Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and Strings, BWV 1043
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach
Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig
This ever-popular concerto dates from about 1720, or from the middle of Bach’s six years as music director to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. The Double Concerto is a favorite of all violinists, from the greatest virtuosos to the humblest amateurs, and it is easy to understand why: this concerto offers pleasing melodies, an even distribution of duties between the soloists, and one of Bach’s greatest slow movements.
The opening movement is significantly marked Vivace rather than the usual Allegro–Bach’s marking stresses that he wants a lively performance, vivacious rather than simply fast. A long orchestral introduction presents the main theme, and soon the solo violins enter, gracefully trading phrases. Though it moves smoothly and easily, this music is much more difficult than it sounds, requiring wide melodic skips and awkward string-crossings. The solo exchanges are interrupted by orchestral tuttis in a manner reminiscent of the concerto grosso (to which the concerto bears a strong resemblance), and at the end the orchestra brings the movement to a powerful close.
The real glory of this concerto comes in the slow movement–Largo, ma non tanto–which is nearly as long as the outer movements combined. The second violin sings the noble melody that will dominate this movement, then accompanies the first violin as it enters with the theme. This balanced partnership extends throughout the movement, each violin spinning out Bach’s gloriously poised melodic lines one moment, turning to accompany the other the next.
By contrast, the concluding Allegro bristles with energy, hurtling along on a steady flow of sixteenth-notes. This movement is more varied rhythmically than the first–the soloists have sudden bursts of triplets and break out of the orchestral texture to launch their own soaring melodies. The orchestra’s vigorous tuttis punctuate the movement and bring it to a vigorous close.
—Program note by Eric Bromberger
BACH Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and Strings, BWV 1043
Largo, ma non tanto
Violin Concerto Opus 14
Born March 9, 1910, West Chester, Pennsylvania
Died January 23, 1981, Mt. Kisco, New York
Samuel Barber began composing his Violin Concerto during the summer of 1939 while living in a small village in Switzerland. He moved to Paris later that summer and then—as war broke out—returned to the United States, where he completed the concerto. That completion, however, brought problems.
Seventy years after its composition, Barber’s Violin Concerto has become the most popular violin concerto by an American composer–numerous performances are available on compact disc, many of them recorded in Europe. The source of this popularity is no mystery: the concerto shows off Barber’s considerable melodic gift, particularly over the first two movements, while the finale is a breathless virtuoso piece. The concerto has some unusual features, particularly in its scoring. Barber writes for Mozart’s orchestra (pairs of winds, plus timpani and strings) as well as two unusual instruments: a “military” drum, used only in the finale, and a piano, used here as a chordal instrument. The choice of piano can seem a curious one, and Barber’s decision to arpeggiate its chords gives the instrument a continuo-like plangency, an unusual sound in the concerto’s generally romantic sonority.
While the opening movement is marked Allegro, its actual pace feels somewhat restrained, so that this concerto seems to open with two slow movements, followed by a fast finale. The opening movement is notable for its continuous lyricism. Solo violin has the long opening melody, and the triplet that recurs during this theme will figure importantly throughout the development. Solo clarinet has the perky second idea, full of rhythmic snap, and the violin has a dancing subordinate figure, marked grazioso e scherzando. There is no cadenza as such, but in the first two movements Barber gives the solo violin extended cadenza-like passages over deep orchestral pedals. The coda of the first movement is built on its two main themes, and the movement concludes quietly on the triplet rhythms that have shaped so much of it.
The Andante is very much in the manner of the opening movement. Over muted strings, solo oboe sings the long main theme; the violin’s entrance is delayed, and Barber marks its appearance senza affretare: “without hurrying.” The music rises to an expansive, soaring climax before the quiet close.
The finale–Presto in moto perpetuo–brings a sharp change of character. Gone is the lyricism of the first two movements, and in its place comes a gritty, acerbic, driven quality. Except for two brief interludes, the soloist is playing constantly, and the part is full of driving triplets, awkward string-crossings, and endless accidentals–the effect is of a hard-driving perpetual motion. In the coda, the pulse of triplets suddenly gives way to racing sixteenths, and the concerto concludes as the soloist rips upward to the very top of the violin’s range.
—Program note by Eric Bromberger
Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Opus 74 “Pathetique”
PETER ILYCH TCHAIKOVSKY
Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk
Died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg
Tchaikovsky made a successful visit to America in the spring of 1891, when he was one of the guest conductors at the opening of Carnegie Hall in New York City. During these years he frequently conducted abroad, including appearances in France, Belgium, and Poland, but Tchaikovsky was always homesick for his native land when he was on tour, and he rushed back to Russia in 1892. At his home in the village of Klin, north of Moscow, Tchaikovsky drafted the first three movements of a symphony in E-flat major, but he was dissatisfied and abandoned it, plunging once again into his perpetual terror that he had written himself out and would never compose again.
Then in February 1893, he began another symphony. This one grew out of a note he had written to himself the previous year: “The ultimate essence of the plan of the symphony is LIFE. First movement–all impulsive passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short. (Finale DEATH–result of collapse.) Second movement love; third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short).” This note was the seed for Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, though the plan would be considerably modified in the course of composition. To his nephew Tchaikovsky wrote, “I had an idea for a new symphony, this time with a program—but a program of a kind that will remain an enigma to all. Let them guess it who can…This program is permeated with subjective feeling…While composing it in my mind, I wept frequently.”
The draft of the symphony was complete by April 1893, and the orchestration was done in August. Though he was perpetually unsure about his new works, this time Tchaikovsky was confident that he had written well: “I love it as I have never loved a single one of my offspring . . . Never have I been so pleased with myself, so proud, so happy in the knowledge that I have created something good.”
Clearly, the new symphony was important to its creator, and he wished to take measure of its emotional significance with a suitable nickname. At first he wanted to call it “Program” Symphony, but he was quickly talked out of so bland a suggestion. His brother Modest suggested the subtitle “Tragic,” but the composer disliked that. Then Modest suggested “Pathetique,” and the composer agreed immediately. The term pathetique is difficult to translate into English, and its automatic rendering as “pathetic” is misleading–as Tchaikovsky understood the term, it meant more nearly “emotional” or “passionate.” Yet the “meaning” of this symphony remains elusive. A generation or so ago, it was almost a convention that recordings of the Pathetique would feature a jacket illustration of a lugubrious hooded figure descending steps into the depths of a gloomy cloister. That image had nothing to do with the music, but it seemed a sort of visual equivalent of this music’s unsettling emotional impact.
The Pathetique begins in darkness. Over the contrabasses’ open fifth, solo bassoon sings the somber opening melody, and this smoothly evolves into the movement’s main subject at the Allegro non troppo. The second episode is built on one of the most famous themes Tchaikovsky ever wrote, a heartfelt falling melody for strings that he marks “tenderly, singing, expansive”; these two ideas will form the basis of this vast sonata-form movement. The exposition trails off in the woodwinds–Tchaikovsky wants the solo bassoon to play so quietly that he marks its part with SIX piano signs–but the opening of the development is the most violent in the symphonic literature. Out of that silence, the orchestra explodes (this is a moment famous for terrifying dozing concert-goers), and the tumultuous development centers on the opening theme. The climax comes on two huge smashes of sound–the first like a crack of thunder, the second exhausted and falling away–and finally a noble brass chorale draws this lengthy movement to its consoling close.
The second movement, Allegro con grazia, is a waltz, but instead of writing it in the waltz meter of 3/4, Tchaikovsky casts this one in 5/4. Despite the sour critic who claimed that this waltz could be danced only by someone with three feet, this is graceful music. Tchaikovsky keeps the flowing trio section in 5/4 as well, and its lightness is set off by a deep contrabass line that throbs along beneath the easy flow of melody.
The Allegro molto vivace, one of Tchaikovsky’s most exciting movements, is both a scherzo and a march. It opens with skittering triplets, and solo oboe quickly sounds the sharp-edged march tune. This movement is beautifully controlled: Tchaikovsky gradually builds these simple materials into a powerful march that drives to an incandescent close.
It is a close that inevitably brings a burst of applause, but the true ending is still to come, and it is dark indeed, for this symphony concludes with a grieving and dark slow movement that Tchaikovsky significantly marks Adagio lamentoso. The almost sobbing violin theme at the beginning is remarkable for its sound projection: Tchaikovsky has it played jointly by the two violin sections, and the melodic line moves back and forth between them at each note–in effect, neither section has the theme, which is heard only as product of their combined effort. The movement rises to an agitated climax, then slowly slips back into the blackness from which the symphony began. Tchaikovsky takes an artistic risk here, closing with slow and bleak music rather than with the traditional excitement. Yet his instincts proved correct, and this symphony’s vanishing into the darkness–however strange it must have seemed to that first audience–makes for a powerful conclusion.
Tchaikovsky led the premiere on October 28, 1893, before a St. Petersburg audience that could make little sense of so unexpected an ending. Nine days later Tchaikovsky was dead at the age of 53, apparently the victim of cholera, though the exact circumstances remain uncertain. At a second performance of this symphony twelve days after his death, the audience was overwhelmed by music that had left them mystified only a short time before, and the proximity of Tchaikovsky’s death to the premiere of this dark music gave rise to all kinds of retroactive interpretations of its meaning. Tchaikovsky himself gave no indication beyond his cryptic comment: “Let them guess it who can.”
—Program note by Eric Bromberger
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