Behind the Scenes: Brahms' First Program Notes
BY DANIEL CHETEL
When we listen to music from around the world, one of characteristics that our ears immediately discern is the unique sound of the percussion section. While the collection of technologies that comes together to make an instrument like the violin is pretty well codified, every culture has some unique element of percussion that is often idiosyncratic to the specifics of a region, biome, or aesthetic.
A drumming tradition may highlight thuds, claps, scrapes, or pings, and it is these sounds that can transport us from the nightlife of Havana to the Peruvian Andes to the Musikverein in Vienna, and back again. Tonight’s program features three composers who feature the orchestral percussion section in deeply personal and stylistically groundbreaking ways.
American composer Gabriela Lena Frank was born in California in 1972 into a multicultural family that included Peruvian, Chinese, Lithuanian, and Jewish ancestry. Her musical interests attracted her to composers such as Béla Bartók and Alberto Ginastera —whom she refers to as “cultural witnesses”—who researched and celebrated the distinctive cultures of their upbringing through pieces like Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances or Ginastera’s gaucho-inspired score to the ballet Estancia. Frank’s travels throughout South America inspired her to incorporate Latin American traditions into the classical music language of her training in works like Concertino Cusqueño, which we will hear tonight. This work is specifically inspired by the opening motive of a religious melody from the Incan capital city of Cusco as well as the timpani and cymbals that introduce the Violin Concerto by one of her musical heroes: English composer Benjamin Britten. Frank writes of Britten: “I wish I could have met him, worked up the nerve to show him my own music, invited him to travel to beautiful Perú with me... I would have shared chicha morada (purple corn drink) with him, taken him to a zampoña (panpipe) instrument-making shop, set him loose in a mercado (market) streaming with immigrant chinos and the native indio descendants of the Incas… And I know Britten would have been fascinated by the rich mythology enervating the literature and music of this small Andean nation, so deeply similar to the plots of his many operas, among other works.” Frank composes a work that brings together that mystical sheen of Britten’s string writing with the distinctive rhythms that we associate with South American dance.
Much like Frank’s music, the compositions of Cuban-born saxophonist and composer Paquito D’Rivera join the styles of multiple cultures and bridge the divide between popular and classical styles. D’Rivera was born in Havana in 1948 and came to the United States in 1981, where he has performed extensively with orchestras and as a member of the Paquito D’Rivera Quintet, a jazz ensemble of trumpet, saxophone, drums, bass, and piano. His 2001 Gran Danzón was originally written for the American virtuoso flutist Marina Piccinini; tonight, we welcome back former Lexington Philharmonic principal flute Emma Gerstein, who now serves as the second flute in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This kinetic work evokes the dance halls of Havana and Matanzas in both style and instrumentation. D’Rivera builds this work around a traditional rhythmic pattern that features heavily in Cuban dance music, and the solo part is inspired by the six-holed wooden flute common in Cuba. The ensemble includes bongos, rainsticks, Cuban timables, and guiro alongside more traditional orchestral percussion. The scraping of the guiro sets the stage for this work by laying down the rhythmic basis upon which D’Rivera layers this dynamic concerto.
We may not think of German composer Johannes Brahms as a noted proponent of the percussion section, but within the context of his musical language, his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 signals a dramatic shift in the way percussion was used in a symphonic setting. Brahms was a student of German art: he studied the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Joseph Eichendorff alongside the music of composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and the transformative symphonist Ludwig van Beethoven, who had died just five years prior to Brahms’s birth. He was obsessed with writing symphonic works that lived up to Beethoven’s example, so much so that he converted some of his early attempts from symphonies to concertos and other forms if he felt they could not achieve the appropriate level of mastery. The result of this preoccupation was that Brahms did not publish his first symphony until the age of 43 and went on to compose only three more.
Just like the Concertino Cusqueño and the Gran Danzón, Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 begins with a soloistic figure from the percussion section, this time an insistent forte timpani strike that dominates the introduction. Whether Brahms is trying to destory any symphonic echo of Beethoven or suggest a knock on a door that simply refuses to open, he imbues each and every pulse with a deep meaning that contributes to this wandering musical line. The main Allegro section that follows allows the pace to move forward as we enter the main body of this sonata form movement. Brahms alternates between sharp staccato articulations in the strings and more flowing gestures in the woodwinds and horn as he constructs a sound world of great tension that only increases throughout the fragmented development section. (Despite his interest in moving beyond Beethoven, it is hard not to hear these repeated three-note motives in conversations with Beethoven’s inescapable motive of fate which opens his Symphony No. 5.) Brahms ends the movement with a pensive, ethereal coda—still featuring the persistent timpani—that allows the energy of this opening movement to dissipate before he moves on to new musical ideas.
After the complexity of the opening movement, the Andante sostenuto begins with a very basic musical gesture in the violins and bassoon that simply rises up a fourth and then falls back to the opening pitch. This brief motive is heard throughout the movement—even as the music around it is richly orchestrated and rhythmically complex—creating a thickness of sound that is representative of Brahms’s Romantic style of orchestral writing. The ending of the movement seems to return to the intimate character of the opening with interplay between the solo violin and French horn. However, before we can finish, Brahms reminds us of the throbbing energy of the symphony’s opening by reprising the repeated eighth notes in the timpani, this time pianissimo, as if they are an echo of the first movement’s introduction. The Un poco Allegretto e grazioso third movement begins with a texture reminiscent of Brahms’s earlier Serenades featuring a small wind section (with French horns) and low strings. This hint at an earlier, less complex style here gives way to a more richly orchestrated musical canvas, but our ears continue to hear the more pastorale character of the opening’s unassuming elegance.
The finale movement begins with parallels to the opening of the symphony: a slow and ponderous introduction, again in C minor, followed by an expansive sonata form movement, this time in the heroic key of C major (another hint at Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which follows the same tonal structure). For this dramatic conclusion Brahms adds a trio of trombones to the orchestration, a clear symbol of the gravity and seriousness with which Brahms treats the occasion of his first published symphony. (Beethoven famously added a trio of trombones in the fourth movement of his Symphony No. 5, but this instrumentation was also featured a generation earlier by Mozart in his masonic opera Die Zauberflöte, K. 620 and his Requiem, K. 626.) What follows is a regal theme, evocative of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy theme from his Symphony No. 9. The movement—and the symphony as a whole—end with a dramatic accelerando into a roaring Più Allegro coda that again features the timpani, harkening back to the very opening of the symphony as well as the Frank’s Concertino that kicked off tonight’ program.