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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 authorlast update: 7/27/15

Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
October 16-17-18, 2015
90th Season / Subscription Concert No. 2
Michael Allsen


This program opens with Haydn’s exuberant Symphony No.85—one of his popular “Paris symphonies.” James Ehnes appeared with the orchestra in 2012, playing a memorable performance of Bartók’s second violin concerto—he returns at these concerts for a Romantic virtuoso piece, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. We end this program with the final completed work of Rachmaninoff, his colorful Symphonic Dances.

 

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Symphony No.85 in B-flat Major, “La Reine”

 

Haydn composed this work in 1786, and it was first performed in Paris in 1787. It is one of a set of six “Paris Symphonies” (Nos. 82-87) that Haydn composed for a popular Parisian concert series. This is our first performance of the work. Duration 25:00.

 

Haydn spent much of his career as an employee of the Ezterházies—among the wealthiest and most powerful families in the circle of the Emperor in Vienna—and developed his skills and reputation without straying far from his patron’s palaces in Eisenstadt and Eszterháza. But by the 1780s Haydn had gained international notoriety and was beginning to publish his works throughout Europe. He began to attract outside commissions, and one of the most profitable came in 1784 or 1785, when he was asked by a Parisian concert organization to write a set of six symphonies. This group, the Concert de la loge Olympique, sponsored by Paris’s Olympic Masonic Lodge, had one of the most successful public concert series in Paris. From 1769 until the Revolution in 1789, they maintained a large orchestra of amateur and professional musicians, and sponsored weekly concerts during Paris’s concert season: December through the beginning of Lent. Haydn immediately agreed, and was a little overwhelmed by the fee, more than he had ever received for his symphonies in the past: 25 louis d’or, plus an additional 5 louis d’or per symphony. (Making sense of 18th-century money is problematic, but it is safe to say this was a significant chunk of change—something more than Haydn’s annual salary from Prince Esterházy!) They were phenomenally successful when they were performed in Paris during the 1787 season—according to one report in the newspaper Mercure de France, “At every concert, symphonies by Haydn were played. Every day, one realizes better and consequently admires more the products of this great genius who in every one of his works knows so well how to draw such rich and varied developments from a single theme...”

 

The Symphony No.85 is in the standard four-movement plan that Haydn himself did so much to establish. Like most of Haydn’s “nicknamed” symphonies, he himself had nothing to do with the name. In this case, the name “La Reine” (“The Queen”) was applied because this symphony was apparently a particular favorite of the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. The first movement opens with a stately and rather pompous slow introduction (Adagio), but quickly moves to the main body of the movement (Vivace). Like all of Haydn’s opening symphonic movements, this is in sonata form, but he uses an innovation that appears in several of his late works: rather than a pair of contrasting themes he uses a single idea as the basis for the entire movement. This idea is heard first in the strings: a long sustained pitch in the violins set against a descending line in the lower strings. He is able to draw an amazing amount of musical material from this simple idea. Haydn occasionally used folk material in his symphonies, and the second movement (Romance: Allegretto) is a set of four variations on a French folk tune, “La gentille et jeune Lisette.” Haydn’s take on this very traditional form is inventive: a blustery first variation full of hesitations and surprising changes of dynamics, a wistful minor key variation, and a third variation decorated by a birdlike flute obbligato. In the final variation, the theme is transformed into a sinuous line by the bassoon, leading to a gentle coda. Though Haydn was writing for a French aristocratic audience, his Menuetto has a distinctly Austrian flavor: both the primary Menuet theme and the more pastoral trio section in the middle have a slightly rough-edged character, and the trio section in particular hints at the Austrian Ländler. The final movement (Finale: Presto) is set in an innovative form that Haydn pioneered: a fusion of sonata form and the lighter rondo. This brisk, tightly-organized movement begins with the main theme, a lively and humorous idea dominated by the violins and woodwinds. This character dominates the two contrasting episodes and a short, semi-serious development section that ends with a dramatic pause and return of the main theme. The ending is almost a surprise, closing this lively symphony with a few crisp chords.

 

Max Bruch (1838-1920)

Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op.46                     

 

Bruch composed his Scottish Fantasy in the winter of 1879-1880, and it was first performed in September 1880, with Pablo de Sarasate as soloist. Previous Madison Symphony Orchestra performances have featured Norman Paulu (1987) and Shlomo Mintz (1992). Duration 30:00.

 

The land and culture of Scotland were an exotic source of inspiration for German Romantics like Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Bruch. Bruch in particular was a confirmed Scotophile, reading novels of Sir Walter Scott, and setting to muiacseveral Scots poems by Robert Burns. The characteristic rhythmic snap of Scottish music pervades Mendelssohn’s third symphony and its influence can be heard in songs by Beethoven and Schumann, but Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy goes a step further. Bruch was always fascinated by folk material, and used authentic Scottish folk melodies as his themes—the full title is “Fantasy for violin with orchestra and harp, with the free use of Scottish folk melodies.” It is occasionally suggested that Bruch himself collected the tunes. While he may indeed have heard Scottish music on a trip through Scotland, the source seems to be a handy reference book, The Scots Musical Museum, a widely-known collection of tunes assembled by Robert Burns and Stephen Clarke in the late 18th century. As a more subtle evocation of Scottish traditional music, Bruch also uses the harp prominently throughout the work. The Scottish Fantasy was composed for, and dedicated to the virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate.

