Program Notes - Nov. 6, 2010
Concert Overture "Julius Caesar", op. 128
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)
As the scion of a wealthy family Robert Schumann enjoyed many advantages not provided to most composers. In his earliest days he attended a private school, then as a teen the Zwickau Gymnasium (equivalent to a current education in the finest prep schools). He was a curious and intelligent young man, so these early experiences engendered a love for literature as well as a broad exposure to literary ideas. He simultaneously developed a love for music. From age seven he studied piano with local teachers. That he was a bit of a prodigy in both fields is proven by the fact that he and his brothers organized theatrical productions in his own home, while also composing simple songs and keyboard pieces.
His father died while Robert was a teen, and the will stipulated that he would receive his inheritance only after completing three years of further education at a University. Dutifully, he registered for courses in Law at Leipzig. (His friends of the time described his level of enthusiasm thusly: he didn’t attend a single lecture!) While at Leipzig, he continued to study piano on the side, with the famous pianist Friedrich Wieck where he met the woman who would later become his wife, Clara Wieck. It was hardly romance at first sight, for she was only nine years old at the time, but nevertheless well on the way to becoming a concert-quality pianist. After a year he left Leipzig (due to grades, perhaps?) and enrolled in Law at Heidelberg – where once again his friends alleged that he never attended lectures. Meanwhile, he continued to develop his musical interests. Finally, he gave up law and went back to study with Zwieck.
Eventually Schumann became one of the central figures in the development of the Romantic Era in German music. Not only was he a leading composer, but (combining his musical genius with his love for literature) also an editor, writer, critic and a member of the intellectual elite. He was the driving force behind a musical newsletter, Neue Zeitschrift, which served as a forum for the ideas influencing the development of Romantic music in Germany. It has been argued that he never really achieved his potential as a composer because he lacked the single-minded focus that genius sometimes needs to properly express itself. His wide range of varied interests and abilities would, in our times, earn him the description "Renaissance man."
After years of trying, Schumann eventually won a salaried position as Music Director of the City of Düsseldorf, providing him with enough income that he could finally spend time composing. However, the orchestra musicians complained about his poor conducting skills, and he lost the post after a year. Nevertheless, this became his most creative period, replete with songs, keyboard works and orchestral masterpieces. The greatest of these has to be the Third Symphony (subtitled "Rhenish" meaning "of the Rhine"). It was his last major orchestral work to attain enduring status in the performance repertory, and gave him the opportunity to "cash in" on his success in the next year or so with several smaller works, including the concert overture Julius Caesar. Although it didn’t come close to the genius of the Rhenish, this overture is extremely well-crafted and perfectly represents the musical language of the early Romantic period.
Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911)
Of all the great musicians born in the second half of the nineteenth century, few were as complex (and frequently misunderstood in his own time) as Gustav Mahler. It wasn’t until several decades after his death that he took his rightful place among the giants of composers. During his lifetime he was renowned as a brilliant conductor, but one with a misguided self-image that led him to write eccentric music in the mistaken belief that composing was his true calling. His giant symphonies, with their strange tendency to jump from the grotesque to the sublime, puzzled audiences and drew the fire of critics.
However, from the very beginning his passion in music was to create, not merely to interpret the creations of others. One of his favorite forms of creation was the musical expression of poetry, beyond the simple meaning of the words. Throughout his career he supplemented his giant orchestral compositions with small, sensitive – almost chamber music – works for vocalist, with various instrumental accompaniments. He frequently drew upon these vocal compositions as inspiration for his symphonies, especially his early collection of song-settings of the poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which permeate his first three symphonies. Just before his death he also composed a gigantic symphonic song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde, which is truly a symphony, although he superstitiously refused to give it the number nine.
In the middle of his career, after he had completed four symphonies – and just after meeting Alma, the woman who would become his wife – he was once again drawn to the medium of poetry. He set to music several songs based on the works of Friedrick Rückert, a German poet of the early Romantic era. He gathered several of these into a single work titled Songs on the Death of Children, much to Alma’s dismay. At about the same time he also composed five independent pieces which are frequently performed together as the Rückert Lieder.
Two of these songs were probably intended as gifts for Alma. Even though they were derived from poems written many years earlier, the words could have been written by Mahler himself, so perfectly do they portray his feelings for her. A third song (although written by Rückert) chides its subject for prying into the author’s songs. This was sometimes a sore point for Mahler – because Alma frequently succumbed to her curiosity and looked into his compositions before he was satisfied that they were complete and worthy for others to hear. The two remaining songs reflect Mahler’s uneasiness with the Universe around him, perhaps due to his knowledge that he suffered from an incurable heart condition (which eventually would prove fatal).
Careful listening reveals close connections to melodic themes he had used in his just-completed Fourth Symphony, or would use in the Fifth which was in progress and would follow immediately. These small works were almost certainly originally intended to stand alone as individual pieces, and the five orchestral accompaniments use vastly different instrumentations. All of them are miniature gems, which when performed as a collection become a tiara, crowning his efforts in one of his favorite musical forms, Lieder (art-songs) based on poetry.
Symphony No. 9 in d-minor, op. 125
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
What fresh things can one say about this work? It is one of very few compositions that doesn’t require its full correct title to identify it: The Choral Symphony (no other description necessary); or the Ode to Joy (which is only a portion of the work); or simply "The Ninth." These identifications don’t even need the name of the composer to differentiate this magnificent accomplishment from other works. A dozen other major composers have completed precisely nine symphonies, but when one says "The Ninth" it is presumed that one means Beethoven. It could arguably be a clue on the television show Jeopardy: "The greatest work of the greatest composer" ... answer: "What is the Beethoven Ninth." It probably contains the most often heard, most easily recognizable (and perhaps most frequently plagiarized) melody within the realm of classical music.
However, it is not one of the most frequently played works, because the efforts required to perform it well are immense. But whenever it is presented, it is always a significant occasion. It seems to strike a chord in all people, whether they deeply appreciate serious classical music or are barely aware of the difference between a symphony and an overture. Few can listen to the final movement without their souls being uplifted, regardless of whether they understand the words ... or even know the name of the poem from which they arise, let alone its sentiment.
Most classical music afficionados know that Beethoven was nearly stone deaf when he composed the Ninth. Fewer are aware that he had begun sketching the rudimentary musical materials more than ten years before the premiere, while he could still hear the sounds he was inventing, though not clearly. Further, he had been thinking of setting the poetry used in the Finale for more than two decades before he finally fulfilled his inspiration. It is probably irrelevant whether his deafness was complete when he transcribed the final score. His "mind’s ear" took the place of his physical hearing. The work contains revolutionary dissonance (for the time) that had never appeared in any previous compositions, either his own or those of others. Yet this dissonance fit his expressive goals so perfectly that Beethoven had to have known precisely what they would sound like, even without benefit of instruments and voices to make the air vibrate his eardrums.
Throughout his musical career, Beethoven had been a revolutionary. He set music upon a new path when he insisted that the symphony fulfill the lofty goal of expressing extra-musical ideals, rather than simply pleasing the listener with the beauty of its sounds – and especially not merely entertaining the listeners. By the time of his final completed symphony (he actually had begun sketching a Tenth before his death) he had become a cultural icon who could have written anything and still achieved acclaim. Nevertheless, he felt the need for one last revolutionary achievement. With this symphony he set a standard, which was only later fully expressed in the words of Mahler, who said that "the Symphony must reflect the totality of the Universe." Beethoven’s Ninth aspires to precisely this goal. Unable to attain it using only traditional orchestral forces, he took the unprecedented step of adding a chorus and soloists for the final movement. Just one more inspired moment of genius, from a composer who had already established himself as one of the giants on whose shoulders all serious music would later stand.
The genesis of this work was a poem by Friedrich Schiller, titled simply "To Joy." The original poem was far longer than the portions of its text that Beethoven selected. It presents the philosophical treatise that the one thing setting Man apart from God’s other creations was his capacity to experience joy. One verse (unused by Beethoven) names joy as the driving force of nature "moving the gears of its eternal clockwork, luring flowers from its seeds and suns into the firmament." The verses chosen by Beethoven call upon all of us to recognize Joy as the gift of both Nature and God, the one thing that makes life worth living.
Much of the music used in the Ninth was not original for this work. As example, in the Finale he returned to the main melody of his Fantasia for Chorus and Orchestra. This stirring melody, which we all know as the Ode to Joy, was originally written (in great haste) as a "toss-off" to end the concert at which he presented the premiere of his sixth and seventh symphonies, more than a dozen years previously. At that same concert he also played his own fourth piano concerto, in what would turn out to be his last major public performance. (What a mammoth concert that must have been!)
His approach to this symphony even violated his own previous rules about formal structure – once again Beethoven found it necessary to act as "the revolutionary" in order to satisfy his extra-musical desires. The Finale begins with an extremely dissonant chord. Richard Wagner later described this moment as "a shriek that tears at the foundation of the universe." Successively he restates the themes that opened each of the preceding movements, interspersing them with fragments of what would become the Ode to Joy. These fragments are anything but joyous. Rather, they reflect the dramatic personna usually associated with the composer. Finally the bass vocal soloist exhorts us: "Friends, let us not utter these serious tones ... instead, be joyous", and then sings the first verse of Schiller poem. By this reminiscence device Beethoven focused attention on the final movement as the core of the symphony, rather than the preceding moments. The first three, while glorious in their own right, are merely preludes to the Finale.
Beethoven filled the Ninth with remarkable moments. For example, in the serene adagio movement he wrote a horn solo and assigned it to the fourth horn player, which was absolutely unprecedented. (At that time, a solo of that magnitude and importance was invariably given to the principal player.) Legend has it that he composed this solo for a specific player who owned a rare example of the newly invented valved horn. More likely, Beethoven knew that every player in the orchestra that would premiere the work would be a virtuoso, so he wrote the part for the type of hornist who would be most familiar with playing in the low range that it requires. Whatever, this has become one of the most desirable solo passages for an orchestral hornist to play, and probably the greatest ever written for fourth horn.
This symphony abounds with other examples of his inventiveness and creative genius. If that were all that it offered, it would still be a very important work. However, the whole of the Ninth is much more than the sum of its parts. It stands alone among the works of its time (and not rivaled until the universe-encompassing symphonies of Mahler) as a musical expression transcending our mundane world and reaching to the heavens. It is impossible to deny that it attains that for which it reaches.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly