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Dvořák: Symphony No 9; Sibelius: Finlandia

Chineke! Orchestra, Kevin John Edusei (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: September 2017
Royal Festival Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Tim Oldham
Engineered by Andrew Mellor
Release date: July 2017
Total duration: 49 minutes 29 seconds

The Chineke! Orchestra—the brainchild of Chi-chi Nwanoku which offers career opportunities to young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe—performs live at London's Royal Festival Hall in new recordings of two much-loved pillars of the repertoire.

Finlandia Op 26
A brief trip to Finland is all that is required to grasp the legendary status that Jean Sibelius has acquired in his home nation. From his long-time home, Ainola, which has become a national museum, it is a mere 30 minute drive to Sibelius park in Helsinki, where sits the Sibelius monument. Budding Finnish musicians attend the Sibelius Academy, partake in the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition and perform his symphonies in Sibelius Hall. Until the introduction of the euro, his portrait was on the Finnish 100 mark bill and Finland’s national Flag Day is now held on his birthday. But how did a musician and composer become a national hero, a position usually reserved for generals, freedom fighters and politicians?

The answer lies with Finlandia, Sibelius’ love letter to the Finnish nation. At the time of Finlandia’s composition, Finland was still a semi-autonomous state within the Russian Empire, a fact that sat uneasily with both native Finns, who saw themselves as a sovereign people, and the Russian Tzar Nicholas II, who, as an absolute monarch, was attempting to crack down on the powers and freedoms traditionally held by the region.

Finlandia began its life as a reaction to this crackdown. After tiring of a free, hostile Finnish press, Nicholas began to shut down his critics by closing one newspaper after another. In reaction to this, Finnish journalists organised a variety show in aid of the press pension fund as a show of solidarity for their out of work colleagues. Sibelius, already a composer of national renown, was approached to provide accompanying music for one of the performances: a series of six tableaux depicting important moments in Finnish history. These short re-enactments were a pop at Nicholas and the Russian establishment, who sought to downplay Finland’s claims to sovereignty by ignoring its distinct national story.

The final tableau, ‘Finland Awakes!’, depicted the rising tide of Finnish nationalism and the emergence of an independent Finnish state. Unsurprisingly given the political climate, ‘Finland Awakes!’ was by far the most popular act of the evening, leading Sibelius to reimagine the piece as a tone poem a year later, what we now know as Finlandia.

Finlandia was an immediate success across Europe, though Sibelius, in fear of Russian reprisal, insisted it be performed under various alternate names for a number of years. The piece spoke to the emerging nationalist sentiment in small nations who had spent most of the past two centuries under the control of larger powers, and who now saw a future for themselves living in co-operation with, rather than subjugated to, their neighbours. As such, Finlandia became not only the de-facto national anthem of Finland, but became the national anthem of Biafra during the civil war of 1967-1970, and turned Sibelius into a national hero in his homeland.

Symphony No 9 in E minor 'From the New World' Op 95
Antonín Dvořák first came to America at the behest of Jeannette Thurber, an ex-student of the paris Conservatoire and one of the first serious patrons of classical music in the United States. Thurber’s background as the daughter of an immigrant Danish violinist predisposed her towards the promotion of classical music, while her marriage to the millionaire grocer, Frances Thurber, gave her the financial clout to make her goal a reality. That goal, which became nothing less than a lifelong passion, and one which she convinced many other wealthy patrons to buy into, was the creation of a distinct school of American classical music and composition.

By 1885, with the backing of several wealthy philanthropists including Andrew Carnegie, she established the National Conservatory of music in America. Based in New york, she envisioned the Conservatory as the first branch of a network of educational institutions which would spread out across the country, initially run by private interests but with the eventual goal of securing funding from the federal government. Thurber knew that if such an ambitious plan was to succeed, she would need not only money, but expertise and fame on her side, and as such she assiduously courted several high-profile European composers and musicians, including Dvořák, with a view to getting them to work at the Conservatory.

That Dvořák, who was already well respected and not short of work in Europe, as well as positively daunted by the lengthy voyage to the USA, departed for New york in 1891 despite his reservations, says as much for the deep pockets of Thurber and her backers as for their persuasive rhetoric: Dvořák’s salary as the director of Thurber’s new Conservatory was $15,000 per annum (a figure of nearly $400,000 today when adjusted for inflation), for which he was expected to teach three hours per day with four months of annual leave.

The fit turned out not to be an easy one: Dvořák initially found the role let him little time for composition, and his forward-looking attitude to race brought him into conflict with many of New york’s elite. Although Thurber had been insistent that her new Conservatory admit both black and female students, her opinions on race and gender were far removed from those of many of her fellow New yorkers. Indeed, there were many who actively wished for Thurber’s attempt at founding a federally funded, egalitarian music school to fail.

Dvořák, either oblivious to such intrigues, or wilfully set against them, caused a storm when he pronounced to the New york Herald in may of 1893 that he had come across the foundation upon which the new school of American composition would be built:

I am now satisfied that the future of music in this country must be founded upon what are called Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I came here last year I was impressed with this idea and it has developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil … There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.

The response of the press and much of the public was to dismiss this as an impossibility. When, in a later interview, he expressed a similar view of Native American music, he received the same response.

When his Symphony No 9 debuted six months later, audiences were keen to see how the composer had absorbed Native American and African-American music into the European classical tradition. What they heard was a piece that rang with melodies influenced by the folk music and spirituals sung to him by his African-American student and assistant, Harry Burleigh, and with rhythms and pentatonic sections inspired by the music of the Sioux Indians, all wrapped up in the format of a western Classical symphony.

Many were quick to dismiss the links, drawing attention to the widespread use of the pentatonic scale in European folk music, or of the composer’s own conflicting statements on the influences behind his work, taken from newspaper ‘interviews’ obtained by buttonholing him on his walk to work. Amazingly, it is still common to see such arguments put forth in American musical scholarship today, used to discredit Dvořák’s own statements about his musical influences.

In the end, the financial shockwaves of the panic of 1893 caused Dvořák’s salary payments to become ever more irregular, and he departed New york to return to his homeland of Bohemia in 1895. Thurber’s Conservatory prospered for a few years before her failing health and the rise of other schools of music, such as the Juillard School, sent it into decline. But though Dvořák lasted only a few years in New york and the National Conservatory of music in America closed for the final time in 1930, Dvořák and Thurber’s legacy, in the form of the Symphony No 9 and American musical philanthropy, endured.

Fin Conway © 2017

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