Saturday, November 20 • 8:00 PM, Cohan CTR
The Cal Poly Symphony kicks off its 2004-2005 season with colorful works from the far corners of Europe. Experience the patriotic fervor of Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia, the restrained mourning of Gabriel Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande suite, and the passionate lyricism of Zoltán Kodály’s Variations on a Hungarian Folksong (The Peacock), which has been described as “the apotheosis of folksong.” This will be the Symphony's first performance with its new director, David Arrivée.
Sibelius - Finlandia
There is no mistaking the music of Jean Sibelius. From the first measures of any of his symphonies or tone poems, one enters into the grand and severe landscape of the North. The legends of Scandinavia are a constant source from which the composer draws, as is the culture of his native Finland. However, like Greig, Sibelius began his musical career as a disciple of the German Romantic tradition.
Above all other composers, Sibelius admired Johannes Brahms. The two met in Vienna in 1890, where the younger man was studying under Robert Fuchs with the aid of a state grant. In the two overtures Sibelius produced after that meeting, he paid tribute to the master's style. Later, after finding his own voice, Sibelius would continue in Brahms' footsteps, composing in traditional genres (symphonies) and generating huge structures out of highly related materials.
Like Grieg, Sibelius also first found his voice in the nationalist movement of his own country. After returning to Finland in 1891, he became caught up in the spirit of rebellion against Russian political oppression. He immersed himself in the Kalevala , Finland's national epic, and in the history of his country. The compositions that followed all share this passion: Kullervo (inspired directly by the Kalevala ), En Saga , Karelia and the Four Legends, of which the Swan of Tuonela is the most famous.In 1887, he was able to give up his teaching duties and focus on composition, thanks to an annual government subsidy (Finland's first), and in 1889 he wrote the work that gained him international fame: Finlandia.
Finlandia owes its origin to the February Manifesto, issued by Russia, which curtailed free speech and press in Finland. A series of concerts were initiated to raise funds to fight this despotic move, and Sibelius provided a suite, Finland Awakes . The fourth movement of that suite, "Suomi" - the Finnish name for Finland, was rewritten and isolated from the suite to become the work we know today.
Sibelius intended this work to evoke the emotions of an exile returning to his native country; in the dark days of Russian control, it is no wonder that these emotions are extreme. The very opening brass chords paint a picture of the oppressive, dark tyranny imposed on the Finnish people. This is followed by a lyrical choral in the woodwinds - hope, however tenuous, or perhaps a supplication. Soon after the strings enter, we hear the battle for freedom erupt. Brass fanfares mingle with the sounds of battle. We alternate between hope and danger. Suddenly we hear a prayer for peace in the woodwinds, accompanied by a soft shimmering of strings. The violins and cellos take the prayer up with more urgency. This melody is the most memorable of this work and is arguably the most famous Finnish melody we know today. The prayer is answered and the whole orchestra glories in the triumph over oppression.
Gabriel Fauré - Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, op. 80 (1898)
It is sometimes said that Fauré's music is so refined, so understated and marked by such exquisite detail that only the French can appreciate it properly. While his works do betray a French tendency toward classical simplicity and restraint, they also incorporate modern harmony and technique. The result is completely individual and, in my mind, meaningful to audiences of all nationalities.
Gabriel Fauré was born in Pamiers, Ariège, in 1845. He began his musical career as an organist, serving at the Saint-Sauveur Church in Rennes, Brittany before moving to Paris in 1870 to assume the organ post at the Notre Dame de Clignancourt Church. That he both composed and performed as an organist should not come as a surprise; the same was true of at least three other French composers of the first rank: César Franck, Maurice Duruflé and Olivier Messiaen. For each composer, the organ provided a unique sense of color, orchestration and harmony. In 1895 Fauré also turned to teaching, first as a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, and later as its director. A whole generation of French composers studied with him, including Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger.
Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande was written as incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck's play of the same name. The play was first performed in Paris in 1893, but was soon translated into English for performances in London. The actress, Mrs Patrick Campbell, turned first to Debussy for incidental music, but upon his refusal turned instead to Fauré, who composed the score quickly in May, 1898. The premiere, at the Prince of Wales Theatre in the same year, was a tremendous success. Fauré then selected three interludes for inclusion in an orchestral suite: Prélude, Fileuse and Mort de Mélisande. The haunting Sicilienne was added a few years later, and was taken from his unfinished music for Le bourgeois gentilhomme.
The first movement introduces the tragedy of the play, in which destiny seems to control the unfolding drama more than the character's actions do. The story takes place in the sinister atmosphere of a dank castle. An aging Golaud meets Mélisande, a frail young girl who is weeping deep in the forest. He weds her and introduces her to his younger brother Pelléas (who he thinks will help keep her company). The two youths fall in love and Golaud kills Pelléas in a rage. Mélisande dies quietly. In this context, the two charming middle movements seem a temporary relief from the inevitable tragedy brought to a conclusion with the last.
Kodály - Variations on a Hungarian Folksong (The Peacock)
Zoltán Kodály, like his friend and fellow Hungarian, Béla Bartók, sought out the authentic folk music of his land at a time when it was virtually unknown. Beginning in 1905, he gathered more than three thousand folk melodies in his expeditions throughout Hungary, and not only drew attention to the melodies themselves, but grew as a composer through his study of them. He was a tireless proponent for the further exploration of true Hungarian folk music - not the sentimental cafe music or Gypsy music that the rest of the world took to be typically Hungarian - and fought for the revitalization of music education and culture at a time when it was subject to Viennese dominance.
The Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song (The Peacock) were composed in 1939 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Everything about the work, however, is a testament to Kodály's study of Hungarian folk song. The work consists of variations on a single melody, collected in the county of Somogy and a part of the repertoire of the Mari people. This melody is of the most primitive type and is based on the pentatonic scale (a scale of only five notes, common to many folk traditions). When sung, the melody would be embellished by the singer, with each verse being a slight variation on the previous one. By composing a series of variations on the basic melody, Kodály thus stayed true to the essence of folk song performance while writing a modern masterpiece in traditional European variation form.
The outline of the folk song is played a the very beginning by low strings and is echoed first by clarinet and bassoon, and then by a solo oboe. After this ethereal introduction, the work brings us through bouyant dance movements, sombre dirges, the distant sound of a sheperd's piping, and rustic celebration - all unified by a single melody and enlivened by Kodály's individual musical style.
Kodaly used more than the melody he gathered in the countryside, however. He represented its text. These words from the folksong, "The peacock flew upon the County Hall, poor prisoners to deliver," seem inscrutable to us today. However, in Kodály's time they would be heard in the context of the Hungarian people's struggle for identity and escape from political and cultural domination. The poet Endre Ady added to the original folk text with these words: "Proud and delicate peacocks ... proclaim news of new things that are to be. [They signify] new things that will come at the end / [Of] new struggles: these [shine in] new eyes / And smile up to the sky." That Hungary has succeeded, and has a vibrant musical culture today is due in large part to the efforts of Bela Bartók and Zoltán Kodály.