by Jane Rausch
There is an old saying “Home is where the heart is,” and the composers of the miniature masterpieces that the orchestra plays for you today display this association to a greater or lesser degree. In addition, by their musical identity with a specific country, region, or ethnicity, three of them also exemplify the nationalistic movement in music that emerged in the early nineteenth century and continues on into our own times.
Ludwig van Beethoven was a musician of 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, known as Leonore No. 1, Op. 138, after it received a negative review on audition and replaced it with Leonore No. 2, Op. 72. This decision proved to be a happy one, for critics consider Leonore No. 2 to be one of Beethoven’s finest achievements.
The overture is essentially a tone poem about the opera itself. It begins in the darkness of the prison cell where Florestan has been unjustly sent. Florestan remembers happier days, and the music, ignited by his hope and thoughts of his beloved Leonore, is filled with fire and action. A distant trumpet call from the tower guard, announcing Florestan’s reprieve, brings silence and then guarded optimism, but when the trumpet sounds again, freedom is certain. In Leonore No. 2 Beethoven wrote lavishly, even daringly, and the result is a testament to the power of his imagination, not yet hampered by the realities of working in the opera house. In the view of Phillip Huscher, program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, “Leonore No. 2 is one of music’s greatest examples of the audacity of genius and the sheer brilliance of first thoughts.” It is interesting to add that although Beethoven pre-dated the emergence of the so-called nationalistic composers of the second half of the nineteenth century, his music has nevertheless been used for nationalistic purposes as late as in the 20th century.
Jean Sibelius is unquestionably the most celebrated Finnish composer, but surprisingly enough he was born in 1865 in Hämeenlinna, a small town in the south of Finland where the language and culture of his middle class family was Swedish. It was at school that he first learned Finnish (which remained his second language) and developed an interest in the early legends of his country which then was an autonomous grand-duchy under the Tsar of Russia.
As a youth Sibelius aspired to be a concert violinist, but, while a student at the Helsinki music school from 1885 to 1889, he realized that his true gift lay in composition. At the beginning of the 1890s he admired Wagner, but romantic Nationalism soon became the crucial element in his artistic output and his political leanings. Disturbed by the repressive measures imposed on Finland by Tsar Nicholas II, Sibelius became passionate about the micro-nationalist importance of one particular area of his country, Karelia, a region said to be the home of the oldest and most respected aspects of Finnish culture. Much of Karelia lay in Russia, but the fact that part of it was in Finland’s eastern tip was one of the reasons Sibelius accepted a commission to provide music for the students of Helsinki University in Vyborg who were planning to present a patriotic historical pageant. The work he created for this event held in 1893 so inflamed the nationalistic feeling of the students, that Sibelius recalled in a letter, “You couldn’t hear a single note of the music – everyone was on their feet cheering and clapping.”
Of the 11 incidental pieces that he had composed for the pageant, Sibelius later selected three to form the Karelia Suite. The work premiered in 1896 and instantly became one of his most popular compositions. The first movement, Intermezzo, starts with a slow string section depicting the people of Karelia paying taxes to a Lithuanian prince. As the movement progresses, the strings portraying the snowy tundras become increasingly lively until they reach a climax with an exciting percussion section representative of the army. The snow theme then subsides and the calm mood established in the opening returns. The second movement, Ballade, depicts the twice-deposed 15th-century King of Sweden and Finland Karl Knutsson, who has taken refuge at Viipuri Castle listening to a ballad played by an English horn. It is melancholic yet full of prideful nostalgia. The third movement, Alla marcia, portrays sounds of a battle at Kexhold Castle in the sixteenth century when the city was under a siege led by the French mercenary Pontus de la Gardie. The music rings of nationalism with its Finnish folk motifs interjected amidst the march.
The contemporary composer Mark Zuckerman began his formal music studies at Julliard and continued them at the University of Michigan, Bard College, and Princeton University where he earned a PhD. Although at first he wrote exclusively 12-tone music, he soon discovered that he could express himself more convincingly in a new musical language that used many sonorities from tonal music woven into structures found in atonal and 12-tone music. A recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship in 2004, Zuckerman has written for solo instruments, bands, and orchestras, but perhaps his most acclaimed composition is his internationally recognized 20 arrangements of Yiddish songs for a cappella chorus.
Zuckerman wrote Susquehanna Sunset in 2002 for the Susquehanna Symphony, a community orchestra in Bel Air, Maryland. In a note to Maestro Kidwell, he describes the piece as follows:
In Susquehanna Sunset, the opening figure, composed of two rising leaps, is echoed and turned in on itself, acquiring harmonic coloring along the way. These elements are patiently recombined and recombed, exploring a range of colors increasingly rich yet diffuse, until finally reaching a definitive expression before dissolving back into its elements. The process to me is evocative of a clear sky at dusk, where the unhurried setting sun creates a collection of colors that gradually combine and recombine, becoming brilliant in a final moment before dissipating.
Aaron Copland was a twentieth century composer, teacher, writer, and conductor of his own and other American music. Born in Brooklyn into a Conservative Jewish family, he studied music as a child with his siblings and decided to become a composer at age 15. As a young man he matriculated at the Fontainebleau School of Music in Paris where, in the 1920s, he was exposed to expatriate American writers, artists, and musicians. On returning to the U.S., he collaborated with a group, including Roger Sessions, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, and Walter Piston, which sought to promote a new “American” style music.
Copland’s ballet scores for Billy the Kid (1939), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944) established him as an authentic composer of American music for choreographers discovered in his music the characteristics they were looking for to score their own nationalistic dance repertory. The open, slowly changing harmonies of many of his works are archetypical of what many people consider to be the sound of American music, evoking the country’s vast landscape and pioneer spirit. As a conductor, teacher, author, and lecturer, Copland went on to promote this distinctive style – activities that earned him the title of “Dean of American Music.”
In 1939 Copland wrote some incidental music for a play written by Irwin Shaw entitled Quiet City. The play was a realistic fantasy concerning the night thoughts of many different kinds of people in a great city. It centered on a lonely Jewish boy who in expressing his sorrow and isolation on his jazz trumpet helped to arouse the conscience of the fellow actors and the audience. Copland’s music aimed at expressing the emotions of the characters as well as the nostalgia and inner distress of a society profoundly aware of its own insecurity. In 1940 at the urging of friends he fashioned part of this music into a ten-minute composition also called Quiet City but designed to be performed independently of the play. The uniqueness of the work emerges in the contrast of solo trumpet with solo English horn. While these parts are quite challenging, the orchestral accompaniment is comparatively straight-forward. The result is a brooding, elegiac piece and a rather unusual showpiece for the two soloists and their instruments.
In June 1876 Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, a professor of theory and composition at the Moscow Conservatory, was just establishing himself as a noteworthy Russian composer, when the Balkan states of Serbia and Montenegro declared war on Turkey because the Turks had massacred numerous Christians in their region. Russia openly supported Serbia, and volunteer Russian soldiers streamed off to reinforce the Balkan side. Despite this effort, the ill-prepared Serbian army suffered several crushing defeats from the Turks in July and August, and on August 26, the Serbs pleaded with the major European powers for mediation in ending the war. After the fighting had stopped, the Russian Musical Society organized a concert to raise funds in aid of the Slavonic Charity Committee and ultimately for the benefit of wounded Serbian and Russian veterans. When his friend, pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, asked Tchaikovsky to compose a new patriotic work for the concert, he produced in just five days the stirring Marche Slave which premiered in Moscow on November 17, 1876 where it received an immediate enthusiastic response.
Marche Slave is highly programmatic in its form and organization. The first section uses two Serbian folk songs to portray the oppression of the Serbians by the Turks. An episode follows describing the atrocities in the Balkans climaxing in a trumpet fortissimo cry for help. The second section, based on a simple four-bar melody with the character of a rustic dance, depicts the Russians rallying to help the Serbs. This theme is passed around the orchestra until it gives way to a solemn statement of the Russian national anthem, “God Save the Tsar.” The third section reiterates the Serbian cry for help. The final section, using a Russian tune and another rendition of “God Save the Tsar”, describes Russian volunteers marching to assist the Serbians, and the overture finishes with a triumphal coda for the full orchestra. Tchaikovsky was highly gratified by the zealous reception of Marche Slave. It became one of the most popular and familiar of his compositions, and during his conducting tours in both Europe and America, it was Marche Slave that he most frequently relied upon to bring a concert to a rousing conclusion.