Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 47
(b. Hämeenlinna, Finland, 1865; d. Järvenpää, Finland, 1957)
Composed in 1903; revised in 1905.
Premiered on February 8, 1904 in Helsinki, with Viktor Novácek as soloist and the composer conducting.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 32 minutes.
The most famous image of Sibelius is the one seen in the photographic portraits of him in his old age — a stern, determined face unsoftened by a single lock of hair; a thick, strong body conditioned by years of healthy living in the bracing Finnish air; the aura of a man occupied by the highest level of contemplation, hardly disturbed by the vicissitudes of daily life. This picture of Sibelius may be partly correct for his last years — he produced no new music for the thirty years before his death and withdrew into the solitude of the Finnish forests, so reports were few — but it is very misleading for the time in which the Violin Concerto was produced.
By 1903, when he was engaged on the Concerto, Sibelius had already composed Finlandia, Kullervo, En Saga, the Karelia Suite, the four Lemminkäinen Legends (including The Swan of Tuonela) and the first two symphonies, the works that established his international reputation. He was composing so easily at that time that his wife, Aïno, wrote to a friend that he would stay up far into the night to record the flood of excellent ideas that had come upon him during the day. There were, however, some disturbing personal worries threatening his musical fecundity.
Just after the premiere of the Second Symphony in March 1902, Sibelius developed a painful ear infection that did not respond easily to treatment. Thoughts of the deafness of Beethoven and Smetana plagued him, and he feared that he might be losing his hearing. (He was 37 at the time.) In June, he began having trouble with his throat, and he jumped to the conclusion that his health was about to give way, even wondering how much time he might have left to work. Though filled with fatalistic thoughts, he put much energy into the Violin Concerto, and even, when he was dissatisfied with it after the first performance, continued work on it for another year, until he felt it to be perfected. The ear and throat ailment continued to plague him until 1908, when a benign tumor was discovered. It took a dozen operations until it was successfully removed, and the anxiety about its return stayed with him for years, but he enjoyed sterling health for the rest of his days and lived to the ripe age of 91.
Aggravating Sibelius' worries about his health in 1903 was the constant financial distress in which he was mired. His family was growing, and his works did not bring in enough to support them in the life style that he desired. He was always in debt and wrote frequently to his brother, a physician in Germany, about the difficulty of making a decent living as a serious composer. For relaxation, Sibelius liked to frequent the local drinking establishments in Helsinki, and his generous and uncomplaining wife often found him unaccounted for after a day or two. Only once did she go to find him. That was when the finale of this Concerto had to be finished so the parts could be copied in time for the first performance. She set out with Robert Kajanus, conductor, staunch advocate of Sibelius' music and friend of the family, and found Jean in one of his numerous haunts. The move to the country house at Järvenpäää, more than twenty miles north of Helsinki, was prompted in large part by the need to provide Sibelius with a quiet place free from the distractions of city life. During those years of intense creative activity, Sibelius was a long way from that granitic old man of later years.
The Violin Concerto stems from the Romantic tradition of the virtuoso compositions of Mendelssohn, Bruch and Tchaikovsky, though Sibelius endeavored to balance the soloistic display with the symphonic integration of violin and orchestra. (This was the main purpose of the 1905 revision.) He was himself a highly skilled violinist who abandoned thoughts of a soloist's career only with the greatest reluctance, and the Concerto's characteristic if difficult writing for the solo instrument shows his experience as a performer. Of the spirit of this work, Eric Tawaststjerna, the composer's biographer, wrote, "The Concerto is distinctly Nordic in its overwhelming sense of nostalgia. The orchestra does not wallow in rich colors but in the sonorous halflights of autumn and winter; only on rare occasions does the horizon brighten and glow."
The opening movement employs sonata form, modified in that a succinct cadenza for the soloist replaces the usual development section. The exposition consists of three theme groups — a doleful melody announced by the soloist over murmuring strings, a yearning theme initiated by bassoons and cellos with rich accompaniment, and a bold, propulsive strophe in march rhythm. The development-cadenza is built on the opening motive and leads directly into the recapitulation of the exposition themes, here considerably altered from their initial appearances. A coda, filled with flashing figurations for the soloist, closes the movement.
The second movement could well be called a "Romanza," a descendant of the long-limbed lyricism of the Andantes of the violin concertos of Mozart. It is among the most avowedly Romantic music in any of Sibelius' works for orchestra. The finale launches into a robust dance whose theme Professor Tovey thought might be "a polonaise for polar bears." A bumptious energy fills the movement, giving it an air reminiscent of the Gypsy finales of many 19th-century violin concertos. The form is sonatina, a sonata without development, here employing two large theme groups. The soloist's part accumulates difficulties as it goes, leading to an abrupt but resounding close.
The Planets, Opus 32
(b. Cheltenham, England, 1874; d. London, 1934)
Composed in 1914-1917.
Premiered on September 29, 1918 in London, conducted by Adrian Boult.
Instrumentation: two piccolos, four flutes, bass flute, three oboes, English horn, bass oboe, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tenor and bass tubas, timpani, percussion, celesta, xylophone, two harps, organ, strings and female choir.
Duration: approximately 50 minutes.
From early in his life, Gustav Holst combined a mystical turn of mind with strong nationalistic sympathies, and much of his music shows an intriguing blend of no-nonsense British vigor and ethereal rumination. He was fascinated by Eastern religious literature, and undertook a study of Sanskrit so that he could translate hymns from the Rig Veda for himself in order to make the most appropriate musical settings for them. The Japanese Suite, the opera Savitri (meant to recreate the suspended stillness of Indian music), songs based on the poems of the New England Transcendentalists and other such visionary works are scattered among lusty pieces chock full of hearty folk songs and rousing choruses. Holst, however, took the trouble to note the difference between the Mystic and the Artist: "I suggest that the latter has the advantage. He has no need of speech; he has something at once more tangible and yet which belongs to eternity — that something which Artists call Form." His dear friend and mutual critic, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, believed that "Holst's music reaches into the unknown, but it never loses touch with humanity." These two attractive, but seemingly opposed, characteristics — head in the clouds, feet on the ground — are abundantly manifest in The Planets.
Holst's interest in writing a piece of music on the attributes of the astrological signs was apparently spurred by his visit in the spring of 1913 with the writer and avid star-gazer Clifford Bax, who noted that Holst was himself "a skilled reader of horoscopes." (Imogen Holst suggested that one reason her father may have been attracted to composing such a work was because he was having difficulty at the time formulating structural plans for large-scale pieces, and a suite for orchestra seemed appropriate to his compositional needs.) Of the music's inspiration, Holst noted, "As a rule I only study things which suggest music to me. That's why I worried at Sanskrit. Then recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely." Despite his immediate attraction to the planets as the subject for a musical work, however, he took some time before beginning actual composition. He once wrote to William Gillies Whittaker, "Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you," and it was not until the summer of 1914, more than a full year after he had conceived the piece, that he could no longer resist the lure of The Planets.
"Once he had taken the underlying idea from astrology, he let the music have its way with him," reported Imogen of her father's writing The Planets. The composition of the work occupied him for over three years. Jupiter, Venus and Mars were written in 1914 (prophetically, Mars, the Bringer of War was completed only weeks before the assassination at Sarajevo precipitated the start of the First World War); Saturn, Uranus and Neptune followed in 1915, and Mercury a year after that. Except for Neptune, all the movements were originally written for two pianos rather than directly into orchestral score, probably because Holst was then having painful problems with his writing hand due to severe arthritis, and he needed to concentrate the physical effort of composition as much as possible. For the mystical Neptune movement, he considered the percussive sounds of the piano too harsh, and wrote it first as an organ piece. All seven movements were orchestrated in 1917 with the help of Nora Day and Vally Lasker, two of the composer's fellow faculty members at St. Paul's School in London, who wrote out the full score from Holst's keyboard notations under his guidance. The finished work is superb testimony to Holst's skill as an orchestrator, much of which was gained from his practical experience as a teacher and conductor, and also as a professional trombonist in several British orchestras, a vocation from which he was forced to retire in 1903 because of his arthritis.
The Planets had a complicated performance history when it was new. Holst was judged unfit for military service in the War because of his health, but he did manage to obtain a post with the YMCA as a music organizer among troops in the Near East. His overseas departure date was set too quickly to allow the new piece to be scheduled for performance in one of London's regular concert series, so his friend Balfour Gardiner, realizing how eager Holst was to hear the work, underwrote a special private performance as a farewell gift. Holst and an invited audience attended the concert, conducted by Adrian Boult on September 29, 1918 in Queen's Hall, London, only days before the composer sailed for Salonica and points beyond. On February 27, 1919, Boult led the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a public performance of The Planets, but omitted Venus and Neptune, so the honor of the work's first complete public performance fell to Albert Coates, who conducted the score in London on November 15, 1920. Interest in the work ran so high in America that the premiere in this country was given simultaneously in New York (Albert Coates) and Chicago (Frederick Stock) during the 1920-1921 season. The Planets has remained Holst's most popular composition.
Holst gave the following explanation of The Planets for its first performances: "These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no program music in them, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it is used in a broad sense. For instance, Jupiter brings jollity in the normal sense, and also the more ceremonial kind of rejoicing associated with religious or national festivities. Saturn brings not only physical decay, but also a vision of fulfillment."
The individual movements of The Planets employ a wide spectrum of musical styles in which the influences of Stravinsky, Dukas, Debussy and even Schoenberg may be discerned, but, according to Imogen, "The Planets is written in Holst's own language." It is a language of spectacular variety— a greater contrast than that between the first two movements is hard to imagine. The staggering hammerblows of Mars, the Bringer of War are followed by the sweet luminosity of Venus, the Bringer of Peace. Each of the remaining movements cuts as distinctive a figure as the first two. Mercury, the Winged Messenger is a nimble scherzo that seems, like the fast movements of Baroque music, to be a stream of notes spinning infinitely through the cosmos of which the composer has revealed only a small segment. Within Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity co-exist a boisterous Bacchanalian dance ("the most joyous jangle imaginable," according to Richard Capell) and a striding hymn tune to which Elgar stood godfather. Hard upon Jupiter, which reportedly inspired the charwomen cleaning the hall during rehearsals for the premiere to toss away their mops and dance a little jig, follow the lugubrious solemnities of Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, the movement Holst declared to be his favorite piece in the suite. This music is invested with a weighty, Mahlerian seriousness that recalls Das Lied von der Erde. Uranus, the Magician is shown as a rather portly prestidigitator who includes perhaps more broad humor than baffling legerdemain in his act. The haunting finale, Neptune, the Mystic, springs from the misty domain of Debussy's Nocturnes, but possesses an even wispier, more diaphanous orchestral sonority, with the disembodied siren song of the female chorus floating away to inaudibility among the spheres at its close. Wrote Richard Capell of this bewitching, inconclusive ending, "[Neptune] swims in mystery, less seen than guessed at, on the far confines of our system. What is to be made of it, this ultimate unknown, by our peering into the dark sky? Holst is not able to proclaim a conventional apotheosis. The dark remains dark, the question is left open ..."
Of Holst's masterful astrological suite, Gerald Abraham wrote, "Each movement is a completely different experience; it is not merely a play on words to say that each transports one to a different planet, a different air. Air — that is the common element to all The Planets; a sense of vast timeless space, of air exceedingly rare and purified." To which James Lyons added, "Only a creative personality of boundless imagination, fettered by the discipline reserved for the master craftsman, could have conceived such magical spheres of music."
©2014 Dr. Richard E. Rodda