return to program notes homepage
NOTE:  These program notes are published here for patrons of the the Madison Symphony Orchestra and other interested readers.  Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author.

Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes

Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes

September 19-20-21, 2014

Michael Allsen

 

 

Last year we opened our season with an orchestral showcase, featuring the Madison Symphony Orchestra itself, with solo moments that highlighted the players of the orchestra. Your response to that concert was enthusiastic and gratifying—and we open this season with concert titled “Orchestral Splendor.” The season begins with the famous musical “sunrise” that opens Strauss’s tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra—a showpiece for every section of the orchestra. In Martin’s Concerto for Seven Winds, seven of our principal players take center stage—Stephanie Jutt, flute, Marc Fink, oboe, Joseph Morris, clarinet, Cynthia Cameron-Fix, bassoon, Linda Kimball, horn, John Aley, trumpet, and Joyce Messer, trombone—together with timpanist John Jutsum. And in a season where we are celebrating our tenth anniversary in Overture Hall, it is fitting that we show off the Pleasant Rowland Concert Organ in the grandest of all works for organ and orchestra, the Symphony No.3 by Saint-Saëns.

 

 

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Also sprach Zarathustra (“Thus Spoke Zarathustra”), Op.30

 

Strauss composed the tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra in 1896, completing the score on August 24, and leading the premiere performance in Frankfurt on November 27 of the same year. The Madison Symphony Orchestra has performed the work twice previously, in 1996 and 2006. Duration 33:00.

 

While working on his opera Guntram in 1892, Strauss read Nietzsche’s “prose-poem” Also sprach Zarathustra for the first time. Guntram eventually came to reflect many of Nietzsche’s philosophical views, particularly his rejection of Christian belief. In Zarathustra (1883-85), his most widely-known work, Nietzsche uses as protagonist the ancient Persian mystic Zoroaster (Zarathustra). Through the story of this prophet, Nietzsche introduced his concept of the superman, a person driven by what Nietzsche called the “will to power” to rise above the “weak herd” of humanity. (Not surprisingly, Nietzsche’s philosophy was celebrated and grotesquely distorted some fifty years later by the Nazis.) After the premier of Guntram in 1894, Strauss began seriously to consider the composition of a tone poem based upon Also sprach Zarathustra. The score is prefaced by a lengthy excerpt from the opening of Nietzsche’s poem—in which Zarathustra, after ten years as hermit, rises to greet the dawn and resolves to descend from his mountain retreat and spread his wisdom amongst the people below. Strauss’s program for the work is not a narrative and literal depiction of Zarathustra’s journey, but a more abstract interpretation of ideas from Nietzsche.

 

The opening is a powerful rendering of the sunrise of Nietzsche’s prologue—thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s use of this passage in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is perhaps the best-known 22 measures of Strauss’s music. This passage not only provides a powerful opening statement, but it also sets up the conflict between nature, light, and wisdom (C Major) and the struggle of humankind that continues throughout the work. After the dawn has rumbled to a close, Strauss uses chapter-headings from Nietzsche’s book to outline the form of his tone poem.

 

In “Of the Dwellers of the Unseen World,” Nietzsche depicts the religious faith of the masses as a barrier to evolution toward the superman. a suddenly cast a dark shadow on this passage, which gives way to more somber section titled “The Song of the Grave.” Here, Zarathustra laments and celebrates the death of his youth, and Strauss creates a dark and misty texture of strings and woodwinds.

 

A clear turning point in this work comes when Strauss quietly begins a fugue titled “Of Science” in the basses. Here, he skillfully blends together the themes of “nature” and “humanity,” and leads into an enormous orchestral climax. This scientific fugue gives way to an intense scherzo titled “The Convalescent”—a reference to the cathartic point in Nietzsche’s narrative when Zarathustra recovers from a long illness of the soul to emerge as a prophet. This comes to a peak with a massive brass outburst—the opening motive—and after a brief enigmatic passage, the section ends with more lighthearted music for solo strings and woodwinds. In the “Dance Song,” Zarathustra comes upon a group of young women dancing and joins in their revelry. This, the longest section of the work, begins as a somewhat incongruous Viennese waltz for solo violin, but builds gradually into an impassioned statement for the full orchestra.

 

The final orchestral climax comes in the “Song of the Night-Wanderer.” Here is Strauss’s most direct depiction of the action in Nietzche’s poem: of a scene where Zarathustra, surrounded by his disciples suddenly, at the stroke of midnight, intones words of warning and promise between the striking of the bells:

              ONE!      O humanity, take heed!

             TWO!      What does the deep voice of midnight say?

          THREE!      “I have slept my sleep—

            FOUR!      “awakened from the deepest dream, and plead:

              FIVE!      “the world is deep,

                SIX!      “and deeper than the day can read.

          SEVEN!      “Its woe is deep—

           EIGHT!      “and its joy deeper still than grief can be.

             NINE!      “Woe saith: Hence! Go!

               TEN!      “But joys all want eternity—

        ELEVEN!      “—want deep, profound eternity!”

       TWELVE!

After the tolling of midnight, Strauss closes his Also sprach Zarathustra with a brief and mysterious coda, once again combining the symbolic keys of C and B.

 

 

Frank Martin (1890-1974)

Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Percussion, and String Orchestra

 

Martin wrote this work in 1949, and it was premiered in Berne, on October 25, 1949. The Madison Symphony Orchestra has played the work twice, in 1969 and 1976. Soloists, then as now, were MSO principal players—in 1969: Robert Cole, flute, Harry Peters, oboe, Glenn Bowen, clarinet, Richard Lottridge, bassoon, John Barrows, horn, Donald Whitaker, trumpet, Allan Chase, trombone, and James Latimer, timpani. Changes to this roster in 1976 included Douglas Hill, horn, William Richardson, trombone, and oboist Marc Fink, who still serves as our principal oboe, nearly 40 years later! Duration 22:00.

