7:30 p.m. — Saturday, April 20, 2024

Vernon Cook Theater – Clinton High School

Cellist Anthony Arnone, a member of the music school faculty at the University of Iowa, joins us to play the Elgar Concerto for Cello in E minor, one of the last and most beloved works by that composer. It will be complimented with the G major Symphony of Antonin Dvořák.

Learn more about our Guest Artist Anthony Arnone here: https://music.uiowa.edu/people/anthony-arnone

Antonín Dvořák

Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88

England has long been a welcomer of foreign composers to its shores. When Antonín Leopold Dvořák arrived for the first of his nine visits in March 1884, a chronicler of the period responded that Dvořák’s “reception was one of the most cordial ever offered by our land to a foreign artist.” From Henry Purcell (1659-1695) to Edward Elgar (1857-1934), the British produced no native-born composer of international rank, but in those years, the music-loving country made itself open to the talents from the continent. George Frederick Handel, for instance, German-born, Italian-trained, came for a visit and stayed as the country’s resident composer. And after he died, came a son of Bach, Johann Christian, German born, German trained, to live and prosper as the “English” Bach. Other European composers of note followed, not to live there but to thrive and burnish their reputations – Franz Joseph Haydn, Muzio Clementi, Ignatz Moscheles, and Felix Mendelssohn, to name a few. It might be said that Dvořák was the last notable continental composer to receive such unbounded approbation, for with Elgar, the British began to look inward to its own composers of rank – Ralph Vaughn Williams, Arnold Bax, William Walton, and Benjamin Britten.

Interest in Dvořák had been growing in England since the performance of selections from his first set of Slavonic Dances in 1879, an interest that only increased with succeeding performances of the Slavonic Rhapsodies, the String Sextet and the Symphony No. 6 in D major, followed in 1882 by a performance of the Piano Concerto in G minor. The event, however, that immediately prompted the London Philharmonic Society to formally invite Dvořák to England was the enthusiastic reception by a choral-loving public of the Stabat Mater, given its first English performance in March 1883.

When Dvořák arrived in London, he brought with him the hope that a “happier period is now beginning for me…a period which…will…bring good fruits for Czech art.” Ever the nationalist, Dvořák resisted the impulse to trade away his love of country, to become Germanized, so to speak, even at the behest of his publisher Simrock and his great benefactor Johannes Brahms. Brahms had written to Dvořák in 1882 an impassioned letter urging the Czech composer to move to Vienna in order to capitalize on the great successes of the first set of the Slavonic Dances, the Stabat Mater, and the Piano Concerto. Dvořák, while grateful to Brahms, would have none of it and looked to England for a broader recognition of his works.

The Czech composer was astounded at the reception he received when he arrived at Albert Hall to guest conduct his Stabat Mater. The orchestra and soloists had been so well prepared that the rehearsals went smoothly, which naturally pleased Dvořák, but what amazed him was

…the size of the orchestra and choir. Please do not be afraid! There are 250 sopranos, 160 altos, 180 tenors and 250 basses; 16 violins, 16 cellos, 16 double basses. The impression of such a mighty body was indeed enchanting. It is quite indescribable.

The following week (March 20, 1884) Dvořák directed his second concert at St. James’s Hall which featured the Hussite Overture, Slavonic Rhapsody and the Symphony No. 6 in D major; he even accompanied the tenor who sang a number of his Gypsy Melodies. These enthusiastic receptions of his music opened up English audiences to Dvořák and Czech music, an opening Dvořák took great pains to cultivate.

From this first venture and the three other trips Dvořák made to England between 1884-1886, the composer garnered commissions for three major works – an opera (The Spectre’s Bride), an oratorio (St. Ludmilla), and a symphony for the London Philharmonic Society. Dvořák began composing the symphony on his return to Bohemia following his first trip, and on April 22, 1885, he attended its premiere in London at St. James’s Hall, barely a month after its completion. Abandoning the usual British restraint, one music critic hailed the Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op 70, as “one of the greatest works of this kind that had been performed in the present generation.” Other critics were just as unbounded in their praise for the new symphony. Oddly, this Seventh Symphony is not the one subtitled ‘English.’

Dvořák, bolstered with the praise for his work, approached his publisher Simrock to increase the fees he was paid for new manuscripts. Dvořák was aware that Simrock paid him only a fifth of what he gave Brahms for a new work. A break between the composer and his publisher was avoided when Simrock agreed to pay Dvořák what the composer expected (half a Brahms’ symphony), and Dvořák offered to compose a new set of Slavonic dances. It was a tentative compromise, however, which the two parties made.

By 1890, Dvořák and Simrock were at loggerheads again over payment for a symphony, this time the Eighth Symphony. Simrock refused Dvořák’s demands, and the composer turned to Henry and Alfred Littleton, owners of the English music publishing firm Novello, who had been after Dvořák for new manuscripts. The two brothers paid Dvořák handsomely for the new symphony, which served the composer favorably in his further dealings with Simrock. Dvořák and Simrock made up after this fit of pique, and the two lived happily ever after. And, thus, it came about that the symphony carried the subtitle ‘English’ for several decades after its publication.

The Symphony No. 8 in G major, Op 88 is a stark contrast to the stormy Romanticism of the Seventh Symphony. The Eighth is bright, cheerful, and brimming with melodic invention spurred by the Bohemian folk music from which Dvořák drew his inspiration.

Edward Elgar

Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85

Edward William Elgar (1857-1934) was emotionally devastated by the onset of World War I, and as the ‘war no one wanted’ dragged on through four long years, his depression deepened. In a letter to a friend, he wrote that he could not do “any real work with the awful shadow over us.” He was incensed and saddened that the flowers of British arts and letters were being cut down in the trenches on the battlefields of Europe. Young composers such as George Coles, Ivor Gurney, and George Butterworth sacrified much to defend England – Coles and Butterworh with their lives. It was after the war, in the spring of 1919, that Elgar found again the impulse to compose music of a grand nature.

Most of Elgar’s notable works were composed over a twenty-five year period, beginning around 1890. This was the period often referred to as the Late Romantic era, not only in music but in the other arts as well. From the turn of the century to the onset of war, Elgar’s music came into its own as a distinctive ‘British’ music, and he was hailed as the legitimate heir to Henry Purcell, the paragon of English music before the arrival of the Germans Bach and Händel and the Italian Clementi and the Czech Dvořák. England did, indeed, produce home-grown composers, Stanford and Parry and Bantock of Elgar’s youth, but they were more attuned to the influences from the continent, of Wagner and of Brahms. One can hear echoes of Wagner, for example, in Elgar’s Froissart Overture of 1890.

The orchestral work that established Elgar as truly ‘British’ is his 1899 work Variations on an Original Theme, Op 36, ‘Enigma Variations’. From that springboard, he went on to create other works with some international success including Symphony No 1 in A-flat major, Op 55, and a choral masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius, Op 38.

The Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 85, is Elgar’s last major work. The theme for the concerto came to Elgar in March 1918 as in a dream; he awoke from a sedative-induced nap and asked his daughter for pencil and paper and wrote the melody down. At the time he was suffering intense pain from a tonsillectomy, which was considered a dangerous operation on a man of sixty years age. He did little with this first theme for over a year. Then during the family’s summer retreat in 1919 at a cottage along the Channel coast, he began to compose with a fervor that surprised his family; he seemed to have regained the vigor of the pre-War Elgar. By August, Elgar had completed the scoring and his daughter Alice posted the work to his publisher on August 8. Cellist and Elgar friend Felix Salmond served as soloist with the composer conducting when the concerto was premiered at the London Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert on October 27, 1919. Albert Coates, “that brutal, selfish ill-mannered bounder…that brute Coats”, according to Lady Elgar, conducted the rest of the program.

Lady Elgar was enraged that Coates had exceeded his rehearsal times, thus giving her husband inadequate time to prepare the orchestra and the soloist for his new work. As a result, the premiere of the concerto was a failure. The critic of The Observer Ernest Newman wrote,

There have been rumours about during the week of inadequate rehearsal. Whatever the explanation, the sad fact remains that never…has so great an orchestra made so lamentable an exhibition of itself. … The work itself is lovely stuff, very simple – that pregnant simplicity that has come upon Elgar’s music in the last couple of years – but with a profound wisdom and beauty underlying its simplicity.

Elgar later said that it was only because of the hard work his soloist Salmond had pored into the work that he went on with the performance. Unlike his other major compositions, the concerto did not have another performance in London for well over a year.

The Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 85, remained on the periphery of the ‘great cello concerto’ repertoire for half a century before it finally reached its rightful place among the hallowed works for the instrument. The work had its performances and recordings over the years, including two recordings with the composer conducting; but it was the 1960s before it became a popular success with an impassioned recording by Jacqueline du Pré with conductor Sir John Barbirolli. The concerto has now become a standard of the instrument’s repertoire and is widely performed.

As he lay on his death bed, Elgar hummed the concerto’s first theme to a friend: “If ever after I’m dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me.”

Program notes by William H. Driver