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Program Notes – April 12, 2003

Finlandia, op. 26, no. 7

Jean Sibelius (1865- 1957)

The music of Jean Sibelius is so thoroughly identified with Finnish nationalism that it comes as a surprise that he was born to Swedish parents living in Finland, and never spoke a word of Finnish until he began school at age eight. Originally, he aspired toward a career as a violinist, auditioning unsuccessfully for the Vienna Philharmonic. His love for music undaunted, he concentrated on his other talent – composition – and went on to become the dominant figure in Finnish musical history.

At that time, Finland was a duchy in the Russian empire, and was gradually losing its autonomy as the Tsar tightened his grip in the face of internal troubles. Sibelius married into a family that was influential in the emerging Finnish liberationist movement. His love for the national epic, the Kalevala, had already inspired several early compositions that demonstrated his own nationalistic pride. When a celebratory pageant was being organized as a focal point for the independence movement, it was only natural that Sibelius was asked to compose a few small pieces. He obliged with a set of pleasant incidental music depicting historical scenes, which included a short segment titled Finlandia. The rest of the work sunk into obscurity, but Finlandia grew to be identified with the Finnish national spirit. Today, its famous central theme is revered by the Finns as almost a second national anthem. The words composed by Sibelius proclaim the raw beauty of the land (“on great long hills, where tempests brood and gather, primeval earth beneath primeval sky”) and implore divine help to deliver the land and its people. So inspiring is the melody – first stated simply and solemnly by the woodwinds, then expanded into a majestically indomitable proclamation by the strings – that it has been adopted as the basis for a hymn by many religions, and is known in this form throughout the western world. Yet the work remains a monument to its source, a land of raw beauty with a people of quiet strength.

Exsultate, Jubilate KV 165

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is considered by many to epitomize the grace and elegance of Classical music. The story of his life is known to all, although over dramatized by the generally accurate film Amadeus. All know that the musical world lost one of its greatest geniuses at an unfortunately early age, though probably to natural causes rather than the rumored nefarious deeds of his rival composer. Had he lived in modern times, his natural talents for the stage and his ability to cater to the musical tastes of his public might have led him to the musical theater. Today he might have composed Phantom of the Opera in place of his famous supernatural opera Don Giovanni. Or perhaps he would have won Oscars for his movie music, say the scores to Star Wars and E. T. instead of The Magic Flute.

Although his vocal music is better known today by arias from his secular operas, he wrote a considerable amount of religiously inspired vocal music, including a Coronation Mass and Solemn Vespers for Confessional. One of the earliest of these is his famous showpiece for soprano and orchestra: Exultate, Jubilate (“exult and jubilate” in the name of the Lord). It shows off the soloist as well as any of his opera arias, demanding both lyrical beauty and agile virtuosity, ranging in dynamics from delicate pianissimo to full-out power. Its musical moods cover the span from solemnity to exuberance, and its structure is probably closer to song than oratorio. The orchestral accompaniment is distinctly in the background, to better focus upon the singer. All in all, it is a remarkable (and almost unique) example of the application of the popular style he would later employ in his operas to a noble religious theme. Undeniably, the fusion works – to the benefit of listeners everywhere.

Symphony no. 5 in D-flat, op. 107 (reformation)

Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

Mendelssohn’s origin as scion of a wealthy family facilitated his development into one of the most influential musicians of his era, not only as a composer, but also as conductor, impresario, organizer of musical events and champion of neglected composers. He unfortunately died as a very young man, much as did Mozart and Schubert (whose stories are far better known), becoming possibly as great a loss to the musical world.

By his coming of age at twenty-one he was already respected as a rising star in the musical world. He had written two full orchestral symphonies, much chamber music, oratorios, chamber music and accompaniments for stage works. His fame was spreading, and he was engaged to compose a major work for the celebration of the tercentenary of the Augsburg Protestant Confession. The result became his first truly mature symphony, preceding the frequently played Italian Symphony (published as no. 4) and Scotch Symphony (published as no. 3, although it was nearly his last major work) by several years. However, Mendelssohn was unsatisfied with the celebratory symphony and refused to release it. Only after his death was the original manuscript found among his effects and published immediately.
Since the work celebrates an historic event in the development of the Protestant religion, Mendelssohn chose to incorporate two important musical elements associated with that religion. The ending of the slow introduction to the first movement is a direct quotation of the Dresden Amen, which ends many protestant hymns. More importantly, the finale is built around transformations (including a direct quote) of the Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, known far and wide throughout America no matter what the listener’s religious background. In between, Mendelssohn displays his genius for invention of both delightful, frothy, delicate filigrees (in the engaging second-movement scherzo) and lyrical melody reminiscent of his own Songs Without Words (in the andante).
Even though this excellent example of his developing skills was published immediately after his death, it never achieved the popularity of his Scotch and Italian symphonies. It took until the middle of the twentieth century before the work was “rediscovered” by musical scholars and (more importantly) programmed by the music directors of several major orchestras. Since that time it has taken its rightful place as the earliest of his masterpieces, though apparently (and erroneously) his final symphony.

Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber

Paul Hindemith (1895 – 1963)

Paul Hindemith might be the foremost of his generation of German composers. His vast output includes operas, symphonies, ballets, film music and concerti for various instruments accompanied by full orchestra. Although most of his major works are programmed only infrequently today, his solo and chamber pieces are often played by performers who want something “off the beaten track”. Hindemith employed a cerebral approach to composing, but one, which diverged completely from his contemporary Arnold Schoenberg. Both wanted to change the direction that music had taken during the Romantic era. Schoenberg felt that music would never progress until the listener had been weaned away from familiar harmonic structure. Hindemith, on the other hand, believed that harmony and melody were paramount to true musical content – he considered atonality to be pure perversion. So, even though they sometimes approached musical projects in the same intellectual way, they achieved completely different results. And each has his own uniquely characteristic (and frequently unmistakable) “sound”.

Although he based his music on harmony, Hindemith refused to be constrained by conventional harmonic language, preferring to create his own tonal concepts. Consequently, though his music is never atonal, its highly individual language often sounds “strange” to listeners, but usually refreshingly so. His variety of purely intellectual devices was nothing new, even at the time. Such techniques as fragmentation of melodic lines, repetition of the melody notes backwards, inversion of melodies (“upside down” from their original form) and inventive polyphonic effects had been employed by other composers for years. Hindemith, though, used them in his own very personal way.

The Symphonic Metamorphoses were written in 1943, near the peak of his career, while on the music faculty of Yale University (he had fled Nazi Germany for the United States just before the Second World War). It is a witty, colorful and exuberant piece, probably the most approachable of his music for the average listener. Many consider it his masterpiece! The second movement is a jazz-inspired treatment of an oriental theme (used by Weber in his incidental music for Schiller’s play Turandot). The other three movements derive from themes taken from Weber’s piano duets. All employ unusual rhythms, colorful orchestral effects and imaginative transformations of what are basically mundane themes. The whole effect is enhanced by virtuosic part-writing, which demands extraordinary playing skills of the performers. Thus, like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar, which emerges from its chrysalis as a Monarch butterfly, Weber’s simple original melodies are transformed into a complex beauty. The latent potential of the raw nugget from which they began has been developed into a polished gem.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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