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Program Notes: April 22, 2001


Concerto No. 1 in G minor for violin, op. 26

Max Bruch

Max Bruch (1838-1920) premiered his first violin concerto in 1868 with the leading virtuoso of the day, Joseph Joachim, playing the solo. Unless you have studied classical voice (for which Bruch wrote prolifically) or violin, you have probably only ever heard of Bruch as having written this one piece (though his Scottish Rhapsody for violin and orchestra comes in and out of performance frequency). Such is the rare case of Max Bruch, having written a large amount of works in several idioms, and only being remembered for virtually one masterpiece.

Yet the concert hall would surely be lacking without this concerto. In many ways influenced by Mendelssohn's wonderful violin concerto in e-minor, Bruch's concerto captures a heartfelt romantic allure with its lush and memorable themes, excellent solo writing, and impeccable pacing. The first draft of the work was completed in 1866 and given to Joachim for suggestions. In some ways, the work is also Joachim's as his assistance in the solo part played prominently in the 1868 completion. Yet the beautiful themes and the lovely scheme of the solo-to-orchestra interplay is the image of Max Bruch's creative mastery.

The first movement was titled by Bruch a Vorspiel (Prelude). It consists of three main themes and its primary function is as an extended introduction to the middle adagio. The opening harkens a softness from the woodwinds which leads to a marcato theme in the solo violin over an insistent accompaniment, then graduating to a long and lush melody in the relative major key (B-flat major). These three themes gain some development mostly through the increasingly dramatic solo part. Though Bruch called it a prelude song, it also captures a fervency and stridency that sets up the second movement with perfect balance.

In the quietly closing moments of this first movement there gently arises the wondrous adagio movement. Few inventions by Bruch are as lyrical and eloquent as this movement. The form is in the shallow framework of the classical sonata, which allows Bruch to fully experiment with the rich melodic theme and the sumptuous orchestral accompaniment. The closing coda drifts away like light breezes after a summer rain.

The finale, then again, brings forth an infectious exuberance. The violin solo virtually dances its way through leaps and skips, with a great deal of double-stops and bravissimo. Bruch loosely uses a sonata form for this movement with hints of a grand rondo, giving room for a bit of thematic development for each return of the two main themes; the first a breathless dance-like charge, and the second more grandly lyrical. The two themes are wrapped up in the delightful closing coda.

Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14

Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) premiered his Symphonie Fantastique in 1830 in Paris and drew a wide range of response, generally negative. The work surely pushed every musical convention well beyond its limits, and that it was titled a symphony none-the-less only added to some of the outrage toward the work and toward Berlioz.

The Symphonie Fantastique was truly Hector Berlioz' debut into the music world. The work is based on a literary program about a man obsessed with a woman and unrequited, attempting suicide through opium and dreaming of: murdering his beloved, death by guillotine, and the consequential hell that follows. At the premiere, the audience was handed a leaflet of the printed literary program; a graphic textual account of the actions generating each musical movement. Though this programmatic music was not new in the burgeoning Romantic movement in music, this was something altogether "over the edge." The piece introduced the concept of the "idee fixe," a musical motif that represented a literal counterpart and linked the movements together. The orchestra was as large as any that a Parisian audience had seen. The music world, let alone Paris, was barely ready for such a work, and yet, though its premiere was somewhat scandalized, it did generate some favor.

It had only been three years since Beethoven, the "God of the Symphony," had died, however Paris in 1830 the average music devotee expected Hummel, Haydn and Mozart for their symphonic sating. Suddenly Berlioz, racing toward the "New Music" in Paris as proposed by the German New Music School deaned by Liszt and Wagner, appeared with his Symphonie Fantastique. No wonder then that Rossini commented "What a good thing it isn't music."

Mendelssohn heard the work a year later and claimed that the Symphonie Fantastique was "indifferent drivel" and "unspeakably dreadful -- I have not been able to work for two days." Yet the German composer and critic Robert Schumann favored the work and gave it its due promise. Such the impressions of a piece that played its immutable part in the history of Western music.

Looking at Berlioz through his career following, one finds a man impassioned by his art. One finds a musical scholar of sorts, that looked to ancient music as a tutor, and to Beethoven as the greatest musical composer to, and to forever after, have lived. And one finds a bourgeois affectant who claimed that "music is not for everyone." The short summary of his life, then, speaks its meaning on how the Symphonie Fantastique was created and what it meant to him. Berlioz, the son of a physician and who attended medical school briefly, felt that the work was the natural progression of where Beethoven had left off with his symphonic creation, and, its "idee fixe" was the next musical step toward symphonic unity, as well as the work displays (in tandem with its exaggerated musical notions) a strong link to high compositional standards. It was, however, the striking originality of the whole work that speaks the most about the composer himself.

Everyone seems to have a reason to criticize the musical works of Hector Berlioz, and to be sure, his works do not endear everyone. Yet the Symphonie Fantastique, for whatever its flaws, has become a piece forever in the symphonic repertoire. This does not owe itself to its grotesque literary program, but to its extraordinary breadth, formidable originality, and its brow raising orchestration. The testament to his idea and composition here is that the objective is completely achieved; you hear the Symphonie Fantastique, and you have loved, lost, been beheaded, and danced in hell, whether you wanted to or not.

Here is the literary program that accompanied the premiere performance with the footnote by Berlioz: "The distribution of this program to the audience, at concerts in which this symphony is to be played, is indispensable for the complete understanding of the work's dramatic plan." (Translated by Piero Weiss.)

  1. Daydreams - Passions
    The author imagines that a young musician, affected by the moral malady which a famous author calls le vague des passions [seemingly rootless emotions], sees for the first time a woman who possesses all the charms of the ideal being he had fancied in his dreams, and falls hopelessly in love. Through a singular oddity, the image of the beloved never presents itself to the artist's imagination except tied to a musical idea, in which he perceives a certain impassioned quality, though noble and shy, as he imagines the object of his love to be.

    This musical reflection and its model pursue him incessantly like a double idee fixe [obsession]. This is why the melody that opens the first allegro reappears constantly in all the other movements in the symphony. The passage from that state of dispirited daydreaming, occasionally interrupted by baseless transports of joy, to one of delirious passion, with its gusts of fury, of jealousy, its relapses into tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations, forms the subject of the first movement.

  2. A Ball
    The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in daily life: amid the tumult of a festivity, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature. But everywhere, whether in the town or in the fields, the image of the beloved obtrudes on him, bringing trouble to his spirit.

  3. Country Scene
    Finding himself in the country one evening, he hears two shepherds playing a ranz de vaches [Alpine cattle-call] in dialogue, far away; this pastoral duet, the scenery, the slight murmuring of the trees gently swayed by the wind, some recently formed grounds for hope -- everything contributes to bringing an unaccustomed calm to his heart and a brighter color to his thoughts. He thinks of his loneliness; he hopes soon not be alone anymore . . . But what if she were deceiving him? . . . This mixture of hope and fear, these visions of happiness troubled by dark forebodings, form the subject of the adagio. In the end, one of the shepherds resumes the ranz de vaches; the other no longer answers . . . Distant sound of thunder . . . solitude . . . silence . . .

  4. March to the Scaffold
    Having become convinced that his love is not returned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep beset with the most horrible visions. He dreams he has murdered the one he loved; he has been sentenced, is being led to the scaffold, is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march now somber and ferocious, now brilliant and stately, during which the muffled noise of heavy footsteps follows without transition upon the noisiest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four measures of the idee fixe reappear like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

  5. Dream of the Sabbath Night
    He sees himself at the sabbath, surrounded by a hideous crowd of spirits, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, assembled for his funeral. Strange noises, moans, bursts of laughter, distant cries to which other cries apparently respond. The beloved melody reappears again, but it has lost its noble and shy quality; now it is only a vile dance tune, trivial and grotesque; it is she, arriving at the sabbath . . . Roar of joy at her arrival . . . She joins the diabolic orgy . . . Funeral knell, ludicrous parody of the Dies irae [Berlioz footnote: "Hymn sung at the funeral rites of the Catholic Church."], sabbath round dance. Sabbath round dance and Dies irae combined.

— Max Derrickson