Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11
Work composed: 1857–59
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: March 1, 1978; Lawrence Smith, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 45 minutes
In 1857, Johannes Brahms accepted an invitation to the tiny court of Lippe-Detmold. His duties included giving piano lessons to Princess Frederike, accompanying Prince Leopold II, leading the court choir, and giving concerts. From 1857–60, Brahms spent each October through December at Detmold, where his relatively light work schedule allowed plenty of time to work on his own music.
At this point in his career, Brahms had written chamber music and solo piano works, but nothing for full orchestra. Four years earlier, Robert Schumann had praised Brahms, then a 20-year-old unknown from Hamburg, as the heir to Beethoven’s musical legacy. Schumann wrote, “If [Brahms] directs his magic wand where the massed power in chorus and orchestra might lend him their strength, we can look forward to even more wondrous glimpses into the secret world of the spirits.” The article brought Brahms to the attention of the musical world, but it also dropped a crushing weight of expectation onto his young shoulders. “I shall never write a symphony!” he famously lamented. “You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven.”
For his first orchestral work, Brahms sidestepped the daunting prospect of a symphony with an ingenious alternative: an orchestral serenade. Serenades, with their bucolic nature, multiple movements, and emphasis on lyrical, lighthearted melodies, provided an excellent opportunity to explore the sonic possibilities of a full orchestra without all the weighty compositional expectations attached to the writing of a symphony.
When Brahms began writing Opus 11, he scored it for a nine-piece chamber ensemble of winds and strings. He then rewrote it for small orchestra; neither of these early versions survives. On March 28, 1859, Brahms’ good friend and colleague Joseph Joachim conducted the premiere of the chamber orchestra version in Hamburg. Later that year, Brahms finally enlarged Opus 11 for full orchestra. Joachim also led the first performance of this version on March 3, 1860 in Hanover.
Throughout the Serenade’s six movements, Brahms juxtaposes ebullience with melancholy: a jaunty opening Allegro and its emphatic horn solo contrast sharply with the whispery eddying currents of the first Scherzo. The Adagio’s stately dotted rhythm has a regal quality, in the manner of a grand procession. Throughout this section, the anchor for the whole of Opus 11, Brahms shows off his unmatched melodic skill with a series of lyrical phrases. Solo instruments or pairs of winds dialogue with the full orchestra. Brahms continues the contrast of sun and shade with the two minuets in G major and G minor. The first begins as a demure G major trio for clarinets with a bobbling bassoon, while the second features graceful strings in G minor.
The second Scherzo, half the duration of the first, again showcases solo horn; the concluding Rondo’s main theme reprises the dotted rhythm of the Adagio, now speeded up to create breathless anticipation. Short interludes alternate with this primary dotted theme, which returns at the finish with an enthusiastic burst.
On hearing a performance of Opus 11 in 1862, critic Eduard Hanslick, who would become a lifelong champion of Brahms’ music, wrote, “We regard the serenade, whose construction can assume the most multifarious forms, as the playground of idyllic dreams, of beloved thoughts, of lightness and gaiety. It is the symphony of tranquility.”
The Albéniz Concerto
Work composed: 2009
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: Solo guitar, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, castanets, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, tubular bell, and strings
Estimated duration: 28 minutes
Stephen Goss has made a name for himself as a composer, guitarist, and professor. His works have been commissioned and performed by orchestras around the world, including the Russian National Orchestra, the China National Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, among others. The International Record Review has praised Goss’ “eminently listenable music,” and his “brilliantly integrated” musical language, which seamlessly combines disparate influences “from Beethoven’s late piano music to the films of former Python Terry Gilliam.”
