Superstar Strings

Program Notes by Laney Boyd


Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

It may come as a surprise that the theme of Johannes Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn (1873) was almost certainly not written by Joseph Haydn at all. Brahms discovered the melody in 1870 within a wind ensemble piece from the early 1800s entitled Feldparthie. While the work was attributed to Haydn when Brahms happened upon it, copyright laws during the early nineteenth century were nonexistent and it was therefore common for music publishers to attach names of famous composers to works by unknown or even lesser-known composers to sell more copies. Specialists have since established that Feldparthie does not fit Haydn’s compositional style and no other firm attribution has been made. In any case, the work’s original name remains, though it is now also sometimes called the Saint Anthony Variations as the theme appeared in Feldparthie beneath the heading “Chorale St. Antoni.”

Brahms composed his Variations in the summer of 1873 and conducted the work’s premiere in November of the same year. It is about 17 minutes in length and consists of the “Chorale St. Antoni” theme, eight variations, and a finale. The theme is notable for its unusual construction: it is made up of five-measure phrases rather than the expected four-bar passages most common in classical music. This atypical structure is maintained throughout the variations, but they otherwise explore a wide range of styles, tempos, timbres, and compositional strategies.

The theme itself is dignified, march-like, and overtly classical in character. It is only once the variations begin that Brahms’ distinctive Romanticism shines through, conveying a diverse array of emotions through the ever-shifting musical lenses of melody, harmony, and rhythm. The finale takes the form of a rousing passacaglia before the work draws to a close with one more statement of the original theme, this time in full orchestral force.

Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F minor, Op. 11
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

 In the summer of 1874 Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, relatively unknown in the musical world 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. Sitting on the judging panel was none other than renowned German composer and music critic Johannes Brahms. Brahms and the other judges were highly impressed with Dvořák’s talent, and awarded the young composer first place. Dvořák 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 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, Fritz Simrock. This partnership proved quite profitable, and following the great success of the composer’s first publications under Simrock’s name, Dvořák presented the single-movement work Romance in F minor for violin and orchestra. He based the piece on material drawn from the slow movement of a string quartet he had penned in 1873, but had subsequently abandoned. While the quartet remained unpublished and unperformed during the composer’s lifetime, it is clear from the beauty of the Romance that Dvořák’s talent truly shines in his slow movements.

With a performance time of about 12 minutes, the Romance begins with an expansive orchestral introduction that builds to the violin’s lovely main theme. The orchestral accompaniment is warm and at times almost bell-like, providing a luminous scaffolding for the violin’s sumptuous melodies. More animated passages highlight the soloist’s virtuosity, but long, seamless lines always return with poignant lyricism. The work as a whole, though somewhat small in scale, is a testament to Dvořák’s sublime melodic craftsmanship. Simrock published the work in 1879 and it remains a well-loved concert piece.

 Silent Woods

 Dvořák did not compose Silent Woods as a standalone piece, but rather as a single movement within a larger work entitled From the Bohemian Forest, Op. 68 (1883). This suite of four-hand piano pieces proved popular and was therefore arranged for different instrumental combinations in subsequent years. Dvořák first reworked the piece for cello and piano in late 1891 for a concert tour on which his friend and colleague, cellist Hanus Wihan, would feature as a soloist. This arrangement was so successful that he again recast the suite in 1893, this time for cello and orchestra. The orchestral arrangement, the best known and most often played of the three, is the version you will hear tonight.

The work’s fifth movement, Silent Woods lasts just about five minutes and takes the form of a lyrical character piece, much like the others of Op. 68. It bore the original Czech title Klid, meaning “rest” or “quiet,” but Dvořák’s German publisher Fritz Simrock changed this title to Waldesruhe, which translates to “Silent Woods.” The piece’s inherent challenge lies in how to convey the titular silence using sound, how to evoke stillness within musical motion. Dvořák accomplished this feat with long and lavish melodic lines, giving the work’s opening section the impression of a singular, drawn-out, almost breathless phrase. A slightly more active intermezzo follows before the return of the main theme draws the short work to a quiet close.

Slavonic Dances, Op. 72, Nos. 5 and 7

 Following the success of Dvořák’s first publication under Fritz Simrock’s name, the publisher requested something with a dance flavor. Dvořák returned with his first set of eight Slavonic Dances, Op. 46. Originally written for piano four hands, the dances were an immediate success upon their publication in 1878 and Simrock asked for an orchestral version, which was equally well received. When the publisher asked for another set of dances, however, the composer declined. “You will forgive me, but I simply have not the slightest inclination now to think of such light music,” was Dvořák’s response. “As long as I am not in the right mood for it, I cannot do anything. It is something that cannot be forced.”

Dvořák at last regained the right mood eight years later. He penned the eight pieces of Slavonic Dances, Op. 72 for piano four hands in a single month in the summer of 1886 and once more orchestrated the set at Simrock’s behest. This second set differs from the first: while Op. 46 consists of almost exclusively lively and joyous Czech dances, Op. 72 bears a somewhat subtler compositional hand as well as a greater range of moods and nationalistic influences. It is important to note that in both sets Dvořák did not quote any actual folk melodies but rather infused his own original melodies with characteristic rhythms and styles of Slavic folk music.

On tonight’s program, you will hear two numbers drawn from Dvořák’s later set of dances. No. 5 in B-flat minor takes the form of a Špacírka, a Czech dance that is quite stately in character yet features a heady rhythm that drives the work ever forward. No. 7 in C Major is a Kolo, a duple meter circle dance from regions including Croatia, Serbia, and Bulgaria. The Kolo is energetic to the extreme, alternating between controlled frenzy and a somewhat quieter exuberance before concluding with a rousing flourish.

Concerto for Violin and Violoncello in A minor, Op. 102
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Johannes Brahms was not the first composer to write a double concerto (a concerto for two solo instruments as opposed to one), but it is his Concerto for Violin and Violoncello that is today referred to as “the Double Concerto.” The piece was Brahms’ last work for orchestra; in his final decade, he turned his attention exclusively to smaller forms such as songs and solo piano pieces. The work is also notable for its dual role as both composition and extended olive branch. With this work, Brahms hoped to repair a long-ruptured friendship.

Brahms penned the concerto with two specific performers in mind: Robert Hausmann, a cellist with whom Brahms regularly collaborated, and Joseph Joachim, the preeminent virtuoso violinist of the time. Joachim was one of Brahms’ closest friends and colleagues for some 30 years, but the two became estranged following Joachim’s attempt to divorce his wife Amalie. Brahms took Amalie’s side in the dispute, and when his letter of support ultimately helped the judge to rule in Amalie’s favor, Joachim stopped speaking to Brahms altogether. Six years passed in this icy manner. Then in the summer of 1887, Brahms proposed the double concerto and sent the first copy to Joachim with the inscription, “to him for whom it was written.” The gesture was successful and the two friends reconciled.

Despite the happy ending for Brahms and Joachim, the concerto was not initially well-received either by critics or the public at large. Many asserted the work was unapproachable and lacked both joy and brilliance. While the concerto enjoys immense popularity today, it did not come in the composer’s lifetime, and it is still somewhat impeded by its need for two virtuosic players who can simultaneously work together and stand apart. Composer Walter Niemann once said that the work requires “two players of consummate technique and sure mastery, so thoroughly accustomed to playing together as can hardly happen, except with members of the same family.”

The Double Concerto lasts about 32 minutes and its three movements follow the typical fast-slow-fast pattern of Classical concertos. The opening Allegro begins with a dramatic orchestral flourish followed by cadenzas for the soloists. Two contrasting themes permeate the movement: one stark and bold, the other gently lyrical. The second slow movement is balladic and somewhat mysterious in tone, with the theme delivered in unison by the two soloists. A particularly lovely passage for woodwinds adds depth and color to the movement. The finale is a lively and humorous rondo that carries a hint of Hungarian flavor, its more exuberant sections set off by swelling passages of tender warmth. The Double Concerto stands as an exemplary farewell to orchestral music by one of the medium’s most beloved contributors.