Programme Notes

Programme Notes: Watershed

March 29, 2019

Watershed: A Symphonic Exploration of Earth’s Waters

Orchestra Toronto will perform Watershed: A Symphonic Exploration of Earth’s Waters on April 14, 2019. You can purchase tickets here.

Canoe Legends, Christine Donkin (b.1976)

The following note is compiled from material kindly supplied by the composer:

Christine Donkin

Composer Christine Donkin

Canoe Legends was commissioned by the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra in celebration of their 50th anniversary season, and creates musical impressions inspired by scenes from two legends about canoes explained in James Raffan’s book Bark, Skin and Cedar.

The first, entitled The White Stone Canoe is based on an Indigenous legend about a grieving young man who embarks on a journey to find his deceased lover. His travels take him to the Land of Souls where he must leave his body behind and move only with his spirit. He and his beloved travel in safety through treacherous waters in white stone canoes, having both led blameless and honourable lives, but there are many others traveling alongside who perish in the waves. It is only the main characters and the little children, also traveling in canoes of white stone, who safely reach the paradisiacal Island of the Blessed in the middle of the lake.

Several startled, happy lumberjacks in a flying canoe.

La Chasse Galerie by Henri Julien, 1906

The other legend, La Chasse-Galerie is a Quebecois tale about a group of young voyageurs who make a deal with the devil on New Year’s Eve in order to procure a flying canoe which will take them to a faraway party where they can dance with their sweethearts. The journey to the party is successful; the journey home is a different story, since some of the young men have consumed alcohol and come dangerously close to breaking the pact that would condemn all the travellers’ souls. The details of the hair-raising adventure vary with different versions of the tale, but the voyageurs end up toppling from the canoe into deep snow not far from their camp – shaken but with souls intact.

For the sake of brevity, Donkin chose to represent only two scenes from each legend. In The White Stone Canoe we hear the souls’ tumultuous journey across the dangerous waters, played by the whole orchestra, followed by their arrival on the peaceful Island of the Blessed, which features woodwind melodies accompanied by the strings. Then, after a brief pause, we plunge from these spiritual heights to the depths of the devil’s abode for the opening scene of La Chasse-Galerie, featuring an eerie bassoon solo and low strings. A sinister brass fanfare ushers in the final scene of the composition: the wild and perilous ride in the flying canoe.

These musical scenes are preceded by an introduction in which the Indigenous vocal/percussion ensemble Unity performs their composition, the beautiful Water Song with orchestral accompaniment.

Vltava (The Moldau), Bedrich Smetana (1824-84)

Black and white photo of a bearded, bow-tied Bedrich Smetana

Bedrich Smetana

Bedrich Smetana is generally regarded as the father of Czech nationalist music, so it is odd that his most frequently played orchestral work continues to be most commonly known by a German title, and not by its proper Czech name. The Vltava River runs through the heart of Prague, the Czech capital, before flowing into the River Labe; the Moldau and the Elbe are the German forms of those rivers’ names.

The discrepancy, though, reflects the political and social situations of the time: Smetana was born near the border between the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, which were both then part of the Hapsburg Empire, and German was the official language. Smetana’s father did know the Czech language but for business and social purposes chose not to use it, and Smetana only learned to speak the language correctly when in his thirties.

Vltava is part of Ma Vlast (My Homeland), a set of six tone poems composed between 1874 and 1879 that depict the countryside, legends and history of Bohemia. The works received separate premieres between 1875 and 1880, and the complete set was first premiered in Prague in 1882. Only Vltava has achieved any significant independence. It was written in less than three weeks between 20 November and 8 December in 1874, and was first performed on 4 April of the following year.

It was not a happy period for Smetana. The sudden and progressive deafness that afflicted him in the summer of 1874 left him totally deaf by mid-October, a mere month before he started work on Vltava, and his health continued to deteriorate over the next six years.In Smetana’s own words, the piece “describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into St. John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vysehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance.”

The principal melody is an adaptation of La Mantovana, a Renaissance air attributed to Giuseppe Cenci; it is known in Moldovan folk music, and also forms the basis of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.

The Enchanted Lake – A Fairy Tale Scene, Op.62,  Anatoly Lyadov (1855-1914)

Anatoly Lyadov

Anatoly Lyadov

There was never much doubt about what young Anatoly Lyadov was going to do. Born in St. Petersburg to a musical family – his father, grandfather and uncle were all established conductors, his mother a pianist and two brothers-in-law and a cousin also musicians – he became an accomplished pianist as well as a conductor and teacher, counting Sergei Prokofiev among his pupils. Despite being highly-regarded as a composer, however, he never fully realized his potential, his lack of drive and unreliability usually being cited as probable reasons.

Certainly Lyadov published relatively few works during his lifetime and never completed a large-scale work, but he did achieve notable success with his shorter compositions, A Musical Snuffbox being the best-known. He was drawn to Russian subjects, and his most popular works are probably the three orchestral tone poems Baba Yaga Op.56, The Enchanted Lake Op.62 and Kikimora Op.63, the latter two apparently adapted from sketches for his unfinished opera Zoryushka, which occupied him for three decades.

Baba Yaga and Kikimora were both supernatural spirits in Russian folklore, but there is no folklore inspiration or programmatic narrative for The Enchanted Lake. The composer described it thus:

“How picturesque it is, how clear, the bountiful stars hovering over the mysteries of the deep. But above all – uninhabited, with no entreaties and no complaints; only nature – cold, malevolent, and fantastic as a fairy tale. One has to feel the change of the colours, the chiaroscuro, the incessantly changeable stillness and seeming immobility.”

The work, which has no trumpets, trombones or percussion, was first performed in St. Petersburg on 21 February 1909 with the composer conducting.

The River Suite (arr. Ron Collier), Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington (1899-1974)

A smiling Duke Ellington playing the piano and looking back over his shoulder

Duke Ellington at the Hurricane Club, 1943

The River was a ballet created on a commission from the American Ballet Theater by the African-American choreographer Alvin Ailey to Duke Ellington’s music that premiered (incomplete) on 25 June 1970 at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center, where it was announced in the programme as “Seven Dances From a Work in Progress Entitled The River.

The original idea for the music had come from the British jazz writer Stanley Dance, who was a close friend of Ellington’s and helped him write his autobiography. He suggested that Ellington write an extended work depicting the natural course of a river; Dance had the Mississippi in mind, and wrote a description of it from source to sea. In a letter to Stanley Slome Dance said that he “had no thought of symphonic treatment, but suggested it as an idea for an LP theme, thinking in terms of the band and a climactic affair like Ravel’s Bolero.”

By 1970 Ellington was turning more towards spiritual values, and The River became more an allegory about the cycle of birth and rebirth. After confirming the American Ballet Theater commission Ellington asked Ron Collier to handle the orchestration.

Collier told the 1996 Ellington Conference in Toronto: “I had to orchestrate from the band charts. For most of the pieces he would write them out because the choreographer needed pieces of music so that he could work with the dancers; and, instead of Duke writing out a piano piece, he would write out a chart for the band, tape the chart for the band, send it on to Alvin Ailey and that’s what they would use to work with.”

Alvin Ailey by Carl Van Vechten, 1955

Ailey was frustrated choreographing The River, complaining that Ellington kept sending him a page at a time, sometimes with only 16 bars. “I can’t work that way,” he said, but when a 50-minute score reached him he could only find time to choreograph half of it. “The Duke said to me ‘If you did more choreographing and less worrying about my composing the music, you’d be better off.’ He was right.”

Hubert Saal of Newsweek wrote of the 1970 premiere: “Ellington’s score is a tone poem, a suite that traces the meandering river’s course and speed from birth as a spring, through rapids, over falls, spinning into whirlpools, subsiding into lakes, passing by cities, ending in the sea. It is a musical allegory in the course of which the river from spring to sea parallels the course of life from birth to death, a cycle, according to Ellington, of ‘heavenly anticipation of rebirth.’ The music itself is like a river, constantly flowing, changing speed and shape, instantly accessible melodically. Ellington parades it all from the slow, song-like opening Spring through the jazzy swingtime Vortex to the spiritual and blues of Two Cities.

Main source: Stanley Slome’s “The River” on

by Terry Robbins

Writer and reviewer Terry Robbins has written the OT programme notes since 1989. Terry has a monthly CD review column, “Strings Attached” in the WholeNote magazine, for whom he also writes the occasional article on the community musical theatre scene. He also plays violin and fretted instruments (guitar/banjo/mandolin etc.) for community musical theatre productions for groups across the GTA, and plays or has played in numerous orchestras in Toronto as well.

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