Program Notes: Brahms’ Pastoral Symphony

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Like many of Ravel’s orchestral works, Pavane for a Dead Princess originated as a solo piano piece. The Pavane was slow, processional 16th century court dance, probably of Italian origin. Spanish princesses were called infantas, and Ravel is said to have chosen the title because he liked the way it sounded in French! His single movement is poignant, elegant, and deeply affecting.

Although Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote symphonies, operas, and a considerable number of vocal works, he is best loved for his adaptations of traditional English music. He drew on both folk music and art music in several orchestral Fantasias. Arguably the finest of them is the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which explores the rich layers of sound in a work by an Elizabethan era composer. Deceptively simple on the surface, this Fantasia weaves together two string ensembles and a solo string quartet. The result is seamless and serene.

The longest of Brahms’s four symphonies – No.2 in D major– is also the easiest to love. Brimful of good humor, gentle summer breezes, and the warmth of summer in the Austrian Alps, this work is often called “Brahms’s Pastoral Symphony.” Unexpected motives like the opening cello gesture assume an important role. One of the themes in the opening movement is delightfully similar to the Brahms Lullaby. His joyous and bubbly finale is also a virtuoso study in counterpoint, but never sacrifices its high spirits and wit.

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Instrumentation: solo string quartet and double string orchestra

The “Tallis Fantasia,” as it has come to be known, is both Ralph Vaughan Williams’s best known composition and possibly the most representative work in English music for the first half of the twentieth century. Its entire premise of borrowing both an archaic form — the fantasia — and a theme from several centuries earlier neatly epitomizes the English musical renaissance. Throughout the nineteenth century, England was considered a musical stepchild, especially by her Teutonic neighbors. The Germans and Austrians, whose own musical tradition flourished, disparagingly referred to England as das Land ohne Musik — the land without music. While neither Vaughan Williams nor this composition single-handedly altered that perception, the Tallis Fantasia is rightly regarded as a symbol of the astonishing turnaround that made the twentieth century the richest in English music since the Elizabethan times.

Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) served as organist at Canterbury Cathedral and, later, in Elizabeth I’s Chapel Royal. During his extraordinarily long life, he produced a wealth of sacred and secular music, but it is his church compositions that are most admired. He was a master of counterpoint, writing one vocal work, Spem in alium non habui, for eight 5-part choirs! The fantasia was fashionable in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, then virtually disappeared until Vaughan Williams revived the form. Music historian Frank Howes has described it thus:

The fantasia of Tallis’s day was the forerunner of the fugue in that a thread of theme was enunciated and taken up by other parts, then dropped in favor of another akin to it which was similarly treated.

Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia is a relatively early work, originally published in 1906, and first performed in 1909 and 1910. He based it on a melody from nine psalm tunes published by Tallis in 1567 in a Metrical Psalter. The melody is in Phrygian mode, which corresponds to the white keys on the piano spanning the octave from E to e. Adoption of modal harmonies was a characteristic that figured prominently throughout Vaughan Williams’s career. It must have been a relief to some ears, taxed and perplexed by the straining chromaticism that new music was exploring elsewhere. Modality linked Vaughan Williams to his English past, and also to the powerful European tradition of Western music.

His homage to Tallis goes beyond traditional modal chords. True to its Renaissance ancestor, this Fantasia is monothematic, lending itself well to complex textural variety. Vaughan Williams opens in nine parts, but his harmonization is basically in five parts, thus corresponding to Tallis’s customary choir. The piece is actually for three co-existent ensembles: double string orchestra and string quartet. The larger string orchestra allows the spacious, rich chords to swell to a major climax; the smaller ensembles (four violins, two violas, two celli and bass in the one; solo quartet in the other) help to maintain an atmosphere of intimacy and gentleness, even in the fuller sections.

The composer specified that the two principal ensembles were to be placed apart if possible. The physical positioning of the two orchestras affects the antiphony inherent in Vaughan Williams’s music, as well as the overall tone, physical impact, and interrelationship of sounds among the players.

