Passion + Enchantment

Saturday, November 9, 2013 • 7:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church

Orchestra Seattle
Seattle Chamber Singers
Stephen Rogers Radcliffe, conductor

Program

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Overture and Incidental Music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21/61

—intermission—

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52

Johannes Brahms
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56

About the Concert

Guest conductor Stephen Rogers Radcliffe, music director of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, leads OSSCS in Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, beginning with the overture—composed at age 17—that George Grove deemed “the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music.” Mendelssohn’s celebrated scherzo and familiar wedding march alternate with rarely heard selections for solo vocalists and women’s voices.

Brahms composed his famed Liebeslieder Waltzes for chorus and piano four-hands, but later orchestrated the accompaniment to several of them himself. He initially composed his set of variations on a theme then attributed to Haydn for two pianos: only after playing through the two-piano version with Clara Schumann did Brahms orchestrate the work, which, musicologist John Horton has noted, “incorporate[s] almost every conceivable device of contrapuntal ingenuity…one can only marvel how Brahms emulates and even surpasses Bach.”

About the Conductor

radcliffe

Guest conductor Stephen Rogers Radcliffe has served as music director of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra since 2006. He continues to fulfill the promise recognized when he made his Lincoln Center conducting debut with Metropolitan Opera sopranos Jan DeGaetani, Susan Graham and Dawn Upshaw. Since then, Mr. Radcliffe has conducted orchestras on four continents, produced compact disc recordings of operatic, orchestral and chamber music works, and has fostered the development of audiences through innovative educational and artistic programs. An assistant conductor of the Boston Lyric Opera, Radcliffe was founder and music director of the New York Chamber Ensemble—performing for over a decade at Lincoln Center, artistic director of the Cape May Music Festival, and principal guest conductor of the Hungarian Virtuosi, which he led in international touring, television and radio broadcast performances and recording projects.

Mr. Radcliffe holds a degree in Music Education from the New England Conservatory and has led youth orchestra programs throughout the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Asia. He holds a Masters Degree in conducting from the University of Michigan and has studied at the Aspen and Tanglewood Music Centers as well as at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Sienna. Mr. Radcliffe is currently the Harry and Mildred Remis Endowed Fellow at Brandeis University. His principal teachers include Gustav Meier, Leonard Bernstein and Franco Ferrara.

Program Notes

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Incidental Music, Op. 61

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, and died November 4, 1847, in Leipzig. He wrote this overture in 1826, completing it on August 6; Carl Loewe conducted the public premiere on February 20, 1827, in Stettin. Mendelssohn composed the remaining incidental music in 1843; it debuted in a private performance at Potsdam on October 14 of that year, followed by a public premiered four days later in Berlin. The overture employs pairs of woodwinds, horns and trumpets, plus ophicleide (or tuba), timpani and strings. The incidental music requires another trumpet, 3 trombones, cymbals, three vocal soloists, and four-part female chorus.

Young Felix Mendelssohn’s prodigious talents—both as a composer and a pianist—exceeded those of other famous musical prodigies, even Mozart. But the well-to-do Mendelssohn family had no need to parade young Felix around the continent, so he rarely performed in public prior to his 18th birthday, while much of the music he composed remained unpublished and was performed only in private—including the brilliant string octet he wrote at age 16.

Mendelssohn’s studies extended beyond music to literature, drawing, Greek, history and science. When new German translations of Shakespeare’s plays became available, A Midsummer Night’s Dream so captured Felix’s 17-year-old imagination that he composed an overture (in less than a month’s time) for him to perform on piano with his sister Fanny prior to a reading of the play. Under the guidance of his teacher, Adolph Bernhard Marx, Mendelssohn subsequently orchestrated the overture, resulting in what many consider his most perfect composition. Asked several years later by his publisher to summarize the work, he wrote:

“I believe it will suffice to remember how the rulers of the elves, Oberon and Titania, constantly appear throughout the play with all their train, now here and now there; then comes Prince Theseus of Athens and joins a hunting party in the forest…then the two pairs of tender lovers, who lose and find themselves; finally the troop of clumsy, coarse tradesmen, who ply their ponderous amusements; then again the elves, who entice all—and on this the piece is constructed. When at the end all is happily resolved…the elves return and bless the house, and disappear as morning arrives. So ends the play, and also my overture.”

Half an all-too-brief lifetime later, the King of Prussia commissioned Mendelssohn to supply incidental music for a new staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He wisely left the overture untouched and kept the first act (which takes place in the “real” world) devoid of music, spiriting listeners away to the domain of the fairies at the beginning of Act II with a miraculous, fleet-footed scherzo that incorporates the overture’s “hee-haw” motive for donkey-headed Nick Bottom. When in Act II, Scene 2, Titania orders “Sing me now asleep,” Mendelssohn responds by setting Shakespeare’s words for solo female voices and female chorus.

A dramatic intermezzo concludes Act II, yielding to gently comic music that opens Act III, while a noble nocturne (led by solo horn) bridges Acts III and IV as pairs of lovers slumber in the woods. The most widely familiar movement—and perhaps Mendelssohn’s single most famous composition—is the wedding march that celebrates the nuptials occurring between Acts IV and V. Bottom’s donkey music returns once again for a brief clown dance, and Mendelssohn revisits additional material from the overture in the extended finale, which begin and ends with the same four miraculous chords.

Jeff Eldridge

Johannes Brahms
Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52

Brahms was born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He began composing his first set of Liebeslieder Waltzes for piano four-hands and SATB vocal quartet in 1868, completing them in Baden-Baden during the summer of 1869. The following winter, Brahms orchestrated eight of the 18 waltzes at the request of Ernst Rudorff, who conducted the premiere of that new version—calling for pairs of woodwinds (with one flute doubling piccolo), 2 horns and strings—in Berlin on March 19, 1870. Last November, Richard W. Sargeant Jr. completed his orchestration of the remaining 10 waltzes, heard for the first time this evening, using the same instrumentation.

He was logical and studious and could be reserved, withdrawn, and even morose, but he also loved coarse humor; he was known for his caustic wit (“If there is anyone here whom I have not insulted, I beg his pardon!”) yet possessed a tenderness that he expressed through his ardent and sensuous music. He was frequently faced with the choice between love and committed relationship on one hand, and freedom on the other, and while he longed for commitment, he invariably chose freedom. His name was Johannes Brahms and he was a contradictory character who—as a pianist, conductor and composer—was not only one of the major musical masters of the 19th century, but is now ranked among the greatest composers of all time.

With their lucidity of structure (“Without craftsmanship,” he observed, “inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind”) and their lush harmonies, sublime passion and emotional lyricism, Brahms’ works combine the finest characteristics of both the Classical and the Romantic styles of musical composition. His four symphonies are considered some of the finest ever written, and his lieder (art songs) are loved the musical world over. He could be pleasingly unassuming when it came to his own compositional prowess: below the opening bars of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Blue Danube waltz, scribbled on Adele Strauss’ fan, Brahms wrote: “Alas! Not by Johannes Brahms.” He once commented, “It is not hard to compose, but it is wonderfully hard to let the superfluous notes fall under the table.”

At age 10, Brahms played piano in Hamburg’s rough waterfront district taverns and dance halls to augment his family’s income. He had studied piano from the age of seven and theory and composition from age 13, arranging music for his bass-playing father’s light orchestra while absorbing the popular Gypsy style associated with Hungarian folk music. By age 20, his reputation as a pianist enabled him to become concert-tour accompanist to the famous Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi. Brahms’ early compositions caught the eye of Joseph Joachim, the leading violin virtuoso of his time, who facilitated a visit between Brahms and Robert Schumann. The elder composer praised the “young eagle” as a genius “called forth to give us the highest ideal expression of our time.” Brahms soon numbered among his influential musical friends and advisors both Schumann and his wife, Clara, an excellent pianist to whom he remained very close after Schumann’s mental collapse and subsequent death in 1856, and for whom he developed a deep romantic ardor that later settled into an enduring friendship.

Brahms returned to Hamburg in 1859, hoping to obtain an official conducting post and devote himself to composition, but the directors of the Philharmonic could not forget that Brahms came from the slums and declined to offer him an appointment. He thus became a resident of Vienna, remaining there for 35 years as a renowned and successful bachelor composer of music in almost every genre except opera. (“It would be as difficult for me to marry,” he said, “as to write an opera. But after the first experience I should probably undertake a second!”) He conducted a Viennese musical society and revived many neglected compositions by Bach, Handel and Mozart. He was widely acquainted with older music, edited music of the Baroque and Classical eras, and collected music manuscripts. Brahms succumbed to liver cancer at age 64, 10 months after the death of Clara Schumann, probably the one great love of his life.

Among the music that Brahms edited during his first decade in Vienna were various compositions of Franz Schubert, including 12 Ländler in 1864, which inspired Brahms to create his own set of 16 piano waltzes (published as Op. 39) the following year. After editing another set of 20 Schubert Ländler in May 1869, Brahms composed his first set of 18 Liebeslieder-Walzer (“Love-song Waltzes”) as parlor pieces for piano four-hands and a quartet of voices, choosing his texts from Georg Friedrich Daumer’s Polydora: Ein weltpoetisches Liederbuch (1855), a collection of German translations and imitations of Russian, Polish and Hungarian folk poems.

