Overture La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie), Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
One of an astonishing 28 operas written in the period 1812-19, Rossini’s La gazza ladra is a semiseria opera or melodrama with a libretto by Giovanni Gherardini. First performed at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan on 31 May 1817 it was based on the 1815 book La Pie voleuse by Jean-Marie-Théodore Baudouin d’Aubigny and Louis-Charles Caigniez, which dealt with the true story of a French serving girl who was executed after being falsely accused and convicted of stealing silverware that had actually been taken by a magpie.
Rossini made a few changes to the story to add some romance and comedy, and in particular changed the ending to allow a last-minute reprieve.
The composer produced an overture which, with its dramatic and complex nature was a marked development from previous efforts, which frequently recycled existing Rossini music or even re-used complete overtures from earlier operas. The opening snare drum rolls are possible military references to the father and the boyfriend of Ninetta, the servant girl, both of whom are soldiers.
Rossini later explained: “I wrote the overture to The Thieving Magpie on the day of its opening, in the theatre itself, where I was imprisoned by the director and under the surveillance of four stage hands, who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below. In default of pages, they were ordered to throw me out of the window.”
Not only did he survive the threat of defenestration, but for Rossini in this particular case throwing something out of the window was a decidedly positive thing to do.
Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana, Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)
Based on the short story and subsequent play of the same names by Giovanni Verga, Mascagni’s one-act opera Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic chivalry) ushered in the era of verismo opera in Italy.
Verismo – or “realism” – was a movement in Italian literature that sought to portray the world with greater realism and truth, examining people, events and social situations that were previously deemed to be not fit subjects for literature; in Verga’s story it’s sexual passion and infidelity that drive the action.
The opera, the composer’s first, was an immediate and overwhelming success on its premiere at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on 17 May 1890 and was followed by a spate of operas with similar plots, including Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci exactly two years later, another fairly short opera that has traditionally been performed on a double bill with the Mascagni work, the two being known familiarly as Cav and Pag.
Mascagni wrote 15 operas during his career, but despite his 1891 follow-up L’amico Fritz achieving some success and remaining in the repertoire nothing ever equaled the success of Cavalleria rusticana. Within the year it had been performed across Italy and in Budapest, Hamburg, Dresden, Munich, St. Petersburg, Buenos Aires and Vienna, bringing him international fame. By the time of Mascagni’s death in 1945 the opera had been performed in Italy alone more than 14,000 times.
The famous orchestral Intermezzo is played while the village square setting on stage is empty, awaiting the return of the villagers from the church.
Clarinet Concerto No.1 in F minor, Op.73, Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
The clarinet became an orchestral instrument in the late 1700s, and by the turn of the century was undergoing rapid development not only in the number and layout of the finger keys but also in the embouchure – the manner in which the player’s mouth is applied to the instrument.
The clarinet, like the saxophone, is a single-reed instrument, the oboe and bassoon being double-reed instruments. It had originally been the custom to play with the single reed against the upper lip but by the early 1800s it was becoming more usual for the reed to rest on the lower lip.
The German clarinet virtuoso Heinrich Baermann was one of the first proponents of this new style, and was noted for his expressive tone and phenomenal range. Born in Potsdam in 1784, he first met Weber in Darmstadt in 1811, and the two became close friends. Weber, keen to further his career, immediately wrote his Clarinet Concertino Op.26 which, with Baermann as soloist was presented at Court in Munich before King Maximillian I of Bavaria. The king was so impressed that he immediately commissioned two full clarinet concertos from Weber.
Both works were completed in quick succession, Concerto No.1 being finished on 17 May 1811.
There is more than a little lack of clarity regarding the solo part. As was the custom at the time, Weber provided a rather sparse clarinet part, allowing Baermann to add and embellish as he chose, and the earliest published editions contain only the original clarinet line. In 1869 Baermann’s son Carl, who followed his father as principal clarinet in the Munich Court orchestra, published his own edition that was based not only on his father’s embellished copy of the solo part but also on Carl’s recollections of his father’s performances and Weber’s preferences, although Carl was only 15 when Weber died in 1826.
Some subsequent editions have combined the two versions, and as a result the decision on what exactly to play for the solo part is now very much left to the performer.
The Pines of Rome, Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Respighi was one of the finest orchestrators of the 20th century, due no doubt in part to his having studied orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia while in his early 20s.
In 1918 he had also turned to the music of Rossini for core material with La boutique fantasque, a ballet for the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev that is still a popular part of the standard ballet and concert repertoire. His keen interest in music of earlier centuries resulted in the three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances and the suite The Birds.
However, it is his orchestral tone poems that have ensured Respighi’s lasting fame and popularity, with the Botticelli Triptych and Church Windows from 1927 and – in particular – the Roman trilogy of Fountains of Rome (1916), Pines of Rome (1924) and Roman Festivals (1928) being spectacular examples of his superb mastery of orchestral colour and imagery.
The four movements of Pines of Rome represent:
- Children playing in the pine groves of the Villa Borghese: we hear the Italian equivalent of Ring a Ring o’ Roses, marching soldiers and high-pitched laughter like swarms of swallows.
- Pines overhanging the entrance to a catacomb: a hymn-like chant rises from the depths.
- Pines of the Janiculum hill at night: a full moon shining on the hill of the temple of Janus. (A real nightingale recording was made – apparently in the yard of the American Academy on this very hill – specifically for the first performance, and a real nightingale recording is still requested in the score.)
- Pines of the Appian Way: dawn on the military road leading to Rome, as a triumphant legion advances to the Capitoline Hill. (The score calls for six buccine – ancient circular trumpets; given the absence of buccine in Orchestra Toronto, our audiences will not hear any ancient brass instruments.)
The work was premiered on 14 December 1924 at Rome’s Augusteo Theatre with Bernardino Molinari conducting the theatre’s orchestra.
Matinées musicales, Op.24, Benjamin Britten (1913-76)
In 1935 the Scottish film producer John Grierson (who a few years later would be instrumental in the founding of Canada’s National Film Board) hired the then 22-year-old Britten to write and arrange the scores for the short documentaries that Grierson’s Film Unit was producing for Britain’s General Post Office. Britten would contribute to two dozen or so films over the next three years.
For two of those documentaries – The Tocher in 1935 and Men of the Alps in 1936 – Britten arranged music by Rossini. After the success of his opera Guillaume Tell in 1829 Rossini had essentially retired at the tender age of 37, composing only a relatively small number of mostly piano pieces and vocal duets and songs thereafter. Among these were 12 songs from 1830-35 known as Les Soirées musicales.
For the 1935 film Britten had arranged a March from Guillaume Tell and two numbers from Les Soirées musicales for chamber orchestra, and in 1936 he added two further Rossini excerpts, including another number from Les Soirées musicales, and reworked all five for full orchestra as Soirées musicales Op.9.
In 1938 the suite was used by the dancer and choreographer Antony Tudor for the ballet Soirée musicale with his newly-formed company the London Ballet at London’s Palladium theatre.
Three years later, during his extended residence in the United States, Britten was asked by Lincoln Kirstein, the director of the American Ballet Company, for a second suite to add to Soirées musicales to form the music for a new ballet Divertimento, to be choreographed by George Balanchine. Britten selected another five pieces by Rossini, including another March from Guillaume Tell and a further three numbers from Les Soirées musicales, and the new suite became Matinées musicales, Op.24.
The five pieces are:
- March (the Pas de six from Act I of Guillaume Tell)
- Nocturne (Soirées musicales No.10: La pesca – fishing)
- Waltz (Soirées musicales No.4: L’orgia – the orgy)
- Pantomime (Soirées musicales No.2: Il rimproveso – The reproach)
- Moto perpetuo (Gorgheggi e solfeggio – Trills and Scales, from an 1827 book of wordless vocal studies)
The new ballet was premiered by the American Ballet Company in Rio de Janeiro in June 1941 during a tour of South America.
Writer and reviewer Terry Robbins has written the OT programme notes since 1989. Terry has a monthly CD review column, “Strings Attached” in the WholeNote magazine, for whom he also writes the occasional article on the community musical theatre scene. He also plays violin and fretted instruments (guitar/banjo/mandolin etc.) for community musical theatre productions for groups across the GTA, and plays or has played in numerous orchestras in Toronto as well.