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February 1, 2014

February 2014 Program Notes

Tonight's program consists of two works written in the mid-1820s. The first is a concerto by a 14-year-old prodigy, first performed by himself and friends in his own home. The second is a symphony by a 29-year-old at the height of his powers, but who never heard it performed in public during his lifetime. In fact, the symphony was given its world premiere a decade after the composer’s tragically early death—under the baton of the same prodigy who had matured into a renowned composer and conductor.

FELIX MENDELSSOHN

Born Hamburg, 3 February 1809; died Leipzig, 4 November 1847.

Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings in D minor

First performed 25 May 1823 for invited guests in the composer’s Berlin home, with Eduard Rietz, violin, and the composer at the piano, and for the general public at the Berlin Schauspielhaus on 3 July with the same soloists. The score calls for string ensemble plus solo violin and piano, and lasts about 33 minutes. 

Felix Mendelssohn came from a wealthy banking family who settled in Berlin during his early childhood. His grandfather was the well-known philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, but his parents sought to downplay their Jewish background, adding the surname Bartholdy from his mother’s family. Felix’s enormous musical talents were recognized at an early age (as were those of his sister Fanny), and before he was 15 he had written a dozen string symphonies, considerable chamber music, and several concertos: one for violin, another for piano, two for two pianos, and a double concerto for violin, piano and strings. These considerably predate Mendelssohn’s best-known concertos, those for piano, designated “Nos. 1 and 2,” from the 1830s, and the beloved Violin Concerto in E minor of 1844—though already at 16 he had written his celebrated Octet for Strings, and at 17 the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture.

The early concertos were performed at “musicales” (private concerts) in the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy home for about 60 guests, and some were given public performances as well; but in later years they were almost entirely forgotten until their rediscovery at the Berlin State Library in 1950 and eventual publication. Mendelssohn wrote his Violin and Piano Concerto in D minor for himself at the keyboard and his violin instructor and friend Eduard Rietz. He was 14, an astonishing age for a composer of music of this quality—and for a pianist capable of mastering the piano part. He may have intended to add winds and timpani to the string accompaniment, but the music was evidently not performed again until 1957. In recent years it has received increasing attention from well-known virtuosi and been recorded a number of times.

The Concerto opens briskly (Allegro) with the string orchestra alone: the exposition has an almost stern, certainly determined, opening theme and a somewhat more lyrical second theme in a major key. When it comes time for the restatement of the exposition with the soloists, first the piano enters, then the violin, each with a grand flourish before getting down to business. The more lyrical theme is “sung” by the violin, with delicate piano accompaniment. In the course of the movement’s constant interplay between the soloists the mood shifts between playful, highly dramatic, tender and stormy.

In the slow movement (Adagio) the string orchestra plays a lovely opening passage but then largely steps aside as the piano and the violin in turn take up the melody, and the rest of the movement becomes a rapturous duet. There is a certain amount of Classical restraint but also a good deal of Romantic outpouring of feeling, all of which the young composer keeps elegantly in balance.

The piano opens the Finale (Allegro molto), soon followed by the violin, with the string orchestra making its own interjections. The pace is quicker that of the first movement—almost breathless, like a number of later Mendelssohn finales—though it slows down for a few pensive moments. The virtuosity of the two soloists is prominently displayed, but the teenage Mendelssohn, as he would time and again in later works, also exhibits his talent for keeping the pace from being unduly frantic while still exciting.

FRANZ SCHUBERT

Born Vienna, 31 January 1797; died Vienna, 19 November 1828.

Symphony No. 9, in C major (the “Great”)

Composed in 1825-26, the work was evidently performed privately, at least in part, by musicians of the Vienna Society of the Friends of Music, but given its first public performance by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn, 21 March 1839. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings. Performance time is about 47 minutes.

Though Franz Schubert was fairly well known and admired in the Vienna of his day as a writer of songs (Lieder), none of his symphonies were publicly performed in his lifetime. Still, he continued to compose symphonies, perhaps hearing private run-throughs by musicians under the auspices of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Friends of Music) of Vienna. The “Great” C Major (so-called in later times because Schubert had written a fine but “lesser” C major symphony already, No. 6) was his seventh completed symphony. But because he also sketched an incomplete E minor symphony (often designated “No. 7”) and then completed the first two movements of a symphony in B minor (the celebrated “Unfinished,” first performed in 1865) before writing the “Great” C Major, the latter is usually listed as “No. 9.” (Schubert also sketched a tenth symphony which one scholar has shaped into a performing edition.)

