Friday, May 14, 2021

Not Always Opera

No. 357 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


This week’s podcast features three works from three composers we normally associate with opera, not the concert hall.

Georges Bizet's earliest compositions, chiefly songs and keyboard pieces written as exercises, give early indications of his emergent power and his gifts as a melodist. From those student days, the Symphony in C has been warmly praised by later commentators who have made favourable comparisons with Mozart and Schubert.

After his early Symphony in C, Bizet's purely orchestral output is sparse and considered unremarkable. The work I chose to open the program, the overture Patrie, has been dismissed as: "an awful warning of the danger of confusing art with patriotism". For you to decide if you agree with that poor assessment.

Wagner composed his only symphony (also in C) in the brief space of six weeks at the beginning of the summer of 1832. The composition shows the influence of the symphonies of Beethoven and also of the late symphonies of Mozart; the orchestration is in the style of Weber and Beethoven. The work shows the composer's inexperience (he was less than 20 years old when writing it).

Early performances took place in November 1832, January 1833, and August 1833. The score was subsequently thought to have been lost, but the parts from the 1832 Prague performance were found in a trunk which had been left behind by Wagner when he fled Dresden in 1849. The work was performed again at Christmas 1882, two months before Wagner's death. Wagner later wrote (referring to himself in the third person…) "If there is anything at all in this work which shows the mark of Richard Wagner, it is the fact that it is not polluted by the hypocritical stance which was to appear later and which Germans find very difficult to get the better of, and the fact that, from the outset, he remained true to himself and was unwilling to be deflected from his proper course."

Gian Carlo Menotti wrote many operas but did pen some piano and orchestral works. He was a traditionalist and romanticist at a time when most western composers were preoccupied with new styles marked by the avant-garde experimental spirit and theoretical rigor; there was little room for traditional tonality and lyricism in the classical music world at the time.

Menotti’s profound interest in the voice and belief in connecting with his audience through accessible musical language is also tangible in his instrumental works. The Violin Concerto, rich with drama, lyrical melody, and orchestral color, is far more accessible that instrumental works by other composers of the time. The concerto was written in 1952 after a commission by the violinist Efrem Zibalist, who premiered the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall later that year. The premiere was a success, as can be read in a review by Louis Biancolli of New York World-Telegram & Sun: “It is a fresh and vigorous piece of music, overflowing with energy and melody and whatever else it takes to complete a three-movement concerto without becoming apologetic.” Yet, after the initial success, the work was largely neglected.

I think you will love this music too.

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