Over the past year, we have heard of athletes taking a knee in protest of some aspect of our culture that they want to see changed.
Even in the arena of classical music, performers are not immune to taking a stand. Perhaps the most famous musicians’ protest is the one that took place almost 250 years ago with Joseph Haydn as its instigator. Members of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will stage a re-enactment of sorts when they play Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 this weekend.
In the late 1700s, Haydn was the kapellmeister of the orchestra at the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterh?zy. Over the summer, the ensemble lived and performed at a grand country estate, which Prince Esterh?zy had built to compete with Versailles. But during the summer of 1772, the prince didn’t give the musicians any time off to visit their families. So they asked Haydn for help.
Haydn responded by writing Symphony No. 45 as a form of protest, because during the last movement, the musicians leave the stage one by one until only two of them are left to finish the piece. The prince took the hint and granted leave to the musicians, and the work was nicknamed the “Farewell” symphony.
“Maybe this symphony represents the first musicians’ demonstration-strike in history,” remarked Salvador Brotons, music director of the Vancouver Symphony. “The theatrical component gives the music an extra dimension that is quite unique.”
If You Go
• What: VSO plays the “Farewell” and New World” symphonies.
• When: 3 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday.
• Where: Skyview High School Concert Hall, 1300 N.W. 139th St., Vancouver.
• Cost: $50 for reserved seats, $38 for general admission, $34 for seniors and $10 for students.• www.vancouversymphony.org
Concertmaster Eva Richey looks forward to playing the “Farewell” symphony.
“I love this Haydn symphony because it involves more than what we are used to doing,” said Richey. “As each performer exits the stage after turning off their stand light (or blowing out their candle, as it used to be done), the sound diminishes to a chamber sound that is intimate and sweet. I remember when I was very young and had never played it before. I was on the last stand of first violins. I was nervous to be one of the first ones to exit the stage. I was so glad not to be the last one playing as it seemed terrifying! After that first time, it just became fun!”
But aside from its historical context, the “Farewell” symphony contains lots of gorgeous music.
“The work belongs to Haydn’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ symphonies,” said Brotons. “That means ‘Storm and Stress.’ These are dramatic and expressive symphonies in minor keys.”
Haydn’s music was a natural precursor to the Romantic period and evocatively emotional music, such as Anton?n Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire. Starting with its first performance by the New York Philharmonic in 1893, Dvorak’s Ninth was an immediate hit with the public and critics alike, celebrated with a review on the front page of The New York Times.
Its title, “From the New World,” is usually shortened so that most listeners know it as the “New World” symphony. Dvorak wrote the piece while living in the United States from 1892 to 1895, serving as the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City.
By adding the title just before delivering the score to the philharmonic, Dvorak drew attention to African-American spirituals and Native American music, which he wove into the fabric of the piece.
He was certainly influenced by the dancing and singing by a group of Oglala Sioux as part of one of Buffalo Bill Cody’s “Wild West” shows. He also loved hearing Negro spirituals and even transcribed a number of them.
Brotons has conducted Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony with many orchestras, and it remains one of his favorites.
“The ‘New World’ symphony is perhaps one of the most complete symphonies ever written,” said Brotons. “The whole piece is a masterpiece. I love the entire piece, but the well-known melody of the second movement played by the English horn is especially beautiful. The symphony as a whole is not easy. The scherzo is very difficult and also the last movement has some difficult passages. But, since it is a very repertory piece, it’s a familiar piece for most players in the orchestra and this facilitates the rehearsals.”
Richey agrees with Brotons wholeheartedly.
“My favorite parts of the ‘New World’ symphony are the second movement and the very end of the piece,” said Richey. “The second movement is a melody that never leaves you after hearing it. The wind chords at the beginning of that movement remind me of other things besides the ‘New World.’ I think of looking up at the stars at night and wondering what is out there.”
Then there’s the gorgeous finale.
“I love hearing the big brass moment at the end of the whole piece,” added Richey. “As a violinist on stage listening to that as I’m playing, I often think of how lucky I am to be up close to hear such beautiful musical moments like that. You cannot duplicate that with a recording.”