Debussy’s La MerArlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
- Moderato con moto
- Passacaglia: Andante lento
(un poco meno mosso)
- Simone Lamsma
- From Dawn to Noon on the Sea
- Play of the Waves
- Dialogue of Wind and Sea
THE CONCERT CONVERSATION, conducted one hour before each performance, will feature Oregon Symphony Principal Clarinet James Shields and Christa Wessel, host for the stations of All Classical Portland. You can also enjoy the Concert Conversation in the comfort of your own home. Visit AllClassical.org to watch the video on demand.
(Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26
Composer: Born February 3, 1809, Hamburg; died November 4, 1847, Leipzig.
Work composed: Mendelssohn wrote The Hebrides between 1829 and 1833. He revised it several times, even after its premiere in 1832.
World premiere: May 14, 1832, in London by the Philharmonic Society of London, conducted by Thomas Atwood.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: January 12, 2015; Carlos Kalmar, conductor.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Estimated duration: 10 minutes
Few pieces of music evoke so perfectly the source of their inspiration as does the concert overture Felix Mendelssohn wrote while visiting the Hebrides, a series of small islands off the west coast of Scotland, in 1829. In early August of that year, Mendelssohn and a friend traveled to the islands by boat. Mendelssohn was overwhelmed by the scenery and wrote to his sister Fanny, “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.” He included the first 21 bars of the overture, with its famous ear-catching descending melody. The following day, Mendelssohn visited Fingal’s Cave, the largest and most spectacular of several caverns on the small island of Staffa. Fingal’s Cave, whose Gaelic name translates as “cave of melody,” lends itself to musical depiction. Composed of hexagonal basalt columns, it is an otherworldly natural cathedral, 227 feet long, with an arched roof and distinctive acoustics.
The confusion of the two titles for this overture begins with Mendelssohn himself; he appended several names to this work, including “The Hebrides” and “The Solitary Isle.” The first published score gave the work as “Fingal’s Cave,” but individual orchestral parts bore the title “The Hebrides.” Today, the overture is known by both names.
Despite the programmatic elements of this overture, Mendelssohn had no specific story or extra-musical inspiration in mind, other than the spectacular wild beauty of the islands themselves. Mendelssohn fussed over the music, making a number of revisions even after its 1832 premiere. He was particularly dissatisfied with the central section: “The forte, D Major middle section is very silly and the entire so-called development tastes more of counterpoint than of whale oil, seagulls and salted cod, and it ought to be the other way around.” Whatever the faults of its earlier versions, real or imagined, today this overture is one of Mendelssohn’s most popular orchestral works, a perfect musical evocation of a natural wonder.
Violin Concerto, Op. 15
Composer: Born Nov. 22, 1913, Lowestoft, England; died Dec. 4, 1976, Aldeburgh, England.
Work composed: 1938–39, revised
1950, 1954, and 1965. Dedicated to
World premiere: John Barbirolli led violinist Antonio Brosa and the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on March 28, 1940.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: May 25, 2010; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Elina Vähälä, violin.
Instrumentation: Solo violin, 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, glockenspiel, side drum, tenor drum, triangle, harp, and strings.
Estimated duration: 32 minutes
In 1936, Benjamin Britten traveled to Barcelona with violinist Antonio Brosa to perform Britten’s Suite for Violin and Piano. Soon after, the Spanish Civil War broke out, which horrified the pacifist Britten, who had a number of friends fighting for the Spanish Republicans.
Although he left no specific comments about non-musical influences or inspirations for his Violin Concerto, it seems clear that this work is Britten’s response to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, which claimed over 600,000 lives. Britten finished the concerto a month after Germany invaded Poland, in the autumn of 1939. Begun during one war and completed at the outset of another, Britten wrote, “It’s at times like these that work is so important, that humans can think of other things than blowing each other up.”
The 27-year-old Britten poured his anguish over the war into this concerto, and produced what he termed “my best piece, without question.” In a letter to his publisher, Britten said, “It’s rather serious, I’m afraid—but it’s got some tunes in it!” The concerto contains several significant musical features. It begins with a distinctive Iberian rhythmic motif in the timpani, and this fragment recurs and intensifies throughout the first movement. This may be Britten’s homage to Beethoven, who began his own violin concerto in a similar manner. Britten also took inspiration from the outstanding musicianship of his friend Brosa. Many of the concerto’s melodies are tinged with an Iberian flavor. The usual structure of a concerto, in which fast outer movements frame a slower, more intimate central section, is reversed here. The Vivace crackles with barely contained explosive energy, while the outer movements, particularly the Passacaglia, are in places infused with a heaviness that suggests the utter futility of war.
Olin Downes praised Britten’s Violin Concerto in the New York Times as “something that has the flavor of genuine novelty in the violin concerto form,” while another critic observed, “At its best … it is personal, heartfelt, communicative.” American composer Elliott Carter wrote, “Nobody could fail to be impressed by the remarkable gifts of the composer, the size and ambition of his talent.”
Composer: Born October 23, 1955, Hiroshima.
Work composed: 2005. Commissioned by the Salzburger Festspiele.
World premiere: Valery Gergiev led the Vienna Philharmonic on August 20, 2005, at the Großes Festspielhaus in Salzburg.
First Oregon Symphony performance.
Instrumentation: Piccolo (doubling bass flute), flute (doubling alto flute), 3 oboes (one doubling English horn), 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, antique cymbal, 2 bass drums, bongos, celesta, glockenspiel, 8 Japanese temple bowls, 8 Japanese wind bells, 2 tam-tams, 4 tom-toms, 7 triangles, vibraphone, harp, and strings.
Estimated duration: 21 minutes
The unique blend of Western avant-garde tonalities with aspects of traditional Japanese aesthetics, such as stasis, silence, and the beauty of nature make up the sound world of Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa. Today Hosokawa is regarded as Japan’s greatest living composer, and his music, particularly in the last decade, is being programmed by prestigious conductors and at well-regarded festivals around the world.
The ephemeral quality of nature is a signature element of Hosokawa’s musical style. In a 2011 interview, when asked about his musical inspirations, Hosokawa replied, “The most important for me is nature and the experience I get from it. When I was a child I spent a lot of time in the countryside with my parents. I still remember that time and those happy memories it brings back are very important to me. I’m not so naïve about nature; I always look for the harmony within the environment and this is what I try to show in my music. Maybe you know that in our (Japanese) culture we always seek the nature in all its forms and the relationship it has with human beings—the harmony they create together. This is the base of the whole Japanese culture. My music, consequently, comes from this tradition, which is very close to nature.”
Nothing abides forever, and Hosokawa has incorporated this idea into his music as well. “Transience is beautiful,” says Hosokawa, referring to Buddhist concepts of the impermanence of life: “The tone comes from silence, it lives, it returns to silence.” In Hosokawa’s music, the listener experiences sound and silence in the moment. Circulating Ocean’s musical tide fluctuates from calm to stormy, and the steady ebb and flow of sound and silence conveys a sense of the music breathing (Hosokawa says he pictured the orchestra as a traditional sho, a Japanese mouth organ).
In the liner notes to the first recording of Circulating Ocean, performed by the Orchestre de Lyon, led by Jun Märkl on the Naxos label, Hosokawa writes, “I am attempting to express in sound the flow and change of water … The ocean is for me the birthplace of life, a being possessed of infinite depth and expanse.” “It seems, at first glance, like a musical illustration of the eternal cycle of the water: Mist rising from the sea, clouds forming, rain falling down to earth,” writes Hosokawa in his own notes. “But Circulating Ocean is more than program music, more than a one-dimensional description of nature—the cycle of the element of water is a symbol of the cycle of human life, of our attachment to nature, of our striving for emptiness, removal of boundaries and perfection.”
La mer (The Sea)
Composer: Born August 22, 1862, St. Germain-en-Laye, near Paris; died March 25, 1918, Paris.
Work composed: 1903–05; Debussy wrote the date he completed La mer on the manuscript, “Sunday, March 5, 1905, at 6 o’clock in the evening.” He also arranged La mer for piano four-hands in 1905 and later revised the orchestral version in 1909. Debussy originally dedicated La mer to his lover, Emma Bardac, “For la petite mienne [small mine], whose eyes laugh in the shade.” The scandal surrounding Debussy’s private life, and his desire to shield both himself and Emma from public scrutiny, may explain why he ultimately chose to dedicate the score to his publisher, Jacques Durand.
