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Program Notes: Youth Orchestra Performs Brahms' Second Symphony (November 21, 2021)


Richard Wagner

Prelude to Die Meistersinger (1862)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy (1880)

Johannes Brahms

Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 73 (1877)

Allegro non troppo

Adagio non troppo

Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)

Allegro con spirito


Program Notes

By Caitlin Custer


This concert offers different tastes of the Romantic era through three distinct voices of the period. Richard Wagner and Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky each look to the power of music to tell a story. Wagner’s: bombastic. Tchaikovsky’s: dreamy. Johannes Brahms believed that lessons learned from previous generations of composers shouldn’t be abandoned, but built upon.

Richard Wagner

Prelude to Die Meistersinger

Richard Wagner

Born May 22, 1813, Leipzig, Germany

Died February 13, 1883, Venice, Italy

Richard Wagner is remembered for brooding operas on mythic tales of his own creation. His opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is different: his single comic opera, it’s surprisingly sunny and based on a historically accurate guild of German craftsman during the renaissance. At the top of the guild’s ranks were the master singers, who created beautiful texts and tunes and paired them together seamlessly.

For Die Meistersinger, Wagner toyed with contemporary and personal issues of philosophy and aesthetics. The central conflict was a metaphor for Wagner’s own issues with the musical establishment: the new, bold, risk-taking singer (Wagner) must convince the conservative judges (Wagner’s critics) that he should win the annual song contest.

The Prelude came together quickly, Wagner writing: “One evening from the balcony of my house as I watched a fine sunset light up in glory the splendid view of ‘golden’ Mainz and the majestically flowing Rhine, the Prelude to my Meistersinger suddenly sprang up clearly in my mind...and I proceeded to draft [it] precisely as it appears today in the score, that is, setting forth very definitely the main motives of the whole drama.”

Its first few notes march with chests puffed out, broad, beaming. Moments of introspection and romance get a turn. The first theme—the banner theme of the master singers—comes back again and again, always triumphant.

First performance: June 21, 1868, at the National Theater in Munich, Germany, Hans von Bülow conducting

First YO performance: October 20, 1983, Catherine Comet conducting Most recent YO performance: November 11, 2016, Gemma New conducting

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, harp, strings

Approximate duration: 9 minutes

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia

Died November 6, 1893, Saint Petersburg, Russia

A twenty-something Pyotr Tchaikovsky was coming into his own as a composer. He had finished his studies, settled into a teaching post at a conservatory, and was churning out work after work, eager to find success.

Tchaikovsky’s sort-of mentor, Mily Balakirev, suggested he create a tone poem on Romeo and Juliet. Balakirev was heavy-handed in his advice, outlining a scenario, keys, harmonies, and even writing the first few bars in his own style. Tchaikovsky took Balakirev’s suggestions and finished the piece in a matter of weeks.

Balakirev was critical of the completed work, and Tchaikovsky took the better part of a decade before he was satisfied with a revised version. During that time, Tchaikovsky became more familiar with intrigue and tragedy in his own life: a rushed-and-failed marriage, the ongoing struggle with his sexuality in a harsh society, an attempted suicide, and the appearance of a mysterious benefactor.

Three musical themes tell the story of the star-crossed lovers. The solemn opening both foreshadows the tragedy and hints at the sacred sounds of the church, a reference to Friar Lawrence. A cymbal crash signals the tumult between the Montagues and Capulets. The fight subsides—for a moment—revealing Romeo and Juliet’s sumptuous love theme.

First performance: March 16, 1870, in Moscow, Russia, by the Imperial Russian Musical Society, Nikolai Rubinstein conducting

First YO performance: November 23, 1997, David Amado conducting

Most recent YO performance: March 18, 2016, Steven Jarvi conducting

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, harp, strings

Approximate duration: 19 minutes

Johannes Brahms

Symphony No. 2

Johannes Brahms

Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg, Germany

Died April 3, 1897, Vienna, Austria

Johannes Brahms grew up in a musical family, but becoming a successful composer wasn’t a straightforward path. He longed for serious pursuit of music, but his father set him up to play piano at dive bars. Taste-maker Robert Schumann ignored the parcel of music Brahms sent for review (spoiler: Schumann would later launch Brahms to critical success in his popular Journal for New Music), and Franz Liszt wouldn’t have him as a student. Add to that the shadow of Ludwig van Beethoven, an aesthetics war raged by Liszt and Wagner, and Brahms’ own tough inner critic, and it’s a wonder he didn’t look for a different career.

But Brahms was entirely committed to music. He spent 20 years creating his First Symphony, and the Second came right on its heels. Completed at an Austrian lake resort, Brahms’ friend Theodore Billroth wrote of the Second Symphony, “This is utter blue sky, a murmuring of brooks, sunlight and cool green shade! It must be beautiful at Pörtschach.”

Billroth’s remark might lead you to think that it’s a simple, gentle work. Meanwhile, Brahms wrote to his publisher that the Second Symphony “is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning.” That’s Brahms’ trick: music that defies definition, that’s peaceful to one person and tragic to another.

I. Allegro non troppo: Low strings open the work with a three-note idea that travels through different sections of the orchestra. Shadows emerge briefly, then disappear.

II. Adagio non troppo: Brahms at his most Romantic, balancing tenderness with brutal tugging on heartstrings.

III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino): An understated and light dance, with lots of quick steps and twirling.

IV. Allegro con spirito: A soft introduction belies a great surprise and a fiery finish.

First performance: December 30, 1877, by the Vienna Philharmonic, Hans Richter conduting

First YO performance: May 18, 1989, Kirk Muspratt conducting

Most recent YO performance: March 14, 2004, Scott Parkman conducting

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings

Approximate duration: 43 minutes


Caitlin Custer is the SLSO's Communications Manager.

Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.


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