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Dreams and Themes

Dreams and Themes

February 8, 2025

Violinist Eric Olson performs Vaughan Williams’ transformative "The Lark Ascending", and the orchestra performs Elgar’s powerful and imaginative "Enigma Variations".


An der schönen blauen Donau......Johanne Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899)

The Lark Ascending......Ralph Vaughan Williams (1852-1958)
                 Dr. Eric Olson, violin 


Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 ("Enigma Variations).....Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

    Theme (Enigma: Andante)
    Variation I (L'istesso tempo) "C.A.E." 
    Variation II (Allegro) "H.D.S-P."
    Variation III (Allegretto) "R.B.T."
    Variation IV (Allegro di molto) "W.M.B."
    Variation V (Moderato) "R.P.A."
    Variation VI (Andantino) "Ysobel"
    Variation VII (Presto) "Troyte"
    Variation VIII (Allegretto) "W.N."
    Variation IX (Adagio) "Nimrod"
    Variation X (Intermezzo: Allegretto) "Dorabella"
    Variation XI (Allegro di molto) "G.R.S."
    Variation XII (Andante) "B.G.N."
    Variation XIII (Romanza: Moderato) "***"
    Variation XIV (Finale: Allegro) "E.D.U." 

Program Notes

On the Beautiful Blue Danube, Op. 314 (1866) by Johann Strauss II (1825-1899)
This isn’t a single waltz but a series of five waltzes linked together.  It is the most popular waltz ever written, and it has become sort of a second national anthem in Austria.  In its original version it was a waltz-song, a piece for orchestra and choir.
In 1865, Johann Herbeck, choirmaster of the Vienna Men’s Choral Society, commissioned Strauss to write a choral work; due to the composer’s other commitments the piece wasn’t even started. The following year, Austria was defeated by Prussia in the Seven Weeks’ War. Aggravated by post-war economic depression, Viennese morale was at a low and so Strauss was encouraged to revisit his commission and write a joyful waltz song to lift the country’s spirit. 
Strauss recalled a poem by Karl Isidor Beck (1817-79). Each stanza ends with the line: ‘By the Danube, beautiful blue Danube’. It gave him the inspiration and the title for his new work – although the Danube could never be described as blue and, at the time the waltz was written, it did not flow through Vienna. To the waltz, the choral society’s “poet” Josef Weyl added humorous lyrics ridiculing the lost war, the bankrupt city and its politicians: “Wiener seid’s froh! Oho! Wieso?” (“Viennese be happy! Oho! But why?”). 
The premiere of the Waltz for Choir at Vienna’s Diana Bath Hall took place on February 15, 1867. Considering its subsequent popularity, its reception was somewhat muted (apparently it received only one encore, which in Strauss’s terms equaled a flop). This may have been due to the fact that both the choir and the audience hated the words. But when, later that year, Strauss introduced the waltz in its now familiar orchestral garb to Paris at the World Exhibition, it created a sensation. 
It’s said that Strauss’s publisher received so many orders for the piano score that he had to make 100 new copper plates so that he could print over a million copies. Twenty-three years later, Franz von Gernerth, a member of the Austrian Supreme Court, composed a more dignified text for the melodies of the waltz: "Donau, so blau, so blau" ("Danube, so blue, so blue")
It is interesting to note that Strauss conducted this waltz at his American debut in 1872 with an orchestra of 2000 players and a choir of over 20,000 singers.  (This note was adapted from articles in a 1980 Viennese travel brochure and the pamphlet Johann Strauss in Vienna.)
Enigma Variations, Op. 36 (1898) by Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
The story goes that Elgar, after a hard day of teaching the violin, relaxed by improvising melodies on the piano for the entertainment of his wife.  She was so intrigued by one of the themes that he improvised a several of variations on it.  As he began to write down what he had improvised, he decided to make each variation a general portrait of a friend, identifying each with a musical reference to a specific characteristic or event associated with them.  He called his new composition the "Enigma" Variations, and after the first performance he was asked about the title:
"The "enigma' I will not explain - its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the apparent connection between the Variations and the theme is of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another larger theme 'goes,' but is not played . . . So, the principal theme never appears, even as some dramas [in which] the main character is never on stage."
Another enigmatic aspect of the piece is that at he hid the names of the people he was writing about, identifying them only by their initials.  Later he gave out the names and, in a letter of 1912, hinted that the theme "expressed my sense of the loneliness of the artist."  Reading between the lines of Elgar's comments perhaps the overarching "Theme" of the work is the consolation of marriage and friendship.  Here is a brief synopsis of the work:
Variation 1 (“C. A. E.”), L’istesso tempo. Caroline Alice Elgar was married to the composer in 1889, and according to Elgar, her life “...was a romantic and delicate inspiration.” This section supposedly stays close to the harmonic and melodic outlines of the unheard theme, but hides it with graceful ornamentation and lush orchestration.
Variation 2 (“H. D. S.-P.”), Allegro. Hew David Stuart-Powell was a gifted amateur pianist who often played trios with Elgar (a violinist) and the cellist Basil Nevinson (the “B. G. N.” of Variation 12). The toccata-style figuration probably refers to Stuart-Powell’s habitual warm-up routine, although the highly chromatic melody is probably intended as joke—this pianist was notoriously conservative in his musical tastes.
Variation 3 (“R. T. B.”), Allegretto. Richard Baxter Townsend was an author with a passion for amateur theater. According to his friends, Townsend had an extremely high voice, but loved to play old men in comic roles: growling his lines as low as he could, and suddenly breaking into a high falsetto. There is accordingly a humorous contrast between low and high textures in this variation.
Variation 4 (“W. M. B.”), Allegro di molto. In this variation, Elgar pokes gentle fun at a somewhat pompous country gentleman and scholar, William M. Baker. During one of Elgar’s visits to his home, Baker officiously read an itinerary of the day’s activities and left the music room with an inadvertent slam of the door. The tittering of his guests is heard in the middle of this variation.
Variation 5 (“R. P. A.”), Moderato. Richard P. Arnold, son of the poet Matthew Arnold, is characterized in this section. He is alternately solemn and lighthearted. This variation continues without pause into Variation 6.
Variation 6 (“Ysobel”), Andantino. The viola’s prominent role in this variation refers to Isobel Woods, an amateur violist. The figure given to the violas throughout this section is taken from a beginner’s exercise in crossing strings.
Variation 7 (“Troyte”), Presto. The architect Arthur Troyte Griffith was a boisterous friend and sometime piano student of Elgar’s, although he was apparently not a star pupil. Elgar notes that he tried “ make something like order out of the chaos,” but that “...the final despairing ‘slam’ records that the effort proved to be in vain.”
Variation 8 (“W. N.”), Allegretto. Elgar was associated with Winifred Norbury, an elderly devotee of music, through his connections with the Worcestershire Philharmonic Society. The music depicts both her stately 18th-century home and her characteristic laugh. This variation continues directly into the next.
Variation 9 (“Nimrod”), Adagio. The title is a labored pun on the name of August Jaeger, one of Elgar’s closest friends: “Jaeger” in German means “hunter,” and Nimrod was the “mighty hunter” of the Book of Genesis. This movement is not a portrait of Jaeger’s forceful character, but rather depicts a long conversation between Elgar and Jaeger on the grandeur of Beethoven’s music. Elgar has provided some reminiscences of the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata in the opening bars.
Variation 10 (“Dorabella - Intermezzo”), Allegretto. According to at least one Elgar biographer, he fluttering nature of this section refers to the voice of Miss Dora Penny, an acquaintance of the composer. Elgar himself referred to this as “...a dance of fairy-like lightness.” This section serves as a bridge between the serious Variation 9 and the rowdier Variation 11.
Variation 11 (“G. R. S.”), Allegro di molto. George Robertson Sinclair was organist of Hereford Cathedral, but this music also refers to his bulldog Dan. One day, during a picnic, Dan slipped down a muddy bank into the River Wye, and had to swim for a time, looking for a place to climb out. In the opening bars, you can hear Dan sliding down the slippery slope (in the bassoon), paddling in the water, and barking with joy when he finds a landing-place. The more majestic tones of the brass depict Dan’s master.
Variation 12 (“B. G. N.”), Andante. Basil G. Nevinson, an amateur cellist, was a longtime friend of Elgar’s. In this section the theme is expressively developed by the cellos. Variation 13 follows immediately. 
Variation 13 (“*** - Romanza”), Moderato. Being intentionally enigmatic, Elgar let the asterisks “...stand for the name of a lady who was, at the time of the composition, on a sea voyage.” (In all probability, it was his friend Lady Mary Lygon.) According to Elgar, we hear “...the distant throb of the engines of a liner.” He also quotes a melody from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.
Variation 14 (“E. D. U. - Finale”), Allegro. The stirring finale is about Elgar himself: the initials refer to his nickname, “Edoo.” This brilliant finale certainly presents the composer in an optimistic light. The quotations from Variations 1 and 9 are programmatic: Elgar saw his wife Alice and August Jaeger as the two greatest influences on his life and his music.
(This note collates ideas and descriptions by Anne Branch, Michael Allsen, and Lori Newman.)
Lark Ascending (1914-1920) by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
As described in an old British travel brochure, “One of the most memorable sights of the British countryside in spring and early summer is the courting flight of the skylark. The bird ascends in steps while singing continuously. He hovers for a short while then rises almost vertically to a new point of pause, and them on and up until almost lost from sight. Shelley called the skylark "blithe spirit" and Wordsworth called him the "ethereal minstrel."
The Victorian poet George Meredith in his poem "The Lark Ascending" associates the lark with rural English life.  Vaughan Williams wrote the following lines from Meredith’s poem at the head of the score:
“He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
'Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.”
The lark is depicted by the solo violin. The piece opens with a beautiful pentatonic cadenza, played very quietly and delicately, that describes the hovering flight of the bird climbing higher and higher. The music avoids any tonal center and is written without bar-lines giving the soloist an almost improvisatory freedom to describe the ethereal minstrel. The cadenza returns in the middle and at the end of the work, and the two intervening episodes draw on English folk music idioms. The solo violin combines with the orchestra to become the woods and brooks, the meadows green and the dance of children, blending into an intensely beautiful and idyllic picture of English life.
 The composition was begun in 1914 but was put aside during the first world war. It was completed in 1920 and first performed by its dedicatee Marie Hall on the 14th of June 1921, with the orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult. In many ways the work was an escape from the the hard realities of a changing way of life. A critic wrote of the first performance, "It showed supreme disregard for the ways of today or yesterday. It dreamed itself along". In his dreaming Vaughan Williams creates a picture of a perfect world as he saw it.