Brahms’ Fourth Symphony

Program Notes

Katherine Balch: Chamber Music
Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 83 in G Minor, Hob. I:83, “Hen”
Aaron Copland: Piano Concerto
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98 

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Katherine Balch
b. 1991

Chamber Music

Composed: 2018
World Premiere
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass flexatone, bongos, capiz shell wind chime, cymbals, crotales, 4 graduated flower pots, 2 Luis Conte shakers, slapstick, snare drum, tam tam, 3 graduated toms, vibraphone, 3 wood blocks, xylophone, prepared piano, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 11 minutes

Katherine Balch writes music that aims to capture the intimacy of existence through sound. Often influenced by extra-musical arts, philosophy, and literature, she seeks a heterogeneous yet formally cohesive aesthetic driven by attention to detail, textural lyricism, and playful sonic investigations. Balch currently serves as composer-in-residence for the California Symphony. Additionally, she holds the William B. Butz Composition Chair as composer-in-residence for Young Concert Artists.

When composers write for orchestras, they often take advantage of the full sound spectrum of instruments and timbres within the ensemble. In creating Chamber Music, Balch has chosen to focus on the intimacy of collaboration, what she describes as “interconnected introversion,” rather than an expansive soundscape. Balch describes the work as “a very intimate, intricate music intended for close listening and made among friends. There are many soloists who chatter amongst each other and exchange musical materials. I wanted to distinguish this from the idea of a ‘concerto’ for orchestra, without the sort of virtuosic extroversion that a concerto implies. I guess I’m attracted to the idea of an intimate or hushed virtuosity.”

Constructed in two halves, the first section of Chamber Music alternates periods of bouncy rhythmic woodwind textures with what Balch calls “whisper music.” “Whisper music is all sorts of little clicking, popping, crunching, whispering sounds that soloists babble to each other,” Balch explains. “Sometimes this is a playful, active gossiping; other times it’s more solemn and still.” The second section features a quiet chorale that flutters and disappears. “Sometimes parts of the orchestra ‘fall out of tune’ with other parts (by playing a quarter-tone lower), which results in what to me are very colorful and expressive beatings in the music.” 

Chamber Music is a companion piece to Balch’s Leaf Fabric, which was commissioned and premiered in 2017 by the Suntory Summer Arts Festival in Japan. “Both are inspired visually by the intricate, detailed veination of leaves, and sonically by the dense but very quiet omnipresent sounds of the outdoors – imagine lying down in the grass and just listening to all the crinkling, swishing, and chirping around you,” says Balch.

 

Joseph Haydn
1732–1809

Symphony No. 83 in G Minor, Hob. I:83,Hen”

Work composed: 1785
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: February 9, 2009; James Gaffigan, conductor
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings
Estimated duration: 23 minutes

At the age of 29, Joseph Haydn secured an appointment to the court of Prince Esterházy as Kapellmeister, and for almost 30 years he remained in the Prince’s service. Serving as Esterházy’s court composer came with several advantages, most notably secure employment and the freedom to experiment with new styles and forms. Job security and a supportive employer notwithstanding, however, by the 1780s, after more than 20 years as the Esterházy family court composer, Haydn was, creatively speaking, bored.

Haydn’s music had been known and admired in Paris since the 1760s, when some of his string quartets were first published there. In the early 1780s, a new ensemble, the Concert de la Loge Olympique, was formed. In 1785, one of its leaders, Claude-François-Marie Rigoley, the Comte d’Ogny, commissioned six symphonies from Haydn, and offered what was described as “un prix colossal,” 25 louis d’or for each symphony, with an added five for the publication rights. (Annotator James Keller notes that this fee was well above what the organization usually paid for this type of commission and adds, “in today’s currency, 25 louis d’or would translate in the neighborhood of $60,000.”)

Haydn’s “Paris” symphonies were an instant success with Paris audiences when they premiered in 1787 (the exact dates are not known). A contemporary reviewer wrote, “Each hearing increases our appreciation and admiration of the works of the great genius, who, in all his pieces, understands so well how to draw the richest and most varied developments from every theme.”

Symphony No. 83, “Hen,” gets its name not from Haydn but from a fowl-like clucking motive in the upper strings in the first movement. It is the only one of the six Paris Symphonies to feature a minor key, although it abandons its G minor opening tonality halfway through the first movement, and the subsequent movements are all in major keys. Scholars disagree about the meaning and mood of this symphony; some interpret it as being full of irony and conflict, while others see it as the quintessential example of a Classical symphony in both its structure and treatment of musical themes.

