October 2, 2015 • Nature’s Realm
Concert program notes by Leigh Townsend
VIVALDI “Autumn” from The Four Seasons (1725)
The popularity of The Four Seasons knows no bounds. Found everywhere from the traditional concert stage to commercials for cars and computers, these pieces are known as quintessential Vivaldi.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was an influential composer whose contributions of style and technique set the standard for the mature Baroque concerto. Prior to his fame, he was just a boy who played the violin with his dad, the eldest of nine children, and the only musician among them.
In 1693, when he was only 15, Vivaldi began his training for the priesthood in Venice, where his family lived. Shortly after his ordination, he was exempted from delivering mass. It is rumored that Vivaldi was censured because of conduct unbecoming of a priest: he’d reportedly left mass to write down a fugue that had particularly inspired him, though it was more likely due to his chronic asthma. Despite this, he remained within the church for many years carrying out the unconventional dual careers of composer and priest.
Vivaldi wrote over 500 concertos in his life, all as a second job while he was a Catholic priest.
The Four Seasons
Vivaldi wrote roughly 350 concertos for solo instrument, and over 230 of them are for solo violin. Opus 8 (1725), titled Il cimento dell’armonica e dell’inventione translates as “daring experiments with harmony and invention.” It is a set of twelve concerti, of which the Seasons are represented in the first four. The works are considered early program music, which means they are supposed to evoke a feeling of extra-musical narrative through sound. Vivaldi set each season to a sonnetto dimonstrativo, or illustrative sonnet: a descriptive kind of poem meant to evoke a specific mood. Although there is no definitive proof Vivaldi wrote the sonnets himself, it is widely acknowledged that he did write the poetry and then set the music.
Like the other concertos in the series, “Autumn” is composed in three movements. The first movement hurries along at a lively tempo, eliciting the happy farmer drinking and dancing at harvest time. The opening strings repeat the same theme several times before the solo violin entrance, much like the farmer finishing up his day’s work before the party can start. The second movement is slow and hauntingly delicate, reflecting the pleasurable sleep that comes after hard work and hard dancing. The final movement is again fast; hunting horns and barking dogs chase a deer through the woods until she falls, exhausted. Vivaldi’s “Autumn” is the perfect piece for a fall evening when colorful sunsets give way to crisp evening air and we look around again for that jacket we took off hours ago.
Duration: 10 minutes
DVOŘÁK In Nature’s Realm (1891)
“The music of the people is like a rare and lovely flower growing amidst encroaching weeds. Thousands pass it, while others trample it under foot, and thus the chances are that it will perish before it is seen by the one discriminating spirit who will prize it above all else.”
—Antonin Dvořák, 1895
Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) was born in a fertile valley on the Vltava River in Bohemia, near Prague. His parents worked as innkeepers and raised a large family; Antonin was the first of 14 children! By age 13, young Dvořák showed a talent for music, and his father sent him to live with an uncle to study music and German language. He played violin and organ professionally and begun writing music in earnest in his early 20’s. He was influenced strongly by his faith and by his love of his Bohemian heritage.
Dvořák was not widely known as a composer outside of the Prague area until 1874 when he won the Austrian State Prize for composition, which he won again in 1876. These prizes brought him to the attention of a well-known composer, Johannes Brahms, and music critic Eduard Hanslick, who never stopped championing the deeply rooted, nationalistic, Bohemian composer.
Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement that originated in Europe in partial reaction to the Industrial Revolution. The Romantic Era peaked between 1800 and 1850, as Dvořák was in his formative composing years. The movement emphasized intense emotion and the sublime beauty of nature, including its darker aspects of death and decay.
Acknowledged for their dramatic compositions, Weber, Beethoven, Schuman, and, Wagner are all well-known German composers of the era. A central theme of Romanticism is Nationalism – the focus on national language and folklore. Think of The Brothers Grimm, a prime example of Romanticism and Nationalism: they collected and published local folk tales as nationalistic literature, preserving the culture of the common folk in the face of rapid industrialization.
About the Music
In early 1892, Dvořák became interested in the idea of a three movement symphonic work depicting Nature, Life, and Love. His intention was to deeply explore each idea and the effect they had on the soul of mankind. Originally intended to be played together, the three movements are now often performed separately under the given names of In Nature’s Realm, Carnival, and Othello. To provide unity between the three works, Dvořák wrote a theme that appears in all three pieces and is the principle theme of In Nature’s Realm – listen for a “yoo-hoo” type call out throughout the music. Reminiscent of a bird call, it actually derives from a Moravian folk yodel.
Dvořák was a master of the pastoral setting; the light and airy instrumentation of In Nature’s Realm features lots of reedy woodwinds and little percussion other than the triangle. The piece opens with a quiet breath of fresh air in the low horn and clarinet before the pastoral bassoons and violas enter with a walking theme. Trilling birds and dappled sunlight are punctuated by majestic horns, building drama as the walk continues down a winding path. The light gives way to darkness and Dvořák hurries the listener along with fast string passages and dramatic brass interjections before the flute and clarinet come out again as birds in the sunshine and end the piece quietly, with an air of satisfied contemplation.
Duration: 14 minutes
TCHAIKOVSKY The Tempest; Fantasy-Overture, Op. 18 (1873)
“Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; And my ending is despair, Unless I be relieved by prayer”
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Because there was no formal music school in St. Petersburg, Russian composer Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) attended law school at the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence. He had always been drawn to music, and when the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music was founded in 1860, Tchaikovsky immediately enrolled to study theory and composition, as well as piano, flute and organ.
