Maestro Debut Notes

Finlandia, Op. 26

JEAN SIBELIUS: Finlandia, Op. 26
BORN: December 8, 1865. Tavestehus, Finland
DIED: September 20, 1957. Järvenpää, Finland
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings
DURATION: About 8 mins

In the 1890s, Sibelius was recognized as the greatest composer in Finland. After 1900, he became famous around the world. It was his miniature symphonic poem, Finlandia, that marked the turning point. He had agreed to compose music for a public demonstration in Helsinki, but 1899 was a time of heightened political tensions. The Russian hold on Finland was growing tighter through censorship of the free press, so a simple but stirring composition called Finland Awakes, crowned by a big singable tune, struck like a thunderbolt. In October 1899, Sibelius composed a melodrama to Finnish writer Zachria Topelius’ poem The Melting of the Ice on the Ulea River, which was marked by the patriotic sentiment, “I was born free, and free will I die.”

Sibelius extracted six tableaux from the melodrama for a celebratory gathering on November 4. Innocuously titled Music for Press Ceremony, the score concluded with Finland Awakens, which Sibelius reworked the following year. Following the suggestion of his artistic confidant, Axel Carpelan, he retitled this rousing patriotic essay Finlandia. Since that time, the work has virtually become Finland’s second national anthem. Because of censorship restrictions, the work was most often performed under the title Impromptu until Finland gained independence following World War I.

In 1919, Sibelius revised the score and gave it the title Finlandia. The Helsinki Philharmonic, then only eighteen months old, took the music on its first major tour, carrying Sibelius’s name throughout Europe.

The work opens with an ominous brass progression that evokes the “powers of darkness” from Topelius’ text, setting off a colorful drama that is reflective, jubilant, and militant. Most famous, though, is a hymn-like melody which appears in quiet reverence; by the end of the work, it has become a powerful statement of triumph. Finlandia is a clear precursor to the composer’s symphonies, in which the orchestra often assumes the role of an ever-strengthening, defiant juggernaut.


Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16

EDVARD GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16
BORN: June 15, 1843. Bergen, Norway
DIED: September 4, 1907. Bergen, Norway
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings and solo piano
DURATION: About 30 mins

Grieg’s Piano Concerto has become so popular that it frequently appears on Pops concerts or other programs of “light classical music.” This is a shame, because the Concerto was one of the most important steps on Grieg’s path toward the creation of a national Norwegian music. After his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory (where one of his classmates was a young Arthur Sullivan), he returned north to Copenhagen, the only Scandinavian city with an active musical life. There he met Rikard Nordraak, another young Norwegian composer whose influence proved decisive, particularly after his premature death at the age of twenty-four. Nordraak would notably compose the Norwegian National Anthem before his untimely death.

Following the birth of a daughter in April 1868, Edvard and his wife Nina spent a pleasant summer in a cottage at Søllerød, Denmark, where he experienced a creative outburst that resulted in the Piano Concerto. From the very beginning, it has been regarded as Grieg’s finest large-scale accomplishment (he generally found miniature works to be more accessible) and as the fullest musical embodiment of Norwegian nationalism in Romantic music. The basic architecture is clearly inspired by Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which is in the same key. The piano part has the brilliance of Liszt, blended with Grieg’s own harmonic language, which was influenced by Norwegian folk song. One Norwegian analyst has pointed out that the opening splash of piano, built on a sequence of a descending second followed by a descending third, is a very characteristic Norwegian melodic gesture, and that this opening typifies the pervasiveness of the folk influence. Though the Concerto was published soon after its composition, Grieg himself was never entirely satisfied with it, and he continued to touch up the score and solo part for the rest of his life.

Pictures at an Exhibition

MODEST MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition (Tableaux d’une exposition),
orch. Maurice Ravel
BORN: March 21, 1839. Karevo, Russia
DIED: March 28, 1881. Saint Petersburg, Russia
INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (including 2 piccolos), 3 oboes (including English horn), 3 clarinets (including bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (including contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, alto saxophone, timpani, xylophone, snare drum, tam-tam, bells, triangle, bass drum, glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, rattle, whip, side drum, celesta, chimes, harp, and strings
DURATION: About 35 mins

Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition as piano pieces in June 1874. Ravel made his orchestral transcription in the summer of 1922 for Serge Koussevitzky. When Victor Hartmann died at the age of thirty-nine, little did he know that the pictures he left behind—the legacy of an undistinguished career as artist and architect—would live on. The idea for an exhibition of his work came from Vladimir Stasov, the influential critic who organized a show in Saint Petersburg in the spring of 1874. But it was Modest Mussorgsky, so shocked at the unexpected death of his friend, who set out to make something of this loss.

Stasov’s memorial show gave Mussorgsky the idea for a piano work that depicted the composer “roving through the exhibition…thinking of his departed friend.” Mussorgsky worked feverishly that spring, and by June 22, 1874, the work was complete. Mussorgsky may well have had an inflated impression of Hartmann’s artistic importance (as friends often do), but these pictures guaranteed Hartmann a place in history that his art alone never could have achieved. There is no record of a public performance of Pictures in Mussorgsky’s lifetime and it was left to Rimsky-Korsakov, the musical executor of Mussorgsky’s estate, to edit the manuscript and bring Pictures to the light of day. Ravel was already sensitive to Mussorgsky’s style and since most of his own orchestral works started out as piano scores, the process of transcription was second nature to him. Ravel remained as faithful as possible to the original; only in the final “Great Gate of Kiev“ did he add a few notes of his own to Mussorgsky’s.

Mussorgsky chose eleven of Hartmann’s works for his set of piano pieces. He owned the sketches of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, which were combined into one “picture”; most, though not all, of the other works were in Stasov’s exhibition. Of the four hundred Hartmann works exhibited, less than a hundred have come to light, and only six of those in Mussorgsky’s score can be identified with certainty.

Program notes by Matthew Troy.