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Program Notes: March 1, 2009

Symphony No. 2 "Antar," Opus 9

Largo; Allegro giocoso
Allegro risoluto, alla marcia
Allegretto vivace

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

(born Tikhvin, Leningrad Region, Russia, 1844; died Lyubensk, Russia, 1908)

Given his lively imagination and lust for travel, young Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's first career was exploring the world as a naval officer. When his initial six-month naval tour ended, however, his love of music captured him completely and ended his youthful vagabonding. His compositions were immediately championed by Balakirev, leader of the famous "Mighty Fistful" of five Russian Nationalist composers, who included Mussorgsky (Pictures at an Exhibition) and Borodin (Prince Igor). Although his three symphonies were early compositions, Rimsky-Korsakov’s mastery of melody and orchestral coloring were already evident. His 1868 Symphony No. 2 “Antar” is especially magical.

Exotic folk tales like the legend of Antar fascinated Rimsky-Korsakov throughout his life. The real Antar lived in pre-Islamic times, flourishing around 580 AD. He was born Antarah Ibn Shaddad al-'Absi in what is now the United Arab Emirates. This famous poet and adventurer-warrior told his life story through his poems. Many centuries later, in the 1800’s, they formed the basis for Osip Senkovsky’s epic folk legend, which describes an extravagantly romantic life full of battles, magic, fairies, love, and death.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphony was clearly inspired by this epic, but takes a few liberties. In the symphonic version, Antar’s adventures have led him to the desert ruins of Palmyra, Syria, where, between wakefulness and dreams, he comes across a gazelle about to fall prey to a ghoulish giant bird. Antar honorably defends the gazelle, which turns out to be the fairy Gul-Nazar, Queen of Palmyra. As a reward for his chivalry, Gul-Nazar grants him the Three Joys that his life has lacked: Vengeance, Power, and Love. The symphony’s first movement tells this much of the story. The remaining three movements treat the Three Joys in succession.

Rimsky-Korsakov borrowed the “idée fixe” from Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, representing each character with a recurring musical theme. Most ingenious is Antar’s theme. Noble and majestic, it begins with an upward melodic leap, followed by downward drifting notes and then another upward leap. Rimsky-Korsakov uses the last note of that second leap as a kind of eyepiece to a harmonic kaleidoscope: Beneath that note he composes different lushly Romantic harmonies nearly every time Antar’s theme appears. Beyond sounding breathtaking, this harmonic cleverness shows the mythical hero continually evolving.

The musical story begins with rising string figures, echoing woodwinds, and pulsating timpani evoking the starkness of the desert expanses amidst the ruined city of Palmyra. The strings introduce Antar’s theme as he comes upon the gazelle, the disguised fairy Gul-Nazar. Her theme is a lithe and fluid warbling in the flute, accompanied by harp and violins. An excited crescendo depicts the ghoulish bird; a woodwind and violin shriek tells us that Antar has vanquished it. When Gul-Nazar appears to our hero in a dream, she is again liquid flutes. Rimsky-Korsakov then introduces a theme that furthers the story less than it balances the movement’s structure: From Borodin he borrows an ancient Algerian folksong, which he orchestrates with exquisite deftness. But Antar’s theme remains most prominent. Both Antar and Gul-Nazar’s themes will return repeatedly in later movements to tie the symphony together.

With the second movement’s pounding drums and massive brass, Antar wreaks his Vengeance upon his foes. Every variation of his theme projects great strength. The third movement’s quick march expresses his Power, Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral colors foreshadowing Scheherazade and Capriccio Espagnol. In the finale, Love comes to Antar through Gul-Nazar, but in this love he will be consumed and die. In an exquisite set of musical exchanges, we hear the beautiful, liquid flute theme of the fairy entwine with Antar’s theme, and the symphonic story comes to a poignant close.

— Max Derrickson

Songs of Harriet Tubman

Nkeiru Okoye

(born New York, 1972)

Composer’s Note

Songs of Harriet Tubman are the four "name" arias sung by the title character in the opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom. Each song’s focus is a name tied to a stage in Tubman's transformation from slave to freedom-fighter.

1.  My name is Araminta: First, as a child, she introduces herself as “Araminta,” who is often called “Minty.” Her naïve prattlings establish a dramatic contrast between childhood's contentment and the harsh realities of slave existence.

2.  “My name is Harriet now. Don't call me Minty any more,” declares the teenaged heroine. Having survived a series of abusive masters and a debilitating injury, she asserts her rites of womanhood through the shedding of her childhood moniker.

3.  I am Harriet Tubman, Free Woman: The adult Harriet Tubman reintroduces herself as a free woman, recounting her harrowing tale of escape from slavery. Confronted by bittersweet poignancy at having crossed the line to freedom without family to welcome her, she is inspired towards a new goal: returning home to rescue loved ones.

4.  I am Moses, the Liberator: In the final aria, Tubman, a seasoned conductor on the Underground Railroad, embraces the folkloric title given to her by escapees and aspiring runaways. “I am 'Moses, the Liberator,'” she proclaims. Her transformation is complete.

© 2006 Nkeiru Okoye