Thalia Symphony Orchestra

in residence at
Seattle Pacific University


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Program Notes

"All Hallows"

Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain
Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre, Op. 40
Mendelssohn: “Reformation” Symphony

By Dr. Eric Hanson
October 29 & November 6, 2004

In the church calendar November 1st is traditionally called All Hallows or All Saints Day. The evening before, All Hallows Eve, has become Halloween, a curious mixture of Celtic pagan and Christian traditions. In the Lutheran Church, All Saints became Reformation Day. This evening’s program presents these two impulses, the profane and the sacred.

Mussorgsky’s (1839-81) Night on Bald Mountain was actually titled St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain. St. John’s Night, or St. John’s Eve, is the night before the Feast of St. John which happens to fall around the summer solstice. Eastern Europeans have long celebrated it with a mixture of pagan trick-or-treat traditions and religious observances and bonfires. The history of the music is as tortured as Mussorgsky’s own life. The first version appeared in 1867 and was revised around 1872. He revised it again in 1880 and hoped to include it in the opera Sorochintsy Fair. In this last version he added a hauntingly beautiful quiet ending in which a church bell announces the dawn and the chases away of the evil sprites. After the composer’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) took it upon himself to “improve” all of Mussorgsky’s work (poor Mussorgsky!). He used this last version for his re-orchestration and it is this version that we hear this evening. Night on Bald Mountain has remained an audience favorite ever since its appearance in Walt Disney’s landmark movie, Fantasia.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), often called the “French Mendelssohn,” was a precocious and prolific composer, prodigious in every genre. His music always expresses the Gallic quality of clarity. Saint-Saëns financed and conducted a series of concerts featuring the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. In the 1870’s he mastered that genre on his own. Danse macabre (1874) sprang from that effort. The music suggests the grisly dance of skeletons, reminding us of our own mortality. This notion of the Dance of Death has a long tradition, going back to church art in France in the 13th century. Listen as the oboe announces the coming dawn, causing these scary apparitions to scurry, reluctantly, back into the shadows. The composer parodied this work in his Carnival of the Animals. In spite of the critical assessment that Danse macabre “has everything in it but music,” it has remained an audience favorite.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) was a prodigy of the first order. After composing 13 marvelous string symphonies as a teenager he was ready to take on the challenge of writing for full orchestra. Symphony No. 5 actually comes directly after No. 1. His five large symphonies are programmatic and this stems from the fact that the philosopher, Hegel, had been a frequent guest in the home of Mendelssohn’s parents. From Hegel, the young Felix learned that a composer must give as much attention to the expression of content as he does to the music itself. In 1829, Mendelssohn desired to honor the 300th anniversary of Luther’s Augsburg Confession of 1530 (hence the title, “Reformation”). Though Mendelssohn’s heritage was Jewish, his family had converted to Christianity, taking on the more Christian-sounding name, Bartholdy. By all accounts, the composer’s faith was genuine.

Whether by design or accident, Mendelssohn honored the memories of two of his musical forebears. The opening line of the introduction evokes the opening of the finale to Mozart’s last symphony. The opening of the exposition evokes the introduction to Haydn’s last symphony. Mendelssohn’s introduction also features the Dresden Amen. This bit of music from 17th century Saxony has both Protestant and Roman Catholic roots which make its appearance at strategic moments, usually at times of great conflict, highly compelling. The music of the development section builds in intensity toward the inexorable climax on the dominant but then, the Dresden Amen appears. It has calming effect on the orchestra as the abbreviated recapitulation of the thematic material loses its anger. This leads to a powerful Beethovenian coda and the first movement ends, its conflict still unresolved.

The second movement dance and trio presents a bit of “Vanity Fair” and evokes band music. The joy of the second movement is opposed by the pathos of the recitative-like third movement. Out of the stillness a lone flute intones Luther’s great chorale tune, Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, A Mighty Fortress is our God. More layers are added, leading to a fast section, the sole purpose of which is to maneuver the finale into the right key and a majestic Chorale Fantasy.  Above the internecine struggle of the counterpoint soars the chorale tune until it stands alone in triumph! 

Program Notes © by Eric Hanson, 2004


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