Saturday, October 16, 2021 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
SYMPHONY No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
Premiered: Vienna, Austria, 1813
Many interpretations have been offered of what Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony “means,” from Adolf Marx’s idiotic “tale of a Moorish knight” to Wagner’s famous “apotheosis of the dance,” but it’s worth remembering that the Symphony was first heard in a program of patriotic music dedicated to the Austrian fallen of the Battle of Hanau. Beethoven introduced the work by saying “We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism and the joyful sacrifice of our powers for those who have sacrificed so much for us.”
However, it’s a good idea to read on after Wagner’s “apotheosis” utterance, as he goes on to hit the nail squarely on the head: “[In this piece,] Melody and Harmony unite around the sturdy bones of Rhythm.” He’s right. Indeed, obsessive rhythm and repetition are so important in the work that it has even been cited as an ancestor of Ravel’s Bolero.
The first movement opens with a slow introduction that wanders through a couple of unlikely keys before settling on, of all things, F. Beethoven hacks his way back to the home key of A by simply repeating the dominant note E an alarming 61 times. The main section is in standard sonata form in a bouncy 6/8 meter, ending in a coda whose most obvious feature is the same measure repeated ten times over an Also Sprach Zarathustra-style pedal note on (of course) E.
The famous main melody of the Allegretto repeats the same simple rhythmic pattern over twenty times. Of the first 20 notes of the melody, 16 are the same note (E, of course). Yet, despite an underlying structure that Carl Orff would have been proud of, it remains one of Beethoven’s most sublime inventions. The first audience was so impressed that the performance had to be halted for the movement to be repeated.
The third movement, a lively Scherzo, is in the unlikely key of F, with a Trio in the slightly more likely key of D, but the Trio quotes an Austrian hymn, Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis (Holy Mary, pray for us) – the only sign in the whole work of a connection to the charitable cause supported by the premiere. The movement somehow balances this gesture at piety with a rhythmic drive that Thomas Beecham called “a bunch of yaks jumping around.”
Another quotation haunts the finale. The main theme is a direct quote from Beethoven’s own setting of the Irish folksong Save me from the grave and wise. Composers only quote songs to point the listener to the words; listeners should draw their own conclusion. However, it was what Donald Tovey called this movement’s “Bacchic fury” that led to Wagner’s “apotheosis” declaration.
Beethoven declared the Seventh Symphony to be one of his best works on the night of the premiere. Carl Maria von Weber heard it and declared Beethoven to be “ripe for the madhouse.” But close listening reveals that these statements are not contradictory; surely, the line between madness and genius sometimes simply disappears, and we may be listening to an example here.
JAMES LEE III (b. 1975)
Niiji Memories is a concerto for flute and orchestra in four movements inspired by elements of indigenous/Native American history of North America. “Niiji defines as an aboriginal from Turtle Island/North America, other than Inuit.” Movement one, Forgotten Emblems was inspired by paintings of “Emblems of America” that show black Indigenous Aboriginal Americans of the United States. There are elements of both sonata form and rhapsody present in this movement. The second movement Ghost Dance serves as a Scherzo movement and uses melodic material that is quoted from a Choctaw Indian Honor Song. Upon observation of the Ghost Dances among some Native American tribes, there are some interesting similarities with the “Holy Ghost Dancing” of “Praise Breaks” in black Pentecostal church services. The third movement, Song of the Niiji has a performance indication of “Very Soulful” and at times has elements of a lamentation as the soul of the Niiji sings through the flute. In Awakened to Flight, the fourth and final movement, the Niiji continues to ascend into flight and soar as a carefree spirit. After movement to a climax, the music is transformed into a decidedly calm and reflective character as if the memory of the Niiji has finally faded and ends, only to be taken up again on another day.
—James Lee III
NIKOLAI RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
CAPRICCIO ESPAGNOL, Op. 34
Premiered: St. Petersburg, Russia, 1887
In 1863, Midshipman Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov bought a couple of books of Spanish folksongs when his ship, the Almaz, visited Cadiz. Over twenty years later, a handful of songs from those books would become the Capriccio Espagnol.
The Capriccio was originally conceived as a violin concerto, but pressure to get the piece finished and a desire to concentrate on orchestral color led to the slightly less ambitious work we know now. With its daunting demands on soloists in every section of the orchestra, it would not be unreasonable to call the work the first “concerto for orchestra.” With typical modesty, the composer himself called it “a brilliant composition for the orchestra.”
The opening Alborada (“Dawn”) shows the Spanish morning to be a very lively affair, with prominent appearances by solo violin and clarinet. The second movement features the horns and the low strings before handing off to woodwind solos. The Alborada reappears in a new key; interestingly, the composer left a note detailing how the conductor can overcome miscalculations in the orchestral balance here. The Scene and Gypsy Song is actually a chain of cadenzas for brass, violin, woodwind and harp: listen for the once-infamous passage in which the strings are instructed to be strummed “quasi guitarra.” An (unnamed) triple-meter dance leads to the rousing Fandango and the final, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink statement of the Alborada.
Neither the actual folksongs used in the work nor the books they were in have ever been identified; perhaps Rimsky’s talent for pastiche equaled his orchestration.
About the Concert
We're back! And what better way to celebrate coming together than with Beethoven's joyous Seventh Symphony. Composer James Lee III has written a thrilling work for the Orchestra and flute virtuoso Julietta Curenton inspired by Native American history and culture. Be there for the world premiere of a masterpiece in person at the Jim Rouse Theatre or virtually from the comfort of your own home! Pre-concert lecture at 6:30pm in the black box theatre.
Click to read our concert program.
Please note: Masks are required to be worn at all times, regardless of vaccination status. Patrons will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test result obtained within 72 hours of the concert. All musicians, guest artists, staff, and volunteers are fully vaccinated. There will be no concessions or post-concert reception at this concert. Click here for more information.