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Legendary Brahms – September 27, 2015
Fanfare from
La péri , A Danced Poem
Paul Dukas
Known to audiences in this country by a single work, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Paul
Dukas was a pathological perfectionist, who burned all but a dozen of his compositions.
Besides La Péri, his major survivingworks are the Symphony in C and the opera Ariane
et Barbe-Bleue (Ariadne and Bluebeard).
His ballet La Péri nearly ended up in the fireplace as well, surviving only at the
insistence of friends. Composed in 1911 it was Dukas’ last published work. The ballet is
based on a Persian story about Iskender (Alexander the Great) and the Péri, a fairy in the
service of Ormuzd, god of light. Dukas originally intended La Péri for Diaghilev’s
Ballets Russes – the company that premiered Stravinsky’s Petrushka, The Firebird and
The Rite of Spring – but the deal fell through because of infighting about the casting.
Dukas’s music reflects the composer’s seemingly incompatible admiration for Wagner
and French impressionism. The opening Wagner-on-the-Seine brass fanfare, which
Dukas added to the ballet as an afterthought, imitates the fanfare Wagner wrote expressly
to summon the audience after the intermission at his music dramas at the Bayreuth
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83
Johannes Brahms
When Johannes Brahms premiered his Piano Concerto No.1 in the 1859, he was a young,
rising composer still unsure of himself, especially in the art of orchestration. By the time
he premiered his second concerto in 1881, however, he was a revered master, considered
– as the University of Breslau so stuffily put it (in Latin) "the foremost exponent of
musical art in the more strict style" – and confident in his powers. The irony of his selfdepreciation is evident in his letter to his close friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg: “…I
have written a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo.” This about
one of the most gigantic piano concertos ever written with an “extra” fourth movement to
boot; Brahms is said to have referred to it jokingly as “The long terror.”
Sketches of the concerto date back to 1878 when Brahms was at work on his Violin
Concerto. A discarded scherzo movement for that concerto became the basis for the
second movement Scherzo of the Second Piano Concerto, one of the few in the entire
concerto repertory. Brahms premiered the work in Budapest on November 9, 1881. It was
to be the last of his works that he prepared to perform in public.
In contrast to the stormy First Concerto in D minor, the B-flat Concerto is comparatively
optimistic and gentle in mood, except for the passionate outburst of the Scherzo, perhaps
a counterweight to the calm dignity of the movements that flank it.
In all his concerti, Brahms selected solo instruments from the orchestra who were to have
a special intimate relationship with the principal soloist. The most notable are the oboe in
the Violin Concerto, and the horn and cello in the Second Piano Concerto.
The first movement opens with a gentle call on a solo French horn, picked up by the
piano, which continues with a grand arch of arpeggios over five and a half octaves and
then launches into a cadenza, recalling Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. But it is the
lyrical mood of the horn theme that dominates the huge movement as it continually
appears in a variety of guises, even suddenly emerging from one of the wealth of
subsidiary themes.
Brahms called the second movement a scherzo, the Italian word for game or joke. But
this game is deadly serious. In the key of D minor in contrast to the B-flat major of the
other three movements, it is passionate, even angry, beginning with a motive on the
upbeat charging right into a syncopated theme that creates a driving momentum and
becomes a motto for the movement. A quieter second theme introduced by the violins
and taken up by the piano calms the restlessness, but only temporarily. The Trio returns
to the major mode with a fanfare-like theme, temporarily triumphing over the storm of
emotions, only to be cut short by the return of the Scherzo.
The Andante movement opens with a poignant solo cello melody that is the dream of
every orchestral cellist. It is one of those melodies that create exquisite suspense by
delaying resolution at all the expected places. The piano never takes this theme up in its
entirety, but rather embellishes it with delicate filigree. In the middle of the movement,
two clarinets, accompanied by the piano, hold a pianissimo gentle conversation. The solo
cello returns to close the movement but not before Brahms has spun out his gentle
suspense through a handful of unexpected key changes and deceptive cadences.
The Allegretto grazioso Finale is a high-spirited, playful rondo, laced with occasional
Roma (Gypsy) flavor recalling the Hungarian Dances.
Symphony No. 3, Op. 27, “Sinfonia espansiva”
Carl Nielsen
The most important Danish composer after the Romantic period, Carl Nielsen, influenced
the course of Scandinavian music in the last century. He was a versatile composer,
writing in nearly all genres, but is best known outside Denmark for his symphonies and
concertos. In Denmark, his choral works and simple songs are also extremely popular.
The son of a house painter and amateur musician, Nielsen was a poor child from a proud
but poor country trying to recover from the debacle of its war with Prussia in 1864. While
he always expressed love for music during his childhood, he never amounted to much as
a performer, playing signal horn and trombone in an amateur band until he was 14, at
which point he took up the violin. He received his first professional instruction only at 19
when he entered the Copenhagen Conservatory, a fancy education than landed him the
undistinguished job as a second violinist with the orchestra of the Royal Theatre. He
remained in this position until 1914 while continually developing his skills as a
Nielsen’s limited education, however, only spurred him on to learn everything he could
about European culture, philosophy, aesthetics and psychology. This informal but intense
self-improvement program was a lifelong pursuit that resulted in a broad humanistic
approach to life and is reflected at various stages in his works. Gradually, he achieved
recognition in his native Denmark as a composer, teacher, conductor – and essayist –
although he was virtually unknown elsewhere in Europe.
Nielsen composed Symphony No. 3 in 1910-11 and premiered it a year later. It was his
first significant international breakthrough. The title of the work comes from the Allegro
espansivo tempo marking of the first movement.
Nielsen’s eclectic musical background may account for his distinctive musical style.
While he admired the major composers of his time, especially Brahms and Dvořák, his
style does not present their rich melodic and harmonic language. Nor did he adhere to any
of the musical “isms” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He cut his own
path out of the constrictions of classical harmony and melody. His works are atonal in
that they are never in a designated key, but they do not harp on dissonant clashes. His
melodies, however, are certainly not song-like, tending to relatively meandering motivic
ideas. All composers have musical fingerprints; Nielsen’s are unmistakable and unique:
he devises his own modes, or scales, avoiding the conventional major and minor; his
melodies frequently wander through a series of unconventional modulation that obscure a
tonal center. Among his most characteristic details is a rapid two-note toggle, tending
towards a true trill.
When one looks for Nielsen’s influences, it is difficult to identify any single source. The
first movement, for example, in its use of thematic transformation, suggests Liszt. But
Nielsen doesn’t focus on a single melody; rather, he introduces a series of short motives
in his exposition and then goes on to vary these elements to effect his transformations.
The movement opens with 13 measures on an orchestral unison A, which ramps up in
speed to at last reach the first theme.
One seldom thinks of bagpipes in connection with the symphony orchestra, but actually,
it frequently makes an appearance by proxy in a centuries-long tradition, the pastorale.
How the idea of a drone came to be associated with sheep herding is not clear; there have
been small, crudely constructed bagpipes throughout Europe since ancient times, a far cry
from the sophisticated Scottish national instrument. Nielsen’s second movement, marked
Andante pastorale, begins with a drone in the horns, over which the strings intone a
simple melody. The movement concludes with a vocalise for baritone and soprano, but
orchestras usually replace the two vocalists with a trombone and viola respectively.
The third movement is an oboe showcase. After a trumpet fanfare, the opening oboe solo,
the movement’s principal theme, is based on one of Nielsen’s unique modal scales. The
answering orchestral response contains his toggle motif.
As noted earlier, all four movements of the symphony contain at least one fugue, but the
finale has three. It begins with a rondo refrain that sounds for all the world like a
folksong, but also bears a resemblance to the finale of Brahms’ First Symphony.
The outbreak of World War I and the ensuing slaughter shattered Nielsen’s comfortable
Weltanschauung (world-view). It radically transformed his musical language, making it
more austere and somber. In the Fourth Symphony, begun in 1914 and completed two
years later, completely independent of late Romantic, Germanic influence. He believed
that a composer reveals his essence as an individual in his music, “…If he aims high, it
helps him…But if he’s stupid, conceited, commonplace or sentimental, the fact will be
revealed with almost brutal clarity.”
Program notes by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn
[email protected]