2018-2019 ProMedica Masterworks Series Program Notes



ProMedica Masterworks Series Program Notes

by Kalindi Bellach ©2018

Trudel's Debut / Colors / A Hero's Life / Nordic Air

Trudel's Debut

Alain Trudel, conductor
Featuring dancers from Toledo Ballet


Smith - The Star-Spangled Banner
Beethoven - Symphony No. 5
Dietz - Caldera
Tchaikovsky - Selections from Swan Lake

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

“It is his own intimate thought which is there developed; and his secret sorrows, his pent-up rage, his dreams so full of melancholy oppression, his nocturnal visions and his bursts of enthusiasm furnish its entire subject whilst the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and orchestral forms are there delineated with an essential novelty and individuality, endowing them also with considerable power and nobleness.”

– Hector Berlioz

Shortly after completing his third symphony, the massive “Eroica,”Beethoven began work on his Symphony No. 5 in C Minor. Technically it would have been his fourth, except that he had to pause to write another in order to fulfill a prior commission. This other piece became Symphony No. 4 in B-flat. Beethoven rarely worked on only one project at a time, and so he also wrote the “Razumovsky” Quartets, Op. 59, the Piano Concerto No. 4, and the Violin Concerto before completing what was now his fifth symphony in 1807 (although the score was not signed until 1808).

While Beethoven’s earlier symphonies can all be loosely described as expansions on previously established forms, composer Hector Berlioz notes that here, in his fifth, “Beethoven has given his imagination free scope … without electing to be either guided or supported by any outside thought … [it] appears to us to emanate directly and solely from the genius of Beethoven.”

While working on this symphony, Beethoven also somehow found time to begin his Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral,” as well. Annotator Michael Steinberg points out that these two works are both “opposites and twins … each sheds light on the other.” At its opening, the Pastoral illustrates “the awakening of joyful feelings upon arriving in the country,” whereas the opening of the Fifth Symphony has been described differently: “Thus fate knocks at the door.” The main tie and simultaneous contrast between the two works that Steinberg points out is how Beethoven uses the concept of saturation to make his point. In the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven compresses the rhythmic figures, using sheer repetition to drive the gestures. In the Sixth, he goes in the other direction, expanding and lengthening the chords into near timelessness.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is in the traditional four movements, with the third leading directly into the Finale. The first movement opens with what is perhaps the most famous phrase in all of classical music, the “ta-ta-ta-TA” figure, the long note at the end of which is marked with a fermata and not exactly measured. In modern performances, tempi of this opening vary, as tempo in general is a hotly debated issue in Beethoven’s symphonic work. The metronome marks weren’t added until years later and sometimes seem to directly contradict the character indications. Steinberg also point out, “Misunderstanding of this opening was nurtured by a nineteenth-century performance tradition in which the first five measures were read as a slow, portentous exordium, the main tempo being attacked only after the second hold. In World War II, when the Allies co-opted Beethoven by declaring that ta-ta-ta-TA represented V for victory in Morse code, that tradition was occasionally revived.” This opening movement is permeated with a sense of urgency, heightened by sudden holds and nearly continuous reminders of the driving rhythm even under the sweeter legato melody in the strings in the second theme.

Berlioz describes the movement as “devoted to the expression of the disordered sentiments which pervade a great soul when a prey to despair … not that calm and concentrated despair which bears the outward appearance of resignation; or the grief, so somber and silent, which Romeo evinces on hearing of the death of Juliet. Rather it is the terrible fury of Othello.”

The second movement is Adagio, marked quasi menuetto, and extensively features the celli and basses. The theme is presented in sets of variations interspersed with small contrasting sections. Berlioz notes that it “presents some characteristic relation with the allegretto … of the Seventh Symphony; and with [the analogous movement] in E-flat of the Fourth. It offers equally the melancholy gravity of the first and the touching grace of the second.” The melody is carefully shaped and delicately supported, a welcome sweetness after the first movement. Renowned writer and musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey characterizes the minor variation (the third) as “smiling through tears.”

The Scherzo, according to writer, musician, and artist E. T. A. Hoffman, is “grotesque and creeping and threatening … its restless yearning … heightened to a fear which tightly constricts the heart.” Having returned to C Minor, Beethoven restricts most of the Scherzo to the very softest pianissimo, against which he contrasts the robust Trio. Trio is remarkable mostly for its use of the celli and basses, who perform a section, Berlioz writes, “accentuated with all the force of the bow; the uncouth weight of which shakes the very feet of the players’ desks and resembles somewhat the gambols of a delighted elephant.”

The Scherzo leads directly into the Finale. Listen for the timpani in the transition, hinting once again at another key before giving way to the triumphant chords of the last movement in bright C Major. This last movement introduces for the first time the trombones, which have not yet played. Berlioz remarked, “This Finale … being in itself of a magnificence and richness in comparison with which there are few pieces which could appear without being completely crushed.”

Dedicated to Count Andreas von Razumovsky and Prince Franz Joseph Lobkowitz, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was premiered in Vienna in 1808. Also on the program were his Fourth Piano Concerto and his Sixth Symphony. Steinberg notes, “How wild the driving Fifth Symphony must have sounded to an audience that did not meet it as the most familiar of classical masterpieces and that encountered its aggressive mien after the spaciousness and warmth of the Fourth Piano Concert and the Pastoral Symphony.”

It is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.

Christopher Dietz (b. 1977-)

Notes provided by the composer.

A caldera is a volcanic crater with a diameter many times that of the vent that leads up to it from inside the earth. It is formed by particularly large and violent eruptions and is an expression of the intense forces that are constantly at work beneath the surface. Mount St. Helens in Washington State is a famous North American example. Caldera was composed in 2004. It is scored for three flutes, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones and bass trombone, tuba, percussion, timpani, harp, piano, and strings.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)

Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, doubtless one of the most beloved classical ballets, was the composer’s first venture into that genre. He began work on it in 1875 after receiving a commission from the Imperial Theatre in Moscow, basing it on an earlier work he’d sketched out for his nieces. He completed it the following year. Besides the sketches from the ear-lier version of Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky also included excerpts (adjusted) from two of his early operas, Undine and Voyevoda.

Swan Lake, at heart, is a love story. It’s in four acts, combining elements of tragedy, romance, and magic. A sorcerer puts the Princess Odette under a spell, and so by day she lives as a swan swimming on a lake of tears. By night she returns to her human form. Prince Siegfried happens on her one evening, and the two fall in love.

Act I opens with Prince Siegfried’s birthday celebration at the palace. On this occasion Siegfried’s mother gifts her son with a crossbow and also tells him he must soon choose a bride. The prospect frightens him, and he escapes to the woods with the bow.

In Act II Prince Siegfried is alone in the forest beside an enchanted lake, complete with floating swans. He notices the most lovely swan and stays to watch her. As night falls, Odette returns to her human form and spots Siegfried. She explains that she and her sisters are swans because of the spell of Von Rothbart, the sorcerer who, incidentally, is disguised as Siegfried’s teacher, and that their parents’ tears formed the lake they swim on. The only way to break the spell is with a pledge of true love. But before Prince Siegfried can make that pledge and break the spell, Von Rothbart interrupts, whisking Odette away and forcing the swan maidens to dance on the lake so that the prince may not speak to them.

In Act III Prince Siegfried has returned home, and his mother brings all the princesses she can find to meet him, but none of them is Odette. In order to delay his having to choose a bride, the prince dances with each princess to satisfy his mother. Von Rothbart arrives, bringing his daughter, Odile, to present to Siegfried. To ensure that Siegfried chooses Odile, Von Rothbart casts another spell to make her look like Odette. The ruse works, and Siegfried proposes to Odile. Unfortunately, the real Odette witnesses the whole thing through one of the windows, and when Siegfried sees her fleeing he realizes what he has done and chases after her.

Act IV opens back at the lake, where Odette has retreated. Siegfried finds her and explains what happened. Odette forgives him, but then Von Rothbart and Odile interrupt again, demanding that the prince honor his word and marry Odile. Siegfried tells Von Rothbart that he would rather die with Odette than marry Odile, and the two leap into the lake together. This breaks the spell, and the remaining swans turn back into girls, who push Von Rothbart and Odile into the lake with Siegfried and Odette, where the four of them drown. The spirits of Siegfried and Odette rise into the sky above the lake.

Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake premiered in Moscow in 1877, but it wasn’t popular initially. Annotator Phillip Huscher explains, “The dancers were uneven, the scenery and costumes shabby, the choreography pedestrian, and the conductor inept.” Nearly twenty years later it was re-choreographed for a production in St. Petersburg, and the musical score was revised, with some sections being excluded altogether on the grounds that they were too difficult either to play or to dance. The reception and subsequent alterations caused Tchaikovsky to remark in a letter to friend Nadezhda von Meck, “I tell you that Swan Lake is not fit to hold a candle to Sylvia [by Leo Delibes].”

Although it took some time to get off the ground, Swan Lake, along with Tchaikovsky’s other two fairytale ballets (The Sleeping Beauty in 1889 and The Nutcracker in 1892), have taken their places among the masterworks of the genre. Various selections from the full ballets have been put together into suites for the concert hall, becoming just as ubiquitous there as in the theater. Tchaikovsky, who never imagined their possibility, approved none of these orchestral suites.

The selections you will here tonight span the entire work, including the Danses des Cygnes (“Dances of the Swans”) from Act II (which Huscher describes as having a “ducky” main theme in oboes and bassoons), and the Finale from Act IV. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets and two cornets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, harp, and strings.

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Alain Trudel, conductor
David Saltzman, tuba
Holly Carr, silk painting artist


Rimsky-Korsakov - Tsar Saltan Suite and the Flight of the Bumblebee
Adler - Tuba Concerto (world premiere)
Borodin - Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor
Stravinsky - Suite from The Firebird

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsar Saltan is the tenth of his fifteen operas. In addition to these fifteen he left four other operas in progress. As was fairly common with music for both operas and ballet, suites were made from some of them so that they could live in the concert hall as well as on stage. Rimsky-Korsakov composed the music for Tsar Saltan in 1889–90, and the opera was premiered in the fall of 1900.

Rimsky-Korsakov was quite fond of the writing of Alexander Pushkin, and he wrote the story of Tsar Saltan in honor of the poet’s birthday. Gerald Abraham of New Grove characterizes this work, along with two other operas by Rimsky-Korsakov, as a “musico-scenic fairytale.” It is not based on any particular folk tale, Russian or otherwise. The libretto is by Vladimir Belsky, and the full title is The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of his son the famous and mighty hero Prince Guidon Saltanovich, and of the beautiful Swan Princess.

The story goes that Tsar Saltan is based on elements of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. In it, Tsar Saltan hears three sisters talking among themselves about how each would define happiness. The youngest wants to be the mother of a heroic man. Saltan chooses her for his wife. But while he is away at war, her sisters become jealous and put her and her young son in a barrel and float them out to sea. Instead of drowning, however, the pair wash up on an island and manage to survive there. Fast-forward to when the boy is a young man and rescues a swan from a pursuer. As a result, he gains magical powers with which he is able to build a “Wonder-City” that rises from the ocean. The rescued swan becomes a princess and joins him in the city. Finally, returning from war, Saltan travels to the city and is returned to his family.

This knack for color and imagery is a commonality throughout Rimsky-Korsakov’s work in all genres. Commentator Paul Godfrey notes, “All of them have in common an element of mythological symbolism which gives the composer plenty of opportunity to indulge in his two greatest strengths: the depiction of nature in all its guises, and his superlative command of the science of orchestration.”

Rimsky-Korsakov presents The Tale of Tsar Saltan in four acts, introducing each with the same fanfare. Annotator Roger Dettmer points out that Stravinsky would later lift and translate this as the snare-drum roll in Petrushka. Rimsky-Korsakov, perhaps giving a nod to Berlioz and/or Wagner and the concept of the recurring musical fragment representing a particular person or place, kept the fanfare (in the brass) in the Suite.

The Suite was compiled in 1901. The opening piece, The Tsar’s Departure and Farewell, is taken from the prelude to the first act. The Tsarina in a Barrel at Sea was the prelude to the second act in the opera. From the fourth act comes The Three Wonders, which refers to the swan princess, a squirrel that whistles and finds acorns with emeralds in them, and thirty-three warriors with gold helmets that are left behind after a flood.

The Flight of the Bumblebee comes from the third act of The Tale of Tsar Saltan (when the young prince is temporarily transformed into the small buzzing insect). Though the movement is not actually part of the Suite, most modern recordings include the movement because of its familiarity. Indeed, the Flight of the Bumblebee is Rimsky-Korsakov’s most wellknown and instantly recognizable work, and there are many arrangements for various instrumental configurations.Though only a couple of minutes long, it is wonderfully vivid and illustrative.

The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, three clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and celesta, harp, and strings.


Samuel Adler (b. 1928)
Notes provided by the composer

The Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra was written on a commission from the Toledo Symphony Orchestra for its tubist David Saltzman in 2017. It is a work in three movements with a cadenza between the second and third movements.

There are too few concertos for tuba and orchestra, probabl y because the tuba as an instrument that we know today was not perfected technically until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Also, before the twentieth century it was not considered a solo instrument, though, especially with composers like Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler it is a most important member of their orchestras.

