PRogram notes for February Concert

Brahms | Ligeti | Mendelssohn

Brahms: Symphony No. 1

Although Johannes Brahms first began toying with themes for a symphony as early as 1854, when he was only 21, the thought of being compared to the master of the genre, Beethoven, daunted him. Indeed, 1854 was also when he first heard Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. As he later wrote a friend, "I shall never compose a symphony. You have no conception of how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us." 

Nevertheless, his mentor and friend Robert Schumann had urged him to compose a symphony. As Schumann sank into madness and then death in an asylum, the young Brahms spent the next two years helping Schumann's wife Clara with her seven children, and sketching several themes for an orchestral work. Eventually, one set of sketches became the first piano concerto (1861), while another section became a portion of A German Requiem (1857 - 1868). He saved the remaining sketch, for an Allegro movement in C-major, and in 1862 refined it and showed it to Clara; she praised it but felt it ended too abruptly. In 1873, he tried his hand at a non-choral work requiring full orchestra, the Variations on a Theme by Haydn. The Variations found favor with the public, and so finally in 1874, when he was 43 years old, he decided it was now or never.

Brahms reworked his old Allegro of 1855, moving it from major to minor and adding a stately introduction. He borrowed an alpenhorn theme that he had transcribed and sent to Clara Schumann while on holiday in Switzerland in 1868, and used it as a transition in the new symphony's finale. It took him two years to complete the work. The full symphony premiered in 1876 in Karlsruhe, followed by performances in Vienna, where the influential conductor Hans von Bülow dubbed it "Beethoven's Tenth." Although Brahms was not quite comfortable with this designation, he understood that such praise meant his symphony was considered a worthy successor to the works of the giant he had feared.

The symphony's 'new' introduction opens rather somberly, as if Brahms wanted to make sure that each listener understood how seriously he took this business of composing a symphony. Once the main Allegro section begins, however, it moves forward with driving inevitability. Part of that drive is caused by a particularly Brahmsian technique used throughout the symphony, that of constantly placing the beginning of a phrase on an off-beat. Another driving force is a repeated, four-beat pattern, from the insistent timpani in the introduction to the full orchestra in the development, handing the pattern between brass, woodwinds, and strings. Yet this steady drive finally ends with a series of calm chords in C major, preparing the listener for the reserved character of the second movement, Andante moderato. Strings sound sweeping, lyrical melodies, augmented by solo lines for oboe, clarinet, and flute. Although the mood is reflective, the triple meter keeps the "engine running" and the movement never bogs down. It comes to rest with tender solos by the first violin.

The third movement, Un poco allegretto e grazioso, is not a scherzo but an intermezzo, a form Brahms favored in many of his piano works. Bright and the most "cheerful" movement of the piece, it still retains a little of the work's overall reserve. The finale, Adagio -- Allegro non troppo ma con brio, announces itself in no uncertain terms, with swelling chords and rolling timpani. The introduction is highlighted by two suspenseful pizzicato sections for strings, the second increasing in both volume and tempo and segueing into a flurry of activity that is suddenly calmed by a call from horns (the alpenhorn tune Brahms transcribed for Clara) and then a brass chorale. The strings introduce the main theme of the movement, a grand processional that is at turns regally majestic or joyously exultant.

Critics quickly noted the similarity of this theme's rhythm to that of the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth, to which Brahms is said to have replied, "Any jackass can see that!" But it is Beethoven's Fifth that this symphony resembles most in structure, and, as Beethoven had done before him, Brahms had to find a way to resolve the minor-key tension of the first movement into a major-key blaze of glory. His grand theme becomes ever more energetic, and by movement's end the calm brass chorale is thunderous, closing the symphony on a shout of triumph. Brahms had finally achieved his goal, and made a place for himself as a symphonist out from behind Beethoven's long shadow.

Ligeti: Concert Romanesc

György Ligeti was born in 1923 in the Transylvanian town of Dicsöszentmárton to a Hungarian-speaking Jewish family. In 1941 he entered the Cluj Conservatory to study music with teachers such as Ferenc Farkas and Zoltán Kodály. His education was interrupted in January, 1944, when he was sent to a labor camp. His father and brother were both killed in other camps, but his mother survived the horrors of Auschwitz. Ligeti himself was released in 1945 and then studied at the Budapest Academy of Music, graduating in 1949. He taught at the academy from 1950 to 1956, but fled the Hungarian communist regime in 1956.

Ligeti expressed his musical philosophy as follows: "Throughout my life, I always found dogmas uninteresting. Pioneering undiscovered areas is what I consider my main challenge. Complex forms and structures built from extremely simple processes is the lesson we can draw from studying the structure of living organisms and of human and animal societies."

The Concert Românesc (1951) is one of Ligeti's earliest pieces, and owes much to his study of folk music. As Ligeti writes: "In 1949, when I was twenty-six, I learned how to transcribe folk songs from wax cylinders at the Folklore Institute in Bucharest. Many of these melodies stuck in my memory and led in 1951 to the composition of my Romanian Concerto [Concert Românesc]. However, not everything in it is genuinely Romanian as I also invented elements in the spirit of the village bands. I was later able to hear the piece at an orchestral rehearsal in Budapest — a public performance had been forbidden. Under Stalin’s dictatorship, even folk music was allowed only in a “politically correct” form, in other words, if forced into a straitjacket of the norms of socialist realism ... The peculiar way in which village bands harmonized their music, often full of dissonances and 'against the grain,' was regarded as incorrect. In the fourth movement of my Romanian Concerto there is a passage in which an F-sharp is heard in the context of F major. This was reason enough for the apparatchiks responsible for the arts to ban the entire piece."

Ligeti wrote the work for an Army orchestra. However, after its trial reading with the Hungarian Radio Orchestra, the censors banned it from being performed. The original score was lost, and was not reconstructed until the 1960s. It was finally premiered many years later, in 1971.

The work consists of four short movements played without a break between them. The first two most likely met the censors' approval, and were actually adapted by Ligeti from the Ballad and Dance for two violins, which he had written the previous year. The opening Andantino presents a stately series of modal harmonies that sound almost medieval. Although the beat remains steady, the measures shift between several different meters. The Allegro vivace then bursts in with manic energy, featuring folk-like motifs for clarinet, piccolo, and solo violin.

It is in the slow Adagio ma non troppo section that we first encounter what was so problematic to the Hungarian censors. It opens with two horns (one positioned off stage), playing in open or 'natural' intervals similar to the Rumanian bucium (or alpenhorn), which Ligeti encountered first when he was three years old. He writes: "I grew up in a Hungarian-speaking environment in Transylvania. While the official language was Romanian, it was only in secondary school that I learned to speak the language that had seemed so mysterious to me as a child. I was three when I first encountered Romanian folk music, an alpenhorn player in the Carpathian Mountains.” In his score, Ligeti instructs the horn players not to place their hands in the bells to alter the harmonics, as is typical, so that instruments resemble the mysterious bucium of his childhood. He continues: "The alpenhorn sounded completely different from ‘normal’ music. Today I know that this stems from the fact that the alpenhorn produces only the notes of its natural harmonic series and that the fifth and seventh harmonies (i.e., the major third and minor seventh) seem ‘out of tune’ because they sound lower than on the piano, for example. But it is this sense of ‘wrongness’ that is in fact what is ‘right’ about the instrument, as it represents the specific ‘charm’ of the horn timbre.”

The English horn continues the musical dialogue with the horns, then plays a sinuous melody that leads to a dramatic crescendo from the full ensemble. Woodwinds weave in rising motifs that foreshadow some of Ligeti's later works, in which he created clusters or 'clouds' of orchestral sounds that evolve through the orchestra.

Trumpets announce the finale, Molto vivace, then strings buzz in Ligeti's "multiphonic" tones, until a solo violins leads the group in a brisk dance. The music is full of humor as well as energy — Ligeti’s biographer Richard Steinitz describes it as “a sort of Keystone Kops meets Beijing Opera on the plains of Transylvania,” while musicologist James Keller describes the closing contrast between the fortissimo chords of the full orchestra and the harmonic swirling of the solo violin as "a dance between a mosquito and a fly-swatter." The alpenhorn makes a final appearance, then the work ends with a final emphatic "swat."

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto

Felix Mendelssohn was 16 years old when he first met violinist Ferdinand David, then 15, when the latter gave a set of concerts in Berlin in 1825. The two young men discovered they had not only a love of music in common, but that they had each been born in the same house in Hamburg. They became friends, and ten years later, when Mendelssohn was named director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, he appointed David as concertmaster. The two remained friends throughout Mendelssohn's life, with David even helping with the management of the orchestra as Mendelssohn's health weakened in his last years.

In July 1838, Mendelssohn wrote David "I would like to compose a violin concerto for next winter. One in E minor keeps running through my head, and the opening gives me no peace." The opening may have been in Mendelssohn's head, but due to other commitments as both conductor and composer — including writing the incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Berlin Academy of Arts — he did not manage to keep his promise to compose the concerto until 1844. Mendelssohn consulted closely with David as he wrote the work, deferring to David's knowledge of what would sound best or work well for the soloist, and asking David the most detailed questions about every measure. Could the part be "executed with the greatest delicacy?" Was the cadenza written "correctly and smoothly?" David gave his input and reassurances, and premiered the work with the Gewandhaus in March of 1845. (For you musical trivia fans, David premiered the work on the same 1742 Guarnerius violin that Jascha Heifetz played when he recorded Mendelssohn's concerto; that same violin now belongs to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and is played by the San Francisco Symphony's concertmaster Alexander Barantschik at special performances.)

The concerto "pleased exceedingly well" at its premiere, according to David — and indeed has done so ever since. It opens in a manner not typical for the time, since rather than providing a long introduction, Mendelssohn gives the orchestra only barely enough notes to establish the key of E minor before the violin opens with the passionate melody that provoked the composer so back in 1838. The second theme, introduced by the woodwinds, is lighter and tender. At its end Mendelssohn provides another surprise, placing the extended solo cadenza not after but as the introduction to the recapitulation of the first theme. The movement ends with grand gestures, but a sustained note in the bassoon segues immediately into the lyrical Andante. The tender, achingly lovely effect of this movement may be part of the reason violinist Joseph Joachim once declared that of all the great violin concertos, "the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's." The main theme in C major, both longing yet stately and reserved, is contrasted with a passionate middle section in minor.

Again Mendelssohn segues directly into the finale with a fourteen-measure intermezzo. This conversation between solo violin and the rest of the strings comes to a quiet close that is immediately countered by a brassy fanfare. Then it's off to the races with fizzy, sparkling arpeggios from both soloist and orchestra. Sometimes the fizz from either the violinst or orchestra is accompanied by longer, more lyrical passages by the other, but in the end all join for the exciting, rousing close that the movement demands.

—Barbara Heninger