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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

MSO’s Music From Life & Literature

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Upon seeing the Liffey River meeting the sea, Anna Livia sings out “Far calls, coming, far!” This may not make a lot of sense, but such is the odd language of James Joyce’s 1939 novel Finnegans Wake. Four decades later, Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-96) found inspiration in the scene for a piece for violin and orchestra he titled, naturally, Far Calls, Coming, Far! True to his milieu, Takemitsu here embarks upon a musical depiction of nature—in this case, a river alternately swelling, cascading, flowing and plunging, the violin exchanging leading roles with the orchestra throughout, both finding a calm sea at journey’s end.

Literature also inspired one of the most famous orchestral works of French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), in a roundabout sort of way. When the English actress Beatrice (Mrs. Patrick) Campbell sought some incidental music for a British version of Count Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande, she first approached Claude Debussy, composer of the famous opera of the same title. He refused, however. But Fauré readily accepted, and the result was so successful that, some years later, he revised and expanded his incidental music to a concert-hall-ready orchestral suite. Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Op. 80 consists of four parts. The first is a prelude announcing the tragic dimensions of the story; the following Andante and Sicilienne seem to exist on borrowed time, despite their grace and charm, while the finale carries us to the pathos of Mélisande’s deathbed.

Pathos is certainly also evident in the last symphony by Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-93). By the winter of 1891-92, Tchaikovsky had grown increasingly lonely and depressed, afflicted by ailments both real and imagined. He had great trouble working, but eventually inspiration appeared—in the form of his own tormented life. He worked on his new work, Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, throughout the spring and summer, conducting its premiere in October 1893. The symphony’s title, Pathétique (his brother Modest’s suggestion and one which Tchaikovsky emphatically approved) is assuredly appropriate, for pathos is the work’s overriding theme.

The Pathétique consists of a large, brooding first movement, a graceful yet mournful Allegro con grazia second, a strident and march-like third and a finale (Adagio lamentoso) that is one of the most sorrowful utterances in the symphonic literature. Tchaikovsky never “came clean” as to what this symphony was really “about,” but given the state of his mental and physical health, few have questioned its autobiographical nature. Indeed, it proved something of a release for the composer. “I love it as I have never loved any of my musical offspring,” he satisfyingly wrote. Alas, it was a final bright spot in a cloud-shrouded life. Two weeks later Tchaikovsky was dead of cholera.

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Music Director Edo de Waart conducts these three works, accompanied by violinist Masafumi Hori for the Takemitsu and Fauré pieces, at Uihlein Hall on April 24 & 25.