Overture Cockaigne (In London Town), op. 40

Edward Elgar was born in Broadheath, near Worcester, England, on June 2, 1857, and died in Worcester on February 23, 1934. He composed Cockaigne in 1901, completing it on March 24. Hans Richter conducted the Philharmonic Society in the premiere on June 20. The score calls for flutes (with piccolo), oboes, clarinets in pairs, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, triangle, sleigh bells, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, and strings, with optional parts for organ and two extra trombones. Duration is about 13 minutes.


In the months after the performance of his masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar worked fitfully on what he and everyone he knew hoped would be the great English symphony. He had a splendid noble tune which, in the end, did become the first theme of the symphony—but that was not finished for a number of years. At some point he was struck by a melody that occurred to him in London’s Guildhall. This “noble melody” stuck in his mind and began generating variants. At about the same time he had been reading a 14th-century English poem called Piers Plowman, by William Langland, which involves a dream sequence beginning on the Malvern Hills, near where Elgar lived, and extended to a vigorous picture of London, where the seven deadly sins flourish.

He began to think of writing an overture having to do with London. As he wrote to his publisher in November 1900, “I call it ‘Cockayne’ & it’s cheerful and Londony.” He later explained to conductor Han Richter, “Cockaigne is the old humourous (classical) name for London & from it we get the term Cockney.”

About the Music

The resulting work is a delicious musical tour of London at the very beginning of the 20th century, a tour that is at the same time a solidly wrought sonata form. The overture opens with a scherzando melody that suggests cheerful characters going about their daily activity, and what follows is at first all bustle and vivacity. But then Elgar brings in (with his favorite marking, nobilmente) the rich, broad theme that he first thought up while at the Guildhall, and which lends an immediate air of grandeur to the music. The modulation to the new key brings in another broadly romantic theme, after which Elgar begins a masterly development that includes a deliciously playful treatment of the “Guildhall” theme suggesting street urchins making fun of more serious people. The development includes the appearance of a brass band on the streets as well, along with magical quiet passages.

Despite the programmatic title, and the musical gestures that seem clearly designed to reflect actual street scenes, Elgar preferred to think of the work as a purely musical form that happened to have a local habitation and a name. It is, indeed, a thoroughly satisfying score unfolding with great variety and color, warmth and wit, whether we choose to consider it a guided tour of early Edwardian London or a wonderful example of an orchestral sonata-form movement.



Celestial Suite

James Stephenson was born in Joliet, Illinois, on February 4, 1969, and grew up mostly in Lockport; he now lives in Lake Forest. He composed the Celestial Suite in 2011 for brass quintet. He orchestrated it in August 2013 for the Lake Forest Symphony, which performed it on November 2, 2013. The orchestral version calls for two flutes, alto flute, piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones and bass trombone, tuba, timpani, drum set, two tambourines, wood block, cymbals, triangle, chimes, glockenspiel, snare drum, bass drum, and xylophone, harp, and strings. Duration is about 18 minutes.


Though he began his career as a trumpeter in the Naples Philharmonic in Florida immediately after graduating from the New England Conservatory, James Stephenson began composing and making musical arrangements without a formal degree in that field. As he explains, “I started at age 24, when in the Naples Philharmonic, and learned from all the masters that were on my music stand week to week.” He gradually became so busy in that line that he resigned from the orchestra and moved back to Illinois where he now composes full time.

Much of his music, particularly including the Celestial Suite, is both serious and playful. In this case, the original commission asked for a work that would “reflect upon and comment on the relationship between astronomy and sacred music.” Since he was originally writing for quintet, he chose five central figures in the field of astronomy: Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Hubble, and Hawking. Each movement would feature one of these, allied to a particular member of the brass quintet ensemble. And each would be presented through various choices of key and other elements of musical symbolism. Each movement would also relate to the individual’s time period in history (since the astronomers are presented in chronological order, this also provides a chronological plan for musical development).

About the Music

The key relationships of the five movements can also be understood to spell EARTH: the opening movement is in E major, the second its dominant A Major. “R” is represented as “re” (its solfège equivalent, or D Major. “T” becomes its solfège equivalent, “ti”, or B minor. And H, according to German musical notation, is B Major.

Copernicus is surrounded by the five pitches representing EARTH in the orchestra, since in his day the Catholic Church maintained that the earth was the center of the universe. But the oboe plays entirely in the key of G (G = “sol,” or the sun). “Earth” and “Sun” represent the opposing views of Copernicus and the Church.

Galileo greatly improved the telescope, which led to ideas that made him suspected of heresy. Stephenson, recalling that the scientist’s father was a lutenist and composer, gives the horn music in the style of Palestrina and gives the violas and the harp/clarinet combination lute-like music. The music symbolizes the “dance” Galileo had to do to react to the changing views of a former friend who became Pope Urban VIII, between support and opposition.

Newton developed the Three Laws of Motion, which form the basis of classical mechanics. The tuba plays an important role here, and Newton’s religious views suggested a quotation from his greatest musical contemporary, J. S. Bach’s chorale setting of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (“How brightly shines the morningstar”), unfolded by way of ideas suggested by Newton’s laws of motion regarding the motion of objects when moving, still, or acted upon by another object.

Hubble is much closer to us, the first half of the 20th century. The featured instrument is the trombone (a reference to the jazz trombonist Eddie Hubble). The musical references to the early 20th century include ragtime rhythms based on When the saints go marching in, in a minor key. The trombone cadenza is a kind of “big bang.”

Hawkings is the only astronomer still with us. The conception of this movement came at roughly the same time as news of the detection of sounds representing the collapsing of matter into a black hole. If ears were available to hear them, they would resemble that of a low-beating drum. The bass drum sets up a repeating pattern that gradually assumes the tempo of a human heartbeat. Meanwhile the bass, oboe, alto flute, and English horn try to move upward but drift downward slowly, disappearing into the depths. The instruments seem to be searching for an answer…in the composer’s words, “that very one which (I believe) scientists and theologists will never be able to answer. For me, the answer lies in that very aforementioned heartbeat. It is not how or why we are here, but the very fact that we ARE here, LIVING, and that is what ‘matters’ and should be enjoyed for what it is, and to the fullest.”



Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestrated by Maurice Ravel)

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born in Karevo, district of Pskov, Russia, on March 21, 1839, and died in St. Petersburg on March 28, 1881. He composed Pictures at an Exhibition as a set of piano pieces in June 1874. Maurice Ravel made his orchestral transcription in the summer of 1922 for Serge Koussevitzky, who introduced the Ravel version at one of his concerts in Paris on October 22, 1922. Ravel’s orchestration calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, alto saxophone, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, bells, triangle, tam‑tam, rattle, whip, cymbals, side drum, bass drum, xylophone, celesta, two harps, and strings. Duration is about 35 minutes.


Mussorgsky’s music is the triumph of genius over technique. He had the least formal training of any of the Russian “Five”. He was certainly regarded as little more than a dilettante by composers of far greater polish. Yet Mussorgsky also had a burning originality that at times was able to conquer both his lack of technique and a sad addiction to the bottle that led to an unstable life and an early demise at 42. Mussorgsky’s genius expressed itself most directly in opera, for he had the ability to translate verbal and physical gestures into extraordinarily lifelike music. Few of his purely instrumental works are ever performed, and even those that are heard (like the famous orchestral piece Night on Bald Mountain) were created originally for an opera.

The single exception to this rule is the suite Pictures at an Exhibition for piano solo, one of the most challenging achievements of romantic keyboard music and of Russian nationalism. Even here Mussorgsky made a kind of dramatic event in his approach to the piece. The exhibition in question was a real one, a memorial showing of works by a talented architect named Victor Hartman, who had died at the age of 40 in July 1873. Mussorgsky, an admirer and a close friend of the artist’s, himself wrote an obituary describing Hartman’s first important work, the reconstruction of several buildings for an All‑Russian Manufacturing Exhibition: “In his hands a clumsy prison‑like building where wine had previously been stored took on an artistic, even graceful appearance, both inside and outside, in the Russian style.”

The news of Hartman’s death shocked Vladimir Stasov, critic and spokesman for a whole generation of Russian artists and friend to both Mussorgsky and Hartman: “He was the most talented, the most original, the most enterprising, and the most daring of all our architects...For me, so much hope and anticipation perished with him!”

At Stasov’s initiative, a special exhibition of Hartman’s work was put together in St. Petersburg, where it opened in mid‑February 1874. The show included both architectural plans and amazingly varied drawings and paintings with scenes of every‑day life and different human types. Sometime in the month after it opened, Mussorgsky visited the exhibition. It was to have a powerful effect on him. In June he wrote to Stasov with good news: “Hartman is boiling as Boris boiled.” He meant that he was deeply involved in composition and that it was going well. Clearly he had already discussed a Hartman project with Stasov, since he offered no other explanation. But he continued: “Sounds and ideas have been hanging in the air; I am devouring them and stuffing myself—I barely have time to scribble them on paper...My profile can be seen in the interludes....How well it is working out.”

