Written by Ronald Comber

Symphonic Dances, Op. 64

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Edvard Grieg was not the most enthusiastic of orchestrators, though he was actually quite good at it. Rather, he thought of himself as in many ways a miniaturist, preferring to write for the piano or piano four-hand. It took a special inspiration to drive him towards the orchestra as the vehicle of choice. Today’s Symphonic Dances provided him with just such an inspiration.

The last decades of the nineteenth century were marked by a growth in European nationalism, marked by a growing interest in national folk roots and, more perniciously, of political unrest. Throughout Europe scholars were getting out into the villages and fields to collect and collate folk songs and publish the music they found. One such scholar was Grieg’s friend, Ludvig Mathias Lindeman. Grieg acquired a copy of Lindeman’s subsequent book of Norwegian folk songs and saw possibilities. First he scored them for piano four-hand, sending them to his publisher in 1896, but he felt they deserved more. In the end he scored them for orchestra and1897-8 and they quickly entered the repertoire, at least for a while. After comparative neglect in the musical hurly-burly of the Twentieth century, they are again being appreciated for their charm.

The first Dance is a Halling – a leaping dance for men, originating in the Valdres district of Norway. The middle part is an added contrasting section by Grieg. The second Dance, Hestebyttaren, or “the Horse Dealer” is a gentler more contemplative Halling. The third Dance is a Spring Dance for couples, from Aamot, and the final Dance is composed of two contrasting folk melodies, Saag du nokke Kjoeringa mi? (“Have you seen my wife?”) and Brulaatten (“Bridal March”).

Two Sentimental Romances for Violin and Orchestra Op. 28       

Wilhelm Stenhammer (1871-1927)

Born in Stockholm in 1871, Wilhelm Stenhammer studied music locally with Richard Andersson, a pupil of Clara Schumann, learning composition from Emil Sjogren, and quickly developed into a virtuoso and a formidable composer. However, after several years of touring he decided that the concert hall life was not for him and he turned to chamber music, both in his music-making and in his compositions. It has been said that he wrote in his maturity the greatest string quartets between the age of Brahms and the arrival of Bartok! At any rate, he was very well respected by all who knew him. He was strongly tied to the renowned Aulin Quartet for many years, giving him an insight into string writing only matched by the players themselves.

Stenhammer wrote and published these two exquisite Romances in 1910, intending them to be performed together, though that has not always been the case in practise. It is worth noting that his use of the term ‘Sentimental’ does not mean weak or mawkish, but rather filled with an emotional idealism. The two Romances offer two moods. The first being gentle and somewhat introverted, while the second conveys more passion.

Romance for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 26         

Johan Svendsen (1840-1911)

Johan Svendsen was born in Christiana (now Oslo) in 184. The son of a music teacher he was trained well on both the violin and the clarinet – so well in fact that he was playing in professional orchestras well before he left school. As he gained more and more proficiency he began to tour until, after a concert in Lübeck he was befriended by a wealthy merchant who paid his way to study a full course at Leipzig. Once there, he sadly began to develop hand issues and transferred his attentions to compositio0n. The Director of The Conservatory, Carl Reinecke saw his worth and taught him himself for three years. Upon his return to Christiana, Svendsen took up conducting, which occupied him for the rest of his life.

As a composer, Svendsen was harmonically sound, if rather unadventurous in his larger works, but unlike his friend, Edvard Grieg, he loved to orchestrate. Today’s Romance from 1881 is probably the best known of his works, maintaining its place in the violin repertoire as the perfect miniature for violin and orchestra.

Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 “From the New World”

Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)

The Ninth Symphony dates from an odd period in Dvořák’s life.  At the beginning of 1891, Dvořák had finally achieved a professorship in composition at the Prague Conservatoire.  His fame as a composer was worldwide.  He was looking forward to a long, happy time of both composing and of helping young composers to excel.  However, a cable from New York soon disturbed his peace.  A wealthy matron, Mrs. Jeannette M. Thurber, had several years previously decided to open a National Conservatory of Music in New York, run on philanthropic lines.  She had need of a prominent composer to act as Director, and had chosen Dvořák as the most suitable artist available.  Although Dvořák politely declined the offer, he soon found himself assailed by a continuous barrage of letters and cables, each one raising his salary and cutting his duties.  Finally, by the autumn of 1891, he could hold out no longer.  It is worth recording that his final terms included a $15,000 a year salary (in 1891!), four months of vacation per year, and the ability to leave at the end of two years.  His term as Director started on October 1, 1892.

Dvořák soon found that he was terribly homesick in New York.  Accustomed to a simple, peaceful life in the suburbs of Prague, he could not readily learn to appreciate such a large bustling metropolis.  He took to haunting the steamship docks when duties permitted, and soon became something of an expert on sailing times to Europe.

Luckily, there were certain things in America that could not help but interest him.  The different types of indigenous folk music in particular he found fascinating.  He studied Black music, the music of the Mississippi Delta, the music of the Appalachia’s and all the American Indian music he could find.  In the end, he detected certain similarities between all of these and the folk melodies of Europe.

This may well have been the starting point for the Ninth Symphony, for without direct use of American sources, Dvořák was able to synthesize his nostalgia for his homeland with an appreciation of the youth and vitality of American life.  What his exact intentions were concerning the work, it is impossible to tell.  Careful analysis over the years has only clouded the issue.  There is no portion of the Symphony about which one could definitely say “that’s American!” but it still has a spicy American flavour throughout.

The Ninth Symphony received its first performance in New York on December 1st, 1893.  It was not just a great personal triumph for Dvořák, but it was also a collective triumph for the National Conservatory.  The first European performance took place in Prague at the end of his vacation the next year, on October 22nd, again to general acclaim.

The first movement, marked Adagio – allegro molto, opens gravely.  A sudden eruption of tension paves the way for the driving first theme.  The intensity of the opening is brilliantly complemented here by the almost perky second theme.  This alternation of mood lasts through the whole movement.  As more themes are added through the Development and Recapitulation, one must admire Dvořák’s ability to change his emotional message by the very subtlest of means.  I particularly like his use of the rhythms from one theme to flavour the mood of the accompaniment to another theme entirely.

The second movement, marked Largo, is without a doubt the most famous piece in Dvořák’s large output.  Whether the beautiful cor anglais solo is, as is sometimes suggested, the perfect example of black song, or nostalgic vision of the Czech countryside, seems to depend solely on the listener.   Dvorak uses the song form A-B-A in this movement in an interesting way.  After the melody is worked through for the first time, there is a very Bohemian passage, which quickly turns into the first theme from the first movement, almost as a reminder.  It, in turn, stops short, returning us to the “a” theme.

The third movement, marked Molto vivace, is a driving Scherzo, filled with cross-rhythms.  The two counter-subjects, which I suppose could be called alternating trios, are dramatically Czech in derivation, and temperamentally offset the drive of the Scherzo theme. The Finale, marked Allegro con fuoco, is a brilliant whirl of colour in which Dvořák’s control over all the nuances of emotion in music reaches its highest peak.  The excitement and passions of the New World and the love of the Old combine to form a conclusion of power and of hope.