Classical III: The Romantics

The Romantics—Tonight we celebrate two of the greatest orchestral composers of the late nineteenth century, Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, whose work exploited all the resources available.

Johannes Brahms
(May 7, 1833-April 3, 1897)
Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra in A minor, op. 102
(1887)

One of the major challenges for a composer of orchestral music in the nineteenth century was, once overcoming Beethoven’s intimidating shadow, to find a balance of old and new. Romanticism, embodied in the literary works of Goethe (Brahms’s favorite author), encouraged composers to express themselves fully, but with a familiar, if extended vocabulary. A work’s critical success depended on a balance of past and progressive elements. Johannes Brahms’s works, especially his orchestral pieces, show a progression in balancing and re-balancing these elements through the second half of the century. In orchestral music, Brahms’s symphonies and concertos are some of the most popular in contemporary repertoire. The reason for this seems to be very simple—they are well-crafted, and easy to follow yet complex enough to find new things at each hearing.

Brahms’s final work involving orchestra, the Concerto for Violin and Cello, was completed in the summer of 1887 and premiered October 18 of that year in Cologne, with Brahms himself conducting. The soloists were two long-time friends, violinist Joseph Joachim and cellist Robert Hausmann. The first movement opens dramatically with the orchestra, giving way almost immediately to a cello cadenza. There is a brief, calming orchestral interlude, after which the violin joins, and the music gradually builds to a forthright first theme in the orchestra. The soloists then rejoin the fray for their own statement and development of these ideas. The contrasts between the various moods and explorations of ideas are occasionally surprising, other times subtle, but crafted very well, with a surprising narrative flow that suggests a discussion of the musical ideas at hand, not a demonstration of technique, as might be expected in a concerto. Things gradually settle in, and the first movement comes to a satisfying, triumphant end.

The second movement begins somewhat seriously, with an earnest, expressive melody played by the soloists in unison. Eventually, they begin a dialogue that also includes the winds. As things progress, they become more intense, driven by interjections of the cello, seemingly trying to change the subject of the discussion, but eventually the music winds its way back to the unison melody, and the movement closes gently with one last gush of the main theme.

The third movement begins almost mysteriously with a minor key and a bouncy gypsy-like theme for each soloist. Gradually, things build between them, and the orchestra finally bursts in as if to signal that the movement has officially begun. A stately contrasting theme arrives in the cello, and the violin and orchestra pick it up and carry it for a while. Eventually, more contrasting ideas are explored and the textures get more complicated as if the music is searching for a path to the end. A return to the opening bouncy theme give a sense of hope that a direction will be found. Finally, the soloists direct the piece forward and, after briefly revisiting the stately contrasting theme, things seem to calm down a little before a final push to the finish.

Joachim and Hausmann played the concerto several times in its initial 1887-88 season, with Brahms at the podium, and the composer gave the manuscript to Joachim with the inscription “To him for whom it was written.” It received mixed reviews in its early years but has come to be viewed as a masterpiece, especially for this combination of solo instruments with orchestra. It is easy to understand how some may get lost in its complexity, but it is still a work of Brahms nonetheless, and its craftsmanship is undeniable.

Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky
(May 7, 1840-November 6, 1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
(1878)

Tchaikovsky’s orchestral music has a somewhat universal appeal—exciting climaxes, sufficient activity in all sections, catering to traditional strengths, and interesting progressions of ideas. His music fits the late nineteenth-century ideal very well—passionate, extroverted, melodies and rhythms rooted in folk-like elements, with traditional forms, and ingenious twists in orchestration and harmony. He chose to avoid the self-conscious attempts to write “Russian” music by colleagues who made up the “Mighty Five” (including Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky, among others) and simply wrote from his heart.  As a result, many have viewed him as more “Russian” than the self-professed nationalists. Still, however, this issue is not one of content but of style, and Tchaikovsky’s music has enjoyed popularity all over the world.

The Fourth Symphony, composed in 1878, was part of an especially productive period that coincided with some of his most difficult personal conflicts and anxieties. It is more overt in its emotions that any other of his symphonies, and nowhere is this felt than in the first movement’s opening fanfare, called the “Fate” motive by the composer. Gradually, the music moves to an almost dream-like state with a lyrical waltz feel. Various attempts at putting a positive face on this mood are eventually scuttled by the Fate motive. As the composer wrote, “Thus we see that life is only an everlasting alternation of somber reality and fugitive dreams of happiness.” The second movement is slower and more melancholy, “mourning the past and having neither the courage nor the will to begin a new life.” But it turns out to be more nostalgic than suicidal, and it sets up an amazing contrast with the third movement. Tchaikovsky said of this next movement, “here are capricious arabesques, vague figures which slip into the imagination when one has taken wine and is slightly intoxicated.  The mood is now gay, now mournful. Military music is heard passing by in the distance. These are disconnected pictures which come and go in the brain of the sleeper.” The contrasts between the pizzicato strings, the mournful but determined winds and the martial brass fit this description perfectly. The final movement, using an actual Russian folk song “In the Field Stood a Birch Tree,” combines the excitement of peasants singing and dancing together with the occasional intrusion of “real” life (in the form of the returning “Fate” motive). Tchaikovsky wrote that the movement juxtaposes the innocence of children at play with heaviness and sorrow that life presents.

Unbelievably, in describing the meaning of the symphony to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky actually apologized for the weakness and inadequacies of the music in bringing these ideas forward. Anyone who hears this symphony is unlikely to agree.