Schubert’s Fifth Symphony
- October 4, 2013
In 1938, the American diplomat Robert Woods Bliss marked his thirtieth wedding anniversary by commissioning a new work from Igor Stravinsky. Bliss and his wife, Mildred, hosted the premiere in the lavish music room of their house in Georgetown, an upscale neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The property, dubbed Dumbarton Oaks, provided the lasting nickname for Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra. The composer was ill and unable to attend the May 8 premier performance, but he arranged for Nadia Boulanger (the legendary teacher of composers ranging from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass) to conduct in his place.
The “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto is a quintessential product of Stravinsky’s thirty-year fascination with “neoclassical” style—although, in purely musical terms, it would be more apt to label the score “neo-Baroque.” The orchestration, which calls out soloists from among the small ensemble, reflects the Baroque concerto grosso tradition, especially the diverse solo groups found in Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos; further proof of the Baroque inspiration comes in the first movement, when the violas launch into a formal fugato section. Having the violins and violas divided into three parts each (and omitting second violins) draws a clear parallel with Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3, although the application here is quite different; Bach’s divisi often thickens and enunciates a line, whereas Stravinsky’s separation of voices promotes diffuse, airy textures, such as the churning accompaniment under a bird-like flute solo in the second movement. The energetic finale concludes this modern “Brandenburg” with pulsing beats and shifting accents, an unmistakable Stravinsky sound in any phase of his career.
Aaron Grad ©2013
Following his arrival in Vienna in 1781, Mozart established himself as the preeminent keyboard virtuoso in the capital. He launched a series of subscription concerts featuring his own music, and he kept his audiences enthralled by debuting new piano concertos at a rapid clip, including a dozen concertos between 1784 and 1786. Mozart entered the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major into his catalog of completed compositions on March 2, 1786, and he probably debuted it at one of the three concerts he presented that spring.
The opening Allegro movement of the A-major concerto grants the woodwinds unusual prominence and independence, starting with unaccompanied phrases in the introductory tutti and continuing in the conversational development section. Brief hints of minor-key urgency arise, including several measures in F-sharp minor, foreshadowing the key center of the heavy-hearted Adagio that comes next. The depth of that minor-key pathos makes the sparkling entrance of the finale all the more blinding, launching a peppy rondo that is as much a workout for the orchestra as it is for the soloist.
Aaron Grad ©2016
Charles Ives, who trained as a composer at Yale, resigned from his post as a church organist in 1902 and embraced the professional path of an insurance man. In the following decades he amassed a fortune, composed on evenings and weekends, and developed a singular body of music, much of which spent decades on shelves before finally reaching the public.
Some of the material included in Three Places in New England may have originated as early as 1903. Ives developed the work as a set of three movements, each based on a particular location, and he completed a version for full orchestra in 1914. The score languished for fifteen years, by which point Ives had come to the attention of Henry Cowell, a younger American composer sympathetic to Ives’s maverick tendencies. Cowell persuaded the conductor Nicolas Slonimsky, head of the Boston Chamber Orchestra, to program something by the unknown “amateur” composer from Danbury, Connecticut. Upon Slonimsky’s invitation, Ives undertook a revision of Three Places in New England in 1929, reducing the instrumentation to a chamber orchestra and condensing some of the musical ideas. Slonimsky conducted the first public performance in 1931, at a concert in New York’s Town Hall financed by Ives himself.
Ives titled the first movement The “St. Gaudens” in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment), a reference to the monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in Boston’s oldest park. The bronze relief sculpture depicts Colonel Robert Gould Shaw on horseback, leading the Massachusetts 54th Regiment—the first African-American regiment in the Union army, which suffered heavy losses (including the death of Shaw) while fighting near Charleston, South Carolina, in 1863. In the score, Ives prefaced the movement with a verse that he wrote:
<div style="margin-left: 1em;"> Moving—Marching—Faces of Souls!<br> Marked with generations of pain,<br> Part-freers of a Destiny,<br> Slowly, restlessly—swaying us on with you<br> Towards other Freedom!<br> The man on horseback, carved from<br> A native quarry of the world Liberty<br> And from what your country has made.<br> You images of a Divine Law<br> Carved in the shadow of a saddened heart—<br> Never light abandoned—<br> Of an age and of a nation.<br> Above and beyond that compelling mass<br> Rises the drum-beat of the common-heart<br> In the silence of a strange and<br> Sounding afterglow<br> Moving—Marching—Faces of Souls!<br> </div><br>
After the hushed reverence of the first movement, the second barrels forth with all the raucous energy of a country marching band, not unlike those led by Ives’s father decades earlier in Danbury. (This music is in fact derived from an earlier composition titled Country Band March.) Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut pays tribute to the site of a Revolutionary War encampment set up by General Israel Putnam, and it showcases Ives’s penchant for collage-like quotations from well-known tunes, including “Yankee Doodle” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Ives supplied a detailed program for this movement:
<div style="margin-left: 1em;">Once upon a ‘4 July,’ some time ago, so the story goes, a child went here on a picnic, held under the auspices of the first Church and the Village Cornet Band. Wandering away from the rest of the children past the camp ground into the woods, he hopes to catch a glimpse of some of the old soldiers. As he rests on the hillside of laurels and hickories the tunes of the band and the songs of the children grow fainter and fainter;—when— ‘mirabile dictu’—over the trees on the crest of the hill he sees a tall woman standing. She reminds him of a picture he has of the Goddess Liberty,—but the face is sorrowful—she is pleading with the soldiers not to forget their ‘cause’ and the great sacrifices they have made for it. But they march out of camp with fife and drum to a popular tune of the day. Suddenly, a new national note is heard. Putnam is coming over the hills from the center,—the soldiers turn back and cheer. The little boy awakes, he hears the children's songs and runs down past the monument to ‘listen to the band’ and join in the games and dances.</div><br>
The third movement, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, was inspired by a walk Ives took with his wife, Harmony, on their honeymoon in the Berkshires in 1908. Ives borrowed the movement title from a poem by Robert Underwood Johnson, and he included these excerpts from Johnson’s text as an epigraph:
<div style="margin-left: 1em;"> Contented river! In thy dreamy realm—<br> The cloudy willow and the plumy elm . . . <br> Thou hast grown human laboring with men <br> At wheel and spindle; sorrow doest thou ken; . . . <br> Thou beautiful! From every dream hill <br> What eye but wanders with thee at thy will, <br> Imagining thy silver course unseen <br> Conveyed by two attendant streams of green. . . <br> Contented river! And yet over-shy <br> To mask thy beauty from the eager eye; <br> Hast thou a thought to hide from field and town? <br> In some deep current of the sunlit brown <br> Art thou disquieted—still uncontent <br> With praise from thy Homeric bard, who lent <br> The world the placidness thou gavest him? <br> Thee Bryant loved when life was at its brim; . . . <br> Ah! There's a restive ripple, and the swift <br> Red leaves—September's firstlings—faster drift; <br> Wouldst thou away, dear stream? Come, whisper near! <br> I also of such resting have a fear; <br> Let me tomorrow thy companion be, <br> By fall and shallow to the adventurous sea! <br><br>
Aaron Grad ©2013
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