Sunday 17 March 2019

Felix Mendelssohn
Overture: “The Fair Melusina”

The story of the Fair Melusina is to be found with variations in the folkore of most of the countries of Northern and Central Europe. Among the more entertaining suggestions are that her descendants were from time to time reputed to be kings of Cyprus from AD 1205-1472 as well as of Luxemburg, Armenia and Jerusalem. Closer to home, the Counts of Anjou and even the Plantagenet Kings of England have been said to have been descended from her. This is rather surprising because a consistent theme of her legend is that she was, from the waist down, either a serpent or a mermaid (take your pick) – though some versions of the legend have it that she was only a mermaid on certain days of the week.

Melusina was the eldest daughter of a fairy who had entranced the King of Albany (or, in some versions, the quite different kingdom of Albania). As is often the way with fairies, their marriage came with a condition: the King was not allowed to enter her chamber when she gave birth or bathed her children. Needless to say, he eventually broke his promise and so the fairy took off with her three daughters to a lost island. Eventually the sisters learned the reason for their banishment. They were so enraged that they sisters went back, captured their father and locked him in a mountain. Their mother considered this to be disrespectful of their regal father and so she punished them. Melusina’s punishment was to be a serpent (or mermaid) from the waist down on Saturdays. Her only prospect of escape was to find a faithful husband who would promise never to look at her on a Saturday and who would keep his word. She travelled far and wide and eventually met Count Raymond at the Fountain of the Fairies (aka the Fountain of Thirst). She was thrilled. He promised not to look at her on a Saturday. And so they were married. To cut a long story (and marriage) short, the time came when he was provoked to visit and speak to her on a Saturday. Disaster! Her punishment was reinstated and she went back to hover around the Fountain of the Fairies. And, for all I know, she hovers there still.

Mendelssohn wrote tonight’s overture in 1834 as a birthday present for his sister Fanny. In a letter to her on 7 April 1834 he said that he picked the subject after seeing an opera on the subject by Conradin Kreutzer. He explained that Kreutzer’s overture:

“was encored, and I disliked it exceedingly, and the opera quite as much; but not [the singer] Mlle Hähnel, who was very fascinating, especially in one scene when she appeared as a mermaid combing her hair; this inspired me with the wish to write an overture which the people might not encore, but which would cause them more solid pleasure.”

Mendelssohn’s solid Overture is in broadly sonata form. He does not try to encapsulate the whole legend but “conjures up for us, from the dreamworld of harmonic power, the happiness and unhappiness of two beings.” The happy theme starts the piece, with flowing arpeggios in the strings and a mellifluous tune in the woodwind; the unhappy theme introduces more insistent rhythms of disagreement.

One other mystery, which explains why this Overture is being played in a concert with Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony. The flowing arpeggios that start the Overture bear a striking similarity to Wagner’s depiction of the River Rhine at the start of Rheingold. It is said that Wagner vehemently denied any suggestion of plagiarism, claiming that the Rhine-motif came to him in a dream. Maybe – maybe not. What is certain is that if he indulged in imitation (consciously or unconsciously) it would be the sincerest form of flattery from someone who was usually indescribably rude about Melusina’s composer, for reasons that had more to do with Wagner’s anti-Semitism than with purely musical disdain for Mendelssohn’s “anxious timidity” and “delicate ambition”.

And Quietly Flows the Rhine …


Johannes Brahms
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77
Soloist: Melina Mandozzi

By 1878 Brahms and the great violinist Joachim had been close friends for well over 20 years. Brahms had habitually sent pieces to Joachim to vet. Joachim would make suggestions for change, and Brahms would frequently adopt the suggestions. Nor was the habit confined to pieces for the violin. In 1854 Brahms sent Joachim his Variations on a Theme by Schumann, his most monumental work to date, in an arrangement for two pianos with a request for help:

I should like to publish the enclosed pieces and beg you with all the urgency of which I am capable, to look them through and write me your most sincere opinion of them. ... Above all I beg you to give me a decisive yes or no on each of the pieces and variations, or to send me your objections! Don't you think the Variations are much too short and insignificant? There is no real place for such childish stuff nowadays. .... Don't shrink from making strictures; they can only be good for me.

The affection and respect were mutual. Joachim replied:

My dearest Johannes, every note in your Variations warmed me; I revelled in their wealth of feeling and intelligence! In your charming modesty you ask me for criticism, whereas it is I who could learn from you. ... If I could 1would turn every one of the Variations into a triumphal arch and the theme into a laurel wreath for you to wear as I led you through them, you young Emperor of Music!

Amongst those whom he loved best, Brahms counted the greatest violinist of his time and, in Clara Schumann, one of the most celebrated pianists of the 19th century. Yet for all three, there was a private mnemonic "f.a.e.", which stood for "frei aber einsam" - free but lonely. Clara was widowed when Robert became insane and died leaving her with a large family to support; Brahms adored her but never became her husband, while Joachim retained a sense of artistic melancholy, accentuated when his marriage to Amalie broke down and Brahms took his wife's part- a rupture between the men that was only resolved in 1887when Brahms wrote the Double Concerto for Joachim and Hausman after seven years of tense relations.

However, in 1878 the rupture was not even a cloud on the horizon. Brahms had completed his lyrical second symphony and determined to write a concerto for his friend. It was originally conceived as a work having four movements. Joachim was desperate to play it in Leipzig on New Year's Day 1879 with Brahms conducting, and it became a race against time to have it ready. By November 1878 it was far from completion and Brahms wrote to Joachim from Vienna:

The middle movements have been cut out: naturally they were the best! But I am adding a wretched adagio!

Brahms finished just in time: but only just. The Leipzig premiere was under-rehearsed and the work was coolly received; so much so that Brahms lost his nerve and handed the baton to someone else for the second performance, which was also not a great success. However, two weeks later Joachim and Brahms gave the Vienna premiere at the Musikverein after frantic revisions, and the response was electrifying - "a success as good as I've ever experienced".

The first movement is closely woven with a long introduction that introduces the main themes. There is an art to the building up of suspense, but when the violin enters it climbs to the heights before providing a silver stream of ravishing melody. The "wretched" adagio turned out to be the stunningly beautiful slow movement of the work as we now have it. Introduced by a long and haunting solo for the oboe supported by other wind instruments, it is one of the peaks of Brahms' output, mixing simplicity of style with intensity of feeling to the brim. The finale has a distinctly Hungarian air, with sharp rhythms and swirls of trilling in the woodwind. The beat changes; the tempo quickens; the concerto comes to its end.

Although the Viennese took the concerto to their hearts immediately, others took longer to persuade. When Joachim took it to Berlin, one paper described it as "trash". The Spanish virtuoso, Sarasate, displayed a virtuoso’s proper egocentricity when he said:

I don't deny that it is fairly good music, but does anyone imagine ... that I'm going to stand on the rostrum, violin in hand, and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the adagio?

Fortunately, others were prepared to make such a sacrifice; and when it was introduced in England in March 1879, the Monthly Musical Record's critic appreciated its full worth:

As far as the great work of the day, the new Concerto for Violin by Brahms can be judged of at a single hearing, there is every reason to believe that musical literature will be the richer by a new and important contribution. It is original in treatment, full of rich fancies and masterly scoring, and the opportunity it affords for the exhibition of virtuosity on the part of the soloist ... is such as will make it a favourite with all those players who possess sufficient technical skill to master its difficulties.

This has proved prophetically accurate; Sarasate missed out.


Robert Schumann
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major
“The Rhenish”
Lebhaft – Scherzo: Sehr Massig – Nicht Schnell – Feierlich – Lebhaft

Poor Schumann was, of course, quite mad. His first vision of insanity came in 1833 and he battled with episodes of depression periodically from then on. As he wrote to Clara in 1838, at a time when her father was implacably opposed to any association between his daughter and the rather strange and romantic Robert:

During the night of 17 to 18 October 1833, I was suddenly visited by the most terrible thought that can possibly come to a human creature – the most terrible thought that heaven can send as a punishment – that of “losing my reason” – it overpowered me so violently that all comfort, all recourse to prayer, was silenced and turned to derision. But anguish drove me from place to place – my breath failed me at the thought, “suppose you lost the power to think” …

When the demons were not weighing him down, he was capable of great personal generosity and musical humour. After a spell living in Dresden he seemed to be well and moved to Dusseldorf. He had long been excited by the great musical festivals of the Lower Rhine and thought to make a lasting contribution to them as a composer. The result was his Rhenish symphony, which was written between 2 November and 9 December 1850. It used to be believed that he was inspired to write it by being present at the enthronement of Archbishop Geissell in Cologne Cathedral during this period; but it is now known that he was ill in bed on the day of the ceremony. So the inspiration was in the mind rather than the eye.

The Symphony is an amalgam of the folksy and freewheeling contrasted with the intense and revolutionary, all bound together by careful interweaving of themes that span the entire work. This linking of movements contributes to the repeated sensation of walking through various familiar landscapes along the river. The first movement is full of exuberant dance rhythms which conjure up visions of a happy people living there. It is no accident that, when Brahms came to write the opening to his 3rd Symphony – also on the banks of the Rhine – he quoted directly from the first main theme of this movement, a tribute which Clara would instantly have recognised. The second movement is a gentle ländler which makes outrageous demands of the horns and which is succeeded by the gentle lyricism of the third. But then comes the emotional core of the work: the fourth movement, which Schumann himself described as being “In the style of an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony.” Inspired by the soaring heights of Cologne Cathedral it plumbs the depths of dense harmony, with occasional shafts of light and frequent dissonances in wind and brass which are quite unlike anything previously heard. In some performances it can almost seem as if one is not so much in a Cathedral of stone as on the bed of the Rhine itself looking up through turbid waters – a desperate preview of Schumann’s last moments. For Tchaikovsky there was “no mightier or deeper manifestation of an artist’s creative power” than this movement. Suddenly, the mood changes and what has just past seems to be a portentous prelude to the ecstatically joyful finale which ends with a final blaze of manic glory.

Where does Schumann stand in the pantheon of symphonists? John Eliot Gardiner (whose recordings of the complete symphonies and Konzertstuck for 4 Horns are wondrously persuasive advocates) is in no doubt: “Mahler and Tchaikovsky are only two of many composers who remind us that just as Schumann’s orchestral achievements are unthinkable without those of Beethoven and Schubert, so the symphonic music of the late 19th century could not have come into being without Schumann’s contributions to the ‘grand form’”. With this symphony, you may judge for yourself.

Jeremy Stuart Smith—March 2019