Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
Johannes Brahms
b. Hamburg, Germany / May 7, 1833; d. Vienna, Austria / April 3, 1897

Brahms composed his only two concert overtures during the summer of 1880. They are utterly different in character. “One weeps, the other laughs,” was how he described the Tragic Overture and the Academic Festival Overture.

He wrote the merry Academic Festival as a gesture of thanks for a degree that the University of Breslau bestowed upon him. His Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy bore the inscription “first among today’s masters of serious music in Germany.” His ironic sense of humor, plus the fact that he had received his musical education from private teachers rather than by attending the “institutes of higher learning” that he viewed with suspicion, led him to make it as jolly and informal as the university was conservative and stuffy. He didn’t care for the title but couldn’t come up with a better one.

Comparing it with the music of the original master of Viennese operetta, he referred to it as a “boisterous medley of student songs à la (Franz von) Suppé.” He scored it for the largest orchestra he ever used, including a handful of percussion instruments. He conducted the premiere in Breslau during January 1881. The faculty frowned upon his responding to their gravely serious gesture with something so informal and folksy, but the students laughed and cheered for the same reason.

The bustling yet quiet and serious introduction appears to be based on original Brahms material (the Breslau faculty must have loved this part!). It gives what proves to be a deliberately and playfully misleading impression of the piece as a whole. The main section changes all that quickly. Brahms founded it upon four traditional German student songs. After a soft timpani roll, the brass pompously play We Had Built a Stately House. This is followed by Most Solemn Song to the Father of the Country, a heartfelt tune first heard in the strings. Next is What Comes There From on High, a satiric ditty which Brahms introduced on the bassoons. He developed all this material extensively and ingeniously, and crowned the overture with a majestic setting of the most well-known of the songs, Gaudeamus igitur, a solemn medieval hymn in praise of student life.

Here is a translation of the first verse:

Let us rejoice therefore
While we are young.
After a pleasant youth
After a troublesome old age
The earth will have us.

Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
b. Salzburg, Austria / January 27, 1756; d. Vienna, Austria / December 5, 1791

Viennese audiences loved Mozart for his piano playing above all. One way in which he responded to this preference was to compose 12 superlative piano concertos, Nos. 14 to 25, between February 1784 and December 1786. They are deeper in feeling, broader in scope and richer in colour than any written before. In years to come, they would serve as models of their kind, ones to which Beethoven, Brahms and other similarly high-minded composers would turn for inspiration. They were usually premiered at subscription concerts designed for his own financial benefit.

On the surface, his life at that time must have seemed bright and successful. Emperor Joseph II had personally commissioned what proved to be Mozart’s masterpiece of comic opera, The Marriage of Figaro (he composed this concerto while he was working on it). Earlier that year, Joseph Haydn, the most esteemed composer of the day, had told Mozart’s father Leopold that he considered Wolfgang “the greatest composer I know either personally or by reputation.”

But signs of the tragic fate that lay in store for him were already making themselves felt. Viennese taste was moving away from him, aggravating his perpetual inability to manage his finances. Together with increasing ill health, this would make the remaining six years of his life a long descent into catastrophe.

Some of his newest works failed to find favour, such as the superb Piano Quartet in G Minor. Designed as the first of series of quartets commissioned by the publisher Hoffmeister, its lack of sales led to Mozart’s releasing Hoffmeister from their contract. At the same time, he begged the publisher for a loan, writing frankly, “I need it very badly just now.”

He completed this concerto on December 16, 1785. He played the solo part at the premiere himself, either on that same day or shortly thereafter. He hoped that it would help reverse the decline in his fortunes. To this end, he made it less personal, more “listener-friendly” than such recent creations as the Piano Quartet. The result was an expansive (it is the longest of all his concertos) and truly glorious work. It did not, alas, have any lasting effect upon his declining fortunes.

Both of the themes upon which the first movement is based are exceptionally gracious; the second bears an added degree of winsomeness. The slow movement, the most remarkable portion of the concerto, offers marked contrast. Set in a minor key and featuring muted strings, this theme and variations is not merely melancholy but borders on authentic tragedy. To Mozart’s surprise, it made such a deep impression at the premiere that the audience demanded an encore. The concluding movement is a relatively relaxed affair by Mozart’s standards. The recurring refrain resembles a country dance, heavy-footed but mischievous. Recalling Concerto No. 9 of eight years earlier, Mozart interrupts its progress with a self-contained episode, a restrained panel in the style of a minuet.

Scheherazade, Op. 35
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov
b. Tikhvin, Russia / March 18, 1844; d. Lyubensk, Russia / June 21, 1908

The sea – or at least, the profession of the navy – almost captured Rimsky-Korsakov. Early on, he seemed destined to follow other members of his family into a naval career. His tours of duty brought him as far away from home – and as close to us – as Niagara Falls. Music finally claimed him, however, and listeners are much the better for it.

He was 27 when he decided to make music his life’s work. His training proved haphazard, almost comically so at a crucial point. Having somehow been offered the post of professor of composition and orchestration at the St. Petersburg Conservatory (an institution that now bears his name), he only kept ahead of his students by quickly digesting the same textbooks he was teaching them. Diligent study and major natural talent eventually made a genuine pedagogue out of him. The list of gifted composers who studied with him includes fellow Russians Glazunov, Lyadov, Arensky and Stravinsky, as well the Italian, Ottorino Respighi. Many early compositions by these fellows – Stravinsky’s fairy-tale ballet The Firebird, for example – bear a clear resemblance to their teacher’s music.

He developed the greatest technical skill (if not the deepest emotional profundity) of the circle of five St. Petersburg composers to which he belonged, and which their literary spokesperson, Vladimir Stasov, dubbed “The Mighty Handful.” He mastered the art of colourful orchestration, a skill through he expressed his taste for exotic and fantastic subjects. Many of his operas meet this description, such as Sadko, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, and Le Coq d’Or, as do the orchestral works Antar and A Fairy Tale.

It was virtually inevitable that a composer with his taste would turn his attention to one of the world’s best-known collections of folklore, the Arabian or 1001 Nights. This vast assortment of magical fables of Persian, Egyptian and Indian origins had become known in the west when Antoine Galland gathered them together, translated them into French, and began publishing them in 1704. They proved not only highly popular, but an immensely potent source of inspiration, not only in literature but in music, clothing and décor.

The idea of composing a work inspired by them came to Rimsky during the early months of 1888, while he was putting into shape the materials for Prince Igor, the opera that his friend Alexander Borodin had left in an incomplete state at his death. The opera’s oriental element, represented by the Polovtsians, a barbaric eastern tribe, may have been his primary inspiration. After producing an outline and a few sketches, he set the suite aside until a good stretch of free time came available that summer. He completed the score at a restful retreat near Lake Cheryemenyetskoye. His enormous facility meant that three weeks was all the time he needed. He set the final note to paper on July 29, and dedicated the suite to Vladimir Stasov.

Like many composers who write music inspired by outside sources, he suggested that audiences not listen too closely for specific events or characters in the music. He gave each movement a sub-title, but then he removed them. However he did include in the printed score the following introduction, drawn from the original stories: “The Sultan Shakriar, convinced of the falsehood and inconstancy of all women, had sworn an oath to put to death each of his wives after the first night. However the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by arousing his interest in the tales which she told during the 1001 nights. Driven by curiosity, the Sultan postponed her execution from day to day, and at last abandoned his bloodthirsty design.”

The orchestration of Scheherazade is masterly, drawing from what is a not particularly large ensemble the maximum in colour. Much of this brilliance is achieved by continuously dotting the score with passages for solo instruments. The suite is bound together by a recurring motive, a bewitching melody sung by the solo violin: the voice of Scheherazade.

The first movement gives a strong impression of the sea, complete with the swell of ocean breezes, the roll of the waves and the adventurous call of foreign ports. Rimsky knew such an atmosphere well due to his service in the Russian navy.

