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Program Notes – April 21, 1990

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 only a few purely orchestral works. Merely four symphonies, two orchestral serenades, two concert overtures and a set of variations on a theme by Haydn stand in testimony to his skills (although his concerti make such important use of the orchestra that they perhaps also belong in this group).

Brahms’ personal reverence for Beethoven, along with his tendency to look Backward to the classical forms to give structure to his emotional content, has given him an unfair reputation as a musical arch-conservative. In fact, his harmonic language (although it never developed into a chromaticism like Wagner’s) had advanced far beyond Beethoven’s, and this allowed him to employ a much wider range of expressive techniques. However, he frequently chose to emphasize the feelings of solemnity, majesty and drama in preference to those of lyricism, happiness or frivolity. This comes through so clearly in most of the Academic Festival Overture, thatlisteners are surprised to learn the source of his musical inspiration.

Late in his career, Brahms’ musical reputation was well established, and in 1879, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Breslau University. Brahms declined an invitation to attend the commencement ceremony to accept the award. But to soothe feelings over his refusal, he wrote the obligatory composition (traditional, to express feelings of 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 musician in him could hardly avoid taking note of the tavern song–a few of which were bawdy- -which he proceeded to incorporate into the Academic Festival Overture.

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

Konzertstuck for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 79

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)

Beethoven is generally credited with blazing the trail for the Romantic era, which transformed the Classical tradition of Haydn into the intense expressiveness of such composers as Schumann, Dvo?ák, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. If so, then perhaps Weber deserves equal credit for starting the elegant side of Classicism (Mozart) down the path that led to a different aspect of Romanticism, represented by the delicacy of Mendelssohn.

Carl Maria von Weber was a frail young man, the son of a Kappellmeister with a flair for show business. He studied with Michael Haydn (brother of the more famous Franz Joseph), picking up some skills on keyboard and guitar in addition to music theory, and he began composing in his teens. As a young man, he was a bit of a Bohemian, and spent much of his later teens sing-ing and accompanying himself on guitar in the local pubs. Unfortunately, he ruined his singing voice when he accidentally swallowed some concentrated nitric acid that an engraver (for whom he wan working at the time) had foolishly stored in a wine jug.

Loss of his singing voice forced Weber to fall back on his modest keyboard training for a performing career; he steadily improved his skill until he became one of the greater pianists of his tine. All the while he composed, mainly for theater (he completed 20 operas, of which three are still in the repertory) and concert pieces for various soloists. His Konzertstuck is one of his last concert works, and is generally considered the finest of his three major pieces for piano and orchestra.

The work dispenses with the formal structure of the classical concerto, in favor of a single connected movement, in the more freely rhapsodic style that was beginning to emerge with the Romantic era. Although played continuously without break, it contains several easily discernable sections that substitute for movements. The orchestral introduction is somewhat solemn and brooding, which establishes the mood for the solo playing in the first section as well. A transitional section featuring a quiet bassoon solo leads to an extended movement that is lighter and quicker, emphasizing delicacy rather than solemnity. The piece finishes with a flourish, with the piano playing virtuoso background to a stirring orchestral march.

Symphony No. 5. Op. 55

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936)

A shy fourteen year old boy, Alexander Glazunov, was introduced to Rimsky-Korsakov as a potential student, when Korsakov was at the peak of his career. After much urging, the great composer agreed to take on the youngster (with some reluctance, one would imagine). After a short time, the master’s reservations vanished. Glazunov was such an apt pupil that Korsakov would later describe his protege in a letter: “he progresses, not day by day, but hour by hour”. Despite their age difference, the two eventually formed a close and lifelong friendship.

Glazunov initially attached himself as a follower or the group of Korsakov’s influential circle, the “Mighty Five” (which also included Borodin, Mussorgsky and Balakirev). His career grew quickly, and in 1899, he was appointed to the prestigious post of professor at St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he would remain for the next 30 years, eventually rising to its head. As he matured as a composer, he himself became one of the central figures of a second group that would replace the “Five” as the focus of the Russian nationalist school of music style (the “Belyayev Circle”).

Unlike his predecessors, however, Glazunov as a young man had traveled extensively in the West where he absorbed the influences of other composers, notably Franz Liszt. Rather than demanding an ethnic Russian purity in his own music, Glazunov eventually sought to incorporate into the Russian nationalist style those elements of Western music that he so much admired. He is described as synthesizing Korsakov’s orchestral brilliance, Balakirev’s nationalism, Borodin’s epic style and Tchaikovsky’s lyricism. The fusion is generally successful: his music is polished, elegant, fluid and enthusiastic, though it might lack some of the inspiration found in his less polished predecessors (for example, in Mussorgsky). Although they never had so much musical impact in the West as those of his men-tor Korsakov, his works are still frequently performed in Russia.

The Fifth Symphony is a traditional four movement work, built around a small number of closely related themes, many of which appear (occasionally transformed) in all movements. The character of the slow, brooding opening theme changes gradually, almost imperceptibly, into a lilting melody that dominates the first movement with its lyric sweep. The second movement is a sparkling scherzo, which alternates between driving motion and elegant repose. The slow third movement also contrasts moods, this time between an inspiring soaring melodic sweep (horns, woodwinds and strings and an indomitable angry power (brasses). The finale is a stirring frenzy of energy, hardly relaxing for a moment in its drive to the jubilant conclusion.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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