Mendelssohn’s “Italian”

Program Notes

Wagner: The Flying Dutchman Overture
Christopher Theofanidis: Drum Circles (World premiere)
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4, “Italian”


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Richard Wagner

Overture to The Flying Dutchman

Work composed: 1841
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: November 17, 1991; Ching-Hsin Hsu, conductor
Instrumentation: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 10 minutes 

The Flying Dutchman marks a transition between Richard Wagner’s earlier works and his epic music dramas, like the Ring Cycle. Wagner himself recognized the importance of The Flying Dutchman in his 1851 A Message to My Friends, when he wrote, “From here begins my career as poet, and my farewell to the mere concoctor of opera-texts.” In Dutchman, Wagner developed the concept that became his compositional signature: the designation of a leitmotif (short musical theme) to represent individual characters. Narratively, The Flying Dutchman also charted new territory for Wagner: the beginning of his lifelong fascination with the idea of redemption through love.

Although notoriously and openly anti-Semitic, Wagner had no problem borrowing ideas from the Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, whose satirical 1833 Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski provides the basis of The Flying Dutchman’s plot. Heine’s original tale describes a play about a ship’s captain who, having uttered blasphemy, is cursed to sail the ocean forever as punishment. Wagner also took inspiration from the ocean crossing he made from Riga to London in the summer of 1839; terrible weather and dangerously high seas turned this voyage of a few days into a three-week nightmare for Wagner and his wife Minna. Wagner combined the high-stakes drama of the stormy crossing with Heine’s sunny, ironic story, transforming both into an epic tale of damnation and salvation.

The overture showcases the leitmotifs of the Dutchman and his love interest, Senta. The Dutchman’s theme opens the overture with dramatic horn calls that conjure up the raging seas and high winds. Senta, who pledges her fidelity to the Dutchman, appears as a subdued English horn and winds. Through the full orchestra and tremolo strings, the overture also evokes an ocean lashed into fury by gale-force winds.


Christopher Theofanidis
b. 1967

Drum Circles (World premiere, co-commissioned by the Oregon Symphony) 

Work composed: 2018
World premiere performance
Co-commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival, Baltimore Symphony, Colorado Symphony, and Oregon Symphony
Orchestra 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 2 bass drums, bongos, Chinese cymbal, crash cymbals, double-headed toms, guiro, spring coil, 2 suspended cymbals, piano, harp, and strings
4 Percussion soloists
I: double-headed toms, claves, maracas, marimba, ratchet, typewriter, and vibraphone
II: bongos, claves, egg shaker, marimba, ride cymbal, vibraphone, and xylophone
III: claves, chimes, congas, cowbell, sizzle cymbal, spring coil, triangle, and vibraphone (shared with player I)
IV: brake drum, claves, congas, crotales, egg shaker, glockenspiel, triangle, and vibraphone (shared with player II), vibraslap
Estimated duration: 25 minutes

One of the most acclaimed American composers of his generation, Christopher Theofanidis’ music spans almost every genre: ballet, opera, orchestral music (with and without soloists), chamber, and solo works. Theofanidis’ work has also earned a number of awards, including several Grammy nominations, the International Masterprize, the Rome Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Tanglewood Institute, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Formerly on the faculty at Juilliard and the Peabody Conservatory, Theofanidis currently teaches at Yale University. He is also composer-in-residence and co-director of the composition program at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado.

Theofanidis’ eclectic, expansive sound begins with the directional, horizontal nature of a melodic line. “When I compose, the through-line of my work is the voice; melody and lyricism are both basic to my work,” Theofanidis said in a recent interview. “I think about melody as a conversation, which implies some give and take. I think of music as going forward, and that comes from the voice.”

Theofanidis’ longtime friend and colleague Robert van Sice – “a marimba guru,” according to Theofanidis – recently created The Percussion Collective, a roster of outstanding percussionists from renowned music programs around the country. “Bob wanted me to write a concerto for his [percussion] quartet for some time,” says Theofanidis. “There are a lot of percussion concertos, but not so many quartet concertos.” Drum Circles features four Percussion Collective soloists, plus two percussionists and one timpanist from the orchestra.

Each of Drum Circles’ five movements embodies a clearly delineated character or musical personality. “I like the idea of definition of personality characteristics – the specific character of the music – threading through each movement,” Theofanidis explains. “Each movement’s personality determines all the musical decisions I made, from timbre to rhythm to phrasing to melodic line.”

Rivers and anthems opens with “a big bash” of pitched percussion instruments. “It’s a flood of bright clangorous chimes, bells, crotales, vibraphone, xylophone; they’re playing ‘super melodies’ on top of these cascades of rivers.” The primary melody, which Theofanidis calls an anthem, threads through the movement as a vivid sound ribbon. In contrast, Sparks and chants features marimbas in “a brittle environment created by dry instruments: slats, woodblocks, and claves, while the orchestra focuses on strings.” The central section, How can you smile when you’re deep in thought?, provides a palate-cleansing three minutes of “bright, punchy sound, like something from the 1940s,” featuring different types of cymbals and mallet instruments. For Spirits and drums, Theofanidis moves in a “shockingly different” direction: “It’s ritualistic – all the soloists are playing drums. The sound is somewhat threatening, with a lot of low sonorities. The orchestra’s strong statements are punctuated by silence and space.” In the closing Three chords and truth, Theofanidis presents his version of a folk ballad. “It’s like contemporary country western music and also blues, which can say a lot with a very restricted number of chords played in different voicings.” This is the most intimate of the movements, highlighting lyricism rather than “going out with a bang.”


Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Lark Ascending

Work composed: 1914
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: March 26, 2000; Murry Sidlin, conductor; Ronald Blessinger, violin
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, triangle, and strings
Estimated duration: 15 minutes

In November 1905, Ralph Vaughan Williams and his wife Adeline bought a large house in the London neighborhood of Chelsea, 13 Cheyne Walk. Since the first houses on Cheyne Walk were constructed, in the mid-18th century, many notable people have made this famous street their home, including Prime Minister Lloyd George, philosopher Bertrand Russell, guitarist Keith Richards, American billionaires Michael Bloomberg and John Paul Getty Jr., painter James Whistler, and actress Elizabeth Taylor, among others. Vaughan Williams and Adeline spent more than 20 years in No. 13, and it was there he composed his earliest works, including Variations on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending.

Vaughan Williams worked during the most tumultuous years of the 20th century, and his music reflects the irrevocable changes he witnessed. His early works express the Englishness of his homeland, particularly the serene beauty of the countryside, through the use of English folk songs and hymns. By 1935, when Vaughan Williams premiered his searing Symphony No. 4, which the Oregon Symphony performed and recorded at Carnegie Hall in 2011 for the CD Music for a Time of War, no trace of the Lark’s wistful gentleness remains.

Vaughan Williams wrote a piano-violin version of The Lark Ascending in 1914, before the outbreak of World War I. When the war began, the 41-year-old composer enlisted as a private and drove ambulances for the Royal Army Medical Corps. After three years, Vaughan Williams was promoted to lieutenant and served as an artilleryman in France for the last eight months of the war. He lost many friends in combat, and seldom talked about his war experiences, but Vaughan Williams never forgot the horrors he witnessed.

In 1920, Vaughan Williams returned to Lark and created the orchestral version most often heard today. The music remains firmly rooted in the pastoral Englishness of Vaughan Williams’ pre-war style. Vaughan Williams disliked talking about his work; in 1920 he was quoted saying, “ … if my music doesn’t make itself understood as music without any tributary explanation – well, it’s a failure as music, and there’s nothing more to be said.” After experiencing the physical, psychic, and spiritual devastation of war, is it any surprise that the music of Lark soars above such painful memories?

The work’s title comes from the poem of the same name by George Meredith. Vaughan Williams chose 12 of the poem’s 122 lines as a preface to his score, and they serve equally well as a programmatic description:

He rises and begins to round, 
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
’Tis love of earth that he instills,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Concertmaster Sarah Kwak last performed The Lark Ascending 25 years ago, when she was a member of the Minnesota Orchestra. “I was asked to play it right after my son was born, so it holds a special place in my heart because I always associate it with his birth,” she says. “It’s beautiful, uplifting, pastoral, peaceful music that fit perfectly with my mood at the time, because I was enthralled with my son.”


Felix Mendelssohn

Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90, “Italian” 

Work composed: 1833, rev. 1834
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: September 24, 2006; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 27 minutes

From 1830–31, Felix Mendelssohn traveled in Italy, spending most of his time in Rome. While in Italy, Mendelssohn wrote several of his best-known works, including the aptly named “Italian” Symphony. Although widely considered the finest example of Mendelssohn’s compositional genius, the “Italian” Symphony did not please its creator. After Mendelssohn conducted the premiere on May 13, 1833, with the Philharmonic Society in London, he made major revisions to it, but was still not satisfied with the result. Mendelssohn, apparently frustrated at being unable to achieve his artistic vision of the work, never performed it again and refused to have it published, although he did leave behind a detailed outline of revisions to the first three movements. (The “Italian” Symphony was eventually published in 1851, four years after Mendelssohn’s death; the published version does not include Mendelssohn’s revisions.)

Years later, recalling his trip to Italy, Mendelssohn said, “The whole country had such a festive air that I felt as if I were a young prince making his entry.” The Allegro vivace reflects the relaxed confidence of a young man on the brink of new adventures, as well as the warmth of the Italian sun, the blueness of the sky, and the sunny temperament of the Italian people. The mood of the second movement Andante con moto is more introspective. The melody, in a minor key, is supported by pizzicato strings, which provide a walking bass line suggestive of footsteps. Mendelssohn observed a number of Church rituals during his stay in Rome, and this processional quality suggests the solemn rites of a religious ceremony. With the third movement Con moto moderato, Mendelssohn returns to the warmth of the first. The exuberance of the first movement is gentled into a graceful minuet, accompanied by a trio of winds and brasses. Mendelssohn called the final movement a saltarello, after an energetic Italian dance. The rapid-fire theme skips nimbly and without pause through the orchestra, first in the winds, then the strings and brasses. The perpetual-motion quality of this music is more suggestive of another Italian dance, the tarantella, named for the mistaken Italian belief that immediate exertion would save the victim of a tarantula’s bite from its deadly poison.


© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media.