Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic – Program Notes – March 5, 2016
(Kirby Center for Creative Arts, Wyoming Seminary, Kingston @ 8 p.m.)
By Peter Wynne
For the third musical journey of our 2015-16 season, we visit the Land of the Midnight Sun as maestro Lawrence Loh and the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic explore works by three Scandinavian composers: Carl Nielsen, Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius.
Nielsen: Helios Overture, Opus 17
Carl Nielsen (born Funen, Denmark, 1865; died Copenhagen, 1931) was the seventh of twelve children born into a poor but musical family on Funen, one of the biggest of the hundreds of islands that make up most of Denmark.
A house painter by trade, Nielsen’s father was also a capable musician who played fiddle and cornet at country dances. His mother sang folksongs. The composer’s education, both musical and academic, was spotty, but his father’s early instruction allowed the 14-year-old Nielsen to land a position as a trombonist in a battalion band and to play fiddle at country dances back home when the military didn’t need his services.
During this time, Nielsen wrote a number of trios and quartets, now lost, for brass instruments. He also took violin lessons and composed some chamber pieces, and one of those, a string quartet, helped him gain entry into the bigger world of concert music. The home base of the battalion band was Odense, the capital of Funen, and there Nielsen made the acquaintance of a parliamentarian and high school headmaster who gave him an introduction to the director of the Copenhagen Conservatory of Music, composer Niels Gade.
Nielsen went to the Danish capital in May 1883, taking along his violin and a copy of his recently completed String Quartet in D minor. Gade was impressed, and Nielsen went back the following December to take the conservatory entrance exam. The composer-to-be was admitted to the school on scholarship and completed his studies in three years.
At the Copenhagen Conservatory, he had chosen the violin as his main instrument and was able to secure positions as a violinist first with the Tivoli Concert Hall Orchestra, then with the Orchestra of the Chapel Royal. He could now make a living while composing music and could even consider marriage, which he did in a few years. In the spring of 1891, traveling in Paris, he ran into a young Danish sculptor, Anne Marie Broderson, whom he had met some time before. Within weeks the two had married.
Friends described the pair as well matched, but their marriage had its difficulties, with Anne Marie frequently traveling for extended periods, leaving Nielsen at home to care for the three children they soon had while also trying to compose and fulfill his duties at the Chapel Royal. In 1903, the two got the chance to travel together. Anne Marie was awarded a grant to go to Greece to copy sculptures at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, and Nielsen was able to get a leave of absence and join her.
The Athens conservatory, the Odeion, put a study room with a piano at Nielsen’s disposal, and it was here, beginning in March 1903, that he wrote the concert overture we’ll hear tonight. Coming from a misty northern climate, the composer was much taken with Greece and its sunshine.
In late March, he wrote to a friend and pupil back in Denmark: “Now it is scorchingly hot; Helios burns all day and I am writing away at my new solar system; a long introduction with sunrise and morning song is finished, and I have begun on the allegro.” Toward the end of April he finished his overture which musically evokes the sun rising from the Aegean Sea, blazing across the sky and sinking over the horizon at sunset.
The overture begins with a sustained low-string note that swells and fades twice before horns, undulating strings and woodwinds begin sounding a melody that gradually rises to a climax for full orchestra. A trumpet fanfare introduces a melody in a quick martial tempo. The woodwinds then offer a supple melody in a gentler tempo and, after another flourish from the brasses, the strings leap into an energetic fugue-like passage that leads to a full-orchestra reprise of the martial theme. From here the music subsides into the calm that began the overture, the solo horn and woodwinds recalling the beginning motifs as the low strings slip into silence.
Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Opus 16
The Concerto in A minor of Edvard Grieg (born Bergen, Norway, 1843; died Bergen, 1907) was written when the composer was 25 years old and has been a favorite with laymen and professionals for nearly 150 years.
What delighted listeners in 1869, when the concerto premiered, still does today: the composer’s melodic invention and his skillful blending of German Romantic and Norwegian folk elements. Grieg had studied piano with his mother at home in Norway, but began his formal training at the Leipzig Conservatory, which he entered at age 15. He trained in piano performance from 1858 to 1862 with an eye to becoming a concert soloist.
While in Leipzig, Grieg developed what would be a lifelong admiration for the music of Robert Schumann, who had died two years before Grieg arrived in Germany, but his principal piano teacher at the conservatory had been a close friend of Schumann’s and introduced his pupil to Schumann’s music. Grieg also heard Clara Schumann, the composer’s widow and herself a virtuoso pianist, play her husband’s Concerto in A minor. Grieg considered that performance one of the high points of his Leipzig years.
Back in Norway, Grieg was hard pressed to eke out a living in Kristiania, then the Norwegian capital. In the early 1860s, it was a provincial place with few concerts and an essentially amateur orchestra. Grieg gave piano lessons for little pay and didn’t get much composing done, but he and colleague Johan Svendsen managed to found the Kristiania Musikforening, which would eventually become the Oslo Philharmonic.
In 1864, Grieg met composer Rikard Nordraak, who introduced his slightly younger colleague to Norwegian folk music. The two became close friends and laid plans to create a Norwegian national style of composition. Nordraak’s death in 1866 at age 24 only strengthened Grieg’s resolve to bring their plans to fruition.
Grieg wrote most of his piano concerto during the summer of 1868. The previous year he had married his cousin, pianist Nina Hagerup, who gave birth in April to their daughter Alexandra. Now in June, Grieg journeyed to Denmark with Nina and the baby, leaving the two with Nina’s family in Copenhagen before heading about 10 miles north to Søllerød to join two friends, Danish composer Emil Horneman and pianist Edmund Neupert, who was also a composer.
They settled at the local inn and, in a nearby cottage, Grieg found the peace and quiet he needed to compose. He and Neupert discussed the work as it progressed. Grieg, a very capable pianist, still greatly valued Neupert’s comments.
Returning to Kristiania that autumn, Grieg worked on writing the orchestra parts for his concerto, but found his labors slow-going. He had other duties, such as conducting the Kristiania Musikforening. Neupert was scheduled to premiere the piece in Copenhagen soon after Christmas, but the performance had to be delayed. With Neupert performing, the work finally took its maiden bow on April 3, 1869, to great acclaim. The Norwegian premiere didn’t come until August 7th, again with Neupert soloing.
The Grieg concerto is in the traditional concerto with the two outer movements in a quick tempo and the middle movement an adagio.
- The first movement, marked “Allegro,” is in sonata form, pitting two principal themes against each other. The introduction is highly dramatic: a tympani roll followed by the piano’s percussive descent — by intervals of a fourth — through nearly the entire range of the instrument. The first theme comes in immediately and has an uneven, “dotted” rhythm that’s sometimes described as being almost martial.
Skittering transitional material precedes the arrival of the second theme. Broad and lyrical, it’s introduced by the lower strings, then taken up by the piano. This second theme is a variant of a Norwegian folksong. Grieg then weaves his themes together in a development section that builds toward a highly dramatic cadenza, where the composer reexamines all the thematic ideas presented so far. The movement ends with a spirited coda.
- The slow movement, marked “Adagio,” begins in a gentle way; it’s like a lullaby or a reverie, and the same theme and mood open and close the movement. The middle section is dominated by the piano and, with its three-part form and contrasting middle section, the movement calls to mind the dance movement or scherzo found in a classical symphony, but typically omitted from a concerto.
III. Composers frequently use the rondo for the last movement of a concerto, and Grieg uses something very like a rondo for his final movement, which is marked “Allegro mederato molto e marcato.”
What’s called the “rondo theme,” the one that keeps returning, is in the form of a Norwegian folkdance called the “halling,” although the melody is Grieg’s. The episodes between the statements of that theme are worthy of notice. The second is a lovely songlike melody that’s first sounded by the flute, and the third serves as a brief cadenza for the piano.
For the final appearance of the rondo theme, Grieg shifts its meter from a count of two to a count of three before bringing back the haunting melody of the second episode to serve as the coda to the movement and the entire concerto.
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D, Opus 43
Jean Sibelius (born Hämeenlinna, 1865; died Järvenpää, 1957) was the first Finnish composer to earn international acclaim, and that was just months before he began working in earnest on his second symphony.
In 1901-02, when Sibelius wrote the piece we’ll hear tonight, there was no Finnish nation. Finland had been Swedish territory for more than six centuries until Sweden was defeated by Russia in one of the many wars that swirled through Napoleonic Europe. In 1809, the region became an autonomous Russian grand duchy and, while this autonomy allowed the Finns to keep many of their traditional prerogatives, they were soon eyeing the nationalist movements that were popping up across Europe and tentatively starting one of their own.
The year 1835 saw the publication of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Finnish began replacing Swedish as the language of the upper classes. That language and Finnish culture were seen as keys to nation-building, a way of reaching out to the farmers and tradesman who typically spoke Finnish. Swedish-language books about Finns and Finland began appearing, and a novel in Finnish, Aleksis Kivi’s The Seven Brothers, was published in 1870.
Sibelius’s family still spoke Swedish at the time the composer was born, but the nationalist movement was quickly gaining momentum and would get a real boost in 1899, when Czar Nicholas II began a program of russification that stripped local legislatures of their long held power, gave the imperial government the right to rule Finland directly and made Russian the official language of the country.
