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Towards a New World

8 August, 2021



Barbara Assiginaak
Eko-Bmijwang (As long in time as the river flows) – world premiere of Orchestre Métropolitain commissioned work.

Bohuslav Martinů
The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, H. 352

Antonín Dvořák
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”

Barbara ASSIGINAAK (1966-)


Barbara Assiginaak is an Odawa composer active since 1995. Born in Manidoo Mnissing doonjiba; Giniw dodem (Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, Ontario; Golden Eagle Clan), she is the child of a residential school survivor and a direct descendant of hereditary chiefs who signed the major treaties in Ontario and who fought in major battles of the Indian Wars and War of 1812. She composes and performs music for pipigwan (traditional cedar flute), and for voice in the traditional Anishinaabe way since early childhood. Assiginaak has also had a thorough classical training in music, having studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich and the University of Toronto. Her teachers have included the Canadian Samuel Dolin, German Helmut Lachenmann, and Englishmen Peter Maxwell Davies and Robert Saxton.

Assiginaak’s music has been performed across Canada and internationally. From 1998 to 2002 she was composer-in-residence with the Toronto Symphony. In 2002 she was commissioned to compose the incidental and theme music for the Opening Ceremonies of the North American Indigenous Games in Winnipeg that year. Assiginaak has frequently been a guest composer and performer at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. She is also the Founder and Director of Women of the Four Directions (WFD), promoting Indigenous women’s artistic and cultural activities.

The Nishnaabemwin (Odawa) title of tonight’s world premiere, Eko-Bmijwang, might be translated As Long as the River Flows. The composer explains:


“This new symphonic work for the Orchestre Métropolitan acknowledges Gichigami-     ziibi (Great Sea River; Kaniatarowanenneh/“big waterway”/River of the         Haudenosaunee) as the flowing waters of ancestral memory and as the veins which carry        that lifeblood of Skagmigkwe (Mother Earth). Many nations of Indigenous peoples have   travelled this route for thousands of years, and situated their villages near the riverbanks.            The Haudenosaunee have their own stories and histories relayed through oral tradition             and wampum belts about important meanings that this river system has held for them     since time immemorial. The flow of their words flow like the waters of the river.

I imagined this short work as a journey through a dream-memory experience of time,      beginning with a canoe entering the calm waters in the midst of thick fog just under the       light of Nookmis (Grandmother Moon). Soon, with the coming dawn, the mists rise and      the waters dance under the light of Giizis (Grandfather Sun) and enliven those many    creatures that dwell within and around. The hereditary chiefs I am directly descended          from, and who signed many treaties in Canada and the United States (on both sides of the         rivers and lakes), always understood that agreements made are to be honored for as long             as the waters flow. Without that flow of water (even in calmness or seeming stillness,     there is a current within—an energy and spirit), all life will cease to exist.”

Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890–1959)

The Frescos of Piero della Francesca

I. Andante poco moderato

II. Adagio

III. Poco allegro — Poco meno, cantabile

Bohuslav Martinů followed in the footsteps of his Czech compatriots Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček, and Suk in the use of basically traditional forms and in the incorporation of elements from Bohemian and Moravian folk music into his works. Like so many other composers and artists, Martinů was driven from his homeland by Nazi oppression to assume a new life in America. In 1952 he returned to Europe and settled in Nice the following year. There he was introduced to the work of the Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca (c.1415-1492) in the form of reproductions shown to him by a friend. Martinů was so moved by them that he made the voyage to Italy to experience Piero’s work firsthand. The series of ten panels known as The Legend of the True Cross, painted between 1452 and 1466, made a particularly deep impression on the composer. In them he found the inspiration for his next major orchestral composition. “I tried to express in musical terms that kind of solemnly immobile calm and semi-darkness, that palette of colors creating an atmosphere filled with delicate, peaceful, and moving poetry,” he wrote.

Martinů composed his three “frescos” quickly in the spring of 1955 and heard them premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival on August 26, 1956. His countryman Rafael Kubelik, to whom the work was dedicated, conducted.

