Program Notes – April 2, 2017 Concert

Concert Details and Tickets for England at Play / England at War
Return to Engaging with the Orchestra


Drew Schnurr (b. 1973): Churchill’s War (world premiere)

On June 4, 1940, Winston Churchill gave one of his most important speeches to the House of Commons. The We Shall Fight on the Beaches speech was made during a particularly dark and uncertain time for Britain during World War II. This speech served as an important bulwark of assurance and courage for the British people during a time when the war was going badly, so badly that many were urging Churchill to appease Hitler. Churchill refused to surrender, though, and his resolve to fight on is compellingly expressed in written prose. The words resonate. More significantly, in hearing the recording of the speech one feels the force of Churchill’s resolve brought alive by the powerful performance of his words.

CHURCHILL’S WAR for Orchestra is the next in my series of works in the realm of music and speech, exploring the inward affect of their shared physical traits (pitch, rhythm, and amplitude). The piece highlights Churchill’s stirring vocal performance, using in the composition melodies inspired by Churchill’s vocal inflections. Occasionally, orchestral sonorities are combined with processed recordings of the speech, weaving together sonic textures and illuminations, viscerally re-contextualizing Churchill’s oration while revealing connections between melody and text.

The musical formations evoke what most importantly binds music and speech together; that is, their common ability to powerfully inspire and transform internal states of feeling in listeners. This piece illustrates the strong connection between the two cultural phenomena. At the same time, it is a tribute to a great speech by a great man who stood his ground, a man who changed the course of human history by the power, and music, of his words.

                                                                                                                         —Drew Schnurr

Read more about Churchill’s War and listen to a recording at Drew Schnurr’s website.


Sir Edward Elgar (6/2/1857-2/23/1934): “Enigma” Variations, Op. 36 (1898-1899; rev. 1899)

World Premiere: 6/19/1899, St. James Hall, London, Hans Richter, conductor.
World Premiere, rev. version: 9/13/1899, Worcester Three Choirs Festival, composer cond.

Variations on an Original Theme in G Minor-G Major for Orchestra, better known as the “Enigma” Variations, put its composer, Sir Edward Elgar, on the musical map. The “Enigma” lies in that theme, an enigma that Elgar would “not explain—its ‘dark saying’ must be left unsaid,” he said, “explaining” the enigma, while “through and over the whole set, another and longer theme ‘goes,’ but is not played.” To the end of his life nearly thirty-five years later, he never did reveal the answer—if, in fact, there ever was one. But that hasn’t stopped scholars and others from coming up with theories.

Revised and “re-premiered” the same year as the world premiere of the original version—its finale variation lengthened and with an organ added to the orchestration—the Enigma Variations, which the composer also arranged for piano solo and piano duo (two pianos-four hands), has each of its fourteen variations depict someone he knew. For example, the first, “C. A. E.,” depicts his wife Alice (Lady Caroline Alice Elgar), while the fourteenth and last, “E. D. U.,” is himself, “Edu” being his wife’s whimsical nickname for him (from the German version of his name, Eduard). The entire score is dedicated “to my friends pictured within.”

These musical portraits had their genesis innocently enough: after a long tiring day of teaching, Elgar came home one evening and plopped himself at the piano. One of his improvisations caught Alice’s attention, and she asked him to play it again. He did and then decided to extemporize a series of variations, styling this theme on friends and acquaintances they knew. This was October 21, 1898, and by February 18 of the following year, he completed what became known as the Enigma Variations.

The most famous of these variations is the ninth: Nimrod. Augustus J. Jaeger, music editor at Novello and Co., was a close friend of the Elgars who always gave honest (if occasionally harsh) criticisms of Elgar’s music. This variation is more a specific anecdote than a musical portrait. Nimrod was a mighty hunter whose story is told in the Books of Genesis and Chronicles in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible. And it was Jaeger (German for “hunter”) who encouraged Elgar to continue composing when Elgar was ready to quit by reminding him that Beethoven had his troubles, too, yet wrote such beautiful music—and Jaeger then proceeded to sing the lyrical theme of the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Piano Sonata to prove his point. Hence, there is a hint of that Beethoven theme at the start of the Nimrod, which Elgar wrote as a way of saying “Thanks!” to his friend for believing in his talent when he himself did not.

The Nimrod variation has taken on a life outside of the Enigma Variations. It is quoted by Elgar in his 1912 choral work, “The Music Makers.” He conducted a performance of it at a May 24, 1912, memorial concert to help family survivors of musicians who lost their lives on the Titanic—in fact, it is quite a popular selection at British funerals and other memorial services. It was played during the formal ceremony that saw England hand back Hong Kong to China in 1997, and was part of the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. British choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton set the entire Enigma score as a ballet in 1968, “Enigma Variations (My Friends Pictured Within).” Despite using the original, shorter finale, this probably would have been approved by Elgar, who always saw balletic possibilities in this work, saying that the Enigma would have to be represented by a “veiled dancer.”

                                                                                                                         —Michael Rydzynski