Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 1

Notes by TŌN harpist Emily Melendes

In the Navy
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 1 has perhaps the strangest origin story of any musical work I’ve performed. Born in Russia, Rimsky-Korsakov was fascinated by music from early boyhood; he marveled at the wonders of opera, learned to play the piano, and even began writing compositions at the age of ten. When he turned 17, however, his family decided piano lessons should take a back seat to a career in the Russian navy. His former piano teacher suggested he study theory and composition in lieu of an instrument, a path that in 1861 led him to Mily Balakirev, who would become Rimsky-Korsakov’s mentor and collaborator. Balakirev gave the fledgling composer a monumental initial challenge: write an entire symphony. Rimsky-Korsakov set about this task eagerly, but naval duty interfered, and at the age of 18 he began a three-year tour with only an initial draft of the symphony’s first and final movements. He initially preferred the company of his composition to that of his fellow seamen and wrote the second movement of his symphony while at sea, dutifully stopping to buy additional scores at port cities to further his self-taught studies. Quickly, though, the wonders of the world took hold of him. For the first time he experienced London, Rio de Janiero, and Niagra Falls. He absorbed the writings of Goethe, Schiller, and Homer, and returned home to St. Petersburg in 1865 to compose the third movement of his symphony, the Scherzo. Balakirev edited and polished the work, and by December 31st of that same year, Balakirev conducted and premiered the symphony at his Free School of Music.

The First “Russian Symphony”
Rimsky-Korsakov’s friends hailed the work as the first truly Russian symphony due to Rimsky-Korsakov’s use of Russian folk melodies and his avoidance of traditionally German compositional techniques. I find it interesting, though, that the first “Russian symphony” came about through Rimsky-Korsakov’s tour of the wider world, and I enjoy looking at his work through this lens. The piece brims with youthful exuberance and pizzazz, and while perhaps lacking the sophisticated compositional mastery of his later works, to me it tells a tale of adventure and discovery, one rife with Russian identity and tender recollections of home. From the bombastic statement of the first movement, to the swelling sincerity of the second, the frenzied energy of the Scherzo, and the densely packed resplendency of the fourth movement, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 1 is a treat both to hear and to perform. I hope you enjoy its creativity and imagination as much as I have.

William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony

The Afro-American Symphony is not a tone picture of the “New Negro.” It portrays that class of American Negroes who still cling to the old standards and traditions; those sons of the soil who differ, but little, if at all, from their forebears of antebellum days.

These are an humble people. Their wants are few and are generally childlike. Theirs are lives of utter simplicity. Therefore no complex or elaborate scheme of harmonization would prove befitting in a musical picture of them. ‘Tis only the simpler harmonies, such as those employed, that can accurately portray them.

From the hearts of these people sprang Blues, plaintive songs reminiscent of African tribal chants. I do not hesitate to assert that Blues are more purely Negroid in character than very many Spirituals. And I have employed as the basic theme of the symphony a melody in the Blues style. This theme appears in each movement.

–William Grant Still, 1931

I think there are a wide range of interpretations that could be read into it. I really had no program in mind. I wanted, above all, to write music that would be recognizable as being in the idiom employed [by the American Negro] or recognized, I should say, as that of the American Negro. It was the object that I desired most of all.

–William Grant Still, 1964

Ives’ Decoration Day from the Holidays Symphony

Notes by TŌN percussionist William Kaufman

The Composer
Ives is best remembered for his touching depictions of life in the northeast United States. He was born and raised in Connecticut, and worked at a life insurance agency in New York City. His father was a reputable bandmaster during the Civil War, which is apparent with a close listening to Ives’ work. Ives’ music is recognizable by the way in which he incorporated variations on patriotic melodies that serve as a grounding force amid a clustering cacophony of crossing rhythms and melodic dissonances. His genius is unique and unreplicable.

The Story
Decoration Day is the second movement in his work A Symphony: New England Holidays, which served as a collection of childhood memories from growing up in post-Civil War New England. Decoration Day takes listeners along for the observation of the holiday now known as Memorial Day. In the Postface to Decoration Day, Ives writes about celebrating the holiday with the townspeople as he remembers it from his childhood. The people gather together in the village with flowers and fill the Town Hall “with the Spring’s harvest of lilacs, daisies, and peonies.” Then the parade is formed with military personnel, horses, and the fire brigade. There is a slow and somber march to the cemetery, where the graves are decorated. The march back to town is more lively, “though, to many a soldier, the somber thoughts of the day underlie the tunes of the band”. After the final march, Ives recalls, there is a noticeable silence that concludes the piece.

A Personal Connection
I have a personal connection with Charles Ives’ music because I was raised in a small town very near to his hometown of Danbury. I recall our Memorial Day ceremonies, and Ives’ description of the people congregating in the town center with flowers and flags is a familiar image for me. I actually marched in the Memorial Day parade playing snare drum as a young music student and a member of the school band. It is a pleasure to present this brilliant and deeply heartfelt work of Charles Ives with The Orchestra Now this season.

Copland’s Lincoln Portrait

Notes by TŌN flutist Matthew Ross

The Commission
In 1942, conductor Andre Kostelanetz commissioned a “gallery of musical portraits” from three of the most preeminent American composers of the time. He requested works that reflect “the qualities of courage, dignity, strength, simplicity, and humor which are so characteristic of the American people.” Along with works by Virgil Thomson (depicting Fiorello H. La Guardia and Dorothy Parker) and Jerome Kern (Mark Twain), Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was a result of this commission. The piece was premiered to rave reviews.

Copland’s Instructions
In writing Lincoln Portrait, Copland noticed parallels between his present-day and that of Lincoln in the sense of the emergence of a nation. Both were dealing with the devastation of war and the search for identity that inevitably comes with it. Copland chose to use original text to frame Lincoln’s own words, extracting from an 1862 State of the Union Address, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, and the Gettysburg Address. He includes a note for the speaker on the first page of the score, discouraging the use of “undue emphasis in the delivery of Lincoln’s words,” and says that they are to be read “simply and directly, without a trace of exaggerated sentiment.” The focus needs to be on the complete “sincerity of manner” and not on acting ability. Copland recognized that Lincoln’s poignant words held all the dramatic implication necessary for the affect to be felt by the audience.

Copland’s Americana Style
Lincoln Portrait is a prime example of Copland’s distinct Americana style. He first started developing his idea of the “American sound” after hearing the Library of Congress’ newly released recordings of American folk music in 1936. Most of these recordings were extremely simplistic, using only a guitar or banjo to accompany a solo voice. Copland’s first explicit reflection of these recordings is Billy the Kid, a ballet written in 1938. Lincoln Portrait employs all of the same musical devices, most notably his frequent use of the intervals of a fourth and fifth (like the tuning of guitar and banjo strings) and his inclusion of folk song. In the case of Lincoln Portrait, he chose to include the ballad “On Springfield Mountain” and Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races.” Copland hoped these musical quotes would adequately represent the gentleness and simplicity of Lincoln’s personality.

Elgar’s Symphony No. 1

Notes by TŌN bassoonist Adam Romey

Fits and Starts
Elgar considered the creation of a large-scale symphony to be a crowning musical achievement. Like many composers following in the footsteps of Ludwig van Beethoven, he found the task quite daunting. In 1898, he began conceiving of a symphony that would tell the story of British military hero General Charles George Gordon, as a nod to Beethoven’s initial dedication of his Eroica symphony to Napoleon. Over the next three years, his best friend wrote a story outline, Elgar drafted a theme, and his wife reported hearing morsels of symphonic sketches. When a friend offered him a commission in 1901, Elgar declined and abandoned the project. He accepted another commission in 1904, but soon backed out. It wasn’t until 1907 that he finally began work on what would become his first symphony.

The Reception
Symphony No. 1 was finished in October of 1908 and premiered that December. It was enthusiastically received, and triumphantly declared the first great English symphony. Conductor Hans Richter called it “the greatest symphony of modern times.” Not only did the applause of the audience summon Elgar to the stage five times, the piece was performed more than 80 times around the world over the next year. While this symphony, like most of Elgar’s music, faded from non-British concert programs as the century progressed, it has begun to make a comeback in American concert halls. It has a healthy discography, though primarily by British orchestras, and the piece is admired by listeners and scholars alike.

The Music
One of the defining characteristics of both Elgar’s music and personality is the contrast between emotional episodes of vulnerable, inner experience and raw, anxious, unpredictable outbursts. The opening melody of the piece, marked ‘noble and simple’ in the score, begins intimately and steadily gains confidence, before dramatically launching off in other directions. Often, multiple and sometimes conflicting feelings are expressed, such as in the second movement’s alternation between the agitated drama with which it begins, and the punctuations of emotions equally playful, wistful, and melancholic. Considered by many to be the fullest realization of Elgar’s lyricism, the third movement showcases the orchestral forces in both broad sweeps and intimate detail, the way a skilled painter uses different brushes and colors across a canvas. Elgar’s self-doubt and earnest artistic devotion on his journey toward creating this symphony can be heard in the piece itself, particularly in the return of the opening melody at the end of the fourth movement in a grand restatement that was, for him, years in the making.

Joachim’s Hamlet Overture

Notes by TŌN horn player Ethan Brozka

The Composer
Joseph Joachim is known by many people solely because of his career as a performer. He was a violin virtuoso in the most outsized 19th-century way. His reputation was, and remains still, larger than life. But besides being Brahms’ favorite violinist, a pedagogical authority, and a sought-after performer all across Europe, Joachim was also a hard-working and well-studied, if relatively unprolific, composer. He lived in the era in which Romanticism was nearing its peak and the link between poetry and music was becoming more functional and symbiotic, in the style of Liszt.

The Subject
Hamlet is the subject of our first piece, and since the narrative of this play is considered far ahead of its time, one could easily argue that the content of the play is downright Romantic. There’s an introspective hero, copious amounts of dramatic irony, unrequited love, a usurped throne, and plenty of other poignant material around which to craft a dramatic musical narrative. The play’s eponymous hero is perhaps the most Romantic element of all. Hamlet is told from the first scene to avenge his father’s untimely death, and despite this very clear instruction, he spends the duration of the play in emotional and moral turmoil, struggling with how to do the deed. This in itself is a vivid portrayal of the archetypal Romantic hero. You’ll hear this turmoil reflected in the music—indecisive and mysterious—as well as hints of Brahms and Berlioz.

The Reception
This overture may be new to many listeners, and it did meet with limited success when it was first premiered in several places throughout Europe. The composer worked diligently and tirelessly on this piece for many years, sending drafts to his mentors and revising furiously, never quite satisfied with the results. Joachim believed in one case that the orchestra was at fault, writing in a letter, “Yes, if only they were all sensitive souls! — but the musicians blow and bow the notes so coarsely — and what in my mind was a sigh or a joyful Ach! was a crass horn tone — a screechy fiddle bow noise — why are there so many workmen, only!!” The work has been more present in orchestral programming in the past half-century, however, and Joachim is posthumously widening his reputation beyond being solely a violinist.

Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles

Notes by Steve V. Sinclair

Inspired by a Roman Catholic requiem mass, Stravinsky dedicated this piece to the memory of Helen Buchanan Seeger, a benefactor of Princeton University, where it was first performed in 1966. The conductor was Stravinsky’s friend and artistic collaborator, Robert Craft. The last major work written in his life, the piece is full of echoes of earlier works by Stravinsky.

In an interview with the composer which took place shortly after this work’s completion, Stravinsky said,

“The idea of the triangular instrumental frame—string prelude, wind-instrumental interlude, percussion postlude—came quickly, and then I began to compose the . . . formal lament. The prelude puzzled its first audience. Some thought it too light, while others said it was like Bartók and even the beginning of Mozart’s ‘Dissonant’ Quartet. I think, nevertheless that its ‘preluding’ manner is precisely suited to the musical matter to be expounded. But some people professed to hear curious echoes in other sections of the work as well, of Oedipus Rex in the ‘Tuba mirum,’ The Wedding in the ‘Postlude,’ . . . Still, most listeners seemed to find it the easiest to take home of my last period—or last-ditch period—music, and though I know of no universal decision as to whether it is to be thought of as compressed or merely brief, I think the opus may safely be called the first mini- or pocket-Requiem.”

It was played at his funeral in Venice in 1971 with, again, Craft conducting. According to his wife, Vera, “He and we knew he was writing it for himself.” Craft described the closing Postlude as “the chord of Death, followed by silence, the tolling of bells, and again silence, all thrice repeated, then the three final chords of Death alone.”

Stravinsky’s Funeral Song

Notes by Steve V. Sinclair

Stravinsky composed this piece in the memory of his mentor and fellow composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who passed away in 1908. It was premiered at a concert in St. Petersburg shortly after Rimsky’s death. In the 1960 book Memories and Commentaries, Stravinsky said:

“. . . I remember the piece as the best of my works before The Firebird, and the most advanced in chromatic harmony. The orchestral parts must have been preserved in one of the St. Petersburg orchestra libraries; I wish someone in Leningrad would look for the parts, for I would be curious myself to see what I was composing just before The Firebird.”

The parts, which were considered lost and thought to have been destroyed in a fire, were finally recovered in 2015 by Natalia Braginskaya, dean of the musicology department at the St. Petersburg Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory. The piece received its second-ever performance on December 2, 2016 in St. Petersburg, with Valery Gergiev leading the Mariinsky Orchestra, and was premiered in New York by the New York Philharmonic on April 27, 2017.

Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms

Notes by Steve V. Sinclair

This piece was quite interestingly orchestrated, calling for four wind instruments per part (but no clarinets), a string section with only cello and double bass, and a four-part mixed chorus comprised entirely of children. While Stravinsky wrote in the score that “the choir should contain children’s voices,” he also added that they “may be replaced by female voices (soprano and alto).” As a result, most performances of this piece usually include an adult chorus. He also insisted that the piece always be performed in Latin, never in translation.

It was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930, alongside new works by Sergei Prokofiev, Arthur Honneger, Albert Roussel, and Aaron Copland. Two factors were responsible for the form of this piece; first, Stravinsky had long contemplated composing “a work of considerable scope,” and second, he had recently returned to the Russian Orthodox faith of his youth. Koussevitzky had suggested that he write something “popular,” but Stravinsky was set on his Symphony of Psalms, responding only by choosing Psalm 150 because of its popularity.

For the commission, Stravinsky wrote a clause into his contract, mandating that if Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony didn’t give the premiere of Symphony of Psalms by late November of 1930, an orchestra in Europe could give the premiere instead. So while the piece premiered in Brussels, the Boston Symphony played it for the first time six days later. The critics were reserved but positive about Stravinsky’s new piece. One wrote, “Its originality is too great for it to have instant popular appeal.” Another critic liked only the ending and the beginning, writing “at the outset Stravinsky’s so-called symphony arrested and gripped the listener. There was a semi-barbaric wildness in the opening measures.”

Mahler’s Symphony No. 7

Notes by Steve V. Sinclair

Sometimes referred to as the Song of the Night, though not named this by Mahler himself, this symphony underwent many revisions. Nonetheless, Mahler allegedly completed most of the symphony in just four weeks, especially impressive as he began sketching out the piece while simultaneously working on his sixth symphony. While the work was first composed in the happiest moments of his life and career—he was director at the Vienna State Opera and happily married with two young daughters—three whole years passed between the premiere of the symphony and the date on which Mahler completed the score. During this time his life had turned upside-down: he resigned from the Vienna State Opera, his four-year-old daughter died, and he was diagnosed with a heart condition for which there was no cure.

The symphony thrives on these paradoxes and contrasts ringing through Mahler’s life. It’s written in the key of E minor, and yet the tonality is far more complicated, and at times the symphony is sensuous and elated. He first composed what would become the second and forth movements, both called Nachtmusik, hence the symphony’s commonly referred to title, Song of the Night. The second movement illustrates the walk at night, which Mahler associated with the atmosphere evoked in Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. The Scherzo is found between the two Nachtmusik movements, and while Scherzo refers to a “joke”, this movement is sinister and unsettled, with unique orchestration giving the movement a strongly nightmarish quality. The second Nachtmusik returns to a lighter, leisurely stroll, with reduced orchestration which gives the movement a chamber music feel. This is at the core of the symphony; Mahler did not add the first and final movements until the following year. The first movement brings the symphony into nighttime, and the final rondo returns to daybreak, with the orchestra returning in large form. The symphony travels from dusk until dawn, with the final movement bringing back structural and melodic themes that were heard earlier in the Allegro theme of the opening.