|BRAHMS SYMPHONY NO. 1|
Pelléas et Melisande, Suite, Op. 80
The bulk of Gabriel Fauré’s music – whether piano, chamber, vocal or orchestral – conveys the impression of a personal and private statement, an intimate conversation between the composer and his muse. All his life Fauré’s ideal was, as he put it, to create musique de chambre; the larger forms – opera, symphonies or concertos – were not for him. His music is admirably suited for performance in private homes or small halls. The elegance and “ease” of much of his music belies the painstaking effort that went into the composition. Although Fauré was not one to wear his heart on his sleeve, he often experimented and surprised audiences with unexpected phrasing and harmonies, and elegant twists of musical development.
It took Fauré a long time to achieve recognition as a major composer. He was a gentle, modest man, who rarely had a harsh word for anybody. Despite his early success as composer of songs and chamber works, he was only appreciated by a small circle of friends and he was 60 when he finally became Director of the Paris Conservatoire in 1905, a post he held until 1920.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, the Belgian Symbolist poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) touched a sympathetic chord with composers of the belle époque, with his fantastic stories and plays of mystery and spiritual transcendence. The most successful of Maeterlinck’s plays was Pelléas et Mélisande, written in 1892. It has a mystical fairy tale quality, taking place in the nebulous medieval past described as a "dissonant dream world." The motives and motivations of the characters in the play are unimportant in themselves, as they are all helpless against fate.
Golaud, grandson of King Arkėl, has discovered Mélisande, a mysterious young woman with luxuriant golden hair, lost in a forest. He marries her, but her life in the castle is unhappy. Gradually Mélisande develops a friendship with Golaud's younger half- brother, Pelléas, but Golaud becomes suspicious of them and believes that Mélisande is unfaithful. The more he presses Mélisande for information, the more she withdraws from him, turning always to Pelléas for emotional support. In the climactic scene, Pelléas and Mélisande meet at night outside of the castle gates. Pelléas announces his departure, declaring that his love for Mélisande has made his life at the castle unbearable; hesitantly, Mélisande says that she loves Pelléas as well, and the two share a passionate embrace. At that moment, Golaud, dashes out and kills Pelléas. Mélisande flees but is found and brought back to the castle where she dies mysteriously a few days later, heartbroken over the loss of Pelléas but finally at peace with herself.
The story has everything to whet a composer’s appetite: jealousy, fratricide, belated remorse, wife abuse, child abuse (Golaud forces his little son to spy on the lovers.) Claude Debussy converted the play into an opera, Arnold Schönberg wrote a massive symphonic poem, and Jan Sibelius and Gabriel Fauré wrote incidental music to the play.
Fauré composed Pelléas in 1898 for a production in London, commissioned by famed actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell (the original Eliza Doolittle in G.B. Shaw’s Pygmalion). It was a hasty job, and Fauré had his student, the composer Charles Koechlin, finish some of the orchestration. Soon thereafter he extracted four movements from the original nine to create an orchestral suite:
Prélude sets the mood for the play and Mélisande’s fate. The French horn symbolizes Golaud. Those familiar with Claude Debussy's opera of the same name will note the ephemeral atmosphere of both works, inspired by the dream-like quality of the play, despite its moments of violence.
Fileuse (The Spinner) introduces Act III, which opens with Mélisande spinning, a beautiful oboe solo.
Sicilienne introduces Act II, in which Mélisande inadvertently loses the ring Golaud had given her down a well. Fauré originally composed this music in 1893 for Molière’s comedy Le bourgeois gentilhomme and later transcribed it in 1898 for cello and piano. Here it is a flute solo, the best known of the movements and often played as a separate piece.
La mort de Mélisande (The Death of Mélisande) introduces Act V.
|Ralph Vaughan Williams|
Concerto in F minor for Bass Tuba
In his long productive life – his last symphony was premiered just four months before his death at age 85 – Ralph Vaughan Williams practiced what he preached. He wrote music for every kind of combination and level of musical sophistication. He believed that participating actively in music was a birthright. The plethora of civic choral societies, brass bands and the like – of all qualities – throughout Great Britain bears witness to the importance of music as an integral part of British life. Vaughan Williams and his close colleague Gustav Holst nearly always integrated British folk music into their classical compositions.
Vaughan Williams was particularly fond of the brass family. When the London Symphony Orchestra approached him in 1954 to write a work for the celebrations of the orchestra’s jubilee, the composer decided to compose the first ever tuba concerto for the orchestra’s tuba player, Philip Catelinet, who had started his career as bandmaster in the Salvation Army. In fact, the Tuba Concerto was the first known piece featuring the solo tuba.
The tuba, along with the double bass, provides the orchestra with its harmonic underpinnings, but it seldom receives an opportunity for even short orchestral solos. It’s like the Cinderella of the orchestra, forced to hide her beauty and charm but without whom the house would have been a holy mess.
There is a full family of tubas, from contrabass to tenor. Then there are sub-families in various keys, which allows the player to optimize fingering is keys with multiple sharps or flats. The bass tuba is generally the instrument preferred for solo performance. Its three-and-a-half octave range extends from F-sharp three octaves below middle C to B-natural above middle C – all dependent on only three valves and extremely flexible lips and breath control.
Vaughan Williams’ Tuba Concerto permits the instrument to put on show all of the techniques for virtuosic playing: a range from the lowest to the highest pitch; elegant legato playing; rapid staccatos, usually requiring a combination of hyperventilating plus fast tonguing; and lip trills. Surprisingly, this huge instrument doesn’t pack much of a punch in volume, and Vaughan Williams kept the dynamics and size of the orchestra modest. Along with the strings, the winds include two flutes/piccolo, one oboe, two clarinets, one bassoon, two trumpets, two horns, two trombones and timpani.
Structurally, the Concerto is in conservative classical format: two Allegro movements surrounding a slow Romanza. The first movement contains two themes, the first based on a mode, or scale, that Holst used for Uranus in The Planets. The second is a characteristic British folk melody, which may or may not be original. Like Bartók and Kodaly, Vaughan Williams wrote his own ethnic sounding melodies grounded in folk tradition. All three composers scoured remote areas in search of indigenous music. The climax of the movement is the cadenza, which explores the entire range of the bass tuba.
The Romanza likewise sounds like a somewhat melancholy folk melody. The orchestra begins the movement and then repeats its melody as accompaniment to a descant by the soloist.
The lip trills that open the finale are particularly impressive, since the tuba player must use the tiny muscles in the lips just to create the sound. The lilting second theme employs the mode of the principal theme of the first movement while not quoting it.
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
“You don’t know what it is like always to hear that giant marching along behind me,” Brahms wrote to the conductor Hermann Levi, in reference to Beethoven. As a classically oriented composer who revered Beethoven, Brahms found writing a symphony a daunting proposition. It took fame, respectability, middle age and numerous false starts before he finally finished his First Symphony at age 43, after at least 14 years’ gestation. An earlier attempt at a symphony, in 1854, ended up, after numerous transformations, as part of the D minor Piano Concerto and the German Requiem.
Despite Brahms’s reputation and the positive anticipation of the public, the Symphony, premiered in 1876, was at first coolly received. The rigorous classical form baffled the public and critics, who expected something more romantic and innovative. Wagner, Liszt and programmatic music were all the rage and most critics considered the classical form backward looking and reactionary. But it was not long before the Symphony’s riveting power was recognized, along with its own contribution to symphonic innovation.
If, indeed, the First Symphony cannot strictly be considered program music, it nevertheless unfolds with great drama – even, one might say, a musical plot. While the typical classical symphony gave the greatest weight to the first movement, ending with a faster rousing finale, often a dance, Mozart, in his last three symphonies, and Beethoven in the Third, Fifth and especially the Ninth Symphonies, recast the pattern. In these works, the finale provides the culmination to the entire symphony. When listening to Brahms’s First, one can easily imagine the composer’s reticence at treading in the great man’s shadow. Nevertheless, his combined sense for musical drama and structure prevailed as he launched what conductor Hans von Bülow called “The Tenth.” Only Mendelssohn in his Symphony No. 3, “The Scottish,” had trod that path.
The ominous pounding of the timpani under slow ascending and descending chromatic scales, fragmentary motives and the ambiguous tonality of the Introduction poses a musical question – actually more of a demand – that remains unresolved until the final movement. It is one of the most spine-chilling introductions in all of classical music, made more so by the contrasting secondary theme, a trio for the oboe, flute and cellos – which, incidentally, is never heard again . The following Allegro fleshes out motives from the Introduction into a full-fledged theme, developing it with an almost savage energy that threatens to obscure the traditional sonata form . But Brahms was a classicist and introduces two new subsidiary themes into the Allegro, a gentle oboe theme, the mate to the one in the Introduction, followed by another stormy chromatic one with an ascending chromatic scale and its resulting tonal ambiguity, in keeping with the overall mood of the movement.
The middle two movements are a respite from the drive of the first. The Andante sostenuto second movement, a classic ABA form, although with a highly modified repeat, reminiscent of Beethoven's variations in the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony. The theme of this movement is in two phrases, the first concluding with a motive that Brahms uses in different musical contexts throughout. The end of the second phrase recalls the opening of the Allegro in the first movement. The oboe solo is a mate to the solo for the same instrument in the introduction, beginning what becomes a pattern for Brahms in this symphony of foreshadowing and recalling motivic elements from movement to movement. Shortly afterwards, he hints at the main theme of the third movement to come in a brief duet for flute and oboe. All in all, it is lovely, albeit melancholy, and still fraught with the unresolved tension of the work as a whole.
The third movement, a modified scherzo form, is more of an intermezzo that opens with a lilting clarinet theme, suggested already in the preceding movement. It does, however, include a trio. The contrapuntal accompaniment to the repeat of the clarinet theme, after the Trio section, foreshadows the principal theme from the Finale.
Rumbling timpani now returns us to the serious business of resolving the tensions raised in the first movement, and the resolution appears none too optimistic with its creeping pizzicato strings and sforzando appoggiaturas in the winds. This return to the mood of the first movement Allegro reminds us of the unresolved issues, but suddenly, as if from behind a cloud, an alpenhorn calls out, answered by the flute, turning the turgid C minor into a resounding C major chorale-like melody.
The alpenhorn solo has its own little history. In 1868, eight years before the Symphony was premiered, Brahms had quarreled with his friend, and probably secret love, Clara Schumann, about whether she should cut back on her concretizing to spend more time at home with her children. That September, he sent her a mollifying postcard with the alpenhorn theme scrawled on it to the words, ”High on the mountain, deep in the valley, I greet you a thousand fold.”
Of course, the introduction of the chorale tune is not the final statement. Brahms develops it and a series of subsidiary themes with emotional force, but with less brutality than the first movement. The chorale does battle with the music from the stormy introduction to emerge triumphant in an exultant coda, again reminiscent of Beethoven's excited finales.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2015|