Strauss' Vienna: Program Notes Dec. 1 - 3
Prepare to be swept away in this stunning tribute to the Viennese waltz! Vienna was the glittering cultural jewel in the crown of Europe in the 1800s - Brahms spent his entire life there. Performing his First Piano Concerto will be the stellar Jeremy Denk, winner of numerous awards, including the prestigious MacArthur ‘Genius” Fellowship. Tonights concert also showcases music by Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss.
Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman included.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.
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Carl St.Clair • Conductor
Jeremy Denk • Piano
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Concerto No. 1 in D Minor for Piano, Op. 15
Rondo: Allegro non troppo
I N T E R M I S S I O N
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, TrV 227, Op. 59
Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899)
On the Beautiful Blue Danube, Op. 314
The Saturday, Dec. 3, concert is being recorded for broadcast on
Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, at 7 p.m. on Classical KUSC.
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)
Concerto No. 1 in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, solo piano
Performance time: 44 minutes
It's not unusual to hear professional musicians describe a composition or part as "grateful"—especially the solo part of a concerto. As listeners we can intuit what they mean, even if the exact definition is tough to nail down: Music is grateful when it is written in a way that demonstrates a sympathetic understanding of both the instrument and the player.
For the pianist, it may lie comfortably in the hands and offer opportunities for spectacular flights of virtuosic playing that are not quite so difficult (for the pros) as we listeners might imagine.
On the other hand, though we rarely hear pianists describe a concerto as "ungrateful," that term would seem to fit Brahms' piano concertos.
These sumptuous works seem suffused with the light of a sunset rather than the flash of fireworks. They are not about display, but are filled with hidden difficulties that we hear only as the lyrically flowing inner voices of Brahms' purling extended lines.
We might well ask why Brahms was so tough on pianists. A virtuoso pianist himself, he performed the premieres of his piano concertos.
But despite his standing as a late champion of the romantic tradition, which set the concerto soloist in heroic relief against the massed orchestra, these concertos are characterized by nuanced, layered scores that provide extended passages of serene beauty. Instead of outward display, we hear inward expressiveness.
We rightly think of Brahms as a composer of independent mind and unwavering principle, but the development of his First Piano Concerto shows us the other side of that coin: his inclination to seek professional advice from friends and to give it deep consideration.
Clara Wieck Schumann, from an 1835 lithograph
These valued colleagues included some of the greatest musicians of their day, including the legendary violinist Joseph Joachim, the composer Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, who was the unrequited love of Brahms' life.
Clara, née Wieck, was a superb pianist and a sensitive judge of Brahms' work who was 14 years his senior; in 1854, when Brahms was 21 and this concerto's premiere was still four years in the offing, she wrote in her diary, "I love him like a son."
As a pianist and a rising composer, Brahms knew that he would compose piano concertos. But had it not been for the counsel of his friends, this concerto might have taken another form entirely.
He began writing it in 1854 as a sonata for two pianos; by mid-summer of that year, his initial work had morphed in the direction of a symphony, another form that loomed large in Brahms' future.
The first friend with whom he shared these efforts, the composer and conductor Julius Otto Grimm, offered suggestions that Brahms found constructive. After further work he forwarded the draft to Joachim; in their initial correspondence, including Joachim's deeply positive observations, they consistently reference Brahms’ "symphony."
By early 1855, Brahms' intentions for the work had clearly changed. The original four-movement framework he envisioned for his symphony had switched to three movements, and his drafts for new second and third movements framed a solo piano part. Only materials from the first movement were retained from his original work, to be recast as a concerto.
Throughout this evolution, Brahms and Joachim continued their correspondence on its progress in some 20 painstakingly observed letters.
The concerto made its way into the world in January of 1859. Responses to early performances were ambivalent at best; after coldly received presentations in Hanover and then in Leipzig, it was enthusiastically received in Hamburg, but then receded into critical and popular disaffection.
Clara Schumann, who fully appreciated the concerto's beauty—how tantalizing to imagine her interpretation!— noted in her diary after one performance that "the public understood nothing and felt nothing, otherwise it must have shown proper respect."
Though that respect was gradual in coming, it has never stopped mounting. Today this concerto elicits more than just grudging respect from the listening public.
What to Listen For
How in the world did those early audiences resist the beauties of this concerto? It gives an abundance of the qualities we love in Brahms' music: a first movement of complex, contending voices opening with the emphatic assertions of the woodwinds and deep strings intensified by the timpani—layered yet lucid, thanks to the composer's deft craftsmanship.
Yet the second movement whisks us to another world, dreamy and poetic. No one excelled Brahms' ability to make the piano sing with silken, wafting tones that seem to float in the air. In this case it is a testament not only to his mastery of the instrument, but of his feelings for Clara Schumann; he described the movement as a portrait of her.
The energetic final movement, often compared to the finale of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, provides a traditionally rousing and virtuosic close.
Brahms - Piano Concert No. 1
Hélène Grimaud, piano
Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra | SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, Michael Gielen, 17.4.2005.
Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949)
Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (third doubling on piccolo), 3 oboes (third doubling on English horn), 3 clarinets (third doubling on E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (third doubling on contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 5 percussion, 2 harps, celesta, strings
Performance time: 22 minutes
In 2014, sesquicentennial celebrations of Richard Strauss' birth confirmed his place as the great non-Italian opera composer of the 20th century. But early in that century, when the young Strauss composed his opera Salome, he was known mainly as a pianist, conductor and the composer of captivating tone poems. While they were superbly crafted, they were hardly controversial.
His two earlier attempts at operas were critical setbacks in an otherwise fast-track career. And his father, renowned as a virtuoso of the French horn, had groomed his son's musical education carefully (perhaps too carefully?), embargoing the music of Richard Wagner for fear of its "dangerous" operatic ideas.
In 1905, things changed so markedly for Strauss that it is difficult to think of another composer—indeed, any famous artist—who was so fully identified with both scandal and respectability in his or her own lifetime.
His shockingly sexualized Salome (based on Oscar Wilde's play) catapulted him to international notoriety; instead of backtracking, he followed it with the equally scandalous, Freudian Elektra (based on Sophocles' tragedy).
His beloved opera Der Rosenkavalier, if not exactly an apology to the outraged Viennese public, is a nostalgic backward glance to 18th-century Vienna modeled to some degree upon Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Composed in 1910 and 1911 with the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal—his collaborator on Elektra—it is old-fashioned, modern, timeless and as deliciously caloric as Herr Sacher's torte.
Born at the end of Western classical music's Romantic era, Strauss had a long, productive life. In his 20s, he established himself as a dazzling musical technician with superb keyboard technique.
His mastery of complex, inventive harmonies gave hope to listeners in the post-Brahmsian, post-Wagnerian world that there were still musical frontiers to explore without abandoning tonality altogether, as the Second Viennese School was doing under the leadership of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.
Strauss established his early reputation as a composer with lushly entertaining, vaguely programmatic tone poems.
It's possible to surmise the plot points that underlie various musical passages in each and to hear the innate theatricality that would lead Strauss to write more than two dozen operas.
But most impressive is the construction of Strauss' densely chromatic chords and their dizzying changes. Musicologists sometimes analyze a symphony in terms of how a composer "gets out of" each movement; as Strauss leads us through exotic modulations, at least half the fun is marveling at how he gets where he's going, leading us back to his tonic key.
To many listeners, Strauss had gone from traditional composer to modernist rebel with Salome and Elektra. But for his own artistic reasons, he had long been nurturing the idea of writing a lighter work in the manner of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. The result, Strauss' 1911 masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier, was like an irresistible valentine to the public that felt Strauss had abandoned them. All was forgiven.
Der Rosenkavalier became something different from what Strauss and Hofmannsthal, the most important German writer of his generation, had in mind. Correspondence between the two shows how the opera seemed to run away with them.