Sibelius was swept along by a rising nationalist tide, and much of his early music had a decidedly nationalistic tinge. The Kalevala was the inspiration for several of his major early works, including his 1892 Kullervo; his Lemminkainen Suite (a.k.a. Four Legends from the Kalevala), premiered in 1896; and Tulen Synty (The Origin of Fire), composed in 1901-02.
Yet another nationalistic work was Sibelius’s 1900 Finlandia, which began as incidental music for what was billed as a “Press Celebration.” These “celebrations” were nominally benefits for newspaper pension funds but in truth were thinly veiled patriotic pageants.
For a “Press Celebration” in Helsinki in November 1899, the organizers planned a series of tableaux vivants showing episodes and heroes from Finnish history. Sibelius, who was by then a hometown hero for his musical patriotism, was asked to compose the music.
The final tableau was entitled “Finland Awakes,” and Sibelius provided something he called simply “Suomi,” the Finnish name for Finland. The Helsinki Philharmonic performed the piece a few weeks later, and it was so successful the orchestra took it on a concert tour along with a revised version of the composer’s Symphony No. 1. By this time Sibelius had revised “Suomi” and given it its now familiar title “Finlandia.”
The tour visited thirteen major European cities, including Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg and Berlin, and wound up in the French capital, where the 1900 Paris International Exposition was going full throttle. The critics were highly favorable and audiences were delighted with Sibelius’s music. The composer was suddenly a figure of international stature.
Following that success, an aristocratic supporter of the composer, Baron Axel Carpelan, arranged for Sibelius to spend the late autumn and the winter of 1900-01 in Italy, advising the composer that this was the country “where one learns cantabile, balance and harmony, plasticity and symmetry of lines, a country where everything is beautiful – even the ugly.”
Sibelius — with wife Aino and daughters Eva and Ruth in tow — arrived in Italy at the end of January 1901. The composer rented a villa near the Ligurian seafront town of Rapallo and quickly got to work on what would be his second symphony. He first thought of his new project as a tone poem centering on a confrontation between Don Juan and a personified Death. Soon he was thinking of using the musical sketches he had completed for a series of tone poems based on characters from Dante’s Divine Comedy.
But when he got back to Finland in June, however, Sibelius began to understand that his sketches were really the basis of a four-movement symphony. With that, he worked through the summer and fall, completing the symphony in November, then revising it extensively, a task he wrapped up in January 1902.
- The first movement (Allegretto) opens with a series of chords sounded in a rising three-note progression that forms a sort of motif for the movement and, indeed, the entire symphony. Sibelius then introduces other fragments of melody, gradually weaving all his material together into ever-lengthening phrases, a procedure that’s just the opposite of the traditional symphonic approach, where the first movement presents a pair of contrasting melodies that the composer then takes apart and manipulates in a development section before recapping the principal theme for the finale.
- The timpani introduce the second movement (Tempo andante, ma rubato) followed by a lengthy passage where the cellists and bassists pluck their instruments. Bassoons now come in, playing a somber theme Sibelius apparently first conceived as the confrontation between Don Juan and Death. After a pause, the composer brings in a second theme, long and flowing, and this one is said to be a relic of his thoughts about Dante. The development concentrates on the somber “Don Juan” material and ends with another emphatic pause. In the recapitulation, Sibelius weaves together material related to both his themes and, as in the Allegretto, the movement ends on a pensive note.
III. Sibelius’s third movement (Vivacissimo) follows the three-part format that goes back to the classical symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. The opening section contrasts perpetual motion in the strings with minor-key material taken up by different woodwind voices. The middle section opens with a quiet folklike melody played by solo oboe. This brief pastoral moment is shattered by the return of the opening music. Then Sibelius brings back the solo oboe before ending the movement, which leads without pause into the symphony’s finale.
- The final movement (Finale – Allegro moderato) opens with the rising three-tone motif that began the symphony but is now presented in heroic guise. A secondary theme brings back the threatening sounds of the second movement, with the oboe introducing a motive that Aino Sibelius said her husband wrote in memory of one of her sisters, who was a suicide. A brief brass fanfare closes the exposition and the development that follows builds gradually to a huge climax and a return of the opening music. Sibelius now restates his second theme, reaching inexorably toward a conclusion. A brass fanfare signals the beginning of the end, with the trumpets first, then the entire brass section taking up a final, transformed version of the opening three-note motive to close the symphony.
With Sibelius conducting, the Helsinki Philharmonic premiered the symphony with notable success in early March of 1902. Sibelius’s friend, the composer and conductor Robert Kajanus, opined that the Helsinki audience had taken the new symphony as an expression of the political conflict then gripping Finland, hinting at an ultimate Finnish triumph. Sibelius wanted no part of this interpretation, insisting his new symphony had no secret program behind it, but there’s no question that he had used the same sort of musical language and gestures found in his overtly nationalistic pieces.