George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1898 and died in Hollywood in 1937. He composed the musical Strike Up the Band in 1927, with a book by George S. Kaufman and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. This opened in Philadelphia the same year, but closed after only two weeks. A greatly revised version was made in 1929, and this had a successful Broadway run. In the early 1970s arranger Don Rose scored the Overture for concert performance. The score calls for 3 flutes, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celeste, and strings.
George S. Kaufman once famously quipped: "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." He might well have been speaking of his own work on Strike Up the Band, which closed its own pre-Broadway run after only two weeks.
Kaufman had supplied a nutty story for the show, part screwball comedy and part biting satire on American politics, big business, militarism, foreign relations, and more. The plot revolved around a businessman trying to persuade the government to go to war with Switzerland over cheese tariffs. Critics loved it, but the Philadelphia audiences didn't.
Before its Broadway opening a couple of years later, Gershwin revised most of the music and Morrie Ryskind was brought in to rewrite the book. The satire was softened, relegating the war to a dream sequence, and the diplomatic incident was changed to be over chocolate rather than cheese. The Gershwin brothers added a dozen new songs, and the disaster had been transformed into a moderately successful hit. The Overture is pure Gershwin: perky, upbeat, and oh-so American.
Riccardo Castagnone was born in Brunate, Italy in 1906 and died in Milan in 1983. This work was given its premiere in 1935 in Monte Carlo under the direction of Dmitri Mitropoulos. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, celeste, and strings.
Riccardo Castagnone was a composer, pianist, arranger, conductor, and teacher. He studied piano and composition at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan, took time off to pursue a law degree, and then returned to music, studying conducting with Hermann Scherchen. As a composer he wrote a good deal of chamber music as well as songs and works for the piano. Castagnone concertized widely as a pianist, and was a frequent collaborator with violinist Arthur Grumiaux.
Castagnone didn't mention which play or plays by Carlo Goldoni inspired this concert overture, but the inspiration itself is not surprising: several of Goldoni's witty comedies have been turned into operas, and he worked as a librettist on several more. Castagnone's Preludio giocoso aims to bring some of Goldoni's wit to the concert stage.
Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn in 1900 and died in Peekskill, New York in 1990. He composed this music in 1959 for a ballet collaboration with choreographer Jerome Robbins and his Ballets U.S.A. After Robbins backed out of the agreement, Copland revised the score and led the first performance as a ballet in 1963 in Munich, Germany, with the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra. He later arranged the score for concert performance. The score calls for 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, percussion, and strings.
Many concert-goers know about the transformation of Copland's style from the brash and dissonant works of his youth to the more accessible pieces such as Appalachian Spring. But Copland was always growing as a composer. His later works became leaner, more abstract, and he even dipped his toes into the realm of 12-tone music.
To Copland, 12-tone music was merely another tool in a composer's tool kit. He thought that dodecaphony would split into two, with one branch remaining pure and ever more tightly organized, while the other would undergo "a gradual absorption into what had become a very freely interpreted tonalism." For himself, he would use whatever techniques seemed appropriate at the time.
Which is why such an accessible work such as his Dance Panels might come from the same period that produced the difficult Connotations. Choreographer Jerome Robbins had asked to collaborate with Copland on a new ballet, one with no specific story but with music that was infused with waltzes. When Copland played him his piano score, Robbins backed out of the agreement. A few years later it was given as a ballet in Munich, but Copland didn't care much for the choreography. At that point Copland turned the ballet score into the concert piece we know today.
Dance Panels comprises seven sections into one continuous piece—as Copland said, "like the panels on a screen." An astringent first section in long tones builds to a large climax and then recedes, leading to a contemplative and lyrical section. A "light and transparent" scherzando follows, then the flute begins a slow and nostalgic Pas de trois. Copland marked this "somewhat hesitant, melancholy, and naïve." The lively music that follows is characterized by "brisk rhythms and jazzy drum patterns," including a brief snare drum solo. The short penultimate section is lyrical; Copland marked the opening "menacing," and later, "eloquent." The final section is alternately frenetic and joyous. The frenzy begins to increase, whereupon the opening material of the introduction returns. The ending leaves us hanging a bit, as if the dance continues long beyond the ballet.
Gustav Mahler was born in Kalischt, Bohemia in 1860 and died in Vienna in 1911. He began to sketch his First Symphony in 1885, using some materials that went back several years before this; he composed most of the work in 1888. He revised the score several times, for the last time in 1906. Blumine, the original second movement, was first performed with the symphony in 1889, with the Budapest Philharmonic under the direction of the composer. The score of Blumine calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, trumpet, timpani, harp, and strings.
Mahler had a devil of a time figuring out how to present his First Symphony. He originally promoted it as a "Symphonic Poem" in two parts and five movements, but the work seemed to confuse those listeners who didn't openly dislike it. Friends persuaded Mahler to provide a written guide for his audience, so he named the work "Titan" (after the novel by Jean Paul) and devised a descriptive program for it after the fact.
Unfortunately, the program did not predispose audiences to greater understanding or acceptance of the symphony—it seemed to make things worse, actually—so Mahler retracted it. Years later, when he published the score, he called the work a symphony and dropped the symphonic poem's second movement, Blumine, giving the work a more traditional shape. For more than sixty years this was the only First we knew, for Blumine was missing and presumed lost. After its discovery in 1959, we have had a vexing choice: should we return to Mahler's original concept—abandoned only because people couldn't or wouldn't understand it—or stick with the later version he considered definitive?
Blumine (Blossoms) is a gorgeous movement, its lyrical trumpet singing with innocence and simplicity. It also contains themes that return again in the Scherzo and Finale, and its restoration gives context to those references. But it also makes the First a more sprawling, episodic work, and after the initial enthusiasm for including it, many conductors have since reverted to the tighter, more compact four-movement First. Tonight's performance will give Blumine its due in the best way possible: as an exquisite stand-alone work.
Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918 and died in New York City in 1990. He began a work called Lamentation for soprano and orchestra in 1939; this became the final movement of his First Symphony, completed in 1942. Bernstein conducted the first performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1944. The score calls for mezzo-soprano, 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, and strings.
Bernstein once said that all of his large works share a common theme: "The struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, the crisis of faith." And not just religious faith, but faith in the individual, faith in mankind, faith in the future. All three of his symphonies deal with this question, and each comes to a different conclusion. The First is the "tragic" symphony of the set, for it is a lamentation on the loss of faith, and how that loss is self-inflicted.
In the first movement, Prophecy, the prophet Jeremiah warns the people of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. It begins darkly, builds to an intense climax, and then dies away, for the prophecy goes unheeded.
The second movement (Profanation) is the work's scherzo; the people and the corrupt priests mock the prophet and carry on their noisy and sometimes violent desecrations.
As the third movement begins, Jerusalem has been destroyed, and the mezzo soprano sings (in Hebrew) from the Book of Lamentations: "How doth the city sit solitary . . . how is she become as a widow?" And, finally, "Wherefore dost thou forget us forever, and forsake us so long a time?" It is possible to see the work as a large sonata form, with the three movements representing an exposition, development, and recapitulation. This is all the more true because Bernstein, with this work, began the practice of deriving his new themes out of preceding ones. He said that the symphony "does not make use to any great extent of actual Hebrew thematic material," though it is there to be found if one looks for it. As to its programmatic meaning he said, "The intention is not one of literalness, but of emotional quality," especially in the first two movements. The finale, he said, "is the cry of Jeremiah, as he mourns his beloved Jerusalem, ruined, pillaged, and dishonored after his desperate efforts to save it."
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Mily Balakirev was born in 1837 in Novgorod, Russia and died in St. Petersburg in 1910. He composed this work in 1857-1858, and it was first performed at a university concert in St. Petersburg in 1859. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
Mily Balakirev had as much influence on late-nineteenth century Russian music as anyone, yet his music is all but forgotten. His influence came as the ringleader of what was called the Mighty Handful: Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin.
And a handful they were, too. All were (mostly) self-taught composers, and all held the view that Russian composers ought to pursue a purely Russian music, shorn of the Western influence that manifested itself in Russia's own conservatories. They were out of the mainstream—and the mainstream fought back. Quaint little wars were fought in the press and in high society (all the more fierce because the stakes were so low) and although peace never officially broke out, the Handful had a serious impact on the next generation of Russian composers, many of whom adopted a more nationalist approach despite their proper conservatory upbringing.
Balakirev was a brilliant pianist and a serviceable conductor. He had very few lessons in composition; most of what he learned came from the extensive music library of a patron. But what he learned he learned well, for when he composed this Overture on Three Russian Folk Songs he was a mere 21 years of age. The Overture is a clever ABA form wherein the B section is a sonata form by itself. The music begins with an energetic Allegro, but this is only a feint—after a few bars it gives way to an Andante that contains the first of the three folk songs, "The Silver Birch." This constitutes the introduction, or A section, which returns at the end. The sonata form begins with a first subject based on "In the Field Stands a Birch Tree." If this sounds familiar, it should: Tchaikovsky used the same melody prominently in the Finale of his Fourth Symphony. Where Tchaikovsky extended the tune to include a rest, Balakirev gives us the original as it was, with each phrase coming immediately upon the last. The second subject is the song "There Was at the Feast," a tune that Stravinsky later deployed in his ballet Petrouchka.
These are worked out neatly in the development, and a seamless transition brings us to "The Silver Birch" once again. Balakirev's Overture seems to have been the first music to use authentic Russian folk tunes as the elements of a sonata form; how delightful that it also delivers a preview of coming attractions from other composers as well.
Dmitri Kabalevsky was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1904 and died in Moscow in 1987. He composed this concerto in 1964, intended for and dedicated to cellist Daniil Shafran, who was the soloist at the work's premiere a year later. The score calls for solo cello, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.
Dmitri Kabalevsky was a gifted pianist from a very young age; he entered the Scriabin Institute at the age of fourteen and later studied piano and composition at the Moscow Conservatory. He composed in all genres including opera, orchestral, chamber, choral, and solo works, as well as many pieces intended especially for children. He had a life-long love of folk music and frequently incorporated authentic folk tunes—or his own close imitations—into his music.
Kabalevsky achieved great prominence in Soviet musical life: he taught at the Moscow Conservatory, was editor of the official music-publishing arm of the Soviet government, served as secretary to the Union of Soviet Composers, participated in cultural events and exchanges, and contributed hundreds of articles and reviews to Soviet publications. Some say he used his position to avoid the wrath that periodically fell upon Soviet composers—that he was able, in fact, to remove his name from the list of composers Stalin denounced in 1948. But Kabalevsky was relatively safe from the authorities in any case: his own inclination was to compose tuneful works that wore their folk influences proudly.
Kabalevsky composed two cello concertos, the first in 1949; this was one of several concertos he composed that were intended for young performers. The second, written fifteen years later, is a much more serious affair, with levels of intensity and drama that were absent in the first.
This is clear right off the bat as the work begins with an ominous low C and stern pizzicatos from the soloist. This melody will grow in importance later on; for now, the winds carry it on. The cello returns, bowed now, to expand on it passionately. A frantic allegro follows, with non-stop fury from the cello. This relaxes into a slower, lyrical section and a return of the pizzicatos that began the movement. That brings us to the first cadenza.
In Kabalevsky's form, the cadenzas link the first movement with the second and the second with the third. All are played without pause. The second movement presto is even more intense than the first, its jagged rhythms and off-kilter meter changes never stopping to take a breath. The second cadenza arrives without notice and brings in the Finale. This begins in a much more contemplative mood, with a glorious long-lined melody from the soloist. A fiery middle section recalls the earlier movements, but from here the concerto subsides into reminiscences of the concerto's opening. The music is over before we know it, and we can only wonder: why don't we hear this piece more often?
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Russia in 1840 and died in St. Petersburg in 1893. He composed his Fifth Symphony in 1888, and conducted the premiere in St. Petersburg the same year. The symphony is scored for 3 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.
According to his own writings, each of Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies deals with fate in one way or another. In the Fourth Symphony fate evolves into triumph, after the model of Beethoven's Fifth. His Fifth Symphony ends in triumph, too, but that triumph appears suddenly, as if imposed by an act of sheer will. In the Sixth Symphony, fate seems to be overcome, but the glorious swagger of the third movement gives way to a dark, brooding finale that reeks of resignation.
For his public, the generalized concept of fate was rich enough to allow an easy approach to the symphonies, but it has long been assumed that for Tchaikovsky himself, fate had a very personal meaning. Tchaikovsky was ashamed of his homosexuality, and he lived with the terror that it might be revealed. In this sense, fate was not an abstract notion for him; he felt he lived and struggled with it every day. He called fate—and perhaps his sexuality, too—"the inevitable power that hampers our search for happiness."
We don't know for certain whether Tchaikovsky's struggle with his sexual nature gave a subtext to his music. He never wrote or spoke about it openly, but his letters sometimes made reference to "x"—a variable never explained, but widely assumed to mean his homosexuality. It often fits. For example, in a notebook he sketched his idea for the Fifth: "Introduction: complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro: (1) murmurs, doubts, plaints, reproaches against xxx. (2) Shall I throw myself into the embraces of faith???"
It's easy to make too much of this. Like any composer, Tchaikovsky had to solve the musical problems he set for himself, and the solutions, by definition, had to be musical. Good program music, even when the program is broadly drawn, must succeed as music if the program is to succeed as well. The music of the Fifth does, with or without its program.
Tchaikovsky begins the symphony with his fate motto in dark, lugubrious clarinets. This music will return in each movement, serving various musical and programmatic purposes on its way to final transformation. The allegro that follows the introduction is rhythmic and bold in its "murmurs, doubts, plaints, and reproaches."
The poignant lyricism of the second movement—perhaps the "faith" mentioned in his program—is interrupted twice by the fate motto. After the first disruption the lyrical music returns with even more passion. The second outburst shatters the mood once and for all; the lyrical music trails off, unable to pick up the pieces.
The theme of the Valse comes from an Italian street song Tchaikovsky had heard sung by a boy in Florence a decade earlier. Even here a remembrance of the fate motto intrudes.
The fate theme is rehabilitated in the Finale's introduction by casting it in a major key. The allegro adds some contrasting tension, but the transformed motto returns with confidence and exultation; by the end, it can only be seen as triumphant. Some critics find the Fifth Symphony's solution to its programmatic and musical dilemma too abrupt: the fate music does not evolve into triumph, it simply becomes triumphant. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that both forms spring from the same musical source: that for Tchaikovsky, happiness and that which destroys happiness appear to be two sides of the very same coin.
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Jean Sibelius was born in Tavestehus, Finland in 1865 and died in Järvenpää in 1957. He composed his incidental music to the play Belshazzar's Feast by Hjalmar Procopé in 1906, and he led the first performance with the play in Helsinki the following year. He soon derived a four-movement Suite from the incidental music, leading the first performance of this with the Helsinki Philharmonic Society. The Suite is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 horns, percussion, and strings.
Sibelius composed incidental music for a number of plays and, since performances of such things are so rare, extracted orchestral suites from nearly all of them. The best known of these is his music for The Tempest, which had so much great music in it that Sibelius made two suites out of it. Pelléas et Mélisande is sometimes heard, but the rest are all but unknown.
That's why it's always a treat to hear one of the lesser-known suites. While he was working on his Third Symphony Sibelius composed incidental music for the play Belshazzar's Feast by his friend Hjalmar Procopé. The play tells the familiar biblical story, and it did fairly well, running for 21 performances; the common reaction was that the music was rather more distinguished than the play itself.
Sibelius created a Suite from the music straight away, deriving four movements from the original eight. The Oriental March set the stage for the incidental music, and it does for the Suite as well. Sibelius' faux Eastern music is not entirely plausible, but he does better than others who've tried their hand at this. The form is simple: the music builds to a central peak and then recedes. The next movement is called Solitude in the Suite but in the incidental music it was called The Jewish Girl's Song. Either way, it is stunningly beautiful. Sibelius liked it so well that he soon arranged it for voice and piano and later for voice and orchestra.
The somber Nocturne that follows was originally the prelude to Act II of the play; it wears its Easternisms more lightly than the march does. Sibelius combined two of the incidental music's movements—originally called Dance of Life and Dance of Death—into a single movement now called Khadra's Dance. The solo wind writing is superb, the mood is evocative, and the Suite comes to an end before we know it.
Gustav Mahler was born in Kalischt, Bohemia in 1860 and died in Vienna in 1911. He began to sketch his First Symphony in 1885, using some materials that went back several years before this; he composed most of the work in 1888. He revised the score several times, for the last time in 1906. The symphony was first performed in 1889, with the Budapest Philharmonic under the direction of the composer. The score calls for 4 flutes, 3 piccolos, 4 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 E-flat clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 7 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 2 sets of timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.
It's an interesting though perhaps unanswerable question: when composers revise their works, which version is to be preferred—the original or the revision?
It comes up a lot, because some composers were inveterate revisers. Anton Bruckner, for one, tended to fold at the merest criticism and revised nearly everything he wrote—sometimes drastically. Most people think the revised versions are better and that's how they're usually performed. Then there is Stravinsky, who seems to have re-worked at least some of his earlier pieces largely to renew his copyrights! But Stravinsky was a vastly different composer when he went back to works like The Firebird, and many listeners prefer the original versions to the "new and improved" models.
Mahler's First Symphony is a harder case to call. He originally promoted it as a "Symphonic Poem" in two parts and five movements, but the work seemed to confuse those listeners who didn't openly dislike it. Friends persuaded Mahler to provide a written guide for his audience, so he named the work "Titan" (after the novel by Jean Paul) and devised a descriptive program for it after the fact.
Unfortunately, the program did not predispose audiences to greater understanding or acceptance of the symphony—it seemed to make things worse, actually—so Mahler retracted it. Years later, when he published the score, he called the work a symphony and dropped the symphonic poem's second movement, Blumine, giving the work a more traditional shape. For more than sixty years this was the only First we knew, for Blumine was missing and presumed lost. After its discovery in 1959, we have had a vexing choice: should we return to Mahler's original concept—abandoned only because people couldn't or wouldn't understand it—or stick with the later version he considered definitive?.
Mahler said that the first movement of the symphony represents "Nature's awakening from its long winter sleep." This eerie, elemental picture is a sunrise in sound, punctuated by cuckoo calls, distant trumpet fanfares, and a languid horn melody. The primary theme comes from Mahler's earlier setting of a rustic song entitled "I Crossed the Meadow at Morn." That melody and most of the others come together in an exuberant, hell-for-leather finish.
Mahler's title for the Scherzo (when he temporarily approved of titles) was "Under Full Sail"; though it was an afterthought, it seems most apt. For many people, the real attraction of the movement is the limpid Trio.
Mahler's inspiration for the third movement funeral-march was the drawing by Moritz von Schwind called "How the Animals Bury the Hunter." This macabre picture shows various animals of the forest bearing the coffin of the hunter in a procession of mock sorrow. The music itself is a deliciously ironic setting of "Frère Jacques" in a minor key and in canon, interrupted at times by an archly banal village-band tune. Many listeners 100 years ago found this movement to be unforgivably vulgar; today, it's hard to see what all the fuss was about.
The Finale erupts with a storm: Mahler called it the "sudden despairing cry of a heart wounded to its depths." The movement is a study in extremes, wrenching the listener from these ominous wails to exhilarating heights—including a literal quote from Handel's Messiah: "And He shall reign for ever and ever"—and back again. By the end, Paradise is reached (Mahler's original title was "Dall' Inferno al Paradiso") amid great gales of brass.
Some scholars believe that Mahler's inspiration for his First Symphony was his torrid love affair with Marion von Weber; others say that the endless leave-taking of the Finale depicts his unrequited love for soprano Johanna Richter. Both or either may be true, but Mahler said, "The real-life experience was the impulse for the work, not its content." Arnold Schoenberg got it right when he wrote to Mahler after hearing the First in 1904: "It was revealed to me as a stretch of wild and secret country, with eerie chasms and abysses neighbored by sunlit, smiling meadows, haunts of idyllic repose. I felt it as an event of Nature, which after scouring us with its terrors puts a rainbow in the sky."
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Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833 and died in Vienna in 1897. Brahms published his Hungarian Dances in two sets: Dances 1-10 appeared in 1869 while Dances 11-21 appeared in 1880. A few of these are probably wholly original; the remainder are arrangements Brahms made of published Hungarian melodies or melodies he collected himself. Brahms originally arranged them for piano four-hands, and all were premiered at private gatherings by Brahms and Clara Schumann at the pianos in the year each set was published.
Brahms subsequently arranged the first 10 Dances for solo piano; he also arranged Dances 1, 3, and 10 for orchestra. The score calls for 3 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, and strings.
Brahms had a life-long passion for the spirit, breakneck mood swings, and the very sound of Hungarian music. You can hear it in a large number of his works: the finales of his Violin Concerto and his Second Piano Concerto are obvious examples, though there are many others.
His passion for this music was fueled early on as Brahms toured with the young Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi in 1853. Reményi was a master of the style, and he no doubt contributed to Brahms' interest in the music. But Brahms was also familiar with the numerous published collections of Hungarian dance music, and it's certain he heard it often in his adopted city of Vienna, where it was wildly popular.
Since most of the Dances were arrangements of traditional melodies and not original works, Brahms issued them without an opus number. He wrote, "I offer them as genuine Gypsy children which I did not beget, but merely brought up with bread and milk." Though he sold them to Simrock for a mere pittance, the publisher made a fortune as the Dances flew off his shelves.
The simplest form of the Hungarian dance is the Csárdás (pronounced CHAR-dash). This usually consists of a slow, often melancholy section followed by a faster and wilder section. There are many variants of the Csárdás and other forms as well, but a variation in tempo is common to nearly all of them. In some examples the tempo changes with vertigo-inducing rapidity. The rapid changes in mood and tempo are part of the charm of this music, and a great source of fun as well.
Brahms completed his Third Symphony in 1883 and it was first performed the same year by the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Hans Richter. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
Brahms and violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim were lifelong friends. One day Joachim wrote to Brahms and told him that he had found a motto for his life: Frei Aber Einsam—Free But Lonely. Brahms pondered this, and then replied that he, too, had a motto: Frei Aber Froh—Free But Happy. Whether Brahms was really Free But Happy or just being his usual contrarian self is not entirely clear.
Perhaps as a way of continuing his dialog with Joachim—though perhaps not—Brahms decided to use the initials of his motto, F-A-F, as the chief motivic element of this symphony. He announces his Frei Aber Froh motto directly in the very first bars: the first melody is F-A-flat-F. The F-A-flat-F motto can be found almost anywhere you look in the first movement, sometimes starkly, but oftentimes ingeniously woven into the texture. It will also be found in other guises in other movements, especially the Finale. Other themes from previous movements will pop up as well; the Third Symphony is intensely self-referential.
It is also highly ambiguous when it comes to harmony. To have an opening motive of F-A-flat-F in a symphony purporting to be in F-major is as contradictory as you can get. Brahms waits a long time to "correct" his harmonic anomaly, and not before his grazioso second theme, sung by the clarinet in the key of A-major—again, a key miles away from where we expect to be. Brahms will stay miles away and go to unexpected places until the very end.
The heady drive of the first movement yields to a calm serenity in the second. Here is the Froh of Brahms' motto; the graceful, uplifting theme in clarinets and bassoons speaks with gentility and the sort of deceptive simplicity that descends from craftsmanship. In lieu of a scherzo Brahms gives us a third movement in a relaxed tempo and in a simple ABA form. Its bittersweet themes are at once melancholy and urgent.
The opening measures of the Finale are full of anticipation, but the movement remains unsettled for a long time. One reason is that most of the music is cast in F-minor again. F-major is instinctively expected, but resolution is delayed—and delayed and delayed—until the coda. There, the F-A-F theme is transformed into an answer to the question it had posed three movements before.
Brahms, of course, was an unabashed foe of program music, but a champion of "absolute" music is not precluded from expressing abstract concepts in the notes. If this symphony is really Brahms toying with the motto Frei Aber Froh, then for him it must have had a rich combination of meanings, some of them contradictory. In this, he has made the music particularly true to life, and perhaps true to himself, too.
Brahms completed this concerto in 1858, using some material that dated back as far as 1854; see below. Brahms was the soloist for the first performance with the Hanover Court Orchestra, Joseph Joachim conducting, in 1859. The concerto is scored for solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Robert Schumann wondered why his dear friend Brahms was reluctant to compose a symphony: "But where is Johannes? Is he flying high or only under the flowers? Is he not ready to let drums and trumpets sound?" Brahms had his reasons: "I shall never compose a symphony! You have no conception of how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us." The giant, of course, was Beethoven.
Brahms knew it was inevitable that his first symphony would be compared with Beethoven—his mentor Schumann had said as much, and in public. In the summer of 1854 Brahms did attempt a symphony in D-minor, and completed three movements before abandoning the project. The music he composed was good but, it seems, not good enough. He decided to turn the music he had written into a sonata for two pianos. When he played this version through (with Clara Schumann) he was still dissatisfied. At the suggestion of a friend, he turned the symphony-turned-sonata into a piano concerto, and this, at last, seemed right. Brahms re-worked the first two movements and composed a new Finale. (The original Finale eventually found its way into Ein Deutsches Requiem.) After a performance and some further revisions, Brahms was finally satisfied.
If the world, as Schumann predicted, was ready for a symphony by Brahms, it was not quite ready for this concerto. After the first performance Brahms wrote: "My concerto has been a brilliant and decisive failure. The first and second movements were listened to without the slightest display of feeling. At the conclusion three pairs of hands were brought together very slowly, whereupon a perfectly distinct hissing from all sides forbade any such demonstration. This failure has not disturbed me at all, for I am only experimenting and feeling my way. All the same, the hissing was rather too much!"
The concerto was big, in every sense, and it was ardently passionate in a way we don't usually associate with Brahms. But the critics found it over-long, too emotional (or not emotional enough, depending on the critic), with a piano part that lacked the expected virtuosic brilliance. One critic, with a startling combination of prescience and prejudice, called it "a symphony with piano obbligato." With the passage of time, some of these complaints—such as the work's symphonic scope and its well-integrated piano part—have come to be seen as attributes, not failings.
It would be another twenty years before Brahms composed his first symphony, for he still could hear the tramp of the giant behind him. Over the course of that long apprenticeship Brahms tempered his romanticism more and more with his growing sense of classical restraint. It is that sense of order, in fact, that sets his later works apart from those of his contemporaries. But to have an inkling of the fire and fury that a youthful Brahms symphony might have had, one need only look to the First Piano Concerto.
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Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England in 1872 and died in London in 1958. He composed this work in 1900 and revised it in 1901; it was first performed the following year by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra under the direction of Dan Godfrey. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.
