Emanuel Ax Plays Brahms

Program Notes

This weekend’s concerts offer us the opportunity to savor the luxurious melodies, harmonies, and tone colors of two great German Romantics. A pair of works by Richard Strauss, composed over a half-century apart, makes up the first half: the ebullient Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and the valedictory Four Last Songs. Following intermission, we’ll revel in Brahms’s monumental and much-loved Piano Concerto No. 2.

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28

Richard Strauss
(Born 11 June 1864 in Munich, Germany; Died 8 September 1949 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany)

Composed: 1894-95

Premiere: 5 November 1895; Cologne, Germany

Instrumentation: 3 flutes; piccolo; 3 oboes; English horn; 2 clarinets; E-flat clarinet; bass clarinet; 3 bassoons; contrabassoon; 4 horns; 3 tumpets; 3 trombones; tuba; timpani; percussion (bass drum, cymbals, ratchet, snare drum, triangle); strings

Approximate Duration: 15 minutes

Richard Strauss was barely 30 years old when he penned the symphonic poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Precocious from his earliest years—piano lessons at age four, first compositions at age six, violin lessons and formal music theory instruction a few years later—by 1895 he had already produced a notable body of work. He had considered writing a one-act opera on the subject of this character out of German folklore, but was discouraged by the failure of his first opera, Guntram (1894). From our vantage point, we can see this as a fortunate turn of events because what Strauss gave us is a true masterpiece.

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, after the old rogue’s tale, set for large orchestra in rondo form” is how Strauss describes his Op. 28 on the title page of the score. This supposedly real-life practical joker and troublemaker (“Eulenspiegel” means “owlglass,” the sort of mirror that distorts an image) died c1350 near Lubeck—in bed, not by hanging. His mettlesome escapades included overturning the marketplace stalls, disguising himself as a priest, chasing after young women, and making fun of the decent town folk. In some ways, Strauss painted a self-portrait, relishing his affront to the bourgeois philistines who dared to criticize his music: Defiance and farcical lightness are vividly portrayed. And with the famous horn motif that depicts Till himself, Strauss’s life-long ability to fashion an immediately memorable phrase to delineate a character or situation is at the forefront.

In the end, though, Eulenspiegel is caught and tried—at least according to the composer’s telling of the tale. The full orchestra indicts him, with ominous brass chords and the drums rolling portently. The trombones sentence him to death with the powerful proclamation of a descending seventh. Poor Till is sent to the gallows, but in a tender epilogue—one that mirrors the “once-upon-a-time” prologue—Strauss echoes his theme in the violins, letting us know that the miscreant’s spirit lives on.

Recommended Recording: Edo de Waart, Minnesota Orchestra (Virgin Classics)


Four Last Songs

Richard Strauss
(Born 11 June 1864 in Munich, Germany; Died 8 September 1949 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany)

Composed: 1948

Premiere: 22 May 1950; London, England

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (second and third doubling piccolo); 2 oboes; English horn; 2 clarinets; bass clarinet; 3 bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon); 4 horns; 3 trumpets; 3 trombones; tuba; timpani; harp; celeste; strings

Approximate Duration: 24 minutes

I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.
-Richard Strauss, 1947

In the summer of 1887, the 23-year-old Richard Strauss first made the acquaintance of Pauline de Ahna, a gifted soprano and the daughter of a Wagner-loving general. A few years later, he conducted Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, with Pauline as Isolde. When he came to write his first opera, Guntram (1894), he tailored the part of the heroine Freihild for her. Four months after its premiere, they were married—on 10 September 1894. His wedding present to her was the four marvelous songs that comprise his Op. 27: “Morgen,” Cäcilie,” “Ruhe, meine Seele,” and “Heimliche Aufforderung.”

Though Pauline retired from the stage in her early 40s, Strauss considered her the foremost interpreter of his lieder. We probably wouldn’t be too far off the mark to presume that his superb understanding of the female voice was something he learned from her. And it was with the royalties from one of his earliest operas Salome (1905)—a singularly demanding soprano role—that he built the villa at Garmisch in which he and Pauline lived from 1908 to the end of their lives.

Fast forward four eventful decades that included half-a-lifetime’s successful work as a composer and conductor—and two World Wars. His final pieces, the Four Last Songs, embraced both Pauline and the soprano voice. Strauss died without hearing these achingly beautiful lieder in concert and left no indication of their sequence of presentation. His publishers, Boosey and Hawkes, decided they formed a cycle and decided to call them Vier letzte Lieder (“Four Last Songs”). Kirsten Flagstad sang the premiere, with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The first three songs are to texts by Herman Hesse (1877-1962), the German-born Swiss novelist and poet. Joseph Eichendorff (1788-1857), whose poetry was a favorite of Schuman and Wolf, penned “Im Abendrot.” The first song, “Spring,” is a nostalgic tribute to that season of the year; in its arching, transported vocal phrases, one senses keen anticipation following a bitter winter. In “September,” the text and musical affect become more autumnal as the poet starts to accept the inevitable end of summer—and of all things. The world-weary “At Bedtime” continues the mood of the previous song, but soon a rapturous violin solo, depicting the soul’s upward flight, wings us heavenward. 

“At Sunset” perfectly reflects Richard and Pauline’s situation. An elderly couple holds hands and gazes into the sunset. Trilling flutes limn a loving pair of larks. “Can this, perhaps, be death?” the soprano sings, and we hear the “transfiguration” theme from Death and Transfiguration, a tone peom Strauss wrote in his mid-20s. As he lay on his deathbed, the composer remarked, characteristically, to his daughter-in-law Alice, “Dying is just as I composed it in Death and Transfiguration.” His beloved Pauline died less than a year later, nine days before the first performance of the Four Last Songs.

Recommended Recording: Lucia Popp; Klaus Tennstedt, London Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI Classics)


Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83

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

Composed: 1878-1881

Premiere: 9 November 1881; Budapest, Hungary

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (first doubling piccolo); two oboes; two clarinets; 4 horns; 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Approximate Duration: 44 minutes

Honored Master,
I beg you to forgive my delay in thanking you for so kindly sending me your Concerto. Frankly speaking, at the first reading this work seemed to me a little gray in tone; I have, however, gradually come to understand it. It possesses the pregnant character of a distinguished work of art, in which thought and feeling move in noble harmony.

With sincerest esteem, most devotedly,
Franz Liszt

Brahms made his first sketches of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in the spring of 1878, following his first trip to Italy. He put it on the back burner, though, to work on the Violin Concerto, Op. 77. It wasn’t until the summer of 1881, following a second trip to Italy, that the master completed the concerto—in the village of Pressbaum, near Vienna. The work was premiered in Budapest on 9 November of that year, with the composer as soloist.

Chronologically, Brahms’s Op. 83 falls between the second and third symphonies. It dates from about the same time as the Academic Festival Overture, Tragic Overture, Violin Sonata No. 1, Piano Trio No. 2, the piano works of Op. 76 and Op. 79, and the choral/orchestral Nänie, Op. 82. In other words, the second piano concerto finds the 48-year-old composer at the height of his creative powers, celebrating previously undreamed-of accomplishments. Brahms dedicated the concerto to Eduard Marxsen, his piano teacher during his childhood days in Hamburg. As boys, both Johannes and Fritz Brahms had taken lessons from Marxsen, who—recognizing the family’s financial straits—never charged them for his services. 

Brahms chose an unconventional four-movement structure that enlarges the piece to symphonic dimensions. (In a letter to his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, Brahms coyly referred to Op. 83, one of the most sizable works in the concert pianist’s repertoire, as “a tiny little concerto with a wisp of a scherzo.”) A solo horn opens the lengthy first movement, followed by a cadenza for the soloist that leads to the Allegro non troppo’s exposition. The stormy development segues to the final statement of the opening theme, with a brilliant maestoso coda.

The Allegro appassionato is the aforementioned scherzo, set in D minor. This “wisp” is fiery and tragic, though not the playful joke we might expect; a brief trio in D major offsets the movement’s overall darkly passionate aesthetic. Following all this fervor, the serenity of the Andante, back in the friendly home key of B-flat major, is made all the more telling. The cello’s tender solo calls to mind the melody of a song Brahms would write several years later, “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer” (Ever softer grows my slumber); the piano expands on this in a quiet solo passage. Although the central section is more restless, the overall effect of the movement is of quiet introspection. In form, the cheerful B-flat major Allegretto grazioso is a rondo. It is indeed graceful, but quickly evolves into lively virtuoso passages for the soloist. There are no trumpets and drums here, there is no sturm und drang, only youthful energy and ease, with the piano and orchestra sharing equally in the rousing, radiant conclusion.

Recommended Recording: Emanuel Ax; Bernard Haitink, Boston Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.