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Yo-Yo Ma


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Program Notes


FRI OCT 28, 8 pm 

LOUIS LANGRÉE  conductor • Yo-Yo Ma cellist 

DVOŘÁK (1841–1904) 

Concerto in B Minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 104

• Allegro
• Adagio ma non troppo
• Allegro moderato. Andante. Allegro vivo

INTERMISSION

BRAHMS (1833–1897)

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73

• Allegro non troppo
• Adagio non troppo
• Allegretto grazioso (Quasi andantino)
• Allegro con spirito


Concerto in B Minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 104

Born: September 8, 1841, Mühlhausen, near Prague | Died: May 1, 1904, Prague

Work composed: November 8, 1894–February 9, 1895; revisions complete June 11, 1895

Premiere: March 19, 1896, London—Dvořák conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Leo Stern, cellist

Instrumentation: solo cello, 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, strings

CSO subscription performances: 19 previous subscription weekends 

Premiere: March 1911, Leopold Stokowski conducting, Boris Hambourg, cellist

Most recent: September 2008, Paavo Järvi conducting, Gautier Capuçon, cellist

Duration: approx. 40 min.

The romantic era produced relatively few cello concertos. Since the cello has neither the penetrating high range of the violin nor the sharp percussive sonority of the piano, its sound can easily be overpowered by a full orchestra. In the classical period, by contrast, orchestral ensembles were small. It is unlikely that an orchestra of a dozen or so players would cover a cello. Thus Haydn, for example, wrote cello concertos without any problems of balance. Twentieth-century composers, on the other hand, thrive on difficult challenges, such as composing for cello and large orchestra. In the 19th century, however, the standard orchestra was large but composers were not yet deliberate experimenters. It is therefore no surprise that there are no cello concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz or Liszt. (Schumann did compose one, however.) Dvořák on the other hand, was tempted by the challenging medium twice.

At the age of 24 he composed the large but immature Concerto in A Major, which he never orchestrated. At the time he had just begun teaching, and he had fallen in love with one of his students, a 16-year-old named Josefina Čermák. Josefina did not return the composer’s love, but he thought that he might win her heart by composing some songs for her. So he spent his time writing the cycle Cypresses instead of orchestrating the concerto. But Josefina remained cool, and Dvořák dedicated the songs to someone else. Later he became enamored of Josephina’s younger sister, whom he eventually married. But Josephina’s connection with Dvořák’s cello music was not yet ended.

Since he never orchestrated the A Major Concerto, the composer had not had to face the problem of balancing a cello with a full orchestra. It was 30 years before he again turned his attention to the medium. In the B Minor Concerto he confronted the challenge head on.

In 1892 Dvořák began a three-year tenure as director of the National Conservatory in New York. The founder of the conservatory, Jeanette Thurber, hoped to increase the luminosity of her school by adding to its faculty one of Europe’s leading composers. Thus she began a practice that has remained typical to the present—attracting prominent foreign composers to teach in American schools. The composer was offered a salary 25 times (!) what he had been making at the Prague Conservatory. He was promised a four-month summer vacation. The conservatory orchestra was placed at his disposal for ten concerts, which were expected to include much of his own music.

Dvořák became something of a celebrity in New York society, but he missed his homeland. After his first season he spent the summer vacation in the small town of Spillville, Iowa, where several Czech families lived. But that atmosphere made him more homesick. After his second season in New York, he spent the summer in Prague. When he again returned to New York, he missed his country still more. No longer able to bear the thought of living abroad after his third season, he resigned.

His compositions of the period reflect these emotions. The first works written in the United States are full of references to American folk music. The New World Symphony is the best known of these pieces. But, by his last American work—the B Minor Cello Concerto—his homesickness prevailed. There are no hints of Americana here, but rather the concerto is full of the spirit of his native Bohemia.

Despite his early attempt at composing a cello concerto, Dvořák continued to think of the instrument as suited more to orchestral and chamber music than to solo treatment. He changed his mind, however, when he heard composer Victor Herbert perform his own Second Cello Concerto in Brooklyn in 1894. Herbert was first cellist of the New York Philharmonic and also composer of concert works and shows, such as Babes in Toyland. Dvořák was impressed with the manner in which Herbert employed a large orchestra, even including trombones, despite the weakness of the cello sound in certain registers. The Bohemian composer decided to use in his own concerto such penetrating instruments as piccolo, triangle, tuba, and trombones—powerful tone colors he had avoided in previous concertos for violin and for piano.

A second stimulus toward the composition of the Cello Concerto came from Hanuš Wihan, a friend of the composer who played cello in the Bohemian String Quartet. Wihan was considered the finest Czech cellist of the day, and Dvořák wrote the concerto especially for him.

KEYNOTE. The first movement shows the different ways Dvořák solved the problem of balance between cello and orchestra. When the solo instrument finally enters, after a series of themes presented in the orchestra, we hear a long succession of imaginative treatments of its special timbre. The cello, for example, plays the main theme over an understated wind and string accompaniment. For part of this theme, it plays triple stops—three notes at once—to help its sound carry over that of the orchestra. As the solo line becomes more virtuosic, the orchestra enters into a dialogue with the cello, so that the orchestral instruments play only when the cello is performing sustained notes or trills. When the cello plays fast runs, the orchestra is silent. As the two forces join together, the cello plays in its penetrating high register, so that it is readily heard above the orchestra. Other times, the cello plays rapid arpeggiations that accompany (and hence blend in with) the orchestral texture. When it comes time for the orchestra to assert its full sonority, the cello is silent: it could not and hence does not compete with the massive sound of the full ensemble.

The second movement uses most of the same techniques to overcome the balance problem, although in a more lyrical and subdued context. While Dvořák was composing this movement, he received word that his sister-in-law Josephina—the woman with whom he had been in love many years earlier—was seriously ill. He was deeply concerned and therefore decided to use the melody of one of his songs, “Leave Me Alone,” in the slow movement of the concerto. This song, one of Josephina’s favorites, has certain similarities to a song from the early cycle Cypresses, which he had composed in his futile attempt to woo her. The second movement develops both the song melody and the main theme.

The finale is more dance-like than the preceding movements. The cello is utilized in typical fashion: carrying the melody when lightly accompanied, providing a fast-moving accompaniment, or sitting out for the more forceful passages. Later on, the gentle lyricism of the earlier movements reappears, allowing the cello’s songful voice to be heard once again in its beautiful high register. Toward the end, the music slows and thins for an ethereal reminiscence of Josephina’s song from the second movement. Only at the last possible moment, after the final cello exit, does the music swell and return to its original fast tempo.

Interestingly, this magical ending was not Dvořák’s original idea for concluding the concerto. He returned to Bohemia after his American sojourn with a somewhat different concerto in his suitcase. When he arrived home, he learned that Josephina had died, and he decided thereupon to revise the concerto to include a final memorial to the woman who had been his first love. He removed four measures near the end of the finale and replaced them with an extended quotation from Josephina’s song. (The composer would no doubt be flabbergasted if he could see a very different association of his Cello Concerto with romantic love: in the 1987 film The Witches of Eastwick, the playing of this music leads to such passionate love making between actors Jack Nicholson and Susan Sarandon that her cello bursts into flames!)

Dvořák made further small revisions, as suggested by cellist Wihan. But Wihan also wanted a major alteration—the insertion of a large cadenza just before the end. Dvořák was annoyed, not only because the cellist wished to tamper with the piece merely to show off his virtuosity, but also because such a change would have ruined the passage memorializing Josephina. The composer wrote a strongly worded letter to his publisher, denouncing the cadenza and demanding that the work should never be printed with this spurious addition.

Wihan did not play the premiere. For a long time it was believed that the cellist’s attempt to insert a cadenza had sufficiently irked Dvořák that the composer was unwilling to allow his friend the privilege of the first performance. But correspondence has recently been found that indicates other reasons. Dvořák had been engaged to conduct the premiere in London, with Wihan as soloist, in March 1896. But Wihan developed a schedule conflict and tried to have the date shifted to April. The composer agreed to the date change, but the London Philharmonic management had already planned its season and thought the best solution was to let the March date stand but to engage another cellist. But Dvořák wanted Wihan, and he wrote implying that he would not come at all if another cellist was hired:

I am sorry to announce to you that I cannot conduct the performance of the celo [sic] conzerto [sic], the reason is I have promised to my friend Wihan—he will play it. If you put the conzerto [sic] into the programme I could not come at all, and will be glad to come another time.

The secretary of the Philharmonic wrote back:

We should have been most happy to have had Mr. Wihan to play your concerto. But as you told me he could not come on the 19 March we thought to please you by including the work, and have engaged Mr. Leo Stern who says he knows the work. Now when all this is done you write to say you cannot come if we include the concerto. It is very embarrassing for us, but as you wish it we will take the concerto out.

Dvořák decided to go to England after all and conduct the premiere with Stern as soloist. Wihan did eventually perform the concerto, and the work was published with a dedication to the cellist for whom it had been written.

Jonathan D. Kramer

 

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73

Born:May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany Died: April 3, 1897, Vienna

Work composed: June–fall of 1877

Premiere: December 30, 1877—Hans Richter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings

CSO subscription performances: 41 previous subscription weekends  

Premiere (Pike Opera House): March 1896, Frank Van der Stucken conducting

Most recent: January 2013, Paavo Järvi conducting

Duration: approx. 43 min.

Brahms had a special relationship with Clara Schumann, wife of composer-pianist Robert Schumann and herself an accomplished pianist and composer. The friendship began when Brahms helped the Schumann family during the older composer’s hospitalization and after his death. Brahms often sought Clara’s advice on the music he was composing or her opinion of pieces he had just finished. The Second Symphony was no exception.

It is difficult to understand completely the nature of Brahms’ feelings for Clara. When he was in his early 20s and still a protégé of Schumann, he loved Clara at a respectable distance. While Schumann was confined in an asylum during his last years, Brahms expressed his affection more openly, but he restrained himself from acting on it. He wrote:

My dearest Clara, I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you and do as many good and loving things for you as I would like. You are so infinitely dear to me that I cannot express it in words. I should like to call you darling and lots of other names, without ever getting enough of adoring you.

Once Schumann had died, Brahms could think realistically about a union with Clara. But it did not feel right. She was his friend and he loved her, but she was also the widow of Schumann. Furthermore, Brahms knew that a domestic life would interfere with his creative work. He wrote to his friend Joachim:

I believe that I do not respect and admire her so much as I love her and am under her spell. Often I must forcibly restrain myself from just quietly putting my arms around her and even—I don’t know, it seems to me so natural that she would take it ill. I think I can no longer love a young girl. At least I have quite forgotten about them. They but promise heaven while Clara reveals it to us.

Clara and Brahms had been in daily contact, but then she moved to Berlin and he returned to Hamburg. They kept up a steady correspondence, and Brahms sent her every one of his compositions for criticism. But love was not openly discussed. Brahms never cared deeply for another woman, but he was unable to bring himself to make a decisive commitment to Clara. Many years later he insisted they return each other’s letters and destroy them. Clara complied reluctantly, managing to save a few of her favorites. Because most of the correspondence was burned, we will probably never have sufficient information to understand fully the odd relationship between these two artists.

After years of struggle composing the First Symphony, with many preliminary versions sent to Clara for suggestions, Brahms found it far easier to compose his Second. He did his best work away from the city in the summer, and so he wrote the Second Symphony in a few months at a small town on Wörther Lake. When it was done, he sent Clara the first movement, which she praised. She predicted that it would have more immediate success with the public than the First, and she was right. The third movement was so popular at the premiere that it had to be repeated.

The Second Symphony offers an interesting parallel to Beethoven. Brahms was constantly aware of the earlier composer, whose music was a model and an inspiration. Beethoven had written his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies closely together, as did Brahms with his First and Second. The Fifth is brooding yet passionate, emotional yet triumphant and it is in the appropriate key of C minor. Brahms’ First shares key and mood with Beethoven’s Fifth. Brahms’ next symphony shares mood (but not key) with Beethoven’s subsequent Pastoral. Both are idyllic, untroubled and peaceful, although there is plenty of inner drama in both works.

Brahms, who did not believe in program music, would never have called a symphony Pastoral and he would no doubt be annoyed with commentators who find in the D Major Symphony reflections of the peaceful countryside in which it was conceived. But there is no denying that, if any of Brahms’ symphonies deserve to be thought of as pastoral, this is the one.

KEYNOTE. Brahms’ Second is a masterpiece of tight construction and rhythmic inventiveness, qualities not necessarily associated with peaceful music. Consider the technique of motivic derivation, for example, which Brahms borrowed and expanded from Beethoven (notably in the Fifth Symphony). The first movement is pervaded by two extremely simple figures, heard at the very beginning: the three-note turn in the cellos and string basses (heard upside-down a moment later in the third measure of the horn melody) and the rising two-note figure that begins that horn tune. One would be hard put to think up any simpler material. Yet the manner in which almost everything in this complex movement comes from these two basic figures is amazing. But derivation of the movement from its opening is only part of Brahms’ sophisticated technique.

The three-note figure is also the source of wonderful rhythmic developments. In its original form it fits nicely the 3/4 measures as 1+/2+/3+ (“+” indicates implied offbeats, not actually heard until later in the movement). In other words, the quarter note is the basic beat. But the motive can be (and eventually is) played slower: 1+2+/3+1+/2+3+, with the half note (two beats long) now serving as the basic pulse. Thus a conflict is set up between the two-beat pulse and the three-beat measure. Further complications arise when the figure is speeded up so that the eighth note becomes the basic unit—it is too fast to be heard as the beat, so the entire three-note motive (now 1½ beats long) provides the pulse unit: 1+2/+3+. What all this means is that there are three different rates of motion in the movement, represented by three different pulse units, respectively 1, 1½ and 2 beats long. This conflict is intensified when Brahms plays these different speeds in alternation or even, in the development section, simultaneously. This rhythmic subtlety gives rise to further complexities, and the result is a movement that is endlessly intriguing beneath its placid surface.

The second movement also is full of unusual rhythms which are derived from its beginning, although here they are based not on different speeds but on different placements of the opening melody within the 4/4 measures. Listen carefully to that first tune: it sounds as if it fits the measure exactly: 1 2 3 4. The next four beats seem to confirm this interpretation, but then there is somehow an extra beat before the third measure. It somehow sounds like: 1 2 3 4 / 1 2 3 4 / 4 1 2 3 4. In actuality, the music begins on the fourth beat: 4 1 2 3 /4 1 2 3 /4 1 2 3 4. From this initial displacement come the movement’s frequent emphasis on fourth beats and its tendency to start melodies anywhere in the measure. The opening tune, for example, later starts on a third beat. It is not placed “properly” within the measure until the very end, and there Brahms achieves regularity by an ingenious means: listen to it!

The deceptively innocent opening of the third movement actually contains the greatest rhythmic sophistication thus far. The suggestions of 2/4 and 4/4 within this 3/4 section are too complex to trace here. As a total contrast, the ensuing presto in 2/4 time is devoid of complication: its straightforward simplicity is welcome. After a return of the opening allegretto, a second presto, in 3/8 time, is less innocent.

Although much of the finale is rhythmically regular, there are several stunningly imaginative passages—syncopations at different rates, 1½ and 2½ beat patterns within a 2-beat framework, and mixtures of speeds as in the opening movement. The result is a movement full of life and vitality, a fitting conclusion to this happiest of Brahms symphonies.

Brahms was a strange combination of humility and self-assuredness, of secretiveness and candor. He was unable to speak directly about himself or his work, but he was willing enough to communicate in riddles, ambiguities or false modesties. Thus he could call the Second Symphony a collection of waltzes. His underlying self-confidence sometimes came through his put-on modesty: he told his friend Schubring that the symphony was “a quite innocent, gay little one.” Brahms went on to compare it favorably, in his typical understated manner, to other composers’ music: “Expect nothing, and for a month before drum nothing but Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner; then its tender amiability will do a lot of good.” After the successful premiere of the Second, the composer said, with his usual pseudo-self-effacement: “Whether or not I have a pretty symphony I do not know; I will have to ask some wiser people.” Of course there were no wiser people, as Brahms well knew. He also knew that the symphony is indeed “pretty,” as do all of us less wise music lovers.

—Jonathan D. Kramer