September 29, 2017 • Oktoberfest
Concert program notes by Betsy Schwarm
Oktoberfest in September? Well, why not?
The original Bavarian Oktoberfest was a protracted royal wedding celebration held in the early 19th century: they may not have had Bach on the program, but certainly there was music, likely quite festive. In Friday’s selections by Bach, Schubert, and Brahms, there are gracious melodies, restful moods, high energy, and solo spotlights for nearly every instrument, though especially oboe and violin — even once the concerto is over. We even have the Colorado Repertory Singers and vocal soloists joining us, so whether you like instruments or voices best, there’s something for everyone.
Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060r
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)
In the concerto for violin and oboe by Johann Sebastian Bach, you may have a sense of déjà vu, even if you are sure you’ve never heard a concerto combining these two instruments.
Documentary evidence from the composer’s time reveals that he’d written the piece in the mid-1730s, then re-imagined it as a concerto for two harpsichords. That later form is the one more frequently heard. It is fortunate that Bach recreated it, as the manuscript for the original violin/oboe version later vanished. Musical researchers were able to reconstruct it from the surviving two-harpsichord version, hence the “r” appended to the standard BWV number: “r” for revision, or at least “restored.”
The opening Allegro is all swift motion and plaintive colors. The oboe often gets the main theme, while the violin immediately ornaments that theme with very rapid passagework. Sometimes, those two roles are reversed, though more often than not, it is the violin charging forward.
In the second movement Adagio, no one charges at all: you’ll hear a peaceful afternoon, first in the care of the oboe. Once the violin joins in, the two often echo one another’s phrases, though always in a gentle fashion.
With the third movement Allegro, gentleness is replaced with anxiety. The orchestra sets forth with the principal theme even before the two soloists join the action. As in the first movement, the oboe part is more often calmer in nature than the violin part. Perhaps Bach thought the wind instrument possessed more song-like qualities than the string instrument; certainly, he tends to let the oboe sing, while the violin races. The two contrasting moods make a sublime juxtaposition.
Magnificat in C, D. 486
Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)
The Magnificat in C major by Franz Schubert, composed in 1815 or 1816, sets the Biblical verses having to do with Mary’s song of praise upon learning that she is destined to give birth to the son of God.
In line with Viennese tastes of the time, Schubert set only a portion of the available text. Like the great majority of Schubert’s works, it would not find a publisher until long after his death. In this case, the piece was published 60 years too late to do Schubert any good, but still in time for later audiences to delight in its splendor.
He calls upon four vocal soloists (though the soprano gets most of the spotlight), as well as a four-part chorus, and an ensemble of two oboes, two bassoons, two trumpets, timpani, organ, and strings.
Splendor is found particularly in the opening and closing pages: bright and joyous with all the high spirits of a comic opera finale. Two firm chords close this section, allowing the central pages on the text “Deposuit potentes” to proceed in more tender fashion. A new theme is introduced by oboe before it passes to the vocal soloists, though throughout this portion the oboe remains equally as prominent as the singers. With the concluding Gloria, the chorus returns to the spotlight in utterly ecstatic fashion. Broader phrases are frequently studded with declarations of “Amen,” and overall, Schubert’s Magnificat concludes in as celebratory fashion, just as it began.
Text and translation follow:
Magnificat anima mea Dominum
et exsultavit spiritus meus
in Deo salutari meo,
quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae;
ecce enim ex hoc
beatam me dicent omnes gentes,
Magnificat anima in Domino!
Deposuit potentes de sede
et exulavit humiles,
esurientes implevit bonis
et divites dimisit inanes.
Suscepit Israel puerum suum
recordatus misericordiae suae,
sicut locutus est ad patres nostros,
Abraham et semini eius in saecula.
Gloria Patri, gloria Filio,
et Spiritui sancto,
Sicut erat in principio et nunc
et semper et in saecula saeculorum.
My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit has rejoiced
In God my Savior, for He has regarded
The low estate of his handmaiden;
For behold, henceforth I shall be called
Blessed be all generations,
My soul magnifies the Lord!
He has thrown down the mighty from
Their thrones, and has exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
as He promised to our forefathers,
Remembering His mercy,
Abraham and his posterity forever.
Glory to the Father, glory to the Son,
And glory to the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the beginning, and now,
And always even for ages of ages.
Symphony no. 2 in D, op. 73
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Johannes Brahms was on summer holiday when he wrote his Symphony no. 2 in Pörtschach-an-der-Wörthersee in the southern Austrian Alps in 1877.
Afterward, he joked to his publisher Simrock that the result was something thoroughly melancholy, though the music itself reveals the remark was made wholly tongue-in-cheek. Nowhere in the piece is there anything approaching sorrow, and ultimately, it would become the most popular of his four symphonies.
When the work premiered in Vienna, in 1877, the most influential of the city’s music critics, Eduard Hanslick, called it “a great, unqualified success,” going on to observe, “The new symphony is radiant with healthy freshness and clarity. It is readily intelligible, although it offers plenty to listen to and think about… It provided irrefutable proof that one (not everyone, to be sure) can still write symphonies, and, moreover, in the old forms and on the old foundations.” Brahms was rather conservative in style: this was fine with Hanslick, and in the long run of history, listeners and performers alike have found no reason for complaint.
More often than not, Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 is restful in spirit. The opening movement Allegro non troppo sets two gentle themes against one another. The second he admitted, was derived from his famed Lullaby, the first sounds more than a bit like Beautiful Dreamer by Stephen Foster (1826–1864); Brahms was quite unlikely to have known that song, but the resemblance is there. Spotlights fall most frequently upon the woodwinds, though late in the movement, the horn has its turn, and throughout, string themes flow along in a graciously expressive fashion.
The second movement Adagio non troppo is even more determinedly serene. Brahms provides for a horn and oboe duet, and, late in the movement, rather stirring brass passages, though by the final moments, he has returned to a gentle demeanor.
With the third movement, Allegretto grazioso, Brahms seems to remember his rural sojourn, as he begins by giving the oboe a sweet theme evocative of the waltz-like folk Ländler. More energetic passages occur midway, especially for strings; however, the oboe theme — oboe and all — is recapped to close the movement.
At first, the last movement Allegro con spirito, opening as calmly as each of the preceding movements, seems not particularly “spirited.” Before long, however, Brahms summons bold declarations from the full orchestra, especially brass. For the past two movements, the trombones and tuba have had almost nothing to do, but here, Brahms makes it up to them. Sweet, woodwind-led interludes appear for contrast, but the general idea is more of brilliant sunshine and outspoken energy. Certainly, that’s exactly how Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 closes, a point he drives home with a sequence of five heroic chords. It makes a particularly exciting conclusion to any orchestral program.
Program notes by Betsy Schwarm, author of the Classical Music Insights series.