Thursday, January 14, 2016

Glazunov in Harrisburg: His Violin Concerto

Peter Sirotin, concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony, chose the Violin Concerto by Alexander Glazunov for his official debut this weekend as concert soloist with his colleagues. You can read earlier posts about the Mozart “Prague” Symphony and Elgar's Enigma Variations, also on the program, and an interview with Peter Sirotin – but this post is about a composer not that well known to Harrisburg audiences.

Here is a video with Hilary Hahn playing Glazunov's Violin Concerto with Semyon Bychkov conducting the West German Broadcasting Orchestra of Cologne, complete in one clip:
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If you're listening to this for the first time, you might think it was a “contemporary” of concertos by Mendelssohn (1845) and Bruch (1866), yet technically it's a 20th Century work, composed in 1904.

Glazunov, 1899
And while it's often described as a concerto “in one movement” – the Mendelssohn has been called that, too, but there are three distinct movements which just happen to be played without pause – Glazunov's is really a three-movement work except the slow 2nd movement interrupts the 1st movement! We hear the exposition of the first movement which then, by 5:11 in the above clip, becomes this lyrical slow movement. But when that's finished, at 7:48, the first movement resumes with what seems like a fairly academic development section, until the expected recapitulation begins at 10:35 and leads to the expected cadenza at 11:44 after which we'd expect to conclude the first movement with a flourish. However, when the soloist's cadenza ends at 14:18, it turns into a transition to... the finale, a whole new movement at 14:44, full of joyous fanfares and dances that is, essentially, an old-fashioned (kind of) rondo.

It's true this would have confused conservative music-lovers of the day (and considering what used to annoy people even in Bach and Mozart's days), but for 1904, it was certainly a very old-fashioned “sound-world” considering what was brewing in Paris or Vienna. However, as Peter Sirotin reminded me in our conversation when someone described Glazunov as a “conservative composer” - “great music is not always a matter of innovation.” (That would have been true of Bach if you were comparing him to the music his sons were writing.)

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Erika Morini
While I don't have records of everything that's been played by the Harrisburg Symphony since 2004, it's safe to say that between 1946 and 2004, a period of 58 years, the Harrisburg Symphony or any of its guest orchestras have not performed any works by this Russian composer, compared to the frequency of such an audience favorite as Tchaikovsky.

The simple reason may be that Glazunov is not Tchaikovsky nor does he have the brilliance and tunefulness of Tchaikovsky: the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto has been performed at least nine or ten times, the Glazunov (as far as I can tell) only once when Erika Morini played it with George King Raudenbush in December of 1935, when, incidentally, Glazunov was still a "living composer."

In fact, all of Glazunov's music heard in Harrisburg before 2004 was conducted by George King Raudenbush, the orchestra's first conductor who retired at the end of the 1949-50 Season: even during the series of “rehearsals” (more like reading sessions) during which the orchestra played through various repertoire before that first public concert in March of 1931, they played “Autumn” and “Winter” from his ballet, The Seasons. 

Curiously, Raudenbush programmed Glazunov's 5th Symphony (with its great bear-dance of a finale) twice – in 1943 and again in 1946. But other than his elegant Concert Waltz, Op. 47, so evocative of the great Imperial Age at the end of the 19th Century, also scheduled twice, in 1936 and 1945), nothing else of Glazunov's has been heard in Harrisburg at the symphony.

It is entirely possible, not having access to lists of works performed in the last ten years, something may have been slipped through. I don't recall hearing the concerto but certainly none of the symphonies or tone poems – but then, frankly, they may simply no longer be that interesting to concert audiences because I'm sure Glazunov's ratings, across the US, are probably not that much better than they are here.

Except for the Violin Concerto which is ranked by violinists among the Top 5 or 6 best violin concertos.

Glazunov also survives among saxophonists' repertoires because he wrote the (presumably) first Saxophone Quartet in 1932 and followed it two years later with a Concerto for Alto Saxophone.

Over at Market Square Concerts, Harrisburg had a chance to hear some of his chamber music in recent years, thanks to Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director: the Cypress Quartet played two or three of his Novelettes (and also in Lancaster). The last Summermusic concert of 2013 ended with the String Quintet in A Major.

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When Alexander Glazunov died outside Paris in 1936 at the age of 70, most people were probably shocked: they had no idea he was still alive!

Most would have associated his music so strongly with the previous century and a tradition – as well as a culture – that had disappeared almost 20 years earlier when the 1917 Revolutions swept away the Russian Empire.

While others left – like Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, eventually Prokofiev (who would later return) – Glazunov who considered himself fairly apolitical stayed behind to re-organize the Conservatory he'd been director of since 1905 when his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov had been forced out of the position (during more political turmoil). He had established a good working relationship with the new Bolshevik regime but found increasing deprivations during the ensuing Civil War and tensions with both faculty and students tiresome. He took advantage of the chance to tour Europe during the Schubert Year in 1928 and ended up staying in Paris. After a visit to the United States, he chose to return to Paris, one of the larger gathering-places for Russian expatriates, where he remained, composing only occasionally, until his death.

Glazunov had the misfortune of being born in that “second generation” of Russian composers between Tchaikovsky and his mentors The Russian Five (with his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov treating him more as a junior associate than a student) and those only slightly younger than himself, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin – and eventually those who were his own students, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Among this “lost generation” of composers are Anatol Lyadov, Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev, to name just three more who are rarely heard in America. We sometimes reduce a whole era to just two or three famous names – how many average concert-goers could say they've heard many of the contemporaries of Mozart and Haydn or Beethoven and Schubert, covering the years from 1750 to 1828? It would be difficult to name any current Russian composer since Shostakovich died in 1975 who is heard with any comparable frequency in this country.

Rimsky-Korsakov & Glazunov
Glazunov had everything going for him – he was, like Mendelssohn, born into a wealthy family, his father a respected and cultured book publisher. A prodigy whose 1st Symphony created something of a scandal at its premiere because the audience refused to believe this music had been composed by the 16-year-old wearing a school uniform who'd come out to take his bow (some accused the parents of paying Rimsky-Korsakov to write the piece and pass it off as their son's). Fame came easily to him – when Tchaikovsky wrote to Balakirev, leader of the Handful, how much help young Glazunov had with this symphony, Balakirev said “he didn't need any help.” Later, Tchaikovsky bought the score of Glazunov's first string quartet and wrote to a friend, “Glazunov's talent is undeniable.”

Still in his teens, Glazunov met Franz Liszt who thought highly of his music. His new works began to find their way around the Continent (as Russians and the English referred to the rest of Europe) almost at the same time as his mentors' did, when another supporter, the wealthy music publisher Belyayev, opened a branch in Leipzig.

The young man soon found himself the “junior member” of the Mighty Handful, who, with his prodigious memory, was able to assist his teacher in assembling the disorganized pages of sketches left behind by Alexander Borodin when he died suddenly in 1887, leaving unfinished a third symphony and the massive opera, Prince Igor: the story goes that Glazunov, having heard Borodin play through the Overture at the piano before he'd written anything down, was able to reconstruct it from memory.

One thing that happened was the passing of an era comparable to what Americans recall (for those who admit to remembering it) as “The '60s and '70s” – in this case the 1960s and '70s. In Russia, the 1860s and '70s were a similar kind of age, full of renewed national awareness with political and philosophical agitation among the people. The new Russian tsar, Alexander II, liberated the serfs in 1861 (before Lincoln freed the slaves in our own Civil War) and promised numerous political and social reforms. There were those who, as in earlier centuries, saw Russia as an Asiatic-based heritage (the days of the boyars before Peter I, known in the West as “the Great,” in the late-1600s) inspired by “the people,” particularly through the folk-based music of Rimsky-Korsakov and the “Mighty Handful,” as opposed to the cosmopolitan pro-Western view which continued the aristocratic European-based lifestyle and which we associate with Tchaikovsky.

Glazunov (by Repin) 1887
But by the late-1880s, these arguments – particularly the nihilists one reads about in Dostoievsky's novels – swung from the anarchic precipice with the assassination of the reform-minded Alexander II to the stern reactionary world of his son, Alexander III, which resulted in stronger political controls, police surveillance, and imperial autocracy. (That, in a nutshell, something which would take hundreds of pages to describe accurately...)

So the age when Glazunov was at his peak was not the world we associate with his mentors: the pendulum swung quickly and sharply back from the days of the liberal-nationalists. Dostoievsky was dead, and Tolstoy's greatest works had already been published. Even though Rimsky-Korsakov continued to create great works inspired by the Russian folk culture (like his opera, The Golden Cockerel, in reality a political satire), the culture of the times took on that “end-of-the-century” elegance we associate with the imperial ballets of Tchaikovsky. The intellectual life of the 1890s in Russia reminds me, in a way, of American student life after the Viet-Nam War when it seemed there was nothing left to protest. And whatever your political colors may reveal, things in the United States had changed radically from the 1950s into the '60s and '70s and again in the 1980s. Something similar affected Glazunov and his generation as well.

He went from being the promising student of Rimsky-Korsakov in the 1880s to become a successful teacher with an international reputation at the peak of his powers around 1900. But then, with the advent of the political turmoil of 1905 (which momentarily closed down the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he taught and which he would eventually run, once Rimsky-Korsakov had been forced out for being too pro-student) – you might call this the beginning of the long, slow up-beat to the Bolshevik Revolution – Glazunov's world slowly fell apart.

Today, he is perhaps primarily remembered for having ruined Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony, when he was apparently too drunk to conduct it at its premiere in 1897, whether he understood the piece or not. Glazunov, like Mussorgsky, was one of Russian music's more notorious drinkers: there is the probably true story told by Shostakovich how, in his lessons, Glazunov would sip his booze through a tube hidden in his coat connected to a flask hidden in a desk drawer.

Shostakovich, Student
And as he was known as Rimsky's student during his lifetime, he became known as Shostakovich's teacher to the next century: he perhaps saw in this precocious young student – who began at the Conservatory when he was 13 – a reflection of himself. He followed his development, helped him with scholarships and arranged for the premiere of his 1st Symphony in 1926 in the same hall where his own 1st Symphony had been premiered to much surprise 44 years earlier. And it was, after all, the starting point for what would become the international career of the future leading composer of the Soviet Union, then a mere 19-year-old student wearing thick, round glasses and gawking back at that audience with as much curiosity as they looked at him when he'd come out to take his awkward bow.

(By the way, you can hear Shostakovich's 1st Symphony at the May Masterworks concert with the Harrisburg Symphony & Stuart Malina.)

In the game of “what if,” one can ask “what if Glazunov didn't have to deal with the chaos that followed the 1917 Revolution?” What if he didn't have to worry about composing because his supply of manuscript paper was about to run out and wouldn't likely be replenished, given the rationings during the Civil War? What if he had left for Paris in 1917 when so many others left their vanishing culture behind? (Leaving Russia didn't help Rachmaninoff much: he hardly ever composed again after he emigrated to the West.) But what would have happened to Shostakovich if Glazunov hadn't been there to mentor him?

So, in many ways, Glazunov's Violin Concerto is a reflection of a soon-to-be-lost age – not just Russia's but also the composer's. Following 1905, most of his energies would be taken up as a teacher and administrator. And with his society in free-fall, what was there for an artist to grab onto to present any kind of artistic vision? He was hardly the man to suddenly start producing proletarian music!

Whatever others might have been able to do, it was not within Glazunov's talent to find an answer, as he himself might probably have been the first to admit. Everything had come easily to him: his “creative crisis” of 1890 was the first sign he was out-growing his role as a prodigy; another one, following 1905, when he was now 40, might have been a mid-life crisis in the best of times. It's not that he stopped composing, but, with few exceptions, he was unable to produce much that was comparable to the quality of what he'd written before.

It is not surprising his last string quartet, written in Paris in 1930, was subtitled “Homage to the Past.”

Dick Strawser

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Meet Peter Sirotin, Concertmaster - and This Month, Concert Soloist

Peter Sirotin (photo by Jeff Lynch)
This weekend, concertmaster Peter Sirotin will step out in front of his colleagues to perform the Glazunov Violin Concerto on a program that also includes Mozart's "Prague" Symphony and Elgar's "Enigma Variations." The concerts, conducted by Stuart Malina, are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. Associate Conductor Gregory Woodbridge offers the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

You can read more about the concert with David Dunkle's interview with Peter Sirotin and Stuart Malina here in the Carlisle Sentinel. 
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When Peter Sirotin was 6, his mother, a violin teacher, handed him a violin ("essentially," he said, "this was what she knew and what she could give me") but he didn't take to it that seriously until he was 11 and learning the Mendelssohn Concerto when he heard Heifetz's recording that changed his mind. (This, he points out, is a caution he tells most beginners' parents not to let the new student give up too soon before they've had a chance to develop a little.)

You'd think someone named Pyotr Ilich Sirotin would be automatically drawn to the great concerto by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, but he told me in a phone conversation he prefers the Glazunov Concerto he'll be performing this weekend to the Tchaikovsky. I had assumed it's probably because the whole Glazunov Concerto is as long as the Tchaikovsky's first movement, but he said “for one thing, the orchestration is more interesting,” and he thought it was "tighter in form." For all Tchaikovsky's brilliance and his knack for writing a great melody, "sometimes he goes too far with the repetitions:" the form is overall “too sprawling” and the last movement, too long (Tchaikovsky did make cuts but most performers today don't take them).

There's also a curious connection between the two concertos: while neither composer worked with a specific violinist to turn to with technical questions (Brahms at least had Joseph Joachim to check things, even if he did ignore them), but both of them dedicated their concertos to Leopold Auer who was probably the greatest violinist in Russia at the time (Tchaikovsky's was written in 1877; Glazunov's, not until 1904). Yet Auer refused to play Tchaikovsky's concerto, saying it was unplayable (which had nothing to do with critics at its premiere who thought it was unlistenable – Hanslick thought this was “music that stinks in the ear”); Auer had no such reservations when, over 25 years later, he was handed Glazunov's work (and at least Glazunov didn't have to deal with criticism like that).

But when Glazunov started teaching in St. Petersburg in 1899, this, Peter explained, was during something of a Golden Age of violin playing and teaching in Russia. Incidentally, two of Auer's students were Nathan Milstein and Jascha Heifetz – and both students would later play Glazunov's concerto under the composer's baton.

While Heifetz' Mendelssohn recording inspired an 11-year-old violinist, today Peter says he prefers Milstein's recording, so I've decided to include that one as a video courtesy of YouTube, as well as another, more modern, live concert performance with Hilary Hahn (see the next post) for those of you who'd prefer “better sound” with something to watch :-)

This Angel/EMI recording of the Glazunov Violin Concerto was made in 1957 with Nathan Milstein and William Steinberg conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony. “The Glazounov is close to me,” Milstein explained at the time, “because I performed it in my first public orchestra appearance as a child, under the direction of the composer. It was also the concerto which I played for my debut in the United States under Stokowski in Philadelphia in 1929.”
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“Oh, and another thing,” Peter mentioned as we were about to hang up, “Glazunov was very helpful to the Jews” studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, petitioning for scholarships and for those “special permits” that were needed because, by Imperial decree dating back to the 18th Century, Jews were not allowed to live in the capital city of St. Petersburg. (“Well,” I thought, “that's something to think about, also, given today's often over-heated rhetoric...”)

By the way, you can read more about the Glazunov in the next post, but also about the other two works on the program, Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations" and the Symphony No. 38, the "Prague" Symphony by Mozart in earlier posts.

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Peter Sirotin was born in Kharkiv (a.k.a. Kharkov), now in Ukraine, where he made his debut with the Kharkiv Philharmonic playing Paganini's 1st Violin Concerto when he was 14, and later studied at Moscow's Central Music School. As part of the famed “Moscow Soloists” (becoming their youngest member at the time), he got to play in some of the great halls of Europe, from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam to the Beethoven Hall in Bonn, the Pleyel Hall in Paris to the Royal Albert Hall in London.

