PROGRAM NOTES: SummerFest Finale – Strings, Glorious Strings!
Concerto in C Minor for Violin and Oboe, BWV 1060
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig
It is a painful fact that a number of works by Bach have been lost. Famed as a virtuoso organist rather than a composer during his lifetime, Bach left the great part of his work in manuscript when he died. These manuscripts went to the care of his widow and two of his sons. Anna Magdalena and Carl Philipp Emanuel took good care of those in their possession, but the prodigal Wilhelm Friedemann, often financially pressed, sold many of his father’s manuscripts for quick cash. The manuscripts of a number of works have vanished. Some probably remain in cellars and attics, waiting to be rediscovered, but others–subject to the ravages of time, termites, wars, and human indifference–have doubtless disappeared forever.
The Concerto for Violin and Oboe is a reconstruction of a lost manuscript. In 1729 Bach became director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a small orchestra made up of professionals, amateurs, and students that gave weekly concerts, and he needed music for the orchestra to perform. From this period comes Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Harpsichords, which he probably presented at the orchestra’s Wednesday afternoon and Friday evening concerts. But research has suggested that the two-harpsichord concerto was in fact Bach’s own recycling of a concerto he had written several years earlier and that the original version was for violin and oboe rather than two harpsichords. The version performed at this concert represents an attempt to recreate the original, the manuscript of which has disappeared. It was Bach’s custom to transpose keyboard concertos down a tone when they were arranged for violin, and so the reconstructed concerto is in C minor.
The vigorous Allegro opens with a surging tutti that returns throughout the movement; this movement makes effective use of echo effects, usually by the oboe’s imitating the orchestra’s phrases. By contrast, the Adagio is graceful, elegant music. Longest of the three movements, it is essentially a duet for the two soloists, with only the barest of orchestral accompaniment. Bach’s long melodic line flows easily between the violin and oboe before the end of the movement brings a surprise: the music suddenly modulates into radiant G major at the cadence.
Many of Bach’s final movements are graceful dance movements, but here the concluding Allegro does not dance–it stomps. The return to C minor sounds suddenly fierce, and the powerful opening figure is spit out by the whole orchestra, with the soloists soon taking it up themselves. As the movement develops, elaborate violin sextuplets swirl above the oboe line, and the movement concludes on the vigorous theme with which it began.
Serenade for Strings in C Major, Opus 48
PETER ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk
Died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg
In the fall of 1880, Tchaikovsky set to work on two pieces simultaneously. One was the Serenade for Strings, Opus 48; the other was the 1812 Overture, Opus 49. The composer loved the first of these, but had no use for the second. To his benefactress, Madame von Meck, he wrote: “I have written two long works very rapidly: the festival overture and a Serenade in four movements for string orchestra. The overture will be very noisy. I wrote it without much warmth or enthusiasm; and therefore it has no great artistic value. The Serenade on the contrary, I wrote from an inward impulse: I felt it; and I venture to hope that this work is not without artistic qualities.”
In a way, the two pieces are opposites, for the Serenade–lyric, open, relaxed–is everything the bombastic 1812 Overture is not, and it comes as no surprise that Tchaikovsky had such fondness for this music. It got its start, he said, as something in between a string quartet and a symphony and eventually turned into a four-movement serenade for string orchestra.
The opening movement is subtitled Pezzo in forma di sonatina, and Tchaikovsky noted that he intended this music as homage to one of his favorite composers: Mozart. Though Tchaikovsky called his work a serenade and specifically set the first movement in sonatina form–both of which suggest an absence of rigorous formal development–this music is nevertheless beautifully unified. The powerful descending introduction quickly gives way to the Allegro moderato, based on two subjects: a broadly-swung melody for full orchestra and a sparkling theme for violins. Tchaikovsky brings back the introductory theme to close out the movement.
The second movement is a waltz. Waltzes were a specialty of Tchaikovsky, and this is one of his finest. It gets off to a graceful start, grows more animated as it proceeds, then falls away to wink out on two pizzicato strokes. The third movement, titled Élégie, begins with a quiet melody that soon grows in intensity and beauty. The mood here never becomes tragic–the Serenade remains, for the most part, in major keys–but the depth of feeling with which this Larghetto elegiaco unfolds makes it the emotional center of the entire work. The finale has a wonderful beginning. Very quietly the violins play a melody based on a Russian folk tune, reputedly an old hauling song from the Volga River, and suddenly the main theme bursts out and the movement takes wing. The Allegro con spirito theme is closely related to the introduction of the first movement, and at the end Tchaikovsky deftly combines these two themes to bring one of his friendliest compositions to an exciting close.
Two Elegiac Melodies, Opus 34
Born June 15, 1843, Bergen
Died September 4, 1907, Bergen
In 1881, Edvard Grieg–then 38–published as his Opus 33 a set of twelve songs on texts by the Norwegian peasant poet Aasmund Olafsen Vinje (1818-1870). That same year he arranged two of these songs for string orchestra, in the process transposing them into different keys and making some slight changes. Published under the title Two Elegiac Melodies, they have become some of his most popular orchestral music (and Grieg himself liked these pieces so much that he also arranged them for piano solo and piano duet).
Their titles have been variously translated–Den saerde as either “Heart’s Wounds” or “The Wounded Heart,” Våren as either “Spring” or “The Last Spring”–but under any title these two miniatures offer some of Grieg’s most expressive music. Both are somber and heartfelt, and both proceed with a great deal of harmonic freedom. We may not think of Grieg as a devotee of Wagner, but four years before writing this music he had gone to Bayreuth to hear the first complete performance of the Ring, and he clearly was struck by the chromaticism of Wagner’s music. “The Last Spring,” which drives to an impassioned climax, has become well-known by itself, and many listeners will discover that they already know its second theme, a haunting and achingly beautiful melody.
Piano Concerto No. 19 in F Major, K.459
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna
Mozart completed the Piano Concerto in F Major on December 11, 1784, during a period of almost incandescent creativity. This was the sixth piano concerto he had composed that year, and at this same moment he was completing the cycle of six string quartets he dedicated to Haydn. There is no record of the first performance of this concerto, but it was almost certainly for Mozart’s own use, for it is in every way a remarkable concerto: it features a solo part that is never flashy but unfolds with a commanding ease and a careful partnership of soloist and orchestra in the symphonic argument. Mozart himself liked this concerto enough that he chose to perform it again six years later on an important occasion: in Frankfurt on October 15, 1790, at a special concert celebrating the coronation of Leopold II.
Many have noted that this concerto begins with a superb first movement and then simply gets better as it goes along; Alfred Einstein, in fact, goes so far as to call this a “Finale concerto.” One should by no means underestimate the first movement, though. It begins with a firm and propulsive march (the dotted rhythm of this theme was a Mozart favorite), and the orchestra quickly spins off secondary material before the entrance of the soloist. But these themes are only part of a multitude of secondary material that will remain–in varying ways–subordinate to the dominion of the march tune. There is something spacious and sovereign about this opening movement. This is not simply a matter of its unusual length, but more an effect of the breadth and ease of the lengthy development. An important part of the texture–and the atmosphere–here is the contrast between the firm dotted rhythms of the main march theme and the pianist’s genially-rippling triplets that accompany this melody so often through the movement.
Numerous critics have used the word “pastoral” to describe the Allegretto, though that is a characterization of general mood rather than specific form. Mozart’s tempo marking is important: this is not a true slow movement, but a moderately-paced interlude. Particularly interesting here are the modulations, for the music at one point slips effortlessly into C minor, and this episode produces moments of delicate shading and contrast.
The Allegro assai (“Very fast”) seems at first a conventional rondo-finale, with the rondo tune announced in crisp exchanges between piano and winds. Instantly, though, the music produces surprises: powerful fugato episodes that recur throughout and give this music unusual contrapuntal complexity, the way the rondo tune itself breaks down into fragments and begins to develop (causing some critics to call this a sonata-rondo movement), the opportunity for two cadenzas for the soloist. And through all of this runs a genial energy that remains a source of joy to all–performers and listeners.