by Jane Rausch
For many of us, the December holidays are truly “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” as happy memories and anticipation of the glories of the season rekindle joyful hearts. To assist in this process, and as our gift to you, the HCS presents a program of beloved holiday favorites with the added attractions of guest violinist Ronald Gorevic and a performance by the Holyoke Public Schools Strings.
Ludwig van Beethoven was a musician of many extraordinary talents, but writing operas was not one of them. He predicted that the difficulties of writing Fidelio, the only opera he composed, would win him a “martyr’s crown,” and the fact that he wrote four different overtures to introduce the work reflects the effort and heartbreak he put into it. First produced in 1805, Fidelio is set in 18th century Spain and tells how Leonore, disguised as a prison guard named “Fidelio,” rescues her husband Florestan from death in a political prison. Beethoven discarded his original overture for Fidelio, now known as Leonore No. 2, Op. 138, after it received a negative review on audition. For the revival of the opera in 1806 he wrote a new overture, Leonore No. 3, and in 1807 he wrote Leonore Overture No. 1 for another production that never materialized. All three Leonore overtures are in C major and incorporate significant themes from the opera itself.
In 1814 Beethoven composed the overture that carries the name of the opera and finally satisfied him. He started with a clean slate: a brighter key (E major), fresh music (no themes from the opera), and a new, concise approach to form. The music is arresting and dramatic—evidence of a mature composer who had written eight symphonies and understood the drama of an orchestra perhaps better than that of the opera stage. The Fidelio overture is at once sparkling and noble in spirit. An attention-getting fanfare alternates with a pregnant Adagio introduction before the horns present the main theme. On his fourth try, with this crisp and rousing overture, Beethoven set a standard for curtain raisers that few have matched since.
Ernest Chausson was not a prolific composer, for a tragic bicycle accident in 1899 cut short his life at age 44. His death silenced the most distinctive voice in French music in the generation that preceded Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Indeed, Chausson’s music forms a bridge of sorts between César Franck’s lush Wagnerian Romanticism and the sensuous Impressionism of Debussy.
Chausson came from a wealthy family, and at his father’s urging, reluctantly trained to become a lawyer in 1877. A year later, however, his attendance at a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde sparked an impulse to devote himself to music. He entered the Paris Conservatory in 1879 and began composition studies with Jules Massenet and César Franck. As secretary of the Société Nationale de Musique from 1886 until his death, Chausson became a full-fledged member of the Parisian musical community, and his salon served as a regular meeting place for literary and musical notables.
Composed between mid-April and mid-June 1896, Poème, Op. 25 for violin and orchestra shows Chausson’s best qualities. Its seamless form and supple structure are marks of the composer’s genius. Constructed in five sections, the first, third, and fifth of these are all in triple time in a generally slow tempo. The even-numbered sections are conceived in 6/8: Animato for the second and Allegro for the fourth. Originally titled The Song of Love Triumphant, the song of love, happy and triumphant, shines out in intensity before dying away in renewed clarity of texture. The piece premiered at the Nancy Conservatoire on December 27, 1896 with Eugène Ysaÿe as soloist, but Poème was not really noticed until Ysaÿe played it at a Colonne Concert in Paris on April 4, 1897. The storm of applause that greeted this performance left Chausson completely overwhelmed. Since his earlier works were occasionally abused, and, more often, simply ignored, the bewildered composer could only keep repeating, “I can’t get over it.”
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is a popular Christmas song written in triple time in 1963 by Edward Pola and George Wyle. A celebration and description of activities associated with the Christmas season, the song focuses primarily on get-togethers between friends and families. Recorded and released in 1963 by pop singer Andy Williams, it has become a perennial favorite, recorded by many other singers and used in advertising and parodies. The arrangement we play today was made by Bob Cerulli, a graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music and the College of New Jersey.
Festive Sounds of Hanukkah is an animated collection of favorite songs that features snippets from “Rock of Ages,” “Who Can Retell,” “Hanukkah, Hanukkah,” “My Dreidel,” “S’Vivon,” and “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah.” Arranger Bill Holcome was a piccolo player who led a double life in New York City. By day he composed and arranged compositions, and by night he performed in orchestras for Broadway musicals.
Frederick Delius was a fairly prolific, always-fascinating composer whose music has a cosmopolitan character. Born in northern England to a prosperous mercantile family, he resisted attempts to recruit him to commerce. Having mastered the piano and violin before his adolescent years, he wanted nothing more than to be a musician from a very early age. Eventually his family relented and allowed him to study music in Leipzig, Germany, after which he spent the rest of his life in Paris and Scandinavia.
Delius was especially fond of Norway and struck up a close friendship with Edvard Grieg and his wife Nina after he met the couple in Leipzig in 1887. It was at a Christmas Eve party hosted by the Griegs later that year that Delius took to the piano to air a miniature piece he had composed entitled Norwegian Sleigh Ride. Recognizing its potential, he began to work on its orchestration, and in 1890 he incorporated the new version as the second movement of his Three Small Tone Poems.
Sleigh Ride opens in sprightly fashion, with sleigh bells and plucked strings underpinning a nimble piccolo melody that spreads throughout the orchestra. Delius’ subtitle for the work, “Winter Night,” is soon realized through a trance-like lull; the forward momentum of the troika is temporarily sacrificed in favor of a glittering nocturne with woodwind melodies hovering gently above flowing strings. High spirits are maintained as the reappearing bells send the sleigh back on its merry way, signaling the return of the buoyant theme, followed by a wistful close.
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was composed by Charles Wesley in 1739. Maestro Kidwell created the arrangement we hear today as played by the Holyoke Public Schools Strings.
Christmas: A Medley of Well-Known Carols includes seven familiar holiday songs: “Good King Wenceslas,” “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” “The First Noel,” “Deck the Halls,” “What Child is This?” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The arranger, Arthur Harris, studied at Yale with Paul Hindemith and has written for Broadway productions and jazz groups as well as for the concert stage.
In 1818, schoolmaster and organist Franz Xaver Gruber composed “Silent Night” to lyrics written by Joseph Mohr in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria where it was first performed in that year. Over the course of two centuries, it has achieved world-wide appeal, and it is said that currently there are over 228 versions of the song in 143 different languages!
Cambridge-born composer and arranger Leroy Anderson studied at Harvard and conducted its band from 1931 to 1935. He then went on to work in Boston and New York as an arranger and orchestrator. He wrote many familiar, light concert pieces that are audience-pleasers for their hummable melodies, infectious rhythms, and striking effects.
Somewhat ironically Anderson composed Sleigh Ride in 1946 during a long heat wave. Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics that tell of a person who would like to share a sleigh ride on a winter’s day with another person. Ever since it was first recorded in 1949, this colorful piece has been a holiday favorite. Special effects to listen for besides the sleigh bells are woodblocks to capture the sound of the clip-clopping horses’ hooves, a slapstick to reproduce the cracking whip, and of course, that now famous horse whinny near the end of the piece by a half-valved trumpet glissando.