May 2012


Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Opus 77.

Though considered old-fashioned by his contemporaries, Brahms began his career in a flash of brilliance. He made his musical debut on a concert tour with a young Hungarian violinist, Eduard Remenyi, during which one of the pianos was found to be tuned a half tone low. Remenyi refused to tune the violin down, so Brahms, who in his youth amused himself by playing Bach’s preludes and fugues in various keys, obliged by transposing his part up a half tone.

It was on this tour that Brahms met an even greater Hungarian virtuoso, the violinist Joseph Joachim. The two began a friendship that would span years and bear fruit in the composition of the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major.

Before its New Year’s Day premiere in 1879 – with Joachim as soloist and Brahms as conductor – the friends debated at length the practicalities of the violin passages. Joachim would eventually furnish the fingerings and bowings for publication as well as a cadenza for the opening performance. Brahms made out the dedication to his Hungarian friend, but paid a more affectionate tribute to him in the Hungarian themes of the third movement.

The result was a concerto that has been called a virtuoso’s paradise. Studded with brilliant passage work, intricate double-stopping, and wild leaps from low notes into upper registers, the concerto still recalls to its players’ minds the quip made by the music critic Hans von Bulow: that it was written not so much for the violin as against the violin.

Brahms lived and composed during the apex of the romantic era, but drew greater influence from the works of Bach he had studied in his youth. His violin concerto is classical in its construction, like the concertos of Mozart and Beethoven, yet romantic in feeling, like those of Mendelssohn and Bruch.  Symphonic in length and texture, the concerto’s prevailing mood is one of serenity, but not gloom.

The mood and melody of the first two movements are warm and human, with a reflective breadth typical of Brahms’ conservatism. The third movement, allegedly based on a Bohemian folksong, surges with folk rhythms and gypsy flavor. The concerto is the perfect tribute to Brahms’ Hungarian friend, Joachim, who would laud the work as one of the great German violin concertos.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), Scheherazade.

As a youth, Rimsky-Korsakov nurtured two passions: the love of music and the love of the sea. He began playing the piano at the age of six and composing at the age of nine, though his training was haphazard and omitted basic instruction in theory. He enrolled in the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg and, while living in the Russian capital, was introduced to Mily Balakirev and initiated into the circle of composers that would become known as the Mighty Five.

On graduation from the Naval Academy, Rimsky-Korsakov was commissioned for a three-year, round-the-world tour of duty. For a time, adventures on the high seas threatened to eclipse the sailor’s interest in music, but, fortunately, his next assignment to shore duty in St. Petersburg left ample time for study.

At the age of twenty-seven, Rimsky-Korsakov accepted a position at the St. Petersburg Conservatory as professor of composition and instrumentation, even though, as he would later write, he knew little of either.  He worked in secret to teach himself the subject, keeping barely a step ahead of his students. The next year, he accepted an additional position as Inspector of Bands of the Navy Department. This stirred “a desire of long standing, to familiarize [himself] thoroughly with the construction and technique of orchestral instruments.”  He bought a number of instruments for himself and learned to play. In time, he would become one of the most assured and brilliant orchestrators of his age, or of any age.

Scheherazade is a symphonic tone poem of dazzling orchestral color and texture that showcases the composer’s twin loves for music and the sea. On the score of the composition, the story is printed as follows:

The Sultan of Schahriar, persuaded of the falseness and faithlessness of women, has sworn to put to death each one of his wives after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by interesting him in tales which she told him during one thousand and one nights. Pricked by curiosity, the Sultan puts off his wife’s execution from day to day, and at last gave up his bloody plan.

Rimsky-Korsakov called the work a “kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character.” The music begins with a robust theme representing the Sultan, a theme that will be repeated in various guises as his majesty reacts to Scheherazade’s stories. The story-telling princess is represented by a tender violin solo, in triplets; this theme is repeated each time the princess picks up the thread of a new story.

The story of Sinbad the Sailor reflects the composer’s years at sea, with the motion of the waves depicted by a gently rocking motion in the cellos. The tale of Prince Kalendar portrays a wandering fakir, a comic figure well-played by the bassoon.  Next, a romance, “The Young Prince and the Young Princess,” weaves together two exotic, oriental dance melodies.  The finale is a composite tale which was described by Rimsky-Korsakov as follows: “Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Vessel is Wrecked upon a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior.”

In the calm after the storm, Scheherazade begins her theme once more, but this time soft chords in the orchestra lead to a peaceful ending as the violin ascends in happy harmonics. The princess has finished her repertoire and the sultan has given up on his bloody plan.

© 2012 Heidi Rodeback