Schubert's Fifth Symphony
- May 22, 2015
- May 21, 2015
- May 23, 2015
Bach likely composed his two extant violin concertos around 1730, not long after he agreed to lead Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum, founded in 1702 by a young Telemann. This talented amateur group gave weekly performances, often in the informal atmosphere of a coffeehouse, providing Bach a sociable venue for secular music.
Bach crafted his violin concertos using the ritornello structure popularized by Italians (especially Vivaldi) in which a main theme returns multiple times to punctuate the form. The essential theme of the first movement of the Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor emphasizes pairs of rising notes, first making a bold leap up the interval of a fourth, and then returning for a narrow rise of a half-step.
So much of the emotional tension in the Andante slow movement occurs in the simple but profound bass line: its steady pulses, its hopeful ascents, and its many long silences that leave the soloist with only the fragile support of violins and violas. The rolling triplet pulse of the Allegro assai finale is akin to the gigue (or, as it called in the British isles, the jig), the dance style that ends many of Bach’s instrumental suites.
Aaron Grad ©2016
Arnold Schoenberg is most famous—or infamous, some would say—for pioneering atonality and the twelve-tone method of composition. He began studying violin at eight, and soon tried his hand at composition. The closest he came to formal study as a composer was through his friendship, struck up in the 1890s, with Alexander von Zemlinsky, a graduate of the Vienna Conservatory. Zemlinsky, just three years older than Schoenberg, was more a peer than a teacher, but he was instrumental in helping Schoenberg get his earliest music performed in Vienna.
Schoenberg’s 1899 string sextet, Verklärte Nacht, applied the principle of a tone poem, familiar from the orchestral music of Liszt and Strauss, to chamber music. The form, in five connected sections, followed the shape and mood of the poem Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) by Richard Dehmel. The published score includes this English paraphrase of the poem, by Henry Krehbiel:
Two mortals walk through a cold, barren grove. The moon sails over the tall oaks, which send their scrawny branches up through the unclouded moonlight. A woman speaks. She confesses a sin to the man at her side: she is with child and he is not its father. She had lost belief in happiness and, longing for life's fullness, for motherhood and mother’s duty, she had surrendered herself, shuddering, to the embraces of a man she knew not. She had thought herself blessed, but now life has avenged itself upon her, by giving her the love of him she walks with. She staggers onward, gazing with lackluster eye at the moon which follows her. A man speaks. Let her not burden her soul with thoughts of guilt. See, the moon’s sheen enwraps the universe. Together they are driving over chill waters, but a flame from each warms the other. It, too, will transfigure the little stranger, and she will bear the child to him and make him, too, a child. They sink into each other's arms. Their breaths meet in kisses in the air. Two mortals walk through the wondrous moonlight.
Schoenberg’s scoring for pairs of violins, violas, and cellos matches the pioneering sextets by Brahms, while the chromatic harmonies reveal a link to Wagner. With more than a century’s hindsight, and in light of what Schoenberg went on to compose, Verklärte Nacht sounds lush and Romantic, especially in this arrangement for string orchestra he made in 1917. It is a reminder that Schoenberg’s evolution toward free atonality (around 1910) and ultimately the twelve-tone system (around 1920) was grounded in a deep appreciation and understanding of traditional harmony.
Verklärte Nacht traverses a tonal journey of dark to light, beginning in a minor key and ending in the major mode of the same key. The opening theme plods down the minor scale over a droning D pedal; the dotted rhythms, with their funereal mood, reappear throughout the score. The second section, beginning with an unexpected and foreign major chord, corresponds to the second stanza of the poem, in which the woman “confesses a sin to the man at her side: she is with child and he is not its father.” The music becomes agitated, smeared with rising chromatics, until the third section intervenes with music of a simpler and more somber character, linked to the section of the poem in which “she staggers onward.”
This section ends on an E-flat minor chord, and here the crucial shift occurs: a G-flat, the very note that gives E-flat minor its characteristic sadness, is reinterpreted as F-sharp, the bright major third in the new key of D. This transformation (or transfiguration) matches the point in the poem when the man implores the woman to “not burden her soul with thoughts of guilt.” A lustrous violin solo brightens the shadows of night, just as, in the poem, “the moon’s sheen enwraps the universe.” The final section of music is a tranquil coda in D major, basking in the warmth that “will transfigure the little stranger.” The stepping theme of the beginning takes on a more hopeful variant, and the work closes with shimmering harmonics and arpeggios.
Aaron Grad ©2014
Schubert enjoyed a childhood rich with music—singing in the court choir, playing string quartets with his family, and participating in the school orchestra—but he only began composing around the age of twelve or thirteen. Like his father and brothers, he trained as a teacher, and at seventeen he began working as a teaching assistant at an elite Viennese school, while also keeping up twice-weekly composition lessons with the local Kapellmeister, Antonio Salieri.
Schubert’s accomplishments in the next two years must rank as the greatest growth spurt in musical history: he composed some 300 songs, plus four symphonies, three masses, five musical dramas, three string quartets, three violin sonatas and dozens of other works. This flurry all came before Schubert reached his twentieth birthday, while he was working full-time, and before the Viennese public had seen or heard a single note of his music.
HAYDN-ERA ORCHESTRATION Schubert completed the Symphony in B-flat Major on October 3, 1816. Aside from a private reading that fall, the symphony sat dormant until long after his death; the first public performance came in 1841, and the score was not published until 1885. Of all of Schubert’s symphonies, finished and unfinished, this is the only one that omits clarinets, trumpets and timpani from the orchestration, essentially turning back the clock to the symphonic customs of the 1780s. (Haydn composed 15 symphonies between 1781 and 1786 with instrumentation identical to Schubert’s, while Mozart used the same array for the first version of his Symphony No. 40, in 1788.) Schubert’s crisp musical material matches the economical scoring, with a first theme built out of a two-measure cell, and a second theme that incorporates the same distinctive rhythm from the earlier motive.
The slow movement becomes more expansive in its melodies, and a contrasting section that moves to a surprising key has Schubert’s clear stamp, with singing themes set over pulsing accompaniments, as found in many of his songs. The Menuetto is quick and boisterous enough to qualify as a scherzo, Beethoven’s rowdy answer to Haydn’s more polite minuets, while the key of G minor recalls Mozart’s stormy Symphony No. 40. The finale closes the symphony on a lively note, honoring Schubert’s debt to the masters of the previous generation.
Aaron Grad ©2016
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