The Hebrides, OP.26 (“Fingal’s Cave”)

Felix Mendelssohn
Born 3 February, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany
Died 4 November, 1847 in Leipzig, Germany

Johannes Brahms once observed, “I would gladly give all I have written, to have composed something like the Hebrides Overture.”  While is is very much to our advantage that no such sacrifice was necessary, Brahms’s assessment of this youthful Mendelssohn overture is certainly deserved.  This paean to Scotland’s rugged northern beauty is a masterpiece on a level with Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony and Violin Concerto.  Mendelssohn’s biographer Heinrich Jacob wrote that the overture “brings the perils of nature straight into the concert hall, and the audience is forced to respond on the sheer physical level.”

Mendelssohn traveled to the British Isles for the first time in 1829, accompanied by his friend Karl Klingemann.  Their journey included an August visit to the Hebrides Islands off the northwest coast of Scotland.  The rocky beaches and dramatic seas made an enormous impression on the young composer.  He sent his family a letter with a few measures of sketched music, declaring that this would help them to understand how deeply the Hebrides had affected him.

Mendelssohn is said to have jotted down that music — the opening B-minor theme — upon first seeing Fingal’s Cave, a remarkable structure hollowed out by the sea on the isle of Staffa.  The grotto has a series of columns balanced in symmetry almost as if an architect had designed them.  Discovered in 1772, Fingal’s Cave was still a relatively new wonder of the world when Mendelssohn and Klingemann visited it a half-century later.  The cave lent its name as the overture’s alternate title; in fact, Mendelssohn changed the work’s name on two intervening occasions as he revised it between 1829 and 1835.

The overture is full of surprises, beginning with the swirling power of the opening theme.  As music evocative of the sea, The Hebrides was a powerfully influential work whose impact stretched from Wagner (The Flying Dutchman) and Smetana (The Moldau) on to Debussy (La Mer); indeed, Wilfred Blunt goes so far as to call Mendelssohn’s overture an anticipation of impressionism.  The composer’s customary gift for orchestration is superbly in evidence, for example in the rich sound of the cellos to announce the glorious second theme, and the delicate snippets from the winds in the development section.  Mendelssohn reserves a final surprise for the closing measures, where a quiet postscript from clarinet and flute reminds us, through an allusion to the opening theme, that the sea is eternal.

The score calls for woodwinds, horns, and trumpets in pairs; timpani, and strings.


Night Ferry

Anna Clyne
Born 9 March 1980 in London
Currently residing in New York City

9/20/11 1:47:01 PM — Chicago Symphony Orchestra Mead Composer in Residence Anna Clyne’s studio and new work. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2011

Not yet 40, Brooklyn-based Anna Clyne has already served as composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Berkeley Symphony, and l’Orchestre National d’Île-de-France. She currently teaches at Mannes/The New School in Manhattan, and stays busy fulfilling commissions. The current season includes Clyne premieres by l’Orchestre National de Lyon, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and the Calidore String Quartet.

She completed her first composition at age 11, subsequently pursuing formal music study at the University of Edinburgh. Clyne also earned a Master’s in Composition from the Manhattan School of Music. Her teachers included Marina Adamia, Marjan Mozetich and Julia Wolfe.

Clyne works in both acoustic and electro-acoustic music. Night Ferry was a direct product of her Chicago Symphony residency. She explains its background and title in her composer’s note, which appears in its entirety here.

* * * * *

“I come to ferry you hence across the tide
To endless night, fierce fires and shramming cold.” — Dante

“To those who by the dint of glass and vapour,
Discover stars, and sail in the wind’s eye” — Byron

Night Ferry is music of voyages, from stormy darkness to enchanted worlds. It is music of the conjurer and setter of tides, the guide through the “ungovernable and dangerous”. Exploring a winding path between explosive turbulent chaoticism and chamber lyricism, this piece weaves many threads of ideas and imagery. These stem from Riccardo Muti’s suggestion that I look to Schubert for inspiration as Night Ferry will be premiered with Entr’acte No. 3 from Rosamunde and his Symphony No. 9 (Great).

The title, Night Ferry, came from a passage in Seamus Heaney’s “Elegy for Robert Lowell,” an American poet who, like Schubert, suffered from manic depression:

“You were our Night Ferry
thudding in a big sea,
the whole craft ringing
with an armourer’s music
the course set wilfully across
the ungovernable and dangerous”

More specifically, Schubert suffered from cyclothymia, a form of manic depression that is characterized by severe mood swings, ranging from agonizing depression to hypomania, a mild form of mania characterized by an elevated mood and often associated with lucid thoughts and heightened creativity. This illness sometimes manifests in rapid shifts between the two states and also in periods of mixed states whereby symptoms of both extremes are present. This illness shadowed Schubert throughout his adulthood, and it impacted and inspired his art dramatically. His friends report that in its most troublesome form, he suffered periods of “dark despair and violent anger”. Schubert asserted that whenever he wrote songs of love, he wrote songs of pain, and whenever he wrote songs of pain, he wrote songs of love. Extremes were an organic part of his make-up.

In its essence, Night Ferry is a sonic portrait of voyages; voyages within nature and of physical, mental and emotional states. I decided to try a new process in creating this work—simultaneously painting the music, whilst writing it. On my wall, I taped seven large canvasses, side-by-side, horizontally, each divided into three sub-sections. This became my visual timeline for the duration of the music. In correlation to composing the music, I painted from left to right, moving forward through time. I painted a section then composed a section, and vice versa, intertwining the two in the creative process.

The process of unraveling the music visually helped to spark ideas for musical motifs, development, orchestration, and, in particular, structure. Similarly, the music would also give direction to color, texture and form. Upon the canvas I layered paint, charcoal, pencil, pen, ribbon, gauze, snippets of text from Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” fragments of Gustav Doré’s illustrations for this wonderfully evocative poem, and a selection of quotes from artists afflicted with, and blessed by, this fascinating illness.

The first text written on the canvas, to the far left side, in the bottom left corner reads “from a slow and powerful root…somewhere on the sea floor”. These are a couple of lines, quoted out of order, from Rumi’s poem, “Where Everything is Music.” Copied below is a passage from this beautiful poem, in translation by Coleman Barks. His words unite the profound depth, power and parallels of nature and the human existence, as conveyed in Heaney’s image of Lowell as a “Night Ferry”.

“We have fallen into the place
where everything is music…
This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.

Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge
of driftwood along the beach, wanting!
They derive
from a slow and powerful root
that we can’t see”

In addition to the above, I also found inspiration from the extraordinary power of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Muti’s baton, and also the unique voices of the individual musicians within the orchestra. Writing for an orchestra is usually an anonymous endeavor, but I am in the fortunate position of knowing the musicians and their musical voices through this residency. I found myself not writing solely for the instruments, but for the specific musicians of the CSO. Thank you to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for this wonderful opportunity.

—- Anna Clyne

Clyne scored Night Ferry for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion [glockenspiel, marimba, bass drum, suspended cymbal (with brushes), small Tibetan singing bowl (with cushion and wooden beater), snare drum (with brushes), and crotales (with bow)], harp, piano, and strings.


Don Quixote, Op.35

Richard Strauss
Born 11 June, 1864 in Munich, Germany
Died 8 September, 1949 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria

The novel is the literary genre that dominates our bestseller lists. From Tom Clancy, John Grisham and Umberto Eco to Danielle Steel, Sue Grafton and Joyce Carol Oates, there is something for everybody in the fiction section. It appears that the novel has always been with us, or at least around for a long time. As early as our high school English classes, we were reading Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and John Steinbeck, and perhaps Flaubert and Tolstoi in translation. Novels have a relatively young history in comparison to other literary genres, however, with nowhere near the longevity of plays or poems, both of which can trace their lineage to ancient times. The ‘invention’ of the novel is generally credited to the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), who is still regarded as the most important figure in Spanish literature.

