Scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, strings and solo piano
Robert Schumann's prophetic article "New Paths" (1853) thrust weighty expectations on Johannes Brahms. This relatively unknown piano talent from Hamburg easily met the first great promise that "there would and must suddenly appear someday one man who would be singled out to make articulate in an ideal way the highest expression of our time, one man who would bring us mastery, not as a result of a gradual development, but as Minerva, springing fully armed from the head of Cronus."
The second prediction placed far weightier burdens on Brahms, the emerging composer. Schumann wrote, "Later, if he will wave his magic wand to where massed forces, in the chorus and orchestra, lend their strength, there lie before us still more wondrous glimpses into the secrets of the spirit world." Over a 21-year period (1855-76), Brahms's Symphony No. 1 limped slowly and painfully to completion. He may have waved the magic wand, but the orchestra resisted his musical incantations.
His Piano Concerto No. 1 mirrors-on a less exaggerated, but no less arduous scale-the struggle between a relatively familiar keyboard medium and the unsolved mysteries of symphonic writing. Close friends initially heard excerpts as a three-movement sonata for two pianos in March 1854, though the score has long since disappeared. Stunned by Schumann's recent attempted suicide, the despondent protégé cast a thick veil of Romantic tragedy over the sonata. Clara Schumann, who joined Brahms in this performance, wrote that the sonata "appeared to me to be quite powerful, quite original, noble and clearer than anything before."
Sensing his musical ideas constricted by the two-piano medium, Brahms decided on a radical transformation: the sonata expanded into a four-movement symphony in D minor. However, the composer faltered at this stage. His orchestration technique was inadequate to the task, and ideas for the finale quickly dissipated. On the advice of his friend Julius Otto Grimm, Brahms cast aside the incomplete finale and two middle movements (the main theme of the scherzo ultimately survived as the funeral march "Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras" in Ein deutsches Requiem), leaving only the first movement for a new project, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor.
The opening movementgains its breadth through Brahms's typically spacious lines and Romantic passion, combined with the somewhat antiquated double-exposition form inherited from the Classical period. He intentionally delays the piano's entrance, for the keyboard imbues new thematic interest and a sense of calm. In a letter to Clara Schumann on December 30, 1856, Brahms offered insight into the subsequent movement: "I am also painting a tender portrait of you that is to become the Adagio." This piece sustains profound lyrical beauty over a vast expanse. Above one sketch of the first theme, Brahms wrote the words Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord). Writers have deciphered this cryptic remark variously. Malcolm MacDonald noted the identical rhythmic scansion of the text and melody. Domine unquestionably refers to Robert Schumann, whom Brahms frequently addressed as Mynheer Domine in correspondence. Some imagine the "blessed one" to be Clara, despite the obviously masculine pronoun "qui." Another possible interpretation exists: "He who comes in the name of [Schumann]" might have been Brahms offering tender comfort to Clara, whose husband had died on July 29. Several formal structures blend together in the finale: rondo, sonata and variation. In Mozartean fashion, the piano introduces the dramatic refrain theme, which possesses an ambiguous rhythmic profile.
ALEXANDER ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Scored for four flutes and two piccolos, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, three bassoons, six horns, three trumpets, three tenor trombones and bass trombone, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, triangle, suspended cymbals, two tubular bells, two harps and strings
Hans Christian Andersen spun a tale of love, naiveté, heroism and horror in The Little Mermaid (1836). The widowed Sea King raises six daughters with help from his elderly, wise mother. On their 15th birthday, the Sea Princesses are permitted to rise to the ocean's surface to view the ships, forests and towns of the world above. Year after year, the youngest daughter listens excitedly to her older sisters' wondrous stories, waiting impatiently for her chance to make the journey. Finally, the youngest sea princess comes of age and, adorned in royal sea jewelry, rushes to the surface where she sees a ship alive with music, dancing and fireworks. The festivities slowly wind down throughout the night. A sudden storm buffets the ship, throwing the handsome Prince overboard. The Little Mermaid rescues the drowning Prince and transports him safely to the shore.
Returning home beneath the sea, the Little Mermaid cannot resist telling her sisters about the Prince. Their grandmother explains that humans live a lifespan shorter than their 300 years. The human soul, however, becomes immortal after death unlike the merfolk, who turn to sea foam. No mermaid can win an immortal soul, the wise elder explains to her granddaughter, unless a man should love her more than anything else, even his father and mother. That will never happen, she observes, because humans prefer two legs to their ugly mermaid tails.
The Little Mermaid sneaks away to visit the Sea Witch, whose powerful, wicked magic can transform her into a human. The Sea Witch warns the young princess that her decision will have grave consequences, beginning with the payment-she will cut out her tongue with a knife so as to remove her sweet voice. The Little Mermaid must win the Prince with her beautiful form, graceful walk and expressive eyes. Leaving her family forever, the youngest sea princess rises to the surface, drinks a magic potion and turns into a human. At sunrise the Little Mermaid, now mute and two-legged, encounters the Prince, who welcomes her into his palace. Everyone is enchanted by the mysterious, beautiful guest. The Prince notices in the Little Mermaid's face a faint resemblance to his mysterious rescuer from the shipwreck.
The Prince has reached the age of marriage. Though he loves the Little Mermaid, duty compels him to honor his father's wishes and visit the daughter of a neighboring king. The next morning, the royal party boards a ship for the nearby kingdom. Celebrations continue for several days until the princess, who was rumored to live in a religious house, appears. The Prince mistakenly recognizes this incomparable beauty as the maiden who saved his life. Wedding celebrations begin immediately. The Little Mermaid dances vigorously, despite the knife-like pains in her feet and the knowledge that she soon will die and become sea foam.
Later that night, the five Sea Princesses visit their youngest sister. They have given their long hair to the Sea Witch in exchange for a knife. Before the sun rises, the Little Mermaid must plunge the blade into the Prince's heart so that his warm blood may fuse her two legs back into a tail. Drawing back the curtain of the wedding tent, she sees the bride gently nestled on the groom's breast. The Little Mermaid, unable to commit the heinous act, throws the knife into the ocean and dives into its waves. Instead of dissolving into foam, she is lifted up by the sun's warm rays to join the Daughters of the Air, who, after 300 years of good deeds, float into heaven.
Zemlinsky selected this beloved fairy tale as the basis for an "orchestral fantasy" that he began writing in February 1902, days before Alma Schindler-his former lover-married Gustav Mahler on March 2. Utterly distraught by Alma's abandonment, Zemlinsky identified with the Little Mermaid, whom the Sea Witch had warned, "The first morning after he marries another, your heart will break." As Zemlinsky confided in his brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg, the score provided a "preliminary study for my Symphony of Death."
The sketchy program for a single-movement orchestral essay guided the initial creative work: "i (a) on the sea-bed (entire exposition); (b) the Mermaid and the mortal world, the storm, the Prince's rescue; ii (a) the Mermaid's longing, in the domain of the Mer-witch; (b) the Prince's wedding, the Mermaid's end." Zemlinsky later enlarged the structure to three movements, still programmatically outlining the main events in Andersen's fairy tale. Musical inspiration, according to biographer Antony Beaumont, came from Richard Strauss's tone poem Ein Heldenleben. Composition continued through the beginning of September, and orchestration occupied Zemlinsky until March 20, 1903.
The premiere took place on January 25, 1905, at the second concert of the Vereinigung schaffender Tonkünstler in Wien, an organization Zemlinsky had co-founded in 1904 with Mahler (the honorary president, with whom he had since reconciled), Schoenberg and others. Die Seejungfrau ( The Mermaid) occupied one half of a double-premiere concert, along with Schoenberg's symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck. Mahler convinced Zemlinsky and Schoenberg to present the new works without programmatic explanations.
Die Seejungfrau masterfully paints the adventures and heartbreak of Andersen's young sea princess in bold, luxurious orchestral brush strokes influenced by Strauss, Wagner and Mahler. The tightly integrated thematic material-Zemlinsky charted motivic relationships before embarking on the composition-represent characters, places and emotional states in a manner somewhat analogous to Wagner's leitmotifs. The Little Mermaid, for example, appears in a lyrical theme containing leaps of a sixth, numeric symbolism the composer explained with an annotation in his short score: "The youngest of the six sisters also was the most beautiful."