The original protagonist was to be a charmer suggested by Mozart's Cherubino—a teenage boy played by a mezzo-soprano. The setting was to be Vienna in the mid-18th century, the time of Figaro's Seville; and the opera was to be filled with melody, romance and waltzes, even though the waltz did not yet exist in the 18th century.
By the time the opera was finished, it was longer and more philosophical than either artist had anticipated, and the character of the Marschallin—who doesn't even appear in the opera's second act—had come to dominate the drama.
What to Listen For
Der Rosenkavalier is filled with gorgeous waltzes and versatile leitmotifs, enough to provide two orchestral suites that don't quite manage to crowd in everyone's favorite moments from the opera. The most famous of these waltzes has a melody so perfect that it seems always to have been there—indeed, the lecherous Baron Ochs sings it as if it were a traditional (if bawdy) song. ("With me, no night will be too long for you…no room too small for you.")
It sounds lush and singable when voiced by an operatically trained bass-baritone, but don't try humming this melody at home. With its deceptively tricky stepwise modulations in minor thirds, it will defy your best efforts in the shower.
Lovers, Unknown Artist, c.1910
Another melody really is based on an Austrian folk song, but in Strauss' hands it is totally transformed—rendered in two parts as the culminating duet of two young lovers, then surrounded by breathtaking, densely chromatic chords in the high woodwinds. "It's a dream," they sing, and indeed it is, as Strauss' inimitable harmonies evoke twinkling stars.
Richard Strauss Conducting
Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825 - 1899)
On the Beautiful Blue Danube
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (second doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, timpani, 2 percussion, harp, strings
Performance time: 9 minutes
Just two famous composers bore the name Johann Strauss, but keeping track of them is not easy—especially when one encounters the music of a Johann Strauss on the same program with that of the more modern Richard Strauss (no relation).
Even without that complication, a waltz by the elder Johann may sound delightfully indistinguishable from one by his son Johann II, who is also known as Johann Jr. and had prominent composer-siblings to boot. Richard, both Johanns, and all the other famous musical Strausses (as well as Brahms, whose Christian name 'Johannes' is dangerously close to 'Johann') had two crucial elements in common: the city of Vienna and the Viennese waltz, which the elder Johann Strauss perfected in the form we know today.
Both successful composers and bandleaders, Johann and Johann II engaged in a long and surprisingly bitter rivalry. In his day the elder Johann was more famous than his son Johann II, now more commonly known as Johann Jr. But it was Johann Jr. who was later acknowledged as the "Waltz King" who gave us Die Fledermaus, the acme of Viennese operetta.
Born in 1825, he produced a succession of lustrous waltzes like "On the Beautiful Blue Danube." They continue to dazzle us and to defy imitators, like a string of exquisitely matched pearls.
Stanley Kubrick famously turned to both these eminent Strausses in choosing music for 2001: A Space Odyssey. His selection of the opening passage of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra for the monolith discovery scene catapulted that once-obscure tone poem into ubiquity.
Kubrick’s use of On the Beautiful Blue Danube was revelatory—both hilarious and seriously provocative. As the movie’s Pan American space-plane is shown docking with a space station, the gargantuan stateliness of these two huge mechanisms dancing with each other transformed our view of space technology.
Americans who have not seen 2001—if there are any—have only to visit Austria to understand the very high regard in which this glorious waltz is held.
It was first performed in choral form at a concert by the Vienna Men’s Choral Association in 1867, and has been popular ever since, with the instrumental version having eclipsed several others with words. In Vienna, where the waltz is not just a heritage but a sacred patrimonial artifact, An der schönen blauen Donau is one of the most revered of all waltzes—an unofficial Austrian national anthem.
The first few bars of the Blue Danube introduce overseas radio programs by the Österreichischer Rundfunk, the national radio station, and this waltz is also an almost mandatory encore at traditional Viennese New Year’s concerts.
What to Listen For
On the Beautiful Blue Danube is introduced in A major with tremolo violins that evoke beautifully calm waters, perhaps under a gathering dawn. Horns enter with the familiar waltz melody, but not yet in waltz time—not until descending chords in the winds lead into a bright modulation into D major, and the waltz glides in.
