CLASSICAL I, SEPTEMBER 20, 2014
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68 (1876)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
In 1871 Johannes Brahms famously remarked: “I will never compose a symphony! You have no idea how it feels to one of us when he continually hears behind him such a giant.” The looming giant whose presence Brahms so acutely felt was, of course, the great symphonist Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). When Brahms made this remark in 1871, he had already fully mastered several instrumental and vocal genres, but he had not yet produced a symphony. The anxiety he felt about this genre was multifaceted. He not only felt pressure to compete with Beethoven’s enduring legacy in this prestigious and public genre, but he also was faced with revitalizing the increasing obscurity of the traditional symphony in light of the recent innovations of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Franz Liszt (1811-1886). In addition, Brahms had long felt pressure to live up to the lofty expectations that his mentor and friend Robert Schumann (1810-1856) had set up for him in his 1853 article “Neue Bahnen” (“New Paths”). Brahms was but twenty years old when Schumann publically proclaimed him to be a nearly mythical musical messiah, to be the one who was “fated to give expression to the times in the highest and most ideal manner.” It was above all in the genre of the symphony that Brahms was expected to fulfill this prophecy.
Brahms’s anxiety about composing a symphony resulted in several false starts. He abandoned work on a Symphony in D Minor in 1854, eventually reusing portions of it in his First Piano Concerto (1858) and the German Requiem (1869). Brahms also attempted to transform his First Serenade in D Major (1859) into a symphony, but this too did not come to fruition. By 1862 Brahms had shared portions of what eventually became his Symphony No. 1 in C minor with close friends, but he continued to work on it for more than another decade. Meanwhile, Brahms produced a number of masterpieces in other genres and in the early 1870s he achieved great success with performances of his large-scale works the German Requiem and Variations on a Theme of Haydn (1873). This success seems to have bolstered Brahms’s confidence and renewed his determination to finish his symphony. Brahms at last completed the manuscript in September 1876 and soon played the complete work at the piano for his dear friend Clara Schumann (1819-1896) in early October of that year. The long-awaited symphony was then premiered on 4 November 1876 by the Grand Ducal Court Orchestra in Karlsruhe with Otto Dessoff (1835-1892) conducting.
For all the anxiety Brahms appears to have felt about his First Symphony, it is not a bashful statement. Instead, Brahms confronts the symphonic tradition head on. From the beginning of the first movement, Brahms makes an unmistakably bold gesture with his choice of key. By choosing the key of C minor for his symphony, Brahms harkens back to the C-minor symphony: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1808). After a slow introduction, the stormy first movement proceeds in a sonata form that is simultaneously reminiscent of Beethoven’s “C-minor moods” and thoroughly Brahms’s own, especially in the complexity of its dense and fluid motivic work. The second movement is a lovely Andante sostenuto in E major, and the third movement is a playful intermezzo in A flat major. Brahms composed these middle movements last, and they provide a placid respite from the intense, lengthy outer movements.
The massive finale of this symphony most clearly establishes Brahms as the revitalizer of the classical symphony and a claimant to Beethoven’s symphonic legacy. This complex movement includes two especially memorable themes, one with a special personal significance for Brahms and one that makes an unambiguous public statement. After an Adagio introduction in C minor, Brahms introduces a soaring theme in C major first in the solo horn and then in the solo flute. Brahms had first penned the theme on a birthday card that he sent to Clara Schumann in September 1868 with the words: “Thus blew the alphorn today: High in the mountains, deep in the valley, I greet you a thousand times over!” Brahms expected that Clara would recognize “her” theme as it appeared in the symphony. After the personal reference of the “Alphorn theme,” the trombones intone a solemn chorale before the main theme of the movement appears in C major. This famed choral theme bears a striking and easily recognizable resemblance to the choral theme (the “Ode to Joy” theme) of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824). Brahms’s allusion to Beethoven’s choral finale is intentional and pointed. This was Brahms’s public answer to Wagner’s music dramas and Liszt’s symphonic poems: by removing the human voice from his symphony’s choral theme, Brahms sought to reestablish the legitimacy of the purely instrumental, non-programmatic symphony.
