Jean Sibelius, Andante Festivo
Jean Sibelius, the great titan of Finnish music, wrote the first version of his Andante Festivo in 1922, on commission by a factory celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of its founding. Originally a string quartet, he expanded it for double quartet in 1929, for the wedding of his niece, and then adapted it once more the following year, for string orchestra and optional timpani. By 1939, his compositional energies sapped, he was ten years into retirement. He emerged from seclusion on New Year’s Day of that year to conduct his work at a benefit concert—the live performance was sent across the radio waves to the United States, as part of the celebration of the World Exposition in New York. Sibelius worked prolifically and to great acclaim as a conductor from 1891 to 1928, but the recording of his 1939 Andante Festivo broadcast is only the surviving example if his conducting to be preserved for posterity. This richly majestic work is still performed regularly at state and other important occasions in Finland.
Edward Elgar, Serenade for Strings
English composer Edward Elgar wrote his Three Pieces for String Orchestra, which formed the basis of his Serenade for Strings, in 1888, at the age of thirty-one. They were never published, but Elgar wrote to a friend, “I like ‘em. (The first thing I ever did).” In the spring of 1892, three years into his happy marriage to Alice Robert, he had recovered from a nasty bout of winter flu, and wrote the Serenade, a wholesale transformation of the earlier Three Pieces. His inscription in the score may help explain the lyrical, delicately romantic nature of the work: “Braut [his pet name for his wife] helped a great deal to make these little tunes signed EE.” The Serenade is in three movements, with the first tied together by a dotted rhythmic figure introduced by the violas. The second movement, a gorgeous and finely-wrought larghetto, may be one of the most beautiful melodies the composer ever wrote. The last movement feints as if to return to the opening musical material of the first movement, but instead unwinds the second theme, fading away into wistful memory.
Giovanni Bottesini, Tarantella
Giovanni Bottesini was born in Crema, Italy, the son of an accomplished musician. As a child, he showed tremendous aptitude, studying violin, singing in choirs, and playing timpani professionally. He applied to the Milan Conservatory at the age of fourteen; the only open scholarship slots were for a bassoonist and a contrabassist, so the young musician switched contrabass, an instrument he would master and champion for the remainder of his illustrious career. An eminent performer, composer, and conductor—a lifelong friend of Guiseppe Verdi, he conducted the premier of the great opera composer’s Aida in Cairo in 1871—he is now best known for his compositions for solo contrabass, including tonight’s Tarantella.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 7
At a benefit concert for Austrian and Bavarian veterans of the Napoleonic Wars on December 8, 1813, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory was the hit of the night, rapturously cheered by the Vienna audience. The composer’s Symphony No. 7 received an enthusiastic ovation as well, particularly its second movement, which received an immediate encore, and in relatively short order eclipsed the brash potboiler Wellington in the esteem of both critics and the public. Richard Wagner called the work “the apotheosis of the dance”—each of its movements seems to be a dance grown to mammoth, un-danceable proportions, from the colossal gigue of the first movement to the wild Scottish reel of the finale. Perhaps connected to (or subverting) the Viennese love of dance, but certainly transcending the whole question, the symphony remains a favorite of audiences to the present day.