Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Overture, Son and Stranger (1829)
The Hebrides, A Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage were the works with which Mendelssohn developed the art of the concert overture, transforming it, in each case, into a seascape of infinite beauty and atmosphere. In his earlier Son and Stranger overture, written when he was twenty, he was content to be spiritedly precocious, though no longer quite so startlingly precocious as he had been as the young composer of the Octet for strings, in which he had declared his genius at the age of sixteen, prompting the pianist Charles Rosen in our own day to call him “the greatest child prodigy the history of Western music has ever known”.
Son and Stranger is not a concert overture. Also known as The Rover’s Return and, more accurately, as Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde (The Return from Abroad), it is that rare thing in Mendelssohn’s output an actual operatic overture, designed for a family singspiel celebrating his parents’ silver wedding anniversary on Boxing Day 1829, with roles for his sisters Fanny and Rebekka and an audience of 120 people. Though Mendelssohn never intended the work to be publicly performed, his critic friend Henry Chorley later edited the score and found a market for it in English translation after the composer’s death.
The story, of a travelling pedlar who disguises himself as the son of a local magistrate returning home after six years, is slight. But the music, little more than a series of songs, is charming enough to have won the work occasional performances in England, Germany, and recently America. The overture, crafted with fine Mendelssohnian polish, consists of a slow introduction in pastoral vein followed by a spirited allegro. The slow introduction briefly returns at the end. No tunes from the operetta itself are incorporated.
© Conrad Wilson
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Romance for violin and orchestra, The Lark Ascending (1914-21)
Vaughan Williams, among other things, was the voice of English musical pastoralism. Or, to put it in a different though not dissimilar way, he was the sound of an oboe with muted strings in the background. The latter description, coming from a distinguished Vaughan Williams authority, is apt, even if the loveliest of all his pastoral pieces - the one in which the rustic side of his personality reached its moment of high sublimity - replaces the oboe with a violin and the muted strings with a wider range of instruments. Yet if you happen to believe that a lark was also in the mind of Joseph Haydn when he composed the first movement of his Lark Quartet in 1790, then it is clear that he, too, thought of the songbird in soaringly violinistic terms.
For all its sweetness of utterance, Vaughan Williams’s little Romance, as he called it, took six years to reach its perfected form. With a poem by George Meredith (1828-1909) as its inspiration, it was sketched first as a duet for violin and piano in 1914, the year of the outbreak of the First World War. After serving in an ambulance unit of the Royal Army Medical Corps, the composer rewrote it for violin and small orchestra, in which form it was dedicated to the English violinist Marie Hall and first played by her in 1921. Two flutes, one obligatory oboe, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, triangle, and strings, muted or otherwise, now supplied the exquisite tapestry of its background.
Whatever people today think of Meredith’s words - the titles of two of his novels, The Egoist and The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, perhaps say more than his poetry - Vaughan Williams transcended them with music of the most hauntingly evocative sort. The poem on its own, weighed down by rhyming couplets, is admittedly a problem. It starts as follows: “He rises and begins to round/He drops the silver chain of sound/Of many links without a break/In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.” And it closes: “Till lost on his aerial rings/In light, and then the fancy sings.”
Vaughan Williams’ opening bars, and the way they rise into the main theme, are a miracle of airy succinctness which makes Meredith seem earthbound in comparison. The chiming triangle, the singing woodwind, and above all the constantly rhapsodic spiralling of the solo line all contribute to a musical idyll in which words seem irrelevant.
© Conrad Wilson
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Symphony No 5 in B-flat major, D485 (1816)
Andante con moto
Menuetto: Allegro molto
Schubert’s Fifth is not like Beethoven’s Fifth. Though written in the same city, it takes the progress of the Viennese symphony backwards rather than forwards, but does it so entrancingly that nobody should care. Schubert was, after all, only nineteen when he composed it, and the players at his disposal were members of what has been called a “neighbourhood” orchestra, with Schubert himself playing viola.
Not until his Unfinished, in 1822, did Schubert produce a genuinely vanguard symphony. Yet to suggest that the Unfinished displayed a wholly new side of his personality would be misleading. The signs were already there, in the volatile energy of the second and third symphonies and in the implications of the 'Tragic' (No 4 in C minor). In No 5, he poured some of his airiest melodies into a limpidly classical mould, half Haydn and half Mozart, yet made it sound utterly Schubertian.
Sir Donald Tovey, Edinburgh’s famous essayist, called it “a pearl of great price”, adding that no academic criticism had yet been produced that could pick holes in this “little” symphony. But was Tovey’s use of the word “little” not in itself a criticism? And perhaps somewhat patronising? Symphony orchestras take pains to preserve the special lightness of the music, luminously scored for one flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and strings – which once won it the nickname (a further gibe?) of the “Symphony without trumpets and drums.”
It is, in fact, a chamber symphony, as the finely balanced string and wind textures suggest. The first movement and finale are short, but have a vitality behind their grace which makes up for their brevity. The slow movement, especially if its repeated sections are included, is certainly not brief, but it is very beautiful. Though the main theme, according to Tovey, is “Schubertised Mozart” (yet another criticism?) it goes through modulations that are deeply Schubertian.
The third movement – more of a scherzo than a minuet – opens starkly in G minor before proceeding to a lilting waltzlike trio section in the major. It may recall Mozart’s 40th symphony, one of Schubert’s favourite works, but the fingerprints are again Schubert’s own.
© Conrad Wilson
Nothing captures the mystical, melancholy yearning aspect of Vaughan Williams more intensely than his transcendental masterpiece, The Lark Ascending. The generous acoustic of St Cuthbert’s will allow it to soar sensationally. Janiczek frames it with young men's music: both Mendelssohn and Schubert were around 20 years old when they wrote their respective pieces. The Mendelssohn's a particularly delightful rarity – the overture from an operetta he wrote to celebrate his parents’ silver wedding.