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Programme Notes: Symphony of The Sea, February 25, 2024

Landmarks of Note

Programme Notes by Trevor Rines

Listening Landmarks are in boldface


Let us “sail about a little & see the watery part of the world” of music. As we sail about these symphonic seas, we’ll encounter arctic birds circling & calling overhead &, oddly enough, even a very rare ocean-going tiger. And, surrounding us, as far as the ear can hear, the vast & indifferent ocean, in its many moods. But first, the nymphs. All 3,000 of them.

The Oceanides

Composed by Jean Sibelius (1865 Hämeenlinna, Finland – 1957 Ainola, Finland (at 91))

Premiere – 1914 at Norfolk Music Festival in Norfolk, Connecticut, USA (Sibelius conducting)

Running Time – about 10 minutes

Sibelius was far from the ocean, when he wrote this work, & mailed it off to America, to those who had commissioned it from him. He was also far from content with that first version of this piece, which he then called Rondeau der Wellen (Rondo of the Waves). No sooner had the parcel left Finland, than he immediately began revising it. And the premiere was just over a month away.

Large sections of the music from that first version were cut entirely, although that music was thriftily recycled & incorporated into other compositions. Huge sections of new music were inserted, increasing the work’s length by three minutes. He even felt the need to transpose the entire piece into the new key of D major. It was at this point that he added the climax of the piece, the wonderful build up to the crashing of the waves, near the end.

He also rechristened it, giving it a Finnish title: Aallottaret – Tone Poem (Nymphs of the Ocean). It wasn’t until the year after the premiere, when the score was published, that he added the name by which we know it: Die Okeaniden (The Oceanides in German).

Even those five days spent crossing the Atlantic on a steamship, on his way to conduct the premiere, were spent still making changes to the score. Sibelius had synesthesia, which is a blending of the senses, so that one may see sounds, or hear sights. One can only imagine how that bracing sea voyage inspired him to commit to music the swelling & breaking of the waves & the cold & salty sea spray.

When one reviewer, at the premiere, dubbed this work, “The finest evocation of the sea ever produced in music,” it could have been seen as a dig at Debussy’s La Mer, which had premiered only nine years earlier. But both approach a musical depiction of the ocean in very different ways, so hearing both, bookending our concert, is a treat.

That being said, listen for elements which are common to both pieces, such as the inclusion of glockenspiel & two harps. Also, watch for the string players’ bows moving rapidly back & forth, on a single note. Our whole concert calls for a generous helping of tremolo, from the strings. This technique is often used to create a shimmering effect, & a sense of anticipation.

Now, just who were these nymphs? Sibelius is better known for using subjects from Finnish mythology, the Kalevala, but The Oceanides are from Greek mythology. These numerous nymphs personify springs, & are the 3,000 daughters of two Titans: the sea goddess, Tethys, & the world encircling river, Oceanus. They’re represented by a skittish motif, depicting them playing in the waves, first heard from the flute, right at the beginning. The ocean is calm, & all is serene, but we begin to hear hints of an approaching storm.

A second, slower motif mixes with the first, portraying the solemn rocking back & forth of the waves, while we hear thunder from the timpani. The storm builds into a furious tempest, & an enormous wave comes crashing down. Calm returns, as the storm quickly subsides, but a final long chord reasserts the majestic vastness of the sea. 

In 1955, Sibelius’ 90th birthday was celebrated by orchestras worldwide, who performed special concerts, to mark the occasion. In the previous 30 years, after having already composed so much beloved music, he only had one new work published. It was rumoured that he’d written many, including an Eighth Symphony, only to have thrown them all into the fireplace.

Around that time, shortly before his death, he saw a flock of cranes approaching his home & called out, “There they come. The birds of my youth.” A solitary crane broke formation, circled his house once, then rejoined the flock as they disappeared past the horizon. What better benediction, for a man who embraced & was inspired by nature & mythology? 

That same year, he was asked to select the recipient of the prestigious Koussevitzky Music Foundation scholarship. He chose the young Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara, who went on to write the third work on our concert, Cantus Arcticus, which features the melodious songs of many of Sibelius’ favourite birds. Now, to meet that ocean-going tiger.

