Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Programme Notes: Elgar, Strauss, Brahms

Here are my notes for last night's KSO concert. It's all about the facial hair. I had something about Strauss's moustache in the first draft, but my editor made me cut it out. "You're just doing that to amuse yourself," she said. Well, it's a fair cop.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Froissart – Concert Overture, Op.19

Elgar’s public image – the tweed suit, the extravagant moustache, the very image of the establishment country gent – was assiduously cultivated. He did this so successfully that the most popular idea of him today is still the gruff patriot, churning out tunes to wave flags by. The reality was rather different. To be born a Catholic in the provinces was the mark of an outsider in Victorian England. It took years of struggle and disappointment before he achieved his status as England’s foremost composer.
Froissart is an early work. It was commissioned by the Worcester Festival, but actually composed in London. Elgar had moved there with his new wife Alice in 1889 hoping to make his mark, but he struggled to make an impact. He had to commute back to Malvern to earn money teaching the violin, and the arrival of his first child put further strain on his finances. At one stage he was forced to pawn Alice’s pearls. Disillusioned, he retreated to Malvern in 1891, and would not return to London for a decade. Despite these misfortunes surrounding its composition, he retained affection for the piece in later years.
The overture is named for the medieval French writer Jean Froissart. Froissart worked as a merchant and a clerk before he became the court poet and historian to Philippa of Hainault, the consort of Edward III. His Chronicles, written as he travelled round England, Scotland, Wales, France, Flanders and Spain, are one of the most important contemporary records of the period leading up to the Hundred Years’ War.
Froissart’s value as a reliable historian is disputed, but what appealed to Victorian England was his depiction of the values of chivalry. Rather than any specific event, Elgar evokes the spirit of dashing nobility. The score is prefaced with a quotation from Keats that sums up the Romantic enthusiasm for this ideal: “When Chivalry lifted up her lance on high.”


Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Horn Concerto No.2 in E flat

1. Allegro – Andante con moto
2. Rondo (Allegro molto)


In 1945 an old man walked down the stairs of his country retreat with his hands up and surrendered to the American soldiers who had entered with the words, “I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier and Salome.” He cut a very different figure to the young turk who had scandalised early 20th century audiences with dissonant operas on such scandalous subjects as Salome. The First World War swept aside the certainties of nineteenth-century Europe, and almost overnight the former leading modernist found himself out of step with the times. As the younger generation scandalised Viennese ears with such horrors as atonality and jazz, Strauss assumed the mantle of Establishment: conservative, safe and above all respectable.
It was rather unfortunate that over the next twenty years the Establishment took a turn for the worse as Hitler came to power. Probably more through naivety than anything else, Strauss decided that he could stand apart from politics. Not everyone agreed with this stance. The nature and morality of Strauss’s relationship with the Nazis continues to provoke heated debate even today. The works of his last years are marked by a conspicuous sense of retreat from a world that had left him far behind.
Strauss wrote his first concerto for horn as a young man for his father to perform (the elder Strauss declared it too difficult), and his second, part of the remarkable fecundity of his last years, was written as a tribute to his memory. He only intended it to be performed once, and that is reflected in its absolute straightforwardness of mood. Barely a hint of the war that raged as he wrote it in 1942 is to be heard. Beyond the occasional moment that hints of darker things, the concerto exists largely in a Mozartean utopia, the hunting calls that abound perhaps an echo of an imagined past when life was more chivalrous, less complicated.


Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90

1. Allegro con brio
2. Andante
3. Poco allegretto
4. Allegro


Like Elgar, Brahms hid a complex personality behind a construct of gruffness, sturdy suits and facial hair. He was immensely self-conscious about his place in musical history, and went to great lengths to make sure that as little as possible of his life became public knowledge. But the crusty image of “Herr Doktor Brahms” belies a life born in grinding poverty. His teenage years were spent playing piano in brothels to make ends meet, where he was subject to abuse of all kinds. He was irrevocably scarred by his early experiences. He felt deeply lonely, yet incapable of allowing himself any great intimacy. He was notorious for his caustic wit and an exasperating combination of misanthropy and self-pity. “I have no friends!” he would often exclaim in later life (to his friends).
By the time he came to write his third symphony, the blue-eyed, handsome youth had long since disappeared beneath the fa├žade. He was held up as the figurehead of the conservative opposition to the revolutionary music of Wagner and his followers. This was not a position he sought or welcomed, despite his reservations about the Wagnerian cult. He remarked acidly on more than one occasion that he understood Wagner’s music far better than any of his most rabid acolytes. But as the pre-eminent composer of symphonies and chamber music in a world dominated by Wagner’s ideas of the “Total Art Work”, he felt himself to be the last of a line.
In 1883 Brahms was about to celebrate his 50th birthday. He was, after Wagner’s death early that year, indisputably the foremost composer in Germanic culture. Not that his mind was entirely focussed on his artistic reputation. He was in the grip of one of his perennial infatuations, in this case a young singer called Hermine Spies. An outpouring of vocal music followed. His decision to take his summer holiday in Wiesbaden rather than his customary destination of Bad Ischl may not have been unconnected with the fact that she was there during that summer. What if anything went on is a matter for conjecture: this is one of those episodes that Brahms was more successful in removing from record. But in a light and airy country house in sight of the Rhine, as luxurious, he claimed, “as if I were trying to imitate Wagner”, he began his third symphony.
Brahms more than almost any other composer resists interpretation, but there are clues as to the influence of extra-musical thoughts. The opening three chords derive from a cipher. His friend and early champion, the violinist Joseph Joachim, had a motto: the notes F-A-E, standing for “Frei aber einsam” [free but lonely]. Brahms rejoined with F-A-F, meaning “Frei aber Froh” [free but happy]. This arresting opening plunges us deep into the current of the Rhine – almost literally, as the main theme is adapted from the Rhenish Symphony of another of Brahms’ friends from his youth, Robert Schumann.
These associations ran deep for Brahms. Both Joachim and Schumann had provided crucial support early in his career. There were less happy memories too. He had fallen out with Joachim three years earlier over the latter’s divorce, and it is perhaps significant that Brahms’s first attempt at a rapprochement would be to ask Joachim to conduct the Berlin premiere of the Third Symphony. Schumann loomed large in Brahms’s life beyond his role as mentor. As the elder composer succumbed to madness and died in an asylum, Brahms fell head over heels in love with his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann. Whether these feelings were consummated is still a subject of speculation, but she was undoubtedly the great love of his life. The presence of these motifs in the symphony suggest that thoughts of his past must have been present, and to be thinking of his lost friends and lost loves while he was pursuing the young contralto must have been a source of much soul-searching. The overall mood of the opening movement is heroic, but it is heroism undermined by instability: the rhythms and harmonies are in constant flux.
The middle two movements are more subdued and introverted. The second begins restfully enough, but there is a melancholic undertow. The third movement’s exquisitely yearning main theme made it an instant hit at early performances. In those days when no one worried about whether or not to clap between movements, it was often encored.
The finale begins quietly and tensely before erupting. Elements of the previous movements are woven into the design, which seems to be striving towards a heroic conclusion. Brahms often takes a moment in his finales to reflect before he races for an affirmative ending. But on this occasion things take an unexpected turn. The ensuing valediction nods towards Wagner, and reveals the opening theme’s true nature. It would be an unthinkable way to conclude such monumental music had Brahms not done it and made it seem so right.

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