Program Notes

by

David B. Knight

Finlandia by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). While studying at the Finnish Normal School Sibelius was exposed to the Kalevala, the collation of Finnish legends and folklore, that became a major source of inspiration for the budding composer. Later he flourished at the Helsinki Music Institute, now called the Sibelius Academy.

Sibelius was soon hailed as the outstanding Finnish composer due to many remarkable scores:  Kullervo Symphony (1892), En Saga (1893), Karelia music (1893) , Lemminkäinen Suite (1890s, also called the Four Legends; one, The Swan of Tuonela, is often played separately), and the Violin Concerto (1903). To this point his style was nationalistic and romantic; thereafter he composed in a more searching manner, exemplified by symphonies No. 3 (1904) and No. 4 (1911) and the tone poem The Oceanides (1913). His final symphonies No. 5 (premiered during WWI, 1915, rev, 1919), No. 6 (1923) and No. 7(1924) are some of the best orchestral music composed during the 20th Century.

Shortly before Sibelius died, one of my music teachers visited him at Ainola, his beloved home located close to Lake Tuusula. My teacher talked of wending his way through woods (now violated by a major highway and a parking lot) while hearing music blaring from large speakers as he approached the house. The music was Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.

Sweden ceded Finland to Russia in 1809. With the hope for independence from Russia fermenting in 1899 as various events covertly protesting Russian rule were held, Sibelius wrote incidental music for a seven-part Finnish-history tableaux. One piece captured the mood of the times so brilliantly that Sibelius reworked it to create the famous, stirring symphonic poem (1900) which quickly became a symbol of Finland’s struggle for independence (achieved in 1917). To avoid Russian censors, performances often used other titles, including Impromptu, Finland Awakes, and Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring.

The opening passages of Finlandia are said to symbolize Russian dominance. Thereafter, Finnish anguish is cut short by a sudden change of pace which blossoms into a colourful section representing Finnish nationalistic sentiments. Out of this arises the famous hymn-like tune. (Words were added in 1940; Sibelius himself arranged the hymn for choral performances. And several Christian hymns use the tune.) The conclusion is triumphant for fear has been replaced by Finns arising victorious. While firmly Finnish, Finlandia also has universal qualities which resonate with people elsewhere. Though some think the central theme was a traditional folk melody, it was original to Sibelius.

 

Concerto for Viola and Orchestra by William Walton (1902-1983). As a boy in Oldham, Lancashire, William sang (in his father’s choir) large-scale works by Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn and others Then, for six years, he attended Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral School. While there he composed; composer Sir Hubert Parry was impressed. Next, when just 16, he became an undergraduate at Christ Church, University of Oxford where, among much more, he studied scores by the main figures in early 20th Century music.

During his long career Walton composed in various styles. Certain of his compositions were difficult to play, so much so that on one occasion, after a rehearsal, the famous clarinetist Charles Draper asked the composer, “Mr. Walton, has a clarinet player ever done you an injury?” Walton also wrote many well-liked shorter works, two symphonies, two operas, chamber music, and choral music, including the celebrated cantata, Belshazzar’s Feast. During WWII he drove ambulances (“extremely badly”) in London and composed music for propaganda films. His most famous such score was for The First of the Few (1942), about the designer of the Spitfire and its test pilot. His also wrote two highly regarded coronation anthems, Crown Imperial (1937) and Orb and Sceptre (1953).

Three compositions stand out: the concertos for viola (1929), violin (1939), and cello (1957). We are to hear the viola concerto, a work that has long been performed regularly by all the “greats”, including, recently, Nigel Kennedy and James Ehnes. It follows the standard three movement format for a concerto, but the work holds delightful surprises. For example, whereas the slow movement is generally second in a concerto, here Walton has the first be slow while, in contrast, the second movement is fast.

There was just one (almost disastrous) rehearsal, but with the composer conducting and Paul Hindemith (later also a great teacher and composer) as soloist, the next day’s performance (in London on 3 October 1929) was a rousing success. After the premiere, The Manchester Guardian music critic wrote, “This young composer is a born genius.” Musicologist Sir Donald Tovey said the Walton Viola Concerto was “one of the most important modern concertos for any instrument.”

Since violas are normally well embedded amongst the other strings in the orchestra, it is wonderful to have this gem which dazzlingly shows off the many voices of the instrument. The viola could well be overpowered but Walton’s superb use of tone colours, searching melodies, contrasting timbre, the contrasting use of high and low registers to bring out the viola line, and the way passages are passed from the soloist to orchestral instruments and back in wonderful ways means the orchestra never overwhelms the soloist.

The introspective first movement opens with an orchestral three bar introduction into which the viola intrudes. The haunting opening viola theme returns later, including at the work’s conclusion. There is also a jauntily stirring passage, repeated, that charms, as does the fascinating exploration on the viola against quiet deep strings. The second movement exudes a sense of carefree joy. This short, fast scherzo is brilliant throughout, a real tour de force. In the concluding third movement wehear a tug of war between the composer’s desire “to develop a triumphant climax” on the one hand and, on the other hand, to allow the return of the competing desire, i.e., the sweet melancholy of the opening movement. Which will prevail? Suspense holds to the end! Walton’s biographer, Michael Kennedy wrote, the “eloquent epilogue remains the single most beautiful passage in all his music, sensuous yet full of uncertainty.” Ultimately, we hear the final competing overlap of orchestra and soloist, with the viola holding on by itself, for the final word.

 

Symphony No. 9, “From the New World” by Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). In a village in Bohemia (now Czech Republic) the young Antonín played fiddle with his father and some of his nine siblings in the local band. When 13, he was sent to be with an uncle to study butchery, but his uncle instead had the local schoolmaster and organist teach Antonin musical theory, organ, piano, and viola. His parents reluctantly let him go to Prague to study at the Organ School. After graduating second in his class, he taught piano and periodically played viola in a local orchestra, and, importantly, he composed. Works by Smetana and Richard Wagner initially influenced his thinking but eventually he developed his own distinctive voice.

After various poorly accepted, or simply ignored, compositions, in 1873 his Symphony No. 3 attracted the attention of Johannes Brahms. Brahms gave Dvořák’s name to his own publisher in Berlin, who took him on. Thereafter Dvořák composed with confidence, writing memorable original melodies, using fascinating tonal inventions and distinctive rhythmic qualities. Many of his tunes sound folk like and are assumed to be from his native Bohemia; however, none are direct quotations of folk music. Instead, they are Dvořák’s inventive explorations of ideas inspired by folk tunes. His compositions included nine symphonies, choral works, tone poems, operas, and a cello concerto. Last April, the GSO ended the season by performing Dvořák’s exhilarating Symphony No. 8.

Dvořák’s delightful series of Slavonic Dances were a huge international success (and “a goldmine” for the publisher). In 1884, he conducted his own music in London, to great acclaim. His orchestral works were soon performed across Europe and in America. In 1891 he became professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory and he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University. In 1892 he became the founding Director of the National Conservatory of Music of America (in New York City), a post he held until 1895, whereupon he returned to his beloved native country.

In spring 1904, at the first Czech Music Festival, six thousand singers sang Dvořák’s Saint Ludmila oratorio, and thousands listened to his Symphony No. 9. Sadly, a few days later, Dvořák died of a stroke. Tens of thousands lined the streets of Prague while his body was processed to be buried alongside other Czech heroes in the cemetery at Vyšehrad.

Dvořák’s Symphony No 9 clearly includes references to his Bohemian roots, as we shall hear, but also, intriguingly, Dvořák was inspired by some New World material. Consider the following.

First, Dvořák enjoyed New York, including certain taverns and the peaceful surrounds in Central Park, and he appreciated being with his students and other musicians.

Second, his vistas were widened when he attended Buffalo Bill Cody’s “Wild West Show” in New York and thereby experienced “more or less authentic” singing and dancing by some Oglala Sioux. Later, when visiting the Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, he experienced Kickapoo Indian songs and dances.

