- "Let the Bright Seraphim" from Samson for Soprano, Trumpet, Strings, and Continuo, HWV 57 (1741-42)
Joélle Harvey, soprano • Brandon Ridenour, trumpet • Francisco Fullana, violin • Kristin Lee, violin • Richard O'Neill, viola • Marc Goldberg, bassoon • Efe Baltacigil, cello • Xavier Foley, double bass • Kenneth Weiss, harpsichord
- Andante and Allegro brillant for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 92 (1841)
Orion Weiss, piano • Huw Watkins, piano
George Frideric Handel (Halle, 1685 – London, 1759)
Samson, one of Handel’s most famous oratorios, premiered at Covent Garden Theatre in London on February 18, 1743. Handel’s first known encounter with the source material, Milton’s Samson Agonistes, was at a private reading in November 1739—the evening’s host commented that Handel was “highly pleas’d” with Milton’s poem. Irish author and librettist Newburgh Hamilton adapted Milton’s story, sometimes excerpting Milton’s other poems to fit the compressed oratorio format.
The text to “Let the Bright Seraphim” comes from Milton’s “At a Solemn Music,” an early poem published 25 years before Samson Agonistes. Newburgh placed it as the penultimate number in the oratorio, introducing the final chorus celebrating Samson in heaven.
Let the bright Seraphim in burning row
their loud uplifted angel trumpets blow.
Let the cherubic host in tuneful choirs
touch their immortal harps with golden wires.
Handel set Newburgh’s libretto in 1741 and 1742. For the final air, sung by an ‘Israelite Woman,’ Handel brought together the soprano’s triumphant text with the bright tones of the trumpet, a combination that was a Baroque favorite. In the stand-alone version of this aria, it is performed in da capo form—two contrasting sections with the first coming back at the end with festive ornamentation.
Felix Mendelssohn (Hamburg, 1809 – Leipzig, 1847)
Mendelssohn was close friends with Clara and Robert Schumann. As municipal music director and conductor of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, he regularly conducted concerts that included Clara Schumann as piano soloist. He also featured prominently in the Schumanns’ official debut as a married couple in late March 1841. The concert was the premiere of Robert’s First Symphony and a song by Clara. She also performed part of a Chopin concerto with the orchestra as well as solo pieces, including one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. For this important occasion, Mendelssohn wrote this piano duo for himself and Clara to play. He completed it five days before the concert, telling Clara that “I am copying the duo so beautifully that my head is aching.” The duo is notable for the high level of coordination between the pianists—the four hands frequently crisscross and overlap, at times they’re almost playing the same keys. Mendelssohn remained an important part of the Schumanns’ life. When they had their first child later that year, they named Mendelssohn a godfather.
Mendelssohn wrote two versions of this piano duo, one with the Andante introduction and one without. When the piece was first published, four years after his death, it was just the Allegro brilliant movement alone. It wasn’t until 1994 that the score was published with both movements together.
César Franck (Liège, 1822 – Paris, 1890)
Franck’s Piano Quintet had a scandalous premiere. The pianist for the premiere, Camille Saint-Saëns, apparently sight-read his part because he seemed to be hearing it for the first time along with the audience. As the premiere unfolded he grew angrier and angrier, believing the music to be embarrassingly overwrought and lovesick. When the piece ended, he stormed off the stage afterward, ignoring the composer’s gift of the score. Still, the piece was dedicated to Saint-Saëns. The reason Saint-Saëns found the music so inappropriate was because Franck was rumored to be infatuated with one of his students, Augusta Holmès, even though she was 25 years younger than him and he was married. Women were rare in the male-dominated field of composition and everyone basically lost their minds over Holmès (the painter Georges Clairin reflected, “we were all in love with Augusta Holmès”). Holmès became an accomplished composer and remained one of Franck’s devoted admirers—along with Ernest Chausson, Vincent d’Indy, and many others—ignoring the salacious rumors. After Franck’s death, she even led a group that commissioned a medallion by Rodin for Franck’s tomb.
Whatever the status of Franck and Holmès’ relationship, the Piano Quintet is a work of big emotions. It is in three traditional movements, each a tribute to sonata form, tied together by cyclic themes that reoccur throughout the piece. Despite its tidy structure, the Piano Quintet sounds out of control, its heavy emotions ready to boil over. Franck modulates almost constantly (in fact, he was so famous for it that Debussy called him a “modulating machine”). Frequent key changes create an unsettled, roiling effect. The music sounds like it’s being stretched and pulled until it almost breaks. By the end of the finale, when music returns from the previous movements, Franck has taken the listener on a vivid emotional journey. Even though he never explained his inspiration, Franck bares his soul through this absolute music.
-Program notes by Laura Keller, CMS Editorial Manager
Despite its tidy structure, the Piano Quintet sounds out of control, its heavy emotions ready to boil over.