Subscription Concert No.868 B Series

TMSO Special

Mendelssohn:“Fingal’s Cave”, Overture, op.26

Felix Mendelssohn: Born in Hamburg, February 3, 1809; died in Leipzig, November 4, 1847

In 1829, the twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn embarked on a long Grand Tour of Europe. Scotland especially appealed to his romantic sensibility and penchant for picturesque landscapes as musical stimuli. He wrote rapturously of the waterfalls, valleys, wildflowers, forests and craggy rocks: “Everything looks so stern and robust, half enveloped in haze or smoke or fog.” In early August of 1829, Mendelssohn and his traveling companion Karl Klingemann (a young German diplomat and poet) reached the western coast and took a boat to the Hebrides, a group of well over one hundred rugged, picturesque islands where Gaelic is widely spoken and the people still live much as they have for hundreds of years, tending cattle and sheep, weaving Harris tweed, and raising crops such as barley, oats and potatoes. Best known of the islands is Skye, but it was Staffa that left the deepest impression on young Mendelssohn, for here was located the spectacular cavern named after the folk hero Fingal.

The vast cave, open to the sea, measures 227 feet by 42, and rises to a height of 66 feet. The sea forms the floor; along the walls stand towering pillars of basalt lava, inspiring Klingemann to describe the scene as resembling “the interior of an immense organ. It lies there alone, black, echoing, and entirely purposeless ̶ the grey waste of the sea in and around it.” Mendelssohn put his own impression into tone instead, noting down a twenty-one-measure passage that became the opening of his overture and perfectly captures the air of hushed mystery, dark mists and the restless sea. Two main musical ideas are developed within the context of a sonata-form movement: the “lapping wave” motif that opens the work, and a long-breathed, rising melody for the lower strings and woodwinds. Thomas Attwood conducted the first performance in London on May 14, 1832.

Schumann:Symphony No.1 in B-flat major, op.38 “Spring”

I     Andante un poco maestoso - Allegro molto vivace

II   Larghetto

III  Scherzo: Molto vivace

IV   Allegro animato e grazioso

Robert Schumann: Born in Zwickau, June 8, 1810; died in Endenich, July 29, 1856

In a burst of creative impulse, Schumann sketched his entire Spring symphony in a mere four days in January of 1841 and completed the orchestration a month later. The first performance took place on March 31 with Mendelssohn conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

One cannot fail to question the appellation “Spring” for a work composed entirely in the dead of winter. However, the vernal association in Schumann’s mind was not a calendar season but rather a personal, emotional springtime-a season of romantic ardor, high spirits and creative exuberance. He had married Clara Wieck just four and a half months before he began work on the symphony. A further, more tangible source of inspiration is found in a poem he had read by Adolf Böttger. The last line reads: “Im Tale blüht der Frühling auf!” (In the valley spring is blossoming forth!), the words of which correspond to the opening fanfare of the symphony. Schumann asked that it be played “as though it were from on high, like a call to awakening.” It serves as the principal theme of the movement’s main Allegro section as well, and its energetic, rhythmic pattern remains prominent throughout. The lyrical second theme is heard in the woodwinds.

The Larghetto movement has the quality of a tender cantilena. Violins introduce a long-breathed, gracious theme that might well deserve the description“of heavenly length” (thus returning the compliment Schumann paid Schubert’s Great C-major symphony). When the theme returns near the end of the movement, it is rescored for solo horn and oboe, a particularly felicitous blending of tonal colors that Brahms was to exploit also in more than one passage in his symphonies.

The Scherzo includes two Trios which contrast with each other as well as with the adjoining Scherzo. The first of these Trios is of unusual length ̶ 182 measures in relation to the Scherzo, which is only 96 measures, including repeats.

With scarcely a pause after the Scherzo, the finale is heralded by another fanfare whose motif returns in various melodic and rhythmic guises throughout the movement. As prightly first theme in the violins and a vigorous second theme for woodwinds and strings in the minor mode constitute the movement’s main musical building blocks. The symphony ends with joyful abandon and a sense that all is right with the world.

Stravinsky:Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)

I L'adoration de la Terre (The Adoration of the Earth)
  Introduction - The Augers of Spring: Dances of the Young Girls - Ritual of Abduction - Spring Rounds - Ritual of the Rival Tribes - Procession of the Sage - The Sage - Dance of the Earth

II Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice)
  Introduction - Mystic Circles of the Young Girls - Glorification of the Chosen One - Evocation of the Ancestors - Ritual Action of the Ancestors - Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One)

Igor Stravinsky: Born at Oranienbaum (a resort near St. Petersburg), June 17, 1882; died in New York City, April 6, 1971

Who wrote this fiendish Rite of Spring,
What right had he to write the thing,
Against our helpless ears to fling
Its crash clash cling clang bing bang bing?

The anonymous author of this witty verse, which appeared in the Boston Herald following the local premiere of Le Sacre du printemps, obviously hadn’ t been able to come to terms with this most revolutionary of masterpieces, even eleven years after its riotous Paris premiere in 1913. But Stravinsky’ s right to create was not really in question. The issue concerned in part the music’ s unprecedented degree of explosive power, volcanic sounds produced by a gigantic orchestra, savage rhythmic impulses, and rending dissonances, all of which combined to provoke early critics into speaking or writing as if, in the words of Donald Mitchell, “the music had done them personal injury, physical violence, as if the score of the ballet were an instrument of aggression.”

But its brutality and violent dissonance were not the only reasons for the reaction Sacre engendered. It seemed to reach deep into the subconscious, to activate instinctual, primal feelings and responses that are often depicted in myths. The mythic, archetypal element of Sacre has led some commentators to interpret the score in terms of Jungian psychology.

Stravinsky described the moment of conception, which took place during the spring of 1910 while he was working on The Firebird in St. Petersburg, in these terms (from Chronicle of My Life): “I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” He then described the vision to Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballets russes, who saw balletic possibilities in it, and to the designer, painter and archeologist Nicholas Roerich.

Well before Sacreʼs premiere, Pierre Monteux, conductor of the historic performance, sensed the approaching trauma. He wrote of his initial acquaintance with the music: “With only Diaghilev and myself as audience, Stravinsky sat down to play a piano reduction of the entire score. Before he got very far I was convinced he was raving mad. … My only comment at the end was that such music would surely cause a scandal.”

And cause a scandal it did ̶ probably the most famous musical scandal of the century. At the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, on May 29, 1913, the audience almost immediately began laughing, booing, and heckling. Unrest turned to anger, and then to violence, requiring an appearance by the gendarmes. The ballet, choreographed by Nijinsky, managed to continue to the end, but for weeks and months afterwards, newspapers and journals were filled with vivid descriptions of the event. Carl van Vechten dubbed it “war over art.” Léon Vallas referred to it as “Le Massacre du printemps.” The whole phenomenon of Le Sacre du printemps is perhaps most succinctly summarized in Pierre Boulez’statement: “It has become the ritual ̶ and the myth ̶ of modern music.”

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

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