I was delighted to write a concerto for tuba because it does possess all the possibilities found in a solo instrument. It has lyrical qualities in all its registers, and with today’s excellent tubists it is an instrument that can have excellent dexterity. Therefore I have divided my concerto into three movements. The first is called Cantilation and shows off the lyrical qualities of the instrument with free flowing song-like phrases accompanied by similar music in the orchestra. There is constant dialogue between soloist and the orchestral forces, the latter sometimes foreshadowing, sometimes repeating gestures of the soloist.

The second movement, entitled Scherzo, as well as the Finale are written to demonstrate the great versatility of the tuba. Both are ‘fast and furious’ but often whimsical and always bright in nature and demand great virtuosity from both the soloist and the orchestral forces.

Separating the two fast movements is a very lyrical slow cadenza. Usually a cadenza is included to demonstrate the virtuosity of the performer, however, since that will be the case in the second and last movement, I felt I wanted to give the soloist another opportunity to emphasize the beauty and the lyrical side of this neglected solo instrument and also a chance to ‘sing’ by himself. The work is about twenty minutes long.

The tuba concerto is scored for three flutes with one doubling on piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns,three trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, two percussion, and strings.


Alexander Borodin (1833–1887)

Borodin, although obviously an excellent musician and composer, was actually a professor of chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy of St. Petersburg, an appointment he took up in his early thirties after earning a doctorate while simultaneously composing several of his early chamber pieces.

Throughout the 1860s Borodin, together with writer and critic Vladimir Stasov, and fellow composers Mussorgsky, Balakirev (also a great mentor of Borodin’s), Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov, formed a group of nationalist composers most commonly referred to as The Mighty Handful, who took inspiration from Russian folk elements and shared a fascination with all things Eastern, real or imagined. It was one of their main goals to turn away from the contemporary Western European styles and hopefully create a musical soundworld that was more authentically Russian. This included the musics of recently annexed Asian groups.

It was really only at the urging of Balakirev and the Mussorgsky that Borodin began to venture out of chamber music and into the larger genres, and, in 1868, Stasov introduced Borodin to the (possibly) twelfth century poem Epic of the Army of Igor. Whether or not its origins were as advertised, the story intrigued Borodin.

Borodin began composing Knyaz’ Igor or Prince Igor in 1869, worked on it for almost a year, then set it aside until 1874, when he took it up again. He worked on it intermittently for the next thirteen years, but did not complete it. However, Rimsky-Korsakov enlisted the help of another composer, Alexander Glazunov, to complete the work after Borodin’s unexpected death. Between them, they managed to fill in the gaps as necessary with their own compositions, transitional material, and to complete some of the pieces Borodin had left half-finished. Prince Igor was premiered in St. Petersburg in November 1890.

It was not a resounding success, but it was not a failure either. One possible issue was the somewhat haphazard narrative, no doubt a result of the fact that Borodin wrote the libretto himself and failed to complete it before beginning on the music. The complete opera is now seldom performed in its entirety. However, like Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin exhibits an incredible command of color, and the ballet numbers collectively called the Polovtsian Dances is undeniably a favorite. In the story, these dances served to occupy Prince Igor while the Khan held him prisoner, and included chorus interjections that are usually left out of concert versions.

The first section is introduced by the woodwinds and becomes a base for the second section, which repeats elements of the theme in different textures until a brief pause follows the climax. The third section is the most boisterous and, as it finally winds down, gives way to the insistent dotted rhythm (long-short) in the final section. As mentioned above, the chorus is usually not included, a fact that annotator Paul Serotsky calls “a great loss … The words are of no particular importance, but the sound is … Rimsky[-Korsakov] saw the chorus as an extension of his prodigious orchestral palette, to maximize the ‘oriental splendor.’” Serotsky further urges us, if we’re not familiar with the choral version, to seek it “without delay!”

While Prince Igor and its Polovtsian Dances are not technically purely Borodin’s, Rimsky-Korsakov’s contributions are excellent. Serotsky cites the latter’s “greater flair for orchestration, immediately apparent if you compare the Polovtsian Dances with any bit of ‘pure’ Borodin.” Nevertheless, Prince Igor is Borodin’s finest work and most formidable achievement. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.


Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)

Stravinsky composed his Firebird during his first creative period, which is characterized by the extensive use of folk elements and color (similar to that of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov). He began work in the fall of 1909 on receiving a commission from the impresario Sergei Diaghilev (his first commission of a completely new score), and completed it the following spring. Diaghilev had actually tried to secure other composers for the project first, including Liadov, Tcherepnin, and Glazunov. After none of those composers could commit to the project, Diaghilev approached the young Stravinsky, who set to work right away.

Diaghilev was reputedly quite proud to have “discovered” Stravinsky and told one of the dancers during a rehearsal to “mark him well; he is a man on the eve of celebrity.” This was not an overstatement, as Stravinsky became extremely famous seemingly overnight following Firebird ’s premiere in 1910. Annotator Phillip Huscher explains, “According to Ravel, the Parisian audience wanted a taste of the avant-garde, and this dazzling music by the daring young Russian fit the bill.” Of course, Firebird was only Stravinsky’s first huge success; it was promptly followed by Petrushka and then, of course, the infamous Rite of Spring. Huscher notes that the first “enhanced his reputation; the second … made him the most notorious composer alive.”

In the fairytale, the firebird is held captive by the evil King Kashchei, whohides his own soul inside an egg hidden in a chest for safekeeping. One day, Prince Ivan catches a glimpse of the firebird and follows her, accidentally wandering into Kashchei’s magical garden. The prince captures the firebird, who begs him to release her. In exchange, she gives Prince Ivan a feather from her tail that will protect him. He releases the firebird and goes on his way. However, he soon meets thirteen princesses, all under Kashchei’s spell. After falling in love with one of them, he tries to follow them deeper into the garden, which leads to his own capture by Kashchei. Kashchei prepares to cast a spell that will turn Prince Ivan to stone, but the prince remembers the feather and calls the firebird to his aid. She sings a lullaby that makes Kashchei sleep and then tells the prince about the egg in the chest. He finds it and breaks the egg. With Kashchei dead, the princesses are free and Prince Ivan is betrothed to his love.

Stravinsky describes his work on Firebird and the subsequent rehearsals and performances:

The firebird did not attract me as a subject. Like all story ballets it demanded descriptive music of a kind I did not want to write. I had not yet proved myself as a composer, and I had not earned the right to criticize the aesthetics of my collaborators, but I did criticize them, and arrogantly, though perhaps my age (twenty-seven) was more arrogant than I was. Above all, I could not abide the assumption that my music would be imitation Rimsky-Korsakov, especially as by that time I was in such revolt against poor Rimsky.... Fokine is credited as the librettist of The Firebird, but I remember that all of us … contributed ideas to the plan of the scenario…. I was flattered, of course, at the promise of a performance of my music in Paris, and my excitement on arriving in that city … could hardly have been greater. These ardors were somewhat cooled, however, at the first rehearsal. The words “for Russian export” seemed to be stamped everywhere, both on the stage and in the music. The mimic scenes were especially obvious in this sense, but I could say nothing about them as they were what Fokine liked best. I was also deflated to discover that not all of my musical remarks were held to be oracular, and Pierné, the conductor, disagreed with me once in front of the whole orchestra. I had written “non crescendo,” but Pierné said, “Young man, if you do not want a crescendo, then do not write anything.”

The first-night audience glittered indeed, but the fact that it was heavily perfumed is more vivid in my memory; the gaily elegant London audience, when I came to know it later, seemed almost deodorized by comparison. I sat in Diaghilev’s box, where, at intermission, artists, dowagers, aged Egerias of the Ballet, “intellectuals,” balletomanes, appeared. I met for the first time Proust, Giraudoux, Paul Morand, St. John Perse, Claudel at The Firebird…. A moment of unexpected comedy occurred near the beginning of the performance. Diaghilev had had the idea that a procession of real horses should march on stage – in step with, to be exact, the last six eighth notes of bar eight. The poor animals did enter on cue all right, but they began to neigh and whinny, and one of them, a better critic than an actor, left a malodorous calling card. The audience laughed, and Diaghilev decided not to risk a repetition in future performances. That he could have tried it even once seems incredible to me now – but the incident was forgotten in the general acclaim for the new ballet afterwards.

I was called to the stage to bow at the conclusion, and was recalled several times. I was still on stage when the final curtain had come down, and I saw Diaghilev coming towards me, and a dark man with a double forehead, whom he introduced as Claude Debussy. The great composer spoke kindly about the music, ending his words with an invitation to dine with him. Some years later, when we were sitting together in his box at a performance of Pelléas, I asked him what he really thought of The Firebird. He said, “Que voulez-vous, il fallait bien commencer par quelque chose” [“Well, you had to start with something”]. Honest, but not extremely flattering. Yet shortly after The Firebird premiere he gave me his well-known photo (in profile) with a dedication “à Igor Stravinski en toute sympathie artistique.

While pulling material out for the orchestra suite years later, Stravinsky also tightened some of the orchestration, dispensing with some of what he called a “wastefully large” orchestra. Stravinsky wrote, “For me, the most striking effect in The Firebird was the natural-harmonic string glissando near the beginning, which the bass chord touches off … I was delighted to have discovered this, and I remember my excitement in demonstrating it to Rimsky’s violinist and cellist sons.”

Although Stravinsky admittedly worried about arriving at a point too near that of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, he needn’t have. As annotator Peter Laki affirms, “Stravinsky’s first ballet shows a remarkable individuality.” His command of rhythm in particular as an expressive tool is already in evidence here, if not as fully developed as in his subsequent ballets. Harmonically and texturally, though, everything is spectacularly and carefully colored, in an incredibly detailed score that commentator Ronald Gallman calls “as lush and colorful in … orchestration as the story is fantastic.”

Stravinsky ultimately derived three distinct suites from The Firebird, in 1911, 1919, and 1945. Tonight’s performance is the 1919 version. The score (reduced from the original ballet) calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, harp, and strings.

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A Hero's Life

Alain Trudel, conductor
Members of the Toledo Symphony Youth Orchestras

Howe arr. Wilhousky - Battle Hymn of the Republic
Williams - Summon the Heroes
Zwilich - Symbolon
Strauss - Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life)

Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910)

Battle Hymn of the Republic is one of the most popular songs for patriotic programming in the US, and there are hundreds of versions and arrangements of it. The melody is based on the popular song John Brown’s Body, which in turn is based on the Methodist hymn Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?, by William Steffe. John Brown’s Body was actually written about a Scottish sergeant in Massachusetts and not the famous abolitionist named John Brown, as most people assume. Despite its origins, John Brown’s Body has become inextricably linked with the abolitionist, who was executed in 1859. But despite the song’s developing strong ties to the Union, John Brown’s Body was wildly popular with soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, and like a lot of popular and folk music of the period, it gradually changed shape as people taught it to one another and added verses, changed words, and embellished the melody.

In 1861, poet and writer Howe accompanied her husband, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, of President Lincoln’s Military Sanitation Commission, and their friend Reverend James Freeman Clarke on a tour of the Union army camps in Washington, D.C. It was here that she first heard John Brown’s Body, and on the suggestion of Reverend Clark, penned new text for the familiar tune. As the story goes, the words came to her almost finished the very next night. She later described the process: “[I] awoke … in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, ‘I shall lose this if I don’t write it down immediately.’”

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,

His truth is marching on.


Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps;

They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps,

His day is marching on.


He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His Judgement Seat.

Oh! Be swift, my soul, to answer Him, be jubilant, my feet!

Our God is marching on.


In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;

As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,

While God is marching on.


Howe’s text was published in 1862 in the Atlantic Monthly. It was christened Battle Hymn of the Republic by the paper’s editor, who paid her $5 for the work. Following the war, Howe maintained a career as a successful lecturer and was a founding member of the New England Women’s Suffrage Association.

John Williams (b. 1932)

Williams composed his Summon the Heroes for the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Olympics. He dedicated the work to Tim Morrison, trumpeter with the Boston Pops Orchestra. It is not the only piece Williams wrote in honor of the Olympics; his related works include Olympic Fanfare and Theme (1984), Olympic Spirit (1988), and Call of the Champions (2002). In each of these works, Williams depicts the elements of tradition, honor, heroism, and grandeur associated with the Games.

The one-movement work is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, six trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, and strings.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939)

Symbolon is one of Zwilich’s most popular works. In 1988, the New York Philharmonic toured the Soviet Union and commissioned this work for that occasion. This made it the first American work to premiere in Russia. It was performed under the baton of Zubin Mehta at Bolshoi Hall in Leningrad. Commentator Chris Morrison writes that the political climate at the time, and the purpose of the commission, highlight the meaning of the title. Zwilich explains, “The word Symbolon comes from the Greek and refers to the ancient custom whereby two parties broke a piece of pottery (or a stone, or a coin) in two, each retaining half. Each half (or symbolon) thus became a token of friendship as well as proof of identity of the bearer. The word came to have many other meanings, among them: the identity-token given to Athenian dicasts on entering the courts, entitling them to vote; a passport or the seal thereon; a secret code; and in the plural, a treaty between two states. Usually the word symbolon describes a relationship between two parties with a particular connotation of goodwill and friendship.

“While Symbolon… is not a programmatic or narrative work, I am certain that it was inspired by its circumstances. From the beginning I knew that the piece would receive its first performance in the Soviet Union, and I found this profoundly moving. I am sure that my complex feelings, embracing both hope and sadness about the state of the political world, have found their way into this work.

Symbolon is in one movement and is written for the modern orchestra with its characteristic robust string sound and instrumental virtuosity. It is dedicated to Zubin Mehta.”

Symbolon opens with strong chords intensified by the use of unisons. Zwilich intersperses these with shorter repetitive, livelier figures that serve almost as punctuation. The melody is splayed over a wide pitch field, which increases the tension until we burst onto a sparser plain. Even now, though, repetitive drum figures remind us of the earlier tension and threaten to bring it back. A solo cello leads us into the final section. Zwilich ends it softly, with a hopeful chord in the major mode.

Symbolon is scored for three flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, three clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones and bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

EIN HELDENLEBEN (A Hero’s Life), Op. 40
Richard Strauss (1864–1949)

Though Strauss is most well known now as a composer of tone poems, before composing Ein Heldenleben, Strauss could be referred to as primarily a composer of operas. Not only did most of his compositional output live in this genre, his thriving career as a conductor was also firmly rooted in it. Though his opera Guntram (1895) was not particularly successful, it marks an important time for Strauss, as it was during the rehearsals for this piece that he fell in love with and became engaged to Pauline de Ahna. Pauline was one of his students and also performed in that first production of Guntram. Pauline also plays quite an important role in Ein Heldenleben.

Although Strauss was focused mostly on opera, Ein Heldenleben is by no means his first symphonic work, or, more specifically, his first symphonic poem. He had been interested for some time in the concept that new ideas, particularly philosophical ones, should find new forms for presentation. This thought was based loosely on the work of pianist and composer Franz Liszt, who often based his pieces around poetic ideas rather than musical ones. 

Strauss began sketching for Ein Heldenleben in the spring of 1897 and completed it the next year. Originally calling it Held und Welt, or “Hero and World,” it is fair to admit a strong element of musical autobiography about it, though not necessarily a completely serious one. Musicologist Matthew Boyden explains, “Such a combination of nerve and talent was unprecedented. Neither Beethoven nor Wagner, whose opinions of themselves inclined towards hyperbole, indulged in any outright musical autobiography. Indeed, it was the irony of the gesture that distinguished Heldenleben as probably the boldest work of self-deprecation in the history of music, for Strauss was, in every respect, the least heroic figure imaginable.” Unfortunately for Strauss, not everyone caught his levity. In 1906, the conductor and critic Rudolf Louis launched a verbal assault against Strauss for “presuming to elevate his own person … [Heldenleben displays] a shallow, even trivial sentimentality, which made [it] a repellent experience.”

Besides serving as an outlet for his own hubris, Heldenleben also had a second inspiration. In a letter to a friend, Strauss wrote, “Beethoven’s Eroica is so little beloved by our conductors, and is on this account now only rarely performed, that to fulfill a pressing need I am composing a largish tone poem entitled Heldenleben, admittedly without a funeral march, but yet in E-flat, with lots of horns, which are always a yardstick of heroism.” Boyden notes that Strauss may have assumed at this time, as others did, that Beethoven had composed his Eroica not in honor of the Emperor but of himself. 

Regardless of who the hero is in Heldenleben, the idea of the hero’s – and a heroic – life was clearly important to Strauss at the time. It’s also the subject of his Don Quixote, which he was working on almost simultaneously and completed first. Don Quixote was a massive success, and some of that success doubtlessly spilled over onto Heldenleben. In fact, the two pieces were delivered and received as companion pieces. In a letter to the director of the Frankfurt Museum Concerts, Strauss wrote,  “Don Quixote and Heldenleben are conceived so much as immediate pendants that, in particular, Don Q. is only fully and entirely comprehensible at the side of Heldenleben.

Despite the anticipation of Heldenleben, the road to publication was not a smooth one. Strauss was endeavoring to persuade the government to amend the copyright and publication laws for musical scores, being of the firm belief that tone poems must be eligible for royalties “such as at present [are] already enjoyed by the authors of dramatic works in their lifetime.” However, his publisher did not agree with his aims, and in a letter to them on completion of the score Strauss wrote, “Dear friend, it is with regret that I learn of your refusal to take Heldenleben, because, as I have said before, it is absolutely impossible for me to give the performance rights of my works to the publisher in future. This is the cardinal point in our whole movement, and as instigator I cannot set a bad example. Publishing rights to the publisher. Author’s rights to the author.”

In the end, a convenient way around this and other tricky problems, such as the difficulty of the score and of fulfilling the instrumentation requirements, was to dedicate the work to a whole orchestra so that as a group the musicians might take responsibility for its performance. So Strauss dedicated Heldenleben to conductor Wilhelm Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, though he insisted on conducting the premiere (in Frankfurt) himself. Despite varied responses by critics, the piece became a favorite with audiences.

Ein Heldenleben, though not formally broken into movements, is presented in six descriptive sections. The first, labeled “Hero,” presents the main theme. The second section describes the “The Hero’s Adversaries,” which Boyden describes as “the squealing of the critics.” Listen for the tuba part in this section, which Strauss cleverly sets in intervals so as to form a theoretical mistake meant to represent the pedantic “Adversaries” (critics).

“The Hero’s Companion” is about Strauss’s sometimes difficult but always loving wife, Pauline. Strauss paints her with a lone violin, which later becomes a duet between the violin and horn. Of this movement Strauss said, “It’s my wife I wanted to portray. She is very complicated, très femme, a little perverse, a bit of a coquette, never the same twice, different each minute from what she was a minute earlier. At the beginning, the hero follows her lead, picking up the pitch she has just sung, but she escapes farther and farther. Finally he says, ‘All right, go. I’m staying here,’ and he withdraws into his thoughts, his own key. But then she goes after him.”

This section gives way to “The Hero’s Deeds of War,” where the hero must battle his adversaries, called by trumpets. Eventually, the hero is victorious. Following war, Strauss writes of “The Hero’s Deeds of Peace,” in which he quoted heavily from his own earlier works, including Guntram, a couple of his songs, and all of his tone poems except Aus Italien. Musicologist Michael Steinberg describes this section, “Strauss, when accompanying song recitals, used to build bridges from one song to the next by playing – almost inaudibly – passages from his operas, passages that would turn out to be closely related to the song they prepared. Here Strauss weaves a texture both dense and delicate as he combines music from Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra, Death and Transfiguration, Don Quixote, Macbeth, and the song ‘Traum durch die Dämmerung’ (“Dreaming at Twilight”). The episode is one of Strauss's orchestral miracles – richly blended, yet a constantly astonishing, shifting kaleidoscopic play of luminescent textures and colors.”

