It’s a good thing that Brahms and Wagner are separated by an intermission in this concert, because the two composers did not see eye to eye. During the 19th century they represented two opposing schools of thought concerning the nature of music and its future. Brahms felt a great burden as a proclaimed ‘successor’ of Beethoven and devoted his energy to the kinds of music that Beethoven mostly composed: concertos, symphonies, chamber music – all of it abstract or ‘absolute’ in character.
No stories here. Wagner, on the other hand, felt that Beethoven had taken Classical forms as far as they could go. The symphony was dead, he said. Instead, he believed that the future of music lay in dramatic narrative forms, and he focused almost exclusively on opera.
Mozart, of course, was a master in both realms, and his gift was the capacity to delight and entertain, whether in the concert hall or the opera theatre.
IN THE MASTER’S FOOTSTEPS
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77
One of Brahms’s staunchest supporters was the violinist Joseph Joachim. He was a passionate and persuasive advocate, and as a young man he’d single-handedly established Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in the repertoire. The Beethoven concerto had been written for a particular violinist, Franz Clement; Mendelssohn’s concerto was written for Ferdinand David. And when Brahms came to write his own violin concerto he had Joachim in mind. More than that, he and Joachim worked closely together on the concerto.
Brahms was a composer with a deep respect for the past, and especially for the legacy of Beethoven. It’s not surprising that he begins his own violin concerto with a gesture similar to the beginning of Beethoven’s violin concerto: elaborate and wide-ranging music that introduces the violinist as virtuoso. Both concertos are in D major – a ‘good’ key for the violin – but Brahms does something sneaky: he introduces his soloist in D minor, giving the music a melancholy twist.
Both Beethoven and Brahms leave it to the soloist to improvise a cadenza, that moment in the first movement where soloists had traditionally displayed their musicality and skill. For Brahms this was a very Classical, very old-fashioned thing to do: by 1878 (and this had begun with Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto) composers had long been writing out their cadenzas, removing all opportunity for improvisation. Unsurprisingly, Joachim’s own cadenza has become the most popular among modern soloists.
Originally, Brahms had planned the concerto in four movements, but early on he decided that the middle movements were ‘failures.’ In his typically self-effacing way, he told Joachim: ‘I have written a feeble Adagio instead.’ But there is nothing feeble about it at all! In fact, the Adagio includes some of the most heartfelt and moving music in the whole concerto, as well as a beautiful solo for the first oboe, which the soloist then transforms into an astonishing violinistic rhapsody.
The third movement of the concerto reveals one of Brahms’s musical enthusiasms: gypsy music. This inventive and energetic finale is also a tribute to Joachim, who was half Hungarian. But above all, it brings the concerto to an exhilarating conclusion.
THE PERFECT PRESENT
On Christmas Day, 1870, Cosima Wagner awoke to the sound of 13 musicians playing on the staircase outside her room. The music had been composed for the occasion by her new husband, Richard, and its full title was: ‘Tribschen Idyll, with Fidi’s Birdsong and Orange Sunrise, as a Symphonic Birthday Greeting from Richard to Cosima.’
A lot is packed into this title. There is Cosima, who was a daughter of the pianist and composer Franz Liszt and had first married the conductor Hans von Bülow. There is Tribschen, the Swiss villa where the Wagners were living. Fidi was the nickname for their third child, Siegfried, born the previous year.
Many of the musical themes come from the opera Siegfried, which Wagner was writing at the time. One of these is a theme that Brünnhilde sings in Act III: ‘I always was, I always am, always lapped in sweet longing bliss, always caring for your good.’ Another is a horn motif, associated with the resolution of love, combined with the bird calls of the title. The music moved Cosima to tears. It was the perfect birthday present, not least because of all the hidden, personal references embedded in the music.
Perhaps most intriguing in the full title is the word ‘symphonic’ applied to what was essentially chamber music. The Siegfried Idyll may have begun as something tender and domestic, but Wagner also approved its performance with orchestral strings. With these larger forces, it gains warmth, intensity and something of the expansive vision normally associated with Wagner, composer of epic operas.
Eventually Wagner had to sell the publication rights to meet their debts, and Cosima wrote: ‘The secret treasure is to become public property – may the pleasure others take in it match the sacrifice I am making!’
THE ‘POSTHORN’ SYMPHONY
Symphony in D major (from the Posthorn Serenade, K320)
The Salzburg serenade tradition of the 18th century was made possible by the city’s mild summers. With these came outdoor celebrations requiring background music, and there was a flourishing market for sunny orchestral works in many short movements.
At the Benedictine university, for example, Mozart’s music was heard in at least five of the graduation ceremonies between 1769 and 1779. At the last of these Mozart’s ‘Posthorn’ Serenade received its premiere.
That first performance in 1779 was possibly the Serenade’s only complete performance until the 20th century. Repeat performances of graduation serenades were rare, but that didn’t mean the music went to waste. Instead, selections from these often hour-long works were grouped into three or four-movement symphonies and miniature concertos.
In the case of the ‘Posthorn’ Serenade, the first, fifth and seventh movements became known as an independent symphony, with copies of the music spreading throughout Europe until it was published after Mozart’s death as his ‘Opus 22’. (Among the omitted movements is the one that gives the Serenade its nickname: in the second minuet there is a short solo for the post horn, an instrument used by the mail coaches for bugle-like signals.)
The first movement is grand in character – it begins with a slow and majestic introduction (Adagio maestoso), which then leads into fast and spirited music (Allegro con spirito). The orchestra – a relatively large one – features trumpets and drums and many exciting and fashionable effects.
The second movement, a gently moving Andantino, provides a moment of contrast, the shift from D major of the first movement to D minor giving the music a melancholy character. The exhilarating finale (Presto – as fast as possible) returns the symphony to the celebratory mood and orchestral brilliance of the opening.
Yvonne Frindle © 2012
Illustrations by Charles Krenner © 2012
Brahms represents the heart of 19th-century Romantic music and many of his contemporaries saw him as the successor to Beethoven. Like Beethoven, he wrote just one violin concerto and it is a masterpiece that has become central to the repertoire. Brahms’s violin concerto was composed in 1878 for his good friend Joseph Joachim.
Wagner is best known as a composer of opera, creator of the epic Ring cycle. He believed the future of music lay not in abstract music such as concertos and symphonies but in music with a dramatic motivation. His vision for opera was founded on the idea of the complete art work, in which music, drama and design were interdependent.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart spent the first part of his career in Salzburg as a servant-musician in the court of the Prince-Archbishop. It was there that he became immersed in the Austrian tradition of the orchestral serenade, outdoor music which dominated the summer months. It was common to repurpose serenade music, extracting a concerto or symphony for later concert performance.
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CityMusic with Heather Headley at Masonic Auditorium (May 28)
Mike Telin, clevelandclassical.com, June 2, 2015
On Thursday, May 28 at Masonic Auditorium, CityMusic Cleveland, under the direction of Avner D....