Four Seasons Program Notes
by Artistic and Music Director Michael Christie
Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981) | Strum for string orchestra (2006/2012)
From the composer – Within Strum I utilized texture motives, layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato serves as a texture motive and the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration. -Jessie Montgomery
Ralph Vaughn Williams | Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
When one considers eras when musical knowledge and inspiration have surged, the decades surrounding the turn of the 19th to the 20th century ranks as one of the most fertile. Advances in communication and transportation allowed artists around the world to experience an astounding array of traditions, and experiment with synthesis and bold new directions.
At the same time, the field of ethnomusicology (the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people who make it) was quickly advancing as composers and academics fanned out to archive traditions feared to be disappearing with industrialization and urbanization. This is also a period of time directly connected to or separated by a single generation to some of the most celebrated composers of classical music. Put all of this together with sheer talent and a societal appreciation for acoustic musical experiences and composers like Ralph Vaughn Williams are primed to excel.
The English-born Vaughn Williams (living from 1872-1958) was a student of the Royal College of Music and continued a direct line of compositional traditions going back centuries. Work editing his forebearers’ compositions for the Church of England’s 1906 English Hymnal coincided with a commission for the 1910 Three Choirs Festival (running almost continuously to this day since 1715). Vaughn Williams selected an English Renaissance theme by Thomas Tallis from 1567 as the basis of his fantasia for large string orchestra.
A fantasia is a loose musical form that introduces a theme taken up by other parts and from there can be developed in an organic, not necessarily imitative approach. Vaughn Williams concept splits the string orchestra into two choirs to achieve contrast through physical distance.
Vaughn Williams is faithful to Tallis’ theme, but through sheer numbers of players and layered writing achieves a radiant and sustained musical palette that enchants performers and listeners.
Of particular interest are moments when the smaller orchestra echoes music performed by the larger ensemble. I love how time seems to stop for tender statements by solo violin and viola and the breathtaking build-ups as players join toward epic climaxes.
Antonio Vivaldi – Four Seasons, composed in the early 1720s
A seismic shift in the musical world occurred from 1600 to 1750 as we entered the baroque era. Up to this point, text, particularly biblical in nature, was the driving force for musical structure and expression.
Orchestras grew during the baroque era, melody within harmony expanded, the range of keyboard instruments extended and instrumental music stretched well beyond its historical role of accompanying the human voice. The now nearly forgotten musical titan, Francesco Geminiani, wrote “The intention of music is not only to please the ear, but to express sentiments, strike the imagination, affect the mind, and command the passions.”
This sentiment was emblematic of an era where military occupations and advances in travel allowed artists to experience the music of other countries and regions. It was also reflective of the steady evolution of Italy’s cultural achievements in science, drama, art history, political theory, poetry and music.
One of the reasons it is so clear where we are among the seasons he is describing is that he has a steadfast process of presenting melodic, rhythmic and tonal characteristics from the moment the music begins and from there he slightly alters repeating material leaving the listener with a tantalizing feeling of déjà vu.
As is clear everytime one of his works is performed, rhythmic drive is at the core of Vivaldi as a composer. I am as struck by his timing of silences as with his sense of propulsion.
Vivaldi also is a master of keeping us engaged in the performance by creating parallel but distinct realms for the orchestra and solo parts to inhabit. The orchestra presents the musical vocabulary but the soloist is unleashed in displays of virtuosity.
Vivaldi and other composers of the era were caught up in a wave of narrative in their music. For a couple of decades around the turn of the 18th century, it was typical for a work to have a name connected to nature or an event. There are hundreds of forgotten works of this era attempting to capture the physical world in sound.
While we have the power of the internet to connect us to music long lost, it was common for masterworks like the Four Seasons and the entire output of a composer, no matter how influential, to slip into obscurity as happened with Vivaldi among so many that preceded and followed him. Fortunately, the rediscovery of his manuscripts in the early 20th century and the advent of recordings, increased concert going and broadcasts sealed his place at the very top of classical music’s favorites.