Music Director's Message, April 7, 2018
The music of Antonín Dvořák and Johannes Brahms seem to go together. They had become friends when Brahms helped promote his younger colleague’s music, they greatly admired each other’s work. Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Dvořák’s Prague Waltzes may have been written at about the same time but are very different works in concept.
In the late 19th century the waltz was the world’s most popular dance, and composers wrote untold thousands of them. Like most composers, Dvořák intended his waltzes to be light entertainment; the “pops” music of the day. In December 1879 he dashed them off just in time for a Holiday concert in Prague. Brahms took a more serious, systematic and careful approach to his Violin Concerto, taking several months to fine-tune the solo violin part with his friend Joseph Joachim, who would play the solo at its premiere. A flashy, razzle-dazzle showpiece for the violin would not do. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was considered the ne plus ultra of the genre, and Brahms knew he had to meet the great man’s standard, just as he did with his Symphony No. 1. Posterity has judged his effort a success. In an interesting coincidence, Tchaikovsky wrote his Violin Concerto at the same time. Leopold Auer was the intended violinist, but unlike Brahms Tchaikovsky failed to consult his soloist. Auer was dubious about concerto’s musical worth, and he insisted on substantially revising the violin part. The sensitive composer’s feelings were wounded, and the premiere was delayed until 1881. Adolph Brodsky, not Leopold Auer, was the soloist.
Three ballets in as many years started Igor Stravinsky on the road to becoming the 20th century’s most celebrated composer. His first, The Firebird, was an international hit, and the suite he made from it in 1919 has always been his most-performed work. Its dazzling sonorities and masterful orchestration makes it hard to believe that it was only the 6th piece the 27-year-old composer had published.
So, what’s Scott Joplin doing on a program with Dvořák, Brahms and Stravinsky? This may be a first! But there are connections between these four men. For fifteen years their lives overlapped. Joplin’s Rags served much the same purpose as Dvořák’s Waltzes (and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances). Stravinsky and Joplin, though separated by oceans of water and race, both created musical styles based on their ethnicities: Stravinsky from Russian and Ukrainian folk music, Joplin from the music of his slave ancestors. It’s easy to dismiss Joplin as merely a composer of popular songs and dances, but he was hailed as “the Chopin of Ragtime”; he wrote operas and had high musical aspirations that were cut short by his death at age 48. There’s no denying that the two rags presented tonight are light entertainment, but they’re musically solid and toe-tappingly infectious. Think of them as an amuse-bouche, a palate cleanser between the middle-European Dvořák and Brahms, and the perfumed exoticism of Stravinsky.
Listen to the 16 minute podcast of the Maestro discussing this concert: