Goosebumps and serenity, longing and pride, three long-dead composers from wildly different traditions still have lots to say.

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Symphony Series 4 :: Horns of Glory

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was one of the most important composers of the Baroque era and a founder of the Germanic tradition. Universally acknowledged today as the master of counterpoint and fugue, in his own day Bach was eclipsed by his countryman Georg Philipp Telemann in fame and success. In fact, Bach’s music was almost forgotten by the generation following his own; with the emphasis on the new and fashionable ‘style galant’, audiences wanted nothing to do with what they saw as the overly ornamental Baroque style.

Although several prominent composers including Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann cite Bach as an artistic influence, it was Felix Mendelssohn who brought about the renewal of interest in Bach’s work. An 1829 performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, directed by Mendelssohn, is credited as the birth of the Bach revival.

Orchestral Suite No. 3 was written in 1730 while the composer was living and working in Leipzig. As director of music for the four main churches, with duties including the education of the pupils of the Thomasschule, the affiliated school of the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church), Bach was kept very busy teaching, rehearsing, and composing. Despite his hectic schedule, in 1729 he took on another post as the director of the Collegium Musicum, a secular instrumental ensemble.

Many of Bach’s instrumental works from this period were written for this ensemble, possibly including the orchestral suites. Taking the form of a dance suite, these works consist of an overture in the style of a French opera overture, followed by a series of dances. This particular overture features the timpani and trumpets in the ceremonial first section, as well as conventional dotted rhythms. The second section showcases Bach’s genius for the fugue.

French for aria, the Air is constructed as an instrumental song without words. Considered one of the most beautiful melodies ever written, Bach’s music seems to transcend time. Although the scoring is light, with only strings and harpsichord, the texture remains polyphonic; much of the movement’s charm arises from dissonances between the second violin and the viola, played in counterpoint to the upper line.

The third movement includes two paired Gavottes; the second reverses the rhythm of the first, from a quarter note and two eighths to two eighths followed by a quarter. In duple time with phrases beginning in the middle of the bar, the Gavotte has its origins in French folk dance – but by Bach’s time had become a court dance. Bach’s two Gavottes are cheerful and lively, reintroducing the trumpets, winds and timpani for a fuller texture.

Next is a Bourrée, another French dance featuring a fast duple meter and a pronounced anacrusis, or upbeat. Lively yet elegant, this movement alternates between lighter scoring featuring the strings and fuller orchestration including both trumpets and timpani. Last is the Gigue, or Jig, a fast dance of English origin in a compound duple meter with a lighter, more playful character. Bach retains the cheerful mood, but adds hints of the ceremonial quality of the first movement, including excursions into the minor mode.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) turned exclusively to composing when a promising career as a concert pianist was cut short by an unfortunate hand injury. His earliest compositions were almost exclusively for the piano; later he diversified into the realms of Lieder, concerto, and symphony. Schumann’s life was plagued by mental illness, which manifested itself as periods of severe depression alternating with periods of excessive activity; near the end of his life he also experienced delusions and auditory hallucinations.

Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra takes the form of a concerto in the conventional three movements. An exciting yet sometimes neglected work – likely due to the need for four skilled hornists – the piece was composed in 1849, a highly prolific year for Schumann, just prior to a period of mental deterioration. After attempting suicide in 1854, he spent the remainder of his life in a mental asylum, dying just two years later.

The first movement, written in sonata form, is marked Lebhaft, or lively. Beginning with just two orchestral chords, Schumann keeps us waiting with a few beats of silence before the four horns enter triumphantly with a jubilant fanfare, which is taken up and extended by the full orchestra. The highly virtuosic horn writing was at the time a new development, the addition of valves dramatically expanding the instrument’s range and flexibility.

Schumann takes full advantage of these new possibilities, having the horns play in multiple keys and writing chromatic melodies which would have been extremely difficult – if not impossible – to play on the valveless natural horn. The fanfare motif returns even as the restless energy of the opening shifts to a stormy anxiety. Later the mood calms, though the serene melody is still accompanied by restless tremolos in the strings.

A Romanze, the second movement is gentler and more solemn, opening with a duet for the two upper horn parts. The chorale-like middle section once more features all four horns, at first lushly accompanied by the full orchestra, then allowing the warmth of the horns to shine through a lighter pizzicato accompaniment. As the opening duet returns to close the movement, a trumpet call seems to interrupt, catapulting the orchestra straight into the unbridled virtuosity of the third movement.

Marked Sehr lebhaft (very lively), the third movement recalls all the exuberance of the first. Schumann enhances the drama with daring chromatic shifts and frequent movement between major and minor modes. Eventually he returns to the untainted cheerfulness of the opening, ending triumphantly with a flourish from the horn soloists.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), likely the most recognizable composer of classical music, was an instrumental figure in the transition from the Classical to the Romantic era. His innovations in the areas of form and harmony as well as his stormy personality have given him a reputation for rebelliousness; however, we often overlook the debt owed by Beethoven to his musical ancestors, Bach, Mozart and Haydn.

Arriving in Vienna in 1792, just one year after Mozart’s death, the young Beethoven was hailed as the great composer’s musical heir. He studied with Joseph Haydn – although the relationship was often strained – and soon gained much success as a concert pianist, as well as a composer. Tragically, only a few years later, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. This gradual deterioration made composing difficult and also caused him to withdraw from society as conversation became more arduous.

Premiered in 1800, Symphony No. 1 is still firmly rooted in the classical traditions set down by Beethoven’s predecessors. Already established in other leading genres of the day, Beethoven waited to approach the symphony until he reached stylistic maturity. Contemporary critics praised the symphony’s originality, yet Beethoven follows the conventional forms closely, and the influence of Mozart and Haydn remains clear; the orchestration is expanded but not particularly innovative when compared with Haydn’s late symphonic works.

However, in the first movement’s slow introduction – a tradition codified by his teacher Haydn – Beethoven begins with a musical joke: the initial tonic chord acts as a dominant chord, unexpectedly resolving to the subdominant. The first theme shows Beethoven’s inclination towards athleticism and motivic development, marking his personal style as unique from the formal cleverness of Haydn or the melodic genius of Mozart.

The second movement features an elegant, restrained first theme introduced by the second violins, which is then treated fugally. The movement also uses the full forces of the orchestra instead of the lighter scoring usual for slow movements. The third movement is marked at an unexpectedly fast tempo, almost crossing the line between minuet and scherzo (which Beethoven would frequently substitute for the minuet in his later symphonies). The character is much more exuberant than the traditionally aristocratic minuet.

Unusually, the last movement also begins with a slow introduction, a technique ordinarily restricted to first movements. The first violins coyly work their way up the scale, finally achieving the full octave as the tempo takes flight and the main theme begins. The winds are added gradually as the movement swells to its full, exuberant proportions – grace and elegance are only barely retained as Beethoven lets his genius romp, unfettered.

Programme Notes by Camille Rogers