Max Derrickson

Writing Music Program Notes for Over 20 Years

Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Selections

By the second half of the 19th Century, Johann Strauss II came to be known as the “Waltz King.” His dance music became beloved the world over, but nowhere so much as in Vienna. The “other” Strauss, Richard (composer of the tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, and others), referred to Johann II as the “laughing genius of Vienna”; and Brahms, a close friend, never missed a performance of Johann II’s masterpiece operetta Die Fledermaus. Today, Strauss’s waltzes, like his famous The Beautiful Blue Danube, polkas and operettas enchant us as much as ever.

Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major, “Afro-American”

The Afro-American Symphony was composed in 1930 while Still was studying composition in New York with the modernist Edgar Varese. Still’s musical notebooks at the time show a fascinating process. Still sketched out hundreds of themes, all with descriptions, such as “joyful” and “mournful.” Many of the themes were labelled “voodoo,” “lament” or “spiritual” – as though Still was creating a musical vocabulary that could speak across racial divides. …

Panamanian Dances (Danzas de Panama) for String Quartet

In 1955, when most African-American citizens in the South couldn’t even drink out of the same water fountain as their white neighbors, composer William Grant Still achieved a breakthrough – he was the first African-American to conduct the New Orleans Philharmonic. It was, certainly, only one of the many steps toward racial equality (in that same year, Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama for refusing to obey bus segregation), but in the Deep South in 1955, Still’s accomplishment was nonetheless an extraordinary one. That 1955 program with him as the conductor highlighted several of Still’s own works, including his Afro-American Symphony (Symphony No. 1, 1930) in which Still was just mastering the technique of giving voice to folksong elements, specifically African-American song and rhythm, in the “classical” Neo-Romantic style. If George Gershwin started that idea in 1924 with his Rhapsody in Blue, Still carried it further into the concert hall and perfected it. Such is the case with his marvelous Panamanian Dances for string quartet which he premiered in 1948.

“Vltava” (The Moldau), No. 2 from Má Vlast (My Homeland)

Bedřich Smetana(Born in Litomyšl, near Prague, in1824; died in Prague (Czech Republic) in 1884) “Vltava” (The Moldau), No. 2 from Má Vlast (My Homeland) Smetana is renowned as the Father of Nationalist Czech music – or, Bohemian, as it was called in his day.  He determinedly dedicated his life to creating such music, beginning with […]

Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105

When Sibelius began sketches for his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in 1915, he had ideas too for his Seventh. It took nine more years to complete his Sixth, and all the while the Seventh continued to gestate as Sibelius re-imagined of the nature of a Symphony, its structure, its harmonic path, the essence of what a Symphony should or might be. In those nine long years he was trying to rethink the form, and he was also seeking music in the world around him, a sort of Music of the Spheres, that musica universalis, first described by Pythagoras (c. 570 – 495 BC). Sibelius wanted to capture what the Universe sounded like in its deep logic and structure. Likewise, in natural settings, Sibelius searched to hear its order as well as its sound, once mystifying a group of musicians from the University of Helsinki by describing the harmonics of a mountain meadow. … When his Sixth was completed in 1923, Sibelius was fired to return to his Seventh, which he completed almost immediately by 1924. It is the culmination of his symphonic career …

Symphony No. 6, Op. 104

While working on his titanic Fifth Symphony (1915 – 1920), Sibelius was also thinking about its twin symphony, his Sixth. Where his Fifth conquers, his Sixth reflects, and it is certainly more enigmatic. Often at some point, composers begin sorting out the big questions of existence in varied ways simultaneously (for example, Beethoven wrote his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies concurrently). Such was the case with Sibelius starting in 1914 and these existential questions would dog him the rest of his career. While working on both Symphonies, Sibelius’s diaries often referred to his “struggle with God,” his questioning of his place in the Universe, as well as his increasing spiritual enchantment with Nature.

Karelia Suite, Op. 11

In 1893, a lottery fundraiser was organized by the Vyborg Students’ Association to promote the education of the people of Vyborg Province (Karelia). Rising Nationalist composer, Jean Sibelius, was asked to compose the music to accompany its “pageant,” a theatrical genre in vogue at the time that depicted scenes (tableaus) of historical interest, acted and pantomimed by live actors, with musical accompaniment. … Sibelius wrote eight vignettes for the pageant, finishing up with the Finnish National Anthem, but it’s impossible to tell how successful they were – the event was so nationalistically charged that the audience’s rowdiness drowned out every note. Sibelius soon refashioned a suite…

En Saga, Op. 9

En Saga is a transition work of sorts. Sibelius had just premiered his gigantic “choral symphony” Kullervo in that same year, a piece that required so many musicians for performance that Sibelius only heard it five times in his life. After that gargantuan piece, Sibelius was just beginning to appreciate the beauties of brevity and economy as he launched into En Saga. He had also moved away from his earlier interest in Richard Wagner’s music and methods, finding the idea of Wagner’s “leit motifs” (those recurring themes that represent a character, or action, etc.) too obvious. With En Saga, Sibelius began instead to explore the genre of the tone-poem made popular by Liszt and began working out his unique method of thematic homogeneity – that is, the seamless transfiguration of musical motives and themes throughout a piece.

Manfred Overture, Op. 115

One of the most heralded Romantic writers in Schumann’s day was (Lord) George Gordon Byron (1788 – 1824). Byron’s writings seemed to epitomize the Romantic spirit, especially in the German literary movement known as “Young Germany.” These were the German Romantics who, as Schumann’s biographer Martin Geck wrote, “ … [were] convinced that their own fates were exceptional, they sought to lead lives that were a mixture of grandiosity, world weariness, lovesick repining, disgust with life, and an entanglement with black magic.” No other work captured this pathos as intensely as Byron’s Manfred (1817). Schumann was deeply moved by Manfred and wanted to bring it to the stage. He wrote an impressive series of incidental music for its performance, including chorus, songs and monastic chanting,…