Program Notes

Wagner’s The Ring Without Words

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466
Duration: ca. 30 minutes

The key of D minor has a foreboding ring about it, a sound many composers explored, often sparingly, with masterful results.

Think of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue for organ; Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata and Ninth Symphony; Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3; Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, as well as his final, unfinished work, the Requiem. And, for the last song all four Beatles recorded together, I Want You, on the Abbey Road album, they opted for this storm-and-stress key – with powerful effect.

Then we have Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, one of only two of his 27 in the genre to be cast in a minor key, along with the Concerto No. 24 in C minor. Similarly, only two of his 41 symphonies appear under the same cloak of darkness, both in G minor.

In Mozart’s time, composing in the minor was a rarity, in part because so much music was designed for entertainment, not profound or dark thoughts. Bright, major keys simply dispelled any gloom.

The D Minor Concerto has no shortage of profundity. Full of pathos and drama, it struck a chord with listeners sitting at the edge of a new era in music, and was embraced by a composer who would be best known for opening the door to Romanticism.

“This concerto made it possible to stamp Mozart as a forerunner of Beethoven, and it is no accident that for this very concerto Beethoven wrote cadenzas – fusing the Mozart and Beethoven styles,’’ notes Alfred Einstein in his classic 1945 biography Mozart: His Character, His Work.

Nor is it a typical classical model where the orchestra offers polite accompaniment. Instead, orchestra and keyboard are often at odds, just as the musical structure seems to fight against itself. Einstein adds that nowhere did Mozart create “stronger contrasts within a single work, contrasts among the three movements as well as within each movement.’’

Mozart completed the concerto just hours before he sat at the piano for its premiere on Feb. 10, 1785, in Vienna, an anecdote captured by his father, Leopold, in a letter to his daughter: “The work was still being copied out when we arrived and your brother had not had time to play through the rondo because he had to supervise the copying.’’

The music offers no hint of being rushed. The opening allegro, the longest of the three movements, opens in restless agitation by the strings. The piano soon enters with a gentle, elegant melody, and quickly plays against brief tuttis that set up the concerto’s ongoing tug and pull. Unlike any piano concerto up to this time, this is brooding and even rebellious. And unlike everything that came before, piano and orchestra no longer engage in civil conversation, but in a state of conflict that intensifies in the development section.

The slow romanze follows and offers relief in the key of B flat, the music sweet and lyrical but hinting of melancholy. A nervous middle section returns us to the storm of the allegro – a surprising interruption.

The finale begins with an abrupt, ascending line known as the Mannheim Rocket, a favorite musical device of the time. Once again we enter an emotionally charged atmosphere, the fire in the strings anticipating the final scene in Don Giovanni. But the tension fades as keyboard and orchestra dance together in the bright key of D major and the concerto comes to a rapturous close.

Four years after Mozart’s death, his widow, Constanze, arranged for a performance of the concerto between the acts of her husband’s last opera, La Clemenza di Tito. At the piano was none other than Beethoven, whose improvisations would become favorite cadenzas among soloists ever since.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
The Ring Without Words (arranged by Lorin Maazel)
Duration: ca. 70 minutes

When was the last time you met someone who sat through Richard Wagner’s entire The Ring of the Nibelung? The 16-hour marathon over four nights is a test by anyone’s standards, whether singers, instrumentalists or audiences, and because of its size and complexity, the full spectacle rarely appears outside the most consecrated of opera houses.

Those with stamina might visit the small German town of Bayreuth – where the composer was laid to rest in 1883 – for its annual Ring cycle. New Yorker music writer Alex Ross calls the event an “illusion of cultural omnipotence’’ for everything Wagnerian.

Certainly, Wagner thought big and had an ego to match his mammoth creations. “I am not made like other people,’’ he once said. “I must have brilliance and beauty and light. The world owes me what I need.’’

Most mortals tend to digest Wagner in appetizing bites rather than as an entrée, and this is the premise of The Ring Without Words, an arrangement of the operatic tetralogy for orchestra alone, presented in a digestible 70 minutes.

“It captures the qualities of Wagner’s music without going through five or six hours a night for each opera,’’ says TFO Music Director Michael Francis, who conducts this final Masterworks program of the season. “It takes us from the first note of the Ring to the last note of the Ring, but without the singing. It’s a Reader’s Digest version of Wagner.’’

The music flows chronologically, offering 20 highlights from Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. The project was the brainchild of the late conductor Lorin Maazel, who arranged the music for a 1988 Telarc recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. The traversal unfolds without breaks between the pieces, so Ride of the Valkyries, for instance, runs directly into Wotan’s Farewell. Maazel insisted on keeping the source material pure, so all transitions between sections are taken directly from Wagner’s scores.

Viewed as a symphonic journey stripped of any literary program, the music expresses the nuance and power of Wagner as an orchestrator, intended to appeal to listeners who know the Ring cycle by heart as well as those hearing its sonorities for the first time. Below is the playlist, but don’t worry if you can’t remember all the pieces – they will be projected on a screen above the stage.

The Rhine Gold
Greenish twilight at the bottom of the Rhine
Valhalla: Home of the Gods
Nibelheim: Home of the Dwarves
Donner’s thunderbolt
The Valkyrie
Siegmund and Sieglinde
Wotan’s rage
Ride of the Valkyries
Wotan’s farewell
Mime’s terror
Siegfried forges the magic sword
Forest murmurs
Siegfried slays the dragon
Twilight of the Gods
Siegfried and Brünnhilde
Siegfried’s Rhine journey
Hagen summons the Vassals
Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens
Siegfried’s death and funeral march
Brünnhilde’s immolation

Program notes by Kurt Loft, a St. Petersburg-based freelance writer and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune.