Programme Notes by Terry Robbins


CANADA — April 30, 2017

Theme from The Beachcombers — Bobby Hales (1934–2016)

The composer, arranger, conductor, jazz trumpeter and big band leader Bobby Hales was born near Regina and grew up in Saskatchewan before moving to British Columbia in 1947.

After studying at the Westlake College of Modern Music in Los Angeles he moved back to Vancouver and started working for the CBC in the early 1960s, a relationship that continued for close to 30 years.

Hales earned $63 for recording the theme music for The Beachcombers. The programme first aired on 1 October 1972, continuing for the next 18 years and becoming the longest-running show in English Canada television history.

Halifax Harbour — Elizabeth Raum (b.1945)

Elizabeth Raum was born in Berlin, New Hampshire, and grew up in Boston. She received a B.Mus. in oboe performance from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and an M.Mus. in composition from the University of Regina.

Raum moved to Halifax in 1968, becoming principal oboe with the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra (now Symphony Nova Scotia) from 1968-75 and also playing with the Charlottetown Festival Orchestra. She moved to Regina in1975, playing with the Regina Symphony Orchestra and becoming principal oboe there in 1986.

The five-movement suite Halifax Harbour was written in 2007 for Symphony Nova Scotia, and premiered by them on 17 January 2008. It was commissioned by Dr. Jane Gordon in memory of her late husband, Dr. John James MacDonald. The composer has written the following programme note for the work:

“The first movement, Sunrise on the Harbour, is inspired by the sounds of the incoming waves, the cries of the seagulls, and the misty colouring of the sky as the sun shines over the water. Underlying all is the rolling surge of waves depicted by the cellos and bassoons.

Ancient Peoples is a passacaglia of eight measures which represents Nova Scotia itself, and between the repetitions of the passacaglia theme are various tunes which were influenced or derived from the music of the Acadians, the Micmacs, French and English, and the sea shanties of the sailors who sailed in and out of the harbour. This moves into a fughetta interspersed with tunes such as What shall we do with a drunken sailor, Farewell to Nova Scotia, and Tout passe, alternating with the formal fugue. It ends with the ghosts of the Ancient People fading back into the past.

Tall Ships with billowing sails and traditional rigging have gathered in Halifax Harbour for centuries, and are part of its history as well as its beauty.

The Baron of Duncan’s Cove is a tribute to Tom and Beverly Grove, who played bassoon and violin when the composer was an oboist with the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra. Many of the musicians lived in cottages at ‘The Cove’ and some of the composer’s fondest memories of Halifax are connected with it.

JJ is inspired by John James MacDonald’s love for Bach. The many threads of linear motion of the counterpoint, like the paths of existence, serve as a metaphor for the progression of the life of the man who was known for his erudition as well as his great humanity. There is a stormy interlude indicative of the trials and tribulations all must endure, followed by a statement of Tout Passe, the Acadian folk song meaning everything passes on, and finally, the movement concludes with the sunrise of a new day.”

Tabuh-Tabuhan: Toccata for Orchestra — Colin McPhee (1900–64)

Colin McPhee was born in Montreal and studied composition and piano at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, later studying composition with Edgar Varèse.

In 1931 he married Jane Belo, an anthropologist. When his wife`s work took her to Bali McPhee became fascinated with the music of the Balinese gamelan, the ensemble of traditional instruments. He studied the form extensively, and wrote several essays that were published in the mid-1930s. In 1966 his Music in Bali, the first comprehensive study of gamelan music in English, was published posthumously.

McPhee`s divorce in 1938 left him in poor financial state, and he was also forced to leave Bali due to the Nazi activities in the Dutch East Indies, settling in New York. By the mid-1940s his career was faltering and he had become an alcoholic. He composed a few works in the late 1950s and continued to work on his Music in Bali, but major success eluded him. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in Los Angeles in 1964.

Tabuh-Tabuhan is McPhee`s best-known work, and the composer wrote the following programme note, which is available on the website of the publisher, The Music Sales Group:

“Tabuh-Tabuhan was composed in Mexico in 1936, and performed before the ink was barely dry by Carlos Chavez and the National Orchestra of Mexico City. It was written after I had already spent four years in Bali engaged in musical research, and is largely inspired, especially in its orchestration, by the various methods I had learned of Balinese gamelan technic. The title of the work derives from the Balinese word tabuh, originally meaning the mallet used for striking a percussion instrument, but extended to mean strike or beat – the drum, a gong xylophone or metallophone. Tabuh-Tabuhan is thus a Balinese collective noun, meaning different drum rhythms, metric forms, gong punctuations, gamelans, and music essentially percussive.

Although Tabuh-Tabuhan makes much use of Balinese musical material I consider it a purely personal work in which Balinese and composed motifs, melodies and rhythms have been fused to a symphonic work. Balinese music never rises to an emotional climax, but at the same time has a terrific rhythmic drive and symphonic surge, and this partly influenced me in planning the form of the work. Many of the syncopated rhythms of Balinese music have a close affinity with those of Latin American popular music and American jazz – a history in itself – these have formed the basic impulse of the work from start to finish.

To transfer the intricate chime-like polyphonic figuration of the gamelan keyed instruments and gong-chimes, I have used a ‘nuclear gamelan’ composed of two pianos, celesta, xylophone, marimba and glockenspiel. These form the core of the orchestra.

In form, Tabuh-Tabuhan is more or less that of the classical symphony, there being three movements – Ostinatos, Nocturne, and Finale. There is no place here to point out all the purely Balinese motifs. The flute melody in the Nocturne is an entirely Balinese flute melody, taken down as played. The syncopated finale is based on the gay music of a xylophone orchestra which accompanies a popular street dance. This is heard in its most authentic form at the beginning of the work and given the grand treatment at the end.”
Primary source: Adam Sharkin article in Musical Toronto, November 10, 2013.

The Banks of Newfoundland — Howard Cable (1920–2016)

The Canadian composer, arranger, orchestrator, instrumentalist and conductor Howard Cable studied with Sir Ernest MacMillan, Healey Willan, Ettore Mazzoleni and John Weinzweig, and studied piano, clarinet and oboe at the Royal Conservatory of Music. He worked extensively in the radio, television, film and band worlds, and supplied over 80 compositions or arrangements for the fledgling Canadian Brass. He was music director at the Royal York Hotel’s Imperial Room from 1974 to 1986.

The Banks of Newfoundland is a collection of folk songs from Eastern Canada and the Maritimes, written in 2009.

The Newfie Bullet for Piano & Orchestra — Richard Herriott (b.1963)

Richard Herriott was born in Singapore and spent his early childhood in England, moving to Canada with his family in 1967 and growing up in Newfoundland. His radio recital debut in 1976 marked the start of a relationship with the CBC that continued to 1990, when Herriott returned to England. He moved back to Canada in 2012.

Herriott is acknowledged as one of the leading pianists for dance accompaniment, having worked with the Northern Ballet in England from 1996 to 2012, as well as with the Royal Ballet, the English National Ballet, the Lviv State National Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada.

In 1980 he attended the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra premiere of a Canada Council commission by Newfoundland composer Brian Sexton called The Newfie Bullet – A Newfoundland Journey, a work that combined film, live theatre and full orchestra. Conducted by David Gray – who, incidentally, had conducted Orchestra Toronto in its East York Symphony days from 1975–77 – the concert’s presentation of the distinctive voice of Newfoundland folk music was a revelation for Herriott, and the start of a personal quest to study the genre and to find his own personal voice.

In 2015 he decided to revisit Three Short Diversions on Newfoundland Folksong, a work he had composed while studying at the Royal Conservatory, and expand it into a larger work. The rhythmic nature of the music reminded Herriott of his train journeys in England, giving him an obvious title for the work – The Newfie Bullet. Around the same time he met Kevin Mallon, who suggested orchestrating it and turning it into a piano concerto.

The concerto has a typical Sonata Allegro format, introducing two folk songs as exposition and second subject whilst using the chorus of a third song as bridge material. Use of the Dorian mode gives the development section the feel of the distant past before we return to the present, a piano cadenza leading to a rousing and climactic coda.

The concerto is named for the famous Newfoundland passenger train. When Newfoundland entered Confederation in 1949 the operation of the province`s railway was taken over by CNR, who changed the name of the cross-island passenger train in 1950 from The Overland Limited to The Caribou. The popular name for the train since the 1940s, however, had been The Newfie Bullet, a nick-name apparently coined by the American soldiers who were stationed in Newfoundland during the Second World War.

When the Trans-Canada Highway opened in 1965 the 23-hour train journey was no match for the 12-hour road journey, and passenger rail service was withdrawn in July 1969.

The Newfie Bullet is dedicated to Kevin Mallon and the musicians of Orchestra Toronto, in memoriam Marek Jablonski.

Primary source: notes supplied by the composer.


FRANCE — March 5, 2017

Selections from Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Op.80 — Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

When Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande was first produced in Paris in 1893 the opening night audience included Claude Debussy, who was so impressed with the work that he quickly acquired the rights to a musical setting of the play. It would be another ten years, however, before his opera on the subject was completed.

The first English language production of the play followed in June 1898 in London, and the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who was to play Mélisande, commissioned a suite of incidental music to accompany the performance. Debussy had to be the first composer approached, but he chose not to contribute extracts from his ongoing work with his opera. Mrs. Campbell had met Fauré in the spring of 1898 when he was in London visiting friends, and he agreed to supply the music on quite short notice.

The completed 17-movement suite was composed between May 16th and June 5th, Fauré re-cycling two previous works – the 1893 Sicilienne from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and the 1898 Fantasie for flute and piano – to reduce the workload; in addition, Fauré’s pupil Charles Koechlin was asked to orchestrate the suite for small theatre orchestra. After the play opened at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London on June 21st Fauré decided to draw a concert suite from the music, orchestrating it himself for larger orchestra. This Pelléas et Mélisande Suite originally had three movements (the current numbers 1, 2 and 4) and was premiered at the Concerts Lamoureux in Paris with Camille Chevillard conducting (much to Fauré’s displeasure, apparently) in 1901. The Sicilienne was added during the next decade, and the four-movement suite we hear today was published in 1909 and first performed on 1 December 1912 by André Messager and the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in Paris.

The four movements are: Prélude – originally the Prelude to Act I; Fileuse – Spinning Song, originally the Prelude to Act III; Sicilienne – originally the Prelude to Act II, and the one section that is little changed from Koechlin’s original orchestration; and Morte de Mélisande – originally the Prelude to the final Act V.

Fauré’s natural gift for melody is clearly apparent, and the pieces have often been described as “songs without words.” The Morte de Mélisande was played at Fauré’s own funeral in 1924.

Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.33 — Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns was a brilliant child prodigy, possibly the greatest since Mozart, and was one of the outstanding musical intellects of the 19th century. Despite a long and highly productive career, however, his compositions have rarely been held in the same high regard, his brilliant but academic style having become outdated by the turn of the century.

As a co-founder of the Société Nationale de Musique, which was formed to encourage the development of the French instrumental school (particularly at the expense of German music), Saint-Saëns helped to restore musical standards in France. He was more concerned with line, form and beautiful chords and harmonies than with emotional feeling or technical adventure, and while these qualities have ensured that a large amount of his output has stayed in the repertoire they have also been viewed as the reason why Saint-Saëns’ music has frequently been regarded as superficial and facile. Perhaps, though, it would be more accurate to say that he simply chose not to respond to the radical changes surrounding him; this was, after all, a composer who was born a mere eight years after the death of Beethoven but was still alive and composing and performing three years after the end of the Great War, eight years after Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and some 13 years after Schoenberg’s first experiments with atonality.

Saint-Saëns grew up in a French musical scene dominated by Meyerbeer, Halévy, Auber and Adam, when independence from their musical models was not viewed kindly by the musical establishment. Both Saint-Saëns and his contemporary Edouard Lalo – with whose Cello Concerto this one of Saint-Saëns is often paired – lacked a French musical tradition to which they could relate. Both also shared a strong disregard for the musical skills of Brahms, and despite their Frenchness felt to some extent that the true continuation of the German symphonic tradition of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn lay in their music, and not in that of Brahms. Indeed, Saint-Saëns has been called ‘the French Mendelssohn’, although his obstinate and aggressive character and opinions ensured that he never exhibited Mendelssohn’s sensitivity and charm.

Throughout his life Saint-Saëns exhibited a great fondness for the cello, writing a Suite and an Allegro appassionato for cello and orchestra and numerous shorter cello pieces as well as the two concertos and three cello sonatas, although unfortunately the third sonata has come down to us in manuscript only and with the final two movements missing.

The Cello Concerto No.1 was completed in November 1872, and was first performed at the Paris Conservatoire on 19 January 1873, with the dedicatee Auguste Tolbecque as soloist and the orchestra of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire under Édouard Delvedez. It is in three movements played without a pause, the first movement’s main theme recurring throughout the work (a technique known as ‘cyclical’ development) to add to the concerto’s cohesiveness, and creating the impression of a single-movement work with three related sections.

La Mer – Three Symphonic Sketches — Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
I – From dawn to midday on the sea;
II – Play of the waves;
III – Dialogue of the wind and the sea

It is perhaps hard to imagine, but Debussy’s parents had intended for him to have a naval career as a sailor before, in the composer’s own words, “fate led me in another direction.” That direction was the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten, a result of the precocious talent he had shown since starting piano lessons at the age of seven.

The sea always held a great fascination for Debussy, however, and was often represented in his music throughout his career. His early childhood summer holidays on the coast at Cannes in southern France left him with vivid memories of the sea and its various moods; “I love the sea and have listened to it passionately,” he said, noting that his countless memories “. . . are worth more, in my opinion, than the reality, whose beauty often deadens thought.”

The work La Mer was first mentioned in a Debussy letter of 12 September 1903 and was completed in 1905 in, of all places, the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne on the English Channel. Debussy rarely visited the coast in his adult life, but drew his inspiration from his memories and from art, in particular from the maritime paintings of the English artist J. M. W. Turner, whose works had been exhibited in Paris, and from the Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige.

The Impressionist movement in painting was concerned with rendering the impressions of light rather than the form of physical objects, and much the same approach is found in Debussy’s music, which is not descriptive in a programmatic way but rather evokes mood and atmosphere through colour, texture and harmonies. Don’t expect to hear any tunes in La Mer that you will be able to hum on the way home; there is no traditional classical form, structure or development here, no readily identifiable tunes or resolutions, but just an organic flow of chords, harmonies and sonorities that produce a shimmering, constantly shifting impression of the sea. “There is no theory,” said Debussy, “You merely have to listen.”

The work was premiered on 15 October 1905 in the Salle Pleyel in Paris with the Orchestre Lamoureux under Camille Chevillard, the same forces that had given the premiere of Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande four years earlier. Like Fauré, Debussy was less than impressed with Chevillard’s poor preparation, saying that the conductor was “more fit to tame wild beasts” than to lead an orchestra. The subsequent performances on 19 and 26 January 1908 were much more successful, Debussy making his conducting debut with an orchestra that had been well prepared by the conductor and violinist Édouard Colonne.

Critical reception of the premiere was decidedly mixed, with the negative side of the response perhaps due less to the originality of this new way of writing than to the public scandal that was enveloping Debussy at the time. In 1904 he had alienated himself from friends and family by leaving his wife Rosalie for the singer Emma Bardac, his wife attempting suicide shortly after by shooting herself in the Place de la Concorde. In the spring of 1905 the two lovers fled to England while waiting for their respective divorces to be finalised, and it was while staying at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne in July and August that Debussy, within sight and sound of the sea, finished work on La Mer.

And here we have another link with Fauré, for this same Emma Bardac had previously been that composer’s mistress in the 1890s, Fauré having written his song cycle La Bonne Chanson for Emma and his Dolly Suite for her daughter Hélène.


YOUTH AT THE HOLIDAYS — December 11, 2016

Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op.34 — Benjamin Britten (1913-76)

Having returned to England from the United States in the closing stages of the Second World War Britten was working for the Crown Film Unit in late 1945 when he was asked to write the music for a British Ministry of Education children’s documentary film entitled Instruments of the Orchestra. The narration was being written by Britten’s frequent librettist Eric Crozier, and the film was to be directed by the Scottish conductor and composer Muir Mathieson, the dean of Musical Directors in the British film industry for over 30 years.

Britten’s approach was simple but brilliantly effective. He took the Rondeau from Henry Purcell’s incidental music to Abdelazar or The Moor’s Revenge, a 1695 play by Mrs. Aphra Behn, and wrote a set of variations on it that effectively dismantled the orchestra and then rebuilt it. The theme is played first by the whole orchestra and then by each of the instrumental groups – woodwind, brass, strings and percussion – in turn; the variations then feature each individual instrument of the four groups (in slightly different order: wind, strings, brass, percussion) before Britten puts the orchestra back together with a fugue that starts in the piccolos and quickly spreads through the entire wind, strings, brass and percussion sections.  At the climax of the fugue, which is itself a variation of the theme, the brass section thunders out the original Purcell theme in counterpoint, and the work cascades to a scintillating finish.

Britten dedicated the score to the four children of the British pianist Jean Maud and her husband John (later to become Lord Redcliffe-Maud) “for their edification and entertainment.” It was first performed by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Malcolm Sargent on 15 October 1946 with Crozier as the narrator. The film, which featured the London Symphony Orchestra with Sargent as narrator as well as conductor, was premiered in London on 29 November.

Britten was well aware of the work’s concert potential, and allowance is made in the score for performance without the narrator; indeed, it is this version that is heard most frequently.

Violin Concerto in F minor, Op.8 No.4, RV297, “L’Inverno” (Winter) — Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Given the huge popularity of Vivaldi’s music, with various recordings of The Four Seasons in particular constantly near the top of the classical charts, it may come as a surprise to many listeners to learn that less than 70 years ago Vivaldi’s music was mostly unknown and virtually absent from the concert stage and recorded repertoire.  The man largely responsible for the re-awakening of interest in Vivaldi – and in particular The Four Seasons – was the American violinist Louis Kaufman. Born in 1905, Kaufman enjoyed a career of almost 70 years, made over 150 recordings, and was concertmaster on over 500 Hollywood movie soundtracks from the 1930s on, including the classics Gone With The Wind and Psycho.

In 1947 he was asked by the Columbia Broadcasting System to perform four new Vivaldi violin concertos, The Four Seasons, recently published in Milan, on a broadcast the following year. In the meantime Sam Josefowitz, owner of the Concert Hall Records label, asked Kaufman for ideas for solo violin concertos with small orchestra, and the Vivaldi works seemed the perfect choice. The concertos were recorded in late December 1947, with sessions taking place after midnight in an attempt to beat the recording strike that was due to hit the U.S. on January 1st.

When the recordings were released in early 1948 the sleeve notes were by the San Francisco musicologist Alfred Frankenstein, who was surprised to find during his research that the four concertos were actually a part of a group of 12, Il Cimento dell’ Armonia e dell’ Inventione or The Contest Between Harmony and Invention, the whereabouts of the other eight being unknown at the time.  When Kaufman moved to Paris later that year he took the opportunity to try to locate the ‘missing’ concertos in Europe. A meeting with the Italian composer and musicologist Gian Francesco Malipiero, who confirmed that there was an early published edition of the Op.8 concertos, led to a contact in Belgium and eventually to the library of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels, where Kaufman found the published parts for all 12 concertos. The story was featured in an English-language newspaper in Paris by a correspondent friend of the Kaufmans, and was picked up by several publications in England and the U.S., including Time magazine.

Kaufman recorded the remainder of the Op.8 concertos for Concert Hall records in Switzerland in 1950, and in the same year hit upon the idea of holding a Vivaldi Festival in New York in 1953 to mark the 275th anniversary of the composer’s birth. His subsequent all-Vivaldi concerts in London and Paris, as well as in New York, contributed enormously to the recognition and popularity Vivaldi’s music enjoys today.

Vivaldi played an important role in the development of the solo concerto, producing over 450 concertos, 96 of which were gathered together and published in collections during his lifetime. Even so, there is little in the way of standard form in The Four Seasons, with Vivaldi indulging almost entirely in descriptive writing. At the time, this was not exactly a novelty; far from being frowned upon, as it often is today, music that clearly followed a pictorial scheme was felt by many to be the only music of true value.

Each of the four concertos is in the standard fast-slow-fast three-movement structure, and the score for each is interspersed with lines from a descriptive sonnet, possibly written by Vivaldi himself, and apparently added after the music was completed.  The first movement of Winter illustrates shivering cold, biting winds, slipping on the ice, stamping feet and chattering teeth. In the middle movement we sit inside, warm and cozy by the fireside while the rain and winds rage outside. The third movement has us slipping and sliding on more ice; there is the hint of a thaw and some sunshine, but not for long – the bitter winds return again to blow us away.

The original 1947 and 1950 Louis Kaufman first-ever recordings of the complete Op.8 are available on CD in the Naxos Historical series (8.110297-8); most of the information in the above notes was taken from Lance Bowling’s excellent essay in the accompanying booklet.

