1714 – 1788
In his later years, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) became isolated from the new compositional ideas that were displacing Baroque music. In 1750, the mention of the name “Bach” was more likely to bring to mind the composer’s son C.P.E. Bach, whose music was veering off in directions away from his father’s focus on dense, complex counterpoint. C.P.E. had been successful in assimilating the powerful influence of his father, and was combining these influences with a transition into music known as empfindsamer Stil. This new concept centered around the cult of “heightened sensitivity;” music should touch the heart and awaken the passions, in contrast to the perceived severity and complexity of Baroque style. The new style embraced sudden shifts in mood, orchestral emphasis on the strings, a larger number of instrumental timbres, interruptions of music by silence, and thin textures which might suddenly become raging “tuttis.”
Known as “Emanuel,” Carl Philippe Emanuel Bach received all formal music instruction from his father. By early teens he could play his father’s technically demanding keyboard pieces; however, in keeping with the cultural demand of the times, he agreed to pursue a second livelihood – a law degree, before devoting his life’s work to music.
Considered a foremost clavier player in Europe, the 24-year-old obtained an appointment in the service of Emperor Frederick the Great. For the next 27 years he served as court composer-musician to an unappreciative Emperor who preferred the calm, “gallant” style of the past, and discouraged innovations in music composition. Finally, the restless, unfulfilled 57-year-old Emanuel became free from 30 years of “servitude” when chosen to succeed godfather Georg Philipp Telemann as music director of five principal Protestant churches in Hamburg. Here, he spent the rest of his career until his death from a “chronic chest” problem at age 74. Along with his younger brother, John Christian Bach, Emanuel was the last of the long Bach dynasty to make music a life choice.
An important contribution of Emanuel to music was his publication of a keyboard method book known as Essay on Keyboard Instruments. To this day, the treatise remains one of the best sources of musical practices in the 18th century and offers the following translated quotation: “Music, as an art of the emotions, must, above all, appeal to the heart; if it is to do this, the performer must feel what he plays. Mere finger dexterity is not enough; one must play from the soul, not like a trained animal.” After reading the treatise, W.A. Mozart was said to have declared, “He is the father and we are the children.” A good part of Haydn’s training gives credit to the study of Emanuel’s treatise. Beethoven was an avid collector of Emanuel’s music, and assigned the Essay to pupil Carl Czerny.
Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Wo 183, 1 (1775)
At the age of 61, Emanuel finished four orchestral symphonies, proclaiming them to be the finest of his compositions in that style. His symphonic music is often characterized by sudden shifts in rhythm, mood, timbre, pace, thus startling the listener when it is least expected. At times the shifting is frenetic, as if physical brakes are suddenly used. The First Movement begins with a deceptive mildness as first violins sustain a single tone under which remaining strings mark a sturdy rhythm. This is repeated more rapidly until the ensemble breaks off abruptly. After a moment’s silence, the violins again initiate a sustained tone but higher in pitch and volume.
The concept of Empfindsamkeit is in full force in the symphony’s rapid shifts from soft to loud, moments of silence, and moving the texture of a small group into an active orchestral “tutti.” After a moment’s pause, Emanuel’s second theme occurs – a duet for two solo oboes with a stalking bassoon in the background. Flutes are next with their duo. Generally the mood is raucous with small back and forth skirmishes among the sections. One more surprise occurs - a totally unexpected jump into a distant key, which leads directly into the Second Movement.
The Second Movement begins with a melody given to a solo viola and cello, doubled two octaves above by a pair of flutes and accompanied by a striding string bass. Between phrases is the delicate punctuation of pizzicato violins: the mood is gentle and emotionally moving. Once again, the movement does not reach a conclusion but instead leads directly to the Third Movement.
From the beginning, the orchestra bursts forth in a dance-like rondo punctuated by sudden shifts to a more somber melody. The orchestral texture is bright, busy, jolly, and transparent.
1809 - 1847
Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1809, Felix Mendelssohn was a son of a prosperous banker, a well-educated and cultured mother, and famous philosopher-grandfather. He was raised with every conceivable advantage, which included the best schooling available in 19th century Germany. In particular, the young boy excelled at music, aided by perfect pitch, an astonishing memory, and a work ethic to match his never-ending enthusiasm for learning.
The young boy was taught to be cautious toward any action that might threaten an established order and way of life. His family had thus converted to Lutheranism, and followed a commandment that all pursued activities required full concentration and dedication. These ingrained attitudes led the young adult to be a prized achiever for the rest of his short life.
By his teen years, the youngster had written music in all forms both large (symphony) and small (songs). By age 20, Felix was regarded a virtuoso pianist, composer, organist, and conductor whose high standards of quality were known and respected. In travels and concert tours, he forged friendships with famous people such as singer Jenny Lind, poet Goethe, Queen Victoria, composer Karl Maria von Weber, and composers Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt. He also had resurrected the music of J. S. Bach, whose music had become “out-dated” and largely ignored. He founded The Leipzig Conservatory of Music (1843), traveled extensively throughout Europe to teach, lecture, fulfill directing assignments, and had written between 500-700 works in all styles but his self-critical personality allowed only 70 to be published during his lifetime.
Mendelssohn’s multi-faceted life was of a whirlwind nature, and he thus neglected his health. A series of strokes led to doctors’ warnings to adjust his schedule for rest and relaxation. However, the sudden death of his beloved sister Fanny shattered the 36-year-old Mendelssohn, and he died six months later.
At his death, the composer had reached the zenith of his career as a universally respected, influential, and popular combination of a classical and romantic composer. While he tended to observe the stylistic forms of the past, Mendelssohn’s music helped lead the path linking the past with the present and future, by attempting to musically combine one’s inner life of feelings with the outer life of observation and tradition. His style was the same from beginning to end – no innovative spirit had he. Contemporary peers condemned his “backwardness” but did praise his mastery of form and function.
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, Op. 27 (1828)
Travelling by sailing ship was often a laborious inconvenience, with total dependence on weather conditions for its operations. Becalmed seafarers waited, watched, hoped, prayed that they would reach their designated destination. As a landlubber, Felix Mendelssohn was inspired by the vivid imagery of his friend Goethe’s sea poems, and translated the images into music in the form of an overture in two sections. The first describes a glassy sea stretching endlessly toward the horizon, thus creating a death-like stillness encapsulating the stalled ship. The second section describes changes of atmosphere as the wind picks up. The composer employs plucked strings depicting snapping sails. A flute’s cheerful melody reveals new hopes of the sailors. Finally, the music becomes exuberant as brass and timpani “cheer” with a fanfare upon seeing and approaching land.
1833 – 1897
Brahms was born in Hamburg into abject poverty. His father scratched out a living playing double-bass in a local ensemble, and recognized innate musical abilities in his son Johannes. Father-to-son piano lessons began, and by age 10 Johannes earned small change by playing piano in restaurants and sailor bars (some unsavory, some not). Money was found for formal piano lessons, and he became competent enough to teach piano while composing music and small songs. Under different pen-names, teenager Johannes had already written about 150 nondescript works which were sold to publishers. Local music acquaintances led the serious 20-year-old to famed violinist Joseph Joachim, who in turn led the blossoming composer to the equally renowned Clara and Robert Schumann. They immediately stood in awe of the young composer’s abilities, and Robert Schumann praised Brahms in his highly respected journal of composers to “watch.” One such comment vowed that this young composer would become ‘‘the musical Messiah of the German Empire.” As a result of this publicity, publishing houses, concert halls, and professional orchestras came calling; fame and fortune would be his for the rest of his life.
Known as a “Classical Romanticist,” Brahms had an 18th century respect for form and structure. He worked in the forms that were being tossed aside by innovators such as Liszt, Chopin, Berlioz, and Wagner. Said one critic, “It is possible to sing Brahms from beginning to end as a single melody.” Certain elongated chord progressions are recognizable as Brahmsian sound. Rhythms prove vigorous and dynamic with the composer’s fondness of syncopation and complex rhythms. He favors the dark tone colors produced by viola, clarinet, and French horn; his orchestral combinations often have the effect of an instrumental choir.
SYMPHONY No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68 (1876)
Although having success in turning out compositions in a variety of forms, highly self-critical Brahms delayed the writing and completion of a first symphony for several decades. The composer had felt inadequately prepared to deal with symphonic form and orchestral sound, and felt that his background was unusually scant in terms of formal music education and exposure. He was particularly intimidated by the shadow of Beethoven. A source of motivation to go ahead, symphonically, may have been friend Robert Schumann’s commitment to an asylum for the psychotic. It was Schumann who had praised Brahms as a “born symphonist” and had led the cries for Brahms to come forth.
The work is of epic proportions. Its 37-bar introductory passage reeks of tragedy as the strings chromatically sweep upward as woodwinds similarly descend, a process which reappears throughout the work. A slight pause leads to the First Movement, which begins with the same superimposition of two thematic lines working in opposite directions. The two themes engage in a restless, dramatic struggle of intense emotion, quite reminiscent of Beethoven, but the movement eventually ends serenely. The next two movements act as a soothing buffer between the first and last movements.
Second Movement: A peaceful, simple folk song melody appears in strings and bassoons, and is followed by an even more yearning theme in the oboe. There is great interplay of instruments and solos revealing Brahms’ love of differing timbres and tones matched against each other. The addition of a violin solo further enhances the lovely calmness to its peaceful end.
Third Movement: Again, simplicity and clarity rule this movement. The first theme is stated by the clarinet over a plucked accompaniment of the cellos, with violins taking over before a brief contrasting episode by woodwinds and strings with music that is, once more, light-hearted and happy.
Fourth Movement: The introduction has the slow, ominous, halting feeling of the first movement but then reaches a large climax. A French horn shouts out its call, and the music turns toward solace, fulfillment, and triumph. Then comes the great finale itself, led by the hymn-like melody in the violins that is reminiscent of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” of the Ninth. When confronted by this similarity, Brahms’ characteristic brusque reply was, “Any jackass could see that.”
Research and notes written by Joan Olsson