LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) Symphony No 7 in A major, Op.92 (1813)

LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) Symphony No 7 in A major, Op.92 (1813)

  1. Poco sostenuto Vivace
  2. Allegretto
  3. Presto
  4. Allegro con brio

In 1811, some three years on from his 1807-8 triumphs  with the Fifth and Pastoral Symphonies Beethoven was feeling weighed down by his usual ill­ health and decided to visit the spa town of Teplitz, in what is now the Czech Republic, for a boost. It was obviously extremely effective, since he began work on what was to be one of his most dynamic works, the A major Symphony, which Wagner was famously to describe as ‘the Apotheosis of the Dance’. Its galvanizing and unremitting energy leaves no room for a slow movement, the Allegretto scarcely allowing any relaxation.

Another factor in the creative process for the work may well have been the fact that at this point Beethoven, often infatuated.with unattainable females, was even more sorely afflicted than usual by a lady who has become known as the ‘Immortal Beloved’. Indeed while he was in Teplitz Beethoven wrote the mystery woman a long, heartfelt love-letter, although he seems not to have posted it – it is conjectured that the two had a passionate but short­ lived affair in Prague immediately before the composer set off for Teplitz, but also that there were barriers to their permanent relationship in terms of relative social standing.

Completed in late 1812, the work was premiered in Vienna on December 8, 1813 (some seven months after the first performance of The Italian Girl) at a charity concert – promoted by Johann Maelzel, inventor of the metronome – for soldiers wounded in the victorious Battle of Hanau, with Beethoven himself conducting, despite his deafness; suitably, the evening also included Beethoven’s Battle Symphony: Wellington’s Victory. The concert coincided with the turning of the tide in the war against Napoleon; the Emperor’s flight from Moscow in 1812 had been followed by further defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. In  June, the Duke of Wellington had defeated Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother, in the northern Spanish town of Vittoria, hence the Battle Symphony; in short, there was celebration in the air in anticipation of Napoleon’s ultimate defeat, and the Seventh Symphony certainly taps into this.

The orchestra for the premiere included some of the finest musicians of the day – violinist Louis Spohr, composers Johann Hummel, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Antonio Salieri, and the Italian double bass virtuoso, Domenico Dragonetti, whom Beethoven himself described as playing “with great fire and expressive power”. The piece was very well received, and the Allegretto had to be encored. Spohr made particular mention of Beethoven’s antics on the rostrum: ‘As a sforzando occurred’, Spohr wrote, ‘he tore his arms with a great vehemence asunder … at the entrance of a forte he jumped in the air.’ Beethoven himself described the work as ‘one of the happiest products of my poor  talents.’

The opening Poco sostenuto is on a huge scale – in fact it was the largest symphonic introduction to  date. Both grand and portentous, its ideas are arresting, but scarcely related to what follows. A tentative dialogue between woodwind and strings signals the transition into the buoyant, almost rustic first subject of the Vivace. The angular dotted rhythmic and melodic shapes are all-pervading – the only moments of repose come, unusually, in the development section. The coda is extraordinarily exciting, horns blazing.

The  Allegretto,  instantly  popular  in  December  1813,  is  based  round  its opening, purposeful rhythm, over which a rather bleak, melancholic melody is sung, first by the viols and half of the cellos. More lyrical woodwind and horns lighten the mood, accompanied by filigree strings, the biggest climax reached towards the end.

The Presto scherzo is a mercurial, swirling tour-de-force, like the first movement irrepressible in its dancing energy. The Trio section presents an Austrian Pilgrims’ hymn, initially presented by woodwind over tranquil strings. Shortly the full orchestra makes it a triumphant paean. The movement overrides the conventional form of Scherzo -Trio Scherzo, the Trio returning for a second outing later in the structure.

As if enough energy has not yet been expended, the Allegro con brio bursts into life with Bacchanalian fervour, insistent semiquavers and off-beat accents giving a relentless but exhilarating progress through sonata-form – exposition of two main themes (the second returning to obsessive dotted rhythms), development, recap and a viscerally exciting coda, once again with heroic brass.

The work is scored for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, with two trumpets, unusually only two horns, and timpani, plus strings.

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GIOACCHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868) Overture: The Italian Girl in Algiers (1813}

GIOACCHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868) Overture: The Italian Girl in Algiers (1813}

Rossini, as his music suggests, was one of the most flamboyant composers in the history of music; 2018 sees the 150th anniversary of his death, but the same century-and-a-half anniversary of his last major work took place in 1979! A leap-year birthday, he became famous in his early 20s after only five actual 29 February birthdays, and retired from composing – bar a few smaller-scale works – in 1829 aged officially 9, but actually 37, by which time he had written no less than 38 operas. Subsequently he became a gourmet of note, inventing, amongst other dishes, the steak dish Tournedos.

 His masterpiece The Barber of Seville was written and premiered in 1816 when he was only 24 (6) and in 1817 he completed no’ less than  three operas, including The Thieving Magpie; where certain . geniuses such as Beethoven laboured long and hard over their creations, chipping and  honing their way towards perfection, Rossini achieved a reputation as one of the most prodigiously swift of all composers, although he was also known for world-class laziness, and the tale he told of the composition of the Thieving Magpie Overture is a prime example.

Very often he recycled material from other compositions for his overtures but on this occasion he chose to write one which reflected the plot of the opera; unfortunately he left it rather late: I wrote the overture to The Thieving Magpie on the day of its opening in the theatre itself (La Scala, Milan) where I was imprisoned by the director and under the surveillance of four stage hands who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below . . . In default of pages, they were ordered to throw me out of the window.

Rossini’s operas tend to fall into two categories – Opera Serio or ‘serious’ operas (such as Semiramide, whose overture MSO performed last November) and Opera Buffa or ‘comic’ operas. Some, a mixture of seria and buffa, are known as dramma giocoso (from which we get our word ‘jocose’ – ‘given to jocularity’) and L’ltaliana in Algeri falls into this category .

Written, it is said, in a mere eighteen days by the 21-year-old Rossini, the opera is unusual in that the composer made the decisi’n to ask a colleague to write all the recitatives, which no doubt accelerated the composition process. Its premiere took place in Venice on 22 May 1813, the very day upon which one

Richard Wagner was born in ·Leipzig, and a fortnight after the birth of Johannes Brahms in Hamburg. The Italian Girl was an instant success, although Rossini still continued to revise it as it made its way round Europe, finally reaching London in 1819. The plot concerns the Bey Mustafa who, bored with his harem, instructs his Italian servant Haly (Ali) to find him an Italian girl, but Ali’s find, a shipwreck victim called Isabella, is more than a match for him, and she succeeds not only in humiliating him but also in reconciling him with his favourite consort, Elvira.

As with The Thieving Magpie overture above, Rossini wrote an original overture rather than recycling other material, and The Italian Girl has become one of his most popular. The slow introduction begins with deadpan pizzicato upper-strings but a note of humour arrives soon with several nods in the direction of the shock tactics employed by Haydn in his Surprise Symphony (No 94). The surprise chords continue into the start of the Allegro, where the woodwind begin to distinguish themselves with rapid tonguing in a characteristically perky opening theme, shortly taken up by the strings. A short example of Rossini’s trademark crescendi leads us to the first crisis involving scything scale-passages and trumpet fanfares . Soon a neat little bridge passage in the cellos leads us to the crisply elegant second subject, introduced by the oboe and answered by the flute, then a conversation between first and second violins and woodwind heralds a fully-fledged crescendo lasting eighteen bars and culminating in a dramatic climax. A short recitative for the firsts takes us into the recap of the main themes and finally a triumphant Coda.

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FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847)  Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844)

FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847) Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844)

FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847}

Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 (1844}

  1. Allegro molto appassionato
  2. Andante
  3. Allegretto non troppo – Allegro mo/to vivace

One of the greatest prodigies in composing history, Mendelssohn at the age of only 16 had penned his Op 20 Octet for strings, one of the very greatest chamber works in the entire canon, and followed this up with Op 21, the truly magical Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, aged 17. It has always been fashionable to say that, following this precocity, Mendelssohn never quite made the most of his potential, but the masterworks written within a few years of his early death aged 38, including the wonderful Italian Symphony {1842) and Violin Concerto (1844), completely belie this.

Visits to Scotland and to Italy  whilst on his European Grand Tour had produced memorably characteristic works, but it was his friendship with the violinist Ferdinand David which inspired his finest concerto, one of the greatest and best-loved of all violin concertos, which combines in its three movements the elegant virility  of the Italian Symphony, the tenderness of many of his Songs Without Words and the elfin delicacy of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. 

As a teenager Mendelssohn had written a violin concerto in D minor which is now seldom heard, but when, as Conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (still today one of the world’s leading orchestras), he appointed David Konzertmeister (Leader) in 1838 he was so impressed that he promised the violinist a concerto. Since he did not have practical experience as a violinist himself he sought David’s advice many times during the composition of the work which, despite the finished product’s apparently effortless flow and elegance, actually took him some six years; in promising David the concerto he wrote ‘I have one in E minor running through my head….and the beginning does not leave me in peace.’ Eventually the work was premiered by David on 13 March 1845 in the Gewandhaus, although it was conducted not by the composer but by the Danish composer I conductor Niels Gade, and Mendelssohn continued tweaking it almost until the moment the first rehearsal began. Far from being the product of a faded genius who had forgotten how to be original, the E minor reaches into the heart of the instrument, putting it in the same class as the concerto of Beethoven and subsequently those of Max Bruch, Tchaikovsky and Brahms amongst 19th century works for the instrument. No self-respecting soloist can afford to be without it in his or her repertoire, and it remains one of the most-recorded concertos of all.

It also embodies what at the time was a unique structure. 19th century accepted concerto form involved a substantial orchestral introduction to the first movement, usually exposing the themes which the solo part subsequently develops, but in the Mendelssohn the opening theme is announced immediately by the soloist following only a moment of restless atmosphere-setting. The positioning of the cadenza is also unique for its time; this was usually an opportunity for the soloist to extemporise on the themes of the first movement just before the final coda, but here the cadenza arrives midway through the movement at the end of the development and leads into the recap. It is written out completely by the composer and no alternative has ever  successfully  been  substituted;  Tchaikovsky’s  violin  concerto  would  use this model later in the century, while the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms would place the cadenza later in the movement and offer more freedom to the soloist. Later, at the first movement’s conclusion, Mendelssohn asks the bassoon to hold a long B, which leads seamlessly into the Andante. This too is ground-breaking, and possibly shows Mendelssohn mischievously putting paid to audiences’ propensity to applaud between movements (a habit which has returned more recently!). Finally, there is a brief Allegretto which offers a bridge between the second and third movements; once again this retains the rapt continuity of the work for the listener.

  1. The themes of the sonata-form first  movement  will  no  doubt  be  familiar, from the burnished passion  of the  soloist’s  opening  E-string melody, through the beautiful interplay between solo and woodwind within the second subject and the quicksilver passagework of the development and the cadenza, to the scintillating coda. The Andante’ s outer sections sing  with  heartfelt  lyricism while the soloist’s shimmering  double-stops in the central section take us into more uneasy mood. Finally, following the Allegretto bridge, the finale dances with the same light-footed brilliance as Mendelssohn had found  in  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the E major key exploiting  the  brightest resonances within the  solo  instrument  and the  orchestral  counter-melody  to the soloist’s effervescence  a matter of sheer joy.

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MODEST MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) A Night on the Bare Mountain (1874)

arr. N Rimsky­ Korsakov (1886)

Mussorgsky’s life and career, which ended at the early age of 42, were in many respects a tragic case of ‘what might have been’. Unlike some composers and musicians he received a good deal of support from his parents when a youngster , the family temporarily moving the 250 miles from their home to St Petersburg  partly in order to maintain the quality of his lessons; unfortunately there was an ulterior motive in the family’s move, in that they also wished to make sure that Modest  and  his brother maintained the family tradition of military service. Modest  was  enrolled  in Cadet School aged 13, and, alongside his piano lessons, was subjected to a brutal disciplinary regime which drove many students to drink; although he was to graduate from the school and take up a commission in the National Guard, his life was already blighted with the early stages of alcoholism, which would bring his life to a sadly premature  end.

