Spring Concert - The Planets and the Sea
Sunday, May 21 · 3:00 PM, Cohan CTR
The Cal Poly Symphony is joined by acclaimed mezzo-soprano Jacalyn Kreitzer in its final concert of the season. Come experience two British masterpieces written near the turn of the twentieth century: Edward Elgar's Sea Pictures, for orchestra and voice, and Gustav Holst's The Planets, an astrological exploration of the human soul, scored brilliantly for large orchestra.
These two pieces have more in common than one might think. Holsts work is a series of character sketches based on astrological signs. He starts with the personality of people born under Mars and progresses to the personality guided by Neptune. It's a wonderful journey from stubborn violence to ethereal enlightenment, and the whole thing can be heard as the perfection of the human soul. The movements of Elgar's Sea Pictures are based on poetry that, of course, deal with the sea, but more importantly, they speak powerfully from a vantage point beyond death, and just like The Planets this music looks back on different stages of the human journey.
Kreitzer teaches voice and diction at Cal Poly and produces and directs its annual student opera production. She has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has sung with some of the world's most renowned opera companies and orchestras, including the Metropolitan Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, San Francisco Opera, New York City Opera, Barcelona and Geneva operas and the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, under the batons of Zubin Mehta, James Levine, Jeffrey Tate, Valery Gerghiev, Christopher Hogwood and Luciano Berio. The San Francisco Chronicle said Kreitzer has a “voice of molten gold.”
Kreitzer has recorded on the Deutsche Grammophon, Chandos and Teldec labels. She has also recorded with the Metropolitan Opera, Spoleto Opera in Charleston, S.C., and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. She recently performed the mezzo solo role in Sergei Prokoviev’s “Alexander Nevsky” with Lithuanian conductor Theodore Kuchar, sang with Peter Schickele's P.D.Q. Bach troupe in “Oedipus Tex,” and performed J. S. Bach’s “Lobe den Herren” with the Grace Chamber Ensemble in Chicago.
Edward Elgar - Sea Pictures for mezzo-soprano and orchestra
Texts of the Songs:
Sea Slumber Song
Sea-birds are asleep,
The world forgets to weep,
Sea murmurs her soft slumber-song
On the shadowy sand
Of this elfin land;
"I, the Mother mild,
Hush thee, oh my child,
Forget the voices wild!
Isles in elfin light
Dream, the rocks and caves,
Lulled by whispering waves,
Veil their marbles bright.
Foam glimmers faintly white
Upon the shelly sand
Of this elfin land;
Sea-sound, like violins,
To slumber woos and wins,
I murmur my soft slumber-song,
Leave woes, and wails, and sins.
Ocean's shadowy might
Breathes good night,
Hon. Roden Noel
In Haven (Capri)
Closely let me hold thy hand,
Storms are sweeping sea and land;
Love alone will stand.
Closely cling, for waves beat fast,
Foam-flakes cloud the hurrying blast;
Love alone will last.
Kiss my lips, and softly say:
"Joy, sea-swept, may fade to-day;
Love alone will stay."
C. Alice Elgar
Sabbath Morning at Sea
The ship went on with solemn face:
To meet the darkness on the deep,
The solemn ship went onward.
I bowed down weary in the place;
for parting tears and present sleep
Had weighed mine eyelids downward.
The new sight, the new wondrous sight!
The waters around me, turbulent,
The skies, impassive o'er me,
Calm in a moonless, sunless light,
As glorified by even the intent
Of holding the day glory!
Love me, sweet friends, this sabbath day.
The sea sings round me while ye roll afar
The hymn, unaltered,
And kneel, where once I knelt to pray,
And bless me deeper in your soul
Because your voice has faltered.
And though this sabbath comes to me
Without the stolèd minister,
And chanting congregation,
God's Spirit shall give comfort. HE
Who brooded soft on waters drear,
Creator on creation.
He shall assist me to look higher,
Where keep the saints, with harp and song,
An endless endless sabbath morning,
And on that sea commixed with fire,
Oft drop their eyelids raised too long
To the full Godhead's burning.
Where Corals Lie
The deeps have music soft and low
When winds awake the airy spry,
It lures me, lures me on to go
And see the land where corals lie.
By mount and mead, by lawn and rill,
When night is deep, and moon is high,
That music seeks and finds me still,
And tells me where the corals lie.
