John Burge’s Four Seasons of the Canadian Flag
Notes by John Burge
Four Seasons of the Canadian Flag, for large Romantic orchestra, was commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, for the orchestra’s cross-Canada tour celebrating the nation’s 150th anniversary of confederation in 2017. The Ontario Arts Council provided funding for this commission which was also supported by the Saskatoon and Kingston Symphony Orchestras. These two supporting orchestras premiered a version requiring smaller orchestral forces in 2017 as well.
On February 11, 2015, The Globe and Mail newspaper included a photograph of a one-day installation that artist Maxwell Newhouse presented of his four canvasses titled, Four Seasons of the Canadian Flag. Max staged this installation in honour of the 50th anniversary of the Canadian flag. A simple but resonatingly profound concept, the four large canvasses of the flag present the central maple leaf of the flag in a state to match each season with “summer” being a full-sized maple leaf, “fall” a withering leaf, “winter” has a completely empty space in the middle, and “spring” is but a small bud of a leaf. Max created this work in 1975 to recognize the 10th anniversary of the flag and holds the patent on the images.
At the time, I had been looking for an idea that could inspire a new composition that would recognize Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation and it seemed immediately apparent that these four canvasses demanded a musical interpretation. Certainly Vivaldi has done well with his four concertos modelled on the seasons. Max was in complete agreement with this idea and provided his blessing and even painted a single canvas of all four flags for me. The National Youth Orchestra of Canada immediately embraced commissioning and premiering the musical version of Four Seasons of the Canadian Flag for their national tour in the summer of 2017. The National Youth Orchestra of Canada is a large, 100-player orchestra and as many orchestras lack such instrumental numbers, I am incredibly grateful that the NYOC recognized that having a version of the piece for smaller orchestra would be of great benefit and help the work secure a more immediate place in the Canadian orchestral repertoire. This decision led to the involvement of the Saskatoon and Kingston Symphony Orchestras.
The resultant work consists of four very tightly written movements in which “Summer” is the shortest, and like most Canadian summers, simply flies along in a blur of swirling gestures contrasted with a prominent French horn theme. “Fall” is the most introspective movement of the set and constantly emphasises passages that are always descending. “Winter” is a movement of stark, dissonant contrasts that makes the most use of distinctive percussion colours. “Spring” attempts to capture those moments when the earth starts to thaw and eventually the pent-up energy that has been frozen all winter is rejuvenated in a long build-up to a climax based on the opening French horn theme from the first movement. Spring has an almost spiritual effect in the way the resurrection of nature can mirror the soul of the observer. Throughout the work, there are moments of focused intimacy, such as the lyrical violin melody in “Summer”, the English horn focus in “Winter”, and the cello section solo in “Spring”, all of which attempt to personify a more individual perspective to the shifting of the Canadian seasons.
Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2
Notes compiled by Blair Mackenzie
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in Western history. During his lifetime, his native Russia was torn apart through the First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917. He relocated to the United States, where he experienced the upheavals of the 1920s and 1930s, the buildup to the Second World War and lived to see its initial years. The automobile, the airplane, and the telephone – not to mention music recording technology – all came into use during his lifetime. His music, far from reflecting all this tumult and change, was unashamedly romantic and highly conservative when compared to that of many of his contemporaries. Modernist composers of his day (and since) derided him, but the public thought otherwise and his greatest compositions, including the concerto to be played tonight, remain audience favourites.
Trained as a concert pianist and composer, and mentored by Tchaikovsky and others, Rachmaninov had a brilliant early career. His career was interrupted by the failure of his first symphony, in 1897. The work had been poorly rehearsed and poorly performed, and the piece was brutally panned by an influential critic and fellow composer, Cesar Cui. Even the less savage critics were unenthusiastic. Rachmaninov fell into a depression that lasted for three years, during which he had writer’s block and composed almost nothing. He described this time as “like the man who had suffered a stroke and for a long time had lost the use of his head and hands”. He made a living by giving piano lessons. A failed engagement to marry did not help; his fiancée’s family refused to allow the marriage.
