Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Concerto in B minor for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 104
(b. Nelahozeves, Bohemia, 1841; d. Prague, 1904)
Composed in 1894-1895.
Premiered March 19, 1896 in London, conducted by the composer with Leo Stern as soloist.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs plus piccolo, three horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle and strings.
Duration: approximately 38 minutes.
During the three years that Dvorák was teaching and composing in New York City, he was subject to the same emotions as most other travelers away from home for a long time: invigoration and homesickness. America served to stir his creative energies, and during his stay from 1892 to 1895 he composed some of his greatest scores: the "New World" Symphony, the Op. 96 Quartet ("American") and the Cello Concerto. He was keenly aware of the new musical experiences to be discovered in the land far from his beloved Bohemia when he wrote, "The musician must prick up his ears for music. When he walks he should listen to every whistling boy, every street singer or organ grinder. I myself am often so fascinated by these people that I can scarcely tear myself away." But he missed his home and, while he was composing the Cello Concerto, looked eagerly forward to returning. He opened his heart in a letter to a friend in Prague: "Now I am finishing the finale of the Violoncello Concerto. If I could work as free from cares as at Vysoká [site of his country home], it would have been finished long ago. Oh, if only I were in Vysoká again!"
Elements of both Dvorák's American experiences and his longing for home found their way into the Cello Concerto, the last of his works composed in this country. The inspiration to begin what became one of the greatest concertos in the literature was a concert by the New York Philharmonic in March 1894 at which Victor Herbert (the Victor Herbert of operetta fame) played his own Second Cello Concerto. This work convinced Dvorák that the cello was a viable solo instrument, something about which he had been unsure despite the assurances of Hanus Wihan, cello professor at the Prague Conservatory, who had been urging his fellow faculty member to write a piece for the instrument. (Apparently Brahms, Dvorák's friend and mentor, also had a similar mistrust of the cello as a solo instrument. When he first saw Dvorák's score he wondered, "Why on earth didn't I know that one can write a violoncello concerto like this? If I had only known, I would have written one long ago!") The thoroughly middle European character of the music, however, belies its American catalyst. It might just as well have been written in a Czech café as in an East 17th Street apartment.
Dvorák's Cello Concerto occupies the pinnacle in the solo literature for the instrument because of its wealth of melodic ideas, its solid construction and its glowing orchestration. The opening movement is in sonata form, with both themes presented by the orchestra before the entry of the soloist. The first theme, heard immediately in the clarinets, not only contains the principal melody, but also serves to establish the importance given to the wind instruments throughout the work, their tone colors serving as an excellent foil to the richness of the cello. "One of the most beautiful melodies ever composed for the horn" is how Sir Donald Tovey described the D major second theme. The cello's entrance points up the virtuosic yet songful character of the solo part. The effect of the music for the soloist is enhanced by the use of the instrument's burnished upper register, a technique Dvorák learned from Victor Herbert's Concerto.
Otakar Sourek, the composer's biographer, described the second movement as a "hymn of deepest spirituality and amazing beauty." It is in three-part (A–B–A) form. A touching bit of autobiography is attached to the composition of this movement. While working on its middle section, Dvorák received the news that his beloved sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, who had aroused in him a secret passion early in his life, was seriously ill. He showed his concern by using one of Josefina's favorite pieces as the theme for the central portion of this Adagio — his own song, Let me wander alone with my dreams, Op. 82, No. 1. She died a month after he returned to Prague in April 1895, so he revised the finale to include another reference to the same song to produce the autumnal slow section just before the end of the work.
The finale is a rondo of dance-like nature. Following the second reprise of the theme, in B major, the Andante section recalls both the first theme of the opening movement and Josefina's melody from the second. A brief and rousing restatement of the rondo theme led by the brass closes this majestic Concerto.
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 73
(b. Hamburg, 1833; d Vienna, 1897)
Composed in 1877.
Premiered on December 30, 1877 in Vienna, conducted by Hans Richter.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani and strings.
Duration: approximately 40 minutes.
"The new symphony is merely a 'sinfonia,' and I shall not need to play it for you beforehand. You have only to sit down at the piano, put your little feet on the two pedals in turn, and strike the chord of F minor several times in succession, first in the treble, then in the bass, fortissimo and pianissimo, and you will gradually gain a vivid impression of my latest work." With the premiere of his pastoral Second Symphony only a month away, Brahms served up this red herring in early November to his friend, correspondent and supporter Elisabeth von Herzogenberg to playfully mislead her about the character of this lovely work. He tossed another false clue to Clara Schumann when he told her that the halcyon first movement was "quite elegiac in character," and, again to Elisabeth, that so sad a piece would require the orchestra to play with crepe bands on their sleeves and the printed score would have to bordered in black. "The new Symphony is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it," he told his publisher, Fritz Simrock. Such statements are characteristic of Brahms both in their eccentric, sometimes cranky humor, and their reticence to divulge any information about a work that had not been publicly displayed. He was always reluctant to discuss or even mention new pieces to anyone, even to such trusted friends as Clara Schumann. (Clara begged him for years to complete his First Symphony without knowing that the project was almost constantly on his mind and on his desk during the time.) He usually destroyed all his drafts and tentative sketches for a finished composition so that his preliminary thoughts and working procedures remain a mystery. He refused to be disturbed while composing. Once, a youthful admirer, unable to gain an audience with Brahms, set up a ladder to climb to the composer's second-story window to deliver his encomium. Brahms, deep in work and detesting any distraction, angrily threw the ladder from the sill, causing the young man no little harm. It is because of such secretiveness that little is known about the actual composition of the Second Symphony.
