Program Notes — Joyful Noise! 2016

ATLANTIC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

PROGRAM NOTES — DECEMBER 3, 2016

By Steven Ledbetter

 

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

Selections from Carmen

Bizet’s opera, based on a story by Prosper Merimée, unfolds with colorful and varied music. Each act begins with an instrumental passage that prepares the view for what is to come next.

The Prelude to Act I presents the musical idea often described as “Fate,” the one factor over which Carmen has no control. Entract 2: The Gypsy Dance opens Act II of the opera, setting the scene in the tavern of Lillas Pastia, where all sorts of things are going on, both above‑board and otherwise. It brings the suite to an appropriately colorful close. Entract 3: The “Intermezzo” that precedes Act III is of a chaste simplicity that suggests José’s home‑town sweetheart Micaëla, who in the act to come will make one last vain attempt to get him to return home to his dying mother.

“Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”                                                                                                 

Carmen may well be the world’s favorite opera, filled with love and lust, daring and crime, and—in the end—murder, all projected by extraordinarily colorful music, richly harmonized with memorable tunes. In the third act, the young soldier Don José, seduced by the fiery Carmen, has deserted his regiment and fled to the mountains with a gang of smugglers in order to be with Carmen. José’s sweet fiancée Micaëla, from his home village, has come to try to bring him home. Though terrified of the dangers of traveling alone in these mountains, she calls vows to be brave and calls upon God to give her courage.

Je dis riens ne m’épouvante,

Je dis, hélas! que je réponds de moi;

Mais j’ai beau faire la vaillante,

Au fonds de couer, je meurs d’affroi!

Seule en ce lieu sauvage,

Toute seul, j’ai peur,

Mais j’ai tort d’avoir peur;

Vous me donnerais de courage,

Vous me protégerez, Seigneur!

Je veux voir de près cette femme

Dont les artifices maudits

Ont fini par faire un infâme

De celui que j’amais jadis!

Elle est dangereuse, elle est belle,

Mais je ne veux pas avoir peur!

Je parlerai haut devant elle!

Ah, Seigneur, vous me protégerez!

Protégez moi, O Seigneur!

Donnez-moi du courage!

I tell myself that nothing will frighten me.

I say, alas that I can look after myself,

but try as I may to act courageously

deep down inside, I’m dying of fright…

Alone in this wild place,

all alone, I’m afraid.

But I’m wrong to be afraid.

You will give me courage.

You will protect me, Oh Lord!

.

I shall see close at hand this woman,

Whose accursed tricks

Have made a criminal

Of the man I loved so!

She is dangerous, she is beautiful,

but I will not be afraid.

I will speak up before her.

You will protect me, Oh Lord

Protect me, protect me, Lord!

Give me courage.

Entract 4: The “Aragonaise” is a lively dance number that introduces the final act with its colorful setting just outside the bull ring.

 

HUGO WOLF (1860-1903)

Schlafendes Jesuskind

Wolf’s output consists largely of songs, over three hundred of them, sometimes poured out from him at the rate of 3 or 4 a day when a particular body of poetry inspired him, followed by weeks or months of frustrating inability to complete even a short song. Wolf had an exquisite taste in poetry. Indeed, his championing of the Swabian clergyman and poet Eduard Mörike (1804-1875) for a set of forty-six songs composed over a brief period in 1888 as elevating him to a high position in the ranks of German poets. (He is best known for a short novel, Mozart on the Way to Prague, which offers an ironic and even humorous view of problems of artists in a world fundamental uninterested in the arts.)

Schlafendes Jesuskind (“Sleeping Christ child”) offers the thoughts of someone viewing a master painting of the infant Jesus sleeping on the hard wood of the manger, in which the artist foreshadows, despite the sweet tenderness of the scene, the images of the future in this child’s life.

Sohn der Jungfrau, Himmelskind! am Boden

Auf dem Holz der Schmerzen eingeschlafen,

Das der fromme Meister, sinnvoll spielend,

Deinen leichten Träumen unterlegte;

Blume du, noch in der Knospe dämmernd

Eingehüllt die Herrlichkeit des Vaters!

O wer sehen könnte, welche Bilder

Hinter dieser Stirne, diesen schwarzen

Wimpern sich in sanftem Wechsel malen!

Son of the Virgin, child of heaven! Fallen asleep

on the wood of a bed of pains, wood

that the pious master, meaningfully playful,

placed under your light dreams:

thou Flower, still dawning in the bud

wrapped in Our Father’s splendor!

Oh, who could see what images paint

themselves behind this brow, these dark

eyelashes, in tender alternation!

ADOLPHE ADAM (1803-1856)

Cantique de Noël (O Holy Night)

The original words (in French) to this popular Christmas song were written in 1847 by a wine-seller named Placide Coppeau de Roquemaure on a request from his parish priest. After finishing his poem, he thought it worthwhile to get a musical setting, so he asked his friend Adolphe Adam, the composer of the popular ballets Giselle and The Corsair, as well as 39 operas, including Le postillon de Longjumeau and Si j’étais roi. The English translation was made by the Boston journalist John Sullivan Dwight, who for several decades in the middle of the 19th century published Dwight’s Journal of Music.

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,

It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining.

Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!

O night divine, the night when Christ was born;

O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,

With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.

O’er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,

Now come the wisemen from out of the Orient land.

The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;

In all our trials born to be our friends.

He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,

Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!

Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another,

His law is love and His gospel is peace.

Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,

With all our hearts we praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,

His power and glory ever more proclaim!

His power and glory ever more proclaim!

 

PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Suite from The Nutcracker, Opus 71a

Tchaikovsky’s works are among the imperishable classics of the ballet repertory. His music is loved in the theater by balletomanes and in the concert hall by people who have never been to a ballet in their lives. In his own lifetime, though, Tchaikovsky’s success as a ballet composer was distinctly limited, though—fortunately—this did not dissuade him from trying again, since his works now form the core of classical ballet repertory.

The plot of The Nutcracker came from a story entitled “Nutcracker and Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Set on Christmas Eve, it is a charming fantasy of a Christmas gift—a toy nutcracker shaped like a soldier—that comes to life in the middle of the night, when the house is asleep, and leads the other toys in battle against the Mouse King and his army. When Clara, the girl to whom the Nutcracker has been given, saves the Nutcracker’s life in the climactic battle by throwing her slipper at the Mouse King and killing him, the grotesque Nutcracker turns into a handsome prince and takes Clara on a journey to his magical kingdom, Confiturenbourg (or, as we might call it in this country, the Big Rock Candy Mountain).

Act II is essentially a series of decorative dances. There is no further plot, but the music is a sheer delight, for Tchaikovsky’s gift in the composition of colorful characteristic dances remains unsurpassed.

The miniature Overture is heard before the curtain rises at the beginning of Act I. The lightness of the scoring suggests that the principal participants will be toys, not adult human beings. The remaining selections come from the characteristic dances of Act II. The principal figure in the land of candy is the Sugar-Plum Fairy, whose delicate dance allowed Tchaikovsky to introduce an instrument he had recently discovered in Paris, the celesta. He had secretly ordered one to be brought to Russia and jealously guarded it before astonishing the audience with its shimmering sound (plus two harps, and the upper strings in harmonics) when the Sugar-Plum Fairy dances.

The vigorous Russian dance, “Trepak,” based on a traditional Russian melodic formula grows in energy and drive to its Prestissimo conclusion. The Chinese dance features brilliantly skirling flute and piccolo over staccato bassoons and plucked strings. It is cut short suddenly, making way for The “Dance of the Mirlitons” (reed pipes), a gently pastoral number; the emphasis on woodwinds (especially flutes) in the outer sections is balanced by the brass interlude in the middle.

The Waltz of the Flowers is among the greatest of all symphonic waltzes. Its evocative opening presents a hint of melody take up by the horns as the first tune of the waltz proper. And what a magical touch the diminished-seventh harmony on the fourth note of the tune is, coming unexpectedly after a straightforward melodic arpeggio of the D major triad; it passes in an instant but lingers in the memory with special poignancy. An answering melody is divided between strings on the one hand and flutes and clarinets on the other. Still more tunes follow, varying in range, instrumentation, and phrasing, so that the waltz seems to build and build with its characteristic “lift” to the final coda.

 

LEROY ANDERSON (1908-1975)

A Christmas Festival

Leroy Anderson became a well‑known composer largely by the chance that he went to Harvard. But it wasn’t his thorough training with Edward Ballantine, Georges Enesco, and Walter Piston that marked the course of his life so much as the fact that, in 1936, as conductor of the Harvard University Band, he was asked by the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s general manager, George Judd, to prepare an orchestral arrangement of Harvard songs and to conduct it with the Boston Pops at the orchestra’s annual Harvard Night for the twenty-fifth reunion of Judd’s Harvard class. Arthur Fiedler was favorably impressed with Anderson’s skill in orchestration.

Thus emboldened, the young man showed Fiedler a little specialty piece called Jazz Pizzicato, an encore number for orchestral strings. When it was first played, in 1937, it made such a hit that Fiedler promptly named Anderson the chief arranger of the Boston Pops. Thus began a remarkable series of novelty numbers for orchestra, marked by a flair for catchy melody, a lively sense of orchestral effect (including unusual instruments, such the typewriter in The Typewriter or a trumpet played to sound like a neighing horse in Sleigh Ride), and the use of popular dance rhythms. In addition to arrangements of others’ music, Anderson created a superb series of original pieces that have become popular light orchestral favorites everywhere, and some of them‑‑including The Syncopated Clock and Blue Tango‑‑even made the Hit Parade.

A Christmas Festival is a brilliant orchestral treatment of a number of the most popular of Christmas carols and songs, sometimes combined for an additional frisson of pleasure (as in the culminating blend of “Jingle Bells” and “O come, all ye faithful”).

Sleigh Ride

Sleigh Ride is perhaps Anderson’s most frequently performed piece, a delightfully witty depiction of the joys of cold fresh air, sleigh bells, the steady trot of the horse, and in the end a cheerful whinny from Old Dobbin (played by a trumpet). The piece was hugely popular as an instrumental and became, if anything, even more popular with the addition of Mitchell Parrish’s lyrics. It is one of those small pieces of what we call “light classical” music that attains something very close to perfection. Its tunefulness, colorful orchestration, a lively swinging rhythm and a charming orchestral stunt—the trumpet serving as a whinnying horse when the cheerful ride comes to its end.

© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)