“Reformation” Symphony

“Reformation” Symphony

The “Reformation” is one of Mendelssohn’s most programmatic works. As befits its title, the symphony’s first and last movements each contain elements of religious struggle and triumph. Though catalogued as Mendelssohn’s fifth symphony, it is actually his second “full” symphony, written in 1829-30, just three years after Beethoven’s death.

He originally composed his “church symphony” to be played at the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 (which defined the doctrines of the Lutheran Church). For various reasons, however, his new symphony was not chosen for that occasion. Mendelssohn then sought out other venues for it to be performed, and it was eventually performed in Berlin and played at a rehearsal in Paris. Unfortunately, it was not favorably received by critics or musicians, even after Mendelssohn made revisions to it in 1832. He finally “shelved” the symphony for the remainder of his life, refusing to let others see it, and even contemplated destroying it. The symphony was finally published in 1868, over 20 years after his untimely death. Since four other Mendelssohn symphonies had already been published, this one was presented as his “Fifth” Symphony. Since then, it has made its way into the standard symphonic repertoire, albeit in Mendelssohn’s “revised” 1832 version. The version we’re performing today is the original 1829 version, which notably includes a rarely-performed Recitative movement before the Finale.

While written in Mendelssohn’s unique style, the “Reformation” contains references to other composers, including Mozart (opening theme based on four-note “Jupiter Symphony” theme); Bach (fugal and counterpoint sections in the fourth movement); and most interestingly, Beethoven – in the choice of key (D minor/Major), the use of a recitative before the last movement, and a last movement based on a hymn or song (all possibly hearkening back to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony).

The first movement opens in an “antique” polyphonic style reminiscent of Catholic Church ceremony, interrupted increasingly by strident brasses and woodwinds (possibly showing the Catholic order being challenged by the new Protestant movement). At the end of the opening Andante, Mendelssohn has the strings softly playing the “Dresden Amen” — a rising six-note theme. The fiery Allegro which follows is full of musical struggle and combat, with violent string passages met with wind outbursts based on a two-note theme (also derived from the “Dresden Amen”). The second movement is a carefree scherzo, with a singing trio section featuring oboes and strings. The intense third movement is an orchestral “song without words” featuring strings, oboes and bassoons, in turns introspective and impassioned. The Recitative, prominently featuring a solo flute and wind choirs, follows without a break. It leads directly into the choral finale based on the Lutheran hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A mighty fortress is our God). The opening chorale is introduced by solo flute and woodwind choir. Mendelssohn develops the movement into increasingly faster variations, complete with Bachian counterpoint in the strings. He overlays passages from the chorale in the middle of the movement, and uses it again in the coda as an exclamation point to end the symphony in dramatic fashion.

Violin Concerto in D Major

Violin Concerto in D Major

Brahms composed his violin concerto in the last half 1878, close on the heels of his second symphony. He worked on it closely with the Hungarian violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim (in fact, Joachim also wrote the cadenza most often heard in contemporary performances).

While originally conceived in four movements, this concerto has three — an opening Allego non troppo, a middle movement Adagio, and the final Allegro giocoso. It is practically symphonic in scope, with alternating passages by the orchestra and soloist designed to fully explore the rich thematic material.

The first movement opens with a lengthy orchestral exposition which contains most of the thematic material used by both the soloist and orchestra — a calm rising and falling triad (faintly reminiscent of the second symphony); an intense rising chromatic passage played in unison; a mysterious and soft descending three-note pattern; and an agitated and jagged dotted-note passage setting up the first entrance of the solo violin. The violin picks up on these themes and expands them, both in fiery passagework and lush melodies. The lengthy cadenza is a masterwork by Joachim, a tour-de-force of virtuosity and melody.

The second movement Adagio begins with a hushed wind choir, featuring a notable oboe solo, which is echoed by the solo violin. After an impassioned development, the opening theme returns with a violin obbligato on top of the original wind theme. The last movement is a gypsy-like rondo, ending with the theme restated as a march.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb Major

Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb Major

The premiere of the concerto was given in Budapest on November 9, 1881, with Brahms as soloist, and was an immediate success. He proceeded to perform the piece in many cities across Europe.

Here’s a favorite rendition of the second-movement scherzo.

Konzertstück for 4 Horns

Konzertstück for 4 Horns

Schumann composed this masterpiece for four French horns and orchestra in 1849, one of his most productive musical years. Rarely performed because of its unusual instrumentation and difficulty, the Konzertstück is rich in inventiveness and lyricism. While titled a “concertpiece,” it is essentially a concerto for four horn soloists.

