this festival was officially banned, but the festivities found their way into the nearby Feast of the Nativity of St. John (Ivan) the Baptist.   St. John's Night (June 23-24) has since been characterized by its pre-Christian trimmings: legend has it that evil water spirits try to drown passersby and the woods are full of malicious shades.   The center of mayhem is Bald Mountain, where witches, demons and sorcerers come together in orgiastic celebration of their leader, the satanic Chernobog ("Black God").

In 1860, Mussorgsky was commissioned to write an entire act of music depicting St. John's Night on Bald Mountain, to be played for Baron Mengden's drama, The Witch.   Today, both the Baron and his work are forgotten, but Mussorgsky's music remains.  

He did not get around to the composition until 1867.   After finishing, he wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov: "On the 23rd day of June, on the eve of St. John's Day was written, with God's help, St. John's Night on Bald Mountain, a musical picture with the following program: (1) assembly of witches, their chatter and gossip, (2) procession of Satan, (3) vile glorification of Satan, and (4) Sabbath. The full score was written directly in fair copy without rough drafts. I began on the 10th of June; there was joy and triumph on the 23rd."

Rimsky-Korsakov altered both this program and the ending of the work in his revision of the score.   In Mussorgsky's original version, the ending is brutal and savage, while in the Rimsky-Korsakov revision, it fades away peacefully: "At the peak of the Sabbath, there resounds from afar the bell of a little village church; its ringing disperses the spirits of darkness. - Daybreak."


Felix Mendelssohn - Symphony No. 5, "Reformation"

Felix Mendelssohn is rivaled in history only by Mozart as an astounding child prodigy.   The teenage Mendelssohn had already found his individual musical voice and composed one of his most famous works, the Midsummer Night's Dream overture, when he was seventeen.

He was born in 1809 with every advantage.   His father was a wealthy banker and his mother sang, played the piano, drew and read in five languages including Greek.   His older sister, Fanny, was a significant talent who remains relatively obscure today because her father discouraged her from making music her profession.   (It did not help her situation when, at age thirteen, she performed Bach's entire Well-Tempered Clavier from memory.)

Many argue that Mendelssohn's advantages of resources and talent shaped his career and personality.   He did not struggle against fate, nor did he revolutionize musical form or expression.   Rather, he excelled within a framework of classical restraint and charm, with a hint of Romantic fervor a safe distance away.   His gift lies in rich lyricism, supreme technique and clarity of design.   Wagner, who hated his conducting style, gave him the rather double-edged compliment that he was a "landscape painter of the first order."

Mendelssohn's Fifth Symphony was actually composed before the Third or Fourth, in 1830.   It was written for an upcoming celebration in Germany of the tercentenary of the Augsburg Protestant Confession, and drew accordingly on Protestant materials.

The first notable use of church music in the symphony (itself a normally secular form) comes in the first movement.   Here, Mendelssohn bases his slow introduction on the "Dresden Amen," composed by J.G. Naumann (1741-1801) for the Royal Chapel in Dresden and for other churches in Saxony.   Wagner, who served as Kapellmeister of the city from 1842 to 1849, also used this Amen cadence in Parsifal.

The Dresden Amen is only hinted at by the imitative entrances of violas and cellos before it is quoted twice, pianissimo, in the violins.   In its second appearance, it sets up the turbulent main section of the movement.   It reappears later in the movement at the moment of Recapitulation.

No church music is used in the middle movements.   The second movement is a graceful Scherzo, while the third is a lyrical interlude, with a beautifully sustained melody in the first violins supported by gently pulsing chords in the strings.

The last movement, which emerges out of the final note of movement three, is based on Luther's chorale, "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott" ("A Mighty Fortress is our God").   The chorale tune is played first by a solo flute, but with each phrase, more instruments join in until the entire orchestra is singing as a congregation.   The movement then veers energetically through different material, including a rather severe fugato, before returning to the chorale tune.   When it first reappears, we hear it as a solemn melody in the brass layered on top of active and contrapuntal strings.   Finally, it is proclaimed by the full orchestra and brings the Symphony to a glorious conclusion.

Related Content