(Melbourne Symphony Orchestra)

Verdi & Prokofiev

(Articles & Program Notes)
Published – 19.05.2022
(Writing)

We’ll start at the beginning, because amongst other things, I’m a massive Verdi tragic, but before I got the call about this particular concert, I had never listened to I Vespri Siciliani – I hope you’ll forgive me. It appears I was quite tied up in his earlier work; in the years prior to I Vespri, he wrote three operas that you may have heard of: La traviata, Il trovatore, Rigoletto. Giuseppe Verdi was prolific; even before this fame-making trio, he’d written 14 other operas. Of course, the period wasn’t all smooth sailing (he did have several run-ins with censors about material that included content like adultery and murder) but for the most part, Verdi was swinging from strength to strength on stage. When the commission came in from the Paris Opéra for I Vespri Siciliani – a work that would be flocked to (and scrutinised) by Paris’ elite – he had his work cut out of him. It was written to a French text by Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier of the same name, which the pair prepared based on their work Le duc d’Albe, or The Duke of Alba. The two writers had originally put pen to paper and finished their story in 1838, and offered it to both Halévy AND Donizetti before it eventually made its way across Verdi’s desk in 1854. You may wonder, considering all this Frenchness, why do we have an Italian title? That was my first question.

It goes that while Verdi did prepare and premiere the work in French in the elaborate grand opera style, and while it was generally well received, it was translated to Italian shortly after that first performance, and the original French barely got a look in from there on. In researching this work, the movement of which we’ll hear tonight I have absolutely fallen in love with, I learnt quite a lot about tensions in Europe in the mid-1800s. The story of how the opera came to be highlights a number of difficulties that artists like Verdi, when doing relatively innocuous things like setting their productions, had to deal with, and the consequences that making these choices had on the art itself. As I mentioned, Verdi had already had several run-ins with censors, and I Vespri was going to cause its own little stir because of the story it was trying to tell.

The original story, Le duc d’Albe, was set in Brussels and Antwerp, but for Verdi’s interpretation, the stage became Siciliy, and the story adjusted to appear based loosely on the Sicilian Vespers of 1282 – a rebellion that broke out at Easter against the French-born king Charles the first, who had been in rule in Sicily for about 14 years. Over a six week period, approximately 13,000 French people were killed by rebels and Charles’ government lost control of the island. In 1855, when the opera was premiered, the fact that this story was based on significant loss of French life did not seem to pose any problems, or at least none that I could find, but when Verdi sought to bring the opera back to Italy, he found that censorship was so significant around works based on historical record that he couldn’t keep the work set in Sicily if he wanted it shown on Italian stages. So, I Vespri moved to Portugal – specifically, Portugal in 1640 under Spanish Control. This version, set in Portugal, sung in Italian, was first performed in Parma only 6-months after the original French premiere. Eventually, the opera did travel back to Sicily following Italy unification of 1861.

So, there’s a lot going on here right? I hope I haven’t lost you? I found all that fascinating, but I promise we’ll get to the actual story now, and then the stunning snippet that you’ll hear tonight.

As I’ve explained, this opera was written in the French grand opera style of the time, so had 5 acts, including a full ballet, which you will be bowled over by this evening. The four acts take a moment in history, in this case the Sicilian Vespers, and distil them down, as the masters do – think, say, Tolstoy’s War and Peace – until you’re looking at one family and seeing the drama occur through their eyes. Here, and bear with me, it gets tricky, we have the wedding of Arrigo and Elena – Arrigo is the illegitimate son of the French Leader, and Elena is the sister of the executed Austrian duke Frederick whose execution was ordered by Arrigo’s dad. Basically, everyone in this party hates the French, and Elena has agreed to love Arrigo back if he kills his father. It’s goes on like that and there’s much more drama than we have time for, if I’m going to get you to the concert by 7:30. So that’s where we are.

By act three, which is where we are we would have just heard a group of Sicilian men – the chorus - become infuriated by the sounds of carefree French people singing en route to a ball, and swearing vengeance. Now, to make matters more confusing, if you were to go along to, say, The Metropolitan Opera on a Tuesday night to see this particular performance, you’d be unlikely to see the full half an hour ballet included in proceedings, as Verdi actually sanctioned their removal in July 1856, the year after the work’s premiere. And it’s one of the best bits. Known as the Four Seasons ballet, as it steps through Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn, the work in and of itself is fun and dramatic and evocative and will hold your attention from beginning to end, and you’ll want to begin it all again.

There’s something so wonderful about that demanded pocket of ballet music from the Paris Opera! An obligatory ballet sequence in the middle of all that serious drama? That’s pretty special. Some quick things to listen out for – there’s a gorgeously lush oboe solo in Summer, the third movement, and a lot of vigour in Autumn, the fourth movement. I hope you let it absolutely sweep you away.

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To musically move from Verdi to Prokofiev is to encounter how abruptly war changes the lives of those who experience it. We know this exact thing is happening now; we are seeing war spill out every day across the news, and it is a significant to see how relevant Prokofiev’s fifth symphony continues to be. Sergey Prokofiev was composing this work during the summer of 1944, which for context was during the late stages of the second world war, but when the tides were beginning to turn in favour of the Allies. He was working on this piece from a former aristocratic estate in a town northeast of Moscow, which would have then taken about a day to reach – the estate had been turned, by an organisation called the Union of Society Composers into a kind of refuge for artists. So despite what was going on in the rest of Europe, Prokofiev was relatively safe and sheltered, and working somewhat quickly – this piano score for this particular symphony came together in a month or less, based on, it seems, sketches and little ideas from his notebooks as far back as 1933.

It was a strange time for our composer, because while war was raging, things had settled a little for him, and at home, it seemed that his star was on the rise. He was also unwell – he had had a series of heart attacks in 1941 that he would never fully recover from, and he hadn’t worked on a symphony since he completed his fourth fourteen years earlier. And yet, things were good. The year before he began writing the 5th symphony, his Piano Sonata No. 7, which musicologists now think contained subversive messages, won the Stalin Prize, and the premiere of the symphony we will hear tonight was hotly anticipated by all music lovers in Moscow, who were also in high spirits because of the knowledge that as the symphony was being performed, the Red Army were beginning their triumphant march into Nazi Germany. It was premiered in the winter following its composition, on January 13, 1945 at the Moscow Conservatory, with Prokofiev at the podium. The music, which we will dig into in a more detailed fashion in a moment, was an enormous success immediately, both that evening, and later as it began to find performance dates internationally. It became seen as an “optimistic” symphony, and treated as a symbol of victory in war, which belies its complexity, but Prokofiev lent into this interpretation when he wrote that the symphony was, and I quote, ‘conceived of… as glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit, praising the free and happy man – his strength, his generosity and the purity of his soul.’ In late 1945, Serge Koussevitzky gave the American premiere of the work with the Boston Symphony, and gave this gushing quote to Time magazine, which featured Prokofiev on a November cover– “The Fifth Symphony,” he said, “is the greatest musical event in many, many years. The greatest since Brahms and Tchaikovsky! It is magnificent! It is yesterday, it is today, it is tomorrow.” The cover story itself is in-depth and still available to read on the Time archives. It paints a picture of a sometimes impatient, judgemental man with a penchant for chess and candy. He is quoted as saying “the moment a composer finds his language and says ‘I’ve got it’ he ceases to be interesting”. It is this complexity of character the leads me to question some of the common rhetoric around this work – we often see it labelled as ‘heroic’ or ‘joyous’, or, as I mentioned before ‘optimistic’. But could it just be that? Or is there more than meets the eye here, as there almost certainly was with Prokofiev, the man.

To find out, let’s now turn to the music. We can’t really argue that it begins optimistically – let’s listen a little to the beginning, where we have this gorgeous upward soaring line, and then I’ll skip us a little just to end of the movement, where we seem to build into this climax that says, crisis averted, and lets us clap our hands and congratulate ourselves on a job well done.

The second movement changes pace entirely – it’s fast and maniacal, unpredictable and somehow humorous. It’s irrepressible, but sturdy – there are true characters in this scherzo, you can hear in the opening melody not just something light-hearted, but something tricky, possibly menacing. You may, in this movement, hear in its quick rhythms the drive of war machinery, as some critics have pointed out. If you are hearing balletic overtones in this movement, that would make sense – it transpired that this part of the score was developed out of material Prokofiev originally sketched for, but did not use, in his ballet Romeo and Juliet.

It is in the third movement, though, that the real heartbreak of war is felt. The whole movement is a slow and moving meditation, unfolding in three parts, thoughtfully and emotively. There is introspection in the melodies from the clarinets that grows in intensity and is then replaced by a theme in the tuba! Worth listening out for. Whereas the second movement came from initial ballet sketches, this one finds its original ideas in a project that never came to fruition – a film version of Pushkin’s story Queen of Spades.

Finally, the fourth movement opens, and what advances is what was once called “one of the supreme orchestral works of the 20th Century.” We begin introspectively with a variant on the theme that we heard at the opening of the work. The clarinet is prominently featured here, and as the movement unfurls into a rondo, we do get a sense of the optimism and high spirits that we discussed earlier. Several times you may hear mechanistic figures that are cut off from the main theme, competing a little, perhaps for your attention. This is, perhaps, Prokofiev pointing out that with a victory, all does not go back to the way it was.

Grant Hiroshima from the LA Philharmonic said it best – “as you listen to the rousing final minutes of this symphony, ask yourself what adjectives and nouns come to mind. Victory, escape, joy, frenzy, finality, vigour, closure, terror?” As you listen tonight, as the MSO comes alive in this rapturous, complex, wonderful yet scary yet nervous yet joyful work, reflect on that question – what comes to mind? Why do we still rely on this piece so many years later? Why do we need to? How does art help us grapple with the questions that war demands we answer?

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