September 23-24, 2023
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Hilary Hahn, violin
Don Juan, op. 20 (1888)
Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64 (1844)
Allegro molto appassionato
Allegro non troppo – Allegro molto vivace
Hilary Hahn, violin
The Magic Flute Overture, K. 620 (1791)
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897)
Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, op. 28 (1895)
By Yvonne Frindle
It’s rare for a symphony concert not to include an actual symphony, but this weekend that’s exactly what we have planned. Instead, Stéphane Denève has devised a program that paints pictures and tells stories, rich in humor and drama—even the “abstract” violin concerto by Felix Mendelssohn is full of character and personality. As for the music by Richard Strauss, Paul Dukas, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: these are works by great musical storytellers.
In the overture to his opera The Magic Flute, Mozart conveys both the solemnity of Masonic-inspired ritual and a marvelous comic vitality, proving he could be serious and entertaining at the same time. The remainder of the program dates from the 19th century, when the art of telling stories though music reached a peak in the form of the orchestral tone poem. This became the genre of choice for Richard Strauss and we feature two of his tone poems: Don Juan and the irrepressible Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.
Strauss’s ear for orchestral color shows itself in vivid musical pictures. In Don Juan the horns convey virility (as they so often do in Strauss), a solo violin represents the ardent lover, and the oboe the object of his quest for perfect womanhood. The horn also plays a key role in Till Eulenspiegel, together with the high-pitched E-flat clarinet, and their themes return after
each of Till’s reckless adventures, not unlike an indestructible Looney Tunes character. But perhaps the best-known music in this concert—thanks to Walt Disney’s Fantasia—is Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which, for better or worse, is likely to bring Mickey Mouse to your mind’s eye. To their credit, the Disney animators were true to the original story, even as they cast the world’s most famous cartoon character as an apprentice magician out of his depth.
Don Juan, op. 20
Born 1864, Munich, Germany
Died 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen,
Dawn breaks on a farmhouse. One by one, instruments gather, offering messages of hope.
Richard Strauss is the source of some of the most exhilarating experiences in the concert hall. Symphony orchestras can lay claim to ten works of unrivaled inventiveness, imagination and richness of color. And yet, apart from two youthful efforts, he wrote no symphonies. For Strauss, it was the evocative and storytelling possibilities of the symphonic poem (or orchestral “tone poem,” as he preferred to call it) that sparked his creative imagination.
The tone poem as a genre was pioneered by Franz Liszt (1811–1886) and Strauss became its champion. This kind of music is symphonic in scope but it’s not bound by conventional musical forms. Instead, the music is shaped by an extra-musical “program” that establishes the narrative or scene. The program can be implied by a title or poetic preface, as in Don Juan, or it can be more explicit, as is the case with Till Eulenspiegel, which Strauss eventually marked up with a storyline. And since Strauss’s day job was conducting, he knew precisely how to use the instruments of the orchestra to create marvelous pictorial effects. His legacy includes not only the music itself but the way in which he developed the expressive power and—look at the stage—the literal size of the symphony orchestra.
Strauss’s tone poems of the 1880s gained him widespread attention, and the first of these to achieve unqualified success was Don Juan. Unlike Mozart’s Don Giovanni opera (whose influences included Molière’s Don Juan), Strauss found his inspiration for the piece in a verse fragment by the Austrian writer Nikolaus Lenau (1802–1850). Instead of the cruel seducer we find in other versions of his story, Lenau’s Don is a dreamer driven on an impossible pursuit of ideal beauty—an archetypal Romantic hero. “That magical circle, immeasurably wide, of beautiful femininity,” he declares in Lenau’s verses, “I want to traverse in a storm of pleasure, and die of a kiss upon the lips of the last woman.”
Lenau’s text inspired Strauss to a bold and original flight of musical fantasy. The composer offered no detailed narrative for Don Juan, though it is doubtful that any verbal explication could enhance the experience of the composition. It is impossible to miss the suggestions of sensuality, bravado, and delirious flight that flow from the music, and a listener needs no more than that. Don Juan is a great showpiece, a chance for any orchestra to show its virtuosity. But Strauss can be lyrical also, as in the poetic oboe solo that forms the focal point of the tone poem’s central episode.
Adapted from a note by Paul Schiavo © 2012
First performance: November 11, 1889, in Weimar, Germany, conducted by the composer
First SLSO performance: January 20, 1889, Max Zach conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: December 1, 2021, David Robertson conducting
Instrumentation: 3 flutes with piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons,
contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings
Approximate duration: 18 minutes
Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64
Born 1809, Hamburg, Germany
Died 1847, Leipzig, Germany
If any composer understood magic it was Felix Mendelssohn. A child of the Romantic age, as a teenager he composed a masterpiece: an overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With this evocation of fairies and forests and magical creatures, Mendelssohn set a very high bar for himself. Even so, music like his Violin Concerto in E minor, completed just three years before his death, proved that he never lost his ability to enchant his listeners.
This concerto—violinists and audiences agree—is the jewel of violin concertos. Its melodies sing warmly, its virtuosity is graceful. For if there was one thing Mendelssohn couldn’t tolerate, it was virtuosity for its own sake, and he took care to balance showiness with musical integrity. The music comes across as flowing and spontaneous and yet it took Mendelssohn a good six years to write.
Aged 29, he was haunted by an idea for the opening bars of a violin concerto; it ran through his head, giving him “no peace.” Aged 30, he dreamed of a cadenza. Aged 34, he sketched a shape for the work. But Mendelssohn was a busy man. He whirred around Leipzig, directing the city’s main orchestra, conducting at the opera house, leading the choirs, founding a music conservatory. Aged 35, he finally gathered his thoughts during an unusually restful summer and completed the concerto. It was written for violinist Ferdinand David, a childhood friend, and Mendelssohn leaned on David for all sorts of technical advice in composing the work.
The concerto has modest proportions, yet it launches a quiet revolution. The opening motifthat had consumed him is the first of some striking innovations in the concerto form of the 19th century: instead of allowing the orchestra to present the main themes, Mendelssohn brings in the violin with the first theme after a mere hint of an introduction. He also moved the solo cadenza to an unexpected spot, and finally (because he hated applause between movements) he joined the first and second movements with a sustained bassoon note, and then led straight into the third movement via an introduction for soloist and strings alone.
Three sides of the mature Mendelssohn rise to the surface in this concerto. In the first movement, dark passion emerges from an elegant exterior; instead of on-stage combat, we witness a conversation between violin and orchestra. In the second, a hush falls, and the violin lulls us with a gentle song without words. In the third, Mendelssohn returns to the character of his youthful Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and its “fairy scherzo” music—playful and dazzling.
Adapted from notes by Yvonne Frindle and Tim Munro © 2021
First performance: March 13, 1845, in Leipzig, Niels Gade conducting, with Ferdinand David as
First SLSO performance: March 22, 1912, Max Zach conducting, with Albert Spalding as soloist
Most recent SLSO performance: May 15, 2021, Stéphane Denève conducting, with Celeste Golden Andrews as soloist
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets,
Approximate duration: 27 minutes
The Magic Flute Overture, K. 620
Born 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died 1791, Vienna, Austria
In the autumn of 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute was premiered in Vienna. A week after the opening, the composer reported: “I have just come from the opera; it was as full as always... One really sees how this opera is catching on.” The Magic Flute ran throughout October and into November. Mozart, whose previous operas had failed to make much of an impression in Vienna, had scored an unqualified theatrical triumph in the last months of his life.
This success might seem ironic in light of the fact that Mozart conceived The Magic Flute not merely as an entertainment (with songs and spoken dialogue, it was more like a modern musical than an opera) but as a parable of initiation into the ways of Freemasonry. Masonic themes run throughout the opera, from the broad outlines of its plot to myriad small details. The opposition of light and darkness, the testing of an initiate seeking enlightenment, the commands to fasting and silence—all these inform both the opera and the Masonic doctrine Mozart knew. Numerical symbolism also links to Masonic tenets: the opera features three Ladies, three Spirits, three temples, three trials, and a conspicuous sequence of three chords.
This three-chord figure announces the opera’s overture, ushering in a brief Adagio (slow) passage. The main portion of the work is an animated Allegro. Neither of its two principal themes is taken from the opera itself, yet each resonates with the spirit of the opera, at once comic and serious.
Abridged from a note by Paul Schiavo © 2005
First performance: September 30, 1791, in Vienna, conducted by the composer
First SLSO performance: March 11, 1910. Max Zach conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: June 24, 2021, Daniela Candillari conducting
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones,
Approximate duration: 7 minutes
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Born 1865, Paris, France
Died 1935, Paris, France
If ever a piece of music was a victim of its own success, it is surely The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. An immediate success in 1897, it established the 32-year-old Dukas as one of France’s important new composers. Its programmatic representation of a supernatural tale proved so vivid that few listeners could fail to imagine the unfolding of its narrative. It was precisely this vividness that prompted the Walt Disney studio to include The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in the 1940 film Fantasia, casting a famous cartoon mouse in the title role. And this remarkable work was fated to a new popularity that would forever associate it with a clever cartoon.
The inspiration for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was “Der Zauberlehrling,” a ballad-poem written in 1796 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the poem a young apprentice magician has seen his master turn a piece of wood into a living servant. Indeed, the apprentice has memorized the incantation, and when the old sorcerer departs the house, he tries it out himself. The charm succeeds in animating a broom, and the satisfied apprentice orders it to fetch water from the pond. This the broom does, then does again—and again and again, for the apprentice has neglected the command to make his enchanted worker cease its labors. As water overflows the basin and begins to cover the floor, the apprentice desperately takes an axe and hacks the uncooperative broom in half. But now both pieces take pails and continue to pour water into the basin, flooding the house. The sorcerer returns in the nick of time, intones the proper formula, and the broomsticks fall to the floor.
Dukas’ convincing evocation of the tale through orchestral music bears comparison with the tone poems of Richard Strauss (although Dukas called his work a “symphonic scherzo”—literally a joke). In the opening measures, enigmatic harmonies and shimmering string colors establish an air of mystery and supernatural possibilities. Further harmonic ambiguity attends the apprentice’s casting of the spell, where unusual chords (quite modern in 1897) imply that magic is afoot.
Abridged from a note by Paul Schiavo © 2003
First performance: May 18, 1897, in Paris, conducted by the composer
First SLSO performance: March 5, 1908, Max Zach conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: March 23, 2019, Gilbert Varga conducting
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, strings
Approximate duration: 12 minutes
Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, op.28
Since at least the 14th century, accounts have circulated of Till Eulenspiegel, one ofthe most colorful figures in German folklore. Till was a rogue, a prankster and, above all, an impudent mocker of authority. Confusion and disorder followed him everywhere. He overturned stalls in the marketplace, caricatured priests and politicians, seduced young girls, and deceived old maids. His tricks were usually at the expense of the the rich, the pious, and the prudish—providing both entertainment and social satire.
Completed in 1895, Strauss’s portrait of Till Eulenspiegel is unusual among his tone poems for its humor. At first he declared it was “impossible” to furnish a detailed narrative for Till Eulenspiegel, and that he would leave it to his hearers to “crack the nut the rogue has presented them.” The shell of that nut is a rondo, a structure with a recurring theme separated by contrasting episodes, not unlike verse–chorus form. In this case the “chorus” contains Till’s signature music, while his (mis)adventures provide the episodes. And later, when the composer and critic Wilhelm Mauke devised a narrative guide to the work, Strauss went so far as to mark up his score with more than 20 key moments.
Over the gentle musing of the opening he wrote “Once upon a time there was a roguish jester”; over the following horn call, the first ofTill’s signature motifs, “whose name was Till Eulenspiegel.” The second motif represents some genius casting: Strauss gives the high-pitched E-flat clarinet a jaunty, insolent theme. These two motifs return in a variety of guises as the orchestra romps with Till through his riotous adventures.
But just as proceedings reach a height of exuberance, they are halted by a chilling drum roll. Loud chords thunder accusations; Till responds with the sly clarinet motif. This figure persists even as the rope is tightened around his neck (and the heavy brass plunge in a downward leap for the death drop), at last ending in a squeal as the gallows claim the prankster. The mild music of the beginning returns, as if to assure us this has been only a story. But Till may yet have the last laugh...
Adapted from a note by Paul Schiavo © 2012
First performance: November 5, 1895, in Cologne, conducted by Franz Wüllner; the composer
himself conducted the Munich premiere later that month
First SLSO performance: March 8, 1912, Max Zach conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: December 1, 2012, David Robertson conducting
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings
Approximate duration: 16 minutes
Hilary Hahn, a violin virtuoso with three Grammy Awards to her name, melds expressive musicality and technical expertise with a diverse repertoire guided by artistic curiosity. Her barrier-breaking attitude towards classical music and her commitment to sharing her experiences with a global community have made her a fan favorite.
Her expressive performances are a testament to her deep connection with the music, and her technical prowess is nothing short of awe-inspiring. But what truly sets Hilary Hahn apart is her insatiable curiosity, which has led her to explore a vast range of musical genres and styles. She is not only a prolific and award-winning recording artist with 22 feature recordings to her name but an ardent champion of new contemporary music, consistently seeking to expand the violin repertoire. Hahn’s Instagram-based practice initiative, #100DaysOfPractice, has helped transform practicing into a community-oriented celebration of artistic development. And her commitment to innovation is further highlighted by her role as Co-Founder and VP of Artistic Partnerships at Deepmusic.AI, an initiative that delves into the fascinating intersection of artificial intelligence and music.
Last season, Hahn appeared as soloist in concertos by Brahms, Sibelius, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev, as well as Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, and she gave the US premiere of Rautavaara’s Deux Sérénades, which was written for her and completed after the composer’s death by Kalevi Aho.
The current phase of Hahn’s career is marked by prestigious collaborations and residencies. She has recently completed her second year as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural Artist-in-Residence, and Wigmore Hall in London also named her Artist-in-Residence, allowing her to showcase her versatility and engage with audiences in a more intimate setting.
In a world where classical music often grapples with questions of relevance and accessibility, Hilary Hahn stands out as a beacon of hope. Her unwavering commitment to her craft, combined with her forward-thinking approach, ensures that she continues to inspire, challenge, and delight audiences worldwide.
Hilary Hahn last appeared with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 2003, when she played Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041 in concert with conductor Jeffrey Kahane.
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.