Program Notes for July 18th, 2010

21Program Notes By Ed Rutschman


Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, revised 1919)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (b. Down Ampney, 1872; d. London, 1958)

Vaughan Williams composed his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis during a period when he was intensely interested in the study and performance of earlier English music; he made folksong-collecting trips, and he examined the works of long-departed English composers. In this vein, he produced a new work in 1910 for one of the most venerable of British musical institutions, the Three Choirs Festival, a week-long series of concerts that rotates yearly among the cathedrals of Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester. The festival dates back to the early eighteenth century, but Vaughan Williams reached back even further, to the work of Thomas Tallis (1505-86), who served Kings Henry VIII and Edward VI and Queens Mary and Elizabeth I as court composer.

Vaughan Williams encountered Tallis’ tune while editing the 1906 English Hymnal. Tallis composed the tune, along with eight others, for The whole Psalter translated into English meter (1567), where it served as a musical setting for verses of Psalm 2 (“Why do the people rage”) in a new verse translation by the Right Reverend Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury:

Why fum’th in fight the Gentiles spite, in fury raging stout?
Why tak’th in hand the people fond, vain things to bring about?

The Kings arise, the Lords devise, in counsels met thereto,
Against the Lord with false accord, against His Christ they go.

Tallis’ tune is in the Third Mode (Phrygian), an unusual musical scale that begins with a semitone, giving it a characteristic aura. The scale fell out of fashion not long after Tallis’ death, but it was revived in the 20th century by Vaughan Williams and other composers who had become entranced by the music of the Renaissance masters.

Vaughan Williams scored his Fantasia for a string orchestra that also subdivides into two smaller groups–a pair of players from each section as well as a string quartet. This allows the composer to use a range of sounds, from full-bodied string sonorities to echo effects and solo statements. Tallis’ tune forms the main thematic material, both in complete statements of the tune and in developing fragments that shed new light on the whole.

The Fantasia gave its composer one of his earliest major successes. Eventually he would complete nine symphonies, five operas and other major works, but he always retained his interest in his English musical heritage.

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E Minor, op. 64 (1844)
Felix Mendelssohn (b. Hamburg, 1809; d. Leipzig, 1847)

Formidably gifted, well educated and widely traveled, even as a teenager Felix Mendelssohn could boast an impressive résumé: a preteen debut as a pianist, numerous compositions (among them a dozen symphonies for string orchestra and the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture), the publication of his own German translation of a classical Latin play, and skill in the visual arts, particularly in making drawings. Mendelssohn inaugurated the nineteenth-century revival of Bach’s music at the age of twenty; at twenty-one he declined a music professorship at the University of Berlin, in order to broaden his horizons by further travel.

Years later, near the end of his career, he composed one of the most beloved of all concertos, his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E Minor, for his lifelong friend and colleague Ferdinand David. Like the composer, David had been a child prodigy and then had established a solid professional standing as an adult. By 1844, Mendelssohn was the conductor of the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and he had attracted David to become the concertmaster for this organization. Circumstances surrounding a later performance of the concerto, given several months after the premiere, remind us how closely connected many of the nineteenth-century musical giants were. Robert Schumann had scheduled the first performance of his own Piano Concerto for a concert in Dresden in November 1844, with Clara Schumann as soloist. When Clara became ill two days before the event, Schumann approached Mendelssohn, whose Violin Concerto was quickly substituted. Since Ferdinand David was unavailable on short notice, his fourteen-year-old pupil Joseph Joachim appeared in his place, with spectacular results. Joachim later became a close friend and musical advisor of Brahms, who in due course composed his own Violin Concerto for Joachim.

There are many distinctive touches in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. The solo violin enters immediately, without the traditional introductory orchestral ritornello. Although deprived of its normal chance to shine at the beginning of a concerto, the orchestra is no background patternmachine; instead it provides subtle orchestral colors against which the solo violin part can shine. In one memorable passage, the clarinets and bassoons hold out a chord in long notes, while the violins and violas move about quickly among those same notes, and the timpani and low strings nudge the texture along with short, prickly statements. The effect is ethereal. Later on, the violin accompanies the woodwind section, and still later, in an arresting reversal of roles, the soloist accompanies the entire orchestra. Mendelssohn links the first two movements of the concerto together without any intervening pause, and he provides a further smooth transition of moods between the lyrical slow movement and the sprightly Midsummer Night’s Dream world of the finale.

Ludwig van Beethoven painted by Karl Joseph Stieler in 1820

Ludwig van Beethoven painted by
Karl Joseph Stieler in 1820

Symphony #4 in B-flat Major, op. 60 (1806)
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)

The nine symphonies of Beethoven are a pillar of the symphonic repertoire. Beethoven’s symphonies trace his route in transforming the genre from its earlier social function of entertainment to a new position as an artistic manifesto, carefully chiseled with much labor and many sketches. Beethoven increased the scope of the symphony in several ways—in length, in emotional weight, and in the way the separate movements form an integrated narrative statement. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A traditional view, holding that Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies are more charged with innovation, and the even-numbered ones more relaxed, fails to account for a work such as the Symphony #4, with its moments of “strangeness and beauty,” to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Walter Pater’s definition of “Romanticism.”

Coming between the epic-heroic Symphony #3 (“Eroica”) of 1803 and the fate-driven Symphony #5 of 1808, Beethoven’s Symphony #4 has sometimes been unfairly overlooked. While it was well received at its first performance in March 1807, it nevertheless presented some new ways of thinking that early listeners must have found baffling. Commentators judged the slow introduction to the first movement to be long, repetitive, meandering and, paradoxically, made from only a few notes. Perfect hindsight allows one to say, “of course!” As the musical equivalent of “creating matter from the void,” it is an ideal foil to the exuberance of the following Allegro vivace music. In fact, if the orchestra were to omit the introduction and begin with the Allegro vivace, the music would lose much of its effect. Beethoven may well have learned this trick from his teacher Haydn, himself a great symphonist. And Brahms, in turn, learned it from Beethoven. When Brahms heard the initial rehearsal of the first movement of his own first symphony, he realized that it needed a long, repetitive, meandering introduction made from only a few notes, and so he composed one.

Then there is the matter of preparing for the return of the main Allegro music later in the first movement. As the bottom drops out (at one point only the first violins play), the composer goes to extraordinary lengths to remind the players to play as softly as possible, indicating ppp (“very, very softly”) and repeatedly marking sempre (“always”) pp. When the entire orchestra then enters at full force, the effect is electrifying. The Adagio movement, by contrast, is one of Beethoven’s most serenely satisfying. With a little imagination one can flash forward to the crown jewel of his slow movements, the Adagio of his Symphony #9, the composer’s last will and testament in this genre. In the Allegro vivace third movement, Beethoven transforms the traditional symphonic dance movement from the minuet into a lively scherzo (“joke) full of rhythmic surprises. The contrasting trio section appears twice, turning the time-honored ABA (originally Minuet-Trio-Minuet) structure into ABABA (now Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo)–a new feature in Beethoven’s symphonies. This increase in the length of the movement was Beethoven’s solution to the problem of making the dance-oriented movement of a symphony more on a par with the other movements in terms of length and scope. Of the final movement the great commentator Donald Francis Tovey maintained that, beneath the surface-buffoonery, there is a structural world that will repay a lifetime of attention.

Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.