On Saturday, May 3 at 7:30 p.m. in the Helena Civic Center, the Helena Symphony Orchestra & Chorale will present a program that explores the themes of war, peace and fate. This concert concludes the 59th season with Vaughan Williams’ prayer and plea for peace in the monumental Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant Us Peace) and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s epic tragedy to triumph in his Fifth Symphony.
Living during both World Wars, Vaughan Williams proclaimed that he “came to the conclusion that the works of Man terrify me more that the works of God.” As World War II seemed inevitable, he composed more and more as a “means to preserve civilization” and to express his anguish over the threat of another war.
Williams composed Dona Nobis Pacem in 1936. The six connected movements are set to texts from Walt Whitman’s poetry, the Book of Jeremiah from the Old Testament, the Latin Mass, and a political speech made in 1855. The work embraces cries to heaven against war which Vaughan Williams sees as a catastrophic global man-made disaster and hopes that time will wash assay the awful deeds of war. He calls on a compassionate world and ultimately offers assurance and hope, proclaiming “peace and goodwill toward men.” In addition to the Helena Symphony Orchestra & Chorale, the work includes performances by nationally-noted soloists, Soprano Diana McVey and Baritone Evan Thomas Jones.
Many of the great Romantic composers produced their greatest works while struggling against the disease of the body or of the mind. Beethoven struggled against deafness, Schumann succumbed to insanity and Brahms sickened of a broken heart. Tchaikovsky, too, produced music out of suffering. A sensitive, shy child, young Tchaikovsky had turbulent formative years. Having moved from city to city throughout his childhood, he and his brother were eventually banished to a factory-like boarding school. At the age of 14, he lost his mother, whom he loved obsessively, to cholera. The young Tchaikovsky was prone to sudden fits of neuroses, ironically induced by the very music he loved. He attempted to shield his homosexuality from a disapproving world with a failed marriage. It is not surprising then that Tchaikovsky struggled against depression throughout his life, attempting suicide more than once, and eventually dying by his own hand.
The melancholy of Tchaikovsky’s life left its mark on his compositions. Much of his music is ponderous and gloomy, due to the dark cast of his harmonies and orchestration. Written when Tchaikovsky was 48 in 1888, the Fifth Symphony focuses on mankind’s futile struggle with destiny. Maestro Scott suggests that, “Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony moves from gloom into a terrific storm, coupled with profound moments of a hushed reflection, heartbreaking tenderness, and ultimately a victorious optimism.”
Tickets range between $10 and $50 and can be purchased online at helenasymphony.org or by calling the Symphony Box Office (406.442.1860) or by visiting the Symphony office on the Walking Mall (2 N. Last Chance Gulch Suite 1) between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. or at the door.