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University of Wisconsin- Madison Chamber Orchestra
Caroline Goulding, Violin
November 05, 2011

Britten: Sinfonietta, op.1 | Mendelssohn: Concerto for Violin in E Minor, op.64 |
Beethoven: Symphony No.2 in D Major, op.36

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Sinfonietta, op.1

Poco presto ed agitato
Variations: Andante lento
Tarantela: Presto vivace

It was the Sinfonietta that the 19-year-old Benjamin Britten designated as his Opus 1. His prodigious compositional path commenced along with piano lessons at the age of five in the Norfolk town of Lowestoft where he was born. A local teacher gave him good grounding in the basics of piano, but his only exposure to the world of music outside his small town was through occasional concerts given by traveling musicians. At age ten he began to study viola and attended the Norwich Festival where he heard, and was impressed with the music of Frank Bridge–a totally new world of sound. Bridge agreed to take him as a student and gave him a firm grounding in composition through grueling hours of lessons which he took in London throughout his public school education at Gresham’s School in Holt, Norfolk. Bridge, thoroughly acquainted with the continental trends, opened the young composer to a wider range of musical possibilities. He won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music (RCM) taking composition studies with John Ireland and piano with Arthur Benjamin. The RCM in those days appeared to be stuck in the past of the English pastorale tradition, and many of the other students seemed to lack the preparation and drive that Benjamin manifested. Although he did the work required, living in London he took the opportunity to hear music in concerts and on the radio that at first bewildered, then challenged him–Mahler, Ravel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Walton. Following his second year at the RCM during three weeks in the Summer of 1932, he composed the Sinfonietta modeled on Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, scoring it for five winds and five strings. In the fall term, 1932, he began to rehearse the piece with a chamber music class, but as the date for performance drew closer, things grew desperate (it was finally performed at the school later in the term). Meanwhile, with some assistance from Vaughan Williams, a concert series dedicated to the promotion of new music, the Macaghten-Lamare Concerts, performed some of his works on their December concert, They premiered the Sinfonietta on January 31, 1933 at the Ballet Club in Notting Hill Gate. It was published in 1935 dedicated to his teacher, Frank Bridge. It is designated to be played either with ten solo instruments or for solo winds with reinforced strings as it will be heard tonight.

The Sinfonietta is a three movement provocative amalgam of chamber/symphonic structure, soloistic, and transparent with detailed coloring. The whole is inter-related through shared and well-developed motifs. The first movement proceeds in sonata-fashion. The second, called “variations” is not the usual schematic type of variations, but a lyrical pastorale recalling motifs from the first movement. Through an ingenious metrical modulation in the violas, the madcap Tarantella, a moto perpetuo, wraps up the themes and the work.

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Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Concerto for Violin in E Minor, op.64

I. Allegro molto appassionato
II. Andante
III. Allegro non troppo. Allegro molto vivace

Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto is well established in the repertoire as one of his best-known and popular works, and indeed of the violin concerto repertoire as well. The piece was written for the composer's friend, Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the prestigious Gewandhaus Orchestra, Leipzig, of which Mendelssohn was the conductor. “I should like to write a violin concerto for you next winter,” he wrote David in July 30, 1838. “One in E Minor runs through my mind, the beginning of which gives me no peace.” “Next winter” in the life of a busy conductor, composer, performer, musicologist, and conservatory director, stretched to six years later. The concerto was finished September 16, 1844, but Mendelssohn, still not satisfied, continued to revise it with David's assistance. The composer was absent for the first performance, which took place March 13, 1845 at a Gewandhaus concert, David soloing and conducted by Danish composer, Niels Gade. From its first hearing, the concerto has been a great success.

The work consists of three movements played without pause. Mendelssohn presents some interesting innovations, the first being that the soloist begins the first restless theme almost immediately, rather than waiting for a full orchestra exposition. Mendelssohn (and David) provides a cadenza, but rather than an appendage to the end of the movement, it is used structurally to connect the development section to the recapitulation. The bridge from the coda to the tranquil second movement is accomplished through a single note by the bassoon. (Sometimes in performance, enthusiastic audience applause obliterate this effect.) Soloist and orchestra provide the connection to the final movement with material related to the opening theme of the first movement. The high-spirited scherzando theme of the last movement makes one wonder if Mendelssohn might have been revisiting Puck's world of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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Ludwig van Beethoven(1770-1827)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op.36

I. Adagio molto. Allegro con brio
III. Scherzo: Allegro
IV. Allegro molto

When one reads the October 1802 document known as the Heiligenstadt Testament , we begin to understand some of the despair that Beethoven felt with the isolation that his increasing deafness imposed. The contrast in the music that comes from the same period of this document is all the more striking. The noble Piano Concerto No. 3 and the playful, buoyant Symphony No. 2 in D hardly seem compatible with "As the autumn leaves fall and wither, so have my hopes withered. Almost as I came, so I depart; even the lofty courage, which so often inspired me in the lovely summer days, has vanished. . . . With joy I hasten to meet death face to face." Somehow these feelings didn't last: "I came near to ending my own life only my art held me back, as it seemed to me impossible to leave this world until I have produced everything I feel it has been granted to me to achieve." In spite of his despair, Beethoven was actually entering a very prolific compositional period. He wrote a friend "I live only in my notes, and with one work barely finished, the other is already started: the way I write now I often find myself working on three, four things at the same time." The new symphony was presented at the Theater an der Wien on April 5, 1803. The box office was good, but reviews were mixed. Some critics noticed that the symphony as they knew it was changed forever. One noted that the work was "full of new, original ideas, of great strength."

The piece begins with a slow introduction, with more harmonic diversions than had been heard in previous symphonies. When the principal theme finally arrives, it is introduced by the lower strings; in contrast, the winds present the second theme--a peppy march in dotted rhythm. A rather stormy development brings us back to the recap of the main themes, then we begin to see that Beethoven intended to create an unusually long coda. The trumpets and drums rest as an idyllic larghetto (including even a hint of capriccio) unfolds with special colors offered by clarinets and bassoons. The short, playful scherzo takes contrasts to a new level with dramatic diversity of dynamics and instrumental groups. The humorous mood is carried into the finale, but to assure us that this is not just a throw-away diversion tacked onto a serious work, the movement develops into the weightiest final movement given to a symphony to date. And then there is the coda. Whereas what seemed an extensive coda in the first movement (56 measures), we're now offered an "ending" of 160 measures. A Leipzig critic commented that it is ". . . a crude monstrosity, a serpent which continues to writhe about, refusing to die, and even when bleeding to death still thrashes around angrily and vainly with its tail." While history may have delegated Beethoven's subsequent work Eroica as the ground-breaking symphonic work, the Symphony No. 2 must certainly take its own place of honor in the composer's development of the genre—a premier study in contrasts.

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Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2011.
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Program notes home Alphabetical Index of Composers Chronological Index of Concerts