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Program Notes: Tchaikovsky and MacMillan (February 10-11, 2023)

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

Program

February 10-11, 2023


Cally Banham, english horn


Felix Mendelssohn

The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave), op. 26 (1830)


James MacMillan

The World's Ransoming (1995/96)

Cally Banham, English horn


Intermission


Nikolaj Rimsky-Korsakov

Russian Easter Overture, op. 36 (1888)


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Francesca da Rimini: Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, op. 32 (1876)


Note: Due to illness, violin soloist Nicola Benedetti is unable to perform on these concerts as originally scheduled. Chosen in consultation with guest conductor Sir James MacMillan, this program will now include Felix Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), replacing James MacMillan’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

 

Program Notes

by Tim Munro


The composers in this program grapple with faith, fate, darkness, and light. Felix Mendelssohn's The Hebrides conjures images of endless seas and mysterious caves. Composer/conductor James MacMillan’s The World’s Ransoming is a deeply religious lament. Russian works close the program: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov brings a balancing act between orthodoxy and paganism, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky contemplates love and death.

 
Felix Mendelssohn

The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave)


Felix Mendelssohn

Born 1809, Hamburg, Germany

Died 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Felix Mendelssohn led a brief but very fulfilled life. Born into a comfortable and loving family, Mendelssohn enjoyed an exceptionally happy childhood. His parents doted on their children and fostered their interest in all things artistic. Mendelssohn’s greatest talent, of course, was for music, and in the supportive atmosphere of his parents’ home he developed precociously. He achieved greatness at an earlier age than any composer, excepting not even W.A. Mozart. By the time he turned 20, he was a superb pianist and conductor, and had written his fine Octet for Strings and the celebrated concert overture after Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


These achievements did not go unnoticed. From England came an invitation for several concert engagements in the spring of 1829. Mendelssohn might easily have confined his initial English visit to the relative comfort and safety of London. But like most young men, he had a strong sense of wanderlust and adventure. And so, having fulfilled his concert appearances in the capital, he set off on what he would later call “my rough Scottish journey.”


Traveling by coach and on foot, Mendelssohn reached Edinburgh on July 28. By August he reached the Hebrides Islands, enduring bad weather and a bout of sea sickness on the way. There Mendelssohn sent a brief message to his family: “In order to make clear to you what a strange mood came over me in the Hebrides, the following just occurred to me.”


“The following” was a sketch of a theme, some twenty measures of music that proved the genesis of his overture, The Hebrides, known also as “Fingal’s Cave,” after the famous coastal cavern that is the subject of several Scottish legends. Mendelssohn made two drafts of this work during the ensuing two years but was satisfied with neither. (“The . . . development passage tastes more of counterpoint than of whale oil and seagulls and cod liver oil,” he complained in a letter, “and it ought to be the other way around.”) Not until 1832 did he succeed in shaping the score to his liking.


The Hebrides fulfills with equal success the requirements of descriptive music and concert overture. The opening subject suggests something of the “strange mood” the bleak islands instilled in the composer, whereas the central section culminates in a brief but dramatic musical storm. Mendelssohn recalls some of this tempestuous music in the closing section but avoids the cliché of a strong ending in favor of haunting echoes of the initial motif.

—Paul Schiavo


First performance: May 14, 1832, in London, the composer conducting

First SLSO performance: December 5, 1907, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: November 1, 2017, Gemma New conducting

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Approximate duration: 11 minutes

 
Sir James MacMillan
Sir James MacMillan

The World’s Ransoming

Sir James MacMillan

Born 1959, Kilwinning, Scotland


In a largely secular genre, MacMillan’s Catholic faith is central to his musical identity. His works include dozens of sacred pieces, including masses, passions, and motets.


MacMillan burst to international renown for Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, a percussion concerto based on the Advent hymn. Soon after, he was commissioned to write a trilogy of orchestral works.


MacMillan conceived of these as an Easter Triptych, one for each holy day leading up to Easter Sunday. The World’s Ransoming was the first, written for Maundy Thursday.

MacMillan has long been drawn to the story of Jesus’ death. “The best stories have conflict to be resolved,” he has written. “We can’t see the light until we have knowledge of the dark. To avoid the darkness is to refuse to face up to our human experience.”


At the core of The World’s Ransoming is a lone voice, a guide: the English horn. The instrument—sobbing, seeking, wailing—leads us through a landscape touched by apocalypse, shadowed, desolate, threatening. Glimmers of light appear, soon to pass by.


MacMillan weaves traditional Maundy Thursday church chants into The World’s Ransoming. These include Ubi caritas (“Where charity and love are, there God is”); and Pange Lingua (associated with the transformation of bread and wine), which gives the work its title: “the Blood...Which the world’s eternal King...Shed for the world’s ransoming.”


After so much darkness, the English horn is finally joined by cellos and violins, for a moment of beauty, perhaps transfiguration. “Maundy” comes from the Latin word for “commandment.” On this day, Jesus commanded his disciples to “love one another, as I have loved you.”


First performance: July 11, 1996, by the London Symphony Orchestra, Kent Nagano conducting, with Christine Pendrill as soloist

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), oboe, English horn obligato, 2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, strings

Approximate duration: 21 minutes


 
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Russian Easter Overture


Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Born 1844, Tikhvin, Russia

Died 1908, Lyubensk, Russia


Moscow. Easter Saturday. At night, congregants gather in churches across the city. At midnight, mass begins, lasting until dawn. At sunrise, bells ring out across the country. Eggs are painted, feasts are consumed. Russia’s Bright Holiday has begun.


Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov may have been an atheist, but throughout his life he was fascinated by the Russian Orthodox church. He felt himself part of church lineage, and at age 44 took a job in the Court Chapel.


Rimsky-Korsakov was part of a movement that was developing a uniquely Russian musical language. He drew from Russian folk songs, mythic tales, but the Court Chapel position allowed him to dig deep into the rich musical soil of the Orthodox church.


One result was the Russian Easter Overture. Easter is Russia’s most important religious holiday. In his festive work, Rimsky-Korsakov aimed to capture both “the mythic and the heathen side of the Easter holiday.”


The overture begins in darkness. Quiet chanting evokes “the sorrowful evening of Passion Saturday,” writes Rimsky-Korsakov, giving “reminiscences of the ancient prophecy and the gospel narrative.” Solo instruments weave birdsong amid the solemnity.


Dawn breaks, and the wild dance begins. Here, Rimsky-Korsakov imagines “unbridled, pagan-religious merrymaking on Easter Sunday morning, the joyous tolling of the bells.” The orchestra glitters, resounds.


Finally, heavenly orchestral angels break into a “Resurrexit!” (“He is risen!”), accompanied by trumpeting archangels and fluttering seraphim strings. The chant of priests is surrounded by incense and candles, giving way to the chiming of bells.


First performance: December 15, 1888, by the Russian Symphony

First SLSO performance: November 19, 1920, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: November 14, 1999, John Adams conducting

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings

Approximate duration: 14 minutes


 
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Francesca da Rimini: Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, op. 32


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Born 1840, Votkinsk, Russia

Died 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky couldn’t put his book down. Alone on a long train ride, he was reading The Inferno by Dante Alighieri, and “was seized with a burning desire to write a symphonic poem on the character of Francesca.”


“Francesca” was the real-life medieval noblewoman Francesca da Rimini. Caught in an unhappy marriage, she had an affair with her husband’s brother. Caught in bed together, they were murdered by her husband. In The Inferno, Dante imagines meeting the two of them in hell.


Francesca da Rimini started as the idea for an opera. Too busy with other works, Tchaikovsky turned Dante’s story into a “symphonic poem,” where external inspiration—sight, sound, or text—sparks musical creation.


For the first performance, he included his own telling of Francesca’s tale:


Dante descends into the second circle of the Hellish abyss. The walls echo with cries of despair. Violent winds carry away tormented souls. Dante notices two of the souls, Francesca, and Paolo, locked in an embrace. Dante calls out, asking them about their crimes.


Francesca’s spirit tells their story. She was in love with Paolo, but she was forced to marry the hateful brother of her beloved, the tyrant of Rimini. “In a moment of weakness we openly expressed our clandestine love for one another,” says Francesca, “throwing ourselves in each other’s arms.” At this moment Francesca’s husband returned unexpectedly, and stabbed her and Paolo to death.


After telling Dante their story, Francesca’s and Paolo’s spirits are snatched away in the raging whirlwind. Overwhelmed by the endless suffering, Dante, completely exhausted, falls dead.


At the time he wrote Francesca, Tchaikovsky had achieved some professional success. Still, he was not free to live—he needed to hide his sexuality. “I cannot meet anyone other than those closest to me without terror and anxiety,” he wrote at the time.


In 19th century Russia, same-sex relationships were punished by death. Though very different, perhaps Tchaikovsky felt a certain kinship with Francesca, whose illicit relationship would mean punishment by death and damnation.


First performance: January 1877, by the Russian Musical Society, Nikolai Rubinstein conducting

First SLSO performance: March 17, 1911, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: October 9, 2005, David Amado conducting

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings

Approximate duration: 22 minutes

 

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


Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.

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