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Madness & Mystery: Program Notes

By April 3, 2023April 4th, 2023No Comments

Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976)
Composed: 1945

Credit to Michelle Pina

Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, based on a narrative poem by George Crabbe, tells the tragic tale of a belligerent fisherman suspected of murdering his young apprentices. Grimes’ cantankerous demeanor does little to aid his credibility, and it is not before long that he becomes the subject of persecution by his gossip-ridden town.

The interludes, later extracted and set for the concert hall, act as both musical and theatrical scene changes placed strategically throughout the opera. The first interlude, “Dawn,” connects the Prologue and the early morning of Act I, opening on the street of a small fishing village along the Suffolk coast. Britten paints a clear picture of the waking world as bird-like solo flute clashes against imposing brass chords that grow more sinister in intent, foreshadowing Grimes’ inevitable tragedy. “Sunday Morning,” which begins Act II, aptly begins with an imitation of church bells overlapping a skittish wind figure of birdsong and latecomers rushing to church. As the mayhem dies down, the violins introduce the theme that Ellen, Peter’s only confidant, sings at the beginning of the scene.

“Moonlight” follows the death of Grimes’ second apprentice and segues into Act III. The implications of a second, “accidental” death weighs heavy on the town, and Britten evokes a mysterious and unnerving blend of both motion and stasis. The final interlude, “Storm,” is a sonorous eruption of which the London’s Times wrote in 1945, “In this entr’acte Britten has written salt-water music of unequaled intensity – the sting and the crash and the scream of great waters have never before been caught and translated into music with such fidelity.”

To read additional program notes by William E. Runyan click here

Piano Concerto No. 2
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)
Composed: 1900-1901

Credit to Michelle Pina

Perhaps the most potent sense of madness in tonight’s program comes from the unusual circumstances surrounding the composition of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The concerto bears a sense of effortlessness and majesty in its unfolding, yet leading up to the time of its creation, Rachmaninoff had never been in a more fragile state. Suffering from what could now be considered clinical depression, Rachmaninoff was inconsolable after the onslaught of harsh criticism following the premiere of his First Symphony in 1897. Unable to compose for three years, Rachmaninoff sought out the help of the physician and amateur chamber musician to whom the piece is dedicated, Dr. Nicolai Dahl. Dr. Dahl’s cultured conversation, treatment, and hypnotic suggestion (“You will begin your concerto… you will work with great facility… the concerto will be excellent…”) resulted in a much healthier Rachmaninoff whose first piece back would in many ways save his career and further his maturing compositional voice.

The first movement opens with solo piano chords, evocative of the tolling bells of the orthodox church. As the orchestra enters, it is important to note the unique dynamic of the piano’s role as accompanist throughout the piece. Caught in almost a dance, the orchestra and the soloist trade off taking the foreground, building until the orchestra falls silent and the pianist takes their place as a vocal soloist with technical difficulty and heart-aching beauty.

A bridge passage leads into the Adagio second movement with the pianist once again in an accompanying role to the flute and clarinet. The melodic themes in the second movement are so influential, notable cameos permeated film and pop music of the 20th century, including The Seven Year Itch starring Marilyn Monroe (1955), Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (2010), Frank Sinatra’s song, Full Moon and Empty Arms and Eric Carmen’s 1975 power ballad All By Myself. Rachmaninoff again makes a bridge into the finale, and despite the minor mode, the Allegro third movement is teaming with electric vigor. March music is at first distant, growing in determination finishing with an epic conclusion.

For additional program notes written by William E. Runyan click here

Enigma Variations
Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934)
Composed: 1898-99

Credit to Michelle Pina

“In this music I have sketched, for their amusement and mine, the idiosyncrasies of fourteen of my friends, not necessarily musicians; but this is a personal matter and needs not have been mentioned publicly. The Variations should stand simply as a ‘piece’ of music. The Enigma I will not explain–its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed.” So wrote Elgar concerning what would become his most popular and certainly most intriguing score. The sketches reveal Elgar’s friends in the following order:

Variation I (C.A.E.)– Elgar’s wife, Caroline Alice.
Variation II (H.D.S-P.)– pianist Hew David Steuart-Powell.
Variation III (R.B.T.)– Oxford classicist, Richard Baxter Townshend.
Variation IV (W.M.B.)– William Meath Baker.
Variation V (R.P.A.)– Richard Penrose Arnold, son of poet Matthew Arnold.
Variation VI (Ysobel)– Elgar’s violin student, Isabel Fitton.
Variation VII (Troyte)– one of Elgar’s closest friends, architect Arthur Troyte Griffith.
Variation VIII (W.N.)– pianist Winifred Norbury.
Variation IX (Nimrod), the most loved of the variations– Augustus J. Jaeger.
Variation X (Dorabella)– step-niece of Variation IV (William Baker), Dora Penny.
Variation XI (G.R.S.)– organist George Robertson Sinclair and his bulldog, Dan.
Variation XII (B.G.N.)– cellist Basil Nevinson.
Variation XIII (***)– Lady Mary Lygon. The asterisks in place of initials suggest further mystery.
Variation XIV (Finale: E.D.U.)– Alice’s nickname for Elgar, Edoo. 

Of the fourteen variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra, the most beloved is certainly “Nimrod.” Cheekily named, “Nimrod” is a portrait of Augustus J. Jaeger, Elgar’s editor and publisher. “Jaeger” is German for “hunter,” and Nimrod is the “mighty hunter” mentioned in Genesis 10. This peaceful variation portrays a scene representing the years of advice and encouragement Elgar received from his dear friend. During a depressive lapse in Elgar’s life, Jaeger once reminded him of Beethoven’s music, which inspired the opening moments of the variation. A subtle hint of the second moment theme from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, Pathétique, honors the memory in which Jaeger had sung it to him to lift his spirits.

In addition to the music, perhaps the greatest appeal of this work is the “enigma” itself. “I warn you that the connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played… So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas… the chief character is never on the stage.” Since its premiere, historians and musicologists have worked to unveil the hidden message to no avail. Thus, the enigma lives on, waiting to be discovered.

For additional program notes written by William E. Runyan click here