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2016-2017 Subscription Series April 15 and 16, 2017 Program Notes By Dr. Richard E. Rodda Festina Lente for Strings (1988) Arvo Pärt (born in 1935) Arvo Pärt, born in 1935 in Paide, Estonia, fifty miles southeast of Tallinn, graduated from the Tallinn Conservatory in 1963 while working as a recording director in the music division of the Estonian Radio. A year before leaving the Conservatory, he won first prize in the All-Union Young Composers’ Competition for a children’s cantata and an oratorio. In 1980, he emigrated to Vienna, where he took Austrian citizenship; he moved to Berlin in 1982 and has recently returned to Tallinn. Pärt’s many distinctions include the Artistic Award of the Estonian Society in Stockholm, honorary memberships in the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Belgium’s Royal Academy of Arts, five Grammy nominations, and recognition as a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République Française. In his early works, Pärt explored the influences of the Soviet music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, the serial principles of Schoenberg, and the techniques of collage and quotation, but in the late 1960s he abandoned creative work for several years and devoted himself to the study of such Medieval and Renaissance composers as Machaut, Ockeghem, Obrecht, and Josquin. Guided by the spirit and method of those ancient masters, Pärt developed a distinctive idiom that utilizes quiet dynamics, rhythmic stasis, and open-interval and triadic harmonies to create a thoughtful mood of mystical introspection reflecting the composer’s personal piety. Pärt calls his manner of composition “tintinnabulation,” from the Latin word for bells. “Tintinnabulation,” the composer explains, “is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers — in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises — and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here, I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comfort me. I work with


very few elements — with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials — with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.” The apparently enigmatic title of the 1988 Festina Lente — “Fast Slow” — is explained by the music’s structure, in which a long, winding melody is simultaneously sounded in three different tempos — at speed in the violas, twice as fast in the violins, and twice as slow in the basses. This involved technique, intended to provide a subtle underlying unity without calling undue attention to its own highly intellectualized structural function, is known as a “mensuration canon” (“mensuration” is the Renaissance equivalent of the modern time signature; “canon” is the derivation of a polyphonic piece from a single melodic line), and was borrowed by Pärt from Ockeghem and other of the most learned fifteenth-century masters. Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 (1868-1869) Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) Grieg completed his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1863. Rather than heading directly home to Norway, however, he settled in Copenhagen to study privately with Niels Gade, at that time Denmark’s most prominent musician and generally regarded as the founder of the Scandinavian school of composition. Back in Norway, Grieg’s creative work was concentrated on the large forms advocated by his Leipzig teachers and by Gade. By 1867, he had produced the Piano Sonata, the first two Violin and Piano Sonatas, a Symphony (long unpublished and made available only as recently as 1981) and the concert overture In Autumn. He also carried on his work to promote native music, and gave an unprecedented concert exclusively of Norwegian compositions in 1866. Grieg arranged to have the summer of 1868 free of duties, and he returned to Denmark for an extended vacation at a secluded retreat at Sölleröd, where he began his Piano Concerto. He thoroughly enjoyed that summer, sleeping late, taking long walks, eating well, and tipping a glass in the evenings with friends at the local inn. The sylvan setting spurred his creative energies, and the new Concerto was largely completed by the time he returned to Norway in the fall. The Concerto’s first movement opens with a bold summons by the soloist. The main theme is given by the woodwinds and taken over almost immediately by the piano. A flashing transition, filled with skipping rhythms, leads to the second theme, a tender cello melody wrapped in the warm harmonies of the trombones. An episodic


development section, launched by the full orchestra playing the movement’s opening motive, is largely based on the main theme in dialogue. The recapitulation returns the earlier themes, after which the piano displays a tightly woven cadenza. The stern introductory measures are recalled to close the movement. The Adagio begins with a song filled with sentiment and nostalgia played by the strings and rounded off by touching phrases in the solo horn. The soloist weaves elaborate musical filigree above the simple accompaniment before the lovely song returns in an enriched setting. The themes of the finale’s outer sections are constructed in the rhythms of a popular Norwegian dance, the halling. The movement’s central portion presents a wonderful melodic inspiration, introduced by the solo flute, that derives from the dreamy atmosphere of the preceding movement. Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 (1915, revised through 1919) Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) For the three years after he issued his brooding Fourth Symphony in 1911, Sibelius was largely concerned with writing program music: The Dryad, Scènes historiques, The Bard, The Océanides, Rakastava. He even considered composing a ballet titled King Fjalar at that time, but rejected the idea: “I cannot become a prolific writer. It would mean killing all my reputation and my art. I have made my name in the world by straightforward means. I must go on in the same way. Perhaps I am too much of a hypochondriac, but I cannot waste on a few ballet steps a motif that would be excellently suited to symphonic composition.” As early as 1912, he envisioned a successor to the Fourth Symphony, but did not have any concrete ideas for the work until shortly before he left for a visit to the United States in May 1914 to conduct some of his compositions at the Norfolk (Connecticut) Music Festival. (The Océanides was commissioned for the occasion.) He returned to Finland in July; war erupted on the Continent the next month. In September, he described his mood over the terrifying political events as emotionally “in a deep dale,” but added, “I already begin to see dimly the mountain I shall certainly ascend.... God opens the door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.” He could not begin work on the piece immediately, however. One of his main sources of income — performance royalties from his German publisher, Breitkopf und Härtel — was severely diminished because of the war-time turmoil, and he was forced to churn out a stream of songs and piano


miniatures and to undertake tours to Gothenburg, Oslo and Bergen to pay the household bills. Early in 1915, Sibelius learned that a national celebration was planned for his fiftieth birthday (December 8th), and that the government was commissioning from him a new symphony for the festive concert in Helsinki. He withdrew into the isolation of his country home at Järvenpää, thirty miles north of Helsinki (today a lovely museum to the composer), to devote himself to the gestating work, and admitted to his diary, “I love this life so infinitely, and feel that it must stamp everything that I compose.” He had to rush to finish the work for the concert in December, even making changes in the parts during the final rehearsal, but the Symphony was presented as the centerpiece of the tribute to the man the program described as “Finland’s greatest son.” Sibelius’ birthday was a veritable national holiday, and he was lionized with speeches, telegrams, banquets, greetings and gifts; the Fifth Symphony met with great acclaim. The concert, which also included The Océanides and the two Violin Serenades, was given three additional times during the following weeks. Though the Fifth Symphony pleased its first audience, it did not completely please its composer. Sibelius regarded it as one of his most important scores, and expended enormous effort on polishing the work during the four years after its premiere. He first returned to the piece in 1916 with “a view to [its] still greater concentration in form and content.” This version, intended for a Stockholm performance in 1917 that was cancelled because of the deteriorating political situation, was first presented under Sibelius’ direction in Helsinki on December 14, 1916. Sibelius again took up the score in 1918, despite the miserable times spread throughout the country by the civil war which erupted in Finland in the wake of the Russian Revolution: the composer’s isolated home was broken into twice by combatants searching for weapons (Sibelius played piano during the episode to calm his family); his brother, a physician, was killed in the hostilities. Convinced by friends to move to the relative safety of Helsinki, Sibelius continued the Symphony’s revision, noting on May 20, 1918, “[It is] in a new form, practically composed anew; I work at it daily.” (The Sixth and Seventh Symphonies were first mooted that same year.) The Symphony No. 5 achieved its definitive form the following year, and was first heard in that version on November 24, 1919 in Helsinki; Sibelius conducted. Theorists have long debated whether Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony is in three or four movements; even the composer himself left contradictory evidence on the matter. The


contention centers on the first two sections, a broad essay in leisurely tempo and a spirited scherzo, played without pause and related thematically. The opening portion is in a sort of truncated sonata form, though it is of less interest to discern its structural divisions than to follow the long arches of musical tension and release that Sibelius built through manipulation of the fragmentary, germinal theme presented at the beginning by the horns. The scherzo grows seamlessly from the music of the first section. At first dance-like and even playful, it accumulates dynamic energy as it unfolds, ending with a whirling torrent of sound. The following Andante, formally a theme and variations, is predominantly tranquil in mood, though punctuated by several piquant jabs of dissonance. “There are frequent moments in the music of Sibelius,” wrote Charles O’Connell of the Symphony’s finale, “when one hears almost inevitably the beat and whir of wings invisible, and this strange and characteristic effect almost always presages something magnificently portentous. We have it here.” The second theme is a bell-tone motive led by the horns that serves as background to the woodwinds’ long melodic lines. The whirring theme returns, after which the bell motive is treated in ostinato fashion, repeated over and over, building toward a climax until it seems about to burst from its own excitement — which it does. The forward motion abruptly stops, and the Symphony ends with six stentorian chords, separated by silence, proclaimed by the full orchestra.

April 2017 Program Notes  

The Best of Grieg and Sibelius

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