The Unanswered Question

CHARLES IVES  (1874-1954)

In 1906, the 32-year-old Ives sketched out a piece he called The Unanswered Question. This is visionary music. Ives conceived it on three separate musical planes–it is performed by three different groups of instruments that are separated physically, play entirely different music, and seem at first to have nothing to do with each other. The first is a body of strings, whose music is floating, serene, ethereal–their music proceeds as if unaware that anything else is happening onstage. There is next a solitary trumpet, which intones the same questioning phrase six times. And finally there is a quartet of flutes, who form the one active (or reactive) part of this music. The flutes seem to mull over the trumpet’s challenge, dispute among themselves, and grow more agitated as they do.

Somehow this gentle music touches a deeply responsive chord in audiences. In a note in the score Ives talked about his intentions in this music:

The strings play ppp throughout with no change in tempo. They are to represent “The Silences of the Druids–Who Know, See and Hear Nothing.” The trumpet intones “The Perennial Question of Existence” and states it in the same tone of voice each time. But the hunt for “The Invisible Answer” undertaken by the flutes and other human beings, becomes gradually more active, faster and louder through an animando to a con fuoco. This part need not be played in the exact time position indicated.  It is played in somewhat of an impromptu way; if there be no conductor, one of the flute players may direct their playing. “The Fighting Answerers,” as the time goes on, and after a “secret conference,” seem to realize a futility, and begin to mock “The Question”–the strife is over for the moment.  After they disappear, “The Question” is asked for the last time, and “The Silences” are heard beyond in “Undisturbed Solitude.”

-Program Notes by Eric Bromberger

Cello Concerto in E Minor, Opus 85

SIR EDWARD ELGAR   (1857-1934)

Elgar completed his Cello Concerto in1919 at a time of great personal distress brought on by his wife’s illness and by the impact of World War I. His Cello Concerto is a work of great beauty and great contradiction. Some of these contradictions rise from the sharp differences of style within the music: Elgar scores the concerto for a large orchestra, but then can use it with a chamber-like delicacy.  The mood of the music can move from a touching intimacy one moment to extroverted concerto style the next. We almost sense two completely different composers behind this concerto.  One is the public Elgar–strong, confident, declarative–while the other is the private Elgar, torn by age, doubt, and the awful comprehension that all the certainties he had known had been obliterated.

We seem to hear the old confident Elgar in the cello’s sturdy opening recitative, marked nobilmente, yet at the main body of the movement violas lay out the movement’s haunting main theme, which rocks along wistfully. This somber idea sets the mood for the entire opening movement. Throughout, Elgar reminds the soloist to play dolcissimo and espressivo.

The Allegro molto really flies–it is a sort of perpetual-motion movement, and Elgar marks the cello’s part leggierisimo: “as light as possible.”  In the Adagio Elgar writes long, lyric lines for the soloist, who plays virtually without pause. The finale at first seems full of enough confidence to knit up the troubled edges of what has gone before. But beneath the jaunty surface of this music, another mood–dark and uneasy–begins to intrude and finds its clearest expression in the extended Poco più lento section near the end of the music. Gone is the swagger, gone is the confident energy, and we sense that in place of the music Elgar wanted to write he is giving us the music he had to write. Wandering, pained, dis-eased, this music seems to speak directly from the heart, and even the vigorous concluding flourish does little to dispel the somber mood that has touched so much of this concerto.

-Program Note by Eric Bromberger

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 73

Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna

Brahms was haunted by the example of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. “You have no idea how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us,” Brahms remarked to the conductor Hermann Levi, and he worked on his own First Symphony for nearly twenty years before he was  ready to take it before audiences. The premiere in November 1876 was a success, and Brahms himself conducted the new work throughout Europe during the winter concert season. With the stress of that tour behind him, he spent the summer of 1877 in the tiny town of Pörtschach on theWörthersee in southern Austria, and there he began an other symphony. This one went quickly. To Clara Schumann he wrote, “So many melodies fly about that one must be careful not to tread on them.” Brahms’ First Symphony may have taken two decades, but his Second was done in four months, and its premiere in Vienna on December 30, 1877, under Hans Richter was a triumph.

While the Second Symphony is quite different from the turbulent First, this music is not all pastoral sunlight. The first two movements in particular are marked by a seriousness of purpose and a breadth of expression. Brahms’ friend Theodor Billroth spoke of only one side of the Second Symphony when he said: “It is all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine and cool green shadows. How beautiful it must be at Pörtschach!” For all the sunshine in this symphony, the first two movements explore some of those shadows in depth. The hand of a master is everywhere evident in the Second Symphony, particularly in Brahms’ ingenious use of the simple three-note sequence (D-C#-D) heard in the cellos and basses in the first measure. This figure recurs
hundreds of times throughout the Second Symphony, giving the music unusual thematic and expressive unity. The constant repetition of so simple a figure might become monotonous or obsessive in the hands of a lesser composer, and it is a mark of Brahms’ skill that he uses this figure in so many ways. It gives shape to his themes, serves as both harmonic underpinning and blazing motor-rhythm, is by turns whispered softly and shouted at full-blast. Once aware of this figure, a listener can only marvel at Brahms’ fertile use of what seems such unpromising material.

The Allegro non troppo opens with this figure, and a rich array of themes quickly follows: a horn call, a flowing violin melody (derived from the opening three-note motto), a surging song for lower strings (Brahms characteristically sets the cellos above the violas here), and a dramatic idea built on the  violins’ octave leaps. This wealth of thematic material develops over a very long span (the only longer movement in a Brahms symphony is the massive finale of the First) before the movement comes to a relaxed close.

The expressive Adagio non troppo opens with the cellos’ somber melody; while this is in B major, so dark is Brahms’ treatment that the movement almost seems to be in a minor key.  The center section, with its floating, halting melody for woodwinds, brings relief, but the tone remains serious throughout this movement, which comes to a quiet conclusion only after an eruption in its closing moments. After two such powerful movements, the final two bring welcome release. The charming  third movement comes as a complete surprise. Instead of the mighty scherzo one expects, Brahms offers an almost playful movement in rondo form. The oboe’s opening melody (Brahms marks it grazioso: “graceful”) leads to two contrasting sections, both introduced by strings and both marked Presto. Brahms’ rhythms and accents here are imaginative and complex: phrases are tossed easily between instrumental families and complicated rhythms are made to mesh smoothly as one section gives way to the next. This movement so charmed the audience at the symphony’s premiere that it had to be repeated.

The Allegro con spirito opens quietly and quickly–so quickly that one may not recognize that its first three notes are exactly the same three notes that began the symphony. In sonata-form, the finale features a broad second subject that swings along easily in the violins. Full of energy and explosive outbursts, this movement drives to a mighty conclusion.We do not usually think of Brahms as a composer much concerned with orchestral color, but the writing for brass in the closing measures of this symphony is thrilling, no matter how often one has heard it.

Program note by Eric Bromberger