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After Wagner, What?
Music at the Turn of the
Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
Sibelius En Saga (1892)
Janacek Jealousy Overture (1894)
Richard Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra (1896)
In a gesture toward the Debussy 150th birthday, the Philharmonia and Hugh Wolff, Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras, set the context for and perform Debussy’s profoundly influential work, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. In the late 1890s, just before and just after Faune, composers seemed to be approaching the limits of possibility within traditional symphonic structure. Although Sibelius and Janacek were exploring the opportunities opened up by their ethnic musical traditions and Strauss was creating programmatic works such as the tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, they were still composing large scores, thickly orchestrated, with traditional tonality stretched to its harmonic and structural limits.
Then came the pellucid Faune and, shortly thereafter, Pelleas et Melisande and La Mer. In these, Debussy unlocked the gates to extraordinary new worlds. Traditional structure and harmonies were exploded as the composer adopted modal harmonies, whole tone scales, forms based not on repetition but continuous variation, and revolutionary new emphasis on color and texture. Debussy’s legacy has extended through Stravinsky, Bartok, Webern, to such 20th and 21st century composers as Benjamin Britten, Henri Dutilleux, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez—not to mention jazz figures including Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Miles Davis and Bill Evans, and even pop artists such as Frank Zappa.
Composed at the end of 1894, the Jealousy Overture was originally intended to preface Janacek’s opera Jenufa. The composer took as its theme the Moravian brigand's song Zarlivec (The Jealous Man), which ends with the lines "I would rather cut off your head than let another love you when I am gone." Although hints of that song recur throughout the opera, the Overture was never used with the stage work. But the atmosphere of the opera is reflected in the Overture’s tempestuous spirit.
In the late 1800s, as Finland struggled to escape Russian hegemony and as middle European countries similarly struggled to proclaim their national identities, Sibelius began writing works inspired by the greatly beloved Finnish myths (particularly the Kalevala). In 1892, he composed the epic Kullervo Symphony, which then prompted conductor Robert Kajanus to suggest he write another symphonic work. En Saga was the result. It has no specific “programme”, but Sibelius called it “a Story” or “a Fairy Tale” although he never revealed the plot. He said, “It represents a state of mind. I had recently undergone several painful experiences, and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely”. One commentator has called this “an adventure in an inner landscape, a psycho-drama.”
Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical treatise of the same name. It is divided into nine sections that correspond to chapters in Nietzsche's book. Perhaps the most famous is the opening fanfare--the Introduction or Sunrise. It begins on a low C played almost below auditory level by the double basses, contrabassoon and organ and rises to an enormous sun-drenched climax. Listeners will recognize it instantly from Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey (in photo), an orange juice commercial, and many other popular adaptations.