World premiere: La mer was first performed in Paris on October 15, 1905, with Camille Chevillard conducting the Concerts Lamoureux.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: March 14, 2011; Carlos Kalmar, conductor.
Instrumentation: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, tam-tam, triangle, 2 harps, and strings.
Estimated duration: 23 minutes
“You’re unaware, maybe, that I was intended for the noble career of a sailor and have only deviated from that path thanks to the quirks of fate. Even so, I’ve retained a sincere devotion to the sea,” Debussy wrote to a friend in 1903, as he began work on La mer. Debussy’s connection to the ocean began in his childhood, when he made several extended visits to Cannes. Interestingly, the lure of the sea worked so powerfully on Debussy that he ended up writing much of La mer in the mountains, safely beyond the pull of the ocean’s insistent presence. Debussy’s publisher, Jacques Durand, when describing Debussy’s study, recalled, “I … remember a certain colored engraving by Hokusai [a renowned Japanese artist; Durand is probably referring to Hokusai’s famous woodblock print, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa], representing the curl of a giant wave. Debussy was particularly enamored of this wave. It inspired him while he was composing La mer, and he asked us to reproduce it on the cover of the printed score.”
The three movements of La mer capture the ocean in its various moods: calm and glassy, with sunlight shimmering on its surface; wind-tossed; the playful rise and fall of waves one moment, stormy and violent the next. Throughout, Debussy’s scales acts as both the harmonic and melodic foundation of La mer, effectively portraying the ever-changing mercurial quality of the sea.
Although considered a standard of orchestral repertoire today, La mer received decidedly mixed reactions at its 1905 premiere. The negative reaction of the audi- ence, however, had little to do with the music; rather, they hissed and booed Debussy in outrage over his scandalous private life, which had resulted in the very public suicide attempt of one of his former lovers. Camille Chevillard, who conducted the premiere, was also responsible for its poor reception. Although praised by many, including Debussy, for his abilities with established works, such as music of Beethoven, Chevillard had little interest in, or aptitude for, new works. (During rehearsal for La mer, according to musicologist Simon Tresize, “Debussy complained of [Chevillard’s] lack of artistry and suggested he should have been ‘a wild beast tamer.’”) To make matters worse, bad weather on the day of the premiere kept many concertgoers away.
Critical reception varied as well; some were captivated by La mer’s rich sonorities, while others were baffled by its form. Debussy subtitled the work “Three Symphonic Sketches,” but they are clearly finished movements, each with its own character. One critic wrote, “For the first time in listening to a descriptive work of Debussy’s I have the impression of beholding not nature, but a reproduction of nature, marvelously subtle, ingenious and skillful, no doubt, but a reproduction for all that … I neither hear, nor see, nor feel the sea.” In contrast, an admirer of La mer wrote, “Never was music so fresh, spontaneous, unexpected, novel rhythms; never were harmonies richer or more original; never has an orchestra possessed more voices and sonorities with which to interpret compositions overflowing with such a wealth of fantasy.”
Program Notes by Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a writer and musician based in the Portland area. She provides notes for several organizations, including the Oregon Symphony, Portland Piano International and the Oregon Bach Festival, among others, and has also contributed to NPR’s “Performance Today,” (now heard on American Public Media). Ms. Schwartz also co-hosts the Portland Jewish Hour, heard Sundays at 10 am on KBOO 90.7 fm. classicalmusicprogramnotes.com.
Mendelssohn – The Hebrides
Claudio Abbado–London Symphony Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 423104
Christoph von Dohnanyi–Vienna
Britten – Violin Concerto
Vilde Frang, violin
James Gaffigan – Frankfurt Radio Symphony
Warner Classics 2564600921
Gil Shaham, violin
Juanjo Mena – Boston Symphony Orchestra
2-Canary Classics 12
Hosokawa – Circulating Ocean
Jun Märkl–Lyon National Orchestra Naxos 8573276
Debussy – La Mer
Jun Märkl – Lyon National Orchestra
Carlo Maria Giulini– Philharmonia Orchestra
EMI Classics 65235