April 7 • Smetana and Dvořák • Concord
Smetana and Dvořák
April 7th, 2017 | 8:00 pm | Concord City Auditorium (Parking and Directions)
Jonathan McPhee, conductor
Cheryl Bishkoff, oboe
SMETANA The Moldau
MARTINŮ Concerto for Oboe
DVOŘÁK Symphony No. 7
Smetana, Dvořák, and Martinů are champions of Eastern European music, known for their use of folk music and references to their cultures. Smetana looks to the natural landscape, so influential to any culture, of his homeland in the symphonic poem The Moldau. The river running through the music of this tone poem paints the image of its path across the countryside. Martinů wrote his Concerto for Oboe for a Czech performer committed to performing more of his own cultural music. Dvořák, known for setting melodies inspired by the folk music found in his travels, looks west to his mentor Johannes Brahms, infusing his folk influences with a more tragic style found in Western European symphonies of the day.
The Moldau (Vltava) from Ma Vlast, 1874-79
Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)
Bedřich Smetana was a nationalistic Czech composer who often used Bohemian folk songs as the basis for his work. In his native country, his style was associated with the country’s aspiration for independence and he is regarded as the founding father of Czech music.
The Moldau is a symphonic poem that musically describes this Czech river, also known as the Vltava. It would be hard to improve on Smetana’s own description of this work:
“The composition describes the course of the Vltava starting from two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St. John’s Rapids: then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vysenhrad (Castle), and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe River.”
The work begins with flutes evoking the sounds of the springs at the headwater of the river, followed by the strings playing the memorable river theme, which is repeated several times during this work. The first interlude is rustic in style, evoking the woods through the use of a hunting theme, followed by a polka representing a country wedding dance. The music builds as the river passes through rapids and the city of Prague, and then the piece ends quietly as the river theme fades away in the distance.
Oboe Concerto H. 353, 1955
Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Bohuslav Martinů was quite prolific, composing around 400 pieces in many genres, though this concerto is his only work for a solo wind instrument. He composed it in response to a commission from the Czech-Australian oboist Jiří Tancibudek in 1955. Tancibudek was taken by Martinů’s “sparkling rhythmical vitality with lots of syncopations, the simple but most original and kaleidoscopic harmonic textures with touches of bitonality and polytonality always resolved, and the fresh, highly personal and colourful instrumentation”.
In speaking of Martinů, music historian Oscar Thompson (as quoted by Tancibudek) has said, “The basic Czech elements have remained in Martinů’s music, though it has not the folk lilt of Dvořák’s or Smetana’s. French influences are discernible in the clarity, the precision and the balance of his writing. He has developed a strong personal harmonic feeling, and the distinctive instrumentation of his orchestral works definitely heighten this. The refinement and the technical artistry of his music have been widely recognized.”
The oboe concerto has three movements (Moderato, Poco Andante, and Poco Allegro) and is influenced by Stravinsky (with a quote from Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka in the second movement). In a communication with Tancibudek, Martinů mentioned that, “The oboe part is brilliant, but there is always enough time for you to breathe.”
The Moderato begins with the orchestra and the oboe enters with a “broad, vocal-like melody.” A middle scherzando section bridges to a quiet ending. The French horn is featured at the outset of the lyrical middle movement. The entrance of the oboe is accompanied only by piano. After the orchestra rejoins, the oboe has a florid solo, followed by another peaceful coda to conclude the movement. The concerto ends with a dance-like third movement, interspersed by two oboe cadenzas.
Symphony No. 7, op. 70 in D minor, 1885
Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)
The great Czech composer Antonin Dvořák composed this symphony at the age of 44, in 1885. In this symphony, Dvořák has created a work that fits into the German classical tradition and is heavily influenced by Johannes Brahms. Over the preceding decade, Brahms had strongly supported the younger Dvořák, working to get his music published, helping him apply for grants, and promoting his work to other leading musicians. The two men had genuine mutual admiration for each other’s work and influenced each other’s compositional style. Brahms’ Third Symphony, a work performed by Symphony NH earlier this season, was composed the year before this work and comparison of these two great works reveals stylistic and even thematic relationships.
This is a symphony of many contrasts. The first movement begins quietly and nervously in a minor key first played by the strings. A second theme in a major key is introduced quietly by the winds and strings and gradually builds to a climax. Dvořák’s mastery of the classical model is revealed as he develops material in this dramatic movement. The second movement unfolds gently and evolves more quietly and languidly than the first movement. In the third movement, the composer again works with major and minor key thematic material. Some of these musical ideas are more Slavonic in sound and evoke the Czech folk sources that play such an important role in the music of Dvořák. The fourth movement is in a minor key and begins darkly and vigorously, and again in this movement material is developed in a classical fashion. The symphony ends dramatically in a major key.
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