Category Archives: Brahms

Classical Grandeur

Program Notes by Loann Scarpato

“Grandeur: splendor and magnificence, especially of appearance or style.”

The compositions on this program are magnificent-sounding works by three of the very greatest composers in the Western classical canon. Their stories show that they are grand in other ways as well, some of which may not be immediately apparent. We’ll begin with an overture, a good way to embark on a musical journey!

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Overture to Goethe’s “Egmont,” Opus 84

Beethoven

Beethoven

On June 15, 1810, an audience at the splendid Burgtheater in Vienna heard the words of Europe’s greatest living playwright (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) along with musical interludes by Europe’s greatest living composer (Beethoven). What a grand conjunction of cultural giants!

The theater commissioned the score, and so intense was Beethoven’s reverence for the great old man of German letters that he reportedly took no payment for the work. This was an astonishing concession for someone who was as punctilious about money as Beethoven.He later made a gift of the manuscript to Goethe, a grand gesture of respect.

Burgtheatre

19th-century image of the Burgtheater, Vienna

The complete incidental music for Egmont consists of the overture plus nine other numbers, including two songs for solo soprano. The complete music is only occasionally performed nowadays, but the overture is a concert staple. While it is completely effective when heard as a piece of “absolute music” (music that represents nothing outside itself), commentators agree that it has a “program” that foreshadows the events of the drama to come. Some go so far as to call it a “tone poem” that tells the story in music.

Johann Goethe in 1811

Johann Goethe in 1811

The plot of Goethe’s drama: Goethe based his play on the history of a 16th-century Flemish revolt against Spanish rule. Lamoral, Count of Egmont, was a Flemish national hero who led the resistance against Spain and was beheaded in the Brussels marketplace in 1568. His antagonist in Goethe’s play is the Duke of Alva, also based on an historical figure. Although the real Count Egmont had a wife and at least eight children, Goethe supplied his hero with a fictional love interest named Clara.

The play has been described as an example of the early Romantic “Sturm und Drang” (literally, “storm and drive”) movement in German literature because of its emphasis on the idealistic, unflinching character of its martyred hero and on extremes of emotion. (Clara, for example, poisons herself in despair when she fails to free her beloved from prison.) At the end, although Egmont himself is dead, his spirit lives on in triumph as his countrymen overthrow the Spaniards.

Lamoral, Count of Egmon

Lamoral, Count of Egmont

Aside from Goethe’s authorship, the theme of the play was compelling to Beethoven for other reasons. For one, his own ancestors were Flemish. And, although the drama had been written a number of years earlier, its plot contained strong reminders of the political and military situation in Beethoven’s Vienna, which had been occupied by the French since May of 1809. Many of the city’s elite, including the court, had fled, but Beethoven chose to remain behind. He must have seen obvious parallels between Goethe’s villainous Duke of Alva and the invading Emperor Napoleon.

Beethoven’s opera Leonore (AKA Fidelio) contained similar themes: a woman desperately trying to free her imprisoned lover, and the victory of freedom over tyranny.

Napoleon occupying Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, May 1809

Napoleon occupying Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, May 1809

The “program” of Beethoven’s overture: Ever since its first performance, critics have identified narrative passages in the overture, but they haven’t always agreed on what they represented. The most detailed program I have found is by Jeff Counts, annotator for the Utah Symphony:

“You hear, in the deep strings, the Spanish judges prosecuting [Egmont]. You hear, in the plaintive wind, his [mistress] pleading for mercy for him. You hear, in the fortissimo staccato notes of the brass, the verdict of guilty being given. A final piano pleading in the first violins. The whole orchestra in unison on a single note is the sentence of death. A forte fall of a fourth in first and second violins is the executioner’s sword coming down. [A long pause occurs at this point. “Death could be expressed by a silence,” Beethoven noted in his sketches for the work.]  Triple piano, building to a massive fortissimo, an exhilarating passage in the major key…tells us that Count Egmont’s spirit, and all he fought for, lives on; that the people of the Netherlands ultimately threw out the rapacious invader…. Darkness has given way to light, freedom has triumphed over oppression.”  These last were the grand conceptions pervading all of Beethoven’s most significant works.

The Egmont Overture has been used as theme music on many occasions of high seriousness, notably at a memorial service for the eleven Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Variations on a Theme of Haydn for Orchestra, Opus 56a

Brahms in 1888

Brahms in 1888

Once, when encountering Brahms after he had grown a beard, a critic quipped that his original face was as hard to recognize as was the theme in many of his variations. Hearing a theme as it is transformed in numerous ways through a series of variations always requires some concentration of musical memory, but in these the challenge is that the eight variations are based more on the general shape of the theme and on the harmony than on the specific notes of the original melody.

Brahms treats the theme-and-variations form as a vehicle for display of compositional technique. In fact, the grandeur of this work lies in the way Brahms spins a catchy but by no means profound melody into something monumental. One scholar called it “a compendium in microcosm…of Brahms’s compositional craft and musical aesthetics…, as well as a phenomenal artistic amalgam of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic formal and stylistic components.” That’s a lot of musicological and historical baggage to pack into seventeen minutes, but Brahms managed it splendidly.

The Haydn variations marked a transition point for Brahms as he ended a phase of intense output of choral and vocal works and moved on to the composition of his four symphonies.The Haydn Variations, which were first performed in Vienna in 1873, were both a critical and a popular success, and even the perfectionistic Brahms himself was satisfied with them. They encouraged him finally to complete and perform his first symphony, more than twenty years after he had begun working on it.

The origins of the theme are a bit obscure. Supposedly a friend, who was working on a biography of Haydn in 1870, showed Brahms a divertimento for wind instruments, the so-called “St. Anthony Chorale,” that was attributed to Haydn.

An arrangement of the St. Anthony Chorale for brass quintet:

Scholars now dispute Haydn’s authorship, but the actual composer has never been established. The melody may be a folk tune used in popular celebrations honoring St. Anthony of Padua. In his first statement of the theme, Brahms honored the original orchestration by using a choir of wind instruments over a bass for low strings.

Haydn was one of the composers Brahms most revered. An early biographer has suggested that the “St. Anthony” title in itself also would have appealed to Brahms. His close friend Anselm Feuerbach had made a painting called The Temptation of St. Anthony in 1855, a canvas that Brahms particularly admired.

Anselm Feuerbach’s painting “The Temptation of St. Anthony”

Anselm Feuerbach’s painting “The Temptation of St. Anthony”

Various legends of the saint have been mined to produce elaborate allegorical and metaphysical “meanings” for Brahms’s work. One of the most florid of these schemes describes the diversity of the variations in images like the following: “Like a religious procession with fluttering banners…dazzling shafts of light…the depths of a ghastly abyss…a host of airy skirmishers…the advance post of the devil…fog brewing over chasmal depths…a pale, piercing light on the whitish-gray fermenting substance…dainty flower garlands…a swarm of roguish, insect-like sprites…fiery serpents…a Leda who awaits her swan…the quintessence of the bliss of all living creatures…the hostile tumult of the assaulting sons of hell.” It’s unlikely that any such grandly picturesque conceits ever crossed the composer’s mind, since Brahms was no lover of program music.

What did occupy his mind to magnificent effect were the technical means of producing a musical tour de force, a display of voluntarily chosen and triumphantly conquered difficulty. For instance, variation four (a skittery-sounding section in a minor key) contains an example of “double counterpoint at the ninth,” a feat of musical gymnastics which is supposed to be technically impossible. (For an understanding of this, you will need to consult an intelligence finer than mine. I refer you to Donald N. Ferguson’s Masterworks of the Orchestral Repertoire: A Guide for Listeners and wish you luck.) Another example appears near the end of the piece: Variation eight (if you’ve lost count, it begins in a minor key, in triple meter, with the strings muted) has an incredible finale. You’ll know it has arrived when the strings remove their mutes and the music returns to a major key and a march rhythm. The finale is built upon a five-measure basso ostinato (literally, “obstinate bass”) repeated over and over by the low strings (like the recurring bass figure in Pachelbel’s Canon in D). Above this, Brahms spins yet another set of sixteen five-measure continuously unfolding variations before concluding with a brilliant coda. To make a very flippant analogy, this is somewhat like sixteen clowns jumping one after the other out of a very small car as it careens around a circus ring. Fortunately, in neither case is it necessary to know how it’s done in order to enjoy it!

