Robert Schumann (1810-1856) composed his “Spring” symphony – his first major orchestral work – when he was 31. He wrote it at a happy time in his life, shortly after his marriage to the former Clara Wieck, who encouraged him to pursue orchestral composition.
Schumann was initially inspired to write the symphony by a poem describing “springtime” (he initially even put names to the movements, before removing them so as not to have the work appear to be programmatic). But the “Spring” appellation stuck, and the work displays an appropriate heady optimism and beauty. Schumann sketched it in a mere four days, and it was premiered in March 1841 in Leipzig by Felix Mendelssohn.
The symphony is in four movements. The opening Andante is heralded by a horn and trumpet call (“like a summons to awakening”), which becomes the basis for the sprightly theme which follows. The second movement is a dreamy larghetto (initially titled “evening”), with a lyrical theme repeated by violins, ‘cellos, and solo oboe and horn.
Scherzo A passage in the trombones serves as a bridge to the unique third movement, a fast scherzo with 2 delightful contrasting trios.
Allegro animato e Grazioso The fourth movement is based on a graceful and witty theme begun by the violins, with subtle counterthemes in the winds. An intense accelerando leads to a triumphant climax.
Although a quintessentially French composer, Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) composed his third symphony on a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society in England, and conducted the première himself in London in 1886. Popularly called the “organ” symphony, it is actually a symphonic work which features an organ in two of its movements (with notable effect). Saint-Saëns wrote this as a two-movement work, although it has the feel of a four-movement piece. It has an unusual and large instrumental complement (besides the organ, the second movement has 2-hand and 4-hand piano parts).
The 3rd symphony is a masterpiece of composition, with most of the thematic material developed from the opening parts of the first movement. A slow introduction features rising lines from the oboe and flutes, which are then prominently featured throughout the first movement. The following allegro features a fast off-the-beat string theme in C minor, echoed by the winds. Saint-Saëns uses this theme throughout the symphony in various guises – such as pizzicato figures in the low strings, melodic solos in the woodwinds, and last (but not least!) in the second movement.
The adagio at the end of the first movement introduces the organ as both accompaniment and obbligato to an ethereally beautiful rising string melody, which is repeated by wind soloists (clarinet, horn and trombone), with subsequent variations by the violins and full orchestra.
The second movement begins with a repeated vigorous triple meter allegro, and an even faster presto section (reminiscent of classical minuet and trio movements); the presto features wind flourishes brilliant piano scales. After a soft choral interlude in the strings, the organ makes its grand entrance; the first movement C minor string theme majestically reappears in C Major (first in the strings and 4-hand piano, and then in the organ and brass).
A vigorous fugal section gives way to ever faster variations on the main themes. After a descending scale in the organ, the symphony ends in a rousing flourish of trumpets, brass and timpani.
Fingal's Cave The Hebrides are probably the best-known group of Scottish islands off the west coast of Scotland. They are composed of the oldest rock formations in the British Isles. Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa is the most famous of all the caves. Nowhere else is there a sea-cave formed completely in hexagonally-jointed basalt. The size, sounds, colors, and remarkable symmetry of this 227-foot cavern is viewed by a natural crude walkway that allows exploring visitors to go far inside. The impact of the cave on all those who enter it is likely to be remembered for life.
In the 1800’s it was common for wealthy young men to undertake a “Grand Tour” of Europe to gain perspective on life. Felix Mendelssohn, being from a wealthy family, went on such a tour. His tour lasted four years and took him through most of the major countries and cities of the time. During his travels he went to Scotland, where he visited the Hebrides and the renowned Fingal’s Cave with his friend Klingemann. In order to see the rock formations, they set out on the newly introduced paddle steamer service. The sea was wild, the weather bad, and all the passengers were ill. Here Klingemann tells of the adventures at Staffa:
“We were put out into boats and lifted by the hissing sea up the pillar stumps to the celebrated Fingal’s Cave. A greener roar of waves surely never rushed into a stranger cavern – its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, and absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide gray sea within and without.”
With conditions such, Mendelssohn can hardly have enjoyed seeing Fingal’s Cave since he was so seasick. However the visit to Staffa, and the sight and sound of the Atlantic swell tumbling into the cave, made a profound impression on him. Tremendously affected by the loneliness and beauty of this immense place, he quickly wrote down what would later become the opening notes of an overture. The most striking aspect of this overture was its successful tone-painting. Mendelssohn portrays overcast skies, gray seas, and barren a landscape. We can hear the breaking of the waves, almost see the basalt columns and strange colors, and above all, experience the overwhelming vastness of the cavern.
Mendelssohn worked on this composition for many years fine tuning his musical decisions. He wanted the listener to be immersed in the experience, just as he had been when he viewed the cave. Among the numerous sketches, four complete versions with distinct titles exist of this work: The Hebrides Overture (1829), Overture to the Solitary Island (Die einsame Insel) (1830), The Isle of Fingal (1832), and Fingal’s Cave (Fingalshöhle) (1835).
While Mahler wrote most of his 4th Symphony in 1900, he had really started it 8 years earlier – and with the last movement, no less!
Mahler was enchanted by “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (the Youth’s Magic Horn), a well-known collection of German folk poems, many of which Mahler set to music. Mahler arranged one of these poems, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”) in 1892 and wanted to use as a last movement for one of his symphonies. But his 3rd symphony was already lengthy, and it took him until 1900 to finally use it as the foundation for this lyrical 4th Symphony. The song tells of the wonders of heaven from a child’s point of view, with its angels, beauty, dancing, endless food of all types (listen for the bleating lamb and bellowing ox!) and “heavenly music that is not of this earth.”
The first three movements, which Mahler composed in 1899-1900, take much of their thematic material from the last movement. Most notable is the way in which the symphony starts, with sleighbells – the first time time they were ever used in an orchestra. Even though Mahler did not have an explicit “program” for his 4th Symphony, one can almost conceive of the first movement as a depiction of the earthly life – full of pleasant beauty, but interrupted with wails and shrieks, and discordant harmonies in the middle section.
Second Movement For the second movement, though, we have a clue – Mahler described it as “Death strikes up” – almost like a a danse macabre – and uses a violin purposely tuned a whole tone up to disturbing effect. In typical Mahler fashion, these unsettling moments are interspersed with pastoral interludes, punctuated by raucous clarinets.
The lovely third movement is made up of eight variations – opening and closing with great beauty and calm, but interspersed with moments of utter, tragic despair. Towards the end of the movement there is a sudden orchestral thunderclap, through which we may perceive the very gates of heaven itself.
And then on into the last movement, the vocal solo to be sung with “childlike simplicity” – a vision of a child’s view of the sublimity of heaven. The symphony ends in utter calm and contentment.
By the time Brahms finally completed his first symphony, in 1976, he was 43 years old. The long gestation of this symphony is related to two factors – Brahms’ own self-criticism of his work and the public’s expectation that Brahms would continue “Beethoven’s inheritance” and produce a symphony of depth and scope equal or superior to Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony.
This would be a daunting task for any composer. For Brahms, it was almost paralyzing. After 15 years of struggle and rewriting, his Symphony No. 1 in c minor was finally completed.
1st Movement The symphony opens with a turbulently powerful melody underscored by the relentless pounding of the timpani and basses. The movement is dark and brooding, angry and restless.
2nd Movement The second movement is also introverted and reflective in nature, although it warms at the end with a sense of hope with the beautiful violin solo, echoed by the French horn.
3rd Movement The third movement, different from a frantic Beethoven Scherzo, reminds us more of Schumann’s Landler movements, placing us in a calm wandering state.
4th Movement The immense finale is Brahms’ clearest homage to Beethoven in this symphony. Even the key of c minor, with its twist to C major at the end, can be considered parallel to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in d minor. As with Beethoven’s masterpiece, Brahms’ finale begins with a dramatic introduction and choral theme. Then what follows is one of the most famous and moving melodies in all of Brahms’ writing; a melody with a clear resemblance to the famous “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. When one thinks of the First Symphony, it is this beautiful melody that often comes to mind.
This concerto was Brahms’ first attempt at symphonic writing. He sketched the majority of the work in 1856. For a while it took the form of a two-piano sonata; then he orchestrated it, striving for a symphony. Finally, it was completed as a piano concerto, but one very different in nature from the piano concertos of its era.
Material from the symphony’s first and second movements was retained for the concerto; the last movement was replaced with an upbeat Rondo in Hungarian style. From the dramatic opening of the forceful theme to the rousing finale, the piano weaves in and out of the texture and becomes an integral part of the whole piece. In the slow Adagio, Brahms pays tribute to both Clara and Robert Schumann. In 1856, he wrote to Clara, “I am painting a lovely portrait of you. It is to be the Adagio.” The inscription on the original manuscript of this hymn-like movement is: “Benedictus qui venit in nominee Domini.” Aside from its religious connotations, it suggests a dedication to Robert Schumann, who had recently died, and whom Brahms referred to as “master” or Dominus.”
Hungarian Dance The root of Brahms’ music lies in the tension between the duple and the triple rhythmic pulse. The inspiration for this can be traced back to his great fondness for the so-called “gypsy” music of Hungary.
In 1852, as a nineteen-year-old pianist, the young Brahms accompanied the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi, whose musical style was greatly influenced by the verve and freedom of the gypsy violin. Brahms developed a great affection for this style and in 1869 wrote his Hungarian Dances for piano duet based upon Magyar folk melodies. He later orchestrated many of these Dances and they are part of our standard repertoire today.
This supernatural fantasy for orchestra was composed by the Russian composer Mussorgsky in 1867 and re-orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1886.
Night On Bald Mountain Notes from Mussorgsky’s own score make clear its programmatic nature. It starts with subterranean sounds from supernatural voices. Then, there is the appearance of the spirits of darkness, and after them, of Chernobog (the black god). The piece builds to the glorification of the Black God and Black Mass; a witches’ sabbath follows. At its height, the sabbath is interrupted by the distant sounds of a bell in a little village church, which disperses the spirits of darkness as daybreak ensues.
Fittingly enough for this concert, this next work is from Boito’s opera Mefistofele, a retelling of the Faust legend and his bargain with the devil. In this hauntingly beautiful aria, Faust’s beloved Margherita is in her jail cell and going mad from grief at the supposed loss of her baby and her mother.
Instead of a singer, though, we’re having this aria performed on a Theremin. A theremin is an electronic instrument invented in 1919 by a Russian scientist (Léon Theremin) played by moving both hands around two antennas – one of which determines pitch, and one of which determines loudness – without touching the instrument itself. In the 1950s the theremin was featured in a number of science-fiction movies (such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still”) because of its capability of producing “otherworldly” sounds.
More recently, though, the theremin has been undergoing a revival because of its novelty and expressiveness in performance. It is considered the forerunner of the Moog synthesizer and other electronic instruments in use today.
According to an old French superstition, Death appears at a graveyard at midnight on Halloween, “tunes” his violin (a very peculiar type of tuning), and calls forth the skeletons from their graves to dance – to their own type of waltz!
Saint-Saëns, who first performed this work in 1874, uses all sorts of unusual instrumental effects, including the xylophone and having the strings hit the wood of their bows on the strings (col legno) to conjure up the skeleton images. A cock-crow by the oboe heralds the dawn, when all of the revels cease and the skeletons return to their graves for another year.