Program Notes - Concert 2/2/2013

by Bill Scanlan Murphy



BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913–1976)

FOUR SEA INTERLUDES from PETER GRIMES, Op. 33a

Composed: 1941–1945
Premiered: London, 1945

  • I. Dawn
  • II. Sunday Morning
  • III. Moonlight
  • IV. Storm

For all its undeniable Englishness, Peter Grimes has important American connections: Britten decided to compose the opera in 1941 while staying in Escondido, California with his partner Peter Pears, and accomplished his aim by way of a very large commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation (which is why the work is dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky’s widow, Natalie). Perhaps mercifully, Britten ignored Koussevitzky’s plea to write the main (or any) role for his protégé Alfred Coccozza, who stomped off and changed his name to Mario Lanza.

As Britten tells it, he was exploring a used book store in Escondido when he found a copy of George Crabbe’s poem The Borough, which tells among other things the grim tale of the fisherman Peter Grimes and his several, well, accident-prone boy apprentices. Britten experienced, he said, an epiphany: “In a flash I realized two things: that I must write an opera, and where I belonged.”

More prosaically, Britten and Pears had received a more pressing suggestion of where they belonged a few days earlier, when Congress passed an act allowing long-term alien residents to be drafted. U-boats or not, Britten and Pears, both pacifists, needed to go home. They knew that they stood a better chance with a British Conscientious Objectors panel than they did with an American one. One this occasion, making a virtue of a necessity produced a masterpiece.

The libretto for Peter Grimes was written by the Communist poet Montagu Slater, an old friend of Britten’s, yet the first performance was conducted by Reginald Goodall, a Blackshirt follower of Oswald Mosley. Much was made of the work’s power to heal the wounds of (barely) post-war Britain; even so, several members of the Sadlers Wells opera company refused to perform in it. The opera’s underlying theme of the individual against the hostile crowd has, it must be admitted, some surprising resonances.

Britten and Montagu turned Crabbe’s story of a child-slaughtering thug into a parable of Grimes the misunderstood mystic, hounded to his death by the vicious mob. This switch from ocean-going Sweeney Todd to Wozzeck-with-herrings resulted in Britain’s most popular opera since Madame Butterfly, which Peter Grimes outsold in the year of its premiere.

The sea is at least as important a character in the work as any of the actual singers; the Sea Interludes, which appear between key scenes of the story, show the ocean in its various moods, mirroring the story and the emotional state of its participants. Dawn is an icy Suffolk maritime morning, cold and bleak at just about any time of year, with the woodwind and harp sketching in seabirds as the brass suggest the always vaguely threatening swell of the North Sea. The violins and flute give the audience the chill that pervades the whole scene.

Sunday Morning seems the cheeriest of all, with the Borough townsfolk pouring into church while Grimes’ would-be beloved, Ellen Orford, chats with his new apprentice on the beach. Then she sees the bruise on the boy’s neck…

The scene is superficially less hostile in Moonlight, but the occasional glints of moonlight soon give the listener the feeling that they might just as well be coming from the edge of a sharp knife.

The Storm interlude sums up the entire opera, with the glimpses of the better side of Grimes glimpsed between eruptions before being swamped and re-swamped by the wrath of the sea. William Walton once called it “a very angry rondo,” which is as accurate as it is waspish. Walton liked it so much, in fact, that he lifted a swathe of this music for an interlude in his opera Troilus and Cressida; Britten never forgave him.

SAMUEL BARBER (1910–1981)

VIOLIN CONCERTO, Op. 14

Composed: 1939
Premiered: Philadelphia, 1941

  • I: Allegro
  • II: Andante
  • III: Presto in moto perpetuo

Relations between music and money have always been problematic. Samuel Barber received his own dire lesson in this with the creation of his Violin Concerto, which was commissioned in 1939 (for $1,000, half in advance) by Samuel Simeon Fels, the Philadelphia soap tycoon. It was to be performed by Iso Briselli, a young Russian violinist who had been sponsored by Fels to accompany the great Carl Flesch to the U.S. in 1924. Briselli and Barber had also been friends at the Curtis Institute in the early 1930s.

Clutching his $500 check, Barber travelled to Switzerland, where he worked on the concerto through the summer of 1939, only to find that by August the State Department was urging the instant return of all Americans from Europe as the political situation deteriorated. The first two movements, therefore, were finished in a cabin in the Poconos and duly handed over to Briselli, who loved them.

Unfortunately, Briselli’s then teacher, Albert Meiff, detested the work, and lost no time in telling Samuel Fels that he did no consider it “violinistic” enough; he was, in fact, angling for an editing role, which had been the source of a great deal of money for his friend Fritz Kreisler, when he “edited” the violin parts of several works he had commissioned. Barber stuck to his guns and refused to change anything. Briselli, under Meiff’s influence, rejected the third movement outright—according to some authorities, because Barber had responded to the “unviolinistic” criticism of the first two movements by writing music Briselli could not play at all (which was quite untrue—he simply didn’t like it). Barber, meanwhile, was terrified that he would have to hand back his advance, which he had already spent. He met Fels in New York over a very tense lunch to discuss the situation.

