Program Notes: Classical I – Serenade for Strings

For this concert, we celebrate the YSO String section, with three of the most celebrated pieces for string orchestra ever written, and two other outstanding works, one new and one recently discovered.

Peter Boyer
(b. February 10, 1970)
Three Olympians

Peter Boyer was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and began composing at the age of fifteen. He has received a Grammy nomination, as well as numerous national awards. In addition to his work for the concert hall, Boyer has orchestrated music for more than a dozen major feature films, as well as music for the Academy Awards.

Commissioned by the Conductors Institute in 2000, Three Olympians reflects the composer’s interest in Greek mythology. Boyer says:

The word ‘Olympians’ in the title is not be understood in the modern-day ‘athletic’ sense of the word, but in the ancient Greek sense: an Olympian was a resident of Olympus, the home of the Greek gods…The three which inspired the music in this case—Apollo, Aphrodite, and Ares—were all children of Zeus, but each had a different mother…For me, Apollo meant ‘classical’ harmony and phrasing, and a great deal of energy. Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty, which to me unambiguously called for lyrical melody. Ares was the god of war, which to me translated as relentless rhythm, as well as a chance to exploit some of the more menacing effects of which strings are capable…This work is unabashedly tonal, straightforward, and hopefully a good deal of fun.

Samuel Osborne Barber
(March 9, 1910 – January 23, 1981)
Adagio for Strings

Adagio for Strings is arguably Barber’s best-known work. Based on the second movement of his Op. 11 String Quartet, Barber arranged the work in 1936, the same year that he wrote the quartet. It was premiered on November 5, 1938, by Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a radio broadcast. Barber also used the music for his 1967 choral arrangement of Agnus Dei, and the piece has been arranged for numerous instrumental and vocal combinations.

Adagio is constructed in a long musical arch, beginning with heartfelt strains that gradually build and peak at a fever pitch that, for many, creates a feeling of ultimate release of anguish and deep sadness. The association with deep sadness has come about through its use by the media at key moments in history, giving it iconic status in American culture. Performances and broadcasts of this piece have used to commemorate the deaths of such figures as Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, and Princess Diana, and events such as the September 11 terrorist attacks. Adagio for Strings can also be heard on many film, television, and video game soundtracks.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
(October 12, 1872 – August 26, 1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Vaughan Williams was an organist, composer, editor and folk song collector. The study of folk music profoundly affected his compositional style, as did his interest in history. It is not surprising that he would draw upon a work from one of England’s most important early composers.

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was a court composer for British royalty from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. A versatile composer, he created numerous sacred and secular works that are important to England’s musical heritage. It was a melody by Tallis in an English hymnal that Vaughan Williams was editing, Why Fum’th in Fight?, that inspired him to compose this Fantasia, which was premiered at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival with the composer conducting.

The work combines three separate string ensembles: a full string section, a group of nine players, and a quartet. Tallis’s melody is presented fully intact three times during the work, and the rest resembles a set of variations or improvisations on the theme and its motives. Toward the middle of the piece, contrasting material is introduced by the solo viola that is then combined with Tallis’s theme. The lush harmonies and orchestration also connect with England’s long tradition of string ensembles, making this piece one of Vaughan Williams’s most beloved works. A review of the premiere stated:

One is living in two centuries at once… Throughout its course one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new. The work is wonderful because it seems to lift one into some unknown regions of musical thought and feeling.

Florence Beatrice Price
(April 9, 1887-June 3, 1953)
Andante, from String Quartet (No. 1) in G major

Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, into a mixed-race family. After initial musical training from her mother, she enrolled at the New England Conservatory in Boston. In 1927, she moved to Chicago for more composition studies at the American Conservatory. In 1932 she won first prize in the Wanamaker competition, leading to a performance of her Symphony in E minor by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the first symphony by an African-American woman performed by a major orchestra. Subsequent works included art songs, arrangements of spirituals, four symphonies, four concertos, choral works, and music for chamber and solo instruments. Price’s musical language mirrors the Neo-Romantic style popular in the 1920s-1940s, but it also reflects the influence of her cultural heritage, incorporating spirituals and dance music in classical forms, as seen in the music of William Grant Still and William Dawson.

The Andante on tonight’s program is from an early work. Formally and harmonically, it shows the influence of Dvořák and other late Romantic composers, but its melodies bear the distinct flavor of an African-American spiritual. Constructed in a musical arch, this movement opens with a lush melody that creates a calm, peaceful feeling. There is a surprising contrast in mood with a new urgent theme, led by the viola with pizzicato accompaniment in the rest of the quartet. This gives way to a light, whimsical section, followed by a return of the contrasting urgent mood. Finally, the lush melody returns and the movement ends calmly and peacefully.

In 2009, a substantial collection of Price’s work, including dozens of scores, was found in St. Anne, Illinois. The balance of ideas, styles, and structures show her to be an accomplished, knowledgeable and thoughtful composer.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(May 7, 1840-November 6, 1893)
Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48

The late 1870s and early 1880s was a transitional time for Tchaikovsky. He gave up teaching at the Moscow Conservatory for a more nomadic existence, looking for places to live that would allow him to compose more freely. This was not without its own difficulties—financial and personal insecurities ebbed and flowed freely. His works during this time include opera and solo songs, but he also sought newer challenges, including the orchestral suite. This genre offered him more freedom from the expectations associated with music for full orchestra, especially in terms of expression and combinations of musical characters. Music on the lighter side also seemed to interest him, as evidenced by his Serenade for Strings.

This suite is an interesting combination of Russian and Western European musical styles. Musical materials introduced in the first movement are transformed from an opening chorale followed by contrasting spritely Mozartean flavor to a lush waltz in the second movement, to a gentle lyrical elegy in the third, and finally recast in the finale as a lusty Russian dance as if to emphasize or confirm his Russian roots. The music eventually circles back to the opening chorale for a reminder of where he started before a final rush to a satisfying end. The Serenade was given a private performance at the Moscow Conservatory on December 3, 1880, followed by its first public performance in St. Petersburg in October, 1881.