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Nordic Light & Darkness

Nordic Light & Darkness

Tuesday August 15 at 12:00 pm
Central United Methodist | Free admission

Program Notes

Likely the most well-known Finnish composer of the 19th and 20th centuries – and even the 21st – Jean Sibelius left behind a legacy of music that remains popular on the concert stage and recordings to this day. By the time of his death in 1957, the man had completed a body of work that included multiple symphonies and various orchestral works, pieces for chamber ensemble, piano, and solo voice, as well as numerous accompanied and unaccompanied choral pieces. Most associate the composer primarily with his symphonies and orchestral tone poems, but the relative lack of popularity for his smaller-scale works does not in any way indicate a decline in quality in these compositions. His Malinconia for cello and piano, for instance, may not appear on concert programs as often as Finlandia, but it still merits our appreciation.
Sibelius wrote Malinconia (Italian for “melancholy”) in the spring of 1900, allegedly within a mere matter of hours. Many understandably interpret the piece’s overwhelming solemnity and intimations of grief as an emotional response to the recent death of the composer’s infant daughter Kirsti, brought about by typhoid fever earlier that year. Sources also indicate that the composition was written to be performed in a fundraising concert for the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra’s trip to the 1900 Paris Exhibition. Given what we know about the Finnish composer’s biography surrounding the time of composition, however, it is very tempting to hear this piece as an intense emotional catharsis, rather than something merely completed toward financial ends.
The piece begins with the solo voice of the cello, trudging slowly through its lower range, attempting to climb higher and out of its darker registers, but the ascent in pitch is gradual and anguished. The piano takes over after the cello’s monologue, and spins out rapid arpeggios that, like the cello, attempt to rise but seem to meet invisible obstacles on the way that impede their progress. Once the two instruments finally join, both the cello and piano each make an attempt at voicing the first theme of the work until we finally have its first full statement in the cello, as the piano supports with repeating chords underneath. This modal theme is elegant, lyrical, and devastating. No wonder that it is so easy to project a father’s grief onto this piece. However, immediately following this theme, we have an answering one – still voiced in the cello with the piano as chordal support, our second theme seems to introduce a bit of light into the atmosphere. Trading a modal tonality for major, this theme hopefully ascends into higher registers, and keeps on climbing. These two opposing themes make up the core of the piece as we are led on an emotional journey, with both instruments adding different colors and contours to the material as it passes through each of their strong, yet well-balanced, voices.

Johan Helmich Roman, though scarcely mentioned in American music history texts, was an integral figure in 18th-century Scandinavian musical circles. Referred to by some historians as “the Father of Swedish Music” and even “the Swedish Handel,” Roman was seen by his own colleagues as responsible for elevating the status and quality of music in Sweden through his participation in several of its core musical institutions throughout his career. In 1711, at the age of 17, Roman joined the royal chapel as a musician, specializing in oboe and violin performance. Granted the opportunity to study in England by King Charles XII, the young man went to London in 1715 and stayed for six years. There he is said to have studied with German composer Johann Christoph Pepusch, played second violin under the service of the Duke of Newcastle, and became enamored with the oratorios and anthems of Handel (many of which he would perform using Swedish translations upon his arrival back home). Once he returned to Sweden, Roman became deputy master of the royal chapel, and eventually took leadership of the court orchestra in 1727. He is also credited with introducing the first public concert in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, comprising court musicians and amateur players from the nobility.
A collection of 12 sonatas for flute was the only complete work that Roman published during his lifetime. Among his extant, posthumous publications, a swath of other instrumental genres are represented, including orchestral suites, solo concertos, violin studies, and trio sonatas. The Baroque trio sonata – written for two or three melody/treble instruments with basso continuo – was a favorite genre and ensemble configuration in the 17th and early 18th centuries throughout Europe. No great surprise, then, that at least fourteen trio sonatas have emerged from the composer’s oeuvre over time. Much like the trio sonata form modeled by Arcangelo Corelli in the late 17th century, the trio sonata performed today largely abides by the following organizational scheme: 1) slow movement with imitative passages in upper voices; 2) fast movement with fugal form; 3) slow, often in triple meter; 4) fast, more dance-like and livelier than the second. Here the second movement is not quite as fugal as it might be, but still resembles the interior fast movements from his other trio sonatas. The final movement, however, easily fits the traditional model as a pulsating rejoinder to the second, set at a pace that feels both slightly frenetic and exhilarating.

From composer Anders Hillborg:

The label on the Arietta wine, crafted by my friends John and Maggy Kongsgaard, displays a couple bars of the Arietta-theme from Beethoven’s last piano sonata in his own handwriting. So when I was asked to compose a piece in honor of this fabulous wine, this theme would naturally have a key role in the piece. But whereas Beethoven’s piece is a set of rigorously carried out variations with a steadily increasing intensity curve – serenely beautiful and calm in the beginning, culminating in what can best be described as the first ragtime in music history, before fading back to serenity – my Kongsgaard Variations are more like meditations, with no directional process.
The music floats aimlessly through the centuries, displaying reminiscences of baroque, folk-music, renaissance and romanticism, but with Beethoven’s Arietta theme as the musical epicenter. Although scarcely audible, the piece actually starts with music directly derived from the Arietta theme, leaving out the melody but maintaining the same rhythmical flow and harmonic landscape, as if Beethoven’s theme is dreaming about yet another variation on itself . . . .
Arietta means “little song”, and these beginning bars are then cloned and mutated into other “little songs” that occur on several occasions in the piece. After the introductory section the first violin takes on a simple, thoughtful solo motif, and again, this is cloned and mutated and appears later in the piece in different shapes. Then comes a viola solo, joyful, as in trance, leading into a section where all instruments sing the praise of wine and music.
Shortly after the middle of the piece, we hear the Arietta-theme for the first time, but strangely distorted and stretched, in the same way a cubistic painting twists the motif it uses – it’s almost sounding as if the music is being played backwards. A simple chorale follows which lands us in the music that started out the piece, and then comes finally the first part of the Beethoven theme in C-major in its pure, original shape, succeeded by the second part of the theme in a-minor, but here again distorted in the same way as earlier, before the music completely evaporates into a mist of harmonics.
The Kongsgaard Variations is warmly dedicated to John and Maggy Kongsgaard.

Norway’s most well-known composer, Edvard Grieg, lived from 1843 to 1907. Grieg began his piano studies under the tutelage of his mother at the age of six. At fifteen, he enrolled in the Leipzig Conservatory where he developed a penchant for Schumann’s piano music as well as a disposition for homesickness. After completing his studies, Grieg returned to his birth country and became interested in Norwegian folk music. Although he felt a strong connection to his roots, Grieg traveled and concertized throughout Europe during the span of his career. Grieg’s works largely consist of songs and keyboard miniatures, although he did garner great attention and acclaim for his Piano Concerto and Peer Gynt Suite.
Grieg’s songs showcase his great melodic gift. In all, he composed 25 sets and gave many performances with his wife, Nina Hagerup, a lyric soprano. The songs performed today come from the third and last Lied cycle by the composer to be based on original German texts, borrowing from such poets as Heinrich Heine – a favorite poetic source for both Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert – and the medieval lyric poet Walther von der Vogelweide. In the songs of op. 48, we can hear how Grieg fully embraced the German tradition of the Lied while bringing in Nordic touches via folklike melodies and occasional modal harmonies. Typical of Lieder, the songs explore the highs and lows of romantic love, coupled with pastoral settings and the evocation of birdsong. Despite the homogeneity across the texts, Grieg’s musical settings are delightfully varied in tone and energy, exemplified particularly well in the contrast between the flirtatious “Lauf der Welt” and the sublime ecstasy of “Ein Traum.”

© Emily Masincup (with Anders Hillborg), 2023

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