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Andrews University Symphony Orchestra
 April 28, 2001
Hope and Courage

Verdi: Overture to Nabucco | Barber: Adagio for Strings
Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 in e minor, Op. 95 "From the New World

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Overture to Nabucco

After a long apprenticeship in the provincial towns of Italy, the young Giuseppe Verdi had finally reached Milan, experienced success in the production of his first opera, and with that success a commission for three more operas.  Tragedy struck, and added to the loss of his two children, was the illness and death of his beloved wife, Margherita in July, 1840.  Despite the composer’s emotional devastation, La Scala demanded the commission of a comic opera for the fall season be fulfilled.  Not surprisingly, the ensuing work, Un giorno di regno, was not a success and was withdrawn after only one performance.  Verdi vowed to never compose music again.  However, Merelli, La Scala’s impresario, persuaded Verdi, against his will, to take home a libretto for Nabucodonosor.  In the composer’s words:

"On the way home I felt a kind of indefinable malaise, a very deep sadness, a distress that filled my heart.  I got home and with an almost violent gesture threw the manuscript on the table, standing upright in front of it.  The book had opened in falling on the table; without knowing how, I gazed at the page that lay before me, and read this line: Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate.  I ran through the verses that followed and was much moved, all the more because they were almost a paraphrase from the Bible (Psalm 137: By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion), the reading of which had always delighted me."

While still determined not to compose, Verdi felt compelled to set to music the dramatic conflict of the Hebrew slaves and their Babylonian captors.  Following the triumphant premier of Nabucco at La Scala, March 9, 1842, Va Pensiero, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves, was heard on the streets–overnight becoming a symbol of the Italians’ longing for liberty.  One of Verdi’s great operatic innovations, demonstrated most effectively in this work, is the importance he gives the chorus.  The result is to make Nabucco not only a drama of people, but a drama of a people.

The overture, written at the last moment, is a dramatic assortment of themes taken from the opera–primarily choruses and themes trumpeting military exercises to come.  The stroke of genius, however, is the opening chorale on the lower brass, vividly symbolizing the steadfastness of the Hebrews in the face of Babylonian persecution.

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Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Adagio for Strings

Winning such prizes as the Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship and an American Prix de Rome enabled the young Samuel Barber to spend extended periods in Europe studying, performing, and composing.  It was in Rome, 1936, that he wrote his String Quartet, Op. 11.  He subsequently made a 5-part arrangement of the slow movement for string orchestra, the Adagio for Strings.  It was this work, along with his first Essay for Orchestra, that the composer submitted to Arturo Toscanini in response to the conductor’s need for the work of an American composer.  The Italian conductor, fleeing Europe’s growing fascism and taking a new post as conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, sought American music for inclusion in the 1938 concert season.  From its first hearing on a radio broadcast, November 5, 1938, the piece was an instant success and continues to be Barber’s most performed and enduring work.

To the composer’s chagrin, the piece became a kind of unofficial funeral piece, having been played either following radio announcements of deaths or being played at the funerals of such prominent persons as: Franklin Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Princess Grace of Monaco, Senator Robert A. Taft, and John F. Kennedy.  This writer heard it performed by the Utah Symphony Orchestra on the night of the composer’s own death, January 23, 1981.  Another effective use of the elegiac tranquility of the Adagio was in the 1986 Academy Award-winning film Platoon, where the piece provides respite from the brutal scenes of war.

In response to a BBC interviewer’s asking notable musicians to speak to the issue as to why Barber’s Adagio for Strings is such a “perfect piece of music,” Aaron Copland responded:

"It’s really well felt, it’s believable...not phoney....It comes straight from the heart, to use old-fashioned terms.  The sense of continuity, the steadiness of the flow, the satisfaction of the arch that it creates from beginning to end.  They’re all very gratifying, satisfying, and it makes you believe in the sincerity which he obviously put into it."

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Antonin Dvorák (1841-1904)”
Symphony No. 9 in e minor, Op. 95 "From the New World"

Allegro con fuoco

Czech composer Antonin Dvorák's Symphony No. 9 in E minor (first published as Symphony No. 5), remains one of the most popular symphonies in the concert repertoire.  Completed during the composer's tenure as director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, the piece was premiered by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, December 15, 1893.  After the second movement and again at the conclusion, the audience gave wildly enthusiastic ovations.  The work received a similar reception in subsequent performances in Boston and Vienna.

The meaning of the subtitle “From the New World” and the origin of the themes that Dvo?ák used in the symphony have been a matter of discussion from the beginning. The subtitle, added hastily at the last moment, seems to connote a letter from a homesick ex-patriot telling of his impressions and experiences in a new land, the bustle and excitement of New York (where he composed the piece), the broad expanse of the landscape, the generosity and openness of the people.  An ardent nationalist himself, Dvorák often encouraged his American students to draw on indigenous American music and inspiration from American literature to cultivate a distinctive National music.  He was an enthusiastic student of the spirituals and plantation songs of the African-Americans (one of the students in the conservatory, H. T. Burleigh introduced many of these songs to him). He also was quite taken with the interweaving of the old Native American legends of Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha.  Rather than quoting American folk melodies in the symphony, the composer said, “I merely tried to write in the spirit of those national melodies."  The two middle movements were particularly inspired by Longfellow's poem: the Largo by the funeral of Minnehaha, “deep in a snow-bound forest,” and the Scherzo by the dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis at the wedding feast.  All in all, the piece remains a fusion of Dvorák’s American experience, and who he was: a homesick Czech composer.

The two movements heard on tonight’s concert are tied together by the relationships of themes. Following solemn chords on the winds, the English horn, accompanied by muted strings introduces the lovely largo theme (given the rather appropriate text “Going Home” by a later writer).  The finale begins with an assertive march theme.  Listen for the reappearance of the largo theme, first on flutes and clarinets, then stated with various instrumentations, rhythms, and also in minor.  The solemn chords of the largo’s introduction take a final bow in the coda of this remarkable fusion of musical themes and emotions.

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Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2001.
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