Symphony Notes for Week Eight

Finlandia,” op. 26

Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius is undisputably the greatest composer Finland has ever produced.  He was born on Dec. 8, 1865, in Hämeenlinna (Tavastehus), Finland and died in Järvenpää, Finland on Sept. 20, 1957. His abiding interest in Finland’s literature (especially the national epic known as the Kalevala) and natural landscape place him in the forefront of Finnish nationalism, although few traces of folk tunes are to be found in his music. He is best known for his symphonies, violin concerto and above all his patriotic symphonic poem, “Finlandia,” which was composed in 1899 and received its premiere performance on July 2, 1900, with Robert Kajanus conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic. It is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings.

Finlandia” is the ultimate expression of the Finnish people’s desire for independence at a time when the country was still under the control of Czarist Russia. Sibelius created in 1899 some incidental music for a pageant based on Finnish history for a benefit event that was on the surface a fundraiser for the newspapermen’s pension. In point of fact, however, the event was a call for freedom of the press and Finnish independence. Originally titled “Finland Awakes!,” Sibelius reworked it as an orchestral tone poem under its more familiar name, “Finlandia.”

The first part of the piece begins darkly in the minor mode with music that may easily be interpreted as a representation of the struggle of the Finnish people. As the music gains strength, each gesture is punctuated by stirring fanfares in the brass. This ultimately yields to the memorable “Finlandia Hymn,” which itself grows ever more triumphant. Many years later, Sibelius rearranged the “Finlandia Hymn” into a stand-alone piece. Words were created for the hymn in 1941 by Veikko Antero Koskenniemi, and “Finlandia” became one of the most important national songs of Finland, although it did not become the country’s national anthem.

Poème,” op. 25    

Ernest Chausson

French composer Ernest Chausson was born in Paris on Jan. 20, 1855, and died in Limay, near Mantes, Yvelines on June 10, 1899, as a result of a bicycle accident. Trained to be a lawyer, he chose instead to devote himself to music. His principal mentors were Jules Massenet and César Franck, although he was also attracted to the music of Wagner. He composed in a wide variety of genres, both vocal and instrumental, but is perhaps best known for his “Poème” for violin and orchestra. The work is orchestrated for solo violin, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and strings.

Chausson, a composer of independent means, was born a full generation later than Saint-Saëns, and while his music breathes a spirit of lyrical Romanticism, its harmony is infused with a more forward-looking technique and vocabulary than that of his elder compatriot. Unlike Saint-Saëns, Chausson was a late bloomer, not beginning his conservatory studies until 1880 at the age of 25 with Jules Massenet and César Franck. Had his life not been tragically cut short as the result of a bicycle accident, it is impossible to predict how far his considerable talent and craft might have taken him.

The beautiful “Poème” was composed and dedicated in 1896 to the famous Belgian violinist, Eugène Ysaÿe, who gave it its first performance. Allegedly inspired by a short story by the Russian Turgenev, Chausson’s “Poème” has no discernible program. An interesting feature of the history of this work is the evolution of its title. At first Chausson called it “Le chant de l’amour triomphant: poème symphonique pour violon et orchestra.” This became shortened to “Poème pour violon et orchestra,” before the composer simply called it “Poème.” This move away from complexity and interpretive specificity toward simplicity is a hallmark of the composer’s aesthetic. Thus this piece takes its rightful place in the repertory of Romanticism, where emotional expression goes beyond the capacity of words or descriptive visual images. What remains is a soulful showpiece for the violin, colored by hints of antique modes and strange juxtapositions of major and minor modality. Its most haunting moment comes near the end of the piece, as the soloist’s trills ascend to the highest range of the instrument.

Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, op. 56 (“Scottish”)

Felix Mendelssohn

(Jacob Ludwig) Felix Mendelssohn(-Bartholdy) was born Feb. 3, 1809, in Hamburg and died Nov. 4, 1847, in Leipzig. Although it bears the title Symphony No. 3, the “Scottish” Symphony was the last composed of Mendelssohn’s five mature symphonies (not counting an unfinished Symphony in C Major that was abandoned after 1845). The “Scottish” Symphony received its premiere March 3, 1842, in Leipzig. It is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.

Felix Mendelssohn was a frequent visitor (nine trips in all) to the British Isles during his brief lifetime. His first trip — an extended one — took place in 1829, during which time he spent part of the summer in Scotland. Among his ports of call were Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and the Hebrides Islands (including Fingal’s Cave located on the isle of Staffa, a location that inspired Mendelssohn’s overture of the same name). According to Mendelssohn’s correspondence of July 30, he visited yet another site:

“In darkening twilight today, we went to the Palace (of Holyrood) where Queen Mary lived and loved. There is a little room to be seen there with a spiral staircase at its door. That is where they went up and found Rizzio in the room, dragged him out, and three chambers away there is a dark corner where they murdered him. The chapel beside it has lost its roof and is overgrown with grass and ivy, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything there is ruined, decayed and open to the clear sky. I believe that I have found there today the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.”

Mendelssohn also jotted down a preliminary form of the theme with which the score of the Scottish Symphony begins.

Mendelssohn, for various reasons, would not complete the symphony for another 13 years. For one thing, a trip to Italy intervened and produced a different symphony, the one known as the Italian Symphony (No. 4). As the composer remarked, “Who can wonder that I find it difficult to return to my misty Scottish mood?” When Mendelssohn returned to Britain in 1842, he conducted the newly completed Scottish Symphony in London in the presence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who granted him his wish to dedicate the work to the royal couple.

Mendelssohn was not particularly fond of folk music, and none is quoted in this piece. Nevertheless, there is a movement, the Scherzo allegro vivace, that bears many characteristics of traditional Scottish music — a pentatonic (five-note) melody and the “Scotch snap” (short-long) rhythm. Interestingly, musicians also refer to this figure as the “Lombard rhythm (because of its appearance in much Italian music of the 1740s). No wonder, then, that when Robert Schumann heard the Scottish Symphony, he mistakenly thought it was the Italian — even praising it for being “so beautiful as to compensate a listener who had never been in Italy.”

Even if the Scottish Symphony’s national character is suspect, it remains a highly innovative work. The piece, for one thing, is cyclic, meaning that thematic recall links its four movements. Furthermore, Mendelssohn wished to have all its movements played with no intervening pauses, thus: Introduction and Allegro agitatoScherzo allegro vivaceAdagio cantabileAllegro guerriero and Finale maestoso. Beethoven had broken ground in his Fifth Symphony by connecting the last two movements, and taken that a step further in his Sixth Symphony (“Pastorale”) by joining the scherzo, storm and finale. Robert Schumann also experimented with composing movements played without pause in his Symphony No. 4 (1841, rev. 1851).

Listeners who are fond of Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave (Hebrides) Overture will find much to relish in the Scottish Symphony. Here again is that somber mood and those crashing waves of crescendo and diminuendo swells. Lovers of those light-as-a-feather Mendelssohnian scherzos will delight in the tuneful and spry second movement. The lovely third movement is as full of song as ever, and the war-like quick march of the finale is sure to stir the blood. To cap it all off, Mendelssohn presents the listener with an apotheosis that transforms the gloom of the first movement into a hymn of triumph.

David B. Levy is professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He will present a pre-concert lecture on tonight’s program at 6:45 p.m. in the Hurlbut Church sanctuary.

Tags : Ernest ChaussonFelix MendelssohnFinlandiaJean SibeliusPoèmeSymphony No. 3 in A MinorWeek Eight
David Levy

The author David Levy