Program Notes--Julian Killough-Miller
Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
Johannes Brahms (1880)
As a composer, Brahms liked to follow the rules just as much as he liked to thumb his nose at them. When thinking about composers like Shostakovich and or even Copland, we tend to focus on how they managed to be subversive within the required strictures of authorities or mainstream audiences. What’s curious about Brahms’s approach is that he insisted on adhering to (what were at the time) outmoded structures to a sometimes comical extent, then subverting them anyway with his compositional sleight of hand. While so many of the late Romantics valued freedom of expression above all else, Brahms still craved rules, in filial fealty to his musical father figures of Beethoven and Schumann. Derided as a conservative (or worse, a philistine) in contrast to the New German school with Wagner and Liszt at the helm, Brahms was well aware of his reputation in German music circles as an unbudging fuddy-duddy. Of course, this reputation was somewhat unjustified on the merits of his music, but he leaned into that type of artistic branding and donned the label with a grin.
What better place to riff on his relationship to the “academy” than in the Academic Festival Overture. The overture’s genesis is quite amusing and rather Brahmsian. Brahms himself never went to university, but in the wake of his success on the international stage in the late 1870s, many fine institutions offered him an honorary degree. He declined to accept one from Cambridge, purportedly because he detested sea travel. Eventually, he accepted an honorary degree from the University of Breslau and sent them a somewhat underwhelming postcard as a token of his gratitude. However, this was not enough to satisfy Bernhard Scholz, his friend at the university who had advocated for Brahms as a recipient of the degree. With more than a hint of condescension, Bernhard beckoned Brahms to, "Compose a fine symphony for us!... But well-orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!" One can only imagine how gleeful Brahms was to receive such a joyous commission.
And so, Brahms put pen to stave and created a rousing ten-minute overture with the utmost architectural integrity, featuring the most cleverly compliant counterpoint and the deftest touch of orchestration. He achieved this all to a setting of famous drinking songs, known and beloved to university students across the German speaking lands. How very academic indeed. While few of us will recognize them now ("Fuchslied," "Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus," "Hört, ich sing das Lied der Lieder,” and most prominently in the coda, "Gaudeamus igitur"), they were the unavoidable frat house vibrations of the day. There is something genuinely funny about the 47-year-old bearded wag rising to the occasion by reluctantly producing ten minutes of almost AC-DC level like revelry festooned in contrapuntal cap and gown. Brahms himself conducted the piece at the convocation where he received his honorary diploma—students chuckled while academics furrowed their brows, or so legend has it. Not quite the riot that Stravisnky set off at his premiere of Rite of Spring, but hey, it was a kerfuffle on a Brahmsian scale, that enfant terrible.
The overture begins with the grumpy tread of an absent-minded professor, trying to unravel an enigma while getting increasingly distracted by the rabble around her. Playful antics soon overwhelm the terminal seriousness of the opening gesture; you can tell through the dreary introduction that fun times are ahead. Party anthems arise, couched in scholastic solemnity as the excitement builds for the boisterous Maestoso. The second theme presents compelling lyricism from the strings and the winds, in contrast to the antics of the brass. The development is befitting of the structure of the piece: convincingly rigorous, yet still composed by a chilled-out version of Brahms in beach shorts and sandals. The true glory of the overture comes in the Maestoso coda in 3/4 time, the academic climax we’ve been craving all along. Triangle and cymbals bestow a festival atmosphere. Themes intertwine contrapuntally, ensuring that a healthy measure of pedantry is still present amidst the pomp.
The funny thing about Brahms though is that while his music is rarely dead-on sincere, it’s never completely ironic either. We keep Brahms in our musical lives more for his empathy than his tongue-in-cheek, though for such a tight-lipped composer, the two were often not that far apart. And despite all the nose thumbing and grumbling, Brahms really packed a wallop of pure joy in this seemingly stodgy yet potentially trivial overture. Like any good party anthem, it’s hard to hear without wanting to join in on the fun.
Poème, Op. 25
Ernest Chausson (1896)
Chausson didn’t begin his career as a composer until later in life, and he bore this insecurity right up until he died in a tragic bicycle accident at age 44. After originally studying law, he was seduced into composition after attending a handful of operas by Richard Wagner in Munich. Indeed, Chausson digested Wagner’s languorous pacing, his penchant for dark orchestral color, and his voluptuous chromaticism. Once he committed to study composition, he was most influenced by what he learned from his teacher César Franck, who built a career himself blending Wagner’s harmonic palette and spiritual aspirations with a distinctly French melodic sensibility.
Chausson’s romantic darkness is on opulent display in Poème, the most beloved of his works. The idea for a work for solo violin and orchestra came when his close friend and violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe asked that Chausson write a concerto for him to play. The composer demurred at writing a full-form concerto, and instead opted for a free-form symphonic poem for solo violin and orchestra.
Even so, he perseverated throughout the compositional process, at one point opening up about his self-doubt in a letter to Ysaÿe. Chausson wrote, “At the moment I am working but it doesn’t follow that my work is productive. I flounder, sink beneath the waves, struggle to the surface again, curse myself, and then, just for a moment or two, get the impression that what I have written is not quite so bad as I thought.” It’s heartwarming to note that once the piece finally received its Paris premiere in 1897, it was the first performance of Chausson’s work to ever receive sustained applause, and this made the composer very happy indeed.
Shying away from the abstraction of formal expectations of the concerto form, Chausson imbued the work with narrative potency and an evocatively open-ended title. At one point, he considered naming the work Le Chant de l'amour triomphant, after the hot-blooded 1881 romantic novella by Russian author Ivan Turgenev, whose works Chausson greatly admired. Later, this title was shortened to Poème symphonique, and then eventually just Poème. Afterall, as a fan of the Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarmé, he was more interested in weaving dreamy textures, elusive concepts, and lusciously hazy outlines than his was in prescribed storytelling. Still, even without extra-musical cues, a darkly-tinted love story is manifest.
Amidst the romantic ardor lies an inescapable melancholy that is pure Chausson. When reflecting on his childhood, he once wrote to his godmother, "I was sad without knowing why, but firmly convinced that I had the best reason in the world for it." The curtain opens to a doleful series of strained sighs in the orchestra. These yearning undulations give way to the violin’s plaintive monody—unflinching in its honesty and vulnerability, it moans and mourns, at risk of running out of breath. The searing double stops that follow are the stylistic signature of Ysaÿe, but Chausson transforms the often flashy technique into heart-wrenching stabs.
The form is rhapsodic and improvisatory; passions swell and recede as the structure stems solely from the soloist’s emotional discourse. The music invites you to lift anchor and get swept up in its stormy seas. Despite the characteristically French clarity of the violin’s melody, the orchestra sails along in the fog, allowing the turbulent winds to carry it in the violin’s emotional jet stream.
The level of introspection is stunning, but never tortured, throughout the violinist’s cadenzas. Even as momentum builds in the orchestra, the soaring melodies still possess an introverted quality. The voice here is more introverted than performative, which is striking given that it was commissioned for Ysaÿe, the extroverted violin showman extraordinaire. An abundance of the soloist’s phrases end in diminuendos, as if real courage were needed for this type of outward display.
In the piece’s last five minutes, the orchestral lugubriousness washes away as the texture gains more focus and the rhythm crystallizes into a frenzied dance. The hallowed pronouncement of the brass and timpani at the climax echo Franck’s sacred expressions of ecstasy, leading to the denouement of the Tranquilo. At last, the fog has lifted, and the violin finds repose in bird-like gestures as it rises out of sight in an evanescent glow.
Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 136
Darius Milhaud (1934)
It was on a trip to Rio de Janeiro in 1917 that Darius Milhaud, reporting as an attaché to the ambassador at the French Embassy, first heard the sumptuous strains of Brazilian music emanating from Carnival celebrations in the streets. Months later, as a member of the Parisian composer collective Les Six, Milhaud boasted a flair for adding diverse musical elements into an unmistakably French melting pot. His stylistic influences were broad, ranging from the Jewish folk melodies of his upbringing, jazz that he saw performed in Parisian cafes, impressionist stylings of Debussy and Ravel, and of course the melodies and rhythms he encountered in Brazil. Unlike the stylistic asceticism of Stravinksy’s neoclassicism or harmonic rigor of the Third Viennese school, Milhaud and his Parisian brethren reveled in the harmonious heterogeneity of contemporary music. Ease of communication, refinement, and joie de vivre were quintessential hallmarks of Les Six’s music.
Milhaud’s accessible yet idiosyncratic style is on full display in his brief Cello Concerto No. 1. He wrote the concerto in 1934, during a period of debilitating illness. In its three movements, the piece shifts between carefree rays of sunshine, buzzing scenes of urban street life, and darker moments of soul-searching meditation. He dedicated the work to the French cellist Maurice Maréchal, who had a close association with Les Six. Milhaud was keen to showcase the celebratory capacities of the solo cello, breaking away from what he saw as the overly elegiac use of the instrument.
The first movement, entitled Nonchalant, evokes just that sentiment. The work begins with a striking chordal gesture, like that of a Bach Prelude. The improvisatory character of the broken chords and accompanying recitatives soon reveals itself as a playful stage-setter for the dixieland-esque dance number that follows. But rather than the visceral rush of hot jazz, the unh-chuk of the orchestra’s banjo flows on in a gentle reverie, a rolling Parisian river for the sun-drenched cello to float down. Gleaming through the streets, but not in any hurry, the solo cello sways back and forth, following her fancy wherever it takes her. The urbanity of the music roots the scene in the midst of society, and the cello is certainly dressed for the occasion—one might surmise in a wide-brimmed hat. Still, there are introspective moments of repose, like the cadenza that comes before the movement’s end. Rather than a drama or a musical argument, this movement sketches a scene in perfectly French fashion. It is left to the listener to imagine what the cello sees and thinks about while out on her promenade.
Entering into a far more interior soundscape, the Grave movement explores the more direct emotional expression of the solo cello. This is the night watch of the soul. Sepulchral brass grunt out a threatening arabesque, at harmonic odds with the cello’s plaintive discourse in an excellent demonstration of the expressive powers of Milhaud’s polytonal technique. The movement trudges on in a manner somewhat in between a sarabande and a Kol-Nidrei prayer. The emphasis on darker textures and deeper sonorities distinguishes it from the daytime bustle of the previous movement. Enigmatic throughout, the Grave churns and moans in nocturnal iridescence.
With a carnivalesque splash of an orchestral tutti, the Joyeaux finale launches into its sultry dance. The rhythmic thrust is Latin American in nature in an emulation of the sounds Milhaud heard at Carnival during his stint in Rio de Janeiro. Whereas the Nonchalant presented the meandering mind amidst the hurly-burly of street life and the Grave showcased the contemplation of the soul, the Joyeaux reveals a joyful body in motion. And yet, the physicality exudes both boundless energy while exhibiting the utmost refinement. The joie de vivre is contagious but never simple-minded. In a manner reminiscent of Prokofiev, Milhaud cloaks his corporeal song of the earth in textural complexity and harmonic ambiguity. No detail is out of place, no measure without its mysteries. The cello simply soars above the buoyant dance rhythms. Certain moments even bear the carefree attitude of a musical theater number, replete with hat and cane. By the time the cello reaches the ecstatic stratosphere of its soprano C, we know with certainty that even a biblical storm with golf-ball sized hail couldn’t put a stop to this jubilant parade.
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21
Ludwig van Beethoven (1800)
Just as Capitol Records introduced the Fab Four to an American audience with Meet the Beatles in 1964 and Dr. Dre introduced Snoop Dogg to a hip-hop loving audience on the hit single “Who Am I (What's My Name)?” in 1993, Bonn native Ludwig van Beethoven announced his splashy arrival to the Viennese scene with his Symphony No. 1 in C Major in 1800. Anecdotally, Beethoven had been sent down from his hometown to Vienna some eight years ago to “receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.” The profile of that symphonic pedigree can be heard clearly here in his bold first entry in the genre. Eminently classical in form, Beethoven couched his symphonic discourse in conventions recognizable to anyone familiar with Mozart or Haydn’s works.
But amidst the mannered wit and whimsy, Beethoven’s First courses with rough kinetic energy. Violent outbursts puncture through the embroidery as thunderclaps break through the Viennese breeze. Many modern commentators note the striking use of sforzando accentuation, the conversational quality of the woodwinds with the strings, and the quick alteration between his bombastic and lyrical sides as innovative features of Beethoven’s emerging symphonic voice.
The first movement begins famously with a tonal sleight of hand. Before eventually establishing the main key of C major, the introduction passes through a series of disorienting cadences. Perhaps too much has been made of the revolutionary portents of these trolly appoggiaturas, but they certainly do signal the composer’s propensity towards playfulness and cadential avoidance. If harmonic language can be boiled down into an interplay of tension and release, Beethoven’s method throughout his career would focus on the embellishment of that tension and the intensification of that release. While it exists in a mild-mannered form here in the symphony’s opening bars, it’s a technique that would become a staple of his symphonic style. The canned heat of the introduction begins to spill out, as the Allegro proper begins. In a nod to his Viennese predecessors, Beethoven follows a perfectly classical sonata form layout, where themes follow neatly one after the other and receive developmental treatment, all in proper proportion. It is in the tautness of the drama and the sense of inevitability in its unfolding that Beethoven shows his early mastery with symphonic form. The pacing is exquisite, and sudden sforzando outbursts of heavy orchestral artillery keep the listener on the edge of their seat.
The second movement is so brisk as to barely be considered an Andante at all— rather than a languorous slow movement, the triple meter cantabile serves as more of an intermezzo than a center of gravity for the symphony. With barely a moment of repose, Beethoven’s symphonic spirit was always on the move. Symphonically speaking, Beethoven tended to compose like there was a bee in his bonnet: just listen to the unsettled gallop of the middle section. That quality of striving, of reaching out for greater meaning was not only essential to Beethoven’s music, but also went on to influence much of the symphonic music that followed in the subsequent century.
Contrary to the implications of its title, the third movement reads more like a scherzo than a menuetto. Perhaps the novice symphonist sought to secure his establishment bona fides in choosing to name this wild romp after the mannered minuet. The timpani burst forth with vigor, the strings swirl in a breakneck whirligig, and anyone who attempted to dance along would soon find themselves panting on the floor. The minuet digests already familiar scalar themes, regurgitating them as bolts of pure kinesis.
After a stage-setting unison blast, tremulous violins edge up the roller coaster, until they reach over the crest as the whole orchestra barrels down in a visceral rush. The wry humor of their tentative climb shows a cheeky side that Beethoven never lost, even through his period of sturm und drang. The finale courses forward at breakneck speed, pushing the Viennese public to the edge of their seats and the musicians to the brink of what is possible.
However, throughout the whole work, Beethoven took pains to do so in a form that would be widely understood and accepted by audiences who had been recently imprinted with the late symphonic styles of Haydn and Mozart. Originality can often only be appreciated in the context of proper emulation after all, and like any truly innovative musician, Beethoven’s ability to wear his musical inheritance while still letting his individuality shine is what put him on the map in the first place in his Viennese debut.