Ten of the pieces were heard for the first time, in the German city of Karlsruhe, on October 6, 1869, with pianists Clara Schumann and Hermann Levi reading from the manuscript and accompanying four singers. The first complete performance took place in Vienna on January 5, 1870, with Brahms and Clara Schumann at the piano.

The 18 imaginative settings of love-poems that make up these sophisticated, elegant and endlessly diverse Liebeslieder-Walzer express and illustrate love’s many moods and aspects, featuring exhilarating rhythmic freedom within the boundaries of the waltz’s triple meter. This set of delightful miniatures reflect Vienna’s popular cultural interests while simultaneously incorporating “Hungarian” influences and paying homage to both Schubert and Brahms’ friend Johann Strauss Jr. Brahms may also have intended them as a box of musical bon-bons created with the hope of winning the heart of the daughter of Robert and Clara Schumann, but they failed in that purpose. The composer, however, wrote to his publisher, Simrock: “I must confess that it was the first time I smiled at the sight of a printed work—of mine! I will risk being called an ass if our Liebeslieder don’t give pleasure to a few people.”

Brahms also indicated to Simrock the possibility of adapting some of the waltzes for “small choir and orchestra” to create some “pretty concert numbers.” Ernst Rudorff conducted the premiere of eight orchestrated waltzes (using a vocal quartet, rather than the chorus Brahms had specified) along with an additional waltz that Brahms would include in his Op. 65 Neue Liebeslieder, published a few years later. Although Rudroff encouraged Brahms to orchestrate the other 10 Liebeslieder waltzes, the composer lost enthusiasm for the project.

“In his orchestration,” notes Richard Sargeant, who created the orchestral versions of the remaining 10 waltzes heard this evening, “Brahms thinned out the textures and deleted many of the octave doublings. Even though I made some choices that Brahms would not have made, I tried to orchestrate in the same spirit.”

Lorelette Knowles

Johannes Brahms
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 52

Brahms composed these variations between May and early July of 1873, first performing them (with Clara Schumann) in a version for two pianos in Bonn on August 20 of that year. On November 2, 1873, the composer conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the premiere of the orchestral version, which calls for pairs of woodwinds (plus piccolo and contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle and strings.

Brahms’ appreciation of music by his forbears extended well beyond Schubert, whose Ländler inspired the Liebeslieder Waltzes. He took special interest in the variation form, as epitomized by Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, composing his own remarkable Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel for piano in 1861.

Around 1870, Carl Ferdinand Pohl, librarian of the Society of Friends of Music in Vienna, showed Brahms a set of six unpublished Feldpartiten (divertimentos for wind instruments designed to played outdoors) he believed to be the work of Franz Joseph Haydn. Modern scholarship has established that the music in question was the work of another composer—most likely Ignaz Pleyel, a Haydn pupil—but nevertheless Brahms became enchanted by a slow movement with the appellation “Chorale St. Antoni,” indicating that it may have been based on a pre-existing folk tune.

Brahms jotted down the brief movement, filing it away in a folder he labeled “Copies of outstanding masterpieces of the 16th–18th centuries for study purposes.” He revisited this music in 1873, when he set about composing another set of variations. Although first performed privately in a version for two pianos, it is possible that Brahms had in mind from the outset an orchestral setting of the work—in spite of the fact that a freestanding set of variations for orchestra was virtually unprecedented at the time. This work more than any other helped build the confidence he needed in his own orchestrational prowess to break the logjam in his attempts to complete a first symphony, which appeared in 1876. (While Brahms had already produced masterpieces such as the German Requiem that involved orchestra, self-doubt had kept a symphony in gestational form since 1855.)

The “Haydn” Variations open with a straightforward presentation of the theme that largely maintains the original key (B♭ major) and orchestration (pairs of oboes, horns and bassoons, plus contrabassoon), subtly adding pizzicato strings and a few notes from other wind instruments along the way. The opening strain features two five-measure phrases, an irregularity that surely attracted Brahms to the melody.

Eight variations follow, three of them in B♭ minor, and several dominated by the three-against-two rhythmic conflict in which Brahms delighted. For the finale, he created a passacaglia—a set of 17 brief variations that unfold over a repeated five-measure bass pattern, and a further tribute to his Baroque predecessors—leading to a joyous and grand conclusion.

Jeff Eldridge