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Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008

Greatest Hits of 1830

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On Aug. 7, 1829, 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn boarded a steamer to visit a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland called The Hebrides. "Towering green waves were rolling into a cavern that was strange beyond belief, its many pillars resembling the interior of a monstrous organ, black, resonant and serving no other purpose than just being there," he wrote of the Isle of Staffa's most famous feature: Fingal's Cave. The encounter inspired him to compose his greatest concert overture, Die Hebriden (Fingalshöhle), Op. 26, which premiered in 1830. Mendelssohn combines a wave-like motif with ancient intonations derived from Norse mythology. The result is magnificent mood painting that counted among its many admirers such contrasting musical temperaments as Brahms and Wagner.

Though Mendelssohn's D Major symphony (the Reformations-Symphonie) came to be numbered and published last among the five symphonies he composed between 1824 and 1842, it was actually the second in order of composition-like his Hebrides Overture, a product of 1830-composed in commemoration of the tercentenary of the Augsburg Confession by the devoutly Lutheran Mendelssohn. The work's rather tumultuous first movement quotes the so-called Catholic "Dresden Amen," a peaceful interlude in the midst of bitter religious strife. There is an even more overtly religious connotation with his emphatic use of Luther's chorale, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, resplendently scored for brass, in the Allegro Maestoso finale.

1830 was also the year of the July Revolution in France, which saw the overthrow of the Bourbon King Charles X. Such an event certainly put its imprint upon musicians and artists (including the famous painting La liberté guidant le peuple by Eugène Delacroix). Such an environment is where we find the already hypersensitive and overwrought composer Hector Berlioz (1803-'69). To this atmosphere we must add the fact that Berlioz was infatuated with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. He was inspired to compose what remains his most popular and famous work, the groundbreaking Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14. After its Dec. 5, 1830, Paris premiere, the five-movement work tracing the travails of a devouring love signaled the start of a new development: "program music," a genre later perfected by Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss.

This musical sketch of Berlioz's brooding and vivid imagination cast a spell over its audiences, which had never before been confronted with such a colorful and highly personal portrait of love, jealousy, vengeance and death. Due to its tremendous strengths, the Symphonie fantastique retains its interest to this day, for it succeeds-as Berlioz himself hoped it would-in "laying claim to an independent and purely musical interest of its own, quite apart from any dramatic aim."

These three great works of the year 1830 are performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan on Nov. 28-29 at Uihlein Hall.

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