Masterworks VI: “March Madness”
Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms
Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 102

It does not pay to get involved in other people’s' marital squabbles. When Brahms's friends of 30 years, the violinist Joseph Joachim and his wife entered into a messy divorce battle, Joachim accused Brahms of taking his wife's side and broke off all contact with his friend. The concerto was Brahms's peace offering; and while it brought the two friends back together, they never resumed the warmth of their original friendship. By adding the cello, Brahms also partially fulfilled a promise to Robert Hausmann, cellist of the Joachim quartet, to write a cello concerto.

The material for the concerto, composed during the summer of 1887, originated as sketches for a fifth symphony that never materialized. But Brahms continued to revise it even after the premiere, which took place in October 1887 with Joachim and Hausmann as soloists.

By the date of the Double Concerto, Brahms considered himself an “elder statesman” of music, looking to the past rather than to the future. The Concerto has little of the virtuosic glitter of most Romantic concertos, composed by and for musicians with competitive technical showmanship. Rather, it is introspective and subdued. There are no technical acrobatics for either of the two soloists, only the intensity of the themes and their development drive the work.

Most double concertos feature identical instruments or at least instruments of similar range in order to insure equality when both soloists are in "opposition" or perfect blending when they are in "accord." The combination of extremes in this concerto had only some distant precedents in double concertos and symphonies concertantes for violin and cello by Vivaldi, Telemann, J.C. Bach, Carl Stamitz and Louis Spohr. Listeners used to pyrotechnic fiddling will find none of that in this Concerto. Surprisingly, the cello is the dominant instrument of the two soloists, creating a somber, autumnal cast to the entire work.

The presentation of the themes throughout this concerto comes in stages, so that a complete melody emerges often after a considerable length of time. A case in point is the opening of the Concerto, which introduces a motivic unit within the main theme, interrupted by a long cadenza for the cello. Example 1 The orchestra then presents the beginning of the second theme, Example 2 after which both soloists engage in another cadenza – the last either soloist will see in this piece. The complete first theme occurs only several minutes into the movement. Example 3 A mini-development of motivic material from the first theme delays the introduction of the third and final theme for this long movement. Example 4 After that, the movement becomes a rhapsodic interplay between the soloists and the orchestra  in which the three themes are dissected and reconstituted in a myriad of ways, straying into distant keys and exploring the limits of the possible sonorities of the instruments. Formally, the movement strays considerably from the sonata form model.

The Andante is a simple ABA form. The two soloists have nothing more that long singing lines that interweave around each other – in a similar manner to the second movement of Bach's Concerto in d minor for two violins and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola. It opens with a four-note motive in the winds. These four notes form the beginning of the main theme of the movement, introduced by the violin and cello playing an octave apart. Example 5 There is only one new theme, in the B section. Example 6

In the Finale, Brahms roles out an astonishing number of themes, only some of them separated by the rondo. Example 7 The clue to rationale for the melodic proliferation in this movement rests with its relationship to the dances of the time. Waltzes and polkas introduce one melody after another, only periodically punctuated by a refrain. Popular – and inauthentic – Gypsy music followed the same pattern, and the rondo theme recalls Brahms Gypsy and Hungarian dances. One of the subsidiary themes harks back to the theme of the Andante, opining with the same four notes. Example 8

Ralph Vaughan Williams once recalled hearing the Concerto played as a piano trio in Berlin in 1897 with Joachim and Hausmann as soloists and Karl Barth as the pianist taking the place of the orchestra. We tend to forget how difficult it was to disseminate orchestral music before the days of sound recording. In those days piano and chamber transcriptions were the most popular way to familiarize the public at large with new orchestral compositions and were a thriving industry. Brahms himself may have transcribed the Concerto.

March Madness

Working to music predates the dawn of history. Its power to lighten the load and stress of everything from hard labor to riding in an elevator is universally recognized. So, it is no surprise that bands have been ubiquitous in military settings, and marches have mirrored the regular pace of walking and, not coincidentally, the tempo of the human heartbeat. The journey of the march from the battlefield to the concert hall and operatic stage occurred via the parade, as an accompaniment to the display of military might – to exalt the conquerors and intimidate the conquered. Marches, of course, served other than military functions, for anything from religious processions and funerals to bullfights.

A musical form with a strong regular rhythm, most often in 4/4 or 2/2, the march first appeared in notated music in the sixteenth century. Initially written as drum patterns for military use, marches found their way by the eighteenth century into the wind band music of serenades and divertimenti. Just as the courtly dances of the Baroque quickly became undanceable in the instrumental suites of the time, marches became an integral structure of musical entertainment, conveying the spirit but not the function for marching.

By the early nineteenth century, Napoleon recognized the military value of marches, and encouraged their composition. Because his soldiers were ordered to live off (i.e. pillage) the conquered lands and did not carry a lot of provisions with them, they were able to march faster, and Napoleon set their pace at 120 beats per minute for the regular march, a pace named “quickmarch” in Great Britain. He also set 60 beats per minute for the funeral march.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the golden age of the march. Romantic composers embraced it, especially the funeral march. Probably the first such one in a major composition not tied to an opera or play was the funeral march in Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. The trend culminated with Gustav Mahler, who inserted funeral marches into most of his symphonies.

Tonight’s program covers a wide range of marches, most written for amusement and entertainment purposes:

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) composed Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in 1901 as a way to uplift the national spirit in the wake of the Boer War (1899-1902). “I’ve got a tune that will knock ‘em – knock ‘em flat,” wrote Elgar to a friend after the premiere. Example 1 A few days later, conductor Henry Wood performed it at the London Proms where he had to repeat it twice, “just to restore order.” Many people who have never heard of Elgar will immediately recognize the trio (middle part) from graduation processionals. In Britain, it was set to words in the patriotic anthem “Land of Hope and Glory” by A.C. Benson. Apparently it was King Edward VII who suggested that words be put to the music, and Elgar obliged.

Elgar went on to compose four more Pomp and Circumstance marches, but none achieved the popularity of the first. The title of the set comes from Shakespeare’s Othello after Iago first plants the seeds of jealousy in the susceptible Othello. The March’s celebratory air stands in sharp contrast to the origin of the title:
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove's dead clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone!

Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894) was a largely self-taught musician, who was considered innovative and modern, mainly on the basis of his piano works. He studied music over the strenuous objections of his parents who sent him to law school and saw to it that he became a civil servant. He was a popular figure in musical circles during his lifetime, a superb pianist, a partisan of innovative art and an advocate of the new music of Wagner. His own music has been admired for its wit and the brilliance of its orchestration. Much of that regard came, however, only after his death. Today his fame outside France rests primarily on his orchestral rhapsody España, the fruits of a trip to Spain.

Chabrier composed the Joyeuse marche in 1888. Example 2 In 1949 it acquired a second lease on life, together with three other of the composer’s short orchestral pieces, when choreographer George Balanchine combined them into a successful ballet under the title Bourrée fantasque for the newly-created New York City Ballet Company where it has stayed in its repertoire ever since.

In 1811 Beethoven composed music for The Ruins of Athens, Op.113, a dramatic one-act Singspiel by August von Kotzebue, to celebrate the opening of a new theater in Pest, one half of the city that was to become Budapest. One of the numbers was the “Marcia alla turca,” based on a theme Beethoven had used two years earlier for the Piano Variations Op.76. The March became an instant success; the rest of the incidental music is seldom performed today.

Europe was fascinated by the music of the Janissaries – the elite unit of the Ottoman military force – whose membership was primarily made up of men who had been abducted as children from around the Empire. Janissaries music, with its huge drums, cymbals and triangles with jingling rings attached, became all the fashion and led to the enlargement of the percussion section of European orchestras.

Selim Palmgren (1878-1951) was a prolific Finnish composer and pianist. He composed his Exotisk Marsch in 1915 for piano, orchestrating it in 1938.

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), by far the best known of nineteenth century Vienna’s composers of dance music, was adored by high society who fondly named him the Waltz King. He was by nature shy, self-effacing and insecure, far removed in nature from the light-heartedness and exuberance expressed of music. He was a close friend of Brahms, who always tried to convince him that posterity would remember his music, but to no avail. Brahms, however, got it right.

Strauss composed the Egyptian March in 1869, his contribution to the celebrations surrounding the opening of the Suez Canal.

Edward Elgar was an early enthusiast of the gramophone, and conducted or oversaw the recording of much of his music. He made the arrangement of the Marche funèbre from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in 1932 for the newly formed EMI record company and its new Abbey Road recording studio.

In 1865, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was invited to join the faculty of the new music conservatory in Moscow, a position that inaugurated his career. Part of his duties frequently required him to provide music for various public and social occasions. Most of these works have disappeared, but Marche Slave, commissioned in 1876 by the Russian Musical Society for a benefit concert to support Russian troops wounded in the Balkans has survived as an orchestral favorite.

Pro-Slavic feelings were running high in Russia, and the overture is full of references to Russian and Serbian folk melodies. The opening is marked “In the manner of a funeral march,” with the bassoon introducing the first theme. Example 3 But the mood improves with the second theme, Russia’s national anthem, “God Save the Tsar,” introduced by the tuba and strings. Example 4
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2019