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Copland wrote his ballet score Appalachian Spring for a 13-member chamber ensemble in 1944. Since then, it has had several orchestral arrangements. The one on the programme is by the evening’s conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Balancing it out will be Schubert’s 9th Symphony “The Great”, composed as close competition of Beethoven’s symphonic works.
Appalachian Spring (30')
— Intermission —
Symphony in C major “The Great”, D 944 (48')
Michael Tilson Thomas conductor
Michael Tilson Thomas is Co-Founder and Artistic Director Laureate of the New World Symphony, Music Director Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony and Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra. He is a twelve-time Grammy Award winner and has conducted the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.
Born in Los Angeles, he studied piano, conducting and composition at the University of Southern California, and as a young musician worked with such artists as Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. In his mid-20s, he became Assistant Conductor—and later Principal Guest Conductor—of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he led in his New York debut. He subsequently served as Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.
In 1987, he co-founded the New World Symphony, a postgraduate orchestral academy in Miami Beach dedicated to preparing young musicians of diverse backgrounds for leadership roles in classical music. Since then, he has worked with more than 1,200 NWS Fellows, many of whom have gone onto careers with major orchestras.
He became Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony in 1995, and his tenure was a period of significant growth and heightened international recognition for the orchestra. He led SFS in championing contemporary and American composers alongside classical masters and conducted the orchestra on numerous international tours, including to Prague for seven performances over the course of his 25-year tenure. As Music Director Laureate, he continues to lead the orchestra in four weeks of concerts annually, as well as in special projects.
His discography includes more than 120 recordings, and his television work includes the New York Philharmonic's Young People’s Concerts, series for the BBC and PBS and numerous televised performances. In 2020, he was profiled on PBS’s American Masters.
Throughout his career, he has been an active composer, with major works including From the Diary of Anne Frank (1990), commissioned by UNICEF and premiered with narrator Audrey Hepburn, and Meditations on Rilke (2019). Both works appear on a recent Grammy Award-winning recording of his music by SFS.
He is an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, a member of the American Academies of Arts & Sciences and Arts & Letters, a National Medal of Arts recipient and a 2019 Kennedy Center Honoree.
A son of Lithuanian immigrants, Aaron Copland is one of the most important representatives of modern American music. Among his first composition teachers was Rubin Goldmark who studied under Antonín Dvořák at the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Copland is thus considered to be the generation of the “grandchildren” of the Dvořák school. Copland went to Paris at the age of 21, where his teacher was Nadia Boulanger. Under her tutelage, Copland’s personal style matured. It represents a synthesis of the musical background of his native country with its influences from jazz and Latin American elements and the traditions of European music.
In 1942, the choreographer and leading representative of expressive dance Martha Graham (1894–1991) commissioned Copland to compose music for a ballet. The work was funded by the patron of music, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864–1953). It premiered on 30 October 1944 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The title of the work, Appalachian Spring, comes from a poem by Hart Crane (1899–1932) entitled The Dance from his collection The Bridge, and it is a tribute to spring.
The ballet symbolically tells a simple story of American immigrants who built their own settlements in the new country. It features a young married couple, their neighbor and a preacher. At first, the characters are introduced. Together they feel faith and hope for the future. The ballet is a celebration of love, motherhood, and rural life. In the 7th movement of the suite, Copland created a variation on the 1848 song Simple Gifts, attributed to Joseph Brackett (1797–1882) and considered the anthem of the Shakers, a protestant sect of The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, to which Brackett belonged. The final movement, using choral intonations, is a communal prayer.
In 1945, Aaron Copland won the Pulitzer Prize in composition for Appalachian Spring. Soon afterwards, in 1946, Copland’s music was heard by Czech audiences in the very first season of the Prague Spring Festival. His El Salón México and the European premiere of his Symphony No. 3 were performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein, whose guest appearance in Prague marked his European conducting debut and the start of an international career.
The original score of Appalachian Spring was intended for a chamber ensemble of thirteen instruments. At the request of the conductor Artur Rodziński, Copland made an orchestral suite from the ballet’s music in 1945, first performed under Rodziński’s direction on 4 October 1945 in New York. In the following years, several more original versions were created, as well as other arrangements, testifying to the success of the work. The conductor of tonight’s concert, Michael Tilson Thomas, is personally associated with the composition, having recorded the first original version of the 1954 Appalachian Suite with the San Francisco Symphony for RCA Victor in 1999.
Franz Schubert began work on Symphony in C major (D 944) in the summer of 1825; the final score is dated March 1828. Later, to distinguish it from Symphony in C major (D 589) of 1818, it was given the title “Great”. The numbering of Schubert’s symphonies is inconsistent. Their first complete edition was prepared by Johannes Brahms, who put The “Great” C major as No. 8 after Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony in B minor. A later edition also included a fragment of Symphony in E major from 1821, and The “Great” C major was listed as No. 9, but a new critical edition again excluded the fragment from the series. Chronologically, the “Great” Symphony in C major is Schubert’s last symphony.
Its journey to the concert stage was not an easy one. After its completion, Schubert sent it to the Society of Friends of Music (Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde) in Vienna, which ran a conservatory and – like the Prague Conservatory – had a student orchestra, to give it the first performance. However, the young players struggled with its complexities and the symphony was ultimately withdrawn. When Robert Schumann visited Vienna in 1839, he learned about the existence of the autograph from Schubert’s brother Ferdinand. Upon Schumann’s initiative, the symphony was premiered on 21 March 1839 by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn.
In his article for Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Schumann wrote that those who do not know this symphony know very little about Schubert. “Here, beside sheer musical mastery of the technique of composition is life in every fiber, color in the finest shadings, meaning everywhere, the acutest etching of detail, and all flooded with a Romanticism [...] Consider the heavenly length of the symphony, like a thick novel in four volumes, perhaps by Jean Paul, who was also incapable of coming to an end, and to be sure for the best of reasons: to allow the reader, at a later point, to re-create it for himself... It is still evidence of Schubert’s extraordinary talent that he who heard so little of his own instrumental work during his lifetime could achieve such an idiomatic treatment both of individual instruments and of the whole orchestra.” Schumann could not avoid comparing Schubert with Beethoven, the symphony composer par excellence, but he saw the value of Schubert’s work in “its relationship of complete independence from Beethoven’s symphonies. Conscious of his more modest powers, Schubert refrains from imitating the grotesque forms and audacious relationships that we encounter in Beethoven’s later works. Schubert gives us a work of grace and yet innovation. The symphony has made an impression on us like none other since Beethoven.”
The first movement begins with a slow introduction, giving rise to the three themes of the exposition. This is followed by an extended development and a brief recapitulation with a coda, restating the opening theme of the introduction. The second movement is in a sonata form with the individual sections not clearly separated from each other, forming a continuous stream of music. It juxtaposes two thematic groups. The third movement, scherzo, is characterized by a distinctive rhythmic pattern. The final fourth movement anticipates the further development of symphony, which culminated in the works of Mahler and Bruckner in the 19th century, in which the structural elements of the previous movements appear in new transformations.