The Oceanides: Sibelius’ Ambient Tone Poem

The Oceanides, Op. 73

When you think of ambient concert music that conjures up vast sonic landscapes, the name John Luther Adams may come to mind. Adams, an American composer and longtime resident of Alaska, was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral work, Become Ocean, premiered by conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in June, 2013. It’s music which unfolds slowly in rich, colorful waves of sound, evoking the eternal power, depth and cool darkness of the awesome bodies of water which cover seventy-one percent of Earth’s surface.

But Adams wasn’t the first composer to create an ambient sonic portrait of the sea. Listen to Jean Sibelius’ tone poem, The Oceanides, Op. 73, and you’ll get a similar sense of murky depths and mythological “Nymphs of the Waves” (the loose translation of the Finnish title, Aallottaret).

The Oceanides emerges from the depths of the orchestra, as rising and falling string lines wander in a daze. Flutes provide a playful splash of color. The dreamy serenity of the flutes’ opening motives would be at home in any hazy New-age composition. And while the motives develop (certainly at a faster clip than in the static Become Ocean), we are left with a feeling of the circular and timeless. In this excerpt, listen to the way the horns resolve, only to quickly move back to unsettled dominant territory and then dissolve into something new.

At moments, there are hints of that other piece about the ocean, Claude Debussy’s La mer, completed eight years earlier in 1905. But beyond a few passing similarities, Sibelius’ tone poem feels different than La mer. As with Sibelius’ symphonies, the music spins forward and develops, yet we quickly realize that there is no ultimate goal, just another icy, slowly changing landscape over an endless horizon. That’s the feeling we get from the long, endless series of waves in Become Ocean. The Oceanides has one climactic moment of resolution that feels strangely similar to the crest of one of Become Ocean‘s sonic waves. From there, the music falls back and we’re left with the unending expanse of the ocean.

  • Find Osmo Vänskä’s recording of The Oceanides with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (featured above) at iTunes, Amazon.
  • The Oceanides underwent a series of revisions. Hear one of Sibelius’ earlier versions, set a half step lower in the key of D-flat.
  • Find John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Browse the Listeners’ Club archive and find other posts featuring Sibelius’ music.

Walter Piston’s Second Symphony: A Neglected Mid-Century Gem

Walter Piston’s Second Symphony, written in 1943, is one of those mid-twentieth century American musical gems that deserves to be heard more often. Following its National Symphony Orchestra premiere in March, 1944, conductor Hans Kindler declared that the symphony,

is without even the shadow of a doubt one of the half dozen great works written during the last ten years. It sings forever in my heart and in my consciousness, and it does not want to leave me.

American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976)
American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976)

A year later, the work was performed by the Boston Symphony, NBC Symphony and New York Philharmonic. But, with the exception of a few recordings, it has fallen largely off the radar.

The unfair perception of Walter Piston as a dry, Ivy League academic and later a twelve tone composer (as heard in his Eighth Symphony) may be partly to blame. Born in Rockland, Maine in 1894, Piston served for many years on the faculty of Harvard University. His students included Leroy Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, John Harbison, and Daniel Pinkham. As a music theorist he is remembered as the author of a series of respected textbooks: Principles of Harmonic Analysis, CounterpointOrchestration, and Harmony. Aaron Copland described Piston as, “one of the most expert craftsmen American music can boast.” But as conductor Gerard Schwarz noted, with the advantage of hindsight, Piston’s music goes beyond craft:

In some ways Piston was the dean of American music. But as a result of his intellect and his association with the university environment, he was considered to be a somewhat dull, academic composer. For anyone familiar with Piston’s music, it is clear that he is neither dull nor academic, but incredibly imaginative and innovative. It is true that he uses classic forms, but with his own language. I have studied most of his output and I have come to realize that he was a master, an inspired composer.

Beyond a neoclassical structural purity, the Second Symphony doesn’t conform easily to any distinct stylistic category. At moments it may remind you of the sonorous chorale-like orchestration of Piston’s German contemporary, Paul Hindemith. As with Hindemith, who could play almost every instrument and wrote a wide array of sonatas, Piston had a deep understanding of orchestration. “I’ve always composed music from the point of view of the performers” he said. As the second symphony unfolds, it’s easy to sense the instruments coming to life, suggesting distinct personas. At times, they engage in a soulful conversation (as in the second movement’s lamenting dialogue between the clarinet and flute).

As Carol J. Oja points out in this article, Piston was an “internationalist” who did not actively seek to develop a distinctly “American” musical style. But there are moments in the Second Symphony when it’s easy to catch a hint of the blues. Additionally, there’s a feeling of Ragtime swing in the spunky melody that pops up around the 2:00 mark in the first movement. The fugal counterpoint that follows sparkles with a fresh, innocent mid-century American vibe. Despite these lighthearted adventures, the first movement ends with a solemn brass chorale, sinking back into the atmosphere the music seemed to be trying to escape in the opening.

The second movement emerges out of a single horn tone. A lonely bassoon line spins into a short canon in thirds with the low strings. By the time the clarinet begins its soulful, extended statement, we already have a sense that the music is striving, reaching higher towards some unknown goal. The flute picks up where the clarinet leaves off, taking the conversation to a new level of intensity. The movement alternates between collective anguish and serene beauty (listen to the glistening violin entrance at 15:30).

Here is Gerard Schwarz’s recording with the Seattle Symphony, originally released on the Delos Records label in 1992:

  1. Moderato 0:00
  2. Adagio 10:07
  3. Allegro 21:51

Additional Links

  • View the New York Philharmonic’s score to Piston’s Symphony No. 2 with Leonard Bernstein’s markings.
  • Listen to the Seattle Symphony’s recordings of Walter Piston’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies.

One Orchestra’s Eye Opening TV Ad

Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director Ward Stare is featured in the Eye Openers ad.
Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director Ward Stare is featured in the Eye Openers ad.

Orchestras belong to their communities. Like sports teams, art museums, and theater, they are important components of the cultural and economic fabric of a healthy city. It’s always exciting when an orchestra is able to shed a popularly perceived ivory tower image and engage the community in new and creative ways.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra has found a fun way to do this with a recent lighthearted TV commercial produced by Eye Openers Optical Fashions, a local business specializing in eyeglasses. Eye Openers features local celebrities and organizations in its ads. The RPO’s ad shows a handful of the orchestra’s musicians as well as Music Director Ward Stare and Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik. Eye Openers owner Richard L. Levy tries to sneak to the podium and ends up in the percussion section:

In 1993 the Seattle Symphony got a rare opportunity to venture into the world of TV news. Amid a rebranding effort, Seattle CBS affiliate KIRO used music for its newscasts performed by the Seattle Symphony and written by its Music Director, Gerard Schwarz. Listen to the music for the newscast’s open and close.

Howard Hanson and the Sounds of the Wide Open Prairie

The wide open spaces of the Nebraska prairie.
The wide open spaces of the Nebraska prairie.

More than any other composer, Aaron Copland is credited with establishing the virtual soundtrack of the American West. Listening to Copland ballet scores such as Rodeo and Billy the Kidor his music for the film The Red Pony, instantly evokes images of wide open prairie spaces and the rough and tumble adventure of a mythical frontier. These associations have been re-enforced by countless film scores which generously borrowed Copland’s sound (the opening of Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven is one small example). In reality, Copland grew up in Brooklyn and never saw the West. But his music still embodies something big, bold, and uniquely American.

Copland wasn’t the only American composer to draw upon inspiration from the prairie. Occasionally, cinematic sonic landscapes can also be heard in the music of Howard Hanson (1896-1981). Born in Wahoo, Nebraska to Swedish immigrant parents, Hanson was director of the Eastman School of Music for forty years. In my earlier post we heard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 and music from the opera, Merry Mount. 

Hanson’s music has more than a few layers of Scandinavian influence, but underneath all of that, I hear the majestic sound of the Great Plains. Listen to the second movement (Andante tranquillo) of Hanson’s Third Symphony and see if you agree.

This is Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony:

The long, sustained chords in the trombones and tuba under the sweeping string lines create a feeling of endless, expansive vistas and suggest the noble, eternal beauty of the land. John Barry used the same sound for the film score of Dances With Wolves (listen here, here and here for comparison).

Howard Hanson, America’s Neglected Romantic

The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY
The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY, home of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

This Wednesday, May 7, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Michael Christie will be performing at Carnegie Hall as part of the final Spring For Music festival. Since 2011, Spring For Music has showcased North American orchestras and innovative programming. After this year the festival will end due to lack of funding.

The RPO’s decision to present a concert performance of twentieth century American composer Howard Hanson’s opera, Merry Mount, is significant. Hanson (1896-1981) was the long-time director of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He is widely credited with building the school into one of the world’s finest music conservatories. Industrialist George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Company, established the Eastman School in 1921 and founded the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra a year later.

As a composer, Howard Hanson’s conservatism made him a rebel. At a time when dissonant, atonal music was in style with the establishment, Hanson wrote music rooted in melody and harmony. His Romanticism blended the Nordic sounds of Grieg and Sibelius with the wide open spaces of America’s Great Plains (Hanson was born in Nebraska). As a result, Merry Mount, based on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne about Puritan oppression, was enthusiastically received by the Metropolitan Opera audience in 1934 (a Met record of 50 curtain calls), but was panned by most critics. Listen to a suite from the opera here and listen to a rare excerpt from the February 10, 1934 Met production here. Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony recorded the complete opera for Naxos.

With Hanson’s Merry Mount, the Rochester Philharmonic revives a neglected score and honors its rich history, which includes such notable conductors as Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner, Erich Leinsdorf, David Zinman and Sir Mark Elder.

The facade of the Eastman Theatre bears the inscription:

For the Enrichment of Community Life

The words are a reminder that orchestras and music education belong to everyone. The joy of hearing a full orchestra never goes out of style. In each community, our challenge is to create, preserve and build on legacies such as George Eastman established in Rochester.

Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”

Here is the first movement of Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, performed by Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony. The piece was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1930. Pay attention to the way Hanson mixes the instruments of the orchestra to create unique colors (the expectation-building opening is a good example). Throughout the piece, you’ll hear conversations between voices (the horn, flute and clarinet 1:57-2:14 in the last movement).

Hanson’s music seems to have influenced Hollywood film composers (John Williams drew upon the last movement for E.T.), but it shouldn’t be dismissed as “movie music.” Listen carefully and you’ll hear music which deserves to be taken seriously:

Find on iTunes

Here are the second and third movements from Leonard Slatkin’s equally excellent recording with the Saint Louis Symphony. Common motives and themes are developed throughout all three movements. For example, you’ll recognize the motive from the first movement at 1:40 in the second movement. In the climax of the final movement, themes from the entire symphony are blended together.

Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 can be described as a celebration of harmony and orchestral color in all of its subtle beauty. Out of style in the mid-twentieth century, Hanson’s music may come to be appreciated more with time.

The Sonic Landscapes of John Luther Adams

Composer John Luther Adams
Composer John Luther Adams

Become Ocean by John Luther Adams (b. 1953) has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. The large-scale work for orchestra was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony. Music critic Alex Ross attended the premier last June in Seattle. In Listen to This, Ross visits the composer’s home in Alaska. The remote Alaskan wilderness seems to be a strong influence in Adams’s music.

Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony will perform Become Ocean in New York at Carnegie Hall on May 6 as part of the Spring for Music series.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Dark Waves[/typography]
Let’s listen to John Luther Adams’s 2007 tone poem, Dark Waves. Adams adds electronic sounds to the orchestra, creating gradually shifting sonic layers. Consider how the music is flowing. What images come to mind? Here is a live performance by the Chicago Symphony with conductor, Jaap van Zweden:

Find on iTunes

Dark Waves suggests an almost physical sense of motion…the gradual, inevitable power of an endless series of waves cresting and breaking. For me the music is pictorial, like a slowly changing landscape. But, similar to Debussy’s La Mer, it evokes feelings rather than literal images. In the music of John Luther Adams, New Age meets Edgard Varèse and Morton Feldman.

[quote]Together, the orchestra and the electronics evoke a vast rolling sea. Waves of Perfect Fifths rise and fall, in tempo relationships of 3, 5 and 7. At the central moment, these waves crest together in a tsunami of sound encompassing all twelve chromatic tones and the full range of the orchestra.[/quote]

-John Luther Adams

Alaska