by Jane Rausch
One of the great joys of the holiday season is the opportunity to hear and sing glorious music. Today the orchestra joins forces with the Holyoke High School Madrigal Singers to perform a concert of splendid orchestral, choral, classical, and popular miniature masterpieces.
In August 1876 Richard Wagner would revolutionize the opera world by mounting the first complete performance of the Ring of the Nibelung, but in 1838 the German composer was just at the beginning his career. Already certain of his genius and in spite of two previous failed attempts, he was determined to write a grand opera that would outshine those of his contemporaries, Gasparo Spontini and Giacomo Meyerbeer. The result was Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, completed in 1840 and first performed in Dresden on October 20, 1842. The opera lasts for five hours. It is set in Rome and is based on the life of Cola di Rienzi (1314-1354), a late medieval Italian populist figure who succeeds in outwitting the nobles and in raising the power of the people. Full of sensationalism, it features heroic displays for the tenor, brassy outbursts for the orchestra, and tremendous, ear-splitting choruses. In spite of these excesses (or perhaps because of them), Rienzi was the greatest popular success of Wagner’s career and made him famous almost overnight. Today, however, only the overture is regularly performed. Capturing both the showy orchestral brilliance and melodic splendor of the opera, it became a favorite of orchestras long before Rienzi disappeared from the stage. The overture begins with a call to arms and ends with a dazzling military march. The slow main theme is one of Wagner’s most majestic and eloquent melodies, although it is less convincing when speeded up in the overture’s rousing Allegro energico.
Unlike Wagner, Johannes Brahms, another German composer of the late Romantic and early modern eras, wrote no operas, but instead composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works that are firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Baroque and Classical masters. The diligent, highly constructed nature of his work was to become an inspiration for a generation of composers.
Brahms was a proficient choral conductor, and his first triumph in this genre was his German Requiem, first performed in 1868. In that year he began work on an orchestrally accompanied choral setting of a poem written by Friedrich Hölderlin, the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny). Inspired by classical antiquity, the poem contrasts the lives of the “blessed ones” in Elysium (paradise) with the plight of mere mortals on earth caught in a perpetual and unavailing struggle against Fate and Destiny. Unexpectedly, the composition was to give Brahms a good deal of trouble. He had no problem capturing the happy rapture of the Elysian spirits in the poem’s first verse or the suffering of earth-bound morals in the second. It was the poet’s unsparing conclusion that presented him with a dilemma. Despite Brahms’ own melancholy temperament, he could not bring himself to accept the Hölderlin’s outlook of gloomy resignation. After three full years he eventually reached a solution that he felt would not betray Hölderlin’s tragic vision and completed the piece in May of 1871.
Schicksalslied is in three connected sections. The first part is an Adagio, expressively scored to draw the listener into the blissful calm of the blessed spirits. The second, a violently agitated Allegro, graphically suggests the tormented human condition and ends in the wild outcries from the chorus and orchestra that represent humans mercilessly flung from one tragedy to the next. In the Epilogue, the music from the first part returns in a different key and with a different orchestration. Brahms uses the quiet ending, with its upward-shifting horns, clarinets, and flutes, to contradict the conclusions of the morose poet and to suggest instead an essential optimism. The final result is one of his most original and profound compositions. As the nineteenth century German musicologist Josef Sittard noted, “Had Brahms never written anything but this one work, it would alone have sufficed to rank him with the best masters.”
“In the Bleak Midwinter” was originally a Christmas poem written by the English poet Christina Rossetti in 1872 in response to a request from Scribner’s Monthly magazine. Published posthumously in Rossetti’s Poetic Works in 1904, it appeared two years later as a Christmas carol with a setting by Gustav Holst in The English Hymnal of 1906.
Holst was an English composer, arranger, and teacher. He wrote a large number of works across a range of genres, but he is best known for his orchestral suite The Planets composed between 1914 and 1916. In 1895 he met Ralph Vaughan Williams. They quickly became friends and began their lifelong habit of playing sketches of their newest compositions for one another, but Holst’s distinctive style reflects many other influences including the English folksong revival of the early 20th century. To set “In the Bleak Midwinter” he selected the hymn tune known as “Cranham” which was suitable for congregational singing, since the four verses of the poem are irregular in meter and require a skillful and adaptable tune. Holst’s beautiful melody serves as the foundation for this orchestral arrangement by Robert W. Smith. From a haunting single voice, the piece reaches a stunning climax before giving way to a simple restatement.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first prime-time animated TV special based upon the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. The special, which debuted on CBS in 1965, features the familiar Peanuts characters. It focuses on the over-commercialization and secularism of Christmas as a way to remind viewers of the true meaning of the holiday, the birth of Jesus Christ. Honored with Emmy and Peabody Awards, the film has been aired in the U.S. during the Christmas season every year since 1965.
In the 1960s the American jazz musician and pianist Vince Guaraldi was well known for his innovative compositions and arrangements. Guaraldi was performing with his trio when Lee Mendelson, producer of the planned Peanuts special, heard the group play on the radio and became convinced that they could provide the ideal soundtrack for his project. When contacted, Guaraldi enthusiastically took the job, writing and recording the music, which featured the composer playing the piano with drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Puzzy Firth. The collaboration proved to be a happy one, for Guaraldi went on to write the soundtracks for seventeen Peanuts television specials, plus the feature film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Today the orchestra plays David Pugh’s arrangement of Guaraldi’s score which features such great songs as “Christmas is Coming,” “Christmas Time is Here,” “Skating,” and “Linus and Lucy.”
John Finnegan was a drum major of the Harvard marching band in the 1940s. After he graduated in 1947 he continued to arrange music for the band for twelve years. Among these compositions, his Christmas Singalong, an attractive medley of seasonal favorites, has achieved enduring popularity and has been a frequent feature of our December concerts.
Cambridge-born composer and arranger Leroy Anderson also studied at Harvard (although somewhat earlier) and conducted its band from 1931 to 1935. He then went on to work in Boston and New York as an arranger/orchestrator. He 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 1946 after being inspired by a long heat wave. Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics about a person who would like to share a sleigh ride on a winter’s day with another person. This colorful piece has been a holiday favorite ever since it was first recorded in 1949 and provides a rollicking end for our concert, “With Voices Raised.”