Musical Director's notes and sound files for the Summer Term


Felix Mendelssohn: The Hebrides Overture Op. 26

Felix Mendelssohn

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The Hebrides Overture


In 1829 Mendelssohn and his friend, the poet Carl Klingemann, visited Scotland, the tour including a visit to Fingal's Cave on the Island of Staffa in the Hebrides. Klingemann later described the cavern: "Its many pillars made it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide grey sea within and without." Inspired by the sight, Mendelssohn returned to his inn and wrote a letter to his sister Fanny in which he enclosed twenty bars of a theme that would become the opening for his overture. He told her, "In order for you to understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, the following came to my mind there." The overture was revised several times and eventually published in 1835 under the title Fingal's Cave, although it is more commonly known as The Hebrides Overture.

Low strings open the piece with the theme Mendelssohn had sent to his sister, a restless one-measure motif that repeats for 46 bars over continually changing harmonies and dynamics that rise and fall like the swelling sea. A brass fanfare announces the arrival of the second theme in D major, stated by cellos and bassoons. The critic Donald Tovey called this "quite the greatest melody that Mendelssohn ever wrote." The violins take up the theme, the development leading to a turbulent climax that ends in another fanfare and a call-and-response series between brass and woodwinds. The recapitulation of the opening theme becomes increasingly more agitated, resulting in virtuosic work for the entire string section. A calmly beautiful clarinet duet provides a brief respite; then the extended coda returns us to the storm that subsides only in the final bars, with a soft repetition of the opening figure by clarinets and a quiet, rising statement by the flute.


Johannes Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn Op. 56a

Johannes Brahms

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Variations on a Theme by Haydn

 In 1872 Brahms turned 40, and settled down as the director of the orchestra and choir of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music) in Vienna. Two years earlier his friend C.F. Pohl, a music historian, had introduced Brahms to a set of divertimenti for winds then attributed to Haydn. Brahms liked the theme of the second, called the Chorale St. Antoni, and copied the tune in his notebook. (The tune was based on a hymn sung by pilgrims on St. Anthony's Day, and historians now believe the piece was possibly written by Haydn's student Ignatz Pleyel.) Brahms first showed a set of variations on the St. Anthony theme in two-piano form to the pianist and composer Clara Schumann, his close friend and supporter, in September of 1873. Trying out a work in two-piano form was typical of Brahms; he could play it through with an accomplished pianist like Schumann and obtain reassurance before going to the public. He gave the orchestral version to his publisher only two months later. The premiere in Vienna that November was a great success, and Brahms, heartened by this reception, appears to have gained the confidence to complete his Symphony No. 1 in C minor three years later, in 1876.

The opening (Chorale St. Antoni) introduces the St. Anthony theme much as it was presented in the Haydn work, with oboes and bassoons, now supported by strings and horns. A striking characteristic of the theme is that it begins with two five-bar phrases, a feature much exploited by Brahms. In the first variation, Poco piu animato, various sections of the orchestra play repeated chords outlining the theme, while two contrapuntal moving parts play against them. The second variation, Piu vivace, changes the key to minor and emphasises the dotted rhythm figure in the woodwinds. The following Con moto features a steady, evenly-flowing version of the theme weaving back and forth between sections of the orchestra and individual instruments. Variation four, Andante con moto, transforms the theme into a haunting minor melody over a gently running semiquaver accompaniment. The fifth variation, Vivace, presents an energetic scherzo, somewhat reminiscent of Brahms's hero Beethoven, that segues immediately into a regal, rather brassy second Vivace. Variation seven, Grazioso, is a gentle siciliano, a slow 6/8 or 12/8 form associated in Brahms's day with pastoral scenes and romantic melancholy. The Presto non troppo of the last variation is a fleeting 'will o' the wisp': quickly moving parts almost manage to hide the theme in their winding melodies, with the pedal points spread out over six octaves. It is in the long Finale that Brahms really demonstrates his mastery. It is in the form of a Baroque passacaglia, with the five bar basso ostinato outlining the theme under an ever-changing series of 17 variations that transform through a series of harmonic and rhythmic enhancements to end in a triumphant coda and restatement of the Chorali St. Antoni.

Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 4 in C minor D.417 the "Tragic"

Franz Schubert

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Symphony No. 4 in C minor

1. Adagio molto – Allegro vivace; 2. Andante; 3. Menuetto (Allegro vivace); 4. Allegro

It might seem inconceivable that Schubert composed his Fourth Symphony while only 19, or that two of his most famous art songs, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Erlkönig,” had already been written. Perhaps even more inconceivable is that in his home of Vienna Schubert was generally unrecognized for his talent and most of his works were never published, nor publicly performed, until after his death. Such was the case for his Symphony No. 4, even now quite rarely performed. This symphony is naturally modelled on the classical symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, but sparkles of Beethoven, and of the harmonic and melodic sophistication that became evident as Schubert’s greatest gifts. That Schubert himself named the symphony “Tragic” shows his intentions and explorations, even though the symphony is not really so tragically dark. Throughout there are extraordinary moments of brilliance in an altogether charming work.

The symphony opens with a lugubrious introduction, which in the hands of Haydn might have been used to set the listener up for a rousing, jolly allegro. But Schubert follows it with a nervous, almost angry opening theme. The development section is quite short, and the recapitulation begins (unusually) in the dominant minor. The second movement, an expansion of the conventional ABA song form, repeats both A and B sections with new and more poignant harmonies and adds a substantial coda. It opens with a gentle cantabile that almost washes away the tension from the opening movement. But the contrasting B section is a reminder that all is not entirely serene. Schubert called his third movement Menuetto; it falls more into the style of Haydn with his heavy peasant dances than Mozart’s more elegant court dances, but it also suggests the new scherzo that Beethoven was developing. There is a slight rhythmic ambiguity caused by the emphasis of the third beat, only resolved in the final bars. The short Trio is rustic in mood. The Finale returns to the anxiety of the symphony’s opening movement. Written in sonata form, instead of the more usual rondo, it opens with another nervous theme. Schubert retains the tense mood by lacing his secondary themes with dark harmonies and the major/minor ambiguity that characterizes so much of his more emotional writing.




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