Friday, May 11, 2012

The Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra: The Moldau

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra, conducted by Tara Simoncic, will perform selections from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, “Swan Lake,” Bedrich Smetana’s musical portrait of a river called “The Moldau,” the Farandole from Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne,” the berceuse and finale from Stravinsky’s ballet, “The Firebird,” and the first movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Amanda Ryan, the soloist.

The Junior Youth Symphony, conducted by Krista Kriel, will perform music from John Rutter’s “Suite for Strings” and the 1st Movement of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony.

The performance is this Sunday afternoon at 3pm and it’s at the Hershey High School (not the Forum as you might usually expect). Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students.

Smetana’s “The Moldau” is a concert favorite and probably instantly recognizable even if you might not remember the name or its composer. It’s part of a cycle of tone poems by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana describing the landscapes and history of his native country, The Moldau is actually a river that bubbles up from a spring in the distant countryside, flows from a stream into a river past fields and forests and finally flows through the capital city of Prague with its castles and great bridges.

- - - - - - -

- - - - - - -

Here's a performance with a German youth orchestra, from the Belvedere High School for Music in Weimar, playing the piece in their spring concert last year.

The Moldau River flowing through Prague
At the time this music was composed, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) was a province of the Austrian Empire though it had a proud history as an independent kingdom on its own for centuries.

Many Viennese, in particular, considered Prague a provincial town (unlike the great intellectual and cultural center it used to be) and thought people from Bohemia were bumpkins (to use a polite term). Believe it or not, Viennese musicians had little regard for Bohemian (or Czech) composers like Smetana and Antonin Dvořák (best known for his “New World Symphony”) and they both had trouble getting their music performed there. It wasn’t until Dvořák received an endorsement from Johannes Brahms who was not Viennese, but a German from Hamburg who’d moved to the Imperial Capital of Austria only 14 years earlier.

Smetana is generally credited with being the first internationally recognized Czech composer but actually, Dvořák’s reputation received wider recognition sooner primarily because of Brahms’ backing. Smetana's music didn't have the clout of some major figure like Brahms behind it, to overcome this attitude toward music from the provinces. Smetana was considered a major composer in his native Bohemia; Dvořák's fame only came later.

We usually think of Smetana and Dvořák as contemporaries but technically Smetana was a generation earlier, born in 1824 and Dvořák 17 years later. That may not seem significant, but you have to consider the events of Czech history at the time to appreciate it.

Smetana was 24 in 1848 when there was a popular uprising in Prague when the Czech people wanted independence from the Austrian Empire. There were similar revolutions all across what we now know as Germany and in various parts of the Austrian Empire then – similar to what we saw last year in the Middle East, uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and others which we called “The Arab Spring.” Revolutions in Prague and Budapest in 1848 were called “The Springtime of Peoples,” because various ethnic groups under the Germanic Austrian Empire wanted their own cultural and political recognition.

Dvořák, by the way, was only 7 years old at the time. It would not have been such a decisive event in his growing up. In fact, when he started composing, Dvořák's music sounded more like his favorite composers at the time - first Wagner, then Brahms. Only later did he start taking his Bohemian roots seriously. But even in the 1870s and '80s, it was not easy to be heard in Vienna. And it was difficult to get to the wider world if you couldn't make it in Vienna...

Anyway, this political activity in the late-1840s gave rise to an interest in creating a musical voice for Bohemia. Rather than writing symphonies like Germans or Austrians might, and sounding German in the process, Smetana wanted to create a melodic style that reflected the rhythms and nuances of Czech speech, to use the rhythms of folk dances rather than the abstract classical patterns and to base his music on Czech folk songs, embedding what would be a familiar song to a Czech person into his concert music.

One of his most famous works is the opera, The Bartered Bride, about the love of a pair of peasants living in a village, far removed from aristocrats or the ancient gods that populated so many operas before.

His cycle of six tone poems called “Má Vlast” or “My Fatherland,” composed in the mid-to-late-1870s, incorporates, among other melodies, the old Bohemian hymn, “Ye Warriors of God” which every Czech would’ve heard as a call-to-arms.

The first of these musical poems describes the great castle overlooking Prague, the home of its great kings from the 10th to the 15th Centuries (one of whom was Good King Wenceslas), a reminder of the nation’s glorious past. Other movements describe the story of Sarka, a maiden-warrior (or amazon) who would be one of the Avengers if the characters had been created in modern-day Prague. The last two depict particular battles in Bohemia’s past, ending with a reference to the death of a vast army of Czech patriots who will rise from their sleep to help their country in its gravest hour, thundering out the hymn-tune “Ye Warriors of God.”

How political is that?

No wonder the people of Vienna were uncomfortable with this music – they were being viewed as the enemy!

The second of these poems, however, is a pastoral interlude, celebrating the Bohemian landscape, especially the river that winds through Prague (see photo above). You can hear the burbling of the water coming up from the spring at the very opening of the piece, and how it grows and grows, flowing along, becoming a bigger stream and an even grander river.

The theme Smetana used – here in the key of E Minor – is based on an old Italian song often called “La Mantovana” or “The Woman from Mantua,” though I’m not sure if Smetana was aware of that or if it has any significance to him or the Czech people. It is, however, familiar to Czechs as a folk song (when sung in the major key) as “The Cat Crawls Through the Hole.” It may have no real significance beyond its being recognized as a Czech song, not a German one. While the tune was used by several composers from the 17th Century on, to modern ears it sounds like Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel.

Around the time he was composing this, Smetana was dealing with the musical politics in Prague where he was identified as a "musical progressivist" and linked with the contemporary styles of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, whose music was not entirely popular with more conservative-minded audiences. This political in-fighting became more pronounced in the early-1870s and in 1874, his health declining, Smetana resigned from the opera house where he'd been conductor and director.

He also started exhibiting symptoms of deafness. By the time he completed "The Moldau" in December of 1874, he was almost completely deaf. You wouldn't know that from listening to the music!

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

By the way, I’ve used the word “tone poem” which can also be called “symphonic poem,” and that means it’s a piece of music inspired by or based on something else, not originally musical. In this case, Smetana is creating a musical interpretation of a river, depicting the flowing waters of the river in the flowing style of the music. When we reach the city of Prague, the music has a certain grand sound about it that is different from the music of the countryside – great, stately music, almost a processional, compared to the gentle, rustic folk dances we associate with the people dancing along its banks in the countryside.

“Tone Poems” are usually single movement works that can tell stories – one of the most famous is Paul Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made famous as the music for the Walt Disney film, Fantasia with Mickey Mouse as the poor apprentice who turns a broom into his helper but then can’t get him to stop.

Recently, the Harrisburg Symphony performed Richard Strauss’ huge “tone poem,” Don Quixote which tells the story of Cervantes’ knight and you can hear the music imitating the sheep he attacks (thinking they’re an invading army) or when he’s trounced off his horse by a windmill (thinking it’s a giant he must attack).

The “story” the music tells can almost be like a film-score (when I was listening to Don Quixote, it reminded me of music for a film without the film) or it can just suggest a character, his personality, the setting or the events without being so literal.

Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony – technically not a ‘tone poem’ – has subtitles for each of its five movements, like “Pleasant Impressions upon Arriving in the Countryside,” and “Scene by the Brook” complete with the imitation of bird-calls near the end. These are followed by a “Merry Gathering of Countryfolk,” a literal depiction of a thunderstorm and finally the “Song of Thanksgiving after the Storm.”

You can hear the Harrisburg Symphony play Beethoven’s “Pastoral” a year from now, at the end of their next season.

- Dick Strawser

No comments:

Post a Comment