Earlier in the week, I had the pleasure of accompanying violinist Anne Akiko Meyers in the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto. Meyers performed with the Williamsburg Symphonia, a chamber orchestra based in Williamburg, Virginia. You can hear her interpretation of the Barber on this recording, released in 2000. (She is accompanied by conductor Christopher Seaman and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Listen to the second movement here).
Anne Akiko Meyers’ family joined her in Virginia. As an encore, she performed a solo rendition of When You Wish upon a Star as a softly soothing lullaby for her two young daughters in the audience. The song, first heard in Disney’s 1940 film, Pinocchio, was included in a recording Meyers just released last month called Serenade: The Love Album. (Listen to excerpts here, here, and here).
Here is another small gem from an earlier CD (Smile, released in 2009). Anne Akiko Meyers and pianist Anton Nel perform Makoto Ozone’s arrangement of the Harold Arlen ballad, Over the Rainbow at WGBH studios in Boston:
What happens when a series of folk songs becomes the seed for an entire symphony? The answer can be heard in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, a piece which earned the nickname, “The Little Russian” because of its use of three Ukrainian folk melodies. (Since the Middle Ages, the Ukraine has commonly been called “Little Russia.”) This is Tchaikovsky’s most Eastern-looking symphony, the closest he came to the music of the largely self-taught, nationalist “Russian Five” composers, who attempted to develop a uniquely “Russian” musical style.
The first movement begins and ends with “Down by MotherVolga,”played by the solo horn and then the bassoon. To get an idea of the folk song and the distinct sound and style of a Russian choir, listen to this clip. In the opening, notice that Tchaikovsky repeats the melody while changing and developing the music around it. You’ll hear similar variations on an endlessly repeated melodic fragment in the final movement. This is one of the elements which makes this music feel distinctly “Russian.” Mikhail Glinka’s Kamarinskaya (1848) is an example of the same kind of folk song development. Tchaikovsky not only uses folk material, he allows it to shape the formal structure of the symphony. The result is music which moves differently than most German symphonic music, at times feeling almost circular or static.
In the middle of the movement, listen to the way the melody is fragmented and tossed around in the development section. Here, contrapuntal voices are coming at us from all directions. Even in his ballet music, Tchaikovsky occasionally plays rhythmic tricks which make it hard to tell where the downbeat lies. Around the 7:00 mark, you’ll hear something similar.
At the end of the movement, the horn voice is suddenly passed to the bassoon. Consider the way the atmosphere changes as we sink into gloom. Was this the way you expected the movement to end?
The second movement is a march which suggests toy soldiers. The second theme (13:31) uses the Ukrainian folk song, “Spin, O My Spinner”. This music was originally written for the unpublished 1869 opera, Undina. Tchaikovsky adapted music from the opera in later works and eventually destroyed the rest of the score. Listen to the way the melody is passed between instruments, starting with the distant sounds of the clarinet and bassoon. Each time the melody returns, a different layer is added (the pizzicato at 13:14 and then the swirling string lines and sparkling flutes at 15:56) until the music fades into the distance, ending as it began.
Hans Keller draws an interesting parallel between this movement and the march in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony:
It seems significant that whereas the First [Symphony] quotes from the past, the Second quotes, as it were, from the future: the basic thought of the second movement, Andantino marziale, quasi moderato, was to grow, more than 20 years later, into the (not so called) march of the Sixth Symphony’s third movement.
As Mozart’s instrumental music often feels like imaginary, wordless operas, ballet is never far away in the music of Tchaikovsky. The exuberant grace, elegance and lightness of the third movement feels like ballet music waiting for choreography.
The opening of the final movement gives us the feeling of music composing itself. We start with three notes and a simple I-V-I chord progression…then add another note…and suddenly the motive takes shape. It’s similar to what Beethoven does in the opening of the First Symphony’s final movement. In this case, the melody is related to a folk song called, “The Crane.” As the final movement unfolds, listen to the colorful, constantly changing variations which take place around this melody. The music seems to celebrate and pay homage to this simple Ukrainian folk melody. One of my favorite moments comes at 28:20, where the harmony descends around the circle of fifths. As the melodic line rises, it’s met with the low brass descending. The passage reminds me of this similarly exhilarating moment of contrary motion in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.
Tchaikovsky is a composer who pushes us to the limit and then, miraculously, takes us even farther. That’s what happens in the final movement’s development section. Just before the development begins, at what should be the moment of highest climax, the music suddenly seems to spin out of control with a series of “wrong” pitches in seemingly random registers and octaves (28:48). Listen to the way these bell-tone-like pitches are picked up in the low brass, becoming the foundation of a development section which combines the movement’s first and second themes.
Tchaikovsky finished the “Little Russian” Symphony in 1872 and revised it several times over the following ten years. You can get a sense of the original version here.
This recording from 1990 features Yuri Temirkanov and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra:
Tomorrow all eyes will be on Scotland. A referendum will determine whether the ancient and mysterious land of rugged mountains, long, picturesque Lochs and remote castles will remain a part of the United Kingdom or become an independent country. Throughout its tumultuous history (which included the arrival of the Romans around 71 AD, and later, Catholic-Protestant religious wars in which the Scots sometimes fought alongside the French), Scotland has maintained a separate identity. The Treaty of Union brought Scotland into the United Kingdom in 1706. Today, independence could have significant and possibly devastating implications for Scotland’s orchestras.
The landscapes and legends of Scotland have served as an inspiration for many composers. Here is a sample:
Mendelssohn Travels to Scotland
Felix Mendelssohn toured Scotland in 1829 when he was twenty years old. During a stormy voyage to the Hebrides Islands, he visited Fingal’s Cave, a miraculous sea cavern on the desolate, rocky coast of the uninhabited island of Staffa. Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26 was finished a year later on December 16, the one day of the year that the cave is fully illuminated by sunlight.
Mendelssohn’s letters suggest that he was deeply affected by his experience at Fingal’s Cave. It was here that the opening motive of the overture came into his mind.
Listen to the way the music evokes an atmosphere of mystery, even suggesting the supernatural. You can almost feel the motion of the waves in the opening, but also listen to the long, sustained tones which emerge in the brass and woodwinds (0:21). At 3:52 we hear a “surround sound” effect as the distinct voices of a variety of instruments add their statements. Mendelssohn’s music covers wide emotional territory, but at the end we’re left with the same sense of wonder and mystery we felt in the opening.
This recording features Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra:
Mendelssohn’s visit to the the ruined abby at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh inspired the opening seed for the “Scottish” Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56. He wrote:
In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; a little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door… The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything round is broken and mouldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I today found in that old chapel the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.
You might hear a faint echo of Scottish folk music in the theme of the second movement. Beyond that, the symphony qualifies as “pure music,” with no overt references to Scotland. The movements flow into one another with little break, creating a sense of continuity. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the surprising way it ends. The majestic, joyous theme of the coda seems to leave behind everything which has come before.
This is Herbert Blomstedt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in concert in 2008:
Introduction. Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato – Assai animato – Andante come I (0:00)
Scherzo. Vivace non troppo (15:06)
Adagio cantabile (19:21)
Finale guerriero. Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai (27:59)
Completed in 1880 and dedicated to Pablo de Sarasate, Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46 offers another German view of Scotland. The four movements are based on Scottish folk songs, “Auld Rob Morris”, “The Dusty Miller”, I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie”and “Hey Tuttie Tatie.” Fragments of “Auld Rob Morris” return throughout the piece. Listen for its quiet final statement at the end.
Here is Jascha Heifetz’s legendary recording with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the New Symphony of London:
The Orkney Islands are at the northernmost tip of Scotland. In 1985 English composer Peter Maxwell Davies wrote An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, a piece which captures the raucous atmosphere of a traditional wedding celebration on the islands. Listen for the entrance of a bagpiper at the end.
Here is the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Maxwell Davies: