Masterpieces
Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
Johannes Brahms
1833-1897
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.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

In the roster of Russian nationalist composers at the end of the nineteenth century, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was an oddity. Although an ardent nationalist, he did not espouse the Nationalist movement in music, symbolized by such composers as Modest Mussorgsky, Aleksander Borodin, Mily Balakirev and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Despite the many folk elements in his music, his great melodic gift enabled him to develop his own themes and only occasionally use borrowed melodies. Instead of nationalistic themes, his music usually was a vehicle to express his personal anguish and erratic mood swings.

The son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky had an economically comfortable but unsettled childhood, as his father relocated from one post to the other. He was a precocious child with a gift for words, reading French and German at age six; the seven-year-old started to write a biography of Joan of Arc.

The family recognized Tchaikovsky’s musical talents, but in 1852 he was entered into St. Petersburg’s School of Jurisprudence, which he attended for seven years. It was there that he first became aware of his homosexuality; he took its negative social implications seriously, especially the effect it could have on his family. His emotional conflict exacerbated extreme mood swings with frequent bouts of deep depression and self-doubt that dogged him from childhood until his death.

The School of Jurisprudence provided a well-rounded education, including music, and Tchaikovsky also availed himself also to the many cultural opportunities of the city. After graduation he was assigned a job in the Ministry of Justice, but music became more and more the center of his cultural life.

His serious musical studies began in 1861; a year later, he was accepted into the first class of the newly opened St. Petersburg Conservatory, graduating in 1865. His principal teacher was pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, whose strong personality instilled in Tchaikovsky compositional discipline: to sketch quickly to the end of a work, then score; work every day, and hold to music as a sacred calling.

After graduation, Tchaikovsky was recruited by Nikolay Rubinstein, Anton’s brother, for the new music conservatory in Moscow. But he was not a good teacher, ever dogged by feelings of insecurity. He also resented the time it took away from composing.

Things were actually looking up for Tchaikovsky during the early part of 1877. He had his first contact with Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of a railroad builder, who fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s music and arranged to pay him a large annual stipend. The only stipulation she attached to her generous help was that they never meet in person, although they corresponded voluminously. In May he started work on the Fourth Symphony, but in July came his disastrous marriage to one of his students, Antonina Milyukova, who had fallen madly in love with him and had written to him confessing her devotion. Although Tchaikovsky, who was homosexual, didn’t even remember the girl, he hoped the marriage would still the rumors about his sexual preference. Instead he fled Antonina after two weeks. In total despair, he made a pathetic attempt at suicide (he walked into the Moskva River, hoping to die of pneumonia) and ended up with a complete mental collapse. To recuperate, his brother took him to Switzerland and Italy, where he picked up work on the symphony, finishing it in January 1878.

Tchaikovsky dedicated the work To Mme. von Meck, expressing his confidence in the new work: “I feel in my heart that this work is the best I have ever written.” He himself did not return from abroad for the February 1878 premiere in Moscow, which was only a luke-warm success.Tchaikovsky himself contributed to the notion that the Symphony was programmatic. He wrote to his patroness:
Of course my symphony is programmatic, but this program is such that it cannot be formulated in words. That would excite ridicule and appear comic. Ought not a symphony – that is, the most lyrical of all forms – to be such a work? Should it not express everything for which there are no words, but which the soul wishes to express, and which requires to be expressed?
In Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies, motivic unity among the movements was to take an increasingly more prominent role. The symphony opens with a sinister fanfare-like theme by the brass, which recurs as the movement unfolds. Example 1 The anxiety-laden main theme, which Tchaikovsky develops on the spot, strives towards a resolution that continually seems to elude it. Example 2 The relief comes with the second theme, one of Tchaikovsky's inimitable melodies, a waltz for solo clarinet, Example 3 and a third played in counterpoint with the clarinet theme by the strings and timpani. Example 4 The development, based exclusively on the main theme and the fanfare, begins quietly, slowly ramping up the emotional tension. After the recapitulation, the fanfare announces a long two-part coda with a new theme set contrapuntally against the main theme to resolve the movement on a more positive note. Example 5 But just as we are starting to sit back and relax, the fanfare returns to blast us back into Tchaikovsky's stormy reality. Example 6

The second movement, by contrast, opens with a plaintive melody on the oboe, accompanied by pizzicato strings. Example 7 The oboe theme is answered by a more intense second theme in the strings. Example 8 The pace picks up as the composer adds a dance-like melody. Example 9 Typical Tchaikovsky anxiety mounts, Example 10 until he returns to the gentle oboe theme now in the violins, adorned with feathery ornaments in the winds recalling the accompaniment to the clarinet theme in the first movement. Example 11

The third movement, Pizzicato ostinato, is a playful diversion. Example 12 It is a typical scherzo and trio. The Trio consists of a medley of tunes, the first for a pair of oboes, Example 13 the second, slightly mournful Russian folk tune, also for the upper winds, Example 14 and a playful brass riff with staccato playing to match the pizzicato strings from the Scherzo. Example 15 The movement ends with a medley of the various themes and instrumental combinations. Example 16

While one hears subtle references to first-movement musical ideas in movements two and three, Tchaikovsky explicitly unifies the Symphony in the Finale. This last movement is the most “Russian” of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic movements and is something of a musical battle between the festive and the melancholic. After a festive opening theme, Example 17 the oboe and bassoon introduce an authentic Russia folk-song (for which he was roundly condemned by his academic colleagues and the critics). Example 18 Once again, however, a sprightly mood turns negative, Example 19 and it is hardly surprising that the movement is brought up short towards the end by the reappearance of the grim fanfare from the opening movement – the spectre at the feast. Example 20 An energetic coda, however, tips the balance towards positive territory.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017