PROGRAM NOTES: London Symphony Orchestra
by Eric Bromberger
Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Opus 33a
Born November 22, 1913, Lowestoft, England
Died December 4, 1976, Aldeburgh, England
Peter Grimes, which depends for so much of its force on Britten’s superb evocation of the harsh and violent Suffolk coast, has become one of the great operas of the twentieth century, and it comes as a surprise to learn that the opera got its start in Escondido. Britten had left England in 1939, believing that his homeland was blocked to him as an artist and intending to make a new life in America. Britten had some success here, but he also suffered bouts of ill health, and–wishing for a climate warmer than Long Island’s–he accepted an invitation to spend the summer of 1941 with the duo-pianist team of Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson at a home they had rented in Escondido. Britten and Peter Pears drove an ancient car across the country, arriving in Escondido that spring.
Two years in this country had made Britten increasingly ambivalent about his separation from England, and the summer in Escondido brought the event that drove him both to return and to compose Peter Grimes. Early that summer, Pears bought a volume of the poetry of George Crabbe (Pears was later unable to recall if the bookstore had been in Los Angeles or San Diego), and now the two young men found themselves enthralled by Crabbe’s poetry. Crabbe (1754-1832) was from Britten’s own Suffolk. His was a bleak vision of mankind and of Suffolk life; Britten probably did not know–but would readily have agreed with–the sonnet in tribute to Crabbe by American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, which begins “Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows.” To a friend in Long Island, Britten wrote: “We’ve just re-discovered the poetry of George Crabbe (all about Suffolk!) & are very excited–maybe an opera one day–!”
Britten was particularly taken with Crabbe’s The Borough (1810), which tells of life in a Suffolk fishing village and of the outcast Peter Grimes. When Serge Koussevitzky asked Britten the following winter why he had composed no operas, the young composer spoke of the cost of such a project, and Koussevitzky promptly commissioned an opera from him. Britten returned to England in April 1942, armed with this commission and fired by a new passion for his native Suffolk. He composed Peter Grimes in 1944-45, and its première in June 1945 was a triumph. The opera is based on the deadly collision between a fishing village called The Borough–which represents convention, religion, law, and a great deal of smugness–and Grimes, an outcast, violent, perhaps demented, yet longing for acceptance by the community he despises.
The opera is in three acts, and as preludes to the acts or as interludes between scenes Britten composed six orchestral interludes, brief mood-pieces designed to set a scene, establish a mood, or hint at character. Even before the opera had been produced, Britten assembled an orchestral suite made up of four of these, which he called Sea Interludes, and led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in its première on June 14, 1945.
The opera opens with a Prologue, The Borough’s investigation into the death of Grimes’ previous apprentice William Sprode, and at its conclusion comes the first interlude, Dawn, which functions as the prelude to the opera. Here is gray daybreak on the bleak Suffolk coast, evoked by the high, clear, pure sound of unison flutes and violins. This is haunting, evocative music, full of the cries of sea birds, the hiss of surf across rocky beaches, and–menacing in the deep brass–the swell of the sea itself. Sunday Morning, the prelude to Act 2, opens with the sound of church bells pealing madly in the horns and woodwinds. The strings have the theme Ellen Orford sings in praise of the sunny sea: “Glitter of waves / And glitter of sunlight / Bid us rejoice / And lift our hearts high.” Moonlight is the prelude to Act 3–its portrait of the tranquil sea is broken by splashes of sound from flute, xylophone, and harp. The concluding Storm actually comes from early in the opera: a depiction of a storm that strikes the coast, it forms the musical interlude between Scenes 1 and 2 of the opening act. The violence of the opening gives way to a more subdued central section before the storm breaks out again and drives the music to its powerful close. Britten noted that “ . . . my life as a child was colored by the fierce storms that sometimes drove ships on our coast and ate away whole stretches of neighboring cliffs. In writing Peter Grimes, I wanted to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea.”
Piano Concerto in F Major
Born September 28, 1898, Brooklyn
Died July 11, 1937, Beverly Hills
The success of Rhapsody in Blue in February 1924 propelled Gershwin overnight from a talented Broadway composer to someone taken seriously in the world of concert music, and he was anxious to explore a path that had suddenly opened up for him. When conductor Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Society asked Gershwin to compose a piano concerto the following year, the young composer accepted eagerly: the commission–signed in April 1925–paid him $500 for the new concerto, to be performed the following December. There is no truth to the story, told many times, that Gershwin left this meeting and went straight to a bookstore to buy a book on musical form so that he would know what a piano concerto was, but this story does point to a larger truth: Gershwin was entering a musical world with which he was unfamiliar. Ferde Grofé had orchestrated Rhapsody in Blue for Gershwin, but now the composer was anxious to do all the work by himself: he wanted to be taken seriously as someone who could compose classical music (and in fact he did consult treatises on orchestration as he worked on this concerto).
Gershwin jotted down some ideas for the concerto while in London in May 1925, but it was not until he returned to New York that he began the actual composition, which took place between July and November of that year. He had at first planned to call the piece New York Concerto, but his desire for respectability won out, and he settled on Piano Concerto in F (it may be a mark of the breezy spirit of this music that it is always called that, rather than the more formal Piano Concerto in F Major). As was his habit, Gershwin played this music to many friends as he worked so that he could try it out. In fact, he even hired an orchestra and played a private run-through a few weeks before beginning rehearsals with Damrosch for the official première, which took place (with Gershwin as soloist) in Carnegie Hall on December 3, 1925.
F. Scott Fitzgerald nicknamed the twenties “The Jazz Age” (The Great Gatsby was published in the same year Gershwin wrote this concerto), and jazz was very much in the air in 1925. Gershwin had made his reputation with Rhapsody in Blue–billed as an experimental effort to fuse jazz and classical music–but he took pains to insist that he did not consider the Concerto in F a jazz piece. Though the concerto employs Charleston rhythms and a blues trumpet, Gershwin wanted it taken as a piece of serious music: he said that its brilliant energy was not so much the effort to write jazz as it was intended to represent “the young, enthusiastic spirit of American life.”
Certainly the Concerto in F takes the form of the classical concerto: a sonata-form first movement, a lyric second movement, and a fast rondo-finale. The Allegro opens with a great flourish of timpani followed by the characteristic Charleston rhythm. Solo bassoon introduces the first theme, gradually taken up by the full orchestra, and the piano makes its entrance with the wonderful second subject, sliding up from the depths on a long glissando into the lazily-syncopated tune. Gershwin was willing to bend classical form for his own purposes, and he described this first movement: “It’s in sonata-form–but.” The development tends to be episodic (but who cares?), and this lengthy movement concludes with a Grandioso restatement by full orchestra of the piano’s opening tune and an exciting coda based on the Charleston theme.
Of the slow movement, Gershwin said that it “has a poetic nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues . . .” He contrasts the trumpet’s bluesy entrance (played with a felt mute) against the piano’s snappy entrance on a variant of the same tune and then alternates these ideas across the span of the movement. He may have thought of this movement as a nocturne, but this particular night seems full of energy, for the music rises to a tremendous climax before falling away to the quiet close.
Out of the quiet, the Allegro agitato finale explodes to life. Gershwin described it as “an orgy of rhythm,” and the opening plunges the pianist and orchestra into a perpetual-motion-like frenzy. The movement is in rondo form, and the episodes quickly begin to recall themes from the first two movements. At the end, Gershwin brings back the Grandioso string tune from the climax of the first movement, and the Concerto in F rushes to a knock-out close based on the timpani flourish from the very beginning of the first movement.
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 43
Born December 8, 1865, Tavastehus, Finland
Died September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland
Sibelius’ Second Symphony, composed in Italy in 1901 when the composer was 35, has become one of the most famous in the orchestral repertory. It is easily Sibelius’ most popular symphony, it is a favorite of audiences around the world, and it is a favorite of performers too: over thirty recordings are currently available. This popularity has been explained in various ways. Some sense the sunny atmosphere of Italy warming Sibelius’ austere Scandinavian sensibilities. Others hear a Finlandia-like program that dramatizes Finland’s struggle for national identity in the face of foreign domination. But Sibelius would have had none of this. He wanted his music considered abstractly–as sound-drama and not as a vehicle for extra-musical interpretation–and there is no doubt that the Second Symphony, in all its austere grandeur, is a stunning success as sound-drama.
Sibelius’ music has the sweep of the true symphonist, yet his symphonic methods are unique. Rather than presenting themes and then developing them, a Sibelius symphony will often present its themes at first only as fragmentary shapes. These shapes can come together to assume a more complete form within the course of a movement, but then shatter into fragments once again. And this transformation of material takes place during violent contrasts of mood, long buildups that culminate in a constant series of climaxes, and great splashes of instrumental color that burst out of the leaden skies of Sibelius’ musical landscape. These methods may be unique, but they take us on a true symphonic journey: across the forty-minute span of the Second Symphony, Sibelius moves inexorably from the tentative beginning through the battlefields of the interior movements to the thrilling culmination of the heroic finale. No wonder this is one of the most emotionally satisfying–and most popular–symphonies ever written.
Many have noted that Sibelius seems to reverse the sequence of the first two movements. Rather than opening with a dramatic movement, Sibelius begins with a gentle Allegretto. The pulsing string figures at the opening will recur throughout, and over them woodwinds sing an almost innocent tune. These theme-shapes return in a variety of forms, but the movement resolves nothing and concludes on the same tentative chords with which it began. The drama one expects from a first movement erupts in the second, marked Tempo Andante. Over the deep pizzicato opening, a pair of bassoons chant the main theme, aptly marked lugubre, and soon the music explodes in furious brass and percussion outbursts. Such episodes alternate with melting lyricism in a lengthy movement that is never at peace for long.
The scherzo arrives like a blast of wind across the frozen tundra. Its brief trio section, marked lento e suave, is in the unusual meter of 12/4: solo oboe sings its gentle song, built of a number of repeated notes. A sudden return of the scherzo leads to a further surprise: Sibelius brings back the music of the trio one more time before the symphony proceeds–on gradually more excited waves of sound–directly into the finale.
This concluding Allegro moderato is heroic in every sense of the term: its broad D major opening strides ahead in thunderous octaves, so powerfully that one may miss the fact that this appears to be a variation of the woodwind tune from the symphony’s very beginning, now played backwards. Trumpet fanfares and throbbing accompaniment push this music steadily forward, and this heroic beginning might prove anticlimactic were it not for Sibelius’ control of his material. More lyric secondary music intervenes, and Sibelius continually delays the return of the home key of D major until the shining return of the main theme in the triumphant final moments.
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of the LSO’s 2015 U.S. Tour
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