Program Notes: Mozart, Brahms & Schumann
Robert Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo & Finale, Op. 52:
(World Premiere: June 12, 1841; Leipzig, Germany)
- Literate and passionate, Robert Schumann was a quintessential composer of the Romantic Era.
- Schumann often had feverish, intense bouts of composition.
- His wife, Clara Schumann, was one of the 19th-century’s greatest pianists.
- Schumann was also one of the most respected music critics of his time.
Musicians often refer to Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo & Finale, Op. 52 as “the symphony without a slow movement.” Schumann composed it in 1841, his so-called “year of the symphony,” when he devoted virtually all of his energy to orchestral scores. The melodies are high-spirited and lyrical, and the music is upbeat throughout. Furthermore, the scoring is comparatively light, especially for Schumann, who is known for his intensity and booming composition style when layering symphonic sound. The Overture is a small-scale sonata form whose lovely musical ideas linger just long enough to make us wish to hear them again, and the Scherzo and Finale are also characterized by pronounced repeated rhythms. Considering the freshness of its musical ideas, the tight formal discipline and the relatively transparent orchestration, this piece deserves to be counted among Schumann’s finest orchestral works. Courtney Lewis and the Jacksonville Symphony provide us with a treat in these performances of a rare gem heard in the classical world.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
(World Premiere: April 14, 1789; Dresden, Germany)
- Three cities figured prominently in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life: Salzburg, Vienna and Prague.
- He traveled extensively as a child prodigy, making significant trips to France and Italy.
- His operas had a more popular reception in Prague than in Vienna.
- When he died in December of 1791, likely from bronchial pneumonia, he was only 35.
- He composed more than 700 works with an astounding level of productivity.
The Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 is one of a trilogy of late symphonies that crown Mozart’s orchestral achievement. All three are masterpieces, but the G minor work was particularly influential during the Romantic Era. Nineteenth-century musicians pointed to its stormy drama as proof that Mozart was a true romantic, representing the passion of succeeding generations. Perhaps he was a harbinger of romanticism in this work, but plenty of 18th-century balance and elegance remain of the Classical Era. Still, one cannot deny the dark undercurrent that courses through the symphony, beginning with its turbulent opening measures. Dramatic in its outer movements and poignantly expressive in its slow movement, the symphony has something for everyone. It makes for a breathtaking symphonic experience.
Johannes Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op. 102
(World Premiere: October 18, 1887; Cologne, Germany)
- A native of Hamburg, Germany, Johannes Brahms spent most of his adult career in Vienna.
- During the summers, he found the inspiration to compose in beautiful Alpine villages.
- Many great performers of the day were his personal friends including violinist Joseph Joachim.
- The concept of two soloists for a concerto has precedent in the 18th century.
- Brahms was a master of large multi-movement forms like symphony, sonata and concerto.
Generally speaking, a concerto rarely anchors the second half of an orchestral concert program. However, Brahms’ so-called “Double Concerto” in A minor, Op. 102, is a robust work of more than a half-hour’s duration and is as lush as many major symphonies. That stated, it is also the last and the shortest of Brahms’ concertos, a reflection of his tendency toward compression in his later years. The original two soloists were personal friends of Brahms and played in the same string quartet. Brahms used the concerto to represent his friendship with the violinist, Joseph Joachim. Listen for strong duple meter alternating with triplets in the first movement. The slow movement is the Double Concerto’s happiest inspiration, with a luxuriant and warm theme delivered in unison by the two soloists and developed with Brahmsian richness by the supporting Symphony. Brahms closes the concerto with a vigorous rondo that shows Brahms’ humorous side along with a dash of Hungarian flavor.
Overture, Scherzo & Finale, Op. 52
Born June 8, 1810, in Zwickau, Saxony [Germany]
Died July 29, 1856, in Endenich, near Bonn, Prussia [Germany]
Robert Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo & Finale is contemporary with his First Symphony and the first movement of the Piano Concerto, yet it is unlike those two works or, for that matter, any other work he composed. Its title, adopted only after Schumann discarded “Sinfonietta” and “Suite,” tells us only that it is in three movements of contrasting character. More important is what the title reveals by virtue of omission: a slow movement. If a slow movement had been inserted before or after the Scherzo, this work would approximate a symphony. Schumann never added that fourth movement, however, and we have no reason to believe that he ever intended to do so.
What, then, are we to make of this unique conglomerate for orchestra? Why did Schumann not simply call it a symphony? Part of the answer lies in the dominant high spirits of the Overture, Scherzo & Finale. Schumann emphasizes charm rather than emotional weight. The Austrian musicologist and composer Hans Gál has suggested that Schumann’s reverence for Ludwig Beethoven may have prevented him from assigning the term “symphony” to these three movements. Gál also offers an explanation for Schumann’s use of the term Overture for the slow introduction and allegro that constitute the first movement.
For him, the title Overture was a convenient term for indicating the form of a symphonic first movement, to which Mendelssohn’s overtures had always adhered, just as much as had Beethoven’s.
Gál correctly points out that by 1841, the year of the “Spring” Symphony and the Overture, Scherzo & Finale, the term overture did not exclusively denote an instrumental prelude to an opera or other stage work. Composers used the designation for an abstract instrumental movement. Schumann’s overture opens with a plaintive slow introduction in E minor, whose yearning theme seems to reach in anticipation of a brighter mood. He does not ask us to wait long. With the transition to the E-major Allegro, Schumann introduces repeated anapests (a short-short-LONG rhythmic pattern) in a lighthearted, dancing theme. The Overture is a small-scale sonata form whose lovely musical ideas linger just long enough to make us wish to hear them again.
The Scherzo and Finale are also characterized by pronounced repeated rhythms. Contrast occurs in the lyrical themes of its central trio section, which reflect the influence of Schumann’s friend and colleague Felix Mendelssohn. The trio is played twice. The Scherzo’s repetitive dotted figure requires great precision from both conductor and orchestra. Mendelssohnian flavor is also present in the Finale. Using the speed and energy of the Scherzo as a springboard, Schumann adds in some fine fugal passages.
Despite a tepid reception when the Overture, Scherzo & Finale was premiered in June of 1841, Schumann was very proud of this work, particularly of the subtle thematic connections he had woven among the three movements. He remained convinced that it would eventually find its audience. Considering the freshness of its musical ideas, the tight formal discipline and the relatively transparent orchestration, this piece deserves to be counted among Schumann’s finest orchestral works.
Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns, trumpets in pairs, timpani and strings. Tenor and bass trombones are featured in the Finale.
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born January 27, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria
Died December 5, 1791, in Vienna, Austria
Few works in classical symphonic literature are more beloved than Mozart’s great G-minor Symphony. How ironic that the music should be so familiar, while we have so little information about the circumstances of its composition! We know that Mozart composed his final trilogy of symphonies: No. 39 in E flat, K. 543; this one in G minor, and No. 41 in C, K. 551 (“Jupiter”) in a mere six weeks in 1788. Such a combination of quantity and superior quality is almost unparalleled in music history. But why did he compose them? There is no mention of any of the three symphonies in Mozart’s letters to give us a clue as to their origin. One theory holds that Mozart was planning to present these works at a series of subscription concerts, but no such series came to fruition that year. More recently, scholars have hypothesized that a performance of the three final symphonies may have taken place in late 1790 or early 1791.
If the Viennese public heard the G-minor symphony, they must have been baffled. Works in minor keys were unusual in the late 18th century, and Mozart’s symphony is singularly dark throughout its four movements. The nervous agitation that opens K. 550 was a radical departure from the norm. Accompaniment momentarily supersedes melody, and when we hear the first theme it is piano. These observations may seem parenthetical to us, but they were bold departures for Mozart. Nineteenth-century romantics seized on the G minor symphony as evidence that Mozart was the harbinger of musical romanticism.
Mozart expands the emotional boundaries of the classical symphony in this work by his very expressive, intensely personal musical language. Particularly lovely is the lengthy slow movement, which explores nuances of the delicate wind scoring and the persuasive pull of subtly irregular rhythmic patterns. Though in E flat major, this Andante is hardly a respite from the tragic overtones of G minor. Chromatic lines in the woodwinds remind us of the broad emotional paintbrushes Mozart used. The finale is harmonically adventurous and as dramatic as anything Beethoven composed. Daring extremes of dynamics and high emotional charge argue persuasively for categorizing K. 550 with the early romantics. At the same time, the G-minor symphony’s perfection of form and elegant proportions are a constant reminder that in Mozart, the Classical Era reached its pinnacle.
Mozart in Minor Keys
Tradition holds that Joseph Haydn composed 104 symphonies, Mozart wrote 41 and Beethoven stopped at nine. Actually, two additional symphonies have been authenticated as Haydn’s compositions, and Mozart’s symphonic output numbers somewhere between 55 and 65. (The additional Mozart pieces are primarily juvenilia; then again, even as a boy, Mozart wrote orchestral music of astoundingly high quality.)
Now look at the balance between major and minor keys among these classical symphonies. Of Beethoven’s nine, two are in minor keys, the Fifth and the Ninth, and both end resolutely in major mode. Among Haydn’s 106, eleven are in minor mode, or approximately 10%. With Mozart, the percentage is even lower. Only two of 41 symphonies are in minor, and both are in G minor.
Is this significant? Musicians and scholars have long thought so. By the late Baroque Era, certain tonalities had specific associations in music that held throughout the 18th century. C major was the Viennese key of sunlight. D major was commonly employed for ceremonial music. F major was associated with pastoral themes. E flat major was a key of nobility and high ideals. G major was a key designating cheerfulness. These categories were not ironclad, and to some extent, listening to 18th century works in specific keys prompts a chicken-and-egg question. Which came first, music that communicates certain characteristics, or the expectation of such music in specific keys? One fact brooks no debate: music in minor mode was unusual in the last quarter of the 18th century. As it happens, those years coincided with Mozart’s full maturity. The taste of the day favored music in major keys.
Mozart was a consolidator of style, not an innovator. The dominance of major mode in his music is not limited to his symphonies. Among his dozens of serenades, cassations and divertimenti for orchestra or wind ensemble, for example, only two are in minor mode, the Masonic Funeral Music, K. 477 and the Serenade for Winds, K. 388. Both are in C minor. Does that matter? Yes. Each of those pieces is an outstanding example of Mozart’s genius. Surely it is no coincidence that he chose to express significant ideas and profound emotions in minor tonalities.
Consider another example. Only two of Mozart’s 27 piano concerti are in minor mode: No. 20 in D minor, K. 466 and No. 24 in C minor, K. 491. None of the concerti for strings or winds are in a minor key. Few of Mozart’s chamber works are either, but time and again, Mozart returned to certain tonalities that apparently provided him with the expressive raw material he required to address the human condition through abstract music. His two string quartets in D minor, String Quintet in G minor and Piano Quartet in G minor are superb, dramatic compositions: full of the stream of memorable themes we treasure in Mozart and also imbued with a glorious combination of spontaneity and inevitable logic.
And therein lies a conundrum. For whatever reason, Mozart seems to have reserved his most profound utterances for the works in minor mode. The earlier “little” G minor, K. 185, is widely regarded to be his first mature symphony and a landmark work. The “great” G minor, K. 550, which we hear this weekend, is one of the masterpieces of symphonic literature. In the Romantic Era, musicians and critics seized upon the two G minor symphonies and the two minor mode concerti as proof that Mozart was, at heart, a romantic. By rebelling against the convention of the day, they argued, he manifested a sympathy for the romantic notion of the artist asserting his individuality.
Lest we interpret this phenomenon out of context, remember that all tonal works have passages in minor mode. Frequently the inner movements of a major mode composition may be cast in minor mode for contrast, which is an important principle governing all tonal music. More to the point, Mozart’s personal musical language was heavily colored with chromaticism. This means that he flavored his melodies and harmonies with a variety of notes.
Instrumentation: flute, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and strings
Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op. 102
Born May 7, 1833, in Hamburg, Germany
Died April 3, 1897, in Vienna, Austria
Brahms’ sole concerto for more than one instrument is unique not only among his works, but also among those of the 19th century. While he was certainly acquainted with Beethoven’s “Triple” Concerto, Op. 56 for piano, violin and cello, his models for the so-called Double Concerto (or, among musicians, simply the “Brahms Double”) lie in the 18th century: in the Sinfonie concertante of Mozart and his contemporaries, and even earlier, among the Baroque concerti grossi so popular in the first half of that century.
Orchestral Swan Song
The concerto holds a special place as well because it was Brahms’ swan song for orchestra. After this work, he turned his attention exclusively to the more intimate domain of chamber music, solo piano pieces and songs, eschewing larger ensembles and the sweeping gestures so frequently associated with such works. It is impossible to say whether Brahms knew, when he composed the Double Concerto in summer 1887, that it was to be his last major work for orchestra. Certainly, he knew he faced problems integrating two solo instruments, for both his piano concerti and the Violin Concerto had been criticized for being overly symphonic, to the detriment of the soloist. Brahms was not daunted by such criticism and saw a special challenge in the project. The idea came to him on the heels of having completed his Second Cello Sonata, Op. 99, for Robert Hausmann, the cellist in Joseph Joachim’s string quartet. Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann:
I have had the amusing idea of composing a concerto for violin and cello. If it is at all successful it might give us some fun. You can well imagine the sort of pranks one can play in such a case. But do not imagine too much. I ought to have handed on the idea to someone who knows the violin better than I do (Joachim has unfortunately given up composing).
An excellent pianist himself, Brahms was keenly aware how important it was to understand the particular capabilities of each solo instrument.
Brahms Extends an Olive Branch
He also had an ulterior motive in involving Joachim. They had been estranged for some seven years, and through the Double Concerto, Brahms sought to effect a reconciliation. Brahms conducted Joachim and Hausmann in the premiere in Cologne on October 15, 1887. By definition, the concerto requires two superb virtuosi who can work together and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Similarly, the conductor has the added challenge of following two soloists.
About the Music
The music is vintage Brahms, full of passion, rich with melody and superbly crafted. After a resolute orchestral flourish to open, Brahms placed his cadenzas at the beginning, a ploy borrowed from Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. As in the Beethovenian model, the movement proceeds in more conventional sonata form.
The slow movement is the Double Concerto’s happiest inspiration, with a luxuriant and warm theme delivered in unison by the two soloists and developed with Brahmsian richness by the supporting orchestra. The woodwinds have a particularly rewarding role in the movement’s middle section. Brahms closes the concerto with a vigorous rondo that shows considerably more humor than we generally expect from Brahms, along with a dash of Hungarian flavor.
Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, solo violin and cello and strings
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2023