Program Notes: Britten and Schumann

Program Notes: Britten and Schumann

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One-minute notes:

Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem

Britten’s three-part Requiem, written as an anti-war statement, opens with a mournful procession in which saxophone plays a striking role, proceeds into chaos and concludes with a prayer-like hymn.

Schumann: Cello Concerto

Distinctive for the sheer beauty of its content, this concerto represents Schumann’s lyricism at its best. Three movements flow without pause as the music’s mood changes from the sweeping passions of the opening to the brightness of the finale.


Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 6

Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony is restless and compelling, quiet and questioning, and unconventional in its approach—with an epilogue rather than a finale, and each movement connected to the next by a single sustained note.

Full program notes: 

Benjamin Britten

Born: November 22, 1913, Lowestoft, England

Died: December 4, 1976, Aldeburgh, England

Sinfonia da Requiem, Opus 20

Premiered: March 29, 1941

Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem had a genesis as strange as anything in the history of music. An avowed pacifist, Britten left his native England as war clouds gathered in 1939, hoping to make his life and career in the United States, which was, for the moment, staying out of the European war.

While living on Long Island, Britten was contacted by the British Council with a remarkable proposal. The Japanese government, which was also staying out of the war for the moment, planned to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of its ruling dynasty, and for that occasion, set for September 1940, it was commissioning works by a number of composers, Richard Strauss and Jacques Ibert among them.

Now the Japanese government invited Britten to write a work for the occasion, and he accepted, stipulating only that “no form of musical jingoism” be required. Britten hurried to complete the music, which he titled Sinfonia da Requiem, early in June 1940, and the Japanese government promptly paid him. (The composer used the money to buy an aging Model T.)

Then came a sour surprise. The Japanese authorities rejected the piece, claiming that its “melancholy” tone was inappropriate for their festive occasion. More specifically, they objected to the titles Britten gave the three movements—Lacrymosa, Dies irae and Requiem aeternum—claiming that these made the Sinfonia “purely a religious music of Christian nature” and thus insulting to the Emperor. Though they allowed Britten to keep the commission fee, they refused to perform the music, and the premiere was given by John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic on March 29, 1941.

an anti-war statement

Despite the titles of the movements, Britten did not regard the Sinfonia da Requiem as religious music. In fact, he intended it specifically as an anti-war statement. In an interview with a New York newspaper at the time of the premiere, Britten said: “I’m making it as anti-war as possible….I don’t believe you can express social or political or economic theories in music, but by coupling new music with well-known musical phrases, I think it’s possible to get over certain ideas. I’m dedicating the symphony to the memory of my parents, and, since it is a kind of requiem, I’m quoting from the Dies irae of the Requiem Mass. One’s apt to get muddled discussing such things—all I’m sure of is my own anti-war conviction as I wrote it.”

The question remains whether music—abstract sound—can express anti-war (or any other) sentiments. It is worth noting, however, that Britten would incorporate the titles of the three movements of the Sinfonia in his War Requiem of 1961, where he combines the Requiem text with Wilfred Owen’s poetry to create a clear anti-war statement. The Sinfonia da Requiem makes that same statement, but at an abstract, purely instrumental level.

The Sinfonia is concentrated music. Its three movements, in a slow-fast-slow sequence that is performed without pause, span barely 20 minutes, and Britten surprisingly anchors all three movements around the tonality of D: D minor in the stern initial movements, D major in the consoling finale. Further, Britten is not so interested in the classical symphony’s opposition of different themes and keys as he is in a sort of organic growth of seminal material. The work’s opening theme will return in modified form in all three movements.

the music in brief

lacrymosa. The Lacrymosa, which traditionally announces the day when mankind faces judgment, bursts to life with great explosions of sound that resolve into a numbed, steady tread. Against this dark pulse, cellos announce the movement’s swaying, rising main theme. Secondary material is based on the leap of a seventh, but the swaying motion of the opening is never far away, and after a thunderous climax, that rhythm leads the movement to its subdued close.

dies irae. The Dies irae, which Britten himself called a “formal Dance of Death,” is a tour de force for orchestra, with tremolo flutes, brilliant brass writing and great full-orchestra swoops and shrieks. In its central episode, the eerie sound of alto saxophone briefly recalls the symphony’s undulating opening theme before the violence returns. The movement rises to another climax, then shatters into fragments.

requiem aeternum. From those fragments the harp assembles a quiet ostinato pulse, and the Requiem aeternum opens with three flutes singing the movement’s consoling main melody. Britten’s friend W.H. Auden described the finale as “a movement of peace and quiet rejoicing,” and Britten asks for a tempo of Andante molto tranquillo. But this peace is not long-lived. Gradually the swaying melody of the beginning insinuates itself, and Britten plays this up to a tremendous climax before the furies subside and the Sinfonia closes with a prayer for peace in which D major is affirmed quietly but clearly.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling alto flute and piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet, 1 doubling bass clarinet), alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, tambourine, whip, xylophone, 2 harps, piano and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Robert Schumann

