INTRODUCING THE PROGRAM
Fascination & Rhythm T W O S Y M P H O N I E S , composed a hundred years apart.
A Danish music critic, after hearing an early performance of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, composed in 1911, commented: “It is the new dominant element in 20th-century music, rhythm, that now makes its entry into the Danish symphony.” Franz Liszt is said to have called Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, composed in 1811-12, “the apotheosis of rhythm.” Although Liszt’s remark may just be a rejoinder to what Richard Wagner said, there’s no question that these are two symphonies that set toes tapping. To compose music so strongly driven by rhythm was a populist gesture in both Beethoven’s time and Nielsen’s. In fact, the subtitle of Nielsen’s Third Symphony, “Sinfonia espansiva,” seems to refer not to an expanded orchestra or longer duration, but to the composer’s expansive feelings toward the world in general. Nielsen (1865-1931) is often compared to another Northern symphonist, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), with Sibelius as the brooding Finn painting Arctic landscapes and Nielsen as the hearty, cheerful Dane from Scandinavia’s sunny south. The comparison is apt as far as it goes, but Nielsen also aspired to the energy and clarity of Beethoven, giving his music considerable force as well as folksy good cheer. So while the opening movement of Nielsen’s Third Symphony is in 3/4 time, its fierce energy seems to preclude calling it a “waltz,” as some commentators have done. The ensuing second movement pastorale could hardly provide greater contrast — static in harmony, ecstatic in mood, with a pretty flute melody and two wordless singing voices. After a rather sardonic scherzo that anticipates Shostakovich, the big-hearted finale spins free-form variations on a good solid folk-style theme. Beethoven, too, mixed fierce and folk in his Seventh Symphony — or, if you like, achieved a synthesis of his previous two symphonies, combining the energy of the Fifth with the pastoral song of the Sixth. Rhythmic patterns — especially the dactyl meter of dum-da-da — hold it all together and drive it forward, through the high-stepping dance of the first movement, the somber meditation of the second, the hearty laughter of the third, and (topping all that went before) the irresistible momentum of the finale. —David Wright David Wright lives and writes in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He previously served as program annotator for the New York Philharmonic.
Severance Hall 2012-13
Introducing the Program