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Program Notes: Stéphane's Serenade

Updated: Feb 21, 2019

Friday, February 8, 2019 at 10:30am

Saturday, February 9, 2019 at 8:00pm

Sunday, February 10, 2019 at 3:00pm

Stéphane Denève, conductor

David Halen, violin Members of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus | Amy Kaiser, director


MOZART Eine kleine Nachtmusik


VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Serenade to Music

BRAHMS Symphony No. 2 in D major

Stéphane Denève on this program

As told by Tim Munro

To “serenade” means to declare one’s love through music, played or sung. This week’s music is about promenading and serenading together, hand in hand. There is a feeling of tenderness and love throughout the whole program.

Eine kleine Nachtmusik is a very well-known piece, but I will conduct it for the very first time on this program! The challenge is to find the famous Tempo giusto [the first movement’s tempo marking]. The key to a perfect tempo is to find a balance between the pace of the music and its emotional impact. This balance is the “holy grail” of classical music.

I try to always serve the composer. With Mozart this goal is difficult, as the music is perfect in itself, so one always notices if the ego of the performer is in the way. I love music to “tell us” its own tale, its own story. I try to find the most pure childish joy of making music and let the music speak through...

I discovered Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music only a few years ago. I read that Rachmaninoff was in the audience for the premiere and that he wept, which is hard to believe once you know the rather austere and serious look of this giant Russian man. I listened to it and wept, too.

It is a real “ode to music,” celebrating the uniqueness of our art form, which truly is the shortest way from one heart to another! I adore the Serenade’s gorgeous and “sweet” harmonies, its superb lyricism, and its amazing text from Shakespeare.

"The Lark Ascending" could be considered Vaughan Williams' serenade to nature.

This weekend’s program is the first time I will perform a full concerto with David Halen. David has the rare quality of a truly great concertmaster: to be supportive both to the conductor and to the orchestra, trying to achieve the best understanding and result between us. He knows about the emotional power of music and is a sensitive man himself, which is the most important thing for me.

Since I first learned Brahms’ Second Symphony as a teenager, I have had the feeling that this symphony is like promenading in nature. It is not descriptive, like parts of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony, but it has this natural flow, a certain “wandering” atmosphere, which describes Mother Nature at its best.

Maybe this “open air” sensation also comes from the simple, almost “folksong” quality of the French horns’ line at the beginning, or the song-like quality of the woodwinds in the third movement. Or maybe I think of nature because the music’s pure beauty is organically perfect!

I love this symphony. I think you can tell...


Eine kleine Nachtmusik (Serenade in G major), K. 525

A fanfare, played by the full string section, grabs us by the shoulders. This arresting opening calls us to attention.

We have no idea why the 31-year-old Mozart set aside work on his opera Don Giovanni to write Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Was it to be performed at the party of an important aristocrat? Could it have been a financial boost for the cash-strapped composer?

Completing this work, Mozart wrote in his catalogue, “Eine kleine Nacht- Musik.” We now use these words as the title of the piece, often translating it as “A little night music.” But the phrase was more likely a description of the piece. The word “Nachtmusik” had a specific meaning: it was a genre of background music, typically performed outdoors at a party, late at night.

“What is slight can still be great,” wrote Mozart’s father Leopold, himself a prodigious writer of such works. “If it is written in a natural, flowing and easy style, and bares the marks of sound composition. Such works are harder to compose than all those difficult harmonic progressions are to perform.”

Eine kleine Nachtmusik is often overshadowed by Mozart’s “serious,” “masterly” works, and yet Mozart the skilled theater composer is present in every measure here. Every few seconds the music shifts character: from attention-grabbing, to forceful, to withdrawn, to hesitant, to eager. It is a dramatic universe in miniature form.

He may have written the work in haste, but Mozart’s handwritten manuscript is clean and clear. At all moments he is sure and confident in his ideas. It is a small miracle that this work—now so famous that it is almost synonymous with the term “classical music”—may have cost Mozart only a day or two of toil.