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): Excerpts from Messiah, with orchestration by Mozart

Everyone knows about the grandeur of Messiah:

  • Its theme is the most momentous imaginable: the redemption of humankind.
  • Its texts are taken from some of the most revered Old and New Testament scriptures.
  • It’s the most frequently heard choral masterwork in the repertoire.
  • It has brought even royalty to their feet for the “Hallelujah” chorus.
  • It has inspired performances by gargantuan forces.

See more about these superlatives, as well as some workaday and even comic facets of its history, in “FAQs about Handel’s Messiah.

Music Around The World

February 10, 2017, 7:30PM Concert | Program Notes by Loann Scarpato

  • Britain: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) Two Hymn-Tune Preludes (1936)
  • France: André Caplet (1878-1925) Suite Persane (Persian Suite) (1900)
  • Germany: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs) (1887/88)

Imagine traveling in a great arc from Yorkshire to London, across the Channel to Le Havre and Paris, then taking a northeasterly jog to Hamburg, rejoining the trajectory of the arc in Vienna and going on through Hungary and Romania, crossing the Black Sea to Iran, and finally passing through Pakistan to the Punjab. It would take this journey of over 6,000 miles to visit all the birthplaces of this evening’s music.

At the western end of the arc are the native countries of tonight’s three composers. But André Caplet was a Frenchman who wrote Persian-sounding music, and Brahms was a German who lived in Austria and wrote Hungarian-inflected music with the label “Gypsy” tacked onto it. Only Vaughan Williams stuck to musical sources solely from his homeland.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams

The melodies upon which he based the Two Hymn-Tune Preludes were “Eventide,” composed in 1861 by William Henry Monk, a Londoner, and “Dominus Regit Me,” written in 1868 by John Bacchus Dykes, who was born in Yorkshire. Protestants know these hymns as “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide” and as one of the settings for “The King of love my Shepherd is.” “Abide with me” is frequently sung at vespers services and at funerals. Both tunes appeared originally in Hymns Ancient and Modern, which, with numerous revisions and supplements, was the standard hymnal of the Church of England for 150 years.  

Listen to this arrangement of “Abide With Me” sung by the King’s College Choir:

Here is a video of “The King of Love” sung by the choir and congregation in Westminster Abbey at Princess Diana’s funeral:

For an agnostic, Vaughan Williams was very involved with religious music. He composed many pieces for liturgical use, and some of his finest concert works for chorus use sacred texts. He began his career in 1895 as organist and choir director at St. Barnabas church in London, a job which he disliked but from which he later admitted he had learned a great deal, especially about what constitutes successful music for voices. He resigned four years later when a new vicar insisted that he take Communion, which, as a nonbeliever, he could not in good conscience do. In 1904, when he was not yet a household name but was known in musical circles for his field work in collecting English folk songs, he was recruited to be the musical editor in charge of revising the Anglican hymnal. Vaughan Williams didn’t particularly want that job, either, but he accepted it because he saw it as a way of helping to return one important strand of English music to its native roots. Like the other editors of the new hymnal, he felt very strongly that “the miasma of the languishing and sentimental” accretions of Victorian hymnody needed to be dispelled from Anglican worship music. He and his contemporaries in the English Musical Renaissance aimed to create a purely English musical idiom to rival those of the Continent, particularly of Germany. The Royal College of Music, where Vaughan Williams had trained, was the center of this movement.

english-hymnal

English Hymnal of 1906

In a nation with an Established Church, a new hymnal is a Very Big Deal, carrying with it an aura of ecclesiastical and royal authority. In an era before broadcast music, the average citizen was likely to encounter and participate in serious music only in church. Vaughan Williams felt very keenly the responsibility of artists to work for the benefit of the larger society, so he labored on and off for thirty years on the English Hymnal and its successors and offshoots that were intended for use in schools and colleges. His reasons were aesthetic and cultural, not religious: as one music historian put it, “Vaughan Williams had more of a mind to put Anglicans in touch with the English Musical Renaissance than with the Almighty.”

His agnosticism notwithstanding, Vaughan Williams’ lifelong admiration and love for the liturgy and musical traditions of the Church of England were vital in his compositional thinking, and the music of the hymn-book runs like an ever-present stream through his creative life. The Two Hymn-tune Preludes are only two of several dozen smaller works partly or entirely based on English hymns and carols, and many phrases from hymn melodies found their way into his major works as well. In movement one, “Eventide,” listen for the hymn melody in the oboe, joined by the high strings. In movement two, “Dominus Regit Me,” you will hear the melody first in the high strings and then the flute. The limited instrumentation (single winds, horn, and strings) is entirely in keeping with the peaceful feeling of these preludes.


It’s only a short trip eastward across the English Channel from London to Le Havre, André Caplet’s early home. He is said to have been born on a boat sailing across the estuary of the Seine. (One hopes it was calm weather.) He was the seventh child in a family of very modest means. To help make ends meet, by age twelve he was working as a rehearsal pianist at the Folies-Bergère in his hometown. He began studies at the Paris Conservatoire when he was eighteen and began conducting professionally while he was still a student. He won the coveted Prix de Rome scholarship in 1901, besting Maurice Ravel in this competition for young composers. That same year, his Suite Persane (Persian Suite) was performed, in a concert dedicated solely to his music. After he returned to Paris at the end of his Prix de Rome studies, Caplet met Debussy, and the two became close friends.

Caplet and Debussy

Caplet (on left) with Debussy

Caplet assisted Debussy as a transcriber, orchestrator, and proofreader. He was so assiduous in this last role that Debussy declared him “le tombeau des fautes” – “the graveyard for errors.” It is for his collaboration with Debussy that Caplet is most remembered: his orchestration of Debussy’s piano piece Clair de Lune is the most widely performed example of Caplet’s work. Caplet is not known to have traveled any farther east than Germany, but, like many of his contemporaries and Debussy in particular, he was much influenced by sights and sounds brought to Paris by the International Expositions of 1889 and 1900. The Middle Eastern and Asian pavilions had kindled a rage for all things “Oriental,” and Caplet followed the fashion by using Persian-inflected scales for his suite. It is an example of Caplet’s Romantic early style. In his words, the first movement, entitled “Scharki,” “is an erotic nocturne, whilst in the second, as in a misty distance, darting ghosts approach and take on human form to laugh in the sweet joys of love…they bloom in postures of grace and pleasure…becoming human, they seem to diffuse the odours of flowers and sunbeams. In the third movement dancing fakirs fall in weariness, ecstasize, and then leap all the more furiously.”  

Caplet’s suite was chosen for performance at America’s first chamber musical festival in 1918. The journal Musical America reported that the first movement was “a weird native air, in unison, and developed in a scintillating style. ‘Scharki’ is a Persian word meaning ‘anything done in an Eastern style,’ a song or ballad in this instance. The second section is entitled ‘Nikawind’ [a name that is transliterated in a bewildering variety of ways], after the name of a place in Persia.”  This is Nahavand on today’s maps, a small city in northwestern Iran. There is a family of scales named Nahawand that are used in Arabic music. One of them uses the following intervals: 1-2-flatted 3d-4-flatted 5th- 6-flatted 7th. (Beginning on C, this would be C D E-flat F G-flat A B-flat C.) Caplet used this scale in his Suite. The exact translation of the third-movement title, “Iskia Samaisi,” has eluded me, but “Sama” is a Sufi religious ceremony, part of which is the ritualized spinning of whirling dervishes (Caplet’s “dancing fakirs”).

Here is a video of this ceremony:

The Suite Persane is scored for double wind quintet, an instrumental group that many of us have never before seen or heard. There are two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and French horns. To the question of why the French horn, a brass instrument, is included in a woodwind quintet, one wag has answered, “Because it got lucky.” A more serious answer is that its warm, mellow sound blends very well with the timbres of the woodwinds. There is a fairly substantial literature for double wind quintet: 360 compositions are listed in one recent bibliography. However, a very large number of them are arrangements or transcriptions rather than works, like Caplet’s, composed specifically for this ensemble of instruments.


