Program Notes: The Four Seasons

Concert Program

Denis Gougeon
Le jardin mystérieux
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Symphony No.6 in F major, op.68, Pastorale
1. Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande
(Awakening of Cheerful Feelings on Arrival in the Country)
2. Szene am Bach (Scene by the Brook)
3. Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute (Merry Gathering of the Countryfolk)
4. Gewitter, Sturm (Thunderstorm)
5. Hirtengesang, frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm
(Shepherd’s Song, Glad and Grateful Feelings After the Storm)
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)
Symphony No.5 in E minor, op. 64
The Four Seasons, op. 8

Program Notes

(Born in Granby, Quebec, November 16, 1951)
Le jardin mystérieux (1984)

Québécois composer Denis Gougeon has written more than one hundred works in a wide variety of genres.  He was the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s first composer-in-residence and has been commissioned to write full length ballets for both the Bavarian State and Norwegian National Ballets.  Gougeon has also written music for a dozen stage shows directed by Denis Marleau.  He has taught composition on the music faculty of the Université de Montréal for a number of years.  Le jardin mystérieux was composed in 1984 together with another short piece, Le choral des anges, for the Quebec Association of Youth Orchestras.  Gougeon designed the piece as an introduction to many new orchestral sounds of the day, exposing some of the building blocks of orchestral writing – rising and falling tonal clusters, blocks of scales, repeated chords, brief improvised sections and so on – to reveal how atmospheric harmonies and textures can be built up.  In the process, he produces an evocative miniature tone poem.

Born in Bonn, Germany, baptised December 17, 1770; died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827
Symphony No. 6, in F, Op. 68, ‘Pastoral’ (1807-8)

The Pastoral is a symphony about innocence.  It observes and portrays a rural lack of sophistication that is as distant from the tormented self-consciousness of the Fifth Symphony as North is from South.  Unlike the Fifth, where Fate knocks on the door and life’s experience leads to re-birth, the Pastoral finds a refuge in Nature.  In doing so, it becomes the relaxed, expansive, non-identical twin to the wound-up, concentrated Fifth.  In it, Beethoven expresses a deep love of nature.  “How delighted I will be to ramble for a while through the bushes, woods, under trees, through grass, and around rocks,” he wrote around the time of the Pastoral.  “No one can love the country as much as I do.”  He spent his summers in various villages close to Vienna, notebook in hand, jotting down ideas.  The sketches were a long time in taking shape.  In 1803, five years before Vienna heard its first symphonic babbling brook, Beethoven’s notebook contained a theme with the caption “murmur of the brook – the wider the brook, the deeper the sound.”  The main work on the Pastoral was done in the village of Heiligenstadt in late 1807 and early 1808.

Despite Beethoven’s famous caveat, “more an expression of feeling than tone-painting,” the Pastoral does contain a good deal of painting.  Its middle movements give a vivid and detailed picture of peasant merrymaking cut short by a storm – with a flash of lightning brilliantly represented by the piccolo.  Even the babbling brook ceases its babbling to call attention to first a nightingale (flute), then a quail (oboe) and finally a cuckoo (clarinet), all so named in the score.  The most thoroughly rustic episode comes in the third movement, a scherzo and trio with double repeats.  Beethoven’s good-natured mockery of the village band is skillfully incorporated into the symphonic texture (thereby paving the way for Mahler many years later).  And with the celebrated storm, he augments a modest orchestra with just two trombones, piccolo and timpani.  The effect is electrifying.  It is the first time in the work we have had minor tonality and chromatic harmony.  The drama of the moment is like the entry of the trombones on that blazing C major chord at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony’s finale.  And just as the last two movements of the Fifth run together with unstoppable momentum, the storm in the Pastoral also bridges the scherzo and the finale, forming a single movement.

Born in Venice, Italy, March 4, 1678; died in Vienna, Austria, July 27/28, 1741
Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons) (1716-17)

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons are the first in a collection of twelve concertos published in 1725 as his Op. 8, titled Il cimento dell’ armonia e dell’ inventione (‘The contest between harmony and invention’).  The first four concertos show how a composer can explore the connections between the rational side of music (harmony) and fantasy.  With The Four Seasons, there is a very close connection between words and music.  Vivaldi himself is believed to have written four sonnets that preface the score and when the time came for the music to be printed, Vivaldi made the connection clear by printing lines of the sonnet alongside particular musical phrases.

The basic structure of each concerto follows the pattern that Vivaldi had already established in his other solo concertos – that of two fast outer movements, framing a slower middle movement.  The fast movements include recurring ritornellos (literally ‘little returns’) where the full orchestra returns regularly with familiar material.  In between these passages are episodes featuring the soloist.  In the Spring concerto, Vivaldi uses the episodes to portray, in turn, birdsong, the murmuring of the waves, the blowing of breezes, the approaching storm with thunder and lightning, then the return of birdsong.

The middle movements generally explore a single mood.  Even so, Vivaldi creates a true soundscape of ideas in the slow movement of Spring.  We hear simultaneously the rustling of leaves (with a gently rocking rhythm on violins), the peaceful song of a sleeping goat-herd and, even more unusually, the barking of a dog (woof-woof, woof-woof, woof-woof), heard on violas, who are instructed to play molto forte e strappato, ‘very loud and rough.’   The imagery in The Four Seasons remains fresh and vivid today, three centuries after the concertos are believed to have been written.  In Summer, the shepherd trembles (halting violins) in fear of the thunder (lower strings play close to the bridge) and the flash of lightning, while insects buzz around angrily.  In Autumn, hunters gather at dawn, with horn calls (solo violin in thirds, fourths and fifths), guns firing, dogs baying in excitement (repeated thirds) and their prey trying vainly to escape (triplets in the solo violin).  From the bright F major key of la caccia, Vivaldi turns to the darker, more desolate key of F minor for Winter.  Now we shiver against the icy wind (frosty string notes clash together) and stamp our feet (accented notes).

Vivaldi’s understanding of our relationship with Nature is as current today as ever.  His music is not merely pictorial representation in music or programmatic music of the most obvious sort.  It shares something of the ideals of program music in the romantic era which, as we heard Beethoven represent it, is “more an expression of feeling than painting.”  Its universality is the reason why The Four Seasons remains, arguably, the most popular piece of classical music we have.

©2019 Keith Horner
All program notes are written by Keith Horner.  Comments welcomed:


Nicolas Ellis, conductor

Nicolas Ellis is the Artistic Director and Founder of the Orchestre symphonique de l’Agora in Montreal, an orchestra who’s mission is to organize benefit concerts for humanitarian organizations. Since the beginning of the 2018-19 season, Nicolas holds the position of Artistic Partner of the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal.

His recent engagements have brought him to work with the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini in Parma, the Camerata Salzburg, the North Czech Philharmonic and the Orchestre de la Francophonie. At the invitation of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Mr. Ellis conducted a 5 concert tour with the Orchestre Métropolitain in the province of Québec during the summer of 2017, which earned him praises from the critics describing him as “a born conductor, a conductor of instinct” – Le Devoir. In addition, Mr. Ellis’s concerts with the Orchestre symphonique de l’Agora were nationally broadcasted on Radio-Canada (2015, 2016). Mr. Ellis was also the Resident conductor of the Orchestre symphonique de Québec between 2015 and 2018 and worked closely with Music Director Fabien Gabel. He was invited to come back as Guest conductor for the 2018-19 season for two subscription concerts.

Conducting fellow at the Aspen Music Festival (2014) and at the Accademia Chigiana di Siena (2013), Mr. Ellis has had the opportunity to work with great conductors such as Robert Spano, Leonard Slatkin, Hugh Wolff, Johannes Debus and Gianluigi Gelmetti. He also took part in a masterclass with Maestro Louis Langrée at the Festival de Pâques d’Aix-en-Provence (2016). He completed his Master’s degree in conducting at the McGill Schulich School of Music in Montreal, where he studied with Alexis Hauser and was a recipient of a Prestigious Schulich Scholarship.

In 2017, Mr. Ellis was also the recipient of the Bourse de carrière Fernand-Lindsay, a $50 000 prize presented biennially to the most promising and emerging Canadian musician by the Fondation Père-Lindsay. He is also the recipient of the 2015 Heinz Unger Award delivered by the Ontario Arts Council. This national award, presented biennially to an emerging professional Canadian conductor, recognizes talent and promise, musicianship, and commitment to Canadian repertoire and Canadian musicians. Nicolas Ellis was named classical revelation of the year by Radio-Canada (2018).

By the end of the 2018-19 season, Nicolas Ellis will have made his debut with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, Les Idées heureuses, the Orchestre symphonique de Longueuil and the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra. He also conducted the Orchestre Métropolitain and Les Violons du Roy with whom he made his American debut in West Lafayette (IN) alongside countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo.

Nikki Chooi, violin

Canadian violinist Nikki Chooi, praised for his passionate and poetic performances, has established himself as an artist of rare versatility. Described as “vigorous, colorful” by the New York Times, he has received critical acclaim in recent engagements at the Harris Theatre in Chicago, Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Carnegie Hall and Kauffman Center in New York, Koerner Hall in Toronto, Place des Arts and Salle Bourgie in Montreal, as well as appearing as soloist with orchestras across Canada including the Montréal Symphony, Winnipeg Symphony, Calgary Philharmonic, Edmonton Symphony, and internationally with the St. Petersburg State Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Wallonie, National Orchestra of Belgium, Auckland Philharmonia, Malaysian Philharmonic, and Hong Kong Philharmonic. He has been featured at many international festivals with performances at the Marlboro Festival, Ravinia Festival, La Jolla Summerfest, Vancouver Recital Series, Moritzburg Festival, Kammermusik Utrecht, Dresden Music Festival, Olympus Festival in Russia, and Fundación Beethoven in Chile.

Nikki has also delved into the orchestral repertoire, having served as Concertmaster of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 2016/2017 while working closely with singers and conductors including Renee Fleming, Elīna Garanča, Eric Owens, Fabio Luisi, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. His solos can be heard through The Met: Live in HD broadcasts in productions of Verdi’s La Traviata, Janacek’s Jenufa, and the Grammy-nominated recording of Strauss’ Rosenkavalier released on the Decca Label. He has also appeared as Guest Concertmaster with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Sydney Symphony, and Houston Symphony.

A passionate educator, Nikki has presented masterclasses at the San Francisco Conservatory, Morningside Music Program at the New England Conservatory, Sphinx Academy at the Curtis Institute of Music, Hong Kong Cultural Center, and the University of Auckland. A recipient of prizes at the Queen Elizabeth and Tchaikovsky Competitions, Nikki was the 1st Prize Winner of the Montreal Symphony’s Standard Life Competition, the Klein International Strings Competition, and the Michael Hill International Violin Competition. He released his debut album of works by Prokofiev, Ravel, and Gershwin on the Atoll Label.