Program Notes for Home for the Holidays, December 8

Welcome to tonight’s special concert!

“Home for the Holidays” with our special guests, the Kawartha Youth Orchestra, has become a Peterborough tradition since we presented the first of these concerts some years ago. The main purpose of this evening is to have great music making on stage combining the fabulous members of the PSO side-by-side with our ‘next generation’ players of the youth orchestra. This is the time of year where we reflect on our relationships with one another, reminding ourselves and each other of the importance of our community in our lives. The best way that we can do this is through music, which expresses the deepest places in our soul.

The music that we are playing tonight ranges from the energetic and fiery overture by Glinka, through Wagner’s warm hymn to uniting a community through its art, Sibelius’ revolutionary call to unite a nation, and all the way to music that will take you back to your most cherished childhood memories of ‘roasting chestnuts by an open fire’.

Of course, “Home for the Holidays” wouldn’t be what it is without your opportunity to raise your voices in song with us at the end of the concert. We have printed out the words of the carols for you, so please join in!

Time to celebrate!

Michael Newnham
PSO Music Director and Conductor



Notes compiled from Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, The New Yorker and BBC Music Magazine


Mikhail Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) was a leader in the movement to build a Russian school of music on a foundation of folk melody. He left a body of work that subsequent Russian composers took zealously as their model. To Tchaikovsky, Glinka was “the corner-stone of Russian music – the acorn from which the whole of Russian symphonic music grew”. To Mussorgsky, Glinka was “the immortal creator of a Russian musical school who first pointed out the path of truth”. It is said that in 1866, when the new Moscow Conservatory was inaugurated, Tchaikovsky insisted that the first music to be heard had to be that of Glinka. To that end, Tchaikovsky sat down at the piano and played from memory the overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila.

Glinka wrote his opera Ruslan and Lyudmila in 1842, based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin. Today, the best known music from the opera is the overture you will hear tonight. It is an orchestral showpiece.


Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Writing in the Oxford History of Western Music, Richard Taruskin describes Wagner as having had “an imagination so powerful, backed up by a technique so novel and so impressive, that neither the music of his own day nor that of succeeding generations is conceivable without him”. The intellectual historian Jacques Barzun went so far as to write a book entitled Darwin, Marx, Wagner, putting Wagner in elite and transformative company indeed. To this day, Wagner remains the subject of furious debate. He has been described by one scholar as “the most volcanically controversial figure in the history of music”. An aggressive German nationalist and xenophobe who expressed anti-Semitic views, later adored by the Nazis, creator of some of the greatest music of his age: he has left us a legacy of musical genius and of fanaticism. Camille Saint-Saens captured the dilemma in these words: “Richard Wagner hates France – but does that matter in considering the quality of his works?”

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1861-67) is Wagner’s only comic opera (if ‘comic’ is the right term for a work which ends with a darkly nationalistic message and call to arms). The opera was written during a particularly difficult time of Wagner’s life. The 1861 Paris production of Tannhäuser had been a fiasco, Wagner had given up hope of completing his Ring cycle of operas, the 1864 Vienna production of Tristan und Isolde was abandoned after 77 rehearsals, and in 1866 Wagner’s first wife, Minna died. Unusually for a Wagnerian opera, the setting is a real location, not a fictional one. Our hero, a young man guided by the wise old master singer Hans Sachs (a real person, a great singer of an earlier age), couples his innate genius with patriotic national traditions and produces the greatest performance of the day, winning the mastersinger prize as well as the hand of the young woman he loves. The Overture is one of Wagner’s best known compositions. It is perhaps just as well we are not offering you the entire opera; that would take up about four and a half hours.


Georges Bizet’s L’Arlésienne

Georges Bizet (1838-1875) had an uneven career as a composer. Few of his operas and other works achieved fame in their own day, and only three of his works are often performed today. The three are his last work, the immensely popular opera Carmen, and two suites of incidental music. These three works alone guarantee him a place of honour as a French composer.

Bizet lived through very troubled times. France in the 1870s endured war and violent civil unrest on a scale almost unimaginable in Canada. A disastrous decision to go to war with Germany in 1870 led to a crushing French defeat in the course of which Paris, in which Bizet lived, was besieged by the Germans. Living conditions were harsh indeed. After the war, Bizet fled Paris to avoid the agony of the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, effectively a failed left-wing revolution, which ended with roughly 20,000 Parisians slaughtered and perhaps another 50,000 taken prisoner by French government troops in one brutal week.

Barely a few months after this chaotic period ended, with Paris and its artistic community struggling to return to some semblance of normal life, Bizet returned to Paris where he was commissioned to compose incidental music for a production of Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne. Set in Provence, it is the story of a young peasant, Fréderic, who is obsessed by a girl from Arles. The girl from Arles never appears but is clearly “une femme fatale”. Fréderic fails to win her hand. At the climax of the play, while villagers are dancing a farandole in the streets, he throws himself from a high window to his death.

The play caught Bizet’s imagination, and he responded with a suite of 27 short numbers scored for chorus and small orchestra. The production ran for only 21 performances, to largely empty houses. Despite this, Bizet’s faith in the quality of his music was unshaken. He put together a four-movement concert suite from the score and arranged it for full orchestra. The music was an immediate success, so much so that an orchestrator, Ernest Guiraud, created a second suite from L’Arlésienne four years after Bizet’s death. Both suites have been in the standard orchestral repertoire ever since, although the first suite was the only one actually completed by Bizet.


Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is widely recognized as Finland’s greatest composer. He is credited with having helped Finland develop, through his music, a national identity during its struggle for independence from Russia.

Prior to 1808, what is today Finland had been part of Sweden. Finland was annexed by Russia in 1808, and at first Finland was allowed a significant measure of local autonomy. Succeeding Russian governments took a different view and imposed increasingly intensive programs of Russification in the course of which the use of Finnish was restricted, press censorship became widespread, and military service in the Russian Imperial army became obligatory. Russification provoked increasingly active resistance, and ended following the Communist Revolution and Finland’s declaration of independence in 1917.

Sibelius wrote Finlandia in 1899. It is a tone poem, symphonic music which is intended to illustrate or convey a specific story, image, or idea solely through music. In this case, the message was clearly patriotic. Finlandia was composed for a covert protest against increasing Russian censorship. In order to avoid censorship, Finlandia had to be performed under alternative names at different concerts. Much of the piece consists of music evoking the long national struggle of the Finnish people. Towards the end, we hear the composer’s evocative Finlandia Hymn, now one of Finland’s most beloved melodies, emblematic of a peaceful and successful resolution of Finland’s quest for independence.