Highlights of the month:
Ethel Smyth: Prelude to Act 2, On the cliffs of Cornwall. Arrangement by Anders Högstedt.
The three-act work The Wreckers depicts a small harbour community where the locals dutifully attend church, but where the men also plunder ships coming in from the sea. The stage is set for conflict when it is discovered that someone has started warning the ships, and a drama of passion also plays out between two possible whistleblowers, both of whom are in love with one of their wives. The action reaches a tragic conclusion. The opera ends with the unfaithful young lovers chained to each other and trapped in a barren cave as the tide rises, until they finally face a watery death in each other’s arms.
In the prelude to Act 2, Smyth demonstrates her broad tonal frame of reference, flirting unabashedly with the stylistic features of Rimsky-Korsakov’s sea music in his masterpiece Scheherazade.
Smyth was a powerful musical personality who decided exactly how she wanted things to be. The events surrounding the premiere of The Wreckers are a good example of her steadfastness, her unwavering self-confidence and her unscrupulous disregard for contemporary norms and rules. Since the opera was due to be staged in Leipzig, Smyth was unable to attend the rehearsals. She arrived the day before the premiere, and was astonished to learn that large parts of the opera had been cut.
“Unacceptable!” thundered Smyth. “It is the only solution,” replied the conductor, since they had not rehearsed the omitted sections. The maestro was clear: The piece would be performed with cuts, or not at all. And thus it was to be. The Leipzig audience was thrilled, but Smyth herself was unimpressed. This was not how her opera was supposed to be performed! At night, while everyone else slept off the excitement of the premiere, she snuck into the orchestra pit. There, she stole all the orchestral notes and the conductor’s score. When the people of Leipzig woke the next morning, Smyth and The Wreckers had long since boarded a train to Prague. The Leipzig scandal, as it came to be known, meant that there were no more performances of The Wreckers at the Neues Theater that year.
Johannes Brahms: Intermezzo op. 118, nr. 2 Arrangement by David Björkman.
In this arrangement for strings, one of Brahms’s most beloved pieces for solo piano is carefully shaped to bring out the five communicating voices.
The original was completed in 1893 and dedicated to Clara Schumann. Also available for string orchestra.
Helena Munktell: Bränningar (The Breaking Waves). Arrangement by Anders Högstedt.
On a gloomy November day in 1919, the Swedish music scene converged on the Musikaliska concert hall at Nybrokajen 11, in the heart of Stockholm. As always, the Royal Swedish Academy of Music’s traditional formal gathering was a pres- tigious event, with speeches, prize-giving ceremonies and music. The composer and academy member Helena Munktell had passed away earlier that same year. She was not the first woman to be elected to the academy, which admitted its first female members back in the 18th century. What was unusual was that she was elected solely on her merits as a composer.
Now, in the packed auditorium of the country’s oldest concert hall, the audience waited to hear the Swedish premiere of Munktell’s orchestral work Breaking Waves. This is a symphonic image in which waves swell, break, are forced into the air and fall back, only to return with renewed vigour or, at other times, as a quiet ripple on the surface of the water. Her opus 19, performed in the year 1919.
Bränningar, The Breaking Waves, composed by Grycksbo-born Helena Munktell in Monte Carlo in the 1890s came at a time when the waters of musical history were also in full swell. Tonality had reached a breaking point, and this was also a breaking point for female composers. With her orchestral works such as Breaking Waves, Dala Suite and her opera In Florence, Munktell paved the way for women in her role as a composer. Breaking Waves broke new ground!
She stretches the canvas of her symphonic image with a quivering B♭. From here, the movement spills over into the first, slightly abrupt sea motif, which immedi-ately takes up residence in the orchestra, before moving around like a chameleon throughout the work. A Wagnerian aesthetic meets French instrumentation from the start, leading us straight into the more relaxed main theme. The theme is brief and varies constantly, but always retains the same rhythmic structure.
As the movement then flows along, we encounter a second theme that really only consists of a small chromatic, descending figure. As kaleidoscopic as its sister theme, this figure also insists on behaving differently all the time. The use of motifs is reminiscent of Beethoven, as he too used very small components to build up large, coherent works. Using these three building blocks, Munktell sketches the entire symphonic land- scape in Breaking Waves. She herself never heard the work performed at home in Sweden. However, the Swedish Wind Ensemble has now recorded it in Högstedt’s instrumentation – which is close to Munktell’s own symphonic style – in the same auditorium where it made its Swedish debut back in 1919: Musikaliska.