Music, particularly the piano, had remained important to him, however, and  a chance meeting with the medical chemist and amateur  composer Alexander  Borodin at the military hospital in St Petersburg in 1856 drew him into musical soirees run by the composer Dargomyzhsky, at which he met several major figures  in  Russian music, including Mily Balakirev. Balakirev was assembling around himself a school of composers to develop  a truly Russian voice in music, and Mussorgsky rapidly joined the group, which included not only Borodin but also Cesar Cui and eventually Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and became known as The Five’ or ‘The Mighty  Handful’. In 1858 Mussorgsky resigned his commission and turned to music full-time.

He began to interest himself in Russian history and folklore, and finished a few composing projects based on this sort of material, but life was never easy, particularly since, as a result of the emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861, a good deal of the Mussorgsky family estate, which had supported him, had been lost, and he had to take a job as a civil servant to support himself. In 1867 he completed the original version of a symphonic poem he called A Night on Bald Mountain, but Balakirev refused to conduct it, and Mussorgsky was never to hear it performed. In 1871 he managed to complete his magnum opus, the opera Boris Godunov, based on Pushkin’s historical play, but it was initially rejected and it wasn’t until 1874 that he managed to get it produced. Critics damned it, but during its short run of only a dozen performances it did at least achieve public acclaim, a source of fleeting happiness for him; nevertheless , although he was shortly also to complete the great piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), later orchestrated by many composers, most notably Ravel, he descended into alcoholism and left many works unfinished including his major opera projects, Khovanschina and Sorochinsky Fair. Finally his alcoholic/depressive behaviour saw him sacked from his job in 1880, and he died a week after his 42nd birthday, the famous red-nosed painting of him being completed only a few days before his death.

A Night on Bald Mountain was originally known as St John’s Eve on Bald Mountain, based on a play by Gogol and telling the story of Chernobog, the Russian Satan, and his appearance on the eve of Witches’ Sabbath – in Russia this is in June, but of course parallel with our Hallowe’en and All Souls’ Day. Mussorgsky was proud of it, and crushed when Balakirev condemned it. The composer wrote:

‘At. the head of my score I’ve put its content: Subterranean noises of supernatural voices Apparition o the spirits of darkness and, after them, of Chemobog (The Black God) Celebration of the Black God and the Black Service Sabbath At the p.eak of the Sabbath there resounds from afar the bell of a little village church; its nngmg disperses the spirits of darkness Daybreak. The form and character of the composition are Russian and original … I wrote St. John’s Eve quickly, straight away 1n full score , I wrote 1t 1n about twelve days, glory to God … While at work on St.

John’s Eve I didn’t sleep at night and actually finished the work on the eve of St. John’s Day,,it seethed within me so, and I simply didn’t know what was happening w1th1n me …

Mussorgsky also inserted a choral version into Sorochinsky  Fair  but this  of course also was never performed in his lifetime; the orchestral original was lost and only rediscovered 1n the 1960s, to be published in 1968, a century after its original compos1t1on .. It fell to his friend Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (whom some suspect of hiding the original) .to publish his version of the work in 1886, which he called A Night on a Barn Mo.untam; at the head of his version he wrote of Mussorgsky’s work: ‘In each of its various forms this work remained unpolished ,’ going on to say that he had extracted the ‘best and most appropriate’  elements  ‘to  give  coherence  and wholeness to this work.’ In this he succeeds, but, intriguingly, although one  of the great orchestrators , on the evidence of the original he  strips  out  some  of Mussorgsky’s  more groundbreaking  orchestrational features.

The popularity of the Rimsky. version was of course ensured when Walt Disney featured a frightening  animation to Leopold Stokowski’s conducting in  his  1940 classic  Fantasia.

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Sir C. HUBERT H. PARRY (1848-1918)  Jerusalem (1916 – orchestrated Edward Elgar 1922) Words by William Blake (1808)

Sir C. HUBERT H. PARRY (1848-1918) Jerusalem (1916 – orchestrated Edward Elgar 1922) Words by William Blake (1808)

Hubert Parry was born in 1848, the year of European unrest, and died almost exactly 100 years ago on 7 October 1918, just over a month before the end of the First World War. He was Director of the Royal College of Music for some 35 years, his students including Vaughan Williams, Holst, John Ireland and Frank Bridge, who in his turn taught Benjamin Britten. He was respected as a musicologist and it is good in this centenary year to see his compositions, which included five excellent symphonies and the anthems Blest Pair of Sirens and I was Glad, being re-evaluated.

Jerusalem, setting William Blake’s poem, was written in 1916 for a meeting of the Suffragette movement at the Queens Hall (which was the venue for the Henry Wood Proms until it was bombed during the Blitz). After the granting of the vote to women over 30 in 1918 it became the anthem of another women’s movement, the Women’s Institute, and George V wished it to replace the National Anthem itself. Shortly before his death Parry conducted his own orchestration in the Royal Albert Hall and it immediately became a national institution. Elgar’s magnificent orchestration, made in 1922 for the Leeds Festival, has become the standard version for the Last Night of the BBC Proms, a superb conjunction of two of Britain’s greatest composers.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among those dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold,
Bring me my arrows of desire,
Bring me my spear, O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

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PETER ILICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Marche Slave, Op 31 (1876)

PETER ILICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Marche Slave, Op 31 (1876)

Marche Slave (pronounced ‘Slahv’ and meaning Slavonic March) was written in 1876 at a time when Tchaikovsky was at a low ebb, struggling with all aspects of his life including finances and his sexuality. Shortly afterwards he was set on his feet by the mysterious widow Nadezhda von Meck, whose financial support meant that he could compose freely and allow his imagination full rein — her condition being that they should never meet. One of the first fruits of his new-found confidence was the wonderful Fourth Symphony (1877), which he dedicated to Mme von Meck.

March Slave, however, was written to a commission from the Russian Musical Society for a charity concert in aid of the wounded from the conflict between Serbia and Turkey, in which the Russian government and many citizens supported the Serbs. Its premiere took place late in 1876, conducted by Nicolai Rubinstein.

As was often the case in similar pieces, such as the 1812 Overture (1882), Tchaikovsky revelled in quoting apposite songs to illuminate the sentiments of the work, although his choice of the key of B flat minor (5 flats) for the non-transposing instruments such as strings, woodwind except for clarinets, and trombones creates numerous technical difficulties.

The tortured opening section of the work, using the harmonic minor of B flat, describes the Turkish oppression of Serbia, and uses two Serbian folksongs, Bright sun, you do not shine equally, and Gladly does the Serb become a soldier. The work changes into B flat major to portray the Russians swarming to help the Serbs and we hear another folk-like melody which gradually increases in intensity until the Russian National Anthem blazes, just as it was later to in the 1812 Overture. Reiteration of the ‘oppression’ music eventually brings us to its use as a counterpoint to a triumphant repeat of the Anthem, then finally the coda brings the work to a joyous conclusion.

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JULES MASSENET (1842-1912) Ballet Suite: Le Cid (1885)

JULES MASSENET (1842-1912) Ballet Suite: Le Cid (1885)

  1. Castillane
  2. Andalouse
  3. Aragonaise
  4. Aubade
  5. Catalane
  6. Madrilene
  7. Navarraise

Jules Massenet was a prodigy who entered the Paris Conservatoire aged just 11, eventually studying opera composition under Ambroise Thomas, the Director of the Conservatoire and composer of the opera Mignon; Massenet would become a teacher himself at the Conservatoire in 1878, and still later take over from Thomas as Director, numbering amongst his pupils Gustave Charpentier, Ernest Chausson and Reynaldo Hahn.

In 1863 Massenet won the Prix de Rome, the most coveted European composition prize — which Berlioz had finally won in 1830 at his fourth attempt – with a jolly little cantata on the bloody and controversial murder in 1566 of Mary Queen of Scots’s private secretary David Rizzio, and went on to write over two dozen operas, several of which remain in the repertoire, including Manon, Werther and the Egypt-set Thais (from which comes the well-known Meditation for violin and orchestra). He was distinctly prolific in many genres, including ballet, cantata, works for orchestra and song. His opera Le Cid (The Lord), was based on the legend of the 11th century Castillian nobleman Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, who heroically rid Castile of the marauding Moors with the support of his wife Chimene (in French Rodrigue and Chimene). It is a story also immortalised in Anthony Mann’s film El Cid (1961), which starred Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.

Massenet was inspired by a popular play by Corneille, as were both Bizet and Debussy, but Massenet was the only one of the three to complete his opera, which remained very popular throughout Europe for its first thirty-five years but then fell into disuse. Luckily Massenet was able to extract a ballet suite from the opera as a concert item in its own right, comprising seven movements, almost all characteristic Spanish regional dances.

The opening Castillane, from Castile, Rodrigue’s home province, is a mixture of elegance and full-blooded heroic Spanish dance.

The Andalouse, from Andalucia, is lazy and reflective, with cellos providing an atmospheric accompaniment to flute, then violins. The Aragonaise, from Aragon, is one of the most flamboyant dances in the set.

The Aubade, (Morning Piece) has bubbling flutes to the fore again with pizzicato strings.

The Catalane is again boldly Spanish, with triplet and duplet rhythms and the cellos to the fore in a smouldering dance which only bursts into flame at the end.

The Madrilene begins atmospherically, then becomes a rollicking dance which involves ricochet bowing in the strings.

Finally the Navarraise sets off with percussive accompaniment to a rather arrogant main theme before the Aragonaise returns to user in a bacchanalian finish.

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HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Le Corsaire (1844)

HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Le Corsaire (1844)

Following the break-up of his marriage in 1843 Berlioz busied himself with drawing together a manual for composers on how to write for the various instruments of the orchestra — intriguing in that, almost uniquely, he had become one of the first virtuoso orchestrators in musical history with no keyboard skills, and with scarcely any practical ability on any orchestral instruments either; he could apparently play the flute after a fashion and also had a little knowledge of the guitar, but he relied largely on flair, and had been known, for example, to write for clarinets notes outside their range. Nevertheless, his Treatise on Instrumentation became, with Rimsky ­Korsakov’s similar work, the seminal 19th century work on the subject.

In August 1844, still smarting from Harriet’s departure (although by now he had a new mistress), he took a recuperative holiday in Nice and, as if to reiterate his credentials, wrote while he was there one of his most virtuosic concert overtures, Le Corsaire, or The Pirate. Originally he called it La Tour de Nice, (The Tower of Nice), but then realised he needed a more flamboyant title and, feeding on his literary knowledge, named it Le Corsaire Rouge (The Red Pirate) after James Fennimore Cooper’s novel The Red Rover, but then, to Europeanise it, reduced it to Le Corsaire after a poem by Byron. The overture was premiered in January 1845 under its Nice title, and, finally as Le Corsaire, has remained a staple of orchestral repertoire together with most of his other concert-openers.

The overture begins with a scintillating flourish, testing the whole orchestra, before his characteristic lyrical introduction introduces a note of romantic wistfulness. The Allegro shortly reintroduces us to the opening flourish, leading to the main theme which has an irresistible swagger and later, following the development section, returns with still further brilliance. The coda brings the work to a flashing conclusion.

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JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)  Tone Poem: Finlandia, Op 26 (1900)

JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Tone Poem: Finlandia, Op 26 (1900)

2017 saw the 60th anniversary of the death of one of the twentieth century’s great composers, Jean Sibelius; beginning as a major participant in the nationalist movement amongst composers such as Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Grieg and Smetana, Sibelius followed the former two in producing a symphony cycle which transcended its origins and developed into a universal utterance of huge importance in the history of music.

