Program Notes | Dvořák, Higdon & Rouse
Sunday, Feb 13, 2022 / 4:00 pm
Born 1962, Brooklyn, NY
blue cathedral (Higdon sets that title in lower case) premiered on March 1, 2000. This music sprang from a very personal source―the death of the composer’s brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, from cancer. Jennifer Higdon has prepared a program note for blue cathedral, and it is worth quoting at length:
“Blue–like the sky. Where all possibilities soar. Cathedrals―a place of thought, growth, spiritual expression, serving as a symbolic doorway into and out of this world. Blue represents all potential and the progression of journeys. Cathedrals represent a place of beginnings, endings, solitude, fellowship, contemplation, knowledge and growth. As I was writing this piece, I found myself imagining a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky. Because the walls would be transparent, I saw the image of clouds and blueness permeating from the outside of this church. In my mind’s eye the listener would enter from the back of the sanctuary, floating along the corridor amongst giant crystal pillars, moving in a contemplative stance. The stained glass windows’ figures would start moving with song, singing a heavenly music. The listener would float down the aisle, slowly moving upward at first and then progressing at a quicker pace, rising toward an immense ceiling which would open to the sky. As this journey progressed, the speed of the traveler would increase, rushing forward and upward. I wanted to create the sensation of contemplation and quiet peace at the beginning, moving toward the feeling of celebration and ecstatic expansion of the soul, all the while singing along with that heavenly music . . . In tribute to my brother, I feature solos for the clarinet (the instrument he played) and the flute (the instrument I play). Because I am the older sibling, it is the flute that appears first in this dialogue. At the end of the work, the two instruments continue their dialogue, but it is the flute that drops out and the clarinet that continues on in the upward progressing journey.”
—Program Note by Eric Bromberger
Born 1949, Baltimore
Died 2019, Towson, MD
Although no universal credence for the Jungian concept of “genetic memory” exists, for me it seems a profoundly viable notion. Although both of my parents’ families immigrated to America well before the Revolutionary War, I nonetheless still feel a deep ancestral tug of recognition whenever I am exposed to the arts and traditions of the British Isles, particularly those of Celtic origin.
I have attempted to reflect my responses to these stimuli in my flute concerto, a five-movement work cast in a somewhat loose arch form. The first and last movements bear the title “Amhrán” (Gaelic for “song”) and are simple melodic elaborations for the solo flute over the accompaniment of orchestral strings. They were intended in a general way to evoke the traditions of Celtic, especially Irish, folk music but to couch the musical utterance in what I hoped would seem a more spiritual, even metaphysical, manner through the use of extremely slow tempi, perhaps not unlike some of the recordings of the Irish singer Enya.
The second and fourth movements are both fast in tempo. The second is a rather sprightly march which shares some of its material with the fourth, a scherzo, which refers more and more as it progresses to that most Irish of dances, the jig. However, by the time the jig is stated in its most obvious form, the tempo has increased to the point that the music seems almost frantic and breathless in nature.
In a world of daily horrors too numerous and enormous to comprehend en masse, it seems that only isolated, individual tragedies serve to sensitize us to the potential harm man can do to his fellow. For me, one such instance was the abduction and brutal murder of the two-year old English lad James Bulger at the hands of a pair of ten-year-old boys. I followed this case closely during the time I was composing my concerto and was unable to shake the horror of these events from my mind. The central movement of this work is an elegy dedicated to James Bulger’s memory, a small token of remembrance for a life senselessly and cruelly snuffed out.
I completed my flute concerto in Fairport, New York on August 15, 1993, and it was composed through a joint commission from Richard and Jody Nordlof (for Carol Wincenc) and Borders Inc. (for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra). Its duration is approximately 23 minutes.
The orchestra required for the concerto’s performance consists of three flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons (2nd doubling on contrabassoon), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, harp, timpani, percussion (three players) and strings. The percussion contingent consists of glockenspiel, xylophone, chimes, vibraphone, suspended cymbal, a pair of crash cymbals, rute, sandpaper blocks, tam-tam, tenor drum, snare drum, bass drum and tambourine.
—Program Note by Christopher Rouse
Born 1841, Muhlhausen, Bohemia
Died 1904, Prague
Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Opus 88
The summer of 1889 was an unusually happy and productive time for Dvořák. At age 48, he found himself a successful composer with a large and devoted family. Earlier that year, his opera The Jacobin had been premiered, and now he took his family to their summer retreat at Vysoka in the countryside south of Prague. There, amid the rolling fields and forests of his homeland, Dvořák could escape the pressures of the concert season, enjoy the company of his wife and children, and indulge one of his favorite pastimes―raising pigeons.
Dvořák also composed a great deal that summer. He completed his Piano Quartet in E-flat Major on August 10, writing to a friend that “melodies pour out of me” and lamenting, “If only one could write them down straight away! But there―I must go slowly, only keep pace with my hand, and may God give the rest.” A few weeks later, he made the first sketches for a new symphony, and once again the melodies poured out of him: He began the composition on September 6, and on the 13th the first movement was done. The second took three days, the third one day, and the entire symphony had been sketched by September 23.
From the moment of the premiere, audiences have loved this symphony (including one very unusual audience: Dvořák conducted this symphony before 30,000 Czechs on an all-Czech program at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893). Surprisingly, the Eighth Symphony has come in for a tough time from certain critics, who find much to complain about. One finds the music plain and claims to hear signs of haste in its composition; another criticizes the music’s harmonic sequences, while yet another calls the finale a “not altogether satisfactory design.” All seem baffled by the structure of the movements.
Listening to these charges, one might conclude that Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony is a disaster. Actually, this is one of the loveliest pieces of music ever written. It is quite true that Dvořák went his own way in writing this symphony rather than attempting to compose a “correct” symphony, and that may be what bothered those critics; Dvořák’s biographer Otakar Šourek noted that the composer himself felt that in this music he was trying to write “a work different from his other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way.” One can love the Eighth Symphony without knowing any of this, but there is a fierce pleasure in watching Dvořák go his own way.
We feel this from the first instant. “Symphony in G Major,” says the title page, but the beginning is firmly in the “wrong” key of G minor, and this will be only the first of many harmonic surprises. It is also a gorgeous beginning, with the cellos singing their long wistful melody. But―another surprise―this theme will have little to do with the actual progress of the first movement. We soon arrive at what appears to be the true first subject, a flute theme of an almost pastoral innocence (commentators appear unable to resist describing this theme as “birdlike”), and suddenly we have slipped into G major. There follows a wealth of themes―someone counted six separate ideas in the opening minutes of this symphony. Dvořák develops these across the span of the opening movement, and the cellos’ somber opening melody returns at key moments: quietly to begin the development and then blazes out triumphantly by the trumpets at the stirring climax.
The two middle movements are just as free. The Adagio is apparently in C minor, but it begins in E-flat major with dark and halting string phrases; the middle section flows easily on a relaxed woodwind tune in C major in which some have heard the sound of cimbalon and a village band. A violin solo leads to a surprisingly violent climax before the movement falls away to its quiet close. The Allegretto grazioso opens with a soaring waltz in G minor that dances nimbly along its 3/8 meter; the charming center section also dances in 3/8 time, but its dotted rhythms produce a distinctive lilt here. The movement concludes with some nice surprises: a blistering coda (Molto vivace) whips along a variant of the lilting center section tune, but Dvořák has now transformed its triple meter into a propulsive 2/4. The movement rushes on chattering woodwinds right up to its close, where it concludes suddenly with a hushed string chord.
The finale opens with a stinging trumpet fanfare, which was added after the rest of the movement was complete. Cellos announce the noble central theme (itself derived from the flute theme of the first movement), and a series of variations follow, including a spirited episode for solo flute. But suddenly the variations vanish: Dvořák throws in an exotic Turkish march full of rhythmic energy, a completely separate episode that rises to a great climax based on the ringing trumpet fanfare from the opening. Gradually things calm down, and the variations resume as if this turbulent storm had never blown through. Near the end comes some lovely writing for strings, and a raucous, joyous coda―itself one final variation of the main theme―propels this symphony to a rousing close.
Are the critics’ charges about this symphony true? For the most part, probably yes. Do they matter? No. In this music, Dvořák followed his own instincts―“with individual thoughts worked out in a new way”―and audiences find the Eighth Symphony as lovely and exciting today as they did when it was premiered over a century ago.
—Program Note by Eric Bromberger