JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
VIOLIN CONCERTO in D, Op.77
Premiered: Leipzig, Germany, 1879
When Johannes Brahms met Joseph Joachim in 1853, he was not, as far as he was concerned, meeting a great violinist; he was meeting a great composer. At this stage of his career, Joachim’s reputation as a violinist was just starting to build, but his compositions were world-famous; the young Brahms timidly offered his compositions to the great man for comment. Much to Brahms’ surprise, the two became firm friends very quickly.
A concerto written for this greatest of friends, then, will be more than a run-of-the-mill work for a composer like Brahms. It will be a testament, a monument – and maybe, to some extent, an exorcism; it was, after all, Joachim who introduced Brahms to the Schumanns, for good and ill. It is certainly, beyond any doubt, a masterpiece. It took Brahms 25 years to gather the courage to write it.
When Clara Schumann hear a read-through of the piece, she commented that the soloist and the orchestra were “well blended,” a broad hint that the solo part was too reticent. Many violin virtuosi refused to play it for exactly this reason; Sarasate famously said of the slow movement that he was not prepared to stand there and watch the oboe play the best tune in the whole piece. The piece is really the ultimate development of the old concertante ideal, where the soloist is really one of the orchestra – not the hero trying to dominate the field. Which is not to say that this is not one of the most technically demanding, physically formidable works in the repertoire.
After an orchestral introduction, the violin enters over a timpani figure in an obvious nod to Beethoven, who brings in his soloist with the timpani. This must have made a strange effect at the first performance, at which the Beethoven concerto was played first. There then follows an absolutely typical sonata movement, complete with double exposition, leading to the last-ever blank space for the insertion of a cadenza. After Brahms, all cadenzas would be written out. There are numerous possibilities; the soloist can use one of hundreds of written cadenzas, or just let rip on the spot, on the fly, like some Romantic John Coltrane.
The oboe melody at the beginning of the slow movement has become a touchstone of melodic perfection - much to Sarasate’s annoyance, as noted earlier, but he should have been comforted by the fact that the violin soon joins in. Rarely for Brahms, this is an almost unbroken chain of soaring lyricism, unhaunted and unafraid.
In 1853, Brahms earned a modest living as the pianist for the Hungarian violinist Eduard Hoffmann, who played frantic dances alla Zingarese (in the Gypsy style) as a key weapon in his barnstorming tour of Europe. So, when faced with the Hungarian Joachim’s pyrotechnic needs, Brahms had the tools at his disposal to give the concerto soloist a virtuoso excursion alla Zingarese in the Finale. And so he does, not so much fighting the orchestra as exchanging merry stories with them, until the final march – trumpets and drums, almost a circus – until the final dash for the finish.
The Concerto was written by the Brahms we all imagine – heavy-set under a bushy beard, all Germanic seriousness; but its soul is that of the slender young dreamer who first hesitantly offered his hand to Joseph Joachim 25 years earlier.
MARY HOWE (1882-1964)
Premiered: Washington, DC, 1927
Mary Howe, like Charles Ives, never needed to compose to earn a living. The daughter of one multi-millionaire and the wife of another, she was independently wealthy – very wealthy indeed, in fact. So wealthy that for most of her life she was arguably more famous as a DC socialite (whatever that is) than as a musician – the archetypal “one-percenter.” The fact remains, however, that she is undeniably one of the most significant composers to have come out of this part of the United States in the last century – an authentic voice of the American late-romantic impressionism that is usually thought to have died with Griffes.
In 1925, Howe founded the Society of American Women Composers after experiencing much prejudice as a female composer. Eventually, at the slightly startling age of 51, she went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, whose other students at the time included Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter – both much younger than her. Her lessons began just as a general strike struck France; when she and Carter protested at having to cross Paris quite literally through riots to get to Boulanger’s apartment; Boulanger growled that they were not taking their music seriously enough. When a rock came through the window during a counterpoint lesson, Boulanger continued writing with one hand and threw the rock back with the other.
The composer’s own words describe the work perfectly:
Stars is a miniature tone-poem inspired by the gradually overwhelming effect of the dome of a starry night—its peace, beauty, and space. The sonorous ensemble of the strings opens the work with the suggestion of the spreading immensity of the starry vault. As the music progresses, one’s imagination is carried into the contemplation of the awesome depths of space and the sense of mystery to which man compares his insignificance with infinity.
After conducting the work in 1943, Leopold Stokowski told the composer that it had taught him “a new kind of staccato” in orchestral music – not the stabbing staccato of Stravinsky, but the impressionist dots of Seurat. A remarkable highlight is the unique cadenza for the harp. An interest in the works of Poe had brought Howe by a very circuitous route to Andre Caplet’s harp masterpiece, The Masque of the Red Death, which was played in Boston in 1926 – to Howe’s obvious delight.
ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
SYMPHONY No. 3 in E Flat Major, Op.97 – “Rhenish”
Premiered: Düsseldorf, Germany, 1851
It is typical of the chaos that was Robert Schumann’s life that his Third Symphony is really his Fourth, and the Fourth really his Second – or something. The chaos would eventually overwhelm him; Schumann was committed to an asylum in 1854, after throwing himself into the Rhine. He was convinced that he was being instructed to do so by angels, who were singing to him in E flat. Specifically, they were singing his last symphony – tonight’s symphony - to him. The symphony was his last creative contact with anything resembling serenity, though there are shadows to be found in even the brightest moments.
Closely modeled on Schumann’s hero Beethoven, the first movement has an entirely orthodox sonata-form structure, lacking only the exposition repeat. The soaring opening melody is pure Romantic, its accompaniment pure Beethoven; it was only after Schumann encountered the music of the non-pianist Berlioz that he managed to shake Beethoven’s tendency to write orchestrated piano music. He tends to develop his melodies by simply repeating them in sequences, up or down, rather than developing them in fragments like Beethoven (or – more so – Haydn), but this gives the music a feeling of solidity that leads straight to the granite cliffs of Brahms and Bruckner.
The second movement is a displaced Scherzo (which would normally be third) – a Ländler not at all unlike those referenced in the Beethoven Pastoral. But closer inspection reveals a Minuet and Trio of sorts – and what key is this? C major is the parallel major of the relative minor key of E flat – not that distant, but far enough to be unnerving. The orchestrated fade-out of the movement, cutting down the instruments until only bassoons and celli remain, would never have crossed Beethoven’s mind.
The slow movement, traditionally the deepest, most emotionally engaged section of any symphony, is almost a miniature in this symphony, as though Schumann simply orchestrated something he intended for a piano album. This alone indicates that, despite its comparatively genial façade, something strange is going on under the emotional hood of this music.
So far, the trombones have sat next to their brass colleagues in total silence. In the fourth movement, however, they join the horns in an unforgettable chorale in the much-feared (by pianists) key of E flat minor – the key of the Trinity gone dark. This is taken up by the wind and strings, leading to an unmistakably Bach-influenced contrapuntal outburst unique in the Romantic Era. It is easy to mistake this strange movement (an extra in the four-movement Classical symphonic model) as a transition from the slow movement to the Finale, but it is really the core of the whole work. That blazing fanfare in B flat is in the dominant key of both E flat and E flat minor, and the composer obviously believes himself to be between the two worlds.
The Finale is an exuberant eruption in the home key, all confidence and major-key positivity, until the reappearance of the fourth movement’s choral near the end. Schumann obviously believes it has been transformed in the brighter context of the finale – but has it?
About the Concert
Two blockbusters start our 37th season in grand style! Baltimore Symphony Concertmaster Jonathan Carney returns for the warmth and brilliance of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Then Robert Schumann leads us on a journey down the Rhine in a thrilling Romantic Symphony. First, Mary Howe's short tone poem paints a ravishing picture of a brilliant night sky.
Join us for the pre-concert lecture with Bill Scanlan Murphy at 6:30pm.