Sibelius was born into the family of a doctor in a small village in the south of Finland and until he went to school spoke Swedish, as it was the language of his social class. Having begun to learn Finnish he developed a huge interest in the legends and folk culture of his country, although Swedish remained his first language for some while. At this time Finland was a Grand-Duchy of Russia, the result of defeat late in the eighteenth century, and in his early years Sibelius, in common with many of his compatriots, came to resent bitterly the oppressive laws imposed by the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, a new tranche arriving in 1898.

As with Berlioz we have reason to thank Fate for its intervention in the career of Sibelius. His early musical development centred round the violin, and he became proficient enough to audition, though unsuccessfully, for the famous Vienna Philharmonic whilst studying composition in Vienna with Robert Fuchs. Had he achieved that seat in the VPO we might never have had Sibelius’s symphony-cycle, and perhaps not even his violin concerto, safely within the half-dozen greatest violin concertos of all. Many compositions were to spring from his deep literary interest and nationalist concern, including the Karelia Suite, the symphonic poem En Saga and the Lemminkainen Suite, which comprises four Legends based on the Finnish epic poem Kalevala and including the magical Swan of Tuonela.

Strangely, however, Sibelius laid down his pen following the Seventh Symphony and the symphonic poem Tapiola in 1926 and wrote no more until his death in 1957, although he enjoyed overseeing and appraising recordings of his works by conductors such as Robert Kajanus and Sir Thomas Beecham, one of his greatest champions.

Completed in 1900 to express the determination and national integrity of his beloved Finland, Finlandia has become perhaps the epitome of nationalist compositions. Not surprisingly the work met with the displeasure of the Russian authorities, and intriguingly it was performed, it seems, under a series of alternative titles, including the wonderfully inappropriate Happy feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring!

It begins with a defiant snarl in the brass and timpani, which is answered by reverent woodwind and then richly expressive strings. Shortly a serenely confident theme arrives in the flute and a woodwind choir, which leads into a volcanic Allegro, in which the ‘snarl’ reappears. Shortly the mood calms and a magnificently heartfelt melody ensues; this would soon be taken up as Finland’s national hymn. Finally the Allegro ends in a triumph of optimism.

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EMIL von REZNICEK (1860-1945) Overture: Donna Diana (1894)

EMIL von REZNICEK (1860-1945) Overture: Donna Diana (1894)

Reznicek was born in Austria of Czech parentage and began conducting and composing during his Music Degree in Graz before moving to Berlin and then Prague, where he was Musical Director for the Prague Infantry. Here his operawas premiered in 1894, and it became his greatest success. Eventually settling in Berlin he toured all over Europe, including several visits to Russia and to Britain.

Unlike many musicians who were ensnared against their better judgment or left Germany to go into exile, he managed to remain aloof from the rise of the Nazis, remaining a working composer and conductor through the war until his death in August 1945 right at the end of the War.

He moved in exalted circles, counting himself a friend and colleague of Richard Strauss in the 1910s, although he did make fun musically of what he saw as Strauss’s overblown ego; apparently his symphonic poem Schlemihl (1912) can be seen as a direct parody of Strauss’s autobiographical Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Donna Diana overture. The opera as a whole is an adaptation of a comic play by the 17th century Spanish dramatist Agustin Moreto y Cavana, El Desden con el Desden, (Distain with Disdain), and the plot centres round Donna Diana, proud and haughty daughter of the Count Sovereign of Barcelona. She has several sincere suitors, including Don Cesar, but she rejects him with disdain time and time again; eventually he plays her at her own game and stands on his own dignity, whereupon she realises her mistake and succumbs.

The opera has fallen out of use, but the gloriously effervescent overture remains popular. It begins with a witty false start both rhythmically and in terms of key, but the first violins take charge and set off the bubbly first theme, which is quickly taken up by the full orchestra. Shortly the bubbly theme in the wind becomes a counterpoint to the serenely lyrical second theme in the upper strings. Both themes are also involved in the development, which features the woodwind while the violas draw the short straw and chatter away underneath. Soon the main themes return and the piece works itself towards a humorous conclusion.

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