With Strings Attached

March 13, 14 & 15, 2015

Program Notes by Dr. Joella Utley

Sinfonia No. 9, C minor (Swiss)

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

One of the most naturally gifted musicians of the 19th century, Felix Mendelssohn amazed family and friends at a very young age with his precocious musical abilities.  When he began composing it wasn’t just a few isolated works but rather a stream of fugues, songs, trios, sonatas, cantatas, operettas, violin and piano concertos.  Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, Felix wrote twelve string symphonies, none of which have opus numbers.

As a student of Carl Zelter, young Felix studied the music of the great masters, Bach, Mozart and Haydn.  For one of his assignments in counterpoint he composed his Sinfonia (String Symphony) No. 9 in 1823 just after his family had taken a trip to Switzerland.  Hence No. 9 is dubbed “Swiss.”  This is perhaps the best known of the twelve string symphonies.  Teenage-Felix performed this and other early works in private concerts held in the large Mendelssohn home in Berlin.

Sinfonia No. 9 begins with a slow introduction in c minor, but then yields to the lively main section of the movement’s Allegro in C Major.  The second movement, Andante, begins and concludes with violins only, while violas, cello and bass play the mid section.  The short, joyful Scherzo and the final Allegro vivace are just that – fast and happy.

Holberg Suite, Op. 40

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Edvard Grieg is considered Norway’s leading composer of the Romantic period.  Born in Bergen, on the west coast of Norway, Grieg loved his place of birth.  He once wrote, “Come here one day – you will only have to dig and Norwegian choral, orchestral and piano works will gush out form the ground.”  He often said that the creative sons of Bergen were a source of his inspiration.  A particular closeness connected the composer to Ludvig Holberg, the great satirist, poet, playwright and author who was born in Bergen on December 3, 1664.

The city planned a Jubilee celebration of Holberg’s birth in 1884 and asked Grieg to write special music for the occasion.  A statue of Holberg was unveiled and Grieg presented a cantata and a suite for piano for the occasion.  The piano suite, From Holberg’s Time, was later transcribed for string orchestra.  The work was crafted to present an image of the time in which Holberg lived.  Grieg called it a “peruke piece.”  (A peruke is a wig, which was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries).

The music was composed in the beautiful mountainous Hardanger region of Norway, in the village of Lofthus.  Grieg and his wife were the guests of Hans and Brita Utne and their twelve children.  Near this home the composer had a small log hut built, just big enough for a piano, a chair and a table for his work.  The locals called it the “tune house.”

The Holberg Suite was warmly received.  Viennese critic Hanslick wrote, “a refined, happily conceived work.  The antique is cleverly reproduced in the forms, rhythms, ornamentations of the past, yet filled with the modern spirit.”  Georg Brandes commented, “Whatever he produces he treats from the merry point of view.  Seldom is there any other than a happy mood, very seldom a trait of melancholy, once only a touch of pathos.”

Serenade for Strings, Op. 48, C major

Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

In the fall of 1880, Tchaikovsky was in a creative stage composing two works back-to-back.  He was writing the ever-popular 1812 Overture along with his Serenade for Strings.  He wrote to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck: “The overture will be very showy and noisy, but will have no artistic merit because I wrote it without warmth and without love.  But the Serenade, on the contrary, I wrote from inner compulsion.  This is a piece from the heart and so I venture to say it does not lack artistic worth.”

Tchaikovsky’s love of the serenade form may have stemmed from his great admiration of Mozart, who wrote more than a dozen such works.  He even transcribed several of Mozart’s keyboard and choral pieces into an orchestra suite, Mozartiana, in 1887.

Again, writing to von Meck, he described: “The first movement is my homage to Mozart.  It is intended to be an imitation of his style, and I should be delighted if I thought I had in any way approached my mode.”  In this opening movement, after a slow introduction, we hear a chorale-like theme, which will return at the end of the movement and at the end of the Finale.  The graceful, lilting melody in Movement II has become one of the most popular of Tchaikovsky’s works.  One can imagine elegant dancers twirling to the music.  It is a distinctive waltz that is performed frequently on its own.  The mood shifts to a slow, wistful reverie in Movement III, which is elegant as the name suggests: Larghetto elegiaco.  The middle section of this movement picks up in tempo but remains in a pleasant contemplative state.  In the Finale, Tchaikovsky incorporates two Russian folk melodies; the first, a draymen’s song from the Volga region; the second, an animated dance tune.  The coda of this final section returns to the slow, grand opening theme and then ends in a flourish.