Caroline Shaw, vocalist & composer
David Danzmayr, conductor
ProMusica’s 41st season wraps up with stunning works by two composers. We open with a series of works by the multi-talented Caroline Shaw, among the most accessible, unique and in-demand composers of her generation. Three works, one of which will include Shaw as vocal soloist, will aptly demonstrate the searing beauty, dazzling virtuosity and eclectic nature of her scores. And we will conclude with a symphonic gem never before played by our orchestra, Brahms’ First Symphony, a work that caused its composer no small degree of consternation, but which cemented his legacy as heir to the Viennese symphonic tradition.
Caroline Shaw (b.1982):
Instrumentation: string quartet
Duration: approximately 7 minutes
Is a Rose
Instrumentation: strings, oboe and harpsichord
Duration: 15 minutes
Instrumentation: string orchestra
Duration: 12 minutes
Musicians love performing the music of North Carolina born violinist, singer, and composer Caroline Shaw because we feel she is one of us. For good reason is she amassing a growing list of commissions from names like Dawn Upshaw, Renée Fleming, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Dover Quartet, Brooklyn Rider and the Baltimore Symphony. The youngest musical recipient of the Pulitzer Prize (2013), Shaw is also a performer. It is perhaps this trait above all that lends her compositions such richness, for while she is carving out a unique compositional profile, she remains unafraid to demonstrate links to her musical past.
Perhaps no work better demonstrates this aspect of her work than Blueprint, a work dating from 2016. Though the genesis of Caroline Shaw’s Blueprint sprang from Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 6, one need not know the earlier work to appreciate the sophistication of Shaw’s approach. Blueprint, a single-movement composition for string quartet, reveals its composer’s rapid-fire style, building on short ideas sometimes gently woven together and sometimes slammed head-on, like a quilt on steroids. As such, quoting from Beethoven seems a perfect fit, given the earlier composer’s penchant for exploiting short, terse motives for their dramatic potential.
As a violinist and violist, Shaw got to know Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets intimately, and like all masters of the medium, writes for the foursome as a dialogue. In Blueprint, we are immediately pulled into her world, which is one of kaleidoscopic ideas, expectation and fluidity. This seven-minute showpiece explores a wealth of colors and textures, with quickly shifting harmonies that will drop you back and forth between Beethoven’s century and our own. In Shaw’s hand, Beethoven’s music seems to gain new meaning as she draws directly from the string quartet’s rich tradition, proving that after 250 years, this tried and tested medium remains far from exhausted.
Shaw based her vocal triptych, Is a Rose, on three rose-colored songs: “The Edge,” a setting by Scotsman Jacob Polley from 2016 entitled The Rose I / Annunciation, “And So”, her own poem of 2019, and “Red, Red Rose” of Robert Burns from 1794. Shaw’s settings are pure, direct and razor sharp, with continual glances in the musical rearview mirror. The rather Impressionistic lines of Polley’s The Rose I are met with freely rhythmic vocal lines and a loving oboe solo, capped with a climax that Shaw described as “wildly ecstatic…like Corelli on Red Bull.” And So opens with reserved celestial harmonies that give way hesitatingly to a vibrant richness both strikingly modern yet reminiscent of an earlier age. Later, Shaw looks to pizzicato strings to evoke another atmosphere entirely, one absorbed with time keeping, as the music again unfolds slowly before giving way to full blossom. And in the case of Red, Red Rose, Shaw’s score is tightly bound to Burns’ metric structure, its vocal lines both elegant and jagged, while the composer again evokes both a distant age and the modernist era.
Entr’acte was written in 2011 “after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2 — with their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet. It is structured like a minuet and trio, riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further. I love the way some music (like the minuets of Op. 77) suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition.” Again, we note 200-year-old phrasing coming up against an absolutely gripping modernist and unique vision, with whooshing effects, distant harmonics and slapping strings. Joyous one minute and mysterious the next, Shaw’s twelve-minute score is a wild time warp, one that no doubt would have dazzled and charmed the ever humorous and effect-loving Papa Haydn.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Symphony No. 1, Op. 68, in C minor
Instrumentation: pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings
Premiered: Karlsruhe, November 4, 1876
Duration: 45 minutes
Born in Hamburg, at the age of 29, Johannes Brahms made his way to the European musical capital of Vienna and a year later, in 1863, opted to remain there permanently. Although he had already established himself in Germany as a piano soloist and composer, Vienna offered possibilities unavailable elsewhere, including accessibility to a number of major musical figures (among them, the prominent critic Eduard Hanslick), a highly active and established concert life (Brahms would later serve as director of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, among the foremost of European concert societies) and a professional post, Brahms’ first, as director of the Wiener Singakademie, one of Europe’s elite choral ensembles. Of course, Vienna also provided an unrivaled connection to music’s Classical past, as dominated by the musical triumvirate of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, all of whom had also come to Vienna from elsewhere. For Brahms, Vienna offered an ideal setting but for a single factor: the looming shadow of Beethoven, who had died there nearly forty years earlier.
Ten years before arriving in Vienna, Brahms had been introduced to the musical world by Robert Schumann, in the latter’s musical journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the New Journal of Music, as one “fated to give expression to the times in the highest and most ideal manner”:
“I thought that it would and that it must be, that someone would suddenly come along whose very calling would be that which needed to be expressed according to the spirit of the times and in the most suitable manner possible, one whose mastery would not gradually unfold but, like Minerva, would spring fully armed from the head of Jupiter. And now he has arrived, a young blood, at whose cradle graces and heroes kept watch. His name is Johannes Brahms…”
Fearing that such praise “will arouse such extraordinary expectations by the public,” Brahms penned Schumann in response, lamenting that “I don’t know how I can begin to fulfill them.” For Brahms, self-critical by nature, Schumann’s prediction only served to place an additional burden on the then 20-year-old composer, a weight he carried with him along with his physical belongings when he arrived in the Austrian capital years later. And as if to underscore the shadow that Beethoven cast upon Brahms, a bust of the older master sat on a shelf in Brahms’ music room, its gaze literally looking down upon him as he composed.
As a consequence of Brahms’ inhibitions, he wouldn’t complete his first symphony until he was 40 years of age. To be sure, by then he had established a solid reputation as a composer and amassed an impressive portfolio of work, although Brahms also consigned any number of earlier scores to the Danube River, fearing much of it unworthy. A symphony, of course, was something else entirely, as evident in the nine towering scores that Beethoven had left to posterity. Indeed, Brahms himself is reported as having said, “Composing a symphony is no laughing matter”—an understatement if ever there was one—and Brahms meant to be sure that when his First Symphony was offered up to the public, it would stand up to any comparisons (and there were sure to be many). Consequently, what would become his 68th opus required somewhere between fourteen and, according to Brahms, twenty-one years to complete, roughly from 1855 to 1876. Its premiere took place on November 4th in Karlsruhe, under the baton of the composer’s friend, Felix Otto Dessoff. Brahms conducted the next three performances himself, first in Mannheim, then Munich. Having sorted out the final details, the composer finally offered the work up to the Viennese, which he did with the Philharmonic—to a mixed reception—that December, before passing the score on to his publisher, Fritz Simrock.
The First Symphony’s four-movement architecture, formal outlines, large yet classical orchestration and inner workings all point to the unmistakable influence that Viennese tradition exerted upon its composer. Unlike his other symphonies, the First opens with a broad, formal introduction before giving way to the expected sonata form. Listen closely to its rhythmic contour and you’re certain to hear the four-note motive reminiscent of Beethoven’s Fifth. The Andante sostenuto, cast as a modified ternary (or three-part) A-B-A form, makes prominent use of the solo violin and principal oboe. The Allegretto, like the Andante, is also cast in ternary form, juxtaposing a 2/4 portion (in the key of Ab major) with a more pastoral 6/8 trio section (in B major). The finale works through various sections—Adagio—Più andante — Allegro non troppo, ma con brio — Più allegro, opening with a brooding four-note descending motive which then gives way to an Alphorn tune, presented first ominously and later with more noble expression. The entrance of the famous “striding” tune in the regal key of C major marks the formal start of the exposition of this sonata-form movement. Rather than construct a separate recapitulation, Brahms incorporated a return of earlier material in the development proper, probably with the intent of providing forward thrust. The movement includes a full-blown coda and is rounded off with a pair of triumphant “plagal (“Amen”) cadences.
“You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven,” Brahms is reported to have lamented. And not without good reason: the C minor Symphony has often been labeled “Beethoven’s Tenth.” Perhaps Brahms needed the comparison to establish himself as both the heir to the Beethoven legacy and the figure best suited to carry such a formidable reputation forward. Regardless, the mantle of the Viennese symphonic tradition was safe, secure, and confidently established in the magnificent First, while with those that followed—all of which came far more quickly!—Brahms would distance himself from his Viennese predecessors with increasing confidence, stamping the genre with his own personal genius.
© Marc Moskovitz