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NOTE:  These program notes are published here for patrons of the the Madison Symphony Orchestra and other interested readers.  Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author.   last update: 7/27/15

Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
April 29-30, May 1, 2016
90th Season / Subscription Concert No.8
Michael Allsen

We are going big for this final program of the 2015-16 season, with two enormous pieces.  Our first half is devoted to Resphighi’s evocative Pines of Rome, which builds to a strident musical picture of a  Roman army on the march.  We then add the Madison Symphony Chorus, members of the Madison Youth Choirs and three fine vocal soloists: soprano Jeni Houser, tenor Thomas Leighton, and baritone Keith Phares—for the concluding work on our season, Orff’s massive Carmina Burana, a powerful setting of texts from medieval Germany.


Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

The Pines of Rome


The Pines of Rome was composed in 1923-24.  The first performance was on December 14, 1924, in Rome.  It has already been performed six times previously—between 1956 and 2008—at these concerts.  Duration  21:00.


The “Roman trilogy” of Respighi—the most successful Italian composer of his generation—includes three large symphonic poems that are easily his most famous works:  The Fountains of Rome (1916), The Pines of Rome (1924), and Roman Festivals (1928).  In these works, the composer creates a sonic portrait of his city—from Fountains, celebrating the great Bernini monuments, to the wild revelry of Festivals, Respighi paints a colorful, programmatic picture of the Eternal City.  For the central work, The Pines of Rome, Respighi uses images of the ancient trees that line Rome’s parks and promenades to spur on four programmatic episodes.  The four movements are played without pauses.


In the score, Respighi provides the following description of the first section, Pines of the Villa Borghese:  “Children are at play in the pine grove of the Villa Borghese, dancing ‘Ring around the Rosy’; they mimic marching soldiers and battles;  they chirp with excitement like swallows at evening, and they swarm away.”  The music is appropriately light and high-spirited, with quick woodwind and horn lines beneath trumpet fanfares.


For Pines near a Catacomb, he turns to a much darker, “quasi-Medieval” texture.  Respighi was fond of using Gregorian chant or chant-like themes in his orchestral works, and the Lento second movement begins with a quiet chant that builds gradually towards a tremendous orchestral statement near the end of the movement.  Here, we see “the shadows of the pines that crown the entrance to a catacomb.  From the depths rises a dolorous chant which spreads solemnly, like a hymn, and then mysteriously dies away.”


In his description of Pines of the Janiculum, the composer notes:  “There is a tremor in the air.  The pines of the Janiculum hill are profiled in the full moon.  A nightingale sings.”  This is profoundly calm and quiet night-music, carried by the softer voices of the orchestra throughout.  At the very conclusion, a recording of a nightingale’s singing is added to the orchestral texture—probably the very earliest instance of a composer using prerecorded sounds in a concert piece.


The final section is titled Pines of the Appian Way.  Respighi gives the following colorful description of an ancient Roman army on the march:  “Misty Dawn on the Appian Way.  Solitary pines stand guard over the tragic countryside.  The faint unceasing rhythm of numberless steps.  A vision of ancient glories appears to the poet;  trumpets blare and a consular army erupts in the brilliance of the newly risen sun—towards the Sacred Way, mounting to a triumph on the Capitoline Hill.”  The movement opens quietly, with a slow and inexorable march, but builds gradually towards an enormous brassy peak (with several brassy knolls along the way…).  To create this picture of Roman military might, Respighi’s score calls for six bucinae—Roman war trumpets.  [Note:  He also provides the helpful suggestion that modern trumpets may be used if bucinae are not available!  -MA]


Carl Orff (1895-1982)

Carmina Burana                                                                 


Orff’s Carmina Burana was composed between 1935 and 1936, and was premiered in 1937, in Frankfurt.  This is the sixth performance by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Symphony Chorus: previous performances were in 1956, 1968, 1989, 1998 and 2007.  Duration 59:00. 


During the 12th and 13th centuries, a tremendous body of Latin and vernacular poetry was created by poets collectively known as “goliards.”  To group them together under a single name is misleading, however, for the goliards were drawn from every rank of society.  The poets include prominent churchmen such as Walter of Châtillon (1135-1176) and Philip, Chancellor of the University of Paris (d.1236), as well as now-nameless students, vagabonds, and jongleurs.  The poetry is just as variable: there are moralistic and fervidly religious poems, as well as secular lyrics that range from love songs (including worshipful courtly love lyrics, bawdy love songs, and frankly homosexual poetry) to humorous stories and raucous drinking songs.  The most famous collection of goliard poetry is the Carmina Burana (literally “Songs of Beurn”), a 13th-century collection of over 200 poems that was compiled at the Benedictine monastery in Benediktbeuern, south of Orff’s home town of Munich.  This richly-illuminated manuscript was probably compiled for a wealthy abbot of the monastery.   Most of its poems are written in Church Latin, but there are several poems in a Bavarian dialect of medieval German, and a few poems that are partially in French (for example, no.16 in Orff’s setting).


