Program Notes: Rachmaninoff and Brahms

Program Notes: Rachmaninoff and Brahms

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Full program notes:

Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz
Born: December 11, 1803, La Côte-St. André, Grenoble
Died: March 8, 1869, Paris

Roman Carnival Overture

Berlioz made a characteristic choice when he decided to write his first opera about Benvenuto Cellini, the 16th-century goldsmith, sculptor, adventurer— and author of a self-conscious autobiography. Berlioz, who would later write his own splendidly self-conscious autobiography, was strongly drawn to the figure of Cellini, but the opera was a complete failure at its premiere in Paris in September 1838. It had only four performances, French audiences sneered at it as “Malvenuto Cellini,” and Berlioz noted, with typical detachment, that after the overture “the rest was hissed with admirable energy and unanimity.” Liszt led a successful revival at Weimar in 1852, but Benvenuto Cellini has not held the stage.

an overture that outshines the opera

Berlioz was stung by the failure of the opera, but he continued to love its music, and years later he would speak of its “variety of ideas, an impetuous verve, and a brilliancy of musical coloring.” In 1843, five years after the failed premiere, he pulled out two of its themes and from them fashioned an overture that he planned to use as an introduction to the second tableau of the opera set in Rome’s Piazza Colonna during carnival season. Those two themes are the aria “O Teresa, vous que j’aime plus que la vie,” which Benvenuto sings to his 17-yearold lover in the first tableau, and the saltarello from the second tableau, which the players from Cassandro’s theater dance to attract crowds during the pre-Lenten festivities. Berlioz may have intended that his new overture would serve as part of the opera, but when he led the overture as a concert piece in Paris on February 3, 1844, it was such a success that it had to be encored, and it has become one of his most popular works on its own, entirely divorced from the opera that gave it life.

The Roman Carnival Overture, as this music was eventually named, opens with a great flourish that hints at the saltarello theme to be heard later—Berlioz marks this flourish Allegro assai and further specifies that it should be con fuoco, “with fire.” The music quickly settles as the English horn sings Benvenuto’s plaintive love song, and this is extended briefly before the music leaps ahead at the saltarello, originally a dance from the Mediterranean area in a lively 6/8 meter. This is a wonderful moment: the crispness of Berlioz’s rhythmic energy is nicely underlined by his decision to keep the strings muted during the first part of the saltarello. Along its spirited way, Berlioz brings back the love-song theme and turns it into a fugato, and there is some deft combination of the main ideas. Finally, though, it is the dance that triumphs, and Berlioz’ ending explodes with all the sonic fireworks appropriate to a carnival in Rome.

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Born: April 1, 1873, Oneg, Novgorod
Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43

In the spring of 1934 Rachmaninoff, then 61, and his wife moved into a villa they had just built on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. They were delighted by the house, its opulent size and its view across the beautiful lake. Rachmaninoff was especially touched to find a surprise waiting for him there: the Steinway Company of New York had delivered a brand new piano to the villa.

a tune that beckons composers

Rachmaninoff spent the summer gardening and landscaping, and he also composed. Between July 3 and August 24 he wrote a set of variations for piano and orchestra on what is doubtless the most varied theme in the history of music, the last of Niccolo Paganini’s Twenty- Four Caprices for Solo Violin. Paganini had written that devilish tune, full of rhythmic spring and chromatic tension, in 1820, and he himself had followed it with 12 variations. That same theme has haunted composers through each century since—resulting in variations on it by Liszt (Transcendental Etudes), Schumann (12 Concert Etudes) and Brahms (the two sets of Paganini Variations) in the 19th century, followed in the 20th century by Witold Lutoslawksi, Boris Blacher and George Rochberg. And there may be more to come.

After considering several titles for his new work, the composer settled on Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a title that places the focus on melody and somewhat disguises the ingenious variation-technique at the center of this music. The first performance, with the composer as soloist, took place in Baltimore on November 7, 1934, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Pleased and somewhat surprised by the work’s reception, Rachmaninoff observed dryly: “It somehow looks suspicious that the Rhapsody has had such an immediate success with everybody.”

bravura solos, brilliant contrasts

The Rhapsody has a surprising beginning: a brief orchestral flourish containing hints of the theme leads to the first variation, which is presented before the theme itself is heard. This gruff and hard-edged variation, which Rachmaninoff marks Precedente, is in fact the bass line for Paganini’s theme, which is then presented in its original form by both violin sections in unison. Some of the variations last a matter of minutes, while others whip past almost before we know it (several are as short as 19 seconds). The 24 variations contrast sharply in both character and tempo, and the fun of this music lies not just in the bravura writing for piano but in hearing Paganini’s theme sound so different in each variation. In three of them, Rachmaninoff incorporates the old plainsong tune Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) used by Berlioz, Saint-Saëns and many others, including Rachmaninoff, for whom this grim theme was a virtual obsession. Here it appears in the piano part in the seventh and tenth variations, and eventually it drives the work to its climax.

