2015-16 Cycle 2 Program Notes

Karelia is a region of northern Europe, on the border between Russia and Finland. Tensions over the ownership of Karelia were an important aspect of Finland’s struggle for independence. In 1893, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was commissioned to write music to accompany a series of historic tableaux representing scenes from the history of this region. From the resulting set of eleven pieces, three were later published as the popular Karelia Suite, while the Karelia Overture was published separately. Like much of his music, the overture shows how much the composer was influenced by the landscapes of his country. The music has a rustic, even simplistic, feel to it, while also reflecting the deep patriotism of the composer.

Felix Mendelssohn was born into a wealthy and highly cultured family in Germany, and, as a pianist and composer, quickly developed into one of the greatest child prodigies, comparable to the young Mozart. By the time he wrote the Concerto in D minor for Violin and String Orchestra at the age of thirteen, he was already an accomplished composer. The concerto is free in structure, not strongly confined by traditional concepts. After being neglected for many years, the work was rediscovered in 1951 and championed by the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The deft manner in which the composer managed the problem of balancing the violin with the much stronger sound of the piano, as well as the spontaneous flow of delightful melody, show the genius of the precocious young Mendelssohn.

The long career of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams spanned romantic and modern musical eras. His highly personal style was strongly influenced by English folk music. Although his Symphony No. 5 was written during the depths of the Second World War, it conveys feelings of serenity and exultation that came as a surprise and as a source of comfort and hope to its wartime listeners. Some of the themes of the third movement were drawn from an opera that the composer was working on, based on The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. This link to a story about reaching eventual peace, after passing through times of conflict and difficulty, gives a clue to the overall message of the symphony. Another influence was the music of Jean Sibelius, to whom the symphony was dedicated. The first movement begins with a mood of uncertainty, created by use of conflicting keys (horns in D, low strings in C). Gradually, this gives way to assurance and the music soars to exultant climaxes. In the second movement, which is mainly very soft, many themes go racing by like fleeting fragments of thought. The third movement, Romanza, is at the heart to the symphony, with its contemplative and serene atmosphere and its reference to The Pilgrim’s Progress. Although vast in scale, the final Passacaglia is based on a short seven-bar theme, which is repeated numerous times and subject to many transformations. Near the end, there is a reference to the opening of the first movement, and then the passacaglia theme moves higher and higher as if into another world.

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