There are three interlinked movements, played without a break. The initial “Lebhaft” opens with two strong orchestra chords, immediately followed by rising horn arpeggios heralding the main theme. The slow “Romanze” movement features a tender theme in the oboes, solo ‘cello and violas, picked up in turn by the horns; a flowing chorale movement appears in the middle of the movement. The lively last movement is full of horn figurations. It features brisk dialogue between the orchestra and soloists, and a short chorale interlude based on the middle movement, before drawing to a bravura ending.

Symphony No. 5 in F Major

Symphony No. 5 in F Major

A sunny, exciting and powerful masterpiece, this symphony is dedicated to the great Hans von Bülow in gratitude for that conductor’s championing of Dvořák’s orchestral works. Dvořák composed this symphony in just six weeks in 1875, at a fairly early stage in his musical life.

He had just applied for and received an Austrian Empire state grant; members of the judging committee awarding him the grant included his later mentor Johannes Brahms and the famed music critic Eduard Hanslick. Energized by the recognition, Dvořák embarked on a frenzy of composition, including a number of well-known chamber works as well as this symphony.

Although composed in 1875, it was only premiered in 1879 and published considerably later (1888), with a high opus number chosen by his music publisher. That said, this masterful symphony bears all of Dvořák’s hallmarks — rich lyricism, lush melodies, masterful development. The opening Allegro ma non troppo opens with a cheerful pastoral clarinet theme, taken up by winds and strings in turn; it is complemented by an introspective second theme introduced by the violins and oboe.

The slow second movement is soulful with a hint of melancholy, with sudden powerful outbursts from massed strings, winds and brass.

The lively third movement follows with almost no break. At first keeping the same mood of the slow movement, it transitions abruptly to a cheerful folk-like tune, with a lilting trio. The dramatic last movement opens with a powerful eruption from the lower strings, picked up in turn by winds and brass. Its harmonic tension is most unusual. It open in the key of A minor, and stays there for over 50 measures until the main theme makes its emphatic appearance in the main key of F major. A soaring second theme is introduced by the clarinet and second violin; both themes are developed extensively. The first movement theme reappears at the end, first in the high winds and horn, then stirringly in the trombone, before the symphony draws to its triumphant close.

Symphony No. 3 in F Major

Symphony No. 3 in F Major

Johannes Brahms wrote his Symphony No. 3 in F Major in 1883 at the age of 50. It is the shortest of his four symphonies, written six years after his Second Symphony, in D Major. During this period Brahms was anything but idle; in fact, these six years were some of the most prolific years in symphonic composition of his life. Masterworks like his Academic Festival Overture, Tragic Overture, Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Violin Concerto were all created in between his two middle symphonies.

Brahms’ orchestral forces for his symphonies are actually quite modest in comparison to the ones that are used in other romantic compositions from this period. In this F Major symphony, he uses 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and 1 contrabassoon for the woodwind section. Besides the usual string section, the brass and percussion have 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones and timpani, and are used rather sparingly throughout the entire work.

Many people consider this symphony to be rather “pastoral,” given the key for the work and the two lovely and lyrical center movements; yet the outer movements provide insights that the symphony is anything but “tranquil.” The symphony’s first movement, for instance, is well known for its rhythmic juxtapositions. Written in 6/4, it is filled with syncopations, hemiolas and strong accents, which purposefully and successfully blur the bar lines and create illusions to the regular meter, leaving listeners with a sense of instability. At the same time, the key of the first movement constantly straddles between F Major and f minor. Both conflicts in rhythm and tonality don’t seem to settle until the end of the movement.

On the other hand, even though the last movement is seemingly more stable rhythmically, its tonality remains largely in f minor. Not until the last 43 bars of the work does it settle into the home key of F Major. Regardless of how listeners may perceive the moods of the work, the one thing that will give us the feeling of completion is that the opening theme in the first movement, first in f minor, returns at the very end of the fourth movement in F Major.

Cello Concerto in E minor

Cello Concerto in E minor

Sir Edward Elgar was a dominant force in English music at the turn of the 20th century. His magnificent ‘cello concerto was composed in 1919; more recently, it has become identified with the great ‘cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who made it into her signature piece (and is used in the movie Hilary and Jackie).

This four movement work displays an astonishing sweep of emotion and melody, from tragedy and pathos to exuberance. After a declamatory ‘cello opening, the first movement settles into an introspective lilt, punctuated by solo flourishes and dramatic orchestral statements. It is followed without a break by the witty second movement, with its brilliant solo passagework and lightly textured accompaniment. A romantic adagio allows the ‘cello to display its singing qualities to the fullest. The dramatic last movement is at times almost operatic, with the ‘cello and orchestra playing off each other’s themes; towards the end, themes from the adagio and opening movements make an encore appearance before a dash to the dramatic finish.

Cello Concerto in B Minor

Cello Concerto in B Minor

This is Dvořák’s last concerto, largely written in 1894-5 during his time in New York. Dvorak had come to the United States in 1892 in response to an invitation to become the head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, and stayed here until 1895. Dvorak composed a number of his best-know works during his American interlude, including his 9th (“New World”) Symphony, the “American” String Quartet (Op. 96), and the ‘cello concerto. He was not initially inclined to write a concerto featuring the ‘cello; he changed his mind after attending a concert in New York of a ‘cello concerto by Victor Herbert, which inspired him to write his own.

The first movement opens with a quiet statement of the theme in the woodwinds, gradually rising to a boisterous rendition by the full orchestra. The wistful second theme is introduced by the horn. Both themes are featured in the solo ‘cello, the first theme now reappearing as a heraldic restatement. There is a constant interweaving and interplay of soloist and orchestra, punctuated by solo pyrotechnics that grow out of the thematic material. A number of “grandioso” passages by the orchestra also feature the first theme in heroic fashion.

The introspective second movement begins softly with clarinets; the lyrical melody is picked up in turn by the soloist. The middle of the movement is based on a theme from a Czech song (“Leave me Alone”), written as an homage to his beloved sister-inlaw Josefina, who was in failing health. A solo cadenza is accompanied by flute and other woodwinds; a hushed passage featuring ‘cello harmonics brings the movement to a close.

The third movement is based on a robust theme introduced by the winds, then picked up by the soloist and orchestra in turn. The end of the movement also features another section of the song “Leave me Alone,” this time in the solo violin accompanying the ‘cello. The movement gradually winds down into a sighing whisper; a short rousing conclusion brings the concerto to a triumphant close.

Overture and March from “Turandot”

Overture and March from “Turandot”

This short overture and its accompanying march have an unusual history. The theme, first introduced by the piccolo, is based on a Chinese tune first noted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Dictionnaire de Musique in 1768. Described as an “Air Chinois,” the tune was brought to France from China in the 18th century by a French missionary.

The Turandot story itself was derived from Central Asian/Persian sources; it involves a prince who travels to China, falls in love with the Emperor’s daughter, solves deadly riddles to win her, and (after much travail) weds her in the end. The story has been used by (among others) Carlo Gozzi, an Italian 18th-century playwright, and most famously, Puccini in his 20th century opera.

In 1804 the noted German author Schiller translated Gozzi’s text into German. For the 1809 premiere, Weber wrote an overture and six related pieces as incidental music, with a unifying theme based on the “Air Chinois.” The overture develops the basic theme by exploring different harmonic and orchestral combinations, and features all sections of the orchestra.

 

Symphony No. 7 in A Major

Symphony No. 7 in A Major

Driving rhythms characterize this joyous symphony, described by none other than Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance.” Premiered in Vienna 1813, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony received enthusiastic reviews, with the audience even demanding an encore of the second movement! Outside Vienna, reaction was not as favorable (the noted composer Carl Maria von Weber said that “Beethoven was ripe for the madhouse;” Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann’s father, called it “the work of a drunkard”). Little did they know; over time these critics were proved wrong, and this magnificent, powerful symphony has become one of Beethoven’s most enduring and well-loved works.

Each of its four movements is built around a specific rhythmic motif. After a contemplative introduction (almost a movement in itself), the opening Allegro’s three-note theme is introduced by the woodwinds, taken up by the strings in turn, and traded back and forth among strings, woodwinds and brass.

      Beethoven_7th_Mvt_1

The famous second movement Allegretto is a somber march built around a five-note motif (long-short-short-long-long) starting in the lower strings, with a subtle singing countermelody taken up in turn by the rest of the orchestra. A lyrical interlude featuring clarinet and bassoon offers a warm ray of sunshine in the middle of the movement.

The third movement Presto is based on a relentless three-note motif, interspersed with a sonorous trio section featuring winds and brass. This combination is repeated several times (with surprise variations).

The energetic last movement has been described as “elemental fury unleashed.” It features driving 16th-note runs, offbeat accents, brass/wind fanfares and exclamation points, and a long coda culminating in a marking of “triple forte” (fff) — the first use of that marking in a Beethoven score. Accelerating driving passages bring this symphony to its triumphant conclusion.