Program Notes -
November 2 and 3, 2019
Sheep May Safely Graze (from BWV 208). Johann Sebastian Bach (1713)
arr. Leopold Stokowski
Leopold Stokowski was fond of arranging Bach’s catalog for the modern orchestra. By Stokowski’s era, Bach-mania had been in full swing, and the conductor became intimately acquainted with Bach’s music as a church organist of ten years. Famously, his orchestration of Bach’s (well, now we know it wasn’t really Bach’s) Toccata and Fugue in D minor was featured prominently as the first piece of Walt Disney’s groundbreaking synesthetic masterpiece Fantasia in 1940, with Stokowski himself at the podium.
Along with Toscanini, Stokowski symbolized the Americanization of European classical music in the 20th century with his frequent contributions to Hollywood features. Both conductors broadcast staples of the classical canon to a broader audience through innovative uses of communication technology. As such, the story of classical music the US cannot be told without reference to Stokowski. His arrangements of Bach’s works for the instrumentation modern era helped revive interest, somewhat paradoxically, in the early music revival of the mid-twentieth century, which sought to separate antique music from modern conventions and bring it back to its “roots” through performance on period instruments and a more historically-oriented performance culture.
The aria itself is a lovely, lilting pastoral, from Bach’s Cantata Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV 208, also known as the “Hunting Cantata.” The cantata was first performed as a 31st birthday celebration of Christian, Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. Bach derived his text for the aria from Somolon Franck, a fellow Weimar resident and a scientist, lawyer, and poet.
Sheep may safely graze and pasture
In a watchful Shepherd's sight.
Those who rule with wisdom guiding
Bring to hearts a peace abiding
Bless a land with joy made bright.
Sheep have long carried religious and political undertones–without a leader to show them the way, the flock is lost. The text analogizes the sheep to the contented citizens of a state, safely guided by a wise and powerful leader. The sheep revel in their peaceful submission. A fitting birthday present for the Duke!
The orchestra gives a more dramatic scope to the mellow, undulating theme. Woodwinds and high strings brighten the contrast considerably, lending the arrangement an ethereal, yet hyper-focused sonic quality. The pairs of woodwinds evoke pipers in the fields in a somewhat literal depiction of what remained latent in Bach’s original arrangement. The soaring strings draw an iridescent halo around the pianissimo accompaniment of the low strings. In this era of 24-7 digital stimuli and, shall we say, disquieting leadership to keep us awake at night, some may find it reassuring to imagine a benevolent shepherd for five-and-a-half minutes of pure pastoral relief. This lullaby is meant for bedtime, so if you find yourself counting sheep, then the orchestra’s done its job!
Symphony No. 7 in A Major (Op. 92) Ludwig van Beethoven 1811-1812
The prominent feminist Emma Goldman once famously said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.” As music’s half-deaf demigod of revolution, Beethoven offered up in his 7th a musical manifesto where dancing is encouraged. Richard Wagner, the man responsible for putting the twerk in Gesamkunstwerk, even went so far as to call it “the apotheosis of dance.” Beethoven himself considered it to be one of his best works.
Rather than focusing on the triumph over adversity (3rd), fate (5th), or our place in the universe (9th), the seventh is a pure paen to boundless, unstoppable, irresistible energy. The symphony’s opening boom explodes like the Big Bang; a wave of concentrated electricity suddenly emits into the far reaches of the universe. The slow introduction takes place in space where floating woodwinds float and collide. Strings surge upwards in scalar chains against the falling motive of the horns. This a world-building introduction where raw materials with tremendous kinetic potential fly around in a crash course. Eventually, the motion settles as a single pitch is repeated nearly 60 times in ratcheting anticipation.
The dance begins, and motives are swept up in a revolutionary romp. The horns peel at their highest pitch, the timpani pounds away in reckless abandon. This dance is not for the faint of heart. At the indicated tempo, the movement threatens to fall apart, thriving on the brink of collapse. By pushing the musicians to the extremes of possibility, Beethoven displays an irresistible brinkmanship. He expected his musicians, like him, to live life on the edge.
The unstoppable dance rhythm propels forward for some seven minutes of unparalleled momentum. By the coda, the intensity seems almost locked in perpetuity, as a grinding chromatic gesture in the low strings churns eleven times before relenting into one of the most euphoric and triumphant endings in Beethoven’s catalog.
The Allegretto is a complete emotional reversal from the first movement. We’ve gone straight from the party to a funeral. And yet, the rhythmic thrust of a dance still exists in the insistent dactylic trudge. Going from the ebullient A major straight to a bleak A minor bleat of the woodwinds is sheer theatrical coup. While slower movements often offer relief or reflection; this one exposes us to the depth of tragedy. The Allegretto was encored during the premiere and has enjoyed a life outside of the symphony as a stand-alone meditation. Its simplicity is striking and the nuanced voicing of the strings gives the tragedy a directness that continues to rock audiences today, even those who aren’t usually moved by classical music.
The movement is structured more like a pop-song than a symphonic movement—it is here that Beethoven’s love of repetition achieves its expressive peak. The movement gives us space to experience grief in a pure, unadulterated form. The repetitive structure teaches us to expect the return of the painful theme, each time more powerful than the last. We know during the sympathetic passages of consolation that the dark emotions will flood through again. So why such a bleak center to an otherwise joyful symphony? The movement is cathartic—a public outpouring of emotion, rather than a private one. Whether experiencing life’s joys or sorrows, Beethoven’s seventh gives us space to experience them together.
The scherzo rockets forth in a vigorous tumble. Everything here is fleeting and somewhat startling. Cascades of turbulent strings and brass pour forth amidst the hurly-burly. Swelling dynamics roar and quickly retreat into a whimper in the mercurial soundscape. The trio features an insistently flatulent horn drone, which sounds even more bizarre when played on the valveless horn of Beethoven’s day. You can excuse these rude noises by sourcing the drones in Irish folk song, but I’d prefer to allow that Beethoven had a sense of humor. A hearty chuckle is fair game on Herr Beethoven’s dancefloor; this dance can be a strange one at times.
Surely no description finale can top that of conductor Thomas Beecham, who likened the movement to “a lot of yaks jumping about.” Nearly a concerto for brass and timpani, the madcap conclusion thunders about without any clear direction for an exhilarating nine minutes. The offbeat pounds away, threatening the daredevil antics of the scurrying strings. There’s almost a Western gallop to the development section. The harmonic twists threaten anarchy, but the righteous brass prevail in the end with their majestic major key hurrahs. The insect-like bombinations of the low strings return to propel the explosion to an abrupt end. This thing could go on forever, but someone has to pull out the power chord on the bacchanale, or it might get truly out of hand.
But of course, when considering any modern interpretations of this gleeful symphony, we ought to acknowledge that the symphony was premiered alongside Wellington’s Victory, a patriotic celebration of Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of the English. This piece of musical military pageant was garish battle piece, replete with stereophonic cannon blasts (122 English vs. 22 French) and side orchestras to represent each side of the battle. Beethoven had a storied history of support of Napoleon, but soured on him (famously scratching his name out of the dedication to composer’s third symphony) once the petite Corsican assumed emperorship and, in Beethoven’s eyes, left his revolutionary ideals behind. The seventh symphony was seen in its time as a mere sideshow to this monument of patriotic kitsch.
For music to commemorate military spectacle was nothing new, but we often today hold Beethoven’s music to these aspirational universal ideals of humankind, when it is equally plausible that his music was intended as political propaganda. Shostakovich’s catalog suffers an even more intense conflict of interpretation, but Beethoven is not above the fray. When art was funded and sanctioned by the state, it is no surprise that this would be the result.
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 Johannes Brahms (1878)
Brahms concertos can be a polarizing phenomenon. They’re long, complex, and mercilessly difficult for the soloist, without the glory or heroism violinists often seek from the genre. The orchestra often shares the bulk of the melodizing with the soloist, leading the Brahms critic Hans van Bulow describing the present piece as a concerto “against the violin,” rather than for it.
But if you allow yourself to revel in the vast emotional landscape of the piece—the subtle shades of sunlight, the vigorous winds, and the tingling raindrops—you peer into microcosms with unending depth, teeming with warmth, and compassion, world weariness and hope, at once a restless wave, and then again, you turn around and you find yourself engaging in conversation with an ancient oak, weathering the storms of the centuries with wisdom extending beyond our lifetimes. The musical journey of this concerto is a meandering walk in the forest, not a trip to the Grand Canyon.
Brahms does not always deliver on the thrills we expect from the Romantics. But he gives us something more. You wouldn’t want to take this concerto out for a night on the town, but it would serve as an exceptional dinner guest with whom you can pass the evening away with a bottle of Bordeaux, a fat cigar, and a meandering conversation.
He wrote the concerto for his dear friend Joseph Joachim, the world-class violinist. The two would later have a falling out over the Brahms’s enduring friendship with violinist’s wife, which would in turn fuel the apologetic tone of the Double Concerto, also dedicated to Joachim. At the time of this concerto, however, their relationship was fairly unstrained, as far as we know.
The premiere was met with lukewarm applause. Perhaps though, this was due to the composer’s wardrobe malfunction at the podium. Never a natural in the limelight, his suspenders kept coming undone and he wore gray slacks rather than dress pants. How uncouth.
The first movement begins with soothing arpeggios in D major, before an unexpected modulation surges the fabric forward. Then out of nowhere, a multi-octave string battalion grinds out a war cry against the staid opening. We are soon treated to a Brahmsian specialty: the hemiola, or rhythmic dissonance. The searing rhythmic tension propels the introduction forward until the soloist flies in riding a bolt of lightning amidst the timpani’s thunder rolls. It is a grand, almost operatic entrance.
The soloist strikes chords in Martelé, or hammered. But the storm soon fades. This is sunset music; bright flashes of light glimmer as the autumnal glow fades into the horizon. This is music of intimacy, passion. Rarely direct, it is always yearning. Never at rest, it is warm yet distant, satisfied yet agitated. At times, there are strains of an old waltz that once was, and elsewhere we find frightening visions of an apocalyptic future. These contradictions, are, in a word, Brahmsian.
At first, the adagio second movement seems to be recast as an oboe concerto. First the first two minutes, the soloist is nowhere to be found, gazing pensively from the sidelines and allowing the oboist to take center-stage. Once the violin does take the lead, it tangles with sinuous undulations in the horn and woodwinds. A dense overgrowth of string harmonies threaten to choke out all the light. Rather than appearing heroic, the soloist exposes its vulnerabilities in this intimate moment. Despite a few nervous cries, glowing warmth emanates throughout the core of even the movement’s chilliest moments. This is music best enjoyed beside a crackling fire, gazing wistfully and maybe a bit remorsefully as the flames crackle and spit amidst the comforting glow.
The finale sparkles with rhythmic vitality and the flair of gypsy music. Brilliant at every turn, the mood is playful and beguiling. After the striking intimacy of the Adagio, the Allegro giocoso is pure showmanship. Here, the soloist is cast as a star performer, a daredevil dancing in a high-wire routine. The splashiness of the movement dispels any lingering doubts from the previous one. There is no doubt who is the star of the show here, as the orchestra effectively becomes an oversize percussion set. A final jig brings down the curtain, but not before a final trick from the soloist. The pacing slows and the dynamic softens, in anticipation of a serene ending, before a final blast of chord from the orchestra enjoys the last laugh.