It is difficult to imagine a better way to open a concert entitled “Water, Water, Everywhere,” than by featuring the iconic On the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltzes, Op. 314 composed in 1867 by the “Waltz King” himself. Johann Strauss, Jr., the most famous and enduringly successful of nineteenth-century light-music composers, was born in Vienna on October 25, 1825. By that time his father, Johann Strauss the Elder (1804-1849), was well on his way to becoming Europe’s uncrowned king of dance music. Indeed, it was only after Strauss the Elder’s untimely death in 1849 that his son could advance his own musical standing. Building upon the firm musical foundation laid by his father, Johann, Jr., along with brothers Josef and Eduard, developed the classical Viennese waltz to the point that it became as much a feature of the concert hall as the dance floor. Combining considerable melodic invention, tremendous energy and brilliance with suavity and polish, he wrote 600 compositions including operettas, polkas, quadrilles, mazurkas, marches, and gallops as well as more than 150 waltzes. Of the latter, none has been more celebrated than the Blue Danube, which has become unofficial anthem of Vienna and is traditionally performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as the highlight of its annual New Year’s Eve concert.
Strauss first conceived of the Blue Danube as a choral waltz and dedicated it to the Vienna Men’s Choral Society. A year later he revised it as a symphonic piece. Like other waltzes of this genre, its introduction and coda are longer and more harmonically elaborate than standard ballroom waltzes of the 1840s and ‘50s, and it is performed with a flexible tempo rather than with the rigid beat required by dancers. The piece, which actually consists of five different waltzes, builds on a simple four-note motif generated by the rising notes of a D-major triad that seems to embody more than any other Strauss composition the romanticized nostalgia typical of Vienna.
As one of the most popular waltz composers of the era, Strauss Jr. extensively toured Austria-Hungary, Poland, Germany, and the United States with his orchestra. He was greatly admired by his contemporary composers including Richard Wagner, Jacques Offenbach, and Johannes Brahms. The story is told that when Strauss’s third wife Adele approached Brahms with a customary request that he autograph her fan, the composer inscribed a few measures from the Blue Danube, and then wrote beneath it: “unfortunately, NOT by Johannes Brahms.”
— Jane Rausch
Across the Water is a piano concerto based on familiar songs, all with water themes. The intent was to create music with a simple, folk language, yet with the drama and variety inherent to the concerto genre.
One might imagine a pianist sitting alone at the keyboard to enjoy playing a well-loved song. As the playing develops, orchestral instruments surround the soloist. The pianist therefore is able to switch roles, and sometimes accompany the melody as it is played by the orchestra. The first movement is “Peace Like a River.” This starts peacefully and quietly, in keeping with the message of the first verse, “I’ve got peace like a river.” However, the growth in the original song, from verse to verse, is translated into the new arrangement. “I’ve got pain like an arrow” is accented, with increased dynamics and tempi. The third verse, “I’ve got strength like a mountain” is expressed through block chords (mountains). An interlude leads to “I’ve got joy like a fountain,” which is filled with scalar runs and arpeggios. The final verse is the most boisterous – “I’ve got determination!”
“I’ve got peace like a river, strength like a mountain, joy like a fountain … in my soul.”
“Way, Haul Away” is a sea chanty from the British Isles. This is a rowdy song. In this new presentation, the music opens with a minor third in the high range of the solo piano. This is marked “As a Captain’s Whistle in the distance.” Little tremoli patterns (suggestive of a school of fish) swim by. Strains of the original song are played in the orchestra (interrupted by the fish). And then the actual song begins, energetically, in the solo piano. There is much back-and-forth exchange of phrases, in a style similar to how sailors might sing this song, alternating lines with each other.
A middle section (switching from minor to major tonality) is inserted. This might be heard as a hornpipe dance section, to be played by the fife (piccolo). The song theme returns, and the music ends with a quick ascent, up from the bottom of the sea.
“The Water is Wide” is a well-known English song. In this new presentation, the orchestra provides a flowing introduction as waves rocking the boat to and fro. The melody is played by the soloist. The abundance of unaccompanied passages expresses freedom and solitude of this song.
The music modulates to “deeper” keys (many flats) as a secondary melody is presented. Eventually, this “brightens” back to the original E-flat tonality. Before the theme returns, the piano creates the accompaniment, as large waves surrounding the simple tune. And indeed, the piano never does play the theme. Instead, the opening “rocking of the boat” motives return to bring the music to a close.
Although the German Romantic composer, Max Karl August Bruch, wrote over 200 orchestra and choral works during his long career as teacher, conductor, and composer, he is chiefly remembered today for his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor written in 1866. Programmed as often as Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, this popular concerto is regarded as the apex of the romantic tradition. Regretfully, its very success has left in obscurity many other fine works by this unusually ambitious and productive composer who in his lifetime had the misfortune of being overshadowed by the fame of his contemporaries, Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms.
Bruch’s Symphony No. 3 in E Major, Op. 51, written in 1882, is only one example of these lesser known compositions that deserve to be performed more frequently. It is especially appropriate for this concert since Bruch considered subtitling it “On the Rhine.” The first movement marked Allegro molto vivace is in classical sonata form with broad melodic themes developing to an imposing climax. The Adagio second movement has a religious feel with its chorale-like introduction, followed by variations and a return to the opening chorale character. The C major Scherzo, happy and boisterous, is considered the most effective and successful movement in any of Bruch’s three symphonies. Unconventionally in rondo form, it draws its strength from syncopated rhythm and orchestration of immaculate clarity. The Finale is firmly anchored in E major and features textures of thick orchestration and doublings.
When first performed 1882, the Symphony No. 3 was favorably received. A writer for the Boston Daily Advertiser reflected the widespread critical praise when he described the symphony as ”a fine example of what may be accomplished by a composer with a good, but not extraordinary gift of inspiration, with exquisite musical sensibility, refined taste, great learning, and masterly command of his orchestral sources.” One hundred years later, Bruch’s biographer, Christopher Fifield, emphatically agreed when he wrote, “There is much beauty in the music of Max Bruch which can please today’s audiences as it did those of his own era.”
— Jane Rausch