PROGRAM NOTES

 

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)  

The Swan of Tuonela (Lemminkäinen Suite No.2) (1895)  

Scored for: one oboe, one clarinet including bass clarinet, two bassoons, four French horns, three trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings

Performance time: 10 minutes 

First Grant Park Orchestra performance: August 20, 1936; Izler Solomon, conductor 

As Finland’s most prominent composer, Jean Sibelius was instrumental in forging the nation’s musical identity as it sought independence from the Russian Empire. He tapped into his cultural heritage through the Kalevala, a collection of epic poetry from Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology. After abandoning an opera based on the Kalevala, Sibelius turned the idea into the Lemminkäinen Suite, a set of four tone poems composed between 1895 and 1939. The most famous movement, Tuonelan Joutsen (“The Swan of Tuonela”), depicts the swan that guards Tuonela, the land of the dead. Akin to a Finnish Hades, Tuonela is surrounded by a dark, wild river. In the story, the heroic adventurer Lemminkäinen has come to kill the swan to woo the daughter of a sorceress. In his attempt, he is mortally wounded and falls into the river of death. His mother, informed of his doom by an enchanted hairbrush that bleeds when he is in danger, brings him back to life with a lullaby.  

Rather than try to musically paint the scene, Sibelius captures its serene but ominous atmosphere. The music is slow-moving to the point of near immobility, evoking the incantatory repetitiveness of the runic singing used to transmit the Kalevala poetry. The melancholy English horn embodies the voice of the swan in a famous solo that extends through most of the movement. By dividing the muted strings into seventeen individual lines, Sibelius creates an unusually rich sonority, which might be said to depict the thick, untraversable waters. The strings eventually merge into a unison melody over an unrelenting death march in the low brass.  

 

Leos Janácek (1854-1928)  

The Cunning Little Vixen (Príhody Lišky Bystroušky): Suite (arr. Vaclav Talich) (1922)  

Scored for: four flutes including piccolo, three oboes including English Horn, three clarinets including bass clarinet, three bassoons including contrabassoon, four French horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta, and strings

Performance time: 16 minutes 

First Grant Park Orchestra performance 

Today, Leoš Janáček is best known as a composer of operas, but this reputation only developed in the last decade of his career. At age sixty, Janáček was a respected composer, teacher, and ethnomusicologist in the city of Brno, but he was little known outside the region of Moravia. It wasn’t until the Prague premiere in 1916 of his opera Jenůfa (composed in 1904) that he gained national and international recognition. This late-stage success boosted his confidence and prompted a surge in creativity. Over the last ten years of his life, Janáček wrote five operas, including The Cunning Little Vixen in 1922–23. The story comes from a serialized novella by Rudolf Těsnohlídek that had appeared in the newspaper. Creating his own libretto, Janáček made notable changes to the story, turning the lighthearted fairy tale into a profound commentary on youth, love, and death. 

The orchestral suite of The Cunning Little Vixen, arranged by conductor Václav Talich in 1937, condenses Act I into two movements that correspond with the act’s two scenes. In the first movement, animals and insects frolic in the forest while a forester sleeps against a tree. Curious, a vixen cub approaches. The croak of a frog suddenly awakens the forester, who sees the vixen and decides to take her home as a pet. The second movement takes us to the forester’s home, where the vixen leads a miserable existence. The forester’s wife ties her up, the children are terrors, and the other animals are similarly awful. The vixen hatches several schemes to escape, which end in her killing the forester’s hens before fleeing.  

The suite concisely demonstrates Janáček’s unique voice, which had taken him decades to refine. Having spent much of his early career collecting and arranging Moravian folk songs, folk music naturally formed the bedrock of his compositional style. The pastoral setting of The Cunning Little Vixen, with its representation of different animals, lends itself naturally to folk influences. But a distinct shift occurred in 1897 when Janáček started transcribing snatches of overheard speech into musical notation wherever he went. While he doesn’t directly include these collected “speech melodies” in his music, he builds many of his musical ideas on the sounds and rhythms of speech, resulting in short melodic motifs that are often rhythmically driven. Janáček then constructs large sections of music through extensive repetition, variation, and combination of these short motifs. 

 

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)  

Symphony No.4 in E-flat major (1878/80 version, Cahis 11) Romantic (1874)  

Scored for: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four French horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

Performance time: 70 minutes 

First Grant Park Orchestra performance: July 23, 1971; Sergiu Comissiona, conductor 

“Medieval city—Daybreak—Morning calls sound from the city towers—the gates open—On proud horses the knights burst out into the open, the magic of nature envelops them—forest murmurs—bird song—and so the Romantic picture develops further.” This is how Anton Bruckner described the first movement of his Symphony No. 4, Romantic. How seriously we should take this description is up for debate. Although Brucker did give the symphony its evocative subtitle, he wrote the flowery scenario years after the fact, likely in an effort to feed the public’s desire for programmatic music. Nevertheless, this description encapsulates the Romantic image Bruckner’s symphony conjures—one of fairy tales, sweeping landscapes, and nostalgia.  

The genesis of Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony was by no means a straight line. When Bruckner moved to Vienna in 1868, he struggled to fit in with bourgeois Viennese society as a socially awkward, devout Catholic from a provincial town. As an admirer of Richard Wagner, Brucker also did not fit in musically with the city’s musical establishment, which was enamored with the more conservative composer Johannes Brahms. Eduard Hanslick, influential taste-maker and music critic for the Neue Freie Presse, habitually tore him down in the papers. As an inherently insecure person, Bruckner took these criticisms to heart, which shattered his confidence and prevented him from viewing his works objectively.  

The low point of his first decade in Vienna came in 1877 when he conducted the premiere of his Third Symphony to a nearly empty hall. After this public humiliation, Bruckner decided to revise his existing works before composing any new symphonies. Originally written in 1874, Symphony No. 4 had still not been published or performed. Between 1878 and 1880, Bruckner made extensive revisions, tightening up the first two movements, writing a completely new third movement, and substantially rewriting the Finale. Bruckner considered these revisions the definitive version of his symphony. This version was first performed by Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1881, marking Bruckner’s first symphonic success and a turning point in his career.  

However, three of Bruckner’s pupils continued to make their own revisions to Symphony No. 4 and other works, sometimes without his permission or oversight. Although well-meaning in their attempts to mold their teacher’s music into something the public would accept, these pupils ultimately misunderstood Bruckner’s music. Only in the 1920s did scholars begin to disentangle Bruckner’s revisions from those of other hands, finally revealing Brucker’s unique symphonic genius. In 1939, composer and conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler explained that Bruckner was misunderstood in his time because “He made music like no other, naïve and complex together, homely and sublime.”  

Emerging from nothing, Symphony No. 4 almost appears rather than begins. The tremolo of the strings set the misty dawn scene under the quintessentially Romantic calls of the French horn. Out of the long introduction comes a five-note descending figure that quickly intensifies. Bruckner was so fond of this duple-plus-triplet rhythmic configuration as a way of amping up energy that it has since been dubbed the “Bruckner rhythm,” and it appears multiple times throughout this symphony. Illustrating his connection with the Austrian countryside is the lyrical second theme, based on the birdcall of the Kohlmeise, or coal tit. After a thorough presentation of the main themes, a stirring brass chorale based on the opening horn call emerges in the development section. Not one to be in a hurry, Bruckner establishes his deliberate sense of pacing and broad conception of structure in this expansive movement. 

Bruckner described the Andante as a “song, prayer, serenade,” though its prominent walking figure has drawn comparisons to a funeral march or religious procession. In his later programmatic scenario, Bruckner called it a “rustic love-scene” in which “a peasant boy woos his sweetheart, but she scorns him” (an experience Bruckner knew all too well). Out of the walking music and C-minor cello elegy comes an expansive viola melody serenaded by lute-like pizzicatos. Again, in the Scherzo, the horns play a vital role in setting the pastoral scene. Vigorous hunting music with fortissimo horn triplets contrasts with the gentler Trio section, marked “dance tune at meal time on the hunt.” The Finale, which Bruckner described alternatively as a “Storm” or “Folk Festival,” is on a grand scale matching that of the opening movement. Taking a circuitous route through multiple harmonic realms and touching on previous themes, the Finale ends where the symphony began with a return of the dawn theme in the triumphant coda. 

 

Program Notes by Katherine Buzard