“The music of Isaac Albéniz often evokes the sound of the guitar, so it comes as a surprise to most people that he never wrote a single note for the instrument,” writes Goss in his notes for the Albéniz Concerto. “Today, paradoxically, it is through the myriad of guitar transcriptions of his piano works that Albéniz’s music is mostly widely performed and known. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Albéniz’s birth, I was commissioned by [record label] EMI to arrange some of his music for guitar and orchestra for a forthcoming recording by Xuefei Yang and the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra … I decided to write a full-blown romantic guitar concerto based on four specific piano pieces. Each of these pieces has been transformed into a concerto-style movement; the overall movement plan of the concerto attempts to give the impression of an integrated piece, rather than a selection of arrangements …
“The choice of which Albéniz pieces to use for the concerto was crucial … I was searching for pieces that had thematic similarities, in order for the movements to appear interconnected. For example, the theme from the second slow episode in Aragón is almost identical to the second theme in Evocación.
“The concerto starts with El Albaicín (from Iberia Book 3, 1906), Albéniz’ stunning portrayal of the Gypsy quarter in Granada: flamenco influences suffuse the score … Debussy was a great admirer of [Albéniz’s original] piece, and his orchestrational style is suggested in this new version. After this intense and emotional first movement, Cataluña (from Suite española, Op. 47) is something of a palate cleanser … one of very few pieces that depict Albéniz’ native Catalonia. Evocación (from Iberia Book 1, 1905) the concerto’s slow movement, [begins with] a dark, melancholic Andalusian melody … first heard on English horn, that eventually gives way to a more sunny second theme … on the cellos and horns … The extended cadenza between the third and fourth movements incorporates musical material from all the other movements and leads directly to Aragón (also from Suite española). The last movement is a virtuosic tour de force for both soloist and orchestra – a fast, rhythmic jota [dance] is twice interrupted by slower copla [song] sections, before a sparkling coda brings the work to a frenetic conclusion.”
Danzas fantásticas, Op. 22
Work composed: 1919
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bell, cymbals, drum, glockenspiel, triangle, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 16 minutes
In 1905, following in the path of his countrymen Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albéniz, 23-year-old Joaquín Turina arrived in Paris to study music at the Schola Cantorum. Musical nationalism, a signature component of 19th-century Romantic music, came late to Spain, and Turina initially had little interest in including idiomatic Spanish sounds in his works. Instead, he strove to make music that reflected what was au courant, specifically the colorful impressionistic tendencies pioneered by Debussy. Over time, however, Turina also began to explore the diverse musical traditions of his native Spain.
“Joaquín Turina is a musical impressionist of fine sensibility, both spiritually and musically,” wrote composer Leigh Henry in The Musical Times in 1919. “He tends towards the rather literary type of expression exemplified in Albéniz’ ‘Iberia’ suite or in the ‘Images’ of Debussy … he writes concisely, and without musical ostentation, and his work reveals a fine sense of tone-colour.”
In 1919, Turina wrote Danzasfantásticas, a work that combined his cosmopolitan European style with Spanish idioms. As Henry noted, Turina often found inspiration in literature; in the case of Danzas, Turina turned to an obscure Spanish novel, La orgía (The Orgy) by the Sevillian José Más y Laglera. Turina matched quotes from the novel to each of Danzas’ three movements.
Exaltación (Exaltation): “It seemed as though the figures in that incomparable picture were moving inside the calyx of a flower.” The music unfolds with a shimmer of strings. Soon the lively Aragonese triple-meter jota emerges, and the movement becomes a jubilant celebration. The ethereal beginning returns as a seamless segue into Ensueño (Daydream): “The guitar’s strings sounded the lament of a soul helpless under the weight of bitterness.” This movement, a zortzico in 5/8 from the Basque region, showcases a lilting melody for duets of winds and builds to a full-voiced expression of yearning. Orgía (Orgy): “The perfume of flowers mingles with the odor of manzanilla, and the bouquet of tall chalices is filled with matchless wine. Like incense, from this the dance rises.” In Turina’s interpretation, the orgy referred to is sonic rather than carnal. This movement is the most recognizably Spanish of the three, with its bold flamenco rhythms and the distinctive quality of Andalusian cante jondo (deep song).
© 2019 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, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com