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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.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s British Isles Festival takes audiences to many locations, including the Orkney Islands with Peter Maxwell Davies’s An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise.
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.
Composer Felix Mendelssohn’s sketch of Edinburgh from Salisbury Crags, July 26, 1829
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.”
The complete version of this article will be published in the January Playbill. To purchase tickets to the British Isles Festival, click here.