Lost Romantic Symphonies

George Gershwin (1898-1937): Cuban Overture

Gershwin went to Cuba in mid-February, 1932. “Cuba was most interesting,” he said, “especially for its small dance orchestras, who play most intricate rhythms most naturally.”

His traveling companions included publisher Bennett Cerf, who recalled, “In Havana a sixteen-piece rumba band serenaded him en masse at four in the morning outside his room at the old Almendares Hotel. Several outraged patrons left the hotel the next morning. George was so flattered that he promised to write a rumba of his own.”

The result was Cuban Overture, initially called Rumba Rhapsody, or simply Rumba, for piano duet. Armed with some Cuban percussion instruments he’d brought home, Gershwin then orchestrated the music in time for the first performance, on August 16, 1932, before 18,000 at Lewisohn Stadium. Albert Coates conducted the New York Philharmonic in what Gershwin later called “the most exciting night I have ever had.”

Biographer Edward Jablonski calls the work “a straightforward easy-to-take (but not necessarily easy to play) little piece…. It is in Gershwin’s typical fast-slow-fast form. His use of polytonality adds the spice of dissonance and his writing for the orchestra is sure. The slow middle theme, introduced by a solo clarinet, he marked `plaintively’.”

Siegfried Matthus (b.1934): Violin Concerto: Dream of a Summer Night (American Premiere)

Matthus’ violin concerto, written in 2012, entitled Dream of a Summer Night, premiered August 26, 2012 at The Mecklenburg (Germany) Music Festival with soloist Viviane Hagner and the MDR Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gilbert Varga, and is typical of his compositions, both stage and concert works, in being theatrically conceived and highly effective. Its four continuous movements—Moonlight Magic, Dance of the Elves and Gnomes, Restless Dreams, Dawn & Sunrise—are not based on the Shakespeare play but rather on Matthus’ own observations that he experienced on his strolls through the forest near his country place when the moon was full. He was also reminded of his childhood’s early morning trek to school and seeing the sun rising on the horizon. These were sensations he has retained throughout his life and now has tried to recreate in music.

John Williams (b.1932): Theme from Schindler’s List

Born in New York, John Williams studied with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco in California and at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. After playing piano in the 20th Century Fox Studio Orchestra, he began his career as composer of film music.  After the death of Arthur Fiedler in 1979, Williams was appointed conductor and music director of the Boston Pops Orchestra, a post he retained until 1993. He is now Boston Pops laureate conductor, as well as artist-in-residence at Tanglewood.

Williams has composed the music and served as a music director for more than a hundred films, including the Harry Potter and Star Wars series, as well as Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, The Poseidon Adventure, Superman, The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Jurassic Park. In 1993 his music for Schindler’s List won the Academy Award for best original score, as well as a Grammy and a Golden Globe.

Joachim Raff (1822-1882): Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 153 (In the Forest)

Born in Switzerland, Raff was largely self-taught in music. He sent some of his piano compositions to Felix Mendelssohn who recommended them his publisher. Robert Schumann’s journal  predicted “a future for the composer.” He was a friend of conductor Hans von Bülow, and worked as Franz Liszt’s assistant at Weimar. He was the first Director of the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where he hired Clara Schumann and others as teachers. He created a class for female composers. His pupils included Edward MacDowell and Alexander Ritter.

Six of Raff’s nine program symphonies relate to nature. His third, subtitled “In the Forest,” was first performed on Easter Sunday, 1870 in Weimar. An American critic described it as “the best Symphony of modern times, one of the very few which are worthy to go down in posterity in company with the works of Beethoven and Schumann.” Hans von Bülow described the work as  “colossal.” After one performance, “a complete hurricane went through the house” and Raff took a bow “amidst barbaric jubilation from the audience.”

In his website devoted to Raff’s music, Mark Thomas says “it was amongst the most played of modern symphonies in its day, taking his name to both England and America. Its dramatic pictorialism seems to have created a sensation when it was first heard–an effect only lessened by his style later becoming common currency from many composers. With this work, Raff was indeed an innovator.”

The published program includes titles for each of the four movement, which are groups into three parts. Thomas writes that “Raff may have been working to a very much longer and highly detailed unpublished program, which is illustrated quite literally by the music. This program links almost every phrase and section of the work to the experiences and feelings of a ‘wanderer’ in the Forest.”

-Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2016.