Since the earliest migrations of humans to Europe 40,000 years ago, the civilizations of the British Isles have functioned somewhat apart from those of the Continent—the result of geography, climate, and, eventually, temperament. Though little is known of Neolithic cultures, during the last two millennia Romans, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans have joined Celtic peoples to form a singular stew of ethnicities and cultures. Today the vast “archipelago” consists of nearly 200 inhabited islands, though what we normally call the British Isles consists chiefly of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and Wales.
This season The Philadelphia Orchestra and Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin celebrate a wide range of music in its British Isles Festival (January 11-26), three concert weekends that strive both to honor the music of the region and to reflect the ways in which it has become connected to that of the rest of the world. It is the fourth in the Orchestra’s series of celebrations of a particular global city or region.
“Our Winter Festival is one of my favorite moments,” Yannick says. “In January, we all feel the need to warm our hearts and our ears. … Because we can’t be warm outside, it’s a chance to ‘travel,’ even if we stay in Philadelphia. We went to St. Petersburg, Vienna, and Paris, and now it’s time to go to the British Isles.”
By the Middle Ages, Continental and British cultures were becoming inextricably linked through commerce and conquest, and during the Renaissance we began to see symbiotic relations forming in the arts. In music, publications such as Nicholas Yonge’s 1588 Musica transalpina helped promote Continental music in Britain, and the popularity of solo songs of John Dowland on the Continent suggested the trend flowed in both directions. With the arrival of the German-born George Frideric Handel in London in 1710, it became clear that the history of European music could no longer be told separately from that of the advancing culture of the British Isles.
Just as important, the exportation of music from the British Isles to the American colonies and, during the 19th century, to the ever-expanding British Empire (including the folk songs that emigrants took with them) made clear that European musical language was becoming, perhaps for the first time, a global phenomenon.
By focusing not just on Britain but also on Scotland, Ireland, and even the Orkneys, the Festival will be “an opportunity to discover the true geography of the British Isles,” says Yannick, who is now in his sixth season as music director, “but also the folklore, and through it experience the stylistic scope of The Philadelphia Orchestra.” Yes, London figures prominently in the Festival’s focus, he adds. “But also all the landscapes, which have inspired a lot of composers through the centuries.”
Handel first arrived in 1710 and took to Britain so warmly that he eventually became a citizen. The Italian-trained composer brought dazzling lyric opera to a public that had barely established its own operatic tradition, and adapted this bel canto style to oratorios that propelled English music light-years forward. The cosmopolitan style of instrumental works such as the Water Music (a central feature of the Festival’s Week 1) energized a public accustomed to the tamer tones of John Blow and Henry Purcell.
“This is very important for me,” says Yannick of the Handel, “because I believe that The Philadelphia Orchestra can play Baroque music uniquely, retaining its color but also being lighter and transparent.” Also part of the first week’s program is a work by Scottish-born composer James MacMillan, A Scotch Bestiary for organ and orchestra, featuring soloist Paul Jacobs. Known for weaving Scottish tunes into his music, MacMillan describes this Carnival of the Animals-like piece as a caricature of “individuals and archetypes encountered in Scottish life over the years.” The concert concludes with another “water-influenced” piece, the Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.
Nearly a century after Handel’s arrival in London, Joseph Haydn also found himself lionized by the British public, during two visits from 1791 to 1795 sponsored by the violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon. Today only the Symphony No. 104—which opens Festival Week 3—bears the subtitle “London,” but Haydn composed for Salomon’s orchestra 12 of the most spectacular symphonies the world had heard. “Haydn himself presided at the piano-forte,” wrote Charles Burney, the inveterate musical traveler, of these performances. “And the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England.”
Superior, that is, until the arrival a quarter-century later of Berlin-born Felix Mendelssohn, whose “Scottish” Symphony is a prominent feature of Festival Week 2. As with Handel and Haydn before him, Mendelssohn fell in love with Britain and its people, and during 10 visits beginning in 1829 achieved near-superstar status.
He would refer to London as “the grandest and most complicated monster on the face of earth,” and to his final days he remained nostalgic for its gritty charm. Literate, charming, and semi-fluent in English, Mendelssohn ran in high circles, dining with Dickens, contracting with major publishers, and exerting influence on local composers. He was also able to observe a Britain in transition, as Queen Victoria (who took the throne in 1837) improved life in London and elsewhere. She and Prince Albert were fond of Mendelssohn. After an 1842 concert in which he performed, she wrote in her diary: “Really I have never heard anything so beautiful.”
Mendelssohn was also enchanted, famously, by his visits to Scotland with its Romantic ancient ruins. “I believe I found today in that chapel the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony,” he wrote of the Holyrood Abbey remains. For Yannick, the Symphony No. 3 embodies “the melancholy, the grey skies, combined with the immensity and majesty of the sea … and yet the fun music in the villages and the old architecture and the ruins. This is one of my favorite symphonies of all time.” (Queen Victoria attended the London premiere of this Symphony in June 1842.)
The Week 2 program is devoted entirely to works relating to Scotland. Max Bruch never visited the region, but he was enchanted by folk tunes he found in printed publications. He crafted several of them into his Scottish Fantasy, which First Associate Concertmaster Juliette Kang performs. But that’s not all: “If I say Scotland, we think bagpipes,” Yannick says, and thus he opens Week 2 with An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise by the late Peter Maxwell Davies. The 10-minute piece features the appearance of a bagpiper to signal the dawn after an all-night, Scotch-fueled revelry.
Ireland, too, forms part of the Festival. The Week 3 program features, in addition to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (with soloist Yefim Bronfman), the Prelude and “Liebestod” from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. Isolde or “Iseult” is a legendary Irish princess who loves Tristan though she is betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall. “It is a Celtic legend and one of the grandest of Wagner’s operas,” says Yannick, who has secured one of today’s great Wagnerian conductors, Fabio Luisi, for the task.
In addition to the Festival offerings, Yannick points out, the Orchestra’s entire 2017-18 season has been sprinkled with works linked to the Festival’s theme: Dvořák’s Othello Overture, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Gustav Holst’s The Planets, and Thomas Adès’s Suite from his opera Powder Her Face.
If the music of the Continent spurred growth in the British Isles in earlier centuries, in our own time the impact of musicians from Britain, Ireland, and Scotland—from Harrison Birtwistle to the Beatles, Adele to Malcolm Arnold—has been incalculable. It remains a peculiar irony that even as the political power of the once-immense British Empire has diminished during the three centuries since Handel’s arrival in London, the cultural influence of the British Isles in the world has expanded immeasurably.
Paul Horsley is performing arts editor of the Independent in Kansas City and writes for several publications nationwide. During the 1990s he was program annotator and musicologist for The Philadelphia Orchestra and subsequently served as music and dance critic for the Kansas City Star.