Program Notes: Youth Orchestra Performs Symphonic Dances

Sunday, March 15, 2020, at 3:00PM

St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra

Stéphane Denève, conductor

Gemma New, conductor

Anna Zhong, violin


DUKAS The Sorcerer's Apprentice SIBELIUS Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47 RACHMANINOFF Symphonic Dances


Paul Dukas

PAUL DUKAS

Born October 1, 1865, Paris, France

Died May 17, 1935, Paris, France


The Sorcerer’s Apprentice


If ever a piece of music was victim of its own success, it is surely Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It scored an immediate success and established Dukas, then in his early thirties, as one of France’s important new composers. Its programmatic representation of a supernatural tale proved so vivid that few listeners could fail to imagine the unfolding of its narrative from hearing Dukas’ music.


It was precisely the vividness of Dukas’ music that prompted animators at the Walt Disney studio to select The Sorcerer’s Apprentice for one of the episodes in Fantasia, the 1940 film. As brought to the screen by the Disney artists, the story related by The Sorcerer’s Apprentice featured a famous cartoon mouse in the title role. Fantasia may have intended to expand the audience for classical music through a fusion with popular culture, but the long-term result for Dukas’ piece was precisely the opposite. Rather than a strikingly imaginative and original composition, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice became for many Americans simply the soundtrack to a clever cartoon. The work deserves a better fate.


Dukas’ inspiration for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was “Der Zauberlehrling,” a ballad-like poem written in 1796 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s poem gives a first-person account of the misadventure that befalls a young man who has been taken on as an apprentice to an aged magician. The novice has seen his master use an incantation to turn a piece of wood into a living servant. Indeed, the apprentice has memorized the magic saying, and when the old sorcerer departs the house, he tries it out himself. The charm succeeds in animating a broom, and the satisfied apprentice orders it to fetch water from a pond that lies close by the house. This the broom does, then does again, and again, and again, for the apprentice has neglected the command to make his enchanted worker cease its labors. As water overflows the basin and begins to cover the floor, the apprentice desperately takes an axe and hacks the uncooperative broom in half. But now both pieces take pails and continue to pour water into the basin. Just as the house is about to become flooded, the sorcerer returns. In the nick of time, he intones the proper formula, and the broomsticks fall to the floor.


The convincing manner in which Dukas evokes this tale through orchestral music bears comparison with the tone poems of Richard Strauss. In the opening measures, embellishment of that most enigmatic of traditional harmonies, the diminished-seventh chord, establishes an air of mystery and supernatural possibilities. Further harmonic ambiguity attends the apprentice’s casting of the spell, where unusual chords (quite modern in 1897) imply that magic is afoot.

First performance: May 19, 1897, at a Société Nationale concert in Paris, the composer conducting

First SLSYO performance: Today’s concert

Scoring: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, triangle, harp, strings

Performance time: Approximately 12 minutes

JEAN SIBELIUS

Jean Sibelius

Born December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland

Died September 20, 1957, Ainola, Finland


Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47


Jean Sibelius was and, to a great extent, remains the musical voice of Finland. More than his homeland’s first major composer, Sibelius managed to express something essential about the Finnish people, their romantic spirit, their deep affinity with their forests, snow-covered fields, and folklore.


When one considers that Sibelius’ output consists chiefly of orchestral music, it seems surprising that he composed only one concerto. What is not surprising is that this singular piece features the violin. Sibelius himself was a more than competent violinist. Indeed, his youthful ambition was to become a virtuoso performer on the instrument. Only after years of practice and a painful realization that he would not have a career as a professional soloist did he turn to composition.


Like many of Sibelius’ works, the Violin Concerto did not come easily into the world. The composer wrote an initial version of the piece in 1903, but after conducting the music with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in February of the following year, he pronounced himself dissatisfied and withdrew the score for revision. Not until October 1905, when it was played in Berlin under the direction of Richard Strauss, did the concerto assume its definitive form.


Although it has emerged as one of the most popular works of its kind, this concerto once drew harsh criticism from unsympathetic commentators. “Sentimental” used to be a frequently applied epithet, especially during the 1920s and ’30s, when Sibelius’ music drew fire in the polemical battles between advocates of modernism and those clinging to the Romanticism of the previous century. Even then, however, so discriminating an observer as the English conductor and writer Donald Francis Tovey championed the work. After acknowledging the special status of the classic concertos of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, Tovey declared: “But in the easier and looser concerto forms invented by Mendelssohn

and Schumann I have not met with a more original, a more masterly, and a more exhilarating work than the Sibelius Violin Concerto.”


The Music

As do most latterday concertos, this one dispenses with the convention of the orchestral exposition, leaving the presentation of the work’s initial subject to the solo instrument. More unusually, each of the first movement’s two themes—a long, rhapsodic idea sung by the violin and a secondary subject introduced by the orchestra—conclude with cadenza passages for the solo instrument. A third theme, somewhat like a folk song, presently leads to a brief development passage that culminates in a still more extended cadenza. This is no sooner concluded than Sibelius begins his recapitulation of the three themes. (The first reappears not in the solo violin but in the bassoon, at least initially.)


In the second movement, Sibelius builds the main melody into a great lyrical outpouring. The finale begins with timpani and basses establishing a rhythmic figure whose heavyfooted character prompted the aforementioned Professor Tovey to describe the ensuing music as “a polonaise for polar bears.” Sibelius thought it a different kind of dance. Acknowledging the somewhat sinister character of the theme played by the solo violin over the galumphing accompaniment, he called the movement a “danse macabre.” However one characterizes it, this initial idea soon is countered by a rhythmically lively second subject, and Sibelius juxtaposes and develops the two themes in a loose rondo format.


First performance: October 19, 1905, by the Berlin Court Orchestra, Richard Strauss conducting, with Karel Halírˇ as soloist

First SLSYO performance: March 12, 1982, Gerhardt Zimmermann conducting with David Perry as soloist

Most recent SLSYO performance: March 15, 2003, David Amado conducting with Kenji Ishida as soloist

Scoring: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Performance time: Approximately 31 minutes



Sergei Rachmaninoff

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF

Born April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Russia

Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California


Symphonic Dances


Sergei Rachmaninoff, the most successful Russian composer of the generation prior to Prokofiev and Shostakovich, became one of the many Russian artists who lived in exile after the Revolution. Having spent considerable time in the West for the preceding 10 years, Rachmaninoff left his homeland permanently in 1917, eventually settling in the United States. He had already established his reputation with a string of opulent compositions that included, among other works, the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor, the Symphony No. 2, his Piano Concerto Nos. 2 and 3, and the tone poem The Isle of the Dead. During his American period Rachmaninoff added the enormously successful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, as well as the piece that we hear now, Symphonic Dances.


Rachmaninoff initially conceived this work as a ballet score. In 1939, Mikhail Fokine, another Russian emigrant and the legendary choreographer of Les Sylphides, Petrushka, Daphnis and Chloé, and other works, created a ballet to the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which Rachmaninoff had written five years earlier. The composer, undoubtedly flattered, took a sudden interest in dance music and early in 1940 began to work on a new score. He initially called this Fantastic Dances, and titled its three movements Noon, Twilight, and Midnight.


When he had accumulated sufficient sketches, Rachmaninoff played the music for Fokine, hoping that the choreographer would want to make a ballet with the new work also. But this potential collaboration never materialized, and Rachmaninoff completed the music as a concert piece. By the time he finished it, in the autumn of 1940, he had dropped the descriptive titles of the movements and changed that of the entire composition to Symphonic Dances. “It should have been called just ‘Dances,’” the composer told a journalist, “but I was afraid people would think I had written dance music for jazz orchestras.”


Symphonic Dances proved to be Rachmaninoff’s last work, and the music suggests a new direction the composer might have pursued had fate granted him more time. In contrast to the lush harmonies and sweeping melodic lines that formerly characterized his style, this composition offers a more modern sound of leaner textures, sharper harmonies, and more concise motifs. The first movement presents a broad three-part format, with energetic music at the start and close framing a lyrical central section. Its outer panels present an ironic march punctuated by harsh chords, but the insistent rhythms yield in the central episode to pastoral woodwind calls and a pensive melody introduced by an alto saxophone.


The movement that follows brings a strange waltz interrupted periodically by sinister figures from the brass instruments. As in other well-known waltz treatments by early modern composers—Sibelius’ Valse triste and Ravel’s La Valse, for example—this music conveys a somewhat ghostly atmosphere.


The finale is the longest of the three movements, and the richest in detail. It opens in slow tempo but eventually accelerates to an Allegro vivace marked by animated rhythms and a surprisingly Spanish flavor. As the movement builds to its climax, the brass peal forth the Dies irae, an ancient ecclesiastical chant for the dead. With what seems a peculiar morbidity, Rachmaninoff had adopted this melody as a personal motto, quoting it in a number of his compositions. But its reminder of death has only a passing effect here, for the chant is soon swept aside by more vital sounds as the music rushes to its final moments.


First performance: January 3, 1941, Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra

First SLSYO performance: March 14, 1999, David Amado conducting

Most recent SLSYO performance: May 20, 2012, Ward Stare conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone, harp, piano, strings

Performance time: Approximately 35 minutes

Program notes by Paul Schiavo.

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