He then attended the Peabody School of Music in Baltimore, earning a graduate degree in violin performance and a Graduate Performance Diploma in Chamber Music. There, he met his wife, pianist Ya-Ting Chang.

In 1996, Peter joined the Harrisburg Symphony as Assistant Concertmaster and became Concertmaster with the 2013-2014 Season.

The following year, he and his wife formed the Mendelssohn Piano Trio along with Harrisburg Symphony principal cellist Fiona Thompson. They've played over 500 concerts and recorded 15 CDs including the Complete Piano Trios of Franz Josef Haydn for the Centaur label. In residence at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, the trio maintains a busy teaching and performing schedule, organizing a summer chamber music camp for performers and composers.

Together, he and Ya-Ting are currently co-directors of Market Square Concerts, an organization independent of the Symphony but with which they've combined efforts for the occasional joint project like the appearance of Ann Schein who gave a recital with Market Square Concerts, performed the Chopin F Minor Piano Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony and offered a jointly sponsored master class at Messiah College. (We will also be telling you about another such venture in the very near future!)

Incidentally, Peter is not the first concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Many of our long-time concert-goers and local musicians will remember Irene Palashewskij who was concertmaster or co-concertmaster during the 1970s and '80s who was also born in Kharkiv. (Small world.)

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I know some concert-goers have wondered why people applaud when the last person in the orchestra comes out on stage and sits down in the first chair of the violin section, the only remaining empty seat: after all, he's always late. He tells the oboist to play an “A” so the orchestra can tune and then sits down.

Actually, in addition to playing whatever violin solos there are in a symphonic work (whether it's that lovely bit at the end of Brahms' 1st Symphony's 2nd movement, or the mini-concerto that is part of Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben), the concertmaster relays the conductor's interpretation to the rest of the violins and is also responsible for the uniformity of the section's bowings, coordinating these and other important details with the other principal players in the 2nd Violin, Viola, 'Cello and Bass sections. There are other details, more administrative, concerning auditions and committees within the orchestra, that are also part of the responsibility.

But wait, there's more...

If you attended the November concert which featured the first performance locally of the Double Concerto of Jonathan Leshnoff and stayed for the “talk-back session” following the concert, you heard both soloists – including Alexander Kerr, himself a concertmaster when he played with the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – praise our orchestra's concertmaster, Peter Sirotin, for his skill and help during the rehearsals in coordinating between the two soloists (who were playing the piece for the first time) with the rest of the strings and, by extension, to the whole orchestra in terms of balance or bowing or other more technical details of phrasing and articulation of certain passages to assist the conductor (Stuart Malina, in this case, not being a string player).

For some concertmasters, there's also a bit of diplomacy in being the go-between with the Maestro and the orchestra. Kerr also told the story how, in the first rehearsal with a guest conductor that was not going well (whether the result of the Maestro's jet lag or just his bad mood) and which was putting the other players “on edge,” he decided to sit there and, throughout, continue to smile. Nothing more, just smile. Eventually, everybody else saw that the concertmaster was smiling and they began to relax. And when the Maestro felt everybody relax, he began to feel better so, by the end of the rehearsal, everything was going much better.

So it's not just a gig where you get to show up late...

- Dick Strawser

Elgar & His Enigma: Variations as Social Networking

This weekend's Masterworks Concert - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum - opens with Mozart's "Prague" Symphony and features concertmaster Peter Sirotin as soloist in the Violin Concerto by Alexander Glazunov, but concludes with the ultimate Facebook piece, Edward Elgar's collection of musical portraits of his friends (including a selfie) – one was even photobombed by a particularly rambunctious bulldog (#been there/done that).

It's known as “The Enigma Variations” because there's not one but several mysteries about the piece.

The piece consists of a theme and 14 variations and while it can be enjoyed simply as music without any of the mystery, it makes it a little more interesting than just being another set of variations. How Elgar manipulates the opening theme into these various character sketches is fascinating enough. If a composer can (indirectly) tell a story in music - a symphonic poem - why can't a composer (indirectly) show listeners a portrait gallery of his friends?

And since none of these friends are likely to be on your friend-list, we'll give away that part of the enigma so you can appreciate the composer's musical ingenuity.

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Elgar & his bike
Edward Elgar began his “Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36,” as an evening's diversion in October, 1898, a kind of late-Victorian whimsy, playing a theme that caught his wife's attention which prompted him, then, to improvise several variations on it, each one in the manner of a particular friend. But by the time he completed it on February 18th, 1899, it had turned into a major orchestral work – and a far more serious one – over a half-hour long.

Premiered in June, 1899, it was well-received though critics, praising the content of the music, seemed irritated by the layers of mystification – the “secret identity” of the friends' portraits in the variations and the overall mystery of the theme's origins.

You see, Elgar figured, beyond his circle of friends, who would know these friends “pictured within” or even care? Eventually, he added initials or nicknames to all but one of the variations – the “Romance” with its mysterious asterisks (aha!) thereby heightening the mystery (some secret affair?) – to better identify the portraits, but he never did explain the mystery of the theme.

Some believe the theme is based on some musical melody with a special emotional meaning to the composer; others think it's inspired by a poetic theme; others who've given up trying to guess just pass it off as being something Elgar associated with the idea (and substance) of friendship.

“The Enigma,” the composer later wrote, “I will not explain – its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connexion between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme 'goes', but is not played... So the principal Theme never appears...”

So, since he never did divulge its origin and no one has found any direct proof to explain it, the subsequent title given the piece by the composer – The Enigma Variations – still stands.

This video “suite” of the entire piece (broken into three segments) may not identify the recording (or the typically British paintings attached to them), it allows me to break it down into more manageable portions so you can read about each variation as you listen to them.

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Part 1 (Theme & Var 1-7)

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Original Theme marked Enigma, a hesitant and certainly enigmatic theme (or one broken down into little fragments like a mosaic). It unfolds in the minor key with a secondary rising, even hopeful line in the woodwinds before the opening of the theme is restated.

Page 1 of Elgar's MS
In 1912, at the premiere of his setting of Arthur O'Shaughnnessy's Ode, “The Music Makers” (for alto, chorus and orchestra) where Elgar quotes several of his own earlier themes, including from the Enigma Variations, the composer wrote this theme “expressed when [originally] written my sense of the loneliness of the artist as described in the first six lines of the Ode, and to me, it still embodies that sense.”

We are the music makers, 
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers, 

And sitting by desolate streams, –
World-losers and world-forsakers, 

On whom the pale moon gleams:...

Dropping clues if not hints like bread-crumbs here and there, the composer also mentioned (or at least sanctioned a biographer who'd mentioned), given the theme's strange rhythmic phrasing with no strong downbeat, that the “theme is a counterpoint [to] some well-known melody which is never heard.”

One conductor I'd heard decided to play the violin line (what would seem to be the melody) more as an accompaniment to this “unheard theme” – not that anything I'm familiar with ever popped out as a likely solution.

The theme blends directly into the first variation:

Variation I – C.A.E. (beginning at 1:32 into the clip), Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer's wife (usually known as Alice), who was a constant source of encouragement and inspiration. Apparently, one might guess she also liked Brahms (there are shades of the 4th Symphony in the way the theme is treated). One fragment (a four-note accompaniment) was supposedly a bit Elgar would whistle when he returned home, a kind of musical “honey, I'm home” signature.

Variation II. H.D.S-P. (allegro; at 3:15), Hew David Steuart-Powell, one of Elgar's chamber-music friends, a pianist, who was ever-active, what today we might call “a bit hyper.” He's also Dora Penny's uncle (see Var. X).

Variation III. R.B.T. (allegretto, at 4:06), Richard Baxter Townsend, an amateur actor, referencing his representation of an old man in some amateur theatricals ‒ the low voice flying off occasionally into 'soprano' range. He was a "step-uncle" of Dora Penny's, btw.

Variation IV. W.M.B. (allegro di molto; 5:25), William Meath Baker, Townsend's brother-in-law, who “expressed himself somewhat energetically,” would bark out plans for the day, then leave the room with a vigorous door-slam as fast as he had entered it.