The sources of Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder are the most widely dispersed of all the pieces on tonight’s program, ranging from Germany through Eastern Europe and the Balkans and still farther eastward, possibly all the way to India. In 1853, when Brahms was 20, he went on tour as accompanist to the flamboyant Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi.

450px-e_remenyi_and_j_brahms

Brahms (standing) and Reményi

They performed in villages and byways, with Brahms improvising piano accompaniments as Reményi dazzled audiences with his fiery playing of traditional Magyar melodies. They picked up songs from peasants they met along the way and added these to their repertoire. This three-month tour was one of the formative experiences of Brahms’s early years. For the rest of his life he would return repeatedly to music “alla zingarese” (“in Gypsy style”). It can be heard in his Hungarian Dances and in certain movements of his chamber and orchestral works.

The Hungarian Dances (which were originally piano duets) and his earlier song cycles for vocal quartet and piano, the Liebeslieder Waltzes, had been extremely successful. This was an era when home entertainment centered about the piano, with family members and friends singing and playing for each other. Brahms must have had an inkling in 1887 when he began composing the Zigeunerlieder that the combination of “Gypsy” style and piano/vocal format would be another commercial success. He made sure of it by insisting on publication before Christmas to capture the gift-buying market, and this opus netted him a small fortune.

The source material was an anthology of 25 Hungarian folksongs with piano accompaniments by Zoltán Nagy. Brahms used very little of the melodic material; when he did, he modified the tunes such that none of them uses a traditional Gypsy scale. The rhyming German translations were made by Brahms’s friend Hugo Conrat, based on literal versions provided by the Conrats’ Hungarian-born governess, Fräulein Witzl. The first performance was at one of Conrat’s household musical soirées, with the Fräulein as honored guest. The song cycle begins with an invocation: “Ho, Gypsy, strike your strings and sing of my faithless maiden!” The songs that follow are about flirtation and desire, rejection and parting – love in all its moods.

Granted that the words came from traditional sources, what makes these “Gypsy” songs, if Brahms used little of their original music?

  • The 2/4 meter and the dotted rhythms typical of the csárdás, a Hungarian folk dance.
  • The lack of upbeats: all vocal phrases begin on the downbeat, because in Hungarian there are no unaccented first syllables.
  • In the tremolando and arpeggiated passages of the accompaniment, imitation of the cimbalom, a large hammered dulcimer common in Hungarian bands.
  • Widely-spaced melodies, often moving downward.

In this old film of csárdás dancers, see if you can spot the cimbalom player, in white shirt and dark tie, behind the violinists in the band. And catch the flamenco-style heels on the men’s dancing shoes:

Here’s a close-up view of an atmospheric performance by a cimbalom soloist, backed by bass and violin:

What is or is not authentic “Gypsy” music (i.e., music of the formerly nomadic Romani people) and what is traditional Magyar (i.e., ethnic Hungarian) music, and whether or how the two are related is a matter of ongoing debate. In Brahms’s day, apparently no distinction was made: the music of Hungarian peasants was “Gypsy” music regardless of who was making it. “Gypsy,” incidentally, is a somewhat derogatory nickname attached to the dark-skinned Roma, who at one time were thought to have come from Egypt. Recent DNA research shows that the Roma actually migrated out of the Punjab regions of Afghanistan and northwestern India about 1500 years ago, eventually reaching Europe, where today they are the largest minority group. Traditionally, many Roma made a living as itinerant musicians, influencing and being influenced by the indigenous music of their surroundings. For instance, Spanish flamenco music is of Romani origin. “Original” Romani music, uninflected by the musics of the countries the Roma have passed through, is quite rare.

Here is the Romani anthem, which uses a traditional melody:

It is clear that Brahms intended the Zigeunerlieder for a solo quartet. The sonority of today’s concert pianos makes it practicable for small choruses to perform the songs, remain in balance with the accompaniment, and yet retain the intimate feel of “Hausmusik.”