Brahms & Bernstein

Program Notes

This evening’s concert opens with Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, an engaging work that veers between symphony and concerto, capturing the angst of the post-WWII era in music. After intermission, we’ll hear a perennial favorite: Brahms’s mighty Symphony No. 1.


The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2

Leonard Bernstein
(Born 25 August 1918; Lawrence, Massachusetts; Died 14 October 1990; New York, New York)

Composed: 1947-49; revised 1965

First performance: 8 April 1949; Boston, Massachusetts

Last MSO performance: February 2015; Andrew Litton, conductor; William Wolfram, piano

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, drum set, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam tam, temple blocks, tenor drum, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, pianino, celeste, strings

Approximate duration: 35 minutes

Between the Broadway musical On the Town (1948) and the opera Trouble in Tahiti (1952), Bernstein wrote only one major work: The Age of Anxiety, a “symphony” for piano and orchestra. A taxing, virtuosic piano concerto in all but name, the piece is based on W.H. Auden’s 80-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning poem. Though at the time of its premiere—by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitsky, with Bernstein as soloist—the composer thought it essential for the listener to have read Auden’s verses, Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton believes the composer “was seduced by his admiration for Auden into overstating his debt to the poem.”

Be that as it may, the composer called it “fascinating and hair-raising… one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the history of the English language,” and gave an extensive explanation of the work in the published score:

The essential line of the poem (and of the music) is the record of our difficult and problematic search for faith. In the end, two of the characters enunciate the recognition of this faith—even a passive submission to it—at the same time revealing an inability to relate to it personally in their daily lives, except through blind acceptance.

No one could be more astonished than I at the extent to which the programmaticism of this work had been carried out. I was merely writing a symphony inspired by a poem and following the general form of that poem. Yet, when each section was finished I discovered, upon re-reading, detail after detail of programmatic relation to the poem. Since I trust the unconscious implicitly, finding it a sure source of wisdom and the dictator of the condign in artistic matters, I am content to leave these details in the score.

I have divided Auden’s six sections into two large parts, each containing three sections played without pause. A brief outline follows:

Part One

(a) The Prologue finds four lonely characters, a girl and three men, in a Third Avenue bar, all of them insecure, and trying, through drink, to detach themselves from their conflicts, or, at best, to resolve them. They are drawn together by this common urge and begin a kind of symposium on the state of man. Musically the Prologue is a short section consisting of a lonely improvisation by two clarinets, echo-tone, and followed by a long descending scale which acts as a bridge into the realm of the unconscious, where most of the poem takes place.

(b) The Seven Ages. The life of man is reviewed from the four personal points of view. This is a series of variations which differ from conventional variations in that they do not vary one common theme. Each variation seizes upon some feature of the preceding one and develops it, introducing, in the course of the development, some counter-feature upon which the next variation seizes. It is a kind of musical fission, which corresponds to the reasonableness and almost didactic quality of the four-fold discussion.

(c) The Seven Stages. The variation form continues for another set of seven, in which the characters go on an inner and highly symbolic journey according to a geographical plan leading back to a point of comfort and security. The four try every means, going singly and in pairs, exchanging partners, and always missing the objective. When they awaken from this dream-odyssey, they are closely united through a common experience (and through alcohol), and begin to function as one organism. This set of variations begins to show activity and drive and leads to a hectic, though indecisive, close.

Part Two

(a) The Dirge is sung by the four as they sit in a cab en route to the girl’s apartment for a nightcap. They mourn the loss of the “colossal Dad,” the great leader who can always give the right orders, find the right solution, shoulder the mass responsibilities, and satisfy the universal need for a father-symbol. This section employs, in a harmonic way, a twelve-tone row out of which the main theme evolves. There is a contrasting middle section of almost Brahmsian romanticism, in which can be felt the self-indulgent, or negative, aspect of this strangely pompous lamentation.

(b) The Masque finds the group in the girl’s apartment, weary, guilty, determined to have a party, each one afraid of spoiling the other’s fun by admitting that he should be home in bed. This is a scherzo for piano and percussion alone (including harp, celesta, glockenspiel, and xylophone) in which a kind of fantastic piano-jazz is employed, by turns nervous, sentimental, self-satisfied, vociferous. The party ends in anti-climax and the dispersal of the actors; in the music the piano-protagonist is traumatized by the intervention of the orchestra for four bars of hectic jazz. When the orchestra stops, as abruptly as it began, a pianino [upright piano] in the orchestra is continuing the Masque, repetitiously and with waning energy, as the Epilogue begins. Thus a kind of separation of the self from the guilt of the escapist living has been effected, and the protagonist is set free again to examine what is left beneath the emptiness.

