In Scotland, the cross-fertilization between classical violin music and traditional fiddle tunes began in the 18th century. Because fiddle players in Scotland had an unusually high rate of musical literacy, their folk music, unlike that in other countries, was often learned and written down. As a result, hundreds of printed and manuscript collections were created between the 1740s and the end of the century. Max Bruch found some of these Scottish melodies in a copy of Scottish Musical Museum by James Johnson, during a visit to the Munich Library in 1862. He said that the Scots tunes “pulled me into their magical circle” and that they were more beautiful and original than folk tunes from Germany.
The “Fantasia for the Violin and Orchestra with Harp, freely using Scottish Folk Melodies,” better known as the “Scottish Fantasy,” was written mostly during the winter of 1879–80. Bruch struggled over whether to call the work a fantasy or concerto and in the end chose the word “Fantasy” because of its free style. Unlike a normal fantasy, however, the Scottish Fantasy consists of four full-fledged movements. The role of the harp, an instrument associated with Scotland’s earliest traditional music, is nearly as prominent as that of the violin soloist.
Each of the Scottish Fantasy’s four movements are based on a different Scottish folk tunes. The piece begins in darkness, evoking the image of “an old bard, who contemplates a ruined castle, and laments the glorious times of old.” We then are introduced to the 18th century tune “Through the Wood Laddie.” The second movement is based on “The Dusty Miller,” a lively, cheerful tune that first appeared in the early 1700s. “Through the Wood Laddie” is revisited in the transition to the third movement whose main theme is derived from the 19th century song, “I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie.” The main theme of the finale is the unofficial Scottish national anthem, “Scots, Wha Hae,” (Robert Burns’ tribute to the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn). This ancient war song and “stomping dance” has taken on many different titles and sets of lyrics over the years. Bruch alternates virtuostic variations on the main theme interspersed with a contrasting lyrical melody. After one last appearance of a phrase from “Through the Wood Laddie,” the Scottish Fantasy concludes triumphantly.
This is the symphony which truly defined an age – Beethoven’s “heroic” period, in which many of his great works were composed – as well as the beginning of the “Romantic” period of classical music.
The Eroica is a break from the past. A massive work, it is the longest symphony composed up to that point, making substantial demands on players and audiences alike. Beethoven began composing the Eroica in 1803. He initially called the symphony “Bonaparte,” even writing a dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte as the exemplar of a new age of freedom and liberty; but he angrily tore that up in 1804 when Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor. Instead, Beethoven re-dedicated this work more generally as a “Heroic Symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man.”
The “Eroica,” as it came to be known, was first publicly performed 200 years ago in Vienna in April 1805. We are pleased to help usher in its next century of performance.
The first movement, after starting on two crashing chords, is built on a rising and failing 10-note theme, first taken up by the ‘cellos and then by the winds. Several melodic counter-themes introduced by the winds follow; a series of striking chords punctuates the first section. There is a massive development section in which these themes are expanded, culminating in a crashing series of syncopated chords played by the entire orchestra. A lengthy transition, with an intentional “false entrance” played by the horn against hushed violins, brings us to the recapitulation of the opening theme; a striking coda heralded by the opening theme in the second violins brings us to the end of this movement.
The second movement Funeral March evokes many emotions – grief, despair, defiance, anger and rage on the one hand; warm remembrance, hopefulness, and triumph on the other – before ending in a broken hush. The Scherzo is notworthy for its quick, light and playful character; the Trio for its sonorous horns evoking hunting calls.
After an introductory rush of notes, the last movement’s theme begins simply with plucked strings, is picked up in turn by the winds, and is expanded with a series of variations. A flowing melodic theme is then introduced by the winds. Beethoven then takes us through a number of renditions, including fugal treatments, solo flute and violin passages, and triplet and minor-key variations. A reverent interlude is introduced by the woodwind choir (could this be a hymn of praise to the “hero”?). After a murmuring transition, Beethoven abruptly switches gears again; there is a culminating Presto, with musical climax upon climax hurtling relentlessy to a triumphal conclusion.
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) 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 Hillary and Jackie.)
This 4-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.
By profession an eminent chemist and professor, Borodin (1833-1887) was also a member of a Russian musical circle which included Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.
While his musical output was not large, it includes some of the best-known Russian classical works, including a number of symphonies, his D Major string quartet (with the famous Nocturne), and his masterpiece, the opera Prince Igor.
The Polovtsian Dances come from the second act of the opera, in which the Khan of the Polovtsi, a Mongol tribe, is entertaining Prince Igor, whom he has taken captive.
While a chorus is used when the dances are played in the opera, they are often played by instruments alone in a concert setting, as we are doing today. An initial processional characterized by wind solos against a plucked string and harp accompaniment gives way to a series of dances alternatively featuring dancing girls, warriors (fast descending clarinet motif); and young boys (leaping wind and string motifs). An accelerating coda brings the piece to its conclusion.
This concerto is certainly one of the most familiar, and best-loved, works in the entire violin repertoire. It was composed in 1844 expressly for the violin virtuoso Ferdinand David and performed in Leipzig the following year.
Its three movements are essentially meant to be played without pause (although there is a slight break between the second and third movements). After a one-measure introduction, the famous opening theme is introduced by the solo violin, and gradually picked up by the entire orchestra. A lyrical theme is introduced by the winds midway through the movement; the cadenza makes an early appearance, leading to the recapitulation of the opening theme.
The second movement is essentially a “song without words,” simple and hauntingly beautiful. After a restless introduction, the solo violin introduces the last movement’s theme – an elf-like motif, evocative of Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A second robust orchestral motif makes its appearance; Mendelssohn thoroughly mixes the two themes in the contrapuntal section that follows. A triumphant coda brings the concerto to a close.
Carl Maria von Weber was one of the pioneers, if not the preeminent pioneer, of German Romanticism in music.
The Andante and Rondo Ungarese (Hungarian Rondo) was originally written, in 1809, for viola solo and orchestra. Von Weber later re-worked the piece for bassoon solo (1813), upon request of Georg Friedrich Brandt, bassoonist of the Munich Orchestra. The Andante is a set of short variations. The rondo marks one of the early points of Germanic fascination with things Hungarian in its rollicking melody and dance-like character. Later well-known examples of this fashion are Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and the finale of his violin concerto.
Vivaldi, himself a violinist, wrote over 500 concertos, and interestingly enough, besides the 230 for violin, wrote more concertos for the bassoon than for any other instrument. Even though, like Bach, Vivaldi was forgotten for decades, the resurgence in scholarship of baroque music in the late 19th century brought him back into recognition.
In his own time, Vivaldi was actually quite influential, having established some standard-practice techniques of baroque composition and serving as a model for the young Bach. Even though he borrowed his own material liberally, as was the practice at the time, he was nonetheless very inventive, especially in string writing. He devised different expressive techniques in string articulation and bowing.
One can hear this transparently in the bassoon concerto we are performing, a graceful string texture backing up the remarkable solo bassoon fireworks and melodic display.
Schubert wrote the Overture in B flat in 1816. By this time, he had already written four symphonies and several other overtures.
Schubert was a good violinist as well as pianist and held a principal position in his school orchestra in Vienna. Legend has it that the orchestra would rehearse every night with the windows of their rehearsal room open, stopping traffic as the Viennese would pause to listen.
That Schubert was steeped in the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, one of which the school orchestra would play every night, is apparent in both the style of Schubert’s writing, as well as his deep knowledge of the capabilities of the orchestra. Even though this lineage is readily apparent, one can also already detect Schubert’s individuality, in his ever warm mood, and particularly in his presentation of themes in even more remote keys than was usually practiced before.
Kodály, together with Bartok, was a major figure in the collection and analysis of Hungarian folk music.
Many of Kodály’s compositions are based on Hungarian folk tunes of various types. This is evident in the “Hungarian Rondo,” which Kodály wrote in 1917 and premiered in Vienna in early 1918. Originally titled “Old Hungarian Soldiers’ Songs,” its themes are based on the verbunkós, a type of army recruiting dance which utilized gypsy bands (symbolized here by strings, supplemented with raucous clarinets and bassoons).
The verbunkós typically had alternating slow-fast sections, with punctuating codas. In the Hungarian Rondo, Kodály follows through on this tradition by interspersing the opening slow string theme, in different instrumentations (solo violin, clarinet, mixed ensembles), with increasingly frenetic gypsy melodies.
This six-movement serenade was Brahms first major orchestral work and was published in 1860. While Brahms initially intended this piece to be an octet, he first expanded it into a work for small orchestra and finally settled on this version for large orchestra.
The D Major Serenade has a youthful feel to it and is altogether more lighthearted than the later symphonies and other orchestral works Brahms composed. The initial Allegro is somewhat rustic in manner. It opens with bagpipe-like lower string drones and horn calls, which give way to weightier string and wind passages. The second theme features a rising arpeggio-like motif played first by the violins and bassoon and echoed by the ‘celli, and is followed by a more relaxed triple-time motif, featuring violas and oboes, before leading to an orchestral climax. A development section explores the opening themes in a number of different keys before returning to the opening horn theme. The movement ends in a soft graceful fashion with flute, violas and lower strings.
The second movement is a mysterious Scherzo, interspersed with waltz-like melodies in the violins and ‘cellos and a faster Trio section heralded by the winds. The Adagio consciously evokes the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, with simple wind and string melodies supported by soft fast-moving string passages.
The contrasting Menuettos offer a refreshing respite, with clarinets and bassoon alternating with the strings. The short Scherzo which follows features stirring horn calls, picked up in turn by the rest of the orchestra.
The closing Rondo features a robust opening theme in the ‘celli, violas and winds, repeated in several guises. A soaring second theme is announced by the violins and picked up by the winds; other motifs, based on initial underlying accompaniments, make their appearance. After a short passage that seems to evoke Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the piece closes in an optimistic joyous fashion.