Classical III: National Heroes

This concert celebrates three composers considered national heroes in their respective homelands: Antonín Dvořák, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Jean Sibelius.

Antonin Leopold Dvořák
(September 8, 1841 – May 1, 1904)
My Homeland (Domov můj), op. 62, B. 125a

Dvorak’s upbringing in rural Bohemia included both folk and classical music.  After formal studies in Prague, he gained a position as a violinist in the National Opera orchestra, where he met Bedrich Smetana, a composer whose nationalistic efforts were to have a strong impact on Dvorak.  After some success with his Slavonic Dances (1878), which received great public support from Johannes Brahms, he devoted himself to composing and conducting.  His knack for combining folk elements with classical setting eventually made him a national hero, busy, rich, and free to do as he pleased.

My Homeland was composed between December 1881 and January 23, 1882, and is one of nine numbers that make up the incidental music for the play Josef Kajetán Tyl by František Ferdinand Šamberk. Dvořák based the music on two songs associated with the play’s protagonist, Czech dramatist Josef Kajetán Tyl: Kde domov můj? (Where is my home?) by František Škroup (1801-1862) and the folk tune Na tom našem dvoře.  Škroup composed Where is my home? in 1834 to a text by Tyl that speaks wistfully to the natural beauty of the meadows and rivers in the region. The song quickly became popular and was later designated as the Czech national anthem.  Na tom našem dvoře (In Our Yard) was sung in productions of Strakonický dudák (The Bagpiper of Strakonice), one of Tyl’s most popular plays.  The text speaks to the feelings of being at home, with chickens and goats in the yard.

The overture captures the feelings of both songs.  The slow, nostalgic introduction is based on Where is My Home?  The louder, fast section that follows has familiar folk dance elements and a melody based on In Our Yard.  At the end, the two are combined in a stirring ending that would surely have moved the Czech people.

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns
(October 9, 1835-December 16, 1921)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, op. 33

Saint-Saëns was a musical prodigy and, after studying at the Paris Conservatoire, began his career as a church organist.  Later, he became a freelance pianist and composer.  He was a member of the Société Nationale de Musique, formed in 1871 as a musical nationalist movement.  Promoted by César Franck and others to support current French composers, the Société sought to re-establish France’s musical heritage and raise Paris back to the center of musical universe.  Saint-Saëns, while enthusiastically supportive of contemporary composers, was very Classically-minded in his own compositions, concentrating on clear formal structures reinforced with obvious melodies and traditional harmonies.  He is best known for his orchestral music, including concertos and symphonies.  He also had several famous students, including Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Ravel. 

Saint-Saëns composed his first cello concerto for the Belgian cellist and instrument maker Auguste Tolbecque. The concerto was first performed on January 19, 1873, in Paris with Tolbecque as soloist.  The piece is presented in one continuous movement with several distinct sections. The orchestra plays a single loud chord, and the soloist launches into the first thematic idea, a forthright and somewhat aggressive melody that is shared with the orchestra, but with the soloist definitely leading the way.  There is a gentle, heartfelt contrasting theme, also initiated by the soloist and shared by the orchestra, but the conversation stays focused on the initial aggressive mood.  After things run their course, the piece arrives at an amazing contrast—a gentle and delicate minuet.  It begins in the strings and then the soloist takes the lead for an extended period of time.  The third section opens with the orchestra restating the material from the first section.  Another slow lyrical section follows with a more somber, serious melody.  The orchestra picks up the tempo again, and the soloist responds this time by taking the faster tempo and pushing the music forward to yet another slow section.  With a final flourish, the music gradually accelerates to a rousing finish.

This concerto is quite innovative in the continuous presence of the soloist in the foreground and its overall pacing, with twists and turns that must have kept audiences guessing until the very end.  A true masterpiece, it has been popular since its premiere.

Jean Sibelius
(December 5, 1865 – September 20, 1957)
Symphony No. 2 in D major

Sibelius began his musical career as a violinist, and then studied composition in Helsinki, Berlin, and Vienna before returning home to Finland to live and work. His first recognition as a composer came in 1891 with his choral symphony Kullervo, but it took another ten years for him to find his own musical voice. His early works show a strong influence of Tchaikovsky, but like many other Scandinavian composers, he was encouraged to follow a nationalist vein. Except for Finlandia, his most famous work, Sibelius chose not to quote folk songs or dances, but rather allowed his love for his country to guide his inspirations and his traditional training to guide the manner in which the music was written. By the early 1900s, he began using “modern” elements, and his combination of traditional and progressive musical characteristics was well received, especially in his own country where he remains a national hero. He preferred using thematic transformation, modal harmonies, and block orchestration, especially in darker timbres, and his music serves as an interesting manifestation of Finnish nationalist music, or at least how it would later be recognized.

Sibelius wrote seven symphonies, all wonderful examples of how composers bridged the stylistic values of the 19th and 20th centuries. His Second Symphony was premiered in Helsinki on March 8, 1902, with Sibelius conducting. The first movement begins in a very pastoral mood, with two contrasting but similar themes. As things develop, the mood turns a little darker and builds in intensity, finally resolving with a heavy brass section that then returns to the first theme in the winds. A modified recapitulation builds to a huge climax and then backs away very pleasantly with music from the pastoral introduction.

The second movement begins with an intriguing walking bass pizzicato, giving way to a bassoon melody in minor. Gradually, things pick up speed and once again culminate in the brass. After a stately, calm section featuring the strings, the first theme is presented again in a darker, more dramatic version. The third movement is an amazing contrast, beginning with a breathless scherzo in (almost) perpetual motion, followed by a slow, lyrical section that gives the strings a breather, and culminating in a return to the breathless excitement. Finally, the slow, lyrical section returns, serving as a direct segue to the last movement. The finale is lush and optimistic, bringing in new themes that lead to several false endings and new sections that revisit and re-combine these new themes. This continues to build in intensity and ends in absolute triumph, overwhelming the listener in one of the repertoire’s most thrilling finales.

© Yakima Symphony Orchestra 2018