Performance Friday, April 27, 2012 | 8 PM

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Hear one of the most distinctive conductors of our generation lead one of America’s most distinctive orchestras in the world’s most distinctive hall. Sir Simon Rattle takes the podium to lead The Philadelphia Orchestra in Brahms’s Symphony No. 3—which he recorded to great acclaim in 2009 with the Berliner Philharmoniker—as well as Schumann’s majestic Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish, and Webern’s quicksilver Six Pieces, Op. 6.
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The Program


Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90

The shortest of Brahms's four symphonies, the Third is nonetheless one of the composer's subtlest and most complex works. It was a product of the summer of 1883, and followed closely on the heels of such consummate pieces as the C-Major Piano Trio and the F-Major String Quintet. Having intended to spend the summer at Bad Ischl (a posh spa near Salzburg), Brahms was suddenly struck with ideas for a symphony while traveling in the Rhineland; he decided to forgo the baths and remain in the region to work through these ideas. Taking rooms in picturesque Wiesbaden, he composed the F-Major Symphony in a matter of weeks, completing and scoring it by the fall. Hans Richter conducted the premiere in Vienna on December 2, 1883, with the Vienna Philharmonic.

A Slow and Laborious Process

Six years had separated this work from its predecessor, the Second Symphony in D major, composed in 1877, shortly after the laborious completion of the First. To be sure, Brahms had continued to hone his skills in the symphonic realm during this hiatus, with such works as the Violin Concerto, the Second Piano Concerto, and the Academic Festival and Tragic overtures. But writing a symphony was a different challenge altogether: Ever since Beethoven had "reinvented" the symphonic idea, the act of writing a symphony had become, for many, a composer's most perilous task. ("You don't know what it's like to be dogged by his footsteps," Brahms had said to the conductor Hermann Levi during the slow and painful progress toward his own First Symphony.)

In 1881, Brahms had befriended conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow, who had offered him the use of the famous Meiningen Court Orchestra as a sort of "rehearsal ensemble." (Bülow was also to become one of the chief proponents of Brahms's music.) A concert of his own works performed by the orchestra in November made a deep impression on the composer-and the ensemble's precision and sonority might well have played a role in inspiring him to reenter the daunting realm of the symphony.

There is some evidence, too, that Brahms did not "start from scratch" when working on the Third during the summer of 1883. For the middle two movements of the symphony, he might have drawn upon music already sketched in 1881 as incidental music for Goethe's Faust. (Several commentators have claimed to hear echoes of Schumann here, since Brahms would have been aware of his mentor's own Faust music.) In any case, the composer has integrated these movements into a symphonic conception of almost unprecedented unity. Some have gone so far as to characterize the Third in terms of a cyclic plan like that of Liszt's piano concertos, in which an entire multi-movement work is conceived as a single continuous structure.

Indeed, the tonal plan of the Third Symphony is unusual in many respects-such as the use of C major and C minor, respectively, for the two inner movements-and the return of initial thematic material at the end of the work is only one of many means by which the four movements are unified. "What a harmonious mood pervades the whole!" said Clara Schumann of the Third, immediately perceiving this sense of organicism. "All the movements seem to be of one piece, one beat of the heart, each one a jewel."

A Closer Listen

Much has been written of the rising motto that opens the Symphony's Allegro con brio, which forms an essential building block for the entire piece. The signature of F-A-flat-F is heard not only in the massive wind chords that begin the piece, but also in the bass line that accompanies the subsequent string theme. The A-natural of the main theme's outline of F-A-F (often said to be an anagram for the composer's "personal motto" Frei aber Froh, "Free but Happy") casts itself in immediate relief with the A-flat of the bass, creating a major-minor tension whose spring-like coil unwinds itself throughout the course of the symphony. And if the development section seems too concise for the material presented in the exposition, Brahms makes up for this by extending the movement through a substantial coda that elaborates the essential descending motif.

The second movement is an uncomplicated but darkly shaded Andante, containing a hymn-like first theme and a pointedly contrasted second subject (heard in the clarinets and bassoons) that is not repeated in the movement's recapitulation-but instead reappears at the climax of the final movement, by way of "straightening out" (in musicologist David Brodbeck's formulation) the A / A-flat conflict. The third movement (Poco allegretto), neither scherzo nor minuet, reminds us somewhat of the composer's intermezzos for piano-and features one of his most securely passionate melodies. The stormy finale (Allegro-Un poco sostenuto), which begins squarely in F minor, serves as a genuine culmination, and its tranquil coda in F major heightens the sense of relief-indeed of the "triumph" of A over A-flat, and of resolution over tension.

Paul J. Horsley

Program notes © 2012. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.


Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (revised version, 1928)

"I don't understand how it has not occurred to anyone yet that such noisemaking was a breach of the law. A ticket to a concert only extends the right to hear the concert-not to disrupt the proceedings. A ticket-purchaser is a guest who acquires the right to listen: nothing else." So Arnold Schoenberg fumed to a journalist a few days after the most infamous concert of his career: the "Scandal Concert" of March 31, 1913, in Vienna's hallowed Musikverein that ended with brawling and police trying to restore order.

