Program Notes

By David Haas

Swansea Town     Gordon Jacob (1895—1984)

Instrumentation:  Woodwind Quintet

Gordon Jacob’s life-changing passion for music began in 1917, when he picked up a book on music theory, while confined in a World War I German prison camp. After the war he studied both journalism and music, earning a degree from the Royal College of Music in 1924. Soon enough, he was hired by his alma mater, where he would divide his time between teaching (until 1966) and composition. Over a compositional career lasting more than a half century, Jacob specialized in instrumental music, contributing many important solo and chamber works to the standard repertoire for various instruments, many of which resulted from collaborations with the UK’s finest performers.

Swansea Town is a theme and variations composed for woodwind quintet, based on a popular English folk song of the same name. The theme is presented in a march-like version, featuring little calls traded between the players. The following variations explore a variety of musical moods that we might well imagine to represent the townspeople of Swansea: a lovestruck young swain, a retired military man, a teacher, a schoolgirl, a vicar, and so on. The work concludes with a majestic final variation in which multiple melodic layers are deftly harmonized.


Petite Symphonie     Charles Gounod (1818—1893)

Instrumentation: flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns

France’s leading operatic composer of the middle 19th-century was no less effective in his non-stage works, including this miniature four-movement symphony for nine players. In length and character it well represents the kind of live music that guests at France’s spas and resorts would expect to hear on a summer’s evening.

While signs of Gounod’s solid training in composition and his obvious reverence for the German masters Bach and Mendelssohn are in evidence upon careful listening, Gounod maintains a light touch throughout all four movements. After a brief chorale at a slow tempo, the first movement shifts to a cheerful allegro, with themes in the woodwinds calling to mind the wind serenades of Haydn and Mozart. Signs of Gounod’s gift for expressive melody can be heard in the second movement’s melodies for the lone flute and other ensemble soloists. With a complete change of mood, the third movement launches with horn calls at forte, to be followed by hunting tunes and a contrasting lyrical center section. An appealing series of jolts and surprises keeps the finale lively and witty, up until closing music that seems to predict one kind of ending but leads to a final surprise.


Serenade for Strings, op. 20     Edward Elgar (1857—1934)

Instrumentation: String orchestra

No English composer of Queen Victoria’s England (and the England of Kings Edward and George) achieved more than Sir Edward Elgar at providing notable English contributions to the musical genres of his time. By the end of his career, he had composed oratorios, an opera, symphonies, concertos, choral works, orchestral works, and numerous songs. Son of a father who was both violinist and music shop owner, young Edward developed a passion for music at an early age. Yet he never attended a music school and was instead the product of local teachers, one London violinist, and his own voracious reading of music books from the local Cathedral’s music library.

Elgar composed his Serenade for Strings in 1892, after he had left London for provincial Worcestershire, where he struggled to earn a living as conductor, teacher, and violinist. This fourteen-minute work consists of three movements, each of them offering a clear structure and contrasting melodies. In the first movement (a sonata allegro), gentle themes in the violins are accompaniment by driving rhythms in the violas. The slow second movement features richly harmonized expressive melodies that look forward to beautiful passages in Elgar’s famous Enigma Variations. The finale presents more lyrical string melodies at an unhurried allegretto tempo. Toward the end the dynamics subside, suggested that the final cadence is near. Instead, Elgar surprises us by bringing back the opening theme of movement one, together with its characteristic accompaniment.


Two Norwegian Airs for Strings, op. 63                 Edvard Grieg (1843—1907)

Instrumentation:  String orchestra

Edvard  Grieg, born in Bergen, Norway, graduate of the Leipzig Conservatory (which he detested), was fated to become his country’s most famous composer and the subject of the popular film Song of Norway (1970). Like many a 19th-century composer, he was passionate about the songs and dances of his homeland. More than most, he was able to transplant folk songs into orchestral, chamber, choral, and vocal works that would acquire an international reputation for him and for his beloved Norwegian melodies.  

The composition Two Norwegian Airs, op. 63 effectively demonstrates the emotional range of Norwegian folk songs.  The first number, entitled “In Folkish Tone”, is a slow pensive melody, in the key of D minor. With each new strain, Grieg uses his orchestral and harmonic wizardry to bring out new emotional nuances, along with hints of authentic folk song performance. The second number brings together a slow “cow call” and a rousing “peasant dance”. The cow call is evident from the simple, wave-like melodic patterns in the violins. The dance tune invites us to join in a rustic dance and hear brisk, jig-like rhythms over bass drones and exciting accents.


St. Paul’s Suite     Gustav Holst (1874—1934)

Instrumentation:  String orchestra

Gustavus Theodore von Holst was the descendant of a Latvian musician linked to the Russian court at St. Petersburg. Holst’s father Adolph, born in England, was an organist, choirmaster, and recital pianist. In his boyhood, young Gustav learned violin, organ, piano, and eventually trombone. His studies at the Royal College of Music inspired him to become a composer while, in the meantime, he supported himself gigging as a trombonist.

His St. Paul’s Suite (1913) takes its name from St. Paul’s Girls School, located in the Hammersmith district of London, where Holst had accepted employment as head of music in 1892. Each of its four short and tuneful movements has ties to English traditional music. The first movement jig keeps a brisk dance tune alive, with ever new accompaniments and new melodic strains. The second movement’s tunes are set against simpler patterned accompaniments. The third movement opens with a wistful English tune in a minor key scored for solo violin and pizzicato strings. Sudden episodes change the melody and the mood. The finale carries the subtitle “The Dargason,” a reference to a centuries-old dance tune. With consummate skill, Holst counterpoints this rousing melody against the famous “Greensleeves” melody at slower tempo.