The premiere of Guillermo Figueroa as The Symphony’s Principal Conductor arrives—a new maestro in the new year! The afternoon will open with Jean Sibelius’s glorious tribute to his homeland, Finlandia. The next work on the program, Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, brings to the forefront The Symphony’s own Principal Bassoon, Stefanie Przybylska, and the performance concludes with Brahms’s final symphony, his Symphony No. 4 in E minor.
Be sure to join us for a FREE preview talk one hour before the concert. Click here for more information on our subscription package options! Individual tickets from $22 available now—click “join our email list” on the sidebar to make sure you receive all the latest news.
SUNDAY, JANUARY 22, 2017, AT 4:00 PM
Bassoon Concerto in B-flat Major, K.191
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto is not just the one great concerto for that instrument—it is also one of Mozart’s earliest concertos. When he wrote it in June 1774 at the age of eighteen, he had as yet written no violin concertos, no other concertos for wind instruments, and only five piano concertos (and four of those were arrangements of music by other composers); Mozart’s great refinement of concerto form was still several years in the future. The year 1774, however, did see the creation of some of Mozart’s first authentic masterpieces—the Symphony No. 29 dates from April, the Missa Brevis K.192 came from later in June, and his opera La finta giardiniera was written that summer. If the Bassoon Concerto is not on the same level as these works, it is nevertheless a very pleasing and charming piece of music.
The bassoon is an unlikely solo instrument. Its limited dynamic range and narrow palette of tone color would seem liabilities in a solo concerto. But Mozart, whose writing for wind instruments was always distinguished, creates a concerto perfectly suited to the bassoon’s strengths. He alternates flowing legato lines with sharply-delineated staccatos, keeps the small orchestra (two oboes, two horns, and strings) fairly quiet, and contrasts the bassoon’s rich lower register with its more piercing higher notes. What emerges is an extremely engaging concerto for what at first seems a most unpromising instrument.
The opening Allegro is in sonata form and requires wide melodic skips from the soloist; Mozart offers the bassoon two opportunities for cadenzas. The second movement features an unusual marking, Andante ma Adagio, and muted strings. The graceful and melodic main idea undergoes some florid decoration from both soloist and orchestra as the movement proceeds, and Mozart provides another opportunity for a cadenza just before the close.
The concluding movement is in many ways the most interesting. It is a rondo, but Mozart specifies Tempo di Menuetto: the form becomes a minuet-rondo, a slower-than-usual rondo based on the amiable minuet tune. The writing for soloist is animated here—the bassoon has flying triplets and extroverted runs. One more time, young Mozart offers his soloist a cadenza before the minuet tune dances this movement to its agreeable close.
Finlandia, opus 26
Finlandia has become a virtual symbol of Finland and its national aspirations, but this music achieved that status almost by accident. Sibelius originally composed it in 1899 for what seems like an innocuous occasion—a celebration to help raise money for newspaper pension funds—but this fiery music quickly caught the heart of the Finnish people and became a symbol of their national pride.
Finland had been under Russian control throughout the nineteenth century, and the movement for Finnish independence had always been strong. When Czar Nicholas II cracked down in 1899 and began an intense Russification campaign, the country nearly exploded with opposition, and it was at that precise moment that Sibelius wrote this music, which was first titled Finland Awake! So obvious was that meaning that Russian authorities banned its performance, and Sibelius retitled the piece Finlandia when he revised it the following year. The Finns would finally gain their independence from Russia after World War I, and Finlandia has remained a sort of unofficial national hymn ever since.
Yet this music tells no story, nor does it incorporate any Finnish folk material. Many assumed that music that sounds so “Finnish” must be based on native tunes, but Sibelius was adamant that all of it was original: “There is a mistaken impression among the press abroad that my themes are often folk melodies. So far, I have never used a theme that was not of my own invention. The thematic material of Finlandia . . . is entirely my own.”
Finlandia is extremely dramatic music, well-suited to the striving and heroic mood of the times. Its ominous introduction opens with snarling two-note figures in the brass, and they are answered by quiet chorale-like material from woodwinds and strings. At the Allegro moderato the music rips ahead on stuttering brass figures and drives to a climax. Sibelius relaxes tensions with a poised hymn for woodwind choir that is repeated by the strings (surely this was the spot most observers identified as “authentic” Finnish material). The music takes on some of its earlier power, the stuttering brass attacks return, and Sibelius drives matters to a knock-out close.
Small wonder that music so dramatic—and composed at so important a moment in Finnish history—should have come to symbolize that nation’s pride and desire for independence.
Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, opus 98
The impact of Brahms’s final symphony defies simple description. This music has been called autumnal, tragic, melancholy, sad, serious, and elegiac, and all listeners instinctively feel its gravity and intensity in every bar. Yet from the tentative violin figure that opens the symphony to the mighty cataclysm that ends it forty minutes later, it is also exhilarating, glorious music, one of Brahms’s finest achievements and certainly one of the greatest symphonies ever written.