Cervantes’s masterpiece is the two-part novel Don Quixote, whose part I was published in 1605 with the formidable title El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. Its phenomenal success led to part II in 1615: Segunda parte del ingenioso cavallero Don Quixote de la Mancha.  Cervantes, who established his reputation as a dramatist, originally intended Don Quixote to satirize the chivalrous romances that were popular at the turn of the sixteenth century. The plot deals with the misadventures of an aging, idealistic knight who seeks adventures inspired by his excessive readings of such fashionable romantic tales. Among literary scholars, Cervantes’s novel is viewed as a seminal work that wrought a powerful impact on such diverse authors as the eighteenth century English masters Defoe, Fielding, and Smollett, and later novelists including Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Melville, Dostoevsky, and even Joyce. In our culture, the story is best known through Mitch Leigh’s Broadway adaptation in 1965 as Man of La Mancha. The novel has attracted many composers, notably Weber, Donizetti, Massenet and Falla. It found its most eloquent admirer, however, in the German composer Richard Strauss.

By the time Strauss first started thinking about Don Quixote in October 1896, he was a well-established composer and conductor who had already completed a number of successful tone poems, notably Don Juan (1889), Tod und Verklärung (1889), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1895), and Also sprach Zarathustra (1896). He had also completed several important instrumental concertos. Strauss worked on Don Quixote simultaneously with Ein Heldenleben, thinking of that work as his hero-piece, and the hapless Spanish knight as his anti-hero. In a famous diary entry from mid-April, 1897, the composer wrote: “Symphonic poem Hero and World [Ein Heldenleben] begins to  take shape; as a satyr play to accompany it–Don Quixote.” Among other things, this reference makes clear that Strauss thought of the two compositions as companion pieces of entirely contrasting character.  If Ein Heldenleben is Strauss’s most self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing work, Don Quixote is his dry combination of satire and sympathy, over-the-top in its descriptive ploys to deliver the old knight in more than three dimensions.

Don Quixote is singular in its combination of the solo element with vivid pictorial musical writing. Strauss’s form is indicated in his subtitle, “Fantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Charakters” — ‘fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character.’ Consisting of an introduction, ten variations and an epilogue, Don Quixote is a hybrid of orchestral variations, symphonic poem, and concerto. The work actually has two protagonists, plus the love interest Dulcinea. The cello assumes the title role, and clearly dominates the musical narrative. Solo viola illustrates the knight’s more practical squire, Sancho Panza. (Occasionally tuba and bass clarinet also depict Sancho Panza.) And, in variation VI, the part of the peasant girl Dulcinea is allotted to solo violin. Their actions and interactions drive the music. Thus Don Quixote cannot be neatly categorized with Strauss’s other symphonic poems, even those also rooted in literature. “I don’t regard the piece exactly as storytelling,” says soloist Christopher Adkins, who has read the Cervantes. “It’s more the exploration of a fascinating character through a series of set pieces, like learning about someone by browsing through the snapshots in his photo album. The exception is the Finale, where the voice of the Don speaks directly.”

Strauss capitalized on the vivid scenes related in the Cervantes novel, reordering them to suit his musical needs. The basic content of Don Quixote’s and Sancho Panza’s adventures furnished him with rich material. After a “once upon a time” introduction that presents his characters, the variations proceed thus:


I.      Adventure at the Windmills
II.     The victorious struggle against the army of the great emperor Aifanfaron (actually a flock of sheep)
III.    Dialogue between the knight and the squire
IV.     Procession of religious penitents
V.      Vigil at night over a suit of armor
VI.     Meeting with Dulcinea
VII.    ‘Flying’ Journey through the air
VIII.   Voyage on a magical vessel
IX.     Skirmish with two mendicant friars
X.      Battle with the knight of the moon

In the most notorious variation, the battle with the sheep, Strauss is taking a swipe at ignorant listeners. His instrumental ‘bleating’ created quite a stir at the 1898 première. In the ‘flying journey’ variation, his use of wind machine, flutter-tonguing in the flutes, snap pizzicato, and harp glissandi was quite innovative. At the end of the piece, the Don returns home, abandoning his pursuit of adventure in favor of a peaceful death.

Strauss scored Don Quixote for piccolo, three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tenor tuba, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, wind machine, small bell, harp, solo viola, solo violoncello, and strings.