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Programme Notes: Strength Through Our Ancestors, October 28, 2023

Landmarks of Note

Programme Notes by Trevor Rines

Listening Landmarks are in boldface

It’s worth noting that our October 28th concert, which opens our 2023-2024 Season, is nestled between two anniversaries. The 138th anniversary of the premiere performance of the Brahms Fourth Symphony is just three days before our concert. The day after our concert is the 68th anniversary of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto’s premiere. Read on, to find out about what happened at both premieres.

‘Little’ Fugue in G minor, BWV 578

Composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 Eisenach, Germany – 1750 Leipzig, Germany)

Arranged by Leopold Stokowski (1882 London, England – 1977 Nether Wallop, Hampshire, England)

Running Time 4 minutes

Premiere – around 1705, likely in either Weimar or Arnstadt, Germany

Row, Row, Row Your Boat, is something like a fugue. While rounds repeat & overlap, fugues do not exclude (the possibility of continuing & developing the first theme into something new).

A round keeps repeating the same music over & over. A fugue is similar, but more complicated. It starts off the same way, but continues, with variations on the first theme. Basically, when you reach “Life is but a dream,” you keep going with new music, instead of returning back to the beginning.

You know that that round tune is repeating, when you hear the five starting notes. Keep listening for this fugue’s three strong starting notes. You’ll hear them popping up, all over the orchestra. Sometimes they’re sped up or slowed down, or even twisted around, but that three note pattern is everywhere.

We’ve met Leopold Stokowski, in Disney’s 1940 film, Fantasia. He shakes hands with Mickey Mouse, then conducts another of his many orchestral J.S. Bach arrangements, the Toccata & Fugue in D minor.

Stokowski’s challenge was how to convincingly turn what was written for hands & feet into something for dozens of musicians to play. Bach wrote it to be performed by one person, seated at a pipe organ. You’ll notice that the lowest of the four voices moves more slowly than the other three. This is because that part is played by the feet (which can’t move as quickly), in the original organ version.

One of the clever things about this arrangement is that it begins with solo instruments. It starts off as a small ensemble of soloists (oboe, English horn, bassoon, etc.), then slips sneakily into full orchestra. Listen for the point when it’s no longer just solo instruments. This may be trickier than you think, which is a testament to Stokowski’s cleverness. (Hint: Keep an eye on the violins. It happens about half way through this four minute long piece.)

In some ways, this isn’t a conversation. (Orchestral music often is.) There are four distinct voices, each saying almost the same thing, but at different times. The instruments jump from voice to voice, but overall, we hear it as four separate melodic lines.

How did this piece come to be called the ‘Little’ Fugue? It’s often the music publisher, but in this case, it was an editor, cataloguing Bach’s works. This particular G minor fugue is called ‘Little’ to distinguish it from his longer ‘Great’ Fantasia & Fugue, also in G minor, BWV 542.
My favourite pop culture reference to this piece is in the recent Knives Out Mystery film, Glass Onion. Cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, makes a cameo appearance. At a party, he overhears the ‘Little’ Fugue playing on a music box, & interrupts, to identify the piece. Unprompted, he explains, “So, a fugue is a beautiful musical puzzle, based on just one tune. And when you layer this tune on top of itself, it starts to change, & turns into a beautiful new structure.”

Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Opus 77/99

Composed by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 Saint Petersburg, Russia – 1975 Moscow, Russia)

Premiere – October 29th, 1955 in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Russia (age 49)

Score Dedication – David Oistrakh (Violin Soloist at Premiere)

Running Time – about 36 minutes

Nocturne: Moderato

Scherzo: Allegro non troppo 

Passacaglia: Andante – Cadenza

Burlesque: Allegro con brio – Presto

This was extremely dangerous music. Shostakovich composed it, then kept it secret for eight years. He feared that this concerto could get him sent to Siberia or even executed by the state.

