2015-2016 Subscription Series March 12 and 13, 2016 Program Notes Dr. Richard E. Rodda PRELUDE TO DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG (“THE MASTERSINGERS OF NUREMBERG”) (1862) Richard Wagner (1813-1883) The composition of Die Meistersinger, which Ignace Paderewski called “the greatest work of genius ever achieved by any artist in any field of human activity,” was intimately bound to the ebb and flow of the most flamboyant period of Wagner’s life. He first conceived an opera based on the singing guilds of old Nuremberg during the summer of 1845, while he was taking a rest cure at the spa town of Marienbad just after finishing Tannhäuser. A reading of Georg Gervinus’ 1826 History of German Literature yielded ideas for both Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin, and rough scenarios for the two works were sketched by August. Wagner chose to tackle the serious Lohengrin first, perhaps because he still chafed from the failure of his only earlier comic opera, Das Liebesverbot of 1836. Then came his political activism and expulsion from Germany in 1849, and the years of financial struggle and marital distress, and the awesome labor that yielded up the first two and part of the third Ring operas, and the Wesendonck affair, and the composition of Tristan — and Die Meistersinger had to wait for them all. In 1859, with Tristan newly completed, Wagner fled from the Wesendoncks in Switzerland to settle in Paris, still barred from returning home to Germany. The impetus to begin serious work on Die Meistersinger may have come from the lifting of the German edict against him in 1861, a time when he wanted to further his reputation and the performance of his works in his homeland. (He said that the new piece was to be “something thoroughly light and popular” designed for “rapid circulation through European opera houses.”) Once again allowed free travel, he visited Vienna, where he heard Lohengrin for the first time on May 31, 1861, then journeyed to Weimar to see Liszt, and ended his trip late in the year at Mainz, where he convinced his publisher, Franz Schott, to advance him 10,000 francs against the publication of the new opera, which he promised would be finished by the following October. After a thorough study of Johann Christoph
Wagenseil’s Nuremberg Chronicle of 1697, from which he derived not only information about the customs, life and thought of the Medieval city but also the names for the members of his stage singing guild, and Jakob Grimm’s 1811 study, Ueber altdeutschen Meistergesang, the source of at least one of the opera’s melodies, Wagner completed the libretto in Paris in January 1862. Hounded by creditors and eager to return to Germany, Wagner left Paris early in 1862, and found a small house along the Rhine at Biebrich, not far from Mainz and his publisher, Schott. It was there, in March, that he began the music for Die Meistersinger. Much of the first act was completed during the following months, but Wagner, who always lived far beyond his means, was again forced to put the work aside to earn enough money on various conducting tours to keep his creditors at bay. On one of those tour concerts, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on November 1, 1862, he introduced the Die Meistersinger Prelude with good success, though the opera itself was far from finished. Just when his fortunes were at their nadir (he sneaked out of Vienna early in 1864 to avoid being thrown into debtors’ prison), he received a summons from the 19-year-old Ludwig II of Bavaria, who had mounted the throne only two months earlier upon the death of his father, Maximilian II. At their meeting in the Residenz in Munich on May 4, 1864, Ludwig, nearly insane with his worship of Wagner and his music, informed the composer that he wanted to be his patron, providing him not only with everything he required for his livelihood, but also with the ideal conditions for the performance of his works. Wagner pounced immediately on the offer. As soon as he had installed himself in splendor in Munich, he had Hans von Bülow, one of his greatest champions and interpreters, appointed to the staff of the opera, not just to conduct his music but also so that Wagner could have access to Bülow’s much-desired wife, Cosima, the daughter of Liszt. As soon as Bülow arrived, Wagner set him to work on producing the ideal Tristan, for which endeavor Cosima acted as secretary — and something more — to the composer. Grandiose and expensive plans were set in motion to construct a Festspielhaus at Bayreuth dedicated solely to his works. Factions formed against Wagner for the manner in which he was taxing the Bavarian exchequer as well as for his moral turpitude (a daughter, Isolde, which Bülow at first passed off as his own child, was born to Cosima and Wagner in April 1865), and he thought it prudent to leave Munich, despite Ludwig’s pleas to stay.
In November 1865, Wagner, with munificent financial support from Ludwig, went to Geneva, where the first act of Die Meistersinger was at last completed in February 1866. In March, soon after Wagner’s estranged first wife, Minna, died in Dresden, Cosima, still married to Bülow, joined him; they moved into a luxurious house, Triebchen, on Lake Lucerne. For the sake of appearances, Cosima occasionally returned to her husband in Munich until the fall of 1868, when she settled finally at Triebchen. The Bülows were divorced in July 1870; Wagner and Cosima, already the parents of three children — Isolde, Eva (born in 1867) and Tristan (1869) — were married on August 25th. The composition and orchestration of Die Meistersinger were completed early in 1868, more than two decades after the idea was conceived. The opera’s premiere, conducted by Hans von Bülow in Munich on June 21, 1868, was a triumph. The plot of Die Meistersinger centers around a song contest held in 16th-century Nuremberg on St. John’s Day (June 24th). The winner is to marry Eva, daughter of the goldsmith Veit Pogner. Walther von Stolzing, a young knight from Franconia who has fallen in love with Eva, vows to win the contest and her hand, even though he is not a member of the guild of Mastersingers. He is granted permission to compete despite the attempts of Sixtus Beckmesser, the town clerk and also a contestant, to discredit him for not knowing the ancient guild rules governing the composition of a song. Eva and Walther communicate their love to the wise cobbler Hans Sachs, who remains their friend and adviser despite his own love for the girl. Sachs helps Walther shape his musical and poetic ideas, which bring a new freshness and expression to the staid ways of the guild. (Walther and his new art, of course, represent Wagner.) Beckmesser, having stolen Walther’s poem, gives it a ludicrous musical setting, and makes a fool of himself at the contest. Sachs invites Walther to show how the verses should be sung, and the young knight is acclaimed the winner. The Prelude, written between March and June 1862, was the first part of the score to be completed, and served as the thematic source for much of the opera. It opens with the majestic processional of the Mastersingers intoned by the full orchestra. A tender theme portraying the love of Eva and Walther leads to a second Mastersinger melody, this one said to have been based on The Crowned Tone by the 17th-century guild member Heinrich Mögling. The Prelude’s first section closes with the development of another love motive and phrases later heard in Walther’s Prize Song. The central portion is largely devoted to a cackling, fugato parody of the first Mastersinger theme that anticipates Beckmesser’s
buffooneries. The Prelude is brought to a magnificent ending with a masterful weaving together of all of its themes.
TRUMPET CONCERTO IN E-FLAT MAJOR (1803) Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) Sic transit gloria mundi. During his lifetime, Johann Nepomuk Hummel was judged to be among the greatest musicians of the age. As a composer, he was placed second only to Beethoven. Many thought his piano playing without peer, especially in his improvisations. He was one of the most respected (and expensive) keyboard teachers in Europe, who published a tutor that sold thousands of copies within days of its appearance. His talents for conducting and management enabled him to assume the position as successor to Haydn at Esterháza, as well as important posts in Vienna, Stuttgart and Weimar. He was among the first musicians to campaign for a uniform copyright law. He traveled widely, befriended such notables as Goethe, and seemed to be a thoroughly likeable person whose success did not go to his head. Today, he is largely forgotten. Hummel, born in November 1778 in Pressburg (now Bratislava), was a prodigy. When his father, a string player and conductor, moved the family to Vienna when Johann was eight to take a job at the little theater run by Emanuel Schickaneder (the librettist five years later of The Magic Flute), the boy came to the notice of Mozart, who took him into his household as a pupil for the next two years. After this brief apprenticeship, Mozart encouraged Johann to go out into the world and make himself known, and a five-year series of concert appearances was undertaken throughout northern Europe and England. Hummel enjoyed good success, and he was an accomplished musician when he returned to Vienna in 1793. During the next decade he performed little, concentrating instead on study (with Salieri, Albrechtsberger and Haydn), composition and teaching. He met Beethoven, and the two began a long, though stormy, friendship. In 1804, Hummel replaced Joseph Haydn as head of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s musical establishment (on Haydn’s recommendation), composing, conducting, training the choirboys in singing and violin and keyboard, assembling a Haydn archive, and overseeing the music for the court theaters until 1811. He then toured as a concert virtuoso until receiving an appointment as Kapellmeister at Stuttgart in 1816. That position did not allow him sufficient time to pursue his career as a pianist, however, so two years later he negotiated a more suitable contract
at Weimar, where he remained for the rest of his life. The 1820s were a productive time for Hummel as composer and performer, but he suffered a decline in popularity during his last years, when the public was dazzled by the virtuoso wizardry of Paganini and Liszt, and beguiled by the new sensitivity of the music of the early Romantic composers. Hummel’s death, in 1837, was regarded as the passing of the Classical era. Hummel occupies an important place in the history of music. He carried the Mozartian tradition into the 19th century and flavored it lightly with some newer harmonic and stylistic confections, resulting in a style that the noted scholar and pianist Charles Rosen called “post-Classicism.” Elegance, reserve and a certain formal predictability characterize much of Hummel’s large output, which includes works in all the major genres of the time except the symphony. He was especially known for the elaborate decorations with which he filled his own keyboard performances, a quality that resulted in a rather mannered version of what seems in Mozart fresh and inventive. Some of his keyboard techniques and compositional devices were appropriated by such Romantic composers as Mendelssohn, Schumann and even Liszt, but Hummel himself remained more closely allied to the 18th than the 19th century. His musicianship and talent are unquestioned, but, as Joel Sachs wrote in the New Grove’s Dictionary, “His music reached the highest level accessible to one who lacks ultimate genius.” Hummel composed his Trumpet Concerto in 1803 for Anton Weidinger, the virtuoso who had inspired Haydn’s only work in the genre seven years before. The Concerto, first played by Weidinger for members of the Esterházy court on New Year’s Day, 1804, may have been instrumental in securing him the position as Haydn’s successor with that noble clan. The solo part, to which the manuscript suggests Weidinger made significant contributions, was tailored to the capabilities of the keyed trumpet, a new instrument which Weidinger helped to develop. Into Beethoven’s time, the trumpet was still a “natural” instrument, i.e., simply a wound metal tube capable of producing only the signal-call notes of a bugle. To fill the gaps between the available tones, various mechanical experiments were tried beginning in the late 18th century, including Weidinger’s keyed trumpet, which achieved pitch alterations by means of levers covering holes along the sides of the instrument. It was for this instrument that Haydn and Hummel composed their trumpet concertos. Though the instrument inspired two of the finest brass concertos in the repertory, its tone quality was flawed by its key mechanism, and it found little favor. It was
superseded by the invention of the modern piston valve in 1815 by the Berlin horn player Heinrich Stölzel, which allowed brass instruments to produce the complete chromatic compass of notes with full, ringing tones. It is the system still in use today. The opening Allegro of Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto is cast in the traditional sonataconcerto form. Its orchestral introduction contains both of the movement’s important themes: an octave-leap motive inspired by the fanfare proclivities of the solo instrument, and a pert complementary phrase in dotted rhythms initiated by the strings after a brief pause. The trumpet appropriates and elaborates these melodies as the movement progresses through a second exposition, a compact development section and a recapitulation. (Hummel, rather extraordinarily, allowed for no cadenzas in this Concerto.) The Andante is in the nature of an expressive operatic aria, beginning in a somber minor mode before turning to brighter feelings in its second portion. The movement is remarkable for its chromatic writing, employing notes which would have been impossible to produce on a natural trumpet but which were newly available on Weidinger’s keyed instrument. The finale is a bounding rondo in which Hummel further exploited the low register scales and chromatic inflections of the keyed trumpet. The movement is merry closing music, the sort of thing the Germans call a Kehraus, a “sweeping-out” — the last, lively dance of the evening.
SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN D MAJOR, Op. 73 (1877) Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) “The new symphony is merely a ‘sinfonia,’ and I shall not need to play it for you beforehand. You have only to sit down at the piano, put your little feet on the two pedals in turn, and strike the chord of F minor several times in succession, first in the treble, then in the bass, fortissimo and pianissimo, and you will gradually gain a vivid impression of my latest work.” With the premiere of his pastoral Second Symphony only a month away, Brahms served up this red herring in early November to his friend, correspondent and supporter Elisabeth von Herzogenberg to playfully mislead her about the character of this lovely work. He tossed another false clue to Clara Schumann when he told her that the halcyon first movement was “quite elegiac in character,” and, again to Elisabeth, that so sad a piece would require the orchestra to play with crepe bands on their sleeves and the printed score would have to bordered in black. “The new Symphony is so melancholy that
you will not be able to bear it,” he told his publisher, Fritz Simrock. Such statements are characteristic of Brahms both in their eccentric, sometimes cranky humor, and their reticence to divulge any information about a work that had not been publicly displayed. He was always reluctant to discuss or even mention new pieces to anyone, even to such trusted friends as Clara Schumann. (Clara begged him for years to complete his First Symphony without knowing that the project was almost constantly on his mind and on his desk during the time.) He usually destroyed all his drafts and tentative sketches for a finished composition so that his preliminary thoughts and working procedures remain a mystery. He refused to be disturbed while composing. Once, a youthful admirer, unable to gain an audience with Brahms, set up a ladder to climb to the composer’s second-story window to deliver his encomium. Brahms, deep in work and detesting any distraction, angrily threw the ladder from the sill, causing the young man no little harm. It is because of such secretiveness that little is known about the actual composition of the Second Symphony. In the summer of 1877, Brahms repaired to the village of Pörtschach in the Carinthian hills of southern Austria. He wrote to a Viennese friend, “Pörtschach is an exquisite spot, and I have found a lovely and apparently pleasant abode in the Castle! You may tell everybody this; it will impress them.... The place is replete with Austrian coziness and kindheartedness.” The lovely country surroundings inspired Brahms’ creativity to such a degree that he wrote to the critic Eduard Hanslick, “So many melodies fly about, one must be careful not to tread on them.” Brahms plucked from the gentle Pörtschach breezes a surfeit of beautiful music for his Second Symphony, which was apparently written quickly during that summer — a great contrast to the fifteen-year gestation of the preceding symphony. He brought the manuscript with him when he returned to Vienna at the end of the summer, and played it at an informal gathering in a four-hand piano version with Ignaz Brüll in September. Brahms kept the true nature of the piece from the friends who were not at that gathering, and he was delighted by their surprised response at the public premiere late in December. Brahms’ misleading statements depicting the Second Symphony as a tragic work were plausible in view of the stony grandeur of its predecessor. The premiere audience had every expectation of hearing a grand, portentous statement similar in tone to the First Symphony, but was treated instead to the composer’s most gentle and sun-dappled music.
After their initial befuddlement had passed, they warmed to the occasion as the performance progressed, and such was their enthusiasm at the end that they demanded an encore of the third movement. Brahms himself allowed, “[The work] sounded so merry and tender, as though it were especially written for a newly wedded couple.” Early listeners heard in it “a glimpse of Nature, a spring day amid soft mosses, springing woods, birds’ notes, and the bloom of flowers.” Richard Specht, the composer’s biographer, found it “suffused with the sunshine and warm winds playing on the waters.” Comparisons with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony were inevitable, though Brahms never revealed any specific programmatic intention rippling among these notes. Despite its exploration of a new, gentler world of emotions, the work displays again the peerless technical mastery that marked the First Symphony. The conductor Felix Weingartner thought it the best of the four symphonies: “The stream of invention has never flowed so fresh and spontaneous in other works by Brahms, and nowhere else has he colored his orchestration so successfully.” To which critic Olin Downes added, “In his own way, and sometimes with long sentences, he formulates his thought, and the music has the rich chromaticism, depth of shadow and significance of detail that characterize a Rembrandt portrait.” Its effortless technique, rich orchestral writing and surety of emotional effect make this composition a splendid sequel to Brahms’ First Symphony. The earlier work, probably the best first symphony anyone ever composed, is filled with a sense of struggle and hard-won victory, an accurate mirror of Brahms’ monumental efforts over many years to shape a worthy successor to Beethoven’s symphonies. (“You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven,” Brahms lamented.) The Second Symphony, while at least the equal of the First in technical mastery, differs markedly in its mood, which, in Eduard Hanslick’s words, is “cheerful and likable ... [and] may be described in short as peaceful, tender, but not effeminate.” So taken aback by the work’s pastoral quality was the Leipzig critic Dörffel that he wrote of the performance conducted by the composer in his city only two weeks after the Viennese premiere, “We require from him music that is something more than simply pretty ... when he comes before us as a symphonist.” Though this Symphony is more “simply pretty” than any other by Brahms, there is also a rich emotional vein and inevitable structural logic that motivates the music. It is understandable that, of the four he wrote in the genre, this one has probably had, over its history, the most performances.
The Symphony opens with a three-note motive, presented softly by the low strings, which is the germ seed from which much of the thematic material of the movement grows. The horns sing the principal theme, which includes, in its third measure, the three-note motive. The sweet second theme is given in duet by the cellos and violas. The development begins with the horn’s main theme, but is mostly concerned with permutations of the three-note motive around which some stormy emotional sentences accumulate. The placid mood of the opening returns with the recapitulation, and remains largely undisturbed until the end of the movement. The second movement plumbs the deepest emotions in the Symphony. Many of its early listeners found it difficult to understand because they failed to perceive that, in constructing the four broad paragraphs that comprise the Second Symphony, Brahms deemed it necessary to balance the radiant first movement with music of thoughtfulness and introspection in the second. This movement actually covers a wide range of sentiments, shifting, as it does, between light and shade — major and minor. Its form is sonata-allegro, whose second theme is a gently syncopated strain intoned by the woodwinds above the cellos’ pizzicato notes. The following Allegretto is a delightful musical sleight-of-hand. The oboe presents a naive, folk-like tune in moderate triple meter as the movement’s principal theme. The strings take over the melody in the first Trio, but play it in an energetic duple-meter transformation. The return of the sedate original theme is again interrupted by another quick-tempo variation, this one a further development of motives from Trio I. A final traversal of the main theme closes this delectable movement. The finale bubbles with the rhythmic energy and high spirits of a Haydn symphony. The main theme starts with a unison gesture in the strings, but soon becomes harmonically active and spreads through the orchestra. The second theme is a broad, hymnal melody initiated by the strings. The development section, like that of many of Haydn’s finales, begins with a statement of the main theme in the tonic before branching into discussion of the movement’s motives. The recapitulation recalls the earlier themes, and leads with an inexorable drive through the triumphant coda (based on the hymnal melody) to the brazen glow of the final trombone chord.