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Brahms, Barber & Brahms

Tragic Overture, Op. 81
Johannes Brahms
b. Hamburg, Germany / May 7, 1833
d. Vienna, Austria / April 3, 1897

Brahms composed his two concert overtures – Academic Festival and Tragic – during the summer of 1880. First came Academic Festival, a light-hearted potpourri of traditional German student songs. Perhaps as a counterweight to its frivolity, or in his own words because “I could not refuse my melancholy nature the satisfaction of composing an overture for a tragedy,” he proceeded immediately to the second overture. There has been some speculation that it was related to a potential commission, one that failed to materialize, for incidental music to accompany a stage production of Goethe’s Faust. The fact that it makes use of sketches dating from as much as a decade earlier makes a concrete connection with this or any other particular source unlikely. He established a mood of stark drama right from the abrupt opening bars. A contrasting second theme brings only a slight sense of consolation. The overture’s overwhelming atmosphere is one of turbulent and ultimately unsuccessful struggle.

Violin Concerto, Op. 14
Samuel Barber
b. West Chester, Pa. / March 9, 1910
d. New York, N.Y. / January 23, 1981

After undergoing a period of relative neglect following his death, Barber’s reputation has ridden the neo-romantic wave and returned to the high level it enjoyed during the peak of his career. His music combines the emotional warmth and spirit of communication found in nineteenth-century romanticism, with those techniques of contemporary practice that suited him.

He composed this concerto in 1939. It was his first concerto, and it remains the most frequently performed of the three he wrote. The others feature cello (1945) and piano (1962). It was commissioned by Samuel Fels, a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist from Philadelphia, as a vehicle for Iso Briselli, a gifted young violinist who was Fels’s ward and protégé.

Barber sketched the first two movements in Switzerland during the summer of 1939. Due to the increasing threat of war, he returned to the US in September. He completed the first two movements in mid-October and dispatched them to Briselli. Briselli was pleased with them, but his approval did not extend to the finale that Barber sent him in November. He considered it insufficiently substantial to balance the first two movements. He suggested that Barber rewrite the finale, but the composer declined to do so. Briselli returned the music to Barber. Apparently they remained friends despite the dissolution of their intended musical collaboration.

It fell to the distinguished American soloist, Albert Spalding, to give the concerto’s premiere, on February 4, 1941. Eugene Ormandy conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra. The concerto quickly entered the international repertoire, and it remains one of the most frequently performed concertos of the last century.

Dispensing with preliminary gestures, Barber launches the concerto with a lyrical, gracious opening theme on solo violin. Throughout the first movement, humor and drama make themselves felt, but the overall mood is sweet and restrained. This atmosphere continues in the slow second section, with an added overlay of melancholy. Barber prefaces the violin’s first entry with lovely solos for wind instruments. Tension later builds gradually to an orchestral climax of darkened fervor. The “perpetual motion” finale brings a strong change in tone and a greatly heightened energy level. Brief, concentrated, and Barber’s most “modern” creation to date, it offers plenty of rhythmic thrust and virtuoso fireworks, for soloist and orchestra alike.

Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98
Johannes Brahms

“I shall never write a symphony,” Brahms told his friend, conductor Hermann Levi. “You have no idea how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us.” The “him” was Beethoven, and Brahms was far from being alone in feeling intimidated by Beethoven’s nine unsurpassable examples of symphonic creation. Once Brahms felt secure in his own gifts, he did take up the challenge, composing four exceptional symphonies which have carved out their own enduring and revered corner of the symphonic pantheon.

He created Symphony No. 4 during the summers of 1884 and 1885. Composing it gave him a great deal of trouble, and he harbored strong misgivings about its value. Most of the friends he played it for shared those reservations – but not the eminent conductor Hans von Bülow, who praised its “incomparable strength from start to finish.” Still, the premiere, which Brahms conducted himself in Meiningen on October 25, 1885, met a cool reception. Audiences found the symphony’s reserved grandeur and fatalistic power too difficult to deal with on first acquaintance. They needed time to come to terms with its granite-like character.

It is one of Brahms’ most successful reconciliations between the opposing demands of Classical form and Romantic expressiveness. The first movement presents a mixture of nostalgia and defiance. For all its relaxed pace, it bears an underlying sense of unease. The next section continues the melancholy mood, with several disturbing climaxes rising up from the general mood of meditation. In marked contrast, the third movement (the last to be written) is a hearty scherzo, reminiscent of Beethoven’s grand symphonic jests. It is driven by an immense fund of energy, and Brahms gives its texture extra sparkle by including the silvery tinkling of the triangle.

The finale (which introduces the dark, forceful sound of trombones for the first time in this work) resumes the symphony’s overall mood of tragedy. Brahms gave it the form of a passacaglia. This type of piece, favored by many composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, consists of a set of continuous variations over an unchanging ground bass. Brahms’ passacaglia plays a direct tribute to the Baroque era as well, based as it is on the melody of the final chorus from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata No. 150, a piece which had not been published at the time but which Brahms knew from a copyist’s manuscript given to him by an eminent Bach scholar, Philipp Spitta.

Conductor Siegfried Ochs recalled a conversation he witnessed (in about 1880), between Brahms and Bülow. “In order to demonstrate what a work of art (this Bach cantata) was, Brahms went to the piano and played part of the passacaglia which forms its climax and conclusion. He first played the bass, upon which the whole piece is built, then proceeded to the passacaglia itself. Bülow listened to all this with only cold admiration, and made the objection that the great climax, which was clearly Bach’s intellectual conception of it, could hardly be brought out with the desired force by singing voices. ‘That has occurred to me, too,’ said Brahms. ‘What would you think of a symphonic movement written on this theme some day? But it is too heavy, too straightforward. It would have to be altered in some way.’” From this theme, Brahms constructed a starker and weightier passacaglia than any written before. It builds an inexorable sense of tragic momentum right up to its uncompromisingly stern conclusion.

© 2012 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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