- Wagner, Siegfried Idyl (20mins)
- Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto (26mins)
- Clara Schumann (arr. Rofe), Three Romances (8mins)
- Brahms, Symphony No.4 (38mins)
Tonight’s concert programme is threaded by connections of romance, friendship, conflict, and passion, all tied together with a (violin) bow. The composers personal and professional lives interweaved through all manner of guises.
In the smallest of musicological nutshells: Wagner and Brahms were something of collegiate rivals (I believe the word today is ‘frenemies’), Brahms was madly in love with Clara Schumann and provided her support whilst her husband Robert Schumann was committed to an asylum. Meanwhile Robert’s close friend Felix Mendelssohn (and indeed his sister and composer Fanny too) were also dear friends of both the Schumann’s, but like Brahms they also clashed with Wagner… you can see how it is all more than a little complicated.
Our romantic programme opens with Wagner’s symphonic poem Siegfried Idyl - a gem of tender affection, crafted as a heartfelt gift to his wife Cosima (who also happened to be Liszt’s daughter), weaving delicate melodies and rich orchestration into a poignant musical love letter.
Mendelssohn’s violin concerto follows, seamlessly fusing virtuosic violin technique with lyrical melodies and emotional depth. Taking 6 years to compose, the 26 minute masterpiece is a beloved favourite of all instrumental concertos.
After the interval we will hear Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano, creatively rearranged for violin and orchestra by Bernard Rofe and receiving its UK premiere this evening. Clara would perform these three romances on tour across Europe performing with the legendary violinist Joseph Joachim to great acclaim.
We conclude the concert with Brahms’ epic fourth and final symphony, a crowning achievement of Romantic orchestral composition and lauded for its profound depth and power. Brahms’ symphony truly is a timeless masterpiece and provides perfect conclusion to our musical love affair of a concert tonight, performed by husband and wife duo, conductor Daniele Rustioni and violinist Francesca Dega, with your beloved CBSO.
Anna Melville, Head of Artistic Planning
In the 19th century, music was about fantasy as well as emotion. Mendelssohn sends a violin to fairyland; Clara Schumann composes musical love poems, and Brahms strides into the teeth of the storm in his tempestuous final symphony. And Richard Wagner pens a tender birthday greeting to the love of his life: a magical opening to an evening of wonder from husband and wife duo, conductor Daniele Rustioni and violinist Francesca Dego.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
If your idea of Wagner is Apocalypse Now, you might well be surprised by the Siegfried Idyll. In June 1869 Wagner's mistress Cosima von Bulow gave birth to their first son, Siegfried. The following summer the couple were finally married, and their first Christmas as a family was spent at Wagner's Villa Tribschen near Lucerne. It so happened that Christmas Eve was Cosima's birthday (though they always celebrated it on Christmas Day). Here's Cosima's own account of what happened that Christmas morning of 1870:
"As I woke up, I heard a sound that grew louder and louder; I could no longer imagine I was dreaming - all about me music rang out - and what music it was! When it had faded, R. came into my room with all five children and presented me with the score of his "Symphonic birthday greetings" - I dissolved into tears. R. had arranged his orchestra on the stairs, and thus consecrated our Tribschen for ever more!"
That was the world premiere of the Siegfried Idyll. Composed for just 15 players (all that could be fitted on the staircase), it wasn't just a beautiful gift. Each of the melodies woven into it had some personal meaning (many were taken from Wagner's uncompleted opera Siegfried). This gentle masterpiece is the real Richard Wagner, and it's still one of the most tender love letters ever created by a great composer. We’re basically eavesdropping.
Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op.64
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
I Allegro molto appassionato
III Allegro non troppo – Allegro molto vivace
"Mendelssohn’s playing was to him what flying is to a bird. No-one wonders why a lark flies; it is inconceivable without that power. In the same way, Mendelssohn played because it was his nature."
Mendelssohn’s great friend Ferdinand Hiller was remembering Mendelssohn’s skill as a pianist, but he might have been talking about any aspect of his artistry. “Mendelssohn never touched a string instrument the whole year round” recalled Hiller. “But if he wanted to, he could do it – as he could most other things”. Mendelssohn wrote his Violin Concerto between July 1838 and September 1844 as a gift for his boyhood friend, the Leipzig violinist Ferdinand David, and it was first performed in Leipzig on March 13th 1845, with David as the soloist and the Danish composer Niels Gade conducting.
And not since Mozart had anyone heard a violin concerto of such effortless grace. Mendelssohn dispenses with a grand orchestral introduction and instead throws the soloist straight in after a mere bar of orchestral accompaniment. The violin sings its bittersweet opening theme over the subtlest of accompaniments; and when the woodwinds introduce a contrasting theme, they actually float their meltingly soft melody over an accompanying note on the violin.
And as the movement ends, there’s another moment of magic: as a single bassoon note blossoms, through enchanted harmonies, into the opening of the Andante - a sweet and gloriously sustained song without words. It sinks to a twilit close, before miniature fanfares and woodwind rustlings launch the brilliant finale - a movement that has often been compared to the “fairy music” that Mendelssohn wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Like Puck, the soloist deploys every scintilla of lightness and skill as they speed to the finish across an iridescent orchestra. movement
Three Romances, Op.22
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
arr. Bernard Rofe
I Andante molto
II Allegretto: Mit zartem Vortrage (with tender expression)
III Leidenschaftlich schnell (passionately fast)
“What we first heard took flight before our eyes, like a young phoenix soaring up from its own ashes…”. In her own time, Clara Schumann, née Wieck, had no shortage of admirers, either as a composer or pianist. Her future husband Robert Schumann wrote those words in 1835, describing the 16-year old Clara’s performance of her own Piano Concerto. Throughout their married life together, her fame would far overshadow his own.
And Clara always looked outwards, to a wider world of music. In May 1853 she heard the brilliant young Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at a festival in Düsseldorf, and was captivated. Her admiration for Joachim’s playing would blossom into a lifelong friendship; meanwhile she composed these three Romances between 4th and 18th July 1853 and dedicated them to “the esteemed musician and friend Joseph Joachim”. Before long, they were playing the Romances together on tour. King George of Hanover reportedly adored these three miniatures, and it’s easy to hear why. Their tender, song-like melodies fit the violin like a glove, and there’s also a poetry, a playfulness (in the second Romance) and a bittersweet passion (in the third) that gives some idea of what it meant to be part of this particular musical friendship circle. Originally written for violin and piano (with Clara, of course, at the keyboard), they open out to broader horizons in this skilful orchestral arrangement.
Symphony No.4 in E Minor, Op.98
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
I Allegro non troppo
II Andante moderato
III Allegro giocoso
IV Allegro energico e passionato
“Shall I send you a piece of a piece of me - can you let me know what you think of it? But in these parts cherries don’t grow to be sweet, so don’t be embarrassed if the thing isn’t to your taste”. That was Brahms in August 1885, writing to his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg about his new Fourth Symphony, and it’s typical of the man – candid but reserved, hiding both his pride and his anxiety behind a little joke.
But as Brahms knew better than anyone, the new symphony was a deeply romantic work, in which intensely personal emotions are framed in structures of classical beauty and power. The first two movements are in traditional symphonic forms, shaped with complete mastery. The third movement of a symphony would usually be light relief – but Brahms uses his to drive the drama powerfully forward. And then, for the finale he flouts a century of tradition and builds a crowning movement in the form of a baroque passacaglia: a towering musical structure built over the same eight chords, repeated again and again.
Still, Brahms was never interested in music as pure form – and with his profound feeling for his musical heritage, he was able to fill his symphony with clues to the emotions that inspired it. It was his first major work after the death of his close friend Gustav Nottebohm, an expert on medieval music. So the slow, processional second movement of the Symphony is written in the medieval “Phrygian mode” – a combination of notes that was supposed to suggest shade and sorrow.
The Allegro giocoso that follows is its complete opposite – sunlight and energy, brightened with the most frivolous instrument of them all, the jangling triangle. But Brahms switches mood dramatically with the opening of the finale, and the entry of three trombones. The baroque masters used trombones in the most solemn moments of sacred music. And when Brahms wrote the slow, plaintive flute solo at the heart of this great passacaglia he must have recalled that Handel, in Samson, used the flute as an instrument of mourning.
So, the Symphony tells a story? Brahms was never that specific. The story of this symphony is the story of what we feel as we hear it: lilting melodies, stirring climaxes, quiet sunsets and exuberant celebrations. At its first performance – at Meiningen, on 25th October 1885, many listeners found the stormy finish shockingly severe. But like any great tragedy, this music is also a celebration of what it means to be human. The critic Eduard Hanslick reviewed the Vienna première, in January 1886, and he summed it up as well as anyone: “It is like a dark well; the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back”.
© Richard Bratby