Words like inspirational, educational, and fulfilling spring to mind when trying to analyse what I witnessed and experienced yesterday evening. Sitting in the superb and vast concert venue, home of the world-renowned Halle Orchestra, The Bridgewater Hall, and seeing a full orchestra plus performers on the concert platform with room to spare made me realise just how large this 'theatre' is; and when they played, just how acoustically superb it is too.
However, last night was something different, and something rather special. This was something quite unique and also something which I think should be done with many other pieces of classical music too in order to enhance our understanding and appreciation of the music.
A Manchester premiere; Beyond The Score©, is just that – an analysis of Dvorak's most famous piece of writing, his 9th symphony. Part lecture, part performed, with the examples spoken about played on the orchestra or sung by bass-baritone and piano. It was without doubt a 'theatrical performance', and was most illuminating, without it becoming too educational and seminar-like.
The first thing to help us was the visual spectacle. Not only were the performers placed away from each other and at different areas of the stage, they were also costumed too. Above the platform hung a large screen which throughout the presentation various images were projected to aid and enhance the experience. We saw archive footage of the passage across to America by ship and the disembarkation in New York; Newsreel footage of New York at the time; period photographs of native American Indians and their lifestyle; photographs and paintings of the
American landscapes; photographs of Dvorak's original score and markings; etc etc etc. If there had been nothing else but this screen then it would still have been extremely interesting. However, as it so rightly pointed out in the programme, that if it had have been just the screen and the orchestra then it would have been like watching an early film where the orchestra was providing the background music to the visual narrative.
Fortunately this wasn't the case, as adding to all of this were Gerard McBurney, who,billed as a presenter, was basically the storyteller and narrator. (or in university terms,the lecturer). He gave you the history and basically made the boring bits interesting! On the opposite side of the stage, seated with period table and chair, and manuscript in hand was Henry Goodman, acting the part of Antonin Dvorak, whilst behind him and in amongst the orchestra were two other young actors, both from The Manchester Metropolitan University School Of Theatre, Barney Healy-Smith and Johnny Byrom who played relatives, friends and pupils of Dvorak as the narrative demanded. Even the conductor, Mark Elder chipped in occasionally when the script called for the voice of a conductor!
As if all this wasn't enough, then there was also a bass-baritone, Rodney Earl Clarke (accompanied by Jonathon Scott on the piano), who sang and spoke Harry T. Burleigh, an Afro-American composer and singer, and friend of Dvorak. The music of the time was a huge influence on Dvorak and you can hear these influences in his 9th symphony. The first four notes of the strident opening theme of the first movement – the so-called Hiawatha's Theme – are also the last four notes of the first line of the song, 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' for example.
This experience lasted only one hour – but it was crammed with information about Dvorak and his inspirations and reasons for writing the 9th symphony, and where he found the melodies and structure of the symphony.
We learnt about The Scotch Snap, [ a very short note immediately followed by a longer one – reminiscent of the bagpipe drone ] and why this was incorporated into the score; about pentatonic music and how the American music uses the pentatonic scale just as Chinese and Scottish music do too. We learnt that Dvorak consulted ornithological books to find the correct calling sounds of native American birds and incorporated these too into his symphony; the whippoorwill, the American robin and the bluebird.
We learnt of Dvorak's love of both Beethoven and Wagner, and we heard examples of how his 9th symphony pays homage to both by writing music which is in a way very similar to things they had already written. A very interesting titbit was knowing about the orchestration of the opening bars to the second movement. Dvorak scored the first seven notes of the second movement (and repeated this theme at the very end of the movement ) to include a tuba. The tuba player, therefore has to sit through the entire symphony to play only 14 notes. All this because adding the tuba here made the sound fuller and more Wagnerian. We heard the opening bars of the third movement, the scherzo, and then immediately following this the orchestra played the scherzo theme from Beethoven's 9th symphony, and the similarities were astonishing.
However, the most important influences I have left until last. Dvorak was besotted by Longfellow's epic poem, Hiawatha; and indeed it was his primary or even only source of reference when deciding to include 'Red Indian' themes and rhythms in the symphony. In his own words, he believed that if he was going to write a National music for America then he should start with the songs and dances of those who have lived there the longest. He went to see Buffalo Bill and watched the Native Americans perform their dances; but he always returned to Hiawatha. It is this legend that permeates and drives the score.
To give you some idea of the influence this epic had on Dvorak and the writing of this symphony then you need only to look at the third movement, the scherzo, to see that this really is Hiawatha's wedding. The three elements in the poem of his traditional wedding feast are all a part of Dvorak's third movement. The dance – a whirling and swirling theme; the song of love ( music adapted to fit the text of a Native American poem, 'Awake, Flower Of The Forest!' ); and the story, a tale of wonder and adventure. At the beginning of the second movement, the famous 'Going Home' theme, Dvorak wrote 'The beginning of a legend' to his score, and indeed this can be seen as the death and burial of Minnehaha. Whilst the final movement, written only 4 years after the famous Massacre Of Wounded Knee could be seen as being 'The Bloody Story Of The Wrath Of Hiawatha' .
There was more, so much more, but I simply cannot write it all nor even try to remember it all. It was though an incredible experience and a great way of learning about a piece of music.
After an interval, Sir Mark Elder conducted the entire symphony without interruption, and whether it was because we were full of fresh knowledge and were specifically listening much harder and more attentively than we would have done normally or not,I cannot say – but several audience members remarked that it was the best rendition of that symphony they had ever heard and how astonishing and physically draining the whole experience was, but yet also how wonderful. I agree!