Monday, September 28, 2015

Suppe - Light Cavalry Overture

Continuing my series of program notes:

Franz von Suppé (1819-1895)

Light Cavalry: Overture

Possibly the first piece of classical music I heard was this overture in a Combined Brass Bands concert in the Melbourne Town Hall in the 1960s. At the time, the music of Suppé was popularly thought of as ‘classical’. But was he too lightweight? It is still fairly safe to say that Suppé’s music is rarely found in major Subscriptions programs, as it is tonight.

But maybe Suppé is worthy of more serious consideration. He was one of those brilliant  musicians often to be found in theatres in the German-speaking world in the 19th century. Born to a Czech mother and father of Belgian extraction in Split on the Dalmatian coast, Suppé was raised as an Italian. He studied law at Padua University but after his father’s death, went with his family to Vienna, where he studied music with, among others, Seyfried, a former pupil of Mozart. Suppé was an all-rounder. Even after his first conducting appointment (at the Josephstadt Theater in Vienna in 1841), he sang in The Elixir of Love in Ödenburg in 1842. (The Elixir’s composer, Donizetti, was a distant relative.) And as a conductor, Suppé was famous in Vienna for a gimmick in which he took snuff before conducting each of his famous overtures so they’d begin with a big sneeze! But it is as a composer that he is best remembered...

And as a composer of superb, attention-getting overtures. The introduction to Light Cavalry, an operetta composed in 1866, is a case in point. It is a marvellous example of the sort of overture often classified as pot-pourri, a collection of distinct themes bridged by short connecting passages. The different ideas occur one after the other. Here: a sequence of stirring fanfares in military band orchestration; a dramatic whirling dance-like segment, then the overture’s most famous ‘quote’ - the cantering theme announced by trumpets. This ‘canter’ is developed slightly and leads to a brief clarinet cadenza, after which is heard a more doleful segment, like the slow section of a Hungarian dance (Hungary would have been on the minds of many Viennese just prior to the advent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Then the canter returns and finally the fanfares, with thrilling drum roll accompaniment. This is real ‘sit up and take notice’ music, fulfilling perfectly the function of an overture.

But ‘overtures to what?’ asks Richard Traubner in his book, Operetta: A Theatrical History. Should Suppé’s operettas be better known? Perhaps Traubner is right. Suppé’s Die schöne Galathee (a setting of the Pygmalion story) still has some currency on the German-language stage and Fatinitza and Boccacio have entries in Gänzl’s Book of the Musical Theatre. Suppé was more than a musical lightweight or, rather, no less important for being entertaining. As one of the composers who achieved a successful Viennese response to the operettas of Offenbach and ended up composing operettas that often rivalled those of Johann Strauss II, Suppé could rightly be called, as he is by Traubner, ‘the father of Viennese operetta’.  

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2015

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