Claude Debussy (b. St.-Germain-en-Laye, France August 22, 1862; d. Paris, France March 25, 1918) Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune L. 86—1892-1894
Nowhere else in music has anyone so deftly synthesized the heat and silence, sensuality and gentle melancholy of an afternoon's golden hours as in Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun"). Debussy's indolent faun was originally the subject of a symbolist poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that conjures a dream world poised between sleeping and wakefulness. Using a large, colorful orchestra of three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two harps, small antique cymbals, and strings, Debussy succeeds in suspending the listener in that same sort of magical moment.
Following its first performance in Paris on December 23, 1894, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune immediately became Debussy's most popular work. Yet its musical techniques were absolutely revolutionary. Take, for example, the solo flute motive, inspired by Mallarme's "A vain, sonorous and monotonous line." The flute's theme oscillates back and forth between two notes that are a tritone away from one another. An interval of exactly half an octave, the tritone was sometimes called the diabolus in musica (or the devil in music). It had been avoided ever since the medieval period because of the strident, jarring sound produced when its two notes were heard simultaneously. Debussy, however, gloried in the exotic flavor it gave his music. The theme sounds ten separate times, each time dressed in subtly different, sometimes quite dissonant harmonies; and its harmonic ambiguity helps to create the Prelude's dreamy, suspended-in-time atmosphere.
The heat haze that envelops the lascivious faun as he drifts in and out of sleep is invoked by a ceaselessly flowing line that travels through continuous tonal shifts. Debussy's short motives materialize and then almost immediately dissolve, evaporating or shifting seamlessly into others. The work begins very softly with the exotic flute line; travels through a second contrasting section that represents the crest of the faun's amorous dreams; and returns to quieter reiterations of the dream theme. Near the end, the solo flute again begins the theme, with a solo cello. A solo oboe follows, playing the second phrase of the melody with one note altered; and the work ends with an eloquent twist that sounds almost like a nod to American blues.
From the perspective of both the French public and the critical musical establishment of his day, with this one work Debussy launched a decadent musical revolution. From our 21st century vantage point, Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is a masterpiece of imaginative poetry in tones, a musical work of flawless, albeit groundbreaking, beauty.
Robert Schumann (b. Zwickau, Germany June 8, 1810; d. Endenich, Germany July 29, 1856) Piano Concerto in A minor, Opus 54—1841-1845
When Schumann began this concerto in 1841, he intended it to be a one-movement work for piano and orchestra. From Leipzig, where he was living, he wrote to his beloved Clara Wieck, "My concerto is a compromise between a symphony, a concerto, and a huge sonata;" and he titled it Phantasie in A Minor. Clara performed the Phantasie in a private rehearsal in August, and Schumann was pleased with the result. But when he began to seek a publisher, no one was interested in this kind of innovative formal organization. Finally, at his publishers' insistence, he added the Intermezzo and finale; and in December 1845, Clara (now Schumann) played the entire concerto in concert for the first time, performing from the manuscript in Dresden. A festive performance in Leipzig followed on New Year's Day, 1846, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting and with Clara once again the soloist.
Schumann used a large orchestra for all four of his symphonies, and this piano concerto demands one almost as large, with pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns and trumpets, plus timpani and strings. The solo piano has a truly formidable orchestral opponent/partner.
Unusually for the time, the piano begins the work with a short, almost improvisatory-sounding prelude. The wind instruments then introduce the main theme and the piano answers, setting up an exchange between the piano and orchestra that continues throughout the movement. The effect is almost like a conversation between two close friends, where each has the uncanny ability to grasp the ideas of the other and to answer with the precise words the other meant to say. An elaborate cadenza for the piano leads directly into a fast and furious coda. marked allegro molto, to conclude the movement.
The Intermezzo, marked andante grazioso or moderately slow and graceful, follows a conventional three-part romanza form. The dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra continues, with piano and orchestra equal partners in presenting the themes. In the center of the movement, cellos and violins present an emotional, soaring melody, supported by graceful arpeggios from the pianist. Hints of the main theme from the first movement segue immediately into the finale.
The piano had already boldly broken with tradition with the concerto's opening prelude. It does so again in the finale, where it is the first to announce both the movement's driving, syncopated main theme and its florid, flowing second theme. This was revolutionary in Schumann's day; Mozart and more notably Beethoven had introduced themes with the piano in their concertos, but Schumann goes further. Although the movement is in conventional ABA sonata form, Schumann adds a new theme at the beginning of the development. It is stated by the oboe and piano in dialogue, and their two voices are then subtly blended by the orchestra into an ingenious fugue-like section. Schumann also thumbs his nose at convention by starting the recapitulation in D major rather than bringing the work back to the opening key of A major, as tradition would have indicated. A long coda finishes the work with a fitting flourish.
