Georg Friedrich Händel XII 'Alla Hornpipe' (Water Music Suite No. 2 HWV 349)
Bedřich Smetana The Moldau (from: Má vlast)
Paul Dukas L'apprenti Sorcier
Leopold Mozart Schlittenfahrt
Johann Strauss Jr. An der schönen blauen Donau, op. 314 / Pizzicato Polka / Unter Donner und Blitz, op. 324
The Brussels Philharmonic is starting off the new year with the jubilant strings and trumpet sounds of Handel’s Water Music Suite. The work was written to lend even more grandeur to a ‘river party’ organized by King George I on the Thames. This is followed by a voyage along the winding Vltava (Moldau) River in the symphonic poem Vltava by Smetana, and a touch of magic with Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Leopold Mozart’s Schlittenfahrt (Sleigh Ride) carries us off through a snowy winter landscape, complete with bells and the cracking of whips in the background. A swinging transition to airy polkas and catchy waltz tunes by the brothers Johann and Josef Strauss.
Frohes neues Jahr!
Throughout his career, Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) seemed to have a knack for making the right contacts. His talent took him, as a young man, from his home town of Halle to Hamburg, a prosperous and flourishing city where he wrote a number of successful operas. Encouraged by Prince Ferdinando de Medici, he soon travelled on to Italy, the birthplace of opera. There, too, he soon gained access to the ranks of the upper nobility. An important meeting with Prince Ernst August took him to Hanover. There, he was appointed Kapellmeister (conductor) and brought new life to the musical scene in the city, before settling definitively in England in 1717.
Op 17 July of that year, his Water Music had its premiere during a boating event held on the Thames by King George I of Great Britain. The event was described by the British newspaper The Daily Courant as follows: “At about 8 pm, the king and several aristocrats boarded a royal barge at the Palace of Whitehall for a boat trip upstream to Chelsea. Another barge carried 50 musicians. The whole river was covered with the boats and barges of people who wanted to attend the concert. King George I liked the work so well that he caused it to be played three more times, both on the trip upstream to Chelsea and on the way back to Whitehall.”
It is not the Thames, but the Vltava (Moldau) River that plays a key role in the symphonic poem Vltava by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). In this work, Smetana united his love for his homeland with a new trend in Romantic orchestral music: telling a story in music. Thus, each movement of the six-part cycle titled Má Vlast (My Homeland) depicts an aspect of the nature, folklore or history of Bohemia. The cycle is rarely performed in full, but the second part, Vltava, is regularly heard in concert halls.
Smetana himself described the composition as follows: “Two springs pour forth in the shade of a Bohemian forest, one warm and gushing, the other cold and peaceful. Coming through Bohemia’s valleys, they grow into a mighty stream. Through the thick woods it flows as the merry sounds of a hunt are heard ever closer. It flows through green pastures where a wedding feast is being celebrated with song and dance. At night, wood and water nymphs revel in its sparkling waves. Reflected on its surface are castles – witnesses of bygone days. The Moldau swirls through rapids and a waterfall, finally flowing on toward Prague through the historic Vyšehrad (castle). There it vanishes from sight.”
The entire scene can be traced perfectly through the music. At the beginning, two flutes depict the emerging springs. They are joined by ever more and lower instruments, a sign that the stream is growing wider and deeper. A bit later, we hear the brass instruments announce the start of the hunt, and a bit farther, we hear the dance coming from the wedding. After a sudden increase in the river’s flow – the orchestra sounds loud and dissonant – the first theme returns in all its solemnity. Prague is now visible.
Paul Dukas (1865-1935) also wrote a symphonic poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Scherzo after a ballad by Goethe. The work tells the story of a self-willed student sorcerer. As soon as the old master goes out the door, the youngster casts a spell on a broom to help him fill the bathtub with water from the river. But his plan soon gets out of hand: the broom refuses to stop and fills the whole house with water. The apprentice can’t remember how to stop the broom, so he splits it in two, thereby doubling the problem. Just as he is in danger of going under a flood wave, his master returns home and breaks the spell.
Dukas’ talent as orchestrator comes to its fullest expression in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He uses the rich palette of the orchestra’s tonal colours to denote the features of each character. The opening theme immediately sets the tone for the introduction of the disobedient broom – played by the bassoon. Soon thereafter follows a fast melody in the upper strings: the magic makes its entrance. The carefree sorcerer’s apprentice is represented by the woodwinds and the glockenspiel. Walt Disney fell hook, line and sinker for the filmic qualities of the work and in 1940, some 50 years after its composition, immortalized it in his unforgettable animated film Fantasia.
The Viennese waltz has not always enjoyed the popularity it does today, certainly not among elite circles. But at a time when the Viennese waltz was seen as “an inducement to sinful passion”, Johann Strauss the Elder (1804-1849) moved the genre, thanks to his refined orchestration and high-quality performance, from the Viennese taverns to the ballrooms and concert halls. Soon, his son Johann Strauss the Younger emerged as the new ‘waltz king’: he raised the melodic and structural potential of the genre to its highest point. With his waltzes, polkas and marches, he conquered Europe and the United States. Strauss’ most frequently performed work is most certainly On the Beautiful Blue Danube. Strangely enough, this waltz never met with success in Vienna itself. But during a concert for the Paris World Exhibition in 1889, the work was performed as an encore and earned jubilant applause.