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2010–2011: Local Legends, Rising Stars

From the Mountains to the Sea

In the spring of 1938 Alexander Richter, then head of the music department at New York City’s High School of Music and Art, approached Aaron Copland (1900-90) about writing a short piece for the school orchestra. Richter had been deeply impressed by Copland’s play-opera for children, The Second Hurricane, produced the previous year.

As Copland related in his autobiography, he found Richter’s offer particularly attractive because the work was to be the opening bell in a school campaign, “American Music for American Youth.” He actually interrupted orchestrating his Billy the Kid ballet music to work on the piece.

Richter wanted the music to appeal strongly to adolescent American youth and cautioned Copland in a letter: “I’m reminded that boards of education throughout this country do not take to ultra-modern composition. It seems to be against the ‘institutions of our forefathers’ and what-not. I do not know how you will respond to this hideous reminder, but again I trust your good taste in this matter.”

When Copland later played his piano sketch for him, Richter remarked that it seemed to have an “open-air quality,” and from this the title, An Outdoor Overture, quickly evolved. Richter conducted the premiere performance with the school orchestra on December 16, 1938. It was quickly taken up by “regular” symphony orchestras and has remained in the active repertory ever since. Copland also prepared an arrangement for band. The audience will readily notice that he took to heart Richter’s “hideous reminder,” and avoided writing an “ultra-modern” piece of music.

The year 1899 was transformative for Edward Elgar (1857-1934). After many years of enduring painfully slow public recognition – mostly in the English provinces – he suddenly hit the big time with the premiere in June of that year of his masterful Enigma Variations, Op. 36, which our orchestra performed a few years ago. His reputation skyrocketed and led to his being knighted in 1904, and for many years he was broadly considered the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell (1659-95).

Elgar quickly followed up on the success of his Op. 36 with the song cycle Sea Pictures, Op. 37, composed in July 1899. It was dedicated to Clara Butt (1872-1936), a highly regarded contralto, very attractive, and statuesque at 6’2”. The work was premiered in October 1899 at the Norwich Festival with Elgar conducting and Clara as soloist, dressed as a mermaid(!). Two days later she gave the first London performance at St. James Hall with Elgar at the piano, and about two weeks later performed two of the songs, this time as part of a command performance for Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle. (We have been unable to learn whether she continued with her mermaid attire at the two subsequent performances.)

Sea Pictures is a cycle of five songs composed to verses, overflowing with metaphor and related devices, by five 19th-century poets of the British Romantic tradition. The first, “Sea Slumber Song”, projects the generally deep calm of a lullaby. It is followed by the brief “In Haven (Capri),” set to a poem by Elgar’s wife Alice (who was also a talented novelist.) Here, two lovers witnessing a storm at sea, find quiet reassurance in the enduring strength of their attachment. The third, “Sabbath Morning at Sea” to words by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, examines a passenger’s thoughts aboard ship on a long voyage. The comforting habits of home, friends and Sunday worship have been left behind, hopefully replaced by her abiding faith in God’s loving spirit and with only heaven above and the sea below sharing the sacrament with her. It is followed by “Where Corals Lie,” arguably the most popular of the cycle, long admired for its direct and delicate simplicity. Here, even the alluring presence of another ultimately fails to keep the singer from the search for the lands “where corals lie” under the sea. The final song “The Swimmer”, starts with the protagonist struggling in turbulent waters. For a fortunate period he does achieve peaceful respite with memories of happier times. However, the storm does return in full fury and the dark thoughts that follow have been imagined by some readers to foretell the poet’s suicide in 1870 at the age of thirty-seven.

With perhaps the exception of his Sea Pictures, Elgar’s art songs have occupied only a relatively minor position within his total oeuvre. This is in contrast to the lasting qualities of his finest choral music such as The Dream of Gerontius. Music scholars have postulated that Elgar’s exceptional capabilities with orchestral accompaniments to vocal music – as compared to those with piano where he possessed much less natural aptitude – provided him the added inspiration and tools to far surpass the ordinary. With Sea Pictures, he did achieve a remarkable synthesis of voice and orchestra. The emotional range of the poems is very broad and critically tests the dramatic and vocal powers of the soloist. The orchestral accompaniment complements the singer to a remarkable degree with touches ranging from the most subtle to the heroic. There are also very imaginative choices of instrumentation that enhance the vocal line and provide wonderful atmospherics. Elgar also imaginatively reintroduces music from earlier songs in the cycle into later ones. It is an artful effect worth listening for.

— Robert Simon


Shenandoah is an area of western Virginia which encompasses the Blue Ridge Mountains (part of the Appalachian chain) and the Shenandoah Valley. The name is of Native American origin, said to mean “River of High Mountains.” Various Native American tribes, which had been living in the area for thousands of years, died off or were driven out by epidemics of new diseases brought to the continent by European settlers. The mountains were repopulated in the early 1700s, and the region grew into an isolated and fiercely independent community of farmers, traders, and craftsmen. Farming the rocky and uneven mountain land was always difficult, but by the early 20th century, with the land stripped and overworked, it became nearly impossible. In addition, the Chestnut Blight and the onset of the Great Depression devastated the local economy. In 1926, the U.S. Government decided to make the area into a national park and required all landowners to sell their property. Although some families gratefully accepted such a buyout, many others refused to leave and had to be forcibly evicted.

Shenandoah National Park was established in 1936. After more than 200 years of human use (and abuse), the area’s flora and fauna rebounded quickly. Today the Park features the scenic Skyline Drive (built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps), numerous campgrounds and tourist attractions, and a vast network of hiking trails, including a 100-mile section of the Appalachian Trail. On many trails, one may still find tombstones, fences, house foundations, and other reminders of the people who once lived in the mountains.

Shenandoah: A Symphonic Portrait is a musical depiction of both the mountains and the mountain people. (In each of the movement titles, the first word is an aspect of the mountains, the last an aspect of the people.) I have attempted to bring some of the rich tradition of mountain folk music to the piece, both by using ethnic instruments such as the fiddle, guitar, and dulcimer, and by incorporating some of the genre’s style and flavor into my own musical aesthetic. The folksong “Oh Shenandoah” is quoted in its entirety in the fourth movement, but all of the remaining melodies are original folksong emulations (which in fact were all derived by various methods from the “Oh Shenandoah” melody itself).

The first movement represents the sturdiness, stability, and constancy of the mountain people and of the mountains themselves. Movement is slow but steady, and open intervals are prominent. Harmonies are built from overlapping, or stacked, intervals of the fourth, creating a firm foundation and a modal flavor. Familiar “horn fifths” are also important, being derived directly from the overtone series–the bedrock, as it were, of Western music. Near the end of the movement, the main melody appears in the woodwinds at three different speeds simultaneously. The bitonal closing chord is an homage to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

The second movement is in two parts. It opens with a simple melody, played by a solo violin and guitar, reminiscent of a campfire song. The rest of the first section is a set of variations on that melody, gradually building in power, then eventually returning to the original instrumentation. The second section is a depiction of a country hoedown. After a brief transitional section which simulates the tuning of fiddles, two episodes are presented, both in the traditional 16-bar AABA form, and both sharing a common refrain. The third episode, in minor, closely resembles an Irish jig, one of the many ancestors of Appalachian folk music. After a reorchestrated return of the first episode, there follow two “breaks,” one for solo violin and one for the bass section. The first two episodes then return in reverse order at a breakdown (faster) tempo, and the movement closes with two codas. All of the material in the hoedown section is derived from the opening campfire song, which is in turn derived from “Oh Shenandoah.”

The third movement features the interplay of two different ideas. The first is the haunting melody played at the beginning by the dulcimer. This theme returns twice more in the movement and is later intertwined with fragments of “Oh Shenandoah.” The second idea is an original hymn tune, which one might imagine being sung in a tiny white-frame mountain church. Two fragments of the hymn are played by the woodwinds, each time in a key foreign to the strings in the background, creating an eerie feeling of frozen time. The hymn is eventually played in its entirety by a string quartet, and the movement ends bitonally with an Amen in the strings and fragments of the modal melody in the winds.

The fourth movement, “Rebirth and Remembrance,” opens immediately with the “Oh Shenandoah” melody played by a solo cello without accompaniment. A set of variations follows in which the solo becomes a trio, then a three-part canon (round), then a powerful statement for the full orchestra. The “remembrance” aspect is accomplished through intervening contrasting episodes based on material from each of the preceding three movements. After gradually receding into a quiet restatement of the very beginning of the piece, the movement quickly builds again to a majestic multi-layered conclusion.

— David Kidwell

Sunday, March 13, 2011 at 3:00 p.m.

Copland: An Outdoor Overture
Elgar: Sea Pictures

  • Sara Bielanski, mezzo-soprano

Kidwell: Shenandoah: A Symphonic Portrait



Past Concerts

With Our Thanks for Their Support:

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This program is supported in part by the Massachusetts Cultural Council; the Holyoke Cultural Council, and the South Hadley Cultural Council, both of which are supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency.

Thanks Also:

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