Program notes for April 29, 2017.
Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 by Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Elgar struggled to become a musician but in time he succeeded and ultimately was recognized as England’s leading composer. He was both knighted and made Master of the King’s Musick He wrote superb concertos for violin and for cello, two symphonies, many other works for orchestra, choral works (including The Dream of Gerontius), chamber music, and songs. He is best known for his Cello Concerto, Enigma Variations (see below), and five celebratory Pomp and Circumstance Marches. Joined by youth musicians, we shall hear the best known of his marches, the first.
Wondrous Light by John Estacio (1966- ). This Juno Award winning Canadian composer tells us that Wondrous Light is a celebration of the Aurora Borealis, also known as the “northern lights.” It was inspired by the energy and the speed at which the lights seem to zip through the evening skies. The opening nimble theme played by the oboe is then developed in various ways. Sudden swells in volume accompanied by quick glissandos recall the swirling curtains of green light which twist and turn and vanish suddenly in the night sky. Towards the conclusion the earlier nimble theme is transformed into a noble melody performed as a traditional chorale by the trombones, and then repeated by the full orchestra.
Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”), Op. 36 by Edward Elgar(1857-1934).
Enigma Variations is the popular name for this fascinating collection of fifteen short pieces that refer to some of the composer’s family and friends. Elgar wrote: “The Variations have amused me because I’ve labelled ’em with the nicknames of my particular friends—you [Jaeger] are Nimrod. That is to say I’ve written the variations each one to represent the mood of the ‘party’ . . . it’s a quaint idee & the result is amusing to those behind the scenes & won’t affect the hearer who ‘nose nuffin.’” But though we can attach names to the variations there remains the issue of what is the “enigma”? Tantalizingly, Elgar wrote that “The enigma I will not explain—its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed.” He also commented that “the principal Theme never appears.” The work thus begins mysteriously for we do not know the basis for the introduction and then there is the puzzling reference to a ‘dark saying’ theme that we never—at least consciously—get
to hear. Elgar took his secret to the grave. Needless to say, countless suggestions have been made but no one has conclusively solved the riddle.
Variations on an Original Theme includes an introduction and fourteen variations, as follows:
Theme. Since the theme is an “enigma,” Elgar offered no explanation.
Variation I titled C.A.E. refers to Elgar’s beloved wife, Caroline Alice Elgar, who is portrayed in “a prolongation of the theme with what I wished to be romantic and delicate additions.” Alice was like a rock in his life, and surely it was at least partially due to her constant support that he was able to achieve the heights of fame that he did.
Variation II titled H.D.S.-P. refers to Hew David Steuart-Powell, a close friend who as a pianist played chamber music with Elgar and colleagues. This a parody of Steuart-Powell’s warm-up routine with a motif “chromatic beyond H.D.S.-P.’s liking.”
Variation III titled R.B.T. is a caricature of Richard Baxter Townshend, a friend who sang in amateur theatricals. His deep bass voice, with a foray into the ‘soprano’ timbre (when as an “old man” he talked in falsetto), is portrayed by the bassoon.
Variation IV titled W.M.B refers to William Neath Baker; in Elgar’s words, a “country squire, gentleman and scholar.” Reference is made to his colleagues responding teasingly (woodwinds) when Baker hurriedly read out arrangements for the day before he exited the music room, inadvertently banging the door.
Variation V titled R.P.A. refers to Richard Penrose Arnold, son of the great English poet Matthew Arnold. Richard was a self-taught pianist whose playing, Elgar said, could suggest “in a mysterious way the real meaning.” Elgar also enjoyed him for his “whimsical and witty remarks.”
Variation VI Ysobel was Elgar’s nickname for Isabel Fitton who studied violin with him. She then switched to viola, thus the prominence of the viola in this charming variation. Taken by her beauty, Elgar said the variation is “pensive and, for a moment, romantic.”
Variation VII Troyte refers to Arthur Troyte Griffith, an architect who was adept at surprising people with unexpected comments. Inspired by Troyte playing the piano not too well Elgar begins with a rather uncouth rhythm which is followed by “attempts by the instructor [Elgar] to make sense out of chaos [but] the final despairing ‘slam’ records that the effort proved to be in vain.”
Variation VIII W.N. refers to Winifred Norbury. She and her sister Florence are graciously portrayed but since Winifred was more connected to organized music Elgar used her initials. “To justify this position a little suggestion of a characteristic laugh is given.”
Variation IX Nimrod was the “mighty hunter” in Genesis 10 and the word Jäger in German means “hunter” thus with this word play Elgar refers to his good friend, August J. Jaeger. The variation is based on a long summer talk the two men had when they discussed Beethoven’s slow movements and “cordially concurred” that his compositions could not be matched. This variation is often performed in concerts as a stand-alone piece and it is sometimes played at memorial services.
Variation X Dorabella (the name of a character in Mozart’s opera, Cosi fan tutti) was Elgar’s nickname for a close family friend, Dora Penny (who, later, wrote a book about the Enigma Variations and the people who inspired it). Of this variation, Elgar wrote, “This movement suggests a dancelike lightness.”
Variation XI G.R.S. refers to George Robert Sinclair, organist at Hereford Cathedral, but focus here is on his bulldog, Dan. The opening bars capture Dan falling down a steep slope into the Wye River followed by “his paddling up stream to find a landing place . . . , and his rejoicing bark on landing. . . . G.R.S. said, ‘Set that to music.’ I did; here it is.”
Variation XII B.G.N. refers to Basil G. Levinson, an amateur cellist who was in a trio with Elgar and H.D.S-P. (see Variation II). His “scientific and artistic attainments” and his wholehearted willingness to help others endeared him to Elgar. Nicely, the variation includes a cello solo.
Variation XIII is headed ***. The use of asterisks may seem mysterious but they refer to Lady Mary Lygon, Elgar’s one-time fiancé. At the time Elgar was composing she was on a ship bound for New Zealand so he was not able to get permission to use her initials. The timpani represents the hum of the ship’s engines while the clarinet plays a passage from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture.
Variation XIV E.D.U. refers to “Edoo,” Alice Elgar’s pet name for her husband. Elgar, filled with confidence, represents himself as “bold and vigorous in general style.” In addition to the original theme, he quotes a phrase from Alice’s variation and the Nimrod variation thereby highlighting the two people in his life who were most supportive.
Piano Concerto No.1 in E Minor, Op.11 by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849).
Born in a village near Warsaw, the young Chopin taught himself how to play the piano. He made up his own music, a talent recognized by one of his teachers who had published a polonaise by the then seven year old youngster. His next teacher taught him how to write down his musical creations, and he never looked back. He was hailed as a national hero when, aged 19 years old, he premiered his Piano Concerto in F Minor in Warsaw. That work is now known as No. 2 even though it was written before the work we shall hear, i.e., Piano Concert No. 1 in E Minor. The latter, premiered in Warsaw a year after the earlier success, was hailed by a Polish newspaper as “a work of genius” that has “originality and graceful conception . . . abundance of imaginative ideas . . . perfect orchestration and masterful execution.”
Word about this amazing new talent reached Paris and so, in 1832, with heightened expectations, Parisians welcomed him by giving his performance of Concerto No. 1 rave reviews. Mendelssohn and Liszt were among those who praised Chopin and his work. And Schumann, writing a review of the young composer’s newly published piano variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, declared, “Hats off, gentlemen—a genius!” Poland had experienced a violent uprising just after Chopin left the country so he decided to stay in Paris, where he became a firm fixture among the intelligentsia.
Clearly, Chopin was a hugely talented composer, as evidenced by the hundreds of intimate works be composed for piano, most of which remain in the repertoire, and, of course, the two concertos. Everything he composed was for or included piano. He was a remarkable pianist. Fascinatingly, however, he rarely performed more than two concerts per year for he disliked the hoopla associated with them, but each of these concerts was a treasured event for all attendees. He did perform in more intimate settings, giving solo recitals in houses of his friends. As a composer he had the remarkable ability to be inventive in complete ways while at the keyboard but then he had to struggle to get the music onto paper.
Piano Concert No. 1 in E Minor is a major challenge for any solo pianist. The first movement opens with a grand, sweeping orchestral introduction that features two main themes that are then taken up and explored by the pianist which, in Elizabeth Schwartz’s words, provide “dazzling displays of technical virtuosity.” Of the second movement, Chopin, writing to a friend in 1830, said it is “a Romance, calm and melancholy. . . . It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.” The final movement builds on rhythmic patterns related to the krakowiak, a syncopated, duple-time popular Polish dance (from the Krakow region), but mixed with contrasting episodes that further call upon the soloist to play gorgeous cascades of sound, with stunning arpeggios and rapid runs of scales. A coda brings to work to a thrilling conclusion. All told, the concerto contains some of the most difficult and exciting pianistic challenges in the literature. Once you have heard this brilliant work you will appreciate why the Warsaw audience greeted the premiere performance with “deafening bravos”.