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Program Notes – Nov. 19, 2005

Tragic Overture, op. 81

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)

Although commonly regarded as one of the grand masters (exalted along with Bach and Beethoven as one of the famous “Three B’s”), Brahms actually wrote very few purely orchestral compositions. Only four symphonies, two orchestral serenades (actually ‘pre-symphonies’), two concert overtures and the Variations on a Theme of Haydn stand in testimony to his symphonic skills, although his two piano concerti make such important use of the orchestra that they perhaps also belong in this group.

Brahms’s personal reverence for Beethoven, along with his tendency to look backward to the baroque and classical forms as inspiration for his own compositional structure, gave him an unfair reputation as an arch-conservative. This was true in his own day, and the image persists today. In fact, his harmonic language – though it had not developed into a chromaticism like Wagner’s – had advanced far beyond Beethoven. This afforded him a much wider range of techniques to express himself. However, Brahms frequently chose to express the feelings of solemnity, majesty or drama in preference to those of light-hearted frivolity, lyricism or outright joy. Although parts of the Tragic Overture are as lyrical as anything he ever wrote, its basic character is solemn drama.

Musicologists have speculated that Brahms took its original inspiration and thematic elements from a project based on the Faust legend which never came to fruition. Brahms himself consistently denied that there was any ‘program’ to the overture. Yet its dramatic ruggedness – alternating with lyrical song-like melody – could easily arise from an attempt to portray Faust. In any case, the work may be the best example of drama in all of Brahms’s orchestral music since his first piano concerto.

The dramatic – frequently almost violent – overall ambiance of this work departed so much from the basically upbeat character of Brahms’s recent orchestral compositions that the Tragic Overture met with a frosty reception at its premiere. Audiences at the time had gotten used to the moods he had evoked in the Second Symphony, composed a few years earlier, and very recently the Academic Festival Overture, which immediately preceded the Tragic Overture. Although it was adopted into the standard orchestral repertory, it still is not performed as frequently as the symphonies and the Academic Festival Overture. This is indeed unfortunate, for it is probably his most concise and intensely dramatic work. The Immaculata Symphony Orchestra is proud to perform this somewhat neglected example of the rugged side of this grand-master’s genius.

Piano Concerto no. 5 in E-flat, op. 73 “Emperor”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

Beethoven! Perhaps the most admired composer of serious music in the modern western world. His creative genius extended to almost all forms of music (although he only wrote one successful opera). His symphonies strike off in a new direction, and his other orchestral works reflect this change. His chamber works, especially the string quartets, exude passion and intensity more than elegance. His solo piano pieces cover the gamut from light and airy to deep and expressive.

In our modern times many tend to think of Beethoven only as a composer. Yet it was as a spectacular pianist that he first attracted public attention. Much of his keyboard output was written for his own performances. Even as a performer, though, he couldn’t escape his desire to transform the medium in very much the same way he changed the classical symphony. His five piano concerti essentially converted the medium from the elegance of Mozart to the powerful model followed by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schumann and the other great Romantic composers.

His first two concerti departed only somewhat stylistically from the Classical norm. Although they contain their own moments of individual expression, their connection to the heritage of Mozart can easily be heard. This parallels the development of his earliest symphonies, which also owe much to the mature works of both Haydn and Mozart. The next two piano concerti began to truly depart from the Classical tradition, incorporating the orchestra as an important element, rather than merely as an accompaniment to the soloist. The solo part itself was also becoming highly technical and showy, leaving behind the elegant expressiveness of Mozart. The “Emperor” Concerto culminated his transformation of the concerto form, and it has been described as the first truly virtuoso piano concerto.

By the time of its composition, Beethoven had fully developed a new approach to orchestral music that he called ‘the symphonic ideal’. He deliberately chose to relate the specific musical content of a composition, both its structural form and its expressiveness, to something outside the music itself – and then devised whatever new musical techniques he needed to make the notes reflect their extramusical inspiration. With the Eroica Symphony (no. 3) several years earlier, he had successfully incorporated extramusical expression into what had often been a basically formal and intellectual medium. In his purely orchestral compositions, Beethoven had already perfected this ideal by the time of his recently completed Fifth Symphony. With the “Emperor” Concerto he accomplished the same goal in a form that (except sometimes in the hands of Mozart) had been previously intended primarily to show off the soloist.

