From Peter Grimes
Four Sea Interludes, Op. 33 a
By the late 1930s Britten’s music became a familiar fixture on the British musical scene and began making inroads across the Atlantic. Having spent his childhood during and immediately after the carnage of World War I, Britten was a committed and lifelong pacifist. As World War II loomed, he followed poet W. H. Auden and other pacifists of his group to Canada and the United States, where he remained until 1942. He returned home in the midst of war to do his share for the country’s morale, composing scores for concerts, radio dramatizations and films. In the dreary post-war atmosphere of 1945, the premiere of Peter Grimes was a resounding success, its unrelentingly grim story ironically giving a psychological boost to an impoverished nation.
Based on an even more barbarous character from The Borough by poet George Crabbe, (1754-1832) Grimes is reclusive and driven to achieve economic success in a dangerous trade, shunning the close-knit and interdependent community in which he lives. In the opera, he is first seen on trial for the death of his apprentice whom he claims died of dehydration as they drifted for days without food or water after a storm. Although he is acquitted, the villagers continue to suspect him of abuse, and the court refuses to allow him to take on another apprentice. The schoolteacher Ellen Orford, however, tries to soften both Grimes’s harsh nature and the townspeople’s resentment by taking responsibility for the care and safety of a new apprentice. Despite her efforts, Grimes beats the new boy – a marvelous silent part for a boy actor. As his hut is surrounded by a mob of indignant villagers, Grimes forces the boy to escape with him to his boat, but the boy stumbles and falls down the cliff to his death. Grimes himself escapes out to sea, sinks his boat and drowns.
Britten composed six interludes to facilitate scenery changes between scenes and acts. The Interludes act as orchestral mirrors of the stage drama, crystallizing in pure sound the unfolding disaster. He assembled the Four Sea Interludes shortly after finishing the opera; their order, however, does not follow that of the opera but its own musical logic.
Dawn: Coming between the Prologue and Act I, this is a much bleaker view of the ocean at dawn than Debussy ever imagined in La mer. The initial calm overlies an ominous swelling of the waves.
Sunday Morning: The opening Act II, depicting a Sunday morning in Grimes’s village. A brass choir imitates the church bells and later an high woodwind choir portrays the faster bells. Included in this interlude is an orchestral version of Ellen’s aria that opens the act.
Moonlight: The pulsing, brooding theme that opens Act III foreshadows the defeat of Grimes plans and dreams.
Storm: This interlude occurs between the two scenes of Act I. It begins with the furious physical storm, then morphing into Grimes’s psychological turmoil, where violence becomes a way of lashing out against loneliness and hopelessness. His brooding is drowned by the increasing fury of the storm.
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
Sibelius’s first success as a composer came in 1892 with a nationalistic symphonic poem/cantata titled Kullervo, Op. 7. The work met with great praise but was never again performed in his lifetime. During the next six years he composed music for numerous nationalistic pageants, symphonic poems and vocal works, mostly based on the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. In appreciation and in order to enable him to compose undisturbed, the Finnish governing council gave Sibelius a pension for life in 1897. For the next 28 years he composed the symphonies and other orchestral works that made him famous. In 1926, at the age of 60, he suddenly ceased composing for reasons never disclosed – although probably from the combined ravages of alcoholism and bipolar disorder. His pen remained silent until his death, 31 years later.
Sibelius wrote the Violin Concerto as a testimony to his failed ambition to become a violinist, pouring into it every known technical difficulty and then some. Composed on a commission in 1903, its Helsinki premiere received mixed reviews and Sibelius withdrew it for revision. Violinist Karl Halir, under the baton of Richard Strauss, premiered the thoroughly revised version in 1905 in Berlin. Sibelius forbade the performance of the first version, which was eventually released by the composer’s family in 1989, when it was finally recorded.
The First movement is by far the weightiest. It explores Sibelius’s particular take on sonata form with the themes evolving from one another without a true development section. The soloist opens the Concerto with a stunning theme, which is continually broken up into its motivic elements – particularly the opening three notes – and transformed throughout the movement. The orchestra introduces a second theme, which Sibelius subsequently uses as a refrain. Rather than constructing the movement as a continual dialogue between soloist and orchestra in the standard concerto style, Sibelius intersperses the movement with several cadenza-like passages, beginning with the opening. The principal cadenza at the end of the movement is based mainly on the opening theme and requires spectacular technical virtuosity.
The second movement has always been considered the weakest and has been occasionally called sentimental, self-indulgent salon music. It is unusual in the amount of music given to the violin in its lowest register and – as much as Sibelius himself would have cringed to hear it – resembles closely the expansive emotive utterings of Tchaikovsky.
Predictably, the final movement is technically thrilling and exceptionally challenging. It focuses on two themes, the first introduced by the soloist accompanied only by an insistent pounding ostinato in the timpani and the basses. Its second theme has a lumbering rhythm, once described as “A Polonaise for polar bears.” Towards the end the violin repeats the first theme in eerie harmonics.
Three Symphonic Sketches
“Perhaps you do not know that I was destined for the fine life of a sailor and that it was only by chance that I was led away from it. But I still have a great passion for it,” Claude Debussy wrote to a friend at the time he began work on La mer in 1903. Shortly before the premiere in 1905, he commented to his publisher: “The sea has been very good to me. She has shown me all her moods.” Ironically Debussy composed most of La mer far from the sea in the hills of Burgundy, believing that countless recollections were worth more than “…a reality whose charm generally weighs too heavily.”
The sea itself was not his only inspiration. Together with many late-nineteenth-century painters, Debussy greatly admired Japanese art, especially the prints and drawings of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). One print in particular, The Hollow Wave off Kanagawa, appealed to the composer. It portrays three boats and their terrified crews almost swallowed by a giant wave, the curve of the wave breaking into spray and foam. Debussy chose the detail of the wave as a cover for the score of La mer.
The three movements of La mer are titled Symphonic Sketches, although they approach the symphonic structures of César Franck’s Symphony in D minor as well as the symphonies of Vincent d’Indy. There are numerous memorable melodic motives, which appear in more than one movement; like the sea itself, there is an unpredictable quality in how Debussy uses them.
The first sketch, “From Dawn till Noon on the Sea,” opens with a gentle murmur on the strings and harp, portraying the usual early morning calm, eventually joined by the woodwinds. As the sea gradually awakens flexing its immense power, the brass introduce a melodic motto that will recur at the end. Imitating the interplay of sunlight and waves, fragments of melody reappear with constant shifts of rhythm and orchestral color, reflecting the irregularity of the water’s surface. Towards the end a chorale evokes the splendor of the midday sun.
The second sketch, “Play of the Waves,” tosses musical fragments around until, hesitantly, the wind and the motion of the waves picks up. The water becomes choppy before subsiding again into the calm playfulness, then gradually fading away. The many solos in this movement illustrate the infinite variety of the waves. Its principal musical theme is a trill motive in the woodwinds.
“Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea” is by far the most turbulent of the three sketches and was composed during the worst period of the composer’s personal troubles. The approaching storm growls ominously growing in strength, then subsiding. as if the sea is in the eye of the storm. Slowly the violence picks up again, but Debussy’s storm while powerful, is never a force five gale. The main theme in this section is a surging motive in the oboes, but the movement repeats and transforms melodies from the first movement as well.
Program notes by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn