Program notes: Yefim Bronfman, An homage to Sibelius, and post-concert Lawn Party

Monday, August 14, 2023 , 6:30 PM

Jean Sibelius: Finlandia, Op. 26

William Grant Still: Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius

Robert Schumann: Concerto in A Minor for Piano, Op. 54

Finlandia, Op. 26

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Composed: 1899
Length: c. 8 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), and strings

In 1899, Tsar Nicholas II declared in his February Manifesto that Russia could impose its will upon the Grand Duchy of Finland, then a part of the Russian Empire, without the approval of local governments. This decree fueled the determination of the Finns to establish a truly independent country. Finlandia was written in the midst of this nationalist fervor and came to serve as a cultural rallying cry to strengthen the resolve of the resistance. When Finland finally achieved its independence in 1917, the work became a celebratory anthem.

Finlandia was originally composed as the finale of six selections of incidental music to accompany a series of staged historical vignettes. Sibelius quickly reworked the piece into its current form, and its popularity was immediate. Scholar James Hepokoski summarizes the piece’s thematic content succinctly: “political subjugation, sudden awakening and conflict, and a nationally centered hymnic liberation into the future.” The music is simple and glorious, powerful and stirring. The moving “Finlandia Hymn” that leads to the culminating triumph has become akin to a second national anthem for Finland, a country that still celebrates Sibelius as a national hero.

Threnody: In Memory of Jan Sibelius

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

Composed: 1965
Length: c. 6 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 percussion (chime, suspended cymbal, cymbals, snare drum), harp, and strings

Raised in Little Rock, composer William Grant Still was comfortable in many musical genres, writing popular, classical, and commercial music. His greatest contribution was in the concert hall: his 1930 Afro-American Symphony was the first symphony by an African American to be played by a major orchestra (followed closely by fellow Little Rock composer Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1). A prolific and compelling composer, Still wrote hundreds of pieces, including five symphonies and nine operas, and is in the process of being rediscovered (the first commercial recording of his Threnody was just released in 2022). Still’s music reflects the quilt of cultures in America and in his own background: he descended from African, Scottish, Irish, Spanish, and Native American ancestors. He believed deeply in the unifying force of music and hoped “that my music may serve a purpose larger than mere music. If it will help in some way to bring about better interracial understanding in America and in other countries, then I will feel that the work is justified.”

The moving Threnody was commissioned by University of Miami conductor Fabien Sevitzky to commemorate the centenary of Sibelius’s birth. Sibelius and Still were mutual admirers, both establishing their own unique voices that reflected their individuality and their national contexts. Upon experiencing Still’s Afro-American Symphony, Sibelius—not one to typically praise contemporary composers—exclaimed, “He has something to say!” Threnody begins with a brass fanfare that seems to recall Sibelius’s Finlandia. Remarkably, in the span of about 6 minutes, Still projects a seamless integration of fanfare, lament, march (in somber and then majestic cloaks), and wistful reverie, deriving expressive material from the spiritual, jazz, and classical traditions.

Concerto in A Minor for Piano, Op. 54

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Composed: 1841-1845
Length: c. 31 minutes
Instrumentation: Solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Schumann attempted to compose piano concertos several times in his early years, but each time aborted his efforts. He seemed to have difficulty combining elements of form and melody with the necessity of supplying a showpiece for the soloist typical of the Romantic concerto. As late as 1839, he wrote to his future wife, Clara, “I cannot write a concerto for a virtuoso; I shall have to contrive something else.” In 1841, a year he devoted to the exploration of orchestral music, Schumann settled on composing a one-movement Phantasie for piano and orchestra. In a matter of weeks, Schumann had sketched the work, and in August, Clara played it through in a private rehearsal. She was struck by its construction, writing: “The piano and orchestral parts are interwoven to the highest degree…one can’t imagine one without the other.” Despite its compositional success, Schumann could not get a publisher to agree to print the Phantasie due, in part, to its unusual format. Eventually, Schumann decided to compose two more movements, transforming the Phantasie into the A minor concerto that we know today. Clara was overjoyed with the result, noting in her diary:

Robert has added a beautiful last movement to his Phantasie in A minor, so that it has now become a concerto, which I mean to play next winter. I am very glad, because I have never had a large-scale bravura piece from him.

Clara was indeed the soloist in the premiere of the concerto in Dresden, on December 4, 1845. The performance was well received, and the piece was soon heard all over Europe. Clara’s interpretation of the concerto was definitive, and she performed it frequently throughout her lifetime.

What to listen for

  • First movement: After the hushed, lyrical opening theme in the oboe, listen closely for a pleading E-F-E motive in the piano’s middle voice and the violins—this little figure seems to gather momentum with hesitant urgency, gradually modulating upward as it gains confidence.
  • Second movement: In A-B-A form, the first section uses a recurring staccato gesture to evoke a genial promenade.
  • Third movement: Rich in material, the breathlessly exuberant finale includes a light, detached section that recalls the second movement, virtuosic displays of perpetual motion in the piano, a fugal treatment of the main theme, and an oboe theme that is both boldly jagged and pleadingly lyrical.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi