Program Notes – Brahms’ 4th

We have Carl Topilow and a 1988 National Repertory Orchestra tour of Korea, Taiwan, and Japan to thank for tonight’s concert opener, Snake Alley. In Taipei, this is where snake vendors ply their trade, and where then co-principal trumpeter of the NRO, David Dzubay and some of the musicians ventured. Besides snakes and people drinking snake blood, they found turtle vendors, an orangutan entertaining a gaggle of children, feats of strength, gambling, beggar priests, and all manner of wares being hawked. The piece begins with a hair-raising taxi ride, and we arrive at Snake Alley somewhat dazed and overstimulated. As we meander, slowly at first, through the market, exotic novelties are thrust upon us. Pulsating, sinuous music signals our arrival in the snake alley itself, but little by little we become overwhelmed and anxious. A climax of brass and percussion finds us suddenly at the center of a cluster of brothels—you’ll hear what Dzubay calls “stripper music” here. A priest and a throng of Taiwanese children appear, singing a folksong, before we find our way back into a taxi. As a whirling montage of everything we’ve seen fills our reeling imagination, we gradually relax.

The life of Sergei Prokofiev was marked by a miserable recurring theme—it seemed he was always playing second banana. On his first tour to the US, beginning in 1918, he found the market for virtuoso/Russian/pianist-composers had been cornered by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Failing to make headway here after four frustrating years, he took his family to Paris. There, audiences’ appetites for Russian modernist composers had been sated by their darling, Igor Stravinsky. Ultimately, Prokofiev would become the first important Russian composer to return to Moscow after the Second World War and remain. (Not that he had a choice; they confiscated his passport pretty quickly.) Even at the 1923 premiere of his violin concerto in Paris, the spotlight was focused on another attraction on the program—a new Octet by Stravinsky, with Igor himself making his first appearance as conductor.

This concerto is marked by an almost neo-classical sense of line in the outer movements. The first movement begins directly with just that: a long, lyrical melody, strings shimmering underneath in delicate accompaniment. There is a more unsettled and discursive central section, which Prokofiev instructed one violinist to play “as if you’re trying to convince someone of something.”

The middle movement contrasts with its neighbors. From needle-like harmonics to gruff G-string rasps, the soloist is driven to the extreme technical ranges of the instrument. Contrasting episodes flick past; the tuba bumbles into the action, amiably; and before we know it, the tambourine punctuates the movement’s precipitous close.

More lyrical smoothness fills the third movement—as much for the orchestra’s parts as the soloist, who is often given ingenious complementary material.

It famously took Johannes Brahms almost twenty years to complete his first symphony. His obstacle was not musical, but psychological—to him, it seemed impossible to follow what Beethoven had wrought in that medium. But once that phobia had been overcome, he proceeded confidently with his next three.

There’s a lot of Bach in Brahms’ symphonies, and the fourth in particular. The opening of the first movement is a little puzzle, to be worked out over the course of the movement. Violins give us four notes, in two sets of two, one pair falling, one rising; this pattern is then repeated, down one step. Then the figure is expanded and heightened, and soon there are multiple procedures happening to it simultaneously. This very abstract and quasi-archaic language is at the heart of this symphony’s mysterious appeal. Structures pile up very high in the first and final movements, and an almost cosmic scale is evoked which only Beethoven had broached before. Notice too how Brahms obsesses over the tug between double and triple divisions of the pulse.

Similarly, the slower second movement is occupied with the contrast between an austere and ominous opening motive in the ancient Phrygian mode, and a sensuous cello melody. These mysteries are blasted away in the instant the third movement Scherzo begins. This is a celebration of movement, adorned by the ring of triangle and piccolo.

For the finale, Brahms turns again to an ancient form: the passacaglia, a Baroque version of theme and variations. The eight-bar theme given at the opening is treated in thirty-two variations and a concluding coda. Until this movement, the trombones have sat patiently, since Brahms gave them nothing to do in the first three. They earn their keep now, particularly in the glorious final moments.


© Jamey Lamar 2018