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Violins & Enigmas

Ralph Vaughan Williams (b. Down Ampney, England October 12, 1872; d. London, England, August 26, 1958)

The Lark Ascending, romance for violin and orchestra—1914

Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of several English composers in the early twentieth century who wanted to establish a tradition of distinctively English music written by English composers.  Following the lead of nineteenth century European nationalists, they collected and studied folk songs and dances from throughout Britain in an effort to identify what was specific to the music of their homeland. Their own works often quoted existing folk tunes or attempted to capture in new melodies the characteristic 'folk' qualities that they had identified.

They also commonly turned to their national poetry, tales, and history for inspiration. In the score for The Lark Ascending, Vaughn Williams actually printed an excerpt from the poem of the same name by English poet George Meredith:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
'Tis love of earth that he instills,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Vaughan Williams' music closely follows the poem's suggestive language.  The lark's distinctive song is represented by the solo violin in a melody of ecstatic lyricism.  We can almost imagine that a lark has entered the concert hall and joined the orchestra in a sort of glorious cosmic jam session.  To open and close the work, two extended cadenzas based on the same melody are performed over a continuous, quiet harmony, with flights of fancy that require graceful facility from the soloist.  A shorter cadenza for the solo violinist introduces a contrasting middle section.  For this, Vaughan Williams writes two separate underlying melodies that mimic qualities of British folk music, as if the lark in this idyllic romance is soaring over various scenes in the British Isles.  At moments, we can hear the lark itself joining in with the folk melodies. Tranquility prevails, and in the end, the solo violin does indeed lift listener and orchestra higher and higher until its song gradually fades into silence.  

The Lark Ascending was originally composed for piano and violin in 1914. After a revised version was publicly performed in 1920, the composer orchestrated it for two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, triangle, solo violin, and strings; and the beautiful piece that we hear today was premiered in London on June 14, 1921. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; d. Vienna, Austria, December 5, 1791)

Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major "Turkish" K. 219—1775

At nineteen, Mozart was greatly inspired by Gaetano Brunetti, the concert master of the Salzburg Court, and from April through December of 1775, composed five violin concertos specifically for him.   Although nineteen seems an unlikely age for the production of masterpieces, Mozart already had a long history with the violin.  His father Leopold was the premiere violinist in Salzburg before retiring to manage his son's musical career, and he wrote a book on how to teach the violin that was the standard for almost 200 years.  After beginning on the violin, the younger Mozart was a fluent performer on all string instruments at a very young age.  We know, for instance, that he performed all five of these Violin Concertos on tours of Europe during the 1780's.  In addition, at nineteen Mozart's skill as a composer was already extraordinary, with a richness of texture and sheer beauty of melodic line that reflect great maturity and wisdom.  These five violin concertos are Mozart's earliest works to remain permanent fixtures in the world's concert repertoire.

The first four concertos closely follow the form that Vivaldi had established: three movements in fast-slow-fast order using lots of returning melodic patterns.  In his fifth concerto, however, Mozart broke with tradition and began to experiment.  Concerto in A Major, K. 219 begins with a rather ordinary statement by the complete orchestra.  Typically, this orchestral statement would be followed immediately by a repetition of virtually the same material, but with the soloist providing most of the melody.  Instead, Mozart has the soloist enter with a slow, singing melody that is accompanied by a simple running line in the orchestra and lasts for six full measures.  Once this slow interlude is over, Mozart has the violin soar forth with a completely new melody, accompanied by the orchestra playing an almost exact repeat of the music from the initial statement. The suggestion is that from the beginning, this music was intended as the accompaniment to the actual main theme, which would be introduced by the violin after its diva-like slow motion entrance.

Mozart was famous for writing slow movements of tremendous lyrical beauty, and the second movement of this concerto is the perfect illustration.  Strangely, despite its beauty, the soloist Brunetti objected to it, calling it trivial and unworthy of his talents.  Mozart obligingly wrote an entirely new slow movement for the temperamental soloist, now published separately as the Adagio in E Major, K. 261.  
The concerto's final movement is a rondo that begins with a charming theme in triple time.  Following a contrasting melody and return to the first theme, Mozart springs yet another aural surprise: a boisterous, wildly frenzied dance theme in duple meter in "Turkish" style, giving the concerto its nickname.  Exotic sounds were popular in Mozart's day, and "Turkish" style meant that the music had the percussive additions common to a Turkish ensemble.  The orchestration for this concerto is actually rather sparse: just two oboes, two horns and strings.  To create the "Turkish" style, the cellos and basses strike their strings with the wood of their bows.  Finally, the concerto closes with a return to the elegant rondo theme. 

In this remarkable concerto, the nineteen-year-old Mozart created something strikingly similar to what composers in the following century would consider the new, progressive style.  It was far longer than any concerto before it and requires far more technical prowess to perform.  It captivates us with its matchless elegance of conception and execution, the suavity of its orchestration, and its luxurious delight in pure melody.  In wit, rhythmical variety, and imaginative power, this work not only excels Mozart's four other concertos for violin; it has no rival throughout the second half of the eighteenth century.

Sir Edward Elgar (b. Broadheath, England June 2 1857; d. Worcester, England February 23, 1934)

Enigma Variations (Variations on an Original Theme) Opus 36—1898

Edward Elgar liked to entertain his wife each evening by taking a theme and varying it several ways at the piano to imitate the personality characteristics of several friends, while his wife guessed which friend he had in mind.  Eventually this game led to Elgar's first major success in orchestra composition: a work dazzling in its ingenuity, technical skill, and range of expression.  Its June 19, 1899 premiere at London's Queen's Hall was an immediate popular success, and transformed Elgar from a moderately successful provincial composer to a national and international figure, the recognized standard-bearer of British music in his generation.
Elgar dedicated the work to "his friends pictured within." He told the program annotator at its first performance:

The Enigma I will not explain—its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed…further, through and over the whole set another larger theme 'goes' but is not played…So the principal theme never appears, even as in some late dramas…the chief character is never on stage.

An enigma is a mystery, a puzzle, or a riddle, and Elgar supplies us with two in this work, the 'dark saying' of the original theme, and the 'larger theme' which 'is not played'.  Part of the enduring lure of this music is the intellectual game of trying to guess the riddles that it hides.

Musically, the theme is remarkable for many reasons.  It consists of rhythmic palindromes; the rhythm is the same whether the melody is played backwards or forwards.  The two halves of the melodic phrase suggest two different keys, one major and one minor.  This builds much drama into the melody; we hear the suggestion of shadow and light, feel the potential for both pensive and lyrical moments, all encapsulated in one beautiful theme.

Each variation portrays a "subject" and all together, the work gives us Elgar's perceptions of thirteen people and one dog.  At the earliest performances, each movement was identified only by the initials of the individual featured.  We do not need to know anything about them to enjoy the work, but a bit of anecdotal background certainly enlivens the listening experience.  Elgar himself identified his "subjects" in notes he supplied for Pianola rolls of the Variations issued in 1929.

What follows are paraphrases of his short descriptions with a bit of additional information.

1 C.A.E.: Elgar gives us a loving portrait of his wife, (Caroline) Alice—'a prolongation of the Theme with what I wished to be romantic and delicate additions.'

2 H.D.S.-P: The pianist Hew David Steuart-Powell often played piano while Elgar played the violin.  The opening measures of this variation represent Steuart-Powell warming up his fingers before a rehearsal.

3 R.B.T.: The eccentric Richard Baxter Townsend rode about Oxford on a tricycle, sounding his bell.  In amateur theatricals, Elgar had enjoyed his caricature of an old man, 'the low voice flying off occasionally into "soprano"  timbre'.  His variation is followed by that of his brother-in-law.

4 W.M.B.: William Meath Baxter, a hospitable country squire with an abrupt, fiery temperament, is captured announcing the arrangement of carriages to his guests and inadvertently banging the door as he leaves.

5 R.P.A.: Richard Arnold, a sensitive pianist, was the son of the poet Matthew Arnold. 'His serious conversation was continually broken up by whimsical and witty remarks'.

6 Ysobel: The solo viola incarnates Isabel Fitton, an amateur violist, 'pensive and for a moment romantic', and unusually tall: thus the wide intervals in the solo part.

7 Troyte: One of Elgar's closest friends, the Malvern architect Arthur Troyte Griffith, who designed Elgar's house, was a pianist of modest abilities. His struggles with cross-rhythms and argumentative nature are suggested here.

8 W.N.: Winifred Norbury's infectious laugh, and the pastoral tranquility of the eighteenth-century house where she lived with her sister, are 'sedately shown'.

9 Nimrod: Elgar's nickname for his great friend, champion, and publisher A.J. Jaeger was a typical Elgarian pun. 'Jaeger,' which is German for 'hunter,' becomes 'Nimrod the mighty hunter' from the Book of Genesis.  This resplendently affectionate Adagio is the generous heart of the whole work.  The movement begins with a reminiscence of Beethoven's 'Pathétique' Sonata, and Elgar said this movement 'is the record of a long summer evening talk, when my friend discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven.'

10 Dorabella: Taken from Mozart's Così fan tutte, this was the pet name for Dora Penny, niece of W.M.B.  The woodwinds imitate her slight stammer.  Elgar once told her that 'she of all people' should recognize the 'larger theme' of the Variations. Many scholars speculate that the 'larger theme' is "Hail Britannia," and that Elgar was alluding to the image of Britannia on English pennies.  Elgar would never confirm this explanation, however, and the enigma remains intact.

11 G.R.S.: George Sinclair was organist at Hereford Cathedral.  But the real subject here is his bulldog, Dan, who made an enthusiastic leap at a cat on the bridge at Hereford, fell into the River Wye, paddled furiously upstream to find a landing place and emerged with a shake of his sodden fur and a triumphant bark.  G.R.S. remarked to Elgar at the time, 'Set that to music,' and so inspired this movement.

12 B.G.N.: Basil Nevison, an amateur cellist, made up a piano trio with Elgar and Steuart-Powell (of variation 2).  He receives one of Elgar's most notable cello solos, in an elegiac and deeply felt movement.

13 ***(Romanza): 'a lady who was, at the time of composition, on a sea voyage…the drums suggest the distant throb of the engines of a liner over which the clarinet quotes a phrase from Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.' Elgar identified her as Lady Mary Lygon, who sailed to Australia with her brother, the newly appointed governor of New South Wales.  However, some speculate that the nostalgic music refers to Helen Weaver, who was briefly engaged to Elgar in 1883-84 before emigrating to New Zealand in 1885 for her health.

14 E.D.U.: "Edoo" was Alice's pet name for Elgar and this variation is a self-portrait of the artist as a 'Devilish Fine Fellow.'  The longest, loudest and most complex of the variations, this grand finale shows the dashing composer flanked by the stalwart Alice and Nimrod, symbolized by triumphant returns of their melodies, as he sweeps on with great confidence to meet his destiny.

Program notes by Dr. Beth Fleming



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