Johannes Brahms

Born: May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany
Died: April 13, 1897, Vienna, Austria

 Academic Festival Overture, Opus 80
Premiered: January 5, 1881

The Academic Festival Overture is, ironically enough, the work of a composer who was never formally enrolled in any university. Brahms wrote it in the summer of 1880 after an honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree was conferred upon him by the University of Breslau. At first, he had naively thought that a simple letter of acknowledgement would suffice, but a friend advised him that the officials were hoping for a musical expression of gratitude. Brahms responded with a vigorous, witty concert overture celebrating the conviviality of undergraduate life, and by and large dispensing with solemnities redolent of dignified rectors and faculty.

While Brahms had never been plagued with orals and dissertations, he had for a time enjoyed the fringes of student life at Göttingen, the university town in the Rhineland where he spent happy days in 1853 visiting his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. The rousing student songs he had heard there were available in a widely-circulated collection that also turned up on American campuses. From this volume Brahms selected four numbers and crafted them into a stirring medley (within the framework of polished first-movement symphonic form) that he informally referred to as a potpourri.

“full of laughter”
The real problem was what to call this work. Addressing the director of the Breslau Orchestral Society, he puzzled: “The title does not exactly please me; can you think of another?” His respondent agreed—“Academic Festival Overture sounds devilishly academic and boring”—but neither could think of anything better. The name stuck. When the composer led the premiere at an all-Brahms concert on January 5, 1881, he paired the work with yet a second concert overture, the Tragic, noting that “one is full of tears, the other full of laughter.”

A long introduction in C minor belies the mischief and sense of fun that is to come. Softly anticipating the main theme, this portal is crowned by the nostalgic student hymn, “We Had  Built a Stately House,” presented in radiant Lutheran chorale style. Extracting a segment from this strain, and quickening it so as to make it virtually unrecognizable, Brahms proceeds with the movement proper. For contrast, he works with two songs from the previous century, transforming them in his own gorgeous orchestral sound: “High Festival Song to the Father of the Country,” led off by violins, and then a ditty about a fox, “Fuchsenritt,” which had always been useful in freshman-baiting, and is here unleashed as a comic bassoon duet. After a concise development and reprise, the overture culminates in a jubilant setting for full orchestra of the medieval paean to student days, “Gaudeamus igitur” (“So Let Us Rejoice”). Glorifying a kind of life he never had, Brahms employs the largest orchestra of his career, complete with noisy, exuberant percussion.

 Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.


Wolfgang Amadè Mozart

Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K. 543
Composed: ca. June 1788

In the summer of 1788, Mozart wound up his career as a symphonist with three works, written together inside six weeks—the warm and lyric No. 39, the dark and dramatic No. 40, and the grand No. 41, named the Jupiter. He lived another three and a half years, but there were no more symphonies because there was no demand, his public fortunes then being at a low ebb—one from which, thanks to The Magic Flute, he was beginning to emerge when death caught up with him.

The Symphony No. 39 is the richest sounding member of that great final triptych, the most lyric, and the warmest in its emotional temperature as well. From its monumental and adventurous introduction to its crackling and deliciously comic finale, it is Mozart at his most irrepressibly inventive and inspired. It is dated June 26, 1788; nothing is known about its early performance history.

the music: drama, charm and invention
Mozart begins the symphony with an imposing slow introduction, drawing on the fund of drama, suggestion and feeling for splendor revealed in his Prague Symphony, No.  38, composed two years earlier. The musical gestures themselves are monuments of formality and regularity, but at the same time, the harmonies grow darker, syncopations trouble the rhythmic picture, the scale passages begin to take odd turns, the dotted rhythms become obsessive and mount to dissonance as biting as any Mozart ever conceived. In the Allegro, whose softly forward-moving start does not lead us to expect the outbursts of energy soon to come, Mozart realizes much of what he has suggested in the opening Adagio, while the prevalence of brilliant violin scales provides an explicit link between the two sections of the movement.

andante con moto. The second movement, too, begins in deceptive charm and innocence. That is to say, the charm and innocence are real, but they are by no means all that Mozart gives us here. The final cadence of the long opening melody is strangely shadowed, and almost immediately an outburst in the minor mode suggests the presence of dark places to be explored. Here, too, dotted rhythms are insistently present, and the tension they build is heightened by the firm processions of slow and steady notes in the wind instruments and by the distance of Mozart’s harmonic voyages.

menuetto: allegretto. The magnificently sturdy minuet and its lyric trio are an oasis. Here, too, the sound of wind instruments is prominent, both in the band-style accompaniments in the minuet itself and in the trio’s melting clarinet solo.

allegro. The finale, on the other hand, with its syncopations, its probing of distant harmonies, its rowdy basses, its silences, is—from that first extravagantly long upbeat to the epigrammatic ending—Mozart at his most wildly and wittily inventive.

Instrumentation: flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36
Premiered: February 22, 1878

“Our symphony progresses,” Tchaikovsky wrote in late summer 1877. The other half of “our” was Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who had come into Tchaikovsky’s life some eight months before, in December 1876. She was a wealthy woman, recently widowed, tough, given to organizing things and people. She loved Tchaikovsky’s music to the point of obsession and made contact with her idol. Almost at once they found themselves embarked on a voluminous, exhaustive, intimate correspondence. And 500 rubles were moved every month from the vast Meck account into Tchaikovsky’s fragile one, bringing him years of blessed financial security.

an unusual friendship
Clearly, her feelings for Tchaikovsky and his music were on some level romantic, but she seems to have been unwilling to have that feeling transmuted into physical reality. She insisted that they must never meet, and with that liberating condition in effect, their mutually nourishing friendship, so strange and so understandable, lasted nearly 14 years. Being rich as well as neurotic, Mme. von Meck was doubly entitled to caprice, and in a maggoty moment she broke contact, seemingly without warning—at least with no warning Tchaikovsky understood. By 1890, when that happened, Tchaikovsky no longer needed her money, but he never got over the hurt of the sudden abandonment.

It was during the first year of his friendship with Mme. von Meck that he took the most foolish step of his life: he got married, succumbing to the advances of a former pupil of his. He tried to be as candid with her about his homosexuality as the manners and the permissible language of 1877 allowed, but she seems to have had no idea what he was talking about. They married, he fled, and with the massive support of relatives and friends he got his life back on track.

Tchaikovsky began the Fourth Symphony soon after Nadezhda Filaretovna’s arrival on the scene; he completed it in the aftermath of the catastrophic marriage. He realized at once the  significance of Mme. von Meck’s entrance into his life and knew that he wanted to dedicate his new symphony to her. He wrote to her on February 24, 1878, just two days after the premiere was conducted in Moscow by Nikolai Rubinstein: “In my heart of hearts I feel sure it is the best thing I have done so far.”

“things which arise in the heart”
At one point, Mme. von Meck asked Tchaikovsky what their symphony “was about.” Tchaikovsky shilly-shallied, explaining that the answer was to be found in the music itself and not in words about the music. Nonetheless, he did oblige at length with a “program” in which the opening fanfare is identified with “Fate, the decisive force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized, which watches jealously to see that our bliss and peace are not complete and unclouded, and which, like the sword of Damocles, is suspended over our heads and perpetually poisons our souls.”

Tchaikovsky had a rather more illuminating exchange about the Fourth Symphony with his friend the composer Sergei Taneyev. “Of course my symphony is program music, but it would be impossible to give the program in words. It would only appear ludicrous and raise a smile. But ought this not always to be the case with a symphony, the most lyrical of musical forms? Ought it not to express all those things for which words cannot be found but which nevertheless arise in the heart and cry out for expression?” He continued: “Please don’t imagine that I want to swagger before you with profound emotions and lofty ideas….In reality my work is a reflection of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I have not of course copied Beethoven’s musical content, only borrowed the central idea.”

the music: a great adventure
The Fourth Symphony is also among the great adventures and the great successes. It all has to do with harmonic design, with gravitational pull. In short, Tchaikovsky goes to surprising keys at surprising times.

andante sostenuto–moderato con anima. In the first movement, having emphatically set up F minor as a center of gravity in the introduction and the keening start of the Moderato, he declines to return to that key until this long movement is almost nine-tenths over. That moment is marked by the fourth appearance of the “fate” fanfare, and it is more powerful for the extreme delay.

Tchaikovsky sets up a network of harmonic reference across the entire symphony. To cite a grand example: “recapitulation” usually means a return to the original key as well as a return to all the themes. Tchaikovsky recapitulates the themes, all right, but he holds off bringing back the tonic key, F minor, until the coda; instead he sets the recapitulation in D minor, a key hitherto untouched. But the finale of the symphony is in F major, closely related to F minor by virtue of sharing the keynote F, but equally close to that surprising D minor.

andantino in modo di canzona. The burden of Tchaikovsky’s musical and extramusical arguments is in the large, brooding first movement with its latent—and not so latent—waltz content. What follows is picturesque support. The Andantino is a melancholy song introduced by the oboe, that most melancholic of wind instruments. Its impassioned climax is a reminder of the grieving phrases that dominate the first movement.

scherzo: pizzicato ostinato. In the Scherzo, Tchaikovsky was especially proud of his novel instrumental scheme: the perpetual pizzicato and the assignment of distinctive material to each group in the orchestra. Once the symphony was in circulation, he was annoyed because it was always the “cute” scherzo that made the biggest hit.

finale: allegro con fuoco. The principal tune of the Finale, also introduced with an odd harmonic obliqueness, is a folk song, There Stood a Little Birch. The “fate” fanfare intrudes once more, making a musical as well as a programmatic point, after which the symphony is free to rush to its emphatic conclusion. This irresistible Finale beats all records for the number of cymbal clashes per minute.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.