JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Symphony No 2 in D major, Op 43 (1901-2)

i. Allegretto – Poco allegro 

ii. Tempo andante, ma rubato – Poco allegro

iii. Vivacissimo – Lento e soave

iv. Finale: Allegro moderato – Moderato assai 

 It’s only just over sixty years since 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.

His early musical development centred round the violin, and he became proficient enough to audition, luckily for us unsuccessfully, for the famous Vienna Philharmonic whilst studying composition in Vienna with Robert Fuchs. Composition rapidly became his chief interest, and in 1892 he achieved success and popularity with one of his very first compositions, the large-scale choral and orchestral work Kullervo, based on legends from a Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala, which was to continue to inspire him. A stream of overtly nationalist compositions followed, including the Karelia Suite, Finlandia, the symphonic poem En Saga and the Lemminkainen Suite, which comprises four Legends based, once again, on the Kalevala and including the magical Swan of Tuonela.

Despite the fact that he resented the hegemony Russia held over Finland at the time, Sibelius’s early compositional influences were the Russian masters; there was more than a whiff of Tchaikovsky and Borodin in the First Symphony, but the plain fact is that within his first decade as a composer Sibelius’s voice had already become uniquely his own. A number of mature tone poems followed, including The Oceanides, an atmospheric seascape, and the Suite: Pelleas and Melisande, of which the first movement has been familiar since the fifties as the theme music of Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night. In 1905 he completed the final revision of his Violin Concerto, which has taken its place amongst the half-dozen greatest of all violin concertos. Throughout this time the symphony cycle developed through the popular Second and Fifth, the trenchant Third, and the esoteric Fourth and Sixth towards the wonderfully compact Seventh (1924), which has even been described by more than one commentator as the finest 20th-century symphony. Nothing remains of work on a rumoured Eighth Symphony.

In 1926 perhaps his finest tone poem, Tapiola, arrived, and then – silence. Rather like Rossini before him, for the last thirty years of his life until his death aged 91 in 1957 he wrote virtually nothing, living with his wife Aino on their estate, Ainola, in Finland, watching his reputation ebb and flow and occasionally involving himself in recordings of his works, particularly those made by his finest exponents at the time, Robert Kajanus, Serge Koussevitsky and Sir Thomas Beecham. Photographs of the composer range from the dashing good looks and flamboyant moustache of his early career to one taken only days before his death portraying suitably granitic features.

Stimulus for the Second Symphony seems to have begun in the late autumn of 1900 when a friend recommended that Sibelius take his family to Italy for a change of scene, and provided the money too. The friend was one Baron Axel Carpelan, who reminded Sibelius of the inspiration both Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss had found in Italy. The family took a mountain villa in Rapallo and Sibelius found the location a haven of peace; here he sketched some of the material of the symphony, including the main theme of the slow movement, and the Andante’s second theme came to him while he was visiting Florence, suggested by the legend of Don Juan / Don Giovanni. Indeed for a while he considered making what we know as the second movement of the symphony into a tone poem inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy.

In the event, he set to work on the symphony in earnest when the family returned to Finland; it was finished in early 1902 and premiered to great acclaim by the Helsinki Philharmonic in March, the composer himself conducting. Where the First Symphony had evoked the wintry landscapes of Finland, the Second was bathed with a touch of Italian warmth; although some saw it as another burst of Finnish nationalism, Sibelius denied this – he felt that he had poured his soul into the symphony. Always given to revising his work, Sibelius tinkered a little with the Second, and the final version was given first in Stockholm in November 1903. The reception was again very enthusiastic.

The work begins memorably, with strings expressively intoning a phrase based on a three-note ascending motif, shortly accompanying a perky oboe tune which turns the three-note motif on its head, horns replying, as they do many times in the work, with noble restraint. The second subject again utilises the descending three-note motif, this time still more romantically. The motif appears in numerous guises, in fact, all through the symphony. The development takes us into dramatic territory, sometimes mysterious, sometimes menacing, sometimes more overtly tempestuous, then the recap and coda bring us full circle, the opening theme disappearing into calm.

Sinister timps introduce basses and then cellos, who begin the Tempo Andante with an extended passage of mysterious pizzicato, from which the bassoons emerge in octaves to take us into more grotesque territory, their material once again beginning with the ascending motif. Events take a more urgent turn, signalling the arrival of the strings, and shortly we are propelled into trenchant, almost tragic territory. The second subject feels on the face of it to be more peaceful – indeed Sibelius here wrote ‘Christus’ in the original score – but there is huge regret there, which quickens into rage, the coda only partly assuaging.

The Scherzo bursts into life like a machine gun, then seethes its way towards climax after climax, the three-note motif still in evidence. A pastoral trio section led by the woodwind with horns and bassoons accompaning calms the mood, but then the scherzo blazes again. As it burns itself out the trio returns, but this time tumultuously makes its way directly into the glorious D major opening theme of the finale – and there is the motif again. Brass, timpani and double basses growl in sinister fashion underneath and horns comment nobly.

Shortly the second theme opens out the textures and lets us nurse a degree of optimism, but then violas and cellos set out on a bleak F sharp minor ostinato, softly accompanying a world-weary woodwind figure above them; the change to major will be majestic next time. We gradually return to the opening grandiosity, but back comes the viola/cello figure which rumbles away for many bars, now in D minor, this time gradually adding woodwind and basses, with desolate strings and later trumpets above. Horns intone an insistent syncopation and timpani a different one, while trombones gradually add a dotted, fanfare-like figure, the whole building through a huge crescendo towards the final conclusive change to D major. At long last the sun bathes the closing bars, with the entire orchestra at full tilt in a blaze of glory. As Robert Kajanus wrote: The last movement develops towards a triumphant conclusion intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future – at present a much-needed sentiment!

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Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) Symphony No 2 in D Major, op 73 (1877)

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) Symphony No 2 in D Major, op 73 (1877)

i.   Allegro non troppo

ii.  Adagio non troppo

iii. Allegretto grazioso (Quasi Andantino) — Presto ma non assai —Tempo 1

iv.  Allegro con spirito

There is unquestionably a feeling of release in Brahms’s D major Symphony. After having laboured with the First Symphony for some fifteen years encumbered by the burden of being perceived as Beethoven’s successor, he completed the Second only a year later, almost as if floodgates had been opened. The D major is consequently a wonderful complement to the First in C minor; where that great work ends having achieved a blaze of light after its dark striving, rather in the manner of Beethoven’s Fifth, the Second opens in a glow of autumnal sunshine. Indeed the work was begun on his summer holiday in 1877 at Portschach on Lake Worth, one of his favourite and most inspirational locations — the Violin Concerto Op 77 and the G major Violin Sonata Op 78 were to emerge from there in 1878, both in similar vein to Op 73 — and, excepting the more tormented moments of the slow movement, it sounds like the work of one at ease with himself at long last. In fact the journey from conception to first performance took only some four months, the first performance taking place at the Musikverein in Vienna on 30 December under Hans Richter, one of the composer’s most dedicated advocates. Not one normally much given to having fun, Brahms was so consumed with euphoria at having completed such a good-humoured work so easily that he teased his friends; his publisher Simrock was told that the symphony was ‘so melancholy you won’t be able to listen to it’, and after its first performance he told a friend, Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, who had not been able to attend: ‘The musicians play my music with black armbands because it sounds so mournful. It will be printed on black-edged paper.’

During Brahms’s lifetime the size of orchestral string sections increased considerably, gradually developing the tradition of large-size Brahms performances, whilst woodwind and brass sections retained one player to a part; many magnificent performances on this scale have been given, even with double woodwind, sometimes occasioning criticism of Brahms’s ‘thick’ scoring, but the composer’s own instinct was for smaller forces. Although he himself was constrained to conduct the Second Symphony in 1878 with no less than twenty five first violins, given the choice he opted for much smaller sections, his favourite orchestra, the Meiningen Court Orchestra, having a string section of only 9, 9, 4, 4, 4 (firsts to basses). The M50 is pleased therefore to be giving its performance tonight in relatively authentic scale. Indeed the luminosity of much of the scoring in the Second Symphony is enhanced by the use of smaller sections.

The first movement opens serenely with a three-note figure (D, C#, D) in the cellos and basses which will pervade the work in various guises, and is explored in depth in the first movement development section; at the very opening it is answered by poised horns then the flute, then upper strings, before the first violins introduce a beautiful cantabile (singing) melody based on the initial motif. This leads into more strident, angular material with ascending leaps and Brahms’s characteristically muscular syncopation, sometimes as part of the melody, sometimes driving underneath. As always in Brahms the middle parts, violin II, viola, clarinet, horns and others, are often given great importance as the propulsive force. The second subject, sung by cellos and violas, is one of Brahms’s most serene inspirations. The crisis in the development sets the three notes of the motif in insistent syncopation within the ¾ time signature, and there is also a fugal passage based on the flute’s answering phrase from earlier. There is strident work for trombones, much more fully used in this work than in the First. The recap, when it comes, leads to a genial coda with playful staccato (strings pizzicato) answered by the horns recalling their very first entry earlier.

The darker Adagio is in the key of B major, and fails to fall into an accepted structure; its complexity makes it much harder work than the first movement. The opening echoes to a degree the First Symphony’s tortured Introduction, but reversed; the top line begins with cellos striving downwards, whilst the two bassoons’ counter—subject underneath aspires upwards to meet them. This section continues lyrically, but there is always an undercurrent of tension. Moving imperceptibly into 12/8 instead of 4/4 Brahms fosters a more gently lilting and somewhat wistful atmosphere with the woodwind, but each time the 4/4 returns the mood blackens, the first episode descending into true sturm und drang (‘storm and stress’ — a concept explored by composers such as Haydn in the late eighteenth century). As the movement progresses subject and counter—subject are used with the utmost skill. Eventually after its difficult journey the movement ends in peace.

The third movement, in G, lightens both the mood and the scoring. The pastoral opening theme, again with the initial semitones seminal, is introduced by oboe above plucked cellos, but once again there is a change of metre, one beat of the opening 3/4 ingeniously changing into a whole bar of 2/4, and the oboe’s melody transformed into a chattering motif for strings, then woodwind as a variant. Back in 3 the pastoral oboe theme becomes more luscious, but this is swept away by the final variant, Presto in 3/8, in which the theme represented in the backwards, quaver/crotchet rhythm actually inverts the shape of the oboe’s original phrase. The movement ends in pastoral stillness.

The finale, beginning with the D, C#, D motif again, proceeds in a tingling pianissimo for many bars until it springs to joyous life, eventually leading to a suavely noble theme not unlike that of the last movement of the First Symphony. Muscularity increases and a complete surprise ensues — Brahms turns into a Scotsman, introducing a passage of Scotch Snaps almost as if he were writing a Strathspey. During the development the initial motif is transformed into a triplet figure in a mood of temporary languor; this returns later, gradually transmuting into syncopations which propel us into the triumphant coda, with thrilling brass, bringing the work to a conclusion as joyful as Brahms was ever to write.

Notes by HDJ

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Rossini (1792 — 1868) Overture Semiramide (1823)

Rossini (1792 — 1868) Overture Semiramide (1823)

Rossini, as his music suggests, was one of the most flamboyant composers in the history of music; world—famous as a composer after just five birthdays, he retired from composing before his tenth birthday and subsequently became a gourmet of note, inventing, amongst other dishes, the steak dish Tournedos Rossini. You will have guessed, of course, that he was born on 29 February, and that his fame actually arrived when he was in his early twenties. By the age of 38 he had written thirty-eight operas, but in 1829 he put down his pen and wrote little thereafter except the odd private chamber work until his death nearly forty years later.

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 a piece which reflected the plot of the opera; unfortunately, as his story shows, 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.

Semiramide (Sem—i—ram—i—day) is one of Rossini’s finest operas. Based, like Tancredi, on a tragedy by Voltaire and set in Babylon, the work is one of a series of more serious operas (Opera Seria) inspired by the dramatic sbprano Isabella Colbran, following his line of comic operas (Opera Buffa), which had included The Barber of Seville and Cinderella (La Cenerento/a). Colbran became his mistress and then his wife, and she created the principal female roles in many of his Opera Seria.

The plot concerns Semiramide, Queen of Babylon, who wishes to marry Arsace and make him King, only to discover that he is her son. Eventually Arsace does succeed to the throne reluctantly when he kills Semiramide, “mistaking her in the dark for his rival Assur.

The overture to Semiramide too is, fittingly, one of Rossini’s finest, again using material from the opera, making it un-recyclable. It begins with solo timpani followed by quietly obsessive lower strings and crescendi, then there is a beautiful horn serenade with pizzicato accompaniment in the strings. The Presto begins with first violins in a theme which is at once softly energetic and elegant and shortly punctuated by brilliant woodwind comments, which leads to a strident climax with flashing upward scales. The second subject, marching strings accompanying virtuosic woodwind solos, leads then to scampering first violins in Rossini’s signature crescendo towards a further climax with military brass and woodwind — not for nothing was Rossini known as ‘Il Signor Crescendo’. All this repeats in the home key before a tragic ending.

Notes by HDJ

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