 

Aaron Copland
1900–1990

Piano Concerto

Work composed: 1926
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: April 9, 1991; Lawrence Leighton Smith, conductor; Lorin Hollander, piano
Instrumentation: solo piano, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, >contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, bass drum, Chinese drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, woodblock, xylophone, celesta, and strings
Estimated duration: 17 minutes

In the 1920s, American composers had not yet established a national American sound among audiences or certain influential critics and conductors, most of whom came from Europe. During this time, almost all American composers, Aaron Copland included, went to Europe to study, and their music often, if unconsciously, revealed an underlying European sensibility. In a 1976 interview, Copland talked about the need for an authentically American style as he looked back 50 years to his 1926 Piano Concerto: “To use jazz materials seemed a quite easy way to sound American right away without any effort.”

For Copland, incorporating jazz idioms made his music sound clearly American to audiences. In this context, jazz lent a special flavor to his work, but Copland was not interested in delving deeper into jazz as a genre; in fact, in the same 1976 interview, Copland characterized jazz as somewhat restrictive. “I found that the use of jazz materials, though limiting you somewhat as to the nature of the emotional context of the music, did solve the problem of how you write serious concert music which everyone will recognize as being that of an American composer. That was not so common in the 20s … we didn’t have many composers who were recognizable [as Americans] even to ourselves, certainly not to foreigners, as typically serious American concert music. That was my fascination with jazz.”

In 1926, Serge Koussevitzky, leader of the Boston Symphony, asked Copland for a piano concerto. Koussevitzky added an irresistible bonus: if Copland wrote the concerto, he could perform the solo part, “a temptation too good to pass up,” Copland recalled. Mindful of the success of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Concerto in F (1925), Copland probably also felt some pressure to create a jazz piano work of his own, even though Copland did not share Gershwin’s natural affinity for – or fluency with – jazz.

The first section of the concerto has a bluesy rhapsodic feel, and features a recurring melodic fragment borrowed from Rhapsody in Blue. In the second section, as biographer Howard Pollack points out, Copland uses jazz elements such as bent notes, off-beat percussive rhythms, and blaring brasses “in order, if not to actually portray New York, at least to impart a sense of life in a great American metropolis … Copland’s intentions are clearly more symbolic than picturesque.”

For audiences and critics of the time, the Piano Concerto seemed like either an assault upon proper music, or a pointed insult. Reviews accused it of mocking “the life of our American cities – nervous, irrelevant, and pitched almost to a scream.” One critic opined, “In his zeal to assert a kinship with the radical style, Mr. Copland may have overdone matters.” For today’s listeners, accustomed to hearing a broad spectrum of styles in the concert hall, these reactions seem quaintly puzzling.

Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony in the premiere on January 28, 1927, with Copland, as promised, at the piano. For Copland’s parents, who traveled from Boston to hear their son premiere his latest work, the night was an unqualified triumph. “I was delighted when Ma said it was her proudest moment and that my playing in the Concerto made all those music lessons worthwhile!” Copland later wrote.

 

Johannes Brahms
1833–97

Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98

Work composed: 1884–85
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: March 23, 2014; Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor
Instrumentation: piccolo, flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, and strings
Estimated duration: 40 minutes

In a 1947 essay titled “Brahms the Progressive,” Arnold Schoenberg described Johannes Brahms as one of few composers whose music emerges from a simultaneous and indivisible combination of inspiration and intellectual skill. Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is an exquisite synthesis of heart and mind; its elegance suggests a mathematical equation whose deceptively simple formula expresses new, startling and complex concepts.

In the 19th century, music was defined in large part by the aesthetic rift between Richard Wagner and Brahms and their respective followers. Wagner was seen as the fearless pioneer who scorned the musical establishment; his self-described “Music of the Future,” based on his own original musical concepts and philosophies, took music into previously unexplored territory. Wagner also suggested that Beethoven had made all the great innovations in the symphonic form, and therefore the true successor to Beethoven would make their mark in other genres. A composer who continued to write symphonies was, by Wagner’s definition, moribund.

During his lifetime and for some years after, Brahms was perceived as essentially conservative, a gifted writer of melody, but a man whose work reflected styles of the past, and (according to the Wagnerites) added nothing original to the musical canon. All generalizations contain a grain of truth: Brahms did work within the traditional forms and harmonic structures of his time. However, Brahms’ work is far from unoriginal; on the contrary, Brahms’ music displays subtle, even subversive, innovations. Instead of abandoning established genres and forms (like the four-part symphony, for example), Brahms dug deep inside them, reinventing the symphony from the inside out. Brahms had enormous respect for the music and composers of past eras (in his Fourth Symphony, Brahms pays homage to the contrapuntal style of J.S. Bach and the harmonic ideas of Beethoven, for example). Brahms’ inventiveness consisted of combining styles from past eras with his own creative impulses.

