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March 02, 2015

March 14, 2015 Program Notes

Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) was a true landmark in motion picture history: a full-length animated cartoon (Disney’s third, after Snow White and Pinocchio) illustrating works of classical music, with the collaboration of Leopold Stokowski  and (in all but The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) the Philadelphia Orchestra, originally released in stereophonic sound, a first for commercial movies. A sequel 60 years later, Fantasia 2000, featured James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Tonight’s concert honors these achievements with a program derived from the two films.


Born 2 June 1857, Lower Broadheath near Worcester, England; died 23 February 1934, Worcester.
Pomp and Circumstance Military March No. 1, Op. 39, No. 1

Composed in 1901 and premiered 19 October of that year with Elgar conducting the Liverpool Orchestral Society. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, side drum, cymbals, triangle, sleigh bells, tambourine, 2 harps, organ and the usual strings. Duration 5 minutes.

Elgar wrote his first two “Pomp and Circumstance” marches in 1901, eventually adding three more to form a set he published as Opus 39. He took the title from a passage in Shakespeare’s Othello in which the title character declares his joy in military exploits ruined by the discovery that his wife is unfaithful to him: “Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump. . . Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!” To the first march Elgar also appended a verse from a Victorian poem celebrating the role of music in battle. However, ever since the Trio of the march was used as part of a graduation ceremony at Yale University in 1905, at which Elgar received an honorary doctorate, it has come to be associated with academic rather than military matters, at least in the USA. Elgar re-used the Trio in 1902 as the finale of his Coronation Ode for the ascension to the British throne of Edward VII, with lyrics added to create the hymn “Land of Hope and Glory.” Clearly the music expresses something quintessentially “British” to many listeners, rooted in a post-Victorian but pre-WWI world: something noble but not unduly sentimental. (Fantasia 2000 has pairs of animals entering and departing from Noah’s Ark to it, while the rest of the sequence includes music from other “Pomp and Circumstance” marches.)

 “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1 has a rousing introduction, leading to music that may conjure up an Imperial parade ground, yet eventually conveys a deeper feeling before the transition to the famous Trio, whose melody is first played quietly by clarinets, horns and first violins, and then by larger forces. The opening section is repeated, and when the music from the Trio returns as a coda it is on a yet grander scale with a large percussion section and organ. The opening music returns briefly to cap the piece.   

Born Bonn, 17 December 1770; died Vienna, 26 March 1827.
Symphony No. 6 in F major (“Pastoral”) , Op.68

Composed 1803-08 and first performed at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 22 December 1808, conducted by the composer. The score calls for piccolo, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, and trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration about 39 minutes. The SSO’s most recent performance was 7 October 1995, Guy Victor Bordo conducting.

One of the great many astonishing facts about Beethoven’s creative mind is that he was composing both his Fifth and his utterly different Sixth Symphony during the same years. He conducted both their premieres at the same mammoth concert that also included his Fourth Piano Concerto and Choral Fantasy (with himself at the keyboard), sections of his Mass in C, and more. The “Pastoral” Symphony opened the program.

There are music lovers who don’t care for—or are even philosophically opposed to—“program music,” i.e., instrumental works that “tell a story” from history or myth or “paint a picture” based on art or the natural world, instead of existing as “pure” music. But Beethoven clearly made no such distinction between music as abstract form and music that represents at least some kind of emotional journey: consider his piano sonata “Les Adieux,” his “Eroica” Symphony portraying a hero’s life, the opening of the finale of his Ninth Symphony—not to mention Wellington’s Victory! For his Sixth Symphony he was not “above” writing music that portrays a flowing stream, a peasants’ dance, a storm, and even specific bird calls, with descriptive titles for each of the five movements. Still, in the original parts for the score he called the work “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life -- More Expression of Feelings than Painting.”

For Fantasia’s (considerably abridged) treatment of the “Pastoral”  Walt Disney’s artists imagined a mythological Greece with centaurs and the like, but Beethoven had in mind the rural outskirts of Vienna where he frequently made excursions over the course of his life in the Austrian capital. His own writings as well as friends’ reports testify to his deep love of Nature, and adjectives expressing various kinds of happiness show up in three of the five movement titles: heiterer, lustiges, and frohe. These are usually translated as cheerful, merry and happy, respectively, but heiter implies serenity as well as cheerfulness, lustig suggests a more boisterous merriment, and froh indicates gladness, almost gratefulness. The point is that the Sixth Symphony is overflowing with joy of many different kinds—and it is so ingeniously structured that it provides a richly satisfying experience of “pure” music as well.

1. Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the country.  

Sonata form is typically a powerful way to express conflict or struggle in music, with its contrasting keys, transformation of themes, and return (with changes) to the original themes. But this symphony’s opening movement has little sense of struggle: there is almost no hint of shifting into a minor key, for example. The development section has stretches where a single pattern of notes is repeated against an underlying long-held note. Yet there is no sense whatever of monotony (partly thanks to shifting volumes and instrumental colors): it is like walking through natural surroundings, amid swaying leaves and branches, dappled clouds and sunlight, everything constantly changing yet remaining the same.

2. Scene by the brook.

This movement too is in sonata form, but the listener’s impression is more of an endless outpouring of melody, accompanied by an almost constant murmur from a pair of solo cellos and various other instruments. Near the end, as a sort of cadenza, the flute, oboe and clarinets play notes that Beethoven had his publisher label the calls of “nightingale,” “quail” and “cuckoo,” but throughout the movement the various trills and melodic outbursts have already been suggesting birdsong hovering above the flow of the brook and the rustle of the trees. Time seems suspended in this movement, and yet everything is in motion, in waves of sound and feeling, with more playful passages alternating with ones of profound joy. The movement is quite simply one of Beethoven’s most sublime achievements.

3. Merry gathering of country folk.

For his scherzo Beethoven imagines a rollicking get-together with dances in a fast 3/4 time alternating with a foot-stomping section in 2/4 complete with bagpipe drone. The triple-time rhythm has some odd syncopation, as if hinting that the country musicians are coming in on the wrong beat. These jolly proceedings are suddenly interrupted by

4. Thunderstorm.

Beethoven’s summer storm is relatively short but fierce. This is the only movement with a conspicuous use of minor keys, and there are some startlingly dissonant chords as well as off-kilter rhythms. It is also the only movement that uses timpani and the high whistle of a piccolo, while a somber foundation is provided by a pair of trombones (which will return in the finale). As the storm subsides, with the thunder drifting off into the distance, the music leads without pause into 

5. Shepherd’s song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.

The movement opens with an Alpine-style call to the herd, heard first in the clarinet and then the horn, quickly transformed into a hymn of thanksgiving in the same 6/8 time. This material will return again and again, in the pattern of a Rondo, as the music ebbs and swells to a glorious climax. Clearly the thankfulness is not just for the end of the thunderstorm but for the very Natural World itself, expressing (to paraphrase a poem of William Wordsworth) a joy too deep for tears.

Born Paris, 1 October, 1865; died Paris, 17 May, 1935.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

First performed 18 May 1897 in Paris with the composer leading musicians of the Société National. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, timpani, glockenspiel, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, harp and strings. It lasts approximately 12 minutes.

Paul Dukas was a perfectionist who allowed only a few of his works to be published. Connoisseurs still admire his Symphony in C, some piano pieces, the opera Ariane and Bluebeard, and the ballet La Péri, whose opening fanfare is a favorite with brass sections. But his one work familiar to a very wide public is his tone poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, its popularity only increased by its visualization in Fantasia with Mickey Mouse as the apprentice.

The work, subtitled “Scherzo after a Ballad by Goethe,” is based on the 1797 poem Der Zauberlerling, which tells a story now so famous that few will need a recap:  a sorcerer’s apprentice tries out his own magic skills when the master is away, by animating a broomstick so that it will fetch water. Regrettably, the apprentice has not memorized the spell for stopping the broomstick from fetching; when he tries the non-magical approach of chopping it with an axe, the two halves grow into new broomsticks that soon flood the chambers, until the sorcerer’s welcome return allows the deluge to subside. (In Disney’s version Mickey whacks the broom into splinters, resulting in an army of bucketeers.)

Dukas’ scene-painting is quite astonishing, both in orchestral colors—for example, the bassoons’ portrayal of the broomstick’s coming to life—and in the rhythmic energy that suggests not only the bustling gait of the broomsticks but the surges and swirls of cascading water. The work opens with the mysterious quiet of the sorcerer’s cottage. A theme introduced by clarinet and echoed by oboe and flute (representing the world of magic? the apprentice?) will soon transform itself into the theme of the bewitched broomstick. A fanfare for muted horns and trumpets is clearly the incantation—it will be heard later when the apprentice tries to stop the broomstick and again when the sorcerer takes over. But beyond the scene-painting, this scherzo is perfectly satisfying and shapely as “pure” music.   

Born 25 September 1906, Saint Petersburg; died 9 August 1975, Moscow.
Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 102: First Movement: Allegro

The Second Piano Concerto was written for and dedicated to the composer’s son, Maxim, who premiered it with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nikolai Anosov, 10 May 1957. The work calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, snare drum, strings and the solo piano. Duration of the first movement is 7  minutes.

Shostakovich wrote a number of works for his children: a set of piano pieces (Children’s Notebook, Op.69, 1945), for his daughter Galina; a Concertino for Two Pianos, Op. 94 (1954) for his son Maxim (which the father and son recorded); and the Second Piano Concerto, written in 1957 when Maxim was 19, as a graduation present. The work soon became a favorite in the concert hall, and has been recorded with the composer at the piano; with Leonard Bernstein both playing and conducting; with Maxim conducting and his own son Dmitri at the piano; and with Yefim Bronfman, the pianist in Fantasia 2000.

Composed at about the same time as his devastatingly bleak and violent Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”), the Second Piano Concerto is claimed by commentators to be among the most cheerful and least sardonic works that Shostakovich ever wrote. Still, it is only deceptively simple. The first movement is the only one used in Fantasia 2000 (with a story about a tin soldier protecting a toy ballerina from a predatory jack-in-the-box). It is a brisk Allegro that starts out straightforwardly in classic sonata form: a brief introduction leads to the piano’s entrance with a march tune in octaves, soon followed by a bouncier galop with snaredrum punctuation, and later a somewhat moodier theme, still in octaves, with fleet string accompaniment.

With the development section, which gets merged with the recapitulation, things get wilder. The woodwinds take over the piano’s march music in a high register; themes get compressed and combined as the piano pounds out fierce counter-rhythms to the orchestra, which thrillingly proclaims its own version of the moody theme. In a short cadenza the piano takes up its original march theme, as does the orchestra as the music hurls toward a crisp finish.  

Born Toropets, Russia, 21 March 1839; died St. Petersburg, 28 March 1881.
Night on Bald Mountain, arranged by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Mussorgsky completed his original version in 1867, but it, like later revisions, remained unperformed in his lifetime. Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1886 arrangement was premiered 15 October of that year in St. Petersburg with Rimsky conducting the Russian Symphony Concerts Orchestra. His edition calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, bell, and strings. Duration is about 12 minutes. The SSO performed Night on Bald Mountain most recently on 13 October 2001 with Guy Victor Bordo.

Mussorgsky never heard a performance of any of the versions of Night on Bald Mountain he worked on. He may have been thinking about the piece as early as 1858, as part of an opera based on Nikolai Gogol’s story “St. John’s Eve,” whose plot involves diabolical happenings, though not a witches’ sabbath. By 1867 he had written a tone poem about a black sabbath which he called St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain, completing it on the actual Eve (June 23, the day before the holiday of St. John the Baptist). Unfortunately, his mentor, Mily Balakirev, critiqued it quite viciously, and Mussorgsky put it aside. He reworked it with vocal parts for a proposed collaborative opera-ballet called Mlada, but this project came to nothing. Finally, he was planning to incorporate the piece into his opera Sorochinsky Fair as a dream interlude, with new “dawn” music after the dark rituals. But he died before completing the opera.

Five years later, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov considerably revised his friend’s manuscript, publishing and conducting Night on Bald Mountain in the version most familiar today. (Mussorgsky’s originals weren’t heard until the 20th Century; Leopold Stokowski made his own arrangement for Fantasia.) A master of orchestration, Rimsky created a dazzling orchestral showpiece, barbaric in atmosphere though sophisticated in technique. The work wastes no time in plunging us headlong into the terrifying spectacle it portrays. Like nearly all of Mussorgsky’s music, it features themes with an unmistakably Russian character, though modern audiences often hear it as “Halloween” music as well. When the morning bell rings, the evil spirits seem to evaporate, one of their themes now played in mournful, ghostly fashion by the violins. A solo clarinet and then solo flute welcome the dawn.

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