Classics 5 Program Notes - Brahms & Mendelssohn

Saturday, April 6, 2019 at 7:30pm


Symphony No. 4 in A, Opus 90, Italian

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany on February 3, 1809, and died in Leipzig, Germany on November 4, 1847. He began composing the Italian Symphony while in Rome in the late winter and spring of 1831. Its first performance took place in London at the concerts of the Philharmonic Society on May 13, 1833. The symphony is scored for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets in pairs, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 27 minutes.


As the scion of a well‑off middle‑class German family, Felix Mendelssohn undertook the Grand Tour to the centers of Classical culture in Italy; his tour was somewhat grander than most, lasting from May 1830 to late June 1832, including long stops in Rome, Paris, and London (this latter was familiar territory, since he had already spent some eight months in the British Isles in 1829). Mendelssohn was a great letter writer; his travel impressions have been preserved in a voluminous correspondence embellished with his elegant water-color drawings. His account of travel experiences, sightseeing, and visits is a delightful one, with reports here and there of musical plans.

From Rome on December 20, 1830, Felix wrote to his family, “The Hebrides [Overture] is completed at last, and a strange production it is.” After mentioning a few small vocal pieces he was working on, he added, “After the new year I intend to resume instrumental music, and to write several things for the piano, and probably a symphony of some kind, for two have been haunting my brain.” The two symphonies in question were the ones we know as the Scottish and Italian symphonies. The first of these, like the Hebrides Overture, was a reaction to his visit to Scotland the year before, while the Italian Symphony grew out of his new experiences in Rome and Naples.

Just after Christmas Felix complained of absolutely miserable rainy weather which, no doubt, made it easier for him to settle down to composition instead of running off to Tivoli for a visit to the Este villa and its exquisite gardens and fountains or some other sightseeing wonder. And though the weather became spring-like by mid‑January, he was able to write on the 17th that “the two symphonies also begin to assume a more definite form, and I particularly wish to finish them here.” In any case, by February 22, 1831, Felix wrote to his sister Fanny (herself a gifted composer):

I have once more begun to compose with fresh vigor, and the Italian symphony makes rapid progress; it will be the most sportive piece I have yet composed, especially the last movement. I have not yet decided on the Adagio, and I think I shall reserve it for Naples...The Scottish symphony alone is not yet quite to my liking; if any brilliant idea occurs to me, I will seize it at once, quickly write it down, and finish it at last.

He remained in Rome through Easter in order to experience the full effect of the Papal choir’s liturgical music, his only complaint being that the beautiful weather drove away the “misty Scottish mood,” so he chose to set aside that symphony for the time being.

It was typical of Mendelssohn to work out a sketch at great speed; but it was equally typical of him to exercise acute self‑criticism in polishing the score before declaring it finished. This happened with most of the works he wrote or drafted in Italy: plans and drafts went quickly, but completion was delayed.

None of the pieces that he had so boldly predicted would be finished before he left Italy yet met his standards. And although he did in fact complete the work the following year, he kept claiming to find flaws in it serious enough to demand extensive revision. His doubts are hard to credit today, since the Italian Symphony has long been regarded as one of his most perfect works, but whatever faults—real or imagined—meant that it only appeared (except for a single performance in London) after his premature death. The “Opus 90” of the Italian Symphony gives a misleadingly false impression as a late work, whereas it is actually one of the most brilliant early orchestral scores of this incredibly precocious artist.

About the Music

The richly assured orchestration makes its mark in the opening measures with a background of repeated chords in the woodwinds over which the violins sing their enthusiastic, soaring theme. The sonority of the first measure alone is enough to identify this score out of the entire symphonic repertory. The racing activity never stops or slows, even when the strings become the lightest staccato whisper to bring in the clarinets and bassoons with the secondary theme. But shortly before the end of the exposition the activity slows to allow the solo clarinet one superbly romantic moment, whispering the opening theme in notes twice as long as before. As is usually the case with sonata‑form first movements, Mendelssohn puts a repeat sign at the end of the exposition; in this case, though, the repeat is not simply conventional; it is absolutely essential, since the first ending contains a new idea in the oboe and then in the strings—a soaring‑upward that settles gracefully down to the cadence—which will play an important part in the coda. Much of the development is based on another new idea treated imitatively in the strings with punctuation from the woodwinds until the latter assert the importance of the main theme on top of everything. The new theme is recapitulated in place of the romantic moment for the clarinet from the exposition, and the coda works all of the preceding ideas in with the concluding material from the first ending in a wonderfully imaginative web.

Mendelssohn wrote to his sister Fanny that he would look for inspiration for the second movement in Naples. It may suggest a religious procession through the streets (although such a procession need not have been limited to Naples). The opening figure, a “wailing” gesture, introduces a measured and rather somber marching theme in D minor.

The third movement is the embodiment of grace, with a light but poetic touch in the horn calls deftly answered by violin and flute scales in the Trio.

The saltarello of the finale is a whirlwind of rushing activity, from the orchestral trills and punctuating chords of the first measure through the unison statement of the basic rhythm at the end. The biggest surprise, perhaps, is that Mendelssohn begins in the minor mode and, contrary to all expectation, refuses to yield, even in the very last measures, to a conclusion in the major. But the energy and the brilliant orchestration of the whole, the unflagging verve and ceaseless activity, bring on a conclusion that, for all its surprises, is as fully gratifying as any that Mendelssohn ever wrote.

The Italian Symphony is the product of a very young man—of 22 to 24 years. Not so young, certainly, as the composer of the Octet or the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but still a man in the first flush of his mature powers. And, though Mendelssohn can hardly be said to have ever been an old man, it is unlikely that the intended later revisions, if he had ever gotten around to them as he hoped, could have had any effect but to vitiate the overwhelming sense of youth that we find in this score.




Piano Concerto No. 2 in B‑flat, Opus 83

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897. He began sketching the Piano Concerto No. 2 in the late spring of 1878 and completed the score at Pressbaum, near Vienna, on July 7, 1881. After a private tryout with Hans von Bülow and the Meiningen Orchestra, Brahms gave the first performance on November 9, 1881, in Budapest, with Alesander Erkel conducting the orchestra of the National Theater. The orchestral part calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 46 minutes.


The two piano concertos by Johannes Brahms are works of, respectively, youth and maturity. Brahms himself wrote to his good friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, after the disastrous reception accorded the First in Leipzig, “A second one will sound very different.” No doubt at the time, he was simply reacting to the experience of hearing his own work with a sure awareness of how much he had grown during its gestation; another concerto would naturally reflect that accumulated experience and perhaps be accomplished with less strain. But it was more than two decades before Brahms returned to the medium of the piano concerto. In that time he himself had changed from a sensitive youth, a clean‑shaven stripling of great beauty with flowing blond locks, out of whom surged passionate and demanding music, into a portly and middle‑aged figure with the familiar full beard that may have served as a kind of mask symbolizing his desire for personal privacy, whose music contained more of repose and poignancy.

The earlier D minor concerto, coming at a time of disappointment, frustration, and doubt, caused Brahms enormous trouble. He reused parts of it for his German Requiem and he waited years to hear it, only to have an openly hostile audience. Between the two concertos Brahms composed three major sets of variations—two for piano, on themes by Handel and Paganini, and one for two pianos, later orchestrated, on a theme attributed to Haydn—as well as three string quartets, three piano trios, two string sextets, the piano quintet, the first two symphonies, the violin concerto, and over a hundred small vocal and choral works, as well as the German Requiem and other choral works with orchestra. It is well known that he put off for a long time composing either symphonies or string quartets, because those were the genres especially connected to Beethoven, whose music both inspired him and, at the beginning, inhibited him.

By the time he came to write the Second Concerto, he had gotten over that fear of Beethoven always at his back. The second concerto reached completion with fewer frustrations, and though Brahms (as usual) remained diffident about letting it out into the world without a private hearing first, he was self‑confident enough to indulge in the eccentricities of those who need not especially worry about what others think of them: the famous beard, probably the fullest in the history of music, was a recent acquisition. When he finished the concerto on July 7, 1881, he wrote to Elisabeth von Herzogenberg that very day to describe his newly finished score coyly as “a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo”—thus jokingly describing one of the most monumental of all piano concertos, and one with a giant scherzo. Similarly he wrote his chamber music companion, Dr. Theodore Billroth, that he had written “a few little piano pieces,” wondering whether he hadn’t “milked the B‑flat cow” a little too often (a reference, perhaps, to several earlier works in that key—a string sextet, a string quartet, and the Haydn Variations among them—as well as to the realization that three of the four movements in the concerto are in the tonic). But he surely recognized the new ease of his mastery, and he dedicated the concerto to his Hamburg teacher Eduard Marxsen, who had taught him, decades before, the elements of classical shaping and repose that he had now clearly mastered so thoroughly.

From the start the concerto was well received, and Brahms performed it in 12 different cities ranging from Hungary to the Baltic during the winter of 1881‑82 (including two performances with different orchestras in his old home town of Hamburg). The response must have been especially sweet after the chilly reception accorded the First Concerto so long before.

About the Music

Throughout the concerto Brahms reworks the traditional relationship between soloist and orchestra, so that his “classical” forms are anything but sterile repetitions of past composers. So thoroughly and in so many original ways did piano and orchestra interact that many commentators thought of the work as a “symphony with obbligato piano” rather than a concerto. But Brahms was simply expanding imaginatively on the concertos of Mozart and Beethoven, both of whom found many varied ways to combine the orchestra (or parts of it) with the soloist.

Still, the symphonic construction, the wide‑ranging harmonic sweep, the complete omission of the traditional cadenza at the end of the movement (replaced, in a sense, by a kind of solo “cadenza” at the very opening!), the enormous demands made on the pianist in terms of sheer fingers, not to mention dynamics and musical interpretation, the greater clarity and variety of orchestral color and expressive mood, while still showing the composer’s unsurpassed powers of variation, linking, and development of ideas from one another—all these features made the opening movement a capstone for the concerto repertory.

The most unusual feature of the Second Concerto is the presence of a full‑scale scherzo movement, making it one of the few four‑movement concertos in existence. (Brahms had earlier toyed with, and rejected, the notion of a scherzo for the Violin Concerto.) Brahms explained the addition in a letter to Billroth by saying that the opening movement—in a rather broad, not very fast, tempo—was “too simple”; he wanted something passionate as a change of pace before moving on to the slow movement, with its ravishing cello solo. He wrote both of the first two movements with endings clearly designed to generate audience applause (the tradition of not applauding between movements is a very recent one, and one that certainly does not reflect the response demanded of listeners in these two sections).

The slow movement begins with that wonderful cello solo, which gradually becomes intertwined with other ideas; it is so characteristic of a sustaining instrument like the cello that the piano never attempts it, but offers either to decorate it or to simplify it. Like the opening, the Finale is “fast but not really fast,” with a touch of lightheartedness and an occasional bow to the gypsy music that was so popular a style in the romantic era.

© Steven Ledbetter (