WSO Jan 08

Waterbury Symphony Orchestra

January 27, 2008

The two works presented this afternoon have similar inspirational circumstances but opposite outcomes. Both masterpieces borrow ideas from folk songs, were composed within eight years of each other during vacation trips to the countryside, and are part of the standard orchestral repertoire. But one piece builds a large scale form using developmental techniques and contrapuntal tools, while the other tells a tale using related melodies over contrasting textures. These differences reflect not only a different method of composing but also a profound cultural divide of the 19th Century.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was born to a fine seamstress and a mediocre musician. Brahms’ parents struggled to send him and his brother to private school and cultivate their musical talent. Johannes’ composition skills and prodigious keyboard technique attracted attention early in his life, particularly from the composer and critic Robert Schumann. Schumann actively promoted Brahms through publishing contacts, introductions, and friendly reviews.

Brahms is often considered a musical reactionary due to his neo-conservative reputation, but he is better labeled an antiquarian for he collected and researched antique manuscripts. He studied Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven extensively, and was considered one of the world’s leading experts on Bach. He was a scholar of form and counterpoint in composition. Brahms was also interested in German and Slavic folk music and with many popular compositions (Hungarian Dances) in this genre.

Brahms was a perfectionist and slow composer, but his Piano Concerto no. 2 in Bb major came together in only two months while he summered in the countryside near Vienna in 1881. He played the solo part for the first performance, and the work was an instant success. The concerto is quite long compared to all piano concerti before it. Brahms, the overachiever, added a fourth movement Allegro appassionato (he called it a scherzo) even though concertos usually have three movements. This four movement structure, together with the constant interplay of the piano and orchestra, makes this piece more like a symphony than any other concerto of the 19th Century.

Brahms is a formalist, but not a musical bureaucrat. His first movement is in sonata form except the piano cadenza starts the exposition of this expanded first movement, just one example of how Brahms honors the standard forms yet operates with complete freedom around their boundaries. The second movement is another sonata with musical ideas derived from the restless opening theme, a minor mode tune colored with a Hungarian tinge. The third movement features a cello while the piano gently sprinkles flowers of arpeggios – but even these flowers are derived from the initial theme, all demonstrating Brahms’ masterful economy of material. The final movement is floridly romantic even as it hides its puzzle palindrome or rondo. The first theme is a cheery Bb tune, followed by a tragic Slavic theme, followed by the first Bb tune again. Then comes a third theme, followed the first tune one more time, which leads to the Slavic theme striving toward, you guessed it, the first tune in the same Bb tonality. The themes move forward then backward (1-2-1-3-1-2-1) yet the music is natural and goal seeking.

Antonín Dvor(ák (1841-1904) told a Prague critic that he wanted his Symphony no. 8 in G major to be different from his other symphonies by shaping the musical content in a new manner. That Dvor(ák managed to create this large-scale work with a newly poetic voice is evident upon first hearing the symphony, but there is far more that he brought to the task than first meets the ear.

Dvor(ák, like Brahms, came from humble musical beginnings. Born outside of Prague, his father was a butcher and a semi-professional zither player. Dvor(ák’s parents recognized his talent early on and did all they could to provide a good education. Dvor(ák trained himself in composition. Starting with studies of Mozart and Beethoven, he progressively extended his musical language by way of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Wagner to the state of the art of his time. A methodical craftsman who also played viola and violin in dance bands, Dvor(ák studied folk songs and then crafted them into new melodies and rhythms using the German methods he had labored to learn.

Brahms met Dvor(ák, recognized his talent, and introduced the younger man to a publisher which lead to Dvor(ák’s immediate success with Slavonic Dances in 1878. He instantly emerged into the public consciousness at the same time the Austrian “Cultural War” was beginning to boil. The German Liberal party had lost control of the Austrian central government to a coalition of conservative Slavic parties who proceeded to emphasize the Polish, Bohemian, and Hungarian working class at the expense of the formerly dominant German language and culture. Prague and Vienna were particularly polarized where Czechs were mostly factory workers or small shopkeepers while the industrial, banking, and cultural institutions were predominantly German or Jewish. The German population responded in fear with a gradual withdrawal from liberalism and open commerce, accelerating the rise of nationalistic radicalism. By 1897 there were ordinances forcing bilingual government and schools, riots pitting German speakers against Czech speakers, and violent demonstrations against the government.

Unlike Brahms, Dvor(ák walked a cultural tightrope during these times. Signing his name was even a problem. “Antonín” is Czech while “Anton” is German, so he waffled with “Ant. Dvor(ák.” Brahms had none of these challenges since his musical German-ness was never questioned, but Dvor(ák oscillated between working in the German formalist system and experimenting with freer formats using Bohemian songs for inspiration. He knew the benefits of Wagnerian through-composed motifs for creating musical prose, but was unsuccessful in using this ultra-Teutonic method. He found that he could achieve his musical goals using a free fantasy style, but it seemed inappropriate for serious music. This ambivalence culminated in Dvor(ák’s 7th Symphony of 1885 (known as the English) as he struggled to fit with elite Viennese culture. Eventually Dvor(ák’s Czech-language operas were banned in Vienna and his own German publisher attempted to block his concert trip to London. Dvor(ák persevered and found a new publisher in London, lucrative income from conducting, and artistic freedom.

Symphony no. 8 of 1889 (called the Bohemian) represents his coming out as an internationally recognized composer. It was a success from its premiere, and Dvor(ák offered it when Cambridge awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1891 (Brahms refused the same doctorate). Organized via rhythmic motives and sharply delineated sections, this Symphony avoids formal structures like sonata or rondo in favor of rhapsodic fantasy and multiple melodies. Instruments are characteristic: a flute is a bird, trumpets are martial, a-hunting go the horns, the bassoon is jolly.

The first two movements are Slavic and poetic. Movement #1 features four themes alternating in filmscore-like sections to paint a countryside adventure. Movement #2 mimics folk tunes and a march, complete with Slavic intervals and melancholic harmony. The last two movements are more formal in structure and therefore more German, but Dvor(ák demonstrates his complete cultural comfort by deforming the Viennese waltz in the third movement; the beats are shifted much like a jazz waltz. It is interesting to hear that Brahms does the exact opposite time shifting in the same place in the third movement of today’s Piano Concerto.

Dvor(ák looks to Brahms and Beethoven for the germ of the fourth movement. A trumpet call leads to a Great Elegiac Theme followed by a theme and variations. This last movement is the most symmetrical, the most organized harmonically and formally, and the Czech-ness in Dvor(ák is subdued. This symphony as a whole is a statement of cultural freedom, poetic sophistication, and pleasure in a bucolic life.
by Richard Gard, 2008