The fact that Vaughan Williams returned to this Fantasia twice to revise it — in 1913 and 1919 — is an indication of how important the piece was to him. He himself described it as “a new force in English music,” and the Fantasia’s impact has indeed been lasting. Its seamless flow and effective scoring lend it a timeless quality that transcends both its Elizabethan roots and its twentieth-century birthplace.

Pavane pour une infante défunte
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Instrumentation: two flutes, oboe, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, harp and muted strings

Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte [Pavane for a dead princess] is a salon piece that made good. Written in 1899 for solo piano, it became enormously popular among the French bourgeoisie, considerably boosting Ravel’s then slender reputation. His earliest surviving compositions date from 1893; this one was thus the first “big hit.” Understandably he was quite critical of it in later years, writing in 1912:

Alas, its faults I can perceive only too well: the influence of Chabrier is much too glaring, and the structure rather poor. The remarkable interpretations on this inconclusive and conventional work have, I think, in great measure contributed to its success.

His reference to “remarkable interpretations” alludes to the title, which spurred countless romantic and literary fancies among its interpreters and listeners at the turn of the century. Ironically, Ravel confessed that his evocative title was primarily chosen because of its mellifluous alliterative appeal in his native tongue.

The Pavane, which Ravel orchestrated in 1910, shares with many of his other pieces a loose association with Spain (whose royal princesses are called “infantas“). Otherwise it is rather atypical of his music. The style is deliberately archaic, a concession to the slow, processional sixteenth-century Italian dance from which it takes its name. Major sevenths and ninths give it its rich harmonic aura. Even at age 24, Ravel knew how to establish and maintain a magical mood.

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs; four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani and strings

“So many melodies fly about that one must be careful not to tread on them.” So wrote Johannes Brahms to friends in Vienna during the summer of 1877. His rapturous observation was prompted by the beautiful mountain village of Pörtschach am Wörthersee in the province of Carinthia. Those picturesque surroundings gave rise to the melodious Second Symphony.”This music is all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine and cool green shadows. How beautiful it must be at Pörtschach!” exclaimed the composer’s friend Theodor Billroth, upon hearing the new symphony played through at the piano.

Often called “Brahms’s `Pastoral'”, Op.73 overflows with the dappled sunlight and exquisite natural beauty of the Austrian Alps. It is nearly devoid of the tension and tragic struggle that permeate the First Symphony. Eduard Hanslick, the powerful Viennese critic, spoke of its “untroubled charm.” Yet the symphony is not without urban sophistication. Michael Musgrave has written: “The Second Symphony opens in the world of the symphonic waltz, as made familiar in Vienna by Johann Strauss, Jr.”

The first movement is in gentle, swaying triple time. Though it has dramatic moments, notably a fugal development section, the Allegro non troppo firmly establishes an aura of benign geniality that prevails for most of the symphony. The coda includes a dreamy horn solo, one of those delicious scoring details that rewards careful listening.

The rich key of B major provides the backdrop for a rare hint of darkness in this predominantly sunny symphony. A luscious, expressive cello melody begins Brahms’s slow movement, Adagio non troppo. Though the cello section relinquishes the melody at its second statement, they reclaim it several times, and retain a high profile throughout the movement. Surprisingly, Brahms emphasizes the darker sound of the lower instruments by retaining timpani, trombones and bass tuba in his instrumentation; frequently they remain silent in slow movements.

Timpani and low brass disappear in the Allegretto grazioso. More an intermezzo than a scherzo, this gentle movement rocks gracefully between major and minor modes, recalling similar ambivalence in Schubert. Its two intervening trio sections (one in 2/4, the other in 3/8), have a sprightlier character, but still draw their melodic motives from the Allegretto. Both trios include some fine woodwind passages.

The finale is a contrapuntal tour de force, applying virtually every technique in the imitative book. After a bright start for strings alone, Brahms takes maximum advantage of the episodes in this sonata-rondo for ingenious contrapuntal feats. Canon and inversion, augmentation and diminution, fugato: all are incorporated with consummate skill. The sunshine of the first movement is definitively restored, with a healthy dash of Haydnesque exuberance thrown in for good measure.


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2021 

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