Classics 9: Love's Inspiration
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Ouvertüre from Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major, BWV 1066

Much of Bach’s orchestral music has been lost, but what remains represents gems of creativity. The six Brandenburg Concerti, each one composed for a different set of instruments and combination of soloists, forged an entirely new direction for the Italian concerto grosso. Like the Brandenburg Concerti, each of the four orchestral Suites features a different combination of instruments. Although they form a standard group in modern recordings, they were not originally conceived or composed at the same time. Because these works are technically sets of dances, they have carried the misnomer “Suite” in modern programs and recordings. Bach called them “Ouvertüren,” a clear indication of their debt to the French style.

All of the orchestral suites open with a slow, stately introduction followed by a fugal allegro. They owe their origin indirectly to the French ouverture, developed by Jean Baptiste Lully as an instrumental prelude to the extravagant operas and ballets performed at the French court of Louis XIV. Bach, as well as many other European composers of the period, combined the stately French ouvertures with a set of dances. Bach put his own stamp on the ouverture, however, by combining the principles of the Baroque dance suite with the use of soloists or solo ensembles as in the concerto.

The Suite No. 1, dating from about 1725, opens with a stately and imposing introduction, Example 1 which leads to a lively fugue before returning to the grand opening measures, a structural device dating back to Lully. Example 2
Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77

One of the marks of great artists is accurate self-assessment, the knowledge of their strengths and limitations. Like Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, Brahms sought the advice of a leading violinist when he was composing a concerto for the violin, an instrument with which he was not intimately familiar. Brahms’s long-time friend Joseph Joachim, a Hungarian violinist, composer and educator who for over half a century was the world’s dominant violin virtuoso, was intimately involved in the concerto’s composition. Needless to say, Brahms dedicated it to him. Joachim gave the premiere on New Year’s Day, 1879.

The initial reception of the Concerto was respectful but cool. Its technical demands deterred many violinists, who dubbed it “Concerto against the Violin and Orchestra.” It is, like the other Brahms concerti, a true partnership between soloist and orchestra; virtuosity for its own sake is totally absent. Joachim attempted to have Brahms make it easier for the soloist, but the manuscript of the violin part in the State Library in Berlin, full of Joachim’s suggestions, shows that, in this respect at least, the violinist seldom prevailed.

The sunny mood of the concerto is close to that of the Symphony No. 2 in D major, written shortly before. The dreamy opening movement is necessarily long for the development of each of the themes Brahms employs. While many composers choose to concentrate on developing a single theme, Brahms decided to expand on all of them. The orchestral first exposition introduces the main theme Example 1 and two secondary themes. Example 2 & Example 3 Immediately afterwards, the soloist takes off on a flight of cadenza-like passagework that gradually leads into the formal second exposition propelled by little hints of the main theme in the orchestra. Example 4 A classicist in form, Brahms writes a new secondary theme for the soloist. Example 5 Joachim wrote a large cadenza for this movement, which is still a favorite with soloists and audiences, although many violinists have written their own.

Brahms’s original plan was for a concerto in four movements, including a scherzo. But he discarded the scherzo and the original slow movement because their style did not fit with the rest of the work. The slow movement we have today opens with the solo oboe playing one of the most delicate and beautiful melodies in the literature. Example 6 The violin – entering a full two minutes into the movement – then embellishes this melody with arabesques (florid ornamentation of a theme), Example 7 continuing to maintain a special relationship with the oboe throughout. The middle of the movement becomes more intense and dramatic, but Brahms never loses sight of the theme. Example 8

The fiery rondo-finale exploits the melodies and rhythms played by itinerant Rom (Gypsy) musicians in the cafés of central Europe. Example 9 It is one of the few places where Joachim’s intervention attenuated the difficulties for the violinist. He managed to get Brahms to moderate the movement’s tempo by adding “ ma non troppo ” (but not too much) to the tempo indication Vivace. Brahms employs a secondary refrain in addition to the initial rondo theme. Example 10 The episode turns into a fiery, accelerated coda with cadenza-like passagework for the soloist.
Robert Schumann 1810-1856
Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120

No other composer symbolized the romantic movement in music as did Robert Schumann. Talented both in music and literature, he used the latter to promote his romantic ideals about the future of music. He was a true elitist, pitting “us,” the enlightened (the Davidsbündler), against “them,” the masses, whom he called “Philistines”. The latter appellation has remained part of the international elitist vocabulary to this day.

Schumann’s five-year pursuit of his beloved, the brilliant Clara Wieck, had all the ingredients of a soap opera (or grand opera): A hostile father-in-law, an adoring young bride-to-be, secret correspondence, lawsuits and court battles, accusations of alcoholism, banishment from Wieck's house, economic pressure, etc. Clara was an outstanding pianist and composer in her own right, and their eventual triumph led to a stormy but happy marriage unleashing a flood of creativity in both husband and wife – including seven children.

Although listed as Robert Schumann’s fourth symphony, the Symphony in D minor was actually his second, composed in 1841 during the happy first year of his marriage to Clara Wieck. In his diary the composer wrote “…my next symphony will be called Clara and I will portray her with flutes, oboes and harps.”

The Symphony broke with the prevailing symphonic traditions, being more of an orchestral fantasy on several related themes which undergo transformations and variations. In this way it forms a bridge between the classical symphony and the later tone poems of Liszt. Schumann himself referred to it as “Symphonistische Phantasie.”

The result of these innovations was a chilly reception at the premiere in Leipzig. Schumann withdrew the work and only returned to it in 1851, after the success of his Third Symphony. He revised and reorchestrated it, fusing all four movement to be played without a break, which made it even closer to a “Phantasie.” However, many conductors ignore this directive and separate the movements.

The opening movement of the Symphony can actually be thought of in two separate sections, each one dominated by a thematic group. The first, in D minor includes the theme of the slow introduction, marked Ziemlich langsam (quite slowly), Example 1 and three motives from the allegro. Example 2 The second thematic group, appearing well into the development, begins with three sharp chords in the orchestra, similar to a hammer blow, Example 3 in addition to a lyrical, romantic theme. Example 4 In this movement Schumann develops all the themes in various combinations. He revisits this complex of musical ideas in the finale movement as an sophisticated unifying device for the Symphony.

The second movement, Romanza, again marked Ziemlich langsam, introduces a melancholy theme on the oboes and cellos, alternating with the opening theme of the introduction. Example 5 A classic ABA structure, the movement introduces contrasting new material in its middle section. Example 6

The lively Scherzo pits a certain heavy-handedness Example 7 against a gentle Trio that uses the same music as the B section of the preceding Romanza. Example 8 The movement ends on a poetic and gentle note that merges imperceptibly with the slow introduction of the Finale.

The last movement is essentially a redefinition of the first movement, with some new music. At first, the slow introduction uses the first allegro theme, now in a completely different guise and making the listener believe that there will be a return to the first movement D minor section. Example 9 When the allegro of this final movement begins, it takes up the more joyous second section of the first movement to develop, this time with more confidence. Example 10 A new theme is critical to contributing a celebratory air to this movement that the first movement lacked. Example 11 It is as if here Schumann has reconsidered the tension and drama of the opening movement and converted it into a triumph.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017