What to expect from Chichester Symphony Orchestra’s spring concert (music by Butterworth, Holmes, Taylor-Coleridge and Sibelius)

Come and enjoy Chichester Symphony Orchestra’s spring concert in St Paul’s, Chichester, on Saturday 20 April. Here are some preview notes in a nutshell, to whet your appetite.

Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Wasps Overture

Structure: Five parts (original orchestration)
Performance time: Half an hour
Premiere: 26 November 1909
Fun fact: The Wasps is one of three pieces of ‘incidental music’ composed by Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was a prominent and prolific English composer whose music broke with the German style that had dominated in the 19th century. In addition to nine symphonies, Vaughan Williams composed concertos, operas, chamber music, songs, and choral works. Strongly influenced by Tudor and English folk music, his better-known and much-loved compositions include The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and the English Folk Song Suite.

The Wasps is an example of an ‘incidental’ piece of music. It is the first of just three such pieces composed by him. It was completed in 1909 for a production of Aristophanes’ comedy play of the same name by the Cambridge Greek Play committee. The play, written in 422 BCE, is a satire of the Athenian legal system. It features Philocleon who has an excessive love of serving on juries and is ultimately cured of this addiction following a ridiculous case of a dog accused of stealing cheese. Apparently, Philocleon was a ‘waspish’ man; hence the connection to these insects. In The Wasps, fast trills and swelling scales are used to mimic the buzzing of wasps as they dart through the air.

Composed in 1909 when Ralph Vaughan Williams was 36 years old, the original music – rarely performed – is 1 hour 45 minutes and was scored for voice and orchestra. Later, he rearranged the piece into a shorter 26-minute orchestral suite organized into five parts. The first of these parts – the Overture – is frequently performed as a standalone piece; in fact, for decades it was the only part of the suite to be regularly performed until a complete recording of the piece was made in 2005 by the Hallé Orchestra.

Augusta Holmès – Ludus Pro Patria 

Structure: Five-part ‘symphonic ode’
Performance time: 6 minutes (La Nuit et l’Amour)
Premiere: 1888
Fun fact: The German composer Richard Wagner was a large inspiration for Holmès; we can hear influences of his music in the use of overlapped phrasing in La Nuit et l’Amour.

Augusta Mary Anne Holmès (1847–1903) was a French composer of Irish descent. Holmès forged a successful musical career, despite a lack of support at home (her mother disapproved of her interest in music), and quickly became well-known in Parisian cultural circles where her compositions were regularly performed. Her works include a wide range of musical forms, from symphonies and symphonic poems to choral works and operas, for which she wrote almost all the text. Wagner was a significant influence for Holmès and her four operas were largely inspired by his music.

As a woman in a largely male-dominated profession, Holmès struggled to be taken seriously. “I must show the males what I’m made of!,” she once declared. And that she did: rather than the light songs and salon pieces that women of her era were expected to compose, Holmès wrote large-scale, ambitious, works that supported patriotic and humanistic causes. These were not however well-received by her fellow male composers who felt she was too masculine in her style. Saint-Saëns described one of her pieces as having “excessive virility – a frequent fault with women composers…” Holmès also published her works under her own name and was the sole owner of them – a highly unusual move at the time.

Her success as a composer led to a commission to write Ode triomphale for the 1889 Paris Exposition, a large-scale work orchestrated for around 1,200 musicians. Ludus pro patria is similarly patriotic. First performed in Paris in 1888, this ‘symphonic ode’ – a distinctively French genre that blurs the boundaries between opera, symphony and oratorio – consists of five parts of combined operatic and orchestral elements. It was inspired by a painting by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes of the same name that explores the themes of work, family and country. La Nuit et l’Amour is a symphonic interlude which conveys the tender, passionate lines that are otherwise spoken: “Love! Inspiration of Fruitful Ecstasy! Love! Conqueror of conquers who makes the virgin blush at the touch of your wing…Join together lips and hearts!”

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor – Petite Suite de Concert

Structure: Four-movement compilation
Performance time: 16 minutes
Premiere: Unknown
Fun fact: Theodore Roosevelt received Coleridge-Taylor at the White House in 1904

Born in London in 1875 to a Sierra Leonean father and English mother, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) established himself as a well-respected figure of classical music on both sides of the Atlantic; Theodore Roosevelt and the British royal family were among his fans. He studied musical composition under Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music – where Stanford regarded him as one of his brightest pupils. 

Coleridge-Taylor is best known for his work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, written in 1898. The reputation he earned from this piece took him to the United States where he was greeted with great respect by members of the African American intelligentsia, who admired Coleridge-Taylor’s successful move into what until then had been an overwhelmingly white world of classical music composition. They also applauded his incorporation of African American influences into his music. Sadly, like George Butterworth, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was unable to fulfil his potential as a composer; he was just 37 years old when he died from pneumonia in 1912.

Despite its popularity today, not much is known about the Petite Suite de Concert. Some of the material appears to have come from a discarded student musical score that was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Clown and Columbine. It is also thought that it may have been written during a period of financial difficulty. The rights to Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast had been signed away before its immense success and Coleridge-Taylor was inevitably forced to find other income streams in the absence of any royalties. 

George Butterworth – The Banks of Green Willow

Structure: Folksong
Performance time: Just under 5 minutes
Premiere: 27 February 1914
Fun fact: Butterworth and Vaughan Williams were friends who both had an interest in English folk music

The Banks of Green Willow is the most recorded and celebrated of George Butterworth’s three orchestral works. In just a few short minutes of music, Butterworth succeeds in capturing the gentle spirit of the English landscape at the turn of the 20th century. It is a pastoral idyll based on Sussex folk melodies, one of which was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and is intended to tell the story of the folk ballad of the Banks of Green Willow. According to the ballad, a farmer’s daughter runs away to sea with a captain after discovering she is pregnant with his child. During a difficult labour on board the ship, knowing she will die, she asks her lover to throw her overboard. As he does so and watches her drown, the captain sings to his “true love, whom I once loved so dearly” and who shall be buried on “The Banks of Green Willow”.

It is a tragic story that echoes Butterworth’s own tragic end. Just two and a half years after the premiere of The Banks of Green Willow on 27 February 1914 in West Kirby in Merseyside, Butterworth was killed in the First World War at the Battle of the Somme aged 31 years old. Butterworth destroyed many of his manuscripts before enlisting, but those that survived were left to his friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who similarly had a keen interest and involvement in English folk music. Since his death, The Banks of Green Willow has endured as a much-loved piece in the British repertoire and a symbol of the long-lost Edwardian era.

Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 6

Structure: Four movements
Performance time: Half an hour
Premiere: 19 February 1923
Fun fact: Sibelius used the highly unusual ‘D Dorian mode’ to compose his sixth symphony

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) once said that he expected his work to divide people; that he knew each piece would win a new following while losing some of the old. Of all his compositions, the sixth symphony seems especially likely to achieve this division. Completed over five years between 1918 and 1923, it perplexed audiences at the time it premiered in Helsinki and a century later remains one of the lesser known and lesser performed of his works. 

Though a traditional four-movement symphony with an unmistakably Sibelian sound, the sixth symphony lacks the heroic themes we are used to hearing in the composer’s other works. Several times the music gathers momentum and then doesn’t quite seem to follow through. It is only in the final movement do we hear the musical energy build into a thematic-like crescendo – though it quickly retreats before fading out completely at the end of the piece. Unusually, Sibelius composed the symphony in D Dorian mode. It is a scale based on an old mode often used in church and folk music and is similar to the key of D minor except for its inclusion of B and C naturals. This, combined with a dynamic that is neither soft nor loud, gives the piece an overall meandering, serene and subtle effect that contrasts sharply with his previous symphonies. Sibelius said of the work: “It is very tranquil in character and outline…and is built, like the Fifth, on linear rather than harmonic foundations.”

Sibelius began his musical life as an aspiring violinist in his native Finland, starting the instrument at the age of 10 and regularly playing chamber music with family and friends. His earliest compositions were duets, trios and quartets that revolved around the violin. However, he soon realized he had started his “training for the exacting career of a virtuoso too late” and reluctantly let go of this ambition to concentrate on composing. Though prolific as a composer, he is known chiefly for his seven symphonies which are widely performed around the world today. He spent the last three decades of his life on smaller projects. 

Nature – and the Finnish landscape – was a huge influence in all his work. The particularly pastoral quality of the sixth symphony may be explained in part by his voluntary isolation in the Finnish countryside for much of its composition. Here, he surrounded himself with the cyclical scenes of nature which inevitably found their way into the music. Listeners with a more vivid imagination may be able to smell that “scent of the first snow” with which Sibelius associated the work, or sense “the pine tree spirit and the wind” of the final movement.

Chichester Symphony Orchestra

Chichester Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is Chichester’s premier and longest-operating amateur music ensemble, having been in existence for well over 100 years. The orchestra is always looking to appeal to a new generation of listeners, and indeed welcomes new members over the age of 18. It rehearses each week in central Chichester and currently gives four concerts a year, including the cathedral’s lunchtime series as well as being part of the Festival of Chichester.

Recently the orchestra has started to include a themed family concert to its annual programme which is proving very successful.

Simon Wilkins is an experienced conductor of amateur orchestras in the south of England, and is particularly committed to the encouragement and development of non-professional musicians. As an accomplished ‘cellist, he has also performed many concertos.

Cathy Day

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