Update browser for a secure Minnesota Orchestra experience

It looks like you may be using a web browser version that we don't support. Make sure you're using the most recent version of your browser, or try using of these supported browsers, to get the full Minnesota Orchestra experience: Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Edge.

Inside the Music

Program Notes: Celebrating Pride

Minnesota Orchestra musicians performing at a Symphony in 60 concert in April 2024.
Minnesota Orchestra musicians performing at a Symphony in 60 concert in April 2024 | Photo by Courtney Perry

On June 20, 21 and 22, 2024, the Minnesota Orchestra presents Celebrating Pride, our season finale concerts spotlighting the music of three composers from the LGBTQ+ community: Dame Ethel Smyth, Francis Poulenc and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. For the concerts on June 21 and 22, Music Director Thomas Søndergård is ill and unable to conduct—but we’re pleased that conductor Chad Goodman is ready to step in on short notice. Pianists Christina Naughton and Michelle Naughton will be featured as soloists in Poulenc’s Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra. The Naughtons are replacing Francesco Piemontesi, who is recovering from a recent bicycle accident in which he was hit by a car and broke his collarbone. We wish both Francesco and Thomas a speedy recovery.

The performances take place at Orchestra Hall on Thursday, June 20; Friday, June 21; and Saturday, June 22, 2024. The June 21 performance will be broadcast live on Twin Cities PBS (TPT-2), with Ariana Kim serving as broadcast host, and will be available for online streaming on the Orchestra’s website and social media channels. It will also be broadcast live on stations of YourClassical Minnesota Public Radio, including KSJN 99.5 FM in the Twin Cities.

Program Notes

Dame Ethel Smyth
Born: April 22, 1858, London, England
Died: May 8, 1944, Woking, England

On the Cliffs of Cornwallfrom The Wreckers
Premiered: November 11, 1906 (complete opera)

Sweeping melodies and a tragic undercurrent run throughout this interlude from Smyth’s 1906 opera The Wreckers, which concerns the malicious 18th-century practice of shipwreck plunder in a Cornish village.

Dame Ethel Smyth was a trailblazer in a remarkable combination of ways. One of the first British women to earn wide recognition in the field of classical music composition, she was also a notable figure in the women’s suffrage movement and a challenger of societal norms in her personal life—specifically, her non-conformist sexual orientation, which has been described as either lesbian or bisexual—to name a few key facets of her biography. Music Director Thomas Søndergård has selected On the Cliffs of Cornwall, an interlude from her 1906 opera The Wreckers, to open this week’s season-ending program of music by composers from the LGBTQ+ community.


Born in London in 1856, Smyth had a musical career that, on a surface level, would be typical of an accomplished male classical composer in Europe of the day. Such a path included formal conservatory training—at Germany’s Leipzig Conservatory—encounters with prominent composers and conductors, and the creation of new works in the major forms of operas, orchestral music, chamber music, songs and choral compositions. However, many of her works had a limited reach due to bias against her gender and presumptions about the type of music a woman might be expected to compose at the time: most often, informal parlor works rather than compositions for the concert hall and opera stage.

Smyth’s musical career had a number of peaks—notably, she was the first female composer to have an opera staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York—but her works fell out of favor after her death in 1944 until a revival in recent years. The Minnesota Orchestra, for instance, played Smyth’s music for the first time just six years ago, when the overture to her 1914 opera The Boatswain’s Mate was included at an Inside the Classics concert conducted by Sarah Hicks.

In the early 1910s, when Smyth’s attention turned to the women’s suffrage movement, her composing reflected this shift in focus, most memorably through her suffragette anthem The March of the Women. Although her involvement in the cause resulted in a two-month jail sentence in 1912, her stature shifted dramatically a decade later when, in recognition of her activism and contributions to music, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Late in her career, Smyth became a prolific writer, producing 10 books primarily in the autobiography genre. 

