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Musically Warning of Climate Change


Wednesday’s Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s Green Concert at the hatch Shell should really be called the Blue Concert, or more precisely, the Aquamarine Concert. Our partnership with the New England Aquarium, engaging Bostonians in dialogue about issues of vital importance to the community, is central to the missions of both organizations.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the jester Trinculo hides from an approaching storm by crawling under a cloak next to Caliban, who gives off “a very ancient and fish-like smell.” To explain his choice, Trinculo proclaims, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” Last summer, we performed music of the twentieth century in order to address the plight of the North Atlantic right whale and the effects of ocean pollution. This year our “strange bedfellows” are Music of the Late Romantic Age and Climate Change.

The New England Aquarium is a global leader in studying the effects of climate change on our oceans—indeed on all of life—as well as in furthering public awareness and public action surrounding these issues:

Climate change is the defining issue of our time. It affects everything on our blue planet—from the smallest single-celled organisms in our oceans, to the biggest whales to, us, humans. In Boston, we don’t have to look further than our backyard to see the impacts of climate change. Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are warming faster than 99% of the ocean. The effects of climate change, from the shifting migration of the endangered North Atlantic right whale to changes in Atlantic cod distribution, are observed every day by our scientists at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.

The story is the same elsewhere in the world. Earth’s coral reefs support more than 4,000 species of fishes, but are rapidly disappearing worldwide, primarily due to warming ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and other human impacts. Perhaps the most serious stress on the oceans today comes from society’s use of fossil fuel for energy, which releases rampant levels of carbon dioxide. This gas builds up in the atmosphere, trapping in excess heat around the globe, and is absorbed by the oceans, changing the chemistry of the water that surrounds and supports marine life. Rampant carbon dioxide is disrupting ecosystems and weakening food webs, changing the oceans at a global scale.

Taking practical, commonsense steps to address problems facing our environment today is in the best interest of future generations. It’s up to all of us to work together to protect the blue planet.

What music adds to the conversation is a connection to our emotional and spiritual natures. If we cannot feel a problem, we cannot fully take it in. Tonight, we perform four highly expressive works, and connect them to aspects of nature. A powerful artistic vision shapes every work, and each comes from a wellspring of goodwill. Whenever there is a need to act, our resolve comes from a foundation of spiritual strength.

Mussorgsky composed A Night on Bald Mountain in a blaze of inspiration over a twelve-day period, completing it on June 23, 1867, St. John’s Eve. He called his first version of the work, St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain. June 24 is the Feast of St. John the Baptist. According to the Gospel of Luke, John was born six months before Jesus. For that reason, St. John’s Day, celebrating John’s birth, was established six months before Christmas, around the summer solstice. In Luke, John is not himself the light, but the one preparing the way for Jesus, the light of the world. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” John told his disciples (John 3:30). The lighting of bonfires, known as St. John’s Fires, marks the Feast of St. John around the world. In addition to their biblical significance, they are thought to ward off evil spirits, reflecting beliefs that predate Christianity. A half year later, the lighting of candles during Advent ritualizes once again the coming light.

The legend of a witches’ sabbath on St. John’s Eve—before the bonfires’ purifying effects have taken hold—is found in many Western cultures. Witches, goblins, and other demons dance on a mountain peak in a blasphemous revelry of licentiousness and debauchery. Understandably, Mussorgsky was drawn to the musical possibilities of such a spectacle. He created three different versions of the work, including two that he intended as scenes in different operas, both of which lay incomplete at his death in 1881. The tone poem was first performed five years later when Rimsky-Korsakov conducted his own revised version. Mussorgsky’s original draft is very different from the Rimsky-Korsakov revision. The original is longer, rougher, and far weirder. I have usually performed Mussorgsky’s original, but the Rimsky-Korsakov Version—which is easier to listen to—is among the best-known works in the literature. And it is the Rimsky-Korsakov version that Arthur Fiedler featured in his 1976 LP, Danse Infernale, along with other works portraying sorcery and the macabre.

