MASTERWORKS III: Tale of Two Titans
Paul Novak b. 1998
Paul Novak
b. 1998
Paul Novak
On Buoyancy

The recipient of numerous national awards, including the 2017 Texas Young Composers Competition, Paul Novak is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in composition at Rice University.

Novak composed On Buoyancy in 2016 as part of the National Youth Orchestra apprenticeship program. He writes:

“The sea has always served as an inspiration to my music, but rarely as directly as in on buoyancy, which was written as a programmatic depiction of the ocean. The piece begins in a swirl of color, with sounds intertwining like unaligned waves. Cascades of descending lines collide with swells in the brass and strings, and fragments of melody emerged from the texture before being swallowed up again. In the middle section of the piece, a shimmering sound world is punctuated with rumbling growls in the brass, and as the work closes, the intertwined swells and flowing runs of the opening section return. The primary melodic and harmonic material of the work is derived from Takemitsu’s “sea motif” (the notes spell out S [Eb]-E-A in German notation), and this motif is explored and developed over the course of the piece.”
Robert Schumann 1810-1856
Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120

No other composer symbolized the romantic movement in music as did Robert Schumann. Talented both in music and literature, he used the latter to promote his romantic ideals about the future of music. He was a true elitist, pitting “us,” the enlightened (the Davidsbündler), against “them,” the masses, whom he called “Philistines”. The latter appellation has remained part of the international elitist vocabulary to this day.

Schumann’s five-year pursuit of his beloved, the brilliant Clara Wieck, had all the ingredients of a soap opera (or grand opera): A hostile father-in-law, an adoring young bride-to-be, secret correspondence, lawsuits and court battles, accusations of alcoholism, banishment from Wieck's house, economic pressure, etc. Clara was an outstanding pianist and composer in her own right, and their eventual triumph led to a stormy but happy marriage unleashing a flood of creativity in both husband and wife – including seven children.

Although listed as Robert Schumann’s fourth symphony, the Symphony in D minor was actually his second, composed in 1841 during the happy first year of his marriage to Clara Wieck. In his diary the composer wrote “…my next symphony will be called Clara and I will portray her with flutes, oboes and harps.”

The Symphony broke with the prevailing symphonic traditions, being more of an orchestral fantasy on several related themes which undergo transformations and variations. In this way it forms a bridge between the classical symphony and the later tone poems of Liszt. Schumann himself referred to it as “Symphonistische Phantasie.”

The result of these innovations was a chilly reception at the premiere in Leipzig. Schumann withdrew the work and only returned to it in 1851, after the success of his Third Symphony. He revised and reorchestrated it, fusing all four movement to be played without a break, which made it even closer to a “Phantasie.” However, many conductors ignore this directive and separate the movements.

The opening movement of the Symphony can actually be thought of in two separate sections, each one dominated by a thematic group. The first, in D minor includes the theme of the slow introduction, marked Ziemlich langsam (quite slowly), Example 1 and three motives from the allegro. Example 2 The second thematic group, appearing well into the development, begins with three sharp chords in the orchestra, similar to a hammer blow, Example 3 in addition to a lyrical, romantic theme. Example 4 In this movement Schumann develops all the themes in various combinations. He revisits this complex of musical ideas in the finale movement as an sophisticated unifying device for the Symphony.

The second movement, Romanza, again marked Ziemlich langsam, introduces a melancholy theme on the oboes and cellos, alternating with the opening theme of the introduction. Example 5 A classic ABA structure, the movement introduces contrasting new material in its middle section. Example 6

The lively Scherzo pits a certain heavy-handedness Example 7 against a gentle Trio that uses the same music as the B section of the preceding Romanza. Example 8 The movement ends on a poetic and gentle note that merges imperceptibly with the slow introduction of the Finale.

The last movement is essentially a redefinition of the first movement, with some new music. At first, the slow introduction uses the first allegro theme, now in a completely different guise and making the listener believe that there will be a return to the first movement D minor section. Example 9 When the allegro of this final movement begins, it takes up the more joyous second section of the first movement to develop, this time with more confidence. Example 10 A new theme is critical to contributing a celebratory air to this movement that the first movement lacked. Example 11 It is as if here Schumann has reconsidered the tension and drama of the opening movement and converted it into a triumph.

Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83

When Johannes Brahms premiered his Piano Concerto No. 1 in the 1859, he was a young, rising composer still very unsure of himself, especially in the art of orchestration. By the time he premiered his second concerto in 1881, he was a revered master, considered, as the University of Breslau so stuffily put it (in Latin), "the foremost exponent in Germany of musical art in the more severe style" and sure of his powers. The irony of his self-depreciation in his letter to his close friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg is evident: "...I have written a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo." This about one of the most gigantic piano concertos ever written with an "extra" fourth movement to boot; Brahms is said to have referred to it jokingly as "The long terror."

Sketches of the concerto date back to 1878 when Brahms was at work on his Violin Concerto. A discarded scherzo movement for that concerto became the basis for the second movement Scherzo of the Second Piano Concerto, one of the few in the entire concerto repertory. Brahms premiered the Concerto in Budapest on November 9, 1881. It was to be the last of his works that he prepared to perform in public.

In contrast to the stormy First Concerto, the B-flat Concerto is comparatively optimistic in mood, except for the passionate outburst of the Scherzo, perhaps a counterweight to the dignity of the movements that flank it. In all his concerti, Brahms selected solo instruments from the orchestra who were to have a special intimate relationship with the principal soloist. The most notable are the oboe in the Violin Concerto, and the horn and the cello in the Second Piano Concerto.

The first movement vacillates between dignified serenity and high drama; The opening theme itself comprises both qualities; the first half opens with a gentle call on a solo French horn, echoed up by the piano, Example 1 but the piano continues with a series of growls and a grand arch of arpeggios over five and a half octaves and then launches into a cadenza, recalling Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto. Example 2 There are two important subsidiary themes, in addition to numerous smaller motives that make up the fabric of the huge movement Example 3 & Example 4 but it is the horn theme that dominates as it continually appears in a variety of guises, even suddenly emerging from one of the wealth of subsidiary themes. Example 5

Brahms called the second movement a scherzo, the Italian word for game or joke. But this game is deadly serious. In the key of D minor in contrast to the B flat major of the other three movements. It is passionate, even angry, beginning with a motive on the upbeat charging right into a syncopated theme that creates a driving momentum and becomes a motto for the movement. Example 6 A quieter second theme introduced by the violins and taken up by the piano calms the restlessness, but only temporarily. Example 7 The Scherzo cadence almost crashes into the Trio, which returns to the major mode with a fanfare-like theme, temporarily triumphing over the storm of emotions, Example 8 only to be cut short by the return of the scherzo.

The Andante third movement opens with a poignant solo cello melody which is the dream of every orchestral cello player. Example 9 It is one of those melodies that creates exquisite suspense by delaying resolution at all the expected spots. The piano never takes this theme up in its entirety, but rather embellishes it with delicate filigree. Example 10 In the middle of the movement, two clarinets, accompanied by the piano, hold a pianissimo gentle conversation. Example 11 The solo cello returns to close the movement but not before Brahms has spun out his gentle suspense through a handful of unexpected key changes and deceptive cadences.

The Allegretto grazioso finale is a high-spirited, playful rondo, Example 12 laced with occasional gypsy flavor recalling the Hungarian Dances. Example 13 The jury is out as to whether this lighthearted rondo is an adequate balance to the three weighty movements that precede it. And it certainly has its darker moments. However, it can be viewed as a relief from the intensity of the preceding three movements or, as the great British music critic Sir Donald Francis Tovey, concluded, "We have done our work - let the children play in a world that has been made safer and happier for them."

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018