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PROGRAM

BACH: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
MENDELSSOHN: Piano Concerto No. 1
FARRENC: Symphony No. 3

 



PROGRAM NOTES

We often have a sense that the orchestral canon, at least for the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, is fairly stable—a sense magnified during the 2020 Beethoven
celebrations, which remind us that he’s been central to the repertoire for over two
hundred years. But the three composers on our program this afternoon suggest
something more complex. A reputation can be, as the Gershwins might have said, a
sometime thing.

Granted, Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), enormously successful during his
life, has remained, with some ups and downs, a concert staple ever since. A prodigy as<...
We often have a sense that the orchestral canon, at least for the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, is fairly stable—a sense magnified during the 2020 Beethoven
celebrations, which remind us that he’s been central to the repertoire for over two
hundred years. But the three composers on our program this afternoon suggest
something more complex. A reputation can be, as the Gershwins might have said, a
sometime thing.

Granted, Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), enormously successful during his
life, has remained, with some ups and downs, a concert staple ever since. A prodigy as
talented as Mozart during his teenage years, Mendelssohn developed his mature style
early and, in the words of this afternoon’s soloist Steven Heyman, “he spent his whole
life perfecting what he did.” His youthful facility is surely evident in his 1831 First Piano
Concerto, composed in the glow of a visit to Italy when he was barely in his twenties.
Although Mendelssohn straddles the line between classical and romantic styles,
this work has a clear forward-looking perspective. For instance, as Steve points out, it
shows its romantic tendencies by using the orchestra symphonically, rather than simply
as an accompaniment. Orchestral color, treated in dazzling fashion, is also more
important than it is for most composers of the classical period. Most important, though,
is the writing for the solo instrument.

At the time, there was a significant advance in piano manufacture, and
Mendelssohn—a virtuoso at the keyboard himself—took full advantage of the latest
developments to show off his skill. It’s clear from the opening measures. Instead of the
long orchestral introduction we might expect from a classical concerto, the soloist, in
Steve’s words, “comes in right away with octaves blazing and lots of fiery technique.”
This burst of early romantic bravura sports the tempo marking “Molto Allegro” further
modified with “con fuoco” (with fire), a marking far more common among the romantics
than among earlier composers. It is “not quite as bombastic as Liszt,” says Steve, “but it
certainly has its place in the evolution of the style.” Like Liszt’s First Concerto, too,
Mendelssohn’s runs the movements together.

Despite “the sense of drama,” however, despite the show-off quality of the outer
movements (especially the finale), the concerto also has a typically Mendelssohnian
lyricism. “The second movement, an incredibly tuneful and sweet duet with the strings,
is particularly beautiful and contrasts with the outer movements well.” Steve is
especially looking forward to playing it in St. Paul’s, where its musical glow will be
complemented by the visual beauty of the sun coming through the stained glass
windows.

The Mendelssohn is preceded on the concert by the Brandenburg Concerto
No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Surely, Bach is an even more stable
pillar of high Western musical culture than Mendelssohn? Not exactly. Although he was
revered by other composers, early listeners found his music dry and intellectual. In fact,
it was Mendelssohn himself who had a significant role in establishing Bach’s current
stature: in 1829, just a month out of his teens, he stunned Europe by preparing and
conducting the first performance of the Saint Matthew Passion since Bach’s death, an

event that led to a major re-evaluation of Bach’s music. And even after that monumental
triumph, it took another twenty years for the six Brandenburg Concertos to appear in
print. They were compiled from material Bach had on hand as a kind of job application
to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721—but they didn’t have
the intended effect. They were put on the shelf, eventually sold for a pittance, and then
put on the shelf again. Rediscovered in the 19th century, the Brandenburgs were only
published a century after Bach’s death. Even then, orchestras were slow to take up the
music.

The Third is the most compact and most energetic of the six. It’s generally
labelled a concerto grosso—a popular baroque form that pits a group of soloists (the
“concertino”) against a larger ensemble (the “ripieno”). In this case, however, Bach
plays with the ambiguity of who is who. It’s scored for violins, violas, and cellos (each in
three parts), as well as continuo; but there are no soloists. Or, more accurately, there
are only soloists, since everyone gets a shot at a solo turn. Sometimes the groups
chase each other as groups, sometimes they break up into individual lines. The result is
a kaleidoscopically shifting texture even without other instruments.

The trajectory of the reputation of French composer Louise Farrenc
(1804–1875) is different still. Farrenc was, like Mendelssohn, a first-rate piano virtuoso
and a scholar committed to reviving early music; she was also an important teacher,
only the second woman professor in the history of the French Conservatory, although
she was only allowed to teach piano, not composition. Most important, though, she was
a composer. Women composers, especially those from the nineteenth century, have
had a difficult time making their voices heard (she, at least, was fortunate in having an
enlightened husband who supported rather than blocked her career). In the case of
Farrenc’s symphonies, the difficulty in gaining a foothold in the repertoire was doubled,
since during her lifetime, symphonies did not have the status in France that they had in
Germany and Austria. While hers were performed to great acclaim in her lifetime, they
quickly fell into oblivion.

Until recently. Times have changed, and the rise of feminism has led to a re-
investigation of women composers. And now that Farrenc’s music has become
available for performance, it has taken the world by storm. Indeed, even though her
orchestral output is limited, she was the most frequently performed woman composer
on orchestral concerts in 2018. We think you’ll understand why after today’s
performance—and we hope that you’ll be proud that your local orchestra has performed
her music before the New York Philharmonic has gotten around to it.

This afternoon, we’re offering her Symphony No. 3, composed in 1847. It’s a
dramatic early romantic work, with plenty of reminiscences (as you might expect) of
Beethoven and Schubert, but with tremendous individuality as well: while it’s not in any
way radical, it doesn’t always go precisely where you expect it to. Music by second-rank
composers often treads water, but there’s not a trace of autopilot in this score, which is
full of rhythmic verve (the third movement is especially vital), formal surprises (note the
striking silences that rend the finale), and vivid orchestration, which gives the
winds—kept off the stage in the Bach—plenty of opportunity to show off.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Contact me at
prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org

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