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Brahms & Khachaturian

Antonín Dvorák (Nelahozeves, Bohemia, 1841 – Prague, 1904)
Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, Nos. 2, 7, 8 (1878)
     Antonín Dvorák’s fame as a composer rose steadily throughout the 1870s and ‘80s, especially after meeting Johannes Brahms, who became a staunch friend and a powerful promoter of the young Czech composer’s music. Brahms introduced Dvorák to his own publisher, Fritz Simrock, who soon decided to add Dvorák to his stable of composers. Having been extremely successful with Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, Simrock turned to Dvorák with a similar request for Slavonic Dances to capture the musical flavor of another nationality to the east—a not very “Far” East, yet certainly a somewhat exotic East.
     Dvorák’s task, thus, was to write short and popular pieces that could represent his country abroad. He accomplished the task with inimitable grace and ingenuity. He did not use any actual folk melodies, though he did draw on their rhythmic patterns and certain melodic elements. Like Brahms’s dances, Dvorák’s were originally written for piano duet and later orchestrated. The first set of eight dances, published as Op. 46, was so successful that in 1886, Dvorák was asked to compose a second set - Op. 72.
     All the dances follow the so-called ABA form, in which two statements of the main section are separated by a contrasting middle section, often with a marked change in orchestration. We shall hear three pieces from the Op. 46 set, starting with the second dance, a dumka (a term that, for Dvorák, denoted a pensive and melancholy melody. This will be followed by No. 7, a skocná or jumping dance, whose theme is developed in the form of a canon. The Dvorák selections will end with No. 8, which is a furiant—a Czech dance based on the rhythmic figure known as “hemiola:” you count (in a very fast tempo) one-two one-two one-two one-two-three one-two-three. The robust main section is followed by a gentler “B” melody in a new key, after which the first theme returns.
 

Aram Khachaturian (Titlis is -now Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, 1903 – Moscow, 1978)
Violin Concerto (1940)
     When Aram Khachaturian arrived in Moscow from the provinces, he was eighteen years old, and had very little musical training to speak of. His parents were not particularly well-educated or wealthy, and a musical career for their son was the furthest thing from their minds. But Aram had a brother named Suren, who was 14 years older than he and had long been active in the Moscow arts world as a stage director. In the summer of 1921 Suren (who used the Russianized surname Khachaturov) came back to Titlis on the heels of the Red Army which had just established the Soviet Republics of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan in the Caucasian region. Suren’s mission was to recruit talented young people to take back to Moscow where they would be educated as Soviet artists and intellectuals. One of his recruits was his own little brother. The following year, Aram was admitted to the Gnessin Music School where he took up the cello (which he touched for the first time at the age of nineteen) and composition. After seven years of hard work, he was ready to be admitted to the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with the revered Nikolai Myaskovsky. He was over thirty by the time he graduated, but he emerged from school as a composer with a solid technique and a natural gift for melody. Even more important, he was imbued with the musical traditions of his native Transcaucasia, where he had grown up in an ethnically mixed environment, exposed to Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani music. Since the 19th century, Russian musicians had been fascinated by the traditions of the East; now, finally, there was a native-born composer who was able to draw on these sources to enrich the palette of Russian music with exotic colors and melodies. That was the idea to which Khachaturian devoted his talents. He became the first Armenian composer to achieve an international reputation, something he always believed wouldn’t have been possible without the help he had received from the Soviet system.
     The Violin Concerto was written a few years after Khachaturian established his international reputation with his Piano Concerto. It was inspired by the artistry of David Oistrakh, one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century. Oistrakh played the first performance in Moscow in 1940, and the work soon triumphed all over the world.
     It is evident from the outset that Khachaturian had the gift of melody, something that can’t be taught in school. All three movements of the concerto are positively oveflowing with the most ingratiating tunes, some of a distinctly Oriental avor. At the same time, Khachaturian speaks the idiom of the Romantic virtuoso concerto with the same natural fluency as the 19th-century proponents of the genre. In Khachaturian’s extended cadenza for the first movement, the first clarinet interjects a few phrases; Oistrakh later wrote another cadenza that the composer preferred to his own.
     The expressive lyrical theme of the slow movement undergoes considerable development, with some brilliant passagework and considerable dynamic growth. A mysterious second theme, played by the violas to the pizzicato (plucked) accompaniment of cellos and basses, has reminded an Armenian commentator of two nostalgic Armenian songs. The last movement is a rondo over an irresistible and unforgettable theme in classical style, with episodes in turn songful and virtuosic. The musical pyrotechnics continue to the very end of the work.
      
Johannes Brahms (Hamburg, 1833 – Vienna, 1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883)
     Johannes Brahms wrote his third symphony in 1883, the year of Wagner’s death. Brahms and Wagner represented two opposite camps in German music, and their followers fought endless ideological battles with one another. Granted, Brahms’s artistic path was completely different from Wagner’s, as he didn’t seek to unite all the arts as Wagner did. Indeed, Brahms stayed away from the musical stage altogether, and created a complete musical universe entirely within the classical symphonic and chamber forms. Yet he had a deep respect for his alleged antagonist, who was 20 years his senior. Wagnerian echoes can often be felt in Brahms’s music, and in the Third Symphony in particular. The most obvious, but by no means the only, sign of Wagner’s influence is the fact that the Symphony’s opening serves as a kind of “leitmotiv,” returning at the end of the last movement where its character is completely transformed.
     According to Brahms’s first biographer, Max Kalbeck, this theme (consisting of the notes F-A-flat-high F), is an acronym for Frei aber froh (“free but happy”), a motto supposedly invented by Brahms as a rejoinder to his friend Joseph Joachim’s F-A-E (Frei aber einsam, or “free but lonely”). The two motifs had been used together in Brahms’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2, published in 1873.
     The F-A-flat-F motif opens the symphony in medias res (“in the middle of things”), that is, without any preparation, on an emotional high point of unusual intensity. The motif is combined with an expressive descending countermelody, characterized by an extremely wide range, excited syncopations and a constant interplay of the major and minor modes. (Both melody and rhythm are strongly reminiscent of the first movement of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, which is all the more interesting since Brahms did most of the compositional work in the Rhineland.)
     After this vigorous beginning, the music grows more peaceful (the transition section echoes a characteristic harmonic progression from the sirens’ chorus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser). The graceful second theme is played by the clarinet and bassoon, in the key of A major. Ordinarily, second themes ought to be in the dominant key, which, in the case of an F-major symphony, would be C major. The key of A major is more distant according to harmonic theory, and accordingly, we have the feeling of having travelled further emotionally from our point of departure.
     A powerful crescendo soon takes us back to the realm of drama; throughout the development section, the music remains quite stormy and harmonically adventurous. The graceful second theme becomes highly agitated as it acquires a syncopated accompaniment and is transferred from major to minor. The recapitulation is preceded by a mysterious-sounding retransition in a slower tempo and pianissimo dynamics, using the main theme but substantially modifying its character. Finally, the main theme returns in its original form, and the recapitulation is under way. After a brief coda, the movement unexpectedly ends in a subdued pianissimo, as the F-A-flat-F motto and its descending countermelody are recalled as a faint reminiscence. (As we shall see, all four movements of this symphony end softly; it is probably the only symphony in the repertoire to have this peculiarity.)
     Both the second and third movements are lyrical intermezzo-type pieces in a medium tempo, rather than adhering to the traditional types of slow movement and scherzo. The second movement opens with a theme whose character and orchestration (two clarinets and two bassoons) again recalls Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, and the third movement of that work in particular. According to Kalbeck, the middle movements of Brahms’s Third were based on an unfinished piece of incidental music Brahms had at one point planned for Goethe’s Faust.
     This second movement has the character of a gentle procession. Its opening theme is repeated numerous times, altered and ornamented in various ways. There is a second theme (first introduced by solo clarinet and bassoon) whose halting string accompaniment becomes independent and creates some suspenseful moments that contrast markedly with the relaxed mood of the rest of the “Andante.” Also, watch for the unexpected return of this theme in the last movement.
     While the second movement has a certain cool and distant quality to it, the third-movement Poco Allegretto captivates by its immediacy and warm lyricism. Its main theme, one of Brahms’s most ingratiating melodies, is introduced by the cellos and then taken over by the violins. There is a brief middle section in which the key changes from minor to major; then the main melody returns, now given to the solo horn.
     These two character pieces are followed by a finale that revisits the dramatic world of the first movement. The music is in the dark key of F minor almost throughout, reverting to the bright F major only shortly before the end.
     The finale begins with a hushed pianissimo theme, soon followed by a recall of the second movement’s second melody. A highly impassioned drama unfolds, and at the climactic point the theme from the Andante, once simple and quiet, is proclaimed at full volume by the whole orchestra. After a recapitulation of the entire dramatic sequence, Brahms returns to the hushed tone of the beginning. The tonality suddenly changes and we are back to the long-expected home key of F major, where we take leave of the main themes of the movement. As a last surprise, the opening theme of the first movement returns, its initial energy replaced by nostalgic lyricism. Instead of offering an affirmative conclusion, the ending of Brahms’s Third Symphony is shrouded in deep mystery.

 

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