Hats Off to Brahms: A Musical Tribute

Brahms Festival Sanders Theater April 18

While Brahms' famous lullaby may be his most cliched piece, it is not representative of the passion and intensity that the majority of his work invokes--certainly not of last Friday's rousing HRO concert.

The tribute to Brahms opened with his Tragic Overture in D minor, Op. 81. Though not one of Brahms' most widely played pieces, the overture is by no means dull, beginning with two dramatic chords and followed by the full statement of the main theme. The piece fluctuates between extremes in dynamics, tempo and mood, immediately placing it in the Romantic period.

While the Tragic Overture was not composed with any particular text in mind, Brahms' sketches for the work indicate that he was probably thinking about Goethe's Faust while writing it. In attempting to discover which "tragedy" inspired the piece, scholars have linked it with the story of Hero and Leander and with Shakespearean tragedy.

HRO's interpretation of the overture highlighted the piece's ambitious nature and theatrical potential through passionate dynamic swells. However, due perhaps to the acoustics in Sanders Theatre, the forte sections of the piece seemed excessively loud, and a few intonation problems in the brass section were prominent in the overture's soft sections.

The orchestra left the stage after the overture, and a massed chorus of over 160, comprised of the Harvard Glee Club, the Radcliffe Choral Society and the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, took place behind the empty chairs for the performance of Fest und Gedenkspruche, Op. 109. Brahms composed this piece, a collection of three songs, in 1889 as a tribute to Hamburg's liberation. Brahms intended them both as a celebration of Germany's victory in the Franco-German war of 1870-1871 and an expressed hope that Germany would live up to her glorious past.


This a cappella piece consists of three different songs based on Bible texts taken from Psalms, Luke, Matthew and Deuteronomy. Each section has a distinctive feel, and in sequence they seem to trace the history of Brahms' own musical influences: From Handel and Bach in the first section to painfully beautiful dissonances in the second section, then segued into a characteristically Romantic polyphonic style for the last section.

Under the direction of Jameson Marvin, the huge chorus had a rich, full sound and excellent diction. After the especially gorgeous Amen in the last section of the piece, the chorus and conductor looked physically exhausted--as if they had poured themselves wholly into the performance.

For the third piece, the Schickalslied (Song of Destiny), the orchestra rejoined the chorus on a very crowded stage. The text of this piece is taken from a poem Friedrich Holderlin adapted from his own novel Hyperion. The poem glows in the first few stanzas, meditating quietly on the peace of heaven but shifts abruptly to stormy despair in describing "suffering mortals" being swept hopelessly from place to place.

The music fits the text perfectly, the orchestra opening with what must be one of the most sublime melodies Brahms ever wrote. The soprano and alto sections of the chorus entered with the woodwinds to introduce the text, with the male voices joining in later.

The strings shone throughout the piece, though the winds experienced some intonation problems. The chorus was amazing: Their sound was beautiful and perfectly controlled, and their diction was even better in this piece than in the previous one. The blissful expressions on the performers' faces showed how deeply moved they were by the power of the music.

The second half of the concert consisted of Brahms' Symphony No. 3 in F Major. Throughout his life, Brahms struggled with writing symphonies. In the early stages of his career, he felt as if he wrote in the shadow of Beethoven's symphonic tradition yet was not worthy of it. Brahms' first symphony is even popularly referred to as "Beethoven's Tenth." By the time he began work on his third symphony, he had developed a style of his own that would come to represent the essence of the Romantic movement.

The symphony's first movement opened with and developed a now-familiar sweeping lyrical melody. The second movement was high-lighted by an especially fine wind chorale at the beginning. The introspective third movement of the symphony was possibly the most beautiful piece of music in the entire concert. The gorgeous theme, introduced by the cello section at the start of the movement, was then passed successively through the sections. The orchestra seemed improved from the first half of the concert; intonation problems were ironed out and their playing was much more focused and better controlled than earlier in the evening.

The chorus's superb performance was the climax of the first half of the concert. But by the end of the concert, the orchestra had matched them, playing with the sound characteristic of an excellent ensemble. Overall, the concert was deeply felt without being over-wrought, passionate without being affected.