Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Program Notes (IV)

The next installment of my program notes series (for a concert of works for strings only):

Mendelssohn: Sinfonia No. 8 in D major

Felix Mendelssohn, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart before him, was a musically precocious child.  Unlike Mozart, he had the good fortune to be born into a wealthy family who was able to nurture his gifts at a steady, appropriate rate of speed (Leopold Mozart, by contrast, shamelessly exploited his son, amassing through him a great deal of wealth).  Beginning at the age of eleven, Mendelssohn began to write copious amounts of music, from songs and piano pieces to chamber and orchestral works - which his proud parents would give a hearing by hosting musicales in their spacious Berlin home, inviting prominent people and musicians.  Sometimes a small orchestra would be engaged for Felix to conduct, although he was so small he had to stand on a stool to be seen.  These experiences offered the boy a unique opportunity for practical experimentation; few composers have had the chance of trying out so young the actual sound of their music.  By the time he was sixteen (when he wrote his Octet for Strings, Op. 20, his first certifiable masterpiece, and one of his finest works altogether), he had developed a fully mature style.

Among the works that Mendelssohn wrote for the home musicales is a series of Sinfonias, or symphonies, for string orchestra - thirteen in all, dating from 1821 to 1823, which taken as a whole demonstrate perhaps better than any other genre Mendelssohn’s musical development.  The first six symphonies are short and rather simple, based on Classical models, but beginning with No. 7 the works increase in scope and depth.  No. 8, performed here, was written in November 1822 (just three months short of the composer’s fourteenth birthday), after the return of the Mendelssohn family from a trip to Switzerland.  Mendelssohn evidently thought well enough of this symphony that he later added wind parts to it, thus producing his first fully orchestral work.

Elgar: Serenade in E minor, Op. 20

Sir Edward Elgar is generally considered the greatest English composer since Henry Purcell, who died over two hundred years before Elgar began producing the works upon which his reputation rests.  Among these are the “Enigma” Variations, the first great British orchestral work; the two symphonies, likewise the first great British symphonies; and “The Dream of Gerontius,” considered the finest oratorio written by an Englishman.

He was also a late bloomer.  The son of a piano tuner in Worceter, by age thirty he had achieved a strictly local reputation as a freelance musician - violinist, organist, teacher, conductor, but not as a composer; most of his attempts to write large-scale works foundered.  Then in 1889 occured the most significant event in his creative life - his marriage to Alice Roberts, who had come to him for piano lessons three years before.  Her support seemed to foster creative abilities that could not function without it; it is significant that his last large-scale work, the Cello Concerto, was written just before her death - fourteen years before his own.

The Serenade for Strings was written in 1892 (and published the next year - the first Elgar full score in print); after its completion, Elgar noted in a page of his diary, “Braut [his pet name for his wife] helped a great deal to make these little tunes.”  The “little tunes” form a charming three-movement suite, redolent of the English countryside Elgar loved.  It begins with a gently rocking rhythm in the violas that pervades much of the first movement, which then returns at the very end of the Serenade.

Vivaldi: Concerto in B minor, Op. 3, No. 10

Antonio Vivaldi is unquestionably the most original and influential Italian composer of his generation, especially in the field of the concerto, a genre to which he contributed over 500 items.  Yet he is sometimes uncharitably dismissed as the composer who wrote the same concerto 500 times over!  This dismissal surely is based on the idea that someone who wrote so much music couldn’t be any good, rather than acquaintance with the music itself.  Yes, the works are variable in quality (as with any composer), but the finest of them possess a freshness of invention, a deftness of scoring, and a rhythmic vitality second to none.  Some of them also contain descriptive titles or programmatic elements, unusual in orchestral music of the Baroque (for example, the famous “Four Seasons” set of violin concertos).

Vivaldi published eight sets of concertos himself.  The first such, possibly the most influential music publication of the first half of the 18th century, was his set of twelve concertos, Opus 3, collectively entitled “L’Estro Armonico” (Harmonic Inspiration).  Bach knew them, and transcribed several of them for harpsichord or organ solo; they served as models for his own violin and harpsichord concertos.  The set consists of four concertos for one violin and strings, four for two violins and four for four violins.  No. 10 of the set is the best-known of the ones for four violins, and was transcribed, most ingeniously, by Bach for four harpsichords and strings!  Particularly effective is a passage in the second, slow movement, where each of the four solo violins arpeggiates the same chord, but in a different pattern.

Britten: Simple Symphony for strings, Op. 4

The story of Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony” is best told in the composer’s own words, as excerpted from a liner note to a 1956 recording by the Decca Record Co., Ltd.:

“Once upon a time there was a prep-school boy.  He was called Britten mi., his initials were E.B., his age was nine, and his locker number was seventeen.  He was quite an ordinary little boy...  But there was one curious thing about this boy: he wrote music.  He wrote lots of it, reams and reams of it.  I don’t really know when he had time to do it.  In those days, long ago, prep school boys didn’t have much free time; the day started with early work at 7:30, and ended with prayers at 8 [p.m.] - and the hours in between were fully organized.  Still there were odd moments in bed, there were half holidays and Sundays too, and somehow these reams and reams got written.  And they are still lying in an old cupboard to this day - String Quartets (six of them), twelve piano sonatas; dozens of songs; sonatas for violin, sonatas for viola and cello too; suites, waltzes, rondos, fantasies, variations; a tone-poem 'Chaos and Cosmos'...all the opus numbers from 1 to 100 were filled (and catalogued) by the time Britten mi. was fourteen.

“Of course they aren’t very good, these works; inspiration didn’t always run very high, and the workmanship wasn’t always academically sound...besides, for the sake of neatness, every piece had to end precisely at the bottom of the right-hand page, which doesn’t always lead to a satisfactory conclusion.  No, I’m afraid they aren’t very great; but when Benjamin Britten, a proud young composer of twenty (who’d already had a work broadcast) came along and looked in this cupboard, he found some of them not too uninteresting; and so, rescoring them for strings, changing bits here and there, and making them more fit for general consumption, he turned them into a 'Simple Symphony,' and here it is.”


  1. Lovely! A pleasure to read. Thanks again!

    1. Thank you, Satyr, for all your encouragement! I'm delighted you're enjoying these.