In that view, he was certainly right. Composing at a terrific pace, Mussorgsky finished the work by June 22—fast work indeed for so elaborate a score. The suite was immediately hailed by the composer’s friends, particularly Stasov, to whom it is dedicated. Yet though his friends admired it enormously, few people played the suite; it is fiendishly difficult. Pictures was not even published until five years after the composer’s death. It only became famous and popular in the brilliant orchestral guise created by Maurice Ravel in 1922 at the suggestion of conductor Serge Koussevitzky.

About the Music

The various “pictures” are linked here and there by references to the opening Promenade, first sounded by a bold trumpet melody which, as Mussorgsky reported, was his own self‑portrait; he imagined himself “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly in order to come close to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.” He labeled it as being “in the Russian style,” which is immediately evident. (In the discussion below, I have noted the various reappearances of the Promenade without further comment.)

The music representing each image is so vivid that no explanation is required, but the listener might care to know something about the original pictures (fewer than half survive today, but we have Stasov’s description of the exhibition to tell us about the others). The Gnome was a grotesque drawing for a child’s toy. As Stasov said, “It is something in the style of the fabled Nutcracker, the nuts being inserted into the gnome’s mouth. The gnome accompanies his droll movements with savage shrieks.”  [Promenade]

The Old Castle depicted a landscape of markedly Italianate cast with a troubadour singing his lay. In Ravel’s version this is an extended solo for saxophone, one of the most famous passages for that instrument in the orchestral repertory. [Promenade]

Tuileries, a Parisian scene, showed children quarreling at play in the famous gardens, an image perfectly captured in the taunting figure (the universal children’s cry of “Nyah, nyah!”) that begins the scene and returns again and again throughout.

Bydlo is the Polish word for “cattle”; Hartman’s picture showed a heavy ox‑cart lumbering along. Mussorgsky starts the cart in the distance; it lumbers slowly past (its weight suggested by the prominent tuba solo), then passes out of sight. [Promenade]

The unlikely sounding Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells consisted of designs for an 1871 ballet entitled Trilby (not related in any way to George du Maurier’s sensationally popular novel of 1893) with choreography by Petipa and music by Gerber. Petipa always included a scene with child dancers. In this case the children were dressed as canaries “enclosed in eggs as in suits of armor, with canary heads put on like helmets.”

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle: Mussorgsky himself owned Hartman’s drawings (two separate images, not one) of “A rich Jew wearing a fur hat” and “A poor Jew: Sandomierz.” He joined them in a single movement contrasting the arrogance of wealth (full strings) to the cringing obsequiousness of poverty (muted trumpet). Mussorgsky himself evidently invented the names given to the two personalities).

Hartman’s lively drawing of The Market at Limoges becomes a brilliant scherzo, for which he even imagined some of the conversation of the shopping housewives, entering bits of their dialogue in the margin of the score: “Great news! M. de Puissangeout has just recovered his cow...Mme. de Remboursac has just acquired a beautiful new set of teeth, while M. de Pantaloon’s nose, which is in his way, is as much as ever the color of a peony.”

The scherzo ends with dramatic suddenness in the powerful contrasting scene of the Catacombs (A Roman Grave) in Paris. Mussorgsky noted in the margin: “The creative spirit of the dead Hartman leads me toward skulls, apostrophizes them—the skulls are illuminated gently from within.”  The mood is continued in the passage headed Con mortuis in lingua morta (“With the dead in a dead language”), in which Mussorgsky himself becomes our guide through the city of the dead with a ghostly version of his Promenade.

The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga) evokes the fearsome witch of Russian fairy tales, though Hartman’s drawing was of a clock in 14th‑century style, shaped like Baba Yaga’s hut with cocks’ heads and standing on chicken legs. Mussorgsky’s music suggests rather the witch’s wild flight in a mortar in chase of her victims.

Her ride brings us to the powerful finale of the suite, The Great Gate Kiev, described in Stasov’s review of the exhibit as “unusually original,” a design for a series of arched stone gates to replace the wooden city gates (though in the end they were never built) to commemorate Tsar Alexander II’s escape from an attempted assassination. Mussorgsky filled his musical image with the perpetual ringing of bells large and small, recreating the sounds heard around a Russian public monument, and Ravel has seconded him in this, capping off the score with sonorous fireworks.


© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)