Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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May 01, 2014

May 2014 Program Notes


Born Eisenach, Germany, 25 March 1685; died Leipzig, 28 July 1750 .

Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, BWV 1047  

The six concertos Bach sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg on 24 March 1721 are presumed to have been performed by Bach’s orchestra in Cöthen sometime earlier; but there is no record of performance of No. 2 before its publication in 1860. The instruments for tonight’s performance are a solo group of violin, flute, oboe and piccolo trumpet, accompanied by strings and harpsichord continuo. Performance time is about 13 minutes.

In 1719 while on a trip to Berlin to buy a new harpsichord for his orchestra back in Cöthen (about 100 miles to the southwest), J.S. Bach met the Margrave of Brandenburg, who asked to see some of his music. Two years later Bach sent him a set of six “concertos for several instruments” and a cover letter indicating that he would be happy to provide further services for the Margrave. No record exists of the Margrave either replying to the letter or having the concertos performed (his orchestra is thought to have been too meager to cover all the parts).

As Kapellmeister for the Prince of Cöthen, Bach must have performed versions of these works with his own ensemble —he had just enough players—and he brought parts with him when he took new employment in Leipzig in 1723; these were transcribed around the time of his death in 1750, the original scores now lost. (Some transcriptions are radically different from the Brandenburg scores, others, including No. 2, almost identical.) Only No. 5, with its dazzling solo harpsichord part, seems to have been played between Bach’s death and the discovery of the Brandenburg manuscript in 1859. And it was only in the 1930s, with the first recordings of the full set, that they began to achieve the tremendous popularity that they retain today.

No. 2 is a magnificent example of the baroque concerto grosso: a multi-movement work, typically fast-slow-fast, in which a group of soloists (the concertino) is contrasted with a larger body (the ripieno). The contrasts, to be sure, are nothing like the extremes of a Romantic concerto or even the genial dialogues in a Mozart concerto, but do involve an intricate interplay between the colors of the instruments and the varying volumes of sound. The concertino for No. 2 is a very unusual one of four high-pitched instruments— clarino trumpet, treble recorder, oboe and violin —while the ripieno is the usual strings plus harpsichord continuo doubling the cello part to provide a harmonic/rhythmic bass line. (In Bach’s orchestra it’s likely that only one player per part was used in the ripieno.) In the slow movement only the solo violin, flute and oboe play, accompanied by the harpsichord and cello, but the finale provides ample opportunity for trumpet display.

Much has been written about the trumpet part: the specific type of instrument Bach wrote it for; the challenges of balancing it against the concertino’s softer players, especially the recorder (or even flute in modern-instrument performances); the possibility of substituting a hunting horn an octave lower, as one of the 1750 transcriptions suggests. Though early 20th-century performances sometimes used a soprano saxophone or Eb clarinet, the part is now typically played by a piccolo trumpet in Bb, transposing from the Concerto’s key of F.



Born Bonn, 17 December 1770; died Vienna, 26 March 1827.

Symphony No. 9, Op. 125

Composed 1822-24 and first performed in Vienna, 7 May 1824, led by Michael Umlauf  with the composer also on the podium. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, strings, 4 vocal soloists and chorus. Duration about 65 minutes. The SSO and Chorus performed the Ninth Symphony most recently on 16 May 1998, Guy Victor Bordo conducting; he also led the Finale alone at the inaugural concert at the Weill Center, 13 October 2001.

Given the chance to time-travel to a famous concert of the past, many a classical-music fan would surely pick the May 7th, 1824 premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The various published reviews plus some diary entries and other recollections are not always in agreement, but clearly it was a momentous occasion.

The venue was Vienna’s Kärtnerthor Theater (where the Hotel Sacher now stands), where Beethoven’s opera Fidelio had been performed ten years earlier. The composer especially wanted this locale because his good friend Ignaz Schuppanagh (once his violin teacher, and founder of a string quartet which premiered many of Beethoven’s own quartets) was the concertmaster of the house orchestra. The players were supplemented by members of Vienna’s Society for the Friends of Music, forming a very large ensemble for the day: 24 violins, 10 violas, 12 cellos and basses, with winds doubled in the louder passages, in addition to the score calling for four horns instead of the usual two; three trombones; and in the Finale, piccolo, contrabassoon and three extra percussion players—not to mention a chorus and four soloists! This was the first performance of a new Beethoven symphony in 10 years, and the house was sold out: only the Emperor’s box was empty.

The program was all-Beethoven, opening with his recent Consecration of the House Overture and the Vienna premiere of three movements from his new Missa Solemnis before the main event, the Ninth Symphony. Though Beethoven had been advertised as the conductor, he was almost completely deaf by this time, and the players and singers had been instructed to follow the beat of the house kapellmeister, Michael Umlauf, also on the podium; doubtless, Schuppanagh assisted as well.

According to all reports it was a less than fully polished performance: there had been only two full rehearsals for music that would have been challenging both technically and in terms of its novelty (what we would call its “modernity”); the tenor and baritone soloists had been hired at practically the last minute, and complained that their parts were too low and too high, respectively; at the performance the sopranos simply dropped out during some of their higher passages, and some of the violins and string basses seemed baffled by their difficult parts. But the crowd (mostly) loved it: there were spontaneous bursts of applause during the Scherzo, especially for the kettledrum solos, and at the end of either the Scherzo or the Finale, the contralto soloist had to take the arm of the deaf composer and encourage him to turn around from his score to face the cheering audience. The reviews indicate awareness that something truly remarkable had transpired that evening, with one critic writing:

“Beethoven…astonished everyone who feared that after ten years of deafness only dry, abstract, unimaginative works could be produced. His new symphony…breathes such a fresh, lively, indeed youthful spirit; so much power, innovation and beauty as ever came from the head of this original man….”

