Brahms & Bruckner

Brahms & Bruckner
March 19, 2016

6:30 p.m. – Know the Score | 7:30 p.m. – Concert
Bill Heard Theatre, RiverCenter for the Performing Arts

Featuring Peter Klimo, piano

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra in B-flat Major
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major, WAB 104

These two nineteenth century German Romantic composers say all that needs to say, from the profundity and lyrical beauty of Brahms to the cathedral-like soundscapes of Bruckner.

Concerto No.2 for Piano and Orchestra in B-flat Major – Johannes Brahms

Born May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany – Died April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria

This work was first performed on November 9, 1881, in Budapest with Brahms as soloist. It is scored for piano solo, woodwinds in pairs with added piccolo, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

In 1853, Robert Schumann lauded the twenty-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 wasn’t 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’s 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.

Twenty-two years later, Brahms returned to the genre, just after completing the Second Symphony, the Violin Concerto, and the Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures. In his late forties, he was at his creative peak and his music was presented on concert programs worldwide. The Second Concerto was revolutionary – not so much in its virtuosity, as it lacks the empty fireworks of the First Concerto, but in its redefinition of the concerto as a musical form. Incorporating an idea he had rejected for his Violin Concerto, Brahms expanded the concerto’s framework to include a scherzo, making the work resemble the Beethovenian four-movement symphony in its structure. The piano is, in some ways, just another orchestral instrument. The line is blurred between its soloistic and orchestral functions. Instead of the orchestra introducing musical themes upon which the soloist expounds, Brahms allows the pianist to present certain melodies, which are then taken up by the ensemble. This mammoth concerto reshaped the role of the soloist into that of an equal to the orchestra.

The first movement opens with a plaintive horn solo, followed by a piano cadenza that introduces the main Allegro section of the movement.

The second movement, jokingly described by Brahms as “a wisp of a scherzo,” is full of ire and vengeance.

The Andante presents the lyrical side of the composer in one of his most tender moments, with beautiful interplay between the principal cello and the solo piano.

The rondo finale is a huge movement far removed from the lighthearted Classical rondo of Mozart. In this extensive movement, the composer exploits his signature dotted rhythms as fully as ever.

Brahms’s description of the work as “a tiny little piano concerto” is simply a jocular barb downplaying the depth of this profound monument of music.


Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major, WAB 104 – Anton Bruckner

Born September 4, 1824, in Ansfelden, near Linz, Austria – Died October 11, 1886, in Vienna, Austria

This work was premiered in this version on February 20, 1881, in Vienna, Austria, by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hans Richter. It is scored for pairs of woodwinds, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

Just thirty years after the War of the Romantics pitted the progressive camp of composers (Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz) against the conservatives (Brahms, Schumann, and those who followed the memory of Mendelssohn), it appeared that the progressives had won. Wagner was revered and Liszt had retired to Bayreuth, and the two would leave this world in 1883 and 1886, respectively. Berlioz had died in 1869. Of the conservatives, only Brahms was left and he would outlive all of the others of the group. However, Brahms was viewed by many as old-fashioned during the last decade of his life . He was perhaps the most respected composer alive, but was also one who was writing in an antiquated style. Brahms was an elder master, although he was only in his sixties when he died in 1897. Despite the demise of the original progressives, a new generation of young lions emerged to carry the banner. Chief among them were Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and the one elder composer who acted as a mentor to the new generation – Anton Bruckner.

Bruckner was born in 1824 and was only eleven years younger than Wagner. He was the son of a schoolmaster who was also the local church organist in the country church at Ansfelden, a short distance from Linz. His first formal studies were at age eleven and, after his father’s death, became a chorister at St. Florian Monastery in Ansfelden (now subsumed as part of Linz). He studied violin with Franz Gruber (the composer of the Christmas carol Silent Night) and organ with the chief organist at the monastery, Anton Kattinger. After leaving St. Florian in 1840, Bruckner followed his father’s lead and became a teacher. For the next sixteen years, Bruckner remained in the classroom, first in two farming communities, but finally returning to St. Florian to teach there. His well-known Requiem in D minor dates from this period.

He became a full-time organist in 1856 at the Dom- und Stadtpfarrkirchen in Linz, which required him to serve as organist at both churches. It was during this time that he studied counterpoint with the renowned theorist Simon Sechter, who had also taught Franz Schubert for a mere two weeks before his death. Sechter insisted that Bruckner compose no original music during his studies and, because of his strictness, influenced the younger composer’s mature style in a positive way. The lessons were done by correspondence and thousands of pages of exercises survive. In November of 1861, Bruckner took the professor’s examination at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna and passed the test with no problem.

Genius often comes with eccentricity and Bruckner was no exception. He was socially awkward and spoke quietly with a pronounced rural accent. He was a pious man, but had a record of falling in love with girls in their mid-teens. Bruckner was also just as fragile as he might have seemed. After the emotional stress of losing his mother in 1860 and the denial of a marriage proposal in 1866, Bruckner suffered an emotional breakdown. This was coupled with “number mania,” which caused him to count objects which, according to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians included “beads on necklaces, dots on clothes, windows in the town, leaves on trees and even stars.” He preferred to wear the same ill-fitting black suit every day. A recent Ph.D. dissertation by Mary Hetzel and a German book on the subject diagnose Bruckner with Asperger’s Syndrome. After a period of treatment for nervous exhaustion, he left the facility at Bad Kreuzen and was soon awarded the post of professor of harmony and counterpoint at the illustrious Vienna Conservatory.

Despite his overwhelming schedule in Vienna, Bruckner became even more active as a composer. The 1870s were occupied by his Symphonies Nos. 2-5, but they also were a time of grave disappointments. There were many scathing reviews from the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick, who had turned against Bruckner once he learned that the composer was a friend and admirer of Wagner. Another major crisis came when Bruckner was accused of impropriety during a brief period of employment at St. Anna’s, a teachers college for women. Although he was emotionally battered, Bruckner emerged from the 1870s as a respected composer, pedagogue, and organist.

Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony exists in seven different versions. The original symphony dates from 1874, but the composer added a new scherzo and finale in 1878. In 1880 he added a third finale. Other revisions took place in 1881, 1886, 1887, and 1888. The version most often performed today is designated as the “1878/1880 version” with the 1878 “Hunt Scherzo” and the 1880 finale.

The first movement begins with a tremolo in the strings, but a majestic theme emerges in the solo horn part.

Before long, the full orchestra enters with a rhythm that is somewhat of a Bruckner signature—two duple notes followed by a triplet.

A second theme is in sharp contrast with its gentle folk-like character.

As the movement progresses, the two themes go through extensive development and reach a powerful final climax. The opening horn part returns at the end as a breathtaking fanfare.

Bruckner’s second movement, described by the composer as “a song,” is essentially a funeral march, but it is somewhat remote—as if heard from a distant location.

During the recapitulation, the music loses its distance and is given a very elaborate presentation by the full orchestra.

The famous “Hunt” scherzo is magnificently brass-heavy from the opening horn calls through the climax to the blazing ending.

A central trio is an Austrian ländler that lightens the mood significantly.

Many commentators mention the tentative beginning of the finale as it revisits the atmosphere of the previous movements.

It is a grand and sprawling movement that takes the listener on a meaningful journey with many delightful detours. The usual symphonic impetus that drives a finale from its beginning directly to the end is missing here. Instead, the occasional side-trips only add to the power of the climax when it finally arrives. The movement ends with a reprise of the horn call from the opening of the symphony that grows into a final overwhelming passage.


©2015 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin

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