MSO – Program Notes

Program | Season Listing

MSO: Green Bay, 5/19/12
Notes by Roger Ruggeri © 2012

Felix Mendelssoh (1809-1847)
Overture, “The Hebrides” (“Fingal’s Cave”), Opus 26

The Romantic era’s fascination with Nature and natural subjects is embodied in Mendelssohn’s celebrated concert overture, The Hebrides. The overture is a product of the same trip to Scotland in 1829 that inspired the composition of the Scottish Symphony (No. 3). Mendelssohn and his friend, Karl Klingemann, took a boat to view the famed Fingal’s Cave, located on the island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides. In a letter, Klingemann recalled: “We were put out into boats and clambered past the hissing sea on stumps of columns up the odiously celebrated Fingal’s Cave. I must say, never did such green and roaring waves pound in a stranger cave. The many pillars make the inside resemble a monstrous organ. Black, resounding, and utterly without any purpose at all, it lies there, the broad gray sea inside it and in front of it.” Mendelssohn, however, was so moved by the grandeur of the cave that he allegedly sketched the first twenty-one measures of the overture while sitting in the bobbing boat. Like the Scottish Symphony, the overture was completed more than a year later while the composer was in Rome.

The overture begins with an immediate presentation of the one-measure main motive in the low strings and bassoons. This melody is woven into a texture of changing harmonies. A second melody –one that had an enormous influence upon 19th-century European music– rises and falls simply in the cellos, clarinets and bassoons. There is development of the materials and an exciting coda that brings to a close a work Wagner declared to be “one of the most beautiful pieces we possess.”


Antonin Dvorák (1841-1904)
Silent Woods (Klid) for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 68, No. 5

Soon after accepting a two-year appointment as Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, Dvorák agreed to a sort of farewell concert tour in the early months of 1892. Scheduled to perform concerts of his own music in thirty-nine cities in Bohemia and Moravia, Dvorák planned to tour as a pianist with two of his longtime friends and colleagues, violinist Ferdinand Lachner and cellist Hanus Wihan. While working out the actual programs, Dvorák suddenly realized that he had no music to feature Wihan as soloist.

Immediately after Christmas 1891, Dvorák spent two days making arrangements for cello and piano of his Slavonic Dance No. 8 and the fifth movement, Silent Woods, from his evocative suite of piano four-hand pieces entitled From the Bohemian Forest. Wihan and Dvorák gave the first performance of this musical woodland scene in Prague on March 24, 1892.


Antonin Dvorák
Rondo for Cello and Orchestra in G minor, Opus 94

On Christmas Day 1891, Dvorák composed a concise piece that he referred to as the “Rondo for Professor Wihan.” The work’s folk-flavored rondo theme returns between virtuosic and melodic episodes before subsiding to a hushed conclusion. Wihan and Dvorák premiered the Rondo at Kladno on January 6, 1892.

In October of 1893, midway in his American sojourn, Dvorák created orchestral accompaniments to both the Rondo and Silent Woods. (Two years later, Dvorák wrote his epic Cello Concerto for Wihan.)


Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 1 in D major (“Classical”), Op. 25

A compelling answer to the rhetorical question: “What would Mozart or Haydn be writing if they were alive today,” Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony is one of the earliest examples of the neo-classicism that attracted a number of early-20th-century composers.  A marvelous blend of economy, clarity, wit and whimsy, the Classical Symphony remains a fresh- sounding favorite of concert audiences throughout the world.

In his autobiography, Prokofiev recalled:

“I spent the summer of 1917 in the country near Petrograd all alone, reading Kant and working a great deal.  I deliberately did not take my piano with me, for I wished to try composing without it. …I had learned a great deal about Haydn’s technique from Tcherepnine and hence felt myself on sufficiently familiar ground to venture forth on this difficult journey without a piano…It seemed to me that had Haydn lived in our day he would have retained his own style while accepting something of the new at the same time.  That was the kind of symphony I wanted to write: a symphony in the classical style.  And when I saw that my idea was beginning to work, I called it the Classical Symphony…I composed the symphony in my head during my walks in the country.”

Its nature belying the fact that it was composed amid the unrest of the Bolshevist Revolution, the Classical Symphony served as one of Prokofiev’s calling cards on his American concert tour during the autumn of 1917.


Antonin Dvorák
Symphony No. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”), Opus 95

By the early 1890s Dvorák had achieved international recognition as a composer; among the fruits of his success was an offer to assume the directorship of the newly founded National Conservatory of Music in New York City. After some negotiation, an offer of a sum nearly thirty times his current salary prompted Dvorák to accept the post.

With his wife and two of their children, the composer set sail for America. They arrived in September of 1892 and moved into a New York brownstone; within three months of his arrival, Dvorák began sketching a new work that was to be his last and most famous symphony, a work that gained the subtitle “From the New World.” He began to work on January 10 and completed the scoring on May 24, 1893. Many romantic myths have swirled around this piece, including the idea that it was a sort of rhapsody on American Black and Indian motives. These concepts were strongly rebuffed by Dvorák, who wrote: “Omit the nonsense about my having made use of ‘Indian’ and ‘American’ motives. That is a lie. I tried to write only in the spirit of those national American melodies.”

While composing this symphony, Dvorák was being true to his own Czech muse; it is undeniable, however, that the work was generally influenced by his life in this country. In a letter to Bohemia written during the composition of the symphony, Dvorák said: “I should never have written the symphony like I have, if I hadn’t seen America.”