 

Frank Martin, Switzerland’s most important 20th-century composer, took a great deal of time to develop an individual voice. Born in Geneva, he was already composing at age eight, and began studying with a rather conservative teacher, Joseph Lauber, who taught primarily in a German 19th-century style. Never really identifiable with a particular style of 20th-century music, Martin experimented widely in the 1920s and 1930s with an eclectic range of influences: the French music of Debussy and Ravel, music of India and the Balkans, Stravinsky’s neoclassical style, and even a brief flirtation with 12-tone technique a la Schoenberg. By age 50 he had settled on a difficult-to-characterize personal style, that used colorful harmonies in unorthodox ways—what one of his biographers describes as “gliding tonality.” Recognition also came late for Martin. After the second world war, he settled in the Netherlands, but began to travel extensively, performing and conducting his own music. Ha also composed virtually until his death at age 85, with several works—including some large-scale sacred pieces—written during the 1970s.

 

The Concerto heard here is an example of his mature style, and it also represents Martin’s fascination with unusual instrumental combinations. Rather “neoclassical” in its tightly-organized forms, it also pays tribute to the old Baroque “concerto grosso” in its use of a group of soloists in alternation with the full ensemble. In the opening Allegro, each of the solo instruments is introduced in turn: solos for oboe and clarinet, a forceful trio for horn, trumpet, and trombone, and a wry duet for flute and oboe. The movement proceeds in series of solo phrases, led off by the bassoon, and ends with a varied reprise of the opening music. The second (Adagietto: misterioso ed elegante) begins with a plodding ostinato, or repeated figure in the lower strings, and a haunting string melody that sets up an immediate sense of uneasiness. There are a series of solo moments until the bassoon, playing in a very high register, interrupts with a new idea and sets up a strident middle passage. The inexorable ostinato returns, but the movement ends with the bassoon melody, now played in a much more relaxed way by the trombone. In the third movement (Allegro vivace) the various solo instruments become more virtuosic, and the timpani assumes the role of an eighth soloist, with several prominent moments. The combines a several ideas in the manner of a scherzo: first an offbeat dance, then a more sprightly idea dominated by the trumpet, and finally—after a short percussion break—a dour march. This is soon combined with the bassoon/trombone melody from the second movement, now played passionately by the strings.  After brief reminiscences of the opening themes, the clarinets introduces a short and rather sarcastic new idea, which is picked by the rest of the soloist in a frantic coda.

 

 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Symphony No.3 in C Minor, Op.78 (“Organ”)

 

Saint-Saëns completed the Symphony No.3 in 1886, and conducted the premiere in London on May 19, 1886. The Madison Symphony Orchestra has performed the symphony in 1958, 2004 and 2010. Duration 36:00.

 

By the late 1880s, Saint-Saëns was a thoroughly respected figure in French music: a prolific composer, journalist, pianist, and longtime organist at the Madleine church in Paris.  However, his music was being played less and less often in his homeland, in favor of less conservative composers. While his reputation as a composer was declining in France, both Saint-Saëns and his music remained wildly popular in England and America. Many of the large-scale pieces he wrote in the last forty years of his long career were commissioned by English and American ensembles. (His very last completed orchestral work, for example, was a now-obscure overture called Hail! California.) The “Organ” symphony was written for the London Philharmonic Society. Its premiere was a huge success, and it remains the most popular of his three published symphonies, and the single most popular work for the combination of organ and orchestra.

 

Saint-Saëns was always something of a conservative, writing works along “Classical” lines, but the Symphony No.3 has several innovations, above and beyond its unusual orchestration (in addition to the organ part, there is also a prominent role for piano, four hands). Though it has the usual four-movement outlines of a Classical symphony, Saint-Saëns has absorbed those sections into two large movements: the first combining the traditional, though incomplete sonata-form first movement and slow movement, and the second bringing together a kind of scherzo and majestic finale. the symphony is also highly unified, with close connections among its themes, and hints of the grand closing theme sprinkled throughout the earlier sections. It was published with a dedication to one of the greatest Romantic innovators, Franz Liszt. Saint-Saëns met Liszt for the first time when he was a 10-year-old prodigy, and Liszt was already the preeminent pianist in Europe. They remained friends for forty years, until Liszt’s death just a few months after the symphony’s first performance.

 

After a short and dark Adagio introduction, the stormy main theme enters (Allegro). The second theme is actually taken from the introduction. They are both developed and combined, but where we expect a full recapitulation, the mood turns calmer, and the organ enters for the first time, as a quiet background to lovely Romantic melody (Poco adagio) presented in a series of gentle variations. There is a brief moment of darkness when the main Allegro theme returns, but serenity wins out in the end, until there is a rather mysterious closing passage.

 

The second movement (Allegro moderato) begins with astringent music for strings and timpani, which is developed in intense counterpoint. The Presto that follows is in true scherzo style, with quick woodwind and string lines above rolling piano figures. This music is developed thoroughly, and there is a repeat of the second movement’s opening theme. The scherzo returns briefly in combination with a solemn low brass theme, but then the organ, silent or in a supportive role so far, suddenly takes control: a colossal C Major chord that sets up a transition to the final section. The majestic theme that closes the piece is a brilliantly transformed version of the brooding Allegro melody of the first movement. This is developed in a great fugal finale that closes in joyous fury. Saint-Saëns reportedly said of this ending: “I have given everything that I had to give; what I have done here I shall never do again.”

________

program notes ©2014 by J. Michael Allsen