MENDELSSOHN The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave)
PETER MAXWELL DAVIES An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise
BRAHMS Symphony No. 1
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Program Notes by Steven Ledbetter
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)
+ Hebrides Overture (Fingal's Cave), Opus 26
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847. Mendelssohn completed the Hebrides Overture in December 1831 and revised it twice; the first performance of the final version was in Berlin on January 10, 1833, the composer conducting. Mendelssohn seems never to have resolved the choice of title; while composing it, he called it “The Hebrides”; at various times he referred to it as “The Lonely Island,” and performed it as “The Isles of Fingal.” The printed parts of the first version are entitled “Hebrides,” but the published score of the revision is “Fingal’s Cave.” The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings. Duration is about 10 minutes.
A great letter writer, Felix Mendelssohn sent his family regular reports of his impressions and activities, embellished with charming and skillful drawings. Thus, while visiting Scotland, he wrote of the impression made on him of a visit to Fingal’s Cave, a celebrated sea cave in the basalt lava on the southwestern shore of Staffa, in the island group known as the Inner Hebrides. The roar of the waves, the clear air, the cries of sea birds, and the impressive rock formations were a powerful stimulant. “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me,” he wrote on August 7, 1829, “the following came into my mind there,” and he wrote out twenty-one measures of music that correspond to the beginning of his overture. Though it took another sixteen months to complete, he perfectly captured the uncanny effect of the Hebridean landscape.
Once he had finished the work, Mendelssohn had to decide what to call it. The term “tone poem,” which we might find most appropriate, had not yet been invented, and it was certainly not a symphony. So instead he called it an overture, because it was a single movement for orchestra cast in sonata form, like the overtures of Mozart or Beethoven, though it does not actually precede and introduce a larger work, as the term “overture” implies. It was thus the very first example of the “concert overture,” a genre that became quite popular in the romantic era. The wonder of Mendelssohn’s score is the constant freshness and flexibility of his invention. The opening figure of his first theme recurs many times—but almost every time its appearance differs after a single measure. The freedom that he takes in the working out of this idea and its sequels is not the freedom that comes with “rule-breaking” for its own sake, but freedom derived from a firm vision of the end, from attention concentrated on the goal of a specific kind of expression, here of landscape painting via music. And it is thus that the young composer (just twenty-one when he finished the score in Rome) created one of his most original and compelling works.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)
+ An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise
Peter Maxwell Davies was born in Salford, Lancashire, England, on September 8, 1934, and died in Sanday, Orkney Islands, on March 14, 2016. From 2004 on he was the Master of the Queen’s Music. He composed An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise on a commission from the Boston Pops in 1985. The premiere in Boston on May 10 that year was conducted by John Williams. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet), bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, timpani, four percussionists (suspended cymbals, swanee whistle, slapstick, bass drum, side drum, large tambourine, 4 woodblocks, cymbals, glockenspiel, marimba, crotales, Highland bagpipes, and strings. Duration is about 13 minutes.
Peter Maxwell Davies spent his early career as one of the leading avant-garde composers in England, part of a “New Manchester School” made up of a group of musicians who happened to be fellow students at the Royal Manchester College of Music. He was an exceptionally prolific composer, turning out ten symphonies, eight stage works (ranging from the monodrama Eight Songs for a Mad King to the full-length opera Taverner, multiple concertos and string quartets (including an entire series of ten written for recording on Naxos CDs and called the “Naxos quartets”). After moving to the Orkney Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland, in 1971, he founded a music festival there in which he premiered a number of his works, including a large repertory oa operas and other works for schoolchildren of various ages. He was also a fine conductor who held positions with several important orchestras and guest-conducted many others.
He remained artistically vital to the end, even as he struggled with leukemia. At the time of his death, he had completed one movement of a string quartet that would have been his Opus 338.
Few of his works are more directly tied to his island home than An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. It depicts in music the actual wedding celebration in 1978 of a nearby farmer. In a letter to John Williams, who commissioned the work and conducted the world premiere, Davies described the events which are translated into the music of An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise:
“It starts with the arrival at the community hall of the guests in rainy, stormy weather--the slapstick at bar 8 is, quite literally, the slamming of the door against the elements. It’s tradition, then, to line up around the sides of the hall, and be presented very ceremoniously to the bridal couple; you discreetly kiss her cheek and he shakes your hand, and gives you a welcoming glass of whisky, while the band plays tunes suitable for the ‘procession.’ (All the music, on such occasions, is entirely local.) The dancing, and the serious consumption of whisky, starts after the band has retuned (bar 95)—and before each dance, the first fiddle (solo) leader shouts out the key and the name of the tune, and the band plays the tonic chord, before plumping into the dance number itself. (I’ve left out the shouting bit!) You’ll notice that the band also consumes a fair amount of whisky—it shows up very badly around p. 23—I remember the island doctor was so fed up with the band’s guitarist getting chords and rhythms wrong he seized the guitar and tried to play it himself, with even worse results. At page 25 the first fiddle leader tried to rally his troops to play a reel, but it’s beyond recall the horn whoops are the whoops of the dancers. I once naively asked what was the difference between Highland dancing and Orkney dancing and was told they’re much the same, but the Orkney dance is wilder and the tunes better. (On this occasion on Hoy, one venerable 84 year old widow was seen leaping six foot in the air and emitting whoops even your horns could hardly do justice to she wasn’t seen for a week after the wedding.) On p. 29 the assembly is left behind, and heard from the clear, cool night outside the hall the dance music fades (as I started then the long walk home across the island). The sunrise follows—although the bagpipe is not strictly an Orkney instrument, I rationalized this by thinking that the sun rises across the water over Caithness in mainland Scotland, where it is, and here the piper, in all his traditional finery, pacing up and down, represents the sun.”
