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Overture “The Hebrides” Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
In 1829, German composer Mendelssohn travelled to Britain with his friend Karl Klingemann. The trip included a tour of Scotland where he sketched and painted the dramatic scenery, and took a sea crossing to the tiny isle of Staffa in the Hebrides. Staffa was a fashionable destination for Victorian visitors, who included JMW Turner, William Wordsworth and Queen Victoria herself. Staffa’s characteristic octagonal rock formations have been eroded away to form the stunning Fingal’s Cave, where the crashing waves echo in its unique acoustics.
Mendelssohn’s visit was the inspiration for the “Hebrides” overture, sometimes known as “Fingal’s Cave”. He spent three years re-drafting the overture until he was happy with it, with the first performance in London in 1832. The opening theme is dark and low-pitched, evoking the wild seascape, and it is possible to imagine the swell of the waves in the surging music, interposed by calls on woodwind and brass which perhaps echo the sounds of the seabirds. The second main theme is calm and lyrical. A stormy development section leads to a moment of calm with the second theme on clarinets, then the overture ends with the ominous rolling of the waves once more.
Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
The French composer Saint-Saëns showed early signs of extraordinary musical ability, giving concerts on the piano from the age of five, with a public debut at the age of ten. He was educated at the Paris Conservatoire, then made his living as a church organist in Paris, spending most of his career at the famous church of La Madeleine.
The work we will hear tonight is the first of two concertos Saint-Saëns wrote for cello, and is the more popular of the two. It was composed in 1872 for the cellist Auguste Tolbecque, who gave the first performance the following year at the Paris Conservatoire. The concerto is unusual in being in one continuous movement rather than the usual three movements, though there are three distinct sections.
Allegro non Troppo
The concerto opens with a single chord from the orchestra, then the cello immediately presses on with the urgent minor-key main theme of the section. This theme is echoed by the rest of orchestra, leading to a more relaxed second subject. The animation returns with a series of cadenza-like passages for the soloist, after which the main theme returns in a major key. The slower second theme returns, setting the mood for the second section.
Allegretto con Moto
This is a gentle triple-time section in minuet style using muted strings in the orchestra, with a short cadenza midway through.
The final section begins with a reiteration of the agitated first movement theme, introduced on woodwind. A slower section then follows, with a new lyrical theme. This leads to a stormier development section, after which the mood calms again for a slower melody from the soloist, which is developed with many virtuosic passages for the cello. The first main theme returns for the final section of the concerto, ending with a triumphal major-key coda.
Symphony No. 2 in D major Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957)
Sibelius single-handedly brought Finland to the musical foreground in early twentieth century Europe. He was considered such an important figure in Finland that his birthday was celebrated nationally during his lifetime: in 1935 his seventieth birthday was attended by all the past presidents of Finland and the prime ministers of Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
The music of Sibelius is inspired by the literature, nature and landscape of Finland. His use of the orchestra emphasises dark tone colours and spare orchestral textures, his musical style original in its use of harmony and the organic development of musical ideas from melodic fragments.
The second of Sibelius’ seven symphonies was begun in 1901 while the composer was staying in an Italian villa, and first performed in Helsinki the following year with Sibelius conducting. It was shortly after Sibelius’ success with the nationalistic tone poem Finlandia, and the grand theme of the symphony’s finale was interpreted by some as a patriotic gesture in the same vein. Sibelius is reported to have said "My second symphony is a confession of the soul."
A gracious rising theme on the lower strings begins the symphony, this motif being developed throughout all four movements. A descending melody, which mirrors the rising theme, is then introduced by the woodwind, setting the pastoral, optimistic mood of the movement.
2. Andante ma Rubato
The long slow movement begins with a pizzicato passage on lower strings, over which a melancholy theme is heard on bassoons. The movement builds up a sense of drama and urgency, bold statements on brass alternating with more elegiac sections.
The third movement is a tense and rapid scherzo, with a gentler central section incorporating a lyrical oboe solo. It leads into the fourth movement without a break.
4. Finale – Allegro Moderato
The bold opening melody of the final movement is the culmination of the rising theme from the first movement. A wandering second subject theme follows, gradually building up through melodic fragments to the grand concluding passages.