Haydn & Copland

Friday, March 22, 2019, at 7:30 p.m.
Pre-Concert Talk at 6:45 p.m.
New Venue: Lancaster Middle School Theatre, Kilmarnock

Saturday, March 23, 2019, at 7:30 p.m.
Pre-Concert Talk at 6:45 p.m.
Northumberland High School Theatre, Heathsville (Claraville)

Program Notes by Nancy Rowland

Tonight the Northern Neck Orchestra, under the direction of Michael Repper, presents a concert in collaboration with the Chesapeake Chorale, music director Dr. Cheryl Brown Davis. The program begins with a symphony by Haydn, known as the “Father of the Symphony.” The second half of the concert is devoted to American composers, including the world premiere of a work by the NNO’s first composition competition winner. The concert concludes with orchestra and chorale performing beloved songs from Copland’s Old American Songs.

Haydn Symphony No. 83 “The Hen”

The concert opens with Symphony No. 83 in G minor (1785) by Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809). Haydn became the exclusive court composer in Hungary for Count Esterhazy about 1760, and all compositions became the property of the family. Haydn’s music became so popular that publishers would send musicians to transcribe surreptitiously what they heard played at court concerts. These musical scores, of varying accuracy and quality, would then be published and sold in a black market, yielding Haydn zero financial gain. This underground method is how Haydn’s music became so well-known and his reputation exalted in Paris and London, even though he never visited those cities.

After nearly two decades, Haydn was finally able in 1779 to renegotiate his contract with the Esterhazy family to be allowed to own and publish his music and to accept outside commissions. He soon received a generous commission from a French count on behalf of the Paris Freemason’s elite orchestra. The six so-called “Paris” symphonies, numbered 82 through 87, were written in 1785-6 and beginning in 1787-8 they were performed season after season in Paris. Number 85 was supposedly the favorite of Queen Marie Antoinette so it received the nickname “La Reine” (“The Queen”).

About one-third of Haydn’s 104 symphonies have popular nicknames, received well after their composition. The one we perform tonight is called “The Hen” (or “La Poule” in French). The name comes from the oboe’s melody in the first movement, a jerky dotted repeated-note figure that audiences though sounded like pecking hens.

The symphony is in four movements. First is allegro spiritoso, which begins with a dramatic strident wind chord and a rising G minor arpeggio. Both the first and second themes feature a dotted figure that seems somber and martial in its first appearance yet humorously hen-like and cheerful in the second. Haydn’s greatest genius was being able to transform similar material into a variety of musical ideas.

The second movement, andante in E-flat major, is in sonata form A-B-A. It is serene and charming, with a heartfelt opening melody. The movement is interrupted a few times by bouts of dissonance. The third movement is a minuet and trio played allegretto (slightly fast) in G major. The theme for the trio is played by solo flute. The finale movement is played vivace (very fast), with boundless energy. The gigue dance is hard driving yet joyful.

Sweet Land

The second half of the concert includes three works by American composers, two of them living. We begin with Sweet Land (1996) by Gwyneth Walker. The work was commissioned in celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Town of Andover, Massachusetts. This piece is an elaboration on the original melody of “My Country ’tis of Thee” in 20th-century musical language. Dr. Walker uses elements of folk, jazz, blues, and rock in the piece. Her intention was to bring “renewed energy and affection” to this familiar song.

Dr. Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947) holds degrees in music and composition and she taught at Oberlin College until she left academia to pursue composition full time. For nearly 30 years she was a proud resident of Vermont, living on a dairy farm in Braintree. She was awarded a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Vermont Arts Council in 2003.

Sweet Land is in the form of a theme and four variations. The theme is stately, followed by variations that are to be played: (1) lively, (2) in a blues style, (3) furtively, and (4) triumphantly.

Variations on a Motive by Beethoven

The program continues with the world premiere performance of Variations on a Motive by Beethoven (2018), an original composition by Gordon Ring (b. 1953). Dr. Ring, a music professor at Longwood University, is the winner of the orchestra’s first Composition Contest. Additional notes about the contest and the composer’s biography can be found on page 17.

The inspiration for this piece came from a scene in the television series about U.S. soldiers in World War II, Band of Brothers. “A company of G.I.s comes upon a string quartet in the town square of a German village who were performing a work by Beethoven that was unfamiliar to me,” Ring recalled. He later learned that the intriguing music was from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14.

Dr. Ring’s work performed tonight is based on a theme, or motive, taken from the beginning of the sixth movement of that string quartet. The theme is rescored from Beethoven’s original, and then the motive generates four short pieces, unified by statements of the motive. The motive statements are “inverted, elaborated, and used in several modes, tempos, and meters,” according to the composer.

The first section modifies the meter of Beethoven’s original motive, and is followed by a contrapuntal part. The second variation is lively and energetic. The third is a gentle song with solos by cello, oboe, and flute. The finale is a powerful restatement of the opening ideas.

The audience is urged to listen for the theme as it is presented throughout the composition in various forms.

Old American Songs

The concert’s featured work is Old American Songs (1950, 1952) performed by the orchestra with the Chesapeake Chorale. These are traditional and folk songs for which composer, pianist, teacher, and conductor Aaron Copland (1900-1990) arranged the music and lyrics. Like other composers in the early 20th century, Copland loved to collect and transcribe folk music. His interest was in preserving hymns, Native American melodies, and African-American spirituals. Copland found many such songs by doing research in the extensive Brown University library song collections.

Copland’s song compositions, originally written for voice with piano accompaniment, were orchestrated by Copland himself in 1957. He was so pleased with the popularity of the songs that he approved various arrangements of the chorus parts. Copland’s friend Irving Fine (1914-1962), a well-known American composer, arranged four of the songs. Copland said of these transcriptions, “They look ducky. How do you think up all those things?” The chorus arrangements for tonight’s songs were written by Irving Fine, David L. Brunner, Glenn Koponen, and R. Wilding White.

The seven songs performed are, in order:

“The Boatmen’s Dance” is a minstrel song, published in 1843 as an “original banjo melody.” It is a celebration of the Ohio River boatmen, featuring the repeated cry, “Hey, ho, the boatman row, sailin’ on the river on the Ohio.” Copland uses a call-and-response effect in his version.

“At the River” is a gentle gospel hymn written by a Baptist minister in 1865. The chorus is accompanied by a growing intensity of sound in the orchestra. This hymn is often used at funerals and at memorials (for example, for Copland and for Leonard Bernstein), and it was featured in many of director John Ford’s western movies.

“The Little Horses” is a southern children’s lullaby.

“Zion’s Walls,” is a revivalist tune from the 1850s. The orchestration alternates playing the melody with a descant accompaniment.

“Simple Gifts” is the famous Shaker hymn written in 1848. Its uncomplicated melody is marked “quietly flowing” in the chorus arrangement, to be sung without a strict rhythm. The song is accompanied by simple orchestral chords.

“Long Time Ago,” is a mournful minstrel ballad from the mid-19th century. Copland uses solo flute and oboe to convey the pathos of lost love and death.

“Ching-a-Ring Chaw” is an early, bouncy minstrel blackface song. Copland rewrote portions of the lyrics with the specific intention of avoiding any idea of racism. The music contains lots of syncopation and trombone solos.

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