Logo

Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

Home   /   Concerts   /   Program Notes   /   November 11, 2017 Pr...
October 30, 2017

November 11, 2017 Program Notes

ANTONIN DVORAK
Born Nelehozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic), 8 September 1841; died Prague, 1 May 1904.
Slavonic Dance No. 1 in C major, Op. 46, No. 1.
Dvorak’s first set of eight Slavonic Dances was composed in 1878; No. 1 was first heard in Prague at a concert for the Association of Czech Journalists, 16 May 1878, Adolf Čech conducting. The work is scored for piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets. 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, and strings. Performance time is about 4 minutes. The SSO performed it 18 November 1995, Guy Victor Bordo conducting.

Dvorak had written five symphonies (unpublished), a piano concerto and numerous chamber and vocal works by the time he composed his first set of Slavonic Dances, Opus 46. But it was the Dances that propelled him into international fame: for example, they were the very first music by Dvorak to be heard in Great Britain.

Dvorak wrote the set of eight at the suggestion of his new Berlin publisher, who wanted something in the manner of Johannes Brahms’ extremely popular Hungarian Dances. Dvorak wrote the music first for piano duet, then orchestrated it. Naturally—considering the Dances’ success—the publisher wanted a second set, but Dvorak resisted for eight years, at one point writing, “You will forgive me but I simply haven’t the slightest inclination to think of such light music now.  . . You imagine composition to be much easier than it actually is—it is only possible to start when one feels enthusiasm.” Ultimately he did produce an equally admired set of eight, his Opus 72.

Opus 46 No. 1 is a “furiant,” a type of Bohemian dance. A furiant is in 3/4 time but starts out with accents that make it sound twice as slow--i.e., in 3/2 time. Dvorak’s furiant sounds wild and abandoned yet well under control at the same time. A middle section is more waltz-like and graceful. After the furiant section returns, the waltz theme will return once more, very quietly, before the brilliant close.

 

JOHANNES BRAHMS
Born Hamburg, 7 May 1833; died Vienna, 3 April 1897.
Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op. 102.
Composed in 1887 and premiered 18 October of that year, with violinist Joseph Joachim, cellist Robert Hausmann, and the Gürtzenich Orchestra of Cologne led by Brahms. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings, with solo violin and cello. Duration is about 35 minutes. The Double Concerto was last performed by the SSO with Wolfgang Engels and Kalman Dobos (violin and cello), Manuel Prestamo conducting, 28 April 1990.

“Double concertos”—that is, ones written for two solo instruments with orchestra—were popular in the time of Vivaldi and Bach, and hardly unknown to Mozart (who wrote ones for violin-and-viola, flute-and-harp and two pianos), but extremely rare in the Nineteenth Century, when the norm was the Romantic virtuoso standing out (or even pitted) against the symphony orchestra. (The teenage Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin and Piano is one of the very few from that era performed today.) So Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello was strikingly unusual in 1887—and its composition was prompted by unusual personal circumstances.

Brahms’ friend Robert Hausmann, a distinguished cellist, asked him to write a concerto for him. At the same time, Brahms was looking for a way to repair the breach in his friendship with Joseph Joachim, the great violin virtuoso for whom he had written his Violin Concerto (1878) and other works. Brahms had provided written support for Joachim’s wife during a bitter divorce struggle, and Joachim had stopped speaking to him (though he hadn’t ceased to play Brahms’ music). When Brahms proposed writing a double concerto for Joachim and their mutual friend Hausmann, the violinist reconciled with the composer. It is tempting to imagine that the warmhearted melody the two soloists play in unison in the second movement was meant as a symbol of the friendship that Brahms hoped his concerto would reinstate.

I. Allegro. The bold, angular theme stated by the full orchestra leads at once to a vigorous cadenza for the solo cellist. Next, a tender second theme played by woodwinds leads to the violinist’s own cadenza, which turns into an intricate duet. Introductions out of the way, the first movement “proper” begins. Brahms’ overall structure for this movement is traditional: an “exposition” section for full orchestra, a repeat of the section with the soloists joining in, a “development” (free fantasia on the themes of the exposition), and a “recapitulation” of the opening section, with a freer “coda” to conclude. But Brahms plays brilliantly within the tradition to create an original and quite passionate movement, occupying about half the length of the whole concerto. Particularly notable, besides the off-kilter rhythmic accents, are the many dramatic pauses—one could almost call them outbursts of silence.

II. Andante. In contrast to the spiky complexity of the first movement, the opening of the Andante is almost a lullaby, as the two soloists plus the full strings play a serene melody in unison. A middle section features the woodwinds with a new, equally flowing theme as the soloists seem to improvise against it. The string melody returns with more elaborate interweaving of phrases and a return of the woodwind theme before the gentle close.

III. Vivace non troppo. Like many of Brahms’ finales, this one has a Hungarian or Gypsy flair, heard in the cello’s opening theme, soon taken up by the violin and then forcefully by the full orchestra. A series of contrasting episodes follows, with noble and stately themes offered by either the duo or the orchestra, but the Gypsy theme returns after each episode.

The Double Concerto was not widely appreciated when it was first performed: critics accused it of being overly “intellectual,” lacking warmth and true inspiration. Even Brahms’ great friend Clara Schumann didn’t “get” it. But beginning in the 1920s, with celebrated violin-cello duos championing the piece, Brahms’ final concerto and indeed final orchestral work has come to be treasured by audiences. And it seems to have inspired many another composer: the violin-cello concerto was an unknown entity in Brahms’ day, but Wikipedia lists nearly 50 such works composed since 1910.

 

ANTONIN DVORAK
Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) in E minor, Op. 95.
Composed 1893 and first performed in Carnegie Hall 16 December of that year with the New York Philharmonic, Anton Seidl conducting. The work is scored for 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals and strings. Performance time is approximately 40 minutes.

The SSO first performed the “Largo” from the “New World” Symphony at a 1 June 1921 concert, Theodore Winkler conducting. The most recent performance of the full symphony was 25 March 2006, with guest conductor Cornelia Kodkani-Laemmli.

Dvorak himself gave his Ninth Symphony the subtitle “From the New World.” But did he simply mean, “I wrote it in New York City”—as he himself claimed in at least one interview? Or did he mean something like “My symphony is enriched by the American music I have been hearing since arrival in this country”? In other interviews he did say that the second and third movements portrayed scenes from Longfellow’s narrative poem The Song ofHiawatha, which he had read in Czech translation years ago and still loved. And in his first months in the U.S. he did listen to performances of Negro spirituals, Stephen Foster songs, and Americanized Irish/Scottish folktunes, and saw some transcriptions of American Indian melodies. (The latter were of doubtful accuracy, to be sure; he would later hear Native American performers after he moved to Iowa as part of his three-year American sojourn.)

But a good number of musical historians have claimed that every bar of the “New World” Symphony could have been written if Dvorak had never left Prague, or at least Central Europe. Whatever the case, even if Czech listeners picture Bohemia’s meadows and fields as they hear the symphony, Americans are likely to conjure up very different images, especially since a great many U.S. composers after 1893 were influenced by the “New World” and other works of Dvorak’s American years, and countless film scores have echoed the melodies, rhythms and distinctive orchestrations of the piece. Listeners hearing the low-register flute melody in the first movement may surely be forgiven if they picture a moonlit lakeside campfire scene from The Song of Hiawatha, or imagine a buckboard bouncing across a prairie during the second theme of the Scherzo.

I. Adagio--Allegro molto. A brooding and mysterious introduction soon crackles with tension (enforced by the kettledrums) as a hint of the main theme is heard. This fragment of a melody with its rising-and-falling arc will recur in all four movements. The Allegro molto is intensely dramatic as it develops the rising-and-falling theme, but also features less hard-driven passages: a secondary theme played by the flutes, and a third theme that many listeners hear as a compressed version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (the spiritual originating in the 1870s). This last melody has the opposite arc of the first theme: it falls then rises, almost a mirror image of the main theme.

II. Largo. A series of haunting chords introduces the famous English horn theme of the slow movement: for many listeners one of the most perfect matches of a melody with a given instrument’s unique timbre. A middle section seems powerfully nostalgic, even downright desolate or tragic. A brief joyfully pastoral moment with birdcalls is followed by a sudden outburst of the mirrored themes of the first movement, overlaid with the opening of the English horn melody now played by the trumpets. The English horn returns with the full melody, and the movement ends with the haunting chords that began it.

III. Scherzo: Molto vivace—poco sostenuto. Dvorak’s scherzo is as dramatically intense as his first movement, with an echo of another famous scherzo with prominent timpani: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This opening section is interrupted by a more expansive theme (suggestive of the “open prairie” to many), but the hard-driving opening returns. A hint of the first movement’s rising-and-falling theme leads to the Trio proper: a surging, utterly Dvorakian melody followed by playful trills in the woodwinds. The opening section of the scherzo is repeated, this time ending with the horns more forcefully bringing back the rising-and-falling theme amid the driving rhythms of the scherzo.

IV. Allegro con fuoco. The first bars are “with fire/fury” indeed, as the horns and trumpets proclaim the main theme of this movement. Later the mood shifts greatly, if momentarily, when the solo clarinet plays a plaintive new theme. In the development section of this movement the English horn melody from the Largo turns out to play a major role, and the return of the opening section is much compressed. As the music reaches climax after climax in its final pages, themes from all three previous movements are interwoven in an emotionally overwhelming conclusion.

Share this on: