Mission: to seek and share inspiration

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Paavo Järvi + Grieg's Piano Concerto


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Program Notes


FRI NOV 17, 11 am • SAT NOV 18, 8 pm 

PAAVO JÄRVI conductor • ALICE SARA OTT pianist 

HINDEMITH (1895-1963)

Mathis der MalerSymphony in Three Movements

• Engelskonzert (Angelic Concert)
• Die Grablegung (Entombment)
• Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (Temptation of Saint Anthony)

GRIEG (1843-1907)

Concerto in A Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 16

• Allegro molto moderato
• Adagio—
• Allegro moderato molto e marcato

INTERMISSION

SCHUMANN (1810-1856) 

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 97, Rhenish

• Lebhaft
• Scherzo: Sehr mässig
• Nicht schnell
• Feierlich
• Lebhaft


Mathis der Maler, Symphony in Three Movements

Born: November 16, 1895, Frankfurt, Germany | Died: December 28, 1963, Frankfurt

Work composed: Opera begun 1933; later that year Hindemith decided to extract a symphony from the opera. Symphony completed in 1934, before the opera.

Premiere: March 12, 1934, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Wukgekn Furtwängler conducting

Instrumentation: : 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals a2, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbals, triangle, strings

CSO notable performances: Ten previous subscription weekends | Premiere: October 1934, Eugene Goossens conducting | Most recent: January 2006, Paavo Järvi conducting | The CSO premiere of this work occurred during the same month it was performed for the first time outside of Germany by the New York Philharmonic, Otto Klemperer conducting  

Duration: approx. 25 minutes

How can an artist remain aloof, serenely and privately creating his or her works in the midst of a world of suffering and oppression? What right does anyone have to say, “I am an artist and will serve humankind only through my art”? Yet, to devote less than full effort to artistic creation is to compromise that which requires total commitment. Thus an artist must selfishly sacrifice everything to art. A very few artists—those we consider great—are vindicated for this selfishness. What about the multitude of other, less than great creators, who are destined for obscurity? Their lives are selfish without redemption. The artist, by turning inward to give full concentration to the creative act, assumes an enormous responsibility.

Many artists are tormented by the inescapable selfishness of their lives. Hindemith was no exception. He composed an opera on the theme of the isolation of the artist. He chose the character of the 16th-century German painter Matthias Grünewald to represent all artists of all times who have felt the conflict between art and life. He also extracted a three-movement symphony from the opera. Both works are titled Mathis der Maler (“Matthias the Painter”).

Grünewald lived from 1460 to 1528. Since little is known of the events of his life, Hindemith, who wrote his own libretto, freely invented episodes. Grünewald sympathizes with peasant revolts and feels he must join the struggle. This temptation causes him considerable inner turmoil, but he finally decides to leave the service of the Cardinal and join the revolution. He discovers that his life as an artist had been so divorced from the life of the peasants that he cannot communicate with them. When they are defeated, Grünewald flees in confusion. His attempt to be useful to his fellow man has failed. The painter begins to doubt the validity of art and the depth of his commitment and genius. What does a single great painting mean if there is still suffering in the world? Grünewald has a vision of his finest work, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony.” He realizes that he, like Saint Anthony, has had his faith in himself shaken by the outside world. Once the painter realizes the parallel between himself and the Saint, his faith is restored. He comes to understand that only by creating beauty can he serve humanity.

Each of the three movements of the symphony depicts one of Grünewald’s paintings and symbolically represents an aspect of his inner struggles. The “Angelic Concert” is the opera’s overture. The music was inspired by Grünewald’s famous painting for the Isenheim Altar, in which a consort of angels sings hymns to the birth of Christ. The second movement, “Entombment,” is an interlude in the final scene of the opera. The music is derived from a painting that shows the interment of Jesus. In this scene of the opera, Grünewald withdraws from the world of strife back into his private world as an artist. The finale, “Temptation of Saint Anthony,” depicts the struggle between art and the outside world for the painter’s soul. The movement bears the motto, “Where wert Thou, good Jesus, where wert Thou, wherefore didst Thou not give aid and heal my wounds?” In this scene Grünewald’s temptations, doubts and desires, which parallel those of the Saint, build to the emotional peak of the entire opera. Toward the end of the movement, the intoning of the chorale “In Praise of Zion that Shall Save Us” indicates that faith has conquered anguish and doubt for Saint Anthony, for Grünewald, and perhaps for Hindemith.

In the composer’s words, Grünewald embodies “problems, wishes and doubts, which have occupied the minds of all serious artists from the remotest times. For whom are works of art created? What is their purpose? How can the artist make himself understood to his adversary?”

While Hindemith was composing Mathis, the political situation in Germany was becoming progressively more dangerous. Both personal and artistic freedoms were threatened. At first the composer refused to believe the seriousness of the situation. He tried, like Grünewald at the beginning of the opera, to remain aloof and simply to do his art. Political non-involvement became more and more difficult, however, and Hindemith’s oppression ironically came to center on the Mathis Symphony.

Many other composers had already left Germany. Hindemith, as one of the few remaining, was highly valued by the Nazis in 1934. They felt it important to have cultural heroes. But problems were brewing. A broadcast performance of Mathis der Maler was canceled because someone thought the composer had once made a remark critical of Hitler. The allegation had to be investigated. Even if Hindemith were cleared of the charge, there was a standing order that permission had to be obtained from radio headquarters in Berlin for any Hindemith broadcast. Then there appeared in an official newspaper a review condemning the composer for allowing Mathis to be performed at an Italian festival “which is dominated by Jews.” The composer protested, threatening to leave the country if he were not treated with more respect.

As the Nazis still valued Hindemith’s presence in Germany, they gave in, and criticism turned briefly to praise. His name was linked with those of Hans Pfitzner and Richard Strauss as “the outstanding creative personalities in furthering the reputation of German music abroad.”

With the opinion of Hindemith’s work high in official circles, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler asked for permission to stage the operatic version of Mathis. Hermann Göring told him that only Hitler could give that permission, and that it was unlikely since Hitler had many years earlier walked out of a performance of Hindemith’s opera Neues vom Tage, because it included a scene with a nude woman singing in her bathtub. The conductor and the composer thought that a newspaper article explaining Hindemith’s loyalty would be useful. But the plan backfired. The article tried to dismiss the composer’s early remarks against Hitler as “sins of youth,” but in so doing the author admitted that the allegations were true. The wrath of all of Nazi officialdom came down on Hindemith. The following statement was issued:

In the rejection of Hindemith by the Ministry of Culture, the value or lack of value of his creative work is beside the point. National Socialism puts the personality of a creative artist before his work. The fact that before the new regime Hindemith showed signs of an un-German attitude disqualifies him from taking part in the movement’s cultural reclamation work.

Later Goebbels made a speech denouncing the composer:

Purely German his blood may be, but this only provides drastic confirmation of how deeply the Jewish intellectual infection has eaten into the body of our own people. To reach that conclusion has nothing in the least to do with political denunciation. Nobody can accuse us of trying to inhibit true and genuine art through petty or spiteful regulations. What we wish to see upheld is a National Socialistic outlook and behavior, and no one, however important he may be in his own sphere, has the right to demand that this be confined to politics and banished from art. Certainly we cannot afford, in view of the deplorable lack of truly productive artists throughout the world, to turn our backs on a truly German artist. But he must be a real artist, not just a producer of atonal noises.

Goebbels then read a telegram, purportedly sent by the president of the German Music Group, Richard Strauss, congratulating him on the “weeding out of undesirable elements.”

It was impossible to remain aloof. Hindemith the artist had become a political figure. Just like Grünewald, he felt the social importance of the artist in a directly personal way. Hindemith tried to regain favor in Germany, but his cause was doomed. He had to look to other countries for performances, and inevitably he had to leave his homeland. He and his wife eventually settled in the United States, where he became Professor of Music Theory and Composition at Yale University from 1940 to 1953.

—Jonathan D. Kramer

 

Concerto in A Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 16

Born: June 15, 1843, Bergen, Norway | Died: September 4, 1907, Bergen

Work composed: 1868, with continued revisions thereafter until definitive version completed shortly before his death

Premiere: fall of 1869, Copenhagen, Denmark, Edvard Grieg conducting, Edmund Neupert pianist

Instrumentation: : solo piano, 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

CSO notable performances: 20 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: March 1896, Frank Van der Stucken conducting, Minna Wetzler, pianist | Most recent: February 2013, Mark Wigglesworth conducting, Simon Trpčeski, pianist | Among the many famous pianists who have performed this work with the CSO are Van Cliburn (under Erich Kunzel, at Riverfront Stadium), Oscar Levant (also known for his many film appearances), and Olga Samaroff (AKA, Mrs. Leopold Stokowski, who performed the work on a domestic tour under her husband’s direction). 

Duration: approx. 30 minutes

Grieg owed his lifelong commitment to creating a Norwegian national musical style to the early influence of two men: Ole Bull and Rikard Nordraak. Bull, a violin virtuoso and composer, was something of a folk hero in Norway. He was a symbol of the free spirit of the new Norway, which had recently broken away from 400 years of Danish domination. Bull was enterprising, independent and aggressive. Among his activities were frequent international concert tours, an attempt to establish a Norwegian colony in Pennsylvania (an adventure which cost him most of his money and almost his life) and the founding of a Norwegian national theater (distinct from those presenting Danish plays), for which he hired an obscure young playwright named Henrik Ibsen. Bull’s theater later presented Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, with music by Grieg.

Grieg was 15 years old when he met the most famous man in Norway. Bull asked to hear some of the boy’s compositions, with which he was suitably impressed. He recommended that young Edvard be sent to Germany to study at the Leipzig Conservatory. The aspiring composer and the famous violinist remained in contact. Some years later, Bull, who liked to imitate folk fiddlers on his violin and who had transcribed fiddle tunes for piano, introduced Grieg to authentic Norwegian folk music.

Grieg also met the young composer Rikard Nordraak, a passionate advocate of anything Norwegian: saga literature, old ballads, mountain scenery, traditional costumes, festivals, folk music and folk dances. Nordraak modeled his musical career on that of Ole Bull, whom he revered to the extent of hoarding the violinist’s discarded cigar butts. His compositions owed more to Norwegian folk music than to academic training, for which he had little patience.

The two young composers agreed to make their life’s work the carrying forward of Ole Bull’s belief in a Norwegian national style based on the wonderful music of the people. Nordraak’s death at the age of 24, two years after he and Grieg had become close friends, made Grieg even more determined to carry out his musical commitment to Norway.

The folk element is less focused in Grieg’s early music than it might have been had the influence not come second hand through Nordraak. The themes of the Piano Concerto, written 

soon after Nordraak’s death, sound somewhat Norwegian, although no folk music is quoted directly. Soon after completing the concerto, Grieg came upon a collection of Norwegian folk music called Mountain Melodies Old and New, many of which Nordraak had used in his own compositions. This book proved to be just what Grieg needed—a first-hand source of melodies he could draw upon as he continued to forge a distinctively Norwegian style of art music. His first composition after the Piano Concerto was an arrangement of 25 of these tunes. He often returned to this book for source materials. His success in using folk music confirmed Grieg’s belief that he was not cut out for composing in large forms. He began to concentrate on miniatures, in which he could make a folk melody serve not simply as the theme but as the entire basis of a short character piece. In fact, he completed only three more works in classical molds during his remaining 38 years: a string quartet and two sonatas. His major effort went into composing Norwegian dances, incidental music to accompany Norwegian plays (such as Peer Gynt), isolated movements, sets of brief piano pieces, songs and short choral pieces. Thus the Piano Concerto turned out to be Grieg’s biggest independent work, and it marks the culmination of his early period, during which he tried to force his lyrical gifts into the essentially foreign structure of large, traditional forms.