Tchaikovsky was recruited as a music theory teacher when conservatory founder Anton Rubensteins’s brother, Nikolay, opened the Moscow Conservatory of Music in 1865. We know from his letters and his students’ recollections that Tchaikovsky wasn’t a very good teacher. He certainly enjoyed, however, an active and varied social life in Moscow, perhaps even a bit more than his teacher’s salary allowed for, since he was known to supplement his income during this time with translations and arrangements.
Tchaikovsky wrote several pieces based on Shakespeare’s works, including his famous ballet Romeo and Juliet.
A Little Russian History
When he ascended to the throne in 1855, Tsar Alexander II vowed to reform both the government and the industries of Mother Russia without sacrificing her culture. Nationalistic roots and tendencies have always run deep in Russia – Tchaikovsky adored the Russian folk tunes of his childhood. But rural life was harsh; the ancient feudal laws had been abandoned in the rest of Europe in the previous century, but Russian serfs were still completely at the mercy of the wealthy landowner class. The Proclamation Law of 1861 freed the serfs from dependence on the landowners and granted them both the land and their freedom. In addition, this liberal reform by Alexander II gave approximately 23 million peasants the right to own property and their own businesses, as well as the ability to marry without consent. The Russian people we cautiously optimistic that life was about to get a lot better as they jumped head-first into the modern era.
About the Piece
Tchaikovsky, like other artists and composers of the nineteenth century, found a ready source of inspiration in Shakespeare. The suggestion for a musical treatment of The Tempest came from Vladimir Stasov, a mentor to many Russian nationalist composers. Tchaikovsky wrote the work quickly, over a period of only eleven days in the autumn of 1873. The first performance, under Nikolay Rubinstein, took place in December 1873, at a Russian Music Society concert.
The program of Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest, described as a fantasia for orchestra, is derived from Stasov and was printed with the published score. The sections are as follows:
- The sea
- Ariel, spirit of the air, obeying the will of the magician Prospero, raises a storm
- Wreck of the ship bringing Ferdinand
- The enchanted isle
- First timid feelings of love of Miranda and Ferdinand
- Ariel, Caliban
- The lovers succumb to their passion
- Prospero deprives himself of his magic power and leaves the island
- The sea.
Listen to how the sea changes, from the placid arpeggios of the opening sea section, to the timpani furiously rolling in the energetic storm, and finally the relief felt at the end as the brass surges away and the survivors. In between, you will hear the beautiful Tchaikovsky love themes he perfected with Romeo and Juliet.
Duration: 20 minutes
SIBELIUS Symphony No.5 (1915)
“Even by Nordic standards, Sibelius responded with exceptional intensity to the moods of nature and the changes in the seasons: he scanned the skies with his binoculars for the geese flying over the lake ice, listened to the screech of the cranes, and heard the cries of the curlew echo over the marshy grounds just below Ainola. He savoured the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colours.”
—Erik Tawaststjerna, Sibelius biographer
Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), known primarily for his orchestral works, had a great talent for orchestral color and structure. Born to Swedish-speaking parents in Finland, Jean was exposed to music from an early age. His father died when he was quite young, leaving behind a large debt that Jean’s mother struggled to pay off. Jean and his siblings were shipped around the country to different family members, including his Uncle Pehr, a violinist, and Aunt Julia, who instructed Jean in piano.
Though a skillful violinist, Sibelius felt hew would never be a virtuoso, and instead focused on his other passion – composition. He studied composition in Helsinki, Berlin, and Vienna, where he was exposed to the music of Strauss, Bruckner, and Wagner. After an extensive career filled with many well received works, such as Finlandia and The Swan of Tuonela, Sibelius eventually retired to the country. In 1939, at age 74, Sibelius invited a young American woman named Antonia Brico to conduct the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra. Less than 10 years later, Ms. Brico became the conductor of a local Colorado group called the Denver Community Symphony, which was later re-named the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra and continues to perform as the orchestra you are viewing this evening!
Finnish National Identity
In the second half of the 19th century, Finland was stirring with economic and cultural changes having gained autonomy from Sweden after seven centuries under their control. The Finnish War, fought between the Kingdom of Sweden and the Russian Empire, ended in 1809 resulting in an autonomous and independent cultural region governed by Russia.
The population of this new Finnish dukedom was now divided by rival languages: Finnish and Swedish. Although the Swedish-speaking population was a minority, they were considered culturally elite. The Finnish-speaking majority traditionally wielded no social power, although a movement was under way to legitimize the language and to embrace it as an authentic, assertive self-identity. Sibelius spoke Swedish as his first language and learned Finnish at school when he was still an adolescent.
The cultures articulated by these unrelated languages were substantially different: Scandinavian culture was seen to be more sophisticated and international, while the Finnish culture was rooted in the rugged peasantry of the land, uncompromisingly idiosyncratic, and inscrutable to the outside world. Sibelius had a knack for blending the elements of both to high art, recognized around the world as a uniquely Finnish music.
About the Symphony
Sibelius had contemplated a Fifth Symphony as early as 1912. The first version, written largely in 1915, was premiered in December of that year in a celebration of the composer’s fiftieth birthday, with Sibelius himself conducting.
The first movement opens with the horns in expansive mood, followed by the woodwind in thirds, the entry of the strings delayed. The dramatic tension of tremolo strings leads to a second theme. The middle section of the movement is a scherzo; with a solo trumpet hinting at the theme of the last movement.
The placid second movement contains several variations on the main theme set at the beginning by the flute and plucked strings.
The massive finale starts with the busy, undulating activity of the strings, after which the well-known theme that dominates the movement emerges in all its strength, with a secondary, theme from the woodwinds, as the trumpets declare what had become known to Sibelius as the “swan-theme.” Sibelius was inspired by the sight and sound of migrating swans circling above him in the haze of early spring sunshine. It remains the most familiar and popular of all Sibelius themes.
Duration: 30 minutes