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PROGRAM NOTES: Finale with David Zinman

Program Notes by Eric Bromberger

Dumbarton Oaks Concerto
Born June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia
Died April 6, 1971, New York City
Approximate Duration: 14 minutes

In 1937, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss– distinguished patrons of the arts–resolved to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary, which would occur the following year, by commissioning a work for chamber orchestra from Igor Stravinsky. They invited Stravinsky to visit their handsome estate, Dumbarton Oaks (located in the Rock Creek area of Washington, D.C., just north of Georgetown University), and he was much taken with the house and its handsome gardens. He returned to Switzerland and began work on this piece in the spring of 1937, completing it on March 29, 1938, in Paris. Stravinsky had been scheduled to conduct the first performance, but he contracted tuberculosis and was undergoing treatment at that time, so he asked Nadia Boulanger to substitute for him. She led the first performance at Dumbarton Oaks on May 8, 1938.

Stravinsky’s published score lists the title of this music as the Concerto in E-flat Major, but it is universally called the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. The name Dumbarton Oaks may be familiar in another context: in the fall of 1944, this same home was the site of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, at which representatives of China, Great Britain, the United States, and the USSR laid down the principles that later became the basis of the United Nations Charter.

Stravinsky knew that he was writing for an orchestra small enough to be able to perform inside a living room, so he limited his ensemble to fifteen players: flute, E-flat clarinet, bassoon, two horns, three violins, three violas, two cellos, and two doublebasses. He spelled out his intentions in an interview while at work on the music, saying that he wanted to write a “little concerto in the style of the Brandenburg Concertos.” Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are spirited polyphonic music for a small orchestra that is treated soloistically, and that is also true of the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. This music has the sharp, pointillistic sonority that Stravinsky favored in these years; he treats all fifteen players as soloists within the larger orchestral texture, and the outer movements are both in part fugal. The Dumbarton Oaks Concerto gets past in a compact twelve minutes, and Stravinsky joins its movements together with quiet modulatory passages.

The Tempo giusto opens with a gesture that (probably intentionally) recalls the opening of the Third Brandenburg Concerto; violas introduce the central fugue, and the movement drives to its close on a coda marked brillante. The central Allegretto is in ternary form with sharply etched outer sections (at one point Stravinsky marks the music staccatissimo) framing a central episode in which woodwind soloists dance above murmuring string accompaniment. The concluding Con moto does indeed move quickly; there is some complex polyphony along the way, but at the end the music sails home on the sound of the two horns, whose fanfare-like figures give the end of the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto its particular shining sound.

Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat Major, Hob. I:105

Born March 31, 1732, Rohrau
Died May 31, 1809, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 22 minutes

Haydn wrote this wonderful music quickly during the winter of 1792. This was a very good time for the composer. After three decades of quiet obscurity as kapellmeister to the Esterházy family, Haydn found himself lionized on his first visit to England: acclaimed by cheering audiences, feted by nobility, and handsomely rewarded for the concerts he directed of his own music. H.C. Robbins Landon has suggested that the Sinfonia Concertante was written in response to the great popularity of similar works by Ignaz Pleyel, which were then being performed on a rival concert series in London. Haydn’s manuscript shows signs of haste: perhaps he was hurrying to have it ready for the concert on March 9, 1792, a week after the successful première of his Symphony No. 98.

The sinfonia concertante (or Symphonie Concertante, as Haydn called it) is a concerto-like form, but with some important differences. It is for two or more soloists, who are more fully integrated into the orchestral texture than is the soloist in the standard concerto: the soloists in a sinfonia concertante emerge from the orchestral texture and return to it rather than carving out the independent identity of the soloist in a concerto. The mood is usually light, with the music somewhat in the manner of a divertimento, and the sinfonia concertante was often written for unusual combinations of instruments. The form flourished at the end of the eighteenth century, primarily in the hands of such composers as Pleyel, Stamitz, and Boccherini, but passed out of fashion early in the nineteenth. Ironically, the three finest examples of the form were written by two composers who otherwise ignored it: the present work by Haydn and the two by Mozart, one for a quartet of winds and the other for violin and viola.

Haydn’s manuscript may betray signs of haste, but there is no hint of carelessness in this polished music. Part of its success lies in Haydn’s choice of the four solo instruments. He chooses a high and low string instrument (violin and cello) and a high and low wind (oboe and bassoon) and then combines and contrasts these quite different sonorities in endless ways. And throughout all three movements runs an atmosphere of spaciousness, elegance, and relaxation that has made this music an audience favorite for two centuries.

Music this agreeable needs little detailed comment. The entire piece takes its character from the orchestra’s genial opening melody, and the four soloists emerge gracefully from the texture of this opening; Haydn writes out an extended cadenza for them just before the close. It is difficult for the soloists to emerge from the orchestra in the Andante, for Haydn virtually eliminates the orchestra here: he dispenses with trumpets and timpani and has the strings play pizzicato or accompany unobtrusively–essentially this movement is chamber music for the four soloists with minimal accompaniment. With its firm beginning, the concluding Allegro con spirito promises more serious things, but soon Haydn is playing sly jokes. He wrote the solo violin part for the impresario-violinist Johann Peter Salomon, who had brought him to London, and the violin has a very prominent role here: it interrupts things with a series of mock-serious recitatives that threaten to change the music’s course, but the violin is repeatedly swept up in the fun, and Haydn propels matters firmly to the good-natured close.

Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 37 minutes

Beethoven turned 40 in December 1810. Forty can be a difficult age for anyone, but for Beethoven things were going very well. True, his hearing had deteriorated to the point where he was virtually deaf, but he was still riding that white-hot explosion of creativity that has become known, for better or worse, as his “Heroic Style.” Over the decade-long span of that style (1803-1813) Beethoven essentially re-imagined music and its possibilities. The works that crystalized the Heroic Style–the Eroica and the Fifth Symphony–unleashed a level of violence and darkness previously unknown in music, forces that Beethoven’s biographer Maynard Solomon has described as “hostile energy,” and then triumphed over them. In these violent symphonies, music became not a matter of polite discourse but of conflict, struggle, and resolution.

In the fall of 1811, Beethoven began a new symphony– it would be his Seventh–and it would differ sharply from those two famous predecessors. Gone is the sense of cataclysmic struggle and hard-won victory that had driven those earlier symphonies. There are no battles fought and won in the Seventh Symphony–instead, this music is infused from its first instant with a mood of pure celebration. Such a spirit has inevitably produced a number of interpretations as to what this symphony is “about”: Berlioz heard a peasants’ dance in it, Wagner called it “the apotheosis of the dance,” and more recently Maynard Solomon has suggested that the Seventh is the musical representation of a festival, a brief moment of pure spiritual liberation.

But it may be safest to leave the issue of “meaning” aside and instead listen to the Seventh simply as music. There had never been music like this before, nor has there been since–Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony contains more energy than any other piece of music ever written. Much has been made (correctly) of Beethoven’s ability to transform small bits of theme into massive symphonic structures, but in the Seventh he begins not so much with theme as with rhythm: he builds the entire symphony from what are almost scraps of rhythm, tiny figures that seem unpromising, even uninteresting, in themselves. Gradually he unleashes the energy locked up in these small figures and from them builds one of the mightiest symphonies ever written.

The first movement opens with a slow introduction so long that it almost becomes a separate movement of its own. Tremendous chords punctuate the slow beginning, which gives way to a poised duet for oboes. The real effect of this long Poco sostenuto, however, is to coil the energy that will be unleashed in the true first movement, and Beethoven conveys this rhythmically: the meter of the introduction is a rock-solid (even square) 4/4, but the main body of the movement, marked Vivace, transforms this into a light-footed 6/8. This Vivace begins in what seems a most unpromising manner, however, as woodwinds toot out a simple dotted 6/8 rhythm and the solo flute announces the first theme, a graceful melody on this same rhythm. Beethoven builds the entire first movement from this simple dotted rhythm, which saturates virtually every measure. As theme, as accompaniment, as motor rhythm, it is always present, hammering into our consciousness. At the climax, horns sail majestically to the close as the orchestra thunders out that rhythm one final time.

The second movement, in A minor, is one of Beethoven’s most famous slow movements, but the debate continues as to whether it really is a slow movement. Beethoven could not decide whether to mark it Andante (a walking tempo) or Allegretto (a moderately fast pace). He finally decided on Allegretto, though the actual pulse is somewhere between those two. This movement too is built on a short rhythmic pattern, in this case the first five notes: long-short-short-long-long–and this pattern repeats here almost as obsessively as the pattern of the first movement. The opening sounds like a series of static chords–the theme itself occurs quietly inside those chords– and Beethoven simply repeats this theme, varying it as it proceeds. The central episode in A major moves gracefully along smoothly-flowing triplets before a little fugato on the opening rhythms builds to a great climax. Beethoven winds the movement down on the woodwinds’ almost skeletal reprise of the fundamental rhythm.

The Scherzo explodes to life on a theme full of grace notes, powerful accents, flying staccatos, and timpani explosions. This alternates with a trio section for winds reportedly based on an old pilgrims’ hymn, though no one, it seems, has been able to identify that exact hymn. Beethoven offers a second repeat of the trio, then seems about to offer a third before five abrupt chords drive the movement to its close.

These chords set the stage for the Allegro con brio, again built on the near-obsessive treatment of a short rhythmic pattern, in this case the movement’s opening four-note fanfare. This four-note pattern punctuates the entire movement: it shapes the beginning of the main theme, and its stinging accents thrust the music forward continuously as this movement almost boils over with energy. The ending is remarkable: above growling cellos and basses (which rock along on a two-note ostinato for 28 measures), the opening theme drives to a climax that Beethoven marks fff, a dynamic marking he almost never used. This conclusion is virtually Bacchanalian in its wild power–no matter how many times one has heard it, the ending of the Seventh Symphony remains one of the most exciting moments in all of music.

The first performance of the Seventh Symphony took place in the Great Hall of the University in Vienna on December 8, 1813. Though nearly deaf at this point, Beethoven led the performance, and the orchestra was able to compensate for his failings, so that the première was a huge success. On that occasion–and at three subsequent performances over the next few months–the audience demanded that the second movement be repeated.