MW 7: Boléro
Jean Sibelius 1865-1957
Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius
Finlandia, Op. 26

Sweden relinquished Finland to the Russian Empire in 1809, where it became an autonomous duchy with significant control over its own affairs. Beginning in 1870, however, Russia gradually began to rescind Finland’s privileges and autonomy. While Swedish was the language of the educated and of the middle class, Russian repression aroused strong nationalist feelings and initiated a revival of the Finnish language. Jean Sibelius was born into this new nationalism and in 1876 enrolled in the first grammar school to teach in Finnish. Finland finally gained its independence towards the end of World War I.

Sibelius was by no means a child prodigy. He started playing piano at the age of nine but didn't like it and took up the violin at 14. Although he had made some attempts at composition at 10, his ambition was to become a concert violinist. For his entire life he regretted not following this dream.

Sibelius’s first success as a composer came in 1892 with a nationalistic symphonic poem/cantata entitled Kullervo, Op.7, which was premiered with great success but never again performed in his lifetime. During the next six years he composed numerous nationalistic pageants, symphonic poems and vocal works, mostly based on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala. In appreciation, and in order to enable him to compose undisturbed, the Finnish government gave him a pension for life in 1897.

In February 1899 the Russian Imperial Governor published the notorious “February Manifesto,” designed to curtail Finland’s autonomy and facilitate its Russification. Among others restrictions, it imposed strict censorship and forced the closing of many newspapers. In order to support the dismissed staff, a three-day cultural festival was organized in Helsinki to raise funds for the Press Pension Fund. Sibelius provided the music for the grand finale in the form of a dramatic seven-tableaux spectacle depicting episodes from Finnish history. It culminated in a stirring patriotic anthem entitled "Finland Awake." A year later, with some modification, Sibelius recast it as an independent tone poem, Finlandia. With its powerful opening and hymn-like middle section, it became the symbol of Finnish nationalism. Before 1917, in order to evade the Russian censor, it had to be performed under the euphemistic title “Impromptu.”

During the next 26 years Sibelius composed the symphonies and tone poems that made him world famous. But in 1926, beset by a combination of bi-polar disorder and alcoholism, he quit composing, secluding himself in his home bordering the starkly beautiful Finnish forests he had so effectively described in music. He died 31 years later.

The snarling opening chords are clearly meant as a musical symbol of Russian oppression. Example 1 Gradually "Finnish" trumpets rouse the orchestra to resistance. Example 2 But the focus of this brief tone poem is the orchestral patriotic hymn. Example 3 The quasi religious tone is difficult maintain, however, and the piece returns to its militaristic defiance, an orgy of cymbal crashes. The hymn reappears as the concludes.
Leopold Mozart 1719-1787
Leopold Mozart
Leopold Mozart
Concerto in D major for Alto Trombone

Athough children of famous parents may suffer, the reverse can be true as well. Leopold Mozart is remembered today mainly as the stern stage-door father of his famous son Wolfgang Amadeus. Leopold, however, was a noted composer, violinist and teacher in his own right; his book Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing), published in 1756, remained the standard violin tutor for over 60 years. But once Leopold recognized his son’s gifts, he dedicated himself to educating and steering him to fame; there exist no manuscripts by the father dated later than 1767.

The son of a bookbinder, the young Leopold broke with his family, demonstrating some of the same independent spirit that got his son into hot water in Salzburg. He was well-educated, stern in demeanor and a perfectionist; posterity has treated him unfairly, depicting him as a slave driver seeking vicarious glory through his son. He spent most of his professional life as violinist and deputy Kapellmeister in the orchestra of Salzburg’s archbishops, and most of his compositions written for his patrons’ use, were conservative in style as befitted a conservative court.

Leopold composed some 30 serenades, which feature solos for various instruments, probably written for his colleagues at the Archbishop’s orchestra. Only one of these, composed around 1756, has survived. Three of its nine movements are for trombone, inspired by Leopold’s colleague, the outstanding Austrian trombonist Thomas Gschladt, who inspired numerous composers to write for him. Gschladt’s technique was so phenomenal that for two centuries, some of the concertos written for him were thought to be for other wind instruments, since the required technique was deemed out of reach of the trombone.

Leopold’s three movements were subsequently extracted as a trombone concerto, but not during his lifetime.

The Concerto is more about the instrument than about the music. The first movement, composed in a rudimentary sonata-allegro form typical of the period, Example 1 is centered on the cadenza. But cadenzas during this period were generally improvised, and even many of Wolfgang’s concertos don’t come with original cadenzas. It is left up to the soloist. The slow movement is crafted to showcase the cantabile capabilities of an instrument that had heretofore received precious little chance to serenade. Example 2 The finale is another virtuosic showpiece, featuring rapid staccato tonguing. Example 3
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture

The plays of William Shakespeare were one of the major literary influences on the composers of the nineteenth century, including Tchaikovsky, who wrote fantasy overtures based on three of them. Two of these, to Hamlet and The Tempest, are seldom heard today, but the third, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, has become one of the most popular orchestral compositions ever. The psychological drama of youthful passion and thwarted love consummated in death was an ideal theme for Tchaikovsky, resonating through many of his subsequent works.

Composed in 1869, Romeo and Juliet was one of Tchaikovsky’s earliest orchestral works, written at the suggestion of his friend and mentor, the composer Mily Balakirev, who wrote out a detailed scenario for the composer to follow. Balakirev criticized Tchaikovsky’s original version, especially the lack of musical reference to Friar Laurence: “You need something here along the lines of a Liszt chorale...with old Catholic character,” he wrote the composer, who sat down to rewrite the work to his mentor’s satisfaction.

A second version, published in 1871, still did not satisfy Balakirev, and Tchaikovsky sat on the score for nearly ten years before bringing out the final version in 1880, the one we are most familiar with. Although Balakirev was still hypercritical, especially of the coda, by then Tchaikovsky had enough self-confidence to resist him. He always regarded the overture highly and once referred to it as his best orchestral work.

The psychological drama of youthful passion and thwarted love consummated in death was an ideal theme for Tchaikovsky, resonating through many of his subsequent works. He always considered the overture highly and once referred to it as his best orchestral work.

Tchaikovsky’s Overture is not a tone poem; there is no attempt to tell the story of the doomed lovers, only to present the major themes of the play in musical guise. The chorale-like introduction recalls the serenity of Friar Lawrence’s cell, Example 1 followed by the Friar’s theme. The composer transformed the ambience from the Roman Catholicism of the play into a Russian Orthodox modal melody in the woodwinds. But this serenity is broken by a fiery allegro representing the recurrence of the old enmity between the warring families. Example 2 Finally, the love theme is introduced by the muted violas and English horn. Example 3

In the development, the tender love music is harshly interrupted by the furious outbursts of street brawls that are combined with the Friar Lawrence theme. Example 4 The fury is overcome by the love theme, only to fade away into a despairing, broken lament. Example 5
Jan Sandström b. 1954
Jan Sandström
b. 1954
Jan Sandström
Ecos de Eternidad (Echoes of Eternity)

Concerto for Two Trombones and Orchestra

Swedish composer Jan Sandström completed his musical training at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. He is Professor of Composition at the Pitea School of Music in northern Sweden.

Sandström’s first concerto, for trombone and orchestra, known as the “Motorbike Concerto,” has been performed worldwide. He has composed numerous other works for large orchestra, opera and chorus, but little chamber music.

Ecos de Eternidad was commissioned by the Extremadura Symphony Orchestra in Spain for the candidacy of Cáceres as the European Capital of Culture 2016. It was premiered in Cáceres in 2009.

Cáceres was declared a World Heritage City by UNESCO in 1986 because of the city’s blend of Roman, Islamic, Northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance architecture. On Cáceres and the heart of Ecos de Eternidad Sandström writes: “ It’s about communication. And friendship. A city in love. Sounds of the storks that will no more leave. Longing voices from the ancient walls. Melt-down music from distant places that constantly enriches the soul of the old charming city. Echoes from all times and all places. Echoes of love and longing. Eternal echoes.”

At the premiere, trombonist and conductor Christian Lindberg recites the following poem about Cáceres:
Echoes of Eternity

I hear cries and echoes,
Voices from times that have passed,
Voices from times to come,
From the alleys and from the walls,
From the chimneys;
Voices of storks that have ceased to migrate,
That have chosen to stay.
Cries from a woman – confined in the monkey house.
The voice of a soldier by the ancient wall,
Longing for home.
Voices from a city that ever was,
Voices from an eternal city.
Echoes of eternity.

Maurice Ravel 1875-1937
Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel

“I have written only one masterpiece,” remarked Maurice Ravel to fellow composer Arthur Honegger, “.. That is Bolero. Unfortunately, it contains no music.” His self-irony notwithstanding, it is one of the most popular musical compositions of all time. It was created for the dancer Ida Rubinstein, a protégé of Diaghilev and pupil of Michel Fokine, who was the inspiration for numerous artists of the 1910s and ‘20s, including Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, André Gide, Darius Milhaud and others. She asked Ravel in 1927 to orchestrate for her some of Isaac Albéniz’s dances from Iberia, but the composer found out that someone else was already working on those.

Bolero was born out of this confusion. Its premiere on November 22, 1928, with Rubinstein as the solo female dancer and 20 male dancers mostly standing around ogling her, created a sensation. The whole piece consists of the insistent repetition of a single melody of slightly irregular phrasing, accompanied by an ostinato rhythm on the snare drum. Example 1 Its magic is almost childishly simple: to repeat the melody, changing the instrumentation, gradually increasing the volume, and adding more instruments. But the true genius of the piece is in its “punch-line,” a sudden unexpected and drastic change of key, at which point the whole meticulous structure explodes. Example 2

The Spanish Bolero is usually a couples dance of moderate tempo in triple meter, different from the Cuban dance by the same name, which is in duple meter. According to tradition it was invented by the dancer Sebastian Cerezo in 1780. In the nineteenth century it became popular with classical composers, including Beethoven, Chopin, Carl Maria von Weber and Hector Berlioz.

It is said that the best Spanish music has been written by Frenchmen, and Maurice Ravel was a prime example. His first “Spanish” composition was the “Habañera” for two pianos in 1895, which was followed by many others, including Alborada del gracioso, the opera L’heure espagnole, Tzigane, Rapsodie espagnole and, in 1928 Bolero.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018