1833 - 1897
Serenade No. 1 opus 16 - 1859
Brahms was born in Hamburg, son of a double-bass player whose love of music was greater than his accomplishments as member of a civic orchestra. The young boy began composing small works without knowledge of formal musical notation, and piano/music studies were quickly begun. His first teacher was his father, followed by local teachers, and finally by one of the best piano teachers in Hamburg — at no charge because of the boy's immense natural talent and the family's immense poverty.
In order to boost family income, the young Brahms played piano at a local sailors' brothel, while studying music books sitting on the keyboard stand. For a few pennies and under several pen names, he also wrote over 150 tunes for a music publisher. Gradually the ambitious Brahms made his way around musical circles. He eventually became piano accompanist for a Hungarian concert violinist who introduced the teenager to Joseph Joachim, leading violinist of the day. Joachim was so impressed by Brahms' compositions that he led him to 37-year-old Robert Schumann. Duly impressed, the renowned Schumann wrote a magazine essay proclaiming Brahms to be a "great composer of the future and savior of the German tradition of music." With such endorsement and enthusiasm supporting him, Brahms' climb to musical immortality began immediately. He was rewarded with fame and fortune for the rest of his life.
Brahms preferred a musical art that was pure, objective, and classical. He looked backward in time for form and style, having the classicist's respect for form and tradition. But he did not ignore the emotional components of ardor, poetic, or bold expressiveness; all were features of the Romantic era, and all were found in his works. The composer was also noted (and widely criticized) for staying apart from the forging-ahead, innovative styles of Strauss, Stravinsky, and Wagner, among others.
Serenade #1 op. 16 features 6 short movements, although Brahms referred to this piece as a "Simfonie-Serenade" and ultimately featured a larger orchestra upon Clara Schumann's urging.
The First Movement is of a pastoral mood that leads off with bucolic-sounding solo horn, thought to be Brahms' favorite instrument. This first and most elaborate movement is based on facile themes that indicate the composer's affection for light-hearted Haydnesque figures.
The Second Movement (Scherzo) is the emotional heart of the work — rich in woodwind solos that recapture the sound of the Classical era. The mood is pensive and delicate, and yet complex in its rhythms and harmonies.
The Third Movement (Adagio) is true to the traditional character of many an 18th century open-air serenade. This movement is rich in woodwind colors with solos for clarinet, flute, oboe and bassoon, as well as imaginative combinations of all of them.
The Fourth Movement introduces two minuets. Brahms considers this section the most like chamber music with the Mozartean grace he so admired. Critics often heralded the first minuet as the prettiest movement as yet written by the composer.
The Fifth Movement (Scherzo, Allegro) opens with a duet for solo horn and cello, an episode quite suggestive of hunting calls, and perhaps intended by the composer as a double homage to Haydn and Beethoven.
The Sixth Movement (Rondo) This final movement is a rondo with an opening refrain of bearish, bold quality — very Brahmsian. It has a long main theme with rollicking offshoots often capturing the sounds of the hunt — far removed from the elegance and clarity of his idol Haydn. The work ends in the glorious sounds of festive brass.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
1770 – 1827
Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 - 1801
The year 1802 was a year of crisis for Beethoven. Only 32 years old, he realized his impaired hearing was incurable and sure to worsen. However, he came through this period with strengthened determination, thereby entering a new creative phase generally known as his "Middle Period." Previous writing styles (classicism-inspired) no longer interested him; his mind was always searching for new ways of expression in order to become a "musical liberator of mankind from sorrow."
The ancient legend of Prometheus took on a certain topicality in turn-of-the-century Europe because of the association of then-hero Napoleon with the god who "stole fire from Parnassus in order to enlighten mankind." In these pre-Eroica symphony years, Beethoven may have wanted to show his respect for the French general by producing this ballet and its subsequent instrumental overture.
Beethoven's characteristic tension, in the form of an expectation of something "big," appears in the very first measure. The electric opening chord initiates a lyrical introduction in slow tempo, but a bolder body of the overture follows without pause. The first theme is an energetic display of rushing scales propelled by a vibrant, rhythmic energy. The work's second theme is a more delicate melody that is entrusted to the piping flutes in a duet.
Steven Errante, conductor
Unless indicated, all program notes are researched and written by Joan Olsson.