Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, No. 2, Op. 83, B-flat major
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
October 16, 17 & 18, 2015
Program Notes by Dr. Joella Utley
Brahms was so unhappy with the reception he received for his First Piano Concerto that he waited almost twenty years before trying again. Sketches for the Second were made on a vacation trip through Italy in 1878. The work was then laid aside while he composed his Violin Concerto along with several solo piano pieces. Inspiration for the piano concerto rekindled in 1881 after the composer returned from another vacation in Italy. This work grew into one of the longest Brahms ever composed. He expanded it from the usual three-movement form to four movements by adding a massive scherzo, which came from an abandoned movement of the recently published Violin Concerto.
He was pleased with it and wrote to his valued friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, “I don’t mind telling you that I have written a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny whisp of a scherzo.” Clara Schumann replied to his comment, “I am suspicious of the word ‘small’…I shall be quite satisfied if, after all, I can manage to play it!” Theodore Billroth, the famous European surgeon and good friend of Brahms described the second concerto’s relationship with the first as “the same as adulthood is to youth.”
One of Brahm’s favorite keys was B-flat Major. He used it in several of his happiest compositions. The Second differs from his First Piano Concerto by showing Brahms at full maturity, sober, and intense. Soloists will find the work difficult and demanding throughout with is massive chords and wide stretches. The rhythmic challenges are great for the conductor as well, especially in the scherzo movement. While the work is undeniably grandiose and often highly dramatic, the final movement is a playful dance using Hungarian melodies and rhythms. It is emotionally less weighty than the preceding movements.
The Second Piano Concerto was first performed in Budapest November 9, 1881 with Brahms as the soloist. It produced happy audiences throughout Germany, Switzerland and Holland during the rest of the 1881-1882 concert season. It remains today as one of his greatest works, the mark of a true master.
Symphony No. 1, Op. 21, C major
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven’s symphonic output began rather late in life. He was 29 years of age when he wrote his Symphony No. 1, which premiered on April 2, 1800 at the Hofburg Theater in Vienna. By that age Mozart had completed his 36th symphony and Schubert had written all nine of his symphonies. Beethoven’s first symphony dates from his early “Classical” era when he was greatly influenced by his mentors, Haydn and Mozart.
By the beginning of the 1800’s Beethoven had already established himself as a successful composer for the keyboard, chamber ensembles and was a marvel at improvising at the keyboard. Who would have guessed that this man would become one of the greatest symphonic masters of the world? Yet already in this first symphonic work his music was beginning to show characteristics that mark it as uniquely Beethoven. He was experimenting with rule breaking, which later became his trademark.
For example, the opening Adagio molto starts in the key of F Major, then moves to G Major, before settling into the real key of C Major. Beethoven’s frequent loud sforzandi and prominent use of wind instruments, particularly the clarinet, are used more frequently than by predecessors.
The second movement, Andante cantabile con moto comes in the pattern of a fugue. But the Menuetto and Trio, usually lovely and dance like, proceed quickly into the spirited tempo of a scherzo.
In the final movement, which begins as Adagio, as we hear the violins slowly work their way up the notes of the scale, before breaking into Allegro molto e vivace, concluding in this fast tempo.
Contemporary descriptions of the performance were mixed: one of his critics described this symphony as “a caricature of Haydn pushed to absurdity. The Leipzig Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reported: “Herr Beethoven took over the theatre and this was truly the most interesting concert in a long time. One of his symphonies was performed in which there is considerable art, novelty and a wealth of ideas. The only flaw was that the wind instruments were used too much, so that there was more harmony than orchestral music.”
Despite a somewhat inauspicious beginning, the First Symphony grew quickly in popularity and is a favorite today.
Akademische Festouvertüre, Op. 80 (Academic Festival Overture)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
In 1878 Brahms was awarded a Doctorate in Philosophy by the University in Breslau, Germany. The citation of the honorary degree claimed that the composer was “First among contemporary masters of serious music.” Brahms had an intense dislike for pompous or pretentious situations. He did not feel especially reverential when the University conferred the honorary degree. He therefore did not attend the ceremony conferring the degree. In fact, he thought a postcard would be sufficient acknowledgment unit his friend, Bernhard Scholz, Director of Music in Breslau, made it clear that the University would expect him to express his gratitude in musical form such as a “Doktor-Symphonie” or “at least as solemn song.”
In appreciation for this honor he wrote, somewhat mockingly, the Academic Festival Overture in the summer of 1880 and performed it first at the University on January 4, 1881. Brahms called the overture “a very boisterous potpourri of student songs.” In fact excerpts from four student beer-hall tunes play a significant role in the orchestral texture.
The overture is artful, humorous and distinctly un-academic. Although Brahms had never been a student at any university he had participated in student life in Gottingen in 1853. The overture is a student eye view of the nobility of learning. The music has a sense of fun and borrows melodies from student songs about beauty, immaturity, parody and glorification. The solemn introduction of the Overture fooled the audience, but when the familiar tunes blared out in full symphonic dress, the students were so delighted that they joined in with their own irreverent words, which must have completely satisfied Brahms’ sense of mischief. The score uses the largest orchestra ensemble Brahms was ever to employ: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings.