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Arild's Inaugural

Symphony in E Minor (Gaelic)
Amy Marcy Beach
b. Henniker, N.H. / September 5, 1867
d. New York, N.Y. / December 27, 1944

First performance by the RPO.

Beach was the first American woman to find success as a composer of large-scale works. Born Amy Cheney into a distinguished New England family, by the age of four she composed her first pieces and could play by ear any music that she heard. Her parents ignored the advice they received to have her musical education take place in Europe. She studied in Boston instead, making her public debut as a piano soloist at 17, followed two years later by the first of several performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

She married Henry Beach, a doctor who was 25 years older than her, in that same year (1885). She followed his wishes and curtailed her performances, shifting her focus to composition instead. Rather than work with a composition teacher, she learned the craft by studying the music of the great masters, on her own. All the while she produced a large quantity of music, virtually all of which was performed and published. Her major compositions of the period 1885-1910 included a large-scale mass, a sonata for violin and piano, a piano concerto, a piano quintet, and this symphony.

After her husband's death in 1910, she journeyed to Europe on a mission to establish a reputation there. Performing her concerto and quintet throughout Germany, she made a strong impression as both composer and soloist. She returned to America at the outbreak of the First World War. Settling in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, she established a pattern of spending winters on performing tours, and summers practicing the piano and composing. In 1925, she became a founding member, and the first president of, the Society of American Women Composers. She was also the only female member of the Second New England School of composers, a group which included George Whitefield Chadwick and Edward MacDowell.

This is how the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians sums up her achievement: “A highly disciplined composer, capable of producing large-scale works in a few days, Beach was also energetic in the promotion of her compositions. As a pianist, she had a virtuoso technique and an extraordinary memory. She was generous, using her status as dean of American women composers to further the careers of many young musicians. Heart disease caused her retirement in 1940 and her death in 1944.”

During the three years he spent in America (1892-1895), Czech composer Antonín Dvoƙák issued a challenge to American composers: create works inspired by the music of your native peoples, African-Americans and Native Americans in particular. He had done so himself in his “New World” Symphony. After Beach heard the first Boston performance of that work, she voiced a different opinion, stating in a letter to the Boston Herald, “We of the North should be far more likely to be influenced by old English, Scotch, or Irish songs, inherited with our literature from our ancestors.”

In this expansive, melodious, and richly scored symphony, composed between 1894 and 1896, she did just that. Her main source of themes was a set of traditional melodies from Ireland that had been given to her many years before. She wrote that “their simple, rugged, and unpretentious beauty led me to…try to develop their ideas in symphonic form…Most of the themes are actual quotations from this collection of folk music and those which are original I have tried to keep in the same idiom and spirit.”

Her song entitled Dark is the Night, about a turbulent sea voyage, provided the first two themes of the sweeping, dramatic opening movement. The third is a gentle Irish folksong. She cast the bookends of the second movement in the gently lilting style of a siciliana, with a jaunty dance as the contrasting central panel. All the themes she used are based on the same Irish melody.

The third movement is based on two folk tunes, one lyrical, the other heroic. It expresses, in Beach’s words, “the laments of a primitive people, their romance and their dreams.” She constructed the energetic and majestic finale entirely on original themes, including once again Dark is the Night. “It tries to express the rough, primitive character of the Celtic people,” she wrote, “their sturdy daily life, their passions and battles, and the elemental nature of their processes of thought and its resulting action.”

Entry March of the Boyars

Johan Severin Halvorsen
b. Drammen, Norway / March 15, 1864
d. Oslo, Norway / December 4, 1935

First performance by the RPO.

Like his fellow Norwegian, Edvard Grieg, Halvorsen looked to his country’s folk music for his primary creative inspiration. In addition to composing numerous colorful and melodious scores, he made a distinguished name for himself as a violin soloist and as a conductor. He served as music director for a theatre in Bergen and then at Oslo’s National Theatre, the latter for the first 30 years of its existence. He composed the spirited Entry March of the Boyars in 1893. It portrayed the proud upper class citizens of Romania, a country where he had just been offered–but decided to refuse–a conducting position. 

Romance for Violin, Op. 26
Johan Svendsen
b. Christiania, Norway / September 30, 1840
d. Copenhagen, Denmark / June 14, 1911

First performance by the RPO.

Svendsen’s music showed the influence of Norwegian folk music, too, but to a lesser degree than either Grieg’s or Halvorsen’s. He demonstrated more interest in, and skill with, the larger, more traditional musical forms than they did. He spent considerable portions of his career outside his homeland, working in Germany, France, and Italy as a conductor, violin soloist, and composer. Among his works are two symphonies, several symphonic poems, and four Norwegian Rhapsodies. The only piece that has earned an enduring international reputation is this lovely Romance for violin and orchestra. Svendsen composed it in 1881, while waiting in a music store in Christiania (later Oslo) for a student who didn’t show up for a lesson. The owner of the shop, who was also his publisher, had been badgering him to compose a piece for violin and orchestra. Svendsen took that unexpected opportunity to fulfill that request, quickly and with fresh, sincere inspiration.

Where the Citrons Bloom, Waltz, Op. 364
Johann Strauss, Jr.
b. Vienna, Austria / October 25, 1825
d. Vienna / June 3, 1899

First performance by the RPO.

In May 1874, Strauss left Vienna on a concert tour of Italy. Canny showman that he was, he took along a lovely, newly composed waltz that he dedicated to the people of that country. During the tour he referred to it as Bella Italia (Beautiful Italy). After returning to Vienna, he changed the name to words taken from the celebrated author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre: Kennst du das Land Wo die Citronen blueh’n! (Do you know the land where the citrons [lemon trees] bloom!).

Light as a Feather, Quick Polka, Op. 319
Johann Strauss, Jr.

First performed by the RPO on April 27, 1989; Jerzy Semkow, conductor.

After the 1867 edition of the annual Vienna Carnival season ended, the three Strauss brothers as usual held a revue event at which all the dances they had composed for the season were performed once again. There were 24 such pieces to be played that year, including Johann, Jr.’s masterly waltzes The Blue Danube and Artists’ Life. Realizing at the last moment that he had no new quick polka for the program, Johann rapidly composed this zesty piece, Light as a Feather. It premiered at the revue concert on March 10.

© 2011 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.


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