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Andrews University Orchestra Concert
February 21, 2004
Touring the Isles

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis | Bruch: Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46 | Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3, Op. 56 "Scottish"

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Revival of interest in folk music and music of the Tudor era–the golden age of English music–was well established when Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) received a commission from the prestigious Three Choirs Festival for an orchestral work to be performed in the fall of 1910 in Gloucester Cathedral. During the course of his work as Music Editor of the English Hymnal (1904-6) he had discovered Tallis’s fine settings (1567) for the metrical psalms for the first archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Parker. Vaughan Williams had included two of them in the English Hymnal: one, the famous “Tallis Canon,” the other, set on the Phrygian mode, he used with Addison’s text “When, rising from the bed of death.” The original text of the latter from the psalter:

Why fum’th in fight the Gentiles spite, in fury raging stout?
Why tak’th in hand the people fond, vain things to bring about?
The Kings arise, the Lords devise, in counsels met thereto,
Against the Lord with false accord, against His Christ they go.

It was this tune that he chose as the basis for the fulfillment of the commission and the result has become one of his most popular and enduring works, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Not only did Vaughan Williams use a musical theme from the Tudor period, but also a Tudor form, the fantasia or fancy--taking a theme, developing and discarding it fragment by fragment. The use of strings alone also recalls this period when viols were in their golden age. Other demonstrations of his retrospection are allusions to plainsong, organum, antiphonal writing, and folksong–a marriage of musical styles across the centuries. Written originally for cathedral space and acoustics, the composer has scored the piece for two string orchestras and a solo string quartet with instruction that the three groups should be placed separately if possible.

Following initial pianissimo tutti chords, the opening thematic fragment is stated pizzicato in the lower voices, the middle voices continuing the next fragment in organum-like style. The entire tune is given twice with increasingly elaborate figuration and in Tallis’ nine-part harmonization. The remainder of the piece treats the thematic fragments antiphonally and with folksong-like development from the solo viola and violin. In the end the groups come together for a final grand diminuendo marked pppp.


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Max Bruch (1838-1920)
Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46

German romantic composer Max Bruch (1838-1920) wrote melodically and successfully in many genres, but during his lifetime was known primarily as a conductor and teacher and for his choral compositions. (Vaughan Williams once came to study with him.) Today Bruch’s reputation rests mostly on a handful of concerted string works–notably his G minor Violin Concerto, Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra, and the Scottish Fantasy for violin, harp, and orchestra. Friendship with eminent violinists such as David, Joachim, and Sarasate inspired nine works for violin and orchestra. Bruch was not a string player but was drawn to the violin because “it can sing a melody better than a piano, and melody is the soul of music.” Appreciating folk music as a source of melody, he set and utilized traditional Jewish, Swedish, Russian, and Scottish tunes in his compositions. While holding a conducting post in Berlin, Bruch wrote the Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46, during the winter of 1879-80. The work was premiered by Sarasate at the Bach Festival, Hamburg in September 1880 under its original title “Fantasie for violin with orchestra and harp, with the free use of Scottish folk melodies.” Considering its scope and the virtuosity demanded of the soloist, the piece rivals any violin concerto, which in fact it was often called in early concert programs. Because Bruch considered the violin and harp to be indigenous to the folk music of northern England and Scotland, the harp plays a major role as it supports and accompanies the soloist.

The piece begins with somber statements from the brass, alternating with recitative-like passages for the violin. Bruch, who like Mendelssohn was fascinated with the novels of Sir Walter Scott, was said to have described this opening as “an old bard, who contemplates a ruined castle and laments the glorious times of old.” This rather gloomy beginning flows into a lovely rendering of the enchanting melody, Auld Rob Morris. The vivacious scherzo movement, featuring the tune Hey, the Dusty Miller, evokes bagpipes and fiddles at the village dance. The tender air, I’m a-Doun for Lack o’ Johnnie, used in the andante movement is set as variations demanding exquisite virtuosity from the soloist. The finale, Allegro guerriero, presents variations on an old war song, Scots Wha Hae, concludes the work with increasingly more brilliant fireworks.


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Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Symphony No. 3, Op. 56 "Scottish"

Of Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) five symphonies for full orchestra, only the first, Op. 11, is numbered in the order in which it was written. No. 5 Reformation was completed second, No. 4 Italian, third, No. 2 Lobgesang, fourth and Symphony No. 3, Op. 56 Scottish, last. The creative impetus for the Scottish Symphony came much earlier than its actual completion. Following the young, 20-year-old Felix’s triumphant reception in London, the composer’s wunderlust inspired a trip to Scotland where he experienced first-hand the dark brooding landscape, rain-soaked fields, blustery weather of Hebrides, bagpipes in the taverns, and tales of past battles. A twilight visit to Edinburgh’s Holyrood palace in 1829 particularly impressed him:

We went to the Palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; there is a little room to be seen there with a staircase at its door; they went up that and found Rizzio in the little room, dragged him out, and three chambers away there is a dark corner where they murdered him. The chapel beside it has now lost its roof, it is overgrown with grass and ivy, and at the broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything is ruined, decayed, and open to the sky. I believe I have found there today the beginning of my Scotch Symphony . . .

Symphony No. 3 was completed in 1842 and performed for the first time in Leipzig. Following its London premiere, Mendelssohn dedicated it to Queen Victoria, who with her husband Albert, was a great admirer of the composer’s music. While technically a four-movement work, the symphony is connected thematically throughout and is meant to be played without a break.

The slow, solemn introduction introduces the motive that unifies the entire work. A ballad-like movement gives the illusion of a musical pictorial/historical landscape of stormy proportions. The introductory material reappears as a bridge to the jaunty scherzo movement. The clarinet introduces a folk-like melody which turns into a merry romp amongst the various orchestral entities. Following another short bridge, Mendelssohn treats us to one of his nostalgically appealing song melodies, initially accompanied by pizzicato strings. A solemn procession appears; the song reappears, this time with the cellos. Following another appearance of the funereal march, the song prevails leading directly to the finale--the warlike allegro guerriero. The battle ultimately fades away into a final Festgesang or triumphal hymn, specified by Mendelssohn to be “properly clear and strong as a male chorus.” While the piece is not afraid to explore dark themes, it ultimately leaves us in the light.


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Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2004.
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