Program Notes - March 18 and 19, 2017
Concerto for Violin and Cello, Johannes Brahms (1833-97), Op. 102 (1887)
Allegro—Andante—Vivace non troppo
By the late 17th century the quality of both instruments and instrumentalists had improved so much that they were ready to take on roles of far greater significance than their hitherto accustomed role of accompanists to singers. This was, after all, the age of the great stringed instrument makers of, especially, Cremona. In choral music, the idea of having several soloists of different voices singing different parts (polyphony), sometimes supported by a chorus was a well established tradition of at least a century. The instrumental counterpart that arose at this time, therefore, copied the same format: several varied instrumental soloists supported by an orchestra (the ripieno). In time, when an expression was required to give a name to this form, Concerto Grosso was used, distinguishing it from the Concerto solo which began to take on greater importance by the end of the 18th century, that’s to say Mozart’s time.
When Brahms contemplated writing his “double” concerto, the solo form had held sway for at least a hundred years, with hardly any variation. There was Beethoven’s 1807 Triple Concerto, of course. And several examples from Mozart—whose time was more or less the transition period—two Sinfonia Concertante, as well as the Concerto for flute and harp. In other words, there had been no multi-instrument concerto of any significance for eighty years!
At the time, Brahms had suffered a much-lamented rift in his relationship with his most important musical advisor and friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. And, having received a request for a cello concerto from Robert Hausmann, another close colleague, Brahms resolved to write the double concerto, partly as an olive branch to Joachim. It succeeded.
The concerto itself was less successful, at least at first. Perhaps the chemistry between Joachim and Hausmann was lacking. Perhaps after 80 years the audience simply wasn’t ready for a concerto involving more than one soloist. Whatever, the reason, it was Brahms’ last orchestral work, since he abandoned the idea of writing another concerto for the same combination.
If you can say one thing about the four Brahms concerti, it is that he tended to be a little heavy on the gas pedal as far as the orchestration is concerned—indeed, all four are thoroughly symphonic works in both conception and implementation (the second piano concerto even has four movements like a symphony). But therein lies not only their charm but also their distinction from so many other concerti. Yet, all four have moments of great intimacy where small combinations of instruments, whether soloists or players from the orchestra, are concerned. One example that immediately springs to mind is the opening of the 2nd piano concerto: the solo horn that introduces the main theme, answered contrastingly by the piano—like two lovers billing and cooing. Such moments are, happily, present in so many places in this, the “Double” concerto.
The first movement, allegro in A minor, begins with an opening statement from the full orchestra that sounds like the beginning of a typically Brahmsian symphonic exposition. But no. Immediately, the cello interrupts with what we might think of as a cadenza but is, according to the composer, a recitative. But what a recitative! At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to a cello concerto. Perhaps Brahms wanted Joachim to suffer just a little more before the rapprochement was cemented. This passage, incidentally, must have had a great influence on Elgar, whose own cello concerto almost plagiarizes it.
After a brief interlude in the woodwinds, the violin enters, after which we get to hear the soloists in duet. Note how they play their scales as if it were one homogeneous stringed instrument with maybe eight strings and a range of five-and-a-half octaves. The orchestra now gets to resume its exposition, without interruption, and the rest of the movement follows more or less in standard, glorious, sonata form.
The andante in D major is, like so many of Brahms’ slow movements, a gem of extraordinary beauty. As tradition dictates, it is based on a theme and variations. After the opening chords in the winds, the composer does something quite unusual for a concerto: the soloists play in unison, more or less, with the rest of the string section. Perhaps the original soloists objected to being dumped, as it were, back into the ripieno. But Brahms knew what he was doing—the musical effect is just breathtaking. A short variation in the flutes and bassoons brings us back to the theme, but this time, the soloists are the only ones to play it—the string section is back to being in accompaniment mode.
This is followed by a new variation in the winds: a sublime chorale, beginning in six parts and ending in eight. The remainder of this movement is an ever-increasingly complex set of dialogues between soloists, violin/orchestra versus cello, and so on. But the lyricism is with us right to the very end, if anything, becoming more intense as it goes.
Thank goodness that Brahms wasn’t averse to a little humor to round things off. The vivace non troppo (fast but not too much so) is a wonderfully musical and yet virtuosic quasi-rondo that simply dances us off our feet while wanting more. This is the movement that seems to require the most bonding between the soloists—and to afford them the most fun too.
Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75), Op. 60 (1939-40)
Allegretto—Moderato (poco allegretto)—Adagio—Allegro non troppo)
And now for something completely different. Perhaps the first thing we should note is that this is a very personal work for the composer: he was born in St. Petersburg (as Leningrad was, and now is again, called) and went to school there for his musical training under Alexander Glazunov. And, of course, he was well known to be there during the siege. Shostakovich was
not yet a teenager when the October Revolution began: right there in St. Petersburg. He never reconciled with the Soviets during his long life.