Third, he enjoyed listening to spirituals sung by one of his African American students, Harry T. Burleigh (who also played timpani in the conservatory orchestra). Burleigh observed, “Dvořák saturated himself with the spirit of these old tunes and then invented his own themes.” The symphony’s first movement includes a hint of the famous spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (penned in 1840 by Wallace Willis, a Black slave of a Choctaw Indian [in territory now in Oklahoma]). Burleigh likely sang it to Dvořák. All other themes in the Ninth Symphony were original to Dvořák, the most famous possibly being the second movement’s poignant melody we now know as “Goin’ Home.” It cannot be missed for the English Horn part is truly beautiful. Dvořák used the English Horn here because it reminded him of Burleigh’s magnificent baritone voice. The words for the song “Goin’ Home” were written by another of Dvořák’s students, William Arms Fisher. Since the tune was Dvořák’s, can we say that he unknowingly wrote a beloved spiritual?

Fourth, Dvořák was asked to write an opera based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Song of Hiawatha,” which he had read in Czech. He did not complete the opera but his sketches for it inspired parts of the symphony.

Finally, Dvořák experienced intense homesickness while in America, as evidenced, possibly, in several strongly mournful passages in the symphony, yet he also gained fresh insights during his time away from home. Just how “American” the work is remains open to debate though he wrote that “I should never have written the symphony ‘just so’ if I hadn’t seen America.” But, too, we cannot ignore the famous conductor Kurt Mazur’s comment that Dvořák created “a great tragic symphony written on the theme of homesickness.”

As an aside, Dvořák challenged American composers to stop composing in an imitative Germanic manner and instead to develop a distinctive American style of symphonic music based on Negro (African American) spirituals and Indian (Native American) music. (Jazz was not yet on the scene!) Dvořák’s comments were telling though others too had called for American based music, including Louis Moreau Gottschalk whose 1850s music was based on Creole folk themes and rhythms. (He died in 1869. His fascinating music is available on CD recordings).

Symphony No. 9 was premiered in December 1893 by the New York Philharmonic. It was an instant success. The suspenseful opening Adagio (in 4/8 time) gives way to Allegro molto (in 2/4 time). Hints of the central theme are provided lovingly by two horns before a forceful, lyrical section further develops several ideas, involving the full orchestra. There is a charming moment when flute and oboe play what has been described as “half southern cakewalk and half Czech tootle.”

Dvořák said the two middle movements were inspired by “The Song of Hiawatha.” The second movement includes exquisite passages for the strings and for the woodwinds. According to Burleigh, the music refers to “the famine scene in Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’ [which had] a great effect onhim [Dvořák] and he wanted to interpret it musically.” Still, it is not hard to imagine that we are maybe also hearing Dvořák’s expression of homesickness for Bohemia. If so, it may be no accident that William Fisher, knowing Dvořák’s sadness and longing for his beloved homeland, then wrote the words “Goin’ Home.”

Dvořák’s image for the third movement was a dance during Hiawatha’s wedding feast, possibly the dance by Pau-Puk-Keewis. While this may have been the inspiration, it is hard to imagine anything less Czech in the way the movement proceeds. One hears the catchy rhythms of the furiant as well as graceful waltzes, alternating from one to the other in a delightful manner. Provocatively, Michael Beckerman suggests that the bird-like trills in the Scherzo’s central section refers to the story of Osseo in which some Indians are changed into birds. In the coda, the French horn motive from the first movement has a short dialogue with the third movement’s primary theme.

The final movement has, at times, a martial quality, with stunningly bold statements for horns, trumpets, and trombones, possibly referring to the climactic battle between Hiawatha and Pau-Puk-Keewis. However, there are also gentle peaceful sections for the woodwinds and strings. The first movement’s opening theme, which has provided the glue to the whole symphony, by appearing here and there throughout the work, eventually is again powerfully stated before the final chord surprisingly fades to nothing.

Dvořák named his work From the New World, not For the New World. In other words, the work was to take home, perhaps to give Europeans a feel for what he had gained while he was in America. Whatever, Dvořák’s creation stands as one of the greatest and most famous of all orchestral symphonic works.