In the summer of 1877, Brahms repaired to the village of Pörtschach in the Carinthian hills of southern Austria. He wrote to a Viennese friend, "Pörtschach is an exquisite spot, and I have found a lovely and apparently pleasant abode in the Castle! You may tell everybody this; it will impress them.... The place is replete with Austrian coziness and kindheartedness." The lovely country surroundings inspired Brahms' creativity to such a degree that he wrote to the critic Eduard Hanslick, "So many melodies fly about, one must be careful not to tread on them." Brahms plucked from the gentle Pörtschach breezes a surfeit of beautiful music for his Second Symphony, which was apparently written quickly during that summer – a great contrast to the fifteen-year gestation of the preceding symphony. He brought the manuscript with him when he returned to Vienna at the end of the summer, and played it at an informal gathering in a four-hand piano version with Ignaz Brüll in September. Brahms kept the true nature of the piece from the friends who were not at that gathering, and he was delighted by their surprised response at the public premiere late in December.
Brahms' misleading statements depicting the Second Symphony as a tragic work were plausible in view of the stony grandeur of its predecessor. The premiere audience had every expectation of hearing a grand, portentous statement similar in tone to the First Symphony, but was treated instead to the composer's most gentle and sun-dappled music. After their initial befuddlement had passed, they warmed to the occasion as the performance progressed, and such was their enthusiasm at the end that they demanded an encore of the third movement. Brahms himself allowed, "[The work] sounded so merry and tender, as though it were especially written for a newly wedded couple." Early listeners heard in it "a glimpse of Nature, a spring day amid soft mosses, springing woods, birds' notes, and the bloom of flowers." Richard Specht, the composer's biographer, found it "suffused with the sunshine and warm winds playing on the waters." Comparisons with Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony were inevitable, though Brahms never revealed any specific programmatic intention rippling among these notes. Despite its exploration of a new, gentler world of emotions, the work displays again the peerless technical mastery that marked the First Symphony. The conductor Felix Weingartner thought it the best of the four symphonies: "The stream of invention has never flowed so fresh and spontaneous in other works by Brahms, and nowhere else has he colored his orchestration so successfully." To which critic Olin Downes added, "In his own way, and sometimes with long sentences, he formulates his thought, and the music has the rich chromaticism, depth of shadow and significance of detail that characterize a Rembrandt portrait."
Its effortless technique, rich orchestral writing and surety of emotional effect make this composition a splendid sequel to Brahms' First Symphony. The earlier work, probably the best first symphony anyone ever composed, is filled with a sense of struggle and hard-won victory, an accurate mirror of Brahms' monumental efforts over many years to shape a worthy successor to Beethoven's symphonies. ("You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven," Brahms lamented.) The Second Symphony, while at least the equal of the First in technical mastery, differs markedly in its mood, which, in Eduard Hanslick's words, is "cheerful and likable ... [and] may be described in short as peaceful, tender, but not effeminate." So taken aback by the work's pastoral quality was the Leipzig critic Dörffel that he wrote of the performance conducted by the composer in his city only two weeks after the Viennese premiere, "We require from him music that is something more than simply pretty ... when he comes before us as a symphonist." Though this Symphony is more "simply pretty" than any other by Brahms, there is also a rich emotional vein and inevitable structural logic that motivates the music. It is understandable that, of the four he wrote in the genre, this one has probably had, over its history, the most performances.
The Symphony opens with a three-note motive, presented softly by the low strings, which is the germ seed from which much of the thematic material of the movement grows. The horns sing the principal theme, which includes, in its third measure, the three-note motive. The sweet second theme is given in duet by the cellos and violas. The development begins with the horn's main theme, but is mostly concerned with permutations of the three-note motive around which some stormy emotional sentences accumulate. The placid mood of the opening returns with the recapitulation, and remains largely undisturbed until the end of the movement.
The second movement plumbs the deepest emotions in the Symphony. Many of its early listeners found it difficult to understand because they failed to perceive that, in constructing the four broad paragraphs that comprise the Second Symphony, Brahms deemed it necessary to balance the radiant first movement with music of thoughtfulness and introspection in the second. This movement actually covers a wide range of sentiments, shifting, as it does, between light and shade – major and minor. Its form is sonata-allegro, whose second theme is a gently syncopated strain intoned by the woodwinds above the cellos' pizzicato notes.
The following Allegretto is a delightful musical sleight-of-hand. The oboe presents a naive, folk-like tune in moderate triple meter as the movement's principal theme. The strings take over the melody in the first Trio, but play it in an energetic duple-meter transformation. The return of the sedate original theme is again interrupted by another quick-tempo variation, this one a further development of motives from Trio I. A final traversal of the main theme closes this delectable movement.
The finale bubbles with the rhythmic energy and high spirits of a Haydn symphony. The main theme starts with a unison gesture in the strings, but soon becomes harmonically active and spreads through the orchestra. The second theme is a broad, hymnal melody initiated by the strings. The development section, like that of many of Haydn's finales, begins with a statement of the main theme in the tonic before branching into discussion of the movement's motives. The recapitulation recalls the earlier themes, and leads with an inexorable drive through the triumphant coda (based on the hymnal melody) to the brazen glow of the final trombone chord.
©2014 Dr. Richard E. Rodda