The “Emperor” Concerto was Beethoven’s final work for soloist plus orchestra. It is easily the most ‘symphonic’ of his concerti (for piano or other instruments). Although it is cast in the traditional three movement form, rather than the four movements of a symphony, it adopts many of the stylistic elements of the Fifth Symphony which he had just completed. The thematic development, the forceful contrast between soloist and orchestra and the range of emotions are much closer to his symphonic style than any previous concerto (even his own) had been. For example, the piece begins with a short, dramatic initial statement by the piano. This was unheard of in the classical sonata form, which invariably began with a long orchestral exposition, repeated by the piano. The orchestral exposition that followed the piano’s first statement could just as easily have been the introductory section of a symphony.

The piece abounds with instrumental themes that stick in the mind long after the concert. Nevertheless, even more than the extensive and important role of the orchestra, this piece is all about the piano! Its forceful virtuosity at the outset clearly identifies which combatant is dominant in this musical contest: the battle has been won even before the forces are drawn up. All the dramatic development that the orchestra can muster (and with Beethoven’s orchestral genius that is a lot!) only serves to underscore the piano’s supremacy. One can easily visualize Beethoven playing it! Even so, this is not solely a vehicle to showcase his virtuosity. Its themes are so memorable that they would be identified as inspired genius in whatever medium he chose to use them. The orchestral colors match those of a symphony and the piano enhances their span. This concerto maps out a previously unknown empire of musical expression, and throughout it all the piano reigns supreme as emperor of the realm.

Symphony no. 3, op. 44

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)

The Third Symphony was Rachmaninoff’s next-to-last orchestral work (the only later work he would complete was the Symphonic Dances). A seventeen-year gap had elapsed between his popular Second Symphony and the famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. During this time his compositional style had evolved from the characteristic sound that many have characterized as the last gasp of Russian Romanticism (á la Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov) to a more thoughtful, introverted and “tighter” approach. For those expecting the lush sound of the Second Symphony, the Third was a puzzling enigma. For those expecting him to follow the course of other twentieth century Russian path makers (Stravinsky, Prokofiev) its reserved nature – still reminiscent of Romanticism – was a disappointment. Perhaps for these reasons, it was coolly received after its premiere performance, under Stokowski’s baton, by the Philadelphia Orchestra (his favorite orchestra). Nevertheless, Rachmaninoff remained convinced of the merits of the work: “I was present at the first performances,” wrote Rachmaninoff. “It was played wonderfully. Both audiences and critics reacted sourly. Personally, I’m firmly convinced that this is a good work. But, sometimes the author is wrong, too! However, I maintain my opinion.”

Rachmaninoff’s Third is much more ‘intellectual’ and far less ‘emotional’ than the second, which may contribute to the cool reception by the audience at its premiere. It opens with a haunting, wistful (almost eerie) motto-theme given by the clarinet, a muted French horn and a very high cello. This is followed by a violent outburst by the orchestra that leads to the first real theme, which sounds almost hesitant and frail by contrast. These two themes contain much of the inspiration from which the symphony evolves. Both appear and reappear in various transformations and guises throughout. However, the work also contains many of Rachmaninoff’s ‘big tunes’, for which he had become so famous as the last of the true Romantics.

The second movement is most unusual in form. It begins with an adagio based on the motto-theme, with a flow of expressive melody that grows irresistibly to an intense climax. The following scherzo section has been described as ‘quirky’, considering its unusual orchestral sonorities and strange rhythmic twists. Finally, the motto-theme returns in a wistful reminiscence that lacks the passionate inevitability of the opening adagio but instead dies away into a tranquil miasma. The finale reflects the frenetic intensity of the scherzo, featuring insistent rhythms, a fugue (once again based on the motto-theme) and orchestral virtuosity. Like the rest of the symphony, in spite of the ‘big tunes’, it emphasizes instrumental colors more than memorable melodies.

Less frequently played than the Second Symphony, this work deserves more attention than it receives. It is a better illustration of where the composer was going late in his life than where he had come from as a young man. Unfortunately, his death due to cancer cut short the musical evolution of a composer often called “last of the Russian Romantics”. This symphony offers us a glimpse of the composer he might have become. It is thoughtful, innovative and complex … but unmistakably Rachmaninoff.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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