Program Notes

by Rachael Fischer and David Schiller

“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” from The Planets – Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

Instrumentation: two piccolos, two flutes, three oboes, English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone, two tubas, timpani, percussion, two harps, and strings.

Gustav Holst is one of the best known of the twentieth-century English composers. Born into a musical family in Gloucestershire, Holst began composing his own works in his early teens, and completed composition studies at Merton College in Oxford. His most famous work, The Planets, received its premiere a century ago in a private performance conducted by Adrian Boult. The work is a series of “mood pictures,” containing diverse forms and inventive musical material, rather than extra-musical associations. In Holst’s own cryptic words, “these pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no program music in them, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle of each piece will be found sufficient…For instance, “Jupiter” brings jollity in the ordinary sense, and also the more ceremonial kind of rejoicing associated with religious or national festivities.” In the suite, “Jupiter” falls between “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” and “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” and is the most popular movement of the seven. Holst later arranged the stately melody from the middle of the movement into a hymn tune now known as “Thaxted” after the village where Holst lived much of his life.

Adagio for Strings – Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Something of a child prodigy, Samuel Barber displayed a talent for musical composition by the age of seven, and began his piano, voice, and composition studies at the newly established Curtis Institute of Music at fourteen. In his twenties, Barber won a number of awards for his works, including the Prix de Rome in 1935 and Pulitzer Fellowships in 1935 and 1936. His String Quartet, Op. 11, was also a product of those early years, completed in 1936. Upon hearing Barber’s Symphony No. 1 at the Salzburg Festival in 1937, Arturo Toscanini, just beginning his tenure as the conductor of the brand-new NBC Symphony Orchestra, suggested that Barber re-orchestrate the central movement of his String Quartet as a stand-alone work for string orchestra. Following the premiere of this version, the Adagio for Strings, Barber’s fame was well established. Barber’s tempo indication, molto adagio espressivo cantando (very slowly and with a singing expressiveness) aptly describes the expectation of lyricism within the piece. Barber’s use of a simple climbing motive, a gradual increase in volume, texture, and register, and profound use of silence result in a captivating, emotionally wrought masterpiece.

Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor – Aleksandr Borodin (1833-1887)

Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings, and chorus.

Aleksandr Borodin studied music from a very young age and become one of the composers of Russia’s “Mighty Handful,” but music was more of a hobby for him rather than a career. Professionally, Borodin was a medical doctor and distinguished professor of chemistry, who conducted important research on organic compounds known as aldehydes. Throughout his life, Borodin played chamber music and composed music in his spare time. Several of his works, including the “Polovtsian Dances” from his opera Prince Igor, have found places in the standard orchestral repertoire. Despite working on the score over a span of eighteen years, Prince Igor was not complete at the time of Borodin’s death. It was only after Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and Aleksandr Glazunov completed the opera that it saw its first stage performance at the Mariinski Theater in St. Petersburg in 1890. The “Polovtsian Dances,” while often performed as a stand-alone work for orchestra and chorus, were originally the ballet sequence at the end of the opera’s second act. In this scene, Russian warrior Prince Igor and his son, Vladimir, are captives in a Polovtsian camp. The Polovtsian’s Khan, Konchak, praising the Russians for their courage, has his people perform dances for the men as entertainment. The opening lyrical dance (the melody of which may be most familiar to audiences as “Strangers in Paradise” from Kismet) gives way to a more vigorous and energetic display. The third dance follows a fortissimo passage, and is a bit more laid-back in character before leading into a four-note pizzicato figure. The dances conclude with Borodin’s inventive combination of all the dance themes as the music spirals to a boisterous end.

“Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore – Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Instrumentation: piccolo, flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, strings, and chorus.

Giuseppe Verdi was one of the most dominant figures in Italian opera for the second half of the nineteenth century. Even during his own lifetime, his operas were performed more frequently than the works of any other Italian composer, and today, more of Verdi’s works remain in the permanent operatic repertory than those of any other composer. Verdi’s works include 26 operas, the first of which (Oberto, 1839) was produced when he was 26, and the last (Falstaff, 1893) when he was 80. Il Trovatore premiered at the Teatro Apollo in Rome in 1853. The opera is known for its particularly convoluted plot, which relies on the sensational backstory of a Gypsy woman, Azucena, mistakenly killing her own son instead of murdering the son of her enemy, and then deciding to raise the surviving child as her own. The opera revolves around the impassioned interactions among the characters as they deal with the aftermath of Azucena’s actions. The famous “Anvil Chorus” opens Act II, and is the song of the gypsies at work in their camp.

Carmen Suite No. 2 – Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

Instrumentation: two piccolos, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

Georges Bizet was the son of musicians and showed remarkable musical talent at a very young age. Bizet’s father, a singing teacher, enrolled Bizet in the Paris Conservatoire when he was only nine years old. Over the course of his nine years at the Conservatoire, he earned a number of prizes for piano, organ, composition, and music theory. Carmen was Bizet’s last and greatest masterpiece, receiving its premiere just two months before the composer’s death. Although it met with a certain amount of incomprehension and disapproval at first, its scintillating score, skillful characterization and timeless plot have since earned critical as well as popular acclaim. Carmen Suite No. 2 contains five well-known numbers from the opera, beginning with the March des Contrebandiers (Smuggler’s March). The march opens Act III of the opera, and evokes a kind of sinister insouciance: “Danger is everywhere…but who cares!” The famous Habanera from Act I follows the march, in which Carmen responds to all the village men who ask when she will love them. Carmen’s classic, teasing response: “love is like a bird that will never be tamed.” Next is the ever-popular Toreador Song. While it has become a “greatest hit” in its own right, it also serves a dramatic function, epitomizing the reckless bravado of Escamillo, who inevitably eclipses the hapless Corporal, Don José, in Carmen’s affections. La Garde Montante, from the beginning of Act I, opens with an off-stage trumpet solo, and is a children’s chorus imitating the changing of the guard. The suite closes with the hypnotic Gypsy Music, or “Danse Bohème,” from the opening of Act II. Enflamed by its rhythms, all must dance.

“Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser – Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Instrumentation: three flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass trombone, timpani, harp, strings, and chorus.

Wagner’s Tannhäuser is a commentary on sacred and profane love, and the redemption that can be found through love. Set in medieval Germany, it tells the story of the minstrel Tannhäuser, who has abandoned the real world to reside with Venus, the goddess of love, in her mythical mountain abode. After a year, Tannhäuser asks for his freedom as he misses his everyday earthly life, but Venus tries to persuade him to stay with her. When he responds by calling on the Virgin Mary, Venus casts him out, and Tannhäuser finds himself in a valley near Wartburg Castle, the place where he had previously won the heart of Elisabeth, the beautiful niece of the nobleman who resides at there. The “Pilgrim’s Chorus” is taken from the final moments of the opera. Elisabeth, grief-stricken that Tannhäuser may not return from his pilgrimage to Rome, has died. Tannhäuser does indeed return, but is distraught at the Pope’s proclamation that he would never be forgiven for his sins, just as the papal staff would never bear green leaves again. During Elisabeth’s funeral procession, Tannhäuser is inconsolable, and pleads for her to pray for him in heaven, and then he also dies. The “Pilgrim’s Chorus” begins as a new group of travelers arrives singing praise to God as the Pope’s staff they carry with them has miraculously begun to bloom again, signaling Tannhäuser’s redemption.