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Schubert, Bruch, & Hindemith

Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, D. 485 (1816)
Franz Schubert (Vienna, 1797 – Vienna, 1828)

    Age nineteen, composition number 485. These simple biographical facts about Schubert and his Fifth Symphony are repeated so often--in fact, they are reprinted almost any time someone writes about this work--that many of us never stop to think about what is behind the figures. Schubert’s productivity during his late teens is nothing short of mind-boggling. This is especially true when one remembers that during most of this time he worked as an assistant teacher at his father’s school, and could really compose only at night or on Sundays. What is even more startling is the originality of his output from the years 1815-16; after only four or five years of active composing, he had reached a level of technical perfection that was second to none, in a voice that was unmistakably his own.
    Schubert’s first six symphonies, as critics have never tired of saying, are strongly indebted to the works of Haydn and Mozart, whose symphonies are echoed in quite a few passages. Yet it is one thing to borrow a theme and quite another to know what to do with it. And Schubert assimilated the borrowed material so thoroughly that they sound like Schubert and no one else.
    The Fifth calls for a smaller orchestra than any of the previous symphonies. Schubert may have had limited instrumental forces at his disposal, but the work shows no signs of compromise. It is a lyrical, intimate work that simply has no need for trumpets and kettledrums.
    "Pert," "lively," "beautiful," "delightful," "lovely," "simple," "joyful"--these are just a few of the adjectives found in one particular compact disc’s note about Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. It is all true, yet it is not often emphasized how much the unique fusion of serenity and gloom, seen in the works of Schubert’s last years, is already in evidence in this relatively early composition. The "lovely" melodies are always apt to end with a deceptive cadence, in which a reassuring closure is denied and replaced by an unexpected, often dissonant, harmony. It is like a sunny day that is never entirely free from clouds; but neither can the clouds hide the sun for very long.
    Happiness and melancholy become completely one in the second movement, when the violin and the woodwinds begin a wistful dialog, their voices intertwining and occasionally clashing with one another. The third-movement minuet was obviously inspired by the minuet from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor. The openings are identical, and while Schubert did not imitate the rhythmic complexities of his model, he certainly added a few harmonic twists of his own. The Trio, or middle section, of the movement is in the manner of the Ländler, the Austrian country dance that had such a distinguished career in symphonic music from Haydn to Mahler. The Schubertian Ländler, however, has an instantly recognizable, individual character. Both the first and the last movements combine tender lyricism with moments of high excitement, and a time-honored symphonic form with a 19-year-old’s youthful enthusiasm.

Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1866)
Max Bruch  (Cologne, 1838 – Friedenau, nr. Berlin, 1920)

    Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor is the work of a young man of 28 who already had several successful compositions to his credit, including an opera, Die Lorelei, performed in several German theaters. With his violin concerto, Bruch, who had recently been appointed as music director in the city of Coblenz, intended to confirm his position as a prominent composer of the Schumann-Mendelssohn school. While he was working on the concerto, he confided to his former teacher Ferdinand Hiller in a letter, "My Violin Concerto is progressing slowly—I do not feel sure of my feet in this terrain. Do you not think that it is in fact very audacious to write a Violin Concerto?" Bruch finally sought the advice of Joseph Joachim, one of the greatest violinists of the day, who also helped Brahms and Dvorak with their concertos. The correspondence between Bruch and Joachim, which contains extensive musical notation, reveals how many details had to be changed before the concerto assumed its final form.
    Bruch may have been a traditional composer, but he was not one to follow the conventions slavishly. The form of his first movement, which bears the title "Vorspiel" (Prelude), is much looser and more fantasy-like than the first movements of most concertos. It begins with a violin cadenza, followed by the main theme which, too, has a certain cadenza-like freedom to it, despite its strict rhythm marked by the timpani and the double bass. The lyrical second theme evolves into a section filled with scintillating passagework, followed by a dramatic section for orchestra alone. After this, the initial cadenza returns, and a short orchestral transition leads directly into the second-movement Adagio, warmly lyrical and exceptionally rich in melodic invention.
    The theme of the third-movement Finale begins after an introduction of a few bars. It is a brilliant melody full of virtuosic double-stops and arpeggios, followed by a dramatic second theme.  The movement is in sonata form with a brief development and an extensive coda, introducing some harmonic surprises and previously unheard variations on the two themes. The concerto ends in a faster tempo.
    Bruch lived for more than 50 years after completing his G-minor concerto.  He wrote about a hundred compositions, including the popular Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, the Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra, and two more violin concertos. Yet it is the present work that has kept his name firmly in the repertoire since the day of the premiere. The composer, who sold the rights to his work to the published for a one-time lump payment, no doubt regretted his naïveté in later years.

Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber (1943)
Paul Hindemith (Hanau, nr. Frankfurt, 1895 – Frankfurt, 1963)

    Paul Hindemith was one of the most versatile musicians of the 20th century. In addition to an exceptionally rich catalog of works, he was one of the greatest violists of his time, and also performed on violin, piano, and clarinet. From 1940 to 1953, Hindemith lived in the United States, teaching at Yale University where he was as influential and successful as he had been in his native Germany. After 1953, he lived mostly in Switzerland, devoting more and more time to yet another type of activity, namely conducting.
    Hindemith was, without a doubt, a "musician's musician." There is a sense of tactile joy inherent in his music which reflects his own virtuosity as a performer. As a result, one often experiences a certain visceral pleasure in playing as well as listening to his works. There are few subservient orchestral parts; each instrument contributes something significant. Hindemith believed, in fact, insisted that a composer should hear every note he or she intends to set down on paper, and that the audience should be able to hear every note written on the page.
    Symphonic Metamorphosis
is one of Hindemith's most colorful orchestral scores. It grew out of an aborted ballet project Hindemith had been planning with dancer and choreographer Leonide Massine early in 1940. Massine had proposed to Hindemith a ballet based on music by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) but the two men couldn't agree on the details and had what one of Hindemith's friend, Yale colleague and biographer Luther Noss called a "monumental falling out." The ideas originally developed for the ballet had to be channelled into a concert piece, and Hindemith started thinking about a "Weber Suite" which eventually evolved into the four-movement Symphonic Metamorphosis. The work was given its premiere by Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic in 1944. It did eventually reach the ballet stage in 1952, with choreography by George Balanchine presented by the New York City Ballet.
    Hindemith had taken thematic material from four different piano duets by Weber. For the second movement, he drew on Weber's incidental music to Turandot, originally an Italian play by Carlo Gozzi that had reached the German stage in an adaptation by Friedrich Schiller. (Gozzi's play also served as the basis of Puccini's last opera, Turandot [1924]). Hindemith used considerable freedom in adapting Weber’s themes, and added a thoroughly 20th-century harmonization and orchestration. He described his own procedure in a letter to his wife, with characteristic understatement, as "coloring the music lightly and making it a bit sharper."
    The opening march has a fanfare-like quality which prepares the listener for the arrival of the second movement, "Turandot," which is in many ways is the centerpiece of the composition. It elaborates on a simple and very memorable pentatonic theme (one that could be played on the black keys of the piano), using the techniques of the passacaglia (variations over a bass) and fugue (with one voice imitating another according to a set of rules). The theme itself was one Weber himself had borrowed from another source, namely Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Dictionnaire de musique (1767), where it was printed as an example of Chinese music. In Hindemith’s hands, the simple theme "metamorphoses" into a complex and unconventional composition as the melody travels through every symphonic voice (including even the timpani), showing off the attributes of each orchestral instrument in a most virtuosic way. The fugue starts midway through the movement with a section for brass scored in an unmistakable jazz style, its rhythm characterized by a swinging syncopation—a clear reflection of Hindemith’s American experience.  The movement is reminiscent of a dream in which a brass band marches closer and closer, becoming wilder and more raucous. The band finally passes by, and the sound fades into the distance as the dreamer awakens to the light of reality with the final major chord.
    The third movement is a pastorale. Contrasting the brash and brilliant second movement, this Andantino shows Hindemith's lyrical and emotionally expressive side.  At the end, of the movement, a solo flute ornaments the final statement of the melody.
    Just as the opening movement was a march, ushering us into the work, so is the last movement, and it serves as an exit—an epilogue that is also a commentary on the three previous movements. There are subtle thematic reminiscences, such as the use of dotted rhythms (long-short) from the first movement or triplets (beat divided into three instead of two) from "Turandot." In the middle of the movement, the triplets become associated with a tune that sounds like an Irish jig. This motif seems to be the conquering force in the movement. It eventually overpowers the original melody and wins with a final exclamation in the last measure.

This note was written in collaboration with Adrienne Elisha, a composer and violist who studied composition with Hindemith student Bernhard Heiden. Program notes by Peter Laki.

 

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