Long before the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven had used a chorus to express the thrill of joy: in his 1808 Choral Fantasy for piano, orchestra and chorus and in the final choruses of Fidelio (1804-14) when the political prisoners are released. As far back as 1793, he had imagined writing a musical setting of Friedrich Schiller’s renowned “Ode to Joy” (1785). Musical sketches for the first movement of the Ninth date back as far as 1816, but Beethoven began concentrating upon the composition of the new symphony in late 1822, after he had negotiated a commission from the London Philharmonic Society. The commission evidently did not forbid initial performances on the Continent, and Beethoven originally thought of premiering the Ninth in Berlin rather than Vienna, because the musical scene of the Austrian capital was then dominated by Italian opera—Gioachino Rossini was all the rage, rather than German music. Only a petition from friends and fans convinced him to present it in Vienna after all.

Countless attempts have been made to articulate a “program” for the Ninth Symphony—to spell out a particular symbolic design for the first three movements that would explain their “rejection” at the beginning of the Finale. But Beethoven’s only statement, other than the words he himself wrote for the baritone to introduce Schiller’s poem, is the music itself.

The first movement is in traditional sonata form but on a monumental scale. (Commentators have long been using cosmic metaphors to describe it, imagining the Creation of the World, revolving galaxies, and other astronomical phenomena.)  It is marked Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso (fast but not too fast, a bit majestically), with a mysterious opening: we hear sustained notes, A and E, from the strings and horns, almost as if the orchestra was tuning, but we can’t tell what key the piece will be in until the thunderous statement of the main theme in D minor. It is difficult to characterize the overall emotional cast of the movement with its constant shift of moods, though many hear a tragic quality, especially because of a passage sounding like a funeral march (the rhythm derived from the main theme) near the end of the movement. Certainly there is an urgency, a rhythmic vitality (as always in Beethoven), a richness in the interplay of memorable themes.

Although the norm in Beethoven’s day was to follow an opening Allegro with a slow (or at least slower) movement, and only then a minuet or scherzo in a faster triple time, Beethoven chose to place his electrifying Molto vivace (very lively) movement second. He didn’t use the term “scherzo” (literally a joking or playful movement), as he had for a number of his other symphonies, perhaps because of the relentless drive and epic dimension of this movement, which partakes in elements of the sonata form with its shift of key and passages of development and reprise. At the end of the main section an acceleration takes us to the more jocular Trio section of the movement (Presto), which is in duple time, and has qualities of a folk dance or round. After the repeat of the main section the acceleration leads us to the Trio again, but only for a moment, before an abrupt ending—surely a joking or playful touch in itself.

The rapturous Adagio molto e cantabile (very slow and singing-style) could hardly be in stronger contrast. Following two bars of introduction we hear a very long-lined melody from the strings, with echoing phrases from woodwinds and horns. A slightly faster Andante moderato melody in three-quarters time alternates with the first melody, which is heard in a number of exquisite variations that allow the various voices of the orchestra—including an unusually rhapsodic fourth horn part—to intertwine.

The shocking opening of the Finale is, quite simply, completely unprecedented in music: a shattering of the form of the Classical symphony, replacing it with a kind of visionary Romanticism. A dissonant outburst from the winds is followed by the cellos and basses “speaking” in a recitativo, i.e., a style of music that in opera and oratorio accompanies the prose dialogue leading to an aria. A second outburst leads to a second recitativo seeming to protest it; this is, astonishingly, followed by the orchestra playing an excerpt from each of the first three movements of the symphony, and the recitativo seeming to say, “No, not this—something else is needed.” Finally the winds suggest the opening bars of a new melody—the “Ode to Joy” tune—and the recitativo assents: in fact, the cellos and basses now play the full melody, joined in two variations by more and more instruments.

Another shock is in store: an even more dissonant outburst returns, but this time it is answered by a human voice: a baritone exclaiming, “Oh friends, not these sounds! Instead, let us strike up more pleasing and joyful ones!” Crying “Freude!” (Joy) and echoed by his counterparts in the chorus, the baritone launches into the first verse of Schiller’s ode, the oboe and clarinet providing a new variation in their accompaniment. More variations follow, with the four soloists and then the full chorus. Eventually, as the chorus pauses on the words “vor Gott” (before God) there is complete silence and then another surprise: the orchestra takes up a variation in “Turkish” style—like a popular wind band with triangle, cymbals and bass drum in a skipping 6/8 tempo. The solo tenor joins in with the word “Froh” (merry or happy), followed by the male chorus, and then the orchestra plunges into a wild fugue on the “Joy” tune, followed by the return of the full chorus.

With the next dramatic pause we hear a new musical theme, underscored by solemn bass trombone, with the words “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” (may all you millions be embraced). This will eventually be interwoven with the “Joy” theme, as the movement takes us through every conceivable kind of joy: from what William Wordsworth called “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” to the wildest ecstasy. Beethoven, who chose only a few verses of Schiller’s poem to set, emphasizes words relating to both the divine—the faith that “a loving Father dwells beyond the stars”—and the earthly, indeed the political: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder!”—All people will become brothers!

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