The Peninsula Music Festival - 60th Season 2012 - Program Notes
Program 5 - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - British Invasion
Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 in G major, Op. 39, No. 4
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Composed in 1907.
Premiered on August 24, 1907 in London, conducted by Henry Wood.
“For my part, I know that there are a lot of people who like to celebrate events with music. To these people I have given tunes. Why should I write a fugue or something that won’t appeal to anyone when people yearn for things which stir them? ... I have some of the soldier instinct in me, and so I have written marches of which I am proud.” With these words, given in a Strand Magazine interview with Rudolph de Cordova in May 1904, Edward Elgar described the popular and uplifting character of his best-known creations — the Pomp and Circumstance Marches. He derived the title (“a generic name,” he called it) from a line in Act III, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Othello, in which the Moor contemplates retiring from combat: “Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump/The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife/The royal banner, and all quality/Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!” The martial intent of the Pomp and Circumstance Marches is further attested by a verse of Lord de Tabley which Elgar placed at the head of the score:
Like a proud music that draws men to die,
Madly upon the spears in martial ecstasy,
A measure that sets Heaven in all their veins
And iron in their hands.
Elgar, whose patriotic spirit was nurtured in the palmy days of Victoria, when the British Empire had stretched to its furthest extent, may have been inspired to write the Marches by the Boer War in South Africa. In 1900, a year after the War started, Elgar said that he was “appalled at the lack of interesting and spirited march music,” and was planning a set of six such pieces which would be “in every way adapted for marching purposes, while not sacrificing any of the qualities required for performance in the concert room.” On New Year’s Day 1901, he sketched out themes for the A minor March (No. 2) and two days later composed the superb melody that occupies the Trio of March No. 1, which he called a “once in a lifetime tune.” He worked on the two pieces during the spring, and rendered them into finished form in July (No. 1) and August (No. 2). They were premiered in tandem at a concert of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society on October 19th conducted by that organization’s founder and music director, Alfred Edward Rodewall. The D major March was dedicated to Rodewall and his forces; No. 2 was inscribed with the name of Elgar’s composer-conductor colleague Granville Bantock. The pieces were well received in Liverpool, but the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 created near-pandemonium when Sir Henry Wood performed it at the Promenade concert in Queen’s Hall, London a week later. “The people simply rose and yelled,” he reported. “I had to play it again — with the same result; in fact, they refused to let me go on with the programme....” The Marches achieved an immediate and spectacular success, and contributed immeasurably to Elgar being awarded knighthood in July 1904. The acclaim of the first two Marches prompted Elgar to add further numbers to the Pomp and Circumstance series in 1905, 1907 and 1930; though he made sketches for a sixth March, it was never completed.
Elgar added the fourth number to his set of Pomp and Circumstance Marches in the early summer of 1907, just before beginning work on his First Symphony. The score was inscribed to Dr. George Robertson Sinclair, organist at the cathedral of Hereford, Elgar’s home parish, who also received the dedication of one of the “Enigma” Variations. In 1897, Sinclair had commissioned from Elgar the Te Deum and Benedictus, and the two musicians thereafter maintained a close friendship, one curious evidence of which was a number of themes in Gerontius, Enigma, In the South and The Crown of India “conceived in honour of” Sinclair’s bulldog, Dan. Several attempts were made during Elgar’s lifetime to fit the broad Trio tune of the March No. 4 with words — in 1910, the composer’s wife, Alice, concocted for it a text titled Kingsway inspired by the grandiose London street that had replaced the slums north of Aldwych — but during the Second World War, the melody became virtually a national song when Sir Alan Herbert wrapped it with a poem called Song of Freedom, which began, “All men must be free.”
Sir William Walton (1902-1983)
Composed in 1928-1929, revised in 1961.
Premiered on October 3, 1929 in London, conducted by the composer with Paul Hindemith as soloist.
After William Walton left Oxford in 1920 without a degree (excellent in music, shaky in academics), he lived in London for the next decade with the Sitwells: Osbert (poet and novelist) and Sacheverell (poet and art critic), both of whom he had met at university, and their sister, Edith (poet and critic). Not only was Walton immensely stimulated by such brilliant intellectual company, but the Sitwells’ generosity allowed him to escape the financial difficulties suffered by most young composers. In 1922, he wrote Façade, an iconoclastic “entertainment” for the Sitwells’ drawing room comprising musical backgrounds for some of Edith’s most piquant poems. Walton’s reputation as a sly enfant terrible was not diminished by his immersion in jazz during 1923-1924, when he said he was “writing and scoring fox-trots for the Savoy Orpheus Band and working at a monumentally planned concerto for two pianofortes, jazz band and orchestra.” (1924 was also the year of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.) All of this music has disappeared (Walton, a slow and meticulous worker, may have destroyed it himself), but the drive and freedom of its jazz rhythms were a potent influence on his first important orchestral score, the Portsmouth Point Overture of 1925.
In 1928, Walton undertook a piece for orchestra, broader in scope and more serious in expression than Portsmouth Point, whose genesis he recalled in a 1962 interview: “It was [conductor Sir Thomas] Beecham who suggested my writing a viola concerto for Lionel Tertis [perhaps the greatest solo violist of the early 20th century]. When it was finished [in 1929] I sent it to Tertis, who turned it down sharply by return of post, which depressed me a good deal as virtuoso violists were scarce. However, Edward Clark, who at that time was in charge of the music section of the BBC, suggested we should go to Hindemith. So I duly conducted Hindemith in it at the first performance at a Proms concert in 1929. Tertis came and was won over, and he played the work whenever he had the chance.” Hindemith, of course, was the German composer Paul Hindemith, who was not only one of the 20th-century’s master creative musicians but also a virtuoso performer on viola. The Concerto won an immediate success for Walton, and was the first of his works to excite international recognition of his talent; it was chosen for performance at the International Festival of Contemporary Music at Liège in 1930, and has been regularly performed ever since. The work was revised in 1962, when Walton reduced its orchestration from triple to double woodwinds but added a harp.
The Viola Concerto demonstrated a remarkable maturity of technique and expression from the 26-year-old Walton. It solves with expert craftsmanship the difficult problem of balancing orchestra and viola, whose sonority and middle-register tessitura make it so easily absorbed into the instrumental texture, by relying primarily on strands of accompanimental counterpoint rather than on homophonic block scoring. As would the later concertos for violin (1939) and cello (1956), the Viola Concerto surrounds a fast, scherzo-like central movement with music of greater introspection. The opening movement of each concerto is slow in tempo and lyrical in nature, while the finale recalls thematic material from the earlier movements to round out the composition’s overall formal structure. In the style and construction of the Viola Concerto, Walton found a most satisfying meeting of tradition and modernity, one which carries forward the language and formal principles of 19th-century Romanticism while expanding them in a distinctly personal manner: “Walton’s style is not sentimental; but neither is it anti-romantic,” wrote Sir Donald Tovey in his admiring analysis of the piece.
The opening movement begins with rocking figures in the orchestral strings and clarinet as a preface to the viola’s broadly lyrical main theme, whose opening interval (a minor third) is a motto from which much of the later melodic material is derived. A contrasting idea, first given by the viola above a pizzicato string accompaniment, becomes more rhythmically animated and leads into the development section, initiated with a fierce and strongly rhythmic transformation of the main theme. Motivic elements from both of the earlier themes are worked out and augmented with new material before the music softens to usher in the return of the main theme by the oboe and flute as a brief epilogue. “The whole movement,” wrote Tovey, “must convince every listener [that it is] a masterpiece of form in its freedom and precision, besides showing pathos of a high order.”
The residue of Walton’s experience with jazz is abundantly evident in the rhythmic animation of the second movement, a scherzo built from the ingenious elaborations and interweavings of three themes: a bounding, syncopated motive first given by the viola (with tiny flashing echoes in clarinet and bassoon); a quick, staccato figure in the brass; and a bold strain begun by the soloist in multiple stops.
The finale is launched by an insouciant melody in the bassoon, which is soon taken up for contrapuntal discussion by the viola and some of the orchestral entourage. A transition based on a close-interval triplet figure in the viola leads to the second theme, a sad, sighing melody in almost-too-sweet double stops. The balance of the movement is given over to superbly inventive elaborations of the thematic material, and is capped by a closing section in which the themes of the finale are masterfully combined with those of the first movement. Tovey offered the following summary of Walton’s Viola Concerto: “The listener will become convinced that the total import of the work is that of high tragedy.... There are so few concertos for viola that it would be poor compliment to say that this was the finest. Any concerto for viola must be a tour de force; but this seems to me to be one of the most important modern concertos for any instrument.”
The Planets, Op. 32
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Composed in 1914-1917.
Premiered on September 29, 1918 in London, conducted by Adrian Boult.
From early in his life, Gustav Holst combined a mystical turn of mind with strong nationalistic sympathies, and much of his music shows an intriguing blend of no-nonsense British vigor and ethereal rumination. He was fascinated by Eastern religious literature, and undertook a study of Sanskrit so that he could translate hymns from the Rig Veda for himself in order to make the most appropriate musical settings for them. The Japanese Suite, the opera Savitri (meant to recreate the suspended stillness of Indian music), songs based on the poems of the New England Transcendentalists and other such visionary works are scattered among lusty pieces chock full of hearty folk songs and rousing choruses. Holst, however, took the trouble to note the difference between the Mystic and the Artist: “I suggest that the latter has the advantage. He has no need of speech; he has something at once more tangible and yet which belongs to eternity — that something which Artists call Form.” His dear friend and mutual critic, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, believed that “Holst’s music reaches into the unknown, but it never loses touch with humanity.” These two attractive, but seemingly opposed, characteristics — head in the clouds, feet on the ground — are abundantly manifest in The Planets.
Holst’s interest in writing a piece of music on the attributes of the astrological signs was apparently spurred by his visit in the spring of 1913 with the writer and avid star-gazer Clifford Bax, who noted that Holst was himself “a skilled reader of horoscopes.” (Imogen Holst suggested that one reason her father may have been attracted to composing such a work was because he was having difficulty at the time formulating structural plans for large-scale pieces, and a suite for orchestra seemed appropriate to his compositional needs.) Of the music’s inspiration, Holst noted, “As a rule I only study things which suggest music to me. That’s why I worried at Sanskrit. Then recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely.” Despite his immediate attraction to the planets as the subject for a musical work, however, he took some time before beginning actual composition. He once wrote to William Gillies Whittaker, “Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you,” and it was not until the summer of 1914, more than a full year after he had conceived the piece, that he could no longer resist the lure of The Planets.
“Once he had taken the underlying idea from astrology, he let the music have its way with him,” reported Imogen of her father’s writing The Planets. The composition of the work occupied him for over three years. Jupiter, Venus and Mars were written in 1914 (prophetically, Mars, the Bringer of War was completed only weeks before the assassination at Sarajevo precipitated the start of the First World War); Saturn, Uranus and Neptune followed in 1915, and Mercury a year after that. Except for Neptune, all the movements were originally written for two pianos rather than directly into orchestral score, probably because Holst was then having painful problems with his writing hand due to severe arthritis, and he needed to concentrate the physical effort of composition as much as possible. For the mystical Neptune movement, he considered the percussive sounds of the piano too harsh, and wrote it first as an organ piece. All seven movements were orchestrated in 1917 with the help of Nora Day and Vally Lasker, two of the composer’s fellow faculty members at St. Paul’s School in London, who wrote out the full score from Holst’s keyboard notations under his guidance. The finished work is superb testimony to Holst’s skill as an orchestrator, much of which was gained from his practical experience as a teacher and conductor, and also as a professional trombonist in several British orchestras, a vocation from which he was forced to retire in 1903 because of his arthritis.
The Planets had a complicated performance history when it was new. Holst was judged unfit for military service in the War because of his health, but he did manage to obtain a post with the YMCA as a music organizer among troops in the Near East. His overseas departure date was set too quickly to allow the new piece to be scheduled for performance in one of London’s regular concert series, so his friend Balfour Gardiner, realizing how eager Holst was to hear the work, underwrote a special private performance as a farewell gift. Holst and an invited audience attended the concert, conducted by Adrian Boult on September 29, 1918 in Queen’s Hall, London, only days before the composer sailed for Salonica and points beyond. On February 27, 1919, Boult led the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a public performance of The Planets, but omitted Venus and Neptune, so the honor of the work’s first complete public performance fell to Albert Coates, who conducted the score in London on November 15, 1920. Interest in the work ran so high in America that the premiere in this country was given simultaneously in New York (Albert Coates) and Chicago (Frederick Stock) during the 1920-1921 season. The Planets has remained Holst’s most popular composition.
Holst gave the following explanation of The Planets for its first performances: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no program music in them, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it is used in a broad sense. For instance, Jupiter brings jollity in the normal sense, and also the more ceremonial kind of rejoicing associated with religious or national festivities. Saturn brings not only physical decay, but also a vision of fulfillment.”
The individual movements of The Planets employ a wide spectrum of musical styles in which the influences of Stravinsky, Dukas, Debussy and even Schoenberg may be discerned, but, according to Imogen, “The Planets is written in Holst’s own language.” It is a language of spectacular variety — a greater contrast than that between the first two movements is hard to imagine. The staggering hammerblows of Mars, the Bringer of War are followed by the sweet luminosity of Venus, the Bringer of Peace. Each of the remaining movements cuts as distinctive a figure as the first two. Mercury, the Winged Messenger is a nimble scherzo that seems, like the fast movements of Baroque music, to be a stream of notes spinning infinitely through the cosmos of which the composer has revealed only a small segment. Within Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity co-exist a boisterous Bacchanalian dance (“the most joyous jangle imaginable,” according to Richard Capell) and a striding hymn tune to which Elgar stood godfather. Hard upon Jupiter, which reportedly inspired the charwomen cleaning the hall during rehearsals for the premiere to toss away their mops and dance a little jig, follow the lugubrious solemnities of Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, the movement Holst declared to be his favorite piece in the suite. This music is invested with a weighty, Mahlerian seriousness that recalls Das Lied von der Erde. Uranus, the Magician is shown as a rather portly prestidigitator who includes perhaps more broad humor than baffling legerdemain in his act. The haunting finale, Neptune, the Mystic, springs from the misty domain of Debussy’s Nocturnes, but possesses an even wispier, more diaphanous orchestral sonority, with the disembodied siren song of the female chorus floating away to inaudibility among the spheres at its close. Wrote Richard Capell of this bewitching, inconclusive ending, “[Neptune] swims in mystery, less seen than guessed at, on the far confines of our system. What is to be made of it, this ultimate unknown, by our peering into the dark sky? Holst is not able to proclaim a conventional apotheosis. The dark remains dark, the question is left open ...”
Of Holst’s masterful astrological suite, Gerald Abraham wrote, “Each movement is a completely different experience; it is not merely a play on words to say that each transports one to a different planet, a different air. Air — that is the common element to all The Planets; a sense of vast timeless space, of air exceedingly rare and purified.” To which James Lyons added, “Only a creative personality of boundless imagination, fettered by the discipline reserved for the master craftsman, could have conceived such magical spheres of music.”
©2012 Dr. Richard E. Rodda