Suite in D major (For the Birthday of Prince Charles)
Sir Michael Tippett
b. London, England / January 2, 1905
d. London / January 9, 1998
Tippett’s unorthodox attitudes to life and music kept him apart from the mainstream of his art for many years. By the sunset of his lengthy career, he had become a widely celebrated elder statesman of music. He gradually evolved a musical style that blends continental European traditions with the legacy of British folk song, at the same time as it advocates his deeply humanistic beliefs. After the Second World War, commissions and international performances of his music increased steadily.
In 1948, three British composers were commissioned by BBC radio to create works to celebrate the impending arrival of Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and the Duke of Edinburgh’s first child. They were all premiered on November 15, the night when HRH Prince Charles the Prince of Wales was born. Tippett’s Suite was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.
Tippett responded to this rare invitation to create an “occasional” work with a great deal of skill and craftsmanship. The Suite is an appealing, richly scored creation. Each movement has a link to the event it celebrates, in overall terms and through quotations from appropriate folk songs and traditional melodies from several lands. The Suite also includes original Tippett themes, some of them salvaged from early, unpublished works.
Intrada gives the Suite a festive introduction, complete with fanfares and imitations of church bells. It is based on the Scottish psalm-tune Crimond, which had been sung at the wedding of Prince Charles’ parents. The following Berceuse (Lullaby) – gentle, pastoral music based on a traditional French melody – may be seen as a gift to the new-born Prince. Tippett drew it from his music for Robert of Sicily, a play for children dating from 1938.
The opening and closing panels of the third movement, Procession and Dance, present a restrained yet cheeky march peppered with martial flourishes. Tippett drew it from his opera-in-progress, The Midsummer Marriage, where it announces the appearance of the supernatural dancers known as the Ancients. In between comes a merry country dance that quotes, in jig time, All Around My Hat, an Irish fertility dance.
The next section, Carol, depicts courtship. It includes a medieval hymn, Angelus ad virginem, which Tippett had quoted in his early, unpublished opera, Robin Hood. The jovial Finale is an expanded version of the overture to Robin Hood. It places side-by-side authentic folk tunes (including the well-known Early One Morning, and the Helston Furry Dance) and an original Tippett theme in folk style, the lovely melody heard on oboe mid-way through. It predicts a happy future for Prince Charles, through ceremonial-style rejoicing in grand style, with trumpets and drums resoundingly to the fore.
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
b. Salzburg, Austria / January 27, 1756
d. Vienna, Austria / December 5, 1791
In May 1781, Mozart was unceremoniously discharged from the service of Hieronymous Colleredo, Archbishop of Salzburg. Delighted to be free from that unappreciative and demeaning relationship, he relocated from the cultural backwater of Salzburg to the bustling musical metropolis of Vienna. The city was ripe for artists with his talent and drive. Before long, he was deep into a busy schedule of composing, performing, and teaching.
Audiences in the Austrian capital valued his piano playing above all. Responding to this preference, he composed 12 superlative piano concertos between February 1784 and December 1786. They are deeper in feeling, broader in scope, and richer in color than any written before. In years to come, they would serve as models of their kind, ones to which Beethoven, Brahms, and other similarly high-minded composers would turn for inspiration.
Mozart gave the premieres of most of these “golden dozen” concertos himself, often within days of their completion, and usually at subscription concerts designed for his own benefit. Such was the case with this piece. Its first performance took place, with great success, on March 10, 1785. The Concerto whose creation preceded it by just four weeks – No. 20 in D minor – is one of the darkest, most Romantic pieces Mozart composed in any form. In terms of personality, this “sequel” is its polar opposite.
The opening movement is built on a fully symphonic scale, with an orchestral backing that matches the solo part for interest and variety. Mozart here balances forcefulness, elegance, and wit with perfect ease. The dreamlike slow movement is based on the simplest of materials. Its effect, nevertheless, is magical. Its placid beauty served as a most effective backdrop for the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan. The Concerto concludes with a merry Rondo. It echoes with the laughter of comic opera, looking ahead to Mozart’s masterpiece in this genre, The Marriage of Figaro, whose creation followed just one year later.
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
b. Hämeenlinna, Finland / December 8, 1865
d. Järvenpää, Finland / September 20, 1957
With Symphony No. 2, Sibelius began to speak his own, personal symphonic language. The music retains the richness of thought and spirit displayed in Symphony No. 1 (1899), yet it is significantly tauter in form, more focused in expression, and less reminiscent of Tchaikovsky and Bruckner.
He began to sketch it during a stay in Italy during the early months of 1901. The sunshine and easygoing lifestyle helped revitalize his blocked creative muse. Initially, he felt that the ideas that came to him might be suitable for a set of tone poems or a four-movement symphonic fantasy, inspired by either the Don Juan legend or Dante’s Divine Comedy. He eventually decided that a full, non-programmatic symphony would suit them best. He completed it in essence after his return to Finland that autumn, although he continued to revise it right up to the premiere. He conducted the first performance himself, in Helsinki on March 8, 1902.
Finnish audiences embraced it rapturously, but some time passed before it found acceptance in other lands. Many commentators saw in it a fiercely patriotic composer’s defiant gesture towards his country’s repressive Russian occupiers. Sibelius firmly denied all concrete outside inspirations. He regarded the Symphony as too universal in content to be saddled with specific associations. The majestic themes and heroic spirit have made it the most popular of his seven symphonies.
The opening movement is ingeniously cast in the form of an arch, the virtually identical pastoral opening and closing sections book-ending a dramatic, highly eventful middle. A restless slow movement follows, its few moments of genuine calm repeatedly interrupted by forceful outbursts. Sibelius here displays his mastery of effective writing for brass and timpani.
The third movement, a Scherzo, opens with scurrying energy, then relaxes for the solo oboe to sing one of Sibelius’s most fetching lyrical melodies. Scherzo and Trio are both repeated, the latter gradually forming a bridge to the bold, uplifting Finale. The second subject of this concluding section is a prayerful lament that rises to heights of tragic eloquence. It was subsequently revealed that Sibelius took inspiration for it from the death by suicide of his sister-in-law. Optimism regains the upper hand, leading to a triumphant coda.
© 2008 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.