Program Notes: Light, Fire, and Water

Carl Nielsen, Helios Overture, Op. 17

Renowned as one of Denmark’s greatest composers, Carl Nielsen was born to a poor family in 1865 on the Danish island of Funen, also the birthplace of author Hans Christian Andersen. Nielsen’s father was a laborer and house painter who played violin and cornet at dances to supplement the family’s income. Nielsen’s mother handed 6-year-old Carl a violin during a bout of measles, starting his musical studies. Never a standout scholar, Nielsen joined an army band in Odense as a trumpeter at the age of 14. Over the next several years, he composed a bit and studied the violin more intensively, finally auditioning for the conservatory (later the Royal Danish Academy of Music) in Copenhagen in 1883 where he studied violin and music theory, graduating in 1886 with thoroughly average grades.

Nielsen made his living over the next several years primarily as a violinist, winning a position with the Royal Danish Orchestra in 1889 that provided a steady income. He stayed with the orchestra through 1914, after which he conducted the Musikforeningen orchestra and taught at the Royal Academy until his death.

Nielsen’s composition career was slow to take off but he was diligent in pursuing training and opportunities that built recognition of his talents. Beginning in 1901, he received a yearly state grant that eased his financial circumstances and he soon entered a publishing agreement for his music with Wilhelm Hansen. This allowed him to travel to Greece in February 1903 where his wife, a gifted artist, had been granted permission to copy bas reliefs at the Acropolis in Athens. In this heady atmosphere of art and connection to the ancient past — not to mention, the brilliant Mediterranean sun — Nielsen was captivated by the myth of Helios who carried the sun across the sky in his chariot each day.

The Athens conservatory graciously provided Nielsen with a studio where he could compose and it was in that space that he wrote the Helios Overture. His diary entry for March 10, 1903 notes, “Morning from 8:30 till 11 at the conservatoire and began the overture Helios.” Nielsen wrote to his friend Svend Godske-Nielsen, “Now it is sensationally warm here, Helios burns all day and I am writing freely in my new solar system; a long introduction with sunrise and morning song are finished and I have begun the Allegro.”

Inspiration was indeed burning brightly and he completed the work in just six weeks on April 23. He wrote to a friend that the music depicts the journey of “the sun from its ascent over the dark mountains here in the east until it crackles and shines in its fullest brilliance at midday and finally sinks slowly back behind the beautiful Aegean gulf and the darkening blue mountains in the west and evening and silence fall.” When the work was published, he included the following description: “Stillness and darkness — Then the sun rises to joyous songs of praise — Wanders its golden way — quietly sinks in the sea.”

Helios Overture follows the expected arc, from the first intimations of light gradually rising from the inky depths of night to radiant sunshine bathing every surface with its warmth and brilliance, slowly sinking back to repose and darkness. Because of Nielsen’s familiarity with the orchestra from the inside, his orchestration is deft. At the beginning, susurrus strings create a velvety texture over which horns nobly announce the dawn. The pace is unhurried but the dynamic grows continually and with a herald call from the trumpets, full daylight arrives. Motives are passed from section to section and the forward motion relaxes slightly before the strings launch into a lively fugue. Perhaps showing off, Nielsen briefly adds brass to the fray in a double fugue but that energy soon dissipates and the horns remind us of the coming dusk. Low strings reprise their role at the beginning, this time drifting below the horizon.

© Eric T. Williams

Jonathan Leshnoff, Violin Concerto No. 1

Leshnoff’s Violin Concerto has a fascinating genesis. The composer himself provides the following thought-provoking statement: 

“I once heard a story from a Holocaust survivor. He told me that in a certain camp, the SS guards lined the inmates up and forced difficult labor. To insult the prisoners further, the SS would require that the inmates sing Nazi propaganda songs, which they did. However, as the guards advanced farther up in the line, the prisoners in the back of the line would infuse prayer into the melody of the propaganda song.

 This story haunted me for a long time: how such pleas for help or communication with the divine could be infused in such dire circumstances is remarkable. I knew that, as an artist, I had to do something with this story, but I did not know what.  My solution came in the structure of this concerto. The second movement is a sustained adagio. The harmonies are quite poignant and the tone is contemplative. This, to me, represents the prayer of the survivor. This sustained and “prayerful” movement is juxtaposed by several agitated and restless movements, which utilize motives of the second movement. The elegiac fifth movement, following a large climax at the end of the fourth movement, brings all elements of the concerto to an introspective close. The integration of the prayerful motives in various textures represents the courage and faith of the inmates that transcended their immediate environment. This work does not use quotation of liturgical prayer or programmatic representation of the concentration camps. “

It can justifiably be said that each of the performances to date has contained alterations and revisions not found in any previous performance. Basic composition took place between January and June 2005, and on June 16 Leshnoff flew to Columbus, Ohio to meet with violinist Charles Wetherbee (Alumni of NRO in 1988 and 1989) to go over the concerto. The session resulted in a virtual reworking of the entire piece: the plane ride home, he says, “left me with much to think about.” As a result of Wetherbee’s suggestions and his own reflection, he recounts: “I rewrote the second movement, changed half of the first movement, revised the third movement extensively, and added a fifth movement. Only the fourth movement escaped wholesale revision, but even it underwent changes!” In addition, Leshnoff lightened the heavier orchestration of the first movement after the Columbus premiere. There is also a separate version of the score with reduced instrumentation (minus 2 horns and harp). It is this one that the BCO will perform.  Wetherbee too has been responsible for numerous suggested revisions of the violin part, which he regularly sends to the composer!

After the Baltimore premiere, Baltimore Sun critic Tim Smith wrote, “There is something at once familiar and fresh about both the harmonic and melodic language.” The attentive listener will hear influences of several twentieth-century composers who wrote revered violin concertos: Serge Prokofiev in the motoric writing of the first movement, Samuel Barber in the lyricism of the second, and Dmitry Shostakovich in the jocular scoring for winds and strings in the third. The influence of George Crumb, for whose music Leshnoff has a particular affection, can also be heard in some of the subtleties of percussion scoring. But such influences are transitory. While Leshnoff generally has fully integrated the solo violin part into the accompanimental fabric, eschewing the flashy cadenzas so typical of nineteenth-century concerti, his writing for the violin (an instrument he has studied) is not only fully idiomatic but also makes considerable virtuosic demands. More traditional concerti generally conform to a three-movement format with a slow movement placed between two fast movements. Leshnoff’s approximately twenty-four-minute work runs almost seamlessly from the first movement through the fifth in a style that is his alone: one that shows great harmonic invention, soaring lyricism, impressive rhythmic vitality, and haunting orchestration.

© Carl B. Schmidt


Franz Joseph Haydn, Symphony No. 59 in A major, Hob.I:59 “Fire Symphony”

The symphony has been the major genre for orchestra since the eighteenth century. While its viability seemed questionable as the twentieth century waned, it still has its adherents among contemporary composers, and will probably survive, though not with the same universality and vitality as before. As one can well imagine, from its roots in the early eighteenth-century opera overture to the extended and monumental works of late Romanticism, such a long gestation period, growth, and maturity would produce many “parents.” Haydn has popularly been known as the “father” of the symphony, but, of course, no one is. It must be said, though, that his contribution, at a critical time in its development was the most significant of anyone’s. He, who was responsible more than any other for what is known as “classical” musical style, exerted the most extended series of imaginative innovations and developments to the symphony as it reached early maturity under the so-called big three, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Haydn had the good fortune as a young man to secure an appointment to the court of the wealthy Esterházy family not far from Vienna out on the Hungarian plains. There, he was charged with oversight of a daunting variety of musical activities at the extensive estate of a succession of music-loving princes. In the midst of a vigorous artistic environment at Esterháza, with a full schedule of sacred, theatre, chamber music, ballet, and large ensemble performances weekly, Haydn was charged with composing the music for much of the festivities. Taking advantage of his relative isolation out on the Hungarian plains, he had decades of opportunities to develop his style and grow his musical reputation from total obscurity to worldwide fame as Europe’s greatest and most respected composer. One of the happy results was the creation of over 100 symphonies that collectively illustrate the evolution of the genre.

The characterization, “Fire,” has little to do with the inherent nature of Symphony No. 59, but rather stems from the use of parts of it as incidental music to a play by Gustav Grossman, entitled, The Conflagration. Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, as a committed patron of the arts, supported a thriving little theatrical program at the palace, and the whole artistic crew worked together, Haydn often providing supporting music, as in this A major symphony which had been composed a few years earlier before its use in the theatre.

The numbering of Haydn’s symphonies, like that of some other composers, is not exactly chronologically consistent. Scholars now generally believe that No. 59 was composed around 1768-69, thus from the time of the symphonies now numbered in the late thirties—so it’s a relatively early work. This was an important period for Haydn as a composer as he constantly worked to develop the genre of the symphony and give it more significance. Remember, the symphony had started as a short, modest little instrumental piece, not at all resembling the great, weighty compositions that came later in the nineteenth century. It may bear some relevance that the so-called “Sturm und Drang” style that briefly characterized Haydn’s works in the early 1770s (and Mozart, too) shows up a few years earlier in this symphony. Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) was a literary movement in Germany during the 1770s characterized by strong, even exaggerated emotions. Many scholars see some of these characteristics in some of Haydn’s and Mozart’s symphonies of the time, but the direct connection between the literary movement and musical composition is yet to be clearly established. What one can hear in so-called Sturm und Drang music are minor keys, some in unusual and distant keys, vigorous themes; dramatic pauses and melodic leaps; and exaggerated dynamics, to list a few.

Whether Symphony No. 59 is one of these or not is up to question. It is in a major key, after all.  Nevertheless, one can certainly hear the drama and energy in the work.  Maybe it’s just an example of an early, but happy Sturm und Drang symphony. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter, for it’s a charming, bustling early symphony that stands on its own merits, regardless of the historicizing. The first movement jumps right in with this dynamic model, with a “jumpy” main theme, accompanied by strong, separated accents, driven along by the rapidly repeated notes underneath, it almost seems a little furtive. The tranquil ending is a bit of a surprise for such an enterprise in energy, and that’s part of Haydn’s lifelong creative persona. Usually, in these early times of the symphony we get a slow movement followed by a graceful minuet, but here, Haydn, as usual, has other ideas and regales us with two minuets, couching the slow movement in the guise of a rather somber minuet in the parallel key of A minor. Here, the tense atmosphere is continued with a kind of “stalking” footsteps punctuated occasionally by outburst of chromatic lines and dark brass punctuations. But, the land of sunshine of the traditional minuet finally opens up the third movement (second minuet), and a vigorous, but not fast, affair it is. But even here, the familiar sinuous minor chromaticism sneaks in for a bit in the contrasting section. At this stage in the development of the symphony the last movement has yet to take on the gravitas of the future, and it is usual to wrap it up with a lightweight scamper to the end. This one is a bucolic affair, begun by horns on the hunt, aided by the oboes, before the bustling strings take it off. It doesn’t take long, and this delightful example of a master composer who is beginning to show his genius is over.

© 2015 William E. Runyan

Claude Debussy, La Mer, L. 109

While others, notably Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, were on the forefront of stylistic change during the nineteenth century, it is surely Claude Debussy who forever established entirely new approaches to thinking about the fundamental ways of defining and composing music in Western culture. More than anyone, he truly was the father of much of the philosophical basis for the complete turnover in musical art that defined the twentieth century. Along the way, he composed some of the most original, creative, and dare we say, beautiful music in the repertoire. His name, of course, is indelibly linked with what is popularly called “musical impressionism,” but that doesn’t specifically tell you much. What you may say is that he largely worked within a musical style that made little use of so many of the characteristics of a musical tradition that dominated the concert halls of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of us are familiar with concepts such as sonata form; development; key relationships; major and minor tonalities, with their respective scales, counterpoint, fugues, and especially developing musical ideas in an ongoing linear fashion. As dominant as these procedures were, Debussy saw other ways of creating and working with musical ideas. His specifically French way of looking at things was quite a contrast to the ideas and methods of the German-speaking composers (all names we know so well) that had dominated concert halls for a couple of centuries. There was opera, to be sure, and Italians had always held sway there, but in abstract music (no words or story) the Germans were generally king. Along comes Debussy with a refreshing alternative esthetic.

In a nutshell Debussy was not much interested in systems of musical composition, wherein each part, large or small, had a rational, expected, and traditional relationship to every other part. Rather, he focused upon listening to musical sounds in new ways, considering them just for their intrinsic sound, and not how they might fit into a hierarchy as a mere building block. In much of his music one sound, note, or chord did not necessarily strongly suggest what should come next, as had centuries of European music. The sound simply existed in its own merits, its own beauty, and its own ability to evoke and conjure. Debussy opened new ways of composing, listening, and thinking about music, and the musical world was changed forever.

Perhaps no composition better reflects this major change in how music is conceived than does La mer, because it avoids so many of the formal principles of Western music. By the time of its completion in 1905 Debussy had long been considered a major figure in the music world. His many compositions were performed worldwide, although not every critic was convinced of his artistic position. He had composed such important works as his groundbreaking Prèlude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1895), the three orchestral Nocturnes (1899), and his opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). While the debate rages eternally over the application of the term, “impressionism,” to Debussy’s style, in a general, non-theoretical sense, La mer remains a tour-de-force of impressions of the sea. Debussy is on record as deprecating impressionism, and his music is convincing and consciously rooted in the precepts of the symbolist movement in French poetry, rather than impressionism in the visual arts. Symbolism sought the mystical, explored the imagination and images from dreams; it favored free and unrestricted forms—perhaps little formal structure. Debussy admired and adapted themes from symbolist literature for most of his important works.  But, specific painters were among those whose esthetic resonated with him, especially the American artist, James McNeill Whistler, and the English painter, Turner. The extravagant washes of color that border on abstraction in the seascapes of the latter are an almost perfect analogy to Debussy’s sweeping sonic ambiguities in La mer. The lack of clear, formal boundaries of Debussy’s composition mirror the preference of the symbolists for diffuseness and avoidance of clarity. And so, in La mer, one will listen in vain for main themes, traditional forms such as sonata and rondo, home keys, and the like.  Rather, the listener basks in a series of evocations of clouds, waves, sunlight, and reflections—all musically mirroring the rhapsodic, ephemeral, ever-changing imagery of the seashore.

Debussy’s mastery of orchestral color is the basis for all of this, scoring for multiple divisions of the strings, pure woodwind colors, and muted or sparing use of the brass. For all the composer’s precedent shattering innovations described above, his sound is primarily beautifully consonant and ingratiating, complemented by an almost infinite mastery of subtle rhythms and non-traditional scales. Not without import was Debussy’s epochal encounter with the sounds of the Javanese gamelan orchestra at the Exposition Universelle in 1889 in Paris. Into all of this, one must remember that the composer was an expert on the music of Wagner, and at one time toured, playing and lecturing on the German’s operas. What he took from that was nothing that sounded exactly like Wagner, but was nevertheless strongly influenced by his command of orchestral color and textures, and his advanced harmonic language.

 La mer is divided into three movements: “From dawn to noon on the sea,” “Play of the waves,” and “Dialogue of the wind and the sea.” While traditional formal structure is mostly absent, there is a basic familiar symmetry in the insertion of a more active, almost scherzo-like middle section, depicting the waves. In all three movements, just as sunlight quickly changes colors and shadows on a seascape, Debussy moves quickly and unpredictably in the music. There is a notable lack of the usual musical clichés used by composers from Mendelssohn to Richard Rogers to depict nautical scenes, but the effect is clear and unmistakable. Debussy’s depictive ideas now live on in countless imitations all around us by those who paint the sea in sound. His imagery is perfect, his technique and tools were totally original, and anyone who has truly looked at sun, clouds, and sea, and who has felt the wind on the shore, understands intuitively Debussy’s intent.

© 2015 William E. Runyan