Program Notes for July 5th, 2014

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major, BWV 1046
J.S. Bach (b. Eisenach, 1685; d. Leipzig, 1750)

Bach’s six Brandenburg Concerti are a monumental collection, from a composer who frequently amassed large-scale works. His Art of Fugue and Well-Tempered Clavier are the final word for counterpoint, his Musical Offering a demonstration of just how much can be done with a single musical theme, and his Clavierübung a sourcebook for keyboard compositions both sacred and secular.

In 1721 Bach dedicated his Concerts avec plusiers instruments to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. A catalog of the “several instruments” invoked on Bach’s title page reads like a list of what was possible in the medium of the concerto in the Baroque era, as no two concerti have the same combination of instruments. Particularly diverse is the Concerto No. 1 in F Major, in which a pair of horns, an oboe and a violino piccolo make up the eclectic solo group. Bach originally composed his solo violin part for a smaller size of the instrument, pitched a third higher than the normal size, and having a somewhat different tone quality. Whether or not he ever played the solo part himself is fertile ground for speculation. He was certainly capable, for he was a highly proficient violinist.

The dedicatee was the uncle of the King of Prussia and an avid collector of the latest fashions in musical scores who maintained his own musical establishment at a level suiting his status. Bach had known Christian Ludwig for at least a couple of years, but there is still considerable discussion about why the composer chose to send his works to the Margrave at this time. Christian Ludwig probably lacked the musical forces to perform the works properly; he put them on his shelf and never called for their performance. Upon the death of the Margrave in 1734, the manuscript passed from his library to an archive in Brandenburg, where it was not recovered until 1849. Its publication the following year marked the centenary of the composer’s death. When Wolfgang Schmieder brought out his monumental catalog of Bach’s works, the Bach Werke Verzeichnis, in 1950, he categorized all of the compositions and gave each one a number. The Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 became BWV 1046.

In the Allegro movements, the solo horns evoke the music of the hunt, in a style similar to the horn parts in Bach’s own “Hunting” Cantata. The Adagio, one of the composer’s most beautiful slow movements, features the oboe and the violin as they call, respond and intertwine. The final movement is a smorgasbord of dances, distinguished by rhythmic patterns and moods appropriate to each dance: an elegant minuet for the full ensemble, a pensive trio for oboes and bassoon, a sturdy polonaise for the strings, and a gymnastic trio for horns and oboes. The minuet music returns at important punctuation points throughout the movement and concludes the concerto.

Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63 (1935)

Sergei Prokofiev (b. Sontsovka, Ukraine, 1891; d. Moscow, 1953)

Early in his career, Prokofiev acquired the resumé of an enfant terrible : composing by the age of five, playing Beethoven sonatas and writing an opera at nine, completing a symphony at eleven and another at seventeen (neither of them included in his final catalog of seven symphonies), spurning the tutelage of Rimsky-Korsakov but winning the Rubenstein Prize in piano at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, earning a reputation for satire with works such as his Sarcasms for piano solo, and working feverishly to complete his first numbered symphony, the “Classical” Symphony. As the Russian Revolution broke out, he experienced a time of profound change in his personal life and in the world around him. Prokofiev left Russia in 1918 and traveled eastward for nearly half a year, heading through Siberia, Tokyo and San Francisco toward New York. He toured as a virtuoso pianist and accepted commissions for an opera and other works. When his American prospects dimmed, he settled in Paris. Only in 1936 did he and his family return permanently to his by-then-renamed homeland, the USSR.

Besides his violin concerti, Prokofiev composed five for piano (most of them premiered by the composer himself at the piano) and two for cello. He composed his First Violin Concerto in 1917, just before he left Russia, and his Second Violin Concerto in 1935, just before he took up residency in the Soviet Union. The composer joked that the international flavor of this concerto mirrored his itinerant career as a performer. He began the piece in France, worked on the second movement in Voronezh (USSR), scored the piece for orchestra in Baku (then USSR, now Azerbaijan), and assigned the premiere to a French violinist and a Spanish orchestra, in Spain.

The three-movement Violin Concerto No. 2 shares Prokofiev’s newfound, mid-career emphasis on lyricism with other well-known works that he composed at about the same time, particularly the ballet Romeo and Juliet and the orchestral-instrument primer Peter and the Wolf . Musical elements that he had once use conspicuously to cultivate a “bad boy of music” image are now used strategically within the concerto. Occasional “wrong-note” harmonies provide spice, and driving rhythms oil the perpetual-motion machine.

These aspects of Prokofiev’s style did not escape the ears of government officials. Prokofiev periodically clashed with Soviet cultural authorities over the charge against “formalism” in his music, a Soviet code word for “too influenced by leading edge Western- European composers.” The warning shot was fired against Shostakovich, who was denounced first, in 1936. In 1948 Prokofiev was denounced for “formalist perversions…alien to the Soviet people,” and his opera War and Peace was particularly criticized. After this, his health began to fail. He might have taken some comfort if he could have realized that his day of death was also that of his nemesis, Josef Stalin.

Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11 (1857-58)

Johannes Brahms (b. Hamburg, 1833; d. Vienna, 1897)

Brahms completed his first orchestral works (two serenades and the Piano Concerto No. 1) in the years 1858-59, when he held an annual three-month appointment as music director at the small court of the Prince of Lippe in Detmold, near Hannover in present-day Germany. It was only later that he turned to the symphony, the orchestral form (along with the concerto) for which he is best known.

In fact, the composer administered his works for orchestra in two doses. As a young composer well aware of the symphonic shadow of Beethoven, Brahms hesitated for a long while before completing a symphony; his first published orchestral works were his two Serenades and the Piano Concerto No. 1, all of which appeared in the early 1860s. As a genre, the serenade had a centuries-old track record, much longer than the symphony. Traditionally, “serenade” connoted a friendly musical greeting, either respectful or amorous, at an out-of-doors locale. It could be vocal or instrumental. It denoted a time of day, as in the Italian greeting buona sera (“good evening” but also “good afternoon”), and it further implied a pleasant, gentle atmosphere.

The instrumental serenade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shared some elements with the symphony: a series of separate movements included dances, slow movements, formal movements constructed in sonata form, and a rousing finale. The symphony usually had only one movement of each type; a serenade might have more movements but a lighter general tone. Mozart’s Haffner Serenade, for instance, has eight movements and lasts nearly an hour. His Jupiter Symphony consists of half the number of movements and lasts half as long.

Brahms placed his six-movement Serenade No. 1 squarely within these traditions, while putting his own stamp on the genre. The title page of the published work called specifically for a “large” orchestra, which is really a Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony-sized orchestra of woodwinds in pairs, two pairs of horns, trumpets, timpani and strings, but in this case lacking trombones. Brahms frequently experienced difficulty in settling upon the optimal performance forces for a work, though. He started the Serenade as a chamber music octet, reworked it as a nonet and finally published it as an orchestral serenade.

The Serenade No. 1 includes both the minuet (a staple of the eighteenth-century symphony) and two examples of the scherzo (a faster spin-off of the minuet that was a regular feature of the nineteenth-century symphony). In fact, if the movements of the Serenade were to appear on the table at a musical smorgasbord, a symphony could fit on the plate if one selected the first, third, fourth/fifth (choose one) and sixth movements. The result would be a work in four movements in normal symphonic order: fast, slow, minuet or scherzo, and fast. Here Brahms was well on the way to composing his First Symphony, although it would in reality take him another eighteen years to produce.

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.