Saturday, March 4, 2017


I was given the privilege and honor again of writing the program notes for tonight's (March 4, 2017) performance by the Weill Cornell Medical College Music and Medicine Orchestra performance of the Brahms violin concerto and Beethoven's fifth symphony at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Juilliard, in New York City. Music performed at this level of excellence and sheer musicality gives me great hope for the future of humanity.

Notes on the Program
Vincent P. de Luise M.D. ‘77
Assistant Clinical Professor, Ophthalmology, Yale University                            
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Weill Cornell Medical College

Two masterworks comprise tonight’s program, “warhorses” of the classical music repertoire. How fitting that we will hear Brahms’ violin concerto along with Beethoven’s fifth symphony, as Brahms was proclaimed, by Robert Schumann and subsequently an adoring Viennese public, the successor to Beethoven’s legacy.

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D, Op. 77

Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833 April 3, 1897)

I. Allegro non troppo II. Adagio III. Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace - Poco piu’ presto
Scored for solo violin, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, four horns, timpani and strings

It is a commonplace today for music to be a collaborative endeavor. Composers work with lyricists and producers to create songs and smash-hit musicals. Though these relationships were less frequent in the 19th 
century, Johannes Brahms in particular relied on his virtuosi musical friends, in his violin, cello, and clarinet masterpieces, who served as inspirational muses and editors. 

The Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was one such advisor. When the two first met in 1853, Joachim, though only two years older, was already widely known as a brilliant musician and composer. Brahms, a newcomer to the musical scene, often sought out the violinist's opinion regarding his compositions. It was Joachim who introduced Brahms to Robert and Clara Schumann, in Dusseldorf in 1853; the rest is history, with Robert anointing Brahms as the next big thing,” and Brahms and Clara remaining intimate musical and personal friends throughout their lives. 

Johannes Brahms at 52,  in 1885
The violin concerto could not have had a more sublime environ for its genesis. Brahms began composing it during a relatively happy period in his life, the summer of 1878, in the Austrian village of Portschach. He had heard so many melodies walking the streets of the town that he once quipped, “one had to be careful not to step on them!” However, Brahms was a pianist, and needed the advice of Joachim the violinist to craft the concerto, writing to him, "You should correct it, not sparing the quality of the composition.... I shall be satisfied if you mark those parts that are difficult, awkward, or impossible to play." In fact, many of its arpeggios were considered “unviolinistic,” which is to say, more pianistic than for a violinist’s technique. 

Joachim contributed greatly to the concerto, scrutinizing every note, offering ideas, revising whole sections with multiple mail exchanges, ensuring that the work was “playable and idiomatic.”

The concerto was premiered at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig (which had earlier been Mendelssohn’s home base) on January 1st 1879, with Joachim as soloist and Brahms himself conducting. Perhaps to cement the relationship between two of von Bulow’s iconic “Three B’s of Music,” (the other "B" being Johann Sebastian Bach), the concert opened with the Beethoven concerto and closed with the Brahms.

Joachim famously stated that, "the Germans have four concertos: the greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's; Brahms' concerto vies with it in seriousness; the richest, the most seductive was written by Bruch; but the heart's jewel is that by Mendelssohn."  Indeed, Brahmsconcerto melds the nobility and gravitas of Beethoven’s with the lyricism of the Mendelssohn, along with Hungarian folk melodies which had informed Brahms in his halcyon days touring Europe with the violinist Edward Remenyi. Thankfully, Brahms and Joachim were on good terms throughout the composition of the concerto. They later had a falling out over Joachim’s relationship with his (Joachim’s) spouse, but Brahms ultimately patched things up in 1887, writing the double concerto for violin and cello, Op 102.

Brahms’ concerto, like Beethoven’s, is in the violin-friendly key of D major. They also share a top-heavy first movement and, unusually, a timpani accompaniment to the violin’s first entry. The work presents formidable technical challenges for any violinist: wide interval jumps, broken chords, double and triple stops, even quadruple stops, mandating that the violinist play multiple notes simultaneously and rapidly. Though conductor Joseph Hellmesberger (who led the Vienna premiere before a rapturous Viennese audience) acidly described it as not a concerto for, but rather, as against the violin,and Wieniawski stated it was “unplayable,” the inherent beauty, elegance and compositional mastery that the concerto displays belie these grumblings.

The musicologist Bernard Jacobsen reminds us that a concerto is, at its essence, a human drama, with contrasting forces from soloist and orchestra. In classical idiom, it uses the musical device of the Baroque ritornello (literally, “a little return”), “.... the orchestra presents the basic material and then the solo instrument comes in and establishes its primacy by varying the orchestral ideas, introducing new ones of its own, and extending the music’s tonal range.” The first movement is heralded by the orchestra’s tonic and dominant chords, combining classical formalism with the richness and warmth that is idiomatic of Brahmsian style. The violin enters with breathtaking virtuosity, stakes its claim, and the forces collide. Of the many cadenzas that have been composed for the first movement (Auer, Busoni, Kreisler, Heifetz, inter alias), the original and most famous one, written by Joachim himself, will be heard this evening. The Adagio, in F major and ternary (ABA) form, begins with one of classical music’s most ravishing melodies: a solo oboe on high, floating a sublime melody, an achingly beautiful theme gently supported by a lovely woodwind choir, which is then taken up and developed by the violin. An unsettled mid-section ebbs and returns to the pastoral theme. The third movement is a sprightly rondo highlighted by ungarischgypsy motifs, ending with a dynamic coda.

Symphony No. 5 in c minor, Op 67

Ludwig van Beethoven (December 17, 1770 March 26, 1827)
I. Allegro con brio II. Andante con moto III. Scherzo: Allegro IV. Allegro
Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, piccolo, contrabassoon, two trumpets, three trombones, four horns, timpani, and strings

Can you imagine being seated in Vienna’s majestic Theater an der Wien on the evening of December 22, 1808, one of the first ever to hear those eight earth-shattering notes:

What did that motif sound like to early nineteenth century ears? Two groups of four notes, each three short and one long, a descending fourth in cut time (2/4), with the half notes held, unmeasured. It certainly wasn’t a melody, but rather some type of pronouncement. An outcry. What an extraordinary experience it must have been! 

The lengthy and under-rehearsed concert was an Akademie subscription event for Beethoven’s own benefit, and he himself conducted it. It was to be the most remarkable night of his life. The concert lasted almost four hours, and included five premieres. Two symphonies were on the program: the Sixth (“Pastoral) began the concert, and the Fifth was performed in the second half, along with a large swath of the C major Mass. The concert aria, Ah ! Perfido,and the fourth piano concerto (with Beethoven himself as soloist) also had their maiden voyages that evening. The marathon concluded with the sublime Choral Fantasia (a brilliant finaleBeethoven called it), a fascinating work for piano, chorus and orchestra that prefigured the last movement of Beethoven’s magisterial ninth symphony. Some grumbled about the length of the concert and the freezing cold in the unheated hall, yet virtually no one left early.

Beethoven at 45, in 1815
Extant sketches confirm that Beethoven began working on the fifth symphony as early as 1802, diving deeply into it by 1804, yet frequently interrupting its creation as he switched gears to compose the fourth piano concerto and the Pastoral symphony, and to deal with personal anguish and ailments. He had written his courageous Heiligenstadt Testament to his brothers Carl and Johann, (a letter, like his letters to die unsterbliche Geliebte,the Immortal Beloved,that he never sent), in which he admitted, in heartbreaking detail, that he was slowly going deaf. 

In the summer of 1808 he was nursing a nasty finger infection, affecting his piano playing, while the world around him was equally challenging, with Europe enmeshed in the Napoleonic Wars and Vienna in political turmoil. The symphony was commissioned by Count Franz von Oppersdorff, but Beethoven dedicated it to two other aristocrats: Prince Franz Joseph Maximilian von Lobkowitz and Count Andreas Kirillovich Razumovsky.

Debussy famously wrote that “music is the silence between the notes,” a fitting comment with respect to Beethoven’s Fifth, which boldly begins not with sound, but with silence: an eighth note rest ! Silence creates musical tension. That tension leads to expectations that trigger the brain’s neural network emotional response, those musical frissons (chills down the spine) that music gives to the listener, catalyzing receptors in the midbrain and forebrain pleasure centers. If we are to believe Beethoven’s amanuensis Anton Schindler (who was prone to hyperbole in re his master’s works), Beethoven himself provided the key to the motif, expressing its essential idea as, "Thus Fate knocks at the door!

The structure of the first movement is a Manichean struggle between darkness and light, chaos and form, represented in music by the dialectic between minor (c minor) and major (Eb major). Given composition theory within the common-practice era, the keys are related: the symphony’s tonic of c minor (3 flats) is the relative minor of Eb major (also 3 flats). Dynamics, contrasting tempos and harmonies contribute scaffolding and shading. The opening motif is heard repeatedly, incessantly, at times overlapping, modulated to Eb major (the relative major), reprised in ascending and descending forms, even as it also serves as a rhythmic foundation for the other three movements.

The second movement is as soft as the first movement is stormy. In ABAC form, it begins with a syncopated theme from low strings in Ab major (four flats). Woodwinds introduce the second motif, followed by a third theme from violas and cellosThe movement ends with a unison fortissimo, which Donald Francis Tovey likened to smiling through tears in the minor mode.” 

The third movement is in ternary form: a scherzo and trio. Its brooding, drum-thumping ending proceeds directly into the magisterial fourth movement without a pause, a revolutionary technique for its time. The triumphant finale (with trombones!, another first!) explodes not with the traditional return to the tonic of c minor that began the symphony, but rather in the sunlight of C major. Beethoven, as one might imagine, defended his choice, stating that Many people say that every minor piece must end in the minor. I disagree! .... Joy must follow sorrow, just as sunshine from rain.

The first movement’s “dah-dah dah-DAH” rhythm came to represent the letter “V” in Morse code, explaining why the Allies in World War II nicknamed the Fifth, the “Victory” Symphony. As one of the most groundbreaking and transformative compositions in the western canon, it comes as no surprise that the Fifth Symphony is now hurtling forward into interstellar space. Its first movement is one of several compositions embedded into a gold-plated copper disc Golden Record containing music, images, and languages of Earth, sent into space in 1977 with each of the two unmanned Voyager probes; music that is, literally, out of this world ! 

Ars longa!

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