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ClassicsOnline Home » OPERA FANTASIES FOR VIOLIN
The operatic fantasy, as a vehicle for the display of virtuosity, came into its own in the 19th century, notably with the ‘demon violinist’ Paganini, whose variations on Rossini’s I Palpiti are included here. Later and contemporary composers and musicians have continued the practice of taking themes from operas and presenting them in ever more virtuosic guise. They include Stefan Frenkel whose technically very demanding arrangements of songs from Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera provide a dazzling showpiece in the nineteenth-century virtuoso tradition of Paganini and Liszt. The haunting Desde mi ventana (From my window) from Osvaldo Golijov’s fusion opera Aimnadamar (Fountain of Tears) is heard in an arrangement for two violins and piano by the composer and Stephen Prutsman.
By David Denton
Opera Fantasies for Violin
The nineteenth century brought astonishing developments in instrumental skill, marking, with Paganini and his innovations in violin technique, the true age of the virtuoso. Earlier periods had seen great performers, but it was now combined with changes in technique that made feasible feats of dexterity that would have previously been impossible.
A continuing element in virtuoso performance was the operatic fantasy, the presentation of themes taken from current operas, in new guises. Contemporary composers have continued this practice, making effective additions to this repertoire.
Born in Pest in 1858, the violinist, composer and teacher Jenő Hubay had his first violin lessons from his father, before studying with Joachim in Berlin. He returned to Hungary, but was advised by Liszt to try his luck in Paris, where he was well received and became a close friend of Vieuxtemps, whom he subsequently succeeded at the Brussels Conservatoire. His later career took him back to Budapest, where he taught a number of violinists who won later distinction, including Joseph Szigeti. He continued travelling as a virtuoso, played chamber music in a quartet with the cellist David Popper, and later became director of the Budapest Music Academy. Hubay also distinguished himself as a composer, an aspect of his career now largely neglected. His compositions included operas, two symphonies, concertos for viola and for violin, and varied chamber music. His Fantaisie brillante on Bizet's Carmen, Op. 3, No. 3, was written in 1877. Demanding considerable technical proficiency, it opens with the theme of Carmen's fate, and includes Micaela's Act III aria, Carmen's Habanera and the Toreador's song and march, all variously embellished.
Musical reputations are fragile. Joachim Raff is now remembered principally as the composer of a Cavatina, a salon piece, and as an assistant to Liszt in Weimar, little more than a footnote in the history of the symphonic poem. In his own time he enjoyed a very considerable renown, justified, it seemed, by a prolific talent and by his distinction as a teacher. Raff was born in Lachen, near Zurich, in 1822. His early musical ambitions were helped by Mendelssohn and then by Liszt, whose assistant he became at Weimar, working on the orchestration of Liszt's earlier symphonic poems, in the creation of which he claimed a larger share than was perhaps justified. In 1856, tired of a subordinate position in Weimar as one of the group of acolytes that attended on Liszt and unhappy in his relationship with Liszt's blue-stocking mistress, the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, Raff left for Wiesbaden, in 1877 moving to Frankfurt, where he was appointed director of the Hoch Conservatory. He remained in Frankfurt until his death in 1882. His Three Duos on themes from operas by Richard Wagner, Op. 63, were written in 1853. The third of these takes themes from Lohengrin, which he would have seen at its first staging under Liszt in Weimar in 1850. The theme that dominates the third Duo is that of the famous Wedding March.
The arrangement of Parasha's Aria from Stravinsky's Mavra is by the Polish-born Samuel Dushkin, who had moved to America with his family at the age of twelve. With the help of a benefactor he studied the violin in Paris, and then in New York with Leopold Auer and Fritz Kreisler. He started his concert career in Europe in 1918, making his American début in 1924. He made a number of transcriptions for the violin and collaborated with Stravinsky on matters of violin technique in the latter's Violin Concerto and Duo Concertante, and, most notably, on a series of arrangements, joining him in concert tours. Stravinsky's Mavra, based on a narrative poem by Pushkin, was first staged in 1922 in Paris. The plot deals with the subterfuge by which Parasha smuggles her lover into the house in the guise of a cook, Mavra. The Chanson russe is an imitation folk-song, based on a transcription by Pushkin and variously arranged by Stravinsky and others.
Paganini's popular reputation rested always on his phenomenal technique as a violinist, coupled with a showman's ability to dominate an audience and to stupefy those who heard him by astonishing feats of virtuosity. His playing served as an inspiration to other performers in the nineteenth century, suggesting to Chopin, in Warsaw, the piano Etudes, and to Liszt the material of the Paganini studies that he wrote in 1838. The very appearance of Paganini impressed people. His gaunt, aquiline features, his suggestion of hunched shoulders and his sombre clothing gave rise to legends of association with the Devil, the alleged source of his power. These stories were denied by Paganini himself, who, with characteristic understanding of the value of public relations in a more credulous age, told of an angelic visitation to his mother, in a dream, foretelling his birth and genius. His sensational international career started in 1828, when he was able to dazzle audiences throughout Europe. He may well have met Rossini in Milan in 1813, and certainly was in his company in Bologna in 1819, the date of the Introduction and Variations on 'Di tanti palpiti' from Rossini's opera 'Tancredi', Op. 13. The opera Tancredi, based on a tragedy by Voltaire, was first staged in Venice in 1813. The cavatina 'Di tanti palpiti' finds the hero Tancredi returning secretly from exile, at the invitation of his beloved Amenaide. It won immediate popularity. Paganini's variations, for which he himself, as elsewhere, used a violin tuned a semitone higher, start with an introduction, leading to the statement of the theme. The first variation opens with a display of thirds, leading to later triple-stopping. The second variation, an Adagio, makes much play with chords in harmonics. This leads to a rapider final section, bringing a brilliant display of Paganini's technique of left-hand pizzicato.
The French composer Edouard Lalo's opera Le roi d'Ys (The King of Ys) had its first performance in Paris in 1888. The plot is based on a Breton legend in which the king's daughter, Margared, disappointed in love, plans, in revenge, to open the sluice gates and inundate the city of Ys. Her final repentance saves the city. In the third act Mylio, beloved of Margared, but now about to marry her sister, Rozenn, sings an Aubade, Vainement, ma bien-aimée (In vain, my beloved), to which Rozenn lovingly responds. The Hungarian-born violinist Joseph Szigeti, a pupil of Hubay and at first a child virtuoso, in 1940 settled in the United States, continuing his successful international career after the war. His simple transcription of Lalo's Aubade seemingly owes its inspiration to the singing of Nellie Melba, with whom Szigeti, in the early days of his career, collaborated in concert tours.
Osvaldo Golijov was born in 1960 in La Plata, Argentina. He moved to Israel in 1983 to attend the Jerusalem Rubin Academy, and in 1986 to the United States for doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Golijov has received numerous commissions from major ensembles and institutions in America and Europe. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and several other awards, and collaborates closely with leading musicians and orchestras in the United States. His opera Ainadamar was staged by the director Peter Sellars at the Santa Fe Opera and Lincoln Center. Ainadamar tells the story of the great Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca and the actress Margarita Xirgu, who collaborated with Lorca on several of his most famous plays. Lorca was executed at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 at a place the Moors called Ainadamar, or Fountain of Tears, in Granada. He was 38 years old.
'Desde mi ventana' (From my window) is the first solo aria that Lorca sings in the opera. In it Margarita is having a flashback to when Lorca is singing to the statue of the Spanish heroine Mariana Pineda, whom he saw as a child in Granada. Pineda was discovered with a revolutionary flag during a search of her house, and was arrested and accused of conspiracy. After refusing to reveal the names of the revolutionary leaders in exchange for leniency, she was publicly executed in 1831. In this arrangement, the first violin takes the melancholy line of Lorca, sung by a mezzo-soprano in the opera. Another voice, taken here by the second violin, that of his beloved friend and creative soulmate Margarita, joins him from afar and brings his haunting song and her nostalgic line together as they sing and sigh as one voice to the end. Ainadamar was commissioned by the Boston Symphony and received its world première at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music on 10 August 2003. The 2006 recording of the opera by Deutsche Grammophon won two Grammy awards, as Best Opera Recording and Best Contemporary Composition. Arranged by the composer and Stephen Prutsman, this is the first transcription from this opera.
Livia Sohn / Osvaldo Golijov
In the late 1920s and early 1930s a cultural epidemic swept Germany and other susceptible parts of the world. It was called "Threepenny fever". The immediate catalyst was the tumultuous, epoch-defining première production of Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) that took place in Berlin in August 1928. Other symptoms included the remarkable variety of spin-offs spawned by the show, from popular jazz-band arrangements to sheet music for the amateur pianist that were issued as supplements to daily newspapers. The composer himself raised the fever to a new level by arranging songs from his own opera as an instrumental suite for wind ensemble; he called it Kleine Dreigroschenmusik. Conceived in the spirit of the eighteenth-century wind serenade known as Harmoniemusik (Weill's Eine kleine Nachtmusik original German title also alludes to a specific piece, namely Mozart's), the "Little Threepenny Music" was first performed under the direction of Otto Klemperer at the Berlin State Opera Ball in January 1929.
The Seven Pieces for Violin, arranged by violin virtuoso Stefan Frenkel, followed in the wake of Weill's suite. Born in 1902, two years after Weill, Frenkel was a child prodigy and made his public début in his native Warsaw with a performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto when he was sixteen. After studies with Adolf Busch and Carl Flesch in Berlin, he was appointed concertmaster of the Dresden Philharmonic at the age of 22. His solo career included numerous works by contemporary composers, among them Weill's Violin Concerto. Because of the Nazis' anti-Semitic policies, however, he left Germany and, like Weill, eventually emigrated to the United States, where he became concertmaster at the New York Metropolitan Opera and later taught at Princeton University.
These technically very demanding arrangements of songs from The Threepenny Opera for violin provide the performer with a dazzling showpiece in the nineteenth-century virtuoso tradition of Paganini and Liszt. Frenkel himself gave the first public performance in 1930. He also prepared a separate "simplified edition", which omits all the pyrotechnics and was intended to meet the needs of the many amateur violinists gripped by "Threepenny Fever". The first of the seven pieces, here included in the virtuoso version, follows the example of Weill's own suite by combining two songs: Das Lied von der Unzulänglichkeit menschlichen Strebens (The Song of Human Insufficiency) and the perennially popular Ballad of Mack the Knife. The pairing no doubt suggested itself to the composer because the melodies have in common the same initial three notes, albeit in a different sequence.
© Stephen Hinton
Stephen Prutsman's Fantasy Extract on Themes from Der Rosenkavalier, here recorded for the first time, may be described as a condensed depiction of the opera itself. It offers a potpourri of motifs which are freely sewn together, together with a hidden salute to Strauss's Violin Sonata, and reflects in miniature the opening of each of the three gigantic acts, providing a loose framework from which themes are heard. Numerous recognisable melodies abound such as the opening overture, the Silver Rose theme in Act II, familiar and not so familiar waltzes, and the trio 'Hab' mir's gelobt' from Act III.
Apart from excerpts from Carmen, the Act I duet 'Au fond du temple saint'for Nadir and Zurga from Les pêcheurs de perles is Bizet's most famous vocal work. In the duet, Zurga and Nadir are old friends now reunited, remembering Leila, a woman they both loved, how that competitive love threatened to destroy their friendship and how they each forsook their love in order to remain best friends until death. The close harmony and similarly passionate melodic lines reflect the shared emotion of the two men. Leila, of course, reappears soon after, and their friendship is eventually destroyed by the broken promise to forswear her. This transcription remains close to the original vocal lines, concentrating on capturing the lyrical spirit, only adding a few flourishes to some entrances. The range and timbral relationship of the tenor and baritone voices are perfectly translated for violin and viola.
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OPERA FANTASIES FOR VIOLIN