A Perfect Combination of Mellow and Pastoral (Williams) with Passionate and Spiritual (Beethoven)
BEETHOVEN’S NINTH AND WILLIAMS’ TALLIS FANTASIA
Last night, Elizabeth and I attended a marvelous performance by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and of Vaughn Williams’ Tallis Fantasia at the Mesa Arts Center.
The program was a perfect combination of mellow, dreamy and pastoral English composer’s “fantasia,” and the deeply moving and spiritual “Ode to Joy”, arguably the greatest piece of music ever written.
It was the first time that Elizabeth had a chance to see and hear Beethoven’s Ninth masterpiece “live.” I was fortunate to be able also to take it in on Dec 30 of last year, performed by the Hawaii Symphony orchestra in Honolulu. It was a perfect way to exit a year on a high note (see http://wp.me/p3R16m-3aa).
“Wow. I had tears in my eyes at the end of the year-ending concert by Hawaii Symphony which featured Beethoven’s 9th symphony – Ode to Joy. And not just at the end. All four movements were masterfully played.
At the end of last night’s performance, the audience was positively ecstatic. You’d think you were at a sporting event judging by the cheering and applause.”
The preceding quote was written on the last day of 2016 about the Honolulu performance. The only thing I can add to that about last night’s concert is, “ditto, ditto.”
Beethoven was almost completely deaf when he composed his Ninth Symphony. Also known as”the “Choral” and “Ode to Joy”, this was Beethoven’s final complete symphony. Finished in 1824, the symphony is one of the best-known works in all of classical music.
Beethoven’s deafness created one of the most touching stories in music. When the symphony was completed, he remained facing the orchestra and could not hear the thunderous applause of the audience for his new symphony. Caroline Unger, th e mezzo-soprano soloist, had to tap the deaf composer’s arm and have him turn around so that he could see how the crowd’s response. Many of those in attendance, including Miss Caroline Unger (a contralto who sang a solo part), had tears in their eyes when they realized the extent of Beethoven’s deafness (for more, about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, see below).
Here’s now a 2013 recording of the final notes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Ode to Joy” at the Royal Albert Hall in London, with audience participation in the singing of the choral part. Pay special attention to the subtitles as they can help explain the deep spiritual emotions Beethoven evokes with this music.
I have a feeling that, were he alive today, Beethoven might have also had tears in his eyes seeing and hearing 5,200 people singing his music in unison. It was not musical perfection. But it was a perfect harmony of hearts and souls.
Here’s now also a full Ninth Symphony, also performed at the Royal Albert Hall, and with English subtitles for the choral parts.
VAUGHN WILLIAMS’ “TALLIS FANTASIA”
As for Vaughn Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, I have been enjoying this 16-minute mellow, dreamy and pastoral music for years on my iPod. Whenever I listen to this music, I have visions of a pastoral English countryside. The music is the wind that goes up and down in intensity and swirls around the hills and forests.
But last night was the first time that I had an opportunity to see it performed “live.” Which provided another dimension to this music.
Elizabeth and I were both intrigued by the orchestra configuration. A large string orchestra looked like any “normal” string orchestra. But then there was a string quartet seated in front of the “normal” orchestra. And then there was another group of strings way at the back of the stage.
The unusual orchestra configuration was also part of Williams design. Vaughan Williams made this configuration resemble an organ in sound, with the quartet representing the swell division, orchestra II the choir division, and orchestra I the great division (for more, see below – ABOUT WILLIAMS’ “TALLIS FANTASIA”).
Here’s now a recording by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis at Gloucester Cathedral, where in 1910, it was played and conducted for the first time, conducted by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
ABOUT BEETHOVEN’S “NINTH SYMPHONY”
Ludwig van Beethoven was almost completely deaf when he composed his ninth symphony. The Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (also known as”the “Choral” and “Ode to Joy”), is Beethoven’s final complete symphony. Completed in 1824, the symphony is one of the best-known works in classical music.
Beethoven’s deafness created one of the most touching stories in music. When the symphony was completed, he remained facing the orchestra and could not hear the thunderous applause of the audience for his new symphony. Caroline Unger, the mezzo-soprano soloist, had to tap the deaf composer’s arm and have him turn around so that he could see how the crowd’s response. Many of those in attendance, including Miss Unger, had tears in their eyes when they realized the extent of Beethoven’s deafness.
It was first performed on May 7, 1824 at the Kaerntnertor Theater in Vienna. The theater no longer exists. Today, on the site of the old theater is the Hotel Sacher, right behind the Vienna State Opera House.
Without knowing this historical tidbit until just now, it is interesting Elizabeth and I were drawn to Hotel Sacher and went there for meals and deserts every day during our May 2014 visit to Vienna. Like the famous Sachertorte (cake see – https://goo.gl/kFIUYm).
And we visited it again several times during our stay in Vienna this year for another Sacher Torte (see http://wp.me/p3R16m-49M).
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ABOUT VAUGHN WILLIAMS’ “TALLIS FANTASIA”
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, also known as the Tallis Fantasia, is a work for string orchestra by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was composed in 1910 and performed for the first time on 10 September that year at Gloucester Cathedral for the Three Choirs Festival. Vaughan Williams himself conducted, and the composition proved to be a major success. He revised the work twice, in 1913 and 1919. Performances generally run between 14 and 16 minutes.
The work takes its name from the original composer of the melody, Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 – 1585). Many of Vaughan Williams’ works are associated with or inspired by the music of the English Renaissance. In 1906 Vaughan Williams included Tallis’s Third Mode Melody in the English Hymnal, which he was then editing, as the melody for Joseph Addison‘s hymn When Rising from the Bed of Death. The tune is in Double Common Meter (D.C.M. or C.M.D.).
The work is scored for an expanded string orchestra divided into three parts: orchestra I, a full-sized string orchestra; orchestra II, a single desk from each section (ideally placed apart from Orchestra I); and a string quartet. Vaughan Williams made this configuration resemble an organ in sound, with the quartet representing the swell division, orchestra II the choir division, and orchestra I the great division. The score specifies that the second orchestra should be placed apart from the first. This spacing emphasizes the way that the second orchestra several times echoes the first orchestra.
In structure, this piece resembles the Elizabethan-age “fantasy.” The theme is heard in its entirety three times during the course of the work, but the music grows from the theme’s constituent motives or fragments, with variations upon them. A secondary melody, based on the original, is first heard on the solo viola about a third of the way into the Fantasia, and this theme forms the climax of the work about five minutes before the end.
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