19/20 Season Classics 4 - Scottish Fantasy

Deep Summer Music

Elizabeth Brown Larsen was born on December 24, 1950, in Wilmington, Delaware. Deep Summer Music was composed in 1982 and first performed by the Minnesota Orchestra under the direction of Joseph Giunta. The score calls for a full orchestra consisting of two flutes (2nd doubles piccolo), two oboes, clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, trumpet, three trombones, timpani, two percussion (one-vibraphone, orchestra bells; two- marimba, triangle, chimes), and strings. Duration is 8 minutes.

Despite her birth in Delaware, Libby Larsen’s career has been especially connected to Minnesota, where she studied composition at the University of Minnesota with Dominick Argento, Eric Stokes, and Paul Fetler. It was there, too, that she made the acquaintance of fellow composer Stephen Paulus, with whom she co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum in 1973; 10 years later she and Paulus were jointly selected as composers-in-residence of the Minnesota Symphony, which resulted in the first orchestral recordings of their music. Larsen’s Symphony: Water Music, designed as an homage to Handel and Debussy, yet entirely her own, the work of a composer from the “land of 10,000 lakes.” Later she was the composer-in-residence with the Charlotte Symphony and with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, for which she composed her fifth symphony, Solo Symphony. Her output includes roughly a dozen operas, large and small, dozens of orchestral works, a wide range of chamber music, and many vocal works for solo voice or chorus.

Larsen has been an active musical citizen, working with organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts, The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), and the League of American Orchestras as a persuasive advocate for the arts. As this drive to communicate might suggest, she has been interested from the beginning in connecting with listeners, and her music has done that by its energy, color, imaginative titles, and recognition of musical traditions both classical and popular.

In a video about her music produced for Minnesota Public Broadcasting, she explained the phrase “deep summer” as referring to her favorite time of year in Minnesota—when the crops are getting ready for harvest, and the thousands of lakes shimmer and vast numbers of trees rustle and whisper in the breeze. The music of her piece suggests the natural world in that part of the country, in a delicate musical sound, richly evoked in the orchestral color.

Regarding the present work, Libby Larsen has written:

Panorama and horizon are part of the natural culture of the plain states. On the plains, one cannot help but be affected by the sweep of the horizon and depth of color as the eye adjusts from the nearest to the farthest view. The glory of this phenomenon is particularly evident at harvest time, in the deep summer, when acres of ripened wheat, sunflowers, corn, rye, and oats blaze with color. In the deep summer, winds create wave after wave of harvest ripeness which, when beheld by the human eye, creates a kind of emotional peace and awe: a feeling of abundance combined with the knowledge that this abundance is only as bountiful as nature will allow.

Scottish Fantasy, Opus 46

Max Karl August Bruch was born in Cologne, Germany, on January 6, 1838, and died in Friedenau, near Berlin, on October 20, 1920. He composed his Fantasie unter freier Benutzung schottischer Volksmelodien (“Fantasy making free use of Scottish folk melodies,” or, more conveniently, “Scottish Fantasy”) in 1880. In addition to the solo violin, the score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, bass drum and cymbals, and strings. Duration is about 30 minutes.

Max Bruch was a child prodigy who grew into a gifted composer of extraordinary taste and refinement, a composer who could always be relied on to turn out works of professional finish and often of great beauty. He composed in virtually every medium and was highly successful in most. His cantata Frithjof, Opus 23 (1864), was extraordinarily popular for the rest of the century throughout Europe and America; for example, it used to be performed in Boston every year or so. Similarly his Odysseus (a cantata built on scenes from Homer), Achilleus, and a setting of Schiller’s Das Lied von der Glocke (“The Song of the Bell”) were long popular in the heyday of the cantata and oratorio market that was fueled by annual choral festivals in just about every town of any size or cultural pretension in Europe or America. He also wrote three operas, three symphonies, songs, choral pieces, and chamber music. He was active as a conductor in Germany and England and eventually became a professor of composition at the Berlin Academy.

Yet today he is remembered primarily for a few concertos. There can be little doubt that the violin was his preferred solo instrument. With the exception of a double concerto for clarinet and viola, all of his compositions for soloist with orchestra—three concertos, the Scottish Fantasy, a Serenade, and a Konzertstück—feature the violin. The absence of other media in his concerto output was not for lack of opportunity or invitation. But Bruch felt a strong disinclination to compose for the piano. When Eugen d’Albert specifically asked for a piano concerto in 1886, Bruch wrote to his publisher Simrock, “Well—me, write a piano concerto! That’s the limit!” Twelve years earlier, when Simrock had suggested that there might be a market for a cello concerto, Bruch was even more outspoken: “I have more important things to do than write stupid cello concertos!”*

In any case, Bruch limited himself almost totally to the violin, and of his three concertos for that instrument, the first was one of his earliest successes and remains the most frequently performed of all his works. The fact that his other work has almost totally dropped out of sight may have been caused, in large part, by his desire to compose music that was immediately “accessible,” comprehensible to the bulk of the audience on first hearing. Such music rarely retains its interest over the stylistic changes of a century. Bruch was certainly never embroiled in the kind of controversy that followed Brahms or Wagner or most of the other great innovators. In many respects he resembled the earlier Spohr and Mendelssohn, both of whom wrote a great deal of merely ingratiating music (though Mendelssohn, to be sure, also composed music that was more than that); it might be well made, but it did not speak to audiences across the decades, though every now and then someone would trot out one piece or another, having discovered that it was undeniably “effective.”

As the full German title of the work—a mouthful indeed—indicates, the fantasy is not simply a flashy arrangement of some popular tunes, but actually an extensively worked out score that takes the folk melodies as a starting point and treats them in a developmental style, always with a canny eye (or ear) to their effectiveness on the solo violin and in the full orchestra. Though the music does not, for the most part, sound particularly “Scottish,” there are certainly hints of pentatonic melody and of that crisp rhythm known as the “Scotch snap,” a very short note on an accented beat followed by a longer note. In its essence, though, the Scottish Fantasy is a full-scale violin concerto with an introductory slow movement that proceeds into the normal three-movement (fast-slow-fast) pattern, without “academic” pretensions, but with plenty of energy and color, ending with a martial splash, as of all the Highland clans a-gathering.

*To be sure, there were few cello concertos around to serve as inspiring models at the time--only scores by Saint-Saëns and, more tenuously, Robert Schumann, hold a place in the repertory. Moreover, there were relatively few virtuosi of the cello whose performances might have inspired a composer to anything other than humdrum scale-work. The earliest cello concerto to be firmly established in the standard repertory is Dvořák’s, and it comes from a good 20 years after Bruch’s comment. Dvořák had been preceded and inspired by Victor Herbert, who was himself a virtuoso cellist and whose Second Cello Concerto (1893) can still be heard occasionally.

Symphony No. 2 in D, Opus 73

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. The Symphony No. 2 was composed in 1877, during a productive summer stay at Pörtschach, Carinthia, Austria; the first performance took place under the direction of Hans Richter in Vienna on December 30, 1877. The symphony is scored for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 40 minutes.

It is a well-known fact that Brahms put off allowing a symphony to be brought to performance until his 43rd year, so aware was he of the giant shadow of Beethoven. But once he had broken the ice, he did not hesitate to try again. His First Symphony was completed in 1876; the Second came just the following year, when Brahms spent the first of three happy and musically productive summers at Lake Wörth, near Pörtschach in the southern Austrian province of Carinthia. Between 1877 and 1879 he composed a major work each summer—the Second Symphony, the Violin Concerto, and the G‑Major Violin Sonata. Richter’s performance of the symphony in Vienna was an enormous success, and it received similar acclaim in Leipzig, Germany two weeks later. (To be sure, Vienna and Leipzig were the centers of the Brahms cult, with critic Eduard Hanslick in the former and his dear friend Clara Schumann in the latter.)

Elsewhere the notices were more varied. The criticism most frequently encountered was that Brahms’s music was too intellectual, too calculated, had too little emotional quality. In the 1880s a Boston critic, W. F. Apthorp, wrote that it would take “a year of severe intellectual work” to “really fathom the Second Symphony,” and he wondered whether the effort was worth it.

Today the reaction is just the opposite; most listeners regard Brahms’s Second as the most spontaneous ̶ the most sheerly sensuous ̶ work that pulses with the sounds of nature. Brahms’s good friend and correspondent Dr. Theodor Billroth wrote to him after hearing the Second, “How beautiful it must be on the Wörthersee!” Or, as the title of a recent book about the Second by Harvard musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann put it, the work is Brahms’s “late idyll.” It feels much more relaxed than the tense, driven First Symphony.

Nonetheless, the Second is, if anything, even more finely precision-ground than before; the parts fit as in a superbly made Swiss watch. Everything in the first movement grows out of some aspect of its opening phrase and its three component parts: a three‑note “motto” in cellos and basses, the arpeggiated horn call, and a rising scale figure in the woodwinds. It might be easy to overlook the first three notes as a mere preparation for the “true” theme in the horns (after all, the recapitulation omits those three notes, starting with the horns); yet at every point echoes of those three notes appear—sometimes as quarter notes (as in the opening), sometimes speeded up to eighth notes (which has the effect of changing the 3/4 motion to 6/8), and sometimes slowed down to half notes (which has the opposite effect, changing 3/4 to 3/2 in feeling). And the first movement coda is a veritable encyclopedia of treatments of the motto.

One of the loveliest moments in the first movement occurs at the arrival of the second theme in violas and cellos, a melting waltz tune that is first cousin to Brahms’s famous Lullaby, which seems utterly relaxing. Brahms saturates the melody with lower string sound giving the tune to the cellos and placing them above the violas, who have an accompanying part.

The second movement, a rather dark reaction to the sunshine of the first, begins with a stepwise melody rising in the bassoons against a similar melody descending in the cellos, the two ideas mirroring each other. Rising and falling in slow, graceful shapes, each grows organically into rich and sinuous patterns.

Beethoven would have written a scherzo for his third movement. Brahms avoids direct comparison by writing a lyrical intermezzo, though shaped like a scherzo with two trios. A serenading 3/4 melody in the oboe opens the main section, which is twice interrupted by Presto sections in different meters, the first in 2/4, the second in 3/8 time. This aroused consternation among Boston critics a century ago. John Sullivan Dwight commented, “It is all pretty, but it hardly seems to hold together—the giddy fancies of a wayward humor.” It makes sense, though, when one realizes, as early listeners clearly did not, that each interruption is a variation and further development of the oboe tune. Trios are normally inserted for purposes of contrast, but Brahms achieves his contrast through similarity.

The final Allegro is as close‑knit as the first movement and is based on thematic ideas that can ultimately be traced back to the very beginning of the symphony, including the motto figure. Here Brahms’s lavish invention makes familiar ideas sound fresh in new relationships. The great miracle of the Second Symphony is that it sounds so easy and immediate, yet turns out to be so elaborately shaped, richly repaying the most concentrated study, yet offering immediate delight to the casual listener.