Program Notes: Adelya Plays The Lark Ascending

Program Notes

Program Notes: Adelya Plays The Lark Ascending  

Edward Elgar’s In the South 

World Premiere March 16, 1904; London, England (20 minutes) 

  • In the early 20th century, Edward Elgar was England’s most significant musical figure.
  • His best-known works are the Pomp and Circumstance marches and the Enigma Variations.
  • Elgar did not achieve widespread success until his 40s.

Edward Elgar composed In the South in Italy, and the piece is specifically intended to suggest the scenery, Roman history and culture that he absorbed while he visited the town of Alassio on holiday in the winter of 1904. His publishers had hoped for a symphony. Instead, he furnished them with a large-scale tone poem inspired by magnificent scenery, the architectural legacy of Roman ruins and the poetry of Alfred Tennyson and Lord Byron. The sprawling scope of In the South, which exceeds 20 minutes, invites comparison to Richard Strauss’ tone poems. An indebtedness to landscape and literature links it to Hector Berlioz. Both composers were significant influences on Elgar. This piece is a large sonata structure with three principal theme groups. The first of them is a champagne-cork popper worthy of Strauss in his Don Juan mode: an expression of sheer joy in being alive. The second group of themes is pastoral. Elgar’s letters from Italy speak with enchantment of the glorious countryside, of shepherds with their flocks wandering across the ruins of old churches. Those ruins gave rise to the most celebrated thematic signature of Alassio: a series of superimposed discords, descending inexorably like a slow-moving juggernaut. Alassio then proceeds more as a series of episodes than a traditional development. Elgar introduces prominent solos for viola and horn in a segment called canto popolare (popular song) that he actually wrote himself. The extended coda recalls several themes from music heard earlier, combining them as only Elgar knew how in a magnificent close.  

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending 

World Premiere December 15, 1920; Bristol, England (13 minutes) 

  • Ralph Vaughan Williams was the quintessential composer of English music.
  • He relied heavily on English folk song with its modal scales.
  • He also wrote extensively for voice: songs, folk song arrangements and large choral works.
  • The Lark Ascending is not a concerto but rather a rhapsody featuring solo violin with orchestra.

The Lark Ascending is a 13-minute work inspired by a George Meredith poem from his book Poems and Lyrics of the Joys of Earth. Ralph Vaughan Williams originally composed it for violin and piano in 1914 and then reworked it for violin and orchestra after World War I. Vaughan Williams had studied violin as a boy and was deeply attuned to English literature. He included 12 lines from Meredith’s poem at the head of the score. The piece has a key signature of one sharp, implying G major. Characteristically, Vaughan Williams opts for the modal progressions that flavor so much of his music. The work takes its shape from three melismatic violin cadenzas without bar lines, emulating the exploratory ascent of the bird. Enveloped within the cadenzas are three lyrical orchestral sections. The outer two are in 6/8 time. The second cadenza heralds a tranquil switch to 2/4. We always feel that the soloist is fully integrated into the orchestral texture, rather than standing starkly against it. In this most pastoral of movements, the distractions of everyday life seem remote. Rather, we are caught up in the joyous swoop and soar of aerial flight, momentarily suspending humanhood in favor of a literal and figurative bird’s-eye view of the Cotswold countryside that inspired Vaughan Williams.

William Walton’s Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor

World Premiere November 6, 1935; London, England (43 minutes)

  • William Walton started his pursuit of music as a boy chorister at Christ Church, Oxford.
  • His first compositions were motets for double chorus.
  • His friendship with the socially prominent, artistically gifted Sitwell siblings played a major role in Walton’s early success.
  • His 1929 Viola Concerto for the English violist Lionel Tertis made Walton famous.

Among Britain’s abundance of splendid 20th-century composers, William Walton differed drastically. He was not a late romantic, as was Elgar, nor an Anglophile rediscovering Elizabethan counterpoint or adapting English folk songs into his own music, as was Vaughan Williams. Walton was the most international and cosmopolitan of musicians, eagerly devouring the works of his European contemporaries and traveling extensively. Walton was already well established as a composer of vocal music and overtures when he began to work on his First Symphony in the early 1930s. He also enriched the solo concerto literature, leaving magnificent works for violin, viola and cello. Always a methodical worker, he labored on the score for three years before completing it in 1935. At the time, Finland’s Jean Sibelius was the most famous symphonist in Europe, and Walton’s symphony shows the influence of Sibelius. Fraught with the tension and tumultuous undercurrent of Europe escalating toward another war, the symphony also demonstrates a splendid command of orchestral resources deployed to illustrate a range of emotions. Its first movement uses pedal points, fugal passages and striking dissonance in a surprising mixture of movement and continuity. His Scherzo movement reveals pent-up anger, while the Andante is melancholic. The finale, with its own fugue and drama, resolves the symphony’s conflicts with optimism.