Martinů claimed that everything in his music was “peace and color.” Nevertheless, even the casual listener will note that much of the music is far from peaceful, the main exceptions being the English horn solo in the first movement and the ending of each movement. Rhythmic patterns are often highly complex, to the extent that, as scholar Hugh Macdonald wryly notes, “the pulse of the music is more readily sensed from watching the conductor than from following the flow of orchestral entries, all of which defy the beat in complicated ways.” However, as regards color, the density of the orchestration does indeed reflect the opacity of Piero’s work and its setting in St. Francis Basilica in Arezzo. In this music, Martinů returned to the softer, gentler hues of his pre-Parisian period.

Martinů’s first “fresco” is his impression of Piero’s panels in which the Queen of Sheba is seen kneeling before the bridge over the River Siloe, realizing as she does so that the wood of the bridge comes from the same tree as did the cross. The second movement was inspired by Constantine’s Dream, in which an angel reveals to him the sign of the cross in the sky, the cross that will lead him to victory in battle. At this point Martinů writes for the solo viola the equivalent of a military trumpet call, to be played cuivré (brassy). The composer wrote of the final movement that it is “a kind of general view of the frescos, calling attention to two battle scenes and the many fascinating details.”

Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 (“From the New World”)

I. Adagio — Allegro

II. Largo

III. Scherzo : Molto vivace

IV. Allegro con fuoco

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, the “New World Symphony” to most listeners, received its world premiere in New York’s Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893. Although the “New World” Symphony was written in the New World, it is not specifically about the New World. True, there are themes that could be construed as being “authentic” songs of the American Indians or African-Americans, but in fact, as in Dvořák’s Slavonic works, he did not actually quote directly from folksong but rather composed his own based on study of the source material.

One “New World” aspect of this symphony is the role played by Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, which Dvořák had read in Czech translation some thirty years earlier. He re-read the poem in America and claimed that the scene of Minnehaha’s funeral in the forest inspired the Largo movement of his symphony, while the Indians’ Dance was responsible for the Scherzo. Dvořák actually visited Hiawatha’s land (Iowa and southern Minnesota), but the symphony was essentially complete by this time, so whatever influence Hiawatha had on him was purely literary, not geographical.

            From the New World alone of Dvořák’s nine symphonies opens with a slow introduction. Within the space of just 23 measures, the composer incorporates moods of melancholic dreaming and tense foreboding, startling eruptions and a surging melodic line. The main Allegro section is launched by horns in an arpeggiated fanfare motif in E minor, a motif that will reappear in all remaining movements as well. Several additional themes follow.

The Largo contains one of the most famous themes in all classical music. Many listeners know it as the song “Goin’ home,” but Dvořák did not borrow the theme from a spiritual; it is his own, and the words were superimposed after the symphony was written by one of his students, William Arms Fisher. Although Dvořák himself claimed the movement was inspired by a passage from Longfellow’s poem, Otakar Šourek (himself a Czech), believes the listener is equally entitled to imagine instead Dvořák longing for his homeland: “the melancholy, the wide expanses of the South Bohemian countryside, his garden at Vysoka, the deep solemn sighing of the pine forests, and the broad, fragrant fields.”

The Scherzo is one of the most energetic and exhilarating movements Dvořák ever wrote, and borders on the virtuosic as well for the dazzling orchestral display it entails. The contrasting Trio section is a charming rustic dance introduced by the woodwind choir and set to the lilting long-short-long rhythm of which Schubert was so fond.

The finale too contains its share of melodic fecundity and inventiveness. The development section features not only material from this movement but from the three previous ones as well, especially the main theme of the Largo, which is fragmented and tossed about with almost reckless abandon. The grand climax of the long coda brings back the chordal sequence that opened the Largo, but now painted in broad, majestic strokes in the full brass and woodwind sections. The final chord is a surprise  ̶  not a predictably stentorian chord played fortissimo by the full orchestra, but a lovely, warm sonority of winds alone, a sound that lingers gently on the ears of New World audiences.


Notes de programme par Robert Markow