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Symphony Pro Musica

2001/2002 Concert Schedule

Mark Churchill, Music Director and Conductor



I. Young Artist Night

Saturday, November 10, 7:30 p.m. Stow
Sunday, November 11, 3:30 p.m. Westborough
 
WALTON Portsmouth Point
FINZI Cello Concerto
David Requiro, cello
BRAHMS Symphony No. 1

This season we pay tribute to several English composers of the 20th century: Finzi, Walton, Vaughan Williams and Britten.  And tonight, in particular, we celebrate the centenaries of Finzi (July 14th) and Walton (next March 29th), coupled with one of the great staples of the orchestral repertoire:  Brahms’ First Symphony.  Indeed, I’m happy to point out that we have presented works of my countrymen many times, especially in recent years:  two years ago a work by Butterworth (again coupled with a Brahms symphony);  the previous year a song cycle by Elgar;  and prior to that, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Rutter, Barry, Blake, and Elgar;  not to mention that in many years (as we will again this year) we have performed one of the greatest “English” works of all time:  Handel’s Messiah.


Sir William Walton (1902-83)

Portsmouth Point Overture (1925)

Walton was born in Lancashire not far from Manchester and, having served as a chorister at Christchurch College, Oxford, he went on to be an undergraduate at age 14.  Four years later (it normally takes three years) he left without a degree, having spent most of his time with music and very little on academic studies.  At Oxford, he had become friends with the young Sitwells:  Osbert, Sacheverell and Edith.  Not only were they at the center of intellectual life, but they invited him to live with them in London, thus relieving him of any financial difficulties.  He remained with them for ten very important years and in 1922 burst on the musical scene with Façade, an avant-garde chamber setting of Edith’s poems — more spoken than sung.  To this day, it is one of his most frequently heard pieces.  For the next couple of years he immersed himself in the jazz idiom.  Although he left no examples of his work from this period, it was an appropriate foundation for the rhythmic complexities and constant hubbub of tonight’s opener, the Portsmouth Point Overture.  This piece really cemented the young Walton’s reputation as a composer.  His music, which tends to make big statements, has some influence from Stravinsky, and usually employs large orchestras or choruses.  From this time on he became part of the musical establishment of England and was knighted in 1951, partly in recognition of his hard work during the war scoring patriotic films.  His 70th birthday was marked by a party hosted by the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath. 

Portsmouth Point is an overture in the sense of a short orchestral piece that weaves many themes rapidly together.  It was inspired by an etching of Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) depicting a rowdy dockside scene in Portsmouth, Britain’s chief naval port.  Rowlandson was a satirist and social commentator who etched huge quantities of copper in his quest to illuminate the foibles and sorrows of his time.  The busy scene has at least a dozen humorous vignettes that tend to dwell on the seedier side of the great navy town, in which the pubs were open 24 hours a day and which was home to significantly more women than men!  The scene depicts a time several years after the great victory at Trafalgar (and the death of Nelson) and, as it happens, about the time that other social commentator, Charles Dickens, was born in the town.

The music Walton wrote to evoke the image of the etching perfectly mirrors the humor and bustle of the dockside, with about as many musical figures as there are human figures.  The naval association is underscored by variations on hornpipes and sea shanties while the general drunkenness is characterized by unusual and rapidly changing rhythms.  It helps to see a copy of the etching to make sense of this piece - visit our website at http://www.symphonypromusica.org/ for it, or if you’re ever looking for more information on any of our programs.


Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)

Cello Concerto, Op. 40 (1955)

Allegro moderato; Andante quieto; Rondò: Adagio-allegro giocoso

Leaving aside nationality and their contemporaneous births, Walton and Finzi could hardly have been more different, nor fared so differently in their lives.  Finzi’s Italian Jewish parents had moved to England not long before he was born, and turning his back a little on his own heritage, Finzi embraced everything English, including musical style.  His works tend to be lyrical, introspective and employ smaller forces, particularly song settings of poetry by Thomas Hardy or Shakespeare.  His personality was quiet and unassuming and he had a reputation for trying to help others.  Compare this to Walton’s somewhat larger-than-life character and, it has been said, his rather mercenary attitude to work.  Finzi’s war work was as one of the many unsung, behind-the-scenes civil servants of the war ministry and as a host to German and Czech refugees.  Only in the last quarter century or so has a resurgence in interest in Finzi’s music arisen, counterbalancing an occasionally more critical view of the work of his more illustrious contemporary.

The Cello Concerto was one of his last projects, commissioned by Barbirolli and given at the Cheltenham Festival July 19th 1955 by Christopher Bunting and the Hallé Orchestra.  It is a work of intense emotion and power and, if it is derivative of anything, it is probably the great Elgar concerto.  It opens with three attention-grabbing chords that set the stage for a turbulent journey.  The composer knew at the time that he was terminally ill and this movement may have helped vent some of the frustrations he must have felt.  Even so, the music is expressed with great nobility of tone, as soloist and orchestra engage in a poetic and uplifting conversation.

The andante quieto begins in the orchestra with a series of beautiful singing melodies to be answered a little later by the solo instrument in the peachy part of its range.  The last movement is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, with just an occasional reference back to the first movement to temper the jollity.  It begins with a slow pizzicato by the cello in octaves, which introduces the main rondò theme in very slow time.  The rhythms of the allegro are very cleverly managed.  A study of the score shows that the time signature changes frequently, yet to the ear the result simply flows in the most natural fashion.  The concerto closes with a wonderful brass chorale after which the composer gets the last laugh.


Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 68 (1862-76)

Un poco sostenuto – allegro; Andante sostenuto; Un poco allegretto e grazioso; Adagio – più andante – allegro non troppo, ma con brio.

The story of Brahms and his struggle to create this first symphony is one of the most frequently discussed aspects of his life.  First, Schumann had written in his famous paper ‘If he will touch with his magic wand the strength-giving mass of choral and orchestral tone, then we may catch an even more wonderful glimpse of the secrets of the spiritual world’.  Second, he was acutely conscious of the inevitable comparisons that would be made as he challenged Beethoven on his own ground.  ‘You don’t know what it is like, always to hear that giant marching along behind me’, he wrote.  These were challenges indeed!  Instead, Brahms concentrated on the chamber music for which, arguably, he has no match, with the occasional foray into a major symphonic work of course without attaching the label of First Symphony.  First attempted was the D minor symphony of 1854-5 which was never finished but was then used for the first movement of the D minor Piano Concerto (remember the five-minute introduction before the soloist plays a note?) and also the German Requiem.  Other examples include the two serenades, the Variations on a Theme of Haydn, and the Alto Rhapsody.  These gave him a very solid foundation on which to build a symphony.  Even so, its gestation period was at least fourteen years, and he revised it some more a year after it was first performed.  Once the symphony was “in the bag”, he embarked upon one of his most productive periods, which included writing the 2nd symphony (SPM, October 1999) and the Violin concerto.

One of the major obstacles to his progress in the early years of work on the symphony was that of balance.  He had conceived a powerful and intense first movement and needed a counterbalancing finale.  In 1868 while in the Alps, he heard or imagined the great Alphorn tune on which the introduction to that movement is built.  (If you heard SPM in Mahler’s 5th symphony last year, you may recall another great alphorn-inspired passage from the third movement.)  Brahms immediately wrote to Clara Schumann: ‘Thus blew the shepherd’s horn today:  High on the mountain, deep in the valley, I send you a thousand greetings’.

The symphony was first heard November 4th, 1876 in Karlsruhe, Germany, a great university city, but not the center of the musical world.  Furthermore, Brahms did not publish the score ahead of time, in order that he might make alterations.  After two more performances in Mannheim and Munich, the composer was finally ready to conduct his work in Vienna on December 19th.  The symphony met with rave reviews and was, inevitably, soon hailed as “Beethoven’s 10th”.

In the end, it seems, Brahms decided to meet Beethoven’s ghost head on.  The first movement (and the first part of the introduction to the finale) is in C minor, the home key of Beethoven’s 5th, while the main theme of the finale has some resemblance to the Freude theme of Beethoven’s 9th.  Brahms famously replied to the noble gentleman who first observed the similarity:  “Yes, and still more extraordinary that any ass can hear it”.

The first movement, as noted above, has a somewhat slower introduction (“a little sustained”), which provides a certain gravity to the movement.  Such an introduction, while normal, or at least common, for Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, was unusual for Brahms.  In fact, when he first showed his ideas for the first movement to Clara years before, there was no introduction.  Try to imagine the music beginning with the sudden allegro at measure 38.  Despite being in a traditionally fatalistic key and its relentless force, the first movement without that introduction might be somewhat ambivalent, given the jauntiness of some of the figures.

The second movement, in E major, is a prime example of Brahms at his most lyrical and serene.  The closing solo violin passages are breathtakingly lovely and give us a taste of what is to come in the Violin concerto of a few years later.

The third movement, a rather gracious, tranquil scherzo, is a refreshing entrée (in the French sense, not the US usage) between weightier movements.  There is mild humor here and a sense of perpetual motion.  The clarinet is really the star of this movement, expounding the main theme at the beginning and then reverting to dreamy arpeggios when the theme is taken up by the first violins.  The essential form of the minuet and trio is more or less intact, although most of the repeats are written out to allow for variations.  The trio section adds the customary three flats to the key signature, shifting the key up a minor third from Ab to B.  After the equivalent of the da capo (from the top), the music goes into a coda (tail) that ends almost without warning in a most elegant and satisfying way.

The finale begins in dramatic style with the lower strings and contra-bassoon reprising the first two notes from the beginning of the symphony but shifted down several octaves.  This is immediately answered in the woodwinds with another falling set of legato (smooth) chords.  A pizzicato passage in the strings follows, then more woodwind chords, more pizzicato, then a rising string passage leading up to the glorious horn call mentioned earlier, which is then echoed up an octave by the flute.  Then comes a trombone/bassoon chorale.  The intensity builds and is finally relieved by the main theme in the strings (also mentioned above).  The tension gone, you can now sit back and relax as the music wends its way to a triumphant, and very Beethovian, C major ending.


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Bibliography


© This page copyright 2001 by: Robin Hillyard and Symphony Pro Musica

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Robin Hillyard <robin@calculator.net> Re: SPM Program Notes 0111
 updated 08-Nov-2001