(Soloist Anna Da Silva Chen)
Sibelius began work on this concerto in late 1902, and by Autumn 1903 he had the outline of the work completed in a short score version. The beginning of 1904 saw this work completed and its first performance took place in Helsinki, Finland on 8 February 1904 with soloist Victor Nováček and Sibelius himself conducting. A brief revision followed this performance and the as it appears tonight was premiered in Berlin in October 1905 by soloist Karl Hair and conducted by Richard Strauss. Both premieres occurred without the violinist for whom the work was composed, Willy Burmester due to him being unavailable for the performances. Burmester was so offended that he refused to ever perform the work and Sibelius re-dedicated the concerto to the brilliant young Hungarian Ferenc von Vecsey, first performing the concerto at just age 13.
The first movement of the only concerto that Sibelius wrote begins with a sensitive, almost dreamy opening melody that introduces the violin soloist. A passionate, virtuosic recitation of sixths and octaves follows, then the orchestra takes over and a descent into darkness follows. A burst of light from the darkness takes place in the form of an extended violin cadenza, forming the development section.
A short introduction by clarinets and oboes leads us into the second movement, with the violin soloist singing over the orchestra. Pianissimo scales of broken octaves in the violin interplay with slowly descending scales in the flutes and strings. The final movement was referred to by Donald Francis Rovey as ‘a polonaise for polar bears’. The main theme is drawn from an earlier string quartet of 1890. This movement is well-known and feared by many violinists for its technical difficulty and is regularly considered a staple of every violinist’s repertoire.
Whilst Schubert seemed insecure about adopting Beethoven’s mantle and publicity, Brahms was much less insecure, proudly displaying Schumann’s article in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik proclaiming him as the saviour of German music at age 20. Brahms had a sense of the history of German music, especially that of Bach, and he was asked to join the editorial board of the first complete edition of Bach’s works.
Although he didn’t begin composing at as young an age as earlier prodigies, by age 19 Brahms had already composed several large piano works and a significant number of songs. He was still wary of composing symphonies and not being able to match Beethoven’s benchmark, however with Schumann’s encouraging words – ‘if one only makes the beginning, then the end comes of itself’, he began sketching his first symphony in 1854. These early sketches resulted in his first piano concerto and the German requiem. A year later he completed a first movement, but it wasn’t until 7 years later that he sent his work to Clara Schumann for perusal. Buoyed by her encouragement, and ignoring repeated requests throughout the 1860s for a symphony, he began to reveal progress in 1870. The resounding success of his Haydn Variations in 1873 spurred him to 2 years of hard work, and the signed score appearing in September 1876.
The premiere performance was met with quite a reserved reception, but the more serious and dark nature of the symphony was soon better understood and Brahms’ C minor symphony took its place as one of the greatest symphonies ever written.
The first movement is forceful and dramatic, in stark contrast to the gentle nature of the second movement. Movement three reminds us of a scene in the country, with a middle trio section changing key and meter to reveal an upbeat peasant dance. We return to C minor in the final movement plunging back into a dramatic struggle with the development section revealing one of Brahms’ best-known melodies, and the rousing conclusion saluting Brahms’ triumph over tragedy.
©Andrew Doyle 2016