A Note About Notes

Program notes for the MAGARÒ, SMETANA & SIBELIUS concert are presented in a slightly different format than you may be accustomed. The three works you will hear – although from three different composers of different nationalities – have several underlying themes that coincidentally permeate each piece. All three works were written in the late Romantic era when personalized expression by implementation of new styles of composition (i.e. breaking the “orderly rules” laid by the fathers of Western music in the Baroque and Classical era) were the norm. Gone were the days when artistic expression was limited to a prescribed template of musical guidance. Composers around the turn of the 20th century experimented with more complex themes, less defined harmonies, and unique orchestration to fine-tune their personalized message to the audience.

The mid to late 19th century witnessed a change the world had never seen before. Communication, including mass communication, between people thousands of miles apart became a usual occurrence. Someone in New York could just as easily relay a message to Philadelphia as a person in London could to Vienna and expect a reply within the hour. With the ever-increasing advances in communication, travel (for both business and pleasure) eventually followed. Companies saw new avenues to expand their horizons into new untapped markets, and individuals saw the promise of a safer and more prosperous life in other developing urban centers. Whole families decided to take the risk and uproot for the chance of a better life. In just a few short decades the world shrunk to a size that previous generations could never have imagined. Accessibility to connectivity was here to stay, bringing with it a plethora of challenges. The gravest challenge was understanding “the other,” “the outsider,” “the foreigner.” Suddenly the foreigner was not some abstract concept of a man wearing different clothes, speaking a different tongue, and having different customs, but someone to do business with, speak to, and even see walking along your streets. An existential identity crisis soon hit nation after nation when “the outsider” was abruptly thrust into their midst as a real person and no longer the safety of a hypothetical man in a far away land.

There were many responses to how different peoples braved this new world of interconnectivity. The politician tended to cater to xenophobia, the businessperson and investor tended to cautiously side with a primal form of globalization, and the religious leader tended to turn inside and discourage their flock from the evils and temptations of the unknown. This all left the artist with the most complicated job of all: to make sense of it and encapsulate this new world in a personalized medium. Many artists indeed had specific agendas to convey an ideology they held dear during this time (Wagner comes to mind). But most took a more holistic approach on what it meant to be an artist from a specific region with national pride during this time in world history. Smetana, Elgar, and Sibelius are all nationalistic composers and certainly wrote for their home audience, but they did not write nationalistic music as we might think of the term today. Nationalism, when applied to art of that era, tended to encompass a multitude of factors, considerations, and angles. Artistic nationalism was an idea that drew from the history, customs, joint experiences, and togetherness of a group of people in a specified region. It was not the type of jejune lockstep nationalism seen post World War II with over simplistic expressions like Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again,” (eventually repurposed more than three decades later by another entertainer-turned-politician), but a nationalism that reflected a deep cohesion of a group of people unified by a common history and natural surroundings. This method was often obtained by incorporating the natural beauty, geographical and landscape significance, and historical dependence the people had to the land.

The three works tonight all speak to the nationalism of a specific region by incorporating the scenic view of that area, but heavily focusing on the water as the natural unifier. Water (a river, a sea, an ocean) was more often than not the lifeblood of a region. A nation depended on water as not only a method of transportation and commerce, but entertainment for gatherings and celebration. The composer’s of tonight’s works speak directly to their fellow countrymen in a way that is hard for us to understand more than a century later. These three knew the circumstance of the world and the history of their region and incorporated facets of national pride and unity of a people bound to the land, living together, developing together, and reflecting fondly on the past as they all band together and move forward to face the brave new world together.

Program Notes by Luke Smith