Program Notes – James Sommerville in Concert
May 23, 2015
Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat major,K. 495
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
Died December 5, 1791 in Vienna, Austria
This concerto was completed on June 26, 1786. It is scored for solo horn, two oboes, optional bassoon, two horns and strings.
Ignaz Leutgeb was a celebrated hornist and close friend of Mozart’s in Salzburg where he played in the brass section of the Archiepiscopal Court Orchestra. Moving to Vienna in 1777, Leutgeb opened a cheese shop with money he borrowed from Leopold Mozart, the composer’s father. When Wolfgang relocated to Vienna in 1781, Leutgeb was still in no position to repay the loan, but his excellent musicianship served him well as the dedicatee of the four horn concertos the young Mozart composed over the next five years.
Mozart always held the highest regard for Leutgeb, as is evident in the chiding comments written in the manuscripts of the concerti. These taunting barbs, often accompanied by chirping or otherwise humorous sounds from the orchestra, must have been a distraction to the soloist, but they display an almost brotherly type of brusque humor shared only by two people who are the closest of friends. For example, the score of the D major concerto bears among its markings comments like “how flat you play,” “what a bleating sheep’s trill” and simply “ouch.”
The Concerto No. 4 was composed in blue, red, green and black ink as a further jab at the soloist. The work is much more compact than most solo concertos of the period, perhaps because of the difficulty of the solo part, played completely on valveless horn (valves were not invented for another fifty odd years). The first movement includes a surprising number of musical themes – a notable feature for such a short work. Scholars have noted that sections of the movement strongly resemble the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, composed only a month earlier.
The second movement is divided into three sections. Mozart exploits the horn’s unique ability to navigate wide melodic leaps while retaining a conjunct melodic line while displaying cantabile melodies and treacherous runs. The finale is an impressive rondo that hearkens back to the horn’s origin as a hunting instrument. Likewise, Mozart’s choice of 6/8 meter reflects its traditional association with the hunt. Throughout the work, Mozart’s jostling sense of humor never lets us forget the affinity he felt for one of the leading soloists of his day.
Symphony No. 8 in B minor
Born January 31, 1797 in Vienna
Died November 19, 1828 in Vienna
This work was first performed on December 17, 1865, at concert of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music) in Vienna, conducted by Johann Herbeck. It is scored for pairs of woodwinds, horns and trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.
In the short span of 31 years, Franz Schubert gave to the world a wealth of music, most of it destined to live and command the appreciation of many generations. As Schubert approached the end of his brief career, his work became more ripened without losing any of its freshness. The last year of his life produced a surprising number of works, which included the Schwanengesang cycle, the String Quintet in C (Op.163), the piano sonatas, the oratorio Miriam’s Song of Triumph, the Mass in E-flat, the Fantasia in F minor for piano four-hands and the Ninth Symphony. Called the “Great C major,” this work is monumental. However, six years earlier Schubert composed a work that has spawned more speculation than almost any other musical work in the vast literature – the legendary Unfinished Symphony.
This symphony is rich in history and speculation. Perhaps it is best to begin with the history. The symphony was composed in 1822 for the Styrian Musical Society in Graz, Austria, in thanks for Schubert’s election to the group. The composer was not content to present the society with the score for any of his six completed symphonies (there would be nine before his death in 1828), but composed the Symphony in B minor especially for the purpose. He sent the score a year later to Joseph Huttenbrenner, director of the society. He, in turn, entrusted it to his brother, Anselm Huttenbrenner, to present to the Styrian group. For some unexplained reason, the symphony never reached its proper destination. Several years later, Joseph wrote to the conductor Johann Herbeck in an effort to get one of Anselm’s compositions performed in Vienna. He concluded with the remark: “He possesses a treasure in Schubert’s Symphony in B Minor, which he considers to be the equal of the great Symphony in C, his instrumental swan song, and of any of Beethoven’s. Only it is not finished.” Tempted by the hint in Joseph’s letter, Herbeck came to Graz in 1865 and discovered the Schubert work in a drawer. In exchange for the privilege of premiering the work, Herbeck also performed one of Anselm Huttenbrenner’s overtures.
Nearly two centuries of speculation centers around one question: Did Schubert believe his two-movement work to be a complete symphony? The manuscript also included nine measures of a scherzo, the traditional third-movement form, but the effort was obviously abandoned – even though the 1865 premiere appended Schubert’s B-minor Entr’acte from his incidental music to the play Rosamunde to serve as a fourth movement. Many still believe that additional movements were lost, or possibly never finished. However, the two-movement structure seems to suggest two emotional struggles forming a statement that feels complete. However, there is no return to the traditional key – a gesture that signaled completion to composers and audiences of the day.
The first movement, Allegro moderato, begins with basses and cellos announcing a germinal theme. Violins introduce a rustling figure over which oboe and clarinet play a plaintive melody. From these materials, Schubert crafts one of music’s stormiest development sections. With surprises around every turn, the movement finally returns to the opening material before progressing to an abrupt ending.
Schubert’s Andante con moto inhabits a spiritual world of meditative quietness. Violins play a gentle theme that forms the basis of the movement. Trombones and woodwinds press forward with a bold melody, but it recedes into the texture when the woodwinds take over the opening theme. After considerable development, the ending withdraws into quietness with a major-key version of the opening melody. The symphony vaporizes into nothingness, its irresistible beauty slipping from our grasp.
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
Born May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany
Died April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria
This work was first performed on October 25, 1885, by the Meiningen Court Orchestra with the composer conducting. It is scored for woodwinds in pairs with added contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle and strings.
In 1853 Robert Schumann lauded the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms as the “young eagle” among composers. From that moment on, new opportunities presented themselves regularly as demand grew for new works from this fresh new face on the musical scene. His pen flowed with chamber music, piano pieces, choral works and art songs. However, it was not until 1858 that his first orchestral work, the Serenade No. 1, appeared. During the same period, he composed his First Piano Concerto – a flashy virtuosic work far removed from the brooding introspection of Brahms’ later masterpieces. Reception of the First Concerto has been described as ranging from “indifference to
revulsion.” The composer had simply not found his musical voice. This affected the already self-critical Brahms’ confidence profoundly. However, the trepidation he felt was not completely due to self-doubt. After Beethoven’s death in 1827, composers were held to an almost unattainable standard. The shadow cast by his nine symphonies, a monolithic body of work, intimidated many composers, causing some to delay their first efforts in the genre until later in life. Johannes Brahms, although a successful composer in his twenties, did not compose his Symphony No. 1 until he was 43. Perhaps he explained it best, “You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven.” With his confidence bolstered by the success of his first symphony, Brahms composed a second the following year. A third followed five years later in 1883. All of the first three symphonies owe a debt of musical
gratitude to Beethoven, as each follow formal examples set forth by the giant.
Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is different. Because of its stern character, certain
contemporary critics dismissed it as pedantic. Having the advantage of over a century of retrospect, a fairer assessment would be that the symphony is meticulously crafted with every musical idea calculated to the finest detail. It is also one of the most heavenly statements in music history. The motivic first movement is constructed from a rhythmic germ, short-long, and is cast in the traditional sonata form. This is pure Brahms, with his
lovely use of intervals of the third and sixth accompanying nearly every melody. Because of this, each theme seems to be gently cradled by the rest of the ensemble.
The sorrowful second movement is a perfect example of how Brahms could make even a major key sound dark and brooding. Mournful and moving, this is the movement Richard Strauss described as a “funeral procession moving across moonlit heights.” Brahms’ third movement scherzo is a rapid-tempo respite from the introspection of the second movement. Listen for the metallic interjections of the triangle and its sparkling contrast to the brooding textures. The finale is perhaps Brahms’ most supreme masterpiece of orchestral composition. Set in the form of a passacaglia (a Baroque form consisting of a repeated melodic pattern upon which melodic and harmonic variations are anchored), Brahms looks backward instead of forward.