by Jane Rausch
As part of HCS’s 50th anniversary year celebration, today’s concert—“Seeing Double”—suggests that good things often come in pairs. Our program will demonstrate this thesis by featuring two important compositions by Brahms, two virtuoso soloists, and the premiere of a work commissioned by the orchestra and composed by Zeke Hecker.
Born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833 into a Lutheran family, Johannes Brahms spent much of his professional life in Vienna, Austria where he was a leader of the musical scene in the second half of the nineteenth century. He composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. A virtuoso pianist, he premiered many of his own works, and he worked with some of the leading performers of his time, including pianist Clara Schumann and violinist Joseph Joachim. In his lifetime, Brahms’s popularity and influence were considerable. Following a comment by the nineteenth-century conductor Hans von Bülow, he is sometimes grouped with Bach and Beethoven as one of the “Three Bs.”
Though Brahms wrote much music during his winters in Vienna, he often got his best work done while summering in the Austrian spa town, Ischl. It was here in the summer of 1880 that he wrote two large-scale, contrasting overtures: the boisterous Academic Festival Overture and its darker companion, the Tragic Overture. Although he had no particular tragedy in mind, the title of the second piece written in the key of D minor emphasizes its turbulent, tormented character in contrast to the mirthful ebullience of the Academic Festival Overture.
The overture opens with a pair of powerful chords, setting up an agitated first subject in the minor mode that ultimately leads to a most beautiful and touching second theme in the major. The work is constructed along the lines of standard sonata form, but Brahms typically takes imaginative liberties. The development, for example, starts off with an abrupt change in tempo and rhythm, which calls forth a grotesque march-like turn based on a phrase from the opening music. It isn’t until the beautiful second theme returns that the more traditional sonata form is followed leading to a splendid coda.
The Tragic Overture met with a frosty reception at its premiere in Vienna on December 26, 1880, and it is still not performed as often as the Academic Festival. Nevertheless, it can be safely ranked among the most significant one-movement orchestral compositions of the nineteenth century.
Zeke Hecker, composer and former principal oboist of the Pioneer Valley Symphony and the Windham Orchestra, has graciously provided the following program note for the world premiere of his new composition, Two Portraits for Oboe and Orchestra.
Both portraits are built on the same three-note theme: B, C, E-flat. In traditional German terminology, these notes are called H, C. S. Get it?
When I told HCS’s principal oboist (now you do) Jodie Hoye that I would be writing a piece for the orchestra’s 50th anniversary, she told me in no uncertain terms that I’d better make it an oboe concerto. Sorry, Jodie; I failed. Instead, you might call it a work for orchestra with solo obbligato, rather like Berlioz’s Harold in Italy (which disappointed Paganini, who’d demanded a viola concerto) or Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, in which cello and viola represent the title character and Sancho Panza, respectively. The problem is that when you put a full, modern orchestra behind a solo oboe, you have to keep telling it to shut up or the oboe won’t be heard. I tried to evade that by making the oboe itself shut up occasionally, giving brief featured roles to the various orchestral sections, and never allowing them all to sound off at the same time. Individual players sometimes intertwine with the solo line, most prominently the tuba player, as if he and the oboist were husband and wife. Which, not coincidentally, they are.
The hardest part was deciding what to call it. Two somethings, I figured, but two what? Two Pieces? Too dull. Perhaps something visual. Two Sketches? They’re not that sketchy. Two Aquarelles? Not that watery. Two Portraits, then. (I stole the title from a seldom-performed work by Bartok.) These aren’t portraits of anybody in particular, though; more like two personality types.
In the summer of 1887 Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann, “I have had the amusing idea of writing a concerto for violin and cello…If it is at all successful, it might give us some fun.” The lighthearted tone of Brahms’s letter notwithstanding, the genesis of his concerto for the two instruments was an effort to re-establish his friendship with his longtime colleague, Joseph Joachim with whom he had not spoken for seven years. The first public performance of the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello was in Cologne on October 18, 1887 with violinist Joachim and cellist Robert Hausmann. After the performance Brahms told a friend, “Now I know what has been missing in my life for the past few years… it was the sound of Joachim’s violin.” Brahms also admired Hausman. He had previously written him a cello sonata, and adding a cello solo in the Double Concerto provided him with another opportunity to showcase Hausmann’s virtuosity.
The composition consists of three movements in the fast-slow-fast pattern typical of classical instrumental concertos. The orchestra opens the Allegro in A minor with a storm of sound and almost immediately falls silent, stopping short as the cellist takes sudden command of the stage. Once she completes her impassioned statement, the winds enter with a phrase that is the work’s first genuine tune. As it is introduced now, that phrase is gentle and consoling. The violinist enters by echoing it. In the course of the movement, the phrase will recur in a form that is sometimes reflective, sometimes assertive.
The ternary from (A-B-A) Andante in D major recalls the gentle lyricism of many of Brahms’ other orchestral slow movements. A little two-note introduction, played first by the horns, then by all the winds, prefaces the simple opening melody, which is played by the soloists and the strings, colored by flutes, bassoons, and clarinets. The central section begins with the winds accompanied by pizzicato string chords, and the movement ends with a return to the opening song.
The concluding Vivace non troppo (A minor / A major) is rollicking in a fierce way, inspired by folk music from the plains east of Budapest. Halfway through, the mood changes abruptly as the orchestral texture thins and the dynamic level drops. The gently glowing orchestral strings provide background to the musing of the soloists, but this slight absentminded meditation is almost over as soon as its starts. Forward motion resumes. Brahms indulges in one more quietly reflective passage before it is all over. Then he shrugs off that mood and pushes through to the end.
The Double Concerto was Brahms’s last work for orchestra. It has never been among his most popular compositions, yet those who cherish Brahms love it for the weight of the orchestral textures, and the dialogue between the soloists, who trade phrases, each elaborating on the other’s ideas, borrowing gestures from the orchestra. It is this blending of intimacy with grandiosity that makes the work such a delightfully surprising masterpiece.