When Robert Schumann—an important music critic as well as composer—visited Vienna in 1837-38 he acquired a copy of the “Great” C major from Schubert’s brother Ferdinand. Schumann showed the score to Felix Mendelssohn, who led the premiere performance (with cuts) with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1839. Schumann wrote a glowing review, citing in particular the symphony’s “heavenly length” (“like a 4-volume novel,” he added), especially in regard to the second movement.

The “Great” C Major is an astonishingly original work—so much so that decades passed before it was frequently performed. It made more of an impact on the styles of late-Romantic composers, notably Anton Bruckner, than on Mendelssohn’s and Schumann’s own generation.  Though it follows the four-movement layout of the Classical symphony, it is on an unusually grand scale, and is daring in its harmonies, intricate in its thematic structures, and yet starkly simple in certain respects: for example, note the way in which each movement contains a sequence merely of four repeated notes—a pattern whose true importance becomes stunningly revealed in the Finale. The “Great” C major also makes more prominent use of trombones than previous symphonies, except for Schubert’s own “Unfinished.” (Beethoven was the first major composer to use trombones in a symphony, but more sparingly, and only in his Fifth, Sixth and Ninth.) Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Schubert’s Ninth upon a first hearing is its powerful rhythmic drive. Beethoven’s Seventh provided Schubert with a model, but arguably no symphony (or ballet, for that matter) before or after Schubert’s Ninth surpasses it in sheer sustained yet varied rhythmic momentum.

 The work opens boldly with an Andante statement from the horns alone: an 8-bar melody that divides not into the usual 4+4 bars but surprisingly into 3+3+2, with the final two repeating Bar 6 at half-speed. Bar 2 in itself will become an important kernel for later development. After the melody is restated in a variety of ways leading to a grand climax, the tempo shifts to the Allegro ma non troppo (fast but not too fast) of the main part of the movement, which leaps forward in both dotted and triple rhythms. The woodwinds offer a contrasting theme, some say with a Hungarian flavor, and the trombones will introduce a more mysterious theme derived from Bar 2 of the symphony. After extensive development of the themes, including material from the Introduction, and recapitulation of the Allegro, the tempo speeds up for the coda (the concluding section), and the Introduction’s horn theme is triumphantly restated to end the movement.

The “slow” movement is not so slow: it is a kind of march, strangely jaunty and melancholy at the same time, with passages that seem distinctly military with little fanfares in the accompaniment, and other passages rich in lyrical melody. There are unexpected shifts in mood: notice, for example, the dreamlike moment in which the horns (and later, woodwinds) sound like the tolling of a bell against shifting harmonies in the strings. Eventually there is a buildup to a terrifying climax, with brass fanfares that seem downright apocalyptic: this is followed by dead silence, before the rhythm picks up again, first haltingly with pizzicato strings, like a heartbeat, before the original march music returns.

The Scherzo-and-Trio movement, in three-quarter time, is infectiously joyful and very Viennese in feeling. Much of the music is waltz-like, though some of the accents on the third beat suggest a more country-style dance. The Scherzo section that opens and closes the movement is ingeniously constructed in sonata form, with appropriate shifts of key, while the middle Trio section is a great surge of melodies in yet a different key. Typically the Trio section of a symphony is more lightly scored, more gentle, than the Scherzo sections that surround it, but Schubert’s Trio is a yet grander outpouring.

As for the stupendous Finale, it starts off with a fanfare like racehorses bolting from the starting gate and essentially does not let up, though its rhythmic patterns are varied and we hear a constant play of contrasts between loud and soft. After the breathless opening material, the winds intone a theme that begins with a single note repeated four times, and continues with the strings accompanying them with what one commentator calls an “equestrian” rhythm. The development section (for this movement too is in sonata form) begins with what sounds like a quotation from the “Ode to Joy” movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (which Schubert likely heard at its May 1824 premiere)—quoted either unconsciously or as an homage to Beethoven or as a coded “message” about joy. The recapitulation leads to a massive coda, an outburst of primal energy to which the entire symphony has been moving.

Perhaps Robert Schumann should be given the last word: “Deep down in this symphony there lies more than mere song, more than mere joy and sorrow . . . it transports us into a world where we cannot recall ever having been before.”

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