Program Notes, John Liebes Concert

Notes by Mario Acosta

Strauss: Don Juan (17 minutes)
Bruch: Violin Concerto in G minor (24 minutes)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 12 (40 minutes)

Strauss: Don Juan OP. 20 (1888)

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) Germany

3 flutes (3rd plays piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd plays English horn); 2 clarinets; 3 bassoons and contrabassoon; 4 horns; 3 trumpets; 3 trombones; tuba,

Percussion: 3 timpani, harp, triangle, cymbals, strings, glockenspiel, cymbals, sustained cymbal and sustained cymbal

Listen for:

  • Listen for the emphatic reoccurring theme initially played by the horn section
  • Contrasting melancholic middle section played by the strings
  • Constant use of the same themes that creates a sense of “longing”

The Whole Story

Tone Poem Don Juan can be appreciated as the definite start of Strauss’ career as an influential composer. It was written in 1889 during Strauss’s position as a young 24 year-old at the Weymar court as Kappellmesiter. For this work Strauss included three excerpts from a play by German poet Nikolaus Lenaus. In addition to his literary reference to Lenau, Strauss stylistically drew from the German musical tradition with icons like Wagner and Mozart.

During the inception of this piece Strauss met and fell madly in love with soprano Pauline de Ahna who eventually became his wife. This sublime experience of love is what we hear as an ardent contrast between confident, emphatic gestures and a vulnerable soundscape of longing.

Strauss references his favorite operatic works, Tristan Und Isolde and Cosi Fan Tutte, which can be heard through his Mozartian constant development, careful treatment of theme and his Wagnerian fixation on the idea of love. Strauss uses Don Juan (a legend of the renaissance-era in Spain) as the epitome of the libertine, the promiscuous anti-hero. He establishes the legend’s presence and personality through an initial theme that emphatically and ecstatically paints the confident “womanizer” through the use of leaps in the melody. Despite this particular depiction of Don Juan, Strauss manages to give depth to the character; a man who in his original context is defined solely through conquests. Strauss presents another side of the story, the middle contrasting section expresses vulnerability, longing, and memories of love that bring the listener into a subliminal experience of romanticism.

During the middle section we can hear the violin begin a cry-like theme, this moment transitions into deliberate reflection and eventually loses its ground to a section of instability and emotional tension. We can witness this through its drop in volume and use of unstable harmony. This middle section is momentarily rescued with a scene of love played by the oboes, bringing tranquility and certainty back. The piece is lastly overtaken by Don Juan’s presence, with a reintroduction of his emphatic theme and a culmination that leads to his own cold death.

Don Juan exists within the greater context of Romanticism – an intellectual movement that valued and idealized emotion and individuality. Don Juan is a transition piece that bridges the late romantic and early modern periods. Seeds that made this transition possible are present in the Don Juan: dense textures, constant development, heavy contrast of moods and the use of soundscapes. While such techniques stemmed from romantic values, the need to push musical boundaries and maximize forms of expression would eventually become a new way of thinking that characterized the early modern period in the late 19th century.

Max Bruch: Concerto No.1 in G minor OP. 26  (1866)

Max Bruch (1838 – 1920) Cologne, Germany

Orchestration: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Listen for:

  • The virtuosic violin solo after the introduction, otherwise also known as the Cadenza
  • A play between the individual and the collective

The Whole Story

Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor is one of the most influential pieces for violin repertoire and is regarded as one of his most famous compositions. After a creative collaboration with Joseph Joachim, the version we will hear today was revised and premiered in concerto form in 1868. After its premier Bruch sold the score to a publisher for a small amount of money, but kept one copy for himself, which he eventually sent to a duo of American pianists Rose and Ottilie Sutro, hoping they could sell it in the US and send him the proceeds. Sadly, Bruch died in 1920 without ever receiving any additional money from the Violin Concerto score.

The 1st movement is a prelude that opens with a beautiful lyrical solo by the violin. This prelude section quickly gains traction as the violin intensifies in dynamics. There is a constant emphasis on the individual and the collective and we hear this as a play between the soloist and orchestra. Such contrast evokes the characteristics of the tradition of the concerto. By doing this it also gives us the opportunity to hear technicality, lyricism, and an intensification of dynamics built up by the soloist. A conversation is created between the collective and the individual. We can hear the orchestra answer to the solo after the cadenza section, as they step away from accompaniment and move towards the integration of recognizable themes.

The 2nd movement is often admired for its beautifully moving melody, where the orchestra constantly enhances the melody through its harmonic motion. The 2nd movement continues to emphasize a similar play between the individual and collective, while the 3rd movement quickly builds dance-like moods through a faster tempo and shorter attacked notes. The 3rd movement adds an air of positivity to the work, moving away from contemplation and into a joyous state that lifts the listener. We can hear the full orchestra create a lifting-effect by playing the previous melody that the solo section established. When the orchestra plays in tutti, and as it imitates the melody that the soloist had established, the sound of the melody evolves into its elevated form. The 3rd movement is itself a resolution of the contemplation painted through lyricism in the earlier movements. It lifts joyously, and all past tension is resolved.

Shostakovich: Symphony No.12 (1961)

Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) Russia
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd plays piccolo); 3 oboes; 3 clarinets; 3 bassoons (3rd plays contrabassoon); 4 horns; 3 trumpets; 3 trombones; tuba; timpani; triangle; snare drum; bass drum; cymbals; tam-tam and strings.

Listen for:

  • The initial melody as a duet between the cello and contrabass
  • Commemorations of the Russian revolution through the use of military style snares

The Whole Story

Dmitri Shostakovich is regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century during the Soviet period. Despite his popularity, his star status did not spare him from the oppression of Stalin’s totalitarian regime. Shostakovich began to fear for his life after Stalin publicly disapproved of his work, creating a negative perception of the composer in the Soviet public eye. Two denunciations were bestowed upon Shostakovich for what the Soviet government described as inappropriate references to Western music (1st in 1936 and the 2nd 1948). After these events, Shostakovich’s commissions diminished, and eventually he shifted to be more publicly supportive of the Russian government, apologizing and accommodating his music to fit the country’s nationalist agenda. Stalin’s death in 1953 finally awarded Shostakovich his creative freedom.

The 12th symphony, written in1961, is a commemoration of the revolutionary Bolshevik political leader Lenin. The work can be understood as an attempt to embody Lenin’s heroic image.

The introduction in the 1st movement expresses resilience through quarter notes that move up and down, suggesting a walking motion. Shostakovich establishes a bold theme and uses this motion to initially paint Lenin progressing to leadership, but also struggling through his journey. Followed by stormy sections, use of heroic themes and military snares, the work continually references the the composer’s vision of an ideal Russian leader.

The 2nd movement recalls a funeral march, dwelling in darkness, employing a constant forward motion at a slower pace. Despite this more languid tempo, the mood is expressive, ambiguous and successful at a creating a rich soundscape of war, which eventually transitions into isolation. This movement is generally understood to depict Lenin’s countryside headquarters outside of Razliv.

The 3rd movement is a scherzo that picks up the energy. This work references the start of the Russian revolution. It uses snares, timpani and other percussion, adding the necessary intensity to create a glimpse of battle. This movement is named Aurora after the 1st cruiser ship that was fired by the Russians to begin the Russian revolution. The 4th movement celebrates Lenin’s victory, the brass section expressing a proud Russian identity.

The work drives the listener deliberately from extreme moments of build up and tension into slower areas of contemplation. Shostakovich commemorates and aggrandizes the life of what he considered the “greatest man”, notably honoring Lenin rather than his successor. Symphony No.12 is not only a statement of heroism and nationalism but also celebration of Shostakovich’s freedom from Stalin’s oppressive restraints.