Variation V. R.P.A. (moderato; 5:56), Richard Penrose Arnold, son of the writer Matthew Arnold, an amateur pianist who would punctuate serious discourse with a nervous laugh (note the “serious” strings befitting a son of a serious writer, and the intervening woodwind laughter).

Variation VI. Ysobel (andantino; 7:59), Isobel Fitton, a violist who was a viola student of Elgar's, and so the viola section is featured prominently. “It may be noticed,” the composer explained, “that the opening bar, a phrase made use of throughout the variation, is an ‘exercise’ for crossing the strings – a difficulty for beginners.

Variation VII. Troyte (presto; 9:17), Arthur Troyte Griffith, an architect and "raucous pianist." The variation good-naturedly mimics his enthusiastic incompetence on the piano. And it may also refer to the time Griffith and Elgar were out walking and got caught in a thunderstorm, seeking refuge at the house of Winifred and Florence Norbury (see next variation).

Part 2 (Var 8-11)

Variation VIII. W.N. (allegretto; 0:00), Winifred Norbury, a gracious and gentle friend, hence the relatively relaxed atmosphere. The gentle chirping of the flutes, wonderfully contrasted by the plucking of the strings, paints someone who would be a most gracious hostess. At the end of this variation, a single note in the violins is held over into the next variation, the most celebrated of the set.

Variation IX. Nimrod (andante; 1:55), Augustus Jaeger, one of Elgar's closest friends. “Nimrod” is the Old Testament hunter, and Jäger is the German word for “hunter.” Elgar later said how Jaeger had encouraged him as an artist, urging him to continue composing despite setbacks. In 1904 Elgar told Dora Penny (the 'Dorabella' of Variation X) that “Nimrod” wasn't really a portrait, but “the story of something that happened.” Once, when Elgar had been very depressed and was about to give it all up and write no more music, Jaeger referred to Beethoven who certainly had a lot of worries, but continued to write more and more beautiful music. “And that is what you must do,” Jaeger told him, then sang the theme of the second movement of Beethoven's piano sonata, the Pathétique. He also told her the opening bars of “Nimrod” were meant to suggest that theme. “Can’t you hear it at the beginning? Only a hint, not a quotation.”

Variation X. Dorabella (allegretto; 5:57), Dora Penny, already mentioned above in the context of other friends, whose infectious laugh is depicted in a repeated line for the the woodwinds.

She was also the recipient of a strange (if not bizarre) note from the composer in 1897, the year before he began composing the Variations. The Elgar Birthplace Museum preserves four articles from an 1896 magazine entitled Secrets in Cipher along with a wooden box Elgar painted with his solution to a cipher that the fourth article said was insoluble.

Variation XI. G.R.S. (allegro di molto; 8:33), George Robertson Sinclair, an organist. 'The variation, however, has nothing to do with organs or cathedrals,” Elgar later wrote, “or, except remotely, with G.R.S. The first few bars were suggested by his great bulldog, Dan (a well-known character) falling down the steep bank into the River Wye (bar 1); his paddling upstream to find a landing place (bars 2 and 3); and his rejoicing bark on landing (second half of bar 5). G.R.S. said, "Set that to music". I did; here it is.”

Part 3 (Var 12-14)

***? (Lady Mary Lygon)
Variation XII. B.G.N. (andante; 0:00), Basil G. Nevinson, was an accomplished amateur cellist and chamber-music partner of the Elgar's musical evenings. Consequently, the cellos are featured prominently in his variation.

Variation XIII. Romanza *** (moderato; 2:35). This would be the most enigmatic of the Enigma Variations – no nickname or initials, only three asterisks and the word “Romance” – and is that used in the sense of a musical composition (as in Schumann's “Romance in F-sharp Major”?) or in the sense of a loving relationship - possibly even a secret affair? There are two possible candidates since apparently Elgar never specifically identified the subject of this, the “unlucky 13th” variation.

***? (Helen Weaver)
One would be Lady Mary Lygon (above) whom he did identify as a friend who left on an ocean voyage to Australia - there is a quote from Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage in the clarinet and the timpanist is directed to play with "hard sticks" (though often coins are placed on the drum-head) to get the effect of a ship's engine.

Several sources suggest a more likely possibility is Helen Weaver (left) who had been Elgar's fiancée in 1884 (Elgar married Alice in 1889). She broke off the engagement, then sailed out of his life forever, emigrating to New Zealand.

This pensive portrait leads to the final variation, a self-portrait:

CAE & Edu in 1897
Variation XIV. E.D.U. (allegro presto; 5:23), Elgar himself, "Edu" being his wife's nickname for him (from the German form, Eduard). An extroverted, even boisterous finale – perhaps, the composer no longer the lonely creative artist but the man surrounded by his friends. There are references to both the CAE Variation (his wife) and “Nimrod” – two of his staunchest supporters – which Elgar later wrote was “entirely fitting to the intention of the piece.”

Whatever that was, of course...

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After the world premiere in London, conducted by the great German conductor Hans Richter, it was Jaeger (“Nimrod”) who suggested Elgar should expand the finale and add an organ part – this version was given its first performance at the Three Choirs Festival, this time with Edu himself conducting.

He had initially included some of his composer-colleagues on this musical friend-list – like Arthur Sullivan (without Gilbert) and Hubert Parry – but felt, “for musical considerations,” his imitating their styles was an unsatisfactory tribute. At least, not including them allowed him to say I “have written what I think [my friends] would have written – if they were asses enough to compose."

One wonders how many of his friends were upset they hadn't been included. Navigating the social network can be so full of risks...

By the way, the composer became Sir Edward Elgar on July 5th, 1904.

While it's one of Elgar's best-known works – aside from the ubiquitous graduation march, “Land of Hope & Glory” from his “Pomp & Circumstance” March (No. 1) – the “Enigma Variations” would go on to become one of the first major works by any English composer (since the days of Henry Purcell in the 17th Century) to gain fame on the Continent. In 1904, a German critic famously called England “the Land without Music,” but when Elgar's “Enigma” was performed in St. Petersburg that same year, both Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov thought highly of the work – and Gustav Mahler conducted it in New York City with what eventually became the New York Philharmonic in 1910.

Oh, and Elgar suggested once if the Variations should ever be turned into a ballet, the "enigma" should be danced by a "veiled dancer," which has prompted others to assume the "enigma" is really another actual friend - and a lady-friend, at that (presumably, men in those days didn't go about "veiled"). Hmmm...

While I wonder what it would've been like if Elgar had Facebook or for that matter, 899 friends, I can't help but think any composer would be lucky to have friends like those Elgar “pictured within.”

Dick Strawser

P.S. Don't forget, you can like the Harrisburg Symphony on Facebook

Monday, January 11, 2016

Mozart in Prague: His Symphony No. 38

This weekend is the first Masterworks Concert of the New Year with a program featuring a salute to friendship (wrapped in an enigma) by the English composer, Sir Edward Elgar, the violin concerto by the Russian composer, Alexander Glazunov, with our soloist, our own concertmaster Peter Sirotin, and the symphony Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart presumably composed for his visit to Prague which is why it's always called... the "Prague" Symphony.

While I'll introduce you to Elgar's “Enigma Variations” and the Glazunov Concerto in later posts, this one is about Mozart's Symphony in D Major, which is numbered 38 out of his 41 symphonies and listed in the botanist-turned-musicologist Ludwig Köchel's catalog as K.504.

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Mozart, an idealized portrait
Mozart's Symphony No. 38 (the “Prague”) is in the celebratory key of D Major (most often used because it's a good key for trumpets and drums) but it has only three movements – a grand first movement with an imposing slow introduction (one of Mozart's grandest introductions); a slow movement; and a lively finale – no minuet. This three-movement approach was the standard symphonic form before composers later added a minuet before the finale. And while Mozart usually wrote four-movement symphonies later in his career, for some reason for this one, he did not.

Here's a performance with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Manfred Honeck in the Estates Theatre of Prague, a building that opened in 1783, four years before Mozart's visit when this symphony was premiered.

One source says the symphony was premiered in the National Theater but the building now known as the National Theater wasn't built until 1844. However, the Estates Theater was later "absorbed" into the National Theater, though it is a separate building. We know Don Giovanni was premiered in this theater so it would be a safe guess this is the very space where, 229 years ago on January 19th, 1787, the world first heard this music.

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While there are a lot of “what if”s in life – “what if I'd taken that job instead?” or “what if I'd married So-and-so?” in a world full of possible parallel universes – classical music lovers often play the game with Mozart: for instance, “what if he hadn't died at the age of 35?”

a more realistic portrait, c.1790
What would classical music be like if Mozart could have been alive when Beethoven died? Beethoven was 56 (young enough) but Mozart would've only been 71 – Haydn, after all, had died when he was 77. If Beethoven had lived to be 77, he would've died in 1847, the year before Wagner began composing Lohengrin... and the game goes on.

So, consider this: first of all, Mozart's “Prague” Symphony wasn't written for Prague. Yes, it was first performed there and the good music lovers of Prague loved it and so it's always been known as “The Prague Symphony.”

Mozart completed his new Symphony in D Major – and duly entered it into his catalogue – on December 6th, 1786. It was premiered in Prague at the National Theater on January 19th, 1787. So the assumption could easily be made it was written in preparation for his visit there. The city was “awash in Figaro Fever” where, as the delighted composer wrote to a friend in Vienna, “Nothing is played, sung, or whistled but Figaro. No opera is drawing [audiences] like Figaro. Nothing, nothing but Figaro. Certainly a great honor for me.”

The Marriage of Figaro had been premiered in Vienna and was successful enough (several encores extended the length of this already long opera to the point the Emperor decreed “no piece for more than a single voice is to be repeated”) but after only 9 or 10 performances, not nearly the financial success Mozart had been hoping for. He earned 450 florins directly from the first production of the opera. How much is that in modern money? I'm not sure how “computable” that is, but read on...

Having spent most of the first half of 1786 – he had just turned 30 – writing Figaro, he now needed to make some money. The previous year he'd earned a total of almost 3,000 florins, half of it from “subscription concerts” and “academies” (in the days before public concerts as we know them, artists gave special single concerts for which tickets were sold or “subscribed;” academies were essentially benefit concerts or “galas” as we might call them today).

According to a letter written on November 17th from Mozart's father Leopold to Mozart's sister Maria Anna (known forever by her family nickname, “Nannerl”), Mozart was trying to make arrangements for a tour of Germany and/or England. But, more critically, Leopold was afraid Mozart and his unwelcome wife would dump their children off with him before leaving and never come back. In fact, Mozart was considering the possibility, if London proved lucrative and since his fame in Vienna was apparently playing itself out, he might indeed stay there (but wouldn't he then send for his children?).

(Incidentally, this letter of Leopold's was written before he'd receive the news that on the 15th, Mozart's third child, Johann Thomas Leopold, not yet a month old, had died of suffocation in his sleep.)

Plans were beginning to develop for a “Lenten Tour” when news arrived from Prague about the success of Figaro in early December. It was said the production was far superior to the one seen in Vienna and that, directly and indirectly, invitations were being issued to the composer to come see it for himself.

This performance was reviewed on December 12th, 1786, which also included rumors that “Mozart himself might come here in person.”

Six days earlier, Mozart had completed a Symphony in D Major – the one we know as the “Prague” Symphony – so it was hardly likely he would have written a symphony like this, a substantial work, when the likelihood of such a visit was not yet in the planning stages. Besides, he completed it on the 6th of December - we have no idea when he started composing it.

On the other hand, if not for Prague, why had he written it?

Since Vienna was not a city interested in symphonies – “too intellectual” for their tastes, at the time – Mozart wrote only six symphonies between his arrival in the Imperial Capital in 1781 and his death ten years later. Of those, the “Haffner” was written for friends in Salzburg, the “Linz” was written during a visit to that city on his way to visit family in Salzburg, and the last three... well, no one knows why he wrote those last three masterpieces which were apparently composed with no immediate performance in mind, but they remain three of the most perfect works in the 18th Century symphonic repertoire.

That leaves the “Prague” Symphony.

More likely is the chance it was written with the possibility of this English tour he was trying to arrange. After all, earlier in 1786, friends of his – the singer Nancy Storace (the original Susanna in Figaro) and his composition student Thomas Attwood, a protege of the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV – were lobbying to have Mozart invited to London for a series of concerts there. Subsequent visits to Vienna by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon ended up with further discussions being postponed for lack of time (by then, Mozart was busier) and so Salomon “fetched” Haydn instead. The argument has been made that, after all, Mozart was in his mid-30s and Haydn, always seemingly the Grand Old Man of Music, was already in his late-50s.

Now consider – speaking of “what if” – that the “Prague” Symphony might really have been the first of maybe a dozen new symphonies written for London as Haydn would produce for his two visits between 1790 and 1795?

But Mozart died in 1791, when Haydn was in London in the midst of his first triumphant season.


So, on December 6th, 1786, Mozart completes a new symphony. By the 12th, there are rumors he might go to Prague, the capitol of Bohemia and the second largest city in the empire.

Following an invitation duly extended “by the orchestra and a company of distinguished connoisseurs and music-lovers” (note the distinction), Mozart and his entourage – he and his wife Constanze, a servant, his future brother-in-law, a violinist named Franz de Paula Hofer, and a 13-year-old violin prodigy named Marianne Crux – arrive in Prague on January 11th, 1787, and are lodged at the palace of Count Thun who, at 75, happened to be the patriarch of one of the nobler families of the Empire and who, while staying at his palace in Linz had asked Mozart to write him a symphony (not having brought anything with him, he composed his “Linz” Symphony in only a few days). This time, perhaps, Mozart comes prepared with his latest symphony packed in his luggage.

On January 12th, Mozart played one of his piano quartets for Count Thun; on the 17th, he attended a performance of Figaro and on the 19th there was a special “academy” (a benefit concert where he would receive the proceeds from ticket sales) at the National Theater (more likely the “Estates Theater” - see above) where Mozart premiered this new symphony and then, for an additional half-hour, played three improvisations at the keyboard. On the 22nd, then, he conducted a performance of Figaro.

Around February 8th, the Mozart entourage departs Prague for Vienna after it had been reported in the press Mozart “is preparing to travel to London in the coming spring, having the most advantageous offers there.”

But among his Bohemian souvenirs were a commission for a new opera to be premiered in Prague in mid-October – this would become Don Giovanni – and the addition of 1,000 florins to his bank account (or the 18th Century Viennese equivalent of one).

Remember what I'd said earlier about this income from the first production of Figaro bringing in only 450 florins?

According to Maynard Solomon's biography, Mozart was earning about 112 florins for the first quarter of 1781 at the court in Salzburg, the time he was “booted out” of the Archbishop's employ and he moved to Vienna. That would mean his official salary in Salzburg would have been about 450 florins that year. Making 1,000 florins in less than a month might help explain the composer's euphoria during his Prague visit.

That, and the fact the “Pragers” understood him better than the Viennese did: Lorenzo da Ponte, his librettist for both operas, had said “the numbers [arias and ensembles] which are least admired in other countries [at this point, essentially Vienna] are by these people considered divine... the great beauties of the music were perfectly understood by the Bohemians at the first hearing.”

Mozart and da Ponte would return in October for the premiere of their latest collaboration, considered one of the greatest operas in the repertoire.

But the symphony named for their fair city in fact preceded his experience there, even before the news Figaro had been the success he had only dreamed of (and failed to realize) in Vienna.

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Do you remember the old joke (or the stupid question) “Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?”

So, the next time you're at some party, ask someone “Who wrote Mozart's Symphony No. 37?” Why, Mozart, of course! Right...?

Actually, there is no Mozart Symphony No. 37.

After Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781 to leave his sleepy provincial hometown of Salzburg behind and pursue his dreams in the Imperial Capital, Mozart had little reason to write symphonies: his six Viennese Symphonies are among the finest in the repertoire and completely overshadow the earlier ones.

There's the Symphony No. 35 in D, the “Haffner,” K.385 of 1782; the Symphony No. 36 in C, the “Linz,” K.425 of 1783; the Symphony No. 38 in D, the “Prague,” K. 504 of 1786; and the last three masterpieces, the Symphony No. 39 in E-flat, K.543, the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K.550, and the Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K.551, the “Jupiter,” all composed in the summer of 1788.

So what happened to No. 37?

When Mozart was going to visit family in Salzburg, he stopped off for a few days' visit at the palace of Count Thun in the city of Linz. Now, the Count wanted to hear a new symphony by Mozart but the composer wasn't on tour, wasn't planning on any concerts and, so, hadn't brought anything with him. There wasn't time to send back to Vienna (or to his father in Salzburg) to have a score shipped overnight so instead he wrote one on-the-spot. This became No. 36, the “Linz” Symphony.

But Count Thun also had a score in his library by Michael Haydn (younger brother of Franz Josef) which unfortunately didn't include the usual slow introduction which Count Thun thought a considerable detriment. So Mozart obliged his friend by writing his own slow introduction to “complete” Michael Haydn's G Major Symphony.

When scholars found the manuscript, they saw the handwriting, recognized it as Mozart's and published it as Mozart's Symphony No. 37.

When the real identity of the composer of the rest of the symphony was ascertained only in 1907, it was pulled from the catalogue. But for some reason, no one bothered to renumber the next symphony – the “Prague” Symphony – as No. 37, not No. 38.

So you see, the correct answer to “Who wrote Mozart's Symphony No. 37?” is Michael Haydn. Mozart only supplied a brief introduction to please a persnickety music-lover.

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Speaking of persnickety - while I don't consider myself an expert, my training and experience aside, and while most of my research takes me to what would be considered reputable biographies and scholarly sources, I have to admit frustration when dealing with "facts" on the internet.

Wikipedia is often the butt of jokes about misinformation, but this discovery got my academic blood pressure boiling (if such an image is conceivable).

You might expect Wikipedia to be "spurious" and taken with a grain of cross-referenced salt but something called "" should seem more acceptable, even accurate - or at least better researched. But in their page on Mozart's "Prague" Symphony where the banner photo is of the manuscript of the "PARIS" Symphony, they mention this:

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After he had finished this Mozart symphony [sic], he was invited to Prague to perform the premiere there – hence the title. The premiere was on January 9, 1787 – one day after the premiere of “Figaro”.
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Now, in these two brief sentences, there are only three things wrong: (1) Mozart was not invited to Prague to conduct the premiere of this symphony but to attend and possibly conduct a performance of Figaro; (2) the premiere was January 19th, 1787 not January 9th (okay, possibly a typo) - besides, Mozart didn't even arrive until the 11th; (3) and while Figaro was premiered in Vienna in May, 1786, it was first performed in Prague in early-December, 1786, not January 8th, 1787, as this website would have you believe.

I know, in this day of Fox News, these are hardly major concerns to the world-at-large, but Holy Musicology, Batman...

- Dick Strawser

Friday, November 13, 2015

Sibelius at 150: His 2nd Symphony

Not long after his 78th birthday, Jean Sibelius wrote to his son-in-law, “My second symphony is a confession of the soul.” What could he – or any other composer – mean by that?

This weekend's concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Jean Sibelius with a performance of his great Symphony No. 2, usually considered a masterpiece, a work he was working on when he turned 36. He was just beginning to achieve an international reputation beyond his native Finland.

The program also includes Rossini's incredibly famous William Tell Overture and a recent work by an up-and-coming young American composer Jonathan Leshnoff, the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola which will be played by violinist Alexander Kerr, returning to the HSO, and violist Michael Strauss who will be joining their fellow Curtis alumnus Stuart Malina for their first performance of this work and our first chance to hear a work composed only eight years ago.

The performances are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg, and the pre-concert talk will be given an hour earlier by the orchestra's music director and conductor, Stuart Malina. (Don't forget to hang around after the concert for the Maestros' Talk-Back Q/A when he and guests from the concert will answer audience members' questions.

You can read more about the concert in David Dunkle's interview with Stuart in the Carlisle Sentinel here, and about the entire program in this previous post, which includes video clips of each complete work on the program.

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One of those commonplace things to say after hearing Sibelius' 2nd Symphony is that it's a depiction of the bleak Finnish landscape, its sound cold and forbidding like the Finnish winter, forgetting there could be any other type of landscape or season in Finland.

Rapallo, Italy
So I begin by pointing out here is where the 2nd Symphony came into being: it was on a visit to Rapallo in Sunny Italy in 1901 that Sibelius jotted down his first ideas to begin sketching what became the second movement, perhaps the bleakest sounds in the entire work. Perhaps, one might argue, he was homesick? Perhaps, another might respond, this was what music sounded like in Sibelius' soul?

After all, another might argue, it was a trip to Italy that produced one of Brahms' most light-hearted moments, the finale of his 2nd Piano Concerto. Why, then, was Sibelius' response so... dreary?

Kajanus & Sibelius, 1894
Sibelius was 35 years old when he began this new symphony in early 1901 – the previous year had not been an easy one. He had married Aino Järnefelt in 1892 and by the turn of the new century they had three daughters, but the youngest, Kirsti, born in 1898, died of typhoid fever in February, 1900, which sent Aino into a period of depression and Sibelius deeper into his drinking problem. Before this, his love of alcohol had been of a more “celebratory” nature, part of the partying lifestyle he had developed as a law student in Helsinki in his 20s. In the mid-1890s, it was part of his “Symposium,” the group that met at a Helsinki hotel cafe where discussions about art would last late into the night and be accompanied by vast quantities of alcohol. But now, after the death of his child, his drinking became darker and more dangerous.

That spring, his friend and fellow drinking buddy, the conductor Robert Kajanus, was taking his orchestra on a European tour of works by Finnish composers that would present 19 concerts in 13 cities, culminating at the Paris Exhibition. On the programs were several of Sibelius' works including his new 1st Symphony, revised after its premiere the previous year, along with the equally new and wildly popular Finlandia, two of the Lemminkainen Legends (including the Swan of Tuonela) written in 1895, and excerpts from the King Christian II Suite, written two years earlier for a friend's play. This would be the first time Sibelius' music would've been heard outside of Finland.

Swedish and Danish critics were enthusiastic, those in Berlin especially where one viewed him as “a composer of great talent, someone who knew how to express his elegiac feelings and pathos, but who went to extremes in his bursts of passion.” Another called him “a formidable talent.” Paris was less enthusiastic but given the successes particularly in Berlin, it was easier to take.

In October, a friend gave him money for a trip to Italy, suggesting it would do them good, so Sibelius took his family first to Berlin where they stayed till January but by that time, however, all of the money had spent and they hadn't even left for Italy. So he borrowed more money and soon arrived in the coastal town of Rapallo on the Italian Riviera where he began work on the slow movement of a new symphony which eventually took precedence over a proposed work inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy.

In the margins, he scratched out comments about the meeting of “Death with Don Juan,” a scene from the original legend comparable to the “Statue Scene” in Mozart's setting, Don Giovanni.

But soon his second daughter, 6-year-old Ruth, became ill with peritonitis and had a fever of 104°. She recovered but the family was grounded so she could convalesce. Sibelius traveled quickly to Rome where he jotted down themes in a notebook that would later be used in Pohjola's Daughter and Night Ride and Sunrise. Returning to his family, they went to Florence once Ruth was well enough to travel, then they returned home in May, stopping off in Prague where Sibelius met Antonin Dvořák.

But he was no sooner home than he was off again to Germany to conduct his music at a June festival in Heidelburg – again, to favorable reviews. Other conductors began performing his works elsewhere – music from King Christian II was the first music by Sibelius to be heard in England that fall.

Sibelius' home in 1901
In the autumn, once back in Finland, he resumed his work on the 2nd Symphony which he completed early the next year in time for him to conduct its March premiere.