Suite from the Film, Life of Pi

Composed by Mychael Danna (born in 1958 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada)

Film Premiere – 2012 at New York Film Festival

Suite Premiere – 2017 in Toronto

Running Time – about 21 minutes

“Ang Lee called me one day & said, ‘Well, you were born to do this project.’” A decade earlier, Canadian composer, Mychael Danna, had scored two of Lee’s films, but his next film really did seem tailor made for Danna’s trademark approach to composition.

Much of Danna’s career has been a long exploration of how to respectfully blend non-Western musical traditions with Western classical music. The project in question was a film adaptation of Canadian author Yann Martel’s multi-award-winning book, Life of Pi. A challenging story to tell through film, most of it takes place in a lifeboat, adrift at sea for 227 days, after a shipwreck whose only survivors are an Indian boy named Pi & a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Danna selected thirteen portions of the film’s soundtrack, & wove them together, into this orchestral suite. Alternating slow & fast pieces, for the sake of building a coherent suite for live performance, he had to fiddle with the order slightly, compared with the film’s score, which uses a great many non-Western instruments. He whittled that number down to just four soloists: vocalist, bansuri flute, tabla, & accordion. 

Here’s a roadmap for this piece, or, perhaps more appropriately, our course, as plotted upon a naval chart.

We begin with Pi’s Lullaby. Accomplished Indian singer, Bombay Jayashri, cowrote this soothing song with Danna & sings it herself, in the film. Western lullabies tend to be in ¾, but this one is in 7/4, reminding one of the small lifeboat, as it rocks unevenly in the waves, like a cradle.

Sung in Tamil, the words roughly translate to, “Oh my love. Oh the delight of my eyes. Would you not sleep my flower? Are you the peacock or the plumage of the peacock? Are you the cuckoo or the cry of the cuckoo? Are you the moon or the light of the moon? Are you the eyelashes, or the dream? Are you the flower or the nectar? Are you the fruit or the sweetness?” “Rararo” & the wordless singing are meant to sooth & lull one to sleep.

The soloist on the breathy Indian wooden bansuri flute augmenting the dreamlike quality by echoing & embellishing the sung melody, throughout the suite.

An emotional waltz begins with the celesta & a very French sounding accordion, an instrument which (along with mandolin, in the film) is a nod to the French aspects of the story. Pi & his family had lived in Pondicherry, a part of India once ruled by colonial France, & were moving to Canada, when shipwrecked. And Pi is the name which the boy has chosen for himself, as a short form of Piscine Molitor, the grand Parisian swimming pool, after which he’s named.

When the percussion soloist speaks rapidly, they’re speaking the rhythms which are played on their tabla drums. It’s how tabla players learn & memorize their music, using a system of rhythmic spoken syllables. You’ll hear the similarity between the spoken & drummed rhythms.

The low brass remind us of the vastness of the depths of the ocean. Then, around the 15 minute mark, listen for the solo trumpet, heralding the approach of yet another orchestral storm at sea. (We’ll be hearing a few of these storms, at our concert.)

At last, having arrived on dry land, a sense of languid peace & gentle wonder is conveyed by luxuriously long notes, because there’s no longer any urgency, at journey’s end. The suite ends with a faster sung recap of Pi’s Lullaby, & a rising sense of joy, first in the strings, then in the rest of the orchestra, who fade contentedly away to silence.

One of the cleverest aspects of Danna’s score (which we hear even more in the film) is his mixing & blurring of the lines of each culture, by using unexpected instruments. This could be as simple as giving an Indian sounding tune to the accordion or having the Bansuri play a French melody.

To date, Danna has composed 128 film & television scores, since his first one, back in 1991. His innovative film score for Life of Pi is the one which won him his Oscar & Golden Globe for Best Original Score & many other international awards.

Cantus Arcticus “Concerto for Birds & Orchestra”

Composed by Einojuhani Rautavaara (“AY-nah-yu-huh-nee RAOO-tah-vaah-rah”)

(1928 Helsinki, Finland – 2016 Helsinki (age 87))

Premiere – 1972 in Oulu, Finland (written for the Arctic University of Oulu)

Running Time – about 18 minutes

The Bog          Melancholy          Swans Migrating

Now, back to Finland. “Think of autumn & of Tchaikovsky.” That’s what’s written at the top of this unconventional work’s orchestral score. And try not to think of Sibelius, perhaps?

All his life, Einojuhani Rautavaara had been in the shadow of the venerable “Father of Finnish Music.” Because of this close association, his compositions were inevitably seen as either an homage to, or rebellion against, the ever-present Sibelius.

63 years his senior, Sibelius had actively promoted Rautavaara’s musical career, & selected his fellow Finn for the 1955 Koussevitzky scholarship. This allowed Rautavaara to spend two years in America, at the Julliard School & Tanglewood, studying with such distinguished composers as Aaron Copeland. He wrote Cantus Arcticus (Latin for Song of the Arctic) 17 years later, & this has proven to be one of his most popular pieces.

A fluttering flute duet begins the first of three movements, The Bog. Less than one minute into the movement, the birds begin to fill the concert hall. Audiences often find themselves looking up, half expecting to see birds wheeling & diving, above their heads. We hear two channels of bird song, which Rautavaara tape recorded himself, on the bogs in Northern Finland & near the Arctic Circle.

The volume of this recording is controlled live, while the orchestra plays. It’s only the birds’ volume level, which is indicated in the score. Their timing, where each bird call happens, is different, in every performance, because they’re not timed to line up with the notes from the orchestra.

The song of the Common Blackbird is interrupted by short honks, from the trombones. Various Trumpeter Swan songs are being imitated first by the trombones, then using a fascinating effect in the oboes & trumpets, where each pair of instruments begin a quarter tone sharp or flat (i.e. between the notes). This gives each descending two note pattern a slightly sour, very naturalistic, & somewhat agricultural quality. 

Melancholy, the second movement, begins with the tape playing alone, for about a minute.

The birdsong is that of the Shore Lark, but it’s been slowed down, giving it a somewhat eerie tone. Joined by muted strings, then eventually delicate woodwinds & muted brass, then the celesta, we’re left with the impression of standing alone, in a remote & barren wilderness.

In the final movement, Swans Migrating, a large flock of Whooper Swans approaches, from the horizon. The volume of both tape & orchestra swell, as they draw near, until we hear the large flock flying dramatically overhead, with bold brass, a cymbal crash, & a timpani roll.

As the piece ends, the last swan passes by & the flock gradually disappears from view. Listen as the instruments gradually drop out, until we’re left with only the harp & celesta, & the strings’ shimmering tremolo, as both tape & orchestra fade to silence. (We last heard the celesta in Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies from The Nutcracker Suite, at December’s concert.)

Rautavaara advised, “don’t every try to force your music, because music is very wise & has its own will.” Among his more than 150 works, he wrote 11 pieces which he called concertos, many of which challenge the traditional ideas of what constitutes a concerto (as did Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto (1955), which we heard at October’s concert).

Who is the instrumental soloist, in this concerto? The tape track of the birds plays that role. Much like a concerto’s soloist, the water fowl & marsh birds themselves have a dynamic conversation with the orchestra, in a way which is fresh & flows differently, each time the piece is performed.

INTERMISSION

La Mer, trois symphoniques pour orchestre

(The Sea, Three Symphonic Sketches for Orchestra)

Composed by Claude Debussy (1862 Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France – 1918 Paris, France)

Premiere – 1905 in Paris, France

Running Time – about 23 minutes

De l’aube à midi sur la mer (From dawn to midday on the sea)

Jeux de vagues (Play of the Waves)

Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the Wind & the Sea)

“The sea has been very good to me. She has shown me all her moods.” Debussy made this comment to his publisher, shortly before La Mer’s 1905 Paris premiere, which did not go well.

The audience & critics were in no mood for Debussy. One reviewer dubbed the work, “some agitated water in a saucer.” Even the orchestra was protesting, in their own way. Years later, he told Igor Stravinsky that the violinists tied handkerchiefs to the tips of their bows, during rehearsals, as a sign of their displeasure with his shocking behaviour.

Since he began writing La Mer, in 1903, he had left his wife, & was living with Emma Bardac, a gifted singer, Gabriel Fauré’s former love interest, & the wife of a wealthy banker. And she was pregnant, with Debussy’s child, who was born only 15 days after the premiere.

This music was new & revolutionary, in a way which might have alienated the audience, even if gossip & scandal had not coloured the event. He was now composing with a renewed confidence, after the enormous success of his opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, in 1902. La Mer is only his seventh major composition for full orchestra, & yet he wrote with such self assurance that his style is still much imitated.

Debussy felt that “a century of aeroplanes deserves its own music. As there are no precedents, I must create anew.” To that end, he began incorporating aspects of the musical culture of a tropical island which was 12,000 km away.

When the Eiffel Tower went up (& was still red), for the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, the 27-year-old composer visited the Javanese pavilion, many times. He lingered there & fell in love with gamelan music, in which he heard “the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, & a thousand other tiny noises.” He was greatly inspired by what he called the “percussive charm” of their tuned percussion instruments’ exotic sounding scales, & the rhythmic complexity & layering.

Fourteen years later, in 1903, he attempted to incorporate these elements into his own compositions, first for piano, with a piece called Pagodes (Pagodas), then that same year for orchestra, with La Mer. This successful experiment proved to be a turning point for his music & many of his later compositions show evidence of the gamelan’s influence.

With La Mer, it’s the essence of the sea which he condenses into music. He had no interest in directly imitating sounds of the sea in an obvious way. What we hear is something far more atmospheric. Something which he called “the invisible sentiments of nature.”

It’s the unpredictability of the sea which he embraces. A Japanese woodblock print of artist Katsushika Hokusai’s still popular work, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, hung on the wall of Debussy’s apartment. It shows an early morning storm at sea, with an enormous cresting wave about to capsize three boats, & Mount Fuji far in the background. Debussy was infamous for choosing what art should appear on the cover of his scores. When La Mer was published, shortly after the premiere, he insisted that its cover use a cropped version of Hokusai’s Great Wave, & also that his name be placed in the same position as the artist’s.

Fellow composer & friend, Erik Satie, told Debussy that he “particularly liked the bit at a quarter to eleven,” in the first movement, From Dawn to Noon on the Sea. We hear the Sun slowly creeping over the ocean’s horizon, as the timpani lightly rolls & two harps softly enter, while the tremolo of the low strings builds anticipation of the day to come. The English horn & muted trumpet introduce a mysterious sounding motif, which has become known as the Call of the Sea motif.

All about us is in quiet darkness, but gradually becomes more distinct, with the growing light & volume, as more instruments appear. As we approach the brightness of noon, the effect of the sunlight dancing on the shifting waves is heard in the shimmering woodwinds & harps

The cellos interrupt, with a new theme. (Perhaps this is the bit which Satie liked.) The other instruments hesitate, then the brass enthusiastically join in, with a surge bringing the first movement to a brilliantly sunny & dramatic close.

Play of the Waves also begins gently, but we have a continual sense of the movement & changing nature of the wind & the waves. They splash about, the sea spray flying far above the surface, before falling back into the sea. Debussy paints for us an image of a playful & mischievous ocean, then its return to serenity.

Dialogue of the Wind & the Sea is immediately foreboding. The power of the sea, & its capricious nature, are hinted at by low strings, then the brass, as they did at the end of the first movement. The horns ominously call out with a rising tritone, which seems like warning. The cellos hint at the vastness & depth of the waters beneath.

This sort of effect is likely why Debussy called for 16 cellos, which is double the usual number in an orchestra, so that he could divide them, playing different parts, without losing their presence in the orchestral colour.

The trumpets respond with a rapid & urgent restatement of the Call of the Sea motif, from the very beginning. As the orchestra builds towards an animated & tumultuous, we hear what sounds very much like a short, gamelan-like, interjection, as the motion beneath continues to build towards a triumphant & powerful final chord. 

So ends what many describe as Debussy’s masterpiece. Although not initially appreciated, after its American & British premieres, those countries’ more objective audiences & critics greeted this unusual new work with growing enthusiasm. By 1908, even the Parisians had reversed their harsh opinion, when Debussy himself conducted La Mer twice in one week. What is surprising is that he had never conducted an orchestra, before these performances.
We often hear echoes of La Mer in film scores, & film composers have been riffing on it since the 1940s. One of my favourite examples is in Highlander (1986). Queen’s song Who Wants to Live Forever is based on the dramatic swell at the end of the first movement. And, unsurprisingly, John Williams also borrowed liberally from La Mer (as well as Ravel, Dvořák, & Stravinsky), for his score to another story of a moody sea: Jaws (1975).

Headshot of Trevor Rines

Trevor Rines is a writer, musician, graphic and boardgame designer, and stage and voice actor, who has performed in every one of Shakespeare’s plays & has acted as narrator for three Orchestra Toronto concerts.

He performs with the notorious Renaissance gemshorn quartet, The Gemsmen, & was recently a contestant on Evil Idol.

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