If the waltz is the essence of grace and the Strausses are the essence of the waltz, then the Blue Danube is one of the stateliest and most dignified of all waltzes. But Johann, Jr. found a way to bring it to a rousing finish—with emphatic tonic chords emphasized by a snappy drum roll in the snares.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in- chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
The Beautiful Blue Danube
André Rieu & his Johann Strauss Orchestra playing "The Beautiful Blue Danube" (An der schönen blauen Donau) by composer Johann Strauss II. Recorded live at Empress Sisi's castle; Schönbrunn Palace Vienna, Austria with dancers from the famous Austrian Elmayer Dancing School.
Jeremy Denk is one of America’s foremost pianists—an artist The New York Times hails as someone "you want to hear no matter what he performs." Winner of a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, the Avery Fisher Prize and Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year award, he returns frequently to Carnegie Hall and has appeared at the BBC Proms with Michael Tilson Thomas.
In the U.S., he has recently performed with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra, as well as on tour with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
In 2016-17, Denk embarks on a recital tour of the U.K., including a return to Wigmore Hall, and he will make his debut at the Philharmonie in Cologne. He appears on tour in recital throughout the U.S., including Chicago Symphony Hall and at Lincoln Center's White Light Festival in a special program that includes a journey through seven centuries of Western music.
He also tours with The St. Paul Orchestra to New York and returns to the National Symphony and St. Louis Symphony. He will release a solo recording, The Classical Style, of music by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and joins his long-time musical partners Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis in a recording of Brahms' Trio in B Major. Future projects include a U.S. tour of the Ives Violin Sonatas with Stefan Jackiw, and a new Piano Concerto commissioned by The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Following the release of his disc of the Goldberg Variations, which reached number one on Billboard’s Classical Chart, Denk performed the piece throughout Europe, including at Wigmore Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
Denk’s 2015-16 engagements included a 14-city recital tour of the U.S., including Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, San Francisco and culminated in his return to Carnegie Hall; while in the U.K., he appeared in solo recital and on tour with the Britten Sinfonia.
He also returned to the San Diego and Detroit Symphonies with Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, and continued as artistic partner of The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with multiple performances throughout the season. In the summer, he returned to the Tanglewood and Aspen Festivals.
In 2014 Denk served as music director of the Ojai Music Festival, for which, besides performing and curating, he wrote the libretto for a comic opera. The opera was later presented by Carnegie Hall and the Aspen Festival. Denk is known for his original and insightful writing on music, which Alex Ross praised for its “arresting sensitivity and wit.”
The pianist’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, New Republic, The Guardian and on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. One of his New Yorker contributions, “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” forms the basis of a memoir for future publication by Random House in the U.S. and Macmillan in the U.K. Recounting his experiences of touring, performing and practicing, his blog, Think Denk, was recently selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress web archives.
In 2012, Denk made his Nonesuch Records debut with a pairing of masterpieces old and new: Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Op. 111 and Ligeti’s Études. The album was named one of the best of 2012 by The New Yorker, NPR and The Washington Post, and Denk’s account of the Beethoven sonata was selected by BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library as the best available version recorded on modern piano.
Denk has a long-standing attachment to the music of American visionary Charles Ives, and his recording of Ives’s two piano sonatas featured in many “best of the year” lists. In March 2012, the pianist was invited by Michael Tilson Thomas to appear as soloist in the San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks festival, and he recorded Henry Cowell’s Piano Concerto with the orchestra. Having cultivated relationships with many living composers, he currently has several commissioning projects in progress.
Denk has toured frequently with violinist Joshua Bell, and their recently released Sony Classical album, French Impressions, won the 2012 Echo Klassik award. He has appeared at numerous festivals, including the Italian and American Spoleto Festivals, and the Verbier, Ravinia, Tanglewood, Aspen Music and Mostly Mozart Festivals.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.