Four Scottish Dances, Op. 59
One of the most prolific English composers of the twentieth century, Malcolm Arnold had a roller-coaster career. He entered the Royal College of Music at 16, studying the trumpet. Due to the wartime shortage of professional players, he regularly appeared in the ranks of major orchestras even before graduating, and was acknowledged as an outstanding player. His unhappy two years of military service ended when he deliberately shot himself in the foot. A fellowship in 1946 gave him the confidence to pursue a full-time composing career, but his frenzied pace of work was repeatedly interrupted by bouts of depression and alcoholism, often necessitating long stretches of hospitalization.
Arnold’s style was conservative and popular; his shorter works were especially appropriate for youth and amateur orchestras. But because of his musical conservatism the academic establishment ignored his music in favor of more difficult atonal and serial language. At the core of his output are nine symphonies, 20 concertos and two operas. He also composed 132 film scores, the most famous being The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he received an Oscar in 1958. The score took him all of ten days to write.
Arnold composed the Four Scottish Dances in 1957 for the BBC Light Music Festival. While the music suggests folk song origins, three of the dance tunes are original. The second, which includes a tipsy bassoon, is based on a theme of Robert Burns Arnold used in his film score to The Beautiful Country of Ayr:
Marche écossaise sur un theme populaire
(Scottish March on a Popular Theme)
Always in financial distress, Claude Debussy could not be too discriminating about commission opportunities. To help him, friend often directed commissions his way.
In 1891 Debussy received an unannounced visit from a Scottish officer, General Meredith Reid. Debussy spoke no English and Reid not a word of French. After a perplexed stand off, an interpreter was found in a nearby tavern and Reid offered Debussy a commission to arrange and orchestrate a march traditionally associated with Clan Ross, of which Reid was a descendant. Debussy made the arrangement for piano four-hand, and it is unknown whether the General had it ever performed. In 1908, again short of cash, Debussy orchestrated it at the demand of his publisher.
While, in part, the music sounds adequately Scottish, the piece progresses as something of a contest between traditional Scotland and fin de siècle France. The constantly shifting instrumentation demonstrates Debussy’ mastery of orchestration. The brief introduction is typical Debussy before launching into the Scottish theme. Debussy orchestrates this melody for solo oboe and muted trumpet to imitate the sound of bagpipes. In a transition passage, “France” takes over. The contrasting middle section, however, is a seamless blend.
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26
One of the hallmarks of nineteenth-century Romanticism in music was the rise of the virtuoso violin or piano soloist, epitomized by those two great showmen, Niccoló Paganini and Franz Liszt. The demand for new virtuosic concertos inspired nearly all composers of the period to try their hand at this new kind of bravura work. One composer remembered primarily for his contribution to this genre was German composer, conductor and music teacher Max Bruch.
One of the minor figures of German late Romanticism, Bruch had a singularly peripatetic career moving around Germany from one minor post to another. Only in 1891 were his talents finally recognized, and he became professor of composition at the prestigious Berlin Conservatory. Among his students were Ottorino Respighi and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Bruch was a musical conservative who, drawing his inspiration from Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, had little use for the musical innovations of the late nineteenth century. Since his youth, he had been a prodigious composer, best known for his choral works. Today, however, he is remembered mainly for the Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Kol Nidrei
Bruch began work on the Concerto in 1857 but finished it only in 1866. Then once again, immediately after the premiere, he revised the manuscript upon the advice of the great violinist Joseph Joachim, who premiered the revised version two years later. Joachim called it the “richest and most seductive” of the Romantic violin concertos – quite a compliment from Europe’s leading virtuoso.
Originally, Bruch called the first movement Introduzione-Fantasia because, lacking much of a development section, it does not conform to the traditional sonata form; he finally settled on the simpler title, Prelude. The melancholy mood of the first movement is intensified by the slow tempo and brooding presence of the timpani, which opens the movement and literally provides a heartbeat throughout. The Adagio, which follows without pause is the heart of the whole work, intensifying the emotional tone set in the previous movement. The fiery Finale, Allegro energetico is aptly named. Its pyrotechnics may have inspired Brahms, who composed his Violin Concerto with its folk-like finale more than ten years later. &
Symphony No. 3 in a minor, Op. 56, “Scottish”
Raised in affluence, Felix Mendelssohn enjoyed encouragement and the nurturing of his precocious musical talent. The Mendelssohn household was a Mecca for the intellectual elite of Germany, and the many family visitors fawned over the prodigy and his talented sister Fanny. Fortunately for the development of his rare abilities, his carefully selected teachers were demanding and strict.
One of the results of Mendelssohn’s financial security was his opportunity to take the Grand Tour in what was then considered the civilized world, Western Europe, Italy and Britain. In 1829, Mendelssohn traveled to England and then on to Scotland, where his visit to Fingal's Cave in the Hebrides Islands inspired The Hebrides Overture. It also produced the ideas that became the Scottish Symphony.
Started in Italy in 1830 but not finished until 1842, the Scottish Symphony was Mendelssohn's last – the numbering of the five symphonies reflecting their order of publication rather than composition. He dedicated the Symphony to the Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, whom he had met and charmed during one of his visits to England (the Queen actually sang while Mendelssohn accompanied her on the piano.)
While the music has an undeniably Scottish flavor, it does not specifically quote any folk tunes, a device which Mendelssohn despised. Writing to his father from Wales, he commented: "...anything but national music! May ten thousand devils take all folklore... a harpist sits in the lobby of every inn of repute playing so-called folk melodies at you – dreadful, vulgar, fake stuff; and simultaneously a hurdy-gurdy is tooting out melodies - it's enough to drive you crazy..." That being said, it's difficult to distinguish Mendelssohn's invented Scottish style melodies from the kind of musical nationalism he so despised.
Right from the introduction and the succeeding Allegro agitato, the Symphony's gloomy atmosphere gave rise to the myth that it was somehow inspired by the tragic life of Mary Queen of Scots. & More likely the Symphony reflects the bleak and stormy weather so prevalent in the Scottish highlands, lowlands and outlying islands alike. The climax of the first movement is a veritable hurricane, replete with chromatic moaning in the strings.
The second movement provides a little sunshine, its main theme as near to a Scottish folksong – with "Scottish snap" and all – as Mendelssohn could get without actually using one. The third movement is in A major but comes through as passionate, if not at times anguished. Its middle section, with somber dotted rhythm, suggests a horn call summons of fate. Then, it's back to the Sturm und Drang of the final movement. Mendelssohn ramps up the emotional to a fever pitch and then slowly cools it down in a clarinet solo joined by pianissimo basson and upper strings, conveying nothing so much as melancholic resignation. But - perhaps with a bow to Beethoven - Mendelssohn ends the Symphony with a shift into A major with a new and optimistic theme to end it.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017|