Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Academic Festival Overture, op. 80
Johannes Brahms was not an academic but was offered several honourary degrees over his career. In 1879 the University of Breslau, Germany, offered him a Doctorate in Music. He sent them a thank you card for the honour. A friend suggested that a musical response would be a better response and so Brahms wrote the Academic Festival Overture.
Brahms conducted this musical picture of student life, himself in Breslau to an audience of faculty and town dignitaries. They were taken aback by what they perceived to be a frivolous piece. Brahms had tried to capture student life, both the partying and the studying. The work contains majestic choral adaptations of student drinking songs including the lude and vulgar The Fox Song (a song ridiculing freshmen raw from the provinces).
Franz Joseph Haydn 1732-1809
Flute Concerto in D major
There are a few early catalog references, in the 1770s, to two Haydn flute concertos in D major. One has been lost and other is performed for you tonight. It is a beautiful piece following the fast—slow—fast form of classical composition. It is an exuberant piece full of verve. But did Haydn write it? Tantalizingly many scholars, but not all, now consider this the work of Haydn’s arch rival Leopold Hoffmann. Haydn had this to say about Hoffmann, “a braggart who believes that he alone has achieved Parnassus, and who seeks to undercut me in all matters."
The first movement is very direct and contains only one theme. The second movement changes key and the soloist now carries the bulk of the thematic material. The third movement sees the solo line being emancipated from the main theme.
From 1791-92 to 1974-95 Haydn was invited to London to conduct new symphonies and compose. His work was already very popular in the London music scene. “Barely a concert goes by that does not include at least one work by Haydn”. It is considered a very lucrative and productive time in Haydn’s career.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2)
Vaughan Williams began writing the London Symphony in 1912. He had not been thinking of writing a symphony until after a conversation with composer George Butterworth: “We were talking together one day when he said in his gruff, abrupt manner, ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony’. I answered that I’d never written a symphony and never intended to… I suppose Butterworth’s words stung me and, anyhow, I looked out some sketches that I had made for a symphonic poem about London and decided to put it into symphonic form.”
The London premiere in March of 1914 was a success. However Williams had to almost completely rewrite it. He had sent the score to conductor Fritz Busch in Germany and the outbreak of war prevented it from being returned. He rewrote the score for a performance in 1915 from an annotated piano part. By its American premiere in 1920 it had been completely revised and rewritten. He continued to make changes to it until he submitted it for publication in 1936. The work is dedicated to his friend Butterworth, who was killed in the trenches during the war.
The composition starts with a soft slow first movement and one can hear the bells of Westminster chiming. The 2nd movement, the Allegro incorporates all the sounds of London. Vaughan Williams called this movement “Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon.” For the Scherzo Vaughan Williams says, “If the hearer will imagine himself standing on Westminster Embankment at night, surrounded by the distant sounds of the Strand, with its great hotels on one side, and the ‘New Cut’ on the other, it may serve as a mood in which to listen to this movement.”
The Finale opens with a march, moves into an allegro and back to a march, and we hear the chimes of Westminster again. The Epilogue of the Finale is inspired by H.G. Wells’ Tono Bungay, “Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass – pass. The river passes – London passes, England passes.”