Perhaps the most famous of Rachmaninoff’s variations, though, is the 18th, in which Paganini’s theme is inverted and transformed into a moonlit lovesong. The piano states this variation in its simplest form, and then strings take it up and turn it into a soaring nocturne. The 18th variation has haunted many Hollywood composers, and Rachmaninoff himself noted wryly that he had written it specifically as a gift “for my agent.”

From here on, the tempo picks up, and the final six variations accelerate to a monumental climax. The excitement builds, the Dies Irae is stamped out by the full orchestra, and suddenly, like a puff of smoke, the Rhapsody vanishes before us on two quick strokes of sound.

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms
Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68

A momentous encounter took place on September 30, 1853, the day on which Robert Schumann noted in his diary, “Brahms to see me (a genius).”

Touring Germany as pianist for the Hungarian violinist Reményi, the 20-year-old Brahms had detoured through Düsseldorf in order to pay a call on Schumann, his artistic ideal. For his part, Schumann was so impressed with both the compositions and the keyboard skills of his visitor that he hailed the “young eagle” in a prophetic article published in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. When success and fame came quickly to Brahms, everyone took for granted that he would soon produce a symphony in the Beethoven mold.

They waited a long time. “To write a symphony is no joke,” Brahms explained, ultimately postponing his debut as a symphonist until the age of 40. Few challenges have occupied a composer over so long a time. Finally, more than two decades after he had first contemplated such a project, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 resonated in the hall at Karlsruhe on November 4, 1876. It was a triumph.

“savior” of Viennese tradition

Just three months before the C-minor Symphony debuted, Richard Wagner also realized an ambitious pursuit: three complete performances of his gigantic Ring cycle at the festival theater built expressly for it at Bayreuth. To the conservative faction, at odds with the Gesamtkunstwerk (the “total work of art” represented by the composerdramatist Wagner), Brahms’ persuasive symphony had not appeared a moment too soon. To them, he was the savior of the heathen—those lured from Viennese tradition by the extravagant wiles of Wagnerism. Thus the Symphony No. 1 caught on fast, and with the rapid proliferation of orchestras across the United States it became a staple of the repertory on two continents.

Contrast between the beginning of Paganinni and Rachmaninoffs 18th variation
Upper staff: the opening of Paganini’s melody; lower staff: the beginning of Rachmaninoff’s 18th variation, where he turns the melody upside down.

To the relief of the musical world, Brahms had demonstrated the ongoing vitality of the Viennese classical tradition. Affirmed by a new and original voice, the Beethoven principles stood up very well. Hans von Bülow referred to Brahms’ First as “the Tenth”—an epithet that flattered as well as provoked the composer. But Bülow only meant that Brahms was carrying on where Beethoven had left off. Not superficial resemblances, but a kinship of creative spirit and architectural mastery linked the two great symphonists.

the music

un poco sostenuto—allegro. There is no mistaking the characteristic Brahms tone in the powerful introduction, where a ponderous throbbing in the bass underlies the anguished double theme upon which the symphony embarks. As a chromatic motif struggles upward in the violins, a companionate thought descends in the winds, these conjunctive strands forming a motto that unifies the movement and is prophetic of the Allegro about to erupt. Winds drive it to a piercing start, and what before was melancholy now emerges fierce and ready for combat.

andante sostenuto. Whereas the dramatic opening movement was drawn from a dark palette, the slow interlude is sketched in pastel tones suited to its chamberlike intimacy. Strings, with a lone bassoon, give out the instrumental song, which is soon upstaged by a lyric oboe theme that becomes the heart of a trio in which horn and violin join.

un poco allegretto e grazioso. Since a quicksilver scherzo would have been incompatible with the basic temperament of this granitic work, Brahms offers a thoughtful rather than impetuous intermezzo, unfolding upon a brace of themes.

adagio—più andante—allegro non troppo, ma con brio. The mighty portal to the finale—austere, even hinting at tragedy—makes way for a statement of great purpose. When this strain’s resemblance to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy theme was pointed out to Brahms, he curtly rejoined: “Any jackass can see that.” Analysis, however, dilutes the resemblance.

The late Donald N. Ferguson, who annotated the then- Minneapolis Symphony’s 1954 performance of this work under Pierre Monteux, has left a succinct commentary on the rest of the movement:

“In the course of the development a horn-call from the introduction (Brahms heard it in the Alps, and it seems to have become for him a symbol of spiritual freedom) is made to achieve great vividness. After this, a recapitulation, which however lacks the principal subject, leads to the coda. Here the joyous energy that was born of the introduction reaches incredible vigor and becomes almost hoarse with triumph. Significant in this great outburst is a religious-sounding phrase in the brass which serves, as did the chorale theme in the first movement, to suggest that the energies displayed are directed towards a purpose not discoverable on the plane of the earth.”

Johannes Brahms music room
Brahms’ music room, with a seven-foot Streicher piano illuminated by an electric lamp, and a bust of Beethoven—considerably higher on the wall than a relief of Bismarck.

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

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