The Winters of Childhood: Programme Notes

Notes by Terry Robbins and Jennie Worden

Children’s Corner Suite                                                                Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy

Although nearly 40 years of Debussy’s life, and nearly 20 years of his career as a composer, took place in the 19th century, Debussy is always considered a 20th-century composer–one of the most important and influential musical figures of the entire century, not simply for his own achievements but also for the paths he laid for others to follow.

By the time he came to write the Children’s Corner Suite, Debussy had abandoned his early fascination with Wagner, and had spent years developing a distinctly French outlook, influenced by his friendships with the Impressionist painters and with the Symbolist poets and writers, including Mallarme. His first impressionist composition, the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in 1894 met with violent opposition, mainly because of its apparent formlessness, but there is in fact a very strong underlying sense of form in all of Debussy’s work.

Gradus ad Parnassum exercises

His innovations in harmony and orchestration revolutionized composition for both the pianoforte and the orchestra, and Stravinsky, Bartók, Webern and Messiaen were among the many later composers who acknowledged his influence.

By 1906, the Parisian Bohemian Debussy was the doting father of a three-year-old daughter, Claude-Emma (nick-named Chou Chou). It is to this daughter that The Children’s Corner Suite is dedicated. In honour of her English governess the six piano pieces were given English titles. Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, named for a series of piano exercise books, evokes a young pianist practising piano fingering exercises. Jimbo’s Lullaby (Debussy’s mistake for Jumbo) imagines a stuffed elephant’s sleepy, stumbling steps to bed. Chimes depict the fragile porcelain of a favourite toy in  Serenade for the Doll, while The Snow is Dancing recalls the darkness of a cold day, stuck inside a nursery. The Little Shepherd takes listeners out of Paris, into an idyllic rustic landscape. Golliwogg’s Cakewalk, named after a rag doll problematic in a modern context, is a ragtime dance, in which Debussy intersperses references to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde with flourishes reminiscent of a banjo lick. The suite was orchestrated in 1911 by the French conductor and composer André Caplet (1878-1925); a friend of Debussy’s, he also orchestrated the piano piece Pagodes and conducted the first performance of Debussy’s incidental music for Le Martyre de Saint-Sebastien in 1911.

The Hockey Sweater                                                                  Abigail Richardson-Schulte (b.1976)

The Hockey Sweater CoverBased on the author’s childhood experiences, Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater tells the story of a 10-year-old boy in Sainte-Justine, Québec, in 1946 ,who suffers an unfortunate and embarrassing incident.

Originally published in 1979 as Une abominable feuille d’érable sur la glace (An abominable maple leaf on the ice) with an English translation by Sheila Fischman, the story has become a Canadian classic. The opening lines were printed on the back of the $5 Canadian banknotes between 2002 and 2013.

The 1980 National Film Board of Canada short film of The Sweater, animated by Sheldon Cohen and voiced by Carrier himself won Best Animated Film at the 1981 British Academy Film Awards.

Composer Abigail Richardson-Schulte holds a BMus degree from the University of Calgary and Masters and Doctorate degrees in composition from the University of Toronto. She won first prize at the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers in the Composers Under-30 category and was awarded the Karen Kieser Prize in Canadian Music in 2002 and a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Opera in 2009.

She has been Affiliate Composer with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and is now Composer in Residence with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. She teaches composition at the University of Toronto.

The musical setting of The Hockey Sweater was Canada’s first triple co-commission, from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. It debuted at Roy Thompson Hall on 12 May 2012 with Alain Trudel conducting the Toronto Symphony and Roch Carrier narrating.

Selections from The Nutcracker                                   Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93)

Tchaikovsky

Piotr Illych Tchaikovsky

Although the Nutcracker ballet is now strongly identified with the warmth and happiness of the Christmas season, the conditions under which it was created were certainly anything but joyous and festive.

The American trip was a great success, and he was able to go to his country house near Klin, to complete The Nutcracker, over the summer. The ballet in two acts and three scenes to a libretto by Marius Petipa was based on Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the King of the Mice.

Both the Nutcracker Suite and the complete ballet were first performed in St. Petersburg in 1892. The suite was received with great enthusiasm at its March debut, five of the six movements having to be repeated; however, the premiere of the full ballet at the Opera House on December 19 met with an initially disappointing response from the public.

The ballet is an outstanding example of Tchaikovsky’s masterly scoring and is notable for its charm and novelty of orchestration, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy marking the first appearance in an orchestral score of the celesta, which had been invented by Auguste Mustel in Paris in 1886.

The qualities noted by Rosa Newmarch in Tchaikovsky’s ballets – “a supreme combination of melodic inventiveness, grand sweep, and constant freshness” – are fully evident in the Nutcracker and have helped to ensure its lasting popularity.

Hanukkah, Hanukkah: Suite of Hanukkah songs                                         Charles Heller (b.1946)

Charles Heller

Charles Heller graduated from Cambridge University, received a B.Ed. in Music Education from the University of Toronto and studied composition with Marjan Mozetich.

For 30 years he was Choir Director at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue in Toronto, his work there being recognized by the United Synagogue of America’s Solomon Schechter Award for Music in 1982. He was Vice-President of Jewish Music Toronto and since 1986 has been on the editorial board of the Cantors Assembly, New York. His interest in the transmission and evolution of Jewish music is the basis of his award-winning book What to Listen For in Jewish Music (www.cantors.org).

The following program note has been kindly supplied by the composer.

The melodies in the Hanukkah, Hanukkah suite span centuries and continents.

The opening is the familiar chorus “See The Conqu’ring Hero Comes” from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus, which tells the story of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah – the survival of the Jewish people and the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. This oratorio has been a hit with Jewish audiences since its first performance in London in 1747.

This leads into Hanukkah O Hanukkah, a Yiddish song familiar to children today in English and Hebrew versions. O ir kleyne likhtelekh (Oh you little candles), a Yiddish poem written around 1900 by the New York poet of the working-classes Morris Rosenfeld and contrasting the Jews’ glorious past with their precarious position at that time is followed by the two 20th-century Israeli songs Mi Yemalel (Who can tell the story?) and Sevivon (the spinning top that children play with on Hanukkah).

The suite ends with the Israeli children’s song Hanukkah, Hanukkah, while the trombones bring the piece to a close with the hymn Maoz Tsur (Stronghold and Rock of My Salvation), dating back to 16th-century Germany.

Hanukkah, Hanukkah is dedicated to former Music Director Kevin Mallon and Orchestra Toronto.

It’s Christmastime                                           Calvin Custer (1939-1998)

Calvin Custer

Calvin Custer

Noted American arranger Calvin Custer was a prolific creator of arrangements and medleys for both band and orchestra, notably for the Boston Pops Orchestra. In It’s Christmastime, he brings together a number of popular nostalgic songs from the early and mid-twentieth century: Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1934), Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (1944), Silver Bells (1950), and I’ll Be Home For Christmas (1948).

 

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