Brahms’ desire to write symphonic music stemmed in part from his preoccupation with the notion that the symphony as a genre was lapsing into mediocrity after the great heights it reached with Beethoven. Brahms’ four symphonies, in this context, can be seen as attempts to prove the symphony was still an aesthetically relevant and innovative genre.

Brahms composed the Fourth Symphony during the summers of 1884–85 in Mürzzuschlag, his summer retreat in the mountains southwest of Vienna. In September 1885, Brahms wrote to Hans von Bülow, conductor of the Meiningen Orchestra, expressing his hope that von Bülow would take on the new symphony. Brahms also admitted to doubt the work’s appeal, “I’m really afraid it [the Fourth Symphony] tastes like the climate here. The cherries don’t ripen in these parts; you wouldn’t eat them!” Despite Brahms’ concerns, von Bülow warmed to the new symphony; after his first rehearsal, von Bülow wrote, “No. 4 gigantic, altogether a law unto itself, quite new, steely individuality. Exudes unparalleled energy from first note to last.”

Brahms led von Bülow’s Meiningen Court Orchestra in the premiere of the Fourth Symphony on October 25, 1885. Despite Brahms’ misgivings that the public would not respond well to his “neue traurige Symphonie” (new tragic symphony), the audience applauded each movement. A contemporary of Brahms reported, “After the public had left the hall, the Duke [of Meiningen] and his entourage along with the foreign guests remained behind in order to hear the first and third movements again. This time Brahms directed with if possible even greater fire and the orchestra seemed electrified…” The influential 19th-century critic Eduard Hanslick, a lifelong champion of Brahms’ music, included this encomium in his review of the Fourth Symphony: “Brahms is unique in his resources of genuine symphonic invention; in his sovereign mastery of all the secrets of counterpoint, harmony, and instrumentation; in the logic of development combined with the most beautiful freedom of fantasy.”

The main theme of the Allegro non troppo reveals Brahms’ gift for economy: the essence of this lyrical sighing melody is its first four notes. Brahms’ endlessly inventive elaborations and development of these four notes generate much of the music of this movement. When Brahms first performed the first movement in a four-hand piano arrangement for some friends, there was an uncomfortable silence upon the movement’s conclusion. Hanslick declared, “I feel like I’ve just been beaten up by two intelligent people.” This wry comment, which drew laughter from the assembled company, bore out Brahms’ worries that his colleagues would not understand the new symphony. “I don’t give a damn about the shouters in the pit – and the rest of the public, between you and me, ditto,” Brahms told his friend Max Kalbeck, who advised Brahms to throw out the scherzo, make the final movement an independent work, and then compose two new movements to replace them. However, the fact that Kalbeck and Hanslick and several other colleagues, whose opinions Brahms respected, did not understand what Brahms was trying to do with the Fourth Symphony was a cause for concern. It may have been that the music, written for orchestra, simply did not translate well in a piano arrangement. More likely is the fact that a work as conceived and structured as the Fourth Symphony needed time and repeated hearings to make its impact on listeners, as Hanslick later admitted in his review.

The horns’ austere melody opens the Andante moderato, which begins the shift from the first movement’s E minor to E major. Various winds play with the horns’ melody, which continues to move between minor and major, with excursions into an archaic scale known as the Phrygian mode (another example of Brahms’ homage to earlier musical periods). The stark atmosphere of the Phrygian scale softens into the sweet harmonies characteristic of Brahms’ distinctive sound. The gentle warmth at the beginning grows into a passionate outpouring of melody, heard in the cellos. Countering the criticisms of his work as “too cerebral,” here Brahms writes music of pure aural pleasure.

The Allegro giocoso scherzo begins with an energetic wallop of sound and an amusingly odd rhythm; here Brahms allows his sense of humor to peek out of this boisterous music. The style and mood of this scherzo also pays direct homage to Beethoven in its muscular energy, unexpected humor, and bold digressions into distant tonal areas. At the premiere, the audience delighted in this rowdy ebullient music and called for an encore of the scherzo. While Brahms was pleased with their reaction, he declined their request.

For many years Brahms had been drawn to the Baroque form of the chaconne, a style of continuous variation, of a moderate to slow tempo, usually written in 3/4 time. Harmonically, the movement of a chaconne often changes from measure to measure. In an 1877 letter to Clara Schumann, Brahms wrote of his fascination with this format. “If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad.” Hanslick described the last movement as exhibiting “an astonishing harmonic and contrapuntal art never conspicuous as such and never an exercise of mere musical erudition.” For the Allegro energico e passionato Brahms produced a chaconne of his own, with 32 variations and a coda. He begins with eight massive chords in the woodwinds and brasses; these chords form the basis for the chaconne or passacaglia (variations on repeating bass or harmonic progression) in which all the variations are presented. Brahms’ absolute mastery of form is revealed in this music of profound depth and power.

 

© 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. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com