Program Notes: Dvorak & Brahms

Two of the biggest names in classical music, Johannes Brahms and Antonín Dvořák, are featured on this program. In “real life,” they were friends and supportive colleagues. Brahms’s buoyant “Haydn Variations” opens the concert, and Dvořák’s magnificent Seventh Symphony brings it to a fitting close. In between, we’ll hear evocative melodies and rich harmonies from John Corigliano’s score for the film The Red Violin.

Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a

Johannes Brahms
(Born 7 May 1833 in Hamburg, Germany; Died 3 April 1897 in Vienna, Austria)

Composed: 1873

Premiere: November 2, 1873; Vienna

Last MSO Performance: January 2011; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion (triangle), strings

Approximate Duration: 17 minutes

Like the two orchestral serenades and Ein deutches Requiem, Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn predates his first symphony. The 40-year-old master composed the work in the summer of 1873. A few years earlier, he had seen the score to Haydn’s Feldpartita in B-flat major, written for a small wind ensemble. In his notebook, he copied the second movement, which probably was based on an old chant entitled Chorale St. Antonii, sung by the Burgenland pilgrims. Brahms used its hymn-like melody as the theme for the Op. 56 Variations.

First scored for two pianos (Op. 56b), it was always Brahms’s intention to create an orchestral version. And indeed, it is one of his finest. The eight variations retain the harmony, the rhythm, and, to a certain degree, the melody of the theme. Various instruments share the motives and melodies, playfully tossing them from one section of the orchestra to another. The variations build toward a dramatic climax, and the finale, passacaglia-like, provides variations on a five-measure basso-ostinato gleaned from the theme itself. The work pretends to taper to a quiet close, but a subito fortissimo ends the piece in a resounding B-flat major.

Recommended Recording: Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Telarc)


The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra

John Corigliano
(Born 16 February 1938, New York, New York)

First performance: Joshua Bell; Robert Spano, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra; 26 November 1997; in San Francisco

Last MSO Performance: MSO Subscription Premiere

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bell tree, chimes, crotale, glockenspiel, ratchet, slapstick, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam tam, tambourine, tenor drum, vibraphone, xylophone), harp, celeste, piano, strings

Approximate Duration: 17 minutes


In addition to his film music for The Red Violin, American composer John Corigliano is best known for his Symphony No. 1, premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1991, and his opera The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. The work heard tonight draws upon music written for the 1998 film of the same title. A chaconne is a repeated pattern of chords. (Brahms makes use of this compositional technique in the last movement of his Fourth Symphony.) Here, the composer juxtaposes “Anna’s Theme,” an intensely lyrical melody that represents the violin builder’s doomed wife, against the chaconne chords. A series of virtuosic episodes follows the instrument’s plight from country to country and century to century.

Mr. Corigliano has provided the following description:

As [the piece] begins, diaphanous ascending string lines unveil the chaconne chords, voiced in incantatory dotted rhythms, in low winds and brass. Then solo violin and orchestra utter, and expand on, Anna’s theme. Virtuosic etudes quicken the pace, lead to a rushing climax; these yield to a stratospherically high, gravely slow melody, which remembers, against slowly shifting string sonorities, Anna’s romantic theme. The string chords louden, strengthen with winds and brass: then the soloist reclaims, in determined accents this time, the diaphanous string line that opened the score. The orchestra halts to launch the soloist’s cadenza, impetuous and songful by turns: then the chaconne, in string chords rendered brittle by sharp attacks with the wood of the bow, gradually climax in a grand tutti restatement of the incantatory opening and a whirlwind coda for all.

Recommended Recording: Joshua Bell; Esa Pekka-Salonen, Philharmonia Orchestra (Sony)


Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 [old No. 2]

Antonín Dvořák
(Born 8 September 1841 in Nelahozeves, Czech Republic: Died 1 May 1904, in Prague)

Composed: 1885

Premiere: April 22, 1885; London

Last MSO Performance: June, 2011; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 35 minutes

Dvořák’s Stabat mater (1877) caused a stir among the London public following performances there in 1883. Based on that success, the city’s Royal Philharmonic Society decided to commission a symphony from the Czech composer. (This was the same organization that had commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.) Inspired by Brahms’s newest symphony, the Third, which he had heard in Berlin earlier in the year, Dvořák set to work on his Seventh Symphony in December 1884, completing it the following March. Considered by many to be the greatest of his nine symphonies, it was originally known as Symphony No. 2—the seventh to be written, but only the second to be published.

The opening Allegro maestoso is cast in sonata form. Its first theme is stormy and ominous, its second, sunny and lyrical. The movement is notable for its potent and compact development, its condensed recapitulation, and its tense coda. The richly scored Adagio unfolds a variety of musical textures. Its tranquil opening is followed by questioning, melancholy, and a brief storm. The Scherzo is full of force and energy. Though set in 6/4 meter, it retains the quality of a furiant, a Bohemian folk dance that features shifting of accents and cross-rhythms. (Here, the cellos/bassoons are in two and the violins/violas are in three.) A charming trio brings a decided contrast. The Finale, though tormented and dark at its beginning, continues the determined spirit that has dominated the entire work. Its sonata form is abundant in thematic material and unflagging imagination. As with the first movement, the recapitulation is taut; a powerful coda steers the music to a triumphant resolution, ending this D minor symphony in a brilliant D major.

Recommended Recording: George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra (Sony)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.