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Beethoven & Brahms

Overture to Oberon (1826)
Carl Maria von Weber (Eutin, Oldenburg, Germany, 1786 – London, 1826)

Barely thirty-eight years old, Carl Maria von Weber was incurably ill with tuberculosis.  It had been only three years since he had achieved international fame with Der Freischütz.  The year after the premiere of his following opera, Euryanthe, he received a letter from Charles Kemble, manager of the Covent Garden Opera in London, commissioning an opera for the 1825 season.  Weber was to conduct the opera himself.  The doctors advised Weber against such a strenuous journey; the composer, however, declared:  “Whatever I do, whether I go or not, I will be a dead man within one year.  However, if I go my children will have something to eat when their father is dead, and they will be hungry if I stay.”
    For the subject of his new opera, Weber chose the epic poem Oberon by the German poet Christoph Martin Wieland (1733-1813).  However, the language of the opera was to be English.  Wieland's poem was adapted by the British poet James Robinson Planché, and Weber diligently set about learning the language.  He took 150 lessons from an Englishman living in Dresden before he felt confident enough to write music to English words.  
    Oberon, the King of the Elves, has had a quarrel with his queen Titania over the question as to whether a man or a woman is more likely to be unfaithful.  Oberon vows to avoid Titania until a couple is found who are unfailing in their fidelity despite dangers and privations.  With the help of his attendant spirit Puck, Oberon finds this couple in Huon, a knight of the court of Charlemagne, and Rezia, daughter of the calif of Baghdad.  Through a great many misadventures, the two lovers remain steadfast, ensuring not only their own happiness at the end, but also that of Oberon and Titania.
    Most of the melodies of the exciting and vibrant overture to Oberon are all taken from the opera itself.  It opens with a horn solo—fittingly so, since in the opera, Oberon gives Huon a magic horn to protect him during his adventures.  The climactic theme of the overture comes from the famous soprano solo known as the "Ocean” aria.  This is music written when Beethoven was still alive, yet it is filled with a spirit of the new Romantic era:  Weber is justly regarded as the father of German Romantic opera, without whom much of Richard Wagner's work would be simply unthinkable.

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1805-06)
Ludwig van Beethoven (Bonn, 1770 – Vienna, 1827)

The first three Beethoven concertos represent a gradual line of evolution, gradually moving away from the Mozartian models and culminating in No. 5, the magnificent “Emperor” Concerto in E-flat major. No. 4 seems to fall outside that line. It is every bit as revolutionary as the “Emperor,” which it preceded by three years; yet its tone is characterized by a unique mixture of cheerfulness and lyricism with occasional touches of mystery. The first movement is gentle yet extremely powerful. The finale is playful and witty yet has its dream-like moments. And in between, there is an “Andante con moto” that doesn’t resemble anything Beethoven ever wrote before or after the Fourth Concerto.
        The first surprise occurs in the very first measure of the concerto. The usual orchestral introduction is preceded by a piano solo consisting of a few simple chords played almost as if in a dream. The orchestra enters in a different key, eventually finding its way back to G major. From here on, the succession of themes follows the established conventions, but there are many irregularities in the tonal plan and its harmonic elaboration. One of the many unexpected modulations in the movement leads to an expressive melody played pianissimo in the highest register of the instrument. It makes use of notes that had only recently been added to the keyboard; it is interesting to observe that Beethoven contrasted the extremely high range of the melody with a left-hand accompaniment that is extremely low. The effect is magical.
        The second-movement “Andante con moto” is an impassioned dialog between the piano and the strings that seems to cry out for a programmatic explanation. In 1985, musicologist Owen Jander interpreted the movement as “Orpheus in Hades,” with Orpheus pleading with the Furies of the Underworld for the life of his wife, Eurydice. Having won Eurydice back, Orpheus broke his vow not to look at her during their way home and lost her forever.
        Jander supported his claims by some biographical evidence. An acquaintance of Beethoven’s, composer Friedrich August Kanne, was working on an opera based on the Orpheus myth around the time Beethoven composed his concerto. Kanne, who wrote both the libretto and the score of his opera, included a passage where Orpheus and the chorus of the Furies alternate in one-line speeches very much in the manner of Beethoven’s piano-string dialog. He also represented the final tragedy in ways that, as Jander has demonstrated, are comparable with the truly extraordinary effects in the second half of Beethoven’s movement.
        Beethoven used some special pianistic devices here that, like the high tessitura in the first movement, were first made possible by the new instrument for which the concerto was conceived.  He instructed the pianist to play the entire second movement with the una corda pedal, that is, activating only one of the three strings available for each tone.  Unlike modern pianos, the fortepiano of Beethoven’s time was able to produce a noticeable shift from one to two and three strings, and this shift greatly enhances the dramatic effect of the movement.
        In a gesture Beethoven was particularly fond of, the third-movement Rondo starts in the “wrong” key:  for several measures, C major is suggested before the “correct” G major is established in a clearly audible tonal “switch.” The cheerful mood of the movement is occasionally tempered by more serious moments, but the ending, culminating in a vigorous Presto, is one of the happiest Beethoven ever wrote.
        Like the first movement, the third makes room for a cadenza.  Beethoven noted in the score:  “The cadenza should be short.”  In 1809, he wrote down an example of what he had in mind, perhaps at the request of his pupil, Archduke Rudolph, to whom the concerto was dedicated.

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876)
Johannes Brahms (Hamburg, 1833 - Vienna, 1897)

In his review of the Viennese premiere of Brahms's First Symphony, Eduard Hanslick, the leading music critic of the day, noted:  “Seldom, if ever, has the entire musical world awaited a composer's first symphony with such tense anticipation.”  They had to wait for a long time, too.  Brahms's symphonic plans had been known to his friends for at least 15 years.  He had shown Clara Schumann the beginning of the first movement's Allegro section as early as 1862; six years later he greeted her with the “alphorn” theme of what eventually became the symphony's finale.  Yet Brahms seemed to be extremely slow to give the symphony its final form.
    “The entire musical world” has been trying to understand, ever since the premiere, why it had taken Brahms so long to complete his symphony.  His hesitation has been explained mainly buy the paralyzing effect of the challenge Beethoven's masterworks represented for Brahms. “You have no idea how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us,” he said in 1870.)  Schumann certainly had not made things easier by publicly proclaiming the 20-year-old Brahms the next great musical genius; the Leipzig fiasco of Brahms's First Piano Concerto (1859) was another major setback.  But it is interesting that the 1860s were a fallow decade in Germany in general, as far as symphonies were concerned.  Schumann's death in 1856 had left a vacuum in Austro-German symphonic music and it was not until the 1870s that a new symphonist of the first order arose, in the person of Anton Bruckner, nine years Brahms's senior, whose Second and Third Symphonies received their premieres within a year from that of Brahms's First.
    Brahms and Bruckner were of course greatly different artistic personalities, and as composers they were perceived as belonging to opposite camps.  Yet one can feel that they belonged to the same generation.  Unlike the composers of the preceding generation such as Schumann and Mendelssohn, whose lives had overlapped with Beethoven's, Brahms and Bruckner were removed from Classicism by another great step.  The Vormärz* of Schumann and Mendelssohn was followed by an era of repression in both Germany and Austria.  The once revolutionary Romantic spirit had gone bourgeois, and the artists coming of age after the defeated 1848 revolutions lived in a world that had noticeably grown older.  It was no longer possible to begin a symphony with the exuberance of Mendelssohn's “Italian”; nor could anyone re-create the famous transition from darkness to light in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as elegantly as Schumann had done in his Fourth.  The flamboyance of the young Romantics had given way to a grave and brooding disposition in the post-1848 generation, whose relationship to the past had become quite a problematic matter.
    The very first measure of Brahms’s First Symphony with its throbbing timpani strokes makes it clear that we are no longer in a world of Romantic dreams.  This is tragic music of an intensity that has not been seen since Beethoven; but it is markedly different from Beethoven's tragic style.  The latter's Fifth Symphony, written in the same key of C minor traditionally associated with tragedy, opens with a highly excited Allegro.  Brahms’s “Un poco sostenuto,” on the other hand, derives its energy from its slow tempo, and the painful rise, mostly by half-steps, from C to high B-flat in the violins, against the equally painful descent from C to F in the woodwinds.  The two melodic lines are somewhat like a pair of scissors slowly opening, cutting down and then repeating the same procedure a second time.  Unlike the slow introductions of most other composers, this one is less a preparation for what follows than integral part of the drama:  it gradually goes over into the Allegro with which it shares all its important melodic material.  (Musicologist Michael Musgrave has shown that the entire symphony is dominated by a five-note pattern Schumann had used as an explicit reference to his wife Clara; in Musgrave's view, this makes the work Brahms’s “Clara” symphony, an act of homage to the woman with whom he was passionately in love as a young man and who remained a close friend for 40 years.)  In the Allegro, there is no temporary relief from the tragic mood:  while other sonata movements in C minor gravitate toward E-flat major, Brahms modulates into E-flat minor; in other words, he stays in the “tragic” minor mode for the entire movement.
    In the second-movement Andante sostenuto (in E major), the tension subsides at last.  The strings play an intimately lyrical melody, taken over by the solo oboe.  After a more agitated middle section, the first melody returns.  The part that was first played by the oboe is now given to a solo violin (the only violin solo in the four Brahms symphonies).
    For his third movement, Brahms didn't write a Scherzo but a short intermezzo in A-flat major, with sweet woodwind solos and delicate pizzicatos (plucked strings) in the accompaniment.  The Trio, or middle section, in B major, is more rhythmical and at one point reaches fortissimo volume, just before the lyrical A-flat major theme returns in varied form.
    The fourth movement opens with an extended Adagio introduction which brings back the tragic C-minor world of the first movement and effects a transition to the C-major Allegro.  The introduction incorporates the melody, played by the horn, that Brahms had sent Clara on a postcard in 1868, there accompanied by the words:  Hoch auf'm Berg, tief im Tal, grüss' ich Dich viel tausendmal (High on the mountain, deep in the valley, I send you many thousand greetings).  The horn-call is expanded as other instruments join in.  Four measures of solemn chorale music, played softly by the brass, are heard as in passing.  
    Finally, the joyful C-major Allegro begins.  Certain parts of its theme are clearly reminiscent of the “Ode to Joy” melody in Beethoven's Ninth.  When this was pointed out to Brahms, he retorted gruffly, “Any jackass can see that.”  And in fact, that reminiscence is not crucial here, for Brahms himself had made themes of this kind thoroughly his own as early as the opening of his First Piano Trio (Op. 8, 1858).  The movement is in regular sonata form, with two important differences.  First, the development starts, unusually, with a full restatement of the main theme, as it were a recapitulation; soon enough, however, the music changes directions and a true development ensues.  It is understandable that when the real recapitulation begins, Brahms omits restating the main theme altogether (after all, he has already done so); instead, in another surprising move, he brings back the horn-call theme from the slow introduction.  The symphony ends with a brilliant Coda culminating in the reappearance of that almost forgotten brass chorale from the introduction.

    * Vormärz (literally, "pre-March") was the name given to the movement of progressive German writers and intellectuals that predated the spirit of the March 1848 revolution.

Program notes by Peter Laki



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