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Program Notes – April 13, 2013

Academic Festival Overture, op. 80

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

Although commonly regarded as one of the grand masters (exalted along with Bach and Beethoven as the famous “Three B’s”), Brahms actually wrote very few purely orchestral compositions. Only four symphonies, two concert overtures and a set of variations on a theme of Haydn stand in testimony to his skills. In fairness, his concerti make such use of the orchestra that they perhaps belong in this group. In any case, his orchestral output is relatively small.

Brahms’s personal reverence for Beethoven, along with his tendency to look backward to Classical forms as inspiration for his own compositional structure, has given him an unfair reputation as an arch-conservative. In fact, his harmonic language had advanced far beyond Beethoven’s (though it had not developed into chromaticism like Wagner’s and Debussy’s). This allowed him to employ a much wider range of techniques to express himself than his Romantic-era contemporaries. However, he frequently chose to express feelings of solemnity, majesty or drama in preference to those of lyricism, happiness or frivolity. This comes through so clearly in the Academic Festival Overture that listeners are sometimes surprised to learn the sources of his original inspiration.

Late in his career Brahms’s musical reputation was well established, and in 1879 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Breslau. Brahms declined to attend the commencement ceremony to accept the award. But to soothe feelings over his refusal he wrote the obligatory composition (traditional, to express gratitude for the degree) anyway. However, he needed musical materials to work with.

College students, then as now, were known to celebrate various occasions (or even no particular occasion) by downing a mug or two of brew in a local tavern. And when in the proper mood they sometimes gave voice to a drinking song or two. Brahms, being a model German citizen, was probably fond of quaffing a stein or so himself. He also loved folk music of all sorts, so the creative musician in himself could hardly avoid taking note of the tavern songs – some of which were bawdy. He proceeded to incorporate several of them into the “overture.”

Brahms himself conducted the premiere of the work the following year. Consider the effect these songs would have had on the formal and solemn academic body to whom they were dedicated! Did he know their source would be recognized? Could the reputedly austere Johannes Brahms have had a mischievous sense of humor? One is highly tempted to think so. He amends for his impudence, though, by basing the final passages of the work on the song Guadeamus Igitur (which translates from the Latin as “Come, let us rejoice, scholar”) which at the time served as a nearly universal alma mater for academia everywhere.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)

Sergei Rachmaninoff was born into the Russian aristocracy, and (in spite of his obvious musical interests and talent) a military career seemed the only destiny fitting his social station. However, his dissolute father managed to squander a fortune and then abandoned his family, thus ending any hopes for an expensive military education for Sergei. His mother moved the family to St. Petersburg, where family connections helped secure for him a small scholarship to study at the famous conservatory.

Like many young boys, Sergei preferred having fun to studying, whether musical or not. Lacking any real adult supervision, he spent three irresponsible years skipping school, faking grades on report cards and making no musical progress. Finally, his cousin (a rising young pianist) declared that the only man who could to anything with such an undisciplined brat was his own former teacher, Nicolai Sverev in Moscow. Sergei was promptly shipped off into Sverev’s “tutelage.”

The three-year musical apprenticeship left an indelible mark on Rachmaninoff’s character. Sverev – for whom the description “sever” would be an understatement – tyrannized his students, especially those with real talent. And this tyranny reached beyond music into every aspect of the boy’s life (Sverev refused to have any female students). When Rachmaninoff eventually left Sverev’s rooming house for the Moscow Conservatory he no longer “lacked direction.” However, his boyish exuberance and spontaneity was now shut behind a locked door. He remained aloof and reserved for the rest of his life, frequently troubled by insecurities that sometimes impeded his creativity. His compositions usually range from lyric beauty through outright sensuality to dark melancholy. But they are seldom joyous and never coldly formal or analytical.

Though he composed in the first half of the twentieth century, his musical training and personal preference were rooted in the Romantic era of the previous century. He listened to and followed he music of his contemporary composers, but steadfastly hated all the “modernisms” they were pursuing (impressionism, atonalism, neo-Classical, etc.) Perhaps in reaction to his almost anachronistic style, some “progressive” critics disparaged his music as being uninspired, regressive and pandering to emotionalism at the expense of creativity. The public, on the other hand, generally loved his later mature works. He himself was a fabulous pianist, and it was only natural that many of his most successful works were for piano and orchestra – four concerti and the Rhapsody, which was his final completed work for this combination.

Cast in the form of an introduction and twenty-four variations, this piece employed many more of the “modernistic” elements than perhaps any of his other works, and is one of the most difficult to play. The theme itself was the starting point for a virtuoso display for violin, and Rachmaninoff’s piano writing matches the virtuosity of Paganinini’s Caprice which inspired it. Within the variations, Rachmaninoff’s romantic tendencies occasionally employ an almost neo-classical dryness, full of unusual rhythmic devices and an austere instrumental accompaniment. Compared to his piano concerti, the piano is less “lush” and more “brilliant” with the exception of one specific variation (the 18th), which has become one of the best-known melodies in the musical literature. Interestingly, this variation (which is so out-of-character with the others) is based on an almost trivial-sounding formal device: the sequence of notes is the main theme, played slowly as an inversion (“upside-down”) and backwards. This transforms the sprightly dance feeling of the Paganini Caprice into a bit of the lush Romanticism so typical of Rachmaninoff’s other works.

Another unusual feature is the appearance in the second half of the work of the famous Gregorian sequence that traditionally represents the Last Judgment, the Dies Irae melody. The motivation for its inclusion might have been the legend that Paganini himself had signed a compact with the Devil to obtain his virtuoso skills. (It should be pointed out that this theme appears in many others that have no connection to Paganini. However, the legend makes such a good story that it is frequently quoted in connection with this work – and perhaps it may have truly played a part in his inspiration.)

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is nearly universally judged by musical scholars (even those who disparage his other works) as one of Rachmaninoff’s most truly creative orchestral pieces. In it, he employs “modernist” musical devices, but towards his own truly Romantic goals. Modern audiences, who simply have to listen to what they hear rather than analyze it, have made this into perhaps his most-loved work.

Symphony no. 5 in e-minor, op. 64

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

Possibly because of Tchaikovsky’s troubled psyche, most of his works highlight the emotional and dramatic aspects of the musical idiom, and his Fifth Symphony is no exception. He had set aside the symphony as a vehicle for more than ten years, fearing that he could never equal the immensely successful fourth. Tchaikovsky knew that he would eventually have to produce another symphony, but he procrastinated for several years. During the interim, his international reputation grew. He was no longer merely an accomplished (although parochial) talent from a musical backwater, but was now recognized as an emerging giant on the world’s stage. It was at last time to tackle the symphony again, and so he began the Fifth with some trepidation.

Throughout its composition, Tchaikovsky had reservations about this work. He wrote frequently about it to his patroness Najda von Meck, sometimes to voice his worries and sometimes to express satisfaction over his progress. Even after completion, he had his doubts. Nevertheless, after much agonizing he convinced himself of its worth and personally conducted the premiere. This might have been a mistake, for both critical and public reaction were cool. The neurotic composer immediately concluded that his efforts had been a failure. In fact, after Brahms (by now an acknowledged master) attended a later rehearsal of the work in Hamburg he told his colleague that he liked the symphony except for the last movement. Tchaikovsky then repudiated the last movement, calling it “odious.” However, when the subsequent concert was a spectacular success, Tchaikovsky shifted gears and once again decided that he “loved the work” (finale and all!)

The Fifth Symphony employs a ‘motto’ theme, a device he had used effectively in the fourth. This motto, announced immediately by the clarinet darkly in its lowest register, is an extended melody based on an aria from Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tzar (a work venerated by nearly all Russian composers). In his notebook, Tchaikovsky describes the melancholy song (which usually appears in a minor mode) as representing “resignation before fate.” It, and its fragments, becomes the foundation for most of the remainder of the first movement, and it reappears intermittently through the rest of the work.

The second movement opens with a brooding series of chords in the lower strings, which set the stage for a wistful solo that is considered one of the finest passages for French horn in the entire symphonic literature. (An internet forum of hornists once voted this to be one of several passages “to die for” as a soloist within a larger work.) It establishes a mood that extends throughout the rest of the movement, lyrical and melancholy but not despairing in the face of fate. This movement features some of the richest harmonic treatments and instrumental colors in Tchaikovsky’s entire output. The third movement abandons the traditional frenzied scherzo used by so many other composers, in favor of the waltz idiom that the composer loved and employed so well in his ballets. Its feeling is lighthearted and carefree, as if a reminder that fate does not necessarily completely drive away joy.

The finale, in which the composer had almost lost faith, is really the key to the work. It opens with a transformation of the resignation motto. However, the music immediately rebels (trumpet and horn) against the concept of resignation, although it does so more quietly than defiantly. Eventually, the strings erupt into a struggle against fate. This spreads through the woodwinds, eventually engulfing the entire orchestra – Man vs. Fate. Shortly, the resignation motto returns powerfully in the trumpets and trombones (still in a minor mode), as if Fate believes that a strong response will end this struggle. Irrepressibly, the strings resume their restiveness, because Man refuses to be dominated and accept his fate.

After lengthy conflict, the resignation motto breaks up into fragments in the brass, and the music pauses expectantly. At last the resignation motto returns whole and unfragmented, but for the first time in a triumphant major key. The struggle has been won, and Man no longer accepts Fate in resignation, but proudly proclaims it as Destiny.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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