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Program Notes – April 5, 2014

Karelia Suite, op. 11

Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957)

Jean Sibelius stands alone as the single most important Scandinavian composer, and the greatest symphonist ever produced in that part of the world. His music is so thoroughly identified with his adopted country that it comes as a surprise to learn that he was born to Swedish parents who were living in Finland at the time. In fact, he never spoke a significant amount of Finnish until he began school at age eight. Although at one time he enrolled in law school, his true love was for music. So, after a short time he dropped out of the university to study music. Originally, he aspired to a career as virtuoso violinist and eventually auditioned (unsuccessfully) for the Vienna Philharmonic. His love for music was undaunted by his failed audition, and he concentrated on his other talent – composing. He would go on to become the dominant figure in Finnish musical history, unmatched to this day.

The Karelia Suite is one of his earliest published works. It is drawn from a much larger body of music originally composed to celebrate a region in southeast Finland, as part of a patriotic pageant that was held by students at the branch of Helsinki University in that district. The Karelia region has been a scene of conflict between Western and Russian influences for centuries. It is still divided, part of it within the sovereign nation of Finland, and part of it presently incorporated into Russia. The pageant presented in 1893 by the Finnish students portrayed a long series of events and conflicts between Russia and the Karelian people (who are ethnically diverse from other Finns).

Sibelius, who had just received international acclaim with his Kullervo Symphony was the obvious choice to provide music to support the drama. The full score of the Karelia music was only performed twice in its own time, although it has recently been revived. However, Sibelius knew how good the music was and extracted an overture (not usually included in the suite) and three purely orchestral interludes between the dramatic tableaux of the full work. These three movements make no attempt toward dazzling virtuosity, but reflect the simple, folksy atmosphere of the region and its people. It has become one of his most popular and frequently played minor pieces.

Rainbow Body

Christopher Theofanidis (b. 1967)

What can one say about a composer who hasn’t yet been acclaimed as part of the musical pantheon? The seeds may have been planted, but judgment on the fruit will be made by future generations. Christopher Theofanidis could be a rising star on the way up, or a meteor burning brightly as it enters the atmosphere. Time will tell, but if this work is a good predictor he will make it into the firmament.

Theofanidis is part of the new generation of composers who have given up the idea of shocking their audience with a blare of dissonant sound in favor of stating a musical idea and then developing it into something more than its initial substance. His sounds are not designed to overwhelm the audience with their strangeness, but rather to present something fundamentally already there … but to present it in a new way. His musical training is at the highest level (Yale University and Eastman School of Music). His works have been commissioned by major orchestras, and performed all over the world. He writes for all venues, from chamber music to opera and symphony orchestra, and it is very “listenable” … the exact opposite of what had become the previous avant garde (atonality, etc.)

Rainbow Body is a highly unusual work, combining two remote concepts into its inspiration. The composer himself states that it sprang from the music of Hildegard von Bingen (a medieval/mystic composer of Church music). However, it is also intended by Theofanidis to represent the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the “Rainbow Body” – that of an enlightened soul who has passed from mortal life and transformed into light, becoming an integral part of the spirit of the universe. Although these concepts are about as far apart as one can get intellectually and spiritually, he pulls it off admirably as a musical inspiration. The work begins with a simple melodic theme, stated in a traditional harmonic background, loosely based on a melody from von Bingen’s hymn “Ave Maria, O Auctix Vite.”

Its initial presentation has been described as “new age”, even though the inspiration is medieval. However, the composer soon transforms the ambiance into “contemporary modernism” which is never atonal, even when slightly dissonant. Throughout all this, he utilizes the very different instrumental characters of string, brass, wind and percussion sections to create a whole that fuses together the character of its very different parts – and “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Just as the spiritual character of the Buddhist universe encompasses, but is greater than, the sum of the rainbow bodies it has re-absorbed.

Dona Nobis Pacem

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958)

Ralph Vaughan Williams was probably the most important English composer of the twentieth century, even though his own unique style frequently differed from the mainstream that had been established by earlier greats such as Elgar and Holst. His musical interests were extremely diverse, and range from a fascination for the folk music of the British Isles to extremely emotional and powerful works that tower above what he perceived as the depths of the human soul. This work belongs to the latter category. It is clearly one of the two or three most emotional pieces he ever composed. He combines the poetry of Walt Whitman (inspired by the American civil war) with text from the traditional Latin Mass (often incorporated by other composers into their Requiems), as well as words from the Old Testament prophets and even a speech delivered in the House of Commons by the English statesman John Bright.

The works open with the Latin text from the catholic mass – Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, grant us peace”) and focuses on the final words dona nobis pacem before transforming the simple plea for peace into an indictment of war. Vaughan Williams greatly admired Verdi’s Requiem Mass, and several parallels exist to the devices he incorporated into this work. The second section, beginning with dramatic trumpet calls by the orchestra and the words “Beat, beat, drums… blow, bugles, blow” is effectively a dies irae just as powerful as the equivalent section in Verdi’s famous work. In direct contrast, he follows this with another Whitman poem, in which a soldier sees in a coffin the face of an enemy combatant … perhaps one whom he has killed in combat. “My enemy is dead, a man as divine as myself is dead, …” In a truly poignant moment, the soldier bends over and touches lightly with his lips the white face in the coffin. One can only imagine his thoughts: “What is the point of the war?”

Vaughan Williams (although not a pacifist) saw the human misery caused by war at all times, and in this case specifically the first world war. He therefore next drew heavily on the poetry of Walt Whitman (who shared his viewpoint), quoting a long section from Whitman’s A Dirge for Two Veterans, written during the American Civil War. Immediately afterward, he quotes John Bright’s famous speech in the House of Commons decrying the British involvement in the Crimean War. The speech starts with the words “The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land: you may almost hear the beating of his wings.” One can almost visualize the death and agony portrayed by Kipling in The Charge of the Light Brigade.

In direct contrast, the next several sections include several verses from the Old Testament (Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, Leviticus, Psalms 85 and 110, and finally the gospel of Luke). The entire work is in a sad and mournful minor key, right up until the final statement when the composer invokes Luke in a major key “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The work, arguably Vaughan Williams most powerful paean against evil (of which there were several), ends with its own title: Dona Nobis Pacem … give us peace.


Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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