Brahms’s symphony ends in a blaze of C-major glory, having traced the trajectory from tragedy to victory, from minor to major, that Beethoven had established early in the century. The conductor Hans von Bülow (1830-1894) in fact famously referred to this symphony as the “Tenth Symphony,” alluding to its rank with the symphonies of Beethoven. With this incredible masterpiece, Brahms established himself as a symphonist in his own right. He would go on to compose three additional symphonies and to become one of the great names in the Austro-German symphonic tradition.
1812 Overture, Op. 49 (1880)
Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Tchaikovsky composed his popular 1812 Overture in 1880 on a commission from Nikolay Rubinstein (1835-1881). The commission was for a piece to be performed at the 1882 consecration of the Cathedral of the Redeemer in Moscow, which was built to commemorate Napoleon’s defeat in 1812 at the Battle of Borodino. It was at this battle that the Russians successfully drove French armies away from Moscow. In 1974 Arthur Fiedler (1894-1979) and the Boston Pops initiated the tradition of performing the 1812 Overture on the Fourth of July, and this dramatic music is still frequently used to accompany firework displays.
The overture begins with a serene rendition of the Russian liturgical hymn “God Preserve Thy People,” and as the piece proceeds Tchaikovsky quotes a Russian folk tune as well as both the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” and the then-national anthem of the Russian Empire, “God Save the Czar.” In addition to these nationalist melodies, Tchaikovsky also took inspiration from the sounds of battle and famously included a part for a real canon in the final section of the overture. Along with an expanded brass band, bells, drums, and the full orchestra, the canon contributes to the rousing bombast that has made this work a favorite with audiences ever since its first performance.
CLASSICAL II, OCTOBER 25, 2014 (BACH-TOBER FEST)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 in Eisenach into a family of professional musicians. After the deaths of his parents in 1694, Bach lived with his oldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671-1721), from whom he received extensive musical training. At the age of fourteen, Bach went to study at St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, and upon completing his studies there he held brief appointments as a court musician in Weimar, as an organist in Arnstadt, and then as an organist in Mühlhausen. In 1708 Bach returned to Weimar as an organist and was then promoted to Konzertmeister at the ducal court there in 1714. It was during Bach’s years in Weimar that he composed a large number of his works for keyboard, and it was also at this time that he familiarized himself with the Italianate style, particularly through the concertos of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).
After an unfavorable discharge from his position in Weimar in 1717, Bach obtained an appointment as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Because the Calvinist court in Cöthen did not require elaborate sacred music, at this time Bach focused on secular instrumental works, composing the Brandenburg concertos, the cello suites, and the sonatas and partitas for solo violin. In 1723 Bach then secured a prestigious appointment as Cantor of the Thomasschule and Thomaskirche in Leipzig, a position he retained until his death in 1750.
In the years immediately following Bach’s death, his voluminous output of compositions was little known and his reputation was based above all on his skills as a keyboardist and teacher. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, however, composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827), Robert Schumann (1810-1856), and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) began to recognize and celebrate the importance of Bach’s extraordinary compositions. The nineteenth-century revival of Bach’s musical legacy built the foundation for his recognition today as one of the greatest musical geniuses ever to compose in the Western art music tradition.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major, BWV 1046 (c. 1717)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
The six Brandenburg Concertos—so named because the set bears a dedication to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg (1677-1734)—are among Bach’s most beloved works. Bach likely met the Margrave of Brandenburg and performed for him in Berlin in 1719. Two years later, on 24 March 1721, Bach dedicated a set of six concertos, each featuring a different instrumental grouping, to the Margrave with the following words: “As I had the pleasure a couple of years ago of being heard by Your Royal Highness, in accordance with your commands, and of observing that you took some delight in the small musical talent that Heaven has granted me, and as, when I took my leave of Your Royal Highness, you did me the honour of requesting that I send you some of my compositions, I have therefore followed your most gracious commands and taken the liberty of discharging my humble obligation to Your Royal Highness with the present concertos which I have adapted to several instruments.”
The First Concerto is unique among the Brandenburgs because in addition to the typical three movements of the Italian concerto, this concerto also includes a fourth movement. The first movement is an Allegro that follows a clear ritornello structure, in which sections featuring the full orchestra alternate with sections featuring smaller groups of solo instruments. The second movement of the concerto is a D-minor Adagio that showcases elaborately ornamented melodies in the solo oboe and in the unusual violino piccolo (a small violin that is tuned a third or a fourth higher than the regular violin). The third movement is another Allegro movement in ritornello form. The apparently “extra” final movement is a Menuetto and Trio plus a Polacca (a Polish dance) and Trio. The second Trio section is a special feature for the two horns that Bach included in this concerto but in no other concerto of the set.
Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067 (c. 1738-39)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Bach originally titled his four orchestral suites Ouvertures, and each work is a collection of dance movements in the French style. The Second Suite features an instrumental combination that is unique within Bach’s oeuvre. It is scored for a solo flute and orchestral strings, and this combination often leads Bach to treat the flute as a soloist in the manner of a concerto. Although the precise date of composition for the Second Suite is unknown, it appears likely that this suite dates from Bach’s time in Leipzig, and it may in fact represent the last orchestral work that he ever composed. The first movement is in the form of a French overture, beginning with a stately slow section in B minor with strongly dotted rhythms and trills, moving into a fast fugal section in D major, and then returning to the slow opening material at the end of the movement. The second movement is a Rondeau and the third is a Sarabande, a slow Spanish dance in triple meter. Two Bourrées, a Polonaise, and a Minuet follow, and the suite ends with a lively Badinerie (meaning “jesting” or “joking”) that is often performed separately as a virtuosic showpiece for the flutist.
Sinfonia No. 5 in B Minor, Wq 182/5, H. 661 (c. 1773)
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)
Carl Philipp Emanuel was the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach and Maria Barbara Bach (1684-1720), and 2014 marks the celebration of the 300th anniversary of his birth. Having effectively absorbed both the older Baroque styles he learned from his father and several of the new styles that began to take center stage during the transition to the Classical era, Carl Phillip forged his own distinctive instrumental style.
During Carl Philipp’s lifetime, the symphony was first emerging as an independent and modern genre. He composed nineteen symphonies in total, nine in his early years in Berlin and then ten more later on in Hamburg. The Sinfonia No. 5 in B Minor was composed in Hamburg and comes from a set of six symphonies published in 1773 on a commission from Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803), who would later serve as an important patron for Haydn and Mozart. These six symphonies are all significantly more technically demanding than Carl Philipp’s earlier Berlin symphonies, featuring more difficult and complex parts for the instrumentalists. No. 5 is in three movements and, especially in the first movement, features Carl Philipp’s signature personal style: sudden and dramatic contrasts in mood and key. Indeed, Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752-1814), who was staying in Hamburg at the time that Bach composed the six symphonies, rightly described these symphonies as possessing “great variety and novelty of form and modulation.”
Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068 (c. 1731)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
As with Second Orchestral Suite, the precise date of composition for the Third Suite is unknown. It is known, however, that this suite was likewise composed in Leipzig and was completed sometime before 1731. The opening movement is a French overture, and in the Third Suite the grand royal character of the overture is greatly enhanced by Bach’s inclusion of three trumpets and timpani. Today the second movement, an Air, is one of the most well-known works from the Baroque era. The tender melody and poignant harmonies inspired the German violinist August Wilhelmj (1845-1908) to arrange it as the famous “Air on the G String” in the late nineteenth century. The suite is rounded out by three additional dance movements: a pair of Gavottes, a Bourrée, and a lively Gigue.