Smyth’s romantic and emotional relationships with men and women in artistic and political circles—including writer Virginia Woolf and suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst—further set Symth apart from social expectations of the day, when most people weren’t supportive of LGBTQ+ individuals and rights. Smyth carried out these relationships relatively openly, which presented her with some personal and professional challenges, but her status as a respected artistic and activist figure inured her from the worst discrimination. (Worth noting is that gay and bisexual men faced a greater degree of persecution in the eyes of the law. Male same-sex relations were illegal in all of Britain until 1967, when they were decriminalized in England and Wales, followed in the early 1980s by legalization in Scotland and Northern Ireland.)


Smyth’s opera The Wreckers, which received its premiere in Leipzig in November 1906, is considered by many critics and musicologists to be among her most important works due to its scope and command of musical vocabulary. Set in an 18th-century Cornish community, the opera’s story centers on wrecking—the practice by which villagers interfered with coastal beacons to cause ships to crash on the rocks, then looted the wreckage. Increased attention has been paid to The Wreckers in recent years, including a high-profile performance by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in a concert at the 2022 BBC Proms in London. 

On the Cliffs of Cornwall is the instrumental interlude that opens the opera’s second act. It paints a vivid picture of the majestic Cornwall coast while also emphasizing the opera’s tragic side. Scored for a mostly standard orchestra—though darkened by lower-toned additions to the woodwind section—the music is characterized by sweeping melodic lines that evoke powerful, relentless waves and stark, imposing cliffs.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, tamtam, triangle, chimes, harp and strings

Program note by Carl Schroeder.

Francis Poulenc
Born: January 7, 1899, Paris, France
Died: January 30, 1963, Paris, France

Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra
Premiered: September 5, 1932

Francis Poulenc’s minor-key Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra has been a beloved staple in concert halls ever since its premiere in September 1932, when the composer was one of the two soloists. The many facets and the changeable moods of this concerto are sheer delight.

Born and raised in Paris, the home of his maternal family for several generations, Francis Poulenc grew up with two music-loving parents, one of whom, his mother, played the piano “with impeccable musical sensibility and a delightful touch,” according to her son. She recognized the boy’s attraction to the instrument and, when he was 4, began to teach him. By the time he was only 14, Poulenc was in the hands of one of the great piano virtuosos of that era, Ricardo Viñes.

The time with Viñes became even more important in light of the fact that in spite of his extraordinary musical gifts, Poulenc never attended a conservatory. His education was interrupted by World War I and his conscription into the army, and upon his release from that service, Poulenc studied composition from 1921 to 1924 under the influential guidance of Charles Koechlin. And that was the sum total of his formal education in music.

In his personal life, Poulenc navigated conflicted feelings as a gay man. Although he briefly contemplated marriage with a female friend, his life was enriched by several romantic relationships with men, some brief and others more lengthy. Platonic friends, such as his longtime collaborator, the baritone Pierre Bernac, were also a source of fulfillment.

Composing chamber music and spending a great deal of time with the major musicians, poets and artists in Paris in the 1920s, Poulenc became known as an innovative and imaginative composer. The great Russian ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev heard of him and commissioned the young composer to create a ballet for his company. The success of that work, Les Biches, first performed in 1923, was a turning point for Poulenc. (Minnesota Orchestra audiences can look forward to hearing a suite from that ballet on July 26 and 27 as part of the 1920s-themed Summer at Orchestra Hall festival.)

Moving in those artistic circles, Poulenc inevitably made the acquaintance of a great patron of the arts, Winnaretta Singer—heir to Singer sewing machine fortune and wife of Prince Edmond de Polignac. The princess was a gifted painter, pianist and organist herself, and she generously supported and commissioned such composers as Gabriel Fauré, Emmanuel Chabrier, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie and Manuel de Falla. Twice she commissioned Poulenc for keyboard works. One was his Concerto for Organ, and the other a Concerto for Two Pianos. Both are dedicated to her.


In September 1932, the princess invited Poulenc and many other illustrious guests—including Falla and the pianist Arthur Rubinstein—to her home in Venice, the Palazzo Polignac on the Grand Canal, in order to attend the first performance of Poulenc’s new two-piano concerto. The occasion was the ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) Festival, at which Poulenc and the French piano virtuoso Jacques Février performed as soloists with the orchestra of La Scala conducted by Désiré Defauw. Poulenc had written the Concerto for Two Pianos with Février in mind as the second soloist, and the two remarkable pianists swept the audience away with their brilliant performance.