In the South (Alassio), Op. 50

Edward Elgar

Born June 2, 1857, in Broadheath, near Worcester, England | Died February 23, 1934, in Worcester, England

You won’t find Alassio in most standard guidebooks for Italy; however, a little digging will yield information on the neighboring town of Bordighera, sandwiched between Ventimiglia and San Remo on the coast just east of the French border. Bordighera is celebrated for its palm trees, which still furnish fronds to the Vatican for Palm Sunday services at St. Peter’s. According to legend, Egyptian palms carried across the Mediterranean were first planted here, then spread throughout Europe. The town, which has a lovely old section and a benign climate, has long been popular with well-heeled British vacationers.

The Elgar family – Edward, Alice and their teenage daughter Carice – spent December 1903 and January 1904 on holiday first in Bordighera then in nearby Alassio, 40 kilometers east. Despite an unusually rainy and cold winter, the glorious Italian landscape inspired Elgar. Upon his return to London, he presented his publisher Novello with the completed score to In the South (Alassio). He was on the podium for its premiere at Covent Garden that March.

In the Composer’s Words

After the stunning success of Enigma Variations in 1899, Elgar’s publisher and his English audience were eager for him to write a symphony. The initial target date was March 1904, when the Covent Garden would present an Elgar Festival. A winter trip to Italy in December 1903 with his family was supposed to allow Elgar the quietude and leisure to compose. Circumstances did not cooperate. First, the Elgars were unable to lease a house in Bordighera, their initial destination. Then, after finding a suitable villa in nearby Alassio, the weather turned ugly. On January 7, 1904, he wrote to Alfred Littleton of his publishing house, Novello.

. . . I am greatly disappointed to find that it is impossible to complete the Symphony; the weather has been too awful to think of anything except keeping oneself warm. Now it is better but the winds are very trying. I hope – for the Festival – to complete in time an Overture, ‘In the South’ or some such title: I am working on it now and it is brilliant and cheerful – I will say definitely in one week if I can finish the score in time. I hope this will in some sense make up for the non-appearance of the Symphony.

Six weeks later, he was back in England. In a letter to Frank Schuster, the founder and guarantor of the Covent Garden Festival and the dedicatee of In the South, he reported on February 22:

Your overture has departed (the final sheets) to the publisher and I hope, with much fear and trembling, that you will really like it…The thing is not a picture of Italy: –one must not write the history, or epitome of a great country with an acquaintance of three months: but I wove the music on a summery day in the Andora Valley, basking in the sun on the old Roman road; so you will find sunshine and romance and, (with a heavy, relentless episode in the middle inspired by the Roman road) light-hearted gaiety mixed up in an orchestral dish with my ordinary orchestral flavouring…

Instrumentation: the score features a large orchestra of quadruple woodwind, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, side drum, glockenspiel, cymbals, bass drum, harp and strings.


The Lark Ascending

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Born October 12, 1872, in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England | Died August 26, 1958, in London

As a child, Vaughan Williams played violin. He was no Niccolò Paganini and once remarked that the violin had saved him from the piano. However, he understood how to write for the instrument, an understanding eloquently demonstrated in his exquisite romance for violin and orchestra, The Lark Ascending. Beethoven wrote two romances for violin and orchestra, but the analogy is distant. Vaughan Williams was not psychologically attuned to the dramatic 19th-century view of the virtuoso. None of his compositions for soloist and orchestra are large works. This one is decidedly evocative rather than confrontational or daring.

At the head of Vaughan Williams’ score are quoted the following lines from George Meredith’s Poems and Lyrics of the Joys of Earth.

He rises and begins to round.
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

* * * *

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To life us with him as he goes

* * * *

Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

While the poem does not determine the music in the sense of direct musico-pictorial description, both the opening and closing of The Lark Ascending bear direct relationship to Meredith’s couplets. Frank Howes has wryly observed that, “this lark is a pentatonic bird with a propensity for leaving out the third and becoming tetratonic.”

Instrumentation: the score calls for two flutes, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, triangle, solo violin and strings.


Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor

William Walton

Born March 29, 1902, in Oldham, Lancashire | Died March 8, 1983, in Ischia, Italy

Walton married an Argentine woman he met while on tour in 1948, and the couple lived most of their married life on the Italian isle of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. Walton enjoyed a distinguished career in Britain, writing coronation marches (in the Elgarian tradition of Pomp and Circumstance) both for George VI, Crown Imperial in 1937, and Elizabeth II, Orb and Sceptre in 1953. Ironically, these ceremonial pieces have become his best-known works to the general public, for whom Walton is a footnote to 20th-century music history, rather than a key figure.

His Biblical oratorio, Belshazzar’s Feast (1931), is one of the great choral works of the 20th century, on a par with Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. His film scores, notably those for Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III, are models of their art. Walton’s orchestral overtures, the early Portsmouth Point (1925) and comedic Scapino (1940), are convincing and skillful curtain raisers that demonstrate his secure command of classical technique and joyous writing. Façade, the irreverent entertainment with poetry by Edith Sitwell that put him on the map in 1922, shows that Walton had a brilliant sense of humor. It established him as Britain’s enfant terrible, a label that set him apart early on from his English contemporaries.

These works indicate Walton’s versatility, but they only touch on highlights of his rich career. He was at once a fearless modernist and a preserver of tradition, who imparted a decidedly English cast to his music even when influenced by non-English contemporaries. His Symphony No. 1, composed in the early 1930s, is a remarkable symphonic debut.

After Walton achieved a great triumph with Belshazzar’s Feast in 1931, his friend and publisher Hubert Foss urged him to capitalize on the oratorio’s success by composing a symphony. Additional impetus came from the knowledge that the Irish conductor Sir Hamilton Harty would champion the new work. Harty had conducted Manchester’s prestigious Hallé Orchestra since 1920, building it into England’s finest orchestra. He resigned in 1933 to take over the London Symphony Orchestra. Walton knew that an endorsement from Harty would be a powerful boost.

He began work on the project in Ascona, Italy, in the early 1930s. Unfortunately, the gestation process was lengthy and rocky. He had been romantically involved with Baroness Imma von Doernberg, the eventual dedicatee of the Symphony. She broke off their affair while Walton was working on the piece, and the emotional strain temporarily paralyzed his creativity. In letters from 1932 to 1935, Walton and his friends chronicled the symphony’s fitful birth. Walton frequently apologized to Harty that the project was taking so long, and the premiere had to be postponed several times.

The next woman in the composer’s life was Lady Alice Wimborne, a wealthy, married society hostess nearly 20 years Walton’s senior. Although she openly led an independent life from her husband, her liaison with Walton caused a minor scandal. However, Alice Wimborne steadied Walton and helped to provide the stability he needed to finish the symphony. About the same time, Walton learned that he had come into a substantial bequest of £500 per annum from Mrs. Sam Courtauld, wife of the financier and textile manufacturer. Up until then, his economic situation had been chronically precarious. Now, for the first time, he was free of financial worry, another factor that helped him to concentrate on work.

Walton permitted Harty to conduct three performances of the first three movements before he had composed the finale. Consequently, when British critics first heard the Symphony in its entirety on November 6, 1935, they debated whether the last movement was an afterthought. Walton was irritated by this incorrect assumption, probably because he did have so much trouble concluding the work. Walton later recalled that he had called up his friend Constant Lambert to commiserate about his writer’s block. Lambert suggested that he use a fugue, but Walton demurred, claiming, “I don’t know how to write one.” Lambert’s tart response was, “There are a couple of rather good pages on the subject in Grove’s Dictionary.”

When Walton began to work on the piece, Sibelius was the most prominent living composer, and his symphonies were being performed regularly throughout Europe. Consequently, in an era before the phonograph had become omnipresent, Walton knew his Finnish contemporary’s music well. Sibelius exerted the strongest influence in Walton’s Symphony. Many critics have compared Walton’s symphony to the Sibelius Fifth. According to Walton’s widow, Lady Susana, however, the Sibelius Fourth and Seventh symphonies made a greater impact on her husband. She also reported that:

. . . he did want to write a very classical symphony and he was delighted when someone pointed out that his opening very strongly resembles that of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Walton’s extensive use of pedal points (long notes held in the bass while other musical activity shifts above it) and yearning upward leaps are two specific links to Sibelius’ style. The Scherzo is marked Presto con malizia. In English, malice implies spite, and early listeners in the know about Walton’s personal life guessed that he was swiping at Baroness Imma von Doernberg, who had left him for a Hungarian doctor. In Italian, however, malizia also means astuteness or artfulness. Walton may simply have intended the sardonic wit that characterizes analogous movements in Dmitri Shostakovich. In any case, the second movement is brilliant, thrilling and immensely difficult for the orchestra. It leaves the listener mesmerized, caught up in the savage force of an erupting volcano. This is not music for the weak of heart.

The slow movement is elegiac, opening with a series of mournful solos for the woodwind principals that emphasize the melancholy implied by the movement’s name. Walton divides the strings, lending the texture a richness that intensifies the expressive pull of the music. The majestic spirit of Crown Imperial imbues the finale with optimism. Walton’s gift for complex, catchy rhythms and orchestral color serves him well, particularly the engaging punctuation of brass. His fugue is a case in point, introduced by the strings, with commentary from horns, trumpets and trombones heightening immediacy and excitement.

The First Symphony established Walton as the leading English composer. The conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler, Willem Mengelberg and George Szell all sent for the score immediately. Years later, at the time of his Second Symphony’s premiere, Walton told an interviewer that his First Symphony was “much fiercer, the Angry-Young-Man sort of thing.” If this is how anger customarily manifested itself, the world would be a different place! The piece’s exuberant close is strongly affirming, inviting comparison with the triumph-through-struggle narrative of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Instrumentation: two flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two sets of timpani, field drum, cymbals, tam tam and strings. The percussion and second timpani only play in the finale.


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman © 2024