 

The introduction (Grave) opens with a somber trombone chorale, and a free recitative for the soloist. This prologue leads to the body of the first movement (Adagio cantabile), where the violin plays a flowing adaptation of the tune Auld Rob Morris above a background of muted strings. The solo line builds to a subdued climax near the end, but soon subsides to end the movement quietly. The second movement (Allegro) begins with fragments of what will become the main theme. This theme, first played in its entirety by the violin, is based on the dance tune The Dusty Miller. The soloist begins with a very straightforward setting of the tune over a simple drone accompaniment, an evocation of country fiddling that soon expands to a more virtuoso style of playing. The orchestra takes up the theme, and the rest of the movement continues as a lively dialogue. At the end of this movement, there is a brief reminiscence of Auld Rob Morris, which provides a bridge into the lyrical Allegro sostenuto. This third, and most song-like movement is based upon the bittersweet lament I’m a Doun for the Lack o’Johnnie. It begins with a direct presentation of the tune, but the solo line becomes more and more agitated until there is a sharp shift of mood and tempo in the movement’s central section. The opening theme returns at the end for a final section of development. The finale (Allegro guerrico) begins with a strident theme, the Scots war-song Scots Wha Hae—Burns’s adaptation of Robert the Bruce’s legendary address to Scottish troops before the Battle of Bannockburn (1314):

 

        Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
        Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;

        Welcome to your gory bed,

        Or to victory!

 

This tune is stated by the violin, and answered by the full orchestra. A contrasting idea, which will alternate with Scots Wha Hae throughout the movement, is introduced in the same manner. After a brief pause, the solo violin launches into a virtuoso variation of the main theme. There is a central tranquillo episode that returns almost to the mood of the third movement, but the orchestra forcefully reasserts the warlike nature of the movement’s opening bars. The violin’s line culminates in a brilliant solo cadenza, and the movement closes with a final statement of the warlike main theme.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

 

Rachmaninoff composed this work in 1940. The Symphonic Dances were performed for the first time by the Philadelphia Orchestra on January 3, 1941. Our only previous performance was in 1995. Duration 35:00.

 

Like many European and Soviet musicians, pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff found sanctuary in this country during World War II. One of his most satisfying projects during these final years was a series of recordings of his complete piano works with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1940. This group had premiered and championed several of Rachmaninoff’s works, and its conductor, Eugene Ormandy, had long been a friend of the composer. His Symphonic Dances, written in September and October of 1940, was dedicated to Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, in gratitude for this longstanding musical relationship. Symphonic Dances was the first work he wrote in America, and would in fact be the last completed composition by Rachmaninoff.

 

The critics lambasted this work from all sides. At a time when most new compositions were aggressively modernist, Rachmaninoff’s strongly emotional, tonal writing seemed distinctly old-fashioned. On the other hand, staunchly Romantic admirers of his early works loved the second theme of the first movement and the reference to the Dies irae in the third, but they were confused by much of the rest. Rachmaninoff directly addressed these critics in a 1941 interview: “In my own compositions, no conscious effort has been made to be original, or Romantic, or Nationalistic, or anything else. I write down on paper the music I hear within me, as naturally as possible...” He originally titled the three movements of this work “Midday,” “Twilight,” and “Midnight.” This underlying program may have been connected to a plan to use the Dances as a ballet score, for a ballet choreographed by Michel Fokine. (Fokine had already created a ballet to Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini in 1938.) Rachmaninoff later denied that he had any such intentions, and published the Symphonic Dances without descriptive titles, allowing each movement to create its own associations for the listener.

 

The opening movement (Non allegro) is set in a simple three-part form. The opening section begins with melodic fragments passed between members of the orchestra. There is a loud outburst, and the theme emerges fully. This melody is based almost entirely on a descending three-note motive, and is developed above a constantly driving background. The middle section of the movement is much more sedate, and opens with a solo by the alto saxophone. This lush Romantic melody is eventually given to the strings. The mood changes abruptly, with a stormy passage that leads to a return of the opening theme. The movement tapers to a quiet ending.

 

The second movement (Andante con moto) begins with a wry introduction, alternating between muted brass and snatches of waltz music. Finally, Rachmaninoff introduces a fully-grown melody, a rather spooky little waltz introduced by the English horn, and given a broader treatment by the strings. A contrasting middle section featuring the woodwinds intervenes, before the main waltz theme returns. The movement is rounded off with a faster-paced coda.

 

The third movement opens with a brief slow introduction (Lento assai), which soon leads into a faster tempo (Allegro vivace) and a fast-paced, jagged-edged melody. This section comes to a peak and the tempo slows once more, to let the cellos play a long, sensuous melody. The lengthy slow section that follows is at turns grotesque and extravagantly Romantic. The Allegro vivace music returns, and builds over a long period, leading eventually to a reference to the ominous Dies irae in the brass. This Gregorian chant tune, drawn from the Latin Requiem, or Mass for the Dead, was something of an obsession for Rachmaninoff, and appears in several of his large works. The Dies irae gives way to a more hopeful tune, again a fragment of plainchant. In this case, a setting of the word Alliluya from the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church. This tune was another favorite of Rachmaninoff’s, and had appeared previously in his Vesper Mass, Op.37. Many writers have commented on the use of the Dies irae, with all of the terrifying imagery it represents, in this, Rachmaninoff’s last work. If the composer attached a meaning to this gloomy tune, however, its pessimism seems to have been drowned out in shouts of “Alleluia” in the final measures of the Symphonic Dances.

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program notes ©2015 by J. Michael Allsen