It’s the day after Halloween, 2016 and we’re only 5 days away from “Zero Hour,” when I get to walk out to the podium, bow to our audience and our orchestra, turn around, raise my arms and with one downward stroke, launch a new year. I can’t wait.
Tonight will be the first rehearsal for the concert, and it will be like a “family reunion” – with all of the CHSO musicians coming into Town Hall for the first time together since last April! It’s always a special night, seeing everyone again after a long hiatus, lots of hugs, kisses, sharing of stories and pix, (though of course now with “social media” it’s not like we haven’t been in touch constantly all summer anyway!), but the first rehearsal is indeed a special night.
We begin work tonight on some truly great symphonic “chestnuts” of our repertoire – Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture”, Felix Mendelssohn’s “Symphony No. 5 “ known as the “Reformation Symphony”, and Johannes Brahms last offering in the symphony form – his “Fourth Symphony.”
The classical symphony form, which was “perfected” by Haydn and Mozart throughout the 1700s, became a standard genre of orchestral endeavor by the time Beethoven turned his attention to it. Beethoven’s first two symphonies pretty much followed the form and style of his predecessors, but it was his Third Symphony, “The Eroica” that changed everything. From then on, as the Classical period gave way to the Romantic period, the “symphony” became a vehicle for expansion of expression and “experimentation” and also pretty much spurred the growth of the orchestra ensemble to the size we now consider standard.
Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, all of which are immensely loved two hundred years later, and of course, the Ninth has become an “anthem” of world brotherhood and understanding. (Maybe people should listen to it more often these days!).
CHSO so far has performed Beethoven Symphonies One, Three, Four, Five, (twice!), Six and Nine.
On our opening concert on Saturday evening, instead of one of his symphonies, we are performing his “Egmont Overture,” which was written between October 1809 and June 1810. It was written originally as part of a set of incidental pieces for the play “Egmont” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which portrayed the life of a 16th century Dutch nobleman, the Count of Egmont, who was condemned to death for his valiant stand against oppression. The overture later becomes an “unofficial” anthem of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against the Soviet Union.
It was written several years after the Fifth Symphony, was one of the last of Beethoven’s “middle period” works, and evokes all the strength, power, and tumult that all of us now recognize as Beethoven’s “Voice.”
Following Beethoven’s death and in the wake of his immense volume of “music-changing” work, composers of the nineteenth century continued to expand and experiment with the “symphony” form, though not without some “nervousness” and trepidation, as one can imagine – who would want to follow a giant of history, right after he finished? It might be like having to become the next New England Patriots quarterback after TB 12 finally retires!!!!
Felix Mendelssohn was a prolific composer in the early to mid-1800s. Born in 1809 in Hamburg, Germany, he was the son of a wealthy and influential banking family, kind of on the level of the Rothschild banking family. He was actually something of a child prodigy, almost on a “Mozart” level – before he was in his teens he had already composed some very accomplished and respected works and had been invited to England to conduct his music with the London Symphony as a very young man. His family kept hoping he would eventually put aside his little “hobby” and return to the family banking business!!!!
Mendelssohn – who as a young man aspired to someday be invited to become the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic – instead accepted a position in Leipzig as director of their music conservatory and also director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra – in part because of his fascination with the music of J.S. Bach. Bach lived and worked most of his life as director of the St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Leipzig, and Mendelssohn hoped that he would be closer to the heart of where Bach lived, walked and created. In fact, Mendelssohn can take a fair amount of credit for the resurgence of interest in Bach’s music, and was credited with one of the first modern day performances of the St. Matthew Passion – one of Bach’s (and humankind’s) greatest artistic achievements.
Mendelssohn began work on the “Reformation” symphony in 1829, hoping to complete it in time for a major celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, set to take place in June of 1830. He struggled with the work through the winter, battling illness, and in fact the celebrations ended up being cancelled that spring anyway, due to rising political tensions in the region. In subsequent years, the symphony fell to the “back burner” – a scheduled performance of it in 1832 was cancelled because the orchestra musicians found it “too difficult” to play, and Mendelssohn became defensive and shy about presenting the work. Again, remember, Beethoven had just died several years previous, and anything anyone wrote would be held up against the Monumental Ninth.
Personally, I first performed it as a tenth grader, in my first year as Principal Clarinetist of the Greater Hartford Youth Orchestra. (I can remember flipping through the pages, looking for possible “big clarinet solos” and was a bit disappointed to find none!!!). However it was (and is) a captivating symphony, full of romantic power and narrative. In the first movement you can imagine the strife and struggle as a new religion came to life, and people sought to free themselves of overbearing control – set off by his occasion quote of the “Dresden Amen” – a well-known and popular choral moment from church services of the time – providing moments of serenity and repose. The final movement makes use of the Martin Luther hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” and all in all, it is a majestic and powerful work.
Mendelssohn’s symphonies are mis-numbered – partly because he did not publish the Reformation until much later, but in fact, it is his second attempt in the symphony form.
We end the opening evening with Johannes Brahms’ “Fourth Symphony.”
Brahms wrote four symphonies, and he spent almost twenty years on the first one, constantly revising it and fretting over whether it was good enough to release to the public. In fact, I can remember reading a quote from one of his letters to a friend, saying, “you have no idea what it is like to work in the shadow of Him,” referring to the late Beethoven. Brahms was frequently without confidence as to his own abilities, and feared that his First Symphony would be poorly compared to the Ninth of Beethoven. (in fact, it is an amazing work, and came to be jokingly called, “Beethoven’s Tenth!”)
We performed the Brahms First in October of 2004 – I can remember that as one of our most memorable concerts – (Beethoven’s Fourth was also on the program) – and it was the year the Red Sox “broke the curse!” Lori Halt, one of our longtime CHSO flautists emailed me after the concert, saying “we’re like the Red Sox of Symphony orchestras!!”
Brahms did not give titles or names to his symphonies – he wrote four – but the first might be called his “Appassionato”, the Second, his “Pastoral” and the Third his “Eroica.”
The Fourth Symphony is considered by many to be his finest effort in the form, and coming later in his life, I always thought it has a “Valedictory” aura about it. In listening to it in the past weeks, I also hear defiance and tumult – almost a Beethoven type quality of raging against fate, perhaps. I’ve always thought of the writings of St. Paul when I listen to Brahms – he gives a sense in his later works of a man looking back on his life and the work he will leave behind as his “proof of existence” and saying, “it was OK, I think I did OK, it was a good life.”
To frame his personality in a more modern, (or modern to Brahms lifetime) context, I think he was the musical version of Abraham Lincoln – sometimes melancholy, always deep, and in the end, always appealing to the “better angels of our human nature.”