Program Notes: Vänskä Conducts Schubert

Program Notes: Vänskä Conducts Schubert

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Full program notes:

Johann Sebastian Bach
Born: March 21, 1685, Eisenbach, Germany
Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany


Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major

When Bach assumed the post of Capellmeister to His Most Serene Highness Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, in 1717, he made the move in the hopes of spending the rest of his life there. The court was Calvinist and thus required no church music, and Bach enjoyed the change of not being primarily an organist and the challenge of providing great quantities of solo, chamber and orchestral music.

His new patron, just 23, loved music and played the violin, viola da gamba and keyboards skillfully. But the idyll was spoiled when Bach’s wife died suddenly in the summer of 1720, and the next year the professional scene darkened when the Prince married. His musical interests, Bach recalled later, became “somewhat lukewarm, the more so since the new Princess seemed to be alien to the muses.” In fact the Amusa, as Bach called her, soon died, and Leopold’s second wife was a sympathetic and sensitive patron. But by then Bach was restless and determined to leave.

In 1723 he moved to Leipzig, where he was the City Council’s reluctant third choice as Director of Music at the churches of Saint Thomas and Saint Nicholas, and there he remained until his death in 1750.

Bach was looking around for greener pastures as early as March 1721, when, along with a suitably servile letter, he sent the Margrave of Brandenburg a handsome presentation copy of six concertos he had composed over the last year or so for performance at Cöthen. Bach had met the margrave and played for him in 1719 when he went to Berlin to collect a new harpsichord. (Brandenburg is the Prussian province immediately south and west of Berlin.) The margrave never replied to Bach, nor did he ever use or perhaps even open the score. We are lucky that he at least kept it, because his copy is our only source for these forever vernal concertos, which have been called “the most entertaining music in the world.”

Whenever Bach assembled a collection of pieces, he took pains to make it as diverse as possible, and musicians have always delighted in the wonderful timbral variety of the Brandenburgs. Variety for the sake of entertainment and charm must have been at the forefront of Bach’s mind, but as he worked he must have become more and more fascinated with the compositional possibilities his varied instrumentations suggested. He constantly defines and articulates the succession of musical events by textural-timbral means: the Brandenburg Concertos are, so to speak, about their textures and their color.

the fourth Brandenburg concerto
This concerto has interesting solo-tutti combinations. In the first movement, the solo violin dominates, and the recorders (whose parts are played on flutes in most performances in large halls) are secondary. In the Andante, the flutes dominate, while the violin provides their bass in a vigorous dialogue with full orchestra, which is used in only this one of the Brandenburg slow movements. The orchestra then plays its largest role in the fugal finale, though no violinist negotiating Bach’s scales at about a dozen notes per second will feel that the composer has neglected his soloists.

Instrumentation: solo violin and 2 flutes, with harpsichord and string orchestra

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.

Edward Elgar
Born: June 2, 1857, Broadheath, England
Died: February 23, 1934, Worcester, England

Concerto in E minor for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 85

The Cello Concerto was Elgar’s last important work, completed in the summer of 1919. Into this masterpiece he poured his most personal utterances, underscored by a sense of resignation brought on by the traumas of war. Although he would live another 15 years, this work is from the autumn of his life: his health was already in decline.

The cello’s poignant tone seems to emphasize Elgar’s mood of resignation, which is heightened further by his restraint in use of the orchestra. Yet despite the seeming melancholy of the music, the Cello Concerto has rightfully gained a place not only as one of Elgar’s best-known compositions, but as one of the most exalted works for the solo instrument, a concerto deeply loved by cellists and audiences alike.

The first performance took place in Queen’s Hall, London, on October 26, 1919, with the composer conducting the London Symphony and Felix Salmond as soloist.

a balance of opposites
The Cello Concerto is a work of great beauty and great contradiction. Elgar scores the concerto for a large orchestra, but gives a chamber-like delicacy to much of the music. Moods can change abruptly, from a touching intimacy one moment to extroverted style the next. We almost sense two completely different composers behind the concerto. One is the public Elgar— strong, confident, declarative—while the other is the private Elgar, torn by age and doubt. This strange division lies at the heart of this quietly powerful work.

adagio. We seem to hear the old confident Elgar in the cello’s sturdy opening recitative, marked nobilmente, yet at the main body of the movement things change completely. Without any accompaniment, violas lay out the movement’s haunting main theme, which rocks along wistfully on its 9/8 meter. This somber idea sets the mood for the entire opening movement. Even the second subject, announced by pairs of woodwinds, is derived from this theme. Throughout, Elgar reminds the soloist to play dolcissimo and espressivo.

lento–allegro molto. The first movement is joined to the second by a brief pizzicato reminiscence of the opening recitative, and the solo cello tentatively outlines what will become the main theme of the second movement, a scherzo. Once this movement takes wing, it really flies—it is a sort of perpetual-motion movement, and Elgar marks the cello’s part leggierissimo: “as light as possible.” Tuneful interludes intrude momentarily on the busy progress, but the cello’s breathless rush always returns, and the movement races to a sudden—and pleasing—close.

adagio. The music returns to the mood of the opening movement. Metric units are short here (the marking is 3/8), but Elgar writes long, lyric lines for the soloist, who plays virtually without pause. There is a dreamy, almost disembodied quality to this music, and Donald Francis Tovey caught its mood perfectly when he described the Adagio as “a fairy tale.”

allegro. The finale, cast in rondo form, has an extended introduction, combining orchestral flourishes, bits of the opening recitative and a cadenza for the soloist, before plunging into the main part of the movement, marked Allegro, ma non troppo. This is launched with some of the old Elgarian swagger, and the music at first seems full of enough confidence to knit up the troubled edges of what has gone before.

But this is only a first impression. Gone is the confident energy, and we sense that in place of the music Elgar wanted to write he is giving us the music he had to write. Finally a vigorous recurrence of the bold, swaggering theme sweeps away the memory of things past, and the work concludes on a grand flourish.

Instrumentation: solo cello with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings

Program note by Robert Markow.

Franz Schubert
Born: January 31, 1797, Vienna, Austria
Died: November 19, 1828

Vienna, Austria Symphony in C major, D. 944, The Great

The origins of Franz Schubert’s Great C-major symphony are the stuff of legend. The symphony’s manuscript is dated March 1828, mere months before the composer’s death at age 31. And, as the legend has it, Schubert never heard a note of it: the manuscript was consigned to dusty shelves upon his death, and it was years before the music was performed, much longer before it was understood. Not until 10 years after Schubert’s death did Robert Schumann discover the manuscript of the symphony in Vienna and send it off to Leipzig, where Felix Mendelssohn led the premiere on March 21, 1839. That dramatic beginning established it as one of the masterpieces of the symphonic literature.

the symphony’s true story
This has always made a terrific story, even though much of it is untrue. Recent research, which includes dating the manuscript paper that Schubert used in different years, has shown that he actually composed this symphony during the summer of 1825. He had recently recovered from a serious illness, and now he went on a walking tour of Upper Austria. In the town of Gmunden, mid-way between Salzburg and Linz, Schubert began to sketch a symphony. He worked on it all that summer and over the next two years. (The date “March 1828” on the manuscript may be the date of final revisions.) And Schubert did hear at least some of this music. Orchestral parts were copied, and the orchestra of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde played through it in the composer’s presence before rejecting it as too difficult.

Far from being welcomed into the repertory following Mendelssohn’s premiere, the symphony actually made its way very slowly. Attempts to perform it in London and Paris in the 1840s foundered when players jeered the music and refused to continue because of its difficulty; the American premiere had occurred, in 1851, before this symphony was heard in those two cities. 

a transformative addition
Schubert scores the symphony for Classical orchestra (pairs of winds, plus timpani and strings), but he makes one addition that transforms everything: to Mozart’s orchestra he adds three trombones, which are given important roles thematically. It is part of the originality of this symphony that Schubert is willing, for the first time, to treat the trombone as a thematic—rather than a supportive—instrument. Their tonal heft dictates a greatly increased string section and occasional doubling of the woodwind parts, and everything about this music—its sonority and range of expression—suggests that Schubert envisioned its performance by a large orchestra.

Very early this symphony acquired the nickname Great, a description that needs to be understood carefully. It was originally called The Great C-major to distinguish it from Schubert’s brief Symphony No. 6 in C major, inevitably called The Little C-major. And so in its original sense, Great was an indication only of relative size. But that description has stuck to this music, and if ever a symphony deserved to be called Great, this is it.

the music
andante—allegro, ma non troppo. The symphony has a magic beginning. In unison, two horns sound a long call that seems to come from a great distance. In the classical symphony form, the slow introduction usually had nothing to do thematically with the sonata-form first movement that followed but served only to call matters to order and prepare the way for the Allegro. It is one more mark of Schubert’s new vision that this slow introduction would have important functions in the main body of the movement. Schubert repeats this opening melody in various guises before the music rushes into the Allegro, ma non troppo.

Strings surge ahead on sturdy dotted rhythms while woodwinds respond with chattering triplets—Schubert will fully exploit the energizing contrast between these two rhythms. The second subject, a lilting tune for woodwinds, arrives in the “wrong” key of E minor. (Schubert deftly nudges it into the “correct” key of G major.) All seems set for a proper exposition, when Schubert springs one of his best surprises: very softly, trombones intone the horn theme from the very beginning, their dark color giving that noble tune an ominous power. That theme now begins to penetrate this movement, and the rhythm of its second measure takes on a thematic importance of its own. The development is brief, but the recapitulation is full, and Schubert drives the movement to a thrilling conclusion; trombones push the music forward powerfully, and the opening horn call is shouted out in all its glory as the movement hammers to its close. 

allegro con moto. The slow movement is marked Andante con moto, and the walking tempo implied in that title makes itself felt in the music’s steady tread. Solo oboe sings the sprightly main theme, while the peaceful second subject arrives in the strings. There is no development, but Schubert creates another moment of pure magic: over softly-pulsing string chords, a solo horn (once again sounding as if from far away) leads the way into the recapitulation. Schumann’s description of this passage, often quoted, is worth hearing again: “Here everyone is hushed and listening, as though some heavenly visitant were quietly stealing through the orchestra.” The recapitulation itself is not literal, and Schubert drives to a great climax where the music is suddenly ripped into a moment of silence, the only point in the entire movement where the steady opening tread is not heard. Only gradually does the orchestra recover as the cellos lead to a luminous restatement of the second subject, now richly embellished.

scherzo: allegro vivace. The Allegro vivace is the expected scherzo and trio form, but again Schubert surprises us: the movement is in sonata form and develops over such a generous span that if all repeats are taken, it can approach the length of the two opening movements. Strings stamp out the powerful opening, and violins soar and plunge as it begins to develop. Part of the pleasure here lies in the way Schubert transforms the sledgehammer power of the opening into a series of terraced, needle-sharp entrances in the course of the development. By contrast, the trio sings with a rollicking charm before horns lead the way back to a literal reprise of the scherzo.

allegro vivace. The finale, also marked Allegro vivace, opens with a salvo of bright fanfares. So quickly do these whip past that one does not at first recognize that they make the same contrast between dotted and triplet rhythms that powered the first movement—now these return to drive the finale along a shaft of white-hot energy. This is the movement that caused early orchestras to balk, and it remains very difficult, particularly for the strings. It is in sonata form with two subjects, the first growing smoothly out of the flying triplets and a second that rides along the energy of four pounding chords. The first theme provides the speed—those showers of triplets almost seem to throw sparks through the hall—while the second subject and its pounding chords take on a menacing strength as Schubert builds to the climax. Along the way, attentive listeners will hear a whiff of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Schubert’s own close is as powerful as those of the master he so much admired.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff