Johannes Brahms — Sextet in B‑flat Major for Strings, Opus 18



In 1857 Johannes Brahms (1833 – 97) moved to the small prince­ly Court of Det­mold to assume his first offi­cial posi­tion in the world of music. His main duties were to give piano lessons to Princess Friederike, to per­form as pianist at court con­certs (of which there were many, since music was the prince’s over­rid­ing pas­sion), and to con­duct the choral soci­ety. The appoint­ment came at an aus­pi­cious time for Brahms. His good friend and cham­pi­on, the com­pos­er Robert Schu­mann, had died the year before, and Brahms found solace in his fre­quent long, soli­tary walks in the near­by Teu­to­burg­er For­est.

Though his duties last­ed only from Sep­tem­ber through Decem­ber, he was able to live, albeit mod­est­ly, for an entire year on his court salary. He was also giv­en a great deal of free­dom in the way he han­dled musi­cal affairs in Det­mold, though on occa­sion his some­what uncon­ven­tion­al behav­ior must have tried the patience of the more con­ser­v­a­tive mem­bers of the court. Brahms wrote to a friend in Ham­burg: “The oth­er day I con­duct­ed my choral soci­ety, which is rich­ly adorned with Serene High­ness­es, with­out a neck­tie! Luck­i­ly I didn’t have to feel embar­rassed or vexed, as I only noticed it when I was going to bed!”

This peri­od of tran­quil­i­ty and study of the clas­sic com­posers result­ed in a rich out­pour­ing of com­po­si­tions from the young Brahms. In addi­tion to the First String Sex­tet, Opus 18, he took his first steps in orches­tral com­po­si­tion with the two Ser­e­nades (Opus 11 and Opus 16), con­tin­ued work on his First Piano Con­cer­to (Opus 15), and, of course, wrote numer­ous pieces for cho­rus.

The first of Brahms’s two sex­tets for strings was writ­ten dur­ing 1859 – 60 and was pre­miered on Octo­ber 20, 1860, with the composer’s good friend, the great vio­lin­ist Joseph Joachim, as part of the sex­tet. Brahms obvi­ous­ly had a great deal of affec­tion for this music. He made a four-hand­ed piano arrange­ment of it and tran­scribed the sec­ond move­ment for solo piano (which he pre­sent­ed to Clara Schu­mann as a forty-first birth­day present and which Brahms him­self appar­ent­ly played often). When a friend made a piano trio ver­sion of the sex­tet, Brahms was delight­ed.

The Sex­tet is in the clas­sic four-move­ment form, the sec­ond move­ment being a theme with six vari­a­tions. For years, com­men­ta­tors and crit­ics have delight­ed in try­ing to pin­point exact­ly which com­pos­er influ­enced which theme or move­ment of the sex­tet. (Does the last movement’s feel­ing of seren­i­ty owe more to Haydn or Schu­bert? Which theme in the first move­ment is most like­ly to have been inspired by Beethoven?) Such musi­cal games aside, the sex­tet offers an aston­ish­ing wealth of melody, cou­pled with a mas­ter­ful sense of pro­por­tion. The music’s light­ness of tex­ture (some­thing Brahms would lat­er bring to his Hun­gar­i­an Dances) allows the lis­ten­er to rev­el in the composer’s delight at the dif­fer­ences in tim­bre between the vio­lins, vio­las, and cel­los. One way Brahms empha­sizes the dif­fer­ences in tex­ture is by play­ing the dif­fer­ent pairs of instru­ments off against each oth­er. His writ­ing is so clear and so vivid that lis­ten­ers can eas­i­ly fol­low the indi­vid­ual musi­cal lines as they are woven togeth­er.

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny and is used here with per­mis­sion.

Franz Schubert — Quintet in C Major for Strings, D. 956


The work of Franz Schu­bert (1797 – 1828) con­stant­ly reminds us of the astound­ing pow­er of melody, and in this, his final instru­men­tal work, the com­pos­er penned some of his most rav­ish­ing.

The Quin­tet was prob­a­bly writ­ten in Sep­tem­ber 1828. The com­pos­er list­ed it among the com­po­si­tions he offered the pub­lish­er Hein­rich Albert Prob­st in a let­ter writ­ten Octo­ber 2, in which he explained that the Quin­tet “is to be rehearsed short­ly.” Prob­st was not inter­est­ed. Schu­bert heard a pri­vate rehearsal of the work in Octo­ber, a month before he died. Today it is hard to believe that one of the great­est of all cham­ber works remained unheard in pub­lic until 1850, twen­ty-two years after the composer’s death — and that it remained unpub­lished for three more years.

In choos­ing the instru­men­ta­tion for his Quin­tet, Schu­bert did not fol­low the path of Mozart and Beethoven, both of whom added a sec­ond vio­la to the nor­mal string quar­tet. Schu­bert decid­ed, rather, to add a sec­ond cel­lo, which changes the sound of the instru­men­tal group in a strik­ing way, adding a dark­er, per­haps more grave sound to the ensem­ble. Exact­ly why Schu­bert chose to add the sec­ond cel­lo is not known. Maybe it had to do with the par­tic­u­lar string play­ers who con­gre­gat­ed at the house of his broth­er Fer­di­nand. Per­haps he sim­ply want­ed the rich­er, more pro­found sound for this music, which, as one writer has said, glows with “almost painful beau­ty.”

With a work so sub­lime, so intrin­si­cal­ly musi­cal, and of such pro­found spir­i­tu­al depths, any­thing one says about Schubert’s String Quin­tet seems dan­ger­ous­ly triv­ial, though Yehu­di Menuhin’s obser­va­tion that Schubert’s music “is puri­ty itself” is cer­tain­ly apt. The work is in four move­ments, and in each of them the com­pos­er pairs the instru­men­tal forces in such a way as to make them sound con­stant­ly new, a con­sid­er­able achieve­ment, giv­en the Quintet’s length.

The first move­ment (alle­gro ma non trop­po) opens with an intro­duc­tion of astound­ing beau­ty. The intro­duc­tion of the movement’s sec­ond theme by the two cel­los and the way Schu­bert jux­ta­pos­es the oth­er three instru­ments around this theme in the rest of the move­ment, is an exam­ple of a great mas­ter at the height of his pow­ers.

Few pieces in West­ern music approach the seren­i­ty Schu­bert cap­tured in the mirac­u­lous Ada­gio, which begins with the three inner instru­ments singing a broad, lyric melody, while the two out­er voic­es (the first vio­lin and sec­ond cel­lo) pro­vide the frame­work. The tur­bu­lent sec­ond theme is a remark­able con­trast to the oth­er­world­ly open­ing theme. One might see this as an alter­na­tion between intro­spec­tion and a view of the world out­side the self, a dual­i­ty that con­tin­ues in the third move­ment. This Scher­zo is boun­cy, rol­lick­ing, high-spir­it­ed, while the movement’s Trio pro­vides a peri­od of repose. One of the score’s mar­vels is the way Schu­bert moves the lis­ten­er from the qui­et Trio to a repeat of the Scher­zo — in only eight tran­si­tion mea­sures.

The final move­ment, Alle­gret­to, is essen­tial­ly a ron­do, but the com­pos­er lav­ished an almost sonata-form devel­op­ment on his open­ing dance-like theme. Dur­ing this final move­ment, Schu­bert again uses the cel­los in duet, con­trast­ing their solemn, broad musi­cal line with some­times scam­per­ing coun­ter­point from the high­er instru­ments, as though remind­ing us of the work’s ear­li­er move­ments.

In John Reed’s book Schu­bert: The Final Years, he notes, “There is some­thing espe­cial­ly frag­ile and vul­ner­a­ble about the first ven­tur­ing forth of the roman­tic imag­i­na­tion, of which, in music, Schu­bert is the supreme exam­ple. His music speaks, with a kind of con­sol­ing sad­ness, of a lost world of inno­cence and joy. The strength of his per­son­al vision sus­tained him through a work­ing life­time of fif­teen phe­nom­e­nal­ly pro­duc­tive years, none of them with­out its tal­ly of mas­ter­pieces; and even at the end, plagued as he was by ill-health and dis­ap­point­ment, inspired his most elo­quent and poet­ic music.”

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nal­ly in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny and is used here by per­mis­sion.

 The water­col­or of Schu­bert is by Wil­helm August Rieder, 1825.


Giovanni Bottesini — Grand Duo Concertante



The name Gio­van­ni Bottesi­ni (1821 – 89) is not one most con­cert­go­ers today rec­og­nize. In fact, among any­one oth­er than bass play­ers and opera fans giv­en to explor­ing triv­ia of the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry musi­cal stage, it is safe to say that Bottesi­ni is unknown. But in his own time, he was lion­ized as an all-around musi­cian; as a vir­tu­oso per­former on the bass; as a com­pos­er not only of works for the bass, but of operas and var­i­ous forms of cham­ber music; and as a con­duc­tor of tru­ly inter­na­tion­al renown. His artistry was astound­ing. No less than Rossi­ni him­self declared, “Bottesi­ni is the most well-round­ed tal­ent that we have in Europe today.”

Bottesi­ni was born in Cre­ma, into a musi­cal fam­i­ly. His father, Pietro, was a clar­inet play­er and con­duc­tor and gave his son his ear­ly musi­cal edu­ca­tion, which led to young Gio­van­ni singing in var­i­ous choirs and play­ing the tim­pani in local orches­tras. After study­ing the vio­lin with one of Crema’s lead­ing play­ers, the young man applied for admis­sion at the Milan Con­ser­va­to­ry in 1835. Only two schol­ar­ships were avail­able, one for study of the bas­soon and the oth­er for study of the dou­ble bass. Bottesi­ni played nei­ther instru­ment. So he took a crash course in bass play­ing and won that schol­ar­ship. Leg­end has it that the audi­tion left much to be desired. Real­iz­ing how bad­ly he had played, the young man said, “I know, my dear sirs, that I played the wrong notes. But once I’ve learned where to put my fin­gers, that won’t ever hap­pen again.” A few years lat­er, after study­ing with Lui­gi Rossi, Bottesi­ni was being hailed as “The Pagani­ni of the Dou­ble Bass,” and he was amaz­ing audi­ences not only his vir­tu­oso play­ing, but with the sweet tones he drew from the instru­ment,

Under his bow, the dou­ble bass groaned, sighed, cooed, sang, quiv­ered, roared — an orches­tra in itself with irre­sistible force and the sweet­est expres­sion,” report­ed a crit­ic, describ­ing Bottesi­ni in con­cert. “The aris­to­crat­ic court audi­ence was ecsta­t­ic. Applause and calls for encores explod­ed down the dis­or­der­ly rows at every bar.…Supported by his great wood­en sound-box, Bottesi­ni leant over his instru­ment like a con­quer­ing hero.”

Bottesini’s “great wood­en sound-box” was a three-stringed bass, which he pre­ferred to the four-string vari­ety more often used today, made by Car­lo Giuseppe Testore. (Yet anoth­er per­sis­tent leg­end about Bottesi­ni is that he found the instru­ment in a pup­pet the­ater, lying under some trash, and res­cued it.) As pho­tographs show, Bottesi­ni used the over­hand, French bow style of play­ing, rather than the Ger­man bow tech­nique, with the palm turned side­ways.

Any US orches­tra has a mix­ture of bow­ing styles,” says San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny Act­ing Asso­ciate Bass play­er Stephen Tra­mon­tozzi, who chose the Bottesi­ni Grand Duo Con­cer­tante for today’s con­cert. “It real­ly depends on which style your teacher used. The bows them­selves are con­struct­ed dif­fer­ent­ly. As a teacher, I can tell you that for a bass play­er start­ing out, it’s prob­a­bly eas­i­er to learn how to get a sound with the Ger­man bow, because it’s eas­i­er to get lever­age with a Ger­man bow. But it’s more dif­fi­cult to devel­op sophis­ti­cat­ed strokes. With a French bow, it’s eas­i­er to learn how to bounce the bow, and to play a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent strokes. Of course, with the right train­ing, a play­er can be real­ly good using either bow.

Bottesi­ni did a lot to tilt the scales toward the French bow, with its over­hand grip. Because he was such a great play­er, oth­ers began to grav­i­tate toward the French bow. And it is eas­i­er to play his music with the French bow.”

In 1846 Bottesi­ni teamed up with a cel­list friend, Lui­gi Ardi­ti (known today as the com­pos­er of the pop­u­lar song “Il Bac­cio,” much beloved by sopra­nos, who often use it as an encore in con­certs), and went to Havana, Cuba. There, in 1847, he led the pre­mière of his first opera, Cristo­foro Colom­bo. In all, Bottesi­ni wrote more than a dozen operas, some of which were well received and per­formed through­out Europe.

Read­ing accounts of Bottesini’s con­cert tours in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, one mar­vels at his far-flung roam­ing, when trav­el­ing was a hard­ship and it could take months to trav­el between Europe and North Amer­i­ca. He con­cer­tized from Rus­sia to Mex­i­co and every­where in between. As a con­duc­tor he led opera sea­sons in Paris, Paler­mo, Barcelona, Madrid, and through­out Por­tu­gal, and he achieved a per­ma­nent place in opera his­to­ry as the con­duc­tor of the world pre­mière of Verdi’s Aida, in Cairo on Decem­ber 24, 1871.

As one would expect from a vir­tu­oso soloist of his time, espe­cial­ly an Ital­ian, Bottesi­ni wrote numer­ous pieces for the dou­ble bass based on pop­u­lar operas such as La Son­nam­bu­la and Beat­rice di Ten­da. His Grand Duo Con­cer­tante orig­i­nat­ed as a piece for two bass­es and orches­tra and seems to have been pre­miered in the US dur­ing one of his tours in the late 1840s. When the piece was played in Lon­don in 1851, one of the bass parts had been tran­scribed for vio­lin by Camil­lo Sivori, a Pagani­ni pupil, and in this form — for vio­lin and bass, either with orches­tra or with piano — the piece attract­ed a num­ber of famous vio­lin­ists who want­ed to per­form with Bottesi­ni.

The work is in one move­ment but with a vari­ety of tem­pos and emo­tion­al tim­bres. The long duets between vio­lin and bass — to say noth­ing of their long joint caden­zas — are rem­i­nis­cent of the way Belli­ni and Rossi­ni wrote for their singers. “It’s very pop­u­lar among dou­ble bass play­ers,” notes Tra­mon­tozzi, “but it’s a real chal­lenge. It’s quite a show­case for both instru­ments.”

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nal­ly in the May 2001 pro­gram book of the San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny and is used here with per­mis­sion.

Richard Strauss — Notturno, Opus 44, No.1


Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich, Bavaria on June 11, 1864 and died at his home in Garmisch on Sep­tem­ber 8, 1949. His orches­tral song Not­turno is the first of two songs that com­prise his Opus 44. The fact that the com­pos­er labeled these as Zwei grössere Gesänge für tief­ere Stimme mit Orch­ester­be­gleitung (“two larg­er songs for deep voice with orches­tral accom­pa­ni­ment”) is sig­nif­i­cant and dis­cussed below. Not­turno’s text is tak­en from a poem of the same name by the Ger­man poet Richard Dehmel (1863 – 1920). Strauss, who had only recent­ly tak­en up his duties as chief con­duc­tor of the Berlin Roy­al Court Opera (where he served from 1898 to 1908), com­posed the song at his home in Char­lot­ten­burg on July 11, 1899 and scored it that Sep­tem­ber. It was pre­miered on Decem­ber 3, 1900, in Berlin, with the com­pos­er con­duct­ing the Berlin Phil­har­mon­ic, and with bari­tone Bap­tist Hoff­mann (1864 – 1937), who was then at the begin­ning of his twen­ty-two years with the Berlin Opera. The work is scored for two flutes and pic­co­lo flute, two oboes and Eng­lish horn, two clar­inets and bass clar­inet, two bas­soons and con­tra­bas­soon, three trom­bones, and solo vio­lin in addi­tion to the usu­al com­ple­ment of strings (Strauss asks for them to be divid­ed 12 – 12‑8 – 7‑6).


Richard Strauss spent his entire cre­ative life, almost eighty years, writ­ing songs — from his first effort, a Christ­mas car­ol com­posed when he was six, to the mag­i­cal Four Last Songs, the last of which was com­plet­ed only a year before he died (as was the recent­ly dis­cov­ered Mal­ven). But of the more than 200 songs pub­lished in the com­plete edi­tion of his work, only fif­teen are orches­tral songs. Of those, only the Four Last Songs are at all well known to most music lovers.

Though the oth­er orches­tral songs are mas­ter­pieces and deserve to be much bet­ter known, Not­turno is per­haps the most aston­ish­ing achieve­ment among the ear­li­er orches­tral lieder. It is more a tone poem for voice and orches­tra than a song and, though it was writ­ten sev­er­al years before Salome and Elek­tra shook the musi­cal world, its use of har­mon­ic struc­ture and instru­men­ta­tion to con­vey emo­tion and dra­ma clear­ly presage what the com­pos­er would accom­plish in those two operas. If one did not know that Not­turno was writ­ten in 1899, one would assume it had been writ­ten a decade lat­er.

Most of the Strauss songs one encoun­ters at orches­tral con­certs, or on record­ings with an orches­tra, were orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten with piano accom­pa­ni­ment and orches­trat­ed lat­er. Some of the best known of these were not even orches­trat­ed by Strauss. Con­duc­tor Felix Mot­tl, for instance, is respon­si­ble for the orches­tra­tion of Ständ­chen. It was Robert Heger, the con­duc­tor of the famous 1933 record­ing of major excerpts from Strauss’s Der Rosenkava­lier, who was respon­si­ble for orches­trat­ing Traum durch die Däm­merung, Allersee­len, Heim­liche Auf­forderung, and the ubiq­ui­tous Zueig­nung. These arrange­ments were all done dur­ing the composer’s life­time, and he had to have at least tac­it­ly approve of them, even if he did not always care for the musi­cal results. In 1940 he final­ly got around to orches­trat­ing Zueig­nung (writ­ten in 1882 – 83) for the sopra­no Vior­i­ca Ursuleac, but Strauss’s far-supe­ri­or ver­sion is sel­dom heard today because he changed the end­ing of the song to include a thank you for her appear­ance in the title role of Die ägyp­tis­che Hele­na.

Pauline and Richard Strauss

For­tu­nate­ly, Strauss orches­trat­ed a num­ber of his lieder so they could be per­formed dur­ing his numer­ous appear­ances as a con­duc­tor. Songs such as Cäcilie and Mor­gen, writ­ten orig­i­nal­ly as a wed­ding present for his wife, sopra­no Pauline de Ahna, became part of the couple’s joint appear­ances — in the piano ver­sions dur­ing lieder recitals, and in their instru­men­tal ver­sions for orches­tral con­certs. Strauss also orches­trat­ed his songs Wiegen­lied, Meinem Kind, and Mut­tertänd­leri for Pauline to sing as a sort of “Mut­ter­lieder” group. And we are indeed for­tu­nate that, from time to time, he revis­it­ed songs and orches­trat­ed them: pop­u­lar songs such as Befre­it, Fre­undliche Vision, and Ruhe, meine Seele, as well as more obscure songs such as Der Arbeits­man.

But these are all orches­trat­ed songs, not orches­tral songs. Though this might at first seem like a dis­tinc­tion with­out a dif­fer­ence, Strauss him­self dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed between the two, often using the term Gesänge rather than Lieder for his orches­tral songs.

