Program Notes

March 31st, 2016
American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Allison Voth, director


Felix Mendelssohn: “Duet”, from Lobgesang
Fanny Mendelssohn: Songs, op. 7
Johannes Brahms: Trio in A minor, for Piano, Clarinet, and Cello
Felix Mendelssohn: Duets, op. 63
Johannes Brahms: Two Songs for Alto, Viola, and Piano
Fanny Mendelssohn: Duets, op. 63
Johannes Brahms: Neue Liebeslieder, for Vocal Quartet and Piano

Notes by Allison Voth

Felix Mendelssohn: Soprano duet from Lobgesang, op. 52
Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) is often referred to as Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, op. 52. Recently, it is more commonly described as a choral work. Lobgesang was composed in 1840 as a commission to commemorate Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. It is a hybrid symphony/cantata, consisting of three initial orchestral movements, followed by nine vocal movements: four choruses, two duets, two arias, and one recitative. The duet performed this evening is the sixth movement, the midway point of the symphony. An exquisitely crafted duet for two sopranos, this piece is both a meditation on and an exultation of faith.

Fanny Mendelssohn: Duets, op. 7 and op. 10
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, was an accomplished pianist and composer. She and Felix were very close and served as great inspirations to each other. In her short life of 42 years, Mendelssohn-Hensel was extremely prolific, composing music for chamber ensemble, solo piano, and accompanied voice. Due to social mores, several of her songs were originally published under her brother’s name in his op. 8 and op. 9 collections; however, later in life she published her songs independently. This evening’s selections—excerpts from her op. 7 and op. 10 song sets—are fine examples of Mendelssohn-Hensel’s compositional integrity and prowess. Like her brother, she finely crafted her songs; unlike her brother, her music daringly ventures into harmonic shifts rarely found in Romantic era vocal music. In Im Herbst, one cannot help but wonder if her brother’s rediscovery and consequent revival of Bach’s music, especially Bach’s Passions, influenced this song, with the winding chromatic shifts that open and close the piece.

Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Trio, op. 114
The op. 114 Trio is one of four works by Brahms featuring the clarinet. Brahms composed the Trio for the brilliant clarinetist Richard Mülfeld. Composed in 1891, it is considered a pivotal work and reflects Brahms’ renewed inspiration after he had declared a year earlier that his String Quintet in G, op. 111 was his last composition. The Trio is remarkable for its intimate, subtle, and deeply varied music. The Allegro first movement possesses a bleak melancholy; followed by the second movement, which glows with an incandescent warmth; the third is a graceful Viennese waltz harkening the music of Brahms’ friend, Johann Strauss; and the finale draws from one of Brahms’ favorite folk styles, Hungarian gypsy music.

Felix Mendelssohn: Duets, op. 63
These elegant and finely crafted duets were composed between 1836-1844. They were intended as popular songs, meant to be sung in the home. Some are simple both in melody and accompaniment, while others are more complex and technically challenging. All are set to German poetry of the time, with the exception of Volkslied, which is set to the Robert Burns poem O Wert Thou In the Caul Blast, translated into German by Ferdinand Freiligrath. Particularly charming is the graceful Maiglöcken, which is reminiscent of many of Mendelssohn’s shimmering solo song settings.

Brahms: Two Songs, op. 91
In 1863, Brahms wrote the two lullabies that comprise op. 91 for his good friends Joseph Joachim, a violinist/violist, and his wife Amalie Schneeweiss, a well-respected mezzo-soprano. He composed the Geistliches Wiegenlied (Sacred Lullaby) first for Amalie and Joseph to play for their son Johannes, who is named after Brahms. Gestillte Sehnsucht (Stilled Longing) was composed for the couple in hope of healing their fractured marriage after Joseph accused his wife Amalie of having an affair with Brahms’ publisher, Fritz August Simrock.

Gestillte Sehnsucht is set to a poem by Freidrich Rückert. The text uses German pastoral tropes, complete with woods, bird, and wind imagery, all whispering the world to sleep. However, a restless heart yearns with desire, which is reflected in the roiling minor middle section. The pastoral calm soon returns, with an apotheosis evoking transcendent, eternal sleep. Brahms masterfully interweaves the viola and voice, with the piano providing a lush harmonic foundation.

Geistliche Wiegenlied, the lullaby written for little Johannes, is set to a German translation by Emanuel von Geibel of a Baroque Spanish poem by Lope Felix de Vega Carpio. The viola opens the piece with a well-known medieval Christmas carol melody, “Joseph, lieber Joseph mien.” The voice and piano then enter with a new and surprising melody, set in counterpoint to the viola. As with Gestillte Sehnsucht, the soothing lullaby shifts into an unsettled minor middle section reflecting the pain and sorrow of Christ’s death; however, the unrest quickly fades, as mother Mary pleads for nature and the elements to abate, and allow her son to sleep.

Brahms: Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes, op. 65
Although not as popular as his much-loved op. 52 Liebeslieder Waltzes, the op. 65 Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes are equally charming. Brahms wrote three sets of waltzes during a time when he was editing a collection of unpublished Schubert compositions. Although Schubert’s music was clearly an inspiration for Brahms to compose these waltzes, Johannes Strauss perhaps played a strong contemporary influence. Written for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass vocal quartet and piano four hands, the fifteen movements are an eclectic juxtaposition of quartet, duet and solo movements that speak of love in all its guises: passionate, unrequited, lost, and transcendent. The texts are taken from Polydora: A World Poetic Songbook, a collection of international folksong texts translated by Georg Friedrich Daumer, except for the final movement, “Zum Schluß,” which is set to a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.