Brahms & Dvorak
Hector Berlioz (b. La Côte-St.-André, Isčre, France December 11, 1803; d. Paris, France, March 8, 1869)
Allegro non troppo
Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace
A discussion of Johannes Brahms's Violin Concerto requires mention of his dear friend, violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim. With Niccolo Paganini, his immediate predecessor in the virtuoso violin world, Joachim is recognized as the 19th century's greatest violinist; but his ambitions were quite different from the self-promotion of Paganini. Among much else, Joachim wanted to find a way to make orchestra and soloist complete equals in a violin concerto. His goal was a score that demonstrated the full mastery of the orchestra just as the violin solo displayed the virtuosity of the soloist. Joachim's own Violin Concerto in D minor, the "Hungarian," Op. 11, was an attempt to reach this goal, but the violinist felt that his ability to compose for the orchestra as a whole did not match his ability to write for the violin. The greatest fulfillment of Joachim's ambition was the concerto that Johannes Brahms composed in 1878.
Unlike many other composers who wrote violin concertos, Brahms was not a proficient violinist. Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven were all able violinists in their own right. Brahms was solely a pianist, and he first became familiar with violin repertory by accompanying Joseph Joachim on his concertizing tours throughout Europe. The two men developed a close friendship, and it was during these extended trips that Brahms became aware of Joachim's ambition to reinvent the violin concerto. Intrigued though he was, he did not act on this understanding for some time. The two friends had purposefully developed their careers in a way designed to diminish rivalry. Brahms was a great admirer of Joachim's own concerto, and it is clear from existing letters between the two that Brahms delayed any attempt to write a violin concerto until it was apparent that Joachim had given up composing entirely.
Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto during the summer of 1878 at the Austrian resort Pörtschach. There he had also completed his Second Symphony one year earlier, and the two works show several similarities, including the same key. Because Brahms was not a violinist, he communicated constantly with Joachim while he composed the concerto; and the virtuoso's influence on the violin part was enormous. Brahms also consulted Pablo de Sarasate and Emile Sauret, two other violinists with whom he was acquainted.
Yet even though Brahms had the counsel of the leading practitioners of the instrument, his musical imagination far exceeded existing conventions for violin and orchestra compositions. Coincidentally, Brahms and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky both wrote their Violin Concertos in 1878, and both works helped to transform expectations of how a violin should sound in a concerto setting. Brahms exploits the high register of the violin in a particularly lyrical way. He also uses the instrument in a percussive manner, taking advantage of its capacity to be magnificently melodic, harmonic, and percussive all at one moment; and in his hands, the violin becomes the rhythmic force driving the orchestra forward. The concerto's fierce technical challenges include difficult leaps and double-stops (where more than one note is played at the same time), including a noteworthy passage where the violinist is required to do double-stops at the interval of a 10th.
Far from being frivolous virtuosic display, these extraordinary demands greatly heighten the expression of the music. Even Joachim, however, was initially taken aback by the technical demands of the solo part, and showed initial ambivalence toward the work, though he soon became its champion. The premiere occurred on New Year's Day in Leipzig at the Gewandhaus, with Brahms conducting and Joachim as the soloist.
The Violin Concerto is in three movements and is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings. The entire orchestra enters with a dramatic theme that highlights Brahms's characteristic use of rhythmic displacement. Ninety measures into the work, the solo violin enters, and then abruptly changes key to state the theme in a fiery, wide-ranging, minor-key commentary. This twist initiates the violin's dialogue with the orchestra, and the shifts from major to minor characterize the rest of the movement. The close of the cadenza—which in most performances is the one originally written for the work by Joachim—is the lyrical high point of the movement: the solo violin soars over the orchestra with heart-stopping eloquence.
The second movement is a glorious ABA song form. The solo oboe states the long-breathed main theme to begin the movement. Supported only by horns and woodwinds, the solo oboe melody is simple—an exquisitely lyrical melody—and yet the simplicity is deceiving because it ingeniously contains its own elaboration. The violin takes over and the melody transforms into the various possible elaborations. At the end the oboe solo returns, this time together with the violin, to perform an intimate, almost conversational meditation based on a transformed version of the melody itself. The violin dominates the coda and the movement draws to a quiet close.
