Symposium 109 - Inspired by Italy Current Season > Symposiums

"Inspired by Italy"

Sunday, 23 February 2014 @ 5:00pm
Monday, 24 February 2014 @ 7:00pm


  • "Italian Serenade" for String Quartet (1887) Hugo Wolf
  • "Italian Songbook" 

    Selected Songs for Baritone and Piano


  • Suite italienne for Violin and Piano (1932)
    [based on the ballet Pulcinella]

    Gavotta con due Varizioni
    Minuetto - Finale


    Igor Stravinsky
  • "Souvenir de Florence" for String Sextet

    Allegro con spirito
    Adagio cantabile e con moto
    Allegretto moderato
    Allegro con brio e vivace


    Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky

Notes on the Program

    Program Notes by Avi Stein

    One seldom finds that a major composer dedicates himself almost exclusively to the composition of a single genre.  Those few instances often reflect performers who wrote virtuoso vehicles to showcase their own skills, as was the case with Paganini, and to an extent with Chopin or Liszt.  Hugo Wolf presents the rare case of not being a travelling virtuoso and expressing himself through what is perhaps the most intimate of Romantic forms, the lied.  The great champions of German lieder, Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms all left masterworks of piano, chamber, and orchestral music, yet Wolf, the last flowering of this line showed an all-consuming devotion to songs.  This almost obsessive absorption is perhaps reflective of Wolf’s intense personality.  Even from an early age, he showed a tendency towards extreme hero worship.  As a schoolboy he was teased for his devotion to Beethoven, and later when he fell under the spell of Wagner, Wolf rushed to the front line of the conflict between the avant-garde Wagnerite faction against what they viewed as the conservative Brahmsians.  Wolf’s vocal involvement in this battle manifested personal ramifications when at a reading of one of his own pieces by the Vienna Philharmonic, the orchestra burst into mocking laughter.  It seems that the musicians’ animosity towards the composition and its’ author was roused by Wolf’s criticism of Brahms and what he saw as the orchestra’s conservative programming.

    Wolf’s reaction:

    “they shall be roasted in hell's brimstone and immersed in dragon's poison – I have sworn it.”

    is unfortunately demonstrative of the difficulties which he continued to have through his life with interpersonal relationships.

    The Italian Serenade is one of Wolf’s very few instrumental works, although, like his lieder, it too found its origins in literature, in this case works by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, whose poetry was commonly set throughout the 19th century.  The two works in question provide contrasting attitudes and therefore leave some ambiguity as to what is the attitude of the Serenade.  In the novella Of the Life of a Good-For-Nothing, the young protagonist is a violinist and his journey may have been something with which Wolf himself identified.  In his travels to Italy, the hero attends a party at which a band plays a serenade, and this scene may have provided inspiration.  In contrast to this romantic voyage is the poem The Soldier I, whose pertinent lines seem to stand in opposition to any idealized sentimentality.

    Although my horse may not look so handsome,
    he is actually quite clever,
    and will carry me through the dark to a certain little castle quickly enough.

    Although the castle is not very splendid,
    out of her door and into the garden
    steps a maiden who, all night, will be friendly to me.

    And although this small girl is not the fairest in the world,
    there is still no other that I like better.

    But if she speaks of marriage,
    I’ll leap onto my horse – I’ll stay free
    and she’ll stay at the castle.

    The Italian Songbook is based on a collection of translated Italian folk poems.  These reflect not only the exoticism seen in Wolf’s analogous Spanish songbook, but also the surge of interest in folk culture at the beginning of the 19th century.  Collections such as Des Knabes Wunderhorn (The Boy’s magic horn), set famously by Mahler nearly a century after the original publication, and the popularity of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm show the long-lasting effect of this particular fascination with folklore.

    In 1920, Stravinsky was commissioned to write a new work for the Ballets Russes in Paris.  Stravinsky’s collaborations with the company over the previous decade had already produced those pieces for which he is still best remembered, the three ballets: The Firebird, Petrouchka, andThe Rite of Spring.  This time, rather than using Russian folklore as the influence, the impresario Diaghilev wanted a ballet based on the Italian Commedia dell’arte and 18th century music.  He commissioned Stravinsky to compose a new ballet based on a collection of pieces then believed to be by the Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, though that has since been proven wrong, and Pergolesi was often credited as the author of obscure or anonymous manuscripts.  After some reluctance, Stravinsky accepted the commission and the result, Pulcinella, scored for a small orchestra and three singers, became the first of his works in the neoclassical style.  Having begun life as a collaboration with the ghosts of unknown composers, Pulcinella has since gone on to have a long career full of notable associates and further transformations.  Pablo Picasso, in whose contemporary works Commedia dell’arte characters find a stage, designed the costumes for the original production.  George Balanchine, who choreographed for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes during the 1920’s, revived the work for the New York City Ballet alongside Jerome Robbins.  The piece made its way to the concert stage in several arrangements for violin or cello championed by Jascha Heifitz and Gregor Piatigorsky, and it is one of these versions that we hear tonight.

    The concrete connection of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence to Italy is somewhat obscure.  He had in fact made several visits, but his last sojourn to Florence before completing this sextet was wholly occupied with the composition of his opera The Queen of Spades.   The creation of the Souvenirs was a difficult journey for Tchaikovsky, passing through bouts of inspiration and creative frustration that he had suffered through on a regular basis.  It had begun as a dedication to the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society, and through diary entries and letters, we see that Tchaikovsky worked on it in fits and starts.  Often he mentioned the difficulty with the sextet as a framework; writing to his brother:

    “I began it three days ago and am writing with difficulty, not for want of new ideas but because of the novelty of the form.  One requires six independent yet homogeneous voices.  This is unimaginably difficult."

    Even the final touches show a self-consciousness with his own work as he attempted to expand on the standard model of the string quartet by infusing it with the orchestral possibilities of these paired violins, violas and cellos.  Tchaikovsky insisted on further revisions just prior to performance by the society and again before the final step of printing the work.  Surprisingly, in a letter to his longtime patron Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky expressed his eagerness for it to be performed in her Salon, telling her the work was written with great enthusiasm and ease.

    The memories mentioned in the title of the sextet seem to indicate his personal experiences while in Florence rather than specific cultural inspirations found there such as the Roman saltarello and Neapolitan tarantella of Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony.  As with much of Tchaikovsky’s later music, one finds hints of Russian folk music, especially in the last two movements, showing his lifelong concern and indeed a common Russian preoccupation with reconciling western aesthetics with his native culture.