Miracle and Grandeur

September 20 & 21, 2014
Program Notes by Paul Hyde

Violin Concerto, Op. 61, B minor
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto is, at once, epic and highly personal. Elgar, who enjoyed tantalizing his public with an enigma, wrote a mysterious dedication: “Here is enshrined the soul of _____.” (The dedicatee was unknown for years but a friend later revealed the mystery person to be an American woman, Julia F. Worthington.)

Elgar is considered a romantic, a composer whose works most always looked backward. His expansive Violin Concerto, written in 1910, certainly respects the form of the traditional classical concerto. It also includes an array of dazzling passages to test a virtuoso’s technique.

But the way Elgar creates his themes is highly unique. Instead of long melodies, Elgar offers short, fragmentary themes. The long orchestral introduction suggests the overall breadth of the concerto and provides a glimpse of some of the thematic fragments to follow.

The soloist’s entry is marked “nobilmente” (“nobly”), a musical term invented and used frequently by Elgar. But a subsequent marking, “con passione,” more closely represents the nature of the movement as a whole. The more familiar Elgar emerges in the rhapsodic slow movement, with its warm, singing melodies.

The third movement is intensely dramatic, with enormously challenging passages for the soloist. After the soloist’s virtuosic opening, the orchestra introduces a spirited march theme that reappears interspersed with episodes traversing a wide range of moods. The finale also includes an innovation: a long accompanied cadenza in which the soloist reviews all that has preceded. A triumphant coda concludes the work.

Symphony No. 3, Op. 78, C minor (Organ Symphony)
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Camille Saint-Saens regarded his Symphony No. 3 as the grand capstone to his career. Though he was to live 35 years more after completing the work in 1886, he would write no more symphonies.

“I have given everything that I had to give,” the French composer wrote about the work, which carries the subtitle “Organ” and prominently spotlights that instrument. “What I have done here I shall never do again.”

In his Third Symphony, Saint-Saëns combines the clarity and elegance of French music with the bold, robust spirit of German romanticism. Saint-Saëns dedicated the work to Franz Liszt, one of the towering musical figures of the 19th century. Liszt’s influence can be felt not only in the colorful orchestration and grandeur of the music but also in the work’s structure. Liszt was a proponent of “cyclical unity,” with a main theme, or motto theme, appearing in various guises throughout a work.

The symphony is written in two sections but the work clearly follows the traditional four-movement format, with the first two and last two movements joined together. The organ, the king of the instruments, provides subtle support in the first section but blazes forth in its full glory in the final movement.

The work is composed for a large orchestra that includes not only an organ but piano (four hands) as well.

I. The work actually features two motto themes that will reappear in various forms throughout the work. These two subjects are introduced right at the beginning. One is an ascending four-note theme voiced by the oboe in the slow introduction. The other motto theme is a scurrying line in the violins. These two subjects are extensively developed until the tension subsides and the soft entrance of the organ ushers in a beautiful, reflective theme in the strings. The melody is subjected to several gentle variations, intoned alternately by strings and woodwinds.

II. The second movement opens with a restless refrain for strings and timpani. This is followed by another rhythmic transformation of the first theme of the first movement. The initial subject returns but is interrupted by a solemn melody in the tuba and double basses. The theme rises ever higher on ethereal strings to close the first part of the movement. The organ, pulling out all the stops on a C major chord, ushers in the finale. Strings, supported by lightning-fast piano arpeggios, present a lovely variation on the second motto subject, which is brilliantly taken up by the full orchestra in the fashion of a grand procession. Both motto themes bring the work to a triumphant conclusion.

Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for The Greenville News and Southeast Editor of Classical Voice North America. Follow Paul on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.