Sunday, May 23, 2010

So What Did You Think of the Concert?

Stuart Malina has a poll set up at his website where you can let us know what you thought of this weekend's concert, if you attended either Saturday evening's or Sunday afternoon's performance.

Stuart's trying to find a new set-up for polls on his website, but you can follow this link to leave him your comments about the concert - or you can leave a comment here, if you wish.

As we conclude the 80th Season of the Harrisburg Symphony and bring Stuart Malina's tenth year with the orchestra to a close, it was great to see four members of the orchestra honored for their 25-or-more years of service, playing in the orchestra, all (coincidentally) from the lower range of the symphonic palette: bassoonist & contrabassonist Richard Spittel; principal Tuba, Eric Henry; bassist Charles ("Chip") Breaux; cellist Sheldon Lentz.

What was cool for me - aside from realizing how long I've been enjoying their contributions to the orchestra all these years - was realizing I was at their auditions when they were hired, back when I was the assistant conductor and (around that time) personnel manager!

More recently, the orchestra has begun a new tradition, recognizing a musician for his or her contribution to the ensemble, an award voted on by the orchestra (not the management, Jeff Woodruff, the executive director of the Harrisburg Symphony, pointed out).

Congratulations to this year's recipient, violist Marjorie Goldberg!

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Schumann Writes a Concerto on the Installment Plan

This weekend's concert with the Harrisburg Symphony and conductor Stuart Malina may be called “A Tale of Two Cities,” focusing on Berlioz' “Roman Carnival Overture” and Ralph Vaughan Williams' “A London Symphony.” But in between there's a stop-over in Germany with Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor, performed by Daria Rabotkina. The performances take place on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Come an hour early to hear Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk.

You can read a brief bio of our soloist here which also includes a video of her solo performance with music of Scarlatti, Prokofiev, and Haydn including an excerpt from Schumann's "Symphonic Etudes."

You can read about the Vaughan Williams symphony in an earlier post, here.

This post focuses on the better-known Schumann concerto.

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The story of Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto is a fairly complicated one, and I thought it might be interesting to look at what was going on in his life around the time he started it until the time he finished it.

The story is fairly well known that he wrote the first movement as a single-movement Fantasy for Piano & Orchestra in 1841 and that his wife, Clara, one of the greatest concert pianists of the day, had urged him to write two more movements to make a full concerto out of it, which he finally did four years later.

For the first part of his compositional career, Schumann had been a composer almost entirely of piano music. Having decided the study of law was not for him, he wanted to become a concert pianist, studying with Frederich Wieck, whose daughter Clara Wieck was already an accomplished virtuoso in her early teens, having composed a Piano Concerto in A Minor of her own. It too had begun life as a one-movement work which she later expanded but in this case, it was the finale that was written first, when she was 14 (it was orchestrated by Robert Schumann), and then the following year she added the first two movements, doing her own orchestrations by then. It's interesting to think of their relationship being entwined in two piano concertos like this, both in A Minor, though that's certainly just a coincidence.

It's one of the better known love stories in classical music, this romance between Robert and Clara Schumann, but it was not an easy one.

First, there was the paternal objection since Wieck did not feel Schumann was a suitable husband for his daughter. He had not demonstrated enough talent as a composer (yet) and he had injured his hand from over-zealous practice (misusing a contraption Wieck had invented to strengthen the fourth finger) which made it impossible for him to play the piano. There were also, doubtless, fears Wieck would lose control over the income from Clara's performances and, of course, the fear that married life would distract her from her all-important career. (Keep in mind, even before she'd been born, Wieck was determined his child-to-be would be a great pianist!) There were numerous nasty legal battles but, finally, Frederich Wieck lost.

On September 12th, 1840, Robert Schumann married Clara Wieck. He was 30; she was one day shy of her 21st birthday.

During that year, Schumann wrote 168 songs.

Then, suddenly, in 1841, he began composing a symphony, something Clara had been urging him to do: it was a sign of compositional maturity and “arrival.” Between January 23rd and 26th, he sketched out a four movement symphony in B-flat (which later became known as the “Spring” Symphony) which he orchestrated between January 27th and February 20th. By March 28th, it was ready for rehearsal and Mendelssohn conducted its premiere three days later. Also on that concert, Clara Schumann appeared for the first time in public under her married name. Though his symphony was well received, it must have been obvious to Robert that Clara was the real star of the evening.

On April 12th, Robert began an Overture in E which he completed in score 5 days later. On May 8th, he finished two additional movements, a Scherzo and a Finale to create a “Suite” which he later called a Symphonette. At the premiere in December, it was called “Overture, Scherzo & Finale” though it was basically a symphony without a slow movement.

No sooner had he finished that symphonic work, he began a new Fantasy in A Minor for Piano & Orchestra which he finished scoring on May 20th. Clara was rehearsing it with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on August 13th and gave the premiere a few days later.

On September 1st, she gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Marie.

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(typical of the casual editing one encounters on YouTube, the last seconds of the second clip are actually the beginning of the slow movement which is then continued in the third clip, posted below...)
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Ten days after having finished the Fantasy, Schumann began work on another new symphony, this one in D Minor which wasn't completed until Sept 9th. Then, on September 23rd, he “roughed out” the first movement and scherzo of a Symphony in C Major; the next day, the slow mvmt & finale. By the 26th, the sketch of this symphony was basically complete. But then he stopped work on orchestrating it.

He had become distracted by thoughts of an opera. In August, he had already begun work on the libretto for “Paradise & the Peri” which he now worked more seriously but ended up doing nothing with it for another two years (by which time it became an 'oratorio' instead).

In November, there was an important concert tour to Weimar: Clara performed and Robert was present for a performance of his B-flat Symphony.

Then in December, the D Minor Symphony was premiered along with the “Overture, Scherzo & Finale,” but the new symphony was not satisfactory and so he put it aside. It wasn't until ten years later that he completed the revisions he'd had in mind and it was only then it was finally re-premiered and published as his Symphony No. 4. The sketches of the Symphony in C were meanwhile set aside: this is apparently an entirely different symphony from the one that eventually became his Symphony No. 2, also in C Major.

There was another tour in February 1842 which saw another performance of the “Spring” Symphony which Schumann declined to conduct (claiming he was too “short sighted”). In March, he returned to Leipzig to continue work on his music journal (the famous “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik” which he'd started in 1834) while Clara traveled on to Copenhagen where she stayed for a month, playing concerts & recitals.

Schumann spent much of the time she was gone feeling depressed, “drowning in beer & champagne” and unable to compose. He worked on counterpoint exercises and the writing of fugues. There were thoughts of taking Clara to America. Her father, meanwhile, was spreading the rumor that the couple had “separated.” In the midst of all this, Schumann started studying the string quartets of Beethoven & Mozart.

Clara returned from her tour on April 26th. On June 2, Schumann began what he called “quartet essays” (sketches for a possible string quartet) which by June 4th materialized into a String Quartet in A Minor. On June 11th, he began a second quartet even before the first onet was finished. Between July 8th and 22nd, he wrote his third quartet, this one in A Major.

In the midst of this burst of activity, he wrote a libelous article that almost landed him in jail (a sentence of 6 days was commuted to a fine), after which they took a holiday. The quartets were ready for rehearsal on September 8th.

Then, on September 23rd, he began the Piano Quintet, completing the 'fair copy' on Oct 12th. (Incidentally, Stuart Malina will join the Fry Street Quartet for a performance of Schumann's Quintet at the Glen Allen Mill on July 25th, Sunday afternoon at Market Square Concerts' Summer Music 2010.)

Despite dealing with “constant fearful sleepless nights,” he soon began work on a Piano Quartet on October 24th which he finished a month later.

Presumably he took the month of November off because the next item on his calendar doesn't take place until December when he completed a piano trio in A Minor. Then, by the end of January, he completed an Andante & Variations for 2 Pianos, 2 Cellos & Horn, though neither work satisfied him. He would later revised both of them: the trio became the Fantasy Pieces, Op. 88, seven years later; the Andante & Variations were revised for just two pianos in 1843.

With the new year, Schumann became involved in other projects. In February, Hector Berlioz visited Leipzig and, rather awkwardly, Clara and eventually Robert both reconciled with Clara's father. Apparently, Wieck considered Schumann's success with writing symphonies as the mark of a new-found maturity – a bit ironic since most people these days would agree that Schumann's earlier piano pieces are his most original and most successful works.

That same month, Schumann finally began work on a long-planned choral piece, “Paradise & the Peri,” a “secular oratorio,” which he completed June 16th.

In April, Mendelssohn opened the new Leipzig Conservatory and Robert was listed as a “professor of piano-playing, composition & playing from score.” On April 25th, a second child, a daughter Elise, was born.

After completed “Paradise & the Peri” in June, Schumann struggled with various projects the rest of the year, completing nothing, though he made his conducting debut with the premiere of “Paradise & the Peri” in December. Most people found him “an indifferent” conductor as well as teacher.

In January 1844, he took time off from the Conservatory and his journal to travel with Clara for a much anticipated tour of Russia – well, anticipated by Clara and dreaded by Robert. They arrived, finally, in St. Petersburg by March 4th with a series of successful concerts including a private orchestra's performance of Schumann's B-flat Symphony. During this tour, they did not meet any of the major Russian composers of the day (Glinka, the foremost). In April, they went to Moscow where his Piano Quintet was a success. They returned to Leipzig on May 30th.

During this tour, Schumann was often “tortured” by illness and bouts of melancholy, mostly brought on by being “Mr. Clara Schumann.” He was also annoyed he was “wasting time.” He had wanted to work on a new opera based on Faust since November but for the four months of this tour, he was unable to compose. At least while he was laid up sick for a week, he was able to sketch out some scenes from Part II of Goethe's Faust).

Back in Leipzig, he gave up editorship of the 'Neue Zeitschrift' to spend more time composing but Faust was soon supplanted by an opera to be based on Byron's The Corsair which in July was replaced by an idea for a “magic opera” based on a poem by Hans Christian Andersen. Neither of them came to anything and in August, Schumann returned to Faust, completed the first three sections of what he now began thinking of as more as an oratorio but which eventually became only “Eight Scenes from Faust,” lost somewhere between not being an opera and not being an oratorio, either.

But in August 1844, he had a very serious nervous breakdown during which he was unable even to listen to music which, he wrote, “cut into my nerves like knives.”

In October, the Schumanns went to Dresden where Robert continued to be tortured by “fearful imaginings” and sleepless nights, spending each morning “awash in tears.” Dresden was rather dull and conservative by comparison to Leipzig but they moved there officially in December. During this period he began a slow convalescence.

To while away the time, Robert began teaching Clara counterpoint in January 1845, once again spending his time in the academic study of writing fugues.

On March 11th, their third child, a daughter Julie, was born.

In April, Schumann wrote two organ fugues, the first on B-A-C-H. Having obtained a “pedal piano,” he composed a series of fugues for it between April 29 and June 7.

Then, suddenly, he wrote a Rondo in A Major for piano and orchestra, followed by an Andante, also for piano and orchestra which he completed on July 16th and which he appended to the Fantasy in A Minor to create what was now the Piano Concerto in A Minor. Clara premiered the whole concerto in January 1846 in Leipzig.

