Program Notes: New World Symphony

Program Notes: New World Symphony

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Full program notes:

Aaron Copland
Born: November 14, 1900, Brooklyn, New York
Died: December 2, 1990, North Tarrytown, Newyork

Lincoln Portrait Ca. 14

On December 18, 1941, just 11 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor that pulled the United States into World War II, conductor André Kostelanetz sent letters to Aaron Copland and two other American composers, proposing a commission to create a “musical portrait gallery of great Americans.” Copland’s first choice was Walt Whitman, but since one of the other composers, Jerome Kern, had already picked a writer (Mark Twain), Kostelanetz requested that Copland choose a statesman instead. The composer obliged, writing a piece for narrator and orchestra honoring America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. Kostelanetz led the premiere with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on May 14, 1942, with William Adams narrating.

In preparing to write Lincoln Portrait, Copland later said he was “skeptical about expressing patriotism in music; it is difficult to achieve without becoming maudlin or bombastic, or both.” To avoid these common tropes, he incorporated five spoken excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches and writings in the work’s second half, drawing “a simple but impressive frame around the words of Lincoln himself—in my opinion among the best this nation has ever heard to express patriotism and humanity.” Lincoln Portrait also includes quotations of another kind: melodic fragments from two folk tunes popular in Lincoln’s time.

The patriotism that swept the U.S. during the war years ensured Lincoln Portrait’s immediate popularity, but even Copland was surprised at its enduring place in the musical repertoire. “I never expected it to be performed frequently,” he said. But Lincoln Portrait has become one of Copland’s most-performed works, familiar to generations of audiences at patriotic occasions. The narration has been delivered by many celebrities and political figures, including Barack Obama, who read the part with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2005 in a performance led by William Eddins, a former associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. Copland himself conducted the work with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1975; narrators here have included former Vice President Walter Mondale, current Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chutich and Minnesota Vikings great Carl Eller. Today, retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan C. Page joins their ranks.

words and music, rich with symbolism
The first half of Lincoln Portrait is purely instrumental, while in the latter half, the speaker enters and the orchestra adopts a supportive role. The piece opens a simple melodic idea, distinguished by a recurring double-dotted rhythm, that suggests solemnity and steadfast determination—motives equally apt in Lincoln’s 1860s and Copland’s 1940s. The first of two American folk songs Copland incorporates is “Springfield Mountain,” a ballad about a young soldier from Springfield Mountain, Massachusetts, who died of a snakebite. Using this melody to eulogize Lincoln is appropriate on several levels: Lincoln’s life was also cut short, and he too had lived in a town called Springfield. The other borrowed melodic material, which appears in the boisterous middle segment, is based loosely on the well-known song “Camptown Races.”

The concluding section includes five spoken Lincoln quotations— words from an 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas, the 1862 State of the Union Address, the 1863 Gettysburg Address and private writings published after the President’s death. Copland sequenced them to establish grave historical circumstances, to outline the righteousness of the American cause, and finally to proclaim inevitable victory. In concluding with a quotation from Lincoln’s most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, the piece gives strong emphasis to history’s lesson that America has survived dark moments before—a message that has resonated throughout all of our country’s uncertain times, handed to us through the centuries by the tall, bearded abolitionist statesman who freed a people and saved a nation.

Instrumentation: narrator with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, sleigh bells, tamtam, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta and strings

Max Bruch
Born: January 6, 1838, Cologne Germany
Died: October 2, 1920, Friedenau, Germany

Concerto No. 1 in G minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 26 Ca' 23

Max Bruch comes perilously close to being a one-work composer, this G-minor Concerto being the one work. In his day, however, he was a most substantial figure on the musical landscape, an artist who consistently won respect for his command of craft and affection for his devotion to euphony.

his life and music
Bruch’s early musical training outside the home amounted to indoctrination in the conservative Mendelssohn-Schumann Brahms faction and against the progressive Liszt-Wagner wing. He composed prodigiously during boyhood, and at 20, he settled down to teach in Cologne, where his first opera was staged the same year.

Bruch completed his Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1866 and conducted the first performance on April 24 that year with Otto von Königslow as soloist. Bruch substantially revised the Concerto with the help of Joseph Joachim, who reintroduced it in its present form in 1868.

In the 1870s, in part because of the phenomenal success of the G-minor Violin Concerto, Bruch enjoyed some patches of prosperity and independence that allowed him to devote himself entirely to composition. In the early 1890s he was granted the titles without which no self-respecting German can go to his reward in peace: a professorship (at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts) and a doctorate (from Cambridge).

As Bruch lived in comfortable retirement in his Berlin villa, the world around him changed nearly beyond recognition. Although the popularity of his Violin Concerto No. 1 remained a reassuring constant, when he died at 82 many who read the respectful obituaries must have been astonished to learn that he had been alive until the day before.

“the richest, the most seductive” concerto
Assessing the four most famous German violin concertos—the Beethoven, the Mendelssohn, the Bruch G-minor and the Brahms—Joseph Joachim, who was intimately connected with all four, called Bruch’s “the richest, the most seductive.” If you take “richest” to refer to immediate sensuous impressions, Joachim is exactly on target, and it takes less than a minute to find that out.

In the first movement, Prelude, orchestral flourishes alternate with solo flourishes. Bruch introduces two expansive and memorable melodies. Just when a development seems due, he brings back his opening chords and flourishes, using them this time to prepare the soft sinking into the Adagio. It is in this second movement that the soul of this perennially fresh and touching concerto resides, lyric rapture being heightened by Bruch’s artfully cultivated way with form, proportion and sequence.

As for the crackling, Gypsy-tinged Finale, having paid no attention to the date of composition, I had always assumed that Bruch had borrowed a notion or two from his slightly older colleague Johannes Brahms. It turns out that Bruch got there first and, always inclined to be jealous of Brahms, he would have found my mistake very annoying.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Antonín Dvořák
Born: September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia (now Nelahozeves, Czech Republic)
Died: May 1, 1904, Prague

Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Opus 95, From the New World Ca. 40'

Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9, the New World Symphony, was one of many works this composer wrote during his sojourn in America from 1892 to 1895. Although the New World Symphony was written in the New World, it is not specifically about the New World. True, there are themes that could be construed as being “authentic” songs of the American Indians or African Americans, but in fact, he did not quote from folksongs—he composed his own, based on study of the source material.

One “New World” aspect of this symphony is the role played by Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, which Dvorák had read in Czech translation some 30 years earlier. He re-read the poem in America and claimed that the scene of Minnehaha’s funeral in the forest inspired the Largo movement of his symphony, while the Indians’ dance was responsible for the Scherzo

the music: magical

adagio—allegro. This alone of Dvorák’s nine symphonies opens with a slow introduction. Within the space of just 23 measures, the composer incorporates moods of melancholic dreaming and tense foreboding, startling eruptions and a surging melodic line. The main Allegro section is launched by horns in an arpeggiated fanfare motif in E minor, a motif that will reappear in all remaining movements as well. Several additional themes follow.

largo. The second movement contains one of the most famous themes in all classical music, known to many as the song “Goin’ home.” The composition is Dvorák’s own: one of his students, William Arms Fisher, superimposed the words of the spiritual after Dvorák had completed the symphony. This theme, presented by the English horn, is in the key of D-flat major, which is harmonically distant from the key of the first movement, E minor. Dvorák arrives at the new key through a sequence of just seven somber chords played by low woodwinds and brass, beginning in E minor and ending in D-flat major. The effect is effortless, even magical, “like the drawing back of a curtain revealing the scene to the spectators’ gaze,” to quote biographer Otakar Sourek.

scherzo—molto vivace. The Scherzo is one of the most energetic and exhilarating movements Dvorák ever wrote, and it borders on the virtuosic as well for the dazzling orchestral display it entails. Contributing to the bright colors and brilliant effects is the triangle, which is employed in this movement alone. The contrasting Trio section is a charming rustic dance introduced by the woodwind choir and set to a lilting long-short-long rhythm.

allegro con fuoco. The finale, too, contains its share of melodic fecundity and inventiveness. The development section treats not only material from this movement but from the three previous ones as well, especially the main theme of the Largo, which is fragmented and tossed about with almost reckless abandon. The grand climax of the long coda (which begins after the horn solo that amazingly covers three full octaves) brings back the chordal sequence that opened the Largo, but now painted in broad, majestic strokes in the full brass and woodwind sections.

The fury subsides, the orchestra dies away to a whisper, horns softly intone the finale’s main theme like an echo from a far-away world. Violins proudly proclaim the theme one last time, and the symphony seems destined to end in E minor, the key in which it began. But with a sudden shift of the harmonic gears, Dvorák brings the symphony to a close in joyous E major. The final chord, too, is a surprise—not a predictably stentorian chord played fortissimo by the full orchestra, but a lovely, warm sonority of winds alone.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle and strings


Minnesota Orchestra Staff