Bohemian Landscape Program Notes

Notes by Rick Bond

Georges Bizet (1883-1875) Carmen Suite No. 1
1 Aragonaise
2 Intermezzo
3 Les Toreadors

The opera Carmen premiered on March 3, 1875. Three months later, Bizet died of a heart attack. At the end of their lives, Giacomo Puccini never heard his opera Turandot, and Hector Berlioz never lived to see Les Troyens, but Bizet  was only thirty six years old, and his operatic genius had just been revealed.

After entering the prestigious Paris Conservatory at age ten, and winning the Prix de Rome at age nineteen, Bizet struggled for recognition after returning to Paris. Only the opera Pearl Fishers and the orchestral works Petite Suite and Symphony in C were at all well known. But from the beginning, the opera Carmen was different. Tchaikovsky correctly predicted that Carmen would become one of the most popular and frequently performed operas in the classical canon. The Habanera from Act  1 and the “Toreador Song” from Act  2 are among the best known of all operatic arias.

Because Carmen broke musical conventions and dealt with the somewhat seedy lives of non-nobles, it shocked and scandalised its first audiences. Carmen emerges with the other girls from the cigarette factory and sings her provocative Habanera dealing with the uncontrollable nature of love. Upon the urging of the crowd of men to choose a lover, Carmen throws a rose to Don José. Although initially disdainful, he becomes captivated. After a series of events involving a knifing by Carmen, her escape from custody, the escapades of smugglers, and glory of toreadors, Carmen rejects Don José in favour of the toreador Escamillo. As Escamillo wins another bullfight, Don José kills Carmen.

Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) Callirhoë Suite
1 Prélude
2 Pas du voile (Dance of the veil)
3 Scherzettino
4 Pas des cymbales (Dance of cymbals)

Chaminade was the daughter of an upper middle class insurance executive, an amateur violinist, and a mother who was an amateur pianist. Her musical gifts were apparent at a young age. After hearing early compositions by Cécile , family friend and neighbour, Georges Bizet, recommended that the eight year old be enrolled in the Paris Conservatory. But her father, echoing the sentiment of much of European society of the time, forbade this opportunity as being not suitable for females of their class. However, she was allowed to have private lessons in piano, violin, and composition with professors from the Conservatory. At age 18, Chaminade began giving concerts in France, England and eventually the United States; often her recitals included only works she had written. Her music is elegant, tuneful, and often witty, and for a time her works (especially piano pieces) were very popular; Chaminade clubs were formed in both Europe and the US. But, without academic credentials, and as a woman composer in the late nineteenth century, she was marginalised by critics. Said a New York Post reviewer “[Chaminade’s music] has a certain feminine daintiness and grace, but it is amazingly superficial and wanting in variety. . . .  But on the whole this concert confirmed the conviction held by many that while women may some day vote, they will never learn to compose anything worthwhile. All of them seem superficial when they write music. . . .”

In addition to her music for solo piano, Chaminade composed some fine chamber music. The Concertstück  for Piano and Orchestra and the Concertino for Flute and Orchestra are among the  larger works by Chaminade that continue to be included in concerts.

The Callirhoë Suite contains four excerpts for orchestra from Callirhoë: A Ballet Symphonique. The story is loosely based on the Greek myth of the daughter of the river god Achelous. She has been captured by Amphiaraus  of Argos, but she captures the heart of his son, Alcmeon. Callirhoë, dreaming only of being allowed to return to her native land, persistently remains aloof. However, Venus, the goddess of love, intervenes, and the tale ends happily.

Anton Dvorak (1841 – 1904) Symphony No. 8
1 Allegro con brio
2 Adagio
3 Allegretto grazioso
4 Allegro

Dvorak was the son of an innkeeper and butcher, and grew up across from Castle Nelahozeves (shown on the poster for this concert), a village near Prague, Czechia. He studied violin, viola, piano and composition, eventually graduating from the Organ School in Prague. Playing viola in orchestras and organ in churches didn’t pay a living wage, so Dvorak supplemented his income by teaching piano. He fell in love with, and married, Anna Čermáková, sister of one of his piano students; together they had 9 children.

Dvorak’s compositions up to the age of 33 were largely unknown. In 1874, the jury of the Austrian State prize, which included Johannes Brahms, awarded Dvorak a stipend that allowed him to devote more time to composition. His works frequently employed rhythms and other aspects of the folk music of Moravia and his native Bohemia, following the Romantic-era nationalist example of his predecessor Bedřich Smetana. He began to gain international recognition about 1880, so much so that he was invited in 1892 to become the Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York.

Dvorak wrote nine symphonies. Perhaps Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”, written when he was living in New York, is the best known. He also wrote a large amount of chamber music, mostly for string trios, quartets and sextets. The twelfth string quartet, nicknamed the American Quartet, is one of the most popular in the chamber music repertoire.

Symphony No. 8 was composed in 1899 at Dvorak’s summer residence in Vysoká, Bohemia. The whole work, although at times bucolic, breathes the spirit of the forests surrounding this country home, with the birds singing and the leaves rustling. In contrast to other symphonies of the period, the music is cheerful and optimistic. The overriding characteristic of this 8th Symphony is joy, from its childlike key of G Major, to its raucous use of Bohemian folk music and even its smiling-through-tears slow movement, to the glorious exuberance of the finale.