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Spring Concert
Andrews University Symphony Orchestra
April 14, 2012

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major | Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, op. 77

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A Major

Allegro con brio

Beethoven himself said on more than one occasion that his Symphony No. 7 in A Major was one of his best. Completed in the spring of 1812, it was first performed in conjunction with the premiere of Wellington's Victory, the Eighth Symphony, and pieces by others on December 8, 1813, at a Vienna concert to benefit Austrians and Bavarians wounded in the battle against Napoleon at Hanau. The concert, with the composer conducting and several famous musicians of the day performing in the orchestra, was such a great success that it had to be repeated four days later. Although Wellington's Victory was the hit of the evening, the Seventh Symphony was well received, and the second movement, Allegretto (even today one of Beethoven's most popular works), was encored on the spot. Following the composer's own precedent in the Sixth Symphony, nineteenth century writers have endeavored to put a program to the work, or at least attach extra‑musical meaning to it, such as "Apotheosis of the Dance" (Wagner), "a second Pastorale Symphony"(Lenz), "a knight's festival" (Nohl). While Beethoven did not give a specific program or meaning to this work, one may justifiably sense a festive mood upon hearing it. Indeed, the audiences at the first performances would have been in a mood to celebrate the victory over Napoleon and heartfelt hope for peace at last.

This symphony is constructed in the "classical" arrangement of four separate movements, with the slower movement placed second, but Beethoven also stretches the genre in new directions. The slow introduction is extensive‑‑almost a movement in itself. Listen for strong chords with solo winds left to carry the melodies. When the main theme finally arrives, it is introduced by a solo flute. The popular Allegretto movement has sometimes been billed, and used, as a funeral march, but Beethoven's tempo marking suggests a mood less somber. The genius of the movement lies not in a memorable melody or distinguished harmonies, but in the insistent pulse and the passing of the theme throughout the orchestra. Even in the melodic middle section, the cellos and basses continue the pulsating rhythm. The third movement outdoes the expected scherzo with a presto (and a scherzo‑trio‑ scherzo‑trio‑scherzo arrangement instead of the usual three part form). The final movement engages players and listeners alike in its swirling patterns and tremendous energy, concluding with a coda matching the introduction of the first movement in its length and complexity. In disagreeing with a critic who thought that Beethoven was drunk when he composed the finale, French writer and Beethoven biographer, Romain Rolland, remarked, "It was indeed the work of an intoxicated man, but one intoxicated with poetry and genius."

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, op. 77

Allegro non troppo
Allegro giocoso

Brahms struggled for nearly twenty years to complete his first symphony, but with that hurdle overcome, the second seemed to roll right out. During the summer of 1877, while staying in a cottage in the idyllic Alpine village of Pörtschach, a resort on Lake Worth, Brahms took daily swims, enjoyed vistas of mountains and water, and partook of good eating. All this contentment seems to have inspired some of his sunniest and most accessible music. In addition to the Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto, the Second Piano Concerto and Violin Sonata in G were either conceived or completed in Pörtschach, a place where, the composer claimed, “melodies flew about so abundantly you had to be careful not to step on them.” During the summer of 1878, Brahms, primarily a pianist, enlisted the assistance of his friend Joseph Joachim, preeminent violinist, composer, conductor, and teacher.  The task to develop what Brahms initially called, “a few violin passages” that Joachim rightly perceived as a violin concerto taking on the cloak of a symphony. Through a steady correspondence and a few visits, the composer and the violinist wrestled the work, the Violin Concerto in D Major, to its first performance for a New Year concert in the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Joachim the soloist and Brahms conducting. While the initial reception of the work was mixed (one even proclaimed it “a concerto against the violin” due to the symphonic role, rather than mere accompaniment given the orchestra) the work soon took its rightful place as one of the great masterpieces of the late 19th century.

While warm-hearted and symphonically conceived, the piece features a totally violinistic solo part woven into the orchestral texture, a turn from the norm of earlier violin concertos which had served primarily as showpieces for virtuoso soloists. In many ways the concerto begins in classical form with a lengthy orchestral statement of the main themes before the soloist enters. This entry asserts the violin’s dominance, not through an immediate rendition of those themes but with an energetic new melody with triple stops, a quasi-cadenza serving as a spring board for the violin’s decorated rendition of the movement’s main themes. The main cadenza heard tonight, placed in its traditional position near the end of the movement, was written by Joachim. One of music’s great magical moments is heard in the serene transition from the cadenza to the triumphant close of the first movement. That magic carries over into the simple contemplative oboe melody of the second movement. The violin enters with a tranquil meditation on three notes of the oboe theme. Following a middle section ever more florid, the opening idea returns with sheer lyrical poetry. Seemingly a second dedication to the Hungarian origins of Joachim, the finale bursts forth in exuberant gypsy attire. The movement is roughly in the form of a rondo with three contrasting themes sporting boisterous repartee between solo and full orchestra. The final tutti appearance of the main theme is crowned with a short cadenza leading into a coda with a surprise ending.

Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2012.
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