Bruch & Brahms
October 21, 2017
Program Notes by Endicott Reindl
Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Composed in 1912
Nature was a powerful force for Frederick Delius, known as Fritz, until age 40 when he moved away from Florida. Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring was the first of two pieces written for a small or reduced orchestra, technically known as a tone poem. Tone poems (also known as a symphonic poems) illustrate the content of a poem, book, landscape, or painting. Not being overly religious, Delius looked instead to the natural world for inspiration in composing his music. This is especially noted in his Requiem that does not follow the traditional Christian liturgy.
Delius was the second of fourteen children and was always drawn to music as a profession and a way of life. In his later years, he was ridiculed for his devotion to music since he never held a musical position in England, staged a concert or conducted an orchestra. His one focus in life was crafting his own style of music, one filled with chromatic harmony—harmony that follows up or down the scale.
The piece begins with the charming exchange of cuckoo calls, first with solo oboe, then a response from the string section. Listeners can envision the start of a bright sunny day, as the violin’s lush, connected style evokes a waking of nature to greet the day. More woodwinds and French horns join as the piece grows, each heralding the day. As the day develops, he incorporates the Norwegian folk song, “In Ola Valley,” made known to him by composer Percy Grainger, famous for his work, O Danny Boy. From a young age, Delius had marveled at Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg instead of Mozart or Beethoven. He was drawn to the simple, full melodies of the Norwegian composer and looked to grow the rich harmonies.
Although the symphonic poem is only six minutes long, listeners can appreciate the nuances of the day. As the poem winds down, the clarinet picks up the cuckoo calls just before the end.
Max Bruch (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor
Composed in 1866
Max Bruch started on the right “musical foot” with his earliest tutor Ferdinand Hiller, an esteemed pianist/composer. Bruch wrote his first piece of music, an ode to his mother’s birthday, at the age of nine. His parents, realizing his intrinsic gift, enthusiastically supported his musical training. Eventually Bruch wrote more than 200 works, with his first violin concerto becoming a staple of the violin repertoire.
His Violin Concerto No. 1 placed him squarely with other Romantic composers like Johannes Brahms rather than the newer avant-garde composers such as Franz Liszt or Richard Wagner. During his lifetime, Bruch was known more for his choral works than instrumental music. His concerto, or dialogue for solo violin and orchestra, incorporated many new structural traits. He included linking movements and omitted the classical opening exposition (overture), which is why the work only has three movements. Audience members will not be disappointed by the lush, full sound of the work as its lyrical melodies span nearly the entire range of the instrument.
Bruch was not an extravagant person preferring to write his music with an ode to the earlier era’s use of rolling melodies and graceful rhythms. The Allegro Moderato movement juxtaposes the individual violin against the paced, yet ardent orchestra voicing. The violin becomes passionate and colorful in voice as the dialogue develops. The second movement, Adagio, is where Bruch develops his trademark lyrical melodies in three sentimental themes. Its development compares the growth of love for one’s home or a specific time in one’s life where you would like to linger. Finally, he crescendos into Allegro Energico, or “Lively with Energy” a folk dance.
Max Bruch was immortalized in his hometown of Cologne, Germany with a statuette amongst the ornately designed city hall. He traded away the musical rights to his violin concerto later in his life, around the turn of the century, leaving him almost penniless by his death. It is rumored that the family who purchased the rights for the work planned to sell signed pictures of Bruch in the U.S. before World War I and send him the money, but it never materialized.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1
Composed in 1876
A good bottle of wine takes time to age and ripen to perfection. Likewise, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 took almost 17 years to complete, starting around 1860. Brahms was dissatisfied with the work after its 1877 premiere and extensively revised the second movement before the work was published. Brahms was initially unsure of his symphonic convictions, as his instinct for the scope and power of his music directly descended from Beethoven. Brahms’ first symphony is sometimes referred to as Beethoven’s tenth symphony, because of their strong parallels in style, form and dictation of music.
The entire first movement of the symphony is keenly dramatic, nowhere more so than in the extended, slowly building passage leading to a recap of the main melody. This sense of dynamic expansion, growing evermore loud and expressive, is definite; this is as grand a symphonic movement as he conceived. During the build-up of expression, through chaotic syncopated (off-beat) rhythms, the timpani shines forth with a pulsating beat. This exposition then rolls along as the upper woodwinds and cellos move the melody into the second movement.
The second and third movements are lighter in tone and tension than the first and last movements. The slow movement, Andante sostenuto, exhibits a gentle touch with lush, very full chords. The long violin solo is reminiscent of some of Beethoven’s later works: the late quartets and Missa Solemnis. The third, scherzo-like movement, has an easy spirit yet is full of complex rhythms and interwoven textures.
The fourth movement begins with a slow introduction, where a new melody competes with “gloomy, dramatic rhetoric.” In the Piu andante section, the horns and timpani introduce a tune that Brahms heard from an Alpine shepherd with the words, “High on the hill, deep in the dale, I send you a thousand greetings!” The last section contains a grand melody in a major key, as the novel, Beethoven-like main subject of the grand finale, just like remembering our, now empty, bottle of wine.