An Outdoor Overture
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
In 1922, Copland traveled to Paris to study, and he was accepted as a student of Nadia Boulanger, who greatly encouraged him. Copland wrote about her excellent teaching: “She could always find the weak spot in a place you suspected was weak…. She could also tell you why it was weak.” He stayed for three years. Paris was a remarkable place for artists of all persuasions during the 1920’s. Beside the Impressionist composers, writers Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound were there, as well as artists, like Pablo Picasso, and philosophers, like Jean-Paul Sartre.
Copland started out by composing modern music, including some jazz, but the Great Depression caused him to rethink his approach. He wanted to create music for the people, and the simpler, open style that emerged is the “Copland sound” still admired today.
Around 1935 Copland began writing music for younger audiences, and his first works were The Young Pioneers for the piano and The Second Hurricane, an opera. In 1938 he was approached by Alexander Richter to write a piece for his orchestra at the New York High School of Music and Art. Richter was campaigning for new music for his students with a program called “American Music for American Youth.” Copland enthusiastically responded with An Outdoor Overture. He scored it both for orchestra and band, keeping in mind the abilities of good high school players. The premiere was given by Richter and his orchestra on December 16, 1938.
After an opening fanfare, there is an extended trumpet solo. A lively theme follows in the strings, and this alternates with a sweet lyric melody first introduced in the woodwinds. This is all cleverly woven together to a joyous conclusion.
Romanian Folk Dances, Sz. 68
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
In 1899 Béla Bartók was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, where one of his teachers was Zoltán Kodály, who became a lifelong friend and colleague. Kodály encouraged both his compositional style and his love of folk tunes. Starting in 1908, the two composers traveled to the countryside to collect old folk melodies. They took an Edison phonograph with them and found it to be invaluable. They recorded hundreds of cylinders and collected Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian and Bulgarian folk music. The melodies and rhythms from these tunes became an intrinsic part of Bartok’s musical language.
Romanian Folk Dances was originally written for the piano, and Bartok orchestrated the piece in 1917. It is based on seven different tunes from Transylvania. Each movement is about a minute long, and no. 5 and no. 6 are performed without a break between them.
Dance no. 1 Bot tánc / Jocul cu bâtă (Stick Dance)
The melody comes from the Mezőszabad village, and he first heard it when two gypsy violinists were playing it.
Dance no. 2 Brâul (Sash Dance)
This is a typical dance from Romania called Brâul, in which traditionally a sash was used. This melody comes from Egres in the Banat region.
Dance no. 3 Topogó / Pe loc (In One Spot)
This dance is also from Egres, but it is much darker, and the melody in the piccolo sounds vaguely Middle Eastern.
Dance no. 4 Bucsumí tánc / Buciumeana (Dance from Bucsum) This dance begins with a beautiful violin solo and is from Bucsony, Romania.
Dance no. 5 Román polka / Poarga Românească (Romanian Polka) This is an old Romanian dance similar to the polka and comes from Belényes, near the border between Hungary and Romania.
Dance no. 6 Aprózó / Mărunțel (Fast Dance)
This is two similar dances, and the first comes from Belényes. The second one is from the Nyagra village.
Overture to The Flying Dutchman, WWV 63
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Wagner, in the beginning of his career, moved from job to job. He was outspoken in his political beliefs and terrible with money management, which caused problems at every position. In 1837 he found employment as musical director of the local opera house in Riga – then in Russia. Only two years later, he and his wife Minna fled to London, running from creditors. They had to sneak out of the country and ultimately struck out for Paris where Wagner felt his genius would finally be appreciated.
They experienced a stormy and harrowing sea voyage on their way to England, and the trip, which should have lasted a few days, took almost four weeks. For a time the ship harbored in the fjords of Norway, and this experience later inspired his opera, The Flying Dutchman.
The Flying Dutchman is a folk tale from the 17th century, about a sea captain who is cursed to roam the sea in his ghost ship until he can find a wife who will be faithful to him. Every seven years, he is cast upon the land to search for a woman who will love him.
Redemption through love is a topic Wagner often explores in his operas. The overture begins with a portrayal of the Dutchman and the storm-tossed sea, followed by a lovely English horn solo portraying Senta, the woman who first loves the legend – and then the man himself when she finally meets him. The Dutchman dares to hope that his curse will be broken, but Senta is restrained from going with him. In the end, she escapes, declares her love and throws herself into the sea. Her sacrifice breaks his curse, and the two rise above the waves together.
Slavonic Dances, op. 46 no. 1 and 3
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)
Dvorak was well-known in his native Bohemia, but he sought more international recognition. In 1874, he submitted two symphonies for the Austrian State Prize for Composition. Johannes Brahms was on the jury, and the older composer was impressed enough with Dvorak’s work to recommend him to his own publisher, Fritz Simrock. The first piece Simrock published for the young Bohemian was his opus 46, Slavonic Dances. It was a huge hit, which launched his international reputation, and the four-hand piano version became a top seller, cementing the relationship between Dvorak and the major German music publisher.
Unlike Bartok, Dvorak does not use folk tunes in his work. The themes and rhythms may sound like dance tunes from the beautiful Bohemian countryside, but they are entirely his own melodies. There are eight dances in the opus 46 set, and NPOI is performing two of the more famous ones, no. 1 “Furiant” and no. 3 “Polka.”
Finlandia, op. 26
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Finlandia was composed for a political protest ostensibly called a “fundraiser.” After a century of Russian oppression, Tsar Nicholas II issued a manifesto in 1899 which stripped away all rights of the Finnish people. Newspapers were shut down, so a group of artists organized a fundraiser for the out-of-work journalists. This show told the story of Finland’s proud history and was intended to stir the people’s patriotism.
Sibelius composed the music, and the last piece was Finland Awakes. The hymn tune was so captivating that Sibelius reworked it and created the piece heard today. Out of fear of the Russians, it went by many names when the Helsinki Philharmonic toured Europe in 1900. Whether called Das Vaterland or La Patrie or simply Impromtu, the Finnish people embraced Finlandia as a symbol of their hope for freedom.
—notes compiled by Betty Taylor Cox