Program Notes for November 17, 2016

Program notes written for Ithaca College Sinfonietta’s concert on February 5, 2017.

Polovtsian Dances

Alexander Borodin is one of the most interesting composers. He was not only a widely respected organic chemist in his day (he is co-credited with the discovery of the Aldol reaction) but he also composed one of the most famous Russian operas (Prince Igor), adopted children, and was an activist for women’s rights (especially in equal education). In pursuit of that cause, he founded the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg. He died while apparently having too much fun dancing at a ball before being able to complete Prince Igor, a side project he had been working on-and-off for the last 18 years of his life.

The name “Polovtsian” comes from the old Russian word for the nomadic tribes of the Eurasian steppe in the 11th and 12th centuries. The Eurasian steppe is the stretch of temperate grasslands from western Hungary all the way to eastern China and North Korea along the southern border of Siberia. As the 17th number of Prince Igor, Borodin’s diverse musical ideas depict the Polovtsian slaves dancing and singing for Konchak (a Polovtsian ruler) and his prisoner, Prince Igor, at the end of Act 2.

Waltz from Serenade

On September 21st, 1880, Tchaikovsky wrote to his donor and close friend Nadezhda von Meck that he was feeling restless and unwell after a few days of vacationing. Then, Tchaikovsky wrote “Today I could not bear it and endure it no longer, and I busied myself a little with designs for a future symphony . . . I immediately began to feel cheerful, well and relaxed…” What remedied Tchaikovsky on a restless day in September of 1880 would become one of his most performed and well-loved pieces. This movement, the Waltz, is possibly the most famous of all the movements exuding grace, elegance, and peacefulness.  

Symphony No. 41

This symphony is without doubt one of Mozart’s greatest and most accomplished works. The reverence for this piece has been steadfast since its first performance to the present date by musicians, composers, critics, and audiences alike. Many have called its brilliance unsurpassed even today.

What makes it even more astonishing is that he composed Symphony No. 41 and two other symphonies (Symphonies No. 39 and 40) in just six weeks in the summer of 1788. At this time in Mozart’s life, he and his family were under constant financial struggle, and it is thought that these three symphonies were composed in order to help him lift back into financial security. However, we have yet discover undeniable evidence that Mozart was able to hear these works performed in his lifetime.

Although this symphony is subtitled “Jupiter,” it was not Mozart who coined this nickname. Peter Salomon, a concert impresario in London (the same person who engineered Haydn’s visit to the U.K.—the “London” Symphonies), nicknamed Symphony No. 41 as “Jupiter” in order to advertise the concerts in 1819, 28 years after Mozart’s death. Even though the music itself is not depicting any specific imagery, its association with Jupiter is apt. Jupiter was not only the highest god in the Roman mythology, but its C Major harmonic center was associated with ceremonial and royal occasions of the 18th century and represented Jupiter’s status in the mythological realm. Nowadays, C Major is often dismissed as “all the white notes,” but back then, it was considered a very colorful key full of pomp and majesty as most of the horns and trumpets of its time were tuned—and therefore most effective—in C Major.