A triumph, his newest work – regarded by one influential critic as “an absolute masterpiece, one of the few symphonic creations of our time that point in the same direction as the symphonies of Beethoven" – was viewed as a “heroic” symphony “imbued with a patriotic spirit” by Finns pessimistic over the state of Russian oppression.

(Keep in mind, Finland had been an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire since 1809 but only recently had the Russians begun to censor nationalistic views in what was called the “Russification of Finland” – independence would not come until after the 1917 Revolutions toppled the tsar and that, only after a brief but fierce civil war.)

Though Sibelius denied he wrote the symphony in support of nationalism as any kind of outwardly patriotic statement (don't forget, his Finlandia had been an overtly patriotic work written only three years earlier: what would patriotic Finns hope for?) or that he wrote it inspired by his own dark drama ultimately overcoming Fate (if not Beethoven's 3rd, why not Beethoven's 5th?), he did write that one comment years later in which, looking back on his career over a distance of four decades, he described the symphony as “a confession of the soul.”

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In the usual scheme of things, we think of Classical Music Composers as child prodigies like Mozart or Mendelssohn or who, like Schubert, died young. Remembering that Sibelius completed his 2nd Symphony when he was 36, remember that at 36 Schubert had already been dead five years and Mozart, one; Mendelssohn would die at 38. Let's face it, judging from the 19th Century, becoming a composer was not a guarantee of longevity.

Sibelius, 1923 at 57
But Sibelius, born on Dec. 8th, 1865, died on Sept. 20th, 1957, at the age of 91. The only thing was, he had essentially stopped composing around the time he was in his early-60s, living an almost 30 more years as fans waited and hoped for new pieces from a composer who'd risen to become one of the most popular living composers – and then, without anything new to show, fallen quietly into a kind of old-fashioned oblivion.

To many younger musicians today, Sibelius is a music notation software on their computer developed by the Finns (actually, twins Ben and Jonathan Finn who were British students) in the mid-1980s.

But there was a time when Sibelius ruled the concert halls of Europe, especially England, and America. In the fall of 1920 when Sibelius was 54, the Eastman School of Music offered him a professorship which he considered for a long time before turning them down. He had already been to America as part of Yale's commission of a tone-poem that eventually became known as The Oceanides, premiered at Yale's summer music festival in Norfolk in 1914. Sibelius made the ocean journey, finishing the work during the voyage, then stayed to visit Niagara Falls, receiving during his tour an honorary doctorate from Yale, and meeting various American composers (as well as a former President, Howard Taft).

He made plans to return the following year for an extensive American tour which, he wrote home, would solve his financial problems. Unfortunately, by the time he returned from this trip, World War I had already begun which cut him off not only from his American plans but from his Berlin publisher and from the rest of the world.

Then, after the 1930s, when it became clear he was no longer producing new works – the long awaited 8th Symphony appears only to have been a myth, its near-completion and possible premiere a constant tease – his star began to fade. In 1938, the writer Theodore Adorno attacked Sibelius, writing, “If Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg.” And in 1955, on the occasion of the composer's 90th birthday, French composer and conductor René Liebowitz called Sibelius “the worst composer in the world.”

Sibelius' response, typical of any embattled artist, was to tell his friends not to pay attention to the critics, adding that no one ever raised a statue to a critic.

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Today, Sibelius has his champions and his detractors. It is curious, especially concerning how modern music evolved in the early-20th Century. Sibelius' style is hardly traditional – the 4th Symphony is undoubtedly one of the most austere works by a “romanticist” ever written – but he is not ground-breaking in the sense of Claude Debussy or Igor Stravinsky or Arnold Schoenberg. Perhaps part of that is because of his Finnish roots, outside the usual Western European circuit.

He is not a folklorist despite his reliance on ancient tales from the Kalevala that appear in The Swan of Tuonela of the Lemminkainen Legends or his early symphonic work, Kullervo. His musical language is not inspired by folk music though, for a time, he studied the “ancient runes” of Old Finland and incorporated some of them in his early music (the “Karelia” Suite, for instance) but otherwise, however much it might have shaped his melodies, it had little influence on his style.

Near Sibelius' birthplace
He is best known for seven abstract symphonies and his programmatic tone-poems ranging from Finlandia to Pohjola's Daughter to Tapiola, again, bristling with Nordic references. If anything, much of his music is shaped by the Finnish landscape: Nature was always one of his major influences and one of the typical responses by Westerners is to compare his music to Finland's “bleak wintry landscapes.”

In further posts to celebrate the 150th Anniversary, I'll summarize his biography – check back here for the link – but for now, I'd like to conclude with some quotes from Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page's 1996 article for the Washington Post about coming to terms with Sibelius at the end of the 20th Century:

“There are two things to be said straightaway about Sibelius. First, he is terribly uneven (much of his chamber music, a lot of his songs and most of his piano music might have been churned out by a second-rate salon composer from the 19th century on an off afternoon). Second, at his very best, he is often weird.

“For example, the Symphony No. 6 (1923) is one of the century's most curious masterpieces – serene, beatific, almost Mozartean in its clarity and grace, suffused with warm winter light. It is rarely played, has little to do with anything else Sibelius ever composed (what to make of the second movement, that long series of musical question marks?), and its interpreters have a habit of trying to turn it into Tchaikovsky or the more traditionally "romantic" Sibelius Symphony No. 5 or something else that they might recognize – trying, in other words, to make it fit into a pattern. And it doesn't fit – which is not at all to say it doesn't work.”

His music, for all its epic grandeur at times – thinking of the 2nd and 5th Symphonies – is also full of dramatic silences, that silence which is a significant part of Nature.

Page goes on to say, “If silence can be defined as an absence of sound, it may be helpful for the novice, when coming to Sibelius, to consider his music a temporary respite from quietude. The image of Sibelius as a brooding poet of the spare, near-motionless, unpeopled North is fairly hackneyed by now, but it is no less true for all that.”

- Dick Strawser

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The portrait of Kajanus & Sibelius is a detail from Akseli Gallen-Kallala's painting depicting the "Symposium" in 1894 which also features the artist and the (face-down) composer-conductor, Oskar Merikanto.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

November Masterworks: An Overture, a Concerto & a Symphony, Oh My!

It's time for the Harrisburg Symphony's November Masterworks program this weekend and it includes three works – Rossini's Overture to William Tell, the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola by Jonathan Leshnoff (his Starburst had been performed here a few seasons ago), and the Symphony No. 2 in D Major by Jean Sibelius in honor of the composer's 150th Anniversary.

The concerts are at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm – and the Music Director and conductor, Stuart Malina, will be giving the Pre-Concert Talk an hour before each performance.

November Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

A typical symphonic program consists of an overture, a concerto, and a symphony. Maybe it's a short and lively piece for an opener, not necessarily an overture (a curtain-raiser), or, depending on its size and scope, maybe the concerto will close the concert instead. And instead of a symphony, maybe it's a large-scale orchestral work that's not actually a “symphony.” But however you slice it, it's an old, tried-and-true formula concert-goers are used to, and if the formula works, why not use it?

This weekend's program opens with perhaps one of the most familiar overtures in the repertoire – at least, the ending is, thanks to its being an old-time TV show's theme-song. It's the overture to the last opera Gioacchino Rossini composed, based on the story of the Swiss patriot and folk-hero, William Tell. And while opera overtures typically combine some of the best themes from the opera as a kind of preview (or maybe paint the scene for the curtain raising), this one is a little four-movement tone-poem complete in itself, each part famous on its own.

Rossini when writing "William Tell"
It opens with an evocation of dawn in the Swiss Alps, the setting for the opera: a solo cello is answered by a choir of four other cellos and double basses. This is interrupted by the storm – one of the most famous in classical music – which, after reaching a tremendous climax, gradually subsides into a pastoral scene beginning with a shepherd's call played on the English horn answered by flute and other woodwinds. Both these sections are beloved of cartoons in need of descriptive music for storms and that wonderful sense of relief after a storm.

Then comes the famous finale, a galop in more ways than one. Usually referred to as “The March of Swiss Soldiers,” it comes from the opera's final act, recounting the victory of the Swiss army, liberating their land from Austrian repression. Speaking of cartoons – or films in general – this music is often used to represent galloping horses, the timely arrival of the hero or, especially, the cavalry (though there is no cavalry or even horses in the opera itself). It has become so famous from 1950s TV (and before that, radio), it has been said “an 'intellectual' is someone who can hear Rossini's William Tell Overture without thinking of The Lone Ranger.” (There – I said it...)

And all of this, first heard in 1829.

Here's a more recent performance of the overture with Riccardo Muti conducting the Opera Orchestra of La Scala, Milan – in this case, from a DVD of the complete opera where the orchestra is in the pit.

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Instead of following along in “concert order,” I'm going to skip ahead to the Big Symphony that concludes the program, in this case Jean Sibelius' 2nd Symphony.

Next month will be the official 150th Anniversary of the birth of the great Finnish composer, born in 1865. This symphony was written at the start of the 20th Century, begun in 1901 and premiered the following year.

It's a great symphony by a great symphonist. Sibelius was one of those composers who specialized in symphonies though he only completed seven and of those, perhaps three or four are performed with any regularity. The 2nd is probably his most popular, though the 5th cannot be far behind.

Curiously, the program opens with the overture to Rossini's last opera, an overture that's certainly one of his most popular works but few people – at least in this country – would ever have had the chance to see the opera. He completed the opera in 1829 and then, basically, retired from composing despite the fact he died almost 40 years later. Why did he just stop composing? Especially after having written such a triumphant success as this?

Sibelius is another composer who actually retired from composing and, curiously, his last major work after his 7th Symphony, the tone-poem Tapiola (speaking of musical storms!) was written in 1926, almost a hundred years after Rossini quit composing. By the time he died in 1957 at the age of 91, not having published anything for 30 years, his reputation as a great composer of the 20th Century had declined considerably.

Creativity moves in mysterious ways... Both stories probably deal more with their lack of comfort with the rest of the music world going on around them and their concern about fitting in (such doubts also plagued Rachmaninoff, among others) than with being "written out" or not having anything to say.

But sometimes, the creative spark just dies for whatever reason: it's something all composers fear.

Sibelius in 1907
His 2nd Symphony, however, comes just as his career was taking off – he had just started receiving international recognition after his 1st Symphony was performed on a European tour and his 2nd Symphony, when it was played in Berlin in 1905, marked his arrival as “a composer to watch.”

If William Tell's Switzerland was under the occupation of Austria in the 15th Century, Sibelius' Finland was a semi-autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian Empire and an independent Finland didn't exist until after the 1917 Revolutions toppled the tsar and Finland, after flirting with a monarchy like its fellow northern countries, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, decided on becoming a Republic in 1919. But that's after this symphony was composed.

It is, however, important to keep this in mind because Sibelius' reputation at home was based on the hymn-like finale he composed for a series of six “historical scenes” for a press celebration in 1899 depicting various elements of Finland's largely sad history. This “celebration” was a covert protest against the increasing censorship of the Russian occupiers. The final movement, called “Finland Awakes!” became such an immediate hit with its hymn-tune – an original theme, by the way – that the Russian authorities forbid its performance, so it was usually performed in a variety of arrangements under a variety of titles like “Happy Feelings,” “Spring Awakes” or “Choral March.” It would eventually become the song of the patriotic resistance and then the unofficial National Anthem.

Also in 1899, Sibelius composed his 1st Symphony. His 2nd followed by about two years.

Many commentators remark on the “pastoral quality” of the opening, the ensuing storminess and tension and, of course, the epic finale with its ultimate triumph, even if it might be overwhelmed by underwelling gloom before it reaches its conclusion.

It is, certainly, a great Romantic symphony in the 19th Century tradition with an original and immediately identifiable voice even if it does not use Finnish folk-songs as a basis of its thematic language (what can be more folk-like than that opening theme in the winds?).

That didn't keep Finns from hearing it as “The Symphony of Finnish Independence” or, in the long run, as their “Heroic” Symphony. It certainly has elements of a heroic nature in it, but there's no indication that was the composer's intent.

While it quickly established Sibelius as a leading composer around the world, it has been recorded many times (in many ways). But in this recording, a modern Finnish conductor, Osmo Vänskä, conducts a Finnish orchestra, the Lahti Symphony and while I normally like to post performances where you can actually watch the orchestra, this performance was too good to pass up just because it lacks originality in its graphic presentation.

In four movements, it opens with an Allegretto (a moderate tempo); the second movement, Andante, ma rubato (a flexible moderately slow tempo – a “walking” tempo, technically) begins around 9:24; the scherzo, Vivacissimo (very fast), begins around 23:54; and the finale, Allegro moderato (a moderately fast tempo) begins around 29:52. This entire performance takes about 45 minutes.

You can read more biographical background about the composer and his symphony in this post, Sibelius at 150: His 2nd Symphony, here. There will be a biographical summary of the composer's life which I will post in early December.

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Jonathan Leshnoff
In between these two giants is a young composer whose career is on the rise. Jonathan Leshnoff's Starburst was played at the HSO concert in May, 2012 (you can read about it, here).

Stuart Malina was telling me before the 2011-2012 season had been announced how excited he'd been when he first heard Leshnoff's music.

Stuart felt Leshnoff’s music is in much the same vein as Jennifer Higdon’s – direct and appealing (without pandering). Pointing out that Higdon (whose Blue Cathedral and "Percussion Concerto" were performed here to considerable popular acclaim) and Kevin Puts (whose 2nd Symphony was well received here a few years ago) have gone on to win Pulitzer Prizes in music since then – and don't forget Higdon's Grammy – he expects similar good things to be happening in Leshnoff’s career. “It’s always nice to know you’re backing a winning horse!”

And things are clearly going well for Leshnoff, a Baltimore-based composer teaching at Towson University. He'll have a new Clarinet Concerto premiered by no less than the Philadelphia Orchestra in April 2016; an oratorio, Zhohar, premiered by the Atlanta Symphony the same week (now, how can even the greatest composer be in two places at once!?); a new Violin Concerto for Gil Shaham to be premiered in the spring of 2016 also; his 2nd Symphony is being premiered in Atlanta this month and next May, his 3rd Symphony is being premiered in Kansas City.

Definitely a busy time for composer Leshnoff – and the kind of success so far that most composers can only dream of!

His “Double Concerto” for Violin and Viola will be performed here by violinist Alexander Kerr and violist Michael Strauss. The title brings to mind a similar kind of work by Brahms (for Violin and Cello) and the instrumentation reminds one of the Symphonie concertante by Mozart for Violin and Viola.

It was composed in 2007 and has been recorded on the Naxos label.

Here is a complete performance of the concerto (again, a less than imaginative YouTube graphic) with violinist Charles Wetherbee, violist Roberto Diaz and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra conducted by Delta David Gier in 2010.

Here are some reviews of the Double Concerto:

“This luscious concerto ended far too soon, with its haunting four-note theme still expanding within my brain... Leshnoff’s concerto was complexly layered, though never dull. The interplay between brass and strings was colorful, even as the two soloists kept attention focused on their technical wizardry.

“In the power of the conclusion, that memorable four-note theme emerged victorious, assuring us that at least some new symphonic music will have a confident future.”
Samuel Black, Duluth News Tribune, May 5, 2008

“Saturday night, however, a new concerto from the exceptional composer Jonathan Leshnoff found a deservedly warm welcome at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre... His ‘Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra’, composed last year, is an elegant creation, beautifully rendered by the orchestra and the two outstanding soloists... Leshnoff’s full embrace of harmony grants accessibility without sacrificing depth or musicality. It is complex but not complicated, exploring a range of emotions... IRIS is one of five organizations that commissioned the work and the orchestra plans more performances from this terrific composer.”
Jon W. Sparks, The Commercial Appeal, March 31, 2008

We'll see how the Patriot-News and the Carlisle Sentinel like it!

- Dick Strawser