Mozart struggled to earn enough money in his final years. In 1791 he decided to apply his skills as an opera composer to a more commercial venture; he invited his friend and fellow Freemason Emanuel Schikaneder to create a singspiel, a popular format that blended singing and spoken dialogue in native German (akin to today’s Broadway musicals). Schikaneder would provide his theatrical troupe, then in residence in Vienna, and write a libretto borrowing elements from popular fairy tales. This new comic opera, The Magic Flute, took shape during the spring and summer of 1791 and debuted on September 30. Sadly, Mozart never fully capitalized on the popular success of his fanciful creation because he died a little more than two months after its premiere.
The Magic Flute tells the story of an adventurer, Tamino, who is sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue the queen’s daughter, Pamina. Tamino finds Pamina and (of course) falls in love; in the mean time he learns that the queen is the true villain. Before he can claim his beloved he must undergo three ordeals, which he survives with his strange sidekick, the half-man-half-bird Papageno (played by Schikaneder in the original production). The mystical plot resounds with Masonic imagery and lore, yet it also functions as a quintessential Romantic comedy, with both men finding partners and the villain getting her comeuppance.
Mozart had written most of The Magic Flute by July, and then wrote another opera, La Clemenza di Tito, which would be his last. He added the final numbers for The Magic Flute, including the overture, dated September 28, just before the premiere. The slow introduction begins with three solemn chords outlining the home key, before winding through various harmonies to prepare the Allegro return to the home key. The scurrying theme that begins the fast section undergoes a series of contrapuntal hand-offs, eventually reaching another set of three slow chords. The Allegro tempo returns with a mysterious minor-key episode, revealing another dimension of the catchy theme, before building to a rousing conclusion.
Aaron Grad ©2009
Charles Ives spent most of his career writing music very few people heard. Ives had a day job selling insurance. He excelled at it, starting his own firm in 1907 and literally writing the book on estate planning. He composed at night, on weekends, and over summers, writing steadily until about 1926, when he was 52. He retired from the insurance game in 1930, and although he lived to be 79, he did little or no composing in his last decades. He did, however, revise some of his earlier works and lived to see a number of them performed and published.
The works Ives produced in his first thirty years were influenced by a number of factors, including his formal education at Yale, his father’s carrer as a bandleader, and the religious music of New England revivals. Ives’s acute ear and independent spirit led him to a new sonic world. Two pieces firmly established his prototypical sound: Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question. Although he conceived them as a pair, they are often performed separately. Composed in 1906, they were published only in 1940.
Both Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question were experimental, the former exploring evocative musical quotation and the jarring effects of splitting the orchestra into two sections that don’t always pay attention to one another. The Unanswered Question is an experiment in spatial music – a conversation of sorts – in which strings play offstage and a trumpet emerges from behind the audience. Ives cast aside several titles, including “A Contemplation of a Serious Matter” and “The Unanswered Perennial Question,” before settling on the one we know today.
Ives divided the instruments into three opposing sections. The strings sound a hymn-like succession of chords that seem utterly unaffected by the activities of the other instruments. The solo trumpet offers a musical phrase (the Unanswered Perennial Question), seven times. The third group – Ives specified either four flutes, or, as in the present performance, two flutes, an oboe, and a clarinet – volunteers answers, but they grow increasingly dissonant each time they enter.
The juxtaposition of the atonal conversation of the trumpet and woodwinds with the tonal chorale of the string instruments is a fitting metaphor for the atonal and tonal streams of compositions that coexisted in the first decade of the twentieth century. This is a work of atmospheric mood and color. It does not matter so much that the question goes unanswered; the asking is enough.
Christine Lee Gengaro ©
About This Program
SPCO Artistic Partner Richard Egarr returns to escort us on a musical journey that contrasts darkness and light. The overture to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s beloved opera, The Magic Flute, calls upon the power of truth, love and beauty to conquer the darkness while The Unanswered Question, Charles Ives’ riddle-like work, features a contemplative trumpet solo asking the “eternal question.” The Great Major C, Franz Schubert’s monumental symphony begins reverently before being enriched with many moments of ecstatic joy. Fans of brass will love this fanfare-filled program!
Our Express Concerts are 60-75 minutes of music without intermission. Learn more at thespco.org/express.