At the start of the second movement, Scheherazade’s theme again declares “Once upon a time…” Solo bassoon launches the tale, sinuously, like the chant of an ancient storyteller. A war-like fanfare introduced by trombones and tuba plays an important role in the fantastic proceedings.

The third movement can’t be anything but a love scene. A dance, tinged with light percussion, appears at the core. The Scheherazade violin theme puts in an appearance, leading to a brief, ecstatic climax – a first kiss? The central dance theme returns, warmed by recent experience, before the tranquil close.

The finale will really get your blood racing. It opens with alternations of furious orchestral outbursts and passionate violin solos. Rimsky then kicks off a boisterous carnival, where themes heard earlier in the suite jostle for attention. At the height of festivities, we appear to return to the sea, sailing majestically until a colossal climax is reached. The Scheherazade theme returns one last time, keening softly in the heights to close her storytelling – for tonight.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra, 2014/15 Season at a Glance:

Stravinsky and Debussy: Mutual Admiration Society

Igor Stravinsky became a star on June 25, 1910. That night, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premiered The Firebird, his first dance score. This glittering slice of fairy-tale magic scored a bull’s-eye with a sophisticated Parisian audience, catapulting the little-known 28-year-old Russian into the international spotlight.

Fame wasn’t the only bounty the occasion brought him. “I was still on stage when the final curtain had come down,” he recalled, “and I saw coming toward me Diaghilev and a dark man with a double forehead whom he introduced as Claude Debussy. The great composer spoke kindly about the music, ending his words with an invitation to dine with him.”

Thus began one of the most remarkable friendships in the history of music. Not since Mozart bonded with Haydn 120 years earlier, and Richard Wagner with Franz Liszt during the mid-nineteenth century, had two composers of the front rank enjoyed such a close, mutually stimulating relationship. Destiny ruled that in face-to-face terms it would last only until Debussy, the older of the two by 20 years, died eight years later. According to Stravinsky’s musical associate Robert Craft, however, “Occasional strains in the relationship aside, Stravinsky’s veneration of Debussy was lifelong, as shown by his correspondence; by his performances of Debussy’s Nuages and Fêtes in 1935; and by his participation in a Free France broadcast on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Debussy’s death.”

Shortly after their first meeting, the two new friends were sitting in a box at a performance of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande. “I asked him what he had really thought of The Firebird,” Stravinsky recalled. “He said, ‘What do you expect, one has to begin with something.’ Honest, but not extremely flattering. Yet shortly after the Firebird premiere, he gave me his well-known photograph in profile with a dedication: ‘to Igor Stravinsky in complete artistic sympathy.’”

Debussy’s enthusiasm for The Firebird (limited as it may have been) is easy to understand. Stravinsky’s ballet splashes Debussy’s impressionist methods over the folk-based Russian style that Debussy had loved since his teens. The Frenchman’s Russophilia – a taste he shared with fellow Frenchman Maurice Ravel – dated back to 1880, when he was engaged by Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow who provided Tchaikovsky with financial and emotional support. For three summers, he taught her children music and joined her in playing piano duets.

He came to know and love Tchaikovsky’s music, as would Stravinsky. The compositions of Tchaikovsky’s more folk-oriented contemporaries – Mussorgsky, Borodin, Balakirev and Stravinsky’s teacher, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov – impressed him even more. He took some of them back to Paris with him, where they proved a powerful influence on the songs and piano works he began to write – his first compositions – soon afterwards. Through the Russians, Debussy acquired an enduring taste for ancient and Oriental music, and for vivid colourations, as well as a certain disdain for academic rules.

Stravinsky’s first exposure to Debussy’s music came in 1902, when friends in St. Petersburg established a chamber music series devoted to contemporary composers. His favourites among those to whose music he was exposed were Debussy and Chabrier. The influence of the new French school first showed itself in the song suite Faun and Shepherdess (1906-7). It intensified in the orchestral pieces Scherzo fantastique (1907-8) and Fireworks (1908), and the opera The Nightingale (begun 1908-9).