After much crossfire between the parties, Barber was allowed to keep the money he already had, though he lost the other half of the commission, and the first performance was given to Albert Spalding. Barber referred to the work forever after as his Concerto del sapone—“soap concerto”—in “honor” of Mr. Fels. Well into the 1950s, Briselli was still firing off lawsuits at commentators casting aspersions on his ability to play the concerto. But he never actually played it in public.

Barber himself wrote a program note of admirable concision for the first performance, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, who knew a masterpiece when he saw one:

The first movement—allegro molto moderato—begins with a lyrical first subject announced at once by the solo violin, without any orchestral introduction. This movement as a whole has perhaps more the character of a sonata than concerto form. The second movement —andante sostenuto—is introduced by an extended oboe solo. The violin enters with a contrasting and rhapsodic theme, after which it repeats the oboe melody of the beginning. The last movement, a perpetuum mobile, exploits the more brilliant and virtuosic character of the violin.

JEAN SIBELIUS (1865–1957)

SYMPHONY No. 5 in E flat

Composed: 1915, revised 1916 and 1919
Premiered: Helsinki, Finland, 1915 (original version); 1916 (first revision); 1919 (final version, heard this evening)

  • I. Tempo molto moderato—Allegro moderato (ma poco a poco stretto)—Vivace molto—Presto—Più Presto
  • II. Andante mosso, quasi allegretto—Poco a poco stretto—Tranquillo—Poco a poco stretto—Ritenuto al tempo I
  • III. Allegro molto—Misterioso—Un pochettino largamente—Largamente assai—Un pochettino stretto

Only two composers have ever been written by name into the laws of their country; both, strangely enough, were in one way or another foreigners in the country concerned. The official rubric for a British coronation contains the phrase “here shall be played Mr. Handel’s Zadok the Priest” at the moment when the crown is placed on the monarch’s head. Handel, a German, was one of the first persons to be naturalized as a citizen of the British (as opposed to English) state. Sibelius’ presence in the law books is more prosaic: a lifetime alcoholic, he was excluded by name from Finland’s stringent alcohol distribution regulations. The law forbidding the maritime transport of booze on a Sunday has a specific exclusion for boats going to Sibelius’ private island. Weirdly, sixty years after the composer’s death, the exception is still in force.

Sibelius became, and remains, Finland’s “national” composer, but he was well into his twenties before he even began to consider himself Finnish. He only spoke labored, broken Finnish; he was born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority, most of whom considered themselves to be Swedes and their Finnish-speaking neighbors to be barbarians. His wife was an ethnic Finn, and simply refused to speak Swedish to him, so he had to learn. His German was excellent, however. The letter from the Finnish government commissioning the Fifth Symphony on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday was written in such flowery Finnish that Mrs. Sibelius had to translate it for him.

One musicologically significant afternoon in 1907, Sibelius was taking an after-lunch stroll with Gustav Mahler, who wound up with the miserable task of more or less carrying Sibelius home after he topped up with Schnaps at the top of a mountain. While still coherent, Sibelius told Mahler that what he liked about the symphony as a form was its logic and precision; Mahler, disagreeing fiercely, declared that the symphony must be “like a world,” embracing all emotions and musical forms. More or less from that day, the symphony—even music itself—split into two camps: Mahlerian universality (Berg, Britten, Shostakovich) and Sibelian logic (Walton, Arnold, Harris). Yet the truth is that Sibelius’ supposedly absolute music is as emotionally all-encompassing as anything in Mahler.

Much critical ink has been spilt on the structure of the symphony—especially the first movement. Does it have two expositions? Is the recapitulation in the wrong place? As so often, the answer is simple: there were originally two movements, which gradually coalesced in the composer’s mind into a single edifice. What really does matter structurally is the opening horn call, which contains most of the musical material for the entire symphony. This principle was taken to an almost disturbing extreme by William Walton, whose awe-inspiring First Symphony does exactly the same thing in more or less the same way. The least baffling analysis of the first movement describes it as having two expositions, a Scherzo (the waltz-like section, replacing much of the development, itself partly redundant because of the size of the exposition) and a recapitulation. The structurally minded listener has much to do; it is far less intellectually strenuous to simply listen to that horn call grinding through the grim Scandinavian mill, leaving twitching hunks of romanticism in its wake. No wonder the Russians left.

The second movement seems almost like a vacation after the Herculean architectonic slavings of the first; it is a theme and variations, built around the flute melody heard at the outset over pizzicato strings. But—at the risk of evoking the first movement—compare it to the work’s opening horn call, and learn how composition really works.

The finale begins with a definitively Sibelian gesture: tremolando strings picking out a melody derived from the work’s opening, leading to a swaying horn melody usually referred to as the “swan call.” It is alleged (not by Sibelius, of course) to have been inspired by the composer seeing sixteen swans take off simultaneously from his private lake (to avoid the booze boat?) By way of a sidelight, connoisseurs of bad music will also recognize it as the fade tag of First Class’s hit Beach Baby—ironically, the sort of fate that only befalls really great music. (There are worse—much worse—examples.) The “swan call” itself becomes the underlay for another mighty Sibelian melody; the two are then developed in a more or less orthodox manner (at least by the standards of the first movement) until the Melody makes its final bow in an opulent E flat major.

The work closes with one of the most famous moments in Sibelius’s music. What could have been a fairly conventional series of cadence chords is spaced out over several measures, each chord hammered like a rivet into a wall of resonance. In Sibelius’ hands, the ultimate orchestral instrument is the hall.