Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: illumination

Saturday October 15, 2011
Sunday October 16, 2011

Dvořák Nocturne in B major, Op. 40


Britten Les illuminations


Britten Now sleeps the crimson petal


Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Eroica


If the first two composers on the program deal with night and sleep, the third provides the dawn. The evening begins with Dvořák’s Nocturne in B major, a musical night scene, and continues with songs from Britten including Les illuminations, a song cycle based on 19th-century French poetry, and Now sleeps the crimson petal, a setting of Tennyson’s poem. The final piece on the program, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, signals not only the beginning of a new day, but a new era.

Antonín Dvořák’s Nocturne in B major has a complicated history. The musical material of the Nocturne began life in 1870 as the slow movement of a string quartet. A few years later, in 1875, Dvořák transferred the same musical material to the slow movement of a string quintet. Around this time Dvořák got married, had his first child and began supporting himself through the publication and sales of his compositions. Although he was very prolific at this time in his life, Dvořák was unable to find a satisfying context for the slow section of the string quintet.

It was years before Dvořák would find a suitable place for this material. Eventually, the composer took the slow movement and extended it, arranging it for string orchestra and intending for it to stand alone. This version was published in 1883. Dvořák called the piece a nocturne, traditionally a musical work inspired by the night. Many other composers wrote in this genre; Chopin wrote 21 nocturnes for solo piano, for example, and Mendelssohn wrote an orchestral nocturne for his incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dvořák’s Nocturne is marked Molto Adagio, or very slow. Dvořák chose a compound meter (a meter that uses groups of three notes rather than two), which gives the work a slight rocking feeling, especially in its second half. The low strings begin the piece, playing the melody in octaves with no accompaniment. It is an enigmatic start, but soon the melody moves into the higher strings, and the other instruments begin to provide accompaniment and even countermelodies. Dvořák keeps the listener guessing about where his sinuous melody will go, including harmonic choices that lead in unexpected directions. About halfway through the piece, Dvořák’s melody suddenly resolves and the rest of the work is pure, shimmering beauty. The melody climbs higher and higher into the strings, while a rhythmic pulse gently moves the music forward. Eventually, the melody rises up so high that it’s almost as if it takes flight into the night.

Benjamin Britten greatly contributed to the chamber orchestra repertoire in the 20th century. The sound possibilities of the string orchestra were particularly interesting to him. In the late 1930s, Britten began setting poems of Arthur Rimbaud for this type of ensemble with tenor or soprano soloist. Britten called his piece Les illuminations, taking the title directly from the poet’s early collection, Illuminations. Though Rimbaud’s output was small and mainly concentrated in his late teenage years, his work had a lasting impact on many contemporary and modern artists, including such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Allen Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas. He was also a hero of sorts to American rock musicians Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Patty Smyth, who were attracted to the poetry’s rebellious nature. Rimbaud began this collection sometime in the early 1870s while traveling through Europe and he incorporated into the texts many foreign words he learned while on his journeys.

There are 42 poems in Illuminations, but Rimbaud gave no indication of how they should be ordered. It was his former lover, Paul Verlaine, who saw to the publication of the collection in the 1880s.

Britten chose nine poems from Rimbaud’s collection and began composing the settings while in England. In 1939, he traveled to the United States and continued working on them there. He was accompanied on the trip by Peter Pears, a tenor he had met a few years earlier. Pears would become both Britten’s life partner and muse. The premiere of Les illuminations was performed by soprano Sophie Wyss (to whom Britten had dedicated the collection), but Pears would go on to record the piece in subsequent years. There are additional dedications on three of the songs, including one to Pears. The opening “Fanfare” fittingly features horn calls in the violin and viola. The voice enters with a line as vigorous as the string fanfare, but soon the music becomes quieter. The second song “Villes” has a machine-like accompaniment, which is appropriate for a text about bustling cities. By contrast, the next song “Phrase” is much more peaceful. “Antique” has the rhythmic liveliness of a dance, and the words celebrate “the graceful son of Pan.” “Royauté” begins with a stately opening, perfect for a text about a gentle couple’s imagination of their own royalty. “Marine” is about the movement of a ship through the water, the plumes of the waves mirrored by the vocal line. “Being beauteous“—the song Britten dedicated to Pears—begins with an undulating melodic line in the instruments. The text is colorful and sensual. In “Parade”, the singer describes an odd collection of characters who are members of a “savage parade.” The collection ends fittingly with “Départ”, a farewell of sorts, and a move into something new and wondrous.

Britten set Tennyson’s Now sleeps the crimson petal in 1943. It was originally part of a group of songs Britten wrote that would eventually become his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Now sleeps the crimson petal was not ultimately included in this collection, but it stands alone as a beautiful example of Britten’s contribution to the genre of song.

Like many composers, Beethoven’s output can be divided into three periods. Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major—known as the “Eroica“—marks the beginning of Beethoven’s middle, or “Heroic” period. He left behind the relative simplicity of his early style and began to work on pieces large in scale, complex in structure and deep in meaning. He started composing Symphony No. 3 quickly after the completion of Symphony No. 2, but the two pieces are quite different in scope. Whereas No. 2 is a piece written simply for its own sake, Beethoven had the idea to dedicate the new Symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte. He also included musical gestures that suggested meaning—what we call “programmatic” music. Beethoven chose his subject because he felt Napoleon was a symbol of the ideals of the revolutionaries in France. The Symphony was to be a grand gesture for a grand man, but Beethoven was incredibly disappointed when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor. The decision to rename the Symphony wasn’t as quick or clear-cut as Beethoven’s early biographers would have us believe, but we did end up with “Eroica,” rather than “Bonaparte,” as the name. Musically speaking, this piece is a tour de force. It is much longer than the symphonies that were written at the time. The first movement alone, with repeats, is itself as long as a typical contemporary symphony. The programmatic aspects of the piece include a funeral march in the second movement, as well as a reference to a ballet in the last. The first time the piece was played for anyone was in the summer of 1804 when Beethoven presented the piece privately for his patron Prince Lobkowitz. A few months later, the Symphony received its first public performance at the Theaterander Wien. Although initial reactions to the Symphony were mixed, there is no denying now that Beethoven’s “Eroica” is a watershed, and many see the history of music shifting in this moment. Some historians trace the beginning of the Romantic period to this Symphony. To add another level of meaning to this piece, we must also remember that it was written at the time that Beethoven was coming to terms with his encroaching deafness. The mixture of emotions displayed in this Symphony might somehow reflect the turmoil Beethoven was feeling during this time.

As forward-looking as the “Eroica” is, traditional symphonic elements remain. The work is in four movements, and the structure of each movement remains similar to what contemporary composers were writing at the time. However, Beethoven imposed an incredible amount of musical material on these structures. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 begins with two signal chords, a musical idea that was common in the very earliest symphonies. From there, Beethoven offers an appropriately heroic theme. The constant dynamic shifts show different moods, sometimes larger than life, sometimes dark and pensive. There is enough emotion and struggle in the first movement to tell an entire story in and of itself, but it is only the beginning.

The second movement is a funeral march, a solemn dirge that every so often gives way to sweeter, even optimistic, musical interludes. One such interlude culminates in a triumphant moment near the center of the movement, until the original dirge reasserts itself. This is a rondo form, after all, and we must keep returning to the main theme. There are moments of great drama and struggle in this movement, but eventually, the music slowly dies away. This movement in particular has a life separate from the Symphony as a ceremonial work for occasions of mourning. (It was played at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral, for example.) The third movement is a quickly-moving Scherzo that crackles with energy. The play of rhythm in this section is especially inventive. Three French horns playing in counterpoint are featured in the Trio section of the Scherzo. The warm timbre of these instruments brings to mind hunting calls or military ceremonies.

Beethoven indulged in a little self-borrowing for the last movement. A few years earlier, Beethoven had composed a ballet called The Creatures of Prometheus. The main theme of the ballet’s final movement forms the musical idea on which the last movement of the “Eroica” is based. The story of the ballet deals, of course, with the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods so that he could give it to human beings, an act for which Prometheus was punished. The theme begins haltingly, but soon gains momentum and grace. It is subsequently treated to ever more complex variations, including fugal sections. The coda is suitably grand with a triumphant ending. The reference to the Prometheus myth could be understood as an allegory for the creativity of the artist. Beethoven’s creative impulse was a spark, one that was threatened by his deafness, but his will to continue, despite the challenges, allowed the spark to grow into a flame. The “Eroica” Symphony is a brilliant light that led the way into the Romantic period.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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