“Debussy and Ravel were rarely played in St. Petersburg in the decade before The Firebird,” Stravinsky recalled, “but whatever performances did take place were due to the efforts of Alexander Ziloti, a champion of new music who deserves to be remembered. Ziloti’s performances of the Debussy Nocturnes and of The Afternoon of a Faun were among the major events of my early years. The Faun was played amidst hoots, whistles and laughter, but the effect of that lovely flute solo, of the long silence, of the harp arpeggios and the horns, especially after all the post-Wagnerian noise, was not destroyed thereby.”

It was at a Ziloti concert in 1909 that Sergei Diaghilev first became aware of Stravinsky, through hearing Fireworks and Scherzo fantastique. When his original choice of composer for The Firebird, his former music teacher, Anatoly Lyadov, was unable to complete the score on time, he turned to Stravinsky.

Debussy’s enthusiastic support inspired Stravinsky to dedicate a composition to him, the first of two such tributes. Between 1911 and 1912, he composed The King of the Stars, a brief cantata for male chorus and a huge orchestra.

Robert Craft writes of it, “The second part is so strikingly Debussyan that one supposes Stravinsky to have been paying the older composer the compliment of imitating him…Stravinsky transcribed it for four hands and played it with Debussy, but the only copy of this arrangement has disappeared.” The full manuscript was discovered among Debussy’s effects after his death.

He was flattered to receive the piece and the dedication, but the music’s complexity took him aback. In a letter of thanks, he wrote “It is probably Plato’s ‘harmony of the eternal spheres’ (but don’t ask me which page of his!): and except on Sirius or Aldebaran, I do not foresee performances of this ‘cantata for planets.’ As for our more modest Earth, a performance would be lost in the abyss.”

Even at this early stage in their friendship, cracks began to show. Stravinsky wrote that “my own appearance on the musical scene seemed to be a shock to him.” A further shock lay directly ahead. Disdainful of the trend toward gigantism and excessive emotionalism in music (Strauss, Mahler, Scriabin), Debussy predicted a return to starker, barer music, and expressed dismay that the cancer that was slowly killing him meant that he would not live to take part in it. With The Rite of Spring, his friend Stravinsky was about to give this trend a literally earth-shaking push, inspired in part by Debussy’s music.

He completed it in 1912. Diaghilev having decided that Vaslav Nijinsky, his primary male dancer, would choreograph it, he first gave him the opportunity to develop his skills in this area through a ballet set to Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Nijinsky’s inexperience meant that 120 rehearsals were needed for it, resulting in the postponement of The Rite’s premiere until the following season.

Meanwhile, Diaghilev commissioned a ballet from Debussy. Jeux (Games), with frothy, love-on-the tennis court choreography devised by Nijinsky after he had set The Rite, debuted two weeks before it on May 15, 1913, to a decidedly cool reception.

Critic and musical adminstrator Louis Laloy recalled, “On a bright afternoon in the Spring of 1913, I was walking round my garden in Bellevue with Debussy. We were waiting for Stravinsky. As soon as he saw us, the Russian composer ran with his arms out to embrace Debussy who, over his friend’s shoulder, threw me a look of combined amusement and affection.

“He had brought the piano duet arrangement of his new work, The Rite of Spring. Debussy agreed to play the lower part on the Pleyel piano which is still in my possession. Stravinsky asked if he could take his collar off. Glaring through his glasses, pointing his nose at the keyboard and sometimes humming a part that had been omitted from the arrangement, he led his friend’s supple, agile hands into a maelstrom of sound. Debussy followed without a hitch and seemed to make light of the difficulties. When they had finished, there was no question of embracing, nor even of compliments. We were dumbfounded, overwhelmed by this hurricane which had come from the depths of the ages and taken our life by the roots.”

Robert Craft: “The music was apparently heard for the first time in any form when Stravinsky and Claude Debussy played it four-hands…Did the solo-instrument beginning, on this mind-boggling occasion, seem to the French master – as it still does to us – indebted to the example of Afternoon of a Faun?”

