Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901): Grand March from Aida
Imagine a stage heaving with people – soldiers with standards and banners, dancers, acrobats, captives in chains, trumpeters, crowds of onlookers – all the panoply of a triumphal procession and, if this is a production worth the name, a couple of live elephants and some giraffes.
The opera Aida is set in ancient Egypt. Aida, an Ethiopian princess, is held as a slave in the Pharoah’s palace where she attracts the attention of Radames, one of the Pharoah’s generals who plans to win her hand. Sent to quell an insurrection, Radames returns in triumph to the sound of the Grand March. In gratitude for his achievement the Pharaoh grants Radames a wish. He asks for all his prisoners to be liberated and his wish is granted. But Aida has a rival, Pharoah’s daughter no less, and a happy ending to the opera is uncertain.
Verdi was in his fifties when he was approached by an emissary of the Khedive (Viceroy) of Egypt to write an opera for the opening of the new opera house in Cairo, one of the events planned to celebrate the completion of the Suez Canal. At first Verdi declined: he was internationally recognised as the finest opera composer Italy had produced and had retired to his country estate, his life’s work done. But when he read the libretto he was fired with enthusiasm and asked for a fee of 150,000 francs, an eye-watering amount at the time. It was granted without a murmur and Verdi donated a portion of it to a fund for the wounded in the Franco-Prussian War.
The score was completed in 1870 but the scenery and costumes were being made in Paris which was under siege by the Prussian army. Only after peace had been restored in May the following year could they be sent to Egypt. The premiere finally took place on Christmas Eve 1871. Verdi stayed in Italy: he disliked travelling by sea.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor (Third movement)
Soloist: Sam Carr
Five o’clock in the morning and the Mendelssohn children were already at their studies. Their father, a wealthy banker, had engaged the finest tutors in Berlin and had his own ideas about education, behaviour and discipline. They studied languages, classics, landscape drawing, piano, violin, and composition and regularly performed for the entertainment of their father’s distinguished guests: philosophers, authors, scholars and musicians.
Felix grew up to be a handsome and charming young man and a most brilliant pianist. When he embarked on a Grand Tour planned by his father that was to last for several years he wrote letters home that were as brilliant as his playing and were later collected and published. He enjoyed himself immensely at parties, at diplomatic and aristocratic dinners, balls, and sausage shops: ’Things toss and whirl about me as if I were in a vortex, and I am whirled along with them’ he wrote. In another letter: ‘I do nothing but flirt, and that in English’.
By 1831 he had reached Munich and gave the first performance of his Piano Concerto No.1 in a concert that included his Symphony in C minor and the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. Mendelssohn has been called ‘one of the Sunshine Composers who wrote optimistic music effortlessly’ and surely nothing could exceed the gaiety of this final section of the concerto.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Prelude to ‘49th Parallel’
Vaughan Williams was nearing seventy when he was asked to write the music for 49th Parallel. He accepted gratefully. Not only because it would be a new medium to explore (this would be his first film score) but because it would give him the chance to help the war effort through his music. The film was a propaganda exercise by the Ministry of Information intended to persuade the then neutral USA to enter the war.
The film shows how six Nazi U-boat crewmen, trapped on the coast of Hudson Bay following the destruction of their vessel by Canadian bombers, attempt to find their way across the border to safety in the USA. There are many panoramic shots of the Canadian landscape and Vaughan Williams’ Prelude opens the title sequence against a backdrop of a grand aerial view of snow-covered mountains.
Titled The Invaders in the USA, the film was the biggest British hit to date in American cinemas.
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944): Concertino for Flute
Soloist: Sarah Ovenden
All flautists who have mastered their instrument love to play this work. It allows them, in the space of eight minutes or so, to reveal the beauties that lie within this simplest of instruments: the brilliance of its highest notes and the resonance of its lowest, how the colour of a long-held note can be changed during its course, the immediacy that releases virtuosic cascades of notes leaving the listener breathless with admiration.
The Concertino (a miniature concerto) was written in 1902 at the request of the famous flautist Paul Taffanel as an examination piece for his students at the Paris Conservatoire. It would test every technique they had learned and, at the same time, their innate power to charm and delight the listener.
Cécile Chaminade led a busy career as a concert pianist and conductor throughout Europe and America. Although she wrote several large works of considerable merit, society at the time expected women composers to restrict themselves to writing ‘salon music’ - songs and graceful short piano pieces. This she did and they sold in their thousands especially in England where she was a favourite of Queen Victoria.
Burt Bacharach (b.1928): Burt Bacharach Medley
One of the most acclaimed composers of popular music, Burt Bacharach was born in Kansas City and brought up in New York. His father was a well-known newspaper columnist and his mother an amateur painter and, more significantly, a songwriter. Inheriting her love of music, Bacharach sought it out wherever he could, often using fake identification to gain entrance to nightclubs where he could listen to Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. He studied music at McGill University and with ‘classical’ composers Darius Milhaud, whom he considered his greatest influence, and Bohuslav Martinů.
His career has been spent as composer, conductor and pianist for some of entertainment’s most distinguished singers. When he was 28, Marlene Dietrich chose him as her musical director and they worked together for five years, performing in her nightclub shows and touring together worldwide. In 1957 he teamed up with lyricist Hal David and together they produced an impressive roll of award-winning hits.
Tonight we hear some he wrote for another much-loved singer, Dionne Warwick. In order they are: ‘Alfie’, ‘I say a little prayer’, ‘Walk on by’ and ‘Close to you’.
In an interview Bacharach said ‘For me, it’s about the peaks and valleys of where a song can take you. You can tell a story; be explosive one minute and quiet the next as a kind of satisfying resolution’.
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Finlandia
In 1899 Russia imposed a strict press censorship on Finland which at the time was part of the czarist empire. In response, the Finnish newspapers planned a gala in Helsinki to rally support for a free press though its declared purpose was to raise money for pension funds. Sibelius provided the music for a sequence of scenes from Finnish history that featured in the gala and from which he later extracted a suite, Press Celebrations Music. The following year he re-composed the final movement as an independent symphonic poem and retitled it Finlandia. To evade Russian censorship the piece was performed under other names until Finland won her independence after World War 1.
Finlandia became Sibelius’ most popular work and Finland’s virtual second national anthem. The opening snarling chords on the brass instruments suggest the oppressive Russian domination and they are followed by stirring tempestuous music depicting the struggles of the Finnish people. The storm clouds clear, the music becomes pensive and the work concludes with the Finlandia Hymn, a formidable declaration of freedom.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934): A Holst Christmas
Holst came from a line of Swedish pianists and composers who settled in Britain early in the nineteenth century. He studied at the Royal College of Music where he met another student Ralph Vaughan Williams, they immediately formed an abiding friendship, often going on hiking holidays together in the Cotswolds. They would also meet for ‘field days’ when they would submit each others’ latest work to frank and detailed criticism.
Today Holst is mostly remembered for his gigantic orchestral suite The Planets but he loved the sound of voices, formed choirs wherever he went, and wrote a deal of choral music. Some was original and some arrangements of folk-songs. Both he and Vaughan Williams were caught up in the English folk-music revival and used real folk-songs in their compositions until the idiom permeated the melodies they themselves wrote.
A Holst Christmas presents a handful of Holst’s settings of carols arranged for orchestra.
John Pell (b1931): A Village Christmas
In past times Christmas was celebrated by country people in ways that differed from county to county. As the customs differed so did the carols and songs that went with them. This medley brings together a selection from all over England and the tunes of one or two may still be familiar today.
The piece opens with The Sussex Carol (On Christmas night all Christians sing) followed by The Fleecy Care from Warwickshire, a carol about shepherds which is introduced by the strings of the orchestra momentarily becoming a flock of baa-ing sheep.
Wassailing was a widespread custom at Christmas when groups of villagers toured the houses and farms bringing good luck for the following year. At each house they were rewarded with wassail: a spiced ale, or at the richer houses mulled wine and bread and cheese. This Yorkshire wassail song concludes, as many a wassailing probably did, rather rowdily.
In several counties a play called The Old Horse was performed by mummers who mimed to the song that accompanied it. The play was preceded by a spoken prologue, imitated here by a solo bassoon, and punctuated by tiny fanfares. The horse was a terrifying creature who clashed his jaws together to frighten the youngsters. Another wassail, this time from Cornwall, brings the music to a riotous close.