Subscription Concert No.844 A Series

Dvořák: “Othello”, Overture, op.93 B.174

Antonín Dvořák: Born in Mühlhausen, Bohemia (today Nelahozeves, Czech Republic), September 8, 1841; died in Prague, May 1, 1904

The story of Othello has inspired numerous composers over the years, including Rossini, Verdi, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Joachim Raff, David Amram, Virgil Thomson and Boris Blacher. Dvořák's interpretation of the theme of love and jealousy took the form of a concert overture, conceived as the final portion of a three-part cycle of orchestral pieces collectively entitled Nature, Life and Love. Linked by thematic, emotional and philosophical content, the three overtures were composed in 1891 and first performed on April 28, 1892 at Dvořák's farewell concert in Prague before his departure for the New World. The composer later separated the three works, designating them In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello.

The Othello Overture does not follow Shakespeare’s play or any other precise program, but rather, in a sequence of varying moods, seeks to give musical expression to the interplay of passion, bliss, suspicion, jealousy and fury. The highly prominent Jealousy motif, marked by four descending notes of a scale, is first encountered within a minute of the beginning of the overture’s slow introduction. The Nature theme (heard in all three overtures,) is intoned three times in close succession by woodwinds shortly thereafter against a background of strings and harp, and is heard periodically in varied guises elsewhere. A complex web of additional themes, mostly lyrical, is woven into the fifteen-minute work, one of the most dramatic and substantial of Dvořák’s overtures.

Martinů: Symphony No.2, H.295

Ⅰ Allegro moderato
Ⅱ Andante moderato
Ⅲ Poco allegro
Ⅳ Allegro

Bohuslav Martinů: Born in Polička, eastern Bohemia (today in the Czech Republic), December 8, 1890; died in Liestal, Switzerland, August 28, 1959

Bohuslav Martinů ranks as the leading Czech symphonist of the early twentieth century. Like Brahms, his symphonies all derive from his mature years and, hence, are masterpieces of assured craftsmanship and musical argument. He was born in the picturesque little market town of Polička in eastern Bohemia, a region “steeped in folk art, soaked in moods and above all in local traditions,” in the words of biographer Brian Large. His exact birthplace was at the top of a church tower – 193 steps above the ground, to be precise – where his father, a cobbler, had taken up quarters in a single room flat as keeper of the tower and the town’s fire warden. Martinů began composing early (at the age of ten), attended the Prague Conservatory, played violin in the Czech Philharmonic for several years, and then went to Paris in 1923 to study composition with Albert Roussel. Martinů was driven by Nazi oppression to settle in America and never returned to his native country. He arrived in New York in 1941 and found himself disoriented, unknown, and barely able to cope with the new language. Salvation came in the person of conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who offered Martinů a commission for a major work to be premiered by the Boston Symphony. This became Martinů’s First Symphony. Such was its success that he turned out four symphonies more in as many years, and then a Sixth some time later.

The Second was commissioned by Czech emigrés living in Cleveland. The Cleveland Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf gave the first performance on October 28, 1943, the 25th anniversary to the day of the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic after World War I.

Like Brahms’s Second Symphony, also on tonight’s program, Martinů’s Second is a more relaxed and lyrical work than his First. Both composers were well into middle age when they brought forth their First Symphonies (Brahms was 43, Martinů 52), but their Seconds followed quickly, and proved to be equally accomplished but totally different in character – more pastoral and idyllic than grand and epic.

The first movement contains elements of sonata form, but the listener’s attention is drawn less to attempting to discover these elements than to the crisply articulated rhythms, the almost continuous development of thematic material exposed in the opening theme for violins, and cleanly etched scoring that includes a prominent role for the piano, an instrument rarely found in symphonies. The second movement exudes a gentle, pastoral charm underscored by the lilting rhythmic pattern reminiscent of the siciliano (a dance of Sicilian origin traditionally associated with bucolic scenes), while the orchestration focuses alternately on the wind choir and lush scoring for strings. The third movement may be brief (not even five minutes), but it packs a wallop – a virtuosic romp for full orchestra (heavily fortified by the piano) set to the march rhythm, brilliantly scored and heavily infused with the spirit of a grand public event. The finale too is short and highly spirited, bringing to mind the festive ebullience with which so many symphonies of Haydn and Mozart ended.

Brahms: Symphony No.2 in D major, op.73

Ⅰ Allegro non troppo
Ⅱ Adagio non troppo
Ⅲ Allegretto grazioso (Quasi Andantino)
Ⅳ Allegro con spirito

Johannes Brahms: Born in Hamburg, May 7, 1833; died in Vienna, April 3, 1897

After the massiveness and severity of Brahms’s First Symphony, the idyllic, pastoral Second, with its wealth of singable melodies, made a strong popular appeal. Whereas Brahms had toiled for twenty years over his First Symphony, the Second was written in the space of a mere three months during the summer of 1877 – one year before and in the same place (the Wörthersee) as the Violin Concerto. The warmly lyric and relaxed character, the gracefulness of the many melodies, and a positive outlook are all attributable in some measure to the charms of the south Austrian countryside. In its pastoral quality, many listeners find a parallel to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony which, like Brahms’s Second, followed a grim, darkly serious and heroic symphony in C minor.

Brahms completed the symphony at Lichtenthal near Baden-Baden in October. The first performance was given by the Vienna Philharmonic, led by Hans Richter, on December 30, 1877. Although the Viennese liked it, the symphony rode a rocky course towards critical acceptance in other cities. One smiles in amusement to read that, for example, in Leipzig, which first heard the symphony in 1880, a critic felt it was “not distinguished by inventive power.” Two years later, in Boston, the Post called it “coldblooded” and the Traveler proclaimed that the symphony lacked “a sense of the beautiful.” So much for the perspicacity of critics!

Right from the very opening notes, the listener is caught up in the symphony’s gentle, relaxed mood. The first two bars also provide the basic motivic germs of the entire movement and for much of the material in the other movements as well. The three-note motto in the cellos and basses and the following arpeggio in the horns are heard repeatedly in many guises ̶ slowed down, speeded up, played upside down, buried in the texture or prominently featured. All the principal themes of the movement are derived from these motto-motifs. The second theme is one of Brahms’s most glorious, sung by violas and cellos as only these instruments can sing.

The second movement is of darker hue and more profound sentiment. The form is basically an A-B-A structure, with a more agitated central section in the minor mode. Throughout the movement, the listener’s attention is continually focused as much on the densely saturated textures as on the themes.

The genial, relaxed character returns in the third movement, not a scherzo as Beethoven would have written, but a sort of lyrical intermezzo, harking back to the gracious eighteenth-century minuet. The forces are reduced to almost chamber orchestra levels, and woodwinds are often the featured sonority. This movement proved so popular at its premiere that it had to be repeated.

The forthright and optimistic finale derives heavily from the melodies of the first movement, though as usual with Brahms, this material is so cleverly disguised that one scarcely notices. The coda calls for special comment. Brahms usually made scant use of trombones and tuba, writing for these instruments with skill but also with reserve. Yet from time to time he calls upon them for stunning effects, and one such moment occurs in the Second Symphony’s coda, a passage as thrilling for audiences as it is for trombonists, every one of whom looks forward to a role in bringing this joyous work to its blazing D-major conclusion.

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

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