A fair number of Vaughan Williams' earliest works have remained unpublished. These are not juvenilia—Vaughan Williams didn't begin composing works he considered ready for publication until his schooling was nearly over. When he composed his Bucolic Suite he was still a year shy of his doctorate in music, and five years before he went to Paris to study with Ravel, which he did, he said, to free himself of the "heavy, contrapuntal Teutonic manner." Thankfully, some of these works have been resurrected recently, with the Bucolic Suite finally coming to light in 2012.
As if to emphasize the title, the Bucolic Suite's first movement begins with the sound of fiddlers tuning up, and if the fiddlers are tuning, a dance must not be far behind. This one is jaunty and episodic. The gentle Andante that follows is simply gorgeous, its many lines interweaving so subtly that we barely notice the comings and goings of all the instruments. The Intermezzo has a bit more depth, and it hints at Vaughan Williams' mature style. The Finale is a merry little march that comes to us again in episodes—listen for the beautiful chorale in the brasses, almost as if Gabrieli had been transplanted into the twentieth century.
Throughout this Suite we are treated to attractive tunes, clever juxtapositions, seamless transitions, and with Vaughan Williams' extraordinary skill as an orchestrator already evident. It's been a long time since we've been able to hear a "new" work by Vaughan Williams, and this one is a most welcome addition to the orchestral repertory.
Einojuhani Rautavaara was born in Helsinki in 1928, and died there in 2016. He composed this work in 2001-2002 on a commission for Richard Stoltzman by Theodore H. Friedman and Tamar Lieberman in memory of their mother, Mary Kerewsky Friedman. Stoltzman was the soloist at the premiere performance in Washington, D.C. with the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. The score calls for solo clarinet, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.
Since the death of Sibelius, the world hasn't paid much attention to Finnish composers, even though the musical life of Finland has remained energetic and vital. The one exception has been Einojuhani Rautavaara, who has won the respect and admiration of audiences world-wide.
Rautavaara studied musicology at Helsinki University and composition at the Sibelius Academy. When the Koussevitzky Foundation created a scholarship for a Finnish composer to study in America, Sibelius himself chose Rautavaara as its recipient. Rautavaara came to the Julliard School to study with Vincent Persichetti, and went on to study with Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland at Tanglewood.
Rautavaara's music went through several stylistic changes along the way. From his earliest neo-classical works, he moved on to explore 12-tone systems. Even though 12-tone music implies atonality, in Rautavaara's hands the method yielded works that were not only tonal, but romantic sounding. As he left these methods behind, Rautavaara became an unabashedly romantic composer, deploying a wide range of methods and stylistic elements to suit the composition at hand.
Rautavaara wrote the following about this work: "The composition of the Clarinet Concerto was set in motion back in April 2000, when I visited New York to hear Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra perform my Eighth Symphony at Carnegie Hall. On that occasion I met my designated soloist Richard Stoltzman and representatives of the individuals and organizations that made the commissioning of the work possible. Later, when Dick Stoltzman made two visits to Helsinki, I was able to play and study the Concerto with him while still at work on it, and to discuss the emerging problems.
"At the opening the atmosphere is dramatic (Drammatico ma flessibile), the solo voice gradually rising up from orchestral eruptions. The horn suggests a cantabile theme which the clarinet starts to develop, making it more and more ecstatic. At the opening the relation between the solo and orchestra sounded almost aggressive, but now a common line has been found. Following a climax there is a cadenza whose latter part (in the old classical tradition) is left to the soloist to improvise. But his dark-voiced brother, the bass clarinet, joins in and leads the music back to cantabile. For a moment the music returns to the eruptions of the beginning, until the tranquil mood gets the upper hand and the movement closes peacefully.
"The slow movement, Adagio assai, is a continuous poetic narration, in which melodic beauty is sometimes capable of telling us of deeper and more serious things than might be conveyed in any tempestuous drama. The finale, a speedy Vivace, returns to the dramatic world of the opening movement. There are rhythmically new variations of the motifs introduced in the first movement, now heard as virtuosic textures filled with action.
"It is obvious that the co-operation with Richard Stoltzman in the creative stage was essential for dealing with the practical concerns arising from the many technically demanding passages. At the same time, the lyricism of the slow movement came about in a way through my delight in the exceptionally soft and expressive sound of his clarinet. It was on this account that I chose to dedicate the score 'to Richard Stoltzman and the sound of his clarinet.'"
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770 and died in Vienna in 1827. Sketches for this work date from 1804, but Beethoven put it off for other projects (including the Fourth Symphony) until 1807, completing it in 1808. The Fifth Symphony premiered later that year at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna. The work calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
Three Gs and an E-flat—it's the most famous theme in western music. And no wonder: it is the seed from which springs one of the most powerful works in all of the symphonic literature.
The four notes in question do not constitute a melody, really; instead they are a motive. Unlike Mozart or Schubert, Beethoven was not a natural melodist. His sketch books are filled with the agonizing evolution of simple melodic materials: a note changed here, a rhythm altered there. He wasn't just looking for a good melody—he was looking for a musical theme that could shape an entire work. In the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, nearly every note that follows can be traced back to Beethoven's simple four-note motive; this is what gives the music its inexorable inner logic and its extraordinary power. The essence of the motive is rhythm: three short notes, one long. This rhythm is pervasive: you find it nearly everywhere you look. It not only constitutes the first theme of the sonata form but the accompaniment to the lyrical second theme as well. The rhythm's propulsive drive is so great that even its absence, as in the oboe cadenza, demands our attention.
There's more to this motive than rhythm, of course: it has melodic and harmonic aspects as well. Beethoven exploits all of the motive's implications with relentless concision; so much so that the ending seems to come too soon, and the tension it has created remains unresolved.
Resolution does not come from the second movement, a theme-and-variations. Yet its softness—and sheer beauty—are welcome after the wild and fanatically concentrated first. The three-short-one-long rhythm appears prominently, first in the winds, then in the brass. As the variations unwind it can be heard in other places, too.
The motive is heard buried within the mysterious opening to the Scherzo, then up-front and full force in the horns. Listen for it again in the little tag-end to the scrambling bass and cello theme of the trio. As Beethoven brings the motive through differing musical contexts, so he transforms its emotional effect: what had been the building block for the doom-laden opening bars now serves the same function for the mighty resolve of the Scherzo's horn melody. Instead of a full break, the Scherzo ends with an eerie transition to the Finale, full of musical and emotional ambiguity. The motive lurks around this transition, but when the Finale's celebratory fanfare begins, it is at first entirely absent. Eventually you can hear it sneaking back in, and before long the floodgates are opened and it is nearly everywhere, transformed indelibly into triumph.
Beethoven's friend Schindler said that the composer described his motive with the words, "Thus Fate knocks at the door." So dramatic, and so apt! Unfortunately, it turns out that this was likely a fabrication on Schindler's part. But the motive and the music it engendered haven't changed, only the meaning we impose upon it. The emotional meaning of the motive as it evolves throughout the piece is so clearly delineated that its impact is profound no matter what qualities we ascribe to it.
Furthermore, the unstoppable power of this symphony is not related to the many imaginative interpretations spawned by that spurious quote. It stems directly from the composer's manipulation of purely musical materials in such a way that some meaning, some truth is imparted to every listener. If that meaning contains a story or a theme, well and good. But the drama, and the emotional connection we make to it, have come from the music and not vice-versa. With music as astonishing as this, words seem superfluous anyway.
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Gioachino Rossini was born in Pesaro, Italy in 1792 and died in Paris in 1868. He composed his opera William Tell in 1829, and it was first performed in Paris before the ink was dry. The Overture is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, and strings.
Rossini composed quickly, and like many opera composers left the overture to the last minute. (He once advised another composer only half-jokingly to wait until the day of the first performance.) Rossini composed William Tell, his last opera, in a few days and true to form left the overture for last. While Rossini's operas are rarely performed nowadays—in truth, there are few singers who can perform them properly—his overtures have long been concert hall staples, and the Overture to William Tell is the most popular.
The Overture is in four parts, the first three of which describe the Swiss countryside that is the setting of the opera. The first section depicts a sunrise with five solo cellos; the second is a ferocious storm; the English horn solo in the third is a shepherd's call. The final section begins with a fanfare and continues with a patriotic march.
The Overture to William Tell has the distinction, if one may call it that, of having several themes that will be recognized by all, even those who have never set foot in an opera house. The most obvious example is the trumpet fanfare and march in the last section of the piece. Those who are of A Certain Age will know this music as the theme to the Lone Ranger television series—and will have a hard time not thinking of the Lone Ranger when the music comes around! There are others as well: the bucolic English horn melody and the storm music have been used in countless cartoons, whenever the action might call for them. There's a good reason for that: Rossini's music is simple, tuneful, and highly evocative.
Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678 and died in Vienna in 1741. Though published in 1711, it is not known how long before then that this concerto was composed, nor is it known when it was first performed. The score calls for four solo violins, cello, continuo, and strings.
Vivaldi first drew attention from musicians and audiences outside his home city of Venice with his first published set of violin concertos, his Op. 3, titled L'estro Armonico (Harmonic Inspiration). Their popularity—and quality—did much to solidify the still-new solo concerto form as established by Corelli. The liveliness and ceaseless invention of Vivaldi's take on that form inspired audiences and other composers, too.
Bach was one of them. In fact, despite Vivaldi's fame in his own time, history might have neglected Vivaldi entirely had there not been great interest in tracing Bach's influences. It turned out that Vivaldi's influence on the German master was considerable, particularly in Bach's treatment of the concerto form. Bach copied by hand many of Vivaldi's concertos, simultaneously arranging them for keyboard (as well as touching-up the counterpoint a bit!). No doubt Bach perceived the essential "rightness" of their form: Vivaldi had developed the concerto to the point where his way of doing things became the de facto Baroque standard. Bach actually arranged six of the twelve concertos from L'estro Armonico, including this concerto for four violins, which Bach turned into a concerto for four keyboards.
Vivaldi composed a mere handful of concertos for four violins (out of the hundreds he wrote), and his B-minor concerto is the best known of these. The first movement begins with a dialog among the soloists—an unusual touch—and continues according to Vivaldi's newly-established "Baroque standard." Sometimes we hear one soloist at a time, sometimes in pairs, and sometimes all four at once. Each solo entrance is a surprise and yet the music each plays seems inevitable.
The slow movement is a marvel. Actually, "slow" is relative, as after the forthright opening the soloists take off into wildly fast figurations while the slow tempo is maintained. This episode breaks down into a return of the opening gestures that has to be heard to be believed. The final Allegro is fleet of foot, often dazzling, and possessed by a relentless intensity.
J.S. Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685 and died in Leipzig in 1750. He composed this work in 1721. There is no record of a first performance, but it is likely that it was heard at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen at around the same time. The score calls for 2 violas, 2 violas da gamba, cello, bass, and continuo.
In a strange twist of fate, the Brandenburg Concertos have come to be named after a man who didn't especially want them, never heard them, and may not have liked them had he done so. Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, heard Bach play in 1718, and casually mentioned that he would like some concertos from Bach, if he cared to supply them. Some years later, Bach sent the now-famous set of six to the Margrave, together with a painfully obsequious cover letter. (With all those children, Bach was always on the lookout for work). It turned out that the six concertos required a larger and more versatile orchestra than the Brandenburg court possessed. Christian Ludwig never had them performed, nor did he even have them listed in his library's catalog, which included some two hundred other such concerti. They were forgotten until they were sold after his death. But they didn't go unheard. Bach had previously composed and performed them at Weimar and Köthen; he evidently just gathered them up in a bundle for presentation to the Margrave.
Each concerto roughly answers to the description concerto grosso, that is, a concerto for multiple soloists. But the most striking thing about them is how they depart from the norm, often in daring ways. They are simultaneously the finest examples of high Baroque instrumental practice and a manual on how to break the rules of that practice.
The Sixth Brandenburg breaks the rules right from the start, in its instrumentation: two violas, two violas da gamba, and continuo. At the time, the viola da gamba (a bit like a fretted cello) was already becoming obsolete. But Bach's employer, Prince Leopold, played the viola da gamba, and most scholars assume that Bach included these parts so that he might play along. (Their simplicity reinforces the notion.) Also unusual is what Bach leaves out: the violins. This makes the concerto a richly-hued work and gives the violas a nice turn in the limelight.
Edward Elgar was born in Broadheath, Worcestershire, England in 1857, and died in Worcester, England in 1934. He composed this work in 1899, and it was first performed the same year in London under the direction of Hans Richter. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, optional organ, and strings.
This is the work that put Elgar on the musical map. He had made his living as a musical jack-of-all-trades, playing several instruments, conducting, teaching, and composing. His early works (mostly cantatas and choral works based on historical romances) brought him scant recognition; it was not until he composed his Enigma Variations that he came into his own as a composer of quality, one whom Richard Strauss would call "the first English progressivist."
As the title implies, the work is a theme-and-variations, but with a twist: the theme is never heard—hence the "enigma." What's more, each variation is also a portrait of one of his friends. Each was cryptically titled with a set of initials or a name, and it was not until after Elgar's death that all of the identities became known.
The variations are played without pause, proceeding as follows:
Theme: A theme without a theme, actually: its two contrasting sections are derived from, but are not in themselves the mysterious Enigma theme.
Variation I (C.A.E.) A warm portrait of Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer's wife. Elgar incorporated the four-note whistle he always used to let her know that he was home. Variation II (H.D.S-P) Pianist-friend H.D. Stuart-Powell.
Variation III (R.B.T.) Amateur actor Richard Baxter Townshend. Townshend's peculiar ability to manipulate his voice from basso to falsetto is mimicked by gravelly rumbles set against high woodwind figures.
Variation IV (W.M.B.) William M. Baker, a rather gruff country squire.
Variation V (R.P.A.) Richard P. Arnold was a young philosopher/musician whose personality could turn rapidly from serious to whimsical.
Variation VI (Ysobel) The prominence of the violas in this variation is in honor of Isabel Fitton, Elgar's viola student.
Variation VII (Troyte) Arthur Troyte Griffith was an architect and amateur pianist, whose contentious personality often showed in his piano playing.
Variation VIII (W.N.) Winifred Norbury was a gracious elderly woman whose laugh is immortalized by the oboe trills in this variation.
Variation IX (Nimrod) This weighty core of the Variations is a portrait of August Jaeger, Elgar's friend at Novello, his publisher. According to Elgar, "It is a record of a long summer evening talk, when my friend grew nobly eloquent (as only he could) on the grandeur of Beethoven, and especially of his slow movements."
Variation X (Dorabella) In the descending melody Elgar warmly recalls his friend Dora Penny's halting manner of speech.
Variation XI (G.R.S.) This variation is named for George R. Sinclair, but the portrait is largely of the man's bulldog, Dan.
Variation XII (B.G.N.) The cello section portrays Basil G. Nevinson, a cellist who played chamber music with Elgar.
Variation XIII (***) Mary Lygon was on a voyage to Australia when the Variations were written, which explains the quotes from Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Since she was away, Elgar couldn't ask her permission to use her initials.
Finale (E.D.U.) "Edu" was his wife's pet name for Elgar and, as he said, "In the fourteenth variation, I came to myself." The composer's self-portrait is a grand resolution of the Variations, and a capstone to the piece.
Elgar refused to reveal the thematic basis for the Variations: "The Enigma I will not explain—its 'dark saying' must be left unguessed." Despite that—of course!—many have guessed, and solutions have ranged from "Auld Lang Syne" to "God Save the Queen." There is one solution, though, that accounts for Elgar's broadest hint: when Dora Penny (the subject of Variation X) asked Elgar about the Enigma, he replied, "You of all people should have guessed!" The reason she should have guessed was that on the tail side of an old Victorian penny was the image of Britannia, and in this hypothesis, "Rule Britannia" is the source of the theme. If you sing from the words, "never never never shall be slaves" you encounter a snippet of melody that occurs frequently throughout the work. With a little imagination this also explains Elgar's statement that "the principal theme never appears." Simply re-arrange the punctuation and you have "the principal theme, 'never,' appears"—along with an enigmatic gleam in Elgar's eye.
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