(c) The Epilogue. What is left, it turns out, is faith. The trumpet intrudes its statement of “something pure” upon the dying pianino: the strings answer in a melancholy reminiscent of the Prologue: again and again the winds reiterate “something pure” against the mounting tension of the strings’ loneliness. All at once the strings accept the situation, in a sudden radiant pianissimo, and begin to build, with the rest of the orchestra, to a positive statement of the newly recognized faith.

Throughout the Epilogue the piano-protagonist has taken no part, but has observed it, as one observes such development on the movie-screen, or in another human personality. At the very end he seizes upon it with one eager chord of confirmation, although he has not himself participated in the anxiety-experience leading to this fulfillment. The way is open; but, at the conclusion, is still stretching long before him.

Completing the Epilogue had been a struggle for Bernstein: He finished it only three weeks before the premiere. Never quite satisfied with it, in 1965 he revised the finale to include the solo pianist, even giving her a final burst of cadenza before the coda. Taken as a whole, The Age of Anxiety is, says biographer Burton, “one of Bernstein’s most deeply felt and romantic compositions.”

Recommended recording: Lukas Foss; Leonard Bernstein, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)


Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68

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

Composed: 1855-76

First performance: 4 November 1876; Karlsruhe, Germany

Last MSO performance: April/May 2016; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate duration: 45 minutes

As we prepare to enjoy Brahms’s well-known and much-loved Symphony No.1, it might be fruitful to place him in historical context, particularly where his contemporaries are concerned. Remember that Brahms (b. 1833) was a younger contemporary of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), a man often credited (or blamed, depending upon one’s perspective) with what would eventually lead to the dissolution of tonality: His highly chromatic, unresolved cadences paved the way for Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique in the early 20th century. Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), the “father of modern orchestration,” penned a treatise on the subject and was writing large-scale works that called for an orchestra of unprecedented size. Franz Liszt (1811-1886), that greatest of all Romantic-era piano virtuosos, was writing tone poems for large orchestra that sought to illustrate subjects taken from Romantic literature, mythology, imaginative fantasy, and even recent history.

Into this scenario, place Brahms. It might be argued that he set an obstacle for himself by rejecting the “descriptive” elements just outlined. In his orchestral music, you won’t hear rippling harps, sensuous English horns, or explosive attacks from the percussion section. No, his instrumental “formula” is more Classical, more backward-looking, as is his approach to musical form. He set Beethoven as his mighty—and rather intimidating—example. “You can’t have any idea what it’s like,” he lamented, “always to hear such a giant marching behind you.”

The compositional history of Brahms’s First Symphony is long and complicated. Suffice it to say that the process took nearly 20 years—with detours for Ein deutsches Requiem, two orchestral serenades, the first piano concerto, and the “Haydn” Variations, among others—but the final product made it worth the wait. As with all four symphonies, the master here works his way through a weighty opening movement and smaller inner movements to a towering Finale.

Timpani strokes and an anxiety-ridden ascending chromatic violin line launch the 37-bar introduction that will lead to the audacious Allegro, a Sturm und Drang statement replete with anguished intensity, yearning lyricism, and ferocious rhythmic power. Enjoy its expressive harmonies and modulations, its deep orchestral colors, and its expansive melodies. Brahms then follows the Classical tradition of putting the slow movement second. This Andante sostenuto is set in 3/4 in the unexpected key of E major. A solo oboe sings the dolce melody that will become the soul of the movement, only to be brought back more elaborately by a solo violin at the end.

Brahms’s third movements can’t be classified as minuets, scherzos, or even as dance movements. Rather, the master created a blend of minuet, scherzo, and Austrian lndler. In this instance, we might be justified in labeling it an intermezzo: Set in A-flat major, it is warm and gracious in the same manner as the piano pieces that actually bear that designation. It encloses an energetic trio in B major, later echoed in the movement’s quiet closing measures.

Like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Brahms’s First began in foreboding C minor. And like that work by his great idol, Brahms’s First ultimately triumphs in the key of C major. When it was pointed out that Brahms’s big Allegro melody recalls Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the master retorted, “Any ass can see that!” (Like Beethoven’s melody, Brahms’s has been fashioned into a felicitous hymn tune.) This sunlit Finale’s final moments are surely some of the most uplifting in the entire symphonic repertoire.

Recommended Recording: Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI Classics)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.