Britten & Brahms

Program Notes by Laney Boyd

Tragische Overtüre (Tragic Overture), Op. 81
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

 In the summer of 1880, Johannes Brahms penned two companion concert overtures (free-standing symphonic movements with no dramatic program) while vacationing in the Austrian spa town Bad Ischl. Brahms worked on pairs of pieces with contrasting emotional content simultaneously several times throughout his career, and the Academic Festival Overture and Tragic Overture of 1880 are as emotionally dissimilar as can be; in Brahms’ own words, “One laughs while the other weeps.” Despite the Tragic Overture’s evocative title, Brahms asserted he did not write it with any particular tragedy in mind. Instead, the work’s name serves only to emphasize its turbulent, tortured tone in sharp contrast to the Academic Festival Overture’s lively and boisterous character.

The Tragic Overture remains tumultuous nearly throughout its 13-minute length, beginning with two striking chords that immediately set the tone. A powerful D minor theme in the strings and winds follows. A contrasting section in F major provides some relief, but it is short-lived. The musical ideas swirl together in the development, now surging and roiling, now ebbing and flowing in an emotional whirlwind. Two fortissimo chords reminiscent of the overture’s opening herald the work’s final section, the main subjects each returning in altered form before the piece careens to a crushing, almost violent conclusion. The Tragic Overture is today a well-loved and oft-performed concert piece as well as one of the Romantic era’s greatest examples of tragic musical expression.


Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) 

In the early 1940s, English composer Benjamin Britten found himself preoccupied with writing vocal works, particularly settings of English poetry. It was also during this time that the composer made the acquaintance of one Dennis Brain, a virtuoso hornist who soon requested from Britten an original work for horn. Britten had already begun work on a vocal composition for his colleague and romantic partner, Peter Pears. Rather than write a separate solo horn concerto, Britten instead chose to merge the two works. The resulting Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, a seamless blending of song cycle and horn concerto in which both voices play equally essential and stirring roles, premiered in 1943 and is today a key work in both the horn and tenor repertoire.

With a performance time of about 25 minutes, the Serenade consists of eight movements: six central settings of poems by British poets and two bookending movements for solo horn. The poems themselves are a somewhat eclectic mix. They come from different historical eras, feature varying forms and styles, and were penned by poets both well-known and anonymous. Their unifying element is their thematic content; all are concerned with the subjects of night and/or sleep, including both their tranquil and ominous characters. The moods shift and change throughout the songs, the music likewise adjusting to match the tone of each through brilliant text-painting and haunting emotional imagery. The Prologue and Epilogue feature the horn alone using only the instrument’s natural harmonics, and the Epilogue is played offstage, as if from a distance. Music critic Alex Ross aptly stated that with the Serenade Britten developed one of the most important techniques of his stylistic language: “the use of simple means to suggest fathomless depths.”


  1. Pastoral

The Evening Quatrains, Charles Cotton (1630-1687)

The day’s grown old; the fainting sun
Has but a little way to run,
And yet his steeds, with all his skill,
Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.
The shadows now so long do grow,
That brambles like tall cedars show;
Mole hills seem mountains, and the ant
Appears a monstrous elephant.
A very little, little flock
Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;
Whilst the small stripling following them
Appears a mighty Polypheme.
And now on benches all are sat,
In the cool air to sit and chat,
Till Phoebus, dipping in the west,
Shall lead the world the way to rest.

  1. Nocturne

Blow, bugle, blow, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory:
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Bugle blow; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

  1. Elegy

The Sick Rose, William Blake (1757-1827)

O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

5. Dirge

Lyke-Wake Dirge, Anonymous (15th century)

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,

Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny‑muir thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny‑muir when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,

And Christe receive thy saule.


  1. Hymn

Hymn to Diana, Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,

Now the sun is laid to sleep,
Seated in thy silver chair,
State in wonted manner keep:
Hesperus entreats thy light,
Goddess excellently bright.

Earth, let not thy envious shade
Dare itself to interpose;
Cynthia’s shining orb was made
Heav’n to clear when day did close:
Bless us then with wishèd sight,
Goddess excellently bright.

Lay thy bow of pearl apart,
And thy crystal shining quiver;
Give unto the flying hart
Space to breathe, how short so-ever:
Thou that mak’st a day of night,

Goddess excellently bright.

  1. Sonnet

To Sleep, John Keats (1795-1821)

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,

Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom‑pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes.
Or wait the “Amen” ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passèd day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,—
Save me from curious conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards,

And seal the hushèd casket of my Soul.


Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) 

“I shall never write a symphony! You can have no idea what it’s like to hear such a giant marching behind you.” Thus spoke Johannes Brahms in 1872, referring, of course, to the master of symphonic form, Ludwig van Beethoven. Virtually every major composer to come after Beethoven felt the pressure of his legacy, though perhaps none felt it so keenly as Brahms. With the benefit of some 150 intervening years we now know Brahms did in fact pen four dazzling symphonies, but we also know it took the composer over 20 years to complete his first one. Once the mental hurdle was jumped, however, the following symphonies seemed to flow from him almost effortlessly: his Second was completed in under a year, while his Third took just four months during the summer of 1883. The Third’s quick completion resulted in a level of uniformity and coherence of thematic material unusual even for Brahms.

Brahms’ Third Symphony premiered in December of 1883 and was generally very well received. Spanning four movements and clocking in at around 33 minutes – the shortest of his four symphonies – the work is exquisitely lyrical and introspective on the whole, but also features several substantial sections bursting with boldness. The opening Allegro begins with three towering chords followed by an F–A-flat–F motive in the cascading opening melody. This three-note figure forms the basis of much of the thematic material throughout the symphony, the middle note often shifting between A-flat and A-natural to create tension between major and minor modes.

The second movement, which Brahms’ friend and fellow composer Clara Schumann called “a pure idyll,” maintains a reserved, quiet character and features several lovely lines for clarinet. A spacious cello theme opens the third movement, which is not the fast-moving scherzo expected for third symphonic movements but instead both intensely lyrical and moderately paced. In contrast, the finale is both weighty and passionate, but always tempered with an overarching sense of lyricism. Themes from prior movements return and rich melodies abound before the symphony draws to a quiet close.