Brahms’ Violin Concerto

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Dvořák: The Water Goblin
Hanson: Symphony No. 4, “Requiem”
Brahms: Violin Concerto


The Water Goblin, Op. 107 (Vodník)

COMPOSER: Born September 8, 1841, Nelahozeves, near Kralupy in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic); died May 1, 1904, Prague
WORK COMPOSED: Dvořák sketched the outline of The Water Goblin from January 6–10, 1896, and finished scoring it by February 11 of that year.
WORLD PREMIERE: Dvořák’s first three symphonic poems were first heard in a public rehearsal at the Rodolfinum, on June 3, 1896, by the Prague Conservatoire orchestra led by Antonín Bennewitz. Henry Wood conducted the London Philharmonic in the first full performance on November 14, 1896.
INSTRUMENTATION: Piccolo, 2 flutes,2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbal, tam tam, triangle, and strings

Czech poet and folklorist Karel Jaromír Erben holds a place in Czech society analogous to that of the Brothers Grimm in German-speaking countries; in both cases, these men collected and published the folktales and myths of their respective cultures. Erben’s 1853 anthology of Czech tales, A Bouquet of Folk Legends, helped solidify Czech national and cultural identity at a time when Czech people lived under the often-oppressive rule of the Austro- Hungarian Empire.

As an ardent Czech patriot and champion of the Czech language, Antonín Dvořák was strongly attracted to Erben’s work. The folk ballads Erben included in Bouquet feature macabre, Gothic plots in the manner of Edgar Allen Poe, which also worked powerfully on Dvořák’s musical imagination. He created symphonic poems from four of Erben’s ballads: “The Water Goblin,” “The Noon Witch,” “The Golden Spinning Wheel,” and “The Wild [Wood] Dove.” In setting these stories, Dvořák hewed closely to the details of plot and narrative; he also replicated the linguistic rhythm of the ballad’s verses in his music.

The title character of “The Water Goblin,” Vodník, lives by a lake and drowns unsuspecting passers-by who venture too close to his watery lair. A young girl ignores her mother’s warnings of danger and takes her laundry down to the lake, whereupon the water goblin captures her and carries her off to his underwater realm for a forced marriage. When the girl, tormented by homesickness, has her first child, she begs to be allowed home for a visit. The goblin agrees, on condition that she return by the evening’s Vesper bell and leave her baby behind as a hostage. Mother and daughter have a sad reunion, but when the bells sound the mother refuses to allow her daughter to return to the lake. The water goblin knocks at the door, demanding his wife come home and make him dinner, turn down his bed, and, finally, feed the child, who is screaming in hunger. Each time, the mother refuses to relinquish her daughter, and finally she tells the goblin to bring the baby, whereupon the goblin returns to the lake in a fiery rage. A vicious storm ensues; when mother and daughter emerge from their cottage, they find a tiny decapitated body on the doorstep, a baby’s head lying beside it.

Dvořák’s penchant for melodic invention and deft use of orchestral colors gives The Water Goblin a dramatic immediacy that lingers long after the last note sounds. Not all listeners knew quite what to make of the shocking story, however. Eduard Hanslick, the influential Viennese critic – and no fan of program music – considered Dvořák a great Czech exemplar of “absolute” music, i.e., symphonies. Hanslick was frankly appalled by The Water Goblin. “I cannot quite comprehend how one could choose such a ghastly theme, which is revolting to every artistically sensitive person, as the topic for musical representation,” he wrote. “I am afraid that with this detailed programmatic music, Dvořák has stepped onto a slippery slope which, in the end, leads directly to – Richard Strauss.”


Symphony No. 4, Op. 34, “Requiem”

COMPOSER: Born October 28, 1896, Wahoo, NE; died February 26, 1981, Rochester, NY
WORK COMPOSED: 1943, dedicated “In memory of my Beloved Father”
WORLD PREMIERE: Hanson led the Boston Symphony on December 3, 1943. The following year, it won the first Pulitzer Prize given for musical composition.
INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (second clarinet doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, xylophone, and strings

Howard Hanson, born of Swedish immigrant parents, fused American and Nordic identities in his compositions. Like his fellow Scandinavian Jean Sibelius, Hanson concentrated on instrumental works, particularly symphonies, as his primary means of musical expression. Hanson’s contemporaries regarded him as a neo-Romantic composer, and Hanson himself definitively rejected the austerity of atonal and 12-tone music in his approach to composition. (Hanson did, however, incorporate dissonance and explorations of bitonality – two key areas sounding simultaneously.) Hanson also credited Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina as a major influence on his style. “I learned an awful lot from Palestrina about letting the lines flow through the harmonies,” said Hanson in a 1978 interview.

In 1921, after winning the Rome Prize for composition, Hanson moved to that city, where he immersed himself in Palestrina’s music and studied orchestration with Ottorino Respighi. Hanson returned to the United States in 1924 to head the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. During Hanson’s 40 years at Eastman, he taught composition, built Eastman into a prestigious and academically grounded music program with an international reputation, and championed the works of American composers.

Of his seven symphonies, No. 4, subtitled “Requiem,” was reportedly Hanson’s favorite. He gave its four movements titles from the Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead: Kyrie, Requiescat, Dies irae, and Lux aeterna. At just over 20 minutes, Symphony No. 4 is a taut, highly focused work. The notes of the Kyrie (Lord Have Mercy) are first sounded by four horns and later by cellos in variation. Lilting winds and a chorale of trombones build towards a dissonant climax, which Hanson marks in the score with the words “Christ have mercy.” Requiescat (a prayer for the soul of the dead) features a simple bassoon melody with a walking bass line. The agitation of the Dies irae (Day of Wrath) comes from its pulsing undercurrent and dramatic, sometimes frenetic, exclamations from the winds (especially piccolo), brasses, and xylophone. The transfixing calm of the Lux aeterna (Eternal Light) offers solace as it promises peace for both the dead and the living.

“This is not merely a solemn, ecclesiastic work of art,” wrote composer Hugo Leichtentritt. “Opposing its religious emotions dealing with the mystery of death are the joys and sorrows, doubts and turmoil of human life. And the composition gains its peculiar individual character by this very mixture, this intertwining of the two fundamental conditions of the world of nature – life and death.”


Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77

COMPOSER: Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg; died April 3, 1897, Vienna
WORK COMPOSED: During the summer of 1878. The Violin Concerto was written for and dedicated to violinist Joseph Joachim.
WORLD PREMIERE: January 1, 1879, in Leipzig, with Joachim performing the solo
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: January 16, 2012; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin
INSTRUMENTATION: Solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Johannes Brahms’ friendship with violinist Joseph Joachim changed the course of both men’s lives. Joachim’s exceptional musicianship inspired Brahms to write his only concerto for that instrument. Since Brahms had only a passing familiarity with the violin’s capabilities, Joachim’s technical expertise proved essential to the concerto’s creation. The collaboration between the two men resulted in what Joachim later termed one of the four great German concertos (the others were Mendelssohn’s E Minor Concerto, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and Max Bruch’s G Minor Concerto).

A year after Brahms completed his Second Symphony, he returned to the lakeside town of Pörtschach on Lake Wörth in southern Austria, near the Italian border, and spent the summer writing his Violin Concerto. In a letter to the critic Eduard Hanslick, Brahms wrote, “The melodies fly so thick here that you have to be careful not to step on one.”

Brahms intended Opus 77 to be a truly symphonic concerto; that is, a concerto that fully integrates the orchestra, rather than a showy piece designed to display the soloist’s virtuosity, in which the orchestra is relegated to mere accompaniment. Even without conventional solo pyrotechnics, Brahms’ Violin Concerto, written for Joachim’s prodigious technique, presents formidable challenges to any soloist.

The unusual format and style of the concerto elicited harsh comments from critics at its premiere. Perhaps the most famous is that of conductor Hans von Bülow, who remarked that Brahms had composed a concerto against the violin, whereupon violinist Bronislaw Huberman responded, “It is a concerto for violin against the orchestra – and the violin wins!”

The Allegro non troppo is a true collaboration between orchestra and soloist. The slow orchestra introduction contains the seeds for most of the subsequent themes presented in the movement. The soloist enters with dramatic flair, almost cadenza-like in its style, before presenting the expansive warmth of the main theme and its counterpart, a yearning, searching melody. Overall, this movement combines Brahms’ laser-like intensity with gentler passages, and it ends with a cadenza composed by Joachim.

Although Brahms, in his usual self-deprecating way, described the second movement as “a poor Adagio,” for some listeners it is the most beloved of the three. A solo oboe presents the main theme, one of immutable tranquility. In the words of a French critic, “Le hautbois propose, le violon dispose” (The oboe proposes, the violin disposes). The violinist echoes and elaborates on the theme, tracing airy arabesques of sound.

In the Allegro giocoso, Brahms gives us drama and fire. The main theme showcases Joachim’s extraordinary facility with double stops (sounding two notes simultaneously) and other violin techniques, but as with the preceding music, the violin and the orchestra blend their combined abilities to create a sound full of irrepressible joy.

Wardrobe malfunction

On the day he premiered the ViolinConcerto, Brahms apparently forgot his dress trousers and conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra in a pair of ordinary gray pants. This faux pas was bad enough, but, in addition, Brahms’s suspenders were either broken or not properly fastened, which elicited murmurs from the audience. One hopes, for Brahms’ sake, that the power of the music and Joachim’s stupendous playing overcame these sartorial mishaps.

© 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz


Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine.



Dvořák: The Water Goblin
Sir Charles Mackerras – Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Supraphon 4012

Simon Rattle – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
2-EMI/Warner Classics 58019

Hanson: Symphony No. 4, “Requiem”
Gerard Schwarz – Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Naxos 8559703

Brahms: Violin Concerto
Vadim Gluzman, violin
James Gaffigan – Lucerne Symphony Orchestra
BIS 2172