Notes From The Conductor: The Four Seasons

Mother Nature has always been an inexhaustible source of inspiration for composers throughout history. Mahler’s opening to his 1st symphony marked Wie ein Naturlaut (“Like the sound of nature”), Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, Mendelssohn’s tone poems inspired by the landscape he saw in Italy and Scotland, Debussy’s La Mer, Ravel’s Une barque sur locéan are just a few examples of how much the natural world has been a source of inspiration by its beautiful landscapes and delicate sounds of birds, wind, water etc.

Many composers also wrote music in the countryside or like Mozart enjoyed composing in a simple open garden, one of the most famous being in Prague at the Bertramka Villa where we can still see the garden table on which he finished his Don Giovanni. Nature connects one to his soul and has enabled musicians, artists, scientists and great thinkers of all kinds to draw into their mind and creativity.

Beethoven’s relation to nature is no exception. The great master made countless trips to the countryside to write music, trying to get away from the early 19th century urban noise of Vienna, but also in the hope of curing his progressive deafness. His five-movement 6th symphony entitled “Pastoral”, composed in 1808, evokes “the countryside”, “a scene by the brook”, “a merry gathering of country folk”, “thunder and storm” and finally a “Shepherd’s song”. Although these descriptions written by the composer himself do evoke certain images in our mind, the composer carefully reminded us on the first page of the score that it remains “more an expression of feeling than painting”. When I first studied this score, I was myself in the countryside of my beautiful hometown in Saguenay (Qc), in a cottage by the river and remember vividly the impression this music left on me. I was amazed at how a fiery composer such as Beethoven who was writing his famous tumultuous 5th symphony at the exact same time could also write such peaceful and blissful music. It is certainly a beautiful testimony of how the countryside affected him in such positive way. When we listen to his 6th symphony, we hear Beethoven’s feelings and his peaceful state of mind when he was surrounded by trees, birds, a brook and cheerful peasant celebration in the distance.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons are certainly one of the most beloved classical music works of all time. It is also important to remember that it is probably the first, or at least one of the first pieces of music containing a “program”. Indeed, Vivaldi wrote very specific indications regarding what the music wants to paint and in the contrary to Beethoven, probably meant it as “more of a painting“. For this piece, I am thrilled to be joining the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony as harpsichordist, while the music will be led by one of our finest Canadian violinists Nikki Chooi.

To open the program, I am delighted to introduce you to Denis Gougeon’s Le jardin mystérieux (the mysterious garden). It is a beautiful piece with, at times, hints of impressionist textures written in 1984. The piece requires the conductor and the musicians to improvise certain rhythms, pitches and entrances and in a certain sense, it symbolizes the “garden of possibilities” that a composer has in front of him while writing for symphony orchestra. Most notably, it explores different styles of vibrato, strings alternating between the bridge and the fingerboard, different mutes and a continuous texture of chromaticism. It is a very short piece but will certainly bring a completely different sound spectrum to this concert.

I sincerely thank the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony and my friend and colleague Andrei Feher for inviting me to conduct this program. I hope you enjoy your concert!

—Nicolas Ellis