Sibelius Symphony No. 2
January 12 – 13, 2023
RYAN BANCROFT conducts
PAUL LEWIS piano
COLERIDGE-TAYLOR Solemn Prelude
GRIEG Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 2 in D major
A lost work by Afro-English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, just recently discovered last year by the Three Choir Festival in Worcester, opens our concert. A stunning piece that has had to wait 120 years for its revival, this romantic work contains contrasting moments of both solemn and passionate melodies.
Internationally regarded pianist, Paul Lewis then solos in Grieg‚Äôs only piano concerto, a masterpiece and one of the most-popular and most-recognizable piano concertos ever written. It gleams with lyricism and rhythmic jauntiness highlighting Lewis‚Äôs impressive virtuosity.
The concert closes as we embark on an epic journey replete with arching melodies and majestic lines in Sibelius‚Äôs Symphony No. 2, arguably his most famous work and a source of inspiration and pride for the Finnish people.
Join us after the concerts on Thursday & Friday for Meet the Musicians! You’ll have a chance to speak with Dallas Symphony musicians in a casual happy hour setting and learn more about members of the orchestra.
by Ren√© Spencer Saller
Coleridge-Taylor was born out of wedlock in London, to Alice Hare Martin, a white English woman, and Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, a Black medical student from Sierra Leone who returned to his home country before Martin discovered that she was pregnant. Taylor, a Krio, or Creole, was descended from former enslaved Africans from the United States who were freed by the British after the American War of Independence; he eventually became a prominent public health administrator in West Africa. Martin, whose parents were also unmarried when she was born, named her son after the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, calling him by his middle name, Coleridge, for short. The hyphen is believed to have been a printer’s error, although Coleridge-Taylor never bothered to correct it and published his music under that name.
Until she married a railway worker in 1887, Martin and her son lived in Croydon, Surrey, with her father, Benjamin Holmans, a farrier and amateur violinist. Coleridge-Taylor’s talent became apparent in early childhood, and Holmans paid for him to take formal lessons. By the time the prodigy was 15 years old, his extended family had raised enough money for him to attend the Royal College of Music, where he began as a violin student and eventually shifted to composition. Among his important early mentors was the composer Charles Villiers Stanford, who would conduct the premiere of Coleridge-Taylor’s breakthrough cantata, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.
Upon graduating from conservatory, Coleridge-Taylor became a professional musician and conductor, as well as a professor at the Crystal Palace School of Music.¬† In 1899, the year that he composed Solemn Prelude, he married Jessie Walmisley, an aspiring singer whom he had met at the Royal College of Music. Although her parents had bitterly opposed the union, owing to Coleridge-Taylor’s mixed race and illegitimacy, they eventually gave their consent and even attended the wedding.
By that point, Coleridge-Taylor was a rising star, lauded by critics and colleagues, including Edward Elgar and the influential publisher August Jaeger, who proclaimed the young man a “genius.” His 1898 cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, based on the popular 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was a massive hit. Over the next six years, it was programmed approximately 200 times, and Coleridge-Taylor composed two sequel cantatas. ‚ÄúMuch impressed by the lad‚Äôs genius,” the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote. “He is a composer, not a music-maker. The music is fresh and original, he has melody and harmony in abundance, and his scoring is brilliant and full of color‚ÄĒat times luscious, rich and sensual.‚ÄĚ
In 1900 Coleridge-Taylor’s son, Hiawatha, was born. A daughter, Gwendolyn Avril, followed three years later. Both children would go on to enjoy successful careers in music.
Despite his international fame, Coleridge-Taylor struggled to support his family. Like many composers of his era, he sold the copyright to his most lucrative early compositions for a fraction of their true value. Although he hobnobbed with poets, ambassadors, and even President Theodore Roosevelt, his financial status remained precarious, and he worked himself to exhaustion. On September 1, 1912, while waiting for a train in Croydon, Coleridge-Taylor collapsed. He died shortly thereafter from pneumonia, at age 37. King George V granted Jessie Coleridge-Taylor an annual pension of 100 pounds, and memorial concerts were organized to raise funds to support the bereaved family.
In the preface to Twenty-Four Negro Melodies (1905), his influential collection of arrangements, Coleridge-Taylor announced his creative project: ‚ÄúWhat Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk music, DvoŇô√°k for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro melodies.‚ÄĚ
Although it was written six years earlier, Solemn Prelude demonstrates Coleridge-Taylor’s commitment to the same goal. By invoking the infinitely rich musical traditions of the African diaspora but not directly quoting from them, Coleridge-Taylor pays tribute to his people while simultaneously asserting his unique identity as a composer. The brief but dramatically varied orchestral prelude fulfilled a commission from the Three Choirs Festival, in Worcester, England. Coleridge-Taylor, who had been recommended to the programming committee by Elgar, conducted the first performance in Worcester on September 13, 1899. Although Coleridge-Taylor‚Äôs own piano reduction of the work was published around that time, the full score had never been released and eventually went missing.
In July 2022, at Worcester Cathedral, the Three Choirs Festival revived Solemn Prelude, using a new score based on the composer’s manuscript, which had recently been rediscovered in the British Library by a volunteer archivist. The U.S. premiere took place in Chicago two months later. This is its Dallas premiere.
“Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on ethereal heights,” Grieg said. “I want to build homes for people in which they can be happy and contented.”
In 1867, the year before Grieg completed his only piano concerto, the 24-year-old composer and pianist returned to his native Norway and married his cousin, the singer Nina Hagerup. While studying piano, composition, and theory at the Leipzig Conservatory, he had immersed himself in the piano music of Robert Schumann, who had also lived in Leipzig and had known one of Grieg’s teachers. After the homesick Norwegian finished his studies in Germany, he moved to Denmark for further training. There, surrounded by Scandinavian nationalists of all stripes, he felt newly inspired by the folk music of his homeland. (Grieg’s paternal great-grandfather, who spelled his surname Greig, had emigrated from Aberdeen, Scotland, to Bergen, Norway, in 1779, around which time the vowels in the family name were transposed.)
Grieg wrote his only completed work in the genre, the Piano Concerto in A minor, in 1868, mostly during a summer vacation with his wife and baby daughter at a cottage in Denmark. Influenced by both Schumann and Norwegian folk music, it’s not only among Grieg’s most famous works; it’s also one of the most famous piano concertos in the repertoire. Although he was a gifted pianist, Grieg wasn’t the soloist at the premiere. The first performance took place on April 3, 1869, in Copenhagen, with the concerto’s dedicatee, Edmund Neupert, on piano.
A Closer Listen
The A Minor Piano Concerto is cast in three movements.
After a dramatic timpani rumble, the soloist lets loose with what is surely one of the most recognizable riffs in the canon. You might recognize the dramatic downward flourish without quite realizing how you know it, because the first movement shows up in so many pop-culture contexts. The coda, for instance, enjoys a prominent place in the 1939 romantic thriller Intermezzo, starring Ingrid Bergman and Leslie Howard; more recently, the opening Allegro pops up on the soundtrack of the 1997 film Lolita.
The central Adagio-Attaca, which begins in D-flat major, uses sumptuous strings and nimble woodwinds to conjure up an almost Chopinesque sound-world. Throbbing and tuneful, infinitely hummable, it offers a brief but acutely tender horn solo before the piano dashes in with a series of descending arpeggiated chords. The slow movement concludes with a gorgeous ascension.
The finale, complex yet catchy, incorporates a Norwegian dance, the halling. Equal parts demonic and delightful, the rhythmic last movement gives the soloist and orchestra one last chance to cut loose. The pathos-laden secondary theme is a standout, sung first by flute and then taken up by the brass, piano, and full orchestra. After an exquisite cadenza, the coda erupts in a festive blaze of A major‚ÄĒa classic minor-to-major maneuver that signals triumph over adversity.
Sibelius is hard to pigeonhole. Was he a staunch conservative whose devotion to tonality put him at odds with the nascent Modernists? The critic Virgil Thomson thought so, describing Symphony No. 2, nearly 40 years after its Helsinki premiere, as ‚Äúvulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description.‚ÄĚ Was Sibelius a nationalist composer, whose overtly patriotic works earned him a generous government stipend for most of his adult life? Or was he more daring than both fans and detractors assumed, subtly subverting symphonic conventions to meet his own expressive goals? In 1900 the critic Karl Flodin asserted that ‚Äúin reality he composes for at least a generation ahead.‚ÄĚ
More recently, scholars have emphasized the ways that Sibelius defied the expectations of sonata form, such as his affinity for brief, almost fragmentary motifs that cunningly connect and cohere in the development section, only to shatter unexpectedly. Describing his compositional method, Sibelius wrote, ‚ÄúIt is as though the Almighty had thrown the pieces of a mosaic down from the floor of heaven and told me to put them together.”
Partisans of all stripes can find much to debate in Sibelius‚Äôs Second Symphony. An immediate success in the composer‚Äôs homeland, it was hailed as a ‚ÄúSymphony of Independence,‚ÄĚ a defiant rebuke to Tsarist Russia in response to recent sanctions. It was completed in 1902, just two years after the fervently patriotic Finlandia, and the composer‚Äôs political convictions were well known. Several of his previous works had been censured by the authorities for inciting rebellion. His favorite conductor, Robert Kajanus, understood the Second as ‚Äúthe most broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time,” while simultaneously acknowledging ‚Äúconfident prospects for the future.”
But the bulk of the symphony‚Äôs themes were written during a vacation in Italy, and some were originally intended for a tone poem based on Dante‚Äôs Divine Comedy. Sibelius, for his part, described Symphony No. 2 in more personal terms as ‚Äúa struggle between death and salvation‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúa confession of the soul.‚ÄĚ
A Closer Listen
Whatever the composer‚Äôs intentions, Sibelius‚Äôs Second has enthralled listeners for more than a century. Despite its many pastoral details, it doesn’t evoke a specific landscape‚ÄĒScandinavian or Mediterranean‚ÄĒso much as the elemental energies of the natural world.
Opening with eight measures of pulsing chords, the first movement presents various thematic shards: a folkish melody from the woodwinds, a plangent oboe tune, and an explosion of brass that expands, contracts, and expands again. The second movement starts with a timpani roll, pizzicato strings, and a tentative bassoon before settling into a leisurely lyricism. Peaceful passages build to passionate climaxes, and a sprightly flute gives way to anxious strings and strident woodwinds. Echoes of the opening chords emerge in the third movement, a sparkling scherzo, revealing aspects of the theme in violin runs and a tender oboe melody. A twice-repeated trio precedes a bridge, which segues ingeniously, without pause, into a finale that begins in an elegiac vein and gradually intensifies to an ecstatic climax. Heaven‚Äôs floor reveals its indelible pattern, and the celestial mosaic is complete.