Brilliance: Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto
November 29, 2014

Jyotir (Brilliance)
Glenn Buhr

Born December 18, 1954, in Winnipeg, Manitoba

This work was premiered in 1989 by the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony and conducted by Raffi Armenian.  It is scored for piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, trombone, tuba, percussion, piano and strings.

Composer Glenn Buhr is one of Canada’s most diverse composers.  Born in Winnipeg, he studied at the University of Manitoba, the University of British Columbia and the University of Michigan. Among his teachers were the celebrated composers William Albright and William Bolcom. Since 1984 he has been Professor of Composition at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, where he continues to teach.

For the past 30 years, his music has been enjoyed by audiences and honoured by many professional organizations.  Buhr has won the CBC National Radio Competition for Young Composers, the Italian Pro Loco Corciano competition and the American Harp Society Competition. His music has been performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Montreal International Music Competition, Canadian Chamber Ensemble, Detroit Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, Penderecki Quartet, Toronto Children’s Chorus and Amici.

Buhr served as composer-in-residence with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra from 1990 to 1996 and was a co-founder with Bramwell Tovey of the Winnipeg New Music Festival in 1990.  He was also director of new music for the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra from 2002 to 2005.  In addition to his myriad other duties, Buhr remains active as a jazz pianist.  With a style that hearkens back to romanticism, Buhr’s music is evocative and gains much inspiration from the literary world.  He is also influenced by Eastern philosophy and music.

Buhr’s work entitled Jyotir was written for the Canadian Chamber Ensemble in 1989.  The piece grew from an early fascination with Indian music. Although he admits that he did not understand many of the exotic techniques of Eastern music on first hearing, Buhr was drawn back to these fascinating sounds nearly two decades later:

“Later, when I was working on The Cycle of Spring in 1988, I became fascinated by this music again through my new interest in ancient Sanskrit theater. The whole principle behind this tradition is the importance of the emotional state of the audience during the performance, and that’s something that I’ve become conscious of in my own work. In some performances of The Cycle of Spring, for example, Akasha and Jyotir are included as instrumental movements for dance in order to enhance the emotional experience for the listener.”

The composer describes the five-minute work as

“a brief study in virtuosic orchestral writing. It is unrelentingly fast, with several virtuoso sections for the woodwinds and an improvised drum solo toward the end. As the title suggests (Jyotir is the Sanskrit word for brilliance), the work is strongly influenced by the music of India. It is built on a single seven-note scale with no modulation and there is a recurring pattern of 16 beats over which the melodic material unfolds. A two-note motif alternates with woodwind flourishes and pounding drums. Percussion play a prominent role, driving the asymmetrical, relentless rhythmic pulsation.”

Concerto in E Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op.64
Felix Mendelssohn

Born February 3, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany
Died November 4, 1847 in Leipzig, Germany

This work was first performed on March 13, 1845 in Leipzig, Germany, with Ferdinand David as soloist and Danish composer Niels Gade conducting.  It is scored for pairs of woodwinds, horns, and trumpets, with timpani and strings.

The most intensely Romantic music is often represented as having been written by composers whose personal lives were fraught with misfortune. The heroic character of Beethoven’s middle period is often depicted as springing from the pen of the master who fought against impending deafness to produce heartfelt art from his anguish.  Any number of Romantic composers may be plugged into a similar formula and, in a few cases, the paradigm even holds true – but not in the case of Felix Mendelssohn.

Coming from a wealthy family, Mendelssohn had no financial worries.  His banker father, although a converted Lutheran, was the son of the pre-eminent Age of Enlightenment Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.  Felix, along with his sister Fanny, received the best musical education money could buy.  As an adult the composer’s personal life was the model of domestic bliss with his joyful marriage to Cecile Jeanrenaud, the daughter of a minister in the French Reform Church.  An undisputed giant in Europe’s musical community, Mendelssohn was much sought-after as both composer and conductor, beginning his tenure with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1836 at the tender age of 27.  Every aspect of his life was nearly perfect, but such a shining star could only burn out quickly.  Mendelssohn died at the age of 38, probably from a stroke – the same malady that killed Fanny a year before.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor is a late work, dating from the end of 1844, although much of the piece was sketched over the course of the previous decade.  By 1835 he resolved to compose a work for his friend, the virtuoso violinist Ferdinand David.  However, the composer’s many conducting obligations and extensive travels forced him to shelve the project for nine years.

The resulting work is a gem of the solo repertoire.  Opening immediately with the soloist and completely foregoing the customary orchestral exposition, the piece begins with a charming melody that has become the signature of this concerto.  Traditionally cast in sonata form, the movement shows Mendelssohn’s expertise at paring down the orchestral fabric, allowing smaller groups of instruments to accompany the soloist.  The first movement is fused to the second by a single sustained note in the bassoon, leading to a lyrical Andante theme.  In this middle movement, Mendelssohn skillfully exploits the legato capabilities of the violin while accompanying these passages with multiple stops of considerable difficulty – all played simultaneously by the soloist.  The finale is a brilliant and elegant romp – a clear gesture of homage to the virtuoso tradition of solo violinists.

Symphony No.2 in D Major, Op.36
Ludwig van Beethoven

Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany
Died March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria

This work was premiered on April 5, 1803, in Vienna with the composer conducting. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, with timpani and strings.

Ludwig van Beethoven was well established in Vienna as a local composer by the year 1800.  His reputation as the leading pianist had been sealed when he trounced the German pianist Daniel Steinbelt in a public piano competition and audiences were eager to hear him play.  Beethoven’s new works were highly anticipated events.  In 1801 he had just composed his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and had written the celebrated Moonlight Sonata. Beethoven wrote to a friend the same year, “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on, I will take a new path.”  The meaning of this statement has usually been taken at face value.  In short, Beethoven felt that he could do better.  However, consideration should be given to a possible deeper, more complex meaning.

There was only one aspect of his life that was not enviable – he had noticed in 1799 that he could not hear as well as he once did.  He described it in the harrowing confession, called the “Heiligenstadt Testament” because of the city in which it was written, that he communicated to his brothers in 1802:

“How could I declare the weakness of a sense which in me ought to be more acute than in others – a sense which formerly I possessed in the highest perfection, perfection such as few in my profession enjoy, or even have enjoyed. No, I cannot do it … I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back.”

Beethoven certainly realized that this malady would affect his compositions.  Could the “new path” have been his statement of resolve to conquer his greatest fears by writing them into his scores?

When comparing Beethoven’s pieces before 1802 with those afterward, certain differences become apparent.  The earlier works are much more aligned with the Classical principles of formal balance, but the later pieces are more harmonically adventurous, less chained to symmetry and exhibit more emotional directness than their predecessors.  This new aesthetic is Beethoven’s “new path,” described by one musicologist as “new wine in old bottles.”  Of course, Beethoven’s new approach was most obviously apparent in the Eroica Symphony which was premiered privately the following year.

This new aesthetic of Romanticism was also different in the source of inspiration of musical works.  The Classical ideal found inspiration in religious and social ideals, as well as in ancient mythology.  While Romanticism drew upon the same inspiration from time to time, much of the impetus for these later works was personal experience.

Composed in 1801 and 1802, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 stands firmly in both worlds.  Beethoven realized his impending deafness, but still maintained the Classical form that he mastered to a higher degree than any of his contemporaries.  For a composer trained in the last two decades of the eighteenth century, it was just the way things were done.  The break with Classicism is found in the music with the inventive melodies and daring harmonies that fill the form.

This new work was completed after Beethoven returned to Vienna from Heiligenstadt with the realization that his hearing would not improve.  In an effort to raise awareness of his music, and likely to raise money, Beethoven organized a huge concert to be held in April of 1803.  His new symphony would be performed for the first time along with the premieres of his Third Piano Concerto and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives.  All three works were successful.

Beethoven’s Second Symphony opens with a slow introduction, Adagio molto, that implies a somber tone for the work.  Minor and major keys compete for dominance and eventually a bright D major wins as the Allegro con brio main body of the movement begins with a quiet flourish.  Beethoven retains the instrumentation of the Classical symphony with winds in pairs augmented by timpani and strings.  However, this movement in traditional sonata form displays gravitas that is missing from most symphonies of the Classical Period.  A lively coda ends the movement.

The second movement is a lengthy Larghetto of transcendent beauty.  Like the first movement and the finale, it is cast in a traditional sonata form.  Although Beethoven’s writing is melodic, this movement is not without the proverbial dark clouds threatening upon the horizon.  However, the final measures resume the bright A major aura of sunshine.

For the first time, Beethoven uses the designation of scherzo in the third movement of this symphony.  Literally meaning “joke,” this is a good-natured romp full of rustic humor and dynamic contrasts.  Beethoven could not have known that the scherzo would become the de rigueur form of symphonic third movements (although they sometimes appear in the second position) for Romantic symphonies, replacing the Classical minuet.

Beethoven’s bustling finale raises the bar for humour in symphonic form – an obvious bow of deference to Joseph Haydn, for whom the composer held high esteem.  The finale boasts all of the hallmarks of Beethoven.  It is filled with dynamic contrasts and delightful orchestrational devices.  Note the charming flute and violin chirps that spice the coda with laugh-out-loud humor.  It is not difficult to understand how revolutionary this symphony was to audiences in 1803.  A Viennese critic in 1804 saw this work as “a crass monster, a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die and, though bleeding in the finale, furiously thrashes about with its stiffened tail.”  Oh, how wrong he was!

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