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Program Notes: December 4, 2004

"Boundaries and Limits"

The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave), Opus 26

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)

Having already achieved remarkable success, 20-year-old German composer and pianist Felix Mendelssohn was at a crossroad: Could he make a bona fide career in music? To help him broaden his experiences, feed his artistic endeavors, and further establish his reputation, his father funded a three-year journey through Europe.

Beginning in April 1829, Mendelssohn traveled through England and Scotland, back through the major cities of Germany, and then to Hungary and Italy. All the while, he maintained his hectic concert schedule, a schedule that he would keep throughout his life. The experiences and impressions that he gained during his travels not only secured his career as a first-rate pianist and composer, but provided the creative seeds for some of his best-known works, including “The Hebrides” overture, also known as “Fingal’s Cave.”

A prodigious correspondent, Mendelssohn chronicled his travels in delightful letters to his family. Of Scotland he wrote, "In the evening twilight we went today to the place where Queen Mary lived and loved; . . . Everything is broken and mouldered [in the chapel close by] and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony." A week later he visited the Hebrides, a group of 50 islands in the west and northwest of Scotland. On the island of Staffa he saw the famous sea cave, Fingal's Cave. He wrote home, "In order for you to understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, the following came to my mind there." A bit of musical manuscript attached to this letter contained the first 20 bars of what was to become his descriptive overture.

The short work is quintessential Mendelssohn: melodies both strong and dear, orchestrated with the touch of a master of technique, and with perfect structural and thematic balance.

Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Long after his controversial and electrically charged operas Salome and Elektra, and some years after his final opera, Capriccio (1941), Richard Strauss' long career and life were winding down. Having turned from works with voice to smaller instrumental groupings, like the Metamorphosen for 23 strings, Strauss also busied himself with putting his business affairs in order for his family. Struggles with copyright protection, especially through the sad days of the Third Reich, had left many an artist with tangled rights quandaries. And yet, as the story is told, Strauss' son persuaded him to divert his energies in these final times to a testimonial work. Thus were born the Four Last Songs.

He wrote the last song first, in 1947, to a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff. For the other three songs he chose poems by the Swiss-German Hermann Hesse (1877-1962). The texts reflect the cycle from life to death: Spring representing newness, followed by autumnal reflection, then mystical soul stirrings upon sleep and the beyond, and finally the sunset concluding a long journey through life. The music reflects this cycle as well, moving from innocent rapture to profound calmness as death approaches. Completed shortly before his death in 1949, Strauss' Four Last Songs were premiered in 1950 with conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler and soprano Kirsten Flagstad.

I. Frühling (Spring) — Hermann Hesse

Out of a murky winter slumber, with rumbling winds swirling through "dusky graveyards," emerges Strauss' wonderful quality of transforming mood through chromaticism. Soon the soprano is lilting lyrical lines over an ever-changing aural freshness, embracing the sweetness of Spring. The lovely ending evokes the unpretentious viewer lifting her eyes to the sparkle of Spring's sunrise.

In dämmrigen Grüften
träumte ich lang
von dein Bäumen und blauen Lüften,
von deinem Duft und Vogelsang.

Nun liegst du erschlossen
in Gleiss und Zier
von Licht übergossen
wie ein Wunder vor mir.

Du kennst mich wieder,
du lockst mich zart,
es zittert durch all meine Glieder
deine selige Gegenwart!
In dusky graveyards
I dreamed long
of your trees and blue skies,
of your scent and your birdsong.

Now you lie uncovered
glittering and ornamented
bathed in light
like a jewel before me.

You recognize me,
you entice me gently,
A shudder runs through my body
your blissful presence.

II. September — Hermann Hesse

Opening like a prayer or hymn, the music becomes more reflective, less furtive and melismatic than Spring, the pace gradually slowing. The singer remembers days past, but is willing to stop lingering as the inevitable softness of Autumn erases summer's labors. Strauss uses magnificent tone painting, with the low harp strings plucked and the soloist's song hesitating.

Der Garten trauert,
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert
still seinem Ende entgegen.

Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.
Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt
in den sterbenden Gartentraum.

Lange noch bei den Rosen
bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh,
langsam tut er
die müdgeword'nen Augen zu.
The garden grieves
cool sinks the rain into the flowers
The summer shivers
quietly at the prospect of its end.

Golden drop the leaves slowly
from the tall acacia tress,
Summer smiles faintly and in surprise
in the dying dream of the garden.

For a long time it lingers,
upon the roses, longing for rest
Slowly it crosses its great
now weary eyes.

III. Beim Schlafengehen (Upon Going to Sleep) — Hermann Hesse

Closely reflecting the text, the music opens with a deep, stirring yawn of exhaustion. The singer knows that, as the day ends, so must life. She ponders upon what lies on the other side. Sleep and death are united as the ultimate freedom into the untold wonders of the universe. Surely the most beloved of the songs, this precious lied brings us one of Strauss' most exquisite melodies, first in the violin and then taken over in a most powerful moment by the soprano. As the soul/voice transforms through sleep into the galaxies, the orchestra surges in a colossal lifting up, from weariness to the magic and freedom of eternity.

Nun der Tag mich müd' gemacht,
soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.

Hände, lasst von allem Tun,
Stirn, vergiss du alles Denken,
alle meine Sinne nun
wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Und die Seele unbewacht
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief and tausendfach zu leben.
Made tired by the day now,
my passionate longing
shall welcome the starry night
like a tired child.

Hands, leave all your activity,
brow, forget all thought,
for all my senses
are about to go to sleep.

And my soul, unguarded,
will float freely,
in order to live in the magic circle of the night
deep and a thousand fold.

IV. Im Abendrot (At Sunset) — Joseph von Eichendorff

In this last song, the poet yields to sleep and perhaps to death. The music continually drops to lower sonorities, settling deep into the earth. Arguably the best song of the cycle, this is Strauss at his most tender. The music reflects his remarkable ability to paint emotion with sound. Near the end, as the sun drifts behind the hills, the larks symbolizing the freed soul, we hear a strain of Strauss' famous tone poem Death and Transfiguration.


Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand,
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.

Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft;
zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und lass sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit,
dass wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde;
ist dies etwa der Tod?
In times of trial and joy
we have gone hand in hand,
now we can rest from our travels
over the still land.

All around the valleys descend,
the sky is already growing dark,
only two larks ascend
night dreaming into the fragrant air.

Come closer and leave them to their fluttering,
soon it will be time for sleep
lest we go astray
in this lonely hour.

Oh, boundless, silent quietude,
so profound in the sunset!
How tired we are of our traveling —
can this perhaps be death?


Gloria for Soprano Solo, Mixed Chorus, and Orchestra

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Early in the 20th Century, a group of young composers in Paris reacted to the state of French music—really to all of Western music. They objected most strongly to the influence of Impressionism. But because Paris was such a musical center, they were rebelling not just against Debussy and Ravel, but also Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Strauss. French writer Jean Cocteau, himself a trendsetter, called for a truly French music. The cry was for music that was unaffected by earlier musical movements or by the “conservatoire.” Such a fresh approach certainly describes Francis Poulenc.

Critic Henri Collet ordained six of the young composers as the "French Six" (“Le Groupe de Six”): Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, and Louis Durey. Collet coined the term as a rough analogy to the Russian Mighty Handful of a generation earlier. Curiously missing from the group was the immensely influential Erik Satie. But, as Milhaud recalled, Collet chose six names at random.

Spanning many genres, Poulenc's music has endured as well as any of The Six—perhaps the best. This may be because of his commitment to his own ideas, and his faith. He said, "I am religious, by deepest instinct and heredity. I feel myself incapable of ardent political conviction, but for me it seems quite natural to believe and practice religion. I am a Catholic. It is my greatest freedom."

The Gloria was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Music Foundation in collaboration with the Library of Congress. Poulenc completed the work in 1959; it was premiered in 1961. Poulenc chose to set the second “ordinary” part of the Catholic Mass. This text best spoke to his faith. He created a work that is both exclamatory and deeply reverent.

Poulenc had always used many kinds of styles and techniques of composition. Rather than taking a compositional stand, he responded to whatever best expressed the text or subject. In the middle 1900's his style became very eclectic, incorporating cabaret, sacred structures, song-form, and polytonality. By the time he wrote the Gloria, he had adopted the clarity and simplicity of Stravinsky's late Neo-Classical style. Having studied the mysterious glories of Nature and its invisible spirit with profound understanding, he has a unique ability to make music sound as though it is a reflection of changing light. No more breathtaking a choral movement has been written since his mysterious third movement, “Domine Deus.” Now only half a century old, the Gloria is a fresh, vibrant, and glorious piece.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Et in terra pax hominibus
bonae voluntatis.

Laudamus te. Benedicimus te.
Adoramus te. Glorificamus te.
Gratias agimus tibi
propter magnam gloriam tuam.

Domine Deus, Rex coelestis,
Deus Pater omnipotens.

Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe.

Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,
Filius Patris, Rex coelestis.
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
suscipe deprecationem nostram.

Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,
miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solus sanctus.
Tu solus Dominus.
Tu solus altissimus, Jesu Christe.
Cum Sancto Spiritu
in gloria Dei Patris. Amen.
Glory to God in the highest.
 And on earth peace to men
 of good will.

We praise Thee. We bless Thee.
We worship Thee. We glorify Thee.
We give thanks to Thee
for Thy great glory.

Lord God, heavenly King,
God the Father almighty.
Glory to God.

Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son.

Lord of God, Lamb of God,
Son of the Father, heavenly King.
Thou who takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Thou who takest away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.

Thou who sittest at the right hand of the Father,
have mercy upon us.
For Thou alone art holy.
Thou alone art the Lord.
Thou alone art the most high, Jesus Christ.
With the Holy Spirit
in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

— Max Derrickson