The Maestro's Anniversary
Saturday, December 7, 2013 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
SYMPHONY No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
Premiered: Vienna, Austria, 1883
- Allegro con brio
- Poco allegretto
At a recent talk on Brahms’ Third Symphony in a Maryland retirement home, all heads turned when one of the older residents suddenly joined in with the third movement, singing an enthusiastic chorus of Take My Love, an old Frank Sinatra vehicle that has the unique composer credit “Brahms/Sinatra.” While this is by no means the only time this magnificent melody has been co-opted for popular use (Jane Birkin’s Baby Alone in Babylone is not for the musically short-tempered), it does show just how outgoing this supposedly stern composer’s music can be. He was, after all, a close friend of Johann Strauss. Brahms once said that he would have given anything to have written the Blue Danube Waltz; he autographed a card for Strauss’ wife with a few measures of the waltz and the words “not, unfortunately, by Johannes Brahms.” Indeed, his friendship with Strauss literally killed him; he was fatally exhausted by his efforts to attend his friend’s operetta Die Göttin der Vernunft.
Though nothing like as sunny as the rosy Second Symphony, the Third is certainly genial compare to the epic vastness of the First or Fourth, and is by quite a way the shortest of Brahms’ symphonies at a mere 40 minutes. This did not stop the conductor Hans Richter from declaring it to be the composer’s Eroica, which set up a misperception that persists to this day. In dire contrast to the First, which took him twenty years to write, the Third was composed and scored in four months.
The Third Symphony also has the odd distinction of being the third and, paradoxically, least well known of the trio of first performance riots that pepper musical history. Everyone knows about the Rite of Spring riot; fewer know of the Henze Raft of the Medusa riot (the police tear-gassed the audience); fewer still know of the near-murderous brawl that broke out at the first performance of the Brahms Third. Brahms’ mortal enemy Richard Wagner (a statement more truthful the other way round) had died in February, and Wagner’s supporters were determined to cause trouble at the first major Brahms performance since the Meister’s death. A scuffle between two audience members near the podium erupted into a fist-fight involving nearly forty people. When the police dragged the worst of the participants into the street, the fight restarted, ending with the leader of the Wagner faction challenging the bruised and bleeding chief Brahmsian to a duel. Fortunately, better counsel (and sobriety) intervened, and the duel never took place. Brahms himself was unhurt, but very alarmed.
The anti-Brahms sentiment was by no means confined to Vienna. At the first Boston performance, in 1884, over half of the audience walked out in protest.
As so often in Brahms, apparently rhapsody conceals inner steel. The entire work is built around the three-note opening motif of the first movement: F – A-flat - F, a figure which had considerable personal significance for Brahms. The notes stand for the first letters of Frei aber froh – “free but happy.” He had earlier written a violin sonata for Joseph Joachim, whose personal motto was Frei aber einsam - “free but lonely” – on the motif F – A - E. Interestingly, this sonata was written collaboratively with Robert Schumann and the now-forgotten Albert Dietrich. Brahms’ relationship with Schumann (and even more so with Schumann’s wife) was a complex business that rears its head more than once in this symphony.
The rising F – A-flat - F tells us all we need to know about the structure of the symphony. It will concern itself with that motif – as melody, bass line or chord – and the contrast between F major and F minor. In 1883, it was a bold step to begin a symphony in F major with an F minor chord. The flickering of the minor key behind the major is the emotional engine of the whole work.
The second movement includes much work for the clarinet, Brahms’ favorite instrument. When he came to Chicago and heard the Symphony played there, Brahms was much impressed by the Chicago Symphony’s first clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld, an encounter which led directly to the Clarinet Quintet and the Clarinet Trio, key works of his later, post-symphonic years. The third movement’s cello (and later, horn) melody is what inspired (or suborned) artists as different as Frank Sinatra and Carlos Santana to reach for the Brahmsian heights (or not).
The key to the last, surprisingly lyrical, movement lies in two elements: the return of the F – A-flat - F motif – and a fleeting but very clear reference to Schumann’s Third Symphony, a quotation that hangs over the movement like a neon sign. Schumann closely identified his Rhenish symphony with his wife Clara. By the time Brahms to write his Third, he and Clara were in the final cycle of an are-they-aren’t-they relationship that somehow (uniquely?) managed to resolve into friendship. Clara is his friend; he is Free but Happy.
The great Scottish musicologist Donald Tovey said of the Third Symphony that it required “a great deal of analysis – or none at all.” You choose.
SHULAMIT RAN (born 1949)
Premiered: Chicago, 1991
The American-Israeli composer Shulamit Ran was born in Tel Aviv in 1949, when the state of Israel was barely a year old, and came to New York in 1960. In 1973, she joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where she remains. Her 1990 Symphony won the Pulitzer Prize in Music, making her one of only two women to win the prize (the other is Jennifer Higdon). However, like Jennifer Higdon, Joan Tower and many other composers, she fiercely rejects the label “woman composer.” As she said in a 1997 interview, “I know what a woman is, and I know what a composer is, and I have no idea what the two have to do with one another. I do not think of music as being typed by gender.”
