Program Notes: Bach, Beethoven & Brahms

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Program Notes: Bach, Beethoven & Brahms

Jacksonville Symphony 2022/23 Florida Blue Classical Series

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3

  • A titan of the German Baroque, Bach is considered by many to be among the greatest of all Classical composers.
  • He spent his early career as organist or Kapellmeister in small German cities.
  • He married twice and had 21 children. Several of his sons also became distinguished composers.
  • Bach composed all types of Baroque instrumental and choral music, except for opera.
  • Many scholars consider his six Brandenburg Concertos to also be among his finest orchestral works.

Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 is the closest to a symphonic work that we have from Bach’s hand. Baroque suites are collections of dance movements that are generally preceded by a French overture. Suites were intended as entertainment music. Because the courts of German nobles favored French taste, most of the dances have French titles. This Orchestral Suite features one of Bach’s most famous melodies, the so-called “Air on a G String,” as its slow movement.


Ludwig van Beethoven: Overture from The Consecration of the House

  •      Beethoven was the major link between the Classical and Romantic Eras in music. Music historians credit him with elevating the position of the musician in society.
  •      His music is often stormy and dramatic, demanding listeners to notice his melodies.
  •      Beethoven’s hearing started to deteriorate in his early 30s. Eventually, he was completely deaf.
  •      He composed nine symphonies and 32 piano sonatas but only one opera.
  •      Though he frequently fancied himself in love, Beethoven never married.

Beethoven’s overtures constitute a rich supplement to his symphonies. These single movement works contain much of his finest orchestral writing. They share a connection to staged drama, whether it be a play, a ballet or an opera. The Overture from The Consecration of the House is unique since Beethoven wrote it for a revival of a play that was being produced in conjunction with a newly-renovated theater. The Overture is thought to be Beethoven’s tribute to George Frederic Handel, a composer whose music he deeply admired. It has become traditional to play The Consecration of the House when a new performance space opens or for other momentous occasions.


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

  • Brahms was born in Northern Germany but adopted Vienna as his home.
  • Sometimes called a “misplaced classicist,” he infused Classical forms with Romantic warmth and passion.
  • He admired Bach, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert and especially Beethoven.
  • Brahms is thought to have been in love with Clara Schumann. He never married.
  • A brilliant pianist, he wrote fiendishly difficult music for keyboard, especially in his youth.

Symphony? Two-piano sonata? Concerto? Brahms wrestled with all three concepts, which was one of several reasons that it took him so many years to complete this massive work. Two-handed trills electrify the first movement, which is turbulent and dramatic. Brahms’ “Adagio” was a musical portrait of Clara Schumann, a young maiden whom he was almost certainly in love with during the mid-1850s. The finale is a feisty rondo that eventually gives way to a freer, more playful spirit. Symphonic in scope, the concerto salutes the majesty and nobility of Ludwig van Beethoven while heralding the restrained romanticism of Anton Bruckner.


Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068

Johann Sebastian Bach

Born March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany | Died July 28, 1750, in Leipzig, Germany

Modern programmers and recordings have given the name “suite” to four of Bach’s instrumental compositions. Bach himself would almost certainly not have recognized that title, which he reserved for solo instrumental works. Bach composed four orchestral suites whose chronology remains uncertain despite scholars’ best efforts. His formal title for all of them was Ouverture, after their first movements, which were patterned after the French overture. They are characterized by a lengthy, slow introduction with pronounced dotted rhythms. Following behind is a faster, contrapuntal middle section and then a return to the ceremonial introduction at the close. When all repeats are taken, the Ouverture of the Third Suite is as long as the other four movements combined.


Francophiles in Germany

The remaining movements of these suites also reflect the French style that was fashionable throughout Europe in Bach’s day, particularly in Germany and Austria. Bach’s German predecessors in the realm of the orchestral suite were Johann Rosenmüller, Johann Joseph Fux, Philipp Krieger and Georg Philipp Telemann. All these composers were indebted to Jean-Baptiste Lully’s instrumental music, which was also often called Ouverture.

The work that opens this concert conforms in general terms to the suite as we think of it: a series of dance movements all in the same key. The conventional pattern for suites was a French overture followed by an Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and a Gigue. Bach’s orchestral suites, however, depart from this norm in their choice of dances. They also vary in atmosphere and scoring.


Bach the Individualist

In the D major Suite, BWV 1068, Bach broke from the conventional pattern, following his Ouverture with an Air (a simple song or melody), a pair of Gavottes (a medium-paced dance from the French province of Dauphiné), a Bourrée (also a French dance that resembles a Gavotte) and a Gigue (related to the Irish jig; a jaunty dance in rapid 6/8 or 12/8 time).


Misnomer for a Beloved Melody

The second movement, popularly known as “Air on a G String,” is among Bach’s most beloved melodies. Its elegant cantilena, a musical passage that is smooth and lyrical, supports scholarly contention that the entire suite may have been based on an earlier work with solo violin. The popular title associated with the movement is actually a misnomer. A 19th century German violinist, August Wilhelm (1845-1908), arranged this movement for solo violin, transposing it to a lower key. The concept of playing on one string is a 19th century invention attributed to Niccolò Paganini and would thus have been unknown to violinists of Bach’s day. That notwithstanding, the music is an old and dear friend, one whose integrity and warmth only improve with time.

Very little autograph material has survived for Bach’s suites, only manuscript copies. Therefore, the chronology of the suites is almost impossible to determine. The D major Suite is believed to date from between 1729 and 1731, the first years that Bach directed the Collegium Musicum, a group of novice musicians who gathered to practice and perform out of their love for the symphonic arts in Leipzig. The relatively opulent scoring of the D major Suite indicates the number and quality of fine players he had at his disposal for Collegium performances.


Instrumentation: three trumpets, two oboes, timpani, strings and basso continuo.


The Consecration of the House Overture, Op. 124

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany | Died March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria

Most of Beethoven’s overtures are associated with stage works. He wrote four for his only opera Fidelio largely because the opera occupied him for a decade with extensive revisions in subsequent productions. Other overtures are linked to his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus or stage plays including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Egmont and William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. The Overture known in German as Die Weihe des Hauses (The Consecration of the House) was a theater piece, but its story is unique.

The playwright Carl Friedrich Hensler had been active in Vienna’s cultural life since 1784. In the early 1820s, he undertook the renovation of the old Theater in der Josefstadt on the outskirts of the city. For its reopening, he proposed a new production of August von Kotzebue’s drama The Ruins of Athens for which Beethoven had composed incidental music in 1811. However, he wanted to emphasize the occasion, and the title was changed to The Consecration of the House to commemorate the occasion. Hensler commissioned a revised libretto from Carl Meisl and, from Beethoven, a new chorus and a new overture. The premiere took place on October 3, 1822, with Beethoven directing from the piano. That was a singular occasion since Beethoven had largely withdrawn from conducting and was completely deaf by that point.

The music is Beethoven’s tribute to George Frederick Handel, a composer he prized above all others. It divides into two principal sections: a dignified yet festive march followed by a vigorous double fugue. There are no quotations from Handel; in fact, the music is unmistakably Beethovenian. However, the ceremonial character of the march, not unlike a French overture, and the elegant counterpoint of the double fugue are clear salutes to Handel.


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


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

Johannes Brahms

Born May 7, 1833, in Hamburg, Germany | Died April 3, 1897, in Vienna, Austria

Brahms was notoriously harsh on himself. He destroyed a substantial number of early compositions that did not meet his high standards. Those compositions he did allow to be published were of astonishingly high quality, particularly for one so young. He was only 20 years old when his Opus 1, a Piano Sonata in C major, appeared in 1853. In these early works, Brahms stayed where he was most comfortable: at the keyboard. Of his first ten published works, six were for solo piano, and three were songs for voice and piano. His Opus 8 is a piano trio.

From the mid-1850s onward, he experimented with orchestral works, trying to master the challenges of composing for large ensembles. The first completed essay was his delightful Serenade No.1 in D major, an outgrowth of an earlier Nonet composed in 1858. The Serenade, for full orchestra, appeared in 1860. Simultaneously, he labored on a larger, more serious symphonic work. Sketches for a Symphony in D minor survive from as early as 1854 and 1855. That work remained unfinished. Although he drafted three movements, Brahms only orchestrated the first. Much of its musical material was eventually subsumed by the First Piano Concerto.

In its initial conception, the unfinished symphony was intended as a tribute to Robert Schumann. Brahms, who was not yet comfortable writing for a large orchestra, sketched the piece as a sonata for two pianos. In that form, he showed it to several friends, including the violinist Joseph Joachim, the composer Julius Otto Grimm and Brahms’ former piano teacher in Hamburg, Eduard Marxsen. Perhaps most important among these early critics was Schumann’s wife Clara. Her absorption in Brahms’ extraordinary music, whose quality she instantly recognized, was one way in which she mitigated her anxiety about her husband’s declining health.

The original slow movement, a Sarabande-like march, later found its way into A German Requiem. The first movement of the two-piano work evolved into the analogous movement of the First Piano Concerto. Brahms apparently destroyed the original finale. Instead, he composed two new movements, the “Adagio” and the concluding “Rondo,” completing the score in 1859.

The first movement has been called “the trills movement.” Its vivid, two-handed trills are a leitmotif, or recurring theme, that emphasize the work’s dramatic character. The sweeping melodies in 6/4 meter contribute to its majesty.

Brahms’ slow movement has historically been construed as a Requiem for Robert Schumann, but it is more likely a tribute to Schumann’s widow. In a December 1856 letter about the concerto to Clara, Brahms wrote, “I am also painting a lovely portrait of you; it is to be the ‘Adagio.’” Coming from the nineteenth century’s greatest champion of absolute music, it is an uncharacteristic and revealing allusion to programmatic content.

He concludes his concerto with a feisty, powerful rondo that was also the last portion of the concerto to be composed. The heroic struggle so dominant in the opening movement gives way to a freer spirit. A glorious D-major coda leaves no doubt that the internal conflict has been resolved.


Instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, solo piano and strings


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2022

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