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May 01, 2013

May 2013 Program Notes

JOHANNES BRAHMS

Born Hamburg, Germany, 7 May 1833; died Vienna, 3 April 1897.

Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Op. 45

Composed between 1865 and 1868 (with the second movement making use of material from the 1850s), the German Requiem was premiered in its 7-movement entirety on 18 February 1869, with Carl Reinecke conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Chorus plus soloists. The work calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, organ, 2 harps, strings, 4-part chorus and soprano and baritone soloists. Duration is approximately 68 minutes. The German Requiem was most recently performed by the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on 15 March 2003, Guy Victor Bordo conducting, with soloists Anne Marie Lewis and Steven Jepson.

In the mid-1860s, as Johannes Brahms approached his mid-30s, he was in his early prime as a composer: he had written his two Serenades for orchestra and First Piano Concerto, as well as solo piano music, short choral works, many songs, and some of his most masterful chamber music. (The four symphonies, the other concertos, more vocal works, and the late chamber and piano music were in the future.) Exactly why, with no commission in hand, he decided to compose a large-scale choral work based on texts he chose from the Martin Luther bible is not known, but he may well have intended it as a memorial to his mother, who died in February 1865. By April of that year he had already composed a draft of the first four movements, and was showing it to his close friend Clara Schumann, a composer herself as well as piano virtuoso and widow of the composer Robert. In one letter to Clara, he made reference to writing “a kind of German requiem,” evidently unaware that Robert had proposed something similar more than a decade earlier.

A “requiem” is traditionally a Latin Mass for the Dead, and follows a fairly strict sequence (though with some additions and subtractions acceptable). In his use of   16 different biblical passages, interweaving choices from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, Brahms alludes to some of the traditions of the Requiem Mass—e.g., the text  from the Revelation of John on the sounding of the Final Trumpet (Posaune/trombone in Luther’s translation)—but creates a very original structure, with emphasis on comforting the bereaved rather than praying for the souls of the departed. Brahms told one friend that he would happily have called the work Ein menschliches Requiem (a Human Requiem).

The first three movements of A German Requiem were performed in Vienna on 1 December 1867, as part of a program honoring the memory of Franz Schubert. Evidently this music in the spirit of Protestant Northern Germany did not altogether please the more Southern, Roman Catholic Viennese. Much more successful was the premiere of the “complete” work (i.e., Movements 1-4 and 6-7) on Good Friday, 9 April 1868 for a crowd of over 2500 at the Cathedral of Bremen, Brahms conducting. (It was a very full program: after Movement 4 Brahms’ friend the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim performed solos by Bach, Tartini and Robert Schumann, and following the Requiem were an aria from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and three numbers from Handel’s Messiah, including “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” and the “Halleluiah” Chorus.)

When and why Brahms decided another movement was needed is also not known; at any rate, only a month after the Bremen premiere he alerted his publisher to the fact that an additional movement, with soprano solo, would be on its way. This movement was given a tryout in Zurich that September, before being incorporated in the whole work for the 1869 Leipzig Gewandhaus premiere.

1. Selig sind, die da Leid tragen.

Blending the words of the Gospel on the Mount (“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted”) with verses from Psalm 126 (“They that sow in tears shall reap in joy”), Brahms sets in motion the central theme of his Requiem. This movement, with its  soaring oboe solo and discreet use of harp, a features a reduced orchestra: not only fewer winds than usual but no violins. It begins in a hushed manner but rises twice to a climax on the words “shall reap in joy” before subsiding.

2. Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras. 

The funereal pulse, in triple meter, of the first half of Movement 2 accompanies the words “All flesh is like grass and the splendor of man is like the flower of the field.” The quiet orchestral introduction and the chorus’ first passages could suggest resignation, but as the inexorable kettledrum rhythm comes to dominate, the chorus rises to a grief-stricken intensity. Yet there is a lovely section that follows, describing waiting for the coming of the Lord as the farmer patiently waits “for the morning rain and the evening rain.” The “All flesh is like grass” music returns, but a thrilling transitional passage takes us to a triumphant fugal conclusion in which the chorus sings, first passionately and finally calmly, of “eternal joy.”

3. Herr, lehre doch mich. 

The solo baritone is first heard in this movement, singing “Lord, teach me that I must have an end.” The first section, with soloist and chorus alternating, expresses a shattering grief over one’s own mortality, followed by a section on the vanity of humans who attempt to store up riches. When the baritone finally asks, “Now, Lord, how shall I find comfort?” the chorus answers, “I hope in Thee” and proceeds to a magnificent fugue with the words “The righteous souls are in God’s hand.” 

4. Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen. 

“How lovely are your dwelling places,” the chorus sings in an utterly contrasting movement, which is also the shortest of the seven. It is a hymn of praise in a very Brahmsian slow waltz tempo, with rapturous lyricism and great delicacy in detail.

 

5. Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit. 

A solo soprano sings, “You now have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice.”   Woodwinds, soprano and chorus interweave their voices in this gently paced movement.

6. Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt. 

The solo baritone returns in this very dramatic movement. First, against a steady pizzicato beat, the chorus sings “For here we have no abiding place; however, we seek one in the future.” The music shifts mood as the baritone enters with the famous words of Paul to the Corinthians: “Behold, I tell you a mystery . . . We shall all be transformed . . . at the time of the last trumpet.” In a forceful new section in triple time, the chorus reiterates the baritone’s message and continues with “Death, where is your sting? Hell, where is your victory?” The movement ends with another triumphant fugue, proclaiming God’s “glory and honor and power.”

7. Selig sind die Toten. 

Brahms uses only one text in his finale, from the Revelation of John: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; then their works follow them after.” Marked Feierlich (solemn, ceremonial), the movement begins and ends with the word selig: “blessed.”

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART

Born Salzburg, Austria, 27 January 1756; died Vienna, 5 December 1791.

The Marriage of Figaro: Overture

Composed in 1786, Le Nozze de Figaro was premiered at the Burgtheater, Vienna, 1 May 1786, Mozart himself conducting. The Overture calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings. The overture, about 4 minutes in length, was performed by the SSO on 17 November 2001, Guy Victor Bordo conducting.

Unlike overtures that preview tunes from the musical play to follow, Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro is a set piece in itself, establishing a general mood for what will follow. It is one of Mozart’s most purely joyful and exuberant works, with no (or little) hint of the threat imposed by Count Almaviva to break up the impending marriage of his servants Figaro and Susanna, or of the melancholy poured out in the opera by the Count’s long-suffering wife. Rather, the Overture suggests the bustle and excitement of the wedding preparations. Perfectly balanced in musical shape (a condensed sonata form), the Overture is a favorite concert opener.

STEVEN L. ROSENHAUS

Born 23 July 1952, Brooklyn, NY.

Dream

Dream (2013) was commissioned by, and is dedicated to, the Sheboygan Symphony and Maestro Kevin McMahon. The instrumentation calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, bells, vibraphone, harp and strings. Duration is about 5 minutes. Tonight’s performance is the world premiere.

The composer has provided the following note for this lyrical composition: ‘The work is a transcription of the first movement, "Laura's Dream," of a larger work for solo piano, Pro*Ject (2001). The full three-movement Pro*Ject (pronounced as "PRAH-ject" or "pro-JECT") was in turn commissioned by, and written for, pianist Laura Leon for a multimedia project in which Ms. Leon performed music live to projected photographic images by Barry Rosenthal and Eric Jacobson — hence the two pronunciations of "project" and the asterisk in the middle of the title. Originally only two movements were used for the presentation ("Laura's Dream" and "Two True Blues"), but later on . . . a third, livelier movement, "Samba," was [added]. Laura Leon has since arranged and recorded all three movements on her CD Changing the Pace

ARRIGO BOITO

Born Padua, 24 February 1842; died Milan, 10 June 1918.

Mefistofele: Final Chorus from the Prologue.

The opera was composed between 1862 and 1867, with Boito conducting the premiere at La Scala, Milan, 5 March, 1868; extensively revised and shortened, it was heard again in Bologna, 10 April 1875, with minor revisions to follow. Tonight’s performance of the final chorus of the Prologue features piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, tam-tam, cymbals, 2 harps and strings, plus—offstage—2 additional trumpets, 1 horn, and thunder sheet. The Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed this selection previously on 9 May 2009, Andrews Sill conducting. Duration about 4 minutes.

The fame of Arrigo Boito today rests upon the superb libretti he wrote for Giuseppe Verdi’s final masterpieces, Otello andFalstaff, and for his opera Mefistofele, inspired by the two parts of Goethe’s Faust. Lured to the formidable task of settingFaust to music, composers of the Romantic Age approached it from different directions. Hector Berlioz wrote a “Dramatic Legend” for voices and orchestra, The Damnation of Faust (1846), using only a freely adapted Part I, in which Faust, rejuvenated by his pact with the devil, seduces and abandons Marguerite (Goethe’s Gretchen), and pays for it. Robert Schumann wrote an oratorio featuring only Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1853); Franz Liszt wrote a Faust Symphony with separate portraits of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles, but ending with a choral setting of the final lines of Part II (1857); and Charles Gounod wrote one of the most popular operas of all time (1859), again using only Part I. Boito attempted something more faithful to Goethe: an opera including not only the “Margherita” scenes but the Prologue in Heaven, Part II’s encounter with Helen of Troy and Faust’s final redemption. Still, he made Mephistopheles the dramatic center of attention.

Boito’s Prologue opens with a heavenly chorus singing praises to God: “Hail, Lord of the angels and the saints and of the flying golden cherubim!” Mefisofele interrupts the praise with a wager that he can catch Faust in his devilish net. After he is driven offstage by a children’s chorus of cherubim (he calls them a “swarm of bees”), the heavenly choirs return to their opening hymn of praise. Boito’s “Ave signor” (which ends not only the Prologue but the entire opera, after the ultimate defeat of Mefistofele) is one of the most thrilling choral passages in all opera, beginning quietly and sweetly but fervently, and building overwhelmingly toward a glorious climax.

 

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