History, Herstory Program Notes

Program Notes by Patrick Domico

Jean Sibelius’s (1865-1957) short orchestral piece Spring Song opens the program tonight. This work was first premiered in 1894 (entitled Improvisation for Orchestra) and was substantially revised for its second premiere a year later. It was not received well at first and was overshadowed by the premiere of a patriotic tone poem by his brother in law Armas Järnefelt. Nevertheless, Sibelius’s work features long, sweeping melodies and boisterous climaxes and has been an audience favorite since its second premiere.

While Sibelius is often thought of as a composer of nationalist Finnish music, Spring Song can be understood as more internationally Scandinavian or Nordic in style, and a clear resemblance to the music of Edward Grieg and Pyotr Tchaikovsky can be noted. Despite its title, the work is not programmatic and only vaguely represents the emergence of spring through a long crescendo in the first half of the piece. The original title of the piece is in Swedish; Sibelius grew up speaking Swedish, not Finnish, like many other educated coastal Finns at the time. The composer only later in his life took up musical and political interest in the rural Finnish culture and language, initially due to the strong political leanings of his wife’s family. As such, he is known for developing a unique Finnish musical idiom based in the Finnish-language folk epic “Kalevala” and the folk style of singing its text. Spring Song, however, cannot be said to represent this unique style, as nothing can be identified as particularly “Finnish” about it. In overall tone it is fairly cheerful (for Sibelius) and any melancholic moments never seem to too overbearing. So while the piece cannot be said to be of great historical or personal importance for Sibelius, it nevertheless deserves its place as an occasional delight in the standard orchestral repertoire.

The second piece on the program is Carl Stamitz’s (1745-1801) Viola Concerto in D major, Op. 1. This is one of his most well-known pieces, probably due to the fact that it is written for an instrument that, it must be admitted, received relatively little attention as a solo instrument by major Western composers. Despite Stamitz’s lack of renown, he is quite an important figure in the history of Western music. Stamitz himself was Czech; however, like most composers of his time wrote in an international style that originated in Italy known as the “Galant” style. Galant music favored balanced, graceful melodic lines clearly set off from simple accompaniment patterns with relatively little counterpoint. The style can be understood as representative of Eighteenth Century courtly culture which emphasized extreme refinement in manners and all matters of etiquette. These sensibilities strongly inform Stamitz’s viola concerto, as the music is exceptionally pleasant and inoffensive. The viola part can be quite virtuosic at times (as Stamitz himself was a violin/viola virtuoso) and is one of the first pieces to feature pizzicato for the left hand. The concerto is in three movements: this evening we feature Maeve Whelan performing as soloist on the first, sonata-allegro movement.

Aaron Copland’s (1900-1990) Lincoln Portrait is unusual in that it is for orchestra and solo speaker, who reads selections from speeches by Abraham Lincoln. Copland was asked by conductor Andre Kostelanetz to make a musical portrait of an eminent American, and this work was the result. The piece is in two parts—the first an orchestral tone poem, and the second an accompanied declamation of Lincoln’s speeches. If you listen carefully you can hear some famous folk tunes, popular during Lincoln’s time, quoted directly, Foster’s “Camptown Races” being the most recognizable. For Lincoln Portrait Copland employed his signature “Americana” style—clearly marked by static drones, coloristic woodwind writing, pentatonic melodies, and pandiatonic harmonies. This style is very similar to that employed in his famous piece Appalachian Spring. However, this is not the only style Copland employed in his compositions—he, in fact, cultivated a second, more personal, atonal style for use in more serious genres (an example being the piano sonata). One can consider the composer as double sided—the public “American” Copland and the private quasi-European modernist Copland. This piece is located firmly in the former category, composed in 1942 as a way to rally the American spirit in the depths of the Second World War.

The final work on tonight’s program is Scheherazade by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). Easily one of the most played works in the modern orchestral repertoire, it features sweeping melodies and lush, colorful textures. The four movements contain vague titles that reference different stories in One Thousand and One Nights (also known as “Arabian Nights”), but Rimsky-Korsakov was averse to strongly programmatic music and thus the titles remain only suggestive of a program at best. The composer is commonly referred to as a nationalist composer, as a member of the famous “Mighty Handful” in the 1860s (Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Kyui round out the bunch). However, by 1887, when Scheherazade was composed, Rimsky-Korsakov was determined to preserve the style of the preceding two decades. It does, however, feature absolutely top class writing for wind instruments and is no easy score to conduct given the complexity and sophistication of the orchestration (Rimsky-Korsakov was a noted author of an orchestration textbook). As regards the musical style, it can be understood as Orientalist, insofar as the composer was attempting to tap into exotic stereotypes of the Persian near East (languidness, sensuality, etc.), rather than trying to accurately employ or depict real historical music of Persia. Thus Rimsky-Korsakov could be considered complicit in the Russian Empire’s militaristic expansion into Central Asia by depicting its people as somehow different and other than normal “civilized” Russians. This fantastically backfired when his music became more popular in Western Europe in the early Twentieth Century, as this exotic, Orientalist style became associated with Russia itself. Thenceforth Russian composers had to choose between appealing to audiences abroad by continuing to write in this style, or staying true to music that their contemporaries felt was more truly Russian.