by Jane Rausch
The inclusion of women composers and soloists as well as the championing of new symphonic compositions have been prominent characteristics of programs presented by the Holyoke Civic Symphony since its debut in 1967. Our 53rd season, “The 51 Percent,” celebrates both traditions by performing newly-composed works and by featuring a female composer and soloist in each concert.
For a description of her new composition Habitat, Gwyneth Walker has graciously provided the following program note:
Habitat for Orchestra—a celebration of home, and of the building a home—is dedicated to Habitat for Humanity and the many volunteers who give so generously of their time providing homes for their neighbors in need. It is a three-movement orchestral suite on the topic of home—specifically of building home.
“Foundation” opens the suite. This house was built with love. Chords are constructed, starting with low brass, rising to woodwinds, with strings adding the energy of tremolo. The thematic material is characterized by open intervals suggesting foundation blocks on which to build a home.
“Construction” (Take this Hammer) features hand tools (hammer, screwdrivers, saw, paint brushes) as the percussion instruments. The tools are joyfully displayed in a rhythmic introduction. In the middle section, paint brushes and sand blocks provide smoother activities. A frantic race to finish the construction ends the work.
The last movement is an arrangement of the Spiritual, “I’m Buildin’ Me a Home.” This is a swing rhythm, blues-style song. This earthly house gonna soon decay. My soul’s gotta have some place to stay. Descending bass and tuba lines signify a “rooted home!”
This music seeks to express strength of commitment, joy of labor, delight (in the hand tools!), and celebration of the achievement of home.
Clifton J. Noble, Jr. is an accomplished musician, composer, and music critic for the Springfield Republican. For this world premiere of The Rusalka, he has provided the following program note:
In 1819 the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin first committed the legendary water spirit Rusalka to verse. In his poem, The Rusalka, a lone monk meditating beside a calm lake and contemplating his mortality is startled by a sudden ruffling of the nearby waters. A naked maiden appears on the shore. Like the Lorelei of legend, she calls to him, then returns to the depths.
Tantalized by the vision, the monk becomes obsessed with the nymph’s return. His prayers are silenced, his meditations irreparably disturbed. In the ensuing moonlit night, the maiden returns to the shore, again calling to the monk, laughing, toying with her hair, and then again returning to the water.
The following day, the monk waits impatiently for the maiden’s third visit. When she comes, a cloud obscures the sun, and the monk disappears into the lake, pursuing the persuasive Rusalka. According to Pushkin’s poem, no trace of the monk is seen, except when “… urchins, while swimming, saw a hoary beard.”
Pushkin returned to the subject of the Rusalka in the 1830s, and Alexander Dargomyzhsky based an opera on this second, unfinished poem. Dvorak’s opera Rusalka, written in 1900, is not specifically connected with Pushkin’s poem, but draws it subject matter from similar lore found in Czech legends.
My tone poem for solo French horn and orchestra, originally scored for horn and piano, was commissioned by and dedicated to Jean Jeffries, and attempts to paint this haunting, tragic story in music. The monk’s fervent prayers are heard in the opening chorale, and the insistent, provocative strains of the water-sprite gradually lure him through the music to his death. His forgotten prayers return at the close of the piece in a composerly attempt to redeem the monk for his folly.
Born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833, into a Lutheran family, Johannes Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria, where he was a leader of the musical scene in the second half of the nineteenth century. He composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own compositions, and he worked with some of the leading performers of his time, including pianist Clara Schumann and violinist Joseph Joachim. In his lifetime, Brahms’s popularity and influence were considerable. Following a comment by the nineteenth-century conductor Hans von Bülow, he is sometimes grouped with Bach and Beethoven as one of the “three Bs.”
Brahms’s four symphonies have been cornerstones of the orchestral repertoire for well over a century and with good reason. More than any composer, he succeeded in combining the qualities of taut drama and in imposing the sonic architecture that Beethoven had made the hallmarks of his symphonic music. Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, a singular masterpiece, melds poetic invention with the most thoughtful treatment of musical ideas and formal design.
Brahms composed this work during the summers of 1884 and 1885, while at his summer retreat, the resort town of Mürzzuschlar southwest of Vienna. He was fifty-two and starting to think about retirement and the time that remained. The result was a symphony that is a summation of its composer’s learning and technique. If any of Brahms’s music conveys his world view, this is it. It is also the most difficult of his symphonies to apprehend. The inner circle of his Viennese friends, who heard a preview performance on two pianos in September 1885, generally found it troubling. Eduard Hanslick, an influential music critic, suggested that it reminded him of “two very clever people arguing,” while Theodor Bilroth, a physician whose musical perceptiveness Brahms greatly respected, considered the symphony “too massive, too tremendous, too full,” though with closer acquaintance, he discovered the work to be “more and more magnificent.” Despite the composer’s misgivings, the audience applauded each movement in its premiere performance by the Meiningen Court Orchestra on October 25, 1885.
The first movement – Allegro non troppo – is concise in sonata form in E minor, although it features some unique approaches to development. For instance, there is no repeat of the exposition which unfolds with a series of two-note units full of Brahmsian nostalgia (the composer revered the classical style of Mozart and Haydn), built almost entirely from a chain of descending thirds which are cast into the form of a lyrical melody.
The tonality brightens into E major for the second movement. The Andante moderato looks even further back in time to the Renaissance—the music of which was enjoying a renaissance of its own during Brahms’s lifetime. The composer’s love of these historic sounds is on display in the themes laid out by the cellos and horns, and in the exquisite lyricism of the entire movement.
The third movement – Allegro giocoso – is the only true scherzo found in Brahms’ symphonies. In terms of the sound color that features piccolo and triangle, it arrives as something of a shock. Lively, lusty, and set in a bright C major, the movement bounces along with quick rhythms offering a break from the symphony’s overall sobriety.
The last movement – Allegro energico e passionate – returns to the nostalgic ideas postulated in the first two, tackling the Baroque passacaglia that was a dance based on a set of ongoing variations over a repeating eight-note theme. Brahms has no problem stuffing the sparse passacaglia framework with elaborate themes. He gradually weaves in 34 variations that develop into one of the most sublime moments in German music. Steadily building in intensity, the variations lead to a monumental finale underlined by the minor-key final cadence.
By marrying these diverse elements of the musical past, Brahms created his final symphonic testament, in turn bequeathing the genre to a new generation of innovators. “Nowhere,” writes Brahms scholar Walter Frisch, “are the principles for which we value this composer most in greater evidence.”