Brahms composed the Fourth Symphony in the tiny town of Murzzuschlag high in the Styrian Alps, about fifty miles southwest of Vienna. He wrote the first two movements in the summer of 1884 and the final two when he returned the following summer. Aware of the seriousness of this music, Brahms wrote to the conductor Hans von Bülow, “I am pondering whether this symphony will find more of a public. I fear it smacks of the climate of this country; the cherries are not sweet here, and you would certainly not eat them.”
It was Brahms’s custom to send copies of his new works to friends for their comments; habitually he accompanied the copies with self-disparaging remarks to which his friends would have to protest as they praised the new work. This time, to his dismay, his friends did not like the new symphony. After hearing it played in a two-piano version, critic Eduard Hanslick complained, “All through I felt I was being beaten by two terribly clever men.” Elizabeth von Herzogenberg wrote to Brahms, “Your piece affects me curiously, the more penetration I bring to bear on it, the more impenetrable it becomes.” The stunned composer was left protesting to Clara Schumann that “the piece does not altogether displease me.” It did not altogether displease audiences either—the premiere in Meiningen on October 25, 1885, was a triumph.
The criticism by Brahms’s friends may seem strange today, but there is something severe about the Fourth Symphony. Many have noted the fusion of passion and intellect that marks Brahms’s finest music, but the Fourth Symphony takes both of these to an extreme, blending an impassioned emotional content with the most inexorable musical logic. One feels this concentration from the first instant. The Fourth is the only one of Brahms’s symphonies to open without an introduction: it simply begins with the rising and falling main subject in the violins, and much of the thematic material of this sonata-form movement is coiled embryonically within the intervals of this simple theme. A series of fanfares leads to the second subject, a broadly striding melody for cellos and horns; while there is no exposition repeat, Brahms begins the development with so literal a repetition of the beginning that only gradually does the listener recognize that the music is pressing ahead even as it seems to go back. From the most understated of beginnings, this movement drives to one of the most powerful climaxes in all of Brahms’s music.
By contrast, the Andante moderato seems calm, flowing, and melodic, yet it too is in sonata form, and once again Brahms spins glorious music out of the simplest material: the opening horn call evolves smoothly into the main clarinet tune, and this in turn takes many shapes across the span of the movement. To the young Richard Strauss, assistant conductor of the Meiningen Orchestra, this movement sounded like “a funeral procession moving in silence across moonlit heights.”
When Brahms returned to Murzzuschlag in the summer of 1885 to compose the final two movements, he wrote the finale first, then the third movement. Knowing in advance just how rigorous the finale was, Brahms made the Allegro giocoso as rollicking a symphonic movement as he ever wrote. That marking means “lively, playful,” and this music is Brahms’s closest approach to a symphonic scherzo. Yet with many differences: once again, it is in sonata form (there is only a brief whiff of a trio section), and Brahms sets the movement in 2/4 rather than the standard 3/4 meter of scherzos. The mighty opening theme plunges downward (and is quickly inverted), while relief comes with the lovely second subject, a relaxed violin melody marked grazioso. Brahms enlivens the orchestral textures here with instruments he rarely used: piccolo, triangle, contrabassoon, and an extra timpani.
The Fourth Symphony concludes with one of the most extraordinary—and powerful—movements in the symphonic literature. It is a passacaglia, a musical form already old when Bach used it a century and a half before. Brahms in fact took this passacaglia theme from the concluding chorale of Bach’s Cantata No. 150, Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich: he re-barred Bach’s original five-measure theme into eight measures and changed one note to heighten chromatic tension. The trombones, silent to this point in the symphony, stamp out this theme, and this ground bass repeats thirty times. Above these thirty strict repetitions, Brahms spins out a set of variations extraordinary for their variety and expressiveness. Even more impressive is how this old baroque form is made to conform to the general shape of sonata form: after the powerful initial statements, the violins have a lyric variation, and this sequence leads a quiet central episode climaxed by a lovely flute solo over the (barely suggested) ground bass. The “recapitulation” begins with an earth-shaking explosion over the passacaglia theme, there is a brief flirtation with two waltz-like variations, and a coda derived from the passacaglia theme drives majestically (and inexorably) to the close.
Brahms was fifty-two when he completed the Fourth Symphony and still had twelve years to live. Twice in that span he contemplated writing another symphony and in each case made a few sketches, yet he abandoned both projects. However much we may regret the loss of those symphonies, perhaps Brahms was right to let them go—it is difficult to conceive how he might have gone beyond the Fourth Symphony.
The Symphony acknowledges with thanks our season program notes contributor, Eric Bromberger.
Stefanie Przybylska is The Santa Fe Symphony’s principal bassoonist. She recently appeared as a featured soloist with The Symphony as well as the New Mexico Symphony in works by Mozart and John Williams. Read more!