Percussion Concerto — Jennifer Higdon (b.1962)

Jennifer Higdon was born in Brooklyn, New York and is one of the most frequently performed living composers. Despite a relatively late start in the music world – she learned the flute at 15, began formal music studies at 18 and started composition at 21 – she holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Music Composition from the University of Pennsylvania, a B.M. in Flute Performance from Bowling Green State University and an Artist Diploma in Music Composition from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music.

In 2010 she won both the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto and a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for her Percussion Concerto.  Jennifer Higdon has supplied the following program note for her Percussion Concerto on her website, :

The 20th century saw the development of the percussion section grow as no other section in the orchestra. Both the music and the performers grew in visibility as well as in capability. And while the form of the concerto wasn’t the least bit new in the century, the appearance and growth of the percussion concerto as a genre exploded during the latter half of the century.

My Percussion Concerto follows the normal relationship of a dialogue between soloist and orchestra. In this work, however, there is an additional relationship with the soloist interacting extensively with the percussion section. The ability of performers has grown to such an extent that it has become possible to have sections within the orchestra interact at the same level as the soloist.

When writing a concerto I think of two things: the particular soloist for whom I am writing and the nature of the solo instrument. In the case of percussion, this means a large battery of instruments, from vibraphone and marimba (the favorite instrument of soloist Colin Currie), to non-pitched smaller instruments (brake drum, wood blocks, Peking Opera gong), and to the drums themselves. Not only does a percussionist have to perfect playing all of these instruments, but he must make hundreds of decisions regarding the use of sticks and mallets, as there is an infinite variety of possibilities from which to choose. Not to mention the choreography of the movement of the player; where most performers do not have to concern themselves with movement across the stage during a performance, a percussion soloist must have every move memorized. No other instrumentalist has such a large number of variables to challenge and master.

This work begins with the sound of the marimba, as Colin early on informed me that he has a fondness for this instrument. I wanted the opening to be exquisitely quiet and serene, with the focus on the soloist. Then the percussion section enters, mimicking the gestures of the soloist. Only after this dialogue is established does the orchestra enter. There is significant interplay between the soloist and the orchestra with a fairly beefy accompaniment in the orchestral part, but at various times the music comes back down to the sound of the soloist and the percussion section playing together, without orchestra.

Eventually, the music moves through a slow lyrical section, which requires simultaneous bowing and mallet playing by the soloist, and then a return to the fast section, where a cadenza ensues with both the soloist and the percussion section. A dramatic close to the cadenza leads back to the orchestra’s opening material and the eventual conclusion of the work.

Written for Colin Currie, this work is dedicated to him.

Percussion Concerto was commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and The Dallas Symphony Orchestra. This commission was made possible with support from The Philadelphia Music Project (an artistic initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, administered by The University of the Arts), and by a generous gift from LDI, Ltd. and the Lacy Foundation.


ENGLAND — October 23, 2016

Sea Pictures, Op.37 — Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Sea Pictures, Elgar’s song cycle for contralto and orchestra, was written in July 1899 while the composer was at Birchwood Lodge, Great Storridge in Hertfordshire. Its five songs are settings of poems by five different poets, including the composer’s wife Alice.

Elgar originally imagined the work for soprano and orchestra, but transposed it to a lower key for the popular English contralto Clara Butt, who became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1920 civilian war honours list. She gave the first performance at the Norwich Festival on 5 October 1899 with Elgar himself conducting. According to one report Butt was fittingly “dressed as a mermaid” which, if true, must have been a remarkable sight: Butt was an imposing figure with a deep, strong voice (Thomas Beecham once said that on a clear day you could have heard her across the English Channel) and stood 6 feet 2 inches tall.

The first London performance came two days later at St. James’s Hall, with Elgar accompanying the singer from his piano reduction score, and two weeks later Butt gave a private royal command performance of the work for Queen Victoria at Balmoral.

Elgar is not exactly remembered for his song-writing, but Sea Pictures is clearly his best attempt at the genre, showing a sensitivity to words and a feel for atmosphere that matches the best vocal writing in his oratorios.

The five songs and poets are:

  1. Sea Slumber Song, by the English poet Roden Noel (1834-94); thematic material from this song is quoted elsewhere in the cycle;
  2. In Haven (Capri), by the composer’s wife Caroline Alice Elgar (1848-1920); this was a re-working of the 1897 song Love alone will stay;
  3. Sabbath Morning at Sea, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61);=
  4. Where Corals Lie, by Dr. Richard Garnett (1835-1906), the grandfather of the Bloomsbury author David Garnett; this was the only song of the five ever recorded by Clara Butt;
  5. The Swimmer, by the Australian poet, jockey and politician (now there’s a combination!) Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833-1870).

The publication of Sea Pictures marked the beginning of Elgar’s association with the publisher Boosey & Hawkes, following his falling-out with Novello in August 1900.

Symphony No.5 in D Major  — Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

From 1909 to 1952 Vaughan Williams was occupied to varying degrees with his opera – or Morality, as he preferred to call it – The Pilgrim’s Progress, based on John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory of the same name. By the late 1930s the composer was wondering if it would ever be finished, and by 1940 he had temporarily abandoned it.

The musical ideas that he did already have were not wasted, however. Vaughan Williams had started sketches for his Fifth Symphony in 1936 and started serious work on the composition in 1938, incorporating material from the opera-in-progress into the symphonic score. The symphony, however, does not have any specific programmatic or dramatic theme.

The score was completed in early 1943, Vaughan Williams having been sidetracked several times by other projects including film scores and various contributions to the war effort. Some minor revisions were made in 1951, mainly regarding dynamics, texture and mis-prints.

The symphony was first performed at a Henry Wood Promenade concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall on 24 June 1943, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer. It was dedicated to Jean Sibelius, whose symphonic influence was strongly felt in England at the time, originally “without permission” but later officially after Sibelius had heard a performance in Stockholm and Sir Adrian Boult secured his approval.

The musical material from The Pilgrim’s Progress project is most prominent in the third movement, where the main themes are lifted from Act 1 Scene 2 of the opera, “The House Beautiful”. At the top of the Romanza in the manuscript score Vaughan Williams wrote the following passage from Bunyan’s work, although it wasn’t included in the printed score: “Upon this place stood a cross, and a little below a sepulcher. Then he said ‘He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.’” This latter phrase is sung by Pilgrim to the melody heard in the opening cor anglais solo. The central section’s contrasting theme is taken from Pilgrim’s plea “Save me! Save me, Lord! My burden is greater than I can bear.”

Material from the second half of “The House Beautiful” scene is also used in the symphony’s fourth movement, where the first melody in the Passacaglia was originally Pilgrim’s dialogue with the Interpreter. In addition, the fanfare motif recalls “The Arming of the Pilgrim” from Act 2 Scene 1.

The Fifth Symphony marks a shift from the harsh dissonance of the Fourth Symphony and a return to the gentler style of the Third, the Pastoral Symphony from 1922, a work greatly influenced by the composer’s experiences in the Great War, although in a quietly elegiac and contemplative way. The Fifth itself was written mostly in time of war, of course, but the anguish produced by the Second World War was to be addressed in the Sixth Symphony in 1947.

Even more so than the Pastoral, the Fifth Symphony is possibly the quietest of all the Vaughan Williams nine symphonies; there are very few forte passages, for instance, and the string texture dominates the scoring. It is also the one symphony that more than any other – even the Pastoral – is imbued with the modal world of old English folk music and Tudor church music that was such a source of inspiration for this composer. The mode here is the Dorian, with its suggestion of D minor apparently putting it in conflict with the symphony’s key signature of D major which is emphatically established in the Passacaglia final movement, but this conflict between the old and modern keys is clearly intentional – indeed, Michael Steinberg calls the key of D major in this symphony “not just a label but an agenda, a goal.”  The entire symphony, he suggests, “recapitulates in thirty-some minutes the evolution in the history of Western music from the church modes to major and minor keys.”

Steinberg also felt that the symphony seems to represent the summit of Vaughan Williams’ achievement as a symphonist, if not indeed of his lifework as a whole. He quotes a letter in which Vaughan Williams wrote that “I’ve tried all my life for clarity and have never achieved it” but suggests that the composer did exactly that with this Fifth Symphony, “and achieved it sublimely: clarity of sound and clarity of spirit.”

Primary source:  Michael Steinberg: The Symphony – A Listener’s Guide; New York; Oxford University Press; 1995.