Dvořák & Brahms

Program Notes by Laney Boyd

Violin Concerto in A minor, Opus 53
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

In the summer of 1874 Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, newly married and in need of money, entered fifteen compositions in the Austrian State Music Prize, an award designed to assist struggling young artists in their creative pursuits. Unbeknownst to Dvořák, sitting on the judge panel was none other than composer and music critic Johannes Brahms. Brahms and the other judges were highly impressed with the young composer’s talent and awarded Dvořák first place. He proceeded to enter the competition the next three years in a row, winning again in 1876 and 1877. It was after this third win that Brahms reached out to Dvořák to offer his support.

Brahms went on to champion Dvořák’s music and did much to promote the young composer’s success, including recommending Dvořák to his own publisher and introducing him to big musical names of the day. One such introduction was to Joseph Joachim, the leading European violinist of the nineteenth century. Joachim too became a strong supporter and frequent performer of Dvořák’s work.

In early 1879 Dvořák began work on his Violin Concerto in A minor with the intention of dedicating it to and having it premiered by Joachim. Unfortunately, this was not to be: after sending the violinist the completed score, Dvořák received back page upon page of extensive revisions. Even after Dvořák made the requested changes, Joachim suggested still more edits. While it is clear Joachim admired the work, he was a strong lover of classicism; Dvořák, on the other hand, tended to deviate from traditional form. The concerto eventually premiered in Prague in 1883 not with Joachim, but Czech violinist František Ondříček at the helm. Despite several attempts in subsequent years to have Joachim perform the work, he never played it publicly.

The concerto is striking from its first moments: a strong, sudden orchestral introduction starts things off with a bang. The violin enters with a dramatic main theme followed by a contrasting lyrical second theme that highlights the movement’s rich musicality. A brief yet lovely cadenza leads directly into the second movement Adagio (this atypical lack of pause between the first two movements was one of the features to which Joachim objected). A supreme sense of openness colors this middle movement, its long and lyrical lines ultimately leading to a poignant passage for violin and a pair of horns. The finale is a vibrant rondo with melodies inspired by Czech folk dances; this seamless synthesis of folk music with classical forms is a characteristic mark of Dvořák’s style. The distinctive syncopated rhythms and melodic repetition build to a final dazzling display of the violinist’s technical prowess and intensity.

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Of all the giants of the classical genre, perhaps none cast quite as large a shadow as the inimitable Ludwig van Beethoven. Virtually every major composer after Beethoven felt the pressure of living up to his genius, and Johannes Brahms was no exception. Indeed, Brahms may have experienced the pressure to an even greater degree due to how he burst onto the musical scene. He was just 20 years old when the esteemed composer and music critic Robert Schumann, unable to contain his excitement at the young composer’s talent, introduced Brahms in a musical journal by describing him as “the one chosen to express the most exalted spirit of the times in an ideal manner…a youth at whose cradle the graces and heroes of old stood guard.”

These high expectations coupled with his own self-critical nature all but paralyzed Brahms in his attempt to produce a symphony of comparable length, scope, and intensity to Beethoven’s; while the musical world waited with baited breath, Brahms labored over his First Symphony for two full decades. The final version of the C minor Symphony premiered in November 1876 when Brahms was 42 years old. The lengthy composition time proved worthwhile as the work was an instant success and was considered by many the greatest symphony since Beethoven’s Ninth, which had premiered 52 years earlier. In fact, the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow dubbed the work “Beethoven’s Tenth.” However, while the symphony contains some overt references to Beethoven’s style, it is overall distinctly Brahmsian and appears to have allowed the composer to at last escape Beethoven’s shadow: he completed his second symphony in less than a year.

Spanning the traditional four movements, Symphony No. 1 in C minor lasts about 50 minutes. Despite the composer’s own description of the work as “long and not exactly lovable,” it remains a popular concert piece with modern orchestras. The work begins with a formal introduction that features pulsing timpani and establishes the symphony’s intense and turbulent mood before ending with a single plucked cello note. The Allegro proper is ominous and foreboding, alternating between violent fury and heartrending yearning. This atmospheric opening gives way to a contrasting warmly contemplative Andante. A singing oboe melody carries the movement forward, and the woodwinds and strings dialogue in a wistful exchange that leads to a lovely duet for solo violin and horn.

The brief Allegretto is somewhat more relaxed than traditional scherzos, its three sections moving from dance-like to agitated to broad and sweeping. The finale returns to the portentous mood of the symphony’s opening, the frantic beginning transforming into a triumphant horn call over tremulous strings. The heart of the movement is a melody that bears a distinct resemblance to “Ode to Joy” as a grand homage to Beethoven. The pace and intensity increase, ultimately barreling toward an ecstatic coda that brings the work to a thrilling close.