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Program Notes for Piano Legend Leon Fleisher

Feb 5 - 6






Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor




Concerto No. 4 in B-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra
(Left Hand Alone), Op. 53






Symphonia domestica, Op. 53



Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor

Timing: approx. 8 min.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, cymbals a2, bass drum, strings


The Overture has never before been performed on a CSO subscription concert. It has appeared many times over the years on Pops, Youth, and Special and Domestic and Runout Tour programs, and on one May Festival Concert in the year 1873 when Michael Brand’s “Cincinnati Orchestra” performed the work.

Carl Otto Ehrenfried Nicolai was born in Königsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) on June 9, 1810, and died in Berlin on May 11, 1849. He wrote his opera Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (“The Merry Wives of Windsor”) to a libretto by Hermann von Mosenthal (based on Shakespeare’s comedy) in late 1848 and early 1849. It was premiered on March 9, 1849, at the Berlin Court Opera. In the United States, the overture to the opera was heard as early as May 28, 1851 (with Leopold Meignen and the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia); the entire opera was produced by the Philadelphia German Opera on April 27, 1863.

Like Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Chopin, Otto Nicolai died when only in his thirties. (Incidentally, his dates are identical to Chopin’s.) But unlike those masters, each of whom had been writing important works since childhood or at least adolescence, Nicolai was just beginning to find his voice when he died of a stroke. Just two months earlier, the only work for which he is remembered today, his opera Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (“The Merry Wives of Windsor”), was produced at the Berlin Court Opera. So, if it was said of Schubert (in Franz Grillparzer’s famous eulogy) that death had destroyed “a rich treasure, but yet much fairer hopes,” the same words apply even more strongly to Nicolai. One must indeed assume that the history of German opera would have been different had Nicolai lived longer: Richard Wagner would have had a serious competitor to contend with.

Nicolai had spent several years in Rome as the organist at the chapel of the Prussian Embassy. His familiarity with Italian comic opera is evident in The Merry Wives of Windsor (his earlier operas were, in fact, all in Italian). But he was also one of the leading conductors of his time, one of the early champions of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which at the time was still widely misunderstood. He was the first to lead the orchestra of the Viennese Court Opera in symphonic concerts, and thus became the founder of the Vienna Philharmonic. It won’t surprise anyone that The Merry Wives of Windsor owes much to the German tradition of Mozart and Weber; it is more noteworthy that it contains a ballad that is strongly reminiscent of the one Senta sings in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman (written six years earlier). In fact, Nicolai’s opera, with its mixture of German and Italian elements, has been said to lack stylistic unity, yet on the whole it is certainly one of the funniest works in the opera literature. It had a strong influence on the light operas (operettas) of Johann Strauss, Offenbach, and Sullivan.

The opera is based on Shakespeare’s comedy and features Sir John Falstaff, the aging knight and incorrigible womanizer, among the members of the cast. But this Falstaff is not the wise fool we know from Verdi’s last opera (written at age 80 in 1893, 44 years after Nicolai). Nicolai’s knight is no philosopher but an entirely comical character who is not the central figure in the opera (the women are, as the title indicates).

The overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor is based almost entirely on the opera’s last scene, in which Alice Ford, joined by Meg and Anne Page, play their final trick on Sir John. All the children of the town are disguised as elves and fairies, in order to scare, pinch and prickle the fat knight until he confesses all his sins. The introduction (“Andantino moderato”) depicts the rising of the moon: the long-held high note of the first violins and the poetic bass melody create a magical atmosphere, for, temporarily, we are to believe the elves and fairies are “real.” The tempo soon increases to “Allegro vivace,” and we hear a light-footed theme in staccato (short, separated) notes—the dance of the elves. Finally, the orchestra introduces the marchlike melody to which the chorus will sing the moral of the story at the end of the opera: “He who tries to deceive other people oft himself is caught in his net.” The themes are treated according to the laws of sonata form, which allows them to be repeated, varied, and developed until the final climax is reached.

—Peter Laki


Concerto No. 4 in B-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra (Left Hand Alone), Op. 53

Timing: approx. 25 min.
Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, strings


These performances are the CSO subscription premiere for the Concerto No. 4 for Left Hand.

Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka, Ukraine, of Russian parents, on April 27, 1891. He died in Nikolina Gora, near Moscow, on March 5, 1953. Prokofiev wrote his Fourth Piano Concerto, for left hand alone, in 1931, on commission from Paul Wittgenstein, the Austrian pianist who had lost his right arm in World War I. Wittgenstein, however, never played the work, which remained unperformed during the composer’s lifetime. It was premiered by Siegfried Rapp, a German pianist who had lost his right arm in World War II, in West Berlin on September 5, 1956. The first performance in the United States took place on March 28, 1958, with Rudolf Serkin and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.

Prokofiev was undecided about his Fourth Piano Concerto: “Sometimes I like it,” he said, and sometimes I don’t.” But then, there were other things that Prokofiev was undecided about in the early 1930s. He was still living in the West, but he was beginning to think seriously about returning permanently to Russia, his homeland that he had left in 1917, in the wake of the October Revolution.

In 1931, Prokofiev’s career in the West was going better than ever. He had just completed a successful American concert tour and had settled down with his wife and two sons in a comfortable apartment in Paris, after living in furnished rooms for years. Yet he was beginning to feel somewhat isolated in the French capital after the death of his mentor Serge Diaghilev in 1929 and the departure for Boston of his great supporter Serge Koussevitzky around the same time. After his first visit home in 1927, he started receiving offers from the Soviets that seemed very attractive. Prokofiev believed that wouldn’t have to give up his Western connections entirely, hoping to divide his time between Moscow and Paris—a fatal naïveté on his part, as he would only discover when it was too late.

As Prokofiev’s life was coming to a turning point, so was his career as a composer. He had achieved early fame as an iconoclastic enfant terrible, yet in later years he increasingly embraced more traditional ways of composing—something that was frowned upon in modern-music circles in the West, but encouraged and even mandated in the Soviet Union. Prokofiev’s style had started to evolve in the direction of such future masterworks from his Soviet period as Romeo and Juliet and the Second Violin Concerto; yet he was still anxious to maintain his image as a progressive composer in the West.

The Fourth Piano Concerto shows Prokofiev at the crossroads. It begins and ends as a light-hearted virtuoso piece, yet the inner movements reach considerable emotional complexity. The irreverent, sarcastic Prokofiev of the early period is very much in evidence, but so is the mellower melodic style that foreshadows Romeo and Juliet (especially in the second movement).

Paul Wittgenstein, who had commissioned the work from Prokofiev, declared that he didn’t understand a note of it and never performed it. One if left to wonder whether the pianist liked Prokofiev’s earlier music at all and if he didn’t, why he commissioned a concerto from him in the first place. (Prokofiev wrote back to Wittgenstein: “You are a musician of the 19th century and I of the 20th.”)

Wittgenstein, a brother of the famous philosopher Ludwig, is remembered for the numerous left-hand pieces he commissioned. The best-known of all these works is Ravel’s concerto, written, like the Prokofiev, in 1931. Although Wittgenstein did eventually perform and record Ravel’s work, his initial reaction to it had not been very positive either. Among the other composers he had approached (including a young Benjamin Britten), Wittgenstein’s own favorites were Richard Strauss, Franz Schmidt, and—above all—the now completely forgotten Josef Labor.

Prokofiev’s Concerto for the Left Hand opens with a toccata-type movement (Vivace) with rapid piano passages skipping from key to key with the agility of a squirrel. The woodwinds (the flute and the clarinet in particular) weave lyrical melodic fragments around the piano passages. Some rather harsh chromatic dissonances are piled up in the middle section, before the playful piano passages (with their attendant woodwind melodies) return to close the movement.

The second movement (Andante) is based on two lyrical themes that are rhythmically similar yet different in their melody. The first theme is introduced by the orchestra, the second by the piano. Subsequently, the second theme is taken up by the orchestra as a basis for a series of variations that become more and more impassioned until a powerful climax is reached. The solo piano ornaments the theme by some elaborate passagework. On two occasions between variations, the piano reminds us of the first theme while the orchestra is silent. At the end of the movement, the first theme returns in the orchestra, with embellishments played by the piano. The end of the movement is extremely delicate, scored for solo piano with only a few orchestral instruments.

We might expect a scherzo-type movement next. Yet while the Moderato that follows is recognizably in the A-B-A form customary in scherzos, its character is mostly serious. After the expansive lyricism of the Andante, the third movement is characterized by a certain cool reserve. It opens with a dissonant brass fanfare and continues with a piano solo accompanied by the woodwind in an emphatically dry manner. Then the tempo picks up (Allegro moderato) and the mood brightens somewhat as an energico new theme is added to the fanfare. The central B section is again in a slower tempo (Andante); it is a mysterious dance with a sparse accompaniment, the volume being mostly piano. The entire recapitulation is in the faster (Allegro moderato) tempo, and includes a new episode, a broad and expressive string theme accompanied by virtuoso piano passages. The ending is brilliant and abrupt.

The last movement is little more than a playful appendix to the concerto. Only a minute and a half in duration, it draws its material from the opening Vivace, summing up some of its lighter moments. The orchestration is reduced, the volume remains soft throughout; the concerto ends with what seems an impish smile.

—Peter Laki


Symphonia domestica, Op. 53

Timing: approx. 44 min.
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, oboe d’amore, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals a2, tambourine, triangle, bass drum, chimes, harp, strings


The CSO has performed this work on nine previous subscription weekends, including the premiere in March of 1913, Ernst Kunwald conducting (Emery Auditorium), and the most recent in March of 2000, Christof Perick conducting. 

Strauss was born on June 11, 1864 in Munich; he died September 8, 1949 in Garmisch. He began the Symphonia domestica late in April of 1902 and completed it on December 31, 1903. He conducted the first performance in New York on March 21, 1904. 

During the period when he created most of his tone poems, Strauss was first and foremost a programmatic composer. His most vivid scores set out to tell stories or paint pictures in orchestral tones. When the composer published his programs, listeners tried to follow closely the correspondence between musical events and story line, sometimes missing some of the musical subtleties in the process. When, on the other hand, he suppressed the program, as he often did, listeners missed half the fun.

His contemporaries debated whether or not it was necessary to know the story in order to appreciate the music. Was it fair to listen to Strauss’s tone poems as musical expression alone? Strauss believed that the program was essentially a stimulus to his imagination, that the music should and could stand on its own, and that the listener need not know the program. Hence he published the orchestral score of the Symphonia domestica without literary explanation. Yet, when we do take the trouble to trace the origins of each event in the music, we can appreciate the wit, the characterization (developed as carefully as in many an opera), and the subtlety of Strauss’s art in a far deeper way. Is listening without following the program any less incomplete than hearing an opera without knowing the libretto?

With each successive tone poem, the composer’s reliance on a program increased. While it is certainly possible to appreciate Till Eulenspiegel without knowing about the pranks of that rogue, or to hear Don Juan without thinking about the legendary seducer’s exploits, it is harder to understand Ein Heldenleben or particularly its successor, the Symphonia domestica, without knowing what is being depicted. It is no surprise that Strauss abandoned tone poems after the Symphonia domestica and concentrated instead on opera, where the story is necessarily part of the music.

If a piece of music is intended to represent certain events in specific detail, then those events should presumably be of interest to a musical audience. Strauss’s earlier, more objective, tone poems posed no problem of this sort, but the autobiographical Ein Heldenleben and Symphonia domestica were about the composer himself. He may have said, “I don’t see why I should not write a symphony about myself. I find myself quite as interesting as Napoléon or Alexander.” But does an audience share this interest? Is Strauss’s domestic life really as intriguing as the exploits of a Don Quixote?

The symphony—which is a symphony in name only, since its large sections (introduction, scherzo, adagio and finale) do not employ symphonic forms—is dedicated to those it portrays: the composer’s wife and baby son. This “musical picture of marriage,” as Strauss called it, depicts a typical day in the Strauss household. This story is certainly not as vivid of heroic as the plots behind Death and Transfiguration or Also sprach Zarathustra, but it is far more personal. Intimacy of plot did not, however, prevent Strauss from creating a vast and colorful work, with an enormous orchestra. As biographer Ernst Krause remarked, “There is a striking disparity between the intimacy of the programmatic design and the full-toned performance by an orchestra of more than a hundred…, between the simplicity of the program and the monumentalism of the execution.”

KEYNOTE. The work begins with a series of themes that represent Papa. Each is labeled with an expressive marking that reflects Papa’s personality. First is a “comfortable, easy-going” cello tune, followed by a “dreamy” ascending oboe figure that becomes “morose” when the clarinets take it over. The next Papa tune, “fiery,” begins with two upward sweeps in the violins. Finally there is a brief trumpet fanfare marked “gay.” An upward scale and a bassoon reminiscence of the first Papa theme bring us to the Mama material.

The first Mama theme (violins, flutes, oboe) begins with an inversion of the first Papa motive, perhaps to show that Mama and Papa are ideally suited for one another. This material is marked “angry.” Later the flutes and violins offer another Mama theme, “sentimental.” There are a couple of additional tunes not labelled. One of them bears a strong resemblance to a Tchaikovsky waltz. Strauss’s biographer, conductor Norman Del Mar, speculates that this quotation was possibly a private joke, since the composer’s wife “was always chiding her husband for his lack of originality.”

Pauline Strauss was known for her temper. No sooner are her themes introduced than Mama works herself into an anger. But a gentle and simple version on the first Papa theme returns in the bassoons and then violins to calm her. There ensued a conversation between Mama and Papa, as their themes alternate.

After a pause on a violin tremolo, the Baby theme is heard. It is played by an oboe d’amore. This archaic instrument, which rarely appears in the modern symphony orchestra, has a modest sound thoroughly appropriate to the simple tune. The Baby motive is related to some of the Papa themes, showing Baby’s resemblance to his father. As the Baby theme is developed, occasional interjections of Mama and Papa material indicate that they are watching him sleep.

Suddenly he awakens with the shouts of loud woodwind trills and muted trumpets. The relatives have come to visit. Strauss labels a statement of Papa’s motive, “The aunts: ‘Just like Papa!’” Mama’s motive is labeled, “The uncles: ‘Just like Mama!’”

The scherzo follow immediately. A simple variant of the Baby theme, played by the oboe d’amore, portrays the child at play. The parents’ themes intrude to show their happiness as they watch him. Eventually Baby begins to tire. The texture things and the music slows. The original Baby theme returns in the oboe d’amore, with a little upward yawn at the end.

Papa approaches to get Baby ready for bed, but instead he plays with his son. Mama interrupts to try to enforce bedtime, but woodwind trills indicate Baby’s cries of protest. Conductor Hans Richter is reputed to have said of this passage that all the gods burning in Valhalla do not make nearly as much noise as this one Bavarian baby in his bath.

Finally Baby settles down to a lullaby, which is quoted from one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. At the end of this song, the glockenspiel is struck seven times to show that it is seven o’clock. The parents’ motives indicate that they both give Baby a final kiss.

The ensuing section, which begins with four woodwinds, is a gentle development of Papa’s “dreamy” melody. He is contemplating his sleeping son. Then the strings introduce a new motive, characterized by repeated notes, which represents Papa’s profound tenderness.

Mama’s “angry” theme interrupts as she sends Papa to his study to work. The subsequent adagio represents Strauss composing. This section develops earlier themes, mainly Papa’s. While there are no hints of Baby’s music, occasional reminiscences of Mama’s material suggest that the composer thinks of his wife while working. Longer statements of Mama’s music imply that she occasionally interrupts the artist at work, which in fact Pauline Strauss frequently did. When she leaves, he gets caught up in the majestic passage he is composing.

Mama’s themes return, this time unobtrusively. Papa responds with the motive of profound tenderness (repeated notes in violins then horns). Mama’s theme is restated in the violins, marked “passionately.” The couple go into the bedroom.

The subsequent passage depicts love-making in extraordinary detail. The Mama and Papa themes are hurled against one another as the music surges to ever greater climaxes. As the frenzied passions mount, the music becomes more driving and pulsating. It accelerates toward the ultimate climax, which the entire orchestra graphically describes.

After the couple’s passions subside, the theme of profound tenderness is heard in the winds. Then they sleep. The next section presents their dreams. To an other-worldly accompaniment of string tremolos, fragments of various themes float through the orchestra. These reveries end as the glockenspiel again sounds seven times: seven a.m. has come. Wind and trumpet trills, first soft and then loud, tell Mama and Papa that Baby has awakened and is crying.

The finale begins with an elaborate double fugue, which starts with bassoons playing a version of Papa’s theme. The second subject is based on Mama’s music. The fugue depicts arguments and reconciliations. Strauss is reputed to have felt that during the course of the fugue Papa gives in to Mama’s demands. Baby’s theme appears in a simple, folk-like setting in the winds, indicating his central position in the family. The music drives toward the end in successive waves, featuring fanfares in the eight horns. The first horn is carried well above what is normally accepted as the top of its range. The very end is given to Papa’s first theme. Papa has the last word.

The egocentricity of the Symphonia domestica does not hide the fact that it is a product of its times. Only a hyper-romantic artist such as Strauss could be so vainglorious as to parade himself and his family before his public in an ostentatious 40-minute work for enormous orchestra. This music exemplifies late 19th-century exaggeration of artistic subjectivity. There was a certain decadence in the conceit of a composer like Wagner, who proclaimed himself the creator of the music of the future. Wagner’s egomania spread as romanticism turned overripe, and Strauss proved to be the successor to Wagner’s aesthetic. The Symphonia domestica is one of the last truly romantic works by the last truly romantic composer. It represents the limits (as well as the strengths) of artistic subjectivity. It tears at the boundaries of musical romanticism. Strauss knew that he had reached an impasse in this work and that he had to turn his back on the decadence he so eloquently expressed. Thus he began writing operas.

Listening to the Symphonia domestica today, we hear not only the composer’s family life but also the impending death of an opulent culture. The overblown romanticism of the Symphonia domestica and its undercurrents of egomania are typical of late German romanticism. Yet Strauss was a great composer, and the symphony is an extraordinary work. One need not accept its decadent aesthetic, any more than one has to care about the details of Strauss’s family life, in order to enjoy its magnificent sounds.

—Jonathan D. Kramer