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February 06, 2010

February 6, 2010 Program Notes

RICHARD WAGNER

Born Leipzig, 22 May 1813. Died Venice, 13 February 1883.

PRELUDE TO DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG

The Prelude was composed in June, 1862 and first performed in Leipzig on November 1 of that year, with the composer conducting. The opera was completed in 1867 and premiered on June 21, 1868, in Munich. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, harp and strings. The work last approximately 9 minutes.

A composer must be a master craftsman, argues Sixtus Beckmesser, the town clerk in Richard Wagner's comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Beckmesser is the "marker" in a medieval guild of song writers. As marker, Beckmesser is responsible for making sure that the songs written by the guild members adhere to the strictest rules of composition, and he marks their "mistakes". Young men who join the guild as apprentices study these rules with the older masters, like the legendary (and historical) Hans Sachs, with the hope of one day themselves achieving the rank of master singer, or "meistersinger." For Beckmesser, inspiration means nothing without craftsmanship. If the muse plants her kiss on the cheek of a mere novice, she is wasting her affections.

Not so, argues the novice, Walther von Stolzing, a young Franconian knight who has not yet mastered the rules, but believes he has been kissed by the muse. He finds inspiration in the beauty of nature and life and love, an idea that Beckmesser finds ludicrous. Walther enters the meistersingers' competition, hoping to prove himself worthy of the muse's affections, and also the affections of Eva, the daughter of one of the meistersingers. Eva's father has offered her hand in marriage to the grand prize winner of the song competition. Walther's first song attempt breaks all the rules, but Hans Sachs himself is moved by it, and Sachs helps Walther mold it into a somewhat more acceptable form. Even though his song still defies a good number of conventions, the freshness of Walther's inspiration wins him the competition and Eva's hand, and vanquishes Beckmesser's pedantry.

Richard Wagner found himself at the center of a contentious culture war similar to that of his Beckmesser and his Walther. On the one side were the enthusiastic proponents of Wagner's deeply expressive romanticism, and his tendency to dissolve the contours of compositional forms. On the other hand were his conservative critics, who wanted to preserve the formal integrity of the classical tradition, and who lionized Johannes Brahms as the hero of the conservative cause. This was a controversy that the supremely self-confident (a polite word for it) Wagner most heartily encouraged. He enthusiastically cast scorn on those he viewed as the "Beckmessers" of his time, those who valued mere craft above genius.

The polemics of the time notwithstanding, the music of Wagner's Meistersinger of Nürnbergis a masterpiece of both inspiration and craftsmanship. The prelude is a brilliant and delightful tapestry of a myriad of motifs that reappear with charm and wit throughout the opera. For example, the work opens with the grandiose meistersinger motif, which reappears later in a quick, staccato transformation, representing the cobbling of Hans Sachs. Taken together they give us a general impression of the meistersingers' grand vision, on the one hand, and their craftsmanship, on the other. Wagner's own craftsmanship in the prelude is undeniable, for the motifs are spun off and woven together with an artistry that is both intricate and breathtaking. As the composition nears its climax, multiple motifs are heard at once with an ever rising sense of excitement. Like Walther von Stolzing, Richard Wagner proves himself worthy of the muse's kiss.

JOHANNES BRAHMS

Born Hamburg, 7 May 1833. Died Vienna, 3 April 1897.

Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98

Composed in 1884-85 and first performed in Meiningen on October 25, 1885, with Brahms conducting. The score calls for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, traingle, and strings. The work lasts approximately 42 minutes.

Johannes Brahms was slow to take up the symphony. He said it was because Beethoven's symphonies were too difficult an act to follow. "You cannot imagine what it is like to hear the footsteps of such a giant behind you." Beethoven had not merely written great symphonies; he had transformed the genre, finding new ways of hearing the relationships inherent in that form. One of the most striking examples of that transformation was, of course, Beethoven's Ninth. Beethoven had expanded the instrumental sound utterly beyond its own limitations into the realm of the human voice. When the baritone sang, "No, not these tones, rather...more pleasing, joyous ones," and launched us into the choral finale of the symphony, i twas to forever change the way we imagined the possibilities of the orchestra. The premiere of Beethoven's Ninth had been just nine years before Brahms was born, and the self-critical young composer shared none of the self-assurance of his contemporary, Richard Wagner.

Brahms began work on his first symphony in his early forties, and by then he was ready to take up Beethoven's mantle. Now and again in his early symphonies we hear references to Beethoven, a subtle influence here, an ironic paraphrase there. Yet each of these works contributes to the genre in a fresh, innovative way. His fourth and last Symphony is the pinnacle of his development, both as a composer of symphonies, and as a composer, period.

In each of the first three movements Brahms achieves a remarkably original approach to the classical forms of the symphony, transforming them into deeply expressive and unique insights into conventional forms. This simultaneous retaining and transforming of classical forms seem to both confirm and belie that image of Brahms as the protector of conservative classicism, which Richard Wagner's opponents so dearly held. The ambiguity of Brahms' style led some people, who were not so caught up in the polemics of the time, to call Brahms a "classical romanticist."

In any case, the fourth movement of the symphony leads the symphony into uncharted waters. Here Brahms borrows an even older, Baroque form, the passacaglia, which traditionally is a set of variations built on a recurring bass pattern. Brahms takes his bass motif from (what was then thought to be) Bach Cantata 150: "Nach Dir, O Herr, Verlanget Mich (I Long, O Lord, For Thee)". The trombones introduce the motif, after which it travels through the orchestra, at times clearly audible, at times a whisper, and at the end only implied. Just as Beethoven had used a small four-note motif to build his entire Fifth Symphony, here Brahms in an entirely new way uses a small recurring Baroque motif to develop a large-scale, orchestral panorama.

LAUNY GRØNDAHL

Born Ordrup, Denmark, 30 June 1886. Died 21 January 1960, Copenhagen.

Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra

Composed in 1924 in Italy. The score calls for solo trombone, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, horn, 2 trumpets, piano, and strings. The work lasts approximately 16 minuets.

The trombone is a relative newcomer to the orchestra. Its dark, rich tone quality would have overpowered the delicately balanced classical symphony. Mozart used it at times for special effect, such as for the "Tuba Mirum" of his Requiem, in which the trombone punctuates the dramatic line, "The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound through the sepulchres of the regions, will collect all before the throne." Most famously, Mozart uses the darkness and power of three trombones in his opera, Don Giovanni, at the entrance of the ghost of the murdered commendatore, when the spirit comes to take Don Giovanni to hell.

If the classical composers used the rich darkness of the trombone for special effect, the romanticists wanted that sound as a staple of their expanded orchestra. By the twentieth century, the trombone had become a standard color in the symphonic palette. Because of its late arrival, though the number of trombone concertos in the symphony repertoire is still relatively small.

Launy Grøndahl learned to play the violin as a boy and was playing professionally at the age of thirteen. He studied in Paris, Vienna, and Italy, and while in Italy composed his trombone concerto, which he dedicated to his friend, Vilhelm Aarkrogh. Grøndahl served as conductor of the Royal Orchestra in Copenhagen from 1925 until 1956. His compositional style is both angular, influenced by the new harmonic language of the Twentieth Century, and expressive, able to use the warmth of the trombone to achieve a lush lyricism. The combination of abstract angularity with a natural singing quality give his trombone concerto its appeal.

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