Romantic Grandeur Programme Notes

The music presented in our first LSO performance of the season features some of Grieg’s best-known works, as well as the Bruckner symphony many consider the crowning achievement of the art form. Most people could always do with a little more Romance in their lives, and this event’s grandiose program offers that in spades.


Symphony Series 1 :: Romantic Grandeur

Folk music, in particular the Eastern European and Romani traditions, has long fascinated more mainstream European society; in the eighteenth century, classical composers turned to these exotic influences to bring an air of mystery or a tone of rustic vigour to their compositions.

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), one of Norway’s foremost playwrights wrote the play Peer Gynt in 1867; today, Ibsen’s work is respected around the world. Peer Gynt, a relatively early work, is written in verse and contains many surreal elements. The play is in many ways ahead of its time; Ibsen’s juxtaposition of fairy-tale fantasy and harsh realism foreshadows the eclecticism and detachment of post-modernism.

Peer Gynt, the protagonist of play, is constantly running from responsibility and real human connection. The play begins with Peer’s banishment from his hometown for abducting a bride on her wedding day. Solveig, the woman who loves him, joins him in the mountains, but he abandons her and leaves for foreign climes. Eventually Peer returns home, now an old man, realizing that by avoiding responsibility he has avoided life – in trying to ‘be himself’, and only himself, he has become nothing.

Ibsen asked Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) to compose incidental music for use in the 1876 premiere. One of the leading composers of the Romantic era, Grieg was also strongly nationalistic, incorporating folk influences from his native Norway into his music. Later, Grieg extracted two orchestral suites from his incidental music for Peer Gynt.

Suite No. 1 features some of Grieg’s best-known music. The first movement, “Morning Mood”, is particularly well known, and is often featured in films, including many Saturday morning cartoons. The prelude to Act IV, this movement finds Peer away on business in Morocco; he has not returned to his hometown for many years. The pastoral main theme begins as a flute solo, and then becomes a dialogue with the oboe; eventually the texture swells to showcase the full orchestra on this lovely melody.

During the next movement, “The Death of Åse”, Peer returns to his hometown just in time to be at his mother’s bedside as she dies. What begins as a mournful, subdued melody in the strings gradually builds in intensity and anguish. Peer’s grief having reached its climax, the movement closes more gently with a repeated falling motif.

After being stranded on a strange shore, Peer dresses in Bedouin clothing and is hailed as a prophet by the local tribe. He attempts to seduce Anitra, the chieftain’s daughter, but she is too clever for him: she robs him before escaping. “Anitra’s Dance” is another example of musical exoticism, featuring chromatic melodies, pizzicato strings, and the sparkling sound of the triangle.

Another very well known piece, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” takes place in Act II of the play. After being banished from his village, Peer wanders in the mountains; hitting his head on a rock, he faints, and dreams of a visit to the troll mountain king. Grieg opens this wild, grotesque dance in a very low register with double bass and bassoon. Gradually the melody is repeated in higher and higher registers, passing from instrument to instrument; constantly accelerating, the movement eventually reaches a fever pitch.

Suite No. 2 features four numbers from various moments in the play. The first, entitled “The Abduction of the Bride, Ingrid’s Lament”, occurs at the beginning of Act II. Peer abducts his former lover Ingrid on her wedding day; the two then spend the night in the mountains together. Grieg paints the bride’s distress, beginning the suite with an anxious flurry of motion. The composer then introduces a lush, romantic melody in the strings; this theme eventually grows more and more agitated as Ingrid laments her fate.

An “Arabian Dance” follows as a Bedouin tribe entertains Peer while he is stranded in Morocco. Grieg employs traditionally Turkish percussion, including the triangle, cymbal, and bass drum. The martial sound of the piccolo begins a lively march (the Alla turca march is another traditional European evocation of Turkish music). In a contrasting middle section, the strings later introduce a new, more lyrical melody.

“Peer Gynt’s Homecoming”, also subtitled “Stormy Evening on the Sea”, is the prelude to Act V; Peer is on his journey home when he is shipwrecked in a storm. The composer calls on the full resources of the orchestra to paint the fury of the storm, making use of tremolos, quick chromatic running lines and scales, and percussion effects.

In the play, Peer’s long-suffering beloved, whom he abandoned in Norway many years ago, sings the lullaby“Solveig’s Song”, to Peer as he dies at the end. This movement begins with a haunting unison string passage, evoking the melancholy of the play’s end. Originally sung in the play, the vocal line is now taken by the violins. The influence of Scandinavian folk music is clear in Grieg’s simple, pastoral melody.

Best known for his symphonies and sacred music, Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was also famous in his own day as a world-class organist. A dedicated scholar, Bruckner collected certifications with a thoroughness bordering on obsession; however, his insecurities extended beyond a thirst for academic success. Bruckner’s obsequiousness and extreme self-deprecation often worked against him.

This is illustrated by Bruckner’s extreme devotion to Richard Wagner. At a time when many critics sided with the opposing composer Johannes Brahms against the innovations of Wagner, Bruckner inadvertently made himself vulnerable to the hostility of the press.

Bruckner was a revisionist; many of his works exist in several versions. While the composer extensively revised some, conductors, editors, and even students suggested other revisions in an attempt to make Bruckner’s music more palatable to the public and more easily playable. Consequently, Bruckner’s music poses some significant problems for modern musicians, faced with the difficult task of determining which version of a work most authentically reflects the composer’s intentions.

Bruckner pushed the classical form of the symphony to the limits of size and complexity. The Fourth Symphony, which he himself subtitled “The Romantic”, was finished in 1874; however, in 1878, the composer substituted an entirely new scherzo and finale. Then in 1880 he again rewrote the entire finale; this is the version used at the premiere in 1881.

The first movement opens with a horn call heard as if from a distance, heralding the approach of morning. Like the first light of day slowly breaking over the horizon, the first theme is continuously developed, growing and expanding until the sun rises in its full glory. The second theme, which is lighter and more playful, features a cheery rendition of a chickadee’s call in the violins. The movement culminates in a sunny return of the tonic in the coda as the horn call sounds again, triumphantly.

Beginning with soft, muted strings, the second movement features the cello in a mournful melody. As the melody moves to the winds, it takes on the character of a funeral march; a distinctive horn call, echoing the first movement, brings a heavy solemnity. Bruckner then turns to a chorale-like texture, drawing on his early education as a choirboy and his work as an organist. The horn call can still be heard, and is echoed in the other wind instruments as well.

The third movement is in the form of a scherzo and trio; Bruckner intended the scherzo to depict a hunting party, while the trio is the musical entertainment while the hunters rest at their midday meal. Appropriately, the movement opens with the raucous sound of a hunting call from the horns, which are joined by the trumpets and then the full orchestra. The trio is more pastoral, featuring the flute and oboe; Bruckner writes a cheerfulLändler, an Austrian peasant dance.

The massive finale showcases the sheer immensity of Bruckner’s symphonic genius. Beginning on a menacing pedal point, the tension builds until the full orchestra dramatically states the complete theme. The horn call from the first movement returns as the music finally swells to a satisfying cadence. The texture then thins as Bruckner introduces the two-part subordinate theme, a mournful melody followed by a sunnier folk song. Bruckner masterfully manipulates his musical materials, drawing on his consummate skill in counterpoint.

Programme Notes by Camille Rogers