Program Notes: Guarantors' Week

Program Notes: Guarantors' Week

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Full program notes:

Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann
Born: June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Saxony
Died: July 29, 1856, Endenich, near Bonn

Concerto in A minor for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 129

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’ 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.

Clara Schumann

Photo: Clara Schumann

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

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, nonrepeating— 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 the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.

Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner
Born: September 4, 1824, Ansfelden, Upper Austria
Died: October 11, 1896, Vienna

Symphony No. 7 in E major

Bruckner’s father, like his father before him, was schoolmaster in the village of Ansfelden. Before that, the Bruckners had been farmers and laborers. Anton sang in the choir, was allowed to play the organ, and learned the rudiments of music from a cousin. In 1837, the year his father died, he was taken as a choirboy into the Augustinian monastery of Saint Florian, whose buildings dominate the countryside southeast of Linz. There the musician and the man gradually emerged. He heard orchestral music by Beethoven and Weber, studied Bach and became acquainted with the works of Schubert and Mendelssohn. He played dance music for a living and equipped himself to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps—to teach elementary school.

from past to present

In 1848 Bruckner was appointed organist at Saint Florian, where he composed whatever the surrounding community needed, from sacred motets to dances for piano four-hands. In 1855 he began to travel regularly to Vienna for lessons with Simon Sechter, the czar of Austria’s music-theory world—a curious figure who, to clear his head, wrote a fugue first thing in the morning every day of his adult life. Bruckner worked with Sechter for six years, during which time he was forbidden to do any free composition. He emerged with a Meisterbrief (a certificate of mastery like those issued by the old craft guilds), a sovereign command of contrapuntal technique, and a nervous breakdown.

But his hunger for learning was not yet sated, and he went on to study with Otto Kitzler, principal cellist in the theater orchestra at Linz. Whereas Sechter was oriented to the past, Kitzler taught from modern scores by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and even Wagner. At the end of his time with Kitzler, Bruckner was ready at last to heed his calling as a composer. And like many 19th-century composers, Bruckner became a specialist: his lifework, once he attained his late maturity as a composer, consisted of choral music, almost all of it on sacred texts in Latin, and of symphonies.

Bruckner found he was offering the world music that it really did not know what to do with. The German conductor and composer Wilhelm Furtwängler put it aptly and characteristically: “Bruckner did not work for the present; in his art he thought only of eternity and he created for eternity. In this way he became the most misunderstood of the great musicians…”

Yet, though he could be wounded, bewildered and momentarily distracted from his path, Bruckner found himself in his vocation as a symphonist. He made music like no other, naive and complex together, homely and sublime. From Beethoven he had learned about scale, preparation and suspense, mystery and the ethical content of music; from Schubert something about a specifically Austrian tone and much about harmony; from Wagner, along with a few mannerisms, everything about a sense of slow tempo and a breadth of unfolding hitherto unknown in instrumental music. The vision, in the largest sense, was his own. So was the simple magnificence of sound, achieved with an astonishing and magisterial economy.

“I was in a trance, I was in heaven—the world didn’t exist for me...It was the same shock that someone who believes would have seeing God in front of him.”
– Skrowaczewski, recalling his amazement when, at age 7, he heard Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony for the first time

best-loved of all his symphonies

Bruckner began work on his Symphony No. 7 on September 23, 1881, and the entire symphony was completed almost exactly two years later. Arthur Nikisch conducted the premiere on December 30, 1884, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

The Seventh Symphony, uniquely, enjoyed immediate and warm success in Bruckner’s lifetime, success that came as a happy and restorative surprise to this much-battered composer. Speaking to today’s audiences with singular directness, it remains the most loved of the nine—or ten, or 11, depending on whether you count the symphonies before the official No. 1.

allegro moderato. Bruckner begins with an unmistakable assertion of E major. This takes the form of a soft, non-articulated hum, a background for an event rather than an event in its own right. As Robert Simpson so aptly puts it in his beautiful study The Essence of Bruckner, this “entrance…leads to a very lofty and light interior,” a vastly arching melody in which the cellos are subtly supported, now by a horn, now by the violas, now by a clarinet.

This is the first of three vividly contrasted themes, and it expands to become a paragraph of immense breadth. The second theme is slower and calmer. The melody rises, embellished by a graceful turn in its first phrase, but it is full of hesitations that make it sound touchingly vulnerable. Against soft brass chords, oboe and clarinet set it on its course. This too fills space grandly, and Bruckner does not fail to show us how beautiful the melody is when it is inverted. The music swells to an assertive fortissimo on suspenseful harmonies. What emerges from here is a theme, unharmonized and gray, that dances in a mysterious pianissimo. It gathers momentum and volume, arrives at a series of taut and loud brass chords like those that introduced it, then falls back into a suspenseful hush.

Thus the development begins in darkness. Its journey is varied, with a range from densely active paragraphs to wonderful moments in contemplative stasis. The coda, as almost always in Bruckner, is extraordinary. Its 53 measures are set over an unchanging E in the bass. For almost half of them, bass and superstructure are quietly at odds; then suddenly the orchestra gets the point, and the last 31 measures expand the bass-note upward into the great E-major affirmation we have been waiting for.

a memorial to Wagner

adagio. Until the solemn Adagio actually begins, we do not even notice that Bruckner has so far stayed away from one of the most obvious harmonies a movement in E major would naturally travel toward, that of its relative minor, C-sharp. With this harmony that is at once so close and so new, he introduces a new sound, that of a quartet of Wagner tubas, an instrument designed by Wagner for Der Ring des Nibelungen and intended to combine the mellowness of French horns with something of the weight of tuba tone.

Here there is, however, a deeper association with Wagner. In January 1883 Bruckner wrote to the conductor Felix Mottl: “One day I came home and felt very sad. The thought had crossed my mind that before long the Master would die, and just then the C-sharp-minor theme of the Adagio came to me.” Wagner did in fact die on February 13, and the quiet closing music that begins with the quartet of Wagner tubas plus contrabass tuba became Bruckner’s memorial to the man he worshipped above all living musicians.

Taking the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth as a model, Bruckner builds his Adagio on two contrasting ideas, the initial solemn one in minor, in 4/4 time, and a more pastoral, Schubertian one in major and in triple meter. The second of these is abandoned after two statements, both scored with striking richness and loveliness. What the strings play immediately after the movement begins, a firm sequence of rising steps, is an allusion to Bruckner’s own Te Deum, his last large-scale choral work, in progress at the same time as the Seventh Symphony. The words at that point of the Te Deum are “non confundar in aeternum” (let me not be confounded for ever), and Bruckner uses the momentum of those upward steps to build a great climax in the first variation. Later he achieves another, one as stupendous as we can find in any symphony. From that summit the music descends into the grief-stricken, then profoundly peaceful, threnody for Wagner.

“One day I came home and felt very sad. The thought had crossed my mind that before long the Master [Wagner] would die, and just then the C-sharp-minor theme of the Adagio came to me.”
– Bruckner on the genesis of his Seventh Symphony’s Adagio

In most performances, the thrilling arrival at the great C-major climax in the Adagio is marked by a clash of cymbals with a roll of drums and triangle. This has been controversial almost from the beginning. It is clear that the cymbals and triangle were an afterthought of Bruckner’s, for their entry appears on an insert to the autograph score. To this insert Bruckner added six question marks! These have been crossed out and the words “gilt nicht” (not valid) added above the measure in question; not all scholars, however, are convinced that this notation is in Bruckner’s hand. Given that measure of doubt, the existence of a structurally similar climax in the Adagio of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, and the undeniable effectiveness of this spectacular punctuation, most conductors use the cymbals and triangle in the Seventh.

scherzo and trio. The third movement is a Scherzo dominated by the restless ostinato of strings and the cheerily trumpeting cockcrow with which it begins. As is Bruckner’s custom, the Trio is somewhat slower, lightly scored and pastoral in character. One of the features that defines its pastoral nature is the prevalence of bagpipe-like long-held notes in the bass, much as one might find them in musette movements in Baroque music.

finale. The final movement, to quote Simpson again, “blends solemnity and humor in festive grandeur.” It presents highly diversified ideas that run the gamut from the capricious and even the magnificently grotesque to the sublimely simple. At the end, all is gathered into a blaze of E major as we hear intimations of the symphony’s beginning and as the heavens open.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 Wagner tubas (2 tenor and 2 bass), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani and strings.

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.

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