The bracing Chicago Skyline fanfare was commissioned by Chicago’s WFMT to celebrate the station’s fortieth anniversary. It is typical of her mature style – neither tonal nor not-tonal, hovering between the 12-tone asceticism of Schoenberg on the one hand and Hollywood on the other. This is entirely intentional. Ran has described her style as coming from one clearly-defined objective – “I want my music to challenge both the mind and the heart, and to do so in equal fashion.” It is not too fanciful to see this stirring short work (only seven minutes) evoke the composer’s earliest impressions of the city, even before she moved there:
“I had seen a documentary about the city with a brief view of Bertrand Goldberg's Marina Towers. I thought it was magnificent, having never seen an architectural statement of that kind. Since I love architecture, I thought, "That's a place I would love to visit some time."
She would become not merely a visitor to Chicago but one of its leading lights. Yet, in many significant ways, she remains quintessentially Israeli, with many religious and Biblical works dotted through her (large) American catalog; an important landmark in her output is the song-cycle Oh, the Chimneys, a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. This, closing her unique creative circle, was the work which led to her being invited to Chicago.
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
CELLO CONCERTO No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107
Premiered: Leningrad (St. Petersburg), 1959
- Allegro con moto
During his lifetime, Dmitri Shostakovich fiercely denied, at least in public, that his music “meant” anything beyond its fierce emotions and imposing (occasionally grimly so) structures. In particular, he denied any ideological or political component to his work. A man so well acquainted with the midnight knock at the door and the dead hand of the commissar knew well enough to keep his mouth – and his music’s “mouth” – shut. Since the composer’s death, however, and especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, the ghosts have started to rise from his music, with their own story to tell.
In 1948, Shostakovich wrote music for a typical Soviet immediately-postwar film – The Young Heroes, which told of Soviet soldiers being murdered by the Germans. It was better than most movies of its type, however; it was by far the highest-grossing Soviet film of the 1940s, with nearly 50 million patrons going to see it in its first year alone. Shostakovich’s music played a considerable part in this achievement, and the composer had no illusions about this. However, he was the only member of the production team not to receive a Stalin Prize for his efforts; he was torn between disappointment and dread that being passed over might be the first sign of something far worse. Such was an artist’s life in Stalin’s time.
In February, 1952, Shostakovich was present at the first performance of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante, played by his and Prokofiev’s mutual friend Mstislav Rostropovich. At this point in his life, Prokofiev could do nothing right by the Government, and the Sinfonia Concertante disappeared – as did Prokofiev, who died just over a year later, ironically on the same day as Stalin. Shostakovich heard a fellow spirit at work – two, in fact, as he hugely admired Rostropovich – and the beginnings of the First Cello Concerto began to stir.
The Concerto is based on two ideas. One is Shostakovich’s own name, reduced to the initials DSCH, which work out in musical terms as D - E-flat – C - B; the other is the Death of the Heroes music of The Young Heroes. The cello’s very first statement is a combination of the two. The repeated timpani notes of the first movement follow the same pattern as in Prokofiev’s work. The death march of the Young Heroes has become the requiem for Prokofiev and a symbol of the suppression of art. The jabbing woodwind figures that punctuate the cello’s first phrases are themselves derived from a passage in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, whose grimly ironic subtitle was A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism. The DSCH motif is kicked about and twisted until it is answered by – “meaningless music” again – Death’s lullaby from Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death.
The last three movements of the concerto are played without a break. DSCH forms much of the material of the initially solemn second movement. The sole brass instrument in the orchestra, the horn, has a highly significant solo (again a reference to the Fifth Symphony) which somehow precipitates a descent into strife until the cello, for the one and only time in the entire work, departs from the DSCH material to play an excruciatingly difficult chain of artificial harmonics with occasional comments from the celesta. This, in turn, leads to the Cadenza, which not so much develops the DSCH material as interrogates it.
The finale again revisits DSCH, filtering it through a chromatic scale first heard from the oboe, until it –and we - confronted with the song Suliko. This was Stalin’s favorite song, as every Soviet composer (and much of the target audience) knew; it is parodied and twisted almost out of recognition, but it’s recognizable and deniable, as Shostakovich well knew. The artist faces his demons. Shostakovich was far too subtle an artist to resort to a cheap “triumphant” ending. As the finale ends with multiple references to the struggles of the work’s opening movement, we are left with the feeling that the struggle most go on forever. The seven “Prokofiev” timpani notes that end the work very literally hammer the message home.
When Shostakovich was buried, in 1975, the letters – and notes - DSCH were inscribed on his headstone. They are the epitaph for his entire creative life.
About the Concert
The Columbia Orchestra celebrates Jason Love's 15th Anniversary with three things he's known for: new American music, great cello playing, and the music of Brahms! Israeli-American composer Shulamit Ran portrays Chicago's monumental architecture in a blazing work for brass and percussion. Then Maestro Love passes the baton to guest conductor Brian Stone and picks up his cello for Shostakovich's virtuosic masterpiece. Finally Jason closes this celebratory concert with one of his favorite works, Brahms' lyrical Third Symphony.