Program Notes: Beethoven's Fourth Symphony (November 11-12, 2022)

Program

November 11-12, 2022


John Storgårds, conductor

Leila Josefowicz, violin


Jean Sibelius

Night Ride and Sunrise, op. 55 (1908)


Helen Grime

Violin Concerto (U.S. Premiere) (2016)

Leila Josefowicz, violin


Intermission


Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, op. 60 (1806)

Adagio; Allegro vivace

Adagio

Allegro vivace

Allegro ma non troppo


 

Program Notes

By Tim Munro


Often, concert programs are packed full of heavy-hitters. Dramatic overture precedes virtuoso concerto (heroic soloist to the fore), then heaven-storming symphony leaves us moved, changed, speechless. This week, something a little different. On this program, we look behind, to jewels hiding in the shadows. Jean Sibelius is known as a modern symphonic master, but he most enjoyed creating evocative tone poems (“This is my genre!”). In Night Ride and Sunrise, we can feel the night’s quiet, the glow of the morning sun. Leila Josefowicz is a powerful advocate for the music of living composers. Recently she has become a champion of the intricate, expressive Violin Concerto of Helen Grime, a Scottish composer nearly unheard in the Midwest. For Ludwig van Beethoven, it is the odd-numbered symphonies that get all the play: 3, 5, 7, and 9. In the shadow of such behemoths, we find the Fourth Symphony, a slender gem with all of the color, delight, and surprise of the giants.

 
Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius

Night Ride and Sunrise


Jean Sibelius

Born 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland

Died 1957, Ainola, Finland


Art-making is often followed by myth-making. We fixate on creation stories: a symphony was “sparked by the death of a loved one,” or “inspired by a trip down the Mississippi.” These stories are often contentious: occasionally verifiable, mostly fictional.


Jean Sibelius’ Night Ride and Sunrise is surrounded by a bevy of myths. Sibelius hinted that the piece was inspired by a sled trip through the Finnish winter: “The whole heavens were a sea of colors that shifted and flowed, producing the most inspiring sight,” he wrote, “until it all ended in a growing light.”


Later, Night Ride was the result of a springtime trip to Rome, where he saw the Colosseum at midnight. Still later, he imagined “riding through the forest gloom. Sometimes glad to be alone with Nature, occasionally awe-struck by the stillness, but thankful and rejoicing in the daybreak.”


Let’s stick to the facts. Sibelius was in his forties, with almost a decade of artistic and popular successes behind him. He was weighed down by alcoholism, insecurity, financial worries, and ill health. Much of his music was sketched between days-long binges in Helsinki bars.


Night Ride and Sunrise belongs to a genre called the “tone poem.” Here, external inspiration—sight, sound, or text—sparks the music’s creation. Sibelius felt fully at home in this genre. “This is my genre!”, he wrote. “Here I can move freely without feeling the weight of tradition.”


Night Ride is in two sections. In the first, we grip the reigns of a horse, galloping across a landscape chilled by the winter night. Sibelius is a poet of northern landscapes, and here he evokes Finland, the forest giant, a country of interwoven lakes and frozen tundra.


The second section begins in darkness, ends in light. We dismount as the first rays of the northern sun emerge. Woodwinds burble joyful songs while the brass evoke the sunrise in slow, warming hymns.

First performance: January 23, 1909, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Alexander Siloti conducting

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings

Approximate duration: 16 minutes

 
Helen Grime
Helen Grime

Violin Concerto


Helen Grime

Born 1981, York, England

The work of a composer is solitary: hours behind closed doors. To find community, composers seek like-minded artists, collaborators that light an artistic fire, that motivate the creation of new work.


Scottish composer Helen Grime found such a spirit in Swedish violinist Malin Broman. “I was immediately struck,” she writes, “by the ferocity, power, and passion in her playing.” The two soon began to talk about Grime writing a new violin concerto.


Grime knew that she wanted to highlight Broman’s “striking, opposing musical qualities. At turns she is able to play with a sort of wild abandon but also with great tenderness, sensitivity and with many different colors.”


Grime’s music is often played in the United Kingdom, where she is Professor of Composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music. She was appointed MBE (a high rank of the Order of the British Empire) in 2020, for services to music.


At times her music might feel more emotionally open and direct, at other times it might feel more austere, even intellectual. “My language is detailed and intricate,” writes Grime. “I am drawn to rich harmonies and long expressive musical lines.”


The Violin Concerto is in one continuous movement. Three main sections are joined by dreamlike interlinking passages that connect them. The first section is complex, detailed, giving the soloist “violent, virtuosic music covering the whole range of the violin.”


As an oboist, Grime says that she is naturally drawn to melody and long lines. “Also, I do really like high registers,” she says. “I do wonder whether playing that kind of treble melody instrument is the reason for this.”


The slow central section combines passion with tenderness, even vulnerability. Grime likes to work at night, in her spare bedroom, sketching with pencil on paper, picking out harmonies and melodies on the piano. “When it’s dark it feels quieter and I can focus more.”


The concerto’s final section is wild, stretching both violin and orchestra to the brink. Quiet, slower music gives occasional respite, but soon music again threatens to collapse under the weight of force and intensity.


First performance: December 15, 2016, by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding conducting, with Malin Broman as soloist

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion, celesta, harp, strings

Approximate duration: 22 minutes

 

Ludwig Van Beethoven
Ludwig Van Beethoven

Symphony No. 4


Ludwig van Beethoven

Born 1770, Bonn, Germany

Died 1827, Viena, Austria


At 34, Ludwig van Beethoven received an invitation to spend the summer at a genteel country estate. Escaping city bustle, financial worries, a sputtering love life, a messy apartment. Escaping to the rural home of his most longstanding and generous patrons.


Prince Lichnowsky was minor royalty in modern-day Poland. A dedicated musician, he was also a generous patron of the arts. Beginning when Beethoven was 30, Lichnowsky paid him an annual sum that would guarantee a comfortable middle class living.


The rolling hills of southern Poland were a perfect place for Beethoven to walk, dream, write. There, he was introduced to the prince’s friend, Count Franz von Oppersdorff. The count had his own orchestra, providing opportunity and payment for a new work from Beethoven.


The symphony seems to have given Beethoven little trouble. Unlike the Third and Fifth Symphonies, for which there are mountains of scratched and scrawled sketches, Beethoven seems to have required little advance planning.


The Fourth Symphony grew in the shadow of a bold sibling. The previous year, Beethoven wrote his Third Symphony, an epic, experimental work that broke every rule, that pushed its players to the boundary of playability.


This Fourth Symphony is different. It is shorter, slenderer (deploying Beethoven’s smallest orchestra). It looks backwards to his mentor Joseph Haydn, with its slow introduction, bubbling patter, quirky jokes in the finale. (At one point seeming to ask, “You expect all the strings? Not so fast! The bassoon laughs at you…”)


There is little of Beethoven the all-conquering hero. But he still stretches the medium: freezing time in the slow introduction, combining song and fanfare in the second movement, dragging us onto the dance floor for a barely danceable third movement, and thrilling with wild, edgy chords the finale.


First performance: April 13, 1808, at the Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria

First SLSO performance: November 21, 1924, Rudolph Ganz conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: March 2, 2013, Andrew Davis conducting

Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Approximate duration: 34 minutes

 

Tim Munro served as the SLSO’s Creative Partner from 2018-2022. In 2023, he becomes Associate Professor of Music at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University in Australia.


Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.