Ode to Spring

These notes appeared in the printed program for distribution on March 25, 2018 at the Sandler Center for Performing Arts for the performance of “Ode to Spring” conducted by Daniel W. Boothe. All programs notes for this performance were written by Jo Marie T. Larkin.


“Vitava” (The Moldau) from Má Vlast

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

Background

Bedřich Smetana was a Czech composer and conductor, and wrote the symphonic poem, “The Moldau” from Má Vlast, a cycle of six symphonic poems, in 1874. Many of his works were programmatic with a nationalistic theme; these orchestral works express musical ideas such as emotions, scenes, or events through the music. Using programmatic compositional techniques to depict Bohemia’s main river, the Moldau, the longest river in Czechoslovakia at nearly 300 miles, this orchestra work was written in three weeks shortly after Smetana became deaf, but its fresh, optimistic mood gives no hint of the composer’s anguish and despair.

Written in one movement, new thematic material occurs in each scene of the story as all the sections flow seamlessly from one to the other, and a truly magnificent river theme periodically recurs, melding together the various parts to create a unified composition. Toward the end of the work, a feeling of triumph emerges as the music changes from minor to major. We realize that the Moldau is not just a river, but a symbol of nationalist yearnings that can instill immense pride. When the Nazis occupied Bohemia during World War II, performances of Smetana’s “The Moldau” (as well as the remainder of Má Vlast) were banned in Prague, the composer’s home city. After the symphonic poem became well known, this melody appeared in a collection of Eastern Romanian songs and was later fitted to the words of Tikvatenu (“Our Hope”). The resulting hymn was Hatikvah, which became the national anthem of the State of Israel in 1948.

What to Listen For

“The Moldau” has a narrative that follows the course of the river from its source in the mountains until, grand and majestic, it flows through Prague. It begins with the tiny trickle of water in two mountain brooks, depicted by the opening flute ripple. Like the sight of a river glimpsed in the far distance, the second flute’s ripples and the pluck of strings draw you into the swells of the landscape, growing mightier, until the scene bursts free in a flood of strings and melancholy; it is the old land, the river that runs through it, “all the way from Smetana’s heart 125 years ago.”

A forest scene with the sounds of a hunt can be heard in loud French horn calls. A village wedding is given by the strings playing a country dance in 2/4 time. Eventually, a quiet night with the moon is depicted with a light, flowing flute passage, while shimmering over still waters as heard by the highly voiced and hushed strings. Soon the stream passes the Rapids of St. John, giving way to quicker tempo, dangerous string arpeggios, and intensified brass until it becomes a great river, flowing toward the capital of Prague. In the climactic final pages, Smetana takes us past the historic Vyšehrad castle, complete with fanfares and grand chords until it fades away, flowing off into the distance with slowing strings. It concludes with a final punctuation mark of two notes, “The End!”


Concerto No. 1 in E Major, “Spring” from the Four Seasons, Op. 8, RV 269
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

I. Allegro

II. Largo

III. Allegro Pastorale

Background

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concerto is unmistakably Antonio Vivaldi’s most famous work. Outside of the concert hall, there have been at least 100 different films and television shows that have used Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in some way. The Four Seasons consists of four concerti (Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter), each one in a distinct form containing three movements. It is considered to be among the earliest example of program music ever written during the baroque period. It is believed that Antonio Vivaldi himself wrote the twelve individual sonnets to go along with each movement of the Four Seasons. He musically portrays each sonnet without losing the overall quality and balance of the work.

What To Listen For

The inspiration for the concertos was probably the countryside around Mantua, where Vivaldi was living at the time. One can hear the flowing creeks, singing birds (listen for the repeated high trills of the violins), a shepherd and his barking dog (as heard in the slow middle section), and a lively country dance by the end. The following sonnet that Vivaldi published with the music indicates his programmatic intent:

1st Movement: Allegro

Spring has come and joyfully the birds greet it with happy song, and the brooks, while the streams flow along with gentle murmur as the zephyrs blow. There come, shrouding the air with a black cloak, lighting, and thunder chosen to herald [the storm]; then, when these are silent, the little birds return to their melodious incantations.

2nd Movement: Largo

And now, in the pleasant, flowery meadow, to the soft murmur of leaves and plants, the goatherd sleeps with his faithful dog at his side.

3rd Movement: Allegro

Pastorale To the festive sound of a pastoral bagpipe, nymphs and shepherds dance under their beloved roof, greeting the glittering arrival of the spring.

A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

I. Molto Moderato
II.Lento Moderato – Moderato Maestoso
III. Moderato Pesante
IV. Lento

Background

 

One of his most controversial and misunderstood pieces, A Pastoral Symphony, completed and performed in London in 1922, is not, as many would think, the music of all things quaint, gently rustic, the sound of an imagined idyll of English landscape turned into sound. Instead, it is rather a requiem for the dead of World War I, giving them eternal rest. Its reference is to the fields of France during World War I, where the composer served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Vaughan Williams stated, “It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.” One of his most controversial and misunderstood pieces, A Pastoral Symphony, completed and performed in London in 1922, is not, as many would think, the music of all things quaint, gently rustic, the sound of an imagined idyll of English landscape turned into sound. Instead, it is rather a requiem for the dead of World War I, giving them eternal rest. Its reference is to the fields of France during World War I, where the composer served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Vaughan Williams stated, “It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.”

The work is among the least performed of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies, but it has gained the reputation of being a subtly beautiful elegy for the dead and a meditation on the sounds of peace. Like many of the composer’s works, it is not programmatic, but its spirit is very evocative.

What To Listen For

Vaughan Williams described this as “four movements, all slow.” In this mode of slow, reflective concentration, it becomes a work close to the spiritual center of Vaughan Williams.

There is the continual elusiveness of the music, something you hear from the start of the first movement. His harmonic idiom in this symphony remains continuously vague, creating an unsettling feeling to the way the symphony moves. The music’s hauntingly subtle orchestration gives way to instrumental timbres that seem to melt into one another. Pastoral aesthetics are implied through a dialogue of expressive songs of nature, heard by multiple string, double reed, and woodwind solos over a vast landscape of grey harmony.

Vaughan Williams’ initial inspiration to write this symphony came during World War I after hearing a bugler practicing and accidentally playing an interval of a seventh instead of an octave; this ultimately led to the trumpet cadenza in the second movement, a solo echoing the mood of “The Last Post,” a fanfare that drifts into the music’s consciousness.

The third movement is a quasi-scherzo, but a bit off balance. It relies on lopsided dance rhythms oscillating between the strings and winds. By the end, this is contrasted with a weightless, delicate music that ends the movement suspended and unresolved.

Slow, subtly tortured music begins the final movement, framed by two solos. An anonymous wordless soprano floats above…and time stops. Often performed offstage, the effect in performance is singularly devastating. After the symphony has reached its most insistent and loudest climax, its failed attempt at resolution is heard by the return of the lamenting soprano voice, echoing with the many lives lost in those pastoral fields of France.

“Fruhlingsstimmen” (Voices of Spring) 1883

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899)

Background

Johann Strauss II was the son of Johann Strauss I, himself a composer. As the most famous of the family, Johann II was known as “The Waltz King,” having brought the form from peasant dance to sparkling entertainment for the royal Habsburg court. When the elder Strauss passed away, the business-oriented Johann II merged his and his father’s orchestras and engaged The Strauss Orchestra in commission writing and tours across the continent. Strauss dedicated Fruhlingsstimmen, which celebrated spring, to the pianist and composer Alfred Grünfeld. It remained one of the classical repertoire’s most famous waltzes.

What To Listen For

It begins with loud chords in waltz tempo and quickly moves into a gentle, swirling melody. The second waltz section invokes the joys of spring with flute imitating birdsongs and sounds of a pastoral scene. A plaintive and dramatic third section is suggestive of spring showers and the fourth section breaks out of a pensive mood into a cheerful tune. The first waltz melody makes another grand entrance before strong chords, a timpani drumroll and a warm brass flourish bring it to a triumphant end!