December 20 • Noels & New Year
Concert program notes by Dr. Suzanne Moulton-Gertig
Suite from The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)
Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite from The Snow Maiden comes from the opera he composed by the same name during 1880–81. The opera is based on a play by Alexander Ostrovsky who fashioned his stage work on a Russian folktale of ancient paganism. Fascinated by the story, Rimsky-Korsakov began work on the opera in the summer of 1880 and it had its première in February of 1882 in St. Petersburg. The opera tells of the Snow Maiden who is safe from the power of her father’s enemy, the Sun-God Yarilo, so long as she never succumbs to the power of love. As the daughter of the cold Winter Fairy, this constitutes no peril. As her mother is the warmer Spring Fairy, however, she is endowed on that side of her “fairy DNA” with nearly mortal characteristics. With a choice now, she decides to live a mortal life and falls in love with a merchant. Disaster follows, as she falls victim to the sun and her lover subsequently commits suicide.
Rimsky-Korsakov fashioned a four section suite from the opera, which is played more often today than the original opera is staged. This evening, the orchestra will perform three of the four sections. The first is the “Prelude”, an atmospheric introduction replete with abundant bird songs. Bird songs continue as a major theme during the second section, “Dance of the Birds”, which is a song originally orchestrated for female chorus, solo soprano and orchestra (but rarely performed that way in most concert performances). The performance this evening ends with the fourth section, the most familiar section of the suite, the “Dance of the Buffoons” (also known as the “Dance of the Tumblers” — in Russian, skomorokhi — troupes of outdoor entertainers), a real orchestral showpiece that bursts with energy and excitement.
“Tröika” from Lieutenant Kijé, Op. 60
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Following his return to Russia after a fifteen year absence, Prokofiev composed some of his most engaging and attractive works. During those early years following his return, he composed his second violin concerto, the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and the children’s’ favorite, Peter and the Wolf. The first composition that he composed, however, was the film music to Lieutenant Kijé.
The plot of the film is based on a misinterpretation of a phrase from a military report received by Tsar Nicholas I who thinks that it pertains to the bravery of a certain lieutenant he believes is named Lieutenant Kijé. Realizing the mistake, but anxious not to embarrass their Czar, his officers begin to invent exploits of the “brave Kijé” to report to him. No deception can go on forever, so eventually they also are forced to fabricate Kijé’s death.
As he would with his music for the film Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev set some of the Kijé film score for performance in the concert hall. In the case of Lieutenant Kijé, he constructed a concert suite. Performed this evening, the “Tröika” is the fourth section of the five-movement suite. Following the section, “Kijé’s Wedding”, the “Tröika” depicts the couple riding off in that three-horse sleigh. A tavern song is sung to the couple by the Tröika driver, accompanied by sleigh bells and a cracking whip.
“Against the Winter Wind”
John Kuzma (1946— )
“Against the Winter Wind” a “Lullaby for Cello & Orchestra” was written at maestro Adam Flatt’s request for tonight’s concert. It is a song without words that uses a simple harmonic language of juxtaposed hexachords after the manner of modal compositions – “dissonance as texture” as Kuzma calls it. The cello “voice” part has the main melody punctuated by conversational writing in repeated notes imitative of human speech. At the tactical level, this music holds up the struggle of the Christ child standing alone against the forces that would defeat the good. Excerpts from the famous poem “This Little Babe” by Robert Southwell (1561—1595), helped inspire the mood of the music.
With tears He fights, and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield.
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He himself for cold do shake.
And in this weak unarmed wise,
The gates of hell He will surprise.
This little babe, a few days old
Has come to rifle Satan’s fold.
If thou would foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heav’nly boy.
— John Kuzma, Denver 2013
“But who shall abide the day of his coming?” from Messiah
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Set by Handel as a counter tenor aria, “But who shall abide…” is found in Part 1, the Christmas portion of the Messiah, as the sixth section, just before the familiar chorus, “And He shall purify.” The text is identified as coming from the Book of Malachi, written by that prophet sometime between 440 and 400 BCE. It appears at the beginning of the book and prophesizes salvation and the appearance of a Savior.
The music itself is divided into very distinctive and contrasting sections. In the first, questions are proffered in the gentle flowing Larghetto 3/8 meter in a duet with the basso continuo. The second section, in common time (4/4), reveals why the questions cannot be answered. It is noteworthy for its scoring: prestissimo strings which underscore the agile, yet compelling vocal solo who sings the text, “for he is like a refiner’s fire …” Then, the beginning questions are posed once more in the same 3/8 meter as in the opening, to be answered in the final section again in 4/4 with its accompanying text.
“Farandole” from L’arlésienne Suite No. 2
Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875)
Yet another work that had its naissance in another musical genre, the two L’arlésienne suites come from the incidental music that Bizet composed for Alphonse Daudet’s play of the same title in 1872. Sadly, Daudet’s play received poor reviews at its première, but Bizet was able to rescue part of his brilliant musical work on the project by creating a four movement suite for orchestra known today as L’arlésienne Suite No. 1. Four years following Bizet’s death in 1875, his friend Ernest Guiraud, constructed a second suite from Bizet’s original incidental music.
Performed this evening is the last of the four sections from the second suite, the “Farandole”. It begins with the motif that Bizet used to open his first suite, the Provençal Christmas song, “March of the Kings”. Following that, a new melody, a “farandole” (a Provençal dance), is introduced. The two melodies alternate and subsequently are combined at the end to bring the movement, as well as the suite, to a dazzling close.