The last movement is a gypsy-like rondo. Brahms once again sets up a rhythmic tension between duple and triple divisions of the beat. Without explicitly repeating any themes from the prior movements, Brahms echoes earlier events in this feisty conclusion, making the concerto an organically unified whole. The coda is surprisingly faster than the rest of the movement, and after a brief seven-measure diminuendo, the Concerto ends with almost comic abruptness.
Antonin Dvořák (b. Mülhausen, Bohemia, September 8, 1841; d. Prague, May 1, 1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, "From the New World"—1893
Dvorák moved his wife and two eldest children to the United States in September 1892 so that he could assume the position of director of the newly founded National Conservatory of Music in New York. His salary for the position was an impressive $15,000 a year and he was the darling of the public and the press from the moment he set foot on American soil.
Dvorák never fully mastered English, and on his holidays in America he enjoyed going to a Bohemian colony in Spillville, Iowa, where he could relax with people who spoke his native tongue. On December 19th of that year, during his first stay in Spillville, he began making sketches for what would become the biggest public triumph of his life. His work progressed steadily, and toward the end of May 1893, all four movements of a new symphony were complete. Anton Seidl conducted the New York Philharmonic in a "public rehearsal" of the work on December 15, 1893 and the official premiere took place the following evening in Carnegie Hall.
Dvorák's Symphony No. 9 was an instant success. The composer wrote to a friend that the reception "was magnificent. The newspapers say that never has a composer had such a triumph…The public applauded so much that I felt like a king." His report is confirmed by the contemporary press. The New York Evening Post's music critic wrote, "Anyone who heard it could not deny that it is the greatest symphonic work ever composed in this country…a masterwork has been added to the symphonic literature."
Much of the discussion that swirled about this Symphony "from the New World" focused on whether Dvorák had used Bohemian, African American, or Native American themes for its basis. Two groups came to separate conclusions. The German music world accepted the work as a rhapsody on Native American and African American motives, while the Bohemians emphasized the strong Czech flavor of the music and minimized the influence of American folk music. Dvorák's own comments fueled the debate; in a much-quoted statement, he said:
I am satisfied that the future of music in this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. When first I came here, I was impressed with this idea, and it has developed into a settled conviction. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American. They are the folksongs of America, and your composers must turn to them. All the great musicians have borrowed from the songs of the common people.
Eventually Dvorák flatly denied that he had incorporated any folk songs verbatim into his Symphony, but said that he had tried to reproduce their spirit. In a letter to the Berlin conductor Oscar Nedbal he wrote:
I send…Kretzchmar's analysis of the Symphony, but omit that nonsense about my having made use of 'Indian' and 'American' themes. That is a lie. I tried to write only in the spirit of those national American melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of Indian music and using these themes as subjects have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, harmony, counterpoint, and orchestral color.
The Symphony "from the New World" is cast in a typical four movement framework. The lengthy introduction to the first movement has been taken to suggest the American West, or perhaps a long homewards gaze. The first theme is bold and distinctive, while the second theme somewhat resembles the familiar spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Various children's songs such as Three Blind Mice also make brief appearances in this movement, which ends with a coda that is excited, almost fierce.
This mood contrasts with the beautiful English horn melody that opens the second movement. The melody is original to Dvorák, although it was cited as proof that the work was inspired by spirituals. In an interesting twist, well after the Symphony was written one of Dvorák's own composition students, a young white man named William Arms Fisher, capitalized on its popularity by using the melody from the Largo to set the text Goin' Home, creating a "pseudo-spiritual" that was an instant hit. The Scherzo is alternately witty, rambunctious, and glowingly lyrical, perhaps conjuring up lively Czech dances; while the rondo Finale includes recollections of the earlier movements.
By the spring of 1895 the zealously patriotic Dvorák had grown so painfully homesick for his native land that he refused the offer of a new contract at the National Conservatory of Music and sailed home, never to return to the United States again. His "New World" Symphony was first performed in Vienna later in 1895; Dvorák sat in the director's box with Brahms and received a standing ovation. He later wrote a friend "The success was a great one and the public gave me a beautiful ovation. I have never had such success in Vienna."
And that is the story of how a very Czech composer wrote a symphony with nationalistic sentiments in the New World, one that would be heard to great applause around the world.
Program Notes by Dr. Beth Fleming