Listening to this overture, even Rossini’s greatest critic would have to concede that the man had faultless comic timing. The piece opens with the same gag that Haydn played in his “Surprise” Symphony: lull the audience with a quiet, unassuming opening, then hit them between the eyes (ears?) with the whole orchestra. After this little coup de théâtre, Rossini never lets up, pouring forth a brilliant stream of beautifully paced ideas. There is never a dull moment, and it is easy to see why all Europe was enchanted by the 21-year-old composer.
The Italian Girl in Algiers was written in 1813, a spectacular year for Rossini. He had spent 1810–13 traveling between the opera houses of Italy, learning his craft in the best possible way, by writing actual operas for actual opera houses. Nearly all of those early pieces have sunk into well-deserved obscurity; but without them, Rossini would never have acquired the technique to compose his first great success: Tancredi. Written for Venice’s La Fenice opera house, it created an international sensation, and paved the way for the rest of his career.
The Italian Girl in Algiers is one of those lesser operas of 1813 that has disappeared. Rossini was an ardent admirer of Mozart, and must have known his hit opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, with its Turkish harem setting and plot about the attempts of a European nobleman to save his captive beloved from an amorous Pasha. It belongs to a genre of operas which were popular at the time for their exotic locations and comic plots that usually involve love and rescue. Rossini would write several pieces along the same lines — starting with this one. In his overture, Mozart sets the tone by using actual Turkish percussion instruments. Rossini is less assiduous. He doesn’t lack for colorful percussion, but relies more on sheer high spirits and brilliance to captivate the audience.
Svend-Einar Brown ©2006
Tchaikovsky composed the Variations on a Rococo Theme in December of 1876, amid the turmoil of a failed opera production in Saint Petersburg and a particularly nasty review in Vienna from the feared critic Eduard Hanslick. Prone to insecurity even at the best of times, Tchaikovsky asked for advice from the new work’s intended cello soloist, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. Just 28 years old, Fitzenhagen was a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and principal cellist for the Imperial Russian Music Society. He also fancied himself a composer, and his “corrections” to the work of his well-established colleague show surprising aplomb.
Fitzenhagen rearranged the order of the variations, removing one entirely, and he rewrote most of the solo part. Tchaikovsky accepted the changes, and the hybridized version entered the popular canon, thanks to Fitzenhagen’s numerous concert appearances and an 1889 publication. Modern scholarship (aided by X-rays) revealed Tchaikovsky’s original music under Fitzenhagen’s emendations, and a reconstructed version debuted in Moscow in 1941. By then Fitzenhagen’s edition had cemented its reputation among cellists and audiences, and it continues to be the customary choice for performances.
Tchaikovsky’s title is a bit misleading, since his “Rococo theme” is his own original invention, and it is more aligned with Mozart and the Classical era than actual Rococo style. (Arising in France in the early eighteenth century, Rococo emphasized opulence and glamour, from gilded palaces to the trill-happy music of Couperin.) Following a stately orchestral introduction, the cello introduces the light-stepping “Rococo” theme, balanced in two repeated sections. The theme ends with a passage of adventurous harmonies, first in the winds alone and then shifting to the strings. That material returns various times to link the connected variations, and it brings Tchaikovsky’s rich Romantic voice into dialogue with the lean Classical ideals explored elsewhere in the work.
The first two variations maintain the theme’s flavor and pulse, adding increasing decoration and commentary, until the third variation breaks away to a gentle, singing melody. The fourth and fifth variations return to an outgoing, virtuosic character, culminating in an extended cadenza. The sixth variation, a minor-key Andante, bookends the earlier slow section, and trails off in an ascent of ethereal harmonics. Following the work’s only pause, the final variation enters with a rustic, throbbing intensity that builds through quick call-and-response phrases and breathless figurations, linking directly to the energetic coda.
Aaron Grad ©2015
The Kings Theatre, Haymarket, London, was far more than a mere playhouse to the general public in the 1780s and 1790s. It represented a starry, ambitious, headstrong, inspiring and — doubtless — foolhardy spirit of artistic enterprise. For decades it had been home to the best Italian opera London could offer, attracting Europe’s finest singers. Its management changed often, but was consistently dynamic. They attempted to persuade Mozart to be a composer-in-residence, just as Handel had been earlier in the century. When the building burned down in 1789, they simply rebuilt it. When the Lord Chamberlain refused to license the new building, they simply ignored him and continued to present shows. And when the debts mounted to phenomenal heights . . . they simply watched them rise further, decade after decade. Even as the papers were publishing cartoons of the company’s performers begging in the streets, the Kings Theatre had all the glamour of a buzzing hub of cultural life. Mozart never came, but many major figures of the day did. Some we no longer recognize (Giovanni Andrea Gallini and Gasparo Paccheriotti, both celebrities in their time), but many are still famous: Cherubini, J.C. Bach, Sir John Soane and, of course, Haydn.
Haydn launched his second London residency with this symphony, presenting it at the Kings Theatre on February 10, 1794, just a week after his arrival. His first trip to London 18 months earlier had proved such a huge financial success that he needed no encouragement to return. (His London visits more than doubled the life savings he had accumulated throughout all his years as a servant of the Esterhazy family.) But Haydn also returned because of the sheer enthusiasm with which the public received him. For almost his entire professional life, Haydn had worked in relative obscurity, but now, in his late 50s he was being treated like a superstar. Even aristocrats paid homage. Haydn adored it enough to risk crossing a very unstable Europe to reach England.
Haydn did not write this symphony in London, but in Vienna. Upon his return from the first London trip, he had been saddened by news of Mozart’s recent death. Tremendous mutual respect and affection had united the two men in the later 1780s. They studied each other’s work and learned from each other’s example, and you can hear that here. It is often suggested that Haydn emulated Mozart’s liberal use of wind instruments. At the time, reliable wind players were a scarce commodity, leading many composers to deploy the barest minimum (two oboes and two bassoons, sometimes with two horns) and even then to make these optional extras; strings and continuo were the real core of any orchestral performance. In his music, Mozart gave the winds such a high profile that they became indispensable, almost like an autonomous chamber ensemble within the orchestra. In London Haydn had at his disposal an orchestra with excellent wind players, including two clarinets. He calls for them in all but one of his last six symphonies, and they add a soft mellowness to the sound. In this symphony, they act almost as soloists and offer many magical moments of arresting beauty.
Svend-Einar Brown ©2005