Programme Notes 2013 February concert

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006)
Tam O'Shanter Overture (1955)

Robert Burns's influence runs in sometimes unexpected directions. Tam O'Shanter is one of his longer poems, composed in 1791. Its story is essentially that of a man in a pub (Tam) who drinks too much and then wends his way home in the dark and sees the devil and a group of witches having a party in a churchyard. Tam is both shocked and intrigued, not least by the immodestly short shirt (in Burns dialect the "cutty sark") of one of the revellers and stays to watch. The voyeur's presence is discovered and he is pursued on horseback by the devil and his entourage. Tam narrowly escapes his pursuers when his mare leaps into a stream, a little known but useful fact being that the devil cannot cross beyond the middle of a running stream.

The poem has thus given birth to the name of the famous tea clipper now at Greenwich and to the headgear known as a Tam O'Shanter (a sort of beret with a headband and pompom, often worn by Scottish army regiments). It is also the name of tonight's overture, written in 1955 by the English composer Malcolm Armold, himself no stranger to drink. Arnold drew on folk songs and stories for much of his work and his Scottish, Cornish and English Dances are among his most popular works. He was also an extensive film composer, The Bridge on the River Kwai being his most well-known score.

His Tam O'Shanter overture defies description beyond that it paints a series of vivid images of the story. With its unmistakable Scottish influences, complicated cross-rhythms and humour, it is an affectionate tribute to a rather confused night out.

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
Clarinet concerto (1948-49)

Allegro vigoroso 
Adagio ma senza rigore
Rondo

Other than that they were both pacifists, Finzi was everything that Arnold wasn't. Much more cerebral and contemplative, he had been seriously affected by the deaths of three of his elder brothers in the first world war and withdrew from London after the second world war to live in the country and devoted himself to composition, growing rare apples and editing the works of earlier little-known composers. His music draws heavily on the English musical and literary traditions but has a darker personal side to it than the folk music adaptations of many of his contemporaries and elders.

His clarinet concerto is probably his most well-known and most often performed orchestral work. It was written in 1948 and 1949 for the Three Choirs festival and was premiered by Frederick Thurston, with the composer conducting the LSO.  It is scored for solo clarinet and strings and alternates sustained legato passages with others of great virtuosity for the soloist sustained by intricate and interesting parts for the strings.  It is quietly optimistic in mood, intensely lyrical and combines influences of the baroque, the English folk music tradition and Elgar yet allows the composer's unique personal style to shine through.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)
Symphony No 6 in D major (1880)

Allegro non tanto
Adagio
Scherzo (Furiant), Presto
Finale, Allegro con spirito

Dvorak's symphonies have suffered from erratic numbering largely because he thought he had lost his first one and did not send numbers 2 to 5 to his publisher until after he had composed and published the other four. Tonight's symphony, now known as his sixth, was consequently for many years known as his first.

Dvorak was Czech but in his day, the Czechs were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and were looked down upon by the Viennese with their preference for German language and culture. He had had his Third Slavonic Rhapsody played successfully in Vienna in 1879 and decided to dedicate his new symphony to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Unfortunately politics got in the way: the liberal tendency had just lost out in a lurch to the right and the very folk idioms that would ultimately ensure its success sealed its fate with the Viennese. The first performance was in Prague in 1881. It wasn't finally played by the Vienna Philharmonic until 1942 (though another Viennese orchestra did perform it in 1883).

Dvorak was heavily influenced by the older composer Brahms who had helped him earlier in his career and who became a good friend. He was however more strongly influenced by his native Czech musical traditions and by the speech patterns of the Czech language. His sixth symphony combines both these elements with strong Czech dance rhythms to the fore, particularly the "furiant" dance in the third movement. His homage to Brahms, which is perhaps greatest in this symphony, was not enough however to satisfy the Viennese. In the meantime it quickly became popular in other countries and established the composer's reputation as a symphonist (remember everyone thought this was his first symphony).  It became particularly popular in England and, after conducting it himself in London in 1884, the Royal Philharmonic Society made Dvorak an honorary member and commissioned another symphony from him (his seventh, or as they thought at the time, his second).

 Charles Clark

 

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