Oktoberfest

Some Notes on the Music 

Lumbye - Champagne Galop, Opus 14
Mozart - Fin ch'han dal vino, from Don Giovanni, K.527
Offenbach - Ah! Quel dîner je viens de faire, from La Périchole
J. Strauss, Jr. - Champagne Polka, Opus 211
Romberg - Drinking Song, from The Student Prince
J. Strauss, Jr. - Csárdás, from Die Fledermaus
Thomas - Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse, from Hamlet
J. Strauss, Jr. - Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, Opus 214
Donizetti - Il segreto per esser felici, from Lucrezia Borgia
Lehár - Dein ist mein ganzes Herz, from Das Land des Lächelns
Reger - Bacchanal, from Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin, Opus 128
Donizetti - Lallarallarà la la la from, L’elisir d’amore
Verdi - Libiamo ne’lieti calici, from La traviata
Johann Strauss, Sr. - Radetzky March, Opus 228
 

Hans Christian Lumbye (1810-74) spent his entire life in Copenhagen and achieved fame as the music director of the legendary amusement park, Tivoli Gardens. He wrote some 400 pieces of dance music, making him a Danish version of Vienna’s Johann Strauss, Jr. His Champagne Galop dates from 1845. The galop was a popular up-tempo ballroom dance of the nineteenth century.

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Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756-91) was a prodigy from the get-go but he went on to create some of the most enduring artistic creations of Western civilization. The early history of Don Giovanni, first performed in 1787, did not suggest a great future. Commissioned by Prague after the tumultuous success there of The Marriage of Figaro, it made a powerful impression in the Bohemian capital. The Viennese, on the other hand, were not especially impressed, and while the work did circulate, it was a solid rather than a stunning success. Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte show us Don Juan in the reckless last moments of his career as a libertine. Mozart’s Don is always up for a good time, as evidenced by the famous drinking song “Fin ch’han dal vino.

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Even those who have never set foot in an opera house have encountered Jacques Offenbach (1819-80) through the can-can music from his operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. Offenbach got his start early. He began studies at the Paris Conservatory when he was fourteen. Eventually he established his own theater, specializing in short comic pieces for singers and actors. He became famous for his engaging and witty melodies, and he helped develop the genre we call operetta, of which La Périchole is a lovely example. The aria we hear this evening, the “Tipsy Song,” is from the Act I finale. La Périchole, a street singer of Lima, has caught the eye of the Viceroy of Peru, who wants her as a lady-in-waiting. Women who fill such posts, however, must be married. The Viceroy's solution is to find her a husband, and the man pressed into service happens to be La Périchole's lover. The parties gather for the marriage formalities in a scene hazy with alcohol, and as she waits to sign the marriage agreement La Périchole sings “Ah! Quel dîner je viens de faire.

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Johann Strauss, Jr. was born in Vienna in 1825 and died there in 1899. Ten days before his nineteenth birthday he made his first public appearance conducting his own ensemble in his own music and became an instant success. He went on to compose almost 500 pieces of dance music as well as numerous operettas, he appeared with his orchestra throughout Europe, and in 1872 he conducted in Boston and New York. The Champagne Polka is appropriately effervescent while the energetic Tritsch-Tratsch Polka is Strauss, Jr. at his lighthearted best. Strauss, Jr.’s beloved operetta Die Fledermaus dates from 1874. The Csárdás is an effective bit of Hungarian pastiche, as a masked Viennese bonne vivante seeks to convince her fellow partygoers that she is, indeed, Hungarian (spoiler: she’s not).

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Sigmund Romberg was born in Nagykanizsa, Hungary, in 1887 and died in New York City in 1951. He was trained as an engineer, but his first love was music, and in 1909 he emigrated to the United States to seek his fortune. In 1914 he began work for the Shubert theater chain, and in the 1920s he scored successes with such operettas as The Desert Song, The New Moon, and The Student Prince. Opening on Broadway in 1924, The Student Prince tells the bittersweet tale of a nineteenth century German prince who goes off to university, only to fall in love with a girl he cannot marry because of her standing. The operetta was made into a film in 1954 starring Edmund Purdom as the Prince (with singing provided by the pop/opera tenor Mario Lanza).

