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.