The occasion was to have provided Schoenberg with an opportunity to conduct his own music, as well as works by colleagues and students. The program opened with Anton Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, and snickering among some of the audience began during these aphoristic pieces. There followed four orchestral songs by Alexander Zemlinsky (who had been Schoenberg's teacher), and then Schoenberg's own Chamber Symphony, Op. 9. Pandemonium broke out during two songs from Alban Berg's Five Orchestral Songs on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg, stopping the concert and forcing the cancellation of the concluding work, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.

Breaking New Ground

While these leading Viennese progressive composers had many supporters among the audience that evening, a small and apparently coordinated faction wanted to cause trouble. One newspaper reported that "things could not have been worse at a turbulent meeting of voters in a proletarian districtthe contrasting views of the opposing parties could not have been more brutally expressed." Various things upset the opponents, including the advanced harmonic vocabulary of this music that signaled a breakdown of traditional tonality and heralded the new atonal style (or, as Schoenberg preferred to call it, "pantonal" style). Also baffling was the extreme brevity of some of the compositions, beginning with the haunting Webern pieces. Webern had written them nearly four years earlier, during the summer of 1909, using as a model his teacher's recent Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, and offering the dedication: "To Arnold Schoenberg, my teacher and friend, with greatest love."

Webern acknowledged the deeply personal nature of the Six Pieces, which he connected with the death of his beloved mother in 1906. As he wrote to Schoenberg not long before the premiere:

The first piece is to express my frame of mind when I was still in Vienna, already sensing the disaster, yet always maintaining the hope that I would find my mother still alive. It was a beautiful day-for a minute I believed quite firmly that nothing had happened. Only during the train ride to Carinthiait was on the afternoon of the same daydid I learn the truth. The third piece conveys the impression of the fragrance of the Erica [a kind of brilliant flowering heather], which I gathered at a spot in the forest very meaningful to me and then laid on the bier. The fourth piece I later entitled marciafunebre. Even today I do not understand my feelings as I walked behind the coffin to the cemetery.

Such revealing personal comments may seem surprising from a composer typically identified with a cold precision and analytic detail, but the later 20th-century reading of Webern often distorts the original context of his early Expressionist scores.

Around the time of the notorious 1913 premiere (less than two months before the scandalous unveiling of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in Paris), Webern published the work at his own expense in a limited edition of 200 copies with the opus number 4. He revised the pieces in 1928, writing to Schoenberg: "Everything extravagant is now cut (alto flute, six trombones for a few measures, and so on)." In a later program note he said that the new version "is to be considered the only valid one."

A Closer Listen

Despite the large orchestra used in both the 1909 and 1928 scorings, Webern's deployment of the forces is often intimate and pointillisticevery note matters, as in the opening piece with its wide range of instrumental colors. The second piece moves at the swiftest speed and is terrifying at the end. The third is the softest and briefest, just 11 measures long during which the meter changes eight times. Percussion instruments come to the fore in the funeral march, the longest movement, which gradually builds to great climax. Brief allusions to a more popular style peak out in the fifth piece, and the sixth has a more lyrical character before eventually dying away with the celesta and harp. Webern provided the following explanation of the pieces for a German music festival in 1933:

They represent short song forms, in that they are mostly tripartite. A thematic connection does not exist, not even within the individual pieces. I consciously avoided such connections, since I aimed at an always changing mode of expression. To describe briefly the character of the pieces (they are of a purely lyrical nature): the first expresses the expectation of a catastrophe; the second the certainty of its fulfillment; the third the most tender contrast; it is, so to speak, the introduction to the fourth, a funeral march; five and six are epilogue: remembrance and resignation.

Christopher H. Gibbs


Program notes © 2012. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association. 

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 97, "Rhenish"

In one of his most celebrated reviews, Schumann extolled Franz Schubert's "Great" Symphony in C majorat the time a virtually unknown masterpiecefor its "heavenly length" and its independence from the long shadow of Beethoven. Speculating on the external factors that may have influenced its creation, he wrote: "Put together the Danube, the spire of St. Stephen's Cathedral, and the distant Alps-the whole terrain bathed in a delicate Catholic incense-and you have a fair picture of Vienna … On hearing Schubert's Symphony, with its scintillating romantic life, the city hovers before me now with greater clarity than ever before, and I can easily understand how such a work arose from precisely these surroundings."

Schumann in Düsseldorf and Cologne

As is so often the case with Schumann's musical criticism, what he said about the works of others can be applied, with a minimum of tweaking, to his own music as well. Substitute the Rhine for the Danube, Cologne Cathedral for St. Stephen's, and the Siebengebirge (a mountain range in northwestern Germany) for the Alps; retain a pinch of incense, and the result is an accurate description of the atmosphere that called forth Schumann's Symphony in E-flat Major, commonly known as the "Rhenish." (Although published as his Symphony "No. 3," this was in fact Schumann's fourth such effort, its numbering a consequence of his decision to delay the publication of-and thoroughly revise-his earlier symphony in D minor.) While the nickname "Rhenish" appears nowhere in the original sources for the symphony, Schumann would have almost surely approved of it-which brings us to his arrival in Düsseldorf, capital of the Prussian Rhine Province, in September 1850, with his wife, Clara, and their five children in tow.

With a little coaxing from Ferdinand Hiller, Schumann agreed to assume his colleague's position as municipal music director in Düsseldorf, in which capacity he was responsible for the artistic oversight of the city's (mainly) amateur orchestra and choral society. Schumann's trepidation about taking on the post was understandable; his good friend Mendelssohn held the same job in the 1830s and passed along less than glowing reports: "At best, the members of the orchestra all enter separately, in the quiet passages the flute plays sharp, not a single Düsseldorfer can play a triplet evenly, every allegro ends twice as fast as it began, and the oboe plays E-naturals when the signature includes E-flat."

Although Schumann found it difficult to compose during his first weeks in Düsseldorf, complaining that the "dreadful street racket" deprived him of much-needed sleep, he soon regained his creative stride. An important catalyst in this process was provided by a daylong pleasure trip in late September 1850 to nearby Cologne. In the month following his return to Düsseldorf, he drafted the brooding but intensely expressive Cello Concerto, and began sketching a symphony in E-flat. His labors on what would become the "Rhenish," however, were interrupted by a second trip to Cologne, with Clara, and another visit to the landmark that had so profoundly impressed him during his earlier excursion: the city's magnificent Gothic Cathedral. By early December, the new symphony was complete.

A Slice of Rhenish Life

Schumann himself acknowledged the decisive impact of the Rhenish milieu on the symphony's genesis. Writing to the publisher Simrock in March 1851, he observed that his "most recent symphony … here and there reflects a bit of local color." Similarly, he told his concertmaster (and later, biographer) Wilhelm Wasielewski of his attempt to incorporate "folkish and popular elements" in the new work. Indeed, the symphony's generally high-spirited mood takes a more somber turn only in the penultimate, fourth movement, which, according to the designation on the autograph score, was to be rendered "In the character of an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony."

Most tantalizing of all, however, is a reference Schumann once made to a "slip of paper" outlining the "poetic content of the symphony" and intended for distribution at a performance of the work in Cologne on February 25, 1851. Unfortunately, Schumann's programmatic sketch for the "Rhenish" Symphony does not survive, but its general contents can be inferred from an anonymous review of the highly successful Düsseldorf premiere on February 6, 1851. (A member of Schumann's inner circle is supposed to have leaked the composer's poetic outline to the press.) According to the review, Schumann's latest symphony depicted "a slice of Rhenish life." While the first movement "arouses joyful expectations," the second "paints a portrait of easy-going life on the Rhine," conjuring up images of "pleasant boat-rides past vine-clad hills." In the third movement, "the composer, lost in reflection, rests his head on the window of an old castle," and in the fourth, "we see Gothic cathedrals, processions, and stately figures in the choir loft." Finally, "spirited tones from the previous movements intertwine" in the finale as "everyone rushes outdoors to enjoy a merry evening of reminiscence" on the day's activities. Though such descriptions are apt to strike us as naïve, in Schumann's day they served a useful purpose, helping an audience to find its bearings in the unfamiliar territory of a new work, and often, as in this case, identifying the chief markers in the work's expressive path.

A Closer Listen

Schumann establishes the celebratory tone of the "Rhenish" Symphony in the very opening bars of the first movement (Lebhaft) with a fanfare-like theme in the strings and upper winds. Supported by a propulsive accompaniment, this idea recurs in a multiplicity of guises, some rhythmically animated, others in a more gentle vein. The second (Sehr mässig) and third (Nicht schnell) movements together comprise a contrasting pair of intermezzos, the former dominated by a heavily accented relative of the waltz (or Ländler), the latter a series of dreamy ruminations on three themes, each associated with its own instrumental group: clarinets, violins, and lower strings.

The fourth movement and finale also complement one another through contrast. Cast in the dusky key of E-flat minor, the fourth movement (Feierlich) opens with the dignified strains of a chorale-like melody intoned by the trombone choir. Schumann treats this phrase like an archaic cantus firmus, allowing it to migrate from one instrumental family to the next and surrounding it with a dense tapestry of countermelodies. Solemn pageantry gives way to communal rejoicing in the last movement (Lebhaft). Initiated by a jaunty dance theme in duple time, the finale subsequently invokes many of the thematic highlights of the preceding movements, while at the same time casting them in a new light. In due course, a rollicking tune breaks through in the horns, and the previously doleful chorale melody reappears, transformed into a jubilant hymn.

John Daverio


Program notes © 2012. All rights reserved. Program notes may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

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