Stravinsky recalled that “Debussy, in spite of his later, ambivalent attitude (‘it is Negro music’), was enthusiastic at the rehearsals. Indeed, he might well have been pleased, for The Rite owes more to Debussy that to anyone else except myself, the best music as well as the weakest.”

The premiere on May 29 provoked the greatest scandal in twentieth century music. Only that night must Debussy have fully realized the impact his friend’s barbaric, revolutionary music would have. A mutual acquaintance, St.-John Perse told Stravinsky, “I was with Debussy before and after the premiere, and I remember how excited he was about the music at first, and then how he changed when he understood that with it you had taken the attention of the new generation away from him. He felt abandoned, and he began to criticize it.”

The cool reception given to Jeux, one of finest works, may have deepened his sullen mood. He voiced his feelings in remarks such as this to composer André Caplet: “The Rite of Spring is an extraordinarily savage affair…it’s primitive music with every modern convenience.” And this to conductor Ernest Ansermet: “You know how much I admire (Stravinsky’s ballet) Petrushka, but The Rite disturbs me. It seems to me that Stravinsky is trying to make music with non-musical means, just as the Germans apparently pretend to be able to make beef-steaks out of sawdust.”

As the First World War unfolded, his attitude grew bleaker. “Stravinsky is a spoiled child, who sometimes cocks a snook at music,” he wrote to his friend Robert Godet in 1916. “He’s also a young barbarian who wears flashy ties and treads on women’s toes as he kisses their hands…At this moment one wonders into whose arms the music of our day is going to fall. The young Russian school holds out its arms; but in my view they’ve become as little Russian as possible. Stravinsky himself leans dangerously in the direction of Schoenberg – nevertheless, he remains the most marvelous orchestral craftsman of our time.” Debussy gave no hint of these sour feelings in his correspondence with Stravinsky. Their personal relationship remained entirely cordial until the end.

The previous year, Debussy had enjoyed a late surge in creativity, composing the piano Etudes (which Stravinsky, in his 80s, described as the greatest piano work written in the twentieth century), two chamber sonatas and En blanc et noir (In Black and White), a suite for two pianos. He dedicated the third section of the suite to Stravinsky. Perhaps this acknowledged indirectly that it owes something to the spiky textures of Petrushka, as do the Images for Orchestra and Jeux.

”I saw him rarely during the war, and the few visits I did pay him were extremely painful,” Stravinsky wrote. “His subtle, grave smile had disappeared, and his skin was yellow and sunken; it was hard not to see the future cadaver in him. I saw him last about nine months before his death. This was a sad visit, and Paris was gray, quiet, and without lights or movement. He did not mention the piece from En blanc et noir that he had written for me, and when I received this music in Morges, late in 1919, I was very moved by it, as well as delighted to see that it was such a good composition. I was moved, too, when I composed my Symphonies (of Wind Instruments) to the memory of my old friend and, if I may say, they, too are a ‘good composition.’”

In 1920, two years after Debussy’s death, Stravinsky and numerous other prominent composers (including Dukas, Roussel, Bartók, Ravel, Falla and Satie) replied to a request from the editor of the magazine La Revue musicale for brief piano pieces to be printed in a memorial issue. Later that year, Stravinsky expanded his contribution into the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which is dedicated “to the memory of Claude Achille Debussy.”

It was only years later, when some of Debussy’s letters came into print, that Stravinsky learned of the shift in Debussy’s attitude towards him. “Was it duplicity,” he wondered, “or was he annoyed at his incapacity to digest the music of The Rite of Spring when the younger generation enthusiastically voted for it?”

He outlived Debussy by 53 years. His career witnessed enormous changes in music, many of which he instigated or adopted. If Debussy had been granted an equal span of years, he would have lived until 1951. He would have doubtless made his own contributions to musical evolution – in which directions must, alas, remain purely a matter of speculation.

© 2012 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.