From that moment the concerto has never been out of the public ear, either in concert halls or in the many recordings that have been made over the years. Poulenc himself continued to perform it for the rest of his life. Poulenc’s crystalline writing in this concerto makes analysis superfluous—as the composer himself would have preferred. He once stated: “Above all do not analyze my music—love it!” The many facets and the changeable moods of this concerto are sheer delight.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising flute, piccolo, 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, shallow snare drum, military drum, bass drum, castanets, cymbals, triangle and strings

Program note by Sandra Hyslop.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36
Premiered: February 22, 1878

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, like Beethoven’s Fifth, presents a Fate motif at the outset. This is an adventurous work carrying us through lyrical episodes as well as high drama on the way to the exuberant conclusion.

The Fourth Symphony dates from the most tumultuous period in Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s difficult life. In July 1877, Tchaikovsky married one of his students at the Moscow Conservatory, Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova. The marriage was an instant disaster—due to the relationship’s volitivity, and because Tchaikovsky was gay. In Russia of the 19th century (as well as today), societal norms and laws regarding homosexuality were oppressive, leading Tchaikovsky to be relatively private about this aspect of his life—but his correspondence and diaries suggest romantic and emotional involvements with men. Tchaikovsky abandoned his bride, tried to return, but retreated again. He fled to Western Europe, finding relief in the quiet of Clarens in Switzerland and San Remo in Italy. It was in San Remo—on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean and far from the chaos of his life in Moscow—that he completed the Fourth Symphony in January 1878.

The Fourth Symphony has all of Tchaikovsky’s considerable virtues—great melodies, primary colors and soaring climaxes—in this case fused with a superheated emotional content. Tchaikovsky said that the model for his Fourth Symphony had been Beethoven’s Fifth, specifically in the way both symphonies are structured around a recurring motif, though perhaps also in the sense that the two symphonies begin in emotional turmoil and eventually win their way to release and triumph in the finale.


ANDANTE SOSTENUTO–MODERATO CON ANIMA. The symphony opens with a powerful brass fanfare, which Tchaikovsky described as “Fate, the inexorable power that hampers our search for happiness. This power hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles, leaving us no option but to submit.” The principal subject of this movement, however, is a dark, stumbling waltz in 9/8 introduced by the violins. Like inescapable fate, the opening motto-theme returns at key points in this dramatic music, and it finally drives the movement to a furious close.

ANDANTINO IN MODO CANZONA. The two middle movements bring much-needed relief. The Andantino, in ternary-form, opens with a plaintive oboe solo and features a more animated middle section. Tchaikovsky described it: “Here is the melancholy feeling that overcomes us when we sit weary and alone at the end of the day. The book we pick up slips from our fingers, and a procession of memories passes in review…”

SCHERZO PIZZICATO OSTINATO. The scherzo has deservedly become one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular movements. It is a tour de force for strings, which play pizzicato (plucked) throughout, with crisp interjections first from the woodwinds and then from brass. The composer noted: “Here are only the capricious arabesques and indeterminate shapes that come into one’s mind with a little wine…”

FINALE: ALLEGRO CON FUOCO. Out of the quiet close of the third movement, the finale explodes to life. The composer described this movement as “the picture of a folk holiday” and said, “If you find no pleasure in yourself, look about you. Go to the people. See how they can enjoy life and give themselves up entirely to festivity.” Marked Allegro con fuoco, this movement simply alternates its volcanic opening
sequence with a gentle tune that is actually the Russian folk tune “In the field there stood a birch tree.”

Given the catastrophic events of his life during this music’s composition, Tchaikovsky may well have come to feel that Fate was inescapable, and the reappearance of the opening motto amid the high spirits of the finale represents the climax—musically and emotionally—of the entire symphony. This spectre duly acknowledged, Tchaikovsky rips the symphony to a close guaranteed to set every heart in the hall racing at the same incandescent pace as his music.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.