Program Notes: Canellakis Conducts Brahms and Wagner

Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 3, in F major, Op. 90

The composers of the nineteenth century after Beethoven tended to divide themselves into two groups. The progressives were true “Romantics,” and were greatly influenced by the extra-musical ideas that were the subjects of contemporary literature, poetry, and painting, among others. They devised new genres, such as the tone poems of Smetana and Liszt, the music dramas of Wagner, and the characteristic piano pieces of Chopin. This music, to use a phrase still common among seekers of meaning in music, was about “something” — meaning something familiar to human existence.

Others, Brahms most significantly, still adhered strongly to the musical philosophy that great music was simply about “itself,” and required no extra-musical references for complete and satisfying meaning. So, he and his ilk continued to write “pure,” or “abstract” music, like sonatas and symphonies (a so-called symphony is just a sonata for orchestra). The example of Beethoven’s music (in this tradition) loomed almost as overwhelming for Brahms, and he waited for decades after reaching musical maturity to essay his first symphony, completing it in 1876, when he was forty-three years old. It garnered sufficient success to be deemed the “Tenth,” referencing Beethoven’s nine in that genre, although it bears more comparison with Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Brahms’ sunny second symphony followed shortly in 1877, but a hiatus occurred while Brahms devoted himself to other masterpieces, including the Academic Festival Overture and the monumental second piano concerto. He returned to the symphonic genre and finished the third symphony in 1883. It’s the shortest of the four symphonies, and in many respects the most straightforward in musical and psychological content. Unlike the first symphony (more than twenty years in gestation), this one apparently came somewhat easily to him, for he wrote it in a matter of months, while he was on summer vacation.

It opens with three mighty chords, the melodic outline of which appears at important structural points throughout the movement. This “motto” even appears in the fourth movement, a quite progressive technique for our Classical Mr. Brahms. The motto is simply comprised of the notes, F-Ab-F, they being the first notes in the symphony and they follow immediately, repeated in the bass line. While this is going on in the basses, the violins play the swinging, descending line that really can’t make up its mind whether this symphony is in F major or F minor. This is a key (no pun intended) element in Brahms’ building of the whole movement—you’ll hear this little musical schizophrenia throughout the movement. A graceful, warm secondary theme is first heard only a bit later in the solo clarinet, and most of the essential bits are included. This little pastoral theme, but in sinister guise, played by the cellos and bassoons lets you know that the composer is going to play around creatively with the ideas before rounding it all off with the recap. It’s not a long movement and is one of the best examples of the concise craftsmanship for which Brahms is famous. Along the way take pleasure in the graceful waltz-like rhythm of the movement, which the composer constantly—and characteristically—toys with, so that you’re never quite sure where the beat is.

The Andante begins with a meditative little passage, played by the traditional band of clarinets, bassoons, and horns so familiar from the eighteenth century, and, of course, most of the movement is based upon these materials. There is a more energetic middle section, but the mood resumes for yet another soft, placid ending. The third movement of most symphonies is usually a vigorous, fast, even dance-like affair but Brahms chooses to maintain the mood set by the first two movements, with a melody played by the cello section so familiar to many. The crepuscular atmosphere is considerably enhanced by Brahms’ choice of keys with lots of flats, which gives a distinctive sound to the string section. The melody is passed around, played with a bit, and the middle section appears with yet another winsome idea. It doesn’t last long, and the woodwinds bring us back to the familiar opening theme, now played by that most romantic of instruments, the horn, followed by the oboe taking a turn. The string section wraps up this most lyrical of movements.

The last movement begins, as does the same movement in his previous symphony, with an energetic, bustling, but soft unison passage for the string section. The key is F minor (isn’t this a symphony in F major?), don’t forget the ambiguity in the first movement. Brahms works this apparent paradox for most of this movement, in a stormy mood.  Jagged, almost angry ideas appear, still in the minor mode. And then, the clouds pass, the sun shines, and an optimistic theme in a happy major key sings forth. But there’s a lot of ground to cover, so Brahms proceeds to work through all these ideas in a vigorous, apparently still hostile mood. The recapitulation is likewise. Finally, in the coda, begun by muted violas, when we’re almost done, the major mode finally returns, the tempo broadens out, and the whole affair ends with the warm, romantic, autumnal glow that we have come to associate with the mature, reflective Brahms. And did you notice?  All four movements of this great symphony end gently and softly—that is an eloquent reflection of the depth of the man.

© 2015 William E. Runyan


Alberto Ginastera, Harp Concerto, Op. 25

Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera was born in Buenos Aires to an Italian mother and a Catalan father (hence his preferred pronunciation of “JEE-nastera” rather than the expected “HEE-nastera”). He started piano lessons at age 7 and more formal musical training at the Williams Conservatory at age 12. He progressed quickly and entered the National Conservatory, graduating with honors in 1938. His talent was recognized in various competitions and he received a Guggenheim fellowship to study in the U.S. but World War II put those plans on hold. He encountered political turmoil in 1945, losing his teaching position for opposing the Argentine military regime. Fortunately, the end of the war allowed Ginastera to go to the U.S. where he studied with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood and visited leading conservatories and universities — a crucial foundation for his subsequent career as a leading pedagogue.

Returning to Argentina in 1947, Ginastera founded the Conservatorio de Música y Arte Escénico (Conservatory of Music and Scenic Art) in La Plata just two years later. In the 1950s, he would again endure censure and hardship for his opposition to the Perón government. Despite burgeoning critical success and increasing worldwide recognition, Ginastera found Argentina’s prevailing political climate repressive and he moved to the U.S. in 1968 but relocated to Switzerland in 1970 where he remained for the rest of his life.

Most famous figures are reliant on later historians to categorize their life’s work but Ginastera conveniently provided his own classification: “Objective Nationalism” (1934–1948), “Subjective Nationalism” (1948–1958), and “Neo-Expressionism” (1958–1983). Although Ginastera’s use of Argentine folk music is one of the defining characteristics of his style, the first phase saw its greatest direct integration with European traditions. The culture of the gaucho, the nomadic cowboy beloved in Argentina and other South American countries, looms large in his creative vision. The second phase reflects Ginastera’s synthesis of folk
elements with his own voice, transcending direct quotation of folk melodies while still evoking a sense of place. This aesthetic defines one of his most famous works, the Variaciones concertantes. The final period in Ginastera’s creative life displays the growing influence of avant-garde techniques, including 12-tone serialism favored in many academic circles, quarter-tones and other micro intervals, and polytonality.

Ginastera’s Harp Concerto came about through a commission from Edna Phillips, principal harp of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1930 to 1946 (and its first female member). Phillips and her husband Sam Rosenbaum commissioned Ginastera in 1956 but the concerto did not come to fruition for several years. Phillips later recalled:

After Ginastera accepted our commission in 1956, we hoped it would be ready in time for the 1958 International American Music Festival in Washington, D.C. But as we neared that date, I started getting letters from Argentina telling me about problems with Perón and his troubles with an opera he was writing and other difficulties. The harp concerto kept getting put off. It took forever, but what a triumph it turned out to be!

Harpist Nicanor Zabaleta premiered the concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy in February 1965.

The concerto’s rhythmic verve is mesmerizing from the outset. Without a prefatory introduction, the harp plunges in, accompanied by biting chirps from the woodwinds and percussion as the strings rustle quietly. After an orchestral swell, the fevered pace subsides and the harp leads the way through a gnarly melodic bramble. Ginastera explores the percussive potential of string instruments and even has the harpist slapping the soundboard as duple and triple rhythms alternate suavely. For all of its bluster, the movement ends quietly.

Ginastera’s familiarity with the music of Béla Bartók is evidenced by the “night music” texture of the second movement. Against a hushed backdrop, blurred shadows of sound creep eerily through hypnotic dissonances, with momentary flashes piercing the darkness.

An extended cadenza begins the last movement. The harp sounds the open-string notes of the guitar — E-A-D-G-B-E — a reference to Argentina that Ginastera used in numerous works. Marvelously dramatic, the cadenza calls for unusual timbres created by using fingernails and sweeping the string vertically. After this rhapsodic beginning, the orchestra takes control and drives the work forward in an acrobatic folk-inflected dance. As the strings tap with the wood of the bow — col legno — the harp plays an angular melody. All combine for a thrilling ending to this exciting concerto.

© Eric T. Williams

Richard Wagner, “Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried

One of the most astonishing and polarizing composers ever to have lived, Richard Wagner was born in 1813 in Leipzig, Germany, the ninth child of Carl and Johanna Wagner. Carl died when Richard was only six months old and Johanna married Ludwig Geyer, an actor and playwright. Richard shared his stepfather’s affinity for the theater but was less enamored of formal music studies, his teacher observing that he would “torture the piano in a most abominable fashion.”

After early schooling in Dresden, Wagner attended the University of Leipzig. His first operas were not successful. He married the actress/singer Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer in 1836.  It was a tempestuous marriage, filled with numerous affairs, rampant debts, flights from creditors, and much turmoil. One step ahead of debt collectors, the couple went from Riga (now in Latvia) to London and then Paris.  Richard earned a poor living writing articles and arranging music for other composers. It was during this time that he began developing the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), uniting music, dance, visual arts and staging into a coherent whole, dubbed music dramas.

The Wagners happily moved to Dresden when Richard’s third opera, Rienzi, was produced at the Court Theatre there. The six years in Dresden were largely successful.   Unfortunately, the revolutions of 1848 that swept much of Europe were cause for Wagner to flee yet again, this time because of his leftist politics.  Finding refuge in Zurich, Switzerland, Wagner would be unwelcome in Germany for the next 12 years.

While in exile, Wagner began composing his epic Ring of the Nibelung cycle of four music dramas (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung).  He also wrote a blatantly antisemitic essay, “Jewishness in Music.” His marriage continued to disintegrate and he had no regular source of income, instead charming patrons for loans.

Wagner returned to Germany after the political ban on him was finally lifted in 1862. His financial circumstances brightened when King Ludwig II ascended the throne of Bavaria in 1864. Besotted with Wagner, Ludwig brought the composer to Munich and settled his extensive debts.  This largesse was repaid with embarrassment as Wagner commenced an affair with Cosima von Bülow, the daughter of Franz Liszt and wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow. The scandalous affair forced Ludwig to send Wagner away from Munich. Minna died in 1866 and Wagner and Cosima had three children together before Hans von Bülow finally consented to a divorce in 1870. The couple married immediately.

In 1871, the Wagners moved to Bayreuth where a new opera house was to be built according to Richard’s design.  Ludwig eventually bankrolled construction and the Festspielhaus opened in 1876 with performances of the complete Ring cycle as Wagner envisioned. Following the 1882 premiere of his final music drama, Parsifal, Wagner went to Venice for the winter where he died of a heart attack in February 1883.

Wagner’s legacy is complicated. His anti-Semitism and megalomania coupled with the embrace of his music by Adolf Hitler and its use at many Nazi events has been cause for rejection. Conversely, Western music would be vastly different without his innovations.

Nothing about Wagner’s Ring cycle is diminutive. Huge orchestras, epic scope, groundbreaking thematic use and expansive storytelling sometimes obscure the more intimate moments of his music. The works on this program, excerpted for concert performance, have an appealing transparency that serve as a welcome foil to the nearly relentless drama that fills each of the lengthy music dramas in the cycle.

Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) and his Ring cycle are inextricably linked, both in time and in model. While Wagner developed his notion of Gesamtkunstwerk through a pair of essays, Art and Revolution (1849) and The Art Work of the Future (1850), and his 1851 book, Opera and Drama, he was also drawn to ancient stories and myths, less Greco-Roman and more Icelandic and Germanic. Reading extensively beginning about 1842, Wagner’s primary source was Iceland’s Völsunga Saga dating from the 13th century and later printed in Swedish and Danish editions in the 17th century. The German epic Das Nibelungenlied provided material as well.

Wagner tried gathering his thoughts in a scenario he wrote in October 1848. Shortly thereafter, he wrote a prose draft called Siegfrieds Tod  (Siegfried’s Death) and developed a libretto from that material. Eventually, this would turn into the final music drama in the cycle, Götterdämmerung. Realizing that Siegfried’s backstory was necessary for the opera to make sense, he wrote a sketch called Der junge Siegfried (The Young Siegfried), which eventually became Siegfried, third in the series. He continued writing libretti in reverse order, producing Die Walküre and finally, Das Rheingold, explaining how the magic ring came to be.

With his version of the story now complete, Wagner set about composing the music, more or less in order. He completed Das Rheingold in May 1854 but withheld it from performance while he continued work on the rest of the cycle. He immediately commenced composition of Die Walküre and finished the score in March 1856. Seemingly without pause, he started writing Siegfried, finishing the first two acts by August 1857. Having reached a creative juncture, he then left Siegfried and the Ring cycle for more than a decade as he composed Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger. Returning to Siegfried in 1869, he completed the work in 1871 as he concurrently labored on Götterdämmerung, which he finished in 1874.

It was in this same timeframe that Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, insisted on performances of Das Rhinegold (1869) and Die Walküre (1870) in Munich, rather against the composer’s wishes. In keeping with his megalomaniacal vision, Wagner then began raising funds for a custom-designed theater built for the purpose of presenting his Ring cycle. The Bavarian town of Bayreuth was selected and construction commenced in 1872. The Ring cycle received its first complete performance in the new Festspielhaus at Bayreuth on August 13, 14, 16, and 17, 1876. Opera has never been the same since. The Ring cycle — about 16 hours of opera spread over four performances — has spawned a virtual industry of deep musicological analysis as well as a cadre of devoted fans who will travel the globe repeatedly to hear productions of the cycle.

The plot of the Ring cycle is convoluted and filled with intrigue, theft, betrayal, incest, suicide, murder, and blind ambition — it’s opera, after all! The “Forest Murmurs” scene is one of the tamer and more gently evocative moments in the entire cycle. The following probably won’t make sense unless you dig deeply into the entire tale of the Ring cycle but the music is glorious, requiring no detailed knowledge of the plot to enjoy.

Siegfried has come to the forest, intent on learning fear as part of his heroic journey. He stretches out under a linden tree and is lost in silent reverie, enchanted by the forest murmurs. He thinks about what his parents might have been like and listens to a bird singing in the branches above him. He attempts to answer the birdcall with a pipe created from nearby reeds but despairs at matching the beautiful birdsong. The operatic version continues with Siegfried rousing the ferocious dragon Fafner, slaying the beast, and securing the magic ring. The orchestral version omits the battle but has Siegfried tasting Fafner’s blood which gives him the ability to understand birdsong. Avian instruction eventually leads him to where the Valkyrie Brünnhilde rests. As commentator Lawrence Gilman described it, “The music of the scene (and of the act) ends in a delicious diminuendo … like a precipitate retreat whose echoes vanish quickly in the sunlit depths of the woods.”

© Eric T. Williams

Richard Wagner, “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from Götterdämmerung

(see above for detailed information about Richard Wagner). “Dawn” is part of the prologue from Gotterdämmerung. This masterful depiction of natural light is a striking and ironic contrast to the flames that engulf Valhalla at the end of the music drama. With long sustained lines, Wagner evokes incipient dawn, finally arriving with a blaze of light. In the operatic version, Siegfried and Brünnhilde arise from their slumber, high on a mountaintop. Brünnhilde sends Siegfried on another heroic quest while imploring him to remember their love. Siegfried accedes to her will and gives her the magic ring as a sign of his fidelity. They sing of their undying love for one another. Brünnhilde gives Siegfried her shield and her steed and he rides away toward the Rhine and his tragic fate.

In the orchestral version, the music depicting the Rhine journey proceeds seamlessly from “Dawn.” Clarinets offer Brünnhilde’s leitmotif, taken up ardently by the strings and interwoven with Siegfried’s theme. Siegfried’s horn call leitmotif symbolizes the start of his heroic trek. The music is vibrant with little foreshadowing of Siegfried’s demise.  With sinuous and ever-flowing lines, the music expertly represents the Rhine River. As Siegfried proceeds on his voyage, the sound recedes into the distance.

© Eric T. Williams