One week from tomorrow will mark the 100th anniversary of the ending of the First World War—and tonight’s trio of works from the second decade of the 20th century serves as a commemoration of (or perhaps more accurately, a reflection on) that event. Last Sunday’s Casual opened with Le Tombeau de Couperin, a suite in which Maurice Ravel honored friends who died in combat; this evening’s concert opens with a tone poem by George Butterworth (1885–1916), who himself fell in battle. A Shropshire Lad (1912), Butterworth’s orchestral magnum opus, is not itself directly connected to the war. Inspired, like much English music of the time, by the poetry of A. E. Housman, it’s a pastoral rhapsody with an overlay of both nostalgia and regret, perhaps stemming in part from what some commentators have claimed was Butterworth’s closeted homosexuality. Whatever its psychological sources, though, this is one of the most poignant quarter-hours of British music you’ll hear, with a muted kinship to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and a timbral refinement that, via Butterworth’s friend Vaughan Williams, echoes the finesse of the French impressionists. And although A Shropshire Lad was composed before the war, it’s hard not to hear it as a premonition of the composer’s impending death, especially since the work ends with a forlorn flute, quasi lontano (as if from a distance), calling out a fragment of Butterworth’s song-setting of Housman’s “With rue my heart is laden // For golden friends I had.”
Our closing work, the Symphony No. 4 (The Inextinguishable) (1914–16) by Carl Nielsen (1865–1931), could not be more different—rugged where Butterworth’s is supple, defiant where Butterworth’s is yielding, extreme where Butterworth’s is modest. Like A Shropshire Lad, the Nielsen Fourth may well have some personal history behind it—it was written at a difficult time in his marriage. But it’s more clearly reflective of the state of the world and of Nielsen’s belief—more stubborn than simply optimistic—in the ability of the human spirit to prevail. As he puts it in a preface to the score, the title “The Inextinguishable” reflects “in one word what the music alone is capable of expressing to the full: The elemental Will of Life.” And he expresses that elemental will with a harmonic language that, as conductor Larry Loh points out, is completely individual.
In four continuous and thematically linked movements, the Fourth does not take long to announce its fundamental spirit—and to announce two of its key structural underpinnings. It opens with a furious series of cries in the woodwinds, echoed by fortissimo timpani thwacks. A minute and a half later, though, the orchestra announces a contrasting theme, which begins with downward-moving thirds on the clarinets, marked espressivo. The timpani, as we come to discover, do not serve simply as a punctuation mark. They are a crucial part of the musical argument. After a deceptively simple pastoral intermezzo (almost Brahmsian in spirit, and largely scored for winds) and an intense “Poco Adagio” (dotted with what some hear as bird-calls), the finale is marked by an epic battle between two sets of timpani, placed on opposite sides of the stage. They compete, largely in canon, for dominance with what Nielsen calls a “menacing character,” which they are asked to maintain to the very end. And that theme that first shows up in the clarinets turns reappears in many guises throughout the symphony, and caps the triumphant, if hard-won, E major conclusion.
Between these works, we offer the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1917) by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). You might at first expect the Prokofiev to share the vehemence of the Nielsen, especially if you remember the violent Piano Concerto No. 2, written just a few years earlier, which Natasha Paremski performed with Symphoria last year. But Prokofiev is anything but a predictable composer, and in fact, as you’ll realize from the heart-stoppingly gorgeous opening, the First Violin Concerto represents yet a third response to the temper of the times—what our soloist Will Hagen describes as “an escape.” As a youngster, Will wasn’t particularly fond of Prokofiev’s music. It was only after playing Cinderella— “the most gorgeous thing I’d ever heard”—in a student orchestra at Aspen that he came to understand what he calls Prokofiev’s “fairy-tale” aspect. “When I listen to Brahms or Mozart, I hear real life, things that could have happened to you today or yesterday. Prokofiev takes you to a new place, a fairy-tale magical world. I sense that Prokofiev is always ‘escaping.’ I use the word escaping on purpose—he did not live in a good time.”
Will is especially taken with the way this piece ends: “I love the bookends feature of the concerto. How many concertos end like that, such a beautiful ending, coming back to the very opening?” Yet the music is hardly non-stop beauty: In the second movement, there is some “rough stuff sul ponticello, right near the bridge, so if I don’t make some ugly sounds, then I will have let everybody down.” For the violinist, that is technically the most challenging part of the concerto. For the orchestra, the composer himself suggested that major problems are balance and character: he points, for instance, to the last movement where the tuba needs to “emerge…like an endearing bumpkin.” But as a whole—and Will insists that it “feels like a one-movement piece, even more than other pieces”—it’s hard not to agree that the work has the aura of escape. Certainly, it provides a respite between the pieces around it, which are more explicitly attuned to the horrors of the times.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org