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GIANTS’ composers Edvard Grieg and Johannes Brahms were men of modest elevation, but their works have measured up to towering heights. Like England’s William Shakespeare, Grieg’s the most ginormous cultural icon to ever come out of Norway. Walking in the footsteps of Ludwig van Beethoven, the talented young Brahms felt mounting pressure to measure up to the Classical-era giant, and finally, after 20 years, he published his first symphony.
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Edvard Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16

Edvard Grieg had beginner’s luck with his piano concerto. Written when he was 25, it is one of the most performed piano concertos in the repertoire, and, along with the Peer Gynt suites, Grieg’s most popular work.

Grieg’s concerto is often compared with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, and the similarities between them are not coincidental. Both concertos share the same key, and open with a grand orchestral chord, followed immediately by virtuosic flourishes up and down the keyboard. Grieg’s and Schumann’s A minor piano concertos are also the only piano concertos either man wrote, a puzzling fact given that both were also skilled pianists. Grieg was an admirer of Schumann’s music, and was familiar with Schumann’s concerto, having heard Clara Schumann play it in Leipzig. Grieg always remembered this performance as a major highlight of his Leipzig student days.

Appreciation for Schumann’s music notwithstanding, Grieg’s piano concerto is his own. In describing his style of composition, Grieg wrote, “Composers with the stature of a Bach or Beethoven have erected grand churches and temples. I have always wished to build villages: places where people can feel happy and comfortable … the music of my own country has been my model.” To that end, Grieg deliberately tapped into the colors of Norwegian folk songs and the rhythms of his country’s folk dances, although, like Antonín Dvořák, Grieg preferred creating his own folk-inspired melodies rather than using pre-existing music. The lively rhythms featured in the final movement, for example, are borrowed from the halling, a popular rural folk dance.

The bold opening statement seems tailor-made for virtuosity; Grieg pairs it with a contrasting lyrical second theme. The music of the Adagio ruminates quietly, even in its most assertive moments, and features occasional solo passages for cello and winds. The piano tosses off brilliant flashes of color, like a sonic aurora borealis, in the closing Allegro moderato. Grieg gives the second theme to solo flute; this graceful melody returns later, in a different key, to herald the majestic finale.

Grieg was unable to attend the premiere in Copenhagen, due to prior obligations with the Oslo orchestra, but he was gratified when pianist Edmund Neupert reported several eminent music critics had “applauded with all their might.” Three days later, Neupert also told Grieg that Anton Rubenstein, the famed Russian composer, virtuoso pianist, and founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, had attended the premiere and said he was “astounded to have heard a composition of such genius.”

At a Glance
  • Composer: born June 15, 1843, Bergen, Norway; died September 4, 1907, Bergen
  • Work composed: Grieg wrote his piano concerto in 1868 in Søllerød, Denmark. He revised it a number of times between 1872 and 1907.
  • World premiere: Holger Simon Paulli lead the orchestra of the Royal Theater in Copenhagen, with pianist Edmund Neupert, on April 3, 1869.
  • Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
  • Estimated duration: 30 minutes
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Edvard Grieg

1843–1907

No, Grieg’s not Mark Twain’s long-lost twin.

Johannes Brahms
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

In 1853, Robert Schumann wrote a laudatory article about a 20-year-old composer from Hamburg named Johannes Brahms, whom, Schumann declared, was the heir to Beethoven’s musical legacy.

Schumann wrote, “If [Brahms] directs his magic wand where the massed power in chorus and orchestra might lend him their strength, we can look forward to even more wondrous glimpses into the secret world of the spirits.” At the time Schumann’s piece was published, Brahms had composed several chamber pieces and works for piano, but nothing for orchestra. The article brought Brahms to the attention of the musical world, but it also dropped a crushing weight of expectation onto his young shoulders. “I shall never write a symphony! You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven,” Brahms grumbled.

Because Brahms took almost 20 years to complete what became his Op. 68, one might suppose its long gestation stemmed from Brahms’ possible trepidation about producing a symphony worthy of the Beethovenian ideal. This assumption, on its own, does Brahms a disservice. Daunting though the task might have been, Brahms also wanted to take his time. This measured approach reflects the high regard Brahms had for the symphony as a genre. “Writing a symphony is no laughing matter,” he remarked.

Brahms began sketching the first movement when he was 23, but soon realized he was handicapped by his lack of experience composing for an orchestra. Over the next 19 years, as he continued working on Op. 68, Brahms wrote several other orchestral works, including the 1868 German Requiem and the popular 1873 Variations on a Theme by Haydn (aka the St. Anthony Variations). The enthusiastic response that greeted both works bolstered Brahms’ confidence in his ability to handle orchestral writing. In 1872, Brahms was offered the conductor’s post at Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Friends of Music). This opportunity to work directly with an orchestra gave Brahms the invaluable first-hand experience he needed. 23 years after Schumann’s article first appeared, Brahms premiered his Symphony No. 1 in C minor. It was worth the wait.

Brahms’ friend, the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick, summed up the feelings of many: “Seldom, if ever, has the entire musical world awaited a composer’s first symphony with such tense anticipation … The new symphony is so earnest and complex, so utterly unconcerned with common effects, that it hardly lends itself to quick understanding … [but] even the layman will immediately recognize it as one of the most distinctive and magnificent works of the symphonic literature.”

Hanslick’s reference to the symphony’s complexity was a polite way of saying the music was too serious to appeal to the average listener, but Brahms was unconcerned; he was not trying to woo the public with pretty sounds. “My symphony is long and not exactly lovable,” he acknowledged. The symphony is carefully crafted; one can hear Brahms’ compositional thought processes throughout, especially his decision to incorporate several overt references to Beethoven. The moody, portentous atmosphere of the first movement, and the short thematic fragments from which Brahms spins out seemingly endless developments, are all hallmarks of Beethoven’s style. Brahms also references Beethoven by choosing the key of C minor, which is closely associated with several of Beethoven’s major works, including the Fifth Symphony, Egmont Overture, and Piano Concerto No. 3. And yet, despite all these deliberate nods to Beethoven, this symphony is not, as conductor Hans von Bülow dubbed it, “Beethoven’s Tenth.” The voice is distinctly Brahms’, especially in the inner movements.

The tender, wistful Andante sostenuto contrasts the brooding power of the opening movement. Brahms weaves a series of dialogues among different sections of the orchestra, and concludes with a duet for solo violin and horn. In the Allegretto, Brahms relaxes Beethoven’s frantic scherzo tempos. The pace is relaxed, easy, featuring lilting themes for strings and woodwinds. The finale’s strong, confident horn solo proclaims Brahms’ victory over the doubts that beset him during Op. 68’s long incubation. Here Brahms also pays his most direct homage to Beethoven, with a majestic theme, first heard in the strings, that closely resembles the “Ode to Joy” melody from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. When a listener remarked on this similarity, Brahms snapped, “Any jackass could see that!”

At a glance
  • Composer: born May 7, 1833, Hamburg; died April 3, 1897, Vienna
  • Work composed: Brahms began working on his first symphony in 1856 and returned to it periodically over the next 19 years. He wrote the bulk of the music between 1874 and 1876.
  • World premiere: Otto Dessoff led the Badische Staatskapelle in Karlsruhe, on November 4, 1876.
  • Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.
  • Estimated duration: 42 minutes
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Johannes Brahms

1833–1897

In the late 1870s, baby-faced Brahms grew out his beard to a length that...

In the late 1870s, baby-faced Brahms grew out his beard to a length that would impress even the hairiest of Coloradans. He wrote to a friend, “I am coming with a large beard! Prepare your wife for a most awful sight.”

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Elizabeth Schwartz

Author

Elizabeth Schwartz is a freelance writer, musician, and music historian based...

Elizabeth Schwartz is a freelance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. She provides notes for ensembles across the United States and around the world, including the Oregon Symphony and Chamber Music Northwest. Elizabeth has also contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. She also writes artist profiles, program previews, and other features for InSymphony Magazine and other publications. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com

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© 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz

These program notes are published here by the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra for its patrons and other interested readers. Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author, who may be contacted at www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com.