The Norwegian title of Grieg’s Holberg Suite (1884) makes its purpose clearer: Fra Holbergs Tid, from the time of Baron Ludwig Holberg (1864–1754), the Bergen-born writer especially prized for his sparkling comedies, a kind of ‘Molière of the North’. Grieg captured Holberg’s spirit by recreating five Baroque dances: Prelude, Sarabande, Gavotte and Musette, Air and Rigaudon.
Arthur Foote – one of the undiscovered glories of American music – composed A Night Piece in 1934, at the end of his long life (1853–1937). Foote was the first American composer to be trained entirely in the USA instead of making the journey to some European conservatoire and he became one of the leading members of a group known as the ‘New England composers’ (most of them were based, like Foote, in Boston). The exquisite Night Piece is virtually the only work of his that has held its place in the repertoire – a pity, since he wrote much more of similar quality.
John Fernström (1897–1961) was born in China, where his Swedish father was a missionary. In 1913 he entered the conservatoire in Malmö, later returning to the city as a conductor before moving to Lund, where he directed both the conservatoire and the symphony orchestra. His main output was twelve powerful symphonies. His Wind Quintet dates from 1943, observes the traditional outline of Allegro molto, Adagio, Scherzo and rondo-finale and displays Fernström’s fondness for contrapuntal textures invested with a modern tang.
Pehr Hendrik Nordgren (1944–2008) lived in Kaustinen, in the north-west of Finland, where the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra under Juha Kangas is also based, and so he knew his music for strings would get performed almost as soon as it left his desk. Hate-Love for cello and strings (1987) is typical of his music in its combination of the dense textures that earned him the respect of his modernist colleagues and the emotional immediacy that allows audiences to connect with his music directly.
Alban Berg’s An Leukon, for high voice and strings, was composed in 1908 and exhibits the high-Romantic language he left behind in his partial embrace of Schoenberg’s example. The version for voice and string orchestra was made by Chris Gordon and first performed in Surbiton in 1978.
Paul Hindemith wrote his Five Pieces for String Orchestra in 1927 as ‘School Exercises for Advanced Students’. Two movements marked ‘Langsam’ (‘Slow’) are followed by one marked ‘Lebhaft’ (‘Lively’); the fourth is ‘Sehr langsam’ and the last once again ‘Lebhaft’. They may be brief, but they contain a considerable range of emotion, from dark, edgy anguish via barrelling contrapuntal energy to buoyant good humour.
Nino Rota (1911–79) is best known as a composer of film music, especially for Federico Fellini: he wrote 150 film scores between 1933 and 1979. But he also composed concert music – a substantial quantity of it – revealing the same Italianate love of melody. His Piccola Offerta Musicale for wind quintet – Andante mosso, Allegro con spirit, Tempo primo, Allegro – is brief enough to live up to its title, but its alternation of summer-evening laziness and bucolic spirits belies the date of its composition: July 1943, at the height of the Second World War. Rota’s Nonet is more substantial, and its dates would seem to gainsay his usual facility: it was composed over two decades, in 1959, 1974 and 1977. But that protracted birth does not seem to have affected the spontaneity of its mood, unfolding over an Allegro calmo, an Andante, an Allegretto con spirit, a Canzone con variazioni and a concluding Vivacissimo.
There’s a popular misconception that while the rest of Europe was churning out symphonies, concertos and string quartets, Italian composers wrote only operas. Like all myths, there’s some truth in it: in 19th-century Italy opera was as popular a pursuit as football is today. But Italian composers have always written instrumental music as well, and there’s a huge corpus of it still waiting to be discovered. One of the few Italians whose orchestral music has become central repertoire is Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), particularly through his ‘Roman Trilogy’, Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome and Feste Romane. But Respighi was an operatic composer as well (he wrote nine of them) and the two worlds meet in Il Tramonto, a 1914 setting of Shelley’s poem ‘The Sunset’ (translated by Rinaldo Ascoli). The poem, which Respighi sets in a mixture of recitativo and arioso, with vocal and instrumental lines interwoven, charts the feelings of a woman as she remembers her dead lover and the intensity of their love and, after a central climax, reflects on her life without him – the twilight of her passion.
As part of his concern to shift the focus of Italian music away from its obsession with opera, Respighi turned to Italian lute music of the 16th and 17th centuries, producing three suites of Antiche Arie e Danze per liuto. The first two, composed in 1917 and 1923, are for full orchestra; the third, written in 1932, is scored for strings only. The first movement adapts an ‘Italiana’ by an anonymous composer. The second is based on a series of ‘Arie di corte’, lute-songs by the Burgundian composer Jean-Baptiste Besard (c. 1567–c. 1625). The third is a Siciliana by another anonymous composer from the late 16th century, and the powerful finale uses a Passacaglia – a set of variations on a repeated bass – dating from 1692; its first composer was Ludovico Roncalli, a nobleman about whom little is known – Respighi encountered the music in an 1881 transcription for modern guitar by Oscar Chilesotti.
Respighi’s example in reviving early music in modern garb has been followed by many subsequent composers. One of the least likely is the Italian modernist Salvatore Sciarrino (born in 1947), whose Due arie notturne dal campo (2001) sets two arias by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725), the first extending a haunting melodic line over bell-like harmonies in the strings, the second a gentle dance.
Huw Watkins (b. 1976) writes of his Three Welsh Songs (2008–9) for string orchestra, commissioned by the English Chamber Orchestra to mark the 60th birthday of the Prince of Wales:
The first movement [Allegro vivace] begins with all the violins playing a vigorous, lively tune with interruptions from the lower strings. The tune, ‘Ar hyd y nos’ (‘All through the Night’) gradually emerges in the gentler central section before a return to the opening tune. The movement ends with a reminiscence of the ‘Ar hyd y nos’. The second movement [Lento] is based on two songs: ‘Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn’ is heard in its entirety after a solo viola plays a fragment of ‘Lisa Lan’. The last movement [Allegro] is based on the first phrase of ‘Y Gwcw Fach’ (‘The little cuckoo’); it is only at the climax that the tune is almost heard in full.
Kuolema (‘Death’) is a play, first performed in 1903, by the Finnish writer Aarvid Järnefelt (1861–1962), who didn’t have far to look to find someone to write the incidental music for it: his sister Aino was married to Jean Sibelius. Sibelius duly wrote six numbers for the first production, one of which became wildly popular, revised under the title Valse triste (in the play a widowed mother is dancing with Death). That was the start of the musicological confusion that until recently attended these pieces. In 1906 Sibelius revised another of them (the fourth you’ll hear this evening) as Scene with Cranes and adapted some of the rest of the music as a Rondino der Liebenden (‘Rondo of the Lovers’) for strings. The next layer of confusion came in 1911 when Järnefelt revised his play – and Sibelius his music, resulting in a chain of conflicting opus numbers about as straightforward as a sudoku puzzle. When the complete recorded edition of Sibelius’ music by the Swedish label BIS reached Kuolema in 1997, it sent the scholars back to the sources to re-establish the original scores, so that they could be recorded by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä. They are the ‘Valse Triste’, ‘Paavali's Song’ (with baritone; Paavali is the son of the mother who had danced with Death at the beginning), ‘Elsa's Song’ (with mezzo soprano: Elsa is the girl he will marry), and music from Scenes IV, V and VI.
Pavel Haas (1899–1944) gained posthumous fame as one of the composers incarcerated in the garrison-ghetto of Terezín (Theresienstadt), some forty miles outside Prague: for some years, despite extraordinary deprivation, cultural life thrived there – until October 1944, when most of the leading figures where shunted off to Auschwitz and gassed. But Haas had known happier times: he was born in Brno and in the early 1920s studied with Brno’s best-known musical inhabitant, Leoš Janáček, whose music is an audible influence on Haas’: Moravian folksong and Jewish cantilena can also be heard threaded through it. Haas’ Second String Quartet, which often performed by a full string ensemble (sometimes with percussion), was written in 1925, three years after he had left Janáček’s composition class. It bears the subtitle, ‘From the Monkey Mountains’ – the ‘Monkey Mountains’ being a popular name for the Vysočina, the Moravian Highlands. The first movement, Andante, is labeled ‘Landscape’, and the second, also Andante, is ‘Coach, Coachman and Horse’, each illustrating its title. The third, ‘The Moon and I’ emerges Largo e misterioso before rising to a climax and sinking back to the opening mood. And the finale, ‘Wild Night’ (Vivace e con fuoco) does what it says on the can, mixing jazz and folk elements.
Galina Grigorjeva (b. 1962) is a Ukrainian who has lived in Tallinn since the mid-1990s; she is now one of Estonia’s most widely performed composers. Her music is often explicitly spiritual in intent, and frequently has a suggestion of religious ritual. Her Molitva (‘Prayer’) was originally written in 2005 for saxophone and organ; the version for cello and strings from 2011 is one of a number of subsequent adaptations.
Many of Martinů’s works from the 1930s revive the Baroque form of the concerto grosso, with a soloist or group of soloists contrasted with the larger ensemble, and his Double Concerto for Piano, Strings and Timpani – part concerto grosso, part piano concerto – takes the form a step further. A masterpiece of impassioned counterpoint, the Concerto reflects its troubled times: commissioned by Martinů’s occasional patron, Paul Sacher, for his Basel Chamber Orchestra, it was finished in sketch form on the very day that the western Allies signed away Czechoslovakia to Hitler in the Munich Agreement, and the music vents Martinů’s despair at the impending fate of his homeland. In the outer movements, Poco allegro and Allegro, the two string groups hurl jagged, syncopated rhythms at each other; the central Largo rises from edgy chords via whirling string lines and a lonely, nervous solo from the piano to a defiant climax, from which it sinks back in empty despair.
PEHR HENDRIK NORDGREN
FIVE PIECES FOR STRING ORCHESTRA
SMALL MUSICAL OFFERING
THREE WELSH SONGS