Either way, Night on Bald Mountain packs a punch. Its opening bars set the scene: whistling wind, chilling gusts, volcanic rumblings, and the orgiastic frenzy of night creatures. The musical ideas are short, repetitive, and rhythmically charged. They pour down relentlessly as in a high-altitude storm. Soon the bass instruments of the orchestra announce— in a theme of demonic pedigree—the arrival of the God of Darkness.

In Disney’s 1941 film, Fantasia, this loathsome God of Darkness is the unforgettable demon, Chernabog, whose folded bat wings form the peak of the craggy mountain. As Chernabog rises to reveal his enormous wingspan, his fiery yellow eyes lure his minions to carouse with him. Fixing his gaze on their dancing figures—some seductive, some repulsive—he takes his own special pleasure in hurling them one by one into the mountain’s fiery pit. Chernabog was the creation of Vladimir Tytla, who also designed much of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Returning to Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, after the procession of the God of Darkness, the opening music comes to a full stop. It is immediately repeated, but now higher by a half-step, just one note. Horns and upper strings engage in an agitated exchange. They are “gossiping demons,” according to Mussorgsky. Oboe and bassoon put a friendlier face on the gossips, but only briefly, before they are drowned out by strong blasts of night air. Without warning, the music falls silent. Low woodwinds begin the revels anew—cautiously at first, and then with growing confidence—until trumpets and horns erupt in a fanfare-like “music of glorification,” as Mussorgsky called it. Again, the action subsides as the violins introduce an idea that will return, transformed, at the work’s conclusion. Storm clouds gather again, and the principal themes—pandemonium, processional, glorification—pass through the orchestra once more. A clocktower strikes “six” in the distance, signaling the coming dawn, and the demons disperse. Through the early morning mist, the violins play a half-drowsy theme that vaguely recalls the diabolical music. Then, for the first time in the work, we hear a harp, that symbol of radiance and virtue. Clarinet, and then flute, sing a simple folk song as dawn breaks on St. John’s Day.

Mussorgsky once proclaimed Night on Bald Mountain to be, “in form and character, Russian and original; and I want to feel sure that it is thoroughly in keeping with historic truth and Russian folk tradition.” Ralph Vaughan Williams sought these same qualities in his music, striving above all to reflect and extend England’s cultural heritage. He traveled extensively in his homeland, searching for the distinctive sound of the English countryside. Much of his best-known music conveys sounds and sentiments that are distinctly English, especially through the use of folk songs and dances. His Seventh Symphony, the Sinfonia antartica (sic: Italian spelling), claims its Britishness mainly from a different source: English history.

The Origins of Sinfonia antartica

On June 15, 1910, a team of sixty-four men set sail from Cardiff, Wales on a journey to Antarctica in a converted whaling ship, the Terra Nova. The expedition was led by Robert Falcon Scott. From 1901 to 1904, Scott had led a similar excursion that contributed greatly to scientific and geographical knowledge. But that expedition failed to reach the South Pole, falling short by five hundred miles. This time, scientific research remained a priority, but Scott’s primary goal was “to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement,” according to historian David Crane. And now there was greater urgency. Before reaching New Zealand, Scott had received a telegram from the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, notifying him that he too was “proceeding south.” The race was on.

The men spent their first season in Antarctica placing a series of depots and caching supplies along their intended route. On November 1, 1911, they began the 800-mile march from Cape Evans to the South Pole (equivalent to the distance from here to the South Carolina border). With gale force winds and daytime temperatures as low as -40° F, conditions were miserable and progress was slow. The expedition finally reached the Pole on January 17, 1912, only to discover that Amundsen had beaten them there by five weeks. In his diary, Scott wrote, “The worst has happened. All the daydreams must go. Great God! This is an awful place.” On the return journey, all five men of the polar party perished before reaching their supply camp. In his final days, Scott wrote a “message to the Public”: We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.”

In 1947, the Director of Music at Ealing Studios invited Vaughan Williams to compose music for a dramatized documentary of the Terra Nova Expedition, Scott of the Antarctic. The composer was delighted. “He enjoyed films,” his wife Ursula wrote in her biography of him. “He was at first reluctant to commit so much time, but… the strange world of ice and storm began to fascinate him… The idea of great white landscapes, ice floes, the whales and penguins, bitter winds, and Nature’s bleak serenity as a background to man’s endeavour captured RVW’s imagination.”

At times, Vaughan Williams’ music seems shaped into geologic forms: giant mountains of sound, slow-drifting masses of chords, undulating rhythmic patterns, and smoothly polished surfaces. His watery effects are similarly imaginative, conjuring tidal surges, wind-swept seas, breaking waves, and cracking ice floes, while other musical gestures mimic sea life. From the beginning of his work on the film, he intended eventually to refashion his material and shape it into a symphony. Ultimately, he did, completing the work in 1952.

Natural History New Zealand created a film in 2002 to accompany a performance of Sinfonia Antartica by the New Zealand Symphony. Footage includes mountains, glaciers, ice floes, penguins and other sea life, the South Pole, and Observation Hill where the Terra Nova memorial cross was erected in January 1913. The historic footage is not of the Scott expedition, but of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914–1917) led by Ernest Shackleton. The Australian photographer Frank Hurley was a member of that crew, documenting the expedition in flash photography and in motion pictures. The ship is the Endurance, which became trapped in pack ice that eventually destroyed it, leaving Shackleton and his men to continue their journey on foot over the floating ice. The Shackleton tale is a highlight of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, vividly recounted in Alfred Lansing’s spellbinding account, Endurance, a must-read.

The Music of Sinfonia antartica

There are five movements in Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica. In the published score, each movement is preceded by an Epigraph chosen by the composer, shown here above the musical descriptions.

Prelude: Andante maestoso

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite; 
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night; 
To defy Power which seems omnipotent…

Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This… is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

Percy Bysshe Shelley Prometheus Unbound

A brooding slow-paced march begins the symphony. Deep foreboding hangs in the air, as does frozen beauty. Vaughan Williams uses “a few Antarctic shimmerings” (his words) in piano and xylophone to set up a long haunting melody in the strings. A lone female voice rises in the distance, accompanied by a wordless choir of women’s voices. A wind machine—in reality a canvas laid over rotating wooden slats—emulates gusts sweeping off the desolate landscape. Glinting noises from piano, celeste, and glockenspiel lend a sparkle to the otherwise unrelenting monotony. The texture thickens and gathers like storm clouds. Bells toll, the women’s voices return, and, unexpectedly, a trumpet fanfare summons hope. It is a reminder of the heroic aims of the journey. The terrible march resumes, with ever-greater exertion.

Our chorus of treble voices is made up of stars of the Boston vocal scene, who perform with many of our leading musical institutions. Our soprano soloist is the much-admired Cassandra Extavour. There’s something just very Boston about the last line in Dr. Extavour’s biography: “Cassandra is also Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, at Harvard University.” 

Scherzo: Moderato

There go the ships,
And there is that Leviathan:
Whom thou hast made
To take his pastime therein.

Psalm 104

The Scherzo portrays the bumpy progress of the ship, and the watery-icy world that engulfs it. Wind and wave splash across the orchestra. There two principal melodies: the first, carried initially by the horns, has the spirit of an English hornpipe; the second, mainly a string tune, conveys the strange loveliness of that remote world. In the middle of the movement, Vaughan Williams offers a penguin tune: playful, awkward, and amusing in a penguin sort of way.

Landscape: Lento

Ye Ice-falls! ye that from the mountain’s brow
Adown enormous ravines slope amain—
Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice,
And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge!
Motionless torrents! silent cataracts!

Samuel Taylor Coleridge Hymn Before Sunrise, in the Vale of the Chamouni

The first half of Scott’s eight hundred-mile trek to the Pole traversed the Ross Ice Shelf, a magnificently austere expanse of floating glacial ice, roughly the size of France. It extends as far as the eye can see: white on white and unremittingly bleak. The music somehow manages to be both constantly in motion and utterly static. Horns wander about in an aimless meander, while flutes sing the droning call of an Antarctic bird. High instruments swirl with the motion of minute particles, and low instruments stride in massive descending steps. As the movement approaches its principal climax, an organ enters the sonic picture, and brass and woodwind begin to assume the characteristics of an English choir. Vaughan Williams alludes to the English choral tradition here, suggesting that the glaciers are like vast cathedrals of ice, with their own sacred solemnity.

Intermezzo: Andante sostenuto

Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

John Donne The Sun Rising

This movement brings welcome relief. The music is taken from two separate scenes in the film. The plaintive oboe theme—in the English pastoral style—comes from a moment in the country home of Dr. Edward Wilson. Wilson was chief of the scientific staff of the Terra Nova Expedition, and was a member of the polar party, all of whom perished. An affectionate moment between husband and wife is colored by dark premonitions as she perceives that his love of science outweighs his devotion to their domestic happiness. Vaughan Williams also uses music from a scene in which the suffering Captain Lawrence Oates—so badly frostbitten that he is unable to continue—leaves his tent and intentionally walks into the bitter cold to his death. This music, occurring about two-thirds of the way through the movement, is a variant of the tolling bells and laborious march music of the first movement. At the conclusion, the pastoral music returns in the winds and cello.

Epilogue: Alla marcia, moderato

I do not regret this journey… We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint.

Captain Scott’s Last Journal

The Epilogue begins with a thunderous stroke in the timpani and a theme signaling adventure in the brass, answered by the whole orchestra. The final movement presents a series of winding melodies to summarize a range of feelings. The opening march is among the tunes Vaughan Williams revisits, but it has now become more energetic. The sound of the women’s choir returns briefly. The arduous pace returns, and the music builds to a heroic statement of the march tune—surely a tribute to Scott and his men. The final moment is given to the desolate sound of solo soprano and female chorus, their otherworldly intimations recalling the haunting final bars of Holst’s The Planets.

We are privileged and excited to partner with one of our Trustees, former Boston Globe Reporter David Arnold, on a project that brings together all the strands of tonight’s program. After intermission comes a stunning photographic essay he has created for this concert, Then and Now: Changes from Above and Below. It comes in two parts. The first deals with glaciers; the second with coral reefs. It is set to Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Never has that American masterwork been put to greater use, with an effect that is at once awe-inspiring and devastating.

What does the Barber Adagio for Strings mean? Virgil Thomson once hypothesized that it was a “detailed love-scene… and a successful one.” The jazz trumpeter Charles Turner called it “our national funeral music.” It made the cut on “Body Burn: 18 Classics to Get Yourself in Shape.” The film director David Lynch reported that he was lying on his sofa one day when he heard the Adagio on the radio, and “within a few milliseconds the whole final scene of The Elephant Man unfolded inside my head.” It is impossible to say what the Adagio for Strings means. The clearest description, and the most germane, came from Aaron Copland. He said all that really matters: “it comes straight from the heart.”

David Arnold explains how his work came about: “As a reporter at the Boston Globe, I wrote several news stories about the aerial photography projects of the late Bradford Washburn. I wondered if I could replicate Washburn’s work. If the ice was melting, comparisons would document it. I returned to a dozen locations in Alaska and the Alps where from the mid-1930s to the 1960s, Dr. Washburn—dressed in full winter garb—photographed glaciers with a 50-pound large-format camera while hanging out the cargo door of an airplane with a temperamental engine. I photographed with a camera held in one hand inside the open passenger window of a heated Cessna.

