March 19, 2023
Stephanie Childress, conductor
Ayman Amerin, violin
Allegro non troppo from Violin Concerto in D major, op.77 (1919)
Ayman Amerin, violin
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, op. 47 (1937)
Allegro non troppo
Born 1833, Hamburg Germany
Died 1897, Vienna, Austria
Of the many contradictions that marked Johannes Brahms’ personality, none seems more striking or significant to the development of his music than his simultaneous need for solitude and, on the other hand, the affection, admiration, and stimulation provided by a devoted circle of friends. The composer’s asocial behavior has been amply documented. He was withdrawn and often rude toward those who tried to befriend him. He never married and lived alone for most of his adult life. But at the same time, he maintained close relationships with a number of sympathetic individuals. Most of these were musicians: Clara Schumann, widow of the composer Robert Schumann and one of the great pianists of the 19th century; Theodor Billroth, an eminent surgeon, violist, and pianist, whose artistic judgment Brahms valued highly; Elisabeth von Herzogenburg, a talented and highly cultured amateur; and, not least, Joseph Joachim, the great violinist and Brahms’ oldest friend.
Joachim was by any standard an extraordinary musician. A virtuoso of the first rank, he nevertheless disdained the showy pyrotechnics of such famous 19thcentury violinists as Paganini, Wieniawski, and Sarasate, preferring instead to devote himself to interpretations of the classical repertoire. His own compositions were skillful works and greatly admired by his contemporaries. Brahms was an obscure young pianist and fledgling composer when he first met Joachim in 1853, but the latter quickly recognized the enormity of his gift. “I have never come across a talent like his before,” Joachim wrote at the time. “He is miles ahead of me.” Before long, the two had established a firm friendship based in shared musical values. Their relationship, though not always smooth, endured some forty-four years until Brahms’ death in 1897.
The often heard assertion that Brahms solicited Joachim’s suggestions about the solo part only to ignore them is now known to be untrue. Brahms repeatedly asked his friend to scrutinize his work and retained some amendments while rejecting others. Joachim’s most important influence on the concerto, however, may have been more general and pervasive: in view of the esteem in which Brahms held him and the overall character of the work, it is not difficult to imagine the piece as a kind of portrait of, or homage to, the violinist.
The first movement is marked throughout by the blend of unpretentious grandeur and controlled energy established in the long orchestral exposition. Characteristically, Brahms forges each of the themes presented in this passage from several brief interlocking melodies that can expand, develop, and play off each other. The final subject, a vigorous idea colored by stern D minor harmonies, is interrupted by the entrance of the soloist. The violin then proceeds to amplify the thematic material already presented by the orchestra and contributes an exceptionally lovely melody of its own.
First performance: January 1, 1879, by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, the composer conducting, with Joseph Joachim as soloist
First YO performance: This concert
Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate duration (this movement): 21 minutes
Symphony No. 5
Born 1906, St. Petersburg, Russia
Died 1976, Moscow, Russia
We cannot know the true thoughts of a Soviet artist in 1936. “People’s minds were numbed by propaganda or fear,” wrote one artist who escaped. “Anyone who did not wish to take part either left this world or went to the Gulag.”
It had been a decade since Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Symphony announced a major talent. In those years he had produced brilliant, caustic music, most of it tolerated by the government. Now 29, his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was officially denounced.
Performances and income ran dry. Shostakovich had one option: to get back into the Party’s good graces. To write a work of “heroic classicism”: grand, written in a clear, simple style. Anything else risked poverty or death. Even by Shostakovich’s speedy standards, the Fifth Symphony came in a flood. The surviving handwritten manuscript seems produced by a trembling, anxious hand. Its first movement was sketched in little more than a week.
The Fifth was premiered as arrests and executions swept the country. It unleashed something raw: listeners wept openly, cheered at the end. It was, according to one listener, “a demonstration of outrage.”
The first movement delivers tragedy and sorrow. The second, echoes of Russian funeral music. The third, elegance rather than mockery. The fourth, deep ambiguity: is this patriotism or defiance? Celebration or mourning?
Officially, the symphony was declared acceptable. An article under Shostakovich’s name gives a government-sanctioned interpretation, calling the work a reply to “justified criticism.” The symphony expresses no “pessimism,” since art “must be suffused with a positive idea.”
But Soviet listeners understood its deeper meanings. Indeed, instrumental music has unusual power in a totalitarian state. With notes, rhythms, and harmonies as our only guides, the state cannot truly control the message conveyed by wordless music.
One party loyalist wrote in his private diary that “the ending does not sound like a resolution, but rather like a punishment or vengeance on someone. A terrible emotional force, but a tragic force.”
It may be impossible to know Shostakovich’s true thoughts about the Fifth. Equally, it is impossible for anyone—other than you—to control your thoughts, your emotions, as you listen to Shostakovich’s music. Music is made in the ears and minds of each listener.
First performance: November 21, 1937, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting First YO performance: March 16, 1979, Gerhardt Zimmerman conducting
Most recent YO performance: March 19, 2002, David Amado conducting
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, piano, strings
Approximate duration: 44 minutes
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.