Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Siegfried Idyll (1870)

Picture the scene: it is Christmas morning, 1870, at the Villa Triebschen on Lake Lucerne, and amidst much secret whispering and movement of chairs and music-stands a small orchestra of thirteen players is quietly arranging itself on the stairs leading up to the bedroom of Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt, former wife of the conductor and pianist Hans von Bulow, and mother of Siegfried, the year-old son of Richard Wagner . Richard opens the door to  the  bedroom, where his wife is nursing the baby, and the gentle strains of a violin begin arguably the most sublime musical gift ever composed.

Christmas Day also happened to be Cosima’s birthday, hence the full title of the work : Triebschen Idyll, with Fidi’s birdsong and orange sunrise, presented as a Symphonic Birthday Greeting to his Cosimo by her Richard; ‘Fidi’ was their pet name for Siegfried. However Wagner’s gift to her was not just to celebrate the two coinciding festive days; the birth of their son had, virtually for the first time in the composer’s life, bestowed on him the happiness and domestic security which he felt he deserved, although even now, engaged upon one of the greatest musical projects in the history of music, the four-opera, fourteen­ hour Ring Cycle, he was still struggling financially. Cosima’s marriage had finally been dissolved amidst some scandal in August 1870 and her new marriage to Richard solemnised almost at once; her former husband nevertheless was to remain a champion of Wagner’s music despite his wife’s defection.

Amongst the players on that historic morning was Hans Richter (1843-1916), who, it is said, used to row out to the middle of the lake to practise his thirteen­ bar trumpet part out of Cosima’s earshot. Within a few years he was Wagner’s preferred conductor for the early Ring Cycles at Bayreuth, but he also became a prime exponent not only of the music of Wagner’s bete noir Brahms, but also that of Edward Elgar during his time as principal conductor of the Halle Orchestra from 1899 until 1911. Wagner’s son Siegfried was to become a fiercely protective Director of the Bayreuth Festival for many years.

The music of the Siegfried Idyll is closely related to the love duet between Siegfried and Brunnhilde in the third act of Siegfried, the penultimate opera in the Ring cycle, which Wagner was writing at the time of the birth of his son, although the ‘sleep’ motif introduced by the flute during the first section of the Idyll is also at the core of the final scene of the second opera, Die Walkure; to the beautiful strains of the Magic Fire Music Wotan puts his errant daughter to sleep surrounded by fire, from which she can only be rescued by a true hero, Siegfried. It is thought that the two main themes of the Idyll, the violin theme at the start and the woodwind ensemble which introduces the more urgent middle section, were sketched at the time Wagner met Cosima in 1863. Because of the deeply personal nature of the work Wagner refused to have it published until penury forced his hand. Today it is performed either in the original thirteen-instrument scoring with one player to a part, or using fuller strings without overpowering the small numbers of woodwind (flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon) and brass (two horns, trumpet), as in tonight’s performance.

The work begins quietly and intimately with strings alone but rises soon to lyrical heights, initiated by material related to the ‘sleep motif’ and including several musical sighs of love, punctuated by a triplet figure perhaps representing a fluttering, lovelorn heart. The music dissolves into a semplice (‘simple’) section, the oboe introducing a lullaby, the only theme not from the opera. This leads into the woodwind choir, strings and brass eventually helping to propel the most passionate climax, which dissolves into a heroic horn solo. Gradually the music becomes urgent again leading to a much more strident version of the opening string theme,  but now the passion is spent and this absolute masterpiece finally retreats into the intimacy of the opening.

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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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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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