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Ambroise Thomas (1811-96) was an accomplished pianist and violinist by the time he was ten, and several years later he was a member of the Paris Opéra orchestra. He entered the Paris Conservatory when he was seventeen. In his early twenties he began writing for the stage, and he turned out a number of well-received light operas for the Opéra Comique before scoring his most enduring success with the Goethe-inspired opera Mignon. In his later years, Thomas became director of the Paris Conservatory. Hamlet (1868)—based on Alexandre Dumas père translation of Shakespeare’s play—was Thomas’s entry point to the lofty Paris Opéra. The drinking song we hear tonight (does not occur in Shakespeare’s play though Thomas's tune is so good he can be easily forgiven.) Hamlet's brawny toast comes just before the famous play-within-a-play, in which Hamlet implicates his uncle, Claudius, in the murder of his father.

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Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), one of the prime exponents of bel canto (a viewpoint about singing that generally stressed extended melodic lines over momentary dramatic incident), composed more than sixty operas from 1816 through 1848, the year of his death. The most frequently given was L’elisir d’amore, a hit from the moment it was introduced in 1832. It is a touching little comedy that revolves around Nemorino, a good-hearted peasant who is in love with Adina, a landowner. A charlatan selling patent medicines shows up, and Nemorino purchases from him an “elixir of love” that he hopes will help him win his woman. Hijinks ensue, Adina confesses her true feelings, and Nemorino is convinced that the elixir of love really did work its magic.

Donizetti had a taste for composing operas with historical heroines (most notably his “Tudor Trilogy,” focusing on three English queens). Lucrezia Borgia (1833), based on a Victor Hugo play, dramatized the life of the fifteenth century Italian noblewoman. While the opera capitalized on Lucrezia’s status as an alleged femme fatale, it also gave us the celebrated drinking song “Il segreto per esser felici,” sung by Orsini (a trouser role, meaning a male character portrayed by a female), friend of Lucrezia’s long lost son, Gennaro. With this song Orsini kicks off a banquet in splendid form.

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Franz Lehár was born in Komorn, Hungary, on April 30, 1870 and died in Bad Ischl, Austria on October 24, 1948. He was encouraged in his career by Dvořák, went on to conduct various military bands, had his first success as a stage composer in 1896, and become one of the most celebrated of all operetta composers. “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (“My Whole Heart is Yours”) is drawn from Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles), a 1929 revision of Lehár’s more mundanely titled 1923 operetta Die gelbe Jacke (The Yellow Jacket).  

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Max Reger (1873-1916) came to be viewed as retrograde before his life was up, but for a while he was a hot property, rivaled among his contemporary German composers only by Richard Strauss. His music was brainy stuff, and musicians found themselves blinking at the density of notes on the pages he placed before them. Today, he is primarily known for his brilliantly complex organ works. Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) may be most familiar to music lovers for his painting From the Isle of the Dead, which inspired a moody tone poem by Rachmaninoff. Böcklin’s work was also the impetus for Reger’s Four Tone Poems, Opus 28 (1913). The fourth of these is the raucous Bacchanal.

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Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was the supreme master of the Italian opera stage and someone who approached the status of a national hero. Nearly all of his operas were dark tragedies hinging on complicated familial or political relationships that held scant opportunity for personal happiness, on individual sacrifice in the interest of a greater good (social, ethical, religious), or on spiraling resentments born of terrible misunderstandings. La Traviata, which was introduced in Venice in 1853, fits the bill accordingly. Based on the play The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils, it is a story of ill-fated love, the main players being the courtesan Violetta and Alfredo Germont. “Libiamo ne’lieti calici” is a spirited drinking song led by Alfredo at the festivities where he is introduced to Violetta.

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Johann Strauss, Sr. (1804-49) was born and died in Vienna. He was a string player in dance bands and formed his own ensemble when he was just twenty-one, also composing dances for his musicians to play. By 1833 he was touring Europe with his orchestra, and in 1838 they took part in the coronation ceremonies for Queen Victoria. He is, of course, “The Father of the Waltz”—and patriarch of the family of dance composers. His Radetzky March is from 1848.

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—From notes by Michael Steinberg, James Keller, Larry Rothe, and Steven Ziegler

(September 2017)