Born: June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany

Died: July 29, 1856, Endenich, near Bonn, Germany

Concerto in A minor for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 129

Premiered: June 9, 1860

On September 1, 1850, the Schumanns—Robert, Clara and six children—moved to Düsseldorf after six unhappy years in Dresden. Actually, Dresden was a lively musical center, not least because of Wagner’s presence there until 1849, but the Schumanns found it personally and artistically stultifying.

the Schumanns in Düsseldorf

Düsseldorf, where Schumann was to become municipal music director, had a reputation as a conductor-eating town, but Schumann badly wanted an orchestra of his own, and he was willing to give Düsseldorf a try. He arrived at his new Rhineland home in high spirits, and the Düsseldorfers did everything they could to make their new music director feel welcome, unleashing an exhausting round of speeches, serenades, celebratory concerts, banquets and balls.

But contentment was brief. Clara worried about social standards, especially “the breezy, unconstrained conduct of the women, who at times surely transgress the barriers of femininity and decency....Marital life is more in the easy-going French style.” (All she could do about the women was to avoid them.) Both Robert and Clara were distressed by the noisiness of their first apartment, although a Rhine excursion at the end of the month and a move to quieter quarters helped.

Through all this turmoil, Schumann’s creative energies were not to be suppressed: in just 15 October days he composed his Cello Concerto, and in what remained of 1850 and in 1851 he wrote the Rhenish Symphony, revised his D-minor Symphony into what he considered its definitive form (Symphony No. 4), and wrote two violin sonatas, the Märchenbilder for viola and piano, two substantial cantatas and several overtures on literary themes.

The day Schumann finished the Cello Concerto he conducted the first of his ten subscription concerts. Clara was his soloist in Mendelssohn’s G-minor Piano Concerto, and, except that Robert was miffed because she got more attention than he did, it went well.

Nonetheless, it soon became inescapably clear that Schumann was unequal to his new position, and in October 1852 he was asked to resign. The matter was smoothed over temporarily, but a year later he had conducted his last concert in Düsseldorf. Always subject to depression, Schumann threw himself into the Rhine on February 27, 1854. This suicide attempt was not his first. He was rescued and committed into Dr. Richarz’s hospital at Endenich, where he died two and a half years later.

a “wholly ravishing” concerto

The Cello Concerto—and this always comes as a surprise—is the first important one since the beautiful examples by Boccherini from the 1780s.

Clara Schumann was delighted by the Cello Concerto. “It pleases me very much and seems to me to be written in true violoncello style,” she noted in her diary on November 16, 1850. The following October she wrote: “I have played Robert’s Violoncello Concerto through again, thus giving myself a truly musical and happy hour. The romantic quality, the vivacity, the freshness and humor, also the highly interesting interweaving of violoncello and orchestra are indeed wholly ravishing, and what euphony and deep feeling one finds in all the melodic passages!” Robert, on the other hand, seems to have had reservations: he canceled plans for a performance in the spring of 1852 and he did not send it to Breitkopf & Härtel, his Leipzig publisher, until 1854. In fact, the first performance was posthumous, given by Ludwig Ebert at the Leipzig Conservatory on June 9, 1860, at a concert in honor of the composer’s 50th birthday.

the music: passion, lyricism and a swift finale

In the Cello Concerto, each movement is linked to the next, and the middle one, even while it blooms in gloriously expressive song, has something of the character of a bridge or an intermezzo.

nicht zu schnell (not too fast). The concerto begins with three solemn chords for woodwinds with pizzicato strings. Their immediate purpose is to usher in the solo cello’s impassioned melody, but we soon discover that they have more than a local function, appearing at many of the concerto’s important junctures and especially pervading the slow movement. They are not, by the way, static and unalterable; rather, Schumann constantly finds new harmonies, rhythms and colors for them, although they are always and instantly recognizable. And to make the bridge from the slow movement to the finale, Schumann turns the cello theme itself into a gripping recitative, fascinatingly shared by soloist and orchestra in a moment both tender and full of pain.

Like his Piano Concerto, Schumann’s Cello Concerto has no opening tutti, only a brief but striking gesture that introduces the soloist right away: the three rising chords for woodwinds, each accented by pizzicato strings. Quiet though it is, it suggests the opening of a theater curtain, and the performer who stands revealed is an inspired singer who gives us an expansive and constantly developing—that is, non-repeating—melody. Here is Schumann at his most personal, his most poignantly vulnerable. Only when this lyric utterance is done does the orchestra ground the music with a vigorous and impassioned paragraph. Clearly, though, Schumann means this to be the cellist’s day, and the soloist returns with another lyric and exploring song, one of great range and full of wide intervals. A brilliant passage in triplets ends the exposition. The development is a kind of contest between virtuoso display and lyricism, and the chugging triplets are constantly interrupted—almost rebuked, it seems—by reappearances of parts of the opening melody in ever more distant and mysterious keys.

langsam (slow). After the recapitulation, the opening wind chords return, now heard from a deeply strange harmonic perspective. This time, the cello responds not with its first melody, but with a brief transition that gently sets the music down in F major. The slow movement has begun, and Schumann gives us a new melody, one full of melancholy downward curves. Like a chorus of sympathetic mourners, woodwinds echo the ends of the phrases. The passage reminds us that Tchaikovsky was one of the great Schumann-lovers. The accompaniment is notable, for along with neutral pizzicato chords we hear a soft countermelody played by another solo cello.

sehr lebhaft (very lively). After the urgent recitative that forms the bridge into the finale, Schumann gives us a more swift-moving music than any we have yet heard in the piece. Unfortunately, it is likely to sound not brilliant but just damnably difficult. Schumann relies much on sequences, and it takes a special mix of planning and spontaneity to bring out the energy in this music. (The 1953 Prades Festival recording by Casals and Ormandy shows wonderfully what can be done.) The drooping two-note phrases from the slow movement are often heard in the background.

Schumann moves into the coda by way of an accompanied cadenza (an inspiration to Elgar and perhaps also to Schoenberg and Walton in their violin concertos). Many famous cellists, among them Casals, Piatigorsky and Starker, all of whom should have known better, have struck out 32 measures of Schumann’s music at this point and substituted grandly rhetorical unaccompanied cadenzas of their own.

But Schumann was right, he really was: in the last moments of this finale, which is so difficult to move purposefully forward, it is important not to bring everything to a halt but to keep the momentum going, as Schumann does with his in-tempo cadenza. When he emerges from this episode, one of the concerto’s most original and effective, Schumann shifts metric gears, going from 2/4 into a still peppier 6/8, a device Brahms found worth imitating, and often.

Instrumentation: solo cello with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

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

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Born: October 12, 1872, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England

Died: August 26, 1958, London, England

Symphony No. 6 in E minor

Premiered: April 21, 1948

Near the dawn of Vaughan Williams’ composing career, his collecting of traditional Norfolk songs had been a critical step toward the finding of his own musical language. At the time his Fourth Symphony came along in 1935, the 62-year-old composer of the opera Sir John in Love (source of the popular Fantasia on “Greensleeves”), as well as the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending, seemed fixed more firmly than ever as the dean of England’s “pastoral school.” Thus the sometimes harshly dissonant Fourth Symphony brought a real shock. “I feel that I have at last become master of my material,” Vaughan Williams wrote to a former student, “but it now seems too late to make any use of it.” Happily he was wrong, and 23 more years of work (including five more symphonies) lay ahead.

not a “War Symphony”

Using some material he had sketched in 1943 for a movie score, Vaughan Williams began his Sixth Symphony in about 1944 and completed it in 1947. The first public performance was given by Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony in London’s Royal Albert Hall on April 21, 1948. At the beginning of 1950, Vaughan Williams revised the third movement, Scherzo, clarifying some of the orchestration as well as adding a new countertheme for brass in a couple of places. This version of the symphony has become the standard.

Ending, as it does, in 11 or 12 minutes of chill, unbroken pianissimo, the Sixth Symphony hardly seems like a piece designed for success, yet the reception at the first performance was overwhelming, and it took only a little over two years for the work to achieve 100 performances. Vaughan Williams’ pleasure at having, as he liked to say, “rung the bell” and “done the real thing” was offset by the annoyance of people insistently imposing their extramusical interpretations on this work. In the 1930s, he had had a hard time persuading some people that the Fourth Symphony was not political and moral commentary about Hitler and Mussolini. In 1948, the year the Sixth Symphony premiered, Hiroshima was a recent memory, the Soviet Union had just cut off road and rail traffic between Berlin and the West, and nuclear war was coming to be an ever-present threat. But no, Vaughan Williams said, his bleak finale was not a depiction of a world flattened by The Bomb, and when Frank Howes, the music critic of The Times, referred to the Sixth as Vaughan Williams’ “War Symphony” (with capital W), the composer was aroused to real fury.

the music: full of anguish

allegro. Without question, the Sixth Symphony is a disturbing piece, full of anguish, and it begins with a cry. In defiance of the key designation in its title, E minor, the symphony begins resolutely one half-step up, in F minor. As Vaughan Williams himself points out, the music “[rushes] down and up again through all the keys for which there is time in two bars”; in other words, the harmony is exceedingly restless and unsettled. The mood, for the moment at least, is savage.

What Vaughan Williams calls “fussy” 16th-notes have been prominent from the beginning, and these continue while violins, woodwinds and horn introduce an impassioned new melody. It is immediately repeated in the bass with the fussy 16ths on top. When this agitation subsides, an oddly saucy accompaniment starts up, to which various woodwinds soon add a tune with a stammer. For a moment the sound gets to be quite Broadway, partly because the saxophone climbs into a high register where it is extremely prominent. There is one more theme to come, a spacious D-major tune that sounds like the old familiar Vaughan Williams. The saucy accompaniment continues right through this. Both melodies, the hesitant and the spacious, get some more play, after which there is a recapitulation—“just enough,” says Vaughan Williams, “to show that this is a Symphony [and] not a symphonic poem.” The spacious tune makes one more appearance, tranquillo, with harp accompaniment, and also in E major, which serves to settle the accumulated harmonic tension, though there is continuing argument between E major and E minor. The close is quiet.

moderato. The final E in the cellos and basses hangs over into the first measure of the second movement. In 1943, Vaughan Williams wrote the music for a film called The Flemish Farm, which Halliwell’s Film Guide describes as a “tolerable wartime flagwaver.” Not all of Vaughan Williams’ score made its way into the soundtrack, and he rescued two of the outtakes for the Sixth Symphony. This second movement’s first theme, a slow and sinister march, is one of them. Because of its rhythm (long-long-short-short-short), the studio orchestra always referred to it as “two hot sausages.”

A drumroll and a fanfare introduce an unharmonized pianissimo passage for the strings, which builds, then recedes. Suddenly the trumpets and timpani begin to insist on the “sausages” rhythm. When we first heard this, it was part of a theme; now it takes on a life of its own and is bent on destroying whatever thematic or other musical activity is going on. It cows the orchestra into silence; trumpets and drums, again pianissimo after their domineering forte, appear to have the last word. The English horn muses for a moment on the unharmonized string theme, but under its last notes, the persistent, destructive rhythm, now in the sullen, dark colors of timpani, bass drum and pizzicato low strings, reminds us that it is still there, that this nightmare could return.

scherzo: allegro vivace. The English horn’s last long C-flat constitutes the bridge into the third movement. It is a sardonic Shostakovich-esque scherzo, polyphonic in texture, and based on a theme with running 16th-notes. The saxophone adds a sleazy tune by way of a trio, and here I must quote Vaughan Williams’ good-humored program note for the first performance—in which he references the opinions of composer-writer Constant Lambert, his former pupil at the Royal College of Music:

“[The saxophone tune] is repeated loud by the full orchestra. (Constant Lambert tells us that the only thing to do with a folk tune is to play it soft and repeat it loud. This is not a folk tune but the same difficulty seems to crop up.)

“When [this] episode is over, the woodwind experiment as to how the [first theme] will sound upside down but the brass are angry and insist on playing it the right way up, so for a bit the two go on together and to the delight of everyone including the composer the two versions fit, so there is nothing to do now but to continue, getting more excited till the [saxophone] tune comes back very loud and twice as slow.”

epilogue: moderato. This time it is the bass clarinet which, descending through two octaves, builds the bridge into the Epilogue. Vaughan Williams describes this music as “[drifting] about contrapuntally with occasional whiffs of theme.” The two sections of violins lead off, all muted. The firsts show a definite bias toward F minor, the seconds then providing something like an E-major/minor corrective. After a time, flutes play the first violins’ theme in longer notes so that it sounds rather like a cantus firmus or chorale. The muted brass sigh three times, and a solo cello, unmuted but of course still pianissimo, responds to their dejection with a new musical idea. The oboe is the instrument that feels most free to sing out expressively in melodies of wide compass. The sounds themselves become ghostly, with string tremolandos and bell-like harmonics on the harp.

After one last “outburst”—a pianissimo outburst by the oboe—the strings take the symphony to its end. Vaughan Williams wrote that he “never had any conscience about cribbing,” and I suspect in these last measures he was cribbing from Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. That work ends in a strange back-and-forth between high instruments playing chords of B major, and basses punctuating those chords with C’s. Vaughan Williams settles into an uncertain seesawing between chords of E-flat major and E minor, which have G as a note in common. The last chord, which finally disappears into the distance, is E minor, that being the symphony’s keynote, but the E-minor chord is in its most unstable distribution, with B in the bass, and so the effect is anything but definite. The conductor Andrew Davis, comparing this “unanswered question” close with the oscillations that usher Berg’s Wozzeck into silence, has observed that the Sixth Symphony “should not end with a sense of rest. A performance that sounds final is not a good performance.”

Whatever the intended meaning—and in fact, an exceedingly irritated Vaughan Williams said late in life that “a man might just want to write a piece of music”—the hushed music speaks so eloquently and so disturbingly on its own.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, xylophone, 2 harps and strings

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

Minnesota Orchestra Staff