Friday, November 23, 2012

Program Notes (I)

Back in 1998-99, I was active in a local chamber orchestra, the Georgia Sinfonia, as a writer of program notes for concerts (and, when the repertoire required it, as continuo harpsichordist).  I have decided to perpetuate my program-note writing by means of this blog, an idea given to me by Satyr when he told me some time ago how he enjoys my writing about music and musicians no less than my record transfers.  I hope the rest of you will agree.  Here is the first Georgia Sinfonia program for which I wrote notes:

And below are reprinted the program notes themselves:

Brahms: Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, for clarinet and strings

Johannes Brahms, although an indisputable master of orchestration, never felt truly comfortable writing for instruments other than his own, the piano.  In maturity, even while writing the four symphonies which became, and remain, the finest since Beethoven’s, he never quite gave the same importance to instrumental color as to harmony, counterpoint, or form.  Nor, with his rather prudish, severe North German temperament, did he revel in the sensuality of sheer sound as did, say, Tchaikovsky.  That is, until he heard Richard Mühlfeld, clarinettist with the Meiningen Orchestra (which Brahms conducted regularly), play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in March 1891.  Captivated by the darkly singing quality of the instrument in Mühlfeld’s hands, he befriended the clarinettist, nicknaming him “Fräulein Klarinette” - Miss Clarinet - suggesting unequivocally that Brahms had found an inspiration from the instrument that matched in intensity those previously given to him by the women in his life.

His last four chamber works would feature the clarinet.  First came the Clarinet Trio (clarinet, cello and piano), then what he called “a far greater folly,” the Quintet for clarinet and strings, both written in the summer of 1891.  Three years later came the two sonatas for clarinet and piano.  The Quintet, in fact, turned out to be Brahms’ last work involving more than two performers; after it, there were only the piano pieces of Opp. 116-119, the clarinet sonatas, the Four Serious Songs, and the chorale preludes for organ of Op. 122.  Thus the Quintet can be seen as Brahms’ swan song among his large-scale works.  In his splendid recent (1997) biography of the composer, Jan Swafford states that “the music so clearly looks back on lost love with a distillation of Brahmsian yearning...its beginning a gentle, dying-away roulade that raises a veil of autumnal melancholy over the whole piece.”  It is formally loosely modelled on Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet; both works have as a concluding movement a theme and variations.

Weber: Adagio and Rondo, for 2 clarinets, 2 horns and 2 bassoons

Among the instrumental works of Carl Maria von Weber, a conspicuous place is given to music for wind instruments.  There are concertos for clarinet, bassoon and horn, in addition to a series of pieces for wind ensembles.  Most of the latter were composed for Prince Carl Friedrich of Löwenstein-Wertheim, an enthusiast for wind ensemble music whom Weber met while he was in the employ of the Duke of Württemberg, from 1806 to 1810.  This ensemble music is relatively little known (it is not listed in Otto Jahn’s thematic catalog of Weber’s works), having been published only beginning in 1970, after languishing in the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris for over a century.

The Adagio in E-Flat is dated July 6, 1808; the Rondo in B-Flat was written earlier, completed June 24 of the same year.  One might be forgiven for assuming that it might have formed two movements of a larger work in B-Flat, but in fact the two-part slow-fast formation was a favorite with Weber.  He used it for several other works, including the well-known "Andante and Hungarian Rondo" for viola and orchestra (later rewritten for bassoon).

Beethoven: Sextet in E-Flat for winds, Op. 71

Although bearing the opus number 71 (and therefore, standing between the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies in Beethoven’s catalog of works published), the Sextet in E-Flat for winds in an early work, dating from 1796, thirteen years before its publication.  Beethoven offered it to his publisher with an apology, saying that it “was composed in one night - All that one can really say about it is that it was written by a composer who had produced a few better works, yet for some, works of this type are the best.”  The work was certainly not written in such a short time.  Beethoven’s comment represents the tetchy annoyance of a composer towards his public, which preferred “easy” works like his Septet for strings and winds, Op. 20 (a piece he came to hate, as passionately as Rachmaninoff came to hate his C-sharp minor Prelude) to what he rightly considered his more significant utterances such as the symphonies, concertos and string quartets.  This same annoyance caused him to belittle so beloved, yet so innovative a work as the “Moonlight” Sonata: “upon my word, I have written better ones...”

Beethoven produced a fair amount of wind ensemble music in his early years (other examples are the Octet for winds, Op. 103, and the Quintet for piano and winds, Op. 16), but virtually abandoned the medium after about 1800.  Despite their light character, the works are important in Beethoven’s output, for they surely helped the young composer develop his treatment of wind instruments in the symphonies.  They also allowed him to polish his handling of large-scale forms, in music that was traditionally not considered “serious” (despite Mozart’s masterly serenades for wind instruments) before tackling them in the more serious genres of string quartet and symphony.


  1. Thank you! I love the way you write about music, so I'm very glad with your program note uploads!

  2. Hi Bryan - I echo Satyr's praise. I enjoy your writing.

  3. Hi Bryan, sadly to say that the Random Classics copy of Beethovens wind ensemble music has been taken off line.

    Your notes however are excellent.