Program Notes for July 20th, 2014

Guitar Concerto in D Major, RV 93 (1730?)
Antonio Vivaldi (b. Venice, 1678; d. Vienna, 1741)

Antonio Vivaldi’s nearly six hundred concerti for various instruments helped to define the scope and style of the concerto in the late Baroque period. His widely influential contributions to the genre included a call for increased virtuosity on the part of the soloist and the crafting of carefully-incised themes with complementary phrases that could be separated and recombined in various ways. J.S. Bach admired and studied Vivaldi’s concerti as models of the Italian style and copied several of them by hand; Bach arranged some of these for organ and even wrote an original work for solo harpsichord titled Concerto after the Italian Taste.

Some of Vivaldi’s most famous concerti are pictorial, as in his The Four Seasons, but most of them are not programmatic. While he composed generously for many instruments, with some three dozen concerti for bassoon and more than 200 for violin, he left few works for other instruments, such as the mandolin or the lute. His only concerto for lute is the Concerto in D Major, listed as No. 93 in Ryom’s catalog of Vivaldi’s complete works. Though composed idiomatically for the lute, the concerto transcribes well for the guitar and has been frequently performed in recent years. It follows a three-movement formal pattern that Vivaldi inherited, with two animated outer movements enclosing a slower, aria-like middle movement. The simple organizing principle of Vivaldi’s opening and closing movements is open to infinite variation: the music of the orchestra’s opening statement (“ritornello”) alternates with the soloist’s music as the composition embarks on a tour of various keys. A return to the opening music in the original key concludes the journey. Vivaldi shows considerable imagination in creating and distributing thematic material in the Concerto in D Major. Each movement casts a distinct aura, from the skittish mood changes of the first movement to the lyricism of the opera stage in the second, and the scent of the hunt in the final movement.


 

Nänie (“Lamentation”), for Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 82 (1881)
Johannes Brahms (b. Hamburg, 1833; d. Vienna, 1897)

Choral music was an important component of Brahms’ career. In his mid-twenties the composer founded a women’s chorus in his native city of Hamburg and wrote music for the ensemble; his later move to Vienna became possible when he accepted the conductorship of the Vienna Singing Academy. In addition to his best-known choral work, the German Requiem, Brahms composed numerous other pieces for accompanied or unaccompanied voices.

Nänie, based on a short poem of Friedrich Schiller, is a heartfelt dirge that Brahms composed in memory of his painter-friend Anselm Feuerbach. Although Schiller wrote his lamentation that “Even Beauty must die” under the assumption that his readers would understand his veiled references to Greek mythology, some footnotes may be useful for 21 st-century audiences. The poet recalls mythical cases in order to illustrate that all must yield to the “Stygian god” (Hades, Lord of the Underworld, who has his realm beyond the River Styx). Schiller’s line “Only once did love prevail upon the ruler of Hades” refers to the legend of Orpheus, who was granted permission to leave the Underworld with Euridice, only to lose her again when “[the Stygian god] took back his gift.” Not even the goddess Aphrodite had enough power to save her lover Adonis. Neither could another “immortal mother” (the sea-nymph Thetis, one of the “daughters of Nereus”) save her son Achilles from his destiny in the Trojan War.

Brahms, in setting the text to music for chorus and orchestra, at first laments the ephemeral nature of Beauty with a musical style that belongs to his most pastoral symphonic moments. Though the music gloriously rises, as if “from the sea…with all the daughters of Nereus,” eventually it must fall again, in recognition that “the Perfect must die.” In the end the pastoral mood returns, bringing comfort in the realization that “to be even a song of mourning in the mouth of the beloved is glorious.”


 

Schicksalslied (“Song of Destiny”), for Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 54 (1868-71)
Johannes Brahms
A chance encounter with a volume of the poetry of Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) led Brahms to begin setting one of the poems, Hyperion’s Schicksalslied, to music immediately. The poet had included the poem in his novel Hyperion (1799), in which the title character is an 18th-century Greek who fights against the Ottoman Empire and contemplates the chasm between the ideal perfection of unity and the fracturing effects of personal freedom.

The composer responded to Hyperion’s Schicksalslied immediately and strongly when he found the poem in the library of his longtime friend Albert Dietrich. Dietrich, who would become an important early biographer of Brahms, had earlier been a collaborator with Schumann and Brahms in a violin-sonata-by-committee. The sonata’s title, F-A-E, uses an acronym for the phrase “frei aber einsam,” (“free but lonely”—the personal motto of the dedicatee of the sonata, Joseph Joachim). In retrospect, the motto F-A-E seems highly congruent with the interest of both Brahms and Dietrich in the content of the Hölderlin poem, where the pure, clear vision of the gods contrasts with the blind suffering of mortals. Brahms premiered and published his Schicksalslied three years after his first reading of Hölderlin’s poem. The final result was a setting of the poem for four-part chorus and orchestra, in a style reminiscent at times of the composer’s recently completed German Requiem. An orchestral introduction sets the mood for the opening section of Hölderlin’s poem, “Ihr wandelt droben…” (“You walk up there in the light..blessed spirits”). Contrasting with this realm of “heavenly vision” and “unceasing clarity,” however, is the angry realization that “to us no resting place is given” and that mortals are “destined to disappearance below.” The poem ends there, but Brahms’ optimism trumps Hölderlin’s pessimism. The orchestra concludes with an extended epilogue that reenters the world of eternal light and blessed spirits.


 

Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98 (1885)
Johannes Brahms

Brahms lives in the pantheon of great symphonists. His four symphonies are a regular part of the repertoire on any major orchestra, and recordings of his Symphony No. 4 by more than thirty conductors are currently available. Just a few years after the death of Brahms, another great symphonist, Gustav Mahler, famously said that each symphony should be a world unto itself; the symphonies of Brahms, taken in order of composition, demonstrate Mahler’s bon mot in an increasingly individual way. Brahms published his first two symphonies a year apart, in the late 1870s. The first is the work of a master who was still a bit nervous about the question of “what do you do after Beethoven?” He told a friend, “you don’t know what it means to the likes of us when we hear his footsteps behind us.” In contrast, the second symphony brims with cheerful self-confidence. By the mid-1880s a further pair of symphonies had appeared, one pastoral and relaxed and the other, Symphony No. 4, driven from beginning to end as if by the hand of Fate.

In each of his symphonies, Brahms used the traditional four-movement model that Viennese audiences had been hearing for more that a century, from the time of Haydn. But in his final symphony Brahms treats only the first two movements in conventional ways. The first movement is a carefully argued version of “sonata form”; it presents and contrasts themes and keys, develops the material in unforeseen says, and them resolves the conflict. The second movement provides a slow-movement respite from the complexities of the first movement; the beginning of the second movement makes imaginative use of the ancient Phrygian mode, a melodic scale that creates new harmonic possibilities. The third movement’s march-like fervor sometimes fools audiences into applauding at its conclusion, because of its finale-like character. The real finale has the nature of “catastrophe” in Greek drama (“the final event of the dramatic action, especially of a tragedy,” according to Merriam-Webster). Here Brahms grounds himself in the legacy of earlier composers and musical forms: he uses the passacaglia form, with its insistently repeating melodic line and harmonic structure, and he introduces the distinctive Baroque saraband dance rhythm in a lovely respite that forms the eye of a symphonic storm.

Brahms was reading Sophocles at the time of the composition of this symphony, and the final moments of the work can conjure up a vision of the Fates, inexorably driving their prey to destruction. Or, just maybe, it is Brahms’ own final exorcism of his personal Beethovenian ghost.


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.