Composer Anna Clyne. Photo by Jennifer Taylor

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) continues its digital season April 8th through May 8th with an on-demand program of four short works that showcase the SLSO string section under the direction of SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève. The title of the concert, “The Heart of the Matter,” reflects not only the fact that the strings are often regarded as the heart of the orchestra, but also the powerful emotional content of all four of these works.

Anna Clyne
Photo: Christina Kernohan

In my preview of an earlier SLSO digital offering, I noted that the emotional state of a composer sometimes has little to do with the content of their work. In this program, though, the connection between art and life is quite close.

The opening piece is an excellent example. As SLSO Communications Manager Caitlin Custer writes in her program notes, London-born composer Anna Clyne was working on an “energetic, chaotic” piece in the spring of 2009 when she learned that her mother had died:

“I sat at the piano with a candle and a beautiful photo of her from that week,” she says. “And I just wrote this music over the course of the next 24 hours. It was my instinct to process this by writing music. I felt very close to her through that process of writing.”

The closeness is clearly audible in the music, which begins with a soft, despairing sigh that slowly unfolds and builds to a mix of anguish and even anger—sometimes for the full ensemble, sometimes for individual players. Suddenly, about two-thirds of the way through, there’s an abrupt break, like a pause for breath, followed by something that sounds like acceptance. It’s almost like the five stages of grief described by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying” condensed into fifteen intense musical minutes. Listen to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra recording at YouTube and see if you don’t agree.

Edward Elgar, circa 1900

The mood lightens with Elgar’s “Serenade in E minor,” Op. 20.  With two dance-like movements bracketing a sweetly romantic Larghetto, the “Serenade” is officially dedicated to the organ builder and amateur musician, Edward W. Whinfield. The real spirit behind it, though, belongs to Elgar’s wife Alice, for whom he wrote it as a kind of third wedding anniversary present and who, as the composer noted in his original manuscript, “helped a great deal to make these little tunes.” Like the rest of the works on the program, the “Serenade” is so popular that you have almost certainly heard it many times, but if not, Timothy Judd’s Listeners’ Club blog has links to a complete performance by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder, along with a details analysis of each movement.

Speaking of familiar music, the odds that anyone reading this has not heard the next item on the menu often enough to hum it are likely quite roughly the equivalent of the proverbial snowball in Hades. Tchaikovsky’s “Andante Cantabile” started out life as the second movement of his first major work, the 1871 String Quartet No. 1. The quartet was a hit and the second movement so moving (it supposedly brought Leo Tolstoy to tears) that it soon had a life of its own as a work for solo cello and string orchestra.

The program for this concert makes no mention of a cello soloist, though, so I have to assume this is an arrangement for string orchestra only. In any case it is, to borrow some words from Keats, “a thing of beauty and a joy for ever.”

Giacomo Puccini
See page for author,
Public domain,
via Wikimedia

The last work on the concert brings us full circle with a work written as a memorial. Puccini’s 1890 “I Crisantemi” (“The Chrysanthemums”) was written, as the composer wrote in a letter to his brother, in a single night in response to the news of the death of Puccini’s friend Amadeo di Savoia, Duke of Aosta. Originally scored for string quartet, it’s often heard in a string orchestra version as well, which is presumably what’s on the program here. Regardless of the arrangement, the piece has proven to be popular with both audiences and the composer himself, who re-used both of its themes in his 1893 opera “Manon Lescaut.”

And in case you’re wondering “why chrysanthemums?”, the answer is that in Italy the flower is commonly associated with death, somewhat the way lilies are in the English-speaking world. “During the period leading up to November 2,  Il Giorno dei Morti, or Day of the Dead,” notes the “Italian Connections” blog, “Italians flock to the cemeteries to commemorate their dead, very often leaving chrysanthemums at a gravesite.”

The Essentials: From April 8th through May 8th, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Stéphane Denève, presents an on-demand digital livestream of music by Anna Clyne, Edward Elgar, P.I. Tchaikovsky, and Giacomo Puccini.  Details are available at the SLSO web site.

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