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)
+ Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Opus 68
Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He completed his First Symphony in 1876, though some of the sketches date back to the 1850s. Otto Dessoff conducted the first performance in Karlsruhe on November 4, 1876. The symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboe, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 45 minutes.
Brahms was only too aware that he was treading in the footsteps of giants. He knew the music of his great predecessors Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Schumann, and others, better than almost anyone living at his time (or any other time, for that matter), and he did not welcome direct comparison to their achievements. Beethoven in particular was an overwhelming gray shadow behind him, because by the middle 1850s, when Brahms’s career as a composer got going in earnest, Beethoven was rapidly approaching the position he has never since left, that of being the one composer to whom all others must bow in homage. Brahms keenly felt the power of Beethoven’s example. His fear of direct comparison and his own high standards made it difficult for him to create works in any medium that Beethoven had made uniquely his own. Thus Brahms was fully mature before he created a string quartet that he was willing to allow out into the world, and even older before he began a symphony. It was not for want of trying! He had started symphonies time and again for nearly two decades, but he ended up turning all of that music into some other kind of piece (such as his First Piano Concerto or his Requiem), or he simply destroyed it.
Finally, at the age of forty three, in 1876, Brahms completed a symphony that met his standards and let it out into the world. But he had been working on it at least since 1868, when he wrote to Clara Schumann quoting the horn theme of the finale. It was a tough nut for first listeners to crack. Brahms himself admitted that it was “not exactly amiable.” The work traces a lengthy progress from the dark tension of its opening C minor to a glorious and sunny conclusion in C major. In this respect it follows a plan similar to that of two of Beethoven’s most famous symphonies, the Fifth (in its choice of key) and the Ninth (in achieving its bright conclusion with the aid of theme of such direct and simple melodic appeal that it lingers forever in the ear).
The symphony opens with a tense and dramatic introduction that provides the principal musical germs of the first movement (it is hard to believe that this slow introduction is an afterthought, so closely knit is it to what follows, but that is in fact the case). This introduction—pounding timpani strokes and rising chromatic line—seems to begin in the midst of some titanic struggle. Yet this lengthy moderato opening prepares the main argument of the movement; the Allegro takes up the idea of the timpani strokes (abstracted into the other instruments of the orchestra) and the rising chromatic line. It is prevailingly somber, its darkness only slightly relieved by the horn and wind colors in the secondary theme.
As the work continues, Brahms’s concern for unity reveals itself through the reworking of musical ideas from one movement to another: there are frequent references in later movements to the passing chromatic notes of the first movement’s introduction; an oboe theme in the slow movement seems to predict a clarinet theme in the next movement; and so on. These inner movements are essentially lyrical, expanding on the character of the dolce (sweet) and espressivo (expressive) markings that appear occasionally in the opening movement. The oboe theme in the second movement is wonderfully calm and expansive, though the middle section threatens its stability.
The third movement is entirely grazioso (graceful), far removed in mood from the struggles of the first and last movements. It is also harmonically far afield from the home key. Indeed, Brahms has planned a symmetrical architecture in which each movement appears in a key a major third higher than the previous one. After beginning in C minor, the second movement appears in E major. Its middle section (in G-sharp minor) anticipates the key of the third movement, A-flat major (A-flat and G-sharp are the same note, differently written). Finally, following the barely-resolved conclusion of the third movement, one more rise of a major third brings us back to C, closing the circle.
Like the opening movement, the finale begins with a lengthy introduction which plays an important part in the character of the whole movement. It starts out in the minor mode (as the whole symphony had done), but there is a constant sense of struggle, of reaching for a new goal, and this is finally achieved with the arrival in C major and the appearance of the magnificent horn theme that Brahms had sent to Clara in 1868. (This long-breathed theme offers a trompe-l’oeil to the audience: it sounds like a solo melody, but Brahms has divided it between the first and second horns to allow it to seem virtually unending.) The trombones enter, for the first time in the entire symphony, with a chorale melody, building up to the first statement of the main theme—a hymnlike C-major melody first hinted at (though in the minor) in the opening bar of the movement. Brahms was short-tempered with those who pointed out that it sounded like a rerun of Beethoven’s Ninth: “Any ass can see that!” he retorted. It marks the onset of the final struggle to establish C major, which is finally achieved with a climax for the entire orchestra on the trombone chorale melody and a powerful affirmation of C-major, achieved through a carefully crafted battle plan that conquers all in the end. The shade of Beethoven would have been pleased with his pupil.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)