Overture, "Le Corsaire," Op. 21 (1844) Hector Berlioz (La Côte-Saint-André, France, 1803 – Paris, 1869)
An overture was originally an orchestral work introducing an opera (ouverture is French for "opening"). In the Romantic era, however, overtures were frequently written to open symphonic concerts, not evenings at the theater. Yet sometimes, if not always, the overtures still made reference to a dramatic plot, condensing an entire story into a short instrumental work of ten minutes or less.
Berlioz was especially fond of treating literary material this way. He wrote no fewer than five overtures that were not intended to be played at an opera house--although one of them, The Roman Carnival, does have an operatic connection in that Berlioz "recycled" in it some themes from his failed opera Benvenuto Cellini.
The last of these concert overtures, Le Corsaire, is particularly interesting for at least two reasons: its boldly innovative musical style and the ambiguity concerning its programmatic background. To start with the latter: the work had two other titles before Berlioz hit upon the definitive one. It was performed as La Tour de Nice, after the tower in which Berlioz had written the music. As he wrote in his memoirs:
The room in which in 1831 I had written the Roi Lear overture was occupied by an English family, so I settled higher up in a tower perched on a ledge of the Ponchettes rock, and feasted myself on the glorious view over the Mediterranean and tasted a peace such as I had come to value more than ever.
As he was revising the work, Berlioz renamed it Le Corsaire rouge, after James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Red Rover, then widely read in Europe. The final title, Le Corsaire, was given even later, in 1851. Shorn of the adjective, the new name evokes Byron's poem The Corsair, which was also the basis of a Verdi opera written in 1848 (Il Corsaro). The overture is, thus, a work with a "roving" program, one in which the literary inspiration did not come first. Rather, the literary work--whether Cooper's or Byron's--served only as a referent. The music didn't attempt to express any stories: Berlioz simply wished to indicate that there was something in the mood of his music that could be understood from those literary works. A modern audience, not necessarily familiar with either The Red Rover or The Corsair, will still be able to interpret the title as a reference to pirates and other outlaws--underscoring the extent to which Berlioz placed himself outside the musical laws as contained in the textbooks of the time.
Listen to the opening of the work with its brisk downbeat followed by a tonally "roving" string figure and a rhythmically irregular set of syncopations in the winds! This most unruly beginning is repeated several times throughout the work, as if to set a wild Romantic stage for the imaginary drama that follows. The traditional slow-fast framework inherited from classical overtures is retained, but the Adagio refuses to submit to any classical patterns of harmony or phrase structure. The fanfare-like theme of the Allegro, introduced by bassoons, cellos, and basses, is immediately turned upside down before undergoing a complete character change from martial to delicately lyrical. Calmer moments, including one with a memorable oboe solo, alternate with some more tempestuous music. Finally the main theme returns, played by the full orchestra, leading to an ending that is even more rebellious than anything heard before.
Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich enjoyed a special friendship and artistic partnership for many years. The cellist was a teenager when he first met the composer, who was his senior by 21 years. Enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory as a student of both cello and composition, Rostropovich took Shostakovich's orchestration class. His admiration for his teacher knew no bounds, and after Shostakovich had heard the young man play, the admiration became mutual. During the 1950s, the two played Shostakovich's Cello Sonata (1934) in concert tours all over Russia, and their friendship deepened. Throughout those years, Rostropovich was dreaming of a concerto Shostakovich might one day write for him. But the composer's wife told him, "Slava, if you want Dmitri Dmitriyevich to write something for you, the only recipe I can give you is this--never ask him or talk to him about it."
Rostropovich followed this advice, however reluctantly. And then one day in 1959, the concerto suddenly materialized. The ecstatic cellist committed the entire piece to memory in just four days, astounding the composer when the two got together at Shostakovich's summer home on August 6, 1959. In her invaluable book of recollections, Elizabeth Wilson reports the following incredible conversation between them:
"Now just hang on a minute while I find a music stand," Shostakovich said.
The cellist answered: "Dmitri Dmitriyevich, but I don't need a stand."
"What do you mean, you don't need a stand, you don't need one?"
"You know, I'll play from memory."
Rostropovich proceeded to play through the work from memory with the pianist he had brought with him, to the utter delight of the composer and a small number of friends who had gathered in the music room. Afterwards, they celebrated with a festive dinner. Everyone knew they had witnessed a historic moment.
The first public performance, two months later, was enthusiastically received, and was soon followed by an international triumph, establishing the work as the most significant addition to the cello concerto literature in a long time. Shostakovich, inspired by an exceptional instrumentalist with whom he had bonded deeply, had written a work that combined immediacy of expression with formal perfection, and Romantic passion with Classical balance--a fusion of qualities we don't find very often in the music of the 1950s. Nor had music ever communicated with an audience more directly or more sincerely.
Once you have heard the concerto's opening motif, played by the cello, you are unlikely to ever forget this four-note theme. (It is immediately recognizable when quoted in Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet of 1960.) Varied, developed, and taken into successively higher registers of the solo instrument, this little motif dominates the entire movement--and more, as we shall see. An insistent second theme appears a little later, and the music gradually gains in excitement and technical virtuosity. The solo cello plays almost without intermission, though it is joined by the clarinet and especially by the horn as "assistant" soloists. The end of the movement returns to the opening theme in its original low register.
The remaining three movements are played without pause. First we hear a slow movement (actually, the tempo is Moderato), featuring--after a dreamy introduction--a very simple, folk-like melody. The introductory material is heard again, followed by a more passionate new idea, leading to a climax and a return of the folk-like theme in high-pitched cello harmonics.
The third movement is a lengthy, unaccompanied cadenza, beginning slowly and becoming faster and faster. Russian critic Lev Ginzburg aptly called it a "monologue-recitative." The movement, although exceedingly hard to perform, is not a mere display of technical difficulties but, in Ginzburg's words, a piece of "deep meditation, reaching philosophical heights." It leads directly into the exuberant finale, which opens with a dance tune--not an ordinary dance tune, though, but one spiced with many chromatic half-steps that give it a striking, sarcastic overtone. The theme is introduced by the oboe and the clarinet, allowing the soloist to catch his breath after the exhausting cadenza. He soon takes over, however, repeating the dance-tune. This theme (in duple meter) is followed by a second dance (in triple). The latter unexpectedly morphs into the memorable opening theme from the first movement, providing the material for the energetic conclusion of the concerto. As a kind of private joke, Shostakovich concealed in this movement some distorted fragments of a folksong from Georgia in the Caucasus, Stalin's birthplace; the song, "Suliko," had reportedly been the late dictator's personal favorite. But even Rostropovich confessed: "I doubt if I would have detected this quote if Dmitri Dmitriyevich hadn't pointed it out to me."
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885) Johannes Brahms (Hamburg, 1833 - Vienna, 1897)
The day before the first performance of Brahms's Fourth Symphony, on October 24, 1885, the 21-year-old assistant conductor of the Meiningen Orchestra, which was about to play the premiere, wrote a letter to his father, also a musician:
Beyond all question a gigantic work, with a grandeur in its conception and invention, genius in its treatment of forms, periodic structure, of outstanding vigor and strength, new and original and yet authentic Brahms from A to Z, in a word it enriches our music--it's hard to put into words all the magnificent things this work contains, you can only listen to it over and over again with reverence and admiration.
The young man, whose name, by the way, was Richard Strauss, seemed to be more receptive to the beauties of the new work than were some of Brahms’s own closest friends. It took a good decade for the Viennese to warm to the symphony. Just a few weeks before his death in 1897, Brahms, already seriously ill, attended a performance of the Fourth with the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter. Each of the symphony’s four movements was greeted with a storm of applause, and at the end, the audience seemed absolutely to refuse to let the composer go. According to an eyewitness, Brahms stood there in the balcony, tears running down his cheeks, and "through the audience there was a feeling as of a stifled sob, for each knew that they were saying farewell."
Brahms had said farewell to symphony-writing 12 years earlier, since, after finishing the Fourth, he never wrote another symphony. (He did write one more work for orchestra: the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello.) In the Fourth, he had attained a synthesis beyond which even he could not go: a synthesis of styles, where old church modes and Baroque variation techniques formed an indissoluble whole with Classical sonata form and Romantic expressivity, and also a synthesis of structural details organized into a miracle of coherence and economy.
After stating the opening melody, which is essentially a series of falling thirds, Brahms contrasts it with a second theme that is more rhythmical in character. These two ideas dominate the entire movement. The development section enlarges upon the contrasts of the exposition: the rhythmical idea becomes passionately dramatic, while the lyrical melody turns into a lament. At the beginning of the recapitulation, Brahms elongates the first few notes and adds a few special harmonies, infusing the music with a quality of deep mystery that is surely one of the Seven Wonders of Western music. The recapitulation then resumes its normal course, but there is a Coda in which the lyrical first theme acquires the energy and dynamism of the second. Therefore, the passionate outburst that ends the movement seems to be a fusion of everything that has gone before.
The second movement, like the first, is built upon the contrast between primarily melodic and primarily rhythmical motifs. As it wavers between remote keys, it seems to evoke a distant world of fairytales.
The third movement is the only real Scherzo in all of Brahms's symphonies. It is also the only one of his symphony movements to use a triangle. (Two other instruments, not heard in the first two movements, also join the orchestra here: the piccolo and the contrabassoon.)
The heart-piece of the symphony is its magnificent and unique finale, written in the Baroque variation form variously known as chaconne or passacaglia.* It seems that the idea of writing a symphony movement in this form predated the actual composition by years. In his memoirs, composer and choir director Siegfried Ochs, a member of Brahms's circle of friends, recalled a meeting that must have taken place in January 1882, two years before Brahms began work on the symphony.
As we sat together one day after dining--namely, Bülow, Brahms, Hermann Wolff, and I--Brahms fell upon Hans von Bülow with the reproach that he played much too little Bach, moreover was not concerned enough with him and knew next to nothing of, as an example of the best of his creations, the church cantatas. Bülow defended himself and claimed to know at least seven or eight cantatas well. "That proves that you know none of them, for there are more than two hundred," said Brahms. In due course of the conversation, he then began to speak of the final movement of a certain cantata, and in order to demonstrate what a work of art this piece was, he went to the piano and played part of it. It was, as I have only now determined, the ciacona that forms the high point and the conclusion of Cantata 150. Brahms at first played only the bass, over which the entire piece is constructed... Then he performed the chaconne. Bülow listened with cool admiration and made the objection that the great intensification [Steigerung], which was intellectually inherent in the movement, was scarcely brought out in desired mass by voices. "That has also occurred to me," said Brahms. "What would you think about a symphony movement written on this theme some time? But it is too clumsy, too straightforward. One must alter it chromatically in some way." I immediately made a note of this conversation, and one should compare the finale of the E-minor symphony with that of the mentioned cantata.
We should indeed: the two themes are nearly identical, with the exception of the single chromatic alteration Brahms spoke about after dinner.
The first half of Brahms's finale is like a single rising line: first we hear the bass theme alone, then the same theme with a single pedal note added. Next, a soft counterpoint appears, followed by a more impassioned violin melody, which in turn gives rise to an enormous crescendo involving the entire orchestra. After the climax, there is a gradual decrescendo leading to the three central variations where, as the meter changes from 3/4 to 3/2, the notes of the bass theme begin to move twice as slowly as before. The slower variations include a haunting flute solo, another one with prominent clarinet and oboe parts, and finally a magnificent variation for three trombones, in E major. This is immediately followed by the recall of the movement's beginning, and the energetic--and tragic--ending. Even the falling thirds of the first movement's opening theme turn up again near the end, masterfully combined with the passacaglia theme.
* The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines these two terms as "two closely related forms of baroque music, each a kind of continuous variation in moderately slow triple meter and with a slow harmonic rhythm, changing generally with the measure." It states that "attempts... to make a clear distinction between them [have been] futile." J.S. Bach used the terms almost interchangeably; Brahms appears to have preferred "chaconne" (or "ciacona"), although he did not use either term in the Fourth Symphony.