January 21-22, 2023
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Hélène Grimaud, piano
Weites Land (Open Land) "Music mit Brahms" for Orchestra (2013)
Concerto for Orchestra (2022) (World Premiere, SLSO Commission)
Hymn for the Hurting
Caccia no. 1
Music Box with Arietta
Ecco la Marcia? (Caccia no. 2)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, op. 15 (1854) Maestoso
Rondo; Allegro non troppo
Hélène Grimaud, piano
by Benjamin Pesetsky
Today’s concert is anchored by Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, his first orchestral piece, which took six years to compose as he grappled with the prediction he would be an heir to Ludwig van Beethoven. Detlev Glanert’s Weites Land also deals with the influence of a past composer, borrowing from Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and using its distinctive two-note motif in a contemporary idiom. In the middle we have the world premiere of Kevin Puts’s Concerto for Orchestra, an SLSO commission that references 14th-century hunting music (also a theme prominent in Brahms), as well as a W. A. Mozart opera and a recent poem by Amanda Gorman.
Weites Land (Open Land)
Born 1960, Hamburg, Germany
Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E Minor has an indelible opening with sighing strings subtly offset by the winds. After just two notes—a falling major third—you know it couldn’t be any other piece. Or could it be?
In 2013, composer Detlev Glanert took Brahms’ opening as the starting point for his own work, Weites Land (Open Land). The piece is subtitled “Musik mit Brahms” (Music with Brahms), and it reworks some of his motivic ideas, refracting them through a modern, though not avant-garde, sensibility. Brahms’ arching lyricism becomes lurchingly uncertain, deconstructed, punctuated, and reconstituted into disorienting cinematic writing reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann.
Like Brahms, Glanert was born in Hamburg. “There is much Northern Germany in [the piece],” he said, “the Brahmsian smell of marshland and wide skies.” After working through a nightmarish episode, the piece opens up and ultimately settles into a hypnotic, birdlike transformation of Brahms’ theme.
Since at least the early 19th century, many German and Austrian composers have struggled with the music of their predecessors and been anxious about their place in the broader Viennese tradition. This became especially acute for members of the Postwar generation, who largely tried to make a clean break from the past, eschewing tonality and echoes of Romanticism. More recently, however, some have drawn from older music, occasionally quoting it derisively—as if to make it less imposing—or, like Glanert, out of fondness and genuine interest in its continuation
First performance: September 2, 2014, by the Oldenburgisches Staatsorchester in Oldenburg, Germany, Roger Epple conducting
First SLSO performance: These concerts
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
Approximate duration: 11 minutes
Concerto for Orchestra
Born in St. Louis, Kevin Puts won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his opera Silent Night, and his music has been commissioned and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, Opera Philadelphia, Minnesota Opera, and Yo-Yo Ma. Just last November his fourth opera, The Hours, had its staged premiere at the Metropolitan Opera with Renée Fleming, Kelli O’Hara, and Joyce DiDonato. He teaches composition at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and is currently the director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute.
A concerto is usually a piece for a solo instrument accompanied by orchestra, but in the mid- 20th-century, Paul Hindemith, Zoltán Kodály, and most famously Béla Bartók wrote so-called “Concertos for Orchestra,” which were virtuosic pieces for the orchestra as a whole. Witold Lutosławski, Joan Tower, and Jennifer Higdon, among others, followed in their footsteps, creating a modern genre. This kind of concerto, though, also harkens back the Baroque concerto grosso, which was scored for an ensemble of equals (think of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos), and even before that, the word simply meant “to harmonize” or “a combination of voices or sounds”—an idea that fits almost any kind of music.
The Composer Speaks
Puts’s Concerto for Orchestra is an SLSO commission heard this week in its world premiere. Puts writes:
"The Concerto for Orchestra grew out of my friendship with conductor Stéphane Denève. It is dedicated both to him and to the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, for whom I have developed great admiration since their first performance of my music in 2004.
The creative entry point for me was the discovery of young Amanda Gorman’s beautiful poem “Hymn for the Hurting” written in response to the horrific school shooting—an occurrence now routine in our country—in Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022. The music at the concerto’s opening—recalled briefly at various places throughout the piece—is my immediate musical reaction to it.
The title of the second movement, “Caccia,” is a reference to the 14th-century musical form depicting the hunt or the chase and flows directly from this opening hymn. It continues the opening movement’s focus on the various groups of instruments in the orchestra beginning with the oboes and punctuated at all times by the orchestra’s three percussionists who play identical collections of six drums. “Music Box with Arietta,” by contrast, explores the gentler side of the percussion section, led here by cascading gestures played by the harp and celesta, giving way to a lyrical counterpoint of woodwinds.
“Toccata” is a quick exchange between the strings, the winds, and the percussion. Eventually the brass section asserts itself, cutting across these exchanges with brash, angular lines. A brief refrain of the opening movement leads to a gentle “Siciliana” featuring nearly all instruments in the orchestra in lyrical ways, perhaps most prominently the piano. Another refrain introduces the final movement, another “Caccia,” this one containing a brief quotation from the Mozart opera which inspired it."
Gorman’s poem appeared in the New York Times on May 27, 2022, and can be found on the newspaper’s website. It reads in part:
Maybe everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed & strange.
But only when everything hurts
May everything change.
First performance: These concerts
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celesta, strings
Approximate duration: 25 minutes
Piano Concerto No. 1
If you think Beethoven looms large over classical music today, imagine being a young composer in 1853—just 26 years after his death—and being declared his second coming. Robert Schumann, in fact, used a mythological rather than Biblical metaphor when he wrote that a new artist would “spring like Minerva, fully armed, from the head of Jupiter” (Jupiter being Beethoven). Then he took a left turn into the prosaic: “His name is Johannes Brahms, and he comes from Hamburg.”
This expectation burdened Brahms for two decades until he completed his tumultuous First Symphony in 1876, followed by the carefree Second a year later. But his very first orchestra piece was the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, written between 1854–59. The first bars plainly echo the opening jolts Beethoven often employed—but soon a different voice emerges, with all the slippery rhythms, hunting-horn calls, lilting waltzes, and rising and falling sequences that became Brahmsian signatures. You can sense a bit of tension between the kind of music Brahms thought he was supposed to write and the music he really wanted to write—something he resolved in his later works. But Schumann was basically right: here he is, Johannes Brahms, fully formed. The rest was a matter of shedding unneeded elements, not of finding his identity.
A Long Development
None of that means that the First Piano Concerto came out fluently. It actually began as a sonata for two pianos, then became a symphony (Brahms often began composing for one ensemble before changing to another), and altogether went through a six-year genesis. During that time, Robert Schumann attempted suicide and was committed to an asylum where he died in 1856. Brahms’ ambiguous relationship with his widow, the pianist Clara Schumann, grew more complicated, and he mysteriously broke off his engagement to the soprano Agathe von Siebold.
Brahms’ work on the concerto is very well documented in letters with his friend Brahms' work on the concerto is very well documented in letters with his friend Joseph Joachim, the violinist and conductor, who replied with revisions and advice. “Here comes the Rondo for the 2nd time,” Brahms wrote while working on the last movement in April 1857. “I’m asking for the same as last time, your very exacting appraisal.” He went on with a flurry of questions: “wouldn’t it be better for the winds to take over the melody?” “Wouldn’t it also be better to have eighth-note motion?” “I suppose we had better do away with the piccolo, it has only 8 notes in the first movement after all?” (Sure enough, there is no piccolo in the final piece.) The following year, Joachim practically had to tear the manuscript from Brahms’ hands. “I beg you, for God’s sake, let the copyist get at your Concerto at last: when shall I finally hear it?”
Indeed, Brahms wrote the piece without a commission or any promise of a premiere. With the support of Joachim and Clara Schumann, he set out to find an orchestra—and in those days, even famous ensembles would sometimes agree to read a new piece on very little notice. “Do you have any prospects for trying it out in Hamburg?” Joachim asked. “If not, let’s stay with my suggestion of the Hanover Orchestra…I am now on tolerable terms with the musicians…and the gentlemen will do us the favor of giving it a proper playing in a rehearsal.” The reading went ahead on March 30, 1858, with Brahms at the keyboard, Joachim on the podium, and Clara in attendance. She wrote:
The rehearsal came off splendidly today; although there was time only to play through the concerto once, it went almost without a stumble, and even ignited some of the musicians…Almost everything sounds so beautiful, much of it even more beautiful than Johannes himself thought or hoped for. The whole thing is wondrous, so rich, deeply felt, and such unity withal. Johannes was blissful, and for pure joy played the last movement prestissimo.
The public premiere took place with the same orchestra the following year, on January 22 (coincidentally the same date as this Sunday’s concert), but was received indifferently. Then five days later Brahms repeated it in Leipzig with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. “My concerto here has been a brilliant and decisive—flop,” he reported. “I am plainly experimenting and still groping. But the hissing was surely too much?”
But when he performed it at home in Hamburg that March, the third time was the charm. “Thursday evening came off well and fine…the concert was enormously well attended. Hundreds of people were unable to get tickets,” he wrote. Joachim concurred: “Johannes’s concerto went really well, the musicians, as well as audiences were decidedly for it.”
Set in three sprawling movements, this is a symphony-sized concerto with subtle thematic links especially between the first two movements. On a draft of the second movement, Brahms scribbled: “Benedictus qui venit in nominee Domini” (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord), and he separately described it as a “tender portrait” of Clara. The finale is a Rondo—a favorite form of Beethoven’s in which a recurring theme contrasts with varied episodes.
Hélène Grimaud offered her take when she recorded the concerto live for Deutsche Grammophon in 2012:
"The whole piece is driven by Brahms’ most intimate thoughts and emotions: the first movement is a portrait of the tormented life of his friend and champion, Robert Schumann; the second, dedicated to Brahms’ impossible love, Clara Schumann, is like a prayer; the third movement is full of rhythm and vigor—a kind of resurrection. To perform this concerto is to be directly absorbed into the drama of the young Brahms’ life."
First performance: January 22, 1859, by the Hanover Court Orchestra, Joseph Joachim conducting, with the composer as soloist
First SLSO performance: December 19, 1913, Max Zach conducting, with Harold Bauer as soloist
Most recent SLSO performance: September, 14, 2014, David Robertson conducting, with Yefim Bronfman as soloist
Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate duration: 44 minutes
Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.