They say that treason is a matter of dates. A treasonous act (or concerto, in this case), on a different date, may instead be rewarded. Shostakovich found himself in & out of favour with the authorities. Compositions which had won awards were later banned, for not being “socialist realist” or “formalist” enough. Those nebulous terms presented difficult & shifting goals, because what they actually meant depended upon whom you asked. He wrote, in his autobiography, I was constantly under suspicion then, & critics counted what percentage of my symphonies was in a major key & what percentage in a minor key.”

This wasn’t the only music which he kept well hidden, in what he called “The Drawer.” A Jewish Folk Poetry song cycle & his Fourth String Quartet were waiting in there, too. Written in 1947, under Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian regime, this secret concerto didn’t emerge until two years after Stalin’s death. The political climate had changed enough that it could finally see the light of day.

Why did Shostakovich call this concerto “a symphony for solo violin & orchestra?” The addition of an extra movement, right at the beginning, transforms the concerto into something more symphonic in structure. Traditionally, concertos have only three movements. Symphonies have four.

Beginning a concerto with a Nocturne was very odd. Nocturnes were originally standalone piano pieces. After a brief & lilting orchestral introduction, the violin soloist picks up their theme & takes the lead, for the remainder of the first movement. The violinist’s musical meditations remind one of brooding, late night contemplations of the “Did I remember to lock the door?” variety. The orchestra lurks in the shadowy corners, muttering quietly, but unhelpfully neither answering nor resolving the soloist’s troubled & open ended questions.

The celesta (like a glockenspiel played with a small keyboard) was a favourite instrument, which Shostakovich used to create an eerie mood. Listen for the celesta & the harp. You’ll hear them twice, in the first movement, then never again. 

The second movement has been called “demoniac.” It’s a Scherzo (a musical joke), but the humour is very dark. Unusual combinations of woodwinds, such as flute & bass clarinet, comment on the violinist’s frenetic & jagged playing. The soloist jabs at their violin, with increasing violence. Listen for the violin repeating the same chord 27 times in row.

The basses, cellos, & timpani, punctuated by French horns, open the third movement, which is a passacaglia with nine variations. (Picture Pachelbel’s Canon, with its repeated bass line.) The variations are over an unusually long, repeated bass line, of 17 bars, which gets passed around the orchestra, & even to the higher instruments. The woodwinds & French horns introduce the soloist, who will be playing for the next 15 minutes, uninterrupted. While it starts gently, the solo line becomes increasingly emotional & intense. 

The third movement’s cadenza is actually longer than the whole fourth movement. It was when the timpani entry marks the end of the cadenza, during the first reading of the piece, that the violin soloist, David Oistrakh, spoke up. He asked Shostakovich to consider letting the orchestra play the first eight bars of the fourth movement, to give him a brief break, so that he could at least “wipe the sweat off my brow.” “Of course. Why didn’t I think of it?” was the response. By the next morning, the scores had been adjusted.

The fourth movement Burlesque could almost be considered to be a fifth movement, because of the longer cadenza which precedes it. Both soloist & orchestra play with wild abandon, coming together for duets, then moving back apart. Listen for the duet with the clarinet, then the bassoon. It’s like a country fiddler is standing in the midst of a folk dance, with the orchestra portraying the dancers, whirling about him. The orchestra & the soloist play faster & faster, racing together towards an exuberant finish.


Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Opus 98

Composed by Johannes Brahms (1833 Hamburg, Germany – 1897 Vienna, Austria)

Premiere – October 25th, 1885 (age 52, Brahms conducting)

Running Time – about 40 minutes

Allegro non troppo

Andante moderato

Allegro giocoso

Allegro energico e passionate

The public premiere of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony was only a few months away, but he was wracked by insecurity. Was the work good enough to share with the public or would it be ridiculed?

He gave it a test run, in a private performance for a small audience of distinguished guests, to get their feedback. It was in a piano arrangement for four-hands, two of which were Brahms’. There were other conductors present, as well as important music critics, including Eduard Hanslick. Brahms had paused for comments, after the first movement, only to be met by uncomfortable silence. It was then that Hanslick blurted out, “I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people.”

His smart aleck remark was intended to break the growing tension & to get a laugh from his colleagues, which it did. Upon his first listening, he may well have found the movement overly intellectual. What’s rarely pointed out, though, is that he later said, “For the musician, there is not another modern piece so productive as a subject for study. It is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.”

In Brahms’ mind, the idea of the symphony had built itself up into an imposing obstacle. “I shall never compose a symphony! You have no idea how someone like me feels when he hears such a giant marching behind him all the time.” The giant was Ludwig van Beethoven. Even though it had been more than 40 years since Beethoven’s death, Brahms still felt that he was under the enormous shadow of Beethoven. 

“Today I worked on my symphony. In the morning, I added an eighth note; in the afternoon, I erased it.” – Brahms

Brahms spent nearly two decades, composing & making painstaking revisions to his First Symphony, before he finally felt that it was ready to be heard. He was 43 years old & had written very little music for full orchestra, up to that point. He keenly felt that his symphony would be compared to Beethoven’s nine monumental symphonies, which had redefined what a symphony could be.

While not initially a success, once the Viennese had heard his First Symphony, Brahms was adopted as the figurehead of the modern symphony. In fact, Brahms’ First Symphony was quickly dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth,” by fellow conductor & composer, Hans von Bülow.

An elegant darkness permeates what would turn out to be his final symphony, which he called his “New Tragic Symphony.” The Fourth Symphony was immediately popular. At its premiere, which Brahms himself conducted, a Duke requested an encore of both the first & third movements, so they had to be performed again, after the concert had supposedly ended. 

It may be that the only piece of Brahms’ music which you know is one which you likely heard playing on a music box. His lilting Lullaby is an excellent introduction to what makes his music so distinctive. Keep his Lullaby in mind, as the Fourth Symphony opens.

Brahms’ music is like lacework. The rests are as important as the notes. The violins introduce a simple theme of two notes dropping, a rest, then two notes rising, a rest, & so on. The woodwinds quietly echo this sighing tune, playing the same notes, on the offbeats. The lower strings play similar intervals, as rapidly rising arpeggios. And that’s the seed from which he develops the rest of the first movement, which is tinged by longing & restlessness.

The sweetness & warmth of the French horns’ second movement opening theme sets a gentle pastoral tone. This is gradually developed into something more passionate, yet sad & stark. As in the first movement, Brahms employs an antique version of the scale, called the Phrygian mode. To him, that mode conveyed “profound need & remorse.”

In the third movement, the Sun finally breaks through, with a spirited & playful opening. We can hear Brahms’ sense of humour in this scherzo. The odd rhythms add an unexpected & welcome unruliness.

The symphony ends with an homage to J.S. Bach. The fourth movement is based on a simple theme from the chaconne (a stately dance) which ends Bach’s Cantata, BWV 150. Eight mighty chords, from all but the strings, establish the harmonic progression, which will be repeated over 30 times, as a passacaglia. Each repeat is a fresh new variation, rich with melody & intense emotion, all passionately driving towards a thundering conclusion, somehow simultaneously tragic & triumphant.

It was Richard Wagner, & other champions of the avant garde, who dismissed the symphony as no longer relevant & declared Brahms to be hopelessly old fashioned. As for Brahms’ many followers, they maintained that he had proven that symphonies could successfully incorporate aspects of the past & still be innovative. 

Hans von Bülow also coined a phrase which gave Brahms equal billing with two other eminent composers: “The Three Bs.” This refers to J.S. Bach, Beethoven, & Brahms. Nearly 200 years later, this simple phrase is still often repeated. Brahms adored Bach & Beethoven. I’m convinced that he would be quite pleased to know that he’s still seen as their worthy successor.

Headshot of Trevor Rines

Trevor Rines is a writer, musician, graphic and boardgame designer, and stage and voice actor, who has performed in every one of Shakespeare’s plays & has acted as narrator for three Orchestra Toronto concerts.

He performs with the notorious Renaissance gemshorn quartet, The Gemsmen, & was recently a contestant on Evil Idol.

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