Program Notes: December 3, 2005
Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 77
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
During the summers of 1877 and 1878, Johannes Brahms wrote three important works while residing in the idyllic countryside of Pörtschach on the Wörthersee: the Symphony No. 2, the Violin Concerto, and the Violin Sonata No. 1. Many scholars have commented on the endearing nature of these three works, which share a certain life-breath and gentle ease. These qualities had not until then been hallmarks of Brahms’ major works, particularly not in his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Symphony No. 1.
In 1853 Brahms met Joseph Joachim, the formidable violin virtuoso and conductor who became his lifelong friend. But it took 25 years of cajoling from Joachim before Brahms composed the Violin Concerto. Joachim edited and premiered the work, with Brahms conducting, on New Year’s Day 1879. The critics did not receive the new work kindly, probably because of its extraordinary length and breadth. Though symphonies in the late 19th Century were expected to push these limits (consider Bruckner’s symphonies), not so with concertos. This one lasts 45 minutes—some 15-20 longer than audiences were accustomed to—and Brahms’ formal and thematic treatment are more symphonic than concerto-like. The piece also baffled the public with its unprecedented complexity. One critic called it a “concerto versus the violin.” Despite its inauspicious reception, however, the concerto has become a gem in the concert hall.
The first movement, Allegro non troppo, opens with a wonderfully wistful, simple, and triadic introductory theme in D Major. The second phrase magically melts into a harmonically distant C major, becoming more intimate and song-like, and creating an introductory soundbed of pastoral gentleness. As with so many of Brahms’ themes, this bit of material becomes the basis for development throughout this lengthy movement. One truly unique element is the treatment of the solo violin part, which, when it finally appears, feels as though it’s patterned after bird song. It is never overly virtuosic or extroverted, but beautifully expressive and intricately florid, melding with the orchestra in an overall symphonic treatment. The entire movement is rapture.
Originally, Brahms wrote two middle movements for this concerto (further evidence of its symphonic character), but soon abandoned them for this definitive form of a single, central Adagio. Ever modest and self-effacing, Brahms termed it his “feeble adagio,” but it is far from feeble. It begins tenderly and remains a love song, as the oboe plays the long, beautiful main theme, and then pauses to let the violin wander elegantly off with it. The great violinist Pablo de Sarasate, a critic of the concerto, peevishly remarked that he had no desire to perform a movement where he had to “listen, violin in hand, to how the oboe plays the only melody in the whole piece.”
The finale, Allegro giocoso, is a perfect rondo answer to the bird song and tender melodies of the first and second movements. This Allegro opens with a wonderful lilt between violin and orchestra, one that makes you think of Brahms after the keller, arm in arm with his comrades, jubilantly hexed by lager and trying cabaret dance moves. This finale may bring us all about the town, all night, but it never stumbles or loses its wonderful spirit. The first theme clearly resounds of gypsy music—music that endeared itself to Brahms during his early years in Vienna—and then gives way to dance variations and syncopation. The concerto ends as wonderfully enchanted as it began, fresh and lilting—like bird song at dawn.
Paul Phillips (born 1956)
Brownian Motion arose from my fascination with contemporary scientific theories, as described by physicist Michio Kaku in his book Hyperspace. Kaku explained how physicists’ attempts throughout the 20th century to determine all the types of subatomic matter had yielded only an ever-increasing list of particles known by such charming names as hadrons, leptons, muons, and quarks. The ultimate explanation, according to Kaku, might lie in “string theory.” According to this theory, the “string” – an entity about 100 billion billion times smaller than a proton – is the ultimate basic unit of matter. Kaku described it like this:
...think of a violin string, which can vibrate at different frequencies, creating musical notes like A, B, and C….The note A is no more fundamental than the note B. However, what is fundamental is the string itself. There is no need to study each note in isolation of the others. By understanding how a violin string vibrates, we immediately understand the properties of an infinite number of musical notes....According to [string] theory, matter is nothing but the harmonies created by this vibrating string. Since there are an infinite number of harmonies that can be composed for the violin, there are an infinite number of forms of matter that can be constructed out of vibrating strings....The laws of physics can be compared to the laws of harmony allowed on the string. The universe itself, composed of countless vibrating strings, would then be comparable to a symphony.
I was astonished to find musical imagery at the heart of a book about subatomic physics – the mysterious workings of the cosmos described in terms of a violin string! Conversely, I set out to write a musical work that would use the imagery of physics as a compositional element. The question of how to do this puzzled me until I remembered the concept of “Brownian motion” — the irregular motion of small particles suspended in a liquid or a gas. What if a “musical particle” were subjected to some sort of irregular motion? I created a melody of 23 notes —7 notes repeated plus 9, all on the white keys of the piano —and set out to write a piece based almost entirely upon it. Irregular meters and rhythms in combination with pitch material (melodic and harmonic) that remains essentially constant are intended to suggest a kind of musical Brownian motion. In 1905, Albert Einstein published an important paper on Brownian motion that confirmed the atomic theory of matter and was widely regarded as the first proof that atoms exist. The fact that Einstein, the preeminent physicist of the 20th Century, was a violinist was an additional stimulus, as was the irresistible pun on the name of the university whose orchestra I have led since 1989.
Brownian Motion is scored for triple woodwinds, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, four percussionists, harp, piano, and strings. It is dedicated to the Brown University Orchestra, which premiered it on May 5, 1995, and has been performed by the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, Maryland Symphony Orchestra, Pioneer Valley Symphony, and 2004 Maine All-State Orchestra. Funding for the composition was generously provided by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and the American Music Center’s Margaret Fairbank Jory Copying Award.
—Paul Phillips © 2005
Romanian Rhapsodies, Op. 11,
No. 2 in D Major and No. 1 in A Major
Georges Enescu (1881-1955)
The written history of Romania, like that of many European countries, began with the Romans. After they left, Romania was overrun by a series of invaders—the Goths, Huns, Avars, and so on. The main principalities that have remained over the centuries are Moldavia, Walachia, and Transylvania. Even into the 19th Century, however, the provinces were being fought over and their rulers kept changing. Not until 1881 was Romania finally declared its own kingdom. Also in 1881 was born the musical prodigy Georges Enescu. By age 8 he had learned violin, developed some composing skills, entered a music conservatory, and given his first recital. At 14 he continued his violin and composition studies at the Paris Conservatoire (with classmate Maurice Ravel). During those short years, Enescu studied with the greatest musical teachers of his day, and played several times for Johannes Brahms. By 17 he was hailed in Romania as a figure of national importance. The nationalism that accompanied Romania’s long-sought autonomy set the tone for Enescu’s greatly beloved Poème Roumain, Op. 1, for Orchestra, Chorus, and Bells (1897), and, soon after, the two Romanian Rhapsodies (1901).
From this point on, Enescu’s career followed a thrice-divided path of conducting, concertizing, and composing. As a conductor, he was strongly considered as a replacement for Toscanini after his death. As performer, Enescu was regarded as one of the most musical violinists of his generation. As composer, he contributed strongly to the orchestral and chamber music repertoires, and spent 24 years creating the opera Oedipe, premiered in 1936. Enescu’s contemporaries marveled at his brilliance, such as his knowing every note of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by heart. Because of his active schedule, his compositions number only 33. Had he been less self-effacing, his works other than the flashy nationalistic pieces would probably be better remembered.
The Romanian Rhapsodies became somewhat of an albatross for Enescu. He regretted their popularity, which overshadowed his later, more mature works. Nonetheless, the pieces are unique and fresh, displaying Enescu’s originality in orchestral coloring and his keen sense of pace. Based upon Romanian folk songs that, in the composer’s words, are “rhapsodized,” with repetitions and juxtapositions, they are charming vignettes of Romanian life, and wonderfully swashbuckling.
Tonight’s performance begins with the second Rhapsody, the more subtle of the two. The first Rhapsody has the more recognizable tunes, full of the riches of Balkan tonalities and dance. The ever-pressing accelerando leads to an unforgettable ending that invariably brings you to the edge of your seat. You can’t help yourself. You get progressively more wiggly, tapping your feet, inching out into the aisle, and fighting the urge to jump up as the final bars crash about the hall. It is no wonder that both Rhapsodies are so well loved.