“The coral photographs compare scenes in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean Islands. The early shots date from 2005 to as early as 1970 when underwater photography was in its infancy. My greatest hurdles: Could the scene be found again? Was the same location obvious? Were local dive masters—paid by an industry catering to tourists—willing to cooperate when the message was bad? Then and Now has been synchronized to the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. It would be hard to pick a more heart-breaking orchestral lament. But the final images in the series document hope, including images taken locally. They are a reminder that when we put our minds to solving the seemingly insolvable, we rise to the challenge.

“All photographs are copyrighted: the early glaciers by the Museum of Science Archives; the early corals by Jerry Greenberg, Paul Humann, Armando Jenik, Steve Lucas, Jim Scheiner, and Bill Harrigan; and the “today” shots by David Arnold. See for details. This project, which is ongoing, would not have happened without the Washburn family, the Museum of Science, Tony Decaneas and the Decaneas Archive, and Gabriela Romanow.”

In the wake of Barber’s “lament” comes the dark beauty of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7. While the work is radiant at times—as is all of Dvořák’s music (“the sun always shines in it,” the critic Hanslick said)—it is also unmistakably tragic. Dvořák was at a crossroads in his life in 1883. The extraordinary success of his Stabat mater in London recently had elevated his international stature. He felt pressure to produce “serious” work, worthy of the praise Brahms and others bestowed on him. He also was grieving the death of his mother, an experience that must have contributed to the intensity of expression we find in the Seventh Symphony.

Dvořák was never at a loss to think up a good tune. Brahms reportedly told a friend, “I could almost jump out of my skin with envy at the thoughts which come to this man merely by the way.” The profusion of attractive melodies in the Seventh Symphony is remarkable. But while the tunes are plentiful and varied, the design of the symphony is exceptionally compact. There is not one wasted note.

Allegro maestoso

A severity of expression is established from the start. The symphony begins with a single pitch—a low D-natural played by horns, timpani, and basses—out of which the first theme is uncoiled in violas and cellos. It is a forbidding melody in the minor mode. The tune curls back on itself three times only to return to its starting point. With a rhythmically charged three-note rhythm—one that animates the entire movement—the theme leaps to a sharp chord, one that proves an uncomfortable resting place. This is the defining pattern of the whole movement: climaxes accumulate and dissolve quickly, only to rise again with renewed force. It is music of a Sisyphean struggle.

The rising-falling shape is inverted in a companion theme in the solo horn, a cheerful idea that tumbles to a D-natural and lifts elegantly at the end.  When we arrive at the second main group of tunes, at long last “the sun is shining.” A pair of clarinets sing a tune of a type that Brahms, Dvořák’s mentor, might have written. Violins answer with a confidence that keeps the storm clouds at bay for the moment. As we enter the Development section—the shortest Dvořák ever wrote in a symphony—it is unclear which mood will prevail. For a while, Dvořák keeps things uncertain. Once again, storm clouds gather, and suddenly the opening theme returns: this time triple-forte and played by the full orchestra. What had been an exposition of sixty bars is now just six, and the Brahmsian second subject soon returns. The coda begins as the Development did, with uncertainty.  It builds to a catastrophic climax that includes a persistent repeating of the coiling theme. Bits of the tune float like flotsam in the strings and horns. The music finally dies out exhaustedly, in the embrace of a series of D-minor chords, cellos and horns having returned to where they began in the very opening bars.

