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Christopher Wilkins’ Summer Blog- Rhapsody in Green

August 18, 2014

The Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s next free concert at the DCR’s Hatch Shell will take place on Wednesday, August 20 at 7 PM. Here are a few words from Music Director Christopher Wilkins.


One of many traditions begun by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s founder, Charles Ansbacher, that we are pleased to continue is the annual Green Concert. Performing music about nature invites appreciation of the scenic beauty of the Esplanade. It also brings to the oval many long-term partners, people and organizations who help protect the world we live in. We welcome them all tonight.

Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (“The Marksman”) is considered by many to be the first masterpiece of German Romantic opera. The overture sets the scene with slow-moving phrases shrouded in mystery and foreboding. We are at the edge of a dark forest in a small Bohemian town at the end of the Thirty Years War. Four hunting horns offer a contrasting image of the forest, which now appears as a fairy-tale woodland. The horn music presents the vision of a happy, loving existence for the forester hero, Max.

The horns recede, and in their wake emerge low mysterious chords in the strings and deep thumps in the timpani. It is music from the famous “Wolf’s Glen” scene of the opera, in which Max makes a pact with Samiel, the satanic spirit of the wood. The main allegro now begins. It also has a dark and a light side. A shadowy agitated tune associated with the hero in a fearful disposition is followed by the irresistible folk-like song of Max’s love interest, Agathe.

Near the end of the overture, evil is finally vanquished by a full orchestral outburst in C major, the key of purity (having no sharps or flats). The musical language of Der Freischütz influenced the entire development of German Romantic opera. Richard Wagner cited Weber in his own autobiography as a key influence, mentioning the “Wolf’s Glen” scene from Der Freischütz in particular.

Jean Françaix wrote his oboe concerto, The Flower Clock, in 1959 for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal oboist, John de Lancie. The work is built in seven continuous short movements, each of which is named for one of the flowers in a botanical clock designed by Swedish botanist, Carl von Linne (1707-1778), known as Linnaeus. Linnaeus is the founder of the modern botanical classification system still in use today. His Flower Clock consisted of a series of flowers organized according to the time of day at which each bloomed. The work is laid out as if passing through the cycle of a single day. The music shows exquisite attention to detail. It is colorful, attractive and, as with all of Françaix’s music, full of charm and wit.
Edward MacDowell is the best-known American composer of the Romantic era. His Orchestral Suite No. 1 was composed while MacDowell and his wife lived in Boston (1888 to 1896), and was premiered by the Boston Symphony under Emil Pauer. MacDowell’s musical style derives largely from his German training, though his subject matter is often American. The three movements performed tonight (out of the suite’s total of five) provide an excellent example of his imaginative scoring and his penchant for creating beautiful small-scale tone poems inspired by nature.

In 1896, the MacDowells purchased land in New Hampshire on which they built a cabin and set up a writing studio for Edward. It was on this property that the MacDowell Colony was established in 1907. The colony remains a vital force in American arts and letters today. It has been a sanctuary for composers, painters, authors, and sculptors for more than a century.

The Second Symphony of Jean Sibelius is outdoors music. He composed most of it while traveling in Italy, where the Mediterranean air seems to have done his Finnish soul good. Simon Parmet, the Finnish conductor and composer, said about the work: “the quiet inward gaiety of the music shows him in the sunshine, face to face with the miracle of high summer… The Second Symphony is a song of praise to summer and the joy of living.”

Sibelius had an uncanny gift for deciphering the sounds he heard in nature. He once invited a friend on an unusual excursion, a site-listening trip to one of Finland’s natural wonders, the rapids of Imatra. “He had a passion,” Rosa Newmarch wrote, “for trying to hear the fundamental notes of natural forces. The fundamental tone of Imatra no man has gauged, but Sibelius often came away satisfied from his rapt listening.”

Sibelius was not so much interested in mimicking the sounds of nature, but in capturing the mysteries behind natural phenomena. Notes in Sibelius’s manuscript give us other clues as well: parts of the symphony are tied to a dramatic work Sibelius intended to write. In the second movement, for example, the word “Death” appears over a dark phrase in the violas and cellos; and later a reassuring idea in the upper strings is accompanied by the word, “Christ.”

The Second Symphony is music of deep personal experience. It covers an enormous emotional range, including grief, spiritual contemplation, ecstatic outbursts, and yes, “the joy of living.” But as with many works of Sibelius, the awe-inspiring voices of nature can be heard throughout. They ring memorably in the ear, and haunt every listener long after the work’s triumphant final chords have died out.

− Christopher Wilkins

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