But is this piece really about the siege of Leningrad (Sep 1941—Jan 1943)? Strangely (given the various interpretations that are normally associated with it), the composer himself said no. At
least, it didn’t start out that way.
Shostakovich’s early ambitions were as a concert pianist, but after failing to win the International Chopin competition (partly due to the fact that he was suffering from appendicitis at the time), he decided to concentrate on composition. His first symphony (1926) was promoted by none other than Bruno Walter and was even played here in the US within two years. That puts him in a rather select club of about two (the other being Beethoven) where the members had a success with their first symphony, when written as a young man (Brahms waited until he was very well established before venturing into symphonic form). Arguably, we could add Mahler, perhaps
Shostakovich’s most important influence, to that club although he was already 28 and the symphony was not an instant success.
In 1924, Lenin died and Stalin emerged as the leader of the Soviets. From that moment on, until 1953, life in Russia became difficult, to say the least. Anyone who criticized the government was liable to be “disappeared” during the night. Between 1928 and 1941, at least 8 million people
suffered this fate. Shostakovich felt that he had to be very careful with his music and behavior. His first official denunciation came in 1936 when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was criticized in Pravda. Rehearsals of his Fourth symphony, the first to be heavily influenced by Mahler, were abandoned, possibly due to an official ban. The work was not premiered until 1961, eight years after Stalin’s death.
At some point, Shostakovich was so convinced that he was about to be eliminated that he said goodbye to his family before setting off to see the party official who had summoned him. The official never arrived and it transpired that he himself had been shot that very morning. Our composer was, for now, off the hook. Later, the fifth symphony (1937) restored Shostakovich’s official reputation and is today one of his most popular works. When the Germans invaded in 1941, Shostakovich signed up but was rejected due to his poor eyesight. Instead he worked as a fire watcher in Leningrad and was there when the siege began. The people of Leningrad were out of the frying pan and into the fire: rather than comment on conditions during the siege, I recommend City of Thieves by David Benioff.
It became common knowledge that Shostakovich was composing a great, patriotic symphony and he was persuaded to be evacuated to Kuibyshev (now Samara). The symphony was first performed there in March 1942 and has become one of the most performed pieces in the repertoire in Russia and his frequently played elsewhere too. Copies were immediately sent out to the other allies and it was performed in London in June, and in New York in July. With great difficulty, the Leningrad premiere was held in August. But the story behind that performance is almost incredible. There were only a fifteen remaining orchestral musicians; one—the snare
drummer—was pulled, literally, from the morgue; the rest came from the army, redeployed from wherever or from the ranks of amateurs.
I will not attempt to describe the programmatic material of the symphony. There are just too many disagreements, which is strange considering that the composer himself was around until 1975. However, Shostakovich stated quite clearly that the symphony was conceived as a tribute to Lenin. What he really meant by that, however, was that it was an anti-Stalin piece. It was politically convenient for Shostakovich to allow the dedicatee to become the city, and the wider Russian people, as events unfolded. Nevertheless, given that much of the symphony, including all of the first movement, was written during the siege, it’s perhaps not surprising that some of
the sounds of that dreadful time have found their way into the symphony. The constantly repeating alarm sounds, for example, sound a lot like air-raid warnings. And there are many
other very mechanical sounds to be heard throughout.
The first movement (entitled “war” in the original program, though such titles were later removed by the composer)—the longest—begins with the hustle and bustle of the Russian people going about their normal business (C major). After a quiet section with a violin solo and flute solos, the “invasion” theme starts—with the snare drum. A rather banal theme, a pastiche of quotations from other works, is passed from one group of instruments to another, something akin to Ravel’s
Bolero. A little later in the movement comes a long bassoon solo that has been described as a mother searching for her son, but finding him dead, to which the funeral-like music that closes the section attests. The invasion theme returns briefly as the movement draw to a close.
The second movement was titled “Reminiscence” by the composer. There is something a little decadent about this movement. The memories may be tinged with some guilt but, otherwise, they look back to better times. The future remains bleak, however. The adagio (“Homeland steppes”) is the most Mahlerian of the movements but it also has a strongly baroque mood that suggests defiance and a readiness to wait it out until…
In the finale (“Victory”), a masterpiece of a gradual buildup of force, we hear (supposedly) how the Red Army ultimately ground down the Nazi invaders through the stolid resolve of the Russian people. Nevertheless, after the war was ended, Stalin banned all of Shostakovich’s music, including the Seventh, which he thought lacked a proper depiction of the Russian counter to the German invasion of the first movement. Maybe Stalin had fallen asleep during the adagio. After those dark days, of course, Shostakovich was elevated to hero status in Russia during his lifetime. By any measure he was one of the giants of twentieth-century classical music.
- Robin Hillyard