The first of these orches­tral Gesänge are the four songs of Opus 33, which were writ­ten from July 1896 through Jan­u­ary 1897, fol­lowed short­ly by Opus 44’s two songs. The tim­ing of both opus­es is inter­est­ing and grows even more intrigu­ing when one looks at exact­ly when, dur­ing his life­time, Strauss turned to the com­po­si­tion of orches­tral lieder. With the excep­tion of the Four Last Songs, Strauss always wrote orches­tral Gesänge when he felt uneasy about his abil­i­ty to set words to orches­tral music. Opus­es 33, 44, and 51 lead up to Salome and Elek­tra; Opus 71 comes from the trou­bled years between Die Frau ohne Schat­ten and Die ägyp­tis­che Hele­na.

Anton van Rooy

Strauss had found his own voice as a com­pos­er of songs very ear­ly, with his remark­able Opus 10, eight lieder writ­ten while he was still a teenag­er. Three of them—Zueig­nung, Die Nacht, and Allersee­len—con­tin­ue to be among his most pop­u­lar songs.  Only a few years lat­er, his tone poem Don Juan served notice that he was just as skill­ful and indi­vid­u­al­is­tic when it came to writ­ing for an orches­tra. The great Hans von Bülow (who had con­duct­ed the world pre­mieres of Wagner’s Tris­tan und Isol­de and Die Meis­tersinger von Nürn­berg) announced that Strauss was Richard the Third (because after Richard Wag­n­er there could be no Richard II). When Strauss fol­lowed up Don Juan with Death and Trans­fig­u­ra­tion and his Opus 10 lieder with dozens of oth­er remark­able songs — to say noth­ing of his bur­geon­ing career as a con­duc­tor and occa­sion­al­ly as a piano soloist — it must have seemed there was noth­ing, musi­cal­ly, he could not do — and do with easy, imme­di­ate suc­cess.

Obvi­ous­ly, some­one who com­pos­es with equal facil­i­ty for voice and for orches­tra would seem to be born to write opera. Strauss thought so, too. His first opera, Gun­tram, was pre­miered in Weimar in 1894 when he was thir­ty. Its recep­tion was luke­warm. The fol­low­ing year, Gun­tram was giv­en in Munich, where Strauss had just been appoint­ed one of the con­duc­tors for the Munich Opera. In his home­town, Gun­tram was such a flop that all fur­ther per­for­mances were can­celed.

It would be dif­fi­cult to over­es­ti­mate the effect this resound­ing and very pub­lic fail­ure had on the com­pos­er. Bryan Gilliam, in his won­der­ful biog­ra­phy of Strauss, calls Gun­tram’s fail­ure “the bit­ter­est and most impor­tant set­back of his life” and points out that “he nev­er for­got it, not even in the final weeks of his life.” Cer­tain­ly Strauss nev­er for­gave Munich, His sec­ond opera, Feuer­snot (which pre­miered in 1901), was a pub­lic exco­ri­at­ing of his home­town for (as he saw it) turn­ing its back on him. And despite the fact that Strauss set­tled just out­side Munich in Garmisch, his let­ters show that he remained unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly thin-skinned where the Munich Opera was con­cerned.

Against that back­ground, the sud­den appear­ance of orches­tral songs in Strauss’s list of com­po­si­tions makes per­fect sense. One of the rea­sons Gun­tram failed was that it sounds, with the excep­tion of a pas­sage or two, like watered-down Wag­n­er. For some rea­son (the loom­ing shad­ow of Richard Wag­n­er?), when Strauss com­bined words and music to cre­ate an opera, the won­der­ful, sharply indi­vid­ual voice he had achieved so thor­ough­ly in writ­ing both lieder and tone poems sim­ply fad­ed away. The orches­tra­tion is often mud­dy and the vocal lines seem to mean­der. Undoubt­ed­ly, the Opus 33 Vier Gesänge für Singstimme mit Begleitung des Orch­esters (Four Songs for Voice with Accom­pa­ni­ment of the Orches­tra) was an attempt to sur­mount the prob­lems of writ­ing for a singer and an orches­tra with­out hav­ing to take on the bur­den of writ­ing an entire opera. This time, Strauss large­ly got it right, espe­cial­ly in the first song Ver­führung (Seduc­tion), which dis­plays a superbly real­ized jux­ta­po­si­tion of sweep­ing melod­ic lines and surg­ing orches­tral waves with more inti­mate moments and tim­bres. Espe­cial­ly when sung by a tenor who can do it jus­tice, Ver­führung brings to mind some of the great scenes Strauss would lat­er write for the Emper­or in his most ambi­tious opera, Die Frau ohne Schat­ten.

Bap­tist Hoff­mann

Two years after fin­ish­ing the Opus 33 works, Strauss, hav­ing mean­while com­posed Don Quixote (1897) and Ein Helden­leben (1898), returned to the world of orches­tral lieder with his Opus 44: Not­turno and its com­pan­ion piece Nächtlich­er Gang. In let­ters to his par­ents, Strauss referred to these songs as being for a bari­tone, though the score only refers to a “deep voice,” and the vocal line for Not­turno, rather sur­pris­ing­ly, is notat­ed in the tre­ble clef, not what one would expect of a song writ­ten specif­i­cal­ly for a bari­tone. Nächtlich­er Gang is writ­ten in the bass clef, which is a bit iron­ic, because it has a much high­er tes­si­tu­ra than does Not­turo, which goes down to a low F‑sharp and spends time in a range a bass, or bass-bari­tone, would find more com­fort­able. It would take a singer of unusu­al range to be equal­ly at home in both songs, though they were pre­miered by the same singer, bari­tone Bap­tist Hoff­mann.

Strauss ded­i­cat­ed the two songs of Opus 44 to two dif­fer­ent singers, which per­haps tells us a bit of how he thought of the songs, vocal­ly. Not­turno is ded­i­cat­ed to the great Dutch bari­tone Anton van Rooy “in grate­ful respect” (in dankbar­er Verehrung). Van Rooy had just cre­at­ed a sen­sa­tion at Bayreuth, where he debuted as Wotan in 1897. He became asso­ci­at­ed with lead­ing Wag­n­er bari­tone parts and par­tic­i­pat­ed in the first Par­si­fal at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera in 1903. One New York crit­ic praised his por­tray­al of the suf­fer­ing Amfor­t­as for its “noble, heart-rend­ing pathos, deeply mov­ing in its utter­ance of the agony of the soul which he bears” and the “poignan­cy of the pain under which he suf­fers” — per­fect attrib­ut­es for per­form­ing Strauss’s Not­turno, which abounds in exact­ly those emo­tions. Nächtlich­er Gang is ded­i­cat­ed to Karl Schei­de­man­tel, a famous Wol­fram in Tannhäuser and Hans Sachs in Meis­tersinger, who would lat­er cre­ate the role of Fan­i­nal in Strauss’s Der Rosenkava­lier.

Not­turno is of mon­u­men­tal pro­por­tions for a song — more than dou­ble the length of any of Strauss’s oth­er orches­tral songs. The orches­tra­tion is unusu­al in its absence of horns, trum­pets, or per­cus­sion, which gives a ghost­ly tim­bre to the instru­men­tal sound. Strauss bril­liant­ly cap­tured the emo­tion­al inten­si­ty and night­mar­ish qual­i­ty of Richard Dehmel’s poem, that tells of a dream in which death appears in the guise of a friend who wan­ders through the night play­ing his vio­lin while the moon appears, high in the night sky. (Arnold Schoenberg’s Trans­fig­ured Night was also inspired by Dehmel’s poet­ry.)

Richard Dehmel

Dehmel, inci­den­tal­ly, thought the music of Not­turno excel­lent, but he took issue with the fact the com­pos­er omit­ted the poem’s open­ing and clos­ing — where all is revealed as a dream. Strauss felt the piece would have greater impact if audi­ences were not quite sure if the events were real­ly hap­pen­ing or were a hal­lu­ci­na­tion. “The hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry effect is, of course, intend­ed,” Dehmel wrote, “but only in the mid­dle move­ment, and the patho­log­i­cal dis­so­nance is artis­ti­cal­ly resolved by the begin­ning and the end of the poem, which were unfor­tu­nate­ly left out by Strauss. By leav­ing them out, the poet­ic motif has been destroyed com­plete­ly, and the sit­u­a­tion has become near­ly incom­pre­hen­si­ble. But, nev­er­the­less, I am grate­ful to Strauss for the com­po­si­tion, not only because of the very fine music, but because it was through his mis­un­der­stand­ing that he made me straight­en out the text through­out, aim­ing to make it eas­i­er to under­stand.”

The two pianis­si­mo chords that open the work imme­di­ate­ly plunge lis­ten­ers into the night­mar­ish world of the song. The first chord, F‑sharp and C‑sharp, is played by the clar­inets, bass clar­inet, bas­soons, con­tra­bas­soon, trom­bones and bass­es, most of them play­ing in the bot­tom of their reg­is­ters, and the music feels dark and men­ac­ing. The first chord is imme­di­ate­ly fol­lowed by the flutes, oboes, and Eng­lish horn play­ing C‑natural and G. The first two chords togeth­er are the musi­cal equiv­a­lent of Edvard Munch’s paint­ing The Scream, ren­dered all the more sin­is­ter by being played so qui­et­ly.

Not­turno slith­ers between the tonal­i­ties of F‑sharp minor and G minor, cre­at­ing (most appro­pri­ate­ly) a sense of unease in the lis­ten­er, a sense of being lost in a con­stant­ly shift­ing land­scape. Though Strauss uses the solo vio­lin to rep­re­sent the fid­dling of the fig­ure in the poem, his genius as an orches­trater goes far beyond such lit­er­al depic­tions  and is found in his abil­i­ty to con­vey the hor­ror and anguish — and yet the empa­thy — the pro­tag­o­nist feels. Strauss’s music is as filled with moments of sweet­ness, com­fort, warmth, and poignan­cy as it is pain and loss.

In Not­turno, Strauss plays with lis­ten­ers as a cat plays with a mouse, build­ing up har­mon­ic ten­sion, then releas­ing it just before the break­ing point, only to fol­low the peri­od of relief with yet anoth­er patch of poly­ton­al har­monies — before the song dies away, with a feel­ing of rest­ful­ness and final peace, as the dead friend’s “plead­ing song…waned and depart­ed.”

What must the audi­ence of 1900 have thought of such a vivid musi­cal por­tray­al of Dehmel’s poem? And why do audi­ences today so sel­dom have the chance to rev­el in this mas­ter­piece?

A very slight­ly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of this arti­cle appeared in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny and is used here with per­mis­sion.

The image at the top of the post is Osval­do Licini’s “Ange­lo ribelle su fon­do blu (not­turno),” 1954.




Samuel Bar­ber was born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Penn­syl­va­nia, and died at his home in Man­hat­tan on Jan­u­ary 23, 1981. Andromache’s Farewell, for sopra­no and orches­tra, was com­mis­sioned by the New York Phil­har­mon­ic in cel­e­bra­tion of its open­ing sea­son at Lin­coln Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, where it was pre­miered on April 4, 1963, with Mar­ti­na Arroyo as sopra­no soloist and Thomas Schip­pers con­duct­ing. The text for Andromache’s Farewell is from The Tro­jan Women by Euripi­des, in a trans­la­tion made at the composer’s request by John Patrick Creagh. The orches­tra con­sists of pic­co­lo, two flutes, two oboes and Eng­lish horn, two clar­inets and bass clar­inet, two bas­soons, four horns, three trum­pets, three trom­bones, tuba, tim­pani, cym­bals, tan-tam, bass drum, snare drum, tenor drum, xylo­phone, celes­ta, antique cym­bal, tam­bourine, anvil, whip, wood block, harp, and strings.


It is per­haps inevitable that Samuel Bar­ber would end up a gift­ed com­pos­er of music for the human voice. His mother’s sis­ter was the great Amer­i­can con­tral­to Louise Homer, and it turned out that Samuel him­self had a beau­ti­ful bari­tone voice. So promis­ing was the young man’s singing that, when he entered the Cur­tis Insti­tute of Music in 1924, he stud­ied voice with Emilio de Gogorza, as well as piano, com­po­si­tion, and (with Fritz Rein­er) con­duct­ing.  When Bar­ber decid­ed to stop vocal stud­ies with de Gogorza he wrote a friend, “How soon one for­gets singing; I haven’t opened my mouth; I nev­er real­ly liked it any­way. Instead I am eager­ly look­ing for­ward to teach­ing next year. I should be per­fect­ly hap­py to be a piano teacher for the rest of my life, and play ten­nis a lit­tle on the side.”

But singing was obvi­ous­ly part of Barber’s soul. In 1934 he went to Vien­na, where he end­ed up study­ing con­duct­ing — and voice. He wrote enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly to a friend that he was tak­ing two voice lessons a day and that he had “made much progress.” In was in Vien­na that he devel­oped a pas­sion for ear­ly Ger­man lieder: Schmügel, André, Schulz and so on, and copied many man­u­scripts of charm­ing and gemütlich things,” he wrote.

Samuel Bar­ber

His inter­est in ear­ly music soon spread to ear­ly Ital­ian com­posers, and he decid­ed to help sup­port him­self, on his return to the Unit­ed States, with his singing. One per­son to whom he con­fid­ed his plans for a singing career was his com­po­si­tion teacher at Cur­tis, Rosario Scalero. “I am hop­ing to sup­port myself with my voice, for there is a field in small con­certs in Amer­i­ca. I expect to do a group of Ger­man and ear­ly Ital­ian things, play­ing my own accom­pa­ni­ments on a spinet which I am tak­ing back to Amer­i­ca with me. Do you think I am com­plete­ly cracked?…Why should some­one not res­ur­rect these mar­velous things for voice as Landows­ka did for cem­ba­lo music?”

Bar­ber did exact­ly that, giv­ing con­certs in ther autumn and win­ter of 1934, dur­ing which he accom­pa­nied him­self in songs by Mon­tever­di, Cac­ci­ni, Dow­land, C.P.E. Bach, Han­del, Schu­bert, and Amer­i­can and Ital­ian folk music. The response from the pub­lic and crit­ics was suf­fi­cient­ly pos­i­tive to secure the young man a job singing on nation­wide radio. His debut on Feb­ru­ary 4, 1935, was on the NBC Music Guild series. Oth­er nation­al broad­cast recitals fol­lowed. One of the peo­ple who heard that first radio con­cert was Charles O’Connell, head of RCA Vic­tor Record Company’s artist and reper­to­ry divi­sion, who was impressed enough with Samuel Bar­ber the singer that he decid­ed to ask the young man to make a record­ing of his own “Dover Beach,” a 1931 work for voice and string quar­tet. (The record­ing was issued in 1936 and is cur­rent­ly avail­able the Pearl label.)

Tough Bar­ber even­tu­al­ly dropped his bid­ding career as a singer to con­cen­trate on his com­po­si­tion, he — like Rossi­ni before him — would occa­sion­al­ly per­form for his house­guests. Bar­ber sang works by the great Ger­man lieder com­posers, as well as songs by his uncle, Sid­ney Homer, who was an enor­mous influ­ence on the young man, and with whom he had his first lessons in com­po­si­tion.

Though vir­tu­al­ly unknown today, Sid­ney Homer wrote such once-pop­u­lar songs as “The Ban­jo Song,” “How’s My Boy?”, The Pauper’s Dri­ve,” “The Sick Rose,” (said to be a favorite of his nephew Sam), and “The Song of the Shirt,” as well as a Requiem and a vast quan­ti­ty of oth­er music. While one would have expect­ed his wife, Louise Homer, to have pro­grammed his music, many oth­er famous singers from the ear­ly days of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry also per­formed his works reg­u­lar­ly: David Bis­pham, Alma Gluck, Johan­na Gad­s­ki, and Sigrid One­gin, to name only a few. The influ­ence Sid­ney and Louise Homer had on Samuel Barber’s musi­cal taste, and the sup­port they gave the young man in his deter­mi­na­tion to be a musi­cian, can hard­ly be over esti­mat­ed.

Barber’s father was a doc­tor and promi­nent civic leader in qui­et, afflu­ent West Chester. Despite the part music played in the fam­i­ly, Samuel Barber’s par­ents were con­cerned that their son was becom­ing too wrapped up in music at the expense of oth­er activ­i­ties that would make him “well-round­ed.” But the nine-year-old boy was deter­mined to pur­sue what was impor­tant to him, and he expressed him­self — quite poignant­ly and plain­ly — in a now-famous let­ter to his moth­er:

I have writ­ten this to tell you my wor­ry­ing secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is nei­ther yours nor my fault. I sup­pose I will have to tell it now with­out any non­sense. To begin with I was not meant to be an ath­let [sic]. I was meant to be a com­pos­er, and will be I am sure. I’ll ask you one more thing. — Don’t ask me to try and for­get this unpleas­ant thing and go play foot­ball.—Please—Some­times I’ve been wor­ry­ing about this so much that it make me mad (not very).”

Mar­ti­na Arroyo

This remark­able self-knowl­edge and deter­mi­na­tion to do what he knew he had to do, to go his own way because it was right for him, was reflect­ed in Barber’s music. At a time most com­posers were explor­ing seri­al­ism and tone rows, writ­ing music that left audi­ences baf­fled or alien­at­ed, Bar­ber wrote music that express­es deep emo­tion, music that speaks pow­er­ful­ly and direct­ly. The sheer vari­ety of his emo­tion­al palette is stag­ger­ing, as evi­denced in his orches­tral music alone by the shifts in moods from the bustling, infec­tious Over­ture to The School for Scan­dal, to the ele­giac pro­fun­di­ty of the famous Ada­gio for Strings, to the rhap­sod­ic Sec­ond Essay for Orches­tra.

But per­haps Bar­ber was at his most com­mu­nica­tive when he wrote for the human voice. The imme­di­a­cy of the music trans­port lis­ten­ers to the world of the song. Few song cycles in their entire­ty evoke a time and place as thor­ough­ly and instant­ly as Barber’s Knoxville: Sum­mer of 1915. In his Her­mit Songs, he ranges from the inno­cence of “The Heav­en­ly Ban­quet,” to the wicked humor of “Promis­cu­ity,” to the seren­i­ty of “The Monk and His Cat” in a mat­ter of min­utes. Bar­ber wrote two full-length operas, both on com­mis­sion from the Met, Vanes­sa (1958) and Antony and Cleopa­tra (1966). He also wrote a mas­ter­ful cham­ber opera, A Hand of Bridge (1959).

The com­pos­er set the scene for this 1963 con­cert piece Andromache’s Farewell in the fol­low­ing note, which he includ­ed in the score. “Scene: an open space before Troy, which has just been cap­tured by the Greeks. All Tro­jan men had been killed or have fled and the women and chil­dren are held cap­tives. Each Tro­jan woman has been allot­ted to a Greek war­rior and the ships are now ready to take them into exile. Andro­mache, wid­ow of Hec­tor, Prince of Troy, has been giv­en as a slave-wife to the son of Achilles. She has just been told that she can­not take her lit­tle son with her in the ship. For it has been decreed by the Greeks that a hero’s son must not be allowed to live and that he is to be hurled over the bat­tle­ment of Troy.  She bids him farewell. In the back­ground the city of slow­ly burn­ing. It is just before dawn.”

In his music Bar­ber cap­tures Andromache’s excru­ci­at­ing emo­tions — sor­row, despair, anger. Though Andromache’s Farewell is a self-con­tained piece and not part of a larg­er work, lis­ten­ers can­not help but be remind­ed of the great scenes for sopra­no and orches­tra by com­posers such as Wag­n­er and Richard Strauss. Andromache’s Farewell is oper­at­ic in the best sense of the word, with the human voice con­vey­ing emo­tion through the com­bin­ing of words and music into riv­et­ing dra­ma.

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nal­ly in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cis­co Sym­pho­ny and is used here by per­mis­sion.