|Dvořák & Bartók and Beethoven's 4th|
Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 8
Given his place as one of the foremost composers of the nineteenth century, Antonín Dvořák was something of a late bloomer, but not for want of musical talent and industry. Dvořák's father was a butcher and had expected his son to go into the family trade. Only after his uncle had agreed to finance the boy's musical education was he able to follow his passion. Trained as a church organist, Dvořák 's first job was as a performer, playing principal viola in Prague's new Provincial Theatre Orchestra. During this time, he practiced composition, producing songs, symphonies and entire operas although he achieved no recognition until he was in his 30s.
After winning national prizes for several years during the 1870s, however, his work came to the attention of Johannes Brahms, who gave him his first real break. The older composer, whose reputation was at its height, promoted Dvořák to Simrock, his own publisher, who offered him his first commission, the Opus 46 set of Slavonic Dances.
Dvořák was a devoted Czech nationalist. Like his older compatriot Bedrich Smetana, he freely incorporated folk elements into his music, utilizing characteristic peasant rhythms and melodic motives but never actually quoting entire folk melodies. The Slavonic Dances were first composed for piano duet and then immediately orchestrated by the composer. This dual approach proved to be a win/win arrangement for both publisher and composer. The dances could be played both in the concert hall, where they were recognized as the heir to Brahms's Hungarian Dances, as well as purchased for home music making. They were so successful that Simrock commissioned another set (Op. 72) in 1880, which Dvořák finally got around to completing in 1885.
The dances all follow a similar form with two or more sections containing themes in contrasting moods and tempi. The first section – sometimes also fairly complex in structure – serves as a refrain for the dance as a whole. The dances comprise a wide range of moods all displaying the composer's dazzling melodic gift.
No. 8 in G minor is a Bohemian furiant, a folkdance alternating 3/4 and 2/4 time. A short contrasting middle section retains the metric pattern despite the more subdued mood. The first section returns followed by a coda and a reprise of the middle theme.
Ludwig van Beethoven
|Ludwig van Beethoven|
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
With the composition of the G major Concerto in 1806, Beethoven broke some important new ground. The standard concerto form at the time consisted of the so-called double exposition, in which the orchestra plays the dual role of introducing all the thematic material of the movement as well as building up tension and expectation for the entrance of the soloist. But the Fourth Piano Concerto opens with the soloist – briefly but significantly – stating the opening of the main theme and the rhythmic motive that will pervade this longest of all Beethoven concerto movements. The orchestra then takes up its traditional role but starts off by offering a response to the piano in the distant key of B major and elegantly moves back into G. Thus begins a remarkably complex work in which the two forces continually engage not in the typical echoing phrases back and forth, but rather in a true dialogue with a bouquet of themes. A second theme, introduced by the solo oboe, utilizes the same rhythmic motive. The third theme seems to depart from the signature rhythm, but it returns in the accompaniment. When the soloist enters, it is with a new theme that generates a response of new material from the orchestra.
The second movement has recently engendered quite a bit of musicological controversy. The conversation between soloist and orchestra of the first movement escalates into an argument. The orchestra's demanding fortissimo, answered by the piano's gentle, almost pleading response has been associated with the legend of Orpheus's taming of the wild beasts or even his confrontation with the forces of death to recover his lost Eurydice. The ease with which this program can be applied to the movement has led some scholars to suggest that it might have originated with Beethoven himself, although there is certainly no documentary evidence for the association. Indeed, it is more of an interlude between the two weightier outer movements, more in the style of the Baroque concerto than the Classical model. Just before the end of the movement is an almost anguished cry from the piano, a mini-cadenza that finally subdues the orchestra.
By the time the finale opens, the mood has cleared and soloist and orchestra return to their conversation in a cheery rondo. Again, Beethoven alters the typical structure by beginning this movement with the orchestra, rather than the soloist. The two occasionally interrupt each other. And at times, the orchestra "mumbles" a commentary, reiterating the opening rhythmic pattern, as the piano performs its fanciful elaborations.
Beethoven composed the Fourth Piano Concerto concurrently with the Fifth Symphony, and the first movement of the Concerto shares with that Symphony the same upbeat rhythmic figure, although in a very different mood. The premiere, at a private subscription concert, took place in March 1807 together with the premiere of the Fourth Symphony and the Overture to Coriolan . It was, however, at the historic Beethoven-Konzert of Dec. 22, 1808 that the general public first heard the G Major Concerto, with Beethoven wearing two hats, as conductor and soloist. This was one of those typical monster concerts at which the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Concert Aria “Ah Perfido ” and the Choral Fantasia were also premiered. True to Beethoven’s form, the orchestra was poorly and hastily rehearsed; many of the orchestral parts were not yet ready; Beethoven quarreled with the musicians; and the hall was freezing cold. As deafness descended on him, it was also his last performance as a soloist.
Audiences did not take to the Fourth Concerto at first, preferring the easier Third or more dramatic Fifth Concerto. It fell into neglect until Mendelssohn revived it in 1836 and performed it frequently thereafter. It became a favorite of famed pianist Clara Schumann, who played it all over Europe and also wrote cadenzas for it.
Concerto for Orchestra
In the fall of 1940, Béla Bartók fled his native Hungary with his family and sailed for the United States. For a couple of years he eked out a precarious living teaching piano and performing with his wife, Ditta, also a pianist. By the end of 1942 he fell ill with what turned out to be a form of leukemia and his situation looked bleak indeed. Early in 1943 he was too weak to deliver an entire series of lectures at Harvard university, which he counted on to support him and his wife until the fall.
Then, in early summer, things started looking up. At the suggestion of violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner – both fellow Hungarians – Bartók received a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, for a large orchestral work in memory of his late wife, Natalie. The commission so revived the spirit of the composer that after spending the next few weeks at Saranac Lake, New York, he brought back in October the completed score of the Concerto for Orchestra. He finalized the orchestration during the winter in Asheville, NC, and Koussevitzky premiered it with the Boston Symphony in December 1944 to resounding acclaim.
In notes for the premiere, Bartók wrote: “The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertant or soloistic manner.” The five-movement work is a showpiece for orchestra, allowing each of the sections a chance to demonstrate their virtuosity. Its structure is arch-like, as are many of Bartók's works, with the central Elegy framed by two outer movements in sonata form and two inner intermezzo-like movements. Biographer Halsey Stevens provided an explanation for the huge appeal of this work, saying that it combines such diverse elements as Bach fugues and Schoenberg atonality that had touched Bartók throughout his creative years, while all the melodies, harmonies and rhythms are colored by the peasant music that was Bartók’s great love.
Among its most striking features is the Concerto’s kaleidoscope of orchestral colors emanating from the generally thin texture that showcases only a few instruments at a time in often stunning combinations. The Introduzione opens with an eerie andante, the double basses and cellos accompanied by tremolo on muted high strings. Gradually other instrument groups enter, adding color. The violins then introduce the main theme with its vigorous rhythm. A second theme comes in soon after on a solo trombone. The centerpiece of the movement is a beautiful oboe solo.
The second movement Giuoco delle coppie (Game of Pairs) begins with the side drum that maintains the rhythmic impetus throughout the movement. Five unrelated (according to Bartók) dance themes are then strung jauntily together, featuring in turn pairs of bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes and muted trumpets. A short chorale-like melody follows on five brass instruments, after which the five pairs of wind instruments return in order as before but with more elaborate accompaniment.
The Elegia third movement is the work’s centerpiece, described by the composer as a “Lugubrious death song…of misty texture and rudimentary motifs.” After a mysterious opening, the whole orchestra suddenly enters fortissimo restating the themes, followed by a reprise of the beginning of the movement.
The Intermezzo interrotto (Interrupted Intermezzo) is just that. Bartók described its structure as ABA – interruption – BA. It opens with the oboe introducing a lively theme, like a rhythmically asymmetric peasant dance, followed by a cantilena said to be based on a popular Hungarian national melody. Suddenly the movement is interrupted by what, according to the composer’s son Peter, is a parody of the first movement of Shostakovich’s Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphony, popular at the time because of the war and the devastating siege of the city. Both Shostakovich and, subsequently Bartók, satirize the Germans with a march partly based on the aria “Nun geh’ ich ins Maxim” from Franz Léhar’s The Merry Widow. Peter says that the banality of the march in the movement irritated his father no end and that he parodied Shostakovich’s parody by writing circus music. As the interruption fades away, the cantilena and then the peasant dance return, but in shortened form.
The finale, Pesante, opens with a riotous horn call, followed by a fiery Romanian dance, a perpetuum mobile figure, by the whole orchestra. A second dance is introduced by the high woodwinds, and then a third on the trumpets. The themes are developed in a complicated fugue of brilliant orchestral colors.
Originally, the work ended 22 bars short of the version we hear today. Bartók, in spite of his frailty and illness, traveled to Boston to hear the premiere, and realized that his ending was unsatisfactory. He immediately sat down and wrote the brilliant 22-measure coda. There is a recording available of the premiere, with the original ending, which, indeed, does not match the brilliance of the rest of the Concerto.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2019|