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Brahms’ Second

Program Notes

Oscar Bettison: Remaking a Forest (World premiere commission)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25
Brahms: Symphony No. 2

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Oscar Bettison
b. 1975

Remaking a Forest (World premiere commissioned by the Oregon Symphony)

Work composed: 2019

First Oregon Symphony performance

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo, 1 doubling alto flute), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, almglocken, bass drum, crotales, 5 flower pots, marimba, 2 metal bars, 2 mounted sandpaper blocks, tam-tam, tubular bells, vibraphone, xylophone, harp, and strings

Estimated duration: 12 minutes

British-American composer Oscar Bettison has garnered praise for his music’s “unconventional lyricism” and “menacing beauty … pulsating with an irrepressible energy and vitality.”Now chair of the composition department at the Peabody Institute, Bettison has earned a number of awards, including a 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship and the first BBC Young Composer of the Year prize. Bettison’s music has been commissioned by internationally renowned ensembles, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, London Sinfonietta, Slagwerk Den Haag, So Percussion, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, among others. 

Remaking a Forest gets its title in part from the metaphysical thought experiment known as the Ship of Theseus. “Theseus brings his ship home from war and puts it in dry dock,” Bettison explains. “Eventually one wooden plank is replaced, and then another, as the ship ages. At which point is it not the original ship?”

Bettison is fascinated with how the idea of replication, or copying, changes the original. “When the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral happened, I was well embarked on the writing,” says Bettison. “A lot of people were impacted by that fire, including me. Notre Dame is the birthplace of European polyphony, [which evolved into] Western Classical music, so that means something to me.”

“The Forest” is also the nickname for Notre Dame’s attic. Built from 1,000+-year-old, massive oak beams, the attic was completely destroyed in the massive fire. “I was thinking about how they were going to rebuild it,” Bettison continues. The original trees used to construct Notre Dame were harvested around 1160–1170 and are believed to have been 300–400 years old when they were cut down, which means some of the wood was almost 1,300 years old. Those original oaks have vanished from Europe, so there is no possibility of finding oaks of comparable age. The question of how Notre Dame will be restored, and how the use of non-original materials might affect our concept of the cathedral’s identity, are what preoccupied Bettison as he wrote.

“The Notre Dame idea is strong, but I don’t want people to think the piece is programmatic,” Bettison cautions. “I don’t want people to think that when it gets really loud, that’s the spire burning. It’s not a narrative journey; it’s more abstract than that.”

Remaking a Forest builds slowly, beginning with a short solo violin melody then taken up by the rest of the strings. “Everything is sparse for awhile; then there’s a buildup of instruments, textures, and dynamics. More players get involved as more things happen, and then everything drops back to the sparseness of the beginning,” says Bettison. About four minutes in, the high winds begin playing a strong pulse, which continues through the rest of the piece. The first full tutti happens around seven minutes and then gradually falls apart. “It’s a deliberate removal of one sound after another, like in Haydn’s Farewell Symphony.” Bettison is purposely vague about Forest’s conclusion. “I don’t want to give the ending away … if I’ve done my job well, the music will show a clear trajectory, gaining mass and momentum and volume that then dissipates.”


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503

Work composed: 1786

Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: February 19, 2012; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Jeffrey Kahane, piano

Instrumentation: solo piano, flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Estimated duration: 30 minutes

For many years, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart supported himself primarily as a performer, hoping to earn enough money to allow time for composition. To that end, Mozart conceived most of his piano concertos as solo vehicles to perform in subscription concerts. When Mozart first arrived in Vienna in 1782, he wowed the Viennese public with his technical and musical facility. From 1783–1786, Mozart wrote a number of new concertos, and gave subscription concerts several times a year.

Surviving documentation suggests Mozart wrote K. 503 for a series of four concerts coinciding with the Advent season in 1786. These concerts were to be presented at a casino owned by Vienna’s leading music publisher, Johann Trattner. As was typical for Mozart, who put off committing his music to manuscript until the last possible moment, K. 503 did not get finished until the night before its scheduled premiere, on December 5, 1786. It is unclear whether or not this concert in fact took place; the other three concerts in the series appear to have been canceled, possibly for lack of adequate ticket sales.

K. 503 is considered one of Mozart’s most aristocratic, expansive concertos. This characterization stems in part from its overall length – the opening Allegro maestoso is 432 measures, the lengthiest first movement in all of Mozart’s 27 concertos – and K. 503 overall is the longest piano concerto Mozart wrote. The timpani and trumpets, instruments associated with royalty, reinforce the maestoso (majestic) nature of the music.

Listeners may notice a recurring fragment of melody in the first movement, which bears a strong resemblance to the opening notes of “La Marseillaise.” Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, the French officer who composed this famously bloodthirsty song in 1792, may have been inspired by K. 503 when he wrote “La Marseillaise,” which became the French national anthem in 1795. However, since Mozart finished this concerto a full five years before Rouget de Lisle penned his revolutionary tune, the similarities between the two are presumably coincidental.


Johannes Brahms

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73

Work composed: 1877

Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: April 27, 2015; Gilbert Varga, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

Estimated duration: 39 minutes

“This symphony is as happy as Brahms gets.” —Carlos Kalmar

Less than a year after the successful premiere of Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony on November 4, 1876, the composer left Vienna to spend the summer at the lakeside town of Pörtschach on Lake Wörth in southern Austria. There, in the beauty and quiet of the countryside, Brahms completed his Second Symphony. Pörtschach was to be a productive place for Brahms; over the course of three summers there he wrote several important works, including his Violin Concerto. In a letter to critic Eduard Hanslick, a lifelong Brahms supporter, Brahms wrote, “The melodies fly so thick here that you have to be careful not to step on one.”

Unlike the First Symphony, which took Brahms over 20 years to complete, work on the Second Symphony went smoothly, and Brahms finished it in just four months. Brahms felt so good about his progress that he joked with his publisher, “The new symphony is so melancholy that you won’t stand it. I have never written anything so sad … the score must appear with a black border.” In a different letter, Brahms self-mockingly observed, “Whether I have a pretty symphony I don’t know; I must ask clever people sometime.”

As Brahms composed, he shared his work-in-progress with lifelong friend Clara Schumann. “Johannes came this evening and played me the first movement of his Second Symphony in D major, which greatly delighted me,” Schumann noted in her diary in October 1877. “I find it in invention more significant than the first movement of the First Symphony … I also heard a part of the last movement and am quite overjoyed with it. With this symphony he will have a more telling success with the public as well than he did with the First, much as musicians are captivated by the latter through its inspiration and wonderful working-out.”

The Symphony No. 2 is often described as the cheerful alter ego to the solemn melancholy of Brahms’ First Symphony. No. 2 unfolds seamlessly, almost inevitably, without calling obvious attention to the elegant complexity of Brahms’ compositional style. Brahms uses the lilting notes of the Allegro non troppo as a common link throughout all four movements, where they are repeated, reversed, and otherwise, in Schumann’s words, “wonderfully worked-out.” In the extended coda, Brahms introduces the trombones and tuba, casting a tiny shadow over the sunny mood. The Adagio non troppo’s lyrical cello melody also hints at the wistful melancholy that inhabits so much of Brahms’ music. The Allegretto grazioso is remarkably gentle, with little of the joking quality for which scherzos are named, and the infectious joy of the Allegro con spirito expands on the first movement’s amiable mood, so much so that at the Vienna premiere on December 30, 1877, the audience demanded an encore.

—© 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