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Program Notes – April 22, 1989


Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Giuseppe Verdi was a pure operatic composer. He wrote very few instrumental or choral pieces, and even then these were essentially operatic in their dramatic impact. He had one natural gift in abundance that is an essential skill for an operatist–the ability to write a melody line that stirs the audiemce’s emotions to match the dramatic intent of the story line when it occurs. The overture to The Force of Destiny displays this skill in a purely instrumental medium. From its opening declamation–three powerful repeated chords that represent fate- -to its whirlwind conclusion, this compact overture ‘moves’ the listener.

Verdi himself considered “La Forza”, which was one of his final works, to be something new. In his own words it was “an opera made with ideas,” rather than an opera made with solos, duets arias, and cavatinas. The plot is complex, but the theme is basic: the hero, compelled by a chain of mischances, is forced to commit just those acts that his spirit rebels against (the compulsion to act is the “force of destiny). Verdi also had a hidden intent–to show the folly of trying to find peace by retiring from the world of travail to the serenity of a cloister. These are themes with powerful import, and they are served well by the vigor of the overture.


Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Even though his music is flowing and expressive, Saint-Saëns was in most respects a traditionalist. His harmonic language was standard and the music he wrote was evolutionary rather than revolutionary. He abhorred Stravinsky, and led the persecution by other French composers that initially kept Debussy from gaining stature in his own land. However, in his heart he was still an expressive composer rather than an in-tellectual, and melodic beauty meant more to him than form.

The Rhapsodie of the Auvergne was composed in 1884, right in the middle of Saint-Saëns’ long career. However, it had been ten years since he had composed any major works for piano and orchestra. A superb concert pianist, he felt the need to return to the instrument, but wanted a simpler vehicle than a concerto. The format he finally chose was fitting, because even his more structured concerti (especially those for violin) were expansive and flowing. Thus, the freedom of expression inherent in a rhapsody cane naturally to him.

The Rhapsody is based upon songs of the Auvergne, an ancient province of central France famed for its folk music. The first song is stated simply at the very beginning by the piano. The pattern for the rest of the piece is established immediately, as the soloist rhapsodizes on its simple melody, developing and transforming it even before the orchestra enters. The rest of the composition follows the same path, though occa-sionally, a main theme is first announced by the orchestra. Each song undergoes a transformation at the hands of the soloist, which takes it from simplicity to finely ornamented expressiveness–not unlike nature’s rhapsodic metamorphosis from chrysalis to butterfly.

SYMPHONY NO. 1 in e minor, Op. 39

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Jean Sibelius is so strongly identified with Finnish nationalism that it’s surprising to learn that he was of Swedish descent, and didn’t learn to speak Finnish until age eleven. Nevertheless, his music personifies Finland in a way that no other composer has ever done. Many of his tone poems are inspired by the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, and his incidental piece Finlandia was deliberately composed as an outright appeal to Finnish patriotism. The symphonies, too, portray the Nordic character of his homeland.

Though Brahms is usually cited as the composer who had fullest command of his powers before embarking on a symphony, Sibelius was equally mature. When he began work on his first numbered symphony, Jean had already composed more orchestral music than Brahms had, includ-ing a massive five-movement cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra that was essentially symphonic in form. A prolific writer of songs, he had already developed his facility for inventing beautiful and memorable melody lines, which was to play such an important part in his first two symphonies. He was more than merely ready for a symphony.

Sibelius approached each of his seven symphonies differently, deliberately exploring the universe of ex-pression available in the modern symphonic form (which had become far less constrained than its original structure, developed in the Classic era). The range of musical territory covered in the journey from his first to his last is exceeded only by Mahler. Yet, somehow, the entire output is all cut from the same cloth, and he has one of the most unmistakable and characteristic styles of all major composers. His music has come to embody the Northland, and especially Finland.

The first symphony is closest to the symphonic form he inherited from the Romantic era, and employs its traditional harmonic language. Even this early, though, Sibelius experimented with complex rhythms and unusual counterpoint. At times he employs an almost Wagnerian approach to the fragmentary musical motif. At other times he emphasizes his own soaring song-like melody lines. Sometimes his brass writing explodes with its power; other times the very same instruments are somber, almost melancholy. The strings sweep through glorious soaring melodies, followed later by passages of intricate virtuoso technique. The net effect is pure expressionism, although organized into a mostly conventional structure. Everything is written for its emotional impact–there are no filigrees put in simply for the sake of elegant ornamentation.

This first symphony emphasizes sensuality in a manner that Sibelius never achieved again. Perhaps after composing it he thought to himself, “Well, next time it’ll have to be something different–there’s nothing more to be said on that theme.” If so, he was right. For this work establishes a standard of perfection for the expressive symphony equal to that achieved by Brahms’ first as a traditional work. Sibelius’ genius puts him in the company of that handful of composers who truly mastered symphonic expression.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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