Poco adagio

Brahms’ Third Symphony was a direct inspiration for this work, just as Brahms’ Second Symphony had been for Dvořák’s Sixth. The sweet hymn-like tune in the clarinets and bassoons that begins this movement recalls the same mood, pace, orchestration, and texture in the slow movement of Brahms’ most recently completed symphony, his Third. An expansive restatement of the hymn-tune in flutes and oboes leads to “one of the profoundest passages of any symphony since Beethoven,” according to Sir Donald Francis Tovey. Searching and prayerful, violins and cellos incline upward and then fall a seventh—just short of a full octave—in long sighs. These gestures are answered by fateful chords in low woodwinds and trombones. Violins ruminate on the moment in passagework that rises for a moment and then falls back, arriving at the cellos’ lowest possible note. The second theme arrives in the solo horn, brightening the mood. The middle section expounds upon all this material, and cycles back to the opening tune, which is now expansive and generously expressive. Following a new iteration of the music Tovey so admired, the hymn-tune returns in the oboe. The conclusion reflects nostalgically on all that has come before. The coda has a valedictory tone similar to moments in Dvořák’s great “American” orchestral works of a decade later, the Cello Concerto and the ‘New World’ Symphony.

Scherzo: Vivace—Poco meno mosso

Even out of context, one bar into the Scherzo and you would know who the composer is. This is Dvořák the country artist. The music is reminiscent of his first international hit, the Slavonic Dances. If you listen closely to the opening, you will notice a subtle countersubject in the cellos, a smoothly sinuous line that contrasts with the bounce of the main subject. When the tune repeats, Dvořák brings the lyrical aspect to the fore in the violins, proving his bona fides as a “song and dance man.” Charming variation upon variation follow. The middle section of the movement begins with a series of rising-falling motives. Another country dance ensues. The stresses here are displaced by a beat, a common trait of Czech folk dance that keeps the dancers on their toes. The bridge back to the opening music is strong and artful, and one of many instances in which this symphony boasts not just attractive features, but good bones.

Finale: Allegro

In creating finales for his symphonies, Dvořák often struggled to make effective closing arguments. That is, until this symphony. The special challenge of a finale is to counterbalance the weight and intensity of previous movements—especially the first—while still providing closure. If a first movement generates so much excitement that it leaves unfinished business, so much the better. But a finale must create the impression that there is nothing more to be said. Before Beethoven, final movements tended to be light in mood, less complicated than first movements—like musical desserts. But Beethoven changed all that. He was inclined toward the grand statement, and often fashioned his finales as moments of apotheosis. The finale of the Ninth Symphony is a perfect example, the ‘Ode to Joy.’

The final movement of Dvořák’s Seventh begins with profound eloquence. A theme launched with an upturned octave lands on a painful dissonance, then retreats to the shadows. Then a chorale-like melody in the strings hovers over a repeating A in basses and horns. This music is encoded: it is about human mortality. It is part of a long tradition of funereal songs that have the same general shape and sound. This particular melody recalls Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” Fresh music of great agitation leads to a restatement of the opening idea, this time led by the woodwinds. A companion theme in the strings injects new rhythm and vigor, and provides welcome solidity to the structure. The second main subject is a swinging theme in the cellos that breathes Bohemian air. The Development section—where familiar ideas are presented in unfamiliar ways—makes use of all of the principal themes. Solo clarinet begins with a hint of the movement’s opening gesture; strings pluck—rather than bow—the funereal theme; and woodwinds sing out a variant of the swinging second subject. Once again, the athletic music brings us to a moment of transition, and the Reprise begins full-force in the whole orchestra.

Very few symphonies end in the minor key, much less in a state of tragedy, but this one does. Although it is certainly grand, the ending is not happy. After one last agonizing statement of the opening theme, the orchestra sings “Amen” and settles into the symphony’s final chords. They are major chords, to be sure, not minor chords. But here Dvořák is following a centuries-long tradition of concluding minor-key works with that crucial middle note of the triad, the third, raised by a half degree. This so-called “Picardy third” always seems to bring an added sense of closure. And real closure is what Dvořák needed to make this turbulent and complex finale sound final.

Christopher Wilkins was appointed Music Director of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in the spring of 2011. Since then the orchestra has helped reaffirm founder Charles Ansbacher’s vision of making great music accessible to the whole community.

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