One of the great strengths of the concerto is its beautiful themes. Grieg’s attempt to develop them according to sonata principles caused him considerable difficulty, however. Notice, for example, the textbook-like adherence to sonata form in the first movement, even to the point that the recapitulation is a nearly literal restatement of the exposition. He found it helpful to model the first movement on that of an existing work, Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, also in A minor.

KEYNOTE. Musicologist Gerald Abraham traces the concerto’s debt to Schumann:

In both [first] movements we find an introductory chordal passage for the soloist, descending from the high to the middle register. In both, the main theme is then stated by the winds and repeated exactly by the soloist; both naturally have the second subject in the relative major, though Grieg does not follow Schumann in fashioning first and second subjects from the same basic idea; both expositions conclude with an animato; both developments fall into two main sections, in the first of which woodwind soli play with fragments of the main theme over piano arpeggios, while the soloist comes to the fore in the second…; in both the cadenza is followed by a coda quicker than the rest of the movement, Schumann’s on a new form of the motto-theme, Grieg’s on an entirely new theme [which gradually reveals its derivation from the opening chordal passage]. There is no resemblance between the actual ideas; it was simply that Grieg, at the highest stage of his development as a composer in sonata form, still felt the need for a formal model.

Grieg continued to tinker with the orchestration and the structure. He was able to produce a definitive version only some 40 years after first completing the concerto. For a while he followed suggestions by his friend and mentor, Franz Liszt, who was greatly impressed with the concerto. Liszt suggested, among other things, that the second theme of the first movement be given not to cellos but to a solo trumpet! After he decided against Liszt’s more outlandish suggestions, Grieg still continued to perfect the scoring. The final version differs markedly from the version originally published in 1872.

In addition to the melodies, the exquisite piano writing contributes to the beauty of this music, particularly in the slow movement. Grieg knew his instrument well, had studied the keyboard works of Chopin and Schumann and usually composed at the piano. Thus he was able to imbue even the most ornate and figurative passages with a sensitive lyricism. Listening to the less bombastic runs and arpeggios, we have the feeling that every note counts, not just the sweep of the gesture. This is an impressive achievement, rare among romantic piano concertos, that has assured the piece its position of enormous popularity.

Perhaps even more than in the melodies and piano figurations, the attractiveness of the concerto lies in its harmonies. Grieg had a wonderful sense of coloristic chords and progressions, liberally spiced with dissonances. The most famous, but hardly the most subtle, is the use of the lowered seventh scale degree (G-natural) in the final triumphant measures in A major. It was this passage, more than anything else, that convinced Liszt of the concerto’s importance. At one of their first meetings, Liszt was sight-reading the concerto, when, as Grieg later recalled:

[He] suddenly jumped up, stretched himself to his full height, strode with theatrical gait and uplifted arm through the great monastery hall, and literally bellowed out the theme. At that particular G-natural he stretched out his arm with an imperious gesture and exclaimed: “G, G, not G-sharp! Splendid! That’s the real thing!” And then, quite pianissimo and in parentheses: “I had something of the kind the other day from Smetana.” He went back to the piano and played the whole ending over again. Finally, he said in a strange, emotional way: “Keep on, I tell you. You have what is needed, and don’t let them frighten you.”

—Jonathan D. Kramer

 

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 97Rhenish

Born: June 8, 1810, Zwickau in Saxony | Died: July 29, 1856, near Bonn

Work composed: Nov. 2–Dec. 9, 1850

Premiere: February 6, 1851, Düsseldorf, Robert Schumann conducting

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

CSO subscription performances: 15 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: November 1898, Frank Van der Stucken conducting | Most recent: November 2013, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting | The Theodore Thomas Orchestra, Theodore Thomas conducting, also performed this work at the 1890 May Festival.

Duration: approx. 32 minutes

Like most 19th-century composers, Schumann was most comfortable composing programmatic music. The ties between literary and musical arts were strong during the romantic era, when composers readily sought inspiration in literature and other extra-musical areas. There is a difference between what is an appropriate stimulus for a composer and what is useful information for a listener. Thus Schumann hesitated to share with the public too many of the extramusical origins of his compositions. “We must not show our heart to the world. A general impression of a work of art is better. At least no preposterous comparisons can be made.”

The Rhenish Symphony is based on a program, but only vague hints of its nature have been preserved, mostly in Clara Schumann’s diaries. The composer apparently wanted to portray folk life on the Rhine, where he had recently moved to become music director of the city of Düsseldorf. The scherzo was inspired by a morning on the Rhine and the fourth movement found its origin in the ceremony at which the Archbishop von Geissel was made Cardinal. That movement was originally titled “In the Manner of an Accompaniment to a Solemn Ceremony.”

If Schumann chose to repress his programs, is it fair for us today to ferret out references to what was in his mind and to share them with listeners? This is not an easy question. The middle three movements of the Rhenish Symphony seem wonderfully evocative, and it is only natural to wonder what is being evoked. The leisurely scherzo could readily call to mind a mist-enshrouded morning by the river, and the resonant chorale harmonies and rich counterpoint of the fourth movement do indeed seem to suggest a ceremony. But is this so because we know their inspiration, or are such suggestions really in the music? The third movement seems equally evocative, but we do not know its programmatic origins. It is therefore harder to pinpoint the evocation. The three movements actually form a group of character pieces, much like those found in Schumann’s piano music, and it is clear that their respective characters derive from more or less specific references.

The outer movements, on the other hand, are more abstract and symphonic. Schumann may well have had some programmatic reference in mind, but these movements seem less dependent on external characterization. They appear to deal with contrast and development of musical rather than literary materials.

KEYNOTE.The opening movement, for example, is a thoroughly symphonic sonata-allegro form. The opening idea, particularly the very first melodic leap of a fourth, is the source of most of what follows. This opening has a wonderfully rhythmic vitality, coming in part from metric ambiguity: the music seems at first in two-beat and then three-beat patterns. There is a beautifully lyric second theme that again begins with a leap of a fourth. This melody is never allowed to go on very long before the broad first theme intrudes.

The three middle movements form a unit. The waltz-like scherzo has elements of both a dance movement’s three-part structure and a slow movement’s variation form. Next comes a simple song, too direct to be the real slow movement. Hence the need for five movements, the fourth of which is the real adagio.

Schumann used several devices in this movement to suggest the spaciousness of the Cologne Cathedral, where the “solemn ceremony” took place. Three trombones join the orchestra in this movement and remain for the finale. The rich brass writing is reminiscent of late Renaissance cathedral music. Also, the composer employs polyphonic textures to suggest 15th-century music. Even the notation is somewhat archaic. Once the spacious, ceremonial character is established, the score employs the half-note rather than the more typical quarter note as the beating unit. The notation makes no difference to the listener, but it does convey to performers the reverential quality Schumann was seeking.

The finale returns to the symphonic world of the opening movement. The interval of a fourth figures prominently, as it does in every movement except the middle one. Toward the end the tempo broadens and there is a reference to the fourth movement’s cathedral music.

The Rhenish Symphony was composed a few weeks after the Cello Concerto. Both works were written at incredible speed during Schumann’s final burst of creativity. Despite their chronological proximity, the two pieces are quite different. The concerto is more rhapsodic, its movements are more closely linked, and its orchestration is more modest. The symphony, on the other hand, exhibits a sureness of orchestration sometimes absent from Schumann’s earlier orchestral music. Furthermore, it shows a viable marriage between the lyric character piece that was the composer’s natural mode of expression and the fully developed symphonic form for which he strove during most of his creative life.

—Jonathan D. Kramer