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(perhaps it's just my computer, but the audio/video coordination here drives me nuts... good performance, though...)
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Schumann's health was still not good and he was forced to cancel a trip to Bonn for the unveiling of the Beethoven Monument in August. In October, he revised the finale of the “Overture, Scherzo & Finale,” put off hearing Wagner's new opera Tannhäuser which he hadn't cared for after looking at the score but changed his mind after he went to a performance in November. On December 12th, Schumann began a Symphony in C Major, finishing its first draft by the 28th, though he didn't begin orchestrating it until late February, 1846, not long after Clara gave birth to their fourth child, their first son, named Emil.

And so the lives – both personal and musical – continued for the Schumanns throughout Robert's alternating periods of creativity and illness. Only months after they had met a 20-year-old composer and pianist named Johannes Brahms who had showed up on their doorstep with a bundle of sonatas under his arm, Robert Schumann attempted suicide in February, 1854, by jumping off a bridge in Düsseldorf, neighbors fishing him out of the Rhine and carrying him home. A few days later, at his own request, he was taken away to what was then called an insane asylum. By the time he died there in 1856, Clara never saw him again.

It is one of the sadder stories in classical music as well, though far removed from the sparkling music of the concerto he composed on the installment plan in the first years of their marriage.

Considering he was himself originally a pianist who had written so much wonderful piano music and that he was married to one of the foremost pianists of the day, it's odd that he didn't write more for the instrument – another concerto or two, perhaps. He certainly would have had a built-in performance commitment for anything he would compose.

Ironically, there are two wonderful single movement works for piano and orchestra written later in his career which are usually overlooked today, both in terms of performance as well as recordings. The first is the “Introduction & Allegro appassionato” in G Minor, also known as “Konzertstück” (or Concert Piece) for Piano & Orchestra which he sketched in mid-September, 1849, in three days, the year before he wrote his last symphony (the last one to be composed, that is), the famous “Rhenish” Symphony and the elegiac Cello Concerto in A Minor. In 1853, now settled in Düsseldorf, he wrote the “Introduction & Allegro in D Minor” over the period of a week between August 24th and 30th, followed a few days later by a Fantasy in C Major for Violin & Orchestra. There were a few shorter pieces between that and the Violin Concerto in D Minor he began on September 21st and completed on October 3rd, just a few days after he'd met Johannes Brahms.

This violin concerto has a very strange history of its own, but that needn't concern us, here. But still, one wonders what we might have had if Schumann had decided to add a few more movements to these two short works and turn them, also, into complete piano concertos. Classical music, of course, is full of such “What Ifs.”

- Dick Strawser

Schumann's Piano Concerto with Daria Rabotkina

The soloist for this weekend's concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony is Daria Rabotkina. She will be performing the Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann with Stuart Malina and the Orchestra, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum.

She is a young, Kazan-born pianist now living in Philadelphia who combines a phenomenal technique with sensitive musicality and musical mastery. Rabotkina has appeared in many major concert halls in Moscow, New York and San Francisco and has performed with the San Francisco Symphony, Kirov Orchestra, the New World Symphony, among others, collaborating as a soloist with conductors like Michael Tilson Thomas, Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Feltsman. A laureate of the Montreal International Musical Competition, the Sendai Competition in Japan and the World Piano Competition in Cincinnati, Daria Rabotkina gave her first solo recital at the age of ten.

You can read my "up-close & personal" posts about the Schumann Piano Concerto here and about the Vaughan Williams Symphony that's also on the program, here.

 Dick Strawser

Monday, May 17, 2010

Vaughan Williams' London Symphony: A Personal Recollection

This is Part 2 of an "up-close & personal" post about Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 2, "A London Symphony" that Stuart Malina will conduct with the Harrisburg Symphony at this weekend's concerts, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. You can read my earlier post about the symphony here.

This is a more personal recollection about the piece.

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We all have favorite composers or pieces of music that have been important to us when we were growing up. Sometimes, our attitudes to them change as we develop and redefine ourselves with age and the events of a lifetime that occur around us.

I was still in high school when I bought my first Vaughan Williams recording, sight unseen or perhaps more accurately “sound unheard.” The description of the 5th Symphony's opening on the back of the album cover was enough to talk me into spending allowance money on a composer I'd never heard before (except for an early song I didn't like). With some trepidation, I put the record on but quickly fell in love with it. In short order, I purchased several other Vaughan Williams recordings and borrowed biographies from the library – including the one by his widow, Ursula Wood Vaughan Williams.

I liked him even before I found out he was a cat person - in fact, even before I found out I was a cat person, myself!

Since so many of his works were written in his later years - his 5th Symphony was written when he was 70 and most figured it would be his last, yet he wrote four more and was getting ready for a recording session of his 9th when he died in his sleep at the age of 86 - we most often see him pictured as a rumpled old man in a rumpled old sweater or three-piece suit. The top photo was taken closer to the time he composed "A London Symphony."

Here is a wonderful photograph of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his second wife, the poet Ursula Woods Vaughan Williams (see left).

(You can read my post on the 50th Anniversary of Vaughan Williams' death here.)

His “London Symphony” became part of my growing collection not long after that first recording. I have only heard it live once, when a guest conductor whose name I can't remember, a very old man from England who was a friend of the composer's and had a long history of conducting his music (but not Sir Adrian Boult), came to town to conduct the Rochester Philharmonic while I was a grad student as Eastman.

Judging from what we composition students smuggly thought was “cool” by that stage of our lives and musical awarenesses, I was wondering how I would react to hearing this again, even if it were only five years after I'd first bought the recording.

It was during the slow movement when the “big tune” comes swelling up for the climax about seven minutes in that I realized I had a tear streaming down my cheek.

There was always something about this passage – especially the end of the phrase – that grabbed me emotionally. Perhaps it's my English roots,courtesy of my grandmother and her family from England if not exactly from London, that reacted to this music like they rarely react to any other music I've heard. But there I was, tearing up at this beautiful, simple tune.

Then I glanced over at a friend sitting next to me, a composer who had an even keener interest in avant-garde music than I (though he was also a fan of James Joyce's Ulysses) and who was often loudly derisive as students can sometimes be toward old-fashioned, "out-moded" composers. And I noticed he was quietly brushing aside a tear on his cheek...

I don't know what it about that moment that had this effect on me. It doesn't happen with every beautiful tune and it's not just tonal music that is capable of getting me like that (the ending of Berg's “Lulu” is just as effecting to me as the ending of Puccini's “La Boheme”). I could describe the passage in technical terms but that only describes what he's doing, not why it has this emotional impact on me.

The theme comes in in B-flat (I think: I don't have a score handy to check) but it's a modal tune like many English folk songs, here in B-flat Major but with an A-flat instead of an A-natural in it. This swings back and forth with D-flat Major but with a G-natural instead of G-flat in it. This alteration of a D-natural one time and then a D-flat the next gives it a kind of Major/Minor inflection that usually gives me a harmonic tug-at-the-heart anyway, what trendy people like to call a "frisson." But when he adds an unexpected G-flat to the extension of the phrase in B-flat Major, another “minor inflection,” I just lose it. I have no idea why.

It's been years since I've really listened to the symphony. I know I'd played it on the radio a few times, especially when the new Chandos recording of the original (and longer) version of the symphony'd been released a few years back, but how many times I've listened to it since my days at Eastman in the early-70s would probably number between 9 or 10 times.

And yet, after spending so much time with Berg's “Lulu” these past few weeks (and seeing it live at the Met over the weekend), after years of listening to so much of Elliott Carter's more challenging “high fiber” music which I love and after all my own stuff that I've written in the past almost ten years since I started composing again which would hardly seem compatible with Vaughan Williams' style – often derided as the “cow looking over the fence” school of music – here I was, last night, listening to Sir John Barbirolli's recording of Vaughan Williams' “A London Symphony,” and I heard this same spot coming up again and teared up almost instantly - and this, in the midst of news about the oil spill in the Gulf, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy and unemployment and all the negativity in the incessant campaign ads (not that they will end once the Primary Election passes into history after tomorrow), here is a single, simple phrase of music that can have the power to still affect me so deeply.

And then I recall the lines from H.G. Wells' novel, Tono Bungay (which I've never read) that inspired the ending of the symphony,

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"Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass – pass. The river passes – London passes, England passes...."
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and I am reminded why art, why music especially is so important to me: because, once all that other stuff passes, the music remains.

- Dick Strawser

A Tale of Two Cities: Vaughan Williams' London

How will the future look back on the events we're living through at this very moment in time? Will it earn a phrase so wonderfully memorable as the one Charles Dickens used to open his story set around the French Revolution, a novel he wrote in 1859 – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”?

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony takes its audience on a musical trip – without ever having to leave the Forum, Saturday night at 8pm or Sunday afternoon at 3pm. (Come an hour early and catch Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk.)

Welcome to “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Now, Dickens' novel evokes London and Paris – but this concert offers you musical depictions of Rome (by way of Paris) and London (with a Symphony by a Londoner) plus in between a side-trip to Biedermeier Germany in the 1840s for Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto.

The program begins in Rome with an overture by French composer Hector Berlioz who'd won the prestigious Prix de Rome, spending some time there working on his Symphonie fantastique and finding several inspirations for later works – Harold in Italy, for one, but also a huge opera based on the life of the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. It is an interlude from the Cellini opera, describing the Carnival Season in Rome, that has become famous in the concert hall as “The Roman Carnival Overture.”

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Ralph Vaughan Williams may not be a name that well known to many American audiences – his first name should be pronounced “Rafe” and his last name is a double-barreled non-hyphenated name that is also frequently misspelled 'Vaughn' – but Harrisburg has heard two of his works in the past decade – the very familiar “Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” for string orchestra and a less well-known major choral work, the “Dona nobis pacem” combining biblical texts and poetry by Walt Whitman written in 1936 during the very unsettled decade before World War II.

In past seasons, the Lancaster Symphony had also performed his first symphony, an all-choral setting of Walt Whitman's poetry and one of Vaughan Williams' more performed large scale works, “A Sea Symphony.” Then, more recently, the Reading Symphony played his 6th Symphony, an intense score that many saw as commentary on the aftermath of World War II or a much-feared future nuclear war.

The Tallis Fantasia and the rapturous “A Lark Ascending” (not to mention a Christmas chestnut like his Fantasia on Greensleeves) are often tops on lists of radio listener favorites, both here and in England.

This weekend, Stuart Malina has chosen to end the current season with Vaughan Williams' 2nd Symphony which is officially “A London Symphony,” not “THE London Symphony” perhaps in part to distinguish it from Haydn's last symphonic work, one of a set of twelve written for London in the 1790s – but also in part because Vaughan Williams thought of it more as “A Symphony by a Londoner.” Rather than being about London, it's more like Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony – “impressions of a Londoner upon walking around the city."

Vaughan Williams (see photograph, left, taken in 1920) was not a Londoner by birth. He was born in the Cotswald village of Down Ampney and grew up in Surrey, south of London – Dorking, primarily, and the family home at Leith Hill. He joked he had been born “with a very small silver spoon in my mouth,” a member of a privileged upper-class family where Charles Darwin was a great-uncle and his mother was descended from the great potter, Josiah Wedgwood. His first wife, Adeline Fisher, was a cousin of Virginia Woolf.

He moved to London after they got married in 1896, living primarily in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, after 1905. Unfortunately, his wife's illness – she suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis – eventually required them to move back to Dorking, but that was years after he composed his symphonic tribute to the city he considered a vital part of his life. After his wife died in 1951, he remarried and quickly moved back to London.

Michael Kennedy, author of one of the better biographies of the composer's life and works – wrote that “[s]ome tentative attempts at a symphonic poem about London were resurrected and 'thrown' into symphony form.” It was his friend and fellow composer George Butterworth who'd suggested he turn these sketches into an all-orchestral symphony following his success with a choral one.

Vaughan Williams had just received his 'big break' with two pieces composed in 1910, works we don't think of being “surprising” or “original” today.

The justly famous Tallis Fantasia was an early example of modern composers basing their 'new music' on something very old – in this case, an English composer from the late 16th Century: when French and Italian composers would make this “grave-robbing school” all the rage after World War I, they would go back to the early 1700s for their material.

The “Sea” Symphony is a choral symphony but unlike most choral symphonies who, following Beethoven's example, reserve the choir for the last movement, Vaughan Williams uses it throughout. People may argue it's more a four-movement cantata than an actual symphony, but then Gustav Mahler wrote his 8th Symphony in 1906, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand” though several hundred would be more accurate. But it wasn't premiered until September 12th, 1910, exactly one month before Vaughan Williams' “Sea Symphony” was first heard.

These two works made Vaughan Williams “famous” or at least gave him his first recognition. The symphony was premiered on his 38th birthday. Keep in mind his very first published work was a song, “Linden Lea,” which didn't see its way into print until he was 30, making him something of a late-bloomer when you compare him to the likes of Mozart and Mendelssohn. Considering Schubert died at 31 and Mozart at 35, had Vaughan Williams had such a short life, we wouldn't know anything about him.

Fortunately, he was still composing when he died at the age of 86, leaving a cello concerto and a new opera incomplete on his desk just as he was preparing for the recording of his 9th Symphony. In fact, he composed his last four symphonies after one he completed when he was 70: most people considered the radiant 5th Symphony, premiered in the midst of the London Blitz, his swan-song.

His “London Symphony” is usually listed as having been composed in 1913, though he had already played through the first two movements for a friend the year before, when he'd turned 40. Though Vaughan Williams revised the symphony periodically – even in the early 1950s when Barbirolli was recording all six of the symphonies he'd composed so far and the composer was turning 80 – he told the conductor “the London Symphony is past mending – though indeed with all its faults I love it still – indeed it is my favourite of my family of six.” (Three more were written in the last six years of his life.) It was the 1920 revision where Vaughan Williams dedicated it to the memory of George Butterworth who died in a battle on the Somme in 1916 at the age of 31.

Like other travelogue symphonies, there seems to be an elaborate “program” behind the music – musical snapshots of the location or themes inspired by scenery or a mood or perhaps a snatch of a song overheard there.

Perhaps the most famous early example of this would be Beethoven's Pastoral, inspired by visits to the countryside outside Vienna, many of which, in the years of urban development since 1806, are now within the city limits. But even Haydn paid tribute to London in the last of his “London Symphonies,” basing a theme on a street peddler's cry which audiences in 1795 London would have been likely to recognize (call it a pop culture reference, if you want).

Mendelssohn wrote symphonies following visits to Scotland and Italy, incorporating actual melodies (or at least “actual-like”) in the course of the works. Even Berlioz, in his symphony-concerto-symphonic poem, “Harold in Italy,” borrowed a song sung by an Abruzzi mountaineer to his sweetheart for his third movement, also incorporating the sound of the pifferari, the shepherds who played wind instruments in a style that became a special Italian Christmas tradition in all those Christmas-related works written by 18th Century Italian composers.

If a 21st American listeners hears nothing more than Big Ben's Westminster Chimes near the opening and closing moments of the symphony, that is enough to evoke an aural image of London. But in the second movement, he quotes the song of another street vendor, this one less riotous than Haydn's and one more attuned to a reader of Dickens' novels. The viola solo near the middle was purportedly sung by a seller of lavender, and its inclusion should be nothing surprising for a composer who'd already spent many a day tramping around the country-side listening to and jotting down folk songs sung by the countryfolk which may bring to mind the importance Bela Bartok placed on the role of folk song. Vaughan Williams was already doing this in 1904 when Bartok heard his first truly authentic Hungarian folk-song which sparked his life-long interest in the folk cultures of Eastern Europe.

“A London Symphony” – incidentally, the composer did not refer to it as his Symphony No. 2 – is in the four basic movements – a slow introduction preceding a rousing main theme and contrasting second theme; a slow movement; a scherzo; a finale that, at the end, returns to the material first heard in the introduction.

For a 1920 performance, Vaughan Williams allowed the conductor Albert Coates to supply descriptions for the program notes, though the composer's own comments are sufficient to give an idea behind the music's inspirations. Though many of his later symphonies – most notably the 6th – would seem to have possible programs, the composer steadfastly refused to make any comments on the matter then.

1st Movement: Lento – Allegro risoluto The symphony opens quietly as if at night, London perceived through the fog along the Thames (not far from Vaughan Williams' home at the time). The Westminster Chimes are heard, played on the harp. Then, after a short pause, the main section begins, vigorous and often quite loud before leading to a second theme, dominated by the wind and brass, that composer said evoked “Hampstead Heath on an August bank holiday" (a famous park dating back to the 10th Century, the Heath was a popular destination for Londoners taking in the fresh air, comparable, perhaps, to New Yorkers and Central Park).

2nd Movement: Lento Vaughan Williams described this as an evocation of one of London's famous garden parks, “Bloomsbury Square [see above] on a November afternoon." Quiet themes played by the English horn and a solo viola (with its lavender-seller's song) contrast with an impassioned climax before the movement gradually returns to its original quiet opening mood.

3rd Movement: Scherzo (Nocturne) As Vaughan Williams wrote, "If the listener will imagine himself standing on Westminster Embankment at night, surrounded by the distant sounds of The Strand, with its great hotels on one side and the 'New Cut' on the other, with its crowded streets and flaring lights, it may serve as a mood in which to listen to this movement."

4th Movement Finale  – Andante con moto  – Maestoso alla marcia  – Allegro  – Lento  – Epilogue The last movement opens with a grim march which Vaughan Williams described as 'The March of the Down-and-Outers.” This is contrasted with a lighter fast section after which the march returns. Then the main theme from the first movement returns us to the embankment along the Thames as the Westminster Chimes strike once again. The symphony concludes with a quiet Epilogue, which the composer said was inspired by the last chapter of H. G. Wells' novel Tono-Bungay:

"Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass – pass. The river passes – London passes, England passes...."

Here is a student orchestra (listed in the video feed only as GMEA All State, so I'm assuming Georgia?) conducted by Randall Swiggum of the last movement of Vaughan Williams' “A London Symphony.”
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You can read my personal reminiscences about Vaughan Williams and his "A London Symphony" here.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

This Sunday Night on WITF PRESENTS...

This Sunday evening, May 16th, tune in to WITF 89.5 at 7pm for a broadcast of "WITF PRESENTS" and hear the Harrisburg Symphony's performance of Schubert's Great C Major Symphony recorded at February's concert. The broadcast begins with a previously recorded episode of "The Creative Zone" with Cary Burkett & Time for Three who'd stopped by the WITF studio when they were in town in mid-March to perform on the Harrisburg Symphony pops concert that weekend.

In between, you can preview a work on next week's Harrisburg Symphony program - Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto - in a recording featuring Alfred Brendel with Claudio Abbado conducting the London Symphony.

That concert will feature Daria Rabotkina as the soloist in the Schumann with Stuart Malina also conducting the orchestra in Hector Berlioz' "Roman Carnival" Overture and Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 2 "A London Symphony." Those performances are on May 22nd (8pm) & 23rd (3pm) at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

- Dick Strawser