CLASSICAL III, JANUARY 31, 2015
Cello Concerto in D Minor (1877)
Edouard Lalo (1823-1892)
Edouard Lalo received his first musical training at the Lille Conservatoire in northern France, and at the age of sixteen left home against his father’s wishes to enroll at the Paris Conservatoire. Lalo toiled as a performer and teacher for many years before his work as a composer finally began to gain recognition in the 1870s, in part because of support for the music of living French composers offered by the recently founded Société Nationale de Musique. Lalo made his breakthrough with orchestral works such as the Symphonie espagnole (1875), the Violin Concerto (1874), and the Cello Concerto of this evening’s program. Lalo also yearned for success on the operatic stage, and he at last achieved it very close to the end of his life with Le roi d’Ys (1888).
Lalo composed the Cello Concerto in 1876 for the cellist Adolphe Fischer (1847-1891), who premiered the work the following year. The first movement begins with an ominous slow introduction, and elements of the introduction continue to reappear throughout the Allegro maestoso that forms the main body of the movement. The second movement is an intermezzo that combines a slow movement and a scherzo, alternating between an Andantino con moto in G minor and a lively G-major scherzo. The third and final movement begins with a brief slow introduction for the soloist, which is then followed by a dance-like Allegro vivace that brings the concerto to a rousing close.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
After dancing with the famed Ballets Russes in Paris from 1909 to 1911, the Russian dancer and actress Ida Rubinstein (1885-1960) formed her own dance company and subsequently commissioned several ballets. One of these was the work that has since become composer Maurice Ravel’s most widely known work: Boléro. Rubinstein commissioned it in 1928, requesting of Ravel that the ballet have a Spanish character. Inspired by his own Spanish heritage—his mother was Basque—Ravel initially planned to compose a Fandango, but he later decided to conceive the ballet as a Boléro, which is a moderately slow dance in triple meter that features a triplet on the second beat. For the ballet’s premiere at the Paris Opéra on 22 November 1928, Rubinstein and her choreographer Bronislava Nijinska (1891-1972) devised a simple scenario: “Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. In response to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.”
Soon after its premiere as a ballet, Boléro began to be performed as an independent concert piece, and it is in this form that it has achieved its enormous popularity. Boléro famously begins with a pianissimo rhythm in the snare drum. This rhythm repeats consistently through the entire piece and forms the basis of the piece’s structure as a single, enormous crescendo. Solo instruments initially take turns with Boléro’s two melodies, after which Ravel gradually combines and layers groups of instruments to increase the dynamic level and build an ever-more cacophonous texture based only on the ostinato rhythm and these two melodies. In addition to the usual orchestral instruments, Ravel includes three saxophone parts in Boléro, adding yet another color to his rich orchestral palette.
Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27 (1907)
Serge Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
In describing the Moscow premiere of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony in 1908, the critic Yuri Engel (1868-1927) wrote: “The prevailing mood of the symphony is serious and passionate, which is so typical of Rachmaninoff’s works. His music is, truly, the language of spirit: candid, confident, not stilted, without hollow repetitions.” These words and the success of this symphony were a dramatic reversal from the utter failure of the premiere of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony in 1897. The debacle of the First Symphony caused the composer to become deeply despondent and to avoid large-scale composition for approximately three years. By the time he composed the Second Symphony in 1906-1907, Rachmaninoff had recovered his self-confidence and had achieved great success with works such as the Second Piano Concerto (1901). He composed the Second Symphony in Dresden, where he began spending a great deal of time beginning in 1906 because of political unrest in Russia. In Dresden, Rachmaninoff found that he could work in seclusion but still had access to the fine musical institutions of that city and of nearby Leipzig.
The Second Symphony is remarkable for its often Tchaikovsky-like lyricism as well as its extreme length. The first movement begins with an almost elegiac slow introduction that ends with an English horn solo that forms a link into a sonata-form Allegro moderato. The first theme and development are dominated by a stormy, minor mood, which contrasts with the lyrical, major-mode second theme. The second movement is a lively scherzo in A minor with a striking fugato section, and, as in the first movement, Rachmaninoff manages to include an expansive lyrical melody as contrast. The arresting Adagio movement features long-breathed melodies of extraordinary tenderness and expressivity, and Rachmaninoff uses these melodies to achieve a series of truly glorious climaxes. Rachmaninoff casts the final movement as a playful rondo in E major that incorporates elements of the previous movements before its triumphant ending.
CLASSICAL IV, APRIL 18, 2015
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (“Choral”), Op. 125 (1824)
Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for all the world!
These words, which come from Friedrich von Schiller’s (1759-1805) popular poem “An die Freude” (“Ode to Joy”), have achieved eternal and universal fame because of their inclusion in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. There is no question about this symphony’s place in much more than the history of Western art music. “The Ninth” has appeared in everything from Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange (1962), and its adaptation for film by Stanley Kubrik (1971), to Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album (1991). It is familiar to and beloved by audiences of many levels of sophistication: as close to a kiss for the whole world as any work of this kind has come.
Beethoven first entertained the idea of setting “An die Freude” as early as 1792, and thirty-two years later, in 1824, the text appeared in the finale of the Ninth Symphony. It had been a decade since Vienna’s master-composer had given a concert, a decade since the premiere of his Eighth Symphony. The fact that Beethoven originally planned to unveil the Ninth in London or Berlin could only have heightened the anticipation for its premiere on 7 May 1824 at Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theater. Only after a petition appeared in the Vienna Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung and the Vienna Theater-Zeitung did Beethoven abandon his plans for alternative venues and instead unveil his creation in his adopted hometown. Much lore surrounds the first performance. All told, despite an under-rehearsed orchestra and extreme demands on the solo singers, the performance was a triumph for Beethoven.
The Ninth Symphony has been subjected to commentary, philosophizing, ideological appropriation, and rigorous analysis since its first appearance. Its many innovative and unique features have continuously fascinated audiences, for as David Benjamin Levy has remarked: “Both the Beethoven myth and the legend of the Ninth Symphony loom large in our collective imagination.” The opening of the first movement immediately commands our attention as the symphony begins with a bare fifth (A-E) that is tonally ambiguous and thematically unformed. Over this fifth the orchestra sounds as though it is tuning, setting the stage for the gradual emergence of the movement’s first theme. The movement unfolds in a sonata-form scheme, but its stormy tension is not resolved in the recapitulation and coda. Instead, the minor-mode first movement seems to set in motion the trajectory of the remainder of the symphony, which will eventually conclude in D major.
Following the opening Allegro ma non troppo is not the more typical slow movement, which instead appears in third position, but rather a scherzo of extraordinary size and scope. Reviews of the symphony’s first performance were especially enthusiastic about this movement, with its energy, conspicuous solo timpani, and wonderfully contrasting trio section. The Adagio molto e cantabile that follows is an exceptionally beautiful double set of variations in B-flat major. This extended and elevated adagio serves as an arresting contrast to both the vigorous scherzo that precedes it and the massive choral finale that will follow.
It is, of course, the choral finale that is the summation of all that has come before. After an opening that Richard Wagner (1813-1883) called the “fanfare of terror,” Beethoven presents an extended recitative in the low strings. The performance of a vocal type, recitative, by the most un-soloistic of orchestral instruments is uncanny. This recitative is punctuated by reminiscences of each of the preceding movements before the first statement of the “Freude” (“Ode to Joy”) theme, which is again set improbably in the low strings. After the theme is varied and developed in the orchestra, the baritone soloist interrupts: “O friends, not these notes! Let us rather strike up something more pleasant, and more joyful!” The interjection of the human voice, first alone and then en masse, into the distinctively instrumental genre of the symphony is a moment of great import.
Beethoven used only a portion of Schiller’s text for his seminal finale. The words that he chose espouse a utopian ideal of universal brotherhood, a celebration of joy in creation and the Creator. It is no wonder that this work is so frequently called upon at symbolic moments: it was performed to reopen the Bayreuth Festival after the end of World War II, Leonard Bernstein conducted it for the 1989 Christmas Day concert celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it is frequently performed at the Olympic Games. It has also cast a long shadow over the work of every symphonist since. Again and again it seems that we millions are embracing the power of Beethoven’s final symphony just as it embraces us.