Symphony North’s program for Sunday, February 20, 2022, at 4:00 PM illustrates once again our wide range of musical interests. Maestro Astwood’s tireless research into music of the 20th century has this time included the Cello Concerto in C of Arthur, Honegger, the Nordic Symphony of Howard Hanson, and a delightful march by Camille Saint-Saëns. We believe that this program will sound magnificent as it meets the wonderful acoustics of Salem Lutheran Church.
Camille Saint-Saëns was a musical prodigy; he wrote significant songs for voice and piano at age 6 and made his concert debut as a pianist at the age of ten, with a repertoire that included every Beethoven sonata from memory. His first orchestral work came in his teenage years. After studying at the Paris Conservatoire he became a church organist. He held the post of organist at La Madeleine, the official church of the French Empire, when he visited Algeria in 1873. A reverie he was inspired to write while there was well received, which led to a commission to write a suite in a similar vein.
The Marche Militaire is the finale of the resulting Algerian Suite, Opus 60, first performed in 1880. A loose translation of the program that Saint-Saëns gave for the march:
“finds one among the picturesque bazaars and Moorish cafes of Algiers, where one hears the sound of a French regiment marching double-quick time; the warriors’ rhythm contrasts with the bizarre rhythms and languorous melodies of the orient.”
Arthur Honegger was a Swiss composer who was born in France and spent a large part of his life in Paris. He studied at the Paris Conservatory and became a member of the cadre of French composers known as The Six. Among his numerous works were the musical score to the 1927 Abel Gance classic film, Napoleon. Other works included symphonies, operas and chamber work.
In 1926 he married fellow pianist Andrée Vaurabourg on the condition that the couple live in separate apartments because he required solitude for composing. Honegger visited his wife and her mother for lunch every day, but they lived apart for the duration of his life, except for two years. The first year was while Vaurabourg recuperated from an injury caused by a car accident, and the second was his last year of life.
The cello concerto is from the end of Honegger’s first decade of composition, in 1929. His style is marked by Bachian counterpoint and driving rhythms. The impressionistic use of orchestral sonorities and admiration of German romantics diverge from the styles of other members of his cadre.
Born in Nebraska, Howard Hanson had Scandinavian heritage that inspired him to admire the music of Jean Sibelius. In 1921, Hanson’s tone poem, “Before the Dawn,” earned him the first American Rome Prize, which led him to Italy to study with Ottorino Respighi. During his two-year stay in the Italian capital, he completed his Symphony No. 1, the “Nordic Symphony,” which had its première in Rochester in 1923. George Eastman was in attendance, and his favorable reaction led to Hanson’s becoming the first director of the Eastman School of Music, a role Hanson fulfilled with seemingly limitless energy and commitment (this humble writer’s Music Theory teacher was among Hanson’s Eastman students and revered his pedagogy).
Symphony No. 1 in E minor
The “Nordic” Symphony initiated an expansion in size and scope of Hanson’s compositional vision. Hanson laid out the symphony in three movements, incorporating cyclical form inherited from Saint-Saëns and the Romantic era in general. The sobriquet “Nordic” reflects the composer’s Swedish ancestry in general and the influence of Sibelius in particular. The spirit of Sibelius hovers in the music’s intuitive structure as well as in adopting the same key, E minor, that was Sibelius’s choice for the tonality of his First Symphony.
Perhaps the music to this concert is new to you. To put yourself in the right frame of mind to hear it as though you were at its premiere, consider the following:
For the Saint-Saëns March in 1880, forget that you know Stars and Stripes Forever or Pomp and Circumstance or any other march by Sousa or Elgar; and be unaware of the future invention of sound recording.
To prepare yourself for the Hanson Symphony, you should imagine that you do not know the names Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber. Also imagine you are in Rochester, New York, in 1923, and you have never heard a work by Hanson himself, nor probably have had a chance to hear Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231. Furthermore, imagine that recorded music you may have heard is still being produced by acoustic equipment and music transmission across the Atlantic is still by sheet music only.
For the Honegger Concerto in 1930, roughly the same rules apply as for the Hanson (the only American music that had crossed the pond was jazz), save that you may well have heard Pacific 231, which Honegger had composed 6 years earlier.
Enjoy the performance with us!