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Program Notes - The Great Romantics

Der Freischütz: Overture
Carl Maria von Weber

b. Eutin, Germany / November 18, 1786;
d. London, England / June 5, 1826

One of the most important early figures of the Romantic era, Weber filled his music with more color, atmosphere, brilliance and fantasy than virtually anyone before him. In 1817, he moved to Dresden to take up the post of Royal Saxon Kapellmeister. Despite a busy conducting schedule, he still found time for composition, including the opera Der Freischütz (The Free Shot, 1821). His superb score, plus Friedrich Kind’s outstanding libretto, would have been enough to ensure a warm reception. The fact that both were grounded in specifically German sources (folk song and folk legend) gave it an added dimension of patriotic appeal. The marvellous overture is based on themes from the opera and summarizes the fairy tale plot. In it may be heard echoes of the setting in the German forest; the sinister workings of evil spirits; the warmth of young love; and the triumph of light over darkness.

Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61
Robert Schumann

b. Zwickau, Germany / June 8, 1810;
d. Endenich, Germany / July 29, 1856

Often there is no connection whatever between composers’ states of mind and the music they write. Many of Mozart’s final works, for example, are bright and carefree, in stark contrast to the ill health and financial deprivation from which he was suffering at the time. In other cases, a connection may be strongly suspected: Tchaikovsky’s lugubrious, despairing Sixth Symphony premiered just nine days before his death, which may have been a suicide.

Occasionally the composer’s own words reveal the emotional contents of the music, as Schumann’s Second Symphony demonstrates. In 1849 he wrote to a friend, “I wrote my symphony in December 1845, and I sometimes fear my semi-invalid state can be divined from the music. I began to feel myself again when I wrote the last movement, and was certainly better when I finished the whole work. All the same it reminds me of dark days.”

In 1844, the symptoms of the nervous disorder that had been bedevilling him since the late 1820s took on a new severity. A lengthy trip to Russia only worsened his condition. He began to experience profound depression, ringing in the ears, memory loss, trembling and irrational fears of heights and sharp metal objects. Worst of all, he could not even bear to hear music: “it cut into my nerves like knives,” he stated. By year’s end he suffered a complete nervous breakdown, forcing him to retire from all activity. On the advice of his doctor, the Schumanns moved from Leipzig to the quieter atmosphere of Dresden.

Sleepless nights plagued the ensuing year-long recovery period. Clara noted that she would awaken to find him “swimming in tears.” After a period spent studying the music of Bach, he was at last able to resume composing. In September 1845, he wrote to his good friend Felix Mendelssohn: “Much drumming and trumpeting has been going on inside me for a few days; I do not know what will come of it.” It proved to be a new symphony, sketched quickly in December but orchestrated over a difficult nine-month period. Completed on October 19, 1846, it was premiered in Leipzig under Mendelssohn’s direction on November 5. Slotted at the end of a lengthy program, it found only moderate success. Slightly revised and more advantageously situated, it won genuine acclaim two weeks later.

Like Beethoven’s Fifth, it charts an emotional arc from conflict to victory. The movements are inter-related by recurrence of themes, including a motto that appears in the brass during the brooding slow introduction to the first movement. It returns later, amidst the turbulence of that same section, and is heard again briefly in the second and fourth movements. Regarding the first movement, Schumann wrote, “It is filled with struggle and is very capricious and obstinate in character.” The second section is a dynamic scherzo. It envelopes not one contrasting Trio section but two, an innovation carried over from Schumann’s Symphony No. 1. A hearty statement of the motto theme closes this section on a positive note.

The third movement is a lyrical adagio combining deep personal feeling with exceptionally rich orchestration. The influence of Schumann’s recent study of Bach is audible in a quote from the earlier composer’s piece, The Musical Offering. The joyful finale sweeps away all the clouds that have ben hanging over the symphony. The gentle theme which appears mid-way through is actually by Beethoven, from his song-cycle To the Distant Beloved. It sets the words “take then these songs I have sung to you, beloved.” Schumann had previously quoted it, in praise of Clara, in his Fantasy for piano solo of 1838. Its appearance here may represent a further tribute to her. She and Schumann had married in 1840 after much opposition from her father. Their joyous union unleashed a torrent of songs from Robert, over 120 in their first year of marriage alone. She had also encouraged him to write for orchestra, and stood by him steadfastly through all his trials, past, present and future.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
Johannes Brahms

b. Hamburg, Germany / May 7, 1833;
d. Vienna, Austria / April 3, 1897

Brahms came to visit the Schumanns in 1853. Soon afterwards, Robert gave him a warm and influential recommendation through an article that praised the young musician to the skies. The following year, Brahms began composing a large-scale work. He eventually decided that the ideal medium for the materials was a concerto for piano and orchestra – his first concerto of any kind. Four years passed before he felt sufficiently satisfied to bring it to performance. He first undertook a reading rehearsal in Hanover, Germany, on March 30, 1858. He played the piano part himself, and his close friend, violinist and composer Joseph Joachim, conducted the city’s Court Orchestra. The first public performance, involving the same artists, took place in the same city on January 22 of the following year.

The somewhat puzzled reaction earned by the debut of this big, serious, fully symphonic concerto might have been expected; the wonder is that anyone liked it at all! Its luck ran out at the second performance, five days later in Leipzig. It met with extreme hostility, leaving the composer in a state of desolation. Not until 1865, when he played it once again in Mannheim, did it begin to find a place in the repertoire.

The vast opening movement begins with a stark orchestral introduction. The piano enters with a more resigned idea before it, too, is caught up in the emotional tumult. Contrast is provided by a warmer second theme. The somber mood in which the movement began continues through to the final bars.

The slow second section is a serene meditation; scarcely a ripple of darker emotion disturbs its warm, placid surface. The concerto concludes with a big, bold rondo, lighter in tone than the preceding movements but substantial enough to fit into the overall ground-plan. Its Hungarian or gypsy flavoring anticipates the corresponding movements in several Brahms works, including the Piano Quartet in G minor, Violin Concerto and Concerto for Violin and Cello.

© 2006 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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