Program Notes for January 2017

Jean Sibelius
Symphony no. 5 in E-flat Major, op. 82

Jean Sibelius is undisputably the greatest composer Finland has ever produced.  He was born on December 8, 1865 in Hämeenlinna (Tavastehus), Finland and died in Järvenpää, Finland on September 20, 1957.  His abiding interest in Finland’s literature (especially the national epic known as the Kalevala) and natural landscape place him in the forefront of Finnish nationalism, although few traces of folktunes are to be found in his music.  Best known for his patriotic symphonic poem, Finlandia, Sibelius’ genius is revealed most clearly in his Violin Concerto and seven symphonies.  His Second and Fifth Symphonies are among his most frequently performed compositions.

Sibelius rarely got things “right” on the first try, and it became one of his habits to revise his compositions.  One may further assert that Sibelius’ entire output as a composer of symphonies was one uninterrupted search for an ultimate “solution” to the challenge of writing a symphony.  Some have suggested that his Seventh Symphony, composed in one continuous movement, gives ideal expression to the concept of unification of symphonic logic, or as Robert Layton states in his biographical essay on the composer in the New Grove Dictionary:

The Seventh Symphony came as the climax of a lifetime’s work: it has the effect of a constantly growing entity, in which the thematic metamorphosis works at such a level of sophistication that a listener is barely aware of it.  In its degree of organic integration and thematic working, the piece stands at the peak of the symphonic tradition.

Sibelius’s towering Fifth Symphony represents an important step toward the composer’s goal of unifying his musical thought.  Indeed, the work’s compositional history demonstrates this tendency quite plainly.  He began work on the piece in 1912 and completed its earliest version in 1915.  It was performed on December 8 at a concert honoring the composer’s fiftieth birthday.  The conductor on this occasion was Robert Kajanus, Sibelius’ illustrious colleague (and sometime rival).  At this stage, the Fifth Symphony existed in the conventional format of four separate movements.  For reasons known mainly by Sibelius himself, he almost immediately set out to revise the piece.

The first revision, which he completed very quickly and performed the next year, has not survived intact, but we do know that he began to blur the dividing line between the opening Tempo molto moderato with the ensuing Allegro moderato, allowing the one to follow the other without a break. The fact that one measure of the new tempo equals on beat of the old one obscures the sense of change. Indeed, the only evidence that the movements ever were separate lies in the rehearsal letters, which in the Tempo molto moderato run from “A” to “N,” but restart at “A” shortly after the onset of the Allegro moderato.  The listener without a score would know none of this, but one with a keen ear would recognize that the Allegromoderato begins in the remote key of B Major, only to end in the E-flat Major in which the symphony began.  This feature remains intact in Sibelius’ definitive second revision of 1919, although the composer added new material as well effecting other important changes.

The next part of the work is an Andante mosso, quasi allegretto that is dominated by a single rhythmic figure of five quarter-note beats that will be easily identified by even the most casual of listeners.  This charming movement unfolds as a kind of loose set of variations.  What may escape one’s attention is the contrabass line, which anticipates the principal idea of the ensuing Allegro molto.  There is no way, of course, to know what happens before it actually occurs, but it does the listener no harm to be sensitized to Sibelius’ plan for unifying thematic events throughout his Fifth Symphony.  The Allegro molto itself begins in restless perpetual motion, reminiscent of the most delicate of Mendelssohn’s scherzo movements.   A majestic theme in longer note values is presented (this being the one anticipated earlier in the piece), which Donald Francis Tovey rather pictorally describes as the swinging hammer of Thor.  It is this theme that brings Sibelius’ magnificent Fifth Symphony to an end in a blaze of glory, punctuated by a series short chords, each of which is isolated by a silence that is no less majestic than the edifice of sound that it helps to articulate.

Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.  Its compositional history and the composer’s quest for organic unity described above certainly is of interest, but the unmistakable hallmarks of Sibelius’ style—themes growing out of the middle of measures, majestic fanfares in the brass, winds moving in parallel thirds—are no less compelling or important factors in explaining the Fifth Symphony’s popularity with audiences.

Program Note by David B. Levy, © 1996/2016

D. J. Sparr
Violet Bond: Concerto for Electric Guitar

American composer and guitarist D. J. Sparr was born in Westminster, MD and is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music (BM) and the University of Michigan (MM, DMA). His principal teachers include Michael Daugherty, William Bolcom, Sydney Hodkinson, Christopher Rouse, Joseph Schwantner and Augusta Read Thomas. He studied with John Harbison at the Aspen Music Festival and the Oregon Bach Festival and was an Associate Artist-in-Residence under Aaron Jay Kernis at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. He recently completed his tenure as the 2011-2014 Young American Composer-in-Residence with the California Symphony where his works were premiered by Nicholas McGegan, Donato Cabrera, and Robert Treviño. Violet Bond is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 1 percussion, solo e. guitar, and strings. These performance mark its Winston-Salem Symphony premiere.

The composer/guest artist provides the following notes regarding Violet Bond (

Violet Bond: Concert-Overture for Electric Guitar and Orchestra is written in memory of my great-grandmother, Violet Bond. Nanny, as we called her, had a piano in her living room (on Dogwood Lane in Woodlawn , MD) and would sing and play from a hymnal. One of my family members describes such events in a letter to Violet:

“You played the piano and I, at age 12, stood beside you and sung the songs as you played. I was a quiet kid and normally not subject to such outburst of verbalness song or no song, but for some reason I felt free as a bird to sing in your presence. You just struck me as a kind caring soul and thus it felt like the natural thing to do at the time. My mom, your daughter, a witness to this moment, has mentioned to me over the years how out of character that outburst was for me. That piano playing is perhaps a forgotten moment in your protracted life, but a very important one in my lengthening life.

Across the room was a television, and my favorite show to watch at Nanny’s house was He-Haw. I would stand in front of the television and pretend to play guitar with a broom. Mimicking the moves of Roy Clark and Buck Owens. Perhaps she needed her broom back, but for my fourth birthday, Nanny gave me a ukulele. From this moment on, I was hooked as a “plucked string player” and began guitar lessons a year later which continued through to my graduate studies. This is the butterfly effect which led me to a life as a musician, which I treasure. For this reason, I have always wanted to write a composition titled “Violet Bond.”

The composition of this piece is not directly related to any of these memories and does not tell a story in a linear fashion. It is more just the “feeling” of all of this which inspired me to write (hopefully) the most beautiful electric guitar concerto yet written. The guitar is presented with a clear tone, but uses electronic effects including delay, pitch shifting, tremolo, and looping effects. These augment the nature of a clean-sounding guitar by enhancing its sonic capabilities without “distorting” the natural sound of the instrument. (I don’t think Nanny would enjoy the idea of me on stage with a heavy-metal guitar blasting everyone’s ears off! )

The piece begins with the guitar and orchestra in consort. Arpeggio figures in the guitar are accompanied by col legno battuto strings (“hit with the wood” as in Holst’s The Planets: Mars). This gives way to one of the main themes of the piece, in which a simple melody on the guitar is “sustained” throughout the orchestra. On this theme, the guitar notes fade away while the orchestral instruments “fade-in.”

Improvisation is natural to the electric guitar player. In this work there are a few sections where the performer has a chance to create his own cadenzas. What one will find is a little different is that these Cadenzas are accompanied by repeated measures in the orchestra. The guitar player and conductor then cue the orchestra to continue with swells, leading to another cadenza.

A new feature of electronic instruments is the ability to create a “loop effect.” The performer switches a button on a pedal on the floor which records what the instrument plays. At the end of the phrase, the button is hit again and the pedal will repeat this section ad infinitum. In the middle section of this work, I create a loop which accompanies the orchestra, and the orchestra joins in over the loop with the live guitar player performing a melody.

Program Note by David B. Levy/DJ Sparr, © 2016

Antonín Dvořák
Symphony no. 9 in E Minor, op. 95 (“From the New World”)

The Czech master Antonin Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, on September 8, 1841; and died in Prague, May 1, 1904. His “New World” Symphony remains his most popular work. Composed during his residency in the United States in 1892-3, the work received its premiere on December16, 1893 in New York’s Carnegie Hall. It is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns,  trumpet, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.

In early 1991, a three-story brick row house at 327 East 17th Street in Manhattan was declared a national landmark.  A plaque above the first story declares that this was the New York home from 1892 to 1895 for the famous Czech composer Antonin Dvořák, who composed his Symphony no. 9 (“From the New World”) during a period from January to May 1893. Unfortunately, the brownstone was taken down to make room for the expansion of a nearby hospital and the corner near where it stood was renamed Dvořák Place. The composer moved to New York after Jeannette Thurber invited him to assume the directorate of the National Conservatory of Music.  Shortly after taking up residence there, Dvorák communicated the following to a friend in Prague:

“We [the composer, his wife, and two children] live four minutes from my school in a very pleasant house.  Mr. Steinway sent me a piano, free, so we have one good piece of furniture in the parlor.  The rent is $80 a month, a lot for us, but a normal price here.”

Ever since it received its first performance in New York City on December 16, 1893 with Anton Seidl conducting the New York Philharmonic, Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony has remained an extremely popular orchestral work.  The Czech master wrote two major works, as well as some smaller ones, during his extended visit to the United States, which included a short summer vacation spent with a colony of Czech immigrants in Spillville, Iowa.  One of these compositions was the String Quartet, op. 96 (“American”), the other was this, his last symphony.  Had Mrs. Thurber had her way, Dvořák also would have composed an opera based on Longfellow’s story of the Native Americans Minnehaha and Hiawatha, as she hoped that Dvořák would become the founder of a new American “school” of composition.  As we shall see, at least some of Mrs. Thurber’s hopes found expression in his “New World” Symphony.

Folk music had always played a vital role in Dvořák’s music, and his “American” efforts serve to remind us that many folk musics have elements in common.  The “New World” Symphony speaks its “American” with a distinctly Slavic accent.  The title for the work, “From the New World” is the composer’s own, and he explained that it was inspired by “impressions and greetings” from his host country.  Among these impressions must be counted the music of African-Americans, whose melodies he learned from one of his students at the Conservatory, Henry Thacker Burleigh.  It is difficult to determine just how well-versed Dvořák was in the authentic musical idiom of Native Americans, but the famous Largo movement of the “New World” Symphony, was inspired, according to the composer, by a passage from Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha.”  The famous English horn theme of this Largo is still known by many people as a “spiritual” with the words “Goin’ Home.”  The Symphony is filled with many such appealing folk-like themes.

Another important element in the “New World” Symphony is its cyclic construction, in which a motto theme, first heard near the beginning of the first movement, is brought back at strategic moments in the subsequent movements.  A careful listener will discern that this motto itself is the progenitor of other themes, thereby strengthening the thematic unity of the entire work.  Dvořák also provides many masterful moments of orchestration and harmony, none, perhaps, more beautiful than the succession of brass chords at the beginning and end of the Largo.

While the composer was still in America, he sent the manuscript for this symphony to his German publisher Simrock, who in turn showed them to Dvořák’s friend and advisor, Johannes Brahms.  Brahms saw fit to make certain corrections, and even some wholesale changes—especially in the finale—where he altered some of Dvořák’s tempos.

Notes by David B. Levy © 2005/2016

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