Subscription Concert No.837 C Series

Brahms:Symphony No.3 in F major, op.90

Ⅰ Allegro con brio

Ⅱ Andante

Ⅲ Poco allegretto

Ⅳ Allegro

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

Brahms began working on his Third Symphony in 1882. Most of the work was done between May and October of the following year. When completed, six years had passed since he had presented his Second Symphony to the world, and music lovers across Europe were eager to hear the latest symphony from an acknowledged master of the form. The premiere went to Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic (who had also premiered the Second Symphony) on December 2, 1883. Brahms received an initial fee equivalent to U.S. $9,000 upon publication, a princely sum in those days.

The symphony opens with a motto that will dominate not only the first movement but the entire symphony. The rising sequence of notes F - A-flat - F functions as a kind of musical genetic code that will determine the nature of all that follows. It will be heard innumerable times throughout the work, often transposed, sometimes prominently by itself, sometimes submerged in an inner voice, or forming part of a longer line. The movement’s urgent, plunging first theme is offset by one of contrasting nature - genial, lyrical, smiling - played first by the solo clarinet, then by violas and oboe. The development section, though brief, manages to incorporate nearly every melodic idea from the exposition at least once.

The Menuet is rhythmically incisive and marked by harmonic boldness and well-defined textural and dynamic contrasts. The contrasting Trio section is pastoral and reposed.

The two inner movements are distinguished by greater lyricism, introspective melancholy and subdued emotions. The simple but sublimely beautiful opening theme of the second movement, music of pastoral loveliness, is written in four-part harmony, much like a Bach chorale. Clearly audible at the end of the phrase is the now-familiar motto. Clarinets and bassoons are the featured instruments, as they are for the second subject - a plaintive, nostalgic, gently rocking theme that will play a major role in the finale as well.

A lyrically flowing theme of autumnal beauty and infinite yearning sung by the cellos opens the third movement. Not only is this theme of unusual length, but it repeats and develops continuously, passing through other sections of the orchestra in a seamless flow. Eventually it pauses to allow a gracefully lilting new idea to be presented by the woodwinds, which introduces the second part of the movement. The first theme then resumes in the warm tones of the horn, then the poignant oboe, and finally violins soaring sweetly in their uppermost register.

The finale is perhaps the symphony’s most fascinating movement. It begins with darkly mysterious murmurings, first in the strings, then the woodwinds. We catch a brief reference to the second theme from the second movement, then a sudden violent outburst from the full orchestra. More outbursts follow. The mood has been unsettled, even menacing, in the key of F minor, but suddenly, with natural ease, the secret, the music broadens out into a grandly heroic, soaring theme in C major for cellos and horn. A third theme follows for full orchestra in C minor - strongly rhythmic, granitic in its towering strength. Though not long in terms of minutes and seconds, the movement propels the listener through a great drama of elemental forces.

The struggle and turmoil at last subside. A sense of deep peace settles over the musical landscape, “like a rainbow after a thunderstorm” (Karl Geiringer). The extended coda grows ever more autumnal in hue and nostalgic in mood as it develops the theme brought back from the second movement in warmly glowing sonorities. The three-note motto makes its final appearances, now in a mood of infinite tenderness and resignation, first by the oboe, then by the horn, and finally, as if setting a seal of benediction on the symphony, by the flute.

Suk:The Ripening, op.34

Josef Suk: Born in Křečovice, Bohemia (today Czech Republic) January 4, 1874; died in Benešov (near Prague), May 29, 1935

Suk’s early musical training was with his father, also named Josef. Several other teachers contributed to his education, but it was Dvořák from whom he derived the greatest inspiration. Suk became Dvořák’s star pupil, he followed in his teacher’s footsteps stylistically (at least for a while) and married his daughter Otilie in 1898. Suk seemed destined for a lifetime of happiness until both his wife and father-in-law died within fourteen months of each other in 1904 (Dvořák) and 1905 (Otilie). Suk was devastated, and poured out his grief in one of his finest compositions, the Second Symphony, subtitled Asrael after the angel of death. Other important works include two string quartets, the orchestral Fairy Tale and the Serenade for Strings, probably his best-known work, composed at the age of eighteen. Suk was also a professional violinist, and played second violin in the quartet he helped found in 1891. The Czech Quartet would give more than 4,000 concerts over a span of more than four decades, with Suk the only founding member to remain until the quartet disbanded in 1933. The composer’s grandson Josef (1929-2011) was also a violinist, one with an international reputation as a soloist, who continued the family line of Josef Suks who played violin.

Instrumental music, especially for orchestra, was Suk’s specialty, as is well demonstrated in the work on this program, The Czech title is Zrání, which translates into English as ripening, or maturity. The composition is derived from the eponymous poem by Suk’s contemporary, Antonín Sova (1864-1928). The forty-minute tone poem was first performed in Prague on October 30, 1918, conducted by Václav Talich. Suk could not have known in advance that just two days earlier, the Republic of Czechoslovakia would officially come into being, serving as an apt, timely metaphor for the “ripening” or “maturity” of the history of the Czech people, who finally had thrown off the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now had their own country with clearly drawn national boundaries. Sova’s poem is oblique and not easy to understand, but the notion of growth, death, and life cycles are embedded in its imagery – the narrative of a man’s “harvest of human experience,” as one commentator put it, and his coming to maturity. The music unfolds continuously in a series of short episodes, many of which grow out of the material presented in the opening bars. The listener encounters a galaxy of moods and emotions, which are portrayed through the masterly use of a large orchestra, a huge color palette, and an intensely expressive musical language.

Karel Šrom, composer and Suk authority, understands the score as comprising six titled sections. As these flow one into another without pause, a few signposts may help the listener find his or her way: (1) Recognition of a mature person (slow introduction); (2) Youth (strongly rhythmic, beginning in the solo oboe, but soon followed by great bursts of sound from the full orchestra; (3) Love (beginning quietly after the solo violin completes its rising scale, with exquisitely delicate orchestration; (4) Fate (set as a scherzo, beginning quietly in the lower range instruments; (5) Resolve (a demonic fugue) – this is the longest section of the score; near the end, the orchestra pours forth great tidal waves of sound, signifying the emotional climax of the whole work; (6) Self -Moderation(entrance of the wordless women’s choir), which brings Ripening to a serene conclusion.

While Šrom’s titles may seem somewhat arbitrary, these words of program annotator Eckhardt van den Hoogen serve as an apt complement: “Everything has become metamorphosis, is in constant motion, and is interrelated in all its details. [The Ripening is] “a great work absorbing light prismatically like a finely cut precious gem and kindling each observer in different ways with its fire.”

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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