|Classics 9: In the Shadow of Beethoven|
A native of New York, John Corigliano came by his music talents honestly. His father, John Sr., was for 23 years the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic and his mother an accomplished pianist. John, Jr. studied at Columbia University and the Manhattan School of Music and subsequently worked at New York’s WQXR radio station and as an assistant director at CBS-TV.
He first came to prominence as composer after winning the chamber music prize at the 1964 Spoleto Festival for his Sonata for Violin and Piano. Beginning in the 1970s he has emerged as a successful and popular classical composer whose works are frequently and widely performed. From 1987 to 1990 he was composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony, a tenure that culminated in his powerful Symphony No.1, his personal response to the AIDS crisis. Currently he holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, City University of New York and, in 1991, was named to the faculty of The Juilliard School. Also in 1991 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His musical language, while mostly tonal and lyrical, does not lack dissonance, especially his early music recalling the music of Milhaud and Bartók.
The neo-Romantic Elegy is an early work, composed in 1965, as a trio for flute, clarinet and harp – background music for a love scene in the off-Broadway play Helen by Wallace Grey. In the scene, the aging Helen of Troy consorts with her young lover Telemachus. Orchestrated a year later and dedicated to Samuel Barber, it was Corigliano’s first orchestral work.
The dedication to Barber is not surprising; Elegy could easily be mistaken for the older composer’s work. It is based on a single narrow-ranged theme, which Corigliano restates in free variation. He gives the work shape through changing orchestral texture, using solos and small ensembles. He also interweaves different parts of the melody contrapuntally, using techniques of inversion, canon and augmentation.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11
The son of a French father and Polish mother, Frédéric Chopin was born and grew up in Poland; but after the collapse of the Polish revolution against Russia in 1831, he went into exile to France. He settled in Paris, which was then the center of Polish émigrés. Because of his own financial success, he was able to play at charity concerts held for his poorer exiled compatriots and organize similar events. Although he was never able to return to his native country, his solo piano works include numerous polonaises and mazurkas that bear witness to his regard for his native land. In accordance with his will his sister brought his heart, preserved in Cognac, to Warsaw where it was placed in an urn installed in a pillar of the Church of the Holy Cross in Krakowskie Przedmiescie.
Chopin’s chosen medium was the piano as a solo instrument. In his late teens he did try to unite the piano with the orchestra, creating, in addition to the two piano concertos, the Variations Op.2, Fantasia on Polish Airs Op. 13, the Concert Rondo Op. 14 and the Grande Polonaise Op. 22. Admittedly uncomfortable with the orchestral medium, after age 20 he never again wrote for orchestra. In all these works, the orchestral scoring is so light that in the nineteenth century it was fashionable to reorchestrate and “improve” the accompaniment. It is probable, however, that Chopin intended the orchestra to serve merely as a background fabric for the soloist. He himself was known to have had a rather light touch at the piano, and heavy orchestral accompaniment would have drowned him out. The concentration on solo piano works, however, could not have brought in enough income to sustain him; most of his life was devoted to teaching piano, in which he was a master.
The e minor Concerto, although numbered No.1, was composed later than the second (1830) but was published first. It was premiered in October 1830 in Warsaw, with the composer at the piano. He wrote to a friend the next day: “I was not a bit, not a bit nervous and played the way I play when I am alone, and it went well...”
This is a pianist’s concerto with all the frills and furbelows for the soloist, but it also contains the kind of poignantly lyric melodies that were to characterize the composer’s subsequent music for solo piano. The opening movement, Allegro maestoso, is in the classical tradition, with a long orchestral introduction in which Chopin presents all the main themes of the movement. & & When the piano enters, it is with embellishements of these themes. The development too, is in the traditional classical form.
The composer wrote about the second movement, Romance: Larghetto: [it is] “of a romantic, calm and rather melancholy character...a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.” A short orchestral introduction precedes the entrance of the piano, which this time presents the principal theme of the movement. The movement is a standard ABA form, as well as a set of free variations, or fantasy, for the pianist. The middle section presents a contrasting theme in a contrasting mood. The form, however, is less important than the unusual modulations and the pianistic decorations. To balance the introduction, Chopin also provides a substantial coda, yet one more fantasy on the theme.
The finale, Rondo, vivace, is rhythmically related to the Krakoviak, a rapid dance originating around the city of Krakow and considered Poland’s national dance. The opening piano refrain reappears a number of times, separated by graceful, highly ornamented or dancelike melodies. &
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
“You don’t know what it is like always to hear that giant marching along behind me,” Brahms wrote to the conductor Hermann Levi, in reference to Beethoven. As a classically oriented composer who revered Beethoven, Brahms found writing a symphony a daunting proposition. It took fame, respectability, middle age and numerous false starts before he finally finished his First Symphony at age 43, after at least 14 years’ gestation. An earlier attempt at a symphony, in 1854, ended up, after numerous transformations, as part of the D minor Piano Concerto and the German Requiem.
Despite Brahms’s reputation and the positive anticipation of the public, the Symphony, premiered in 1876, was at first coolly received. The rigorous classical form baffled the public and critics, who expected something more romantic and innovative. Wagner, Liszt and programmatic music were all the rage and most critics considered the classical form backward looking and reactionary. But it was not long before the Symphony’s riveting power was recognized, along with its own contribution to symphonic innovation.
If, indeed, the First Symphony cannot strictly be considered program music, it nevertheless unfolds with great drama – even, one might say, a musical plot. While the typical classical symphony gave the greatest weight to the first movement, ending with a faster rousing finale, often a dance, Mozart, in his last three symphonies, and Beethoven in the Third, Fifth and especially the Ninth Symphonies, recast the pattern. In these works, the finale provides the culmination to the entire symphony. When listening to Brahms’s First, one can easily imagine the composer’s reticence at treading in the great man’s shadow. Nevertheless, his combined sense for musical drama and structure prevailed as he launched what conductor Hans von Bülow called “The Tenth.” Only Mendelssohn in his Symphony No. 3, “The Scottish,” had trod that path.
The ominous pounding of the timpani under slow ascending and descending chromatic scales, fragmentary motives and the ambiguous tonality of the Introduction poses a musical question – actually more of a demand – that remains unresolved until the final movement. It is one of the most spine-chilling introductions in all of classical music, made more so by the contrasting secondary theme, a trio for the oboe, flute and cellos – which, incidentally, is never heard again . The following Allegro fleshes out motives from the Introduction into a full-fledged theme, developing it with an almost savage energy that threatens to obscure the traditional sonata form . But Brahms was a classicist and introduces two new subsidiary themes into the Allegro, a gentle oboe theme, the mate to the one in the Introduction, followed by another stormy chromatic one with an ascending chromatic scale and its resulting tonal ambiguity, in keeping with the overall mood of the movement.
The middle two movements are a respite from the drive of the first. The Andante sostenuto second movement, a classic ABA form, although with a highly modified repeat, reminiscent of Beethoven's variations in the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony. The theme of this movement is in two phrases, the first concluding with a motive that Brahms uses in different musical contexts throughout. The end of the second phrase recalls the opening of the Allegro in the first movement. The oboe solo is a mate to the solo for the same instrument in the introduction, beginning what becomes a pattern for Brahms in this symphony of foreshadowing and recalling motivic elements from movement to movement. Shortly afterwards, he hints at the main theme of the third movement to come in a brief duet for flute and oboe. All in all, it is lovely, albeit melancholy, and still fraught with the unresolved tension of the work as a whole.
The third movement, a modified scherzo form, is more of an intermezzo that opens with a lilting clarinet theme, suggested already in the preceding movement. It does, however, include a trio. The contrapuntal accompaniment to the repeat of the clarinet theme, after the Trio section, foreshadows the principal theme from the Finale.
Rumbling timpani now returns us to the serious business of resolving the tensions raised in the first movement, and the resolution appears none too optimistic with its creeping pizzicato strings and sforzando appoggiaturas in the winds. This return to the mood of the first movement Allegro reminds us of the unresolved issues, but suddenly, as if from behind a cloud, an alpenhorn calls out, answered by the flute, turning the turgid C minor into a resounding C major chorale-like melody.
The alpenhorn solo has its own little history. In 1868, eight years before the Symphony was premiered, Brahms had quarreled with his friend, and probably secret love, Clara Schumann, about whether she should cut back on her concretizing to spend more time at home with her children. That September, he sent her a mollifying postcard with the alpenhorn theme scrawled on it to the words, ”High on the mountain, deep in the valley, I greet you a thousand fold.”
Of course, the introduction of the chorale tune is not the final statement. Brahms develops it and a series of subsidiary themes with emotional force, but with less brutality than the first movement. The chorale does battle with the music from the stormy introduction to emerge triumphant in an exultant coda, again reminiscent of Beethoven's excited finales.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016|