This Oregon Symphony program is an example of a “theme” program which is constructed with intelligence and meaning, and contains consistently great music, sequenced in a way that is startling and tells a story. While the overbearing theme is about “War”, by placing the three pieces in the first half as a continuum without breaks, it forms a seamless narrative: the Ives asks the timeless questions about meaning, the Adams recounts the suffering of war victims, and the Britten opens with a brutal lament and ends with the peace of Requiem eternam. Performing these works without breaks (or applause) in effect unites the three works into a kind of single work in three movements. This first half sets up the anxiety and emotional violence of Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4, written in mid 1930’s as the storm clouds gathered over Europe.
How this works
You can listen to a short excerpt of each piece below for a flavor of the works. To hear the entire program, listen to the live broadcast from Carnegie Hall at the bottom of this post. There is also a list of the program below the recordings. There’s a NYT review of this program and finally, there’s a stream of an interview with Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar talking about this program.
Charles Ives Unanswered Question
The sound is so quiet, so fragile, you have to lean in to hear it. The sound is almost imperceptible and it focuses the ear on straining to hear the texture. Once Ives has your complete attention he introduces short fragments, scraps, phrases, that seem to hover over the background.
John Adams The Wound Dresser
Adams picks up where Ives left off. This is a 1989 setting of verses from a Civil War poem by Walt Whitman.
Benjamin Britten Sinfonia di Requiem
This piece was a commission composed in 1940 to commemorate a Japanese celebration, and Britten, who was a pacifist, made it a work that decries the toll of war. It starts violently and ends in a kind of deep resignation.
Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4
Enough of Britten’s resignation. Vaughan Williams wrote this symphony on the eve of World War II, and it is angry – rude even – with jabs and fits and rage. While the first half of this program contemplates and regrets war, this second half is the rising up of a cry against it.
Listen to the entire concert:
The Oregon Symphony
Karlos Kalmar, conductor
“Music for a Time of War”
|CHARLES IVES||The Unanswered Question|
|JOHN ADAMS||The Wound-Dresser
|BENJAMIN BRITTEN||Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20|
|RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS||Symphony No. 4 in F minor|
Want to add more information about any of the performers, composers or recordings related to this program? Add it to the S4MU wiki page.
Class Discussion Here
Do “theme” programs work? Often programs have spiffy titles, such as “Catchy Classics” or bad puns like “Bach To Baroque.” Sometimes trying to jam music into a program to make a theme work makes the whole thing fake. On the other hand, if a program is well constructed, it ought to leave you with something – an idea, a feeling, a new way of seeing (or hearing) things. And isn’t that the same as a theme? Perhaps a theme is just a construct for an idea, and the theme is only as good as the idea. Do themes make you more or less interested in a program? Or does it matter? Add your voice below.