This evening, cellist Julie Albers makes her third Symphoria appearance. At her first, she offered a 20th-century masterpiece, the Elgar; at her second, she took on the 19th century with the Dvořák. Tonight, she continues this backwards journey, reaching into the 18th century with a performance of the 1783 Concerto in D by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809). As Julie hears it, this is an “enormously lyrical, pretty happy-go-lucky” piece. Yes, there are a few dark moments, especially in the minor key passage in the third movement; for the most part, though, sunshine prevails. Yet it’s also technically challenging. The difficulties begin the moment the cello enters. The opening melody, Julie says, might seem simple if you try to sing it. But “as soon as you put it on the cello, you have to deal with the logistics of shifting up and down the A string frequently, with no bumps and perfect intonation in order to create this beautifully simple melody. This can be stressful!” The conflict between that easy-going spirit and the stress on the performer provides the greatest challenge: the soloist has to make the treacherous sound simple. And to do that, “you have to have thought about and shaped every single detail, including the speed of the bow, the speed of the shift [moving your hand from one position to another on the fingerboard]… all of these things that people listening would never really know about.” Finding “the longest phrases that you can” and catching precisely the right tempo are key, too. Get it all perfect, and the sunny spirit prevails; without the right preparation, however, it can easily sound labored.
What should you listen for? Julie’s favorite spot is in the second movement, a passage in double stops: “it’s so touching and so tender.” But my guess it that wherever you turn your attention, you’ll find yourself hooked.
When he wrote this concerto, Haydn was something of an outsider, working as kapellmeister at the court of the Esterházy princes. While they admired his work and gave him a spectacular orchestra to work with, they kept him as a glorified lackey, away from the musical centers of Europe. Only later on did Haydn travel the world as a star—achieving particular success in England. It’s therefore appropriate to bracket this concerto with breakout works by two British outsiders.
We open with the Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes, composed in 1945 by Benjamin Britten (1913–1976). As a pacifist (even during World War II) and a homosexual when homosexuality was a criminal offense, Britten was doubly excluded from English respectability. Indeed, he was in self-imposed exile in the United States when he came up with the idea for the opera. Based on a poem by George Crabbe, Peter Grimes centers on the struggle between an outsider and a conventional coastal town—and the title role was written for Britten’s lover Peter Pears. So while it’s far from autobiographical, it’s impossible not to see reflections of Britten’s own sense of alienation.
Outsider though Britten may have been, the opera was a sensation—serving as a catalyst not only for the languishing British opera repertoire, but also for post-war opera more generally. These excerpts give a taste of the opera’s rich, if menacing, musical imagery. The threatening glint of dawn (conductor Larry Loh points to the “mysterious transporting quality” of the back-and-forth between rapid clarinet/harp/viola arpeggios and slower brass chords), the alarm-like church bells disturbing the sunlight of Sunday morning, the subtly troubled beauty of the moonlight over the water, the fury of the storm: no wonder these evocative interludes have been as popular on concert programs as the opera has been in the opera house.
The Enigma Variations, composed in 1898–1899 by Edward Elgar (1857–1934), was even more influential. Elgar, too, was an outsider. Raised in a rural village, he was the son of a shop-owner in a class-conscious society and a Catholic in a resolutely Protestant country. While some early works met with provincial success, he was little known to the wider public when the Enigma Variations were premiered. It was a seismic event, not only for Elgar but for English music more broadly. At the time, England was often derided as “The Land Without Music”—or, more accurately, as Das Land Ohne Musik, since the insult was thrown down by people for whom German masterpieces epitomized classical music. A bizarrely false claim—still, it’s true that British composers didn’t have world-wide exposure. With the Enigma Variations, England finally had a post-Handel composer in the international repertoire.
On the surface, the work is a straight-forward set of 14 variations based (sometimes loosely) on a theme stated at the outset. The music runs deeper than that, however: every variation, headed by initials or a nickname, represents someone in Elgar’s circle, starting with his wife Alice, moving through publisher August Jaeger (the famous “Nimrod” variation in the middle, punning on the meaning of the German word jaeger, “hunter”), ending with a tribute to the composer himself (surprisingly assertive, given Elgar’s modesty). Some friends are honored with variations tied to their general personalities, some with representations of personal quirks (the stammer of Dora Penny, Variation 10), others with reminiscences of events (George Sinclair’s bulldog falling into a river, Variation 11). The resulting work, Larry points out, has more stylistic variety than most sets of variations: “They are as different as the people in his life.” And that’s the major interpretive challenge. “You have to fully embrace a variation and then jump on to the next one.” Yet somehow—and herein lies Elgar’s genius—it all fits together.
But there’s another level, suggested mostly clearly by the erotic pull in the evocative Variation 13, a romanza in which the initials are replaced by asterisks (always a clue of something risqué) and in which Elgar quotes Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” in a way tinted with loss and melancholy. Need more mystery? Elgar claimed that there was a secret theme behind the main theme—in other words, that the theme was already a variation on something else. Critics have spent more than a century trying to solve the puzzle, proposing dozens of solutions from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to the theme from Bach’s Art of Fugue. It increasingly seems that we’ll never know the answer—and even that Elgar may have been sending us on a wild goose chase.
With all these layers, the work offers abundant opportunities for the listener. Even if you just bask in the music as it unfolds, however, you’ll be following the composer’s guidance. “The work,” he wrote, “may be listened to as a ‘piece of music’ apart from any extraneous consideration.”
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org