Conductor Jon Hargreaves
Leader Tina Bowles
Date: Sunday 30th June 2019
Sibelius – Symphony No 1
Debussy – Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune
With Bella Cora (female vocal ensemble):
Offenbach – Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann
Delibes – Flower Duet from Lakme
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) studied in Helsinki, Berlin and Vienna. When he was 32, the Finnish State granted him an annual pension for life, to enable him to devote himself to composition (for the last 26 years of his life, however, he composed nothing at all).
The publication in 1835 of the Kalevala, an epic poem based on Finnish history and myth, had a strong influence not just on the Finnish literary world but inspired the patriotic character of all the arts, including music.
Sibelius’s music reflects Finland’s physical and natural features, including bleak landscapes, long,hard winters and short, brilliant summers. He wrote the first of his seven symphonies in 1898-1899. In February 1899, Tsar Nicholas II published what became known as the February Manifesto, which abrogated the political autonomy of Finland. This reinforced the strong national feeling which inspired practically all of Sibelius’s work. In 1899, he also wrote what became his most famous piece, Finlandia (originally called Finland’s Awakening). It was part of a set of pieces based on episodes in Finland’s history but is now almost always performed on its own.
Sibelius revised his first symphony in 1900. It is romantic in character and has some echoes of Tchaikovsky. The first performance of the revised version, in Helsinki in July 1900, established Sibelius’s international reputation.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 12 and won the Prix de Rome when he was 22. He was the founder of the Impressionist School in music – whose members, like their pictorial counterparts, were concerned with colour and tone rather than the formal, narrative or dramatic. The Impressionist composers were also associated with the Symbolist poets, including Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarme.
Debussy’s music frequently uses the whole-tone scale and an innovative harmonic structure, derived from overtones, which, together with its economic style, result in a distinctive, atmospheric sound. He wrote numerous compositions for the piano, which are regarded as among the finest works for the instrument, partly because he made use of its full range of sounds. He was also a brilliant orchestrator.
Debussy was a regular visitor to Mallarme’s house and the tone poem L’Apres-midi d’un Faun, which was published in 1894, is an orchestral version of Mallarme’s poem of that name.
Leo Delibes (1836-1891) studied at the Paris Conservatoire and quickly achieved public recognition as a composer of operettas, operas and ballets, including Coppelia and Sylvia. His music is melodic and graceful – and was greatly admired by Tchaikovsky, who preferred it to that of Brahms and Wagner.
Lakme was first staged at the Opera-Comique in 1883, in a particularly lavish production. The plot reflects the then vogue for matters to do with the East and the music was influenced by Bizet. Lakme subsequently became the composer’s best-known opera.
Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) was born in Cologne. He moved to Paris in 1833 and stayed there for the rest of his life. He was able to enter the Paris Conservatoire because, having heard him play, Cherubini overrode the regulations forbidding foreigners from enrolling.
Offenbach left the conservatoire in 1834, for financial reasons, and worked initially as a cellist. His reputation was established when his operas were included in the repertoire of the Theatre Bouffes-Parisiens during the Paris Exhibition of 1855.
Offenbach’s operas were often satires of the classics and/or Second Empire politics and society and their exuberant style, and humour, appealed strongly to the French taste of the time (although his music was looked down upon by musicians who considered themselves to have more highbrow tastes). Following the premiere of Orpheus in the Underworld, which includes the famous cancan, in 1858, Offenbach became famous throughout Europe as well as in the USA, The Tales of Hoffman was Offenbach’s last work. It was unfinished at his death and completed by Ernest Guiraud. It has become one of the most popular of all French operas.