Brahms Symphony No. 2: "Passion & Emotion"
Brahms Symphony No. 2 has been described as “all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine and cool green shadows.” The piece was written while Brahms was on summer holiday and stands in stark contrast to his 1st symphony. You will hear why early listeners came to call this Brahms’ Pastoral Symphony. The audience will also experience Patrick Harlin’s world premiere of Earthrise and Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement performed by Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Finalist, Clayton Stephenson. This is a concert you won’t want to miss.
Patrick Harlin (1984–)
Style: Contemporary American
Duration: Fifteen minutes
In 2021 I applied to go to space. An eccentric billionaire had purchased all the seats for the first trip on the Elon Musk/SpaceX inaugural flight around the moon and was looking for eight artists to join. In 2021, a full year into the pandemic, there was, and continues to be, an overwhelming desire to escape—escape the pandemic, escape politics, escape our bubbles, escape war, escape the climate crises, and if you have a few billion dollars, temporarily escape the planet.
In my application, I suggested that they might pick a composer (myself), and I would write a new orchestral soundtrack for space travel. Some other space repertoire is among the most well-known (Star Wars, Also Sprach Zarathustra, The Planets). It felt oddly coincidental that the exact model of microphones I use for my soundscape recordings became the first sent to Mars on the NASA Perseverance Rover and the first to capture audio on another planet. I was not picked to go to space (the trip hasn’t yet happened), but I decided to write a “space piece” anyway.
EARTHRISE — In 1968, the lesser-known but more groundbreaking Apollo 8 mission had two firsts; they ventured outside Earth’s gravitational field and took the first trip around the moon. Astronauts William Anders, James Lovell, and Frank Borman were tasked with surveying the dark side of the moon. William Anders remarked, “Nobody asked me to take a picture of Earth, I didn’t think about it either.”1 In a twist of fate, as the three astronauts orbited the moon for the third time, their lunar module rotated ever so slightly, bringing the Earth into view above the barren horizon of the moon. Astronaut Bill Anders (recorded on tape) is audibly moved and scrambles to load color film into his camera and snap what became one of the most important photos of the 20th century, now known as EARTHRISE.
Of Earth, James Lovell remarked, “You don’t see cities, you don’t see boundaries, you don’t see countries, you don’t see people, it looks like the place is uninhabited.” Frank Borman opined, “What they should have sent was poets, because I don’t think we captured in its entirety the grandeur of what we had seen… It’s only when you get into the deeper space that you experience the total immersion in the heavens.” William Anders reflected, “When I looked at Earth on the way back and had a little time to be more contemplative…it got me thinking really for the first time that we are just a small piece of an almost infinite universe.”
I don’t want to tell you how to experience this music, but I can offer some insight into what I was thinking while writing. There is a sense of awe in looking at the night sky, the vastness of the universe, and the improbability of reaching the moon, let alone our closet stars. If you are one of the 24 humans to date to take the 240,000-mile trip– the excitement of skyward travel is accompanied by the violence of exiting Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull. You are at the mercy of your equipment and present company as you escape, floating. Perhaps you have the feeling that many who take the trip have– we are a speck in the universe, orbiting an otherwise unremarkable star; everything you love is back on that tiny blue marble.
©2022 Patrick Harlin
Vaughn-Lee, Emmanuel, director. Earthrise, PBS, 1 Oct. 2018, https://www.pbs.org/pov/watch/earthrise/. Accessed 1 May 2022.Program notes by John Varineau
Piano Concerto in One Movement
Piano Concerto in One Movement
Florence Price (1887–1953)
Style: Contemporary American
Duration: Eighteen minutes
In the 1930s, what is now called the National Association of Negro Musicians hosted a composition contest sponsored by the department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker. The winning piece in 1932 was the Symphony in E minor by Florence Beatrice Smith Price. Shortly after that, Frederick Stock of the Chicago Symphony offered to premiere her work, and in June 1933 her symphony became the first work by an African American woman to be performed by a major American Orchestra.
Florence Smith was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887. Her father was the city’s only black dentist. Her mother taught her music and after graduating first in her high school class when she was only fourteen, she went to Boston to enroll in the New England Conservatory of Music. She graduated with a degree in both piano and organ and then returned to Little Rock where she taught at Shorter College. She married an attorney, Thomas Price, and taught piano privately and music in the segregated black schools.
Race relations in Little Rock deteriorated, and after a horrific lynching the Price family joint the great migration and moved north to Chicago. She continued her education at several colleges in the Chicago area and eventually settled at the Chicago Music College (now the Chicago College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University), studying orchestration and composition, and graduating in 1934. After divorcing her husband, Florence supported herself by writing educational piano works and writing popular songs under the pseudonym Vee Jay. She also played organ in churches and for films (live music in movie theaters hadn’t quite died out yet). She became an influential teacher and performer and composed more than 300 works. The famed African-American soprano Marian Anderson became a champion of Price’s songs, in particular her arrangement of the spiritual My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord and a setting of the Langston Hughes poems Songs to a Dark Virgin, hailed by the press as “one of the greatest immediate successes won by an American song.”
The year after her Symphony in E Minor was premiered by the Chicago Symphony, Florence Price performed the premiere of her Piano Concerto in One Movement at the commencement exercises of the Chicago Musical College. The Chicago Tribune described it as “Equal in length to some symphonies, the concerto, aside from its technical perfections, disclosed a thematic substance rich in syncopated and spiritual colors.” A few months later she played a two-piano arrangement of it in Pittsburgh for the annual meeting of the National Association of Negro Musicians. One reviewer wrote, “There is real American music and Mrs. Price is speaking a language she knows.” A year later it received another performance, this time played by Florence’s student Margaret Bonds and the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago. A review of that performance in the Chicago Herald and Examiner proclaimed
“It represents the most successful effort to date to lift the native folk-song idiom of the Negro to artistic levels. It is full of fine melodies deriving from this source directly or by imitation. The quasi-symphonic treatment of these ideas shows abundant resource, both harmonic and orchestral.”
The orchestral parts to the concerto went missing for the remainder of the 20th century. There was only the two-piano version and another score for piano with an orchestral reduction for a second piano. (The two versions are slightly different.). In the first decade of this century, the Center for Black Music Research commissioned Trevor Weston to recreate the full orchestral accompaniment. The reconstructed concerto was premiered in Chicago in 2011. Then the original parts reappeared, and the premiere of the “original” concerto took place just last year in Florence Price’s birthplace of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Even though this is a one-movement concerto, the three sections of that single movement correspond to the three movements (fast-slow-fast) of a standard concerto. The first part begins with spiritual-like phrases uttered by the orchestra. A lengthy solo cadenza for the piano follows and then the body of the piece begins with the orchestra and piano alternating principal roles. The lyrical nature of the second section has an occasional nod to jazz-inspired harmony. The lively third section if full of syncopated rhythm. It is a stylized juba—an African American dance that involves stomping, clapping and body slapping. You might hear hints of ragtime in it.
©2022 John P. Varineau
Symphony No. 2
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Duration: 40 minutes
These days, the popular characterization of Brahms is that of a melancholy, forever-old man: balding, with a long, disheveled gray beard. We listen to his music as if he were always stuck in the autumn of his life. Still, Brahms was young once and, at the time he wrote his Second Symphony, even happy! In the summer of 1877, he was in the village of Pörtschach in southern Austria. There were inspirational views of snow-capped peaks towering over the lake, the eating was good and, as Brahms wrote to the critic Eduard Hanslick, “The melodies fly so thick here that you have to be careful not to step on one.” Just the year before, Brahms finally broke his decades-long symphonic writer’s block by finishing his First Symphony—what Hans von Bülow called “Beethoven’s Tenth.” He was in a cheery mood and produced this light-hearted work, his Second Symphony, in about four months.
He was also in a playful mood. Although, this is undoubtedly Brahms’s cheeriest symphony, he claimed to a friend that the orchestra would play “with crepe bands on their sleeves because of its dirge-like effect.” He wrote to his publisher, “The new symphony is so melancholic that you can’t stand it. I have never written anything so sad, so minor-ish: the score must appear with a black border.” Writing to another friend, he claimed that his Second Symphony wasn’t really a symphony, but more like a serenade:
You have only to sit down at the piano and with your little feet on both pedals alternatingly, strike the chord of F minor several times in succession, first in the treble, then in the bass, fortissimo (very loud) and pianissimo (very soft), and you will gradually get a vivid impression of my latest.
The joke is that the symphony is in D major, containing not one F minor chord!
Maybe Brahms wasn’t being so funny when he described this symphony to friends. There are some dark moments, most notably near the beginning of the first movement when the timpani sound a roll like distant thunder and the trombones play dark, ominous chords. Vincenz Lachner wrote to Brahms asking why he injected this darkness into such a lighthearted work. Brahms replied: “I would have to confess that I am . . . a severely melancholic person, that black wings are constantly flapping about us.”
After a performance of a Brahms symphony, the critic Virgil Thomson once heard a patron exclaim, “Brahms is so dependable!” This symphony is no exception. All of the movements follow the normal pattern for a symphony.
The first movement presents the opening theme right away. In it you’ll hear the motives which permeate the entire work. The second theme, played by the cellos and violas, is typical for Brahms: soaring and lyrical.
The melody in the second movement is an extended one, again played by the cellos. After a contrasting middle section, it comes back at the end of the movement, this time ornamented by the rest of the orchestra.
The third movement is a gentle little Austrian dance with a kick on the third beat, known as a ländler. Two faster and more robust episodes interrupt the pastoral setting. The final movement begins in a hushed manner. As it progresses it becomes more ebullient until even the trombones, who were responsible for the only gloom in the first movement, join the merrymaking and go out in a blaze of glory.
©2021 John P. Varineau