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Program Notes: April 16, 2005

"Poets and Painters"

Introduction and Allegro Appassionato in G Major, Opus 92

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

The life of Robert Schumann seems to capture the essence of the glory and tragedy of the “Romantic artist.” He was brilliant, a talented pianist and extraordinary composer, obsessed with the “art” of music. He loved another brilliant pianist, Clara Wieck; against her father’s wishes, he prevailed and married her. Later he was tormented by depression, attempted suicide, was pronounced insane, and died in an asylum. In all that Romantic living, Schumann created some of the most beautiful of piano works, of which the Introduction and Allegro Appassionato is a glowing testament.

Another of Schumann’s remarkable talents was writing about music. He brought to the field a masterfulness and inventiveness of a high standard. His publication Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik (1834-1844) offered his and others’ essays, reviews, and general musical articles that carried important influence in their day. Chopin and Brahms "came of age" in those heralded pages. An appealing fancy of Neue Zeitschrift was the weaving in of the narrative of the League of David, or Davidites, a fictitious group of heroes protecting the torch of true art in music.

Though Schumann’s structural forms were roughly based in classical idioms, his music was keenly Romantic in its intimacy, deep emotionalism, and glowing lyrical beauty, interspersed with bursts of energy that waken the heart in their ebullience. Harmonically, Schumann had an uncanny ability to make music taste like chocolate.

All these qualities are evident in the Introduction and Allegro, completed in 1853 and premiered in 1855. The piece opens with tenderness and beauty in one of the most supremely Romantic themes ever penned. From the Introduction flows a life-affirming Allegro filled with invention, fancy, and energy—delicious chocolate.

It hardly seems possible that in 1854, between the composition and the premiere of this beautiful and lively composition, Schumann committed himself to the asylum in Endenich, where he remained until his death in 1856.

Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 54

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

  1. Allegro affettuoso
  2. Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso
  3. Allegro vivace

Schumann began work on this concerto in 1841, just after his long-anticipated marriage to Clara Wieck, and amidst sketches for all four of his symphonies. This was a remarkably prolific period for Schumann, reflecting his joyous union with Clara.

Until this concerto, however, Schumann had concentrated mainly on solo piano music, chamber works, and lieder. He confessed, "I realize I cannot write a concerto for a virtuoso, so I must think up something else…something between a symphony, a concerto and a large sonata…a self-contained movement." Schumann’s musical anxiety owes much to the towering and awe-inspiring shadow of his virtuoso contemporary Franz Liszt. So the self-contained movement was transformed from "Phantasie" to "Allegro affetuoso" and then to "Concert Allegro, Op. 48." At last Schumann turned the work into a full concerto. By July of 1845 he had completed all three movements. Clara premiered the concerto in Dresden that December.

The whole work is exquisite, full of inventiveness, extraordinary lyricism, tenderness, and energy. The themes of the second and third movements are hewn from the opening theme of the first. Unlike a Lisztian piece, Schumann balances the piano and orchestra, giving them shared responsibility for conveying the themes—a style that would strongly affect later concerto composers. Pianistically, the concerto is much more a vehicle for lyricism than virtuosity. Liszt derided the work as "a concerto without piano." Sardonic remarks aside, the esteemed musicologist Donald Tovey summed up what everyone else hears: "…eminently beautiful from beginning to end, so free, spacious, and balanced in form, and so rich and various in ideas."

Mathis der Maler: Symphony

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

  1. Engelkonzert (Angel Concert)
  2. Grablegung (Entombment)
  3. Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (Temptation of Saint Anthony)

Paul Hindemith towered above all other German composers in the years between the World Wars. Most notable are his many orchestral and chamber works, but he also composed 11 operas, five ballets, three film scores, and music for a radio play. His early works reflect those turbulent and avant-garde times. For example, midway through his 1927 opera "There and Back," he reverses the music and has it played backwards to the end. These early works were rife with psychological torment, infidelity, and murder. Throughout Hindemith’s life, his extraordinary musical output was matched by a vigorous commitment to music and musicians. A staunch promoter of new music, he was also a teacher, theorist of the first order, conductor, and professional violinist and violist. He was sincerely committed to supporting musicians at every level of ability, launching summer festivals devoted to beginners, as well as concert series pairing amateurs with professionals.

With the growing political unrest in Germany during the 1930’s, Hindemith was forced to reevaluat his creative principles. His music began to fuse Bach-like contrapuntal textures with a fresh lyricism, his harmony became simpler but richer, and his themes reflected more humane subjects. Catalyzed by the Third Reich—which he vehemently opposed—Hindemith evolved as much by wrestling with the relation between art and society, as through his own musical development. Questions of artistic and non-artistic involvement in social concerns weighed heavily upon him, as they did on so many artists in those inhumane days.

The Symphony Mathis der Maler (“Matthias the Painter”) was the first piece that Hindemith wrote during this new creative period of the 1930’s. The work beautifully captures both his new musical style and his sharpened commitment to the artist’s role in society, reflecting Germany’s social and political unrest. In 1932, Hindemith’s publisher suggested that he write an opera based on the life of the High Renaissance German painter Matthias Grunewald (c1475-1528). During the Peasants' Revolt against serfdom (about 1524-25), Matthias questioned the social role of the artist, eventually abandoning his painting to join the Revolt. However, his horror at the atrocities he witnessed made him realize that the artist who turns away from his God-given gifts is, in the end, socially irresponsible. Mathias thus returned to painting, going on to createthe magnificent altarpiece in the Church of St. Anthony in Isenheim, Alsace. Matthias' story mirrored Hindemith's own deep sensitivities as an artist in the violent times during Hitler’s rise to power.

Before Hindemith completed the opera, conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler persuaded him to create an instrumental “appetizer,” a condensed version to excite public interest. That musical appetizer became this full-length symphony. An immediate success, it has remained one of the composer’s best-loved works.

Borrowing themes from the opera, the symphony’s three movements are based lesson Matthias' life story than on the panels that he painted for the Isenheim altarpiece The first movement opens up like the telling of an old story, evoking Matthias’ Engelkonzert (“Angel Concert”) panel. While the music is based on the Nativity scene, it clearly paints Matthias’ struggles of conscience. Harmonically, the work begins in G major, but shifts to Db as the old church hymn "Es sungen drei Engel" (“Three Angels Sungen”) is played. According to Hindemith’s theoretical scheme, this tritone of keys represents opposite polarities. He pits these dissonant keys against each other throughout the symphony, with one key representing Matthias' conscience and militancy, and the other, God and his gifts. Unique to Hindemith's writing, and evident in each movement, is an intricate crafting of themes and counterpoint that are then drawn to massive, yet simple and beautiful, cadences, like rivers to great falls.

The second movement, Grablegung (“Entombment”), continues the themes of the first, but bittersweetly The music draws from both the final moments of the opera, when Matthias bids his comrades farewell, and from the tragic scene of Christ's burial, his body sealed away behind the darkness of stone. The themes are direct and intensely sad, and marked by Hindemith's hallmark climaxes.

Both the third panel and the final movement, Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (“The Temptation of Saint Anthony”), portray vile creatures surrounding and taunting the saint. After recoiling from the Peasants’ Revolt, Matthias sought refuge in the Odenwald Forest, where he saw gruesome and sublime visions that inspired his altarpiece. In Hindemith’s creation, musical sufferings give way to a wonderfully complex fugato that then moves into the ancient chant "Lauda Sion Salvatorem" in the woodwinds. Finally, the colossal brass, now unabashedly in the key of Db, play a truly shining Alleluia. Hindemith has led us through musical darkness to an instant of absolute exhilaration and finality, and brought Matthias’ conscience to peace.