Performance Sunday, October 14, 2012 | 3 PM

The MET Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Michelle DeYoung has graciously agreed to perform in place of Eva-Maria Westbroek, who has cancelled her appearance due to illness.

Michelle DeYoung
has already established herself as one of the most exciting artists of her generation, appearing on many of the world’s finest opera and concert stages. Having taken on the roles of numerous Wagnerian heroines, the mezzo-soprano brings her operatic prowess to the famed composer’s Wesendonck Lieder, a song cycle that served as a study for the composer’s Tristan und Isolde. The program also features music from Tannhäuser, as well as Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie.
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The Program


Overture to Tannhäuser


Tannhäuser is among Wagner's first mature operas and, along with Der fliegende Holländer and Lohengrin, is one of his three earlier works still frequently performed. Like most of Wagner's canon, Tannhäuserwhich tells the tale of its eponymous hero, a 13th-century knight and minstrel struggling with the competing merits of sacred and profane loveis based on medieval Germanic legend and employs a libretto written by the composer. As the curtain rises, we learn that Tannhäuser, despite having won the love and devotion of the virginal Elisabeth, has spent the last year a "captive" in Venusberg, a steamy mountain pleasure palace in which the knight has been enjoying the rather less pure ministrations of Venus, the fallen goddess of love. Over the course of the opera, Tannhäuser quits Venusberg to seek redemption and true love with Elisabeth, joins a pilgrimage to Rome in hopes of atoning for his sins, and dies of grief after he discovers that Elisabeth has herself died of a broken heart.

The overture introduces the opera's main themes and musically captures the work's central conflict between the virtuous and spiritual fulfillment of faith and love (represented by the "Pilgrims' Chorus," the warm, stirring chorale that begins the overture) and the sensuous pleasures of the flesh (represented by the surging, swelling frenzy of the Venusberg music, speeding forward with scurrying strings and punctuated with percussion). As the overture progresses, these two musical ideas become increasingly tangled, competing and then intertwining to form an articulate musical illustration that requires no words to communicate Tannhäuser's dilemma. In 1873, at the request of orchestra musicians performing the overture in Zurich, the composer wrote the following synopsis of what the music represents:

At first the orchestra introduces us to the "Pilgrims' Chorus" alone. It approaches, swells to a mighty outpouring, and finally passes into the distance. As night falls … a rosy mist swirls upward, and the blurred motions of a fearsomely voluptuous dance are revealed ... This is the seductive magic of the Venusberg. Lured by the tempting vision, Tannhäuser draws near. It is Venus herself who appears to him ... His heart and senses glow, the blood in his veins takes fire, an irresistible attraction draws him nearer, and he steps before the goddess with his exultant chant of love … Venus … embraces him with fiery passion ... The storm subsides. Only a soft, sensuous moan lingers in the air over the spot where the unholy ecstasy held sway. Yet already the morning dawns: From the far distance, the "Pilgrims' Chorus" is heard again. As it draws ever nearer and day repulses night, those lingering moans are transfigured into a murmur of joy so that at last, when the sun rises in splendor and the "Pilgrims' Chorus" proclaims salvation to all the world, the joyous murmur swells to the mightiest, noblest rejoicing.

—Jay Goodwin 

Wesendonck Lieder

In May 1849, after a brief tenure as music director of the Royal Saxon Court in Dresden, Wagner fled the city when a leftist uprisingwhich the composer actively supportedwas crushed by the military and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Forced into exile, Wagner and his first wife, Minna, left Germany for Paris, and eventually settled in Zurich. Stranded in Switzerland with no financial resources to speak of, Wagner was lucky in 1852 to befriend the successful textile merchant Otto Wesendonckand his striking young wife Mathilde, an amateur poetwho extended the composer generous loans and, beginning in 1857, provided Wagner and his wife with lodging in a small house on his estate.

The nature of the relationship that eventually developed between Richard and Mathilde has become the subject of much presumption and debate. What is certain is that the two became infatuated with one another, and their friendship/affair provided inspiration for some of the composer's greatest music. The relationship likewise stimulated Mathilde's creative juices, one result of which was the text for the Wesendonck Lieder of late 1857 and early 1858.

In the melodramatic, all-devouring emotion of their text and the yearning, chromatic intensity of their musical language, these five songs point directly toward Wagner's ultimate paean to forbidden and transformative love, Tristan und Isolde. Indeed, at the same time the composer was working on the Wesendonck Lieder, struggling with his own feelings for Mathilde and taking intellectual refuge in the philosophy of Schopenhauer, he temporarily put aside his ongoing work on Der Ring des Nibelungen and threw himself into Tristan, which consumed the next two years of his life. Wagner even went so far as to call two of the Wesendonck Lieder"Im Treibhaus" and "Träume," specifically"studies for Tristan und Isolde." (Their music can be heard in the opera in the Prelude to Act III and the beginning of Tristan's dying monologue, and in the great love duet at the end of Act II, respectively.)

Leaving aside their relationship to the composer's dramatic work, however, perhaps the most profound effect the Wesendonck Lieder leave on the listener is regret that Wagner left us nothing else in this genre. These are powerful, technically accomplished, and beautiful songs. They display the full measure of Wagner's tremendous gifts of melody, harmony, and seamless text setting, as well as his unmatched ability to channel human emotion through music.

Though they are most often performed today with orchestral accompaniment, the Wesendonck Lieder were originally written for voice and piano. Wagner supplied an orchestration only for "Träume"; the other four songs were orchestrated with the composer's approval by Austrian conductor Felix Mottl.


Jay Goodwin

Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64


Childhood experiences have a way of shaping people, retaining and often gaining personal significance even as age clouds their details. For Strauss, one such memory was a late summer's hike through the Bavarian Alps as a 14-year-old in 1878. Writing to fellow aspiring composer Ludwig Thuille afterwards, he described the trek as beginning "at two in the morning with handcart, five hour ascent; as a result of losing our way, a steep, five-hour backtrack downhill off the path; 12-hour march in all, towards the end soaked to the skin with rain and storm. Then an unplanned stop for the night in a farm house … The next day I illustrated the whole outing on the piano. Naturally, it was all monstrous tone painting and rubbish (à la Wagner)."

Over the next 20 years, Strauss built his career by making an art of monstrous tone painting, earning acclaim for works such as Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegelslustige Streiche, Also sprach Zarathustra,  and EinHeldenleben. Along the way, he emphatically reversed his opinion of Wagner and eventually turned his own attentions to staged works. Largely leaving behind the concert hall in favor of the opera house, Strauss quickly proved himself a visionary and popular dramatist, sparking controversy with the likes of Salome and Elektra, then achieving massive success with Der Rosenkavalier.

Though he would live until 1949, Strauss returned to the grandeur and bombast of the symphonic poem-the form that made him famous-just once after he found success in the theater. For what would become Eine Alpensinfonie, his last and most extravagant work in the genre, Strauss revisited childhood memories. Despite surely augmenting reality with an extra dollop of drama, this musical depiction of a 24-hour Alpine climb-both ascent and descent-clearly follows the outline of the composer's teenaged mountainous escapade in Bavaria.

Composed between 1911 and 1915, Eine Alpensinfonie is scored for an enormous orchestra of some 125-150 players, including offstage brass, a menagerie of alternate wind instruments, harps, celesta, organ, and a battery of percussion. Strauss was always a master of orchestration, able to use these varied forces to create a vivid image of just about anything he chose in the listener's mind. In this respect, Eine Alpensinfonie is some of his finest work. A single sprawling movement, the work is divided into 22 connected sections, each with a descriptive title helpfully supplied by the composer, and it is quite easy (and fun) to follow along with the mountaineers' progress throughout the day. It takes just the minimum of imagination for the various scenesa brilliant sunrise, running streams, a waterfall, flowers, the sharp glare of sun on ice, tenuous balance on treacherous footing, the drenching of a sudden storm, and the final return to the foot of the mountain as the sun falls below the horizonto materialize before your eyes.

For Strauss, however, there was more to this work than the literal ascent of a mountain. In 1911, early in his work on Eine Alpensinfonie, Strauss received news that Gustav Mahler, his friend and artistic confederate, had died. In a state of mourning and contemplation, Strauss looked for meaning and guidance, as he often did, in the writings of Nietzschein this case, the essay Der Antichrist (roughly, "Anti-Christianity"), in which Nietzsche argues for achieving one's goals through inner strength and willpower without reliance on religious belief.

The following day, he recorded his thoughts in his diary: "The death of this aspiring, idealistic, energetic artist [is] a grave loss ... Mahler, the Jew, could achieve elevation [only by converting to] Christianity. As an old man, the hero Wagner returned to it under the influence of Schopenhauer. It is clear to me that the German nation will achieve new creative energy only by liberating itself from Christianity." Though Strauss eventually abandoned his plan to expand and make explicit the work's philosophical undercurrents, Eine Alpensinfonie remains the self-affirming testament of a successful man at the height of his achievement and popularity. It is a musical representation, the composer wrote, of "moral purification through one's own strength, emancipation through work, and the adoration of eternal, glorious nature."


Jay Goodwin 

$10 student rush tickets available in the balcony and center balcony. 
This performance is part of The MET Orchestra.