Virtue and Virtuosity Program Notes

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) :: Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major, BWV 1051

The story goes like this: In 1721, Bach sent a manuscript of orchestral works to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, inscribed with an elaborate dedication to the nobleman. These six pieces were pragmatically titled Concerts avec plusieurs instruments (“concertos with several instruments”), which would be christened with the snappier nickname “Brandenburg” over a century later by Philipp Spitta, a Bach biographer. Why did Bach send them? No one knows for certain. Bach was happily employed as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen when he met the Margrave in Berlin. In fact, evidence shows that the reason he was in the city was on business to check on a new harpsichord for Leopold. One thing we do know is that a handful of years lapsed between their meeting and the mailing. During those years, devastating change swept through the composer’s household: out of town on duty with musicians and the Prince, Bach returned to find his wife had died several days before and was already buried. Not only was he heartbroken, but he was left to care for their several children alone. Perhaps Bach remembered meeting the Margrave and saw him as a potential ticket out of town. The concertos may have been intended as a kind of musical CV. Whatever his motivation, they were sent and met with silence. No reply. The Margrave never thanked Bach, nor apparently even had them performed. 

It appears the musical material of the Brandenburg Concertos was not new, but rather re-workings of pre-existing works. For one thing, it was commonplace practice for Bach, and his contemporaries, to recycle old material. Additionally, it would have been bad form for the composer to send brand new music to one nobleman when employed by another. Regardless, Bach—the habitually thorough craftsman—once again took an existing genre and pushed it to its maximum potential. In this case the Brandenburgs are “concerto grossi,” or “big concerts,” an orchestral form popularized by Italian composers where a smaller group (“concertino”) of soloists are in conversation with the whole of the ensemble (“ripieno”). Each of the six concertos are completely unique, differing especially in instrumentation. Brandenburg No. 6 stands out from the pack because of what it lacks—violins! Because of this, No. 6 has a prominent richness of sound that adds its own layer of drama to the performers’ pyrotechnics.  

Luciano Berio: Selections from Duetti per due Violini

Many people have an awareness of the history of music, but Berio was keenly mindful of existing within it. In 1968 he wrote Sinfonia for the New York Philharmonic’s 125th anniversary, which drops musical quotes from compositions by Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Mahler, to name a few. Rendering, written between 1989-90, juxtaposes fragments of an unfinished Schubert orchestral work against Berio’s newly composed music. The primary questions he seems to be ruminating over are about influence, and the artist’s eternal apprenticeship to the past. 

The Duetti per due Violini were written between 1979-1983 and display Berio’s respect for friends and colleagues by acknowledging that artistic creation is a communal undertaking. There are thirty-four of them, each named for a different person, and linked to a personal memory, interaction, or lesson learned. Since they were also meant to function as pedagogical tools, one part is often a bit easier than the other. Berio wrote his own program note for the Duetti. A portion of it follows.

“It can happen that a violinist friend tells a composer, one night, that other than those of Bartók, there are not enough violin duets today. And it can happen that the composer immediately sets himself to writing duets that night until dawn...and then more duets in the moments of leisure, in different cities and hotels, between rehearsals, traveling, thinking of somebody, when looking for a present...this is what happened to me and I am grateful to that nocturnal violinist whose name is given to one of these Duetti. Thus behind every duet there are personal reasons and situations.” He continues, “These Duetti are for me what the vers de circonstance were for Mallarmé: that is, they are not necessarily based on deep musical motivations, but rather connected by the fragile thread of daily occasions.” 

(Reiko Yamada – AFC Commission Premiere)

Dear A Far Cry,

Back in 2007, while still a young, naive, ambitious and optimistic composer, I felt compelled to write a multi-sectional 15-part string orchestral piece for my absolute favorite (and young, and ambitious) ensemble, without even the promise that it would be performed. I was teaching piano and music theory in private music schools at the time, working six and sometimes seven days a week.

It is the existence of the one and only A Far Cry, together with an invitation for a six-week residency from the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico that made this piece possible. The title, "New Shadows in the Raw Light of Darkness", was offered by a fellow resident artist at the Wurlitzer foundation, the poet Clark Smith. When the score was complete, I sent it to AFC and, moving on to the next project, tried to forget about it.

I was on the subway in Tokyo when, a while later, I received news that AFC would premiere my piece at Jordan Hall. This was late on a hot, humid summer night and the subway car was filled with tired drunk Japanese working men and women. I started giggling and hopping around and my fellow passengers, irritated by my behavior, made it clear that it was highly unacceptable by Japanese standards. I didn’t care. From that moment until the premiere, with dreamy eyes and dreamy ears, I imagined over and over again the perspective of each Crier as they would play in beautiful Jordan hall. On the day of the premiere, I wore the best dress I owned and, watching the Cries moving together as one on the stage, I could not believe how fortunate I was.

Four weeks ago, which is to say twelve years after that premiere, I received the exciting news that AFC would once again performing the piece. I pulled out the score that was buried deep in my “past projects” folder and took a look at it, measure by measure, part by part, and began to blush. I felt as if I was reading my teenage diary. I spent the next two days in a state of panic and eventually decided I needed to revise the score, despite the limited amount of time at my disposal.

My younger self, in the original score, was proclaiming her love and admiration for AFC in each section, taking every opportunity to showcase the exceptional skills of each player. From chorale-like writing to Grosso Fugue like section to Romantic style Waltz (with an additional twist of irregular meter), my efforts systematically crushed any hint of subtlety or sophistication. While revising the piece, I tried to correct some of those mistakes; yet I continue to my younger self’s boundless admiration for AFC, and therefore retained some of the naive, ambitious and optimistic elements in which I expressed this feeling in the original piece. 

Dear A Far Cry, thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to enter in a dialogue with the young and precious composer that I was. I hope you like this slightly revised score, and that you appreciate the composer I have become after all these years. 

With everlasting admiration,

Reiko Yamada

Hiroshima, September 10, 2019

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) :: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61

Do you know the name Franz Clement? Fashionable 18th century concertgoers did. So did Haydn, and, of course, Beethoven. Clement was the young Viennese violin prodigy they noticed appearing on stages across the European continent at an impressive pace. As an eight year old he gave his first public concert. A year later, he was touring in England. Clement’s father would have clearly remembered Mozart, and likely wanted his son to follow in those footsteps. Incidentally, when he was eighteen he became the assistant of Mozart’s former assistant (who famously completed the unfinished Requiem) Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who had studied with Antonio Salieri. A legitimate talent, Clement was praised for the “clarity, elegance, and tenderness of expression” in his performances. He also had a remarkable ability to commit music to memory. Legend has it that he was able to successfully compose a piano reduction of Haydn’s Creation entirely in his head (and it was so well done that it’s the piano version Haydn published). 

When he was twenty-two years old, he was appointed as the music director of the Theater an der Wien, just one year after it opened, and was eventually promoted to artistic music director. And, like most instrumental soloists of his day, he also composed a number of works, including 6 violin concertos. In 1805 Clement’s own Violin Concerto in D Major was premiered (with Clement as soloist) on the same program as the premiere of Beethoven’s 3rd, Eroica, Symphony. The following year he premiered the violin concerto (also in D Major) that Beethoven had written for him. 

Unfortunately, the premiere was something of a flop. Stories abound that Beethoven finished the work so last-minute that Clement ellentially had to sight-read his part due to lack of rehearsal time. (This is par for the course Beethoven, since he had a pattern of depriving ensembles of precious rehearsal time.) Though Beethoven might not have given Clement proper time, he did write a piece that catered to the violinist’s beautiful style of playing. A publication in Leipzig reported that Clement “...played with his usual elegance and luster.” 

After that evening in 1806, the concerto was effectively shelved until a teenage Joseph Joachim decided to study and perform the piece under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn in London, 1844. From that moment onward, Beethoven’s one and only concerto moved from the sidelines into the spotlight, and has become a standard work in the repertoire. 

Sadly, Franz Clement did not fair so well. The Romantic era blossomed, standards shifted, and his style of performing fell out of fashion. He died in poverty and obscurity. 

-Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music and cultural critic, and freelance writer. A graduate of New England Conservatory, she writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.