by Jane Rausch
As the long and busy holiday season drags on, expectant children may come to believe that the actual arrival of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and/or Christmas Day is incredibly “far, far away,” but even farther away in the distant past is a galaxy in space where battles took place between good and evil. Our concert this afternoon recognizes this duality by complementing spirited renditions of classic holiday music with the thrilling scores from the original Star Wars films.
GUSTAV HOLST is viewed today as one of the most important leaders of the English Musical Renaissance, a period during the late 19th and early 20th century, when British composers freed themselves from foreign influences to write in a distinctively national idiom. Holst’s parents were both pianists, and he was taught to play by his father starting at an early age. A nerve problem in one arm ultimately precluded a career as a pianist, but he had already started composing at home and later undertook formal study at the Royal College of Music. Determined to make his way as a composer, he found it necessary to accept academic teaching posts at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in the then industrial neighborhood of Hammersmith in west London and at Morley College, an adult education center later known for its Socialist sympathies. With such connections as these, it is no surprise that Holst composed frequently for non-professional performers, and that he dedicated Christmas Day: Choral Fantasy on Old Carols to his students at Morely College.
It is perhaps little known that the English carol tradition dates back to mid-twelfth-century courtly dances and that not until the fifteenth century did the term come to be especially identified with Christmas. Even then, carol texts did not form part of liturgical worship but were generally sung to popular dance tunes or during secular banquets. Holiday singing nearly disappeared in the seventeenth century when Puritan reformers harshly criticized the practice, but the 1843 publication of Charles Dickens’s novella, A Christmas Carol, helped enormously to revive the waning tradition. As a result, during the Victorian era, carols with specific tunes and four-part hymnal harmonization became firmly entrenched as a part of Christmas celebrations,
Holst composed Christmas Day in 1910, nine years before his acknowledged masterpiece, his orchestral suite, The Planets. This choral work was one of the many byproducts of his great interest in English folksong initially formed through his close friendship with Ralph Vaughn Williams. After conventional settings of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” he takes the unusual step of presenting “Come, Ye Lofty, Come Ye Lowly” and “The First Noel” simultaneously. The music drifts away to the same gentle alto line that began, giving the impression of a group of neighborhood carolers who, having passed by, bid a warm farewell for the season.
GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL, a German-born British subject who wrote Italian music, was a bundle of contradictions and had a complex personality. On the one hand, he was pious and sentimental to the point of crying over his own music when it dealt with the sufferings of the Lord. On the other hand, he had an uncontrollable temper that prompted associates to play practical jokes on him, sometimes resulting in violence. (A prankster once mistuned all the instruments just before a concert for the Prince of Wales, and Handel was so enraged that he picked up a kettledrum and threw it at the concertmaster. Only a personal plea from the prince persuaded him to continue the concert.)
Handel was an almost exact contemporary of J.S. Bach, born in the same year and dying nine years later. They had similar backgrounds, came from the same part of Germany, were both devout Protestants, but were temperamentally quite different. While Bach remained steadfastly middle class and spent his meager earnings on raising a large family, Handel was a cosmopolitan who traveled widely, made and lost fortunes, and mingled with the aristocracy and the intellectual elite.
Handel was enthralled by Italy where he spent much time. His Italianate operas were very successful, and brought him great fame in England soon after he arrived there. In the span of less than forty years, he wrote forty-six operas, all in Italian style. When the public’s interest in Italian opera began to wane, he began to work more in the oratorio form. His “second career” made him even more famous, and today he is primarily known for his oratorios, of which his Messiah is the most performed.
Handel wrote the Messiah in 1741 under unusual circumstances. In a fit of despair over the failure of two of his operas, he confined himself to his room where he wrote almost in frenzy for a little over three weeks to produce his most enduring work, which then became an instant success. As musicologist Dr. Hugo Leichentritt has observed, “Messiah is one of the mysterious marvels of great art that appear once in a century, one of those outstanding products of genius which appeals to all lovers of music, to modest amateurs as well as to severe critics of art, musicians of all styles, all epochs, and to all nations alike, irrespective of the differences of artistic creed which in other respects may separate them.”
JOHN WILLIAMS is arguably the most popular and successful composer of American film music, having written scores for more than 150 movies and television shows over seven decades. Aside from Star Wars, he is best known for his work with Steven Spielberg on films including Jaws, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Williams was born in New York in 1932 and moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1948. At UCLA, he studied composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and returned to New York to attend Julliard after his military service. While in New York he also worked as a jazz pianist before settling in Los Angeles where he started his career in film music. He went on to write scores for TV programs during the 1960s, winning two Emmy awards. Williams was the conductor of the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993 and was named Laureate Conductor upon leaving that post. He has appeared as guest conductor with major symphony orchestras all over the world and is the recipient of honorary degrees from fourteen American universities.
In 1977 20th Century Fox released the first Star Wars film created by George Lucas. The saga of a galaxy “far, far, away” instantly became a worldwide pop culture phenomenon. The initial film was followed by two sequels, released in 1980 and 1983; a prequel trilogy of films released between 1999 and 2005, and a seventh film, The Force Awakens to be released this December. One of the most successful film franchises ever created, the series is credited with beginning the revival of grand symphonic scores in the style of old Hollywood. In creating the musical soundtrack for these movies, Williams used a technique that the grandest of opera composers, Richard Wagner, introduced in his epic music dramas – the “leitmotif” – a phrase or melody that signifies a character, place, plot device, mood, idea or relationship.
The Star Wars Suite which we play today was fashioned by the composer from his original scores for two films, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, dating from 1977 and 1980 respectively. The main theme is associated with the hero of the saga, Luke Skywalker, who symbolizes heroism and adventure. It is heard in full splendor over the opening titles at the beginning of all the films. Next comes the lush theme for Princess Leia, portraying at first her romanticized vulnerability and later, her stalwart independence. The Imperial March represents the dominant villain Darth Vader and his implacable hold over the Galactic Empire. Interestingly, it has evolved from its original purpose as an “evil” theme to widespread use as portraying power at public events such as athletic competition. Yoda’s theme conjures up the gentle teacher of Luke. The Throne Room is the final sequence of the first film and brings it to a triumphant conclusion.
American composer and arranger LEROY ANDERSON wrote many familiar, light concert pieces that are audience-pleasers for their hummable melodies, infectious rhythms and striking effects. Today the orchestra plays one of his best known works, Sleigh Ride, which he composed in the summer of 1946 after being inspired by a long heat wave. Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics which describe a person inviting a friend to ride in a sleigh on a winter’s day. This colorful piece has been a holiday favorite ever since it was first recorded in 1949, and the neighing of the horse pulling the sleigh as rendered by first trumpeter, Dan Melbourne, reminds us of a time that was once, not so far, far away.