Johannes Brahms (b. Hamburg, Germany, May 7, 1833; d. Vienna, Austria, April 3, 1897) Symphony No. 3 in F major, Opus 90—1883
It may seem strange to begin a glimpse into one of Brahms' four symphonies by commenting on his personal life. More than any other of his works, however, this approach sheds light on his Symphony No. 3. The shortest of the four symphonies Brahms wrote, it is the one with the richest references to his own thoughts about life and love.
Many people in the nineteenth century adopted short, pithy personal statements to define their philosophy of life. This tradition originated much earlier, with mottos chosen for crests or coats of arms. Brahms was a lifelong friend of the renowned virtuoso violinist, conductor, and composer Joseph Joachim; and Joachim had chosen as his personal motto, "frei aber einsam" (free but lonely). Joachim was married, but his often frantic schedule of performances around the globe made ongoing relationships difficult. Brahms, on the other hand, chose "frei aber froh" (free but happy) as his personal motto. Symphony No. 3 can be understood as Brahms's musical statement of this motto.
Brahms began his Third Symphony in 1882 and completed it at Wiesbaden the following summer. At fifty, he was a confirmed bachelor of long standing. While working on this symphony, however, he struck up a close friendship with a young singer named Hermine Spies, resident in Wiesbaden, whom he accompanied in recitals and for whom he wrote songs, and his mixed feelings about this relationship can be traced in the Symphony.
According to Brahms's biographer, Max Kalbeck, who knew the composer well, Brahms worked the musical distillation of his motto (the notes F, A, and F) into his composition, but demonstrated his ambivalence by using A-flat instead of A natural. The Symphony's opening is assertive and fiery, but its tonality is uncertain, hovering between F major and F minor. It begins with a bold F major chord in the woodwinds with horns and trumpets, directly followed by a chord with A-flat in the uppermost voice—a chord that asserts F minor as the tonality. The third chord in the work returns to F major, and so in the first three measures of the work, the chord structure for the entire piece is established. Kalbeck asserts that much more than just a harmonic statement is at stake in these opening chords. Brahms was struggling with pressing emotional questions through a psychologically significant musical conversation. The questions posed were simply: "Was he free? And was he happy?"
Further ambiguity – and much of the music's intensity -- is created by Brahms' treatment of rhythm. He distorts the rhythmic pulse so the listener is not immediately sure if the movement is in a meter based on two, or is written in divisions of three. With uncertainty about both the key and the metric pulse, the work's initial musical effect is one of unresolved, closely argued tensions.
The first movement as a whole is exceptionally concise, direct and compact. The passion of its first few seconds calms into gentler themes almost immediately. Soon the second theme, reminiscent of a folk dance, is heard in the clarinet. The movement takes a typical sonata form, although Brahms departs from the expected harmonic pattern; and throughout the movement the ambiguity of major versus minor continues to occur.
The first theme of the second movement is announced by the clarinet, which performs the function of a featured soloist throughout the movement. Long graceful phrases and a melody marked by repeating triplets give the movement a timeless, dream-like character. Most famous among the four movements, the third is a work of pure beauty. It is a scherzo and trio; yet if the movement is a joke, it is a particularly mournful one. Its theme. presented first by the cello section and later by the solo horn and oboe, is magnificently melodious; but the accented tones in the melody are invariably dissonant with the underlying counterpoint. Without the dissonance, the movement would be bland. With the dissonances, the music is full of mysterious yet deeply yearning poignancy.
The final movement has enormous vitality and once again focuses on the major-minor contrast. Nevertheless, we sense that the intense inner questioning is subsiding, and an overall sense of homecoming reigns. Brahms returns to the main theme of the first movement near the end of the Finale, bringing a cyclic unity to the whole work; but what was searching and fiery in the first movement is at the end peaceful, serene and content.
Symphony No. 3 was wildly popular at its premiere. Hans Richter conducted its first orchestral performance in Vienna on December 2, 1883, and the concert was one of the greatest triumphs Brahms was ever to experience. Ironically, he found success difficult to deal with. He worried that he would not live up to the new expectations stemming from the Symphony's extravagant popularity. Almost six weeks later, still pessimistic about his success, he wrote to his friend Heinrich von Herzogenberg, "The reputation the famous F-major has acquired makes me want to cancel all my engagements." Fortunately for future audiences, the composer did not follow this course of action.
To bring the human story of this symphony full circle: Symphony No. 3 was Brahms's present to Clara Schumann, Robert's wife, on her sixty-fourth birthday. Brahms had adored Clara from the moment he met her, although the two were reportedly never romantically involved. So we are left to draw our own conclusions about whether Brahms was free but happy. Clara's letter of thanks to Brahms for his special present succinctly expresses why audiences have responded so profoundly to the work: "I have spent such happy hours with your wonderful creation…What a work! What a poem!...From start to finish one is wrapped about with mysterious charm…"