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Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
September 9-10-11, 2005
80th Season / Subscription Concert No. 1
Michael Allsen

For this opening concert of our 80th season, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and John DeMain are proud to welcome back Hillary Hahn. Ms. Hahn last appeared with us in November 1996--a 16-year-old prodigy playing the Concerto No.3 by Saint-Saëns. At these concerts, she returns as one of the most widely-admired violinists of our time. She will play one of the most technically demanding works in the repertoire, Paganini's Concerto No.1. We open with Elgar's brilliant and witty Cockaigne Overture. After intermission, we turn to the most beloved of Dvorák's symphonies, the Symphony No.9 ("From the New World").

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Cockaigne Overture, Op. 40 ("In London Town")

Elgar composed this work in 1900-1901, and conducted the premiere at the Queen's Hall in London on June 20, 1901. The Madison Symphony Orchestra has played it once previously, in 1990. Duration 15:00.

"If you say that Elgar's Cockaigne overture combines every classic quality of a concert overture with every lyrical and dramatic quality of the overture to Die Meistersinger, you are either uttering a platitude as safe as a complaint to Handel on the majesty of the Hallelujah Chorus, or else damning yourself to all critical posterity by uttering a gaffe that will make your grandson blush for you. Personally, I am prepared to take the risk. What do I care for my grandson? Give me Cockaigne."
     - George Bernard Shaw
Elgar's Cockaigne Overture was written when he was 44, just two years after the composition of his famous Enigma Variations. This was a period of growing fame for Elgar, a time when his compositions and his skills as a conductor were increasingly in demand. It is no coincidence that he dedicated this overture "to my many friends, the members of British orchestras." During his long years of compositional apprenticeship, he had earned his living as a freelance violinist, and as the conductor of many amateur groups (including the band of the County of Worcester Lunatic Asylum). Cockaigne was immediately successful, and was for decades one of Elgar's most popular works. The overture is heard less frequently today, but it has lost none of its appeal.

The land of Cockaigne was a fixture of medieval mythology: a land where the rivers flow with wine and beer, where the streets are paved with pastry, and where everything is free for the taking. While moralists used Cockaigne as a metaphor for gluttony and drunkenness, the British humorously adopted the name for London. (In fact, it seems to be the root of the word "Cockney," used for the London urban dialect.)

Elgar's portrait of London is in this same lighthearted spirit. The overture, set in sonata form, begins with a kind of tongue-in-cheek introduction that leads to the robust main theme in the brasses. The second theme, carried mostly by violins, is lyrical and flowing, and Elgar then introduces a final idea to round off the exposition, a quirky theme first heard in the clarinet. The long development section is focused on the more lyrical ideas, which is then interrupted at the center of the piece by blustery military band music. The development closes with witty hints of the main theme before a full recapitulation and a blazing coda that combines most of the overture's main ideas.

[Note: The similarity of this overture's title to the name of a certain narcotic was no more lost on Elgar's listeners than on this audience. After one early performance, a friend of the composer's noted the similarity in names, and suggested that, if the overture should turn out to have the same anesthetic effect on its listeners, Elgar should retitle it Chloroform. Elgar replied: "Ether will do."   Eeeeeuuuw! - MA]

Niccoló Paganini (1782-1840)
Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 6

Paganini completed this work in 1816, and he performed it for the first time in Naples in early 1819. We have played the concerto once previously, with Franco Gulli as soloist, in 1977. Duration 39:00.

Niccoló Paganini was the very model of a Romantic virtuoso. Born in Parma, he was recognized as a violin prodigy as a child, and by the time he was a teenager, he was touring through Italy, and writing works to display his phenomenal technique. Beginning in 1829, he toured Europe, and was a phenomenon on a par with any Pop star of today. Tickets for his concerts always sold out, and went for twice (or more) the usual rate. In addition to an impressive battery of technical tricks--some of which he invented--and a larger sound than any violinist of his day, Paganini was a master showman. He would reportedly begin concerts with a frayed or partially cut string, which would break during the concert, allowing him to astonish the audience by finishing the piece on the remaining three strings. He also seems to have been one of the first soloists to play entire concerts by memory.

Part of his mystique, above and beyond his unsurpassed technique, was his image. Early in his career, there was a rumor that he had sold his soul to the Devil to gain ultimate mastery of the violin. Paganini, ahead of his time in recognizing that there is no such thing as "bad" publicity for a Pop star, did nothing to dispel the rumor. His appearance seemed to confirm this: by the time he began to tour Europe, he was gaunt, even cadaverous. (The fact that he had lost all of his teeth by this time only heightened the effect!) His appearance, however, had more to do with the ravages of syphilis, hard living, and later, tuberculosis and cancer than with anything demonic. And his astonishing playing ability came from the same source as most virtuosity: hard work. One contemporary reported that Paganini practiced up to eight hours a day.

The Concerto No.1 was composed when his career as a soloist in Italy was burgeoning, and like all of his works, it was composed for his own concerts. Though he composed five other violin concertos, this remained his signature piece, and was probably his most often-played piece during his tours. The concerto was not published until after his death--in part because Paganini jealously protected his works from rival players. The concerto was originally written in E-flat Major, generally not a friendly key for violinists, but Paganini retuned his instrument so that he could play the solo part as if it were in D Major. The entire work--both orchestra and soloist--is universally performed in D Major today.

The concerto begins with an enormous first movement (Allegro maestoso) that has the traditional outlines of a Classical sonata form. The main themes, introduced by the orchestra, sound thoroughly Italian and operatic. Though this great violinist never wrote an opera, many of his concert works were variations on the bel canto arias of Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini, and Paganini clearly absorbed this musical style. (Rossini once remarked that if Paganini had turned to opera, he would have "knocked us all out.") The solo part begins to develop these ideas as soon as it enters, taking tremendous rhythmic liberties and embellishing the themes with left-hand pizzicato and long runs of double stops (playing two notes at once). Though the orchestration is quite a bit more interesting than in most Romantic virtuoso works, there is no doubt about where the real interest lies, and the solo violin is present almost constantly. There is only one brief orchestral interlude, which seems to be included only to allow the soloist to catch her breath before a huge solo cadenza.

The second movement (Adagio espressivo) again invokes opera: obviously a tragedy this time. After the opening passage, the solo part sings an impassioned melody above a simple string accompaniment. This is virtually an entire operatic scene, which works its way to a great dramatic climax, before linking to the finale (Allegro spiritoso). The recurring theme of this rondo-form movement introduces one of Paganini's technical inventions, "ricochet" bowing, in which the player quickly bounces the bow across the strings. The contrasting episodes are just as spectacular, with every trick in Paganini's very large book thrown in for good measure.

Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op.95 ("From the New World")

Dvorák composed this symphony in New York in the winter and spring of 1892-93. Anton Seidl conducted the New York Philharmonic in the first performance on December 16, 1893. It has been performed four times at these concerts, in 1930, 1935, 1975, and 1994. Duration 40:00.

In 1892, Jeannette Thurber made Dvorák an offer he couldn't refuse. Thurber, the wife of a wealthy New York businessman, had a dream of raising the standards of American art music to equal those of Europe. She had founded the National Conservatory of Music in 1885, and recruited some of the finest teachers in the world to serve on its faculty. At this time, Dvorák's reputation as a symphonist was surpassed only by that of Brahms, and Thurber resolved to hire him as the director of the Conservatory. Dvorák was lukewarm at first, but the terms she offered were very generous: a two-year contract, with very light teaching duties and four months' paid leave each year. The annual salary, $15,000, was about 25 times what Dvorák was making as an instructor at the Prague Conservatory, and in the end he accepted, eventually spending three years in this country.

Dvorák enjoyed this American sojourn. American audiences adored his music, and he blended comfortably into New York society. He spent two summers in the small town of Spillville, Iowa, where he felt at home in a large Bohemian community. He had several promising composition students at the Conservatory, and agreed heartily with Thurber's ideal that American composers should foster their own distinctive style of composition. He wrote that:

"My own duty as a teacher is not so much to interpret Beethoven, Wagner, and other masters of the past, but to give what encouragement I can to the young musicians of America... this nation has already surpassed so many others in marvelous inventions and feats of engineering and commerce, and it has made an honorable place for itself in literature--so it must assert itself in the other arts, and especially in the art of music."
The "New World" symphony is the most famous of the works Dvorák composed while in America. According to Thurber, the symphony was written at her suggestion--she felt that Dvorák should write a symphony "…embodying his experiences and feelings in America." It was an immediate hit with audiences in both America and Europe. The new symphony closely matched the style of his other late symphonies, a style based on the German symphonic style of his mentor, Brahms. There are a few "Americanisms" in the Symphony No.9, however. As a strongly nationalistic Bohemian, Dvorák had always brought the spirit of his homeland into his works by bringing in folk tunes, and by more generally imitating the sound of Bohemian music. According to his own account of the work's composition, Dvorák attempted to do the same with regards to American music in the Symphony No.9, and he was particularly interested in two forms of music that had their origins in the United States: Native American music and African American spirituals. Dvorák frequently quizzed one his students at the National Conservatory, a talented young African American composer named Harry T. Burleigh, about spirituals, and he dutifully transcribed every spiritual tune Burleigh knew. His contact with Native American music was a little more tenuous--most of what Dvorák knew came from rather dubious published transcriptions. (The only time he ever heard an "authentic" Indian performance was when he went to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show!) While he did not use any true American melodies in the symphony, Dvorák immersed himself in American music and culture, and wrote musical themes from this inspiration. At its heart, however, the Symphony No.9 is a work "From the New World" by an Old World composer. Dvorák was not trying to create an "American Style"--he firmly believed that that was a job for American composers.

The opening movement begins with an Adagio introduction, which gradually speeds and resolves into the main body of the movement (Allegro molto). Dvorák immediately announces the main theme, a distinctive motto that will appear, in one form or another, in every movement of the symphony. This bold E minor theme is first played by the horns, and then expanded by the strings. He introduces two contrasting melodies, a dancelike minor-key melody, introduced by the oboe, and somewhat brighter theme heard in the solo flute. This sonata-form movement features a lengthy development section, which focuses on the motto theme. After a conventional recapitulation, Dvorák sets a long coda, which again explores the motto theme.

There are a few programmatic elements in the Symphony No.9--according to Dvorák, the second and third movements were inspired by Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. In the Largo we have Hiawatha's "Funeral in the Forest." This movement is set in a broad three-part form. It opens with a solemn brass chorale, which leads into the movement's main theme, a long Romantic melody played by the English horn. (This melody became popular as nostalgic song called Goin' Home--so popular, in fact, that it was widely assumed that it was a traditional spiritual that Dvorák had quoted!) The contrasting middle section features a more pensive melody heard first in the flute. The movement ends with a return of the English horn melody.

Dvorák again referred to Hiawatha in the Scherzo (Molto vivace), stating that this movement was supposed to depict "…a feast in the wood, where the Indians dance." The first section features two main themes, an offbeat melody introduced by solo woodwinds and a more lyrical melody played by the woodwinds as a section. Echoes of the motto theme lead gradually into a central trio. The trio section is certain dancelike, but its waltz-style themes seem to have a lot more to do with a Viennese ballroom than a Native American dance. The opening section returns, and Dvorák closes the movement with more reminiscences of the motto theme.

The Finale (Allegro con fuoco) begins with a few stormy introductory measures, and then Dvorák brings in the main theme in the brass. After this powerful theme, we hear a more lyrical melody in the solo clarinet. Dvorák set the finale in sonata form, but he used the lengthy development not only to work with this movement's themes, but also to develop music from previous movements. In particular, we hear versions of the motto and a faster reading of the Largo's main theme. After recapitulating the fourth movement's main themes, Dvorák launches into a huge coda, which again brings back material from previous movements.
program notes ©2005 by J. Michael Allsen