by Trevor Rines
Musician and actor Trevor Rines shares stories and thoughts about OT’s Sublime Delights programme. Listening Landmarks (special spots to listen for in the music) are in boldface.
Johannes Brahms, Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80, 1880
This concert begins with a joke.
Almost exactly 140 years ago, Johannes Brahms himself mounted the podium (likely wearing a mischievous smirk), to conduct the premiere of his brand new composition, the Academic Festival Overture. He’d already sent the University of Breslau, in Poland, a nice thank-you postcard, for the lovely Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy they’d given him the previous year. But apparently that just wasn’t enough for them. They’d insisted that he compose a musical thank you and requested that he write them “a fine symphony.”
Brahms was known to be a bit of a joker. For this new piece, he had assembled the largest orchestra he ever employed. There were even a bass drum and cymbals, which he used once in this piece, then never again. The professors and university officials were all expecting a serious piece of music.
Down comes the conductor’s baton and the piece begins. A quiet, seemingly quite serious and ponderous march quickly escalates into exactly the sort of grandiose composition that Brahms knew was expected of him—and but the joke was in the well known tunes he used.
The first of these odd tunes makes an appearance just under two minutes in. Three trumpets solemnly sing out the tune, which then builds as the low strings, followed by the horns and trombones, join in, all getting louder as the timpani rolls dramatically underneath.
This is, no doubt, where the professors onstage began to suspect that something was amiss—and where the students in the audience began to sit up and take notice.
The tune was well known to both the academic officials onstage, as well as to the many students in the audience, because it was a popular student drinking song known as “We had built a stately house” (although one suspects that the students sang their own, slightly more colourful lyrics, while in the bars).
A second student drinking song tune comes less than two minutes later, played first by the strings. This one is called “The Father of Our Country” (and is sometimes also called “All is Silent, All Bow Down”).
At this point, one would like to think that the professors realized that Brahms was making fun of them, and would likely continue to do so, for the rest of the piece.
The next student song was an even more shocking choice. “What Comes from the Heights?” (also known as “Fox Ride”), was a song which was used in freshman hazing rites. The bassoons introduce this third tune quietly.
When the rhythm of the piece changes from 4/4 to 3/4, it is to fit the fourth student drinking song, “Gaudeamus Igitur,” whose Latin lyrics remind all to enjoy life and seize the day. Boldly, the woodwinds and brass together play this hymnlike tune, while the violins rush excitedly up & down, in a rapid pattern.
One can almost imagine Brahms grinning as the final chords of his piece sang out a triumphant “So there!”, aimed at both the amused students and the horrified professors.
Now, you’re in on the joke, and you know where to listen for the four student drinking songs. These tunes are woven together in a brilliant and sophisticated tapestry, which highlights Brahms’ enormous talent as a composer.
This Overture overflows with joy and has become one of Brahms’ most beloved and often performed works. Brahms himself described this piece as “a boisterous potpourri of student songs,” and it is often praised as the most exuberant piece of music he ever wrote.
What does this concert’s conductor, Michael Newnham, feel is “one of the most famously heart melting moments in this piece?”
Find out around the four minute mark in the short video Coffee with Michael (OT Vlog #3)
Jean Sibelius, Pelléas & Mélisande Suite, Op. 46, 1905
Jean Sibelius, 1904, by Albert Engström
Finnish composer Jean Sibelius often composed music for the theatre. Only 24 years after Brahms’ musical joke, Sibelius premiered his hauntingly atmospheric incidental music, which set the scene for performances of a live stage play. As did Brahms, Sibelius himself conducted the orchestra for most of this tragic play’s 15 Helsinki performances.
The play in question is Pelléas et Mélisande. It was something of a hot commodity, at the time. Many prominent composers were inspired to create their own musical versions of Maurice Maeterlinck’s hugely popular play.
In fact, in just the 12 years between its 1893 premiere and Sibelius’ 1905 incidental music, this play had already inspired Claude Debussy to write an opera (his one and only, which premiered in Paris); Gabriel Fauré to write incidental music for a London theatrical production; and Arnold Schoenberg to write a monumental orchestral work (which nearly caused a riot at its Paris premiere).
Immediately after the play closed, Sibelius reworked his introductory and background music into the orchestral suite that you’re hearing on this concert.
If you know parts of the story, then you’ll be able to hear how Sibelius brilliantly paints a picture for each scene, so let’s take a peek the six movements the Orchestra will perform (plot points in the movements we leave out are in italics between the movements). You’ll hear a brief pause, between each one.
- At the Castle Gate — The orchestra’s strong block chords (where the instruments all move together) set the scene of this dark and powerful kingdom. The strings’ rapidly repeated notes (tremolo) rise higher as the sunlight over the sea streams through, as the castle’s gate is opened.
- Mélisande — The oboe (or English horn), represents her character, here shy and frightened, beginning and ending this sad waltz with muted violins and violas. Golaud (Pelléas’ stern brother) finds Mélisande crying alone in the forest, unable to remember anything about who she is. She is conveyed to his father’s castle, where he quickly marries her.
In Movement 3, At the Seashore, Pelléas and Mélisande watch a ship departing.
- Spring in the Park — A musical depiction of the joy of Pelléas and Mélisande falling in love in the sunshine by a fountain. Listen for a moment of panic (as she drops her wedding ring in the fountain), then a return to calm.
In Movement 5, The Three Blind Sisters, Mélisande sings to herself, while she brushes her hair in the castle tower.
In Movement 6, Pastorale, Golaud tells Pelléas that Mélisande is pregnant, and asks Pelléas to stay away from her.
- Mélisande at the Spinning Wheel — The spinning of the wheel is represented by a slow pulse in the strings, which is then picked up and developed by the clarinets.
- Entr’acte – This short introduction to the play’s 4th act finds Pelleas and Mélisande planning a secret meeting. Listen for the shift from major to minor, from happiness to something more sinister, to set up the tragedy of the next movement.
- The Death of Mélisande – A tearful elegy, which underscored the play’s final scene, where she dies in childbirth. This is the longest movement, which begins with quiet, muted strings and ends with the whole orchestra seeming to rise up briefly, before settling back down for a last few, gently fading, breaths. Harriet Bosse, who performed the role in the play’s remount, the following year, said, “As I lay on my deathbed in the last act, and the orchestra played, I was so moved that I cried at every performance.”
What one word would conductor Michael Newnham use to sum up this play?
Find out in the short video Coffee with Michael (OT Vlog #4)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 20, in D-minor, K466, 1785
Even before we reach the final piece, which is by Beethoven, we have two bits of secret bonus Beethoven snuck into this concert. I’ll tell you where to listen for them.
A piano concerto is like a conversation between the piano soloist and the orchestra. Out of Mozart’s 23 piano concertos, this is one of only two that he wrote in a minor key, which gives it an overall darker and moodier feeling.
This concerto is Mozart’s most dramatic and has been a favourite of audiences since the 1800s. That’s probably why parts of it may seem familiar to you. Selections from this concerto are heard prominently in the film Amadeus.
The first of this concerto’s three movements is the Allegro. It opens with the bass viols playing the same tune as the pianist is playing (with their left hand only). After a couple of minutes, the orchestra drops away and we hear the piano playing solo, for the first time, commenting on what the orchestra has been playing, and embellishing the material.
Listen for this passing of ideas back and forth, between orchestra and the piano. They play snippets of each other’s melodies, then change them around and hand them back.
Roughly 11 minutes in, very close to the end of the first movement, the orchestra slows down dramatically over eight block chords (low, high, low, high, low, high, low, high), to a long held chord, played by all instruments. This is where the first bit of bonus Beethoven creeps in.
As the orchestra falls silent, the piano plays a simple trill (a rapid alternating of two notes). Here begins the first of two cadenzas, both written by Beethoven, who is known to have greatly admired this particular concerto. It is even said that a 24-year-old Beethoven was the piano soloist, when this concerto was played at a 1795 benefit concert for Mozart’s widow, Constanze.
As they often do, this cadenza both begins and ends with a trill. This first happens as the orchestra hands the stage over to the soloist, to play a showy solo. At the end of the solo, the pianist signals that they’re done showing off their virtuosity by settling into another trill (much longer this time), and the orchestra joins back in.
The middle movement, the Romanze, begins and ends peacefully enough, but listen for the music to turn suddenly ominous, without warning, before returning to its earlier calm. The timpani and trumpets sit this movement out, giving the music a much lighter texture. This is the movement which you hear during the final scene, and as the end credits roll, in the film Amadeus.
Beginning with a sense of menace, the Rondo, Allegro Assai, abruptly changes the key from minor to major, from brooding to light, without warning. The moment of change sounds almost as though the sun has come out from behind a cloud. Close to the end of this third and final movement, the orchestra puts on the brakes coming to a full halt, with alternating low and high chords (as we heard right before the first movement’s cadenza).
In this concert, the third movement cadenza is also the version written by Beethoven. When this cadenza ends, both orchestra and piano rush, hand in hand, towards a triumphant conclusion.
Having moved to Vienna four years prior to writing this concerto, Mozart had become much loved by the Viennese for his piano playing. At this concerto’s 1785 premiere (which took place in a casino), Mozart himself played the piano. We’re told (in a letter that his father wrote to his sister), that the orchestra’s parts were not yet fully written out, as the audience was arriving, although the copyist was working furiously backstage, to finish them in time for the performance. The orchestra hadn’t even had time to rehearse the third movement!
And so, when it came time for Mozart to play the first and third movement’s cadenzas, nothing at all was written out. Mozart simply improvised, on the fly. In fact, as far as we know, he never did write down the cadenzas that he intended to be played, as he had for his other concertos.
Brahms also wrote a first movement cadenza for this concerto, but we won’t be hearing it on this concert. Actually, over the years, there have been many different cadenzas written, to be inserted into this concerto. That’s right. Each time you hear a different performance of this concerto, you may be hearing a different cadenza by a different composer.
History tells us that this concerto’s premiere certainly impressed one audience member. The very next day, the older and much respected Joseph Haydn, told Mozart’s father, Leopold, “Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.”
“Every time I play Mozart, I think of _”
What does this concert’s piano soloist, David Jalbert, think of, every time he plays Mozart?
Find out around the five minute mark in OT’s short Vlog Coffee with Michael & David Jalbert
Ludwig van Beethoven, The Consecration of the House Overture, Op. 124, 1822
This concert ends with an overture. It began with one, too, which is usually where overtures occur—at the beginning.
What “House” is being “Consecrated” by this piece? The title is a reference to its 1822 premiere at the grand reopening of Vienna’s freshly remodeled Theater in der Josefstadt, which opened in 1788 and still stands, to this day.
A play called The Ruins of Athens was being performed at the Theater’s reopening, including incidental music which Beethoven had written for that play 11 years earlier, for the dedication of another theatre in Pest, Hungary.
On this occasion, Beethoven added some new music to what he had written before, including this wonderful new Overture.
This piece is often called an homage to Handel, whom Beethoven called “the finest composer who ever lived.” As Beethoven had been closely studying the music of Handel, in the years leading up to him composing this piece, you can definitely hear the influence of that earlier composer.
The Overture begins with five short, strong chords, which are separated by long silences. Perhaps Beethoven did this to allow the audience to enjoy the acoustics of the newly renovated theatre? When this is performed in concert (which it rarely is), it’s always an opportunity to hear how long the concert hall rings with the sound of each chord.
The woodwinds then softly begin a regal march, which grows steadily louder, as more and more of the instruments join in. The effect gives the impression that a marching band is slowly approaching, from far away.
The trumpets interrupt with loud fanfares, which have been compared to those in Handel’s Fireworks Music (written 73 years earlier). If you listen closely, you’ll hear the bassoon playing a rapid succession of rising and falling notes, underneath the brass. The violins then imitate this bassoon line.
Imitation is key to this piece. You’ll hear the same tunes tossed around, from instrument to instrument, then altered or shortened, then passed back.
About four minutes in, the woodwinds and strings pass back and forth a simple three note pattern, which grows louder and is embellished into an increasingly complex and interwoven tapestry of patterns. Keep listening for that three note pattern to return, right up to the end of the piece. This, too, is very much in the earlier style of Handel.
As the piece grows towards a weighty conclusion, the woodwinds make occasional lighthearted interjections, almost like laughter, rippling in the midst of the full orchestra’s exuberant final chords.
Even though Beethoven was quite deaf, by this point, he conducted the premiere himself. The Kapellmeister stood behind Beethoven, to help with conveying the composer’s instructions more clearly to the orchestra.
This boisterous Overture was an enormous and immediate success, with both the public and critics alike. In fact, it opened the legendary Vienna concert which premiered his enormous and revolutionary 9th Symphony, just two years later.
Why does conductor Michael Newnham think that this piece is “Beethoven at his most rambunctious”?
Find out around the four-minute mark in OT’s Vlog episode, Coffee with Michael, Beethoven Consecration of the House Overture
This concert of Sublime Delights marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. The exact date is unknown, so we celebrate it on December 17th, which is the date of his baptism, and also the date of the first airing of this Orchestra Toronto concert online.