Yes, press my eyelids close, 'tis well,
But far the rapid fancies fly
The rolling worlds of wave and shell,
And all the lands where corals lie.
Thy lips are like a sunset glow,
Thy smile is like a morning sky,
Yet leave me, leave me, let me go
And see the land where corals lie.
With short, sharp violent lights made vivid,
To southward far as the sight can roam,
Only the swirl of the surges livid,
The seas that climb and the surfs that comb.
Only the crag and the cliff to nor'ward,
The rocks receding, and reefs flung forward,
Waifs wreck'd seaward and wasted shoreward,
On shallows sheeted with flaming foam.
A grim, gray coast and a seaboard ghastly,
And shores trod seldom by feet of men -
Where the batter'd hull and the broken mast lie,
They have lain embedded these long years ten.
Love! when we wandered here together,
Hand in hand through the sparkling weather,
From the heights and hollows of fern and heather,
God surely loved us a little then.
The skies were fairer, the shores were firmer -
The blue sea over the bright sand roll'd;
Babble and prattle, and ripple and murmur,
Sheen of silver and glamour of gold.
* * * *
So, girt with tempest and wing'd with thunder
And clad with lightning and shod with sleet,
And strong winds treading the swift waves under
The flying rollers with frothy feet.
One gleam like a bloodshot sword-blade swims on
The sky line, staining the green gulf crimson,
A death-stroke fiercely dealt by a dim sun
That strikes through his stormy winding sheet.
O brave white horses! you gather and gallop,
The storm sprite loosens the gusty rains;
Now the stoutest ship were the frailest shallop
In your hollow backs, on your high-arched manes.
I would ride as never man has ridden
In your sleepy, swirling surges hidden;
To gulfs foreshadow'd through strifes forbidden,
Where no light wearies and no love wanes.
A. Lindsay Gordon
Gustav Holst - The Planets for large orchestra
On 15 November 1920, a brilliant work for large orchestra filled Queen’s Hall, London, astounding listeners and critics alike. England – so often forced to import it’s musical celebrities and repertoire from across the Channel – felt itself once again gripped by enthusiasm for music all it’s own. The piece has never left the repertoire, and continues to inspire audiences and provide material for countless movie scores today.
This work, The Planets, caused The Sunday Times of 21 November 1920 to state that “after a work of this sort the harmonic experiments of the later Stravinsky seem comically infantile.”
Stravinsky, it must be remembered, shocked the musical world with The Rite of Spring in 1913, and continued to dominate the world stage for nearly half a century. The Planets, however, came from the pen of a school teacher – by all accounts a very methodical and plodding one – who composed in his few precious moments of free time on weekends.
Gustav Holst was born Gustavus von Holst in 1874 in Cheltenham. Not surprisingly, he changed his name to avoid suspicions about his loyalty. After moving to London in 1893, he met Vaughan Williams, with whom he shared a love for English folksong and a close friendship the rest of his life. After playing the trombone professionally and composing “potboilers” to make ends meet, he fell into teaching to support his family in 1905, at the St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith. In two years, he managed to take on duties at two additional schools.
After a failed attempt to win the Ricordi Opera Prize with his Sita, Holst was deeply discouraged, and desperately low in funds. His closest friend, Vaughan Williams, offered him money in order that he might take a vacation. Holst accepted and chose to travel to Algeria. It is no understatement to say that this trip would change the course of his life, driving his mind inward to the deeply spiritual. He began to see composition as a means to understand the world, and a medium in which he might express his vision.
A few years later, again on vacation (but in Spain and Mallorca), Holst discovered that he shared an interest in astrology with fellow traveler Clifford Bax. After returning to England, Holst moved with his family to Thaxted, set up a cottage in his new garden and found a soundproof studio at St. Paul’s. Between the cottage and studio, a few precious moments at a time, he began sketching a new suite for large orchestra. After years of methodical work, this suite for large orchestra became The Planets, and shows at once how deeply Holst had transformed himself.
While one might suspect, due to the title, that this is a programmatic piece, it is important to see the work otherwise. “Program music,” such as Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, has a clear story, either pre-existing or provided in the program by the composer. The Planets does not trace a story. Neither do the movements attempt to describe the planets as we see them or the Roman gods for whom the planets are named. Instead – and this is where we see the fruit of his travels – Holst shares with us a psychological progression. Each movement can be thought of as the embodiment of a personality, a state of being. These “mood pictures” are loosely based on the astrological significance of the planets, which Holst could easily look up in the book he owned on the subject, Alan Leo’s What is a Horoscope and How Is It Cast? Despite this book’s title, it was not simplistic, and neither are the “mood pictures” Holst composed.
The power of this composition lies in its trajectory; Holst begins with Mars, full of brute force and illogic, and brings us eventually to an ideal, mystical state in Neptune. It is the perfection of man, perhaps, or the seeking after the divine. By the end of the journey, the composer has broken with countless musical traditions and leaves us drifting in a near trance state of wonder. Holst mirrored this final step in his own professional life; after The Planets, his newfound musical voice left many listeners and friends in doubt. As Bernard Shore said so aptly, “In Neptune, Holst leaves his friends and, unguided, sets forth into the unknown by himself – and none sees him return.” Following are descriptions of the planets performed today. Mercury will not be performed, and Pluto was not discovered at the time Holst wrote this work.
Mars, the Bringer of War: Holst does make reference to traditional military music, with trumpet fanfares and drums, but the character of this piece is best expressed by the very opening. Strings play col legno (with the wood of their bows) a mindlessly repeating figure in five beats. Headstrong, illogical, this ostinato builds in force as if in ignorance of the slithering harmonies played by the rest of the orchestra. Particularly menacing is the first theme in the brass, which outlines a tritone – the essence of non-resolution.
Venus, the Bringer of Peace: Unlike Mars, Venus can be heard in the Major mode. Where Mars is mechanistic, Venus gives in to expressive rubato and the traditions of the 19th century. Holst chooses impressionistic harmonies and ethereal orchestration to give this movement a “bodiless” sound. While Venus might be soothing, it is full of imperfect, sensual yearning, and only lies on the path to our eventual goal.
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity: Holst chose Jollity over Joviality (the more obvious choice, as it is based on the Roman name for Jupiter, Jove) in order to stress the very human qualities of “abundance of life and vitality.” After a sparkling opening in the strings, the orchestra plays an exuberant and highly syncopated main theme that evokes the festive whirl of the world. After a series of tunes that might be more at home in vaudeville than in a journey toward mystical bliss, a contrasting theme begins with no transition or preparation. This noble theme is thus all the more in conflict with the rest of the movement in its deeply felt lyricism. While on the surface, this movement feels like a brilliant end to the suite, it is in fact too “successful” and brilliant to be so. Witness Holst’s own words to Clifford Bax: “Some day I expect you will agree with me that it’s a great thing to be a failure. If nobody likes your work you have to go on just for the sake of the work…Every artist ought to pray that he may not be ‘a success’.”
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age: This was Holst’s favorite movement, and is the closest to his personality: thorough, diffident and plodding. One can hear the tireless counting out of time in the flutes as this movement opens, and this ticking is never far away. The main theme begins as if from sleep in the basses and rises through the orchestra. It begins by rising a tritone (which should by now be no surprise), but is transformed by the end into a more natural melody that rises by a fourth. It is the wrenching episodes and the striving for serenity that make this the most human of the movements.
Uranus, the Magician: Like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice of Dukas, this movement provides comic relief and the rough sound of low bassoons on the march. It expresses the “eccentric, strange and erratic,” as Leo prescribes. Tellingly, Leo also guesses that those under the influence of Uranus act this way because of “others who cannot understand their way of viewing things.” After a menacing incantation, the music fails to maintain its promised seriousness. A blaring tune for the horns seems unsure of what scale it is using, and the ensuing march is hopelessly out of step; its melody is in two, while the accompaniment is in three.
Neptune, the Mystic: Persons born under the influence of Neptune “should endeavor to live as purely as possible, so that they may sense a few of those vibrations that so rarely come to the ordinary human being.” Holst takes Leo’s words and adds to them a feeling of abstraction and distance. What he achieves here is staggering. From the very first duet for flute and alto flute (a larger flute that plays a fourth lower than its cousin and sounds all the more rich), Holst renounces the traditional grammar of harmony and the motion it creates. Sustained chords that are filled in with swirling figures in the strings and celeste act to submerge each instrument in a whole sonority. To his daughter, Imogen, the quiet alternation of chords was the “effortless hush of deep breathing.” Holst tells the orchestra to “play sempre pp throughout, dead tone” until the final, blissful section introduced by a wordless angelic choir. This final blossoming of sound slowly fades away until we no longer know whether we hear singing or the imagined singing in our own mind.