Program Notes

Elgar’s Enigma Variations

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Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Le Tombeau de Couperin (The Grave of Couperin)
Duration: ca. 17 minutes

Visual artists throughout history have memorialized those fallen in battle, courageous soldiers who died in service to their country. But composers also have dedicated themselves to the horrors of combat, famed examples being the Seventh Symphony of Shostakovich, Britten’s War Requiem and Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.

One less obvious score is Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, the title of which suggests an ode to the celebrated Baroque composer Francois Couperin rather than armed conflict. Originally written as a pastoral set of piano pieces in the flavor of Couperin, Ravel later orchestrated four of the six movements, with an emphasis on the woodwind section. Like the Elgar on this program – “which it connects to wonderfully’’ says TFO Music Director Michael Francis − each section represents someone the composer knew, and in Ravel’s case, friends who died on the battlefield.

Ravel was an ambulance driver during World War I and saw plenty of gore. But his creation is not a programmatic depiction. Instead, he follows the structure of a 17th-century harpsichord suite with a modern sensibility. A master orchestrator, Ravel drew new life from such older forms as the prélude, forlane, menuet and rigaudon.

“Crisp tone colors, incisive rhythms and precise melodic contours are given a modern harmonic twist, but the listener finds no incongruity – only an occasional felicitous surprise,’’ notes the American musicologist Susan Key.

Although the friends who died are hardly household names, the last movement is especially heart rendering: Ravel dedicated the music to the brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, who were killed on the battlefield on their first day of service in 1914.

Listeners might find it odd that Ravel’s music isn’t gloomy – the subject is no laughing matter – but in response to any contradiction, the composer once said that “the dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.’’

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Double Concerto in A minor, Op. 102
Duration: ca. 32 minutes

Anyone who loves Brahms (and who doesn’t?) must wonder what music he could have composed but didn’t. A Brahms opera, for instance, would have been cause for celebration from Munich’s Staatsoper to the Met, and a cello concerto to honor an instrument he so admired surely would rank alongside those of Dvorak and Elgar.

The closest we get to the latter is the Double Concerto for violin and cello, instruments that together give us a sort of mid-range viola concerto in voice and texture. Completed in 1887, it was the composer’s final orchestral essay, and for all the experience he brings to the work, it has never enjoyed the popularity of his four symphonies or concertos for piano and violin.

But it isn’t so much a lesser work as it is a reactionary one, notes Jan Swafford in his 1997 biography of the composer: “For the first time in Brahms’ music one can hear a dissonance between (his) art and the spirit of his age.’’

The first performances received mixed reviews. Clara Schumann, a lifelong friend of Brahms, felt the writing for the two instruments was less than intuitive. The Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, who wrote favorably on most of the composer’s works, considered it “a product of a great constructive mind rather than an irresistible inspiration of imagination and invention.’’

The same can be said of its premiere in Vienna, where the audience seemed to be applauding the acclaimed composer more than his music. This depressed Brahms, who now began to question his talent as new ideas and styles in the arts were percolating. Was the magic gone? We will never know: Sketches for a fifth symphony, second violin concerto and another double concerto ended up in the fireplace.

Brahms drew inspiration from Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, which took wing from the older Baroque concerto grosso form, pitting a small group of soloists against a larger ensemble. He also admired Viotti’s Violin Concerto No. 22, which he quotes, elusively, in the second theme of the opening movement.

The work begins with an aggressive introduction by the orchestra, followed by a low growl from the cello. Soon the violin peeks out from underneath, finds its footing and meets its partner in conversation before the orchestra returns to its initial jolting theme. Brahms exploits the tonal weights – and disparities – of the two instruments, and keeps the orchestral textures light enough to prevent them from overwhelming the soloists.

The middle movement glows with a Schubertian sweetness, the soloists working in soft partnership against an orchestra reduced to a chamber ensemble in sound. Like his Violin Concerto, Brahms imbues the last movement with a spirited rondo that harkens back to the composer’s own Hungarian Dances, and the concerto ends in the triumphal key of A major.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Enigma Variations, Op. 36
Duration: ca. 30 minutes

England was a proud musical nation long before many other countries had developed an identity, in part because of a strong choral tradition in its cathedrals. Composers such as William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, John Dowland, Henry Purcell and John Dunstable injected England with an unparalleled musical richness. The first important English opera, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, is one of the oldest in the repertoire and continues to be widely performed today.

But English music began to wane, and for two centuries only minor composers ruled the land. The public also began a fascination with things foreign: Handel operas, symphonies by Haydn and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. By the late 19th century, English music was playing catch up, and its national repertoire paled compared to the rugged individualism of Germany, Italy and Russia.

Edward Elgar helped get things back on track. Along with Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ethel Smyth and Gustav Holst, Elgar jumpstarted an English musical Renaissance that continued with Benjamin Britten and other prominent composers of the later 20th century.

Aside from his jocular Pomp and Circumstance marches, Elgar’s most popular work remains his Enigma Variations, composed in 1899 and dedicated to the friends portrayed in its 14 character pieces. Each includes an initial or pseudonym, such the composer’s wife, an Oxford professor, an amateur cellist, a stuttering friend, a bulldog and even Elgar himself.

The most celebrated section is the impassioned Nimrod theme (Variation IX), which allegedly was inspired by the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata.

Originally titled Variations on an Original Theme, the work became an “enigma’’ when musicians debated over the harmony and counterpoint that alludes to a mysteriously absent G minor theme in the opening section. What is this puzzling melody that hides among the variations? Only Elgar knows for sure, as he took its identity to the grave and left no trace of it behind.

“The enigma I will not explain,’’ he once said. “The theme is a counterpoint on some well-known melody which is never heard.’’

Program notes by Kurt Loft, a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune.