Program Notes: October 22, 2005
Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Opus 90
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Each of Johannes Brahms’ four symphonies is a masterpiece, each unique, each portraying its own universe of character and emotion, and each distinctly Brahmsian. And yet, marvelously, the four symphonies together represent what could be considered a symphony of symphonies—not a surprising concept when one considers how form and balance were nearly an obsession for Brahms. If we think of the four symphonies as one colossal symphony, then the symphonic structure would work as: No. 1, a dark, serious opening; No. 2, a tender pastoral song ending in joy; No. 3, a reflective and spiritual set of variations; and No. 4, the grand, tragic ending. From beginning to end, we can follow Brahms’ maturing genius.
Brahms wrote his third symphony at a time when his successes were many and his confidence with symphonic writing was high. Many of his contemporaries considered him the greatest living composer, though the modest Brahms would have never boasted of such a label. His devotion to composing was legendary. He routinely rejected teaching and conducting posts, and rarely attended celebrations in his own honor, because he wanted to be free to write music. He often spent his summers in places of natural beauty so that he could compose in seclusion. In the summer of 1883, Brahms completed his third symphony in lovely Wiesbaden. We know little of the work’s genesis, since Brahms intended that his works be known to the public only in their final form. We do know that when he felt it sufficiently complete, he presented the manuscript to his dear friend Clara Schumann (by then, the widow of composer Robert Schumann). Enthralled by the piece, she wrote to Brahms, “... I have spent many happy hours with your wonderful creation... From start to finish one is wrapped about with the mysterious charm of the woods and forests ... I hear the babbling brook and the buzzing of insects....”
A friend of mine used to call the shafts of sunlight that shoot down through parted clouds “God-rays.” Listening to the opening Allegro con brio of the Brahms’ third symphony, it’s hard to imagine anything else. There is a rising energy of orchestral sound in the interval of a sixth that vastly opens up into an expansive set of chords, each one a grandiose spear of light. Through this opening, Brahms sets the tone of the whole piece, creating the essence of a theme from which many variant themes will follow, and giving us a glimpse of his harmonic intentions with fluctuations between F major and F minor. After this marvelous opening comes a group of themes ripe with the potential for development, and the appearance of Brahms’ characteristic simultaneous duple-against-triple meter. Most striking, though, is the sweep of the music itself, carrying the listener through the turns of mood that are a hallmark of Brahms’ compositions, from those awe-inspiring God-rays, through wonderment and deep contentment, to a gentle ending.
The second movement, Andante, opens with the woodwinds singing a reflective, hymn-like chorale. After delicious developments of musical ideas--some are holdovers from the first movement—and an ominous foreshadowing of the chorale in the finale, the second movement has nothing more to prove, and it works itself out in sheer beauty and simplicity. The craft that makes this Andante so lovely and masterful is the lightness of orchestration combined with sophisticated harmonies that enrich several sweet themes. It is a reflective and serene moment, much like Brahms’ Second Symphony, and, though sometimes mysteriously serious, quite gentle upon the heart.
The third movement, Poco Allegretto, continues the Andante’s key of C. The symphony’s key structure—the two outer movements in F and the two inner movements in C—suggests that the whole work is built in an overarching sonata form. But whatever Brahms’ formal intent, this movement brings us one of his most cherished melodies—once heard, never forgotten—yearning, lonely, and yet so hopeful. And it is here that Brahms truly expounds on the major-minor fluctuations that we heard in the first movement, and he links musical kernels that emerged organically during the first two movements. When that cherished melody comes back in the French horn, and then in the oboe, the heart hums with a nearly unbearable bittersweetness.
The finale Allegro grows quietly but energetically, from deep rumblings into effervescence. Then comes the quintessential Brahms rondo, a typical symphonic finale form that presents several themes quickly, then switches back and forth among them. The finale follows these developments and variations stridently, with hints of the gypsy music that filled Vienna in Brahms’ day, and with brilliant moments of exuberance darkened by sobriety. Although we have become accustomed to the powerful endings of Brahms’ symphonies, the close of this one returns to its overall spiritual aura. The finale ends softly, recalling almost exactly, yet more ethereally, the very opening bars of the first movement—memories of God-rays to glint in our souls.
The Butterfly Lovers Concerto
He Zhanhao (born 1933) and Chen Gang (born 1935)
The Maori of New Zealand believe that the soul returns to earth as a butterfly. In ancient Greece, the word “psyche” meant “soul and breath,” and was symbolized by a butterfly. Myths about moths and butterflies abound in Celtic lore, and in Aztec and Mayan mythology, sacrifice was deeply associated with the butterfly. But probably the most ancient mythology equating the soul with butterflies comes from China.
Nor is there a lack of cultural lore about star-crossed lovers. The West has Romeo and Juliet, and Tristan and Isolde. China has the ancient love tragedy of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, who, sometime in the 4th Century, were undone by rigid social conventions. The story made its way into the traditional Yueju opera of Zhejiang Province.
This is the tale that composers He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, keenly familiar with the Yueju repertoire, chose as the basis for tonight’s beautiful Butterfly Lovers Concerto, which they co-wrote in 1958 while students at the Shanghai Conservatory. At the turn of the 20th Century, “classical” Chinese musicians felt that serious music should be modeled upon Western traditions, and thus began their rigorous study of European composers, especially Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, and Grieg. But over time, Chinese idioms and modes blended with Western forms and ideas. Of the “Four Generations” of the New School in Chinese music, Zhanhao and Gang were of the Fourth—and last. Only a few years after they wrote this concerto, the Cultural Revolution put an end to everything Western.
Their composition, a marvel of lushness and beauty, is a wonderful mix of the Western symphonic tradition with Chinese folk music and vocal techniques. Zhanhao and Gang originally wrote the concerto for a Western violin, imitating the sound of the erhu. The erhu is a traditional bowed Chinese instrument that has only two strings—and no fingerboard—attached to a resonating body typically encased in snakeskin. The lack of a fingerboard allows for extreme vibrato and bending of pitches. This beautiful, intimately emotive instrument was most often used to express weeping and intense emotion.
In 1988, after Chen Gang met Jiebing Chen at the Shanghai Conservatory and listened to her spiritual playing of the erhu, he realized that perhaps the erhu could be even more expressive in depicting the lovers’ conversations and their inner feelings. He rearranged the concerto for erhu and asked Miss Chen to premiere the new version. Since then, Miss Chen has performed the concerto with many of the world’s top symphonies, including the New Moscow Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony, and San Francisco Symphony.
The Story of The Butterfly Lovers
A young woman, Zhu Yingtai, disguises herself as a man so that she can travel to a southern province to study. There she meets a young man, Liang Shanbo. They develop a deep friendship. Before she returns home, Zhu tells Liang about a younger sister and entreats him to ask the young woman’s parents for her hand in marriage. In fact, Zhu has no sister. She is offering herself. When Liang arrives at Zhu’s home, he is thrilled to discover her true identity. But, tragically, because Liang arrives a few days late, Zhu’s father has already betrothed her to another man. The lovers meet at a tower and lament their misfortune. Upon his return home, the brokenhearted Liang falls ill and dies. Zhu hears of his death on her marriage day, and flees to his grave. It opens beneath her, and she commits suicide by jumping in. Zhu and Liang are transformed into butterflies. They rise into the air, never again to be separated.
The free-form concerto is divided into three sections, played as a single movement. Part 1 describes Zhu and Liang’s meeting (Liang is represented on the cello, and Zhu on erhu), their joining hands in brotherhood, the blossoming of love, their study and play, and their sad separation when Zhu returns home. Part 2 portrays their resistance to the arranged marriage and their meeting at the tower. Part 3 expresses the drama of Liang’s death and Zhu’s suicide. The erhu’s free rhapsodic play, with many syncopated chords (Zhu and her resistance to marriage), is pitted against the orchestra (Zhu’s father forcing the marriage). The lovers’ meeting at the tower is exemplified by the interplay between cello solo (Liang) and erhu solo (Zhu). The composers borrow theatrical devices to bring across Liang’s sickness and death, and Zhu’s suicide. The saga ends with the flute and harps suggesting the mystery of the lovers’ metamorphosis. After the love theme is recapitulated, one can hear the butterflies at play.
—Max Derrickson and Jiebing Chen