Concert III, 2023-2024 Season
New Artistic Mélange
Hymn for Everyone
Jessie Montgomery, whose "Banner" MSO played in 2021, wrote "Hymn for Everyone" in 2022. In a YouTube interview she notes that it is both a response to the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a reflection on hymns in general, which have, through history, offered a sense of both community and individual solace. She has imagined the orchestra as a collection of choirs, and the tune, which is repeated in different guises throughout the work, resembles many hymns in having a straightforward rhythm, and in feeling very singable. Although there are no dramatic contrasts in this 11-minute piece, the music combines a sense of interior contemplation with more public outcry.
Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K.504, ("Prague")
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The "Prague" symphony is so-named (but not by Mozart) because it was premiered in that city in early 1787. It followed on the heels of the first Prague performances of The Marriage of Figaro, which were a huge success, and the premiere of Don Giovanni, which was commissioned by the theater there. This symphony was probably played by the theater orchestra, which had three or four first violins, three or four seconds, and a couple each of violas, cellos, and basses. There was a single player of each wind, brass and percussion part, plus a harpsichord playing the bass line and chords, to a total of about 26 souls on stage. Not only is that overall smaller than most modern orchestras, but with so few string players, even one-on-a-part winds would have been proportionately louder. It’s worth keeping that in mind, because the wind and brass parts in this work are quite wonderful, and wonderfully varied—sometimes they are the main event, sometimes they are doubling the string parts, sometimes they provide counterpoint, and sometimes they serve as punctuation, marking the joins and separations between musical "sentences."
Today we are used to a four-movement model of the Classical symphony—usually arranged in the pattern fast, slow, minuet, fast. The Prague symphony has no minuet, which may seem like an anomaly, but it is actually not that unusual, historically speaking. And Mozart makes up in the richness and complexity of his writing anything that one might feel missing because of the more compact form of the whole.
The first movement begins with a slow introduction, by turns martial and more lyrical. It passes into a much longer fast section that opens with a reminiscence of the more lyrical, sometimes mysterious music in the introduction, but quickly introduces several more cheerful ideas. The movement is striking for the complexity of its sound—there’s a lot of counterpoint (two more equally interesting things happening at the same time), and it is worth paying attention to how many different things you can hear at the same moment. The slow, second movement opens quite placidly, and never becomes overtly stormy, but the mood changes subtly at remarkably short intervals: along with the placidity we hear some moments of tension and instability that may remind us of a tragic opera. The last movement is predictably fast and cheerful, but juxtaposed with apparent simplicity is more counterpoint, often sounding a bit like a round (where everyone sings the same tune, but starting one after the other), and some slightly anxious-sounding syncopations (offbeat rhythms) that may remind us of the opening of the fast section of the first movement.
Enigma Variations, Op. 36
The Enigma Variations—so-named by Elgar himself—were composed in 1899 when Elgar was 41. It was his first widely successful work and cemented his reputation. The work consists of an original theme and fourteen variations. All but the theme and Variation 13 have titles consisting of the initials (or nicknames) of friends and associates—nine men and four women—and purport to suggest something about each person. Elgar himself wrote in 1911:
This work, commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in deep seriousness, contains sketches of the composer's friends. It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect on the original theme & each one attempts a solution of the Enigma, for so the theme is called. The sketches are not 'portraits' but each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or perhaps on some incident known only to two people. This is the basis of the composition, but the work may be listened to as a 'piece of music' apart from any extraneous consideration.
Most of the friends were local amateur musicians and Elgar’s friends and neighbors who would be lost to history if not for their perpetuation in Elgar’s music, but several are worth noting. The first variation, "C.A.E." is Caroline Alice Elgar, Edward’s wife. The ninth, "Nimrod," often understood as the emotional heart of the work, and certainly the most played as a stand-alone piece, refers to Augustus J. Jaeger, Elgar’s editor at the music publisher Novello, and a stalwart supporter and encourager when his confidence failed or his cyclical depression was upon him. The grand finale, "E.D.U.," refers to Elgar himself—evidently his Alice affectionately called him Edu.
Elgar described the theme itself as an enigma, which has kept students of this piece searching for the "solution" since the work first appeared. Some have said that the up and down contours of the theme’s melody match the outline of the Malvern Hills close to Elgar’s house. Other statements by Elgar have suggested that a second, somehow meaningful, tune is hidden in the theme, either in the notes of the tune itself, or as a counterpoint to it. "Auld Lang Syne," "Rule Britannia," and the slow movement of Beethoven’s "Pathétique" sonata have all been suggested, but none of these has garnered universal agreement. Elgar noted that this tune was both well known and included "dark thoughts," which seems to limit the choices beyond what musical detectives have been able to work out. Regardless, Elgar’s deeply-felt and inventive writing, and the contrasts as well as the continuities among the variations make sense of the work’s stellar reputation.
© Mary Hunter 2023