The following program notes are copyright Susan Halpern 2014. Overture to the Romantic Opera, The Flying Dutchman . . . Richard Wagner
(Born May 22, 1813, in Leipzig, died February 13, 1883, in Venice)
In the folklore of the sea, The Flying Dutchman is the name of a ghost ship that is an omen of disaster when it is seen in stormy weather off the Cape of Good Hope. This legend captured the Romantic imagination, and a version of it by the German poet, Heinrich Heine, became the basis of Wagner's libretto for his opera. The plot of the opera tells the tale of an old Dutch sea captain who battles his way around the Cape of Good Hope in a furious tempest. He swears that he will round the Cape if it takes an eternity. For his blasphemous oath, he is condemned by the Devil to sail with his crew forever, unless he is able to gain the love of a virtuous woman who will be loyal to him until death. Only such faithful love could redeem him. In order to search for such love, he is allowed to go ashore once every seven years. One of those seventh year respites is at hand: the Dutchman puts into port on the coast of Norway, alongside the ship of the Norwegian captain, Daland. It is Daland's daughter, Senta, who brings about the Dutchman's salvation with her love.
In 1839, Wagner's twoyear contract as Music Director of the Riga Opera expired and he decided to make his way to Paris. At what was then the Prussian port of Königsberg, he boarded a small sailing vessel that was bound for London. “I shall never forget that voyage,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It lasted three and a half weeks and was weighted with disaster. Three times we nearly foundered in the storm. The story of the Flying Dutchman was told by the sailors.” When he arrived in Paris, Wagner set to work on the text of what would become the opera, The Flying Dutchman, and soon sold the scenario to the manager of the opera, who originally commissioned another, now forgotten, composer to write the music.
Wagner's opera was first performed in Dresden, in 1843. The Overture is a musical summary of the whole work, including the storm at sea, the doleful Dutchman and his curse, the love of the maiden Senta, and the songs of the ship's crew.
The work is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4, in G Major, Op. 58. . .Ludwig van Beethoven
(Born December 17, 1770, in Bonn; died March 26, 1827, in Vienna)
In Beethoven's fertile creative life, no time was more productive than the years 1805 and 1806. In 1804, Beethoven had reached the climax of his early career with the completion of the Eroica Symphony, his third symphony, which music historians often call a turning point in the history of music. During the next two years, in his midthirties, he proved he was not just another young composer of great promise, but rather the mature possessor of musical powers without precedent.
Beethoven completed the Piano ConcertoNo. 4 sometime around the middle of 1806; he was the soloist in its first performance in March 1807 in one of a pair of private concerts devoted entirely to his music at the palace of his generous friend, Prince Lobkowitz. In August 1808, this concerto was published with a dedication to Archduke Rudolph, the Emperor's youngest son, who had been studying piano and composition with him since 1804. Beethoven was eager to give a public performance of the concerto, but he had difficulty finding a hall free on a good date. A single official of the Imperial Court was both director of theaters and supervisor of charities; he finally gave Beethoven use of the Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808 in exchange for his services at three benefit concerts.
Concerto No. 4 had difficulty joining the standard repertoire. Its immediate antecedent, PianoConcerto No. 3, is easier to play, and the final Beethoven concerto, Piano Concerto No. 5 is more imposing. Both overshadowed this work, but finally, Mendelssohn established a place for it in the concert repertoire in his second season as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus (Draper Hall) Orchestra. On November 3, 1838, Robert Schumann wrote, “Today Mendelssohn played the GMajor Concerto of Beethoven with a power and polish that transported us all. I took a pleasure in it such as I have never before enjoyed, and I sat in my seat without moving a muscle or even breathing.” The concerto is enormously difficult to play, but it differs greatly from the usual virtuoso concerto of the time because the purpose of all its difficulties is to express the composer's complex ideas, not to display the pianist’s skills. The orchestra does not just fill musical time and space around the soloist, but rather participates fully and equally in a dialogue between orchestra and piano.
The first movement, Allegro moderato, does not open with the conventional orchestral exposition of the principal ideas, which then the soloist ordinarily restates, weighted somewhat differently. The piano begins instead, with an ambiguous phrase, almost as though in midsentence. The orchestra answers, and only then does it begin the main theme. Phrases and musical sentences, in piano and orchestra, are often telescoped, run together as though in a rush to get on to a new idea before quite finishing with the old one. The ideas are warm, personal, witty, heroic, or even severe, as the conversation takes many turns. There are references to Mozart and the past, suggestions of Brahms and the future, and (in the third movement) even discussions of a subject heard in the Ninth Symphony that Beethoven would write more than fifteen years later.
In the second movement, Andante con moto, the piano persistently answers forceful statements of the orchestra's strings until the orchestra becomes calmed. The entire movement seems like a recitative and arioso, dramatic but not especially operatic, and it runs without pause into the taut Rondo finale, Vivace. The orchestration calls for flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. It is interesting to note that after completing the score, Beethoven made some changes in the piano part to reflect the extended range available on the newest instruments.
Symphony No. 4, in E minor, Op. 98 . . . Johannes Brahms
(Born May 7, 1833, in Hamburg; died April 3, 1897, in Vienna)
Brahms spent a large part of his early years wandering from one city to another, meeting many of the important participants in Germany’s decentralized musical life and broadening his artistic horizons. When he was in his twenties, he held a post at the court of a minor principality. He settled in Vienna when he was in his thirties, and like Beethoven before him and Mahler after, he soon began to spend his summers in the country. In the winters, Brahms polished his recent compositions and planned his next ones, but the serious business of invention and creation were summer activities for him.
Brahms wrote his Symphony No. 4, two movements each summer, during 1884 and 1885, in the Styrian Alps of Austria. Returning from a mountain walk one day, he discovered his lodgings on fire, but fortunately his friends had been able to carry most of his books and music out of the burning house. Fortuitously, the manuscript of this symphony was among the papers saved.
Hans von Bülow prepared the orchestra for the first performance of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 at the court of the Duke of Meiningen, and Brahms conducted the première on October 25, 1885. A week later, Bülow had his chance to conduct the new work, and in November, Brahms and von Bülow set off on a concert tour of Germany and the Netherlands with the new symphony in their repertoire. The work was slow to win public favor. Even in Brahms’s own Vienna, the symphony disappointed his friends and delighted his enemies. Twelve years later there was an extraordinary performance of the symphony again in Vienna. Fatally ill with a disease of the liver, Brahms made his last public appearance at a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on March 7, 1897, at which the Symphony No. 4 was played. The composer’s English pupil, Florence May, described the touching scene:
The Fourth Symphony had never become a favorite work in Vienna, had not gained much more from the general public than the respect accorded there to any important work by Brahms. Today, however, a storm of applause broke out at the end of the first movement, not to be quieted until the composer, coming to the front of the box in which he was seated, showed himself to the audience. The demonstration was renewed after the second and third movements, and an extraordinary scene followed the conclusion of the work. The applauding, shouting house, its gaze riveted on the figure standing in the balcony, seemed unable to let him go. Tears ran down his cheeks as he stood there, shrunken in form, with lined countenance, strained expression, white hair hanging lank, and through the audience there was a feeling as of a stifled sob, for each knew that they were saying farewell. Another outburst of applause, and yet another; one more acknowledgment from the master, and Brahms and his Vienna had parted forever.”
Considered by some to be Brahms’ most stimulating symphonic work, the fourth symphony is undoubtedly now one of the cornerstones of the symphonic repertoire. This austere symphony, which has been called an “elegiac” and a “character symphony,” reflects the earnestness and introspection of Brahms’s late years.
The first movement, Allegro non troppo, which begins lyrically, becomes alternately contemplative and dramatic, and it builds to a very dramatic and tension filled climax. The second, Andante moderato, with its air of nostalgia and serenity, is based principally on an austere theme in the old, ecclesiastical Phrygian mode. The contrasting robust third movement is the symphony’s scherzo, Allegro giocoso, although it is only distantly related in form to the classical scherzo of Beethoven. It is capricious and full of high spirits. The finale, Allegro energico e passionato, is a chaconne, (some call it a passacaglia) a set of continuous variations on an eightmeasure theme, based on the chaconne from Bach’s Cantata 150, “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich,” and unleashed by the trombones in triple meter. Of magnificent proportions, the movement is full of richly contrasting orchestral colors. After presenting the theme in the wind instruments, Brahms constructs a monumentally powerful series of thirty variations, carefully controlling the ebb and flow of the music, the continuity, and the contrasts in the eightmeasure phrases, until a brilliant coda brings the symphony to a close.
The score calls for piccolo and two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle and strings.