The final section describes “The Hero’s Retirement from the World and the Fulfillment of his Life,” and is doubtless one of the parts of Heldenleben that so enraged Louis with its “trivial sentimentality.” Boyden remarks, “The glory of these last two movements and the ease with which Strauss fuses so much disparate material into a symphonic passage that thrives independently of the material’s origin … touch an emotional depth anticipated only by the closing pages of Don Quixote, and conductors have to work very hard not to allow the sentiment to get the better of them.”

In the first edition, Strauss ends the piece with a reflective gentleness, a choice that he’d made also before in some of his other works. However, he composed a second version of the end, reportedly at the urging of his friend Friedrich Rösch, who was disappointed at the prospect of another subdued ending and, speaking for all of Strauss’s audiences, ordered Strauss to produce an ending with more energy. Apparently, Boyden writes, Strauss asked for pen and paper and jotted down the new ending on the spot “amid tea and toast.” This new ending was subsequently published and is now standard.

Though he did approve the descriptive titles, Strauss also wrote, “For me, the poetic program is nothing more than the formative stimulus both for the expression and the purely musical development of my feelings, not, as you think, a mere musical description of certain of life’s events. That, after all, would be completely against the spirit of music. But, for music not to lose itself in total arbitrariness or dissolve somehow into the boundless, it has need of certain boundaries, and a program can provide such bounds. An analytical program isn’t meant to be more than a kind of handhold for the listener. Whoever is interested in it, let him use it. Anyone who really knows how to listen to music probably doesn’t need it anyway.”

It’s also possible that Strauss was just being difficult. According to music writer Alex Ross, “Both [Strauss and Mahler] saw music as a medium of conflict, a battlefield of extremes. The heroic narratives of nineteenth-century Romanticism … invariably ended with a blaze of transcendence, of spiritual overcoming. [They] told stories of a more circuitous shape … Strauss continued to pursue the underlying theme of Guntram, the struggle of the individual against the collective … always seems doomed to end in defeat, resignation, or withdrawal.”

Nevertheless, Ein Heldenleben, which composer Claude Debussy likened to a “book of images,” continues to capture our attention and love, perhaps because of its abstract nature, which leaves so much room for the listener in the experience. In attendance at one of the first performances, writer Romain Rolland described seeing people “shudder … suddenly rise to their feet, and make violent and unconscious gestures.” He also described his own experience as a “strange intoxication, the dizziness of this heaving ocean,” which led him to the conclusion that “for the first time [in] thirty years, the Germans had found their poet of victory.”

Ein Heldenleben is scored for three flutes and piccolo, four oboes (one doubling English horn), two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, and bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, a staggering eight horns, five trumpets, three trombones, tenor and bass tubas, timpani, extensive percussion, two harps, and strings.

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Nordic Air

Alain Trudel, conductor
Augustin Hadelich, violin

Sibelius – Finlandia
Sibelius – Violin Concerto
Grieg - Peer Gynt Suites No. 1 and 2
Nielsen – Aladdin March

“Edvard Grieg, in the late nineteenth century, wrote the ‘song of Norway.’ And Carl Nielsen, in Denmark, wrested music of brilliance and violence from rough-hewn folk melodies. Sibelius, the great composer of the small nation of Finland, set the pace for many others.” – Alex Ross


Sibelius composed many works across various genres throughout his career and was something of a celebrity in his native Finland. Music writer Alex Ross credits him with the continued importance of classical music in Finnish culture. He is also well-known for furthering the development of symphonic forms and for incorporating strong nationalistic elements into his art.

Finlandia is his most famous work, composed in 1899 for a political demonstration in Helsinki. The piece underwent revisions the year after it was premiered. While Sibelius was renowned in his country before Finlandia, it was Finlandia that catapulted him into the international spotlight.

Huscher explains, “1899 was a time of heightened political tensions, as the Russian hold on Finland was growing tighter, and so a simple and brief, but stirring composition called ‘Finlandia Awakes,’ crowned by a big singable tune, struck home like a thunderbolt.” While working on Finlandia Sibelius was taken with the central theme of Finnish author Zachris Topelius’s dramatic poem, “The Melting of the Ice on the Ulea River: “I was born free and free will I die.” Finlandia, originally titled Finland Awakens, began as the closing movement of a larger piece based on this poem.

The year after its revision, the newly formed Helsinki Philharmonic took Finlandia on tour in Europe, finishing at the World Expo in Paris. Annotator James Keays notes that “the work has virtually become Finland’s second national anthem.” He adds that for some time after its composition, Finlandia was performed under other titles to circumvent the Russian restrictions, which lifted only after Finland gained its independence following the First World War.

Sibelius opens Finlandia with long, threatening chords in the brass that Keays connects with the “powers of darkness” from Topelius. It’s also been suggested that these chords represent the distant but towering Russian Empire. The darkness finally gives way before a lovely hymn, presented in the woodwinds. The score here bears the words: “On great long hills, where tempests brood and gather, primeval earth beneath primeval sky.” The melody grows gradually, until the exultant final sounds.

Huscher points out that not everything about Finlandia’s reception was good for Sibelius, despite the “personal fame, sweeping popularity, and national pride that these few minutes of music inspired. Just as Boléro eventually hounded Ravel, the success of Finlandia came to irritate Sibelius, particularly when it overshadowed greater and more substantial works.”

The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings.

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)

Sibelius’ violin concerto is somewhat unique in his repertoire. It’s among the few works he wrote that doesn’t reference Finnish mythology, folklore, or culture. Like Finlandia, the concerto has a substantial history of revisions, including both before and after the premiere.

Sibelius began taking violin lessons when he was fifteen, and by all accounts he learned quickly. He enjoyed playing in both chamber and orchestral settings, and nurtured a strong desire to perform as a soloist. He wrote, “The violin took me by storm, and for the next ten years it was my dearest wish, my overriding ambition, to become a great virtuoso.” Sadly, it was not to be. “My tragedy was that I wanted to be a celebrated violinist at any price … I played my violin … practicing from morning to night. I hated pen and ink, and, unfortunately, preferred an elegant violin bow. My preference for the violin lasted quite long, and it was a very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the exacting career of an eminent performer too late.” Nevertheless, his training on the instrument stood him in good stead, and his marked fondness for the instrument, as well as his intimate knowledge of its mechanics, are clear in his work. Besides this concerto, he also wrote several shorter works that showcase the violin.

Sibelius began sketches for the violin concerto as early as 1899, writing to a friend, “I have been thinking of writing a violin concerto,” although the finished piece would not appear for several more years. Based on a letter that Sibelius’s wife, Aino, wrote in 1903, it is safe to assume that much of the work was completed toward the end of this period: “Janne has been on fire all the time (and so have I!) … He has such a multitude of themes in his head that he has been literally quite dizzy. He stays awake all night, plays incredibly beautifully, cannot tear himself away from the delightful melodies – he has so many ideas that it is hard to believe…. And all the themes are so capable of development, full of life.” Annotator Michael Steinberg comments, “His Violin Concerto is imbued both with his feeling for the instrument and the pain of his farewell to his ‘dearest wish’ and ‘overriding ambition.’”

More personal accounts of this time in Sibelius’s life suggest that he may have tried to subdue the fire Aino refers to with alcohol, a claim backed by his treatment of violinist Willy Burmester, the original dedicatee of the work. Burmester was reputedly the main source of encouragement behind Sibelius’s decision to write a violin concerto, and also loved the work when he first saw the score. However, Sibelius inexplicably pushed for a premiere he knew Burmester couldn’t make. Therefore, lesser-known violinist Viktor Novácèk performed the work for the first time in Helsinki in 1904. Though the earliest review praised Novácèk’s playing, subsequent reviews, doubtlessly more realistic, cite problems with the piece’s tempi, and musicians in rehearsals reported that Novácèk complained extensively about the difficulty of the passagework.

Disappointed by the quality of the premiere, and blaming himself for Novácèk’s struggles, Sibelius began revising the concerto, details of which he described in a letter to a friend in 1904: “I shall remove my violin concerto; it will not be published until two years have passed. The first movement must be rewritten, the same goes for the proportions in the andante, etc.” At this point, Burmester put aside his affront at not being given the premiere and offered to perform the work in order to give it the benefit of his greater experience and artistry. But again Sibelius chose a date for which Burmester had a prior engagement. Burmester never did perform the concerto, and the second premiere took place in 1905 with Karl Halír (a violinist in Joseph Joachim’s quartet and concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic) playing the solo. Composer Richard Strauss conducted.

Despite the early buzz over it in the violin community, the concerto did not achieve immediate popularity. It was not until world-renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz championed the work in the 1930s that it was set on the path of becoming one of the most frequently recorded and performed works of that genre in the twentieth century. Steinberg suggests that one of the reasons for the concerto’s success stems from Sibelius’s desire to compose a work with emotional depth, not just a showpiece. “Sibelius [also] set store by having composed a soloistic concerto rather than a symphonic one.… He opposes rather than meshes solo and orchestra.”

The first movement, Allegro moderato, is in a loose sonata form. Sibelius juxtaposes the intensity of certain moments with a more subdued quality. In keeping with his decision to set the violin and orchestra apart, the solo part first enters off the beat and with a gentle dissonance. In a letter to Aino, Sibelius wrote of this “marvelous opening idea.” Finnish composer and musicologist Erkki Salmenhaara points out that across the work “the virtuoso material springs organically from the themes.” This idea supports the unusually lengthy cadenza, which forms a significant section in the arc of the first movement.

The Adagio di molto opens with a lovely duet in the winds. The effect is one of simplicity and aching beauty that traces a melody both restrained and rich that commentator Chris Morrison compares with one of Tchaikovsky’s most lush. The first section of the solo part is marked sul G – to be played entirely on the lowest and thickest string, lending the tone a darker color. Steinberg calls this movement “one of the most moving pages Sibelius ever achieved … [he] never found, perhaps never sought, such a melody again: This, too, is farewell.”

The Allegro ma non tanto (“fast, but not too fast”) is a dance movement, and Sibelius sets the melody in a quick dotted rhythm interspersed with flurries of notes in the solo part. This main melody is a quote from an earlier work for string quartet. Sibelius later replaced the tempo marking with the unapologetic and unqualified Allegro, explaining that the character of the movement could only be understood at a slightly faster tempo. This was evidently at least partially in response to Novácèk’s tempo, though it doubtlessly also accounted for whichever performances caused musicologist Donald Francis Tovey to refer to the movement as a “polonaise for polar bears.” Despite this comment, Tovey greatly approved of the concerto, elaborating, “in the easier and looser concerto forms invented by Mendelssohn and Schumann I have not met with a more original, a more masterly, and a more exhilarating work than the Sibelius Violin Concerto.”

Sibelius biographer Eric Tawaststjerna explains the concerto well: “[It] is distinctly Nordic in its overwhelming sense of nostalgia. The orchestra does not wallow in rich colors, but in the sonorous halflights of autumn and winter; only on rare occasions does the horizon brighten and glow.” Ross adds, “[Composing music] is a laborious traversal of an imaginary landscape. What emerges is an artwork in code, which other musicians must be persuaded to unravel … unlike a novel or a painting, a score gives up its full meaning only when it is performed in front of an audience; it is a child of loneliness that lives off crowds.”  

Sibelius’s concerto is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.

Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)

Peer Gynt is a poetic drama written in 1867 by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. In it, Ibsen accomplishes something impressive in how he creates and then nurtures a character almost completely without good qualities. In Ibsen’s text, Peer is a young peasant who is proud, dishonest, and promiscuous. However, as annotator Peter Laki notes, “Ibsen showed how earnestly this unsavory character had struggled all his life to make sense of human destiny, and made this quest the focus of his play.” He also manages to incorporate an intriguing mix of current philosophical ideas and Norwegian folklore. Historian Edvard Beyer called Peer Gynt a combination of “fairytale and … folk-life; tragedy and fantastical, satirical, Aristophanic comedy; dream play and morality.”

Grieg outlines the story: “Peer Gynt, the only son of impoverished Norwegian peasants, is described by the poet as a personality suffering from an excess of fantastic imagination as well as from delusions of grandeur. In his youth he commits many a mad prank; he comes to a peasant wedding, abducts the bride and carries her up to the mountain heights, where he leaves her, to roam with wild shepherd girls. Soon he loses his way in … the realm of the Mountain King, whose daughter falls in love with him and dances for him, but he makes fun of the dance and the … music, whereupon the mountain folk set out to kill him. He escapes, journeys to foreign continents. In Morocco he assumes the airs of a prophet and is greeted by Arabian maidens. After many a strange turn of fate he finally returns home as an old man, once more penniless, having suffered shipwreck on the way. Here the love of his youth, Solveig, who has remained true to him through the years, greets him; his weary head at last finds rest in her lap.”

In 1874, in the process of putting together a full production of Peer Gynt, Ibsen wrote a letter to Grieg asking that he contribute the incidental music. Though Grieg agreed, he was not immediately excited by the prospect, calling Peer Gynt “the most unmusical of subjects … terrifyingly intractable,” and adding, “The text is such that you really have to kill all thoughts of writing true music, and concentrate merely on the external effect.” Laki suggests that it was the philosophical element that challenged Grieg, as the folklore definitely provided no shortage of inspiration or material.

Grieg also had difficulty with the restrictions of the production. They were not as bad as what Nielsen would endure with Aladdin, but they were not what Grieg had had in mind either. Conductor Bjarte Engeset explains, “At first Grieg undervalued his Peer Gynt music, as he later did with the Holberg Suite. Both were created in circumstances he had not chosen for himself, so he felt that the musical results could not be any good! He did not dare show up at the premiere of Peer Gynt in 1876. It was a huge success, and he gradually came to recognize the power of the music.” In the end, Grieg’s incidental music was not only good for his career but also helped to fix Ibsen’s work in the international view.

A little over a year later, Grieg extracted and rearranged his favorite sections of the music for Peer Gynt, setting them into two suites of four movements each. Suite No. 1, Op. 46 was finished in 1888, and Suite No. 2, Op. 55 in 1891. The first movement of the first suite opens with music from the beginning of Act IV of the play and is titled “Morning.” This section describes the sun rising over the desert in North Africa, though, as Laki points out, the music could just as easily describe a Norwegian morning. The melody floats over long mooring bass notes. When in the play Peer makes a reed pipe, Grieg illustrates it with the flute.

The second movement tells of the death of Peer’s mother, Åse (Aase). While traveling, presumably in Africa, Peer hears a voice that tells him to go home, where he finds his mother dying. He clearly loves her, but like any relationship, theirs has had its fraught moments, such as the scene at the beginning of the play when Åse calls Peer a liar, and he retaliates by lifting her onto the shed roof and stranding her there. However, as she approaches death, Peer speaks softly and sweetly to her, indulging his own fantasy of riding with her to the gates of St. Peter, where she is welcomed with respect. This movement is given to the strings, all of which, excepting the basses, are instructed to play with mutes on.

The third movement, “Anitra’s Dance,” is marked “Tempo di Mazurka.” This music is from the scene in the play where Peer, back in North Africa, is visiting a Bedouin tribe. There he meets Anitra, his host’s daughter, who tries to seduce him. Grieg scores Anitra’s dance for strings – again, muted – and triangle, and introduces elements of chromaticism. Grieg was fond of this movement, calling it “a little darling” and instructing that it should be played “completely ppp.”  

The final movement of the first suite is one of the most popular and well-known pieces Grieg ever wrote. Called “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” it follows Peer as he first falls and hits his head on a rock, then enters a large underground hall that is home to trolls, goblins, gnomes, and other such creatures. Whether this is happening or he’s experiencing the aftereffects of the concussion is unclear. Throughout the movement, the music builds, becoming more threatening and wilder until the end. Grieg explained, “I came up with something for the Mountain King’s hall that I literally can’t bear to listen to: it reeks of cow pies, exaggerated Norwegian provincialism, and trollish selfishness!” 

The second suite follows a more logical chronology than the first, and the opening movement depicts “Ingrid’s Lament.” The first melody is from the overture, but Grieg presents it here in a minor mode. Engeset notes, “This G minor universe of Grieg’s is full of supernatural and demonic forces, of wandering and delusion, of grief and loss.” He also points out that Ingrid is not the only one suffering here – she is broken-hearted that Peer has left her: “In his way, Peer is desperate too. Ingrid is beseeching and imploring.”

“Ingrid’s Lament” makes way for the soft percussive opening of the “Arabian Dance.” Here, Grieg has made an Arab flute out of the piccolo. The suite’s third movement describes Peer’s arrival home. On his way he is shipwrecked, and therefore when he arrives he is as he began, with almost no worldly possessions. Engeset notes, “This music is both an antithesis and a parallel to the nature-impression Morning …  full of details and colors, chromatic lines and accents.”

When Peer finally reaches home, he finds his childhood love Solveig singing softly and waiting for him. Grieg admitted that this was the only song in the whole work that was influenced by folk music, but he colored it with light dissonance and chromatic passages in the inner voices. Engeset suggests that these elements “perhaps represent Solveig’s yearning thoughts and glances.” In the play, Ibsen instructs the character of Solveig to spin (thread) while she sings, and Grieg translates that circular motion clearly. Despite its touches of pain, “Solveig’s Song” is run through with sweetness. “Here there are associations with religious consolation; and also with Goethe’s Ewigweibliche – the ‘Eternal Feminine.’ Grieg’s music closes the story in a dream-state.” Of the ending Grieg declared, “I believe I gave of my best.”  

Grieg scores the Suites from Peer Gynt for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones and bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.

Carl Nielsen (1891–1931)

Danish composer Carl Nielsen exerted a huge influence on twentieth-century music, both internationally and in his native Scandinavia. Despite his fame, he presented himself as an artisan not above devoting time to smaller scale works and productions. A new version of Aladdin (The Miraculous Lamp), by Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger, was one such small-scale production. It was to be presented at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen. But the work could not be taken too seriously since the production was short on both preparation time and resources.

Despite the red flags those caused, Nielsen gave the project his full attention, creating a richly textured score and about eighty minutes of music. Unfortunately, the producer later commandeered the orchestra pit for part of the set, necessitating a sizeable reduction in performing forces, since the musicians had to squeeze into the space off to one side, beneath the stairs. The producer also insisted on several cuts to the music and took it upon himself to rearrange the order of some of the numbers. Nielsen declared this offensive and unacceptable, and while it was too late to withdraw his music, he refused to allow his name to appear in the program.

It wasn’t until 1919 that Nielsen (with the enthusiastic encouragement of his publishers) arranged sections from the work as an orchestral suite. There’s some debate over whether he arranged the work as an orchestral suite or arranged isolated movements for individual performances that were later gathered by his publisher to form a set. In any case, the full suite wasn’t published until 1940.

Aladdin Suite has seven movements, several of which are dance movements. Compared with other twentieth-century music, or even examples from the last decades of the nineteenth century, in some respects Aladdin appears quite conventional. However, Nielsen cleverly introduces various eccentricities into the harmonies that take it from a pale watercolor to a bright oil painting. Listen especially to some of the accompanimental parts and notice how Nielsen uses these to emphasize various rhythms in the melodies unwinding above them.

For most of his career both as a conductor and composer Nielsen was not particularly well known outside his native Denmark because he didn’t like to travel – it was not a comment on his music. After the premiere of Aladdin, which he conducted, Nielsen gained tremendous popularity – a fame that only increased later in the century, when recordings became a viable way to distribute music internationally. Annotator Don Adkins cites another reason for his rising popularity: “He was a modern composer who did not join with the extremely dissonant composers but pursued different approaches to tonality. He loved melody and had a sense of clarity that recalled classical composers such as Haydn.” His symphonies are evidence of this as well.

Commentator Roy Brewer compares Nielsen’s Aladdin to one of his contemporaries: “The fairy-tale atmosphere of the original remains … [as] fresh … as Grieg’s equally celebrated incidental music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.”

Nielsen’s Aladdin Suite is scored for flute and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones and bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.

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