Holst’s mystical masterpiece — The Planets — offers a spellbinding portrayal of Earth’s celestial neighbors. From the ominous, fierce, and remorseless Mars to the majestic and poignant beauty of Saturn, Holst draws on their astrological traits, personifying each planet based on their mythological character to create seven unique scores that are both timeless and otherworldly. Your Colorado Symphony welcomes back former Music Director Andrew Litton with an opening of Walton’s Crown Imperial — originally composed for the coronation of King George VI — while Denver favorite Natasha Paremski lends her trademark flair to Prokofiev’s romantic Second Piano Concerto, rounding out an evening of ethereal masterworks.
Repertoire & Program Notes
WALTON Crown Imperial
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16
HOLST The Planets
Notes on the Program by Dr. Richard E. Rodda:
William Walton (1902-1983) | Coronation March, Crown Imperial
William Walton was born on March 29, 1902 in Oldham, Lancashire, England and died on March 7, 1983 on Isle of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples. He composed Crown Imperial in 1937; it was premiered at the coronation of George VI in Westmninster Abbey, London on May 12, 1937 in London, conducted by Clarence Raybould. The score calls for piccolo, three flutes, three oboes, English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings. Duration is about 10 minutes.
The startling abdication of King Edward VIII to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson at the end of 1936 transferred the crown of England to his younger brother, George VI. Plans were immediately begun for the public coronation of the new monarch at Westminster Abbey in the spring, and the BBC commissioned William Walton to write a grand march for the occasion. A BBC memorandum expressed complete confidence in the 34-year-old Walton, whose growing reputation had recently been burnished with the successful premiere of his First Symphony: “No one will doubt that his immense technical ability should produce a march of equal value to the existing Elgar marches.” The work, Crown Imperial, was composed in March 1937 and recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Adrian Boult on April 16th. It was broadcast in a performance conducted by Clarence Raybould three weeks later, and publicly premiered at the coronation ceremony, on May 12th, when it was used to accompany the entry of the Queen Mother, Queen Mary. Walton said that he derived the title for Crown Imperial from two sources. At the head of the score, he inscribed the phrase, “In beawtie beryng the crone imperiall,” taken from In Honor of the City of London by the Scottish poet William Dunbar (ca. 1460-ca. 1520), which the composer was setting at that time as a cantata for the upcoming Leeds Festival. As the other source for the name, Walton cited a passage from Shakespeare’s King Henry V, Act IV, Scene 1, which he said had “a whole list of titles for coronation marches”:
I am a king that find thee, and I know
’Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farcèd title running ’fore the King,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world —
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave ...
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) | Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16
Sergei Prokofiev was born on April 23, 1891 in Sontsovka and died on March 4, 1953 in Moscow. He composed his G minor Piano Concerto during the winter of 1912-1913, and was soloist in the premiere on September 5, 1913 at Pavlovsk, a summer resort near St. Petersburg; A.P. Aslanov conducted. The score calls for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings. Duration is about 28 minutes.
Politics was not the only revolution brewing in Russia in the 1910s. A brash, arrogant student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory was helping to forge a new musical language, with a special assault concentrated on that most hallowed of Romantic instruments, the piano. Prokofiev’s iconoclastic views of modern music engendered his piano style, one that broke from the Romantic, lyrical, virtuoso manner of Chopin and Liszt to create a new sound for a new age. Harold Schonberg, in his volume on The Great Pianists, wrote of Prokofiev’s pianism, “Young Sergei Prokofiev, the pianist of steel, came raging out of Russia, playing his own music and startling the world with his vigor, his exuberance, his wild rhythm, his disdain for the trappings of romanticism. Gone were romantic color, wide-spaced arpeggios, inner voices, pretty melodies. Prokofiev at the piano attacked the music with a controlled fury, blasting out savage and complicated rhythms, giving or asking no mercy. He decided that the piano was a percussive instrument, and there’s no use trying to disguise the fact that it had hammers.... The anti-romantic age was under way.”
Prokofiev’s steely piano style was the perfect match for his athletic compositions and his strutting personality. The polite audience of gentry at the summertime premiere of the Second Piano Concerto in 1913 in the fashionable resort of Pavlosk, near St. Petersburg, was “puzzled” by the “mercilessly dissonant combinations,” according to one reviewer. The listeners, disdaining the decorum that they were convinced the young composer had already shattered, greeted the work with a sonorous round of hisses and catcalls. Prokofiev responded with his own characteristic rejoinder: he sat down and thundered through one of his noisiest solo works as an encore. It was not long, however, before his playing and his music gained a wide audience, the fascination and innate musicality of his style sweeping away all initial reservations.
The Second Piano Concerto is a work “full of splinters,” as Prokofiev wrote to Igor Stravinsky. Through its handling of rhythm, melody, and harmony, it achieves a quality of galvanic dynamism unknown in the music of the preceding century. The soloist presents the principal theme of the opening movement; a saucy melody in quicker tempo provides contrast. The formal development and recapitulation of the principal theme are combined into an enormous solo cadenza before the orchestra is recalled to provide a coda. Prokofiev cited the brief but brilliant Scherzo as an example of his “motoric” style, and this movement, is, indeed, a dashing display of perpetual motion. The slower third movement is in Prokofiev’s best nose-thumbing, wrong-note idiom. The opening and closing sections make much use of a chugging bass ostinato, with the middle section given over to music of a more gentle character. The finale is a dazzling showcase for the soloist. The lightning-flash opening section returns to finish the movement, but in between are themes of contrasting character in which the soloist frequently charges forth alone, the orchestra sitting silently amid the pianistic fireworks.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) | The Planets, Op. 32
Gustav Holst was born on September 21, 1874 in Cheltenham and died on May 24, 1934 in London. He composed The Planets between 1914 and 1916; the orchestration was completed early in 1917. The work was first heard at a private performance on September 29, 1918 in Queen’s Hall, London; Adrian Boult conducted. Albert Coates led the public premiere of the work on November 15, 1920. The score calls for two piccolos, four flutes, bass flute, three oboes, English horn, bass oboe, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tenor and bass tubas, timpani, percussion, celesta, two harps, organ, strings, and female choir. Duration is about 50 minutes.
Holst’s interest in writing a piece of music on the attributes of the astrological signs was apparently spurred by his visit in the spring of 1913 with the writer and avid star-gazer Clifford Bax, who noted that Holst was himself “a skilled reader of horoscopes.” Of the music’s inspiration, Holst noted, “As a rule I only study things which suggest music to me. That’s why one time I worried at Sanskrit. Then recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely.” Despite his immediate attraction to the planets as the subject for a musical work, however, he took some time before beginning actual composition. He once wrote to William Gillies Whittaker, “Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you,” and it was not until the summer of 1914, more than a full year after he had conceived the piece, that he could no longer resist the lure of The Planets.
“Once he had taken the underlying idea from astrology, he let the music have its way with him,” reported Imogen Holst of her father’s writing The Planets. The composition of the work occupied him for over three years. Jupiter, Venus, and Mars were written in 1914 (prophetically, Mars, the Bringer of War was completed only weeks before the assassination at Sarajevo precipitated the start of the First World War); Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune followed in 1915, and Mercury a year after that. Except for Neptune, all the movements were originally written for two pianos rather than directly into orchestral score, probably because Holst was then having painful problems with his writing hand due to severe arthritis. For the mystical Neptune movement, he considered the percussive sounds of the piano too harsh, and wrote it first as an organ piece. All seven movements were orchestrated in 1917 with the help of Nora Day and Vally Lasker, two of the composer’s fellow faculty members at St. Paul’s School in London, who wrote out the full score from Holst’s keyboard notations under his guidance.
Holst gave the following explanation of The Planets for its first performance, on September 29, 1918 in London, conducted by Adrian Boult: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no program music in them, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it is used in a broad sense. For instance, Jupiter brings jollity in the normal sense, and also the more ceremonial kind of rejoicing associated with religious or national festivities. Saturn brings not only physical decay, but also a vision of fulfillment.”
The individual movements of The Planets employ a wide spectrum of musical styles in which the influences of Stravinsky, Dukas, Debussy, and even Schoenberg may be discerned, but, according to Imogen, “The Planets is written in Holst’s own language.” It is a language of spectacular variety — a greater contrast than that between the first two movements is hard to imagine. The staggering hammerblows of Mars, the Bringer of War are followed by the sweet luminosity of Venus, the Bringer of Peace. Each of the remaining movements cuts as distinctive a figure as the first two. Mercury, the Winged Messenger is a nimble scherzo that seems, like the fast movements of Baroque music, to be a stream of notes spinning infinitely through the cosmos of which the composer has revealed only a small segment. Within Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity co-exist a boisterous Bacchanalian dance (“the most joyous jangle imaginable,” according to Richard Capell) and a striding hymn tune to which Elgar stood godfather. Hard upon Jupiter, which reportedly inspired the charwomen cleaning the hall during rehearsals for the premiere to toss away their mops and dance a little jig, follow the lugubrious solemnities of Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, the movement Holst declared to be his favorite piece in the suite. This music is invested with a weighty, Mahlerian seriousness that recalls Das Lied von der Erde. Uranus, the Magician is shown as a rather portly prestidigitator who includes perhaps more broad humor than baffling legerdemain in his act. The haunting finale, Neptune, the Mystic, springs from the misty domain of Debussy’s Nocturnes, but possesses an even wispier, more diaphanous orchestral sonority, with the disembodied siren song of the female chorus floating away to inaudibility among the spheres at its close.
©2019 Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Andrew Litton, conductor
Natasha Paremski, piano
Preludes & Talkbacks
Preludes take place at 6:30 p.m. (FRI & SAT) and 12 p.m. (SUN) in Boettcher Concert Hall. This weekend's Preludes are hosted by Assistant Conductor Bertie Baigent who will share insight into the music.
There will be a Talkback on Friday, April 17, 2020.
Transportation & Parking
Boettcher Concert Hall is at the southwest end of the Denver Performing Arts Complex (DPAC) located at 14th and Curtis Streets in downtown Denver. It's easy to find and there are two large parking garages available within walking distance: the DPAC Garage and the Colorado Convention Center Garage. Please arrive early to ensure ease of parking and an on-time arrival. With numerous other events happening at the DPAC all the time, parking fills up quickly. Late arrivals will be seated during the first available break. We strongly encourage alternate forms of transportation.
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