February 10, 2017 • Hopeless Romantics
Concert program notes by Betsy Schwarm
Double Concerto in a minor, op. 102
Johannes Brahms’ Double Concerto for violin and cello was his final composition using the orchestra. Dating from 1887, it followed his fourth and final symphony by two years. In Brahms’ own generation, it was unusual for a concerto to have more than a single soloist, though in the works of his greatest predecessors — particularly Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven — there was plenty of precedent. Brahms was, for his time, one of the old guard, a fact that may have influenced his decision to recapture on older musical genre. However, more to the point, he had two professional friends whom he felt he owed concertos, and likely thought to kill two birds with one stone.
To cellist Robert Hausmann, Brahms had long since promised a solo concerto, but had never gotten around to writing such a work. Also, he had recently had a falling-out with his long-time colleague, the violinist Joseph Joachim, who felt that Brahms had sided with Joachim’s ex-wife during their recent divorce proceedings. Through the balm of one composition, Brahms hoped to soothe three souls: Joachim’s, Hausmann’s, and his own. The new concerto premiered in Cologne October 18, 1887, with Brahms conducting and Joachim and Hausmann as the soloists.
From its opening moments — a strong, descending three-note motif in the orchestra — the work makes a powerful statement that continues throughout its half-hour length. In each of the three movements, there is an opening phrase that becomes the major melodic material for that movement, ever reappearing in varied bits and pieces, growing and expanding in new directions. Often, fragments of melodies begin with one soloist before moving to the other, until finally both are playing at once with orchestral support. That the cello is usually the soloist to go first may not reflect favoritism on Brahms’ part; rather, the darker, weightier tone of the cello may have better served a wish of starting each new idea with authority.
As a balm after the storms of the first movement, the second movement is a gentle romance in mood, its phrases rising and falling like sweet sighs. For the finale, Brahms opens with a lively, dance-able melody of alternating quarter and eighth notes that prances effusively along. More flowing themes appear for contrast, though that opening dance theme continues as the main idea. The Double Concerto may have begun in a minor key, but Brahms is clearly determined that it will end in high spirits, as a concerto to combine the efforts of three long-time friends perhaps ought to do.
Symphony No. 4 in f, op. 36
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
For Peter Tchaikovsky, 1877 was a year of turmoil. His career and his finances were in fine shape; it was his personal life that had fallen into disarray. A former student of the composer had become deeply infatuated with him, and swore that, if he did not marry her, she would take her life. Concerned for the young lady’s well-being and believing that having a wife in his possession would be useful social camouflage, Tchaikovsky agreed to the marriage, which took place in the summer. His nervous breakdown came in the fall, at which point his doctors recommended that he never see the young woman again. Soon, the composer and his brother Anatoly had left Russia for Switzerland in hope of finding solace for poor Peter’s battered spirit.
As so often happened, Tchaikovsky sought consolation in composition, plunging back into his sketches for the opera Eugene Onegin, and beginning the orchestration of his new symphony, the fourth of what would ultimately be six works in the genre. He completed the new symphony on Christmas Day, by the old style Russian calendar, in 1877 (January 7, 1878 by the Western calendar), and it premiered in Moscow that same winter.
The symphony bears no descriptive subtitle, but might well have been nicknamed the “Fate Symphony.” In a detailed letter to his patroness Madame Nadezhda von Meck, the composer states that the ominous opening theme for horns and bassoons represents fate hanging over one’s head like the sword of Damocles. This all-consuming gloom devours the few, brief glimpses of happiness, appearing mostly in the form of waltz themes. The song-like second movement, lyrical oboe theme passing to the strings for expansion, is, according to Tchaikovsky, expressive of the melancholy felt at the end of a weary day.
In the third movement Scherzo, he imagined what he called “fleeting images that pass through the imagination when one has begun to drink a little wine.” Apparently, he thought those images were best illustrated by a short but fiendishly complicated piccolo solo. The fourth movement holds Tchaikovsky’s prescription for happiness: “If you cannot find reasons for happiness in yourself, look at others. Get out among the people … Oh, how gay they are! … Life is bearable after all.” The people, it seems, he viewed as best represented by bold and surging themes for the full orchestra with frequent crashes of cymbals; a brief reappearance of the Fate theme is promptly dismissed by effusive drama charging into the final chords. In all, the symphony is a spiritual journey from gloom to melancholy to slow recovery to life-affirming energy.
Betsy Schwarm is the author of the Classical Music Insights series.