Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op. 20
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings began its life as a personal gift to a nineteenth-century ladies’ orchestra class in Worcester, England. Elgar wrote the twelve-minute, three-movement work in March, 1892 for the ladies’ class. He conducted its first private performance. It wasn’t until four years later that the serenade was performed in public, in Antwerp, Belgium, on July 21, 1896. It is therefore probably the earliest of his compositions to survive into the standard repertoire. It is considered to have a youthful charm while at the same time displaying indications of the skills Elgar developed as he progressed towards musical maturity. The central “Larghetto” is generally accepted as containing the work’s finest and most mature writing. The other movements are titled “Allegro piacevole” and “Allegro”. Although Elgar is probably best-known to American audiences for his Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 (everybody’s favorite graduation march), the Serenade for Strings remains among the most frequently performed of all his music.
Romance in C, Op. 42
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Sibelius wrote this miniature (five-minute) composition in 1903, between two versions of a much larger work—his popular violin concerto. Unlike the concerto, or most of the composer’s popular large-scale works, the charm of the Romance comes from a simple setting of a characteristic melody, with effective and straightforward use of the string orchestra. The composer was going through a turbulent period of financial difficulty while writing this work, an experience which was common during the first half of his life (the introduction of certain copyright laws later would go some way to alleviating this problem). He would look back on this period, however, as a time of happiness. He was still composing in the Romantic style of his early works, partly derived from Tschaikovsky and Grieg, and it was observed at the first performance of this piece that it owed something to Tschaikovsky. In the decade following the composition of the Romance, the composer’s works became more austere, a trend especially audible from the Fourth Symphony onward. It has been suggested that this austerity resulted from the composer’s having been forced to give up cigars and alcohol, but deeper musical and spiritual forces were no doubt at work. The Romance, which was published in 1908, has three main sections, a slow beginning, a more rapid middle section and finally another slow section.
Serenade No. 6 for Orchestra in D Major, K.239
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
This work is scored for a very unusual ensemble: a solo quartet of two violins, violas, and string bass on one side, and a larger group of violins, violas, cellos, and timpani on the other. According to Aaron Rabushka, the use of the term “notturna” in the title refers to a piece that was intended to be played at night rather than one that necessarily evokes nocturnal atmospheres. The opening maestoso march makes much of the contrast between the opening fanfare-like motif and the subsequent, more flowing singing lines. One intriguing section in the second half features timpani along with pizzicato strings, seemingly laughing at the fanfare’s inherent grandiosity. A minuet follows where mock-bombast alternates with graceful elegance, and an exquisitely poised allegretto rondeau with a few surprises rounds things off. Chicago Symphony program annotator Phillip Huscher comments further:
– “W. H. Auden wrote of Mozart’s serenades: ‘while bottles were uncorked, /Milord chewed noisily, Milady talked.’ By the time of Auden’s verse, these extraordinary pieces, the most extravagant background music ever composed, had found a more appropriate home in the concert hall. But they were written to be played as entertainment at prominent functions and high-society events, often held outside—not, in other words, for serious listening. Most of them, in fact, were performed just once and then forgotten.
– “We don’t know what kind of event Mozart had in mind when he wrote this serenade in D major. Although its key is the one he favored for serenades and cassations, its scoring, for strings alone with timpani, and its division into just three movements (when a leisurely sequence of up to eight was more common), set it apart from the rest. Even the dignified march with which it opens is more subtly detailed and symphonic in scope than the boilerplate marches that commonly begin Mozart’s serenades.
– “Throughout the serenade, Mozart gains added richness and complexity by subdividing his strings into a large ensemble and a solo quartet that slips in and out of the spotlight, and, in the trio, has the floor to itself,” Huscher writes.
Fanfare from the ballet, La Péri
Paul Dukas (1865-1935)
Paul Dukas’ ballet, La Péri, was composed in 1912, and was the composer’s last published work. The fanfare, which is written just for the brass section, is heard before the ballet begins, as a bold introduction to the story. The brilliance of this fanfare means it is often performed as a stand-alone work. The bold forte opening is rich in Romantic period tonal harmony, with musical figures requiring double- and triple-tonguing from all the parts. Parts of the fanfare are played in unison, showing the strength within the section. Other sections are carefully woven together by Dukas as melodies interlock and harmonies begin to rub together. After a general pause, a slightly moodier section ensues. Full of tied notes and syncopated movement, the music quickly builds back into the opening fanfare theme. The fanfare finishes with a unison pattern that slows down into the final three big chords, which are decorated by the top two trumpets. Paul Dukas was a Parisian composer famous primarily for one work, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, featured in the Disney animated film, Fantasia.
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
This Antiphon is a beautiful, rich-textured, harmonically subtle, expressive work in a slow tempo. It begins with a soft chorale-like phrase. This leads to another chorale phrase, more dramatic in character, with an abrupt change from soft to loud. Anton Bruckner was an Austrian composer, organist, and music theorist best known for his symphonies, Masses, a famous Te Deum, and motets. His compositions helped to define contemporary musical radicalism, owing to their dissonances, unprepared modulations, and roving harmonies. Bruckner was a renowned organist in his day, impressing audiences in France in 1869, and the United Kingdom in 1871.
Fantasia on the Dargason
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
The Fantasia on the Dargason is an arrangement of the last movement of Gustav Holst’s Second Suite in F for Military Band, a seminal work for concert band. The Dargason is an English country dance tune which dates from the sixteenth century. Its defining characteristic is that it continues to cycle and seems to have no end. In Holst’s composition, the Elizabethan love tune, “Greensleeves”, is intertwined briefly and withdrawn before the final scoring of a high trumpet and a very low part (tuba and bass trombone) four octaves apart. Best known for his orchestral suite, The Planets, Holst composed many other works across a range of genres. His distinctive compositional style was the product of many influences, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss being most crucial early in his development. The later inspiration of the English folksong revival of the early 20th century, and the example of such rising modern composers as Maurice Ravel, led Holst to develop an individual style.
An American Anthem
Anthony DiLorenzo’s An American Anthem is a brass ensemble piece composed for the Boston Pops and for the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. It is scored for three trumpets, two horns, two trombones, bass trombone, and tuba. DiLorenzo is an Emmy- and Grammy-nominated composer and trumpet soloist. A founding member of the Center City Brass Quintet, he has a 30-year career writing more than one hundred film trailers and themes for AbC-television sports shows.
March from the opera, The Love for Three Oranges
Sergei Prokoffieff (1891-1953)
Prokoffieff’s satirical opera, The Love for Three Oranges, was the result of a commission during the composer’s successful first visit to the United States in 1918. After well-received concerts of his works in Chicago, the composer was approached by the director of the Chicago Opera Association to write an opera. He already had a libretto based on a play in the Commedia dell’arte tradition.
The opera was premiered in December of 1921. It received its first Russian production in 1926.
The March is the best known piece in the opera, because it was used by CBS in the radio-drama series, The FBI in Peace and War, broadcast from 1944 to 1958.
—notes compiled by Susan Scheib