Program Notes for July 5th, 2011

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman

 

Symphony #83 in D Major, H. I/83, “The Hen” (1785)
Joseph Haydn (b. Rohrau, Lower Austria, 1732; d., Vienna, 1809)
The New Grove Dictionary of Music asserts, while discussing Haydn’s symphonies: “there is no other genre in Western music for which the output of a single composer is at once so vast in extent, so historically important and of such high artistic quality.” Perhaps it is surprising, then, to learn that Haydn did not compose his first symphony until his later twenties; he himself later suggested that his early career might not have been a good predictor of his eventual success. It took the composer a long time to hit his stride.

Born into a family of tradesmen who were gifted amateur musicians in the small village of Rohrau, Haydn demonstrated his musical precocity and alertness, earning a place by 1740 in the choirboy school at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Later, Haydn tried to eke out a living in Vienna by teaching, freelancing, and composing. In his late twenties, however, he received an offer, vice-kapellmeister to the Esterházy household, that would change his life.

After entering the employ of the noble Hungarian Esterházy family, Haydn spent the rest of his career either directly or indirectly in the service of four successive Esterházy princes. Throughout most of this time, he presided over a substantial musical establishment, but he felt isolated because of the family’s geographical distance from Vienna. He was “forced to become original,” as he himself put it. Haydn’s initial contract included stipulations that he could not allow his compositions to be copied or to be sent elsewhere, and that he should not accept any outside commissions without the consent of his employer. Despite this isolation, he did become familiar with new musical trends and styles by conducting concerts and producing operas of other composers as part of his job. The Empress Maria Theresa is reputed to have remarked, after a visit to the Esterházy family estate, that it was necessary to go to the country in order to see a good opera.

In 1779, a new contract gave Haydn permission to publish his works and to accept freelance commissions. He composed the six ‘Paris’ Symphonies on commission, although he never traveled to Paris himself. He composed his Symphony #83 (“The Hen”) for the orchestra of the Olympic Masonic lodge in Paris, a large ensemble that included forty violins and gave Haydn a chance to flex his symphonic muscles.

The nickname came from an early listener’s reaction to a lighthearted moment in the first movement of the work. The oboe and the first violins seemed to suggest the motions and sounds of a hen, and the name “La poule” stuck. Haydn’s more profound accomplishment at this point, however, is to relate the new, lighthearted theme to the stormy opening theme of the movement by their sharing of a rhythmic pattern. The remaining three movements are an elegant slow movement, a minuet and a rambunctious Finale, all of which display Haydn’s witty unpredictability.


Symphony #8 in B Minor, “Unfinished” (1822)
Franz Schubert (b. Vienna, 1797; d., Vienna, 1828)

By the time Franz Schubert entered into the service of the Austrian imperial court as a boy chorister in 1808, he had already developed considerable skill as a singer, as a performer on violin, piano, and organ, and as an improviser at the keyboard. When Schubert’s boy-choir voice changed, he took up a teaching post in his father’s school until 1816. Efforts to obtain a further teaching position, a court appointment as Kapellmeister, or any permanent conducting position elsewhere were unsuccessful, and Schubert struggled for subsistence throughout his career. Income from publishing successes came infrequently and, finally, too late.

Like many other composers, Schubert sometimes began compositions and then failed to complete them. He composed a single movement of a projected symphony at the age of fourteen and never pursued the project. He then completed his Symphonies #1 through #6, and planned a Symphony in D Major, for which only sketches are extant. The next year he sketched an E-Major Symphony. Through all of this activity, Schubert’s compositional methods remained the same. A first sketch, written at top speed, contained the melody in full and an indication of the progress of the harmony. The full score came next, after which Schubert either stopped to revise the work or went on to compose another piece. This was quite different from the method of another composer who was writing symphonies in Vienna at the same time: Beethoven, who worked slowly and often made numerous sketches for a single, short passage.

In 1822 Schubert composed and orchestrated two movements of a Symphony in B Minor. He continued with a sketch score for a Scherzo movement but orchestrated only a couple of pages. He did not complete the Scherzo, nor did he write a Finale. There is no lack of ingenuity in the variety of reasons proposed for Schubert’s abandonment of the work: Perhaps he turned his full attention to other works instead; perhaps he sensed insurmountable aesthetic difficulties in completing the work; perhaps the Scherzo resembled too closely a theme by Beethoven; or, maybe he did complete the work and the rest is lost or was recycled in another composition. The composer gave his manuscript to a representative of the Graz Music Society in 1823, the year in which the Society made him an honorary member, but the score did not surface again until 1865, when the first performance took place. Thus, Schubert never heard the piece performed.

Schubert’s name belongs high on the list of the great composers, but his precise place in the historical development of musical styles has been the subject of much discussion. Inclined to the Classical symphonic forms of the First Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, he also displayed a proto-Romantic interest in musical colors—both the tone-color combinations of orchestral instruments and the harmonic colors of chords in fresh and often arresting combinations. In the “Unfinished” Symphony these interests are united by the melodic gifts of one of the greatest of composers of German song.


Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, op. 102 (1887)
Johannes Brahms (b. Hamburg, 1833; d. Vienna, 1897)

Brahms composed his Concerto for Violin and Cello in 1887 at one of his favorite summer haunts, near the idyllic Lake Thun in Switzerland. While his previous summer at the lake had produced the genial Violin Sonata #2 in A Major (“Thun Sonata”), the summer of 1887 found Brahms anxious and looking for a way to heal a deep personal rift. Though Brahms never married, he had been quick to take sides when his close friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, faced marital difficulty. Joachim had earlier collaborated extensively with Brahms and had given much useful musical advice; he was the dedicatee and first performer of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in 1878. In 1884, however, the two men parted ways when Brahms sided with Amalie Joachim in the Joachims’ divorce proceedings. Now, after three years, the composer sensed a chance to heal the wound by including Joachim in his plans for a new concerto. It was a clever plan, because it included the cellist Robert Hausmann as a symbolic mediator. Hausmann, the long-time cellist in Joachim’s string quartet, had recently premiered Brahms’ Cello Sonata #2 in F Major. A double concerto for violin and cello, though an unprecedented combination, seemed to be a good gamble.

In the first movement, Brahms even planted a theme that hints at a long-standing connection between the two friends: the violinist’s personal monogram-motto, F-A-E (“frei aber einsam”/”free but lonely”). Interpreted as musical notes, F-A-E had been the basis for a three-movement sonata that Brahms, Schumann, and Albert Dietrich had jointly composed in honor of Joachim in 1853. Joachim took the newly offered bait, and the friendship flourished once again.

By this time Brahms had completed the last of his four symphonies; he would write no more orchestral compositions after the new concerto, but some thematic material originally envisioned for a fifth symphony made its way into the concerto. Since a concerto for two instruments was such an unusual genre in Brahms’ day, he pursued novel approaches. In the first movement he gave cadenzas to the solo instruments early on, before introducing the bulk of the thematic material. The opening Allegro movement is the most substantial, as long as the other two movements combined. In the Andante the two solo instruments play together in octaves for significant portions of the movement, as if the violin and the cello together formed one extended solo instrument. The Finale closes heroically, with both soloists displaying their virtuosic best.

The concerto met with an indifferent reception. The reaction of Clara Schumann was representative: She heard the work and confided to her diary that she thought the genre did not have a future. Later reception of the work has been much more positive, with particular enthusiasm about the scope of the first movement, the autumnal qualities in the second movement, and the “Hungarian style” aspects of the last movement—another Brahmsian nod to the Hungarian violinist Joachim.


Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.