Sunday, April 8, 2007

Music by Sir Arthur Sullivan

Trained at the Royal Academy of Music and Leipzig Conservatory, this son of an Irish bandmaster spent ten years as a cathedral organist while conducting and composing in all the major classical genres, including his first one-act comic opera Cox and Box in 1867. It was during its run that he met his future creative partner, William Gilbert, a former clerk and barrister who had become a successful theatrical writer. The two first collaborated in 1871, and followed up with a string of productions whose lively combination of clever lyrics and brilliant musical parodies created a style all its own, referred to as “Savoy Opera,” so named after the London theater where their greatest works were first produced.

Of the twelve productions co-written by Gilbert and Sullivan, the most successful were H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879) and The Mikado (1885), which remain immensely popular in Britain and the USA. Composer of “The Lost Chord” (1877) and the hymn tune “Onward Christian Soldiers” (1871), Sullivan is remembered not just for his show music, but as an artist of depth, inspiration and tremendous versatility.

Dvorak: Suite in A Major ("American")

A little unlike many of history’s great composers, this innkeeper’s son from a rural Czechoslovakian village was not necessarily a child prodigy. While some biographers claim he became a butcher’s apprentice at his parents’ insistence, he nonetheless received modest training in organ, violin and viola which prepared him for his first job as a member of a dance orchestra in the capital city. In 1862, this ensemble formed the foundation for the newly created Prague Provisional Theater Orchestra, and during the next nine years as a member, Dvorak gained a broad exposure to the operatic works of Wagner, Verdi and Mozart. He also began work on some of his own first large scale compositions.

In his early thirties, Dvorak caught the attention of Brahms and his friend, the famous Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, with his entries in the annual Austrian state composition contests. Eventually, Brahms’ influence with his German publishers made possible the 1878 release of Dvorak’s first set of Slavonic Dances, whose broad appeal soon brought him international acclaim. For the next fifteen years, his fame and fortune would continue to rise through numerous commissions and conducting appearances throughout Europe, notably many in England.

He accepted a position as Director of the National Conservatory of Music in America (New York) in 1892, and thus began a fertile three-year period of creativity that produced his famous Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”), which premiered in the Spring of 1894. Dvorak spent the following summer in the Czech-speaking community of Spillville, Iowa, where he finished his lesser known Suite in A Major, first written for solo piano and scored for orchestra in the following year.

Its five movements convey a wide range of moods, including hints of homesickness for his native Czechoslovakia in the folksy strains throughout the work; a loving embrace of the Native American and Afro-American idioms he was hearing anew on the prairie; and even a foreshadowing of the Humoresques he was to write a year later. Though Dvorak later felt his greatest contributions were to European opera, his American-period synthesis of dance rhythms, five-tone folk melodies, and tuneful phrasing had a profound influence on American music, right into the jazz age.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F Major

Beethoven was the eldest of three brothers born into a musical family in Bonn, Germany. Introduced to the piano and music theory by his father, he began composing as a child and became a skilled keyboardist in the court of the Elector of Cologne at Bonn. After seeking instruction from Mozart in Vienna at age 17, he was called home to handle family responsibilities after his father’s illness and mother’s death. While still in Bonn at age 21, he met Joseph Haydn and arranged to study with him in Vienna, where Beethoven arrived in 1792 (the year after Mozart’s passing), and would eventually spend the rest of his life.

For the next ten years, Beethoven steadily developed his career through performing his own piano works, which display the essence of his music: complex and innovative, with heavy textures and focused development of musical themes that evoke a seriousness of style for which he has always been known and admired.

By age thirty, Beethoven’s progressive loss of hearing (of unknown cause or cure) began to have a profound effect on him emotionally as well as artistically, and he sought refuge in the rural village of Heiligenstadt near Vienna. Long solitary walks in the country cheered him, and he wrote “No one can love the country as I do ... my bad hearing does not trouble me here. In the country, every tree seems to speak to me, saying ‘Holy! Holy!’.” The first sketches for his Sixth Symphony were made here in 1802, and he would later finish this symphony, along with the Fifth, in Heiligenstadt in the summers of 1807 and 1808.

Symphonies No. 5 and 6 (cataloged originally in the opposite order) were premiered on December 22nd, 1808 at a single four hour concert of all new music in the Theater an der Wien. Initial enthusiasm for the works was dampened by the unheated hall and under rehearsed orchestra.

Historians suggest Beethoven may have borrowed the idea for his five-movement “pastoral” symphony from his now-forgotten predecessor Justin Knecht, whose “Musical Portrait of Nature” was published in 1784 and also contained five movements (unusual for a classical symphony) bearing similar titles.

Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is, in the composer’s own words, “a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds,” a concept that is evident in the names of its five movements (the last three of which are played without intervening pause).
I. “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country,” (Allegro) evoking the rhythms of nature through repetition of short, light melodic themes. 
II. “Scene at the brook,” (Andante) depicting flowing water and calls of the nightingale (flute), quail (oboe) and cuckoo (clarinet). 
III. “Happy gathering of country folk,” (Allegro) a jubilant dance movement, later claimed to have been his impression of a village band. 
IV. “Thunderstorm,” (Allegro) whose bursts of brass and percussion punctuate a dark, dissonant background of strings. 
V. “Shepherd’s song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm,” (Allegretto) following familiar form, with moments of harmonious ease and prayer-like whisper.
First titled “Recollections of Country Life,” Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 has become a standard in symphonic literature, and a favorite of orchestras and listeners alike, showing us not the surly, frustrated and eccentric bachelor of popular lore, but a deeply sensitive, observant and joyful artist at home among the natural elements.