Carl Orff's “secular cantata” on texts from the Carmina Burana is certainly his best-known work.  Orff is a familiar name to many music educators—he was the creator of a systematic method of music education for children, and the composer of an important body of Schulwerk, or educational music.  He enjoyed success as a composer in Germany, but aside from Carmina Burana, few of his concert or stage works are heard in this country.


The part of Orff’s biography that is most fraught with controversy is his relationship with the Nazis.  Unlike German contemporaries like Hindemith and many others who fled the Nazi regime, Orff remained in Germany and thrived as a composer throughout the late 1930 and the war years.  The spurious claim that he himself was a Nazi has been raised more than once.  Carmina Burana, composed in 1935-36, is the earliest of Orff's acknowledged works—in 1937, he withdrew from publication everything else he had composed up to that time.  (He also seems to have carefully suppressed evidence that he was associated closely with playwright Bertholt Brecht in the 1920s and early 1930s—as detailed in a 2000 article by Kim Kowalke, Orff had assisted Brecht in several productions, and clearly considered Brecht a mentor.  But in 1933, Brecht fled Germany and his works were considered suspicious.)  Carmina Burana represents a fairly new and simpler musical style that was perfectly in keeping with Nazi cultural policies promoting music that was uplifting and celebrated the spirit of the German Volk, and its texts were also in accord with the idealized view of medieval Germany promulgated by the Party.  Most controversial of all, Orff agreed to compose a set of incidental pieces for a 1939 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Frankfurt—music intended by the cultural authorities to replace the standard incidental pieces by the Jewish-born Felix Mendelssohn. (Orff later regretted this decision.)  What most of Orff’s biographers agree upon is that, if he was guilty of anything during the Nazi regime, it was that he had a good sense of the cultural climate and successfully promoted himself.  There is, however, no good evidence that Orff or any of his close associates ever actually became members of the Nazi Party, or subscribed to its ideology.


The musical style of Carmina Burana and much of Orff's later work owes a great deal to the neoclassical music of Stravinsky, and echoes of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Les Noces are clear.  Orff's style is harmonically simple, with ostinato rhythmic figures repeated over long static harmonies—the entire choral prologue, for example, is set above an unchanging D in the bass.  The orchestration is simple, yet colorful:  Orff shows a preference for percussive effects that highlight the accents of the text and his own rhythmic figures.  Melodic figures are short and frequently repeated, with very little development. There are also moments of pure Romanticism, however, particularly in the baritone’s solo lines.  The melodic material used in Carmina Burana is, without exception, Orff's own—he did not use any of the relatively few extant melodies preserved with goliard poetry.  The end result is striking: his settings of these 700-year-old lyrics are imbued with both freshness and mystery.


In speaking about his aesthetic philosophy, Orff remarked that: “I am often asked why I nearly always select old material, fairy tales, and legends for my stage works.  I do not see this material as old, but rather as valid.  The time element disappears, and only the spiritual element remains.  My entire interest is in the expression of these spiritual realities.  I write for the theater to convey a spiritual attitude.”  This sensitivity to the underlying timbre of the text is readily apparent in Carmina Burana.  Orff chose thoroughly secular poems, and his ordering of these texts reflects a deep understanding of the medieval spirit. 


The 24 texts are arranged into three large sections:  I. “Spring,” II. “In the Tavern,” and III. “The Court of Love,” and each of these sections is further divided. The first two texts, serving as a prelude to Section I, deal with the most potent symbol of medieval life:  the Wheel of Fortune.  In countless manuscript illuminations—including a prominent page in the original Carmina Burana manuscript—this wheel is shown being manipulated by a capricious Lady Fortune.  Fortune’s Wheel alternately raises and lowers the kings, churchmen, and peasants who cling to it. Section I, “Spring,” reflects an idealized and mythological view of Nature and Springtime.  Spring was an important medieval metaphor—both for resurrection and for youth—but here the enjoyment of the season is purely sensuous.  In a subsection, titled “On the Green” (nos.6-10), the outdoor spirit is directed towards thoughts of love and dancing.   This subsection contains the only purely orchestral music in Carmina Burana:  an instrumental Tanz that opens the section, and a Reie (round-dance) inserted before the chorus Swaz hie gat umbe ("Those who go round and round").  The four numbers set in the tavern give four different perspectives of medieval merrymaking:  drunken musings, feasting (sung from the perspective of the “feastee,” a roasted swan!), a satire of a drunken clergyman (who invokes the spurious St. Decius, patron saint of gamblers), and finally the drunken and entirely democratic free-for-all of In taberna quando sumus ("When we are in the tavern").  The third and longest section, “Court of Love,” reflects the twofold conception of love common in medieval thought.  We hear both the lofty ideal of courtly love—chaste longing for an unattainable lady heard in Dies, nox et omnia ("Day, night, and everything")—and openly erotic love in Si puer cum puellula ("If a boy with a girl").  In most of the texts, these two threads are cunningly woven together.   This section ends with “Blanchefleur and Helen” (no.24), a single poem, praising Venus in the same terms often reserved for addresses to the Virgin Mary.  A repeat of the opening chorus, O Fortuna, serves as a postlude.  In returning, Orff neatly encircles Carmina Burana within Fortune’s Wheel.


program notes ©2016 by J. Michael Allsen