First Performance: unknown, likely performed in Vienna in 1787 First SLSO Performance: February 17, 1928, Carl Schuricht conducting Most Recent SLSO Performance: September 23, 2016, David Robertson conducting

Scoring: string orchestra Performance Time: approximately 16 minutes


The Lark Ascending

In appearance, the skylark is unremarkable: a tiny brown bird. But when it takes flight, something remarkable happens: it shoots high into the air, spraying a long, continuous song, a complex song full of trilling virtuosity.

To centuries of writers and musicians, this musical flight has come to symbolize the yearning of humans for freedom, for hope:

He rises and begins to round, He drops the silver chain of sound, Of many links without a break, In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

These words are from George Meredith’s 122-line poem The Lark Ascending, the inspiration for Vaughan Williams’ work of the same name. Vaughan Williams gives the part of the “skylark” to a solo violin, whose music asserts its independence from the windswept orchestral grassland below, rising into the stratosphere, often breaking across the formal musical bar lines to break free.

Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,

Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d

Without a break, without a fall,

Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical.

The bird has long been associated with God, with heaven. Vaughan Williams, an agnostic, nevertheless believed that music had mystical qualities, “reaching out,” he wrote, “to the ultimate realities.” In the smeared harmonies of The Lark Ascending, added notes blurring the image, he captures a mythical, mystical quality.

Vaughan Williams was also part of the first generation that turned away from Germany as a source of inspiration, seeking “true” English music in the songs of its own people. In the singable melodies and gently lilting rhythms of The Lark Ascending we might hear the sound of folk song.

Meredith’s skylark eventually brings humanity together, including those “whose lives” have been, “by many a battle-dint, defaced.” (In other words: those “whose lives have been destroyed by war”). On the same day that Vaughan Williams sketched The Lark Ascending’s main melody, on a cliff overlooking the ocean, Britain’s first troops headed to the continent.

He didn’t know it at the time, but Vaughan Williams would soon join those on their way to war. There he would witness unspeakable horrors that he could never bring himself to speak about. After The Lark Ascending, the world was to be forever changed.

First Performance: June 14, 1921, London, Adrian Boult conducting the British Symphony Orchestra

First SLSO Performance: July 15, 1977, Robert Marcellus as conductor with Robert Mann as soloist

Most Recent SLSO Performance: September 14, 2014, Urbana-Champaign, David Robertson conducting with Erin Schreiber as soloist

Scoring: solo violin, 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, percussion (triangle), and strings

Performance Time: approximately 13 minutes


Serenade to Music

Two lovers, Jessica and Lorenzo, walk in a forested estate on a moonlit night. Their love is illicit; they have eloped. A band of musicians plays nearby. As they await resolution, the couple muses on the beauty of this night, on the power of music.

When Vaughan Williams wrote Serenade to Music, based on this scene from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, his spirit was flagging. An explosive decade of creativity had ground to a halt. He was overwhelmed by the dire state of his wife’s health, by his responsibility to care for her. “I have the feeling that I shall never write another note of music,” he wrote.

It was a gift of friendship that shook him out of this stupor. The conductor Sir Henry Wood was a giant in English musical life whose support of new English music had kick-started a national renaissance. So when Wood reached his fiftieth year as director of London’s Promenade Concerts (“the Proms”), it was time to celebrate.

To mark this half-century, Vaughan Williams gathered sixteen of the country’s most renowned singers for an ode to the power of music. This unusual event gave rise to the work’s instrumentation: sixteen solo singers and orchestra.

Each vocal soloist gets their own moment in the spotlight: some calm, some dramatic, some mournful. At key moments all come together to form a chamber choir, like a group of friends supporting each other, joined by a shared belief in the power of music.

First Performance: October 5, 1938, London, Sir Henry Wood conducting orchestra members from the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, and London Philharmonic Orchestra

First SLSO Performance: May 20, 1982, Leonard Slatkin conducting Most Recent SLSO Performance: February 14, 1998, David Loebel conducting

Scoring: solo violin, 16 vocalists, 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle and bass drum), harp, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 15 minutes

[Vaughan Williams’ sixteen original singers are named in the final published score of Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music. In honor of that tradition, and to celebrate the members of the SLSO Chorus, each singer’s solo moment is identified below.]

SLSO Chorus soloists (in order of appearance):

Gina Malone (GM)

DeWayne Trainer (DT)

Philip Touchette (PT)

Keith Boyer (KB)

Adam Stefo (AS)

Kate Reimann (KR)

Leann Schuering (LS)

Nyghél Byrd (NB)

Matt Pentecost (MP) Jeffrey Heyl (JH) Adam Kosberg (AK) Sarah Price (SP) Elizabeth Ducey Moss (EDM)

Keith Wehmeier (KW)

Joy Boland (JB)

Debby Lennon (DL)

Serenade to Music Text from William Shakespeare: Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! All Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music All

Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night All

Become the touches of sweet harmony. All—GM

Look how the floor of heaven DT

Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold: DT

There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st, PT But in his motion like an angel sings, PT Still quiring to the young-ey’d cherubins; KB

Such harmony is in immortal souls; All But, whilst the muddy vesture of decay AS

Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it. AS—All

Come ho! and wake Diana with a hymn; KR

With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear, KR And draw her home with music. KR—All

I am never merry when I hear sweet music, LS

The reason is, your spirits are attentive: NB

The man that hath no music in himself, MP

Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, JH

Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; NB

The motions of his spirit are as dull as night, AK

And his affections dark as Erebus; AK

Let no such man be trusted. All

Music! hark! It is your music of the house. SP

Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day. EDM

Silence bestows that virtue on it. KW

How many things by season season’d are JB

To their right praise and true perfection! JB

Peace ho! The moon sleeps with Endymion, DL

And would not be awak’d. DL

Soft stillness and the night All Become the touches of sweet harmony. All


Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73

At the opening, the scene is set. Above a forest floor of lower strings, two French horns play a quiet hunting fanfare. They are answered by pure woodwind sunlight.

Brahms loved the outdoors. Throughout his life, nature helped him return to equilibrium, an equilibrium lost in the bustle of the city. Raised in a hard-scrabble part of Hamburg, he took long walking trips with his family. Later, escaping Vienna meant he could breathe and be alone with his thoughts.

In the summer after his 43rd birthday, Brahms dropped in on the town of Pörtschach. He intended to stay overnight, but one night turned into a full summer, turned into three full summers. This lakeside town, with mountains visible in the distance, calmed him, softened his hard edges.

Brahms had another reason to be relaxed that summer. For decades Brahms felt the great symphonies of Beethoven peering over his shoulder. But Brahms had climbed the peak, had finally completed his First Symphony, a work of such jowl- trembling seriousness that at times it seems locked in battle with Beethoven’s legacy.

Released from this stress, the Second Symphony itself seems to relax. Its folk- like melodies, quaint third movement, and buoyant finale, breathe the enriching lakeside air. Brahms even includes a hint of music from his song “How lovely to live

in spring!” near the end of the first movement. The symphony, he wrote, is “quite an innocent, cheerful little thing.”

This lightness can make the Second Symphony seem a slighter, simpler cousin of the First. But shadows remain. Darker instruments—trombones, tuba, and timpani—hover over the first movement’s idyll. Near movement’s end, a lonely French horn lets out an unsettled, agitated call, and is calmed only very gradually. Later, gnarled chords introduce a second movement which, though in a major key, is full of pangs of longing.

Defending the darkness in his otherwise pastoral symphony, Brahms writes of himself as “a severely melancholic person” who feels “black wings constantly flapping above.” At the time that he was working the Second Symphony, Brahms wrote a choral work of existential worry: “Why has light been given to the weary of soul, and life to the troubled hearts?” This motet, wrote Brahms, “casts the necessary shadow on the serene [second] symphony.”

But as the symphony progresses, these troubled shadows slowly disperse. Light-footed dances appear, momentum increases, then all at once tension is releasing in a finale of blazing summer light.

First Performance: December 30, 1877, Vienna, Hans Richter conducting

First SLSO Performance: February 15, 1906, Alfred Ernst conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: January 10, 2013, David Robertson conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 43 minutes

Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Creative Partner.


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