By 1900, Rachmaninov had become so self-critical that, despite numerous attempts, composing had become nearly impossible. His aunt suggested professional help. Between January and April 1900, Rachmaninov underwent hypnotherapy and psychotherapy sessions with a physician and amateur musician, Nikolai Dahl, on a daily basis, designed to improve his sleep patterns, mood and appetite, and reignite his desire to compose. That summer, Rachmaninov successfully resumed composition. The first work he completed was the concerto we will hear tonight, finished in April 1901; it is dedicated to Dahl. It was premiered later in 1901 and was enthusiastically received. It has never lost its popularity since.
Peter Gutmann, who writes extensively on music for the media, writes:
“The opening of the concerto announces its character with striking immediacy. Deep resonant piano chords evoke both the Russian church bells of Rachmaninov’s roots and his complex personality – the outer notes remain steadfast while the inner notes subtly change the harmony, as if to suggest the emotion surging within the composer’s sombre outward appearance. The opening chords…further serve to announce the piano’s essential role in the overall plan of the piece. The supremacy of the piano is confirmed as it continues with a blizzard of notes that thickens the texture of an ensuing luxuriant string melody. Indeed, throughout the entire work, the solo instrument rarely falls silent or cedes the spotlight to the orchestra…”
In November 1918, tempted by lucrative offers to perform and conduct, Rachmaninov moved with his family to the United States. He decided, largely for financial reasons, to leave composition behind and to focus on performing as a pianist and conducting. He enjoyed an illustrious performance and conducting career in the United States, where he conducted and performed with one leading orchestra after another and turned down offers to lead the Boston and Cleveland symphony orchestras. He signed a recording contract with RCA and recorded and performed almost until his death in 1943. He died a U.S. citizen and is buried in the United States, never having returned to his native Russia.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade
Notes compiled by Blair Mackenzie
The Rimsky-Korsakov family had a long history of naval and military service. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) developed in childhood a love of the sea and sea stories along with his early gifts as a musician. Following in the footsteps of his older brother, he joined the Imperial Russian Navy and spent some years at sea before being drawn back into the world of music composition. He lived through somewhat less turbulent times than Rachmaninov, although he did experience the 1905 Russian uprisings in support of political reforms. He temporarily lost his position as a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory when he sided with students who took part in the uprising.
He was a prominent member of a group of five Russian composers (including Cesar Cui, who so vehemently objected to Rachmaninov’s first symphony) who collectively sought to produce a distinctly Russian form of music. Their music often referenced sounds imitative of Russian life including folk songs, liturgical chants and church bells. Another aspect of this group was their interest in “orientalism”, i.e. the depiction through music of an exotic and mysterious Middle East. The art and literature of the time often reflected similar themes. Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov had one other interest in common: military service. Cui served in the army (he ended his career as a general) and Rimsky-Korsakov, as we have seen, served at least for a while in the navy.
Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the masterpiece Scheherazade in 1888. In it he sought to put to music a series of scenes from a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales known in English as “A Thousand and One Nights”. The work brings together three themes of Rimsky-Korsakov’s life: his love of writing music that brought compelling stories to life; his lifelong interest in the sea; and his fascination with Eastern cultures. Rimsky-Korsakov’s introduction to the work tells us:
“The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatim, for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.”
The dark and foreboding opening notes of the piece represent the evil Sultan, and through the responding violin solo, we hear the voice of Scheherazade. We are here firmly in an imagined and romanticized Middle Eastern world of erotic fantasy. Soon, the music takes us on a sea voyage evoking the travels of Sinbad, the first of many different scenes conjured by the music. In the original folk tale, Scheherazade wins over the Sultan as she weaves together one nightly tale after another. In Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov brings his work to a similar conclusion. After one final musical reference to storms at sea, the music ends with a gentle violin coda which represents Scheherazade finally winning over the Sultan, allowing her at last to have a peaceful night’s sleep.