Patti Johnson Wilson Classics Series

Ebb & Flow: Brahms’ Symphony No. 3

This Tulsa Symphony performance will definitely be a “10!”  Sarah Hicks is not only an in-demand composer – she is an educator, arranger, Emmy-winning producer, writer, and speaker. We are pleased to welcome her back to conduct the Tulsa Symphony.

Sarah Hicks, guest conductor

Ravel – Bolero
Debussy – La Mer
Brahms – Symphony No. 3 in F major, op.90

Saturday, January 13, 2024 | 7:30 PM
Tulsa Performing Arts Center

Program Notes

The first two composers heard on this program are frequently performed together because of their ostensible similarities. Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) are the most dominant French composers of the early 20th century and are the foremost representatives of the musical style labeled Impressionism. Despite their apparent commonalities, the two composers are distinct both personally and musically and the works heard here are quite contrasting in character.

Ravel’s most recognizable and perhaps notorious composition is his Boléro (1928). This unusual work is remarkable for several features that in the hands of a lesser composer could have spelled disaster. A boléro is a type of Spanish dance that is a stylized depiction of a bullfight. A slow tempo, triple meter, and the persistent rhythm, incessantly heard here in the snare drum, are its characteristic features. Ravel’s Boléro is a set of subtle variations on a long and sinuous (and sensuous) theme. He treats these variations almost as a concerto for orchestra, featuring different instrumental solos and sections for subsequent variations. To add to the work’s mystique are two additional features: the work doesn’t change key for almost the entire duration until the penultimate section heightening its climactic effect, and from beginning to end the work forms a single, long, gradual crescendo lending a primal kind of release to its course that has led to an attending suggestive mythology. Originally conceived as a ballet commissioned by former Ballets Russes dancer, Ida Rubinstein, Boléro was an instant success though it has subsequently been subject to both wild acclaim and harsh criticism. Ravel himself is often quoted as saying, “I’ve written only one masterpiece – Boléro. Unfortunately, there’s no music in it.” In truth Boléro is a work that embodies much of its zeitgeist by melding a modernist sense of the monotonous and mechanical with the popular and the serious, the intellectual and the sensual.

Without revisiting a discussion of “Impressionism” versus some other “ism” by which to describe the musical style of Claude Debussy (1862-1918), it should suffice to say that the new compositional techniques with which the composer was experimenting were influenced by a wide variety of sources, including the generation of impressionist painters such as Monet and Renoir. In fact, the composer frequently remarked that he preferred the company and works of poets and painters to those of other musicians, though the painters he cited may not be the ones we usually think of. In particular he admired the works of the British painter Joseph Turner and the Japanese artist, Hokusai, a portion of whose painting, The Great Wave of Kanagawa, was chosen by Debussy to adorn the cover page of his symphonic triptych, La Mer (1905). Turner is also known for his paintings of the sea that are highly “impressionistic,” sometimes placid, often stormy, and occasionally horrific. It is therefore reasonable to think that these works of visual art played a role in Debussy’s own “impressions” of the sea.

​By 1903 Debussy had already established his reputation as a leading composer of the avant-garde in France. “Debussyisme” was all the rage following the success of his opera Pelléas and Mélisande (1902), but the new work, La Mer, showed a new direction in Debussy’s music that did not satisfy the Debussyists. The loose formal structures, hypnotic melodies, and ambiguous harmonies of Pelléas are less manifest here and consequently initial reception of the new work was less than enthusiastic. La Mer is the closest thing to an actual symphony in Debussy’s catalog and some maintain that it is the greatest French symphony of its era; some contemporaries even noted certain affinities to Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor. Like Franck’s symphony, La Mer is in three movements, each bearing a descriptive title.  The first movement, “From Morning to Midday on the Sea,” is, like the rest of the work, highly evocative without being literally descriptive. In this sense, La Mer is indeed impressionistic, but only in the most positive sense. While themes and motifs are clear and the movements have distinct sectional qualities, Debussy avoids traditional formal patterns associated with the Classical or Romantic symphony. The skittering themes of “Jeux de vagues” (Game of the Waves) suggests a scherzo-like movement, playfully appropriate to the dancing patterns of waves at sea that rise and fall, swell and pass without apparent cause. The final movement, “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea,” begins with a convulsive figure in the low strings, evoking an ominous mood. The winds and brass respond establishing the basis of this dialogue. A calmer middle section gives relief from the lurching opening before chattering trumpets signal the return of the original theme and mood of the movement. Surging strings and brass fanfares in the closing coda bring the work to its exciting and frenzied climax.

By the time Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) came to write his Symphony No. 3 in F he had much to be confident about. He had already known professional success; he had come to grips with symphonic form—amply demonstrated in his first two symphonies—and had struck up a relationship with a young singer named Hermine Spies. In the winter before completing the symphony Brahms’ musical nemesis, Richard Wagner, died. The Symphony No. 3 in F major, op. 90, is the product of a mature, experienced master at the height of his powers. No longer a young man, the just turned 50-year-old Brahms was still hale, but the turning was a cause for some melancholy. Already possessed of a reflective spirit, this landmark may have given him new pause for thought. The Third Symphony, though somewhat enigmatic, is a masterwork of expressive symphonic writing. Full of Brahms’ characteristic rhythmic flexibility and harmonic ambiguity it is a paean to the ideal of the Romantic Symphony, entering the heart and mind of the listener as a thing of pure and personal beauty while plumbing the depths of musical profundity.

Like his First Symphony, Brahms’ Third begins with a dramatic opening idea that sets the mood for the entire work. Unlike the First Symphony though the beginning of the Third is heroic, assured, and poetically concise. The concision of its material makes the opening correspondingly pregnant with possibility. Following the initial surge, the movement settles into a more lyrical vein. A second theme led by solo clarinet brims with lyrical vitality as it seamlessly passes from one instrument to the next. The flow of this movement is as inexorable as it is unpredictable, and we revel in the pleasures of unknowing expectation. An initially urgent development section follows the beautifully proportioned exposition but soon it too gives way to the lyrical impulse as a solo French horn turns the mood in a new direction. A familiar descending motive appears, hushed and ponderous as the music seems to stray briefly before setting up the return of the heroic opening idea. The movement concludes with a final nod to the distinct worlds of heroic and lyrical with a final recalling of the opening followed by the gently sighing idea that ended the development. The Andante opens with a bucolic clarinet theme answered by warmly swelling strings. A piping oboe leads to more turbulent waters and the calm assurance of the opening has been lost. Soon the strings soar to one of Brahms’ most rapturous melodies before returning the opening clarinet idea. The third movement continues the balancing act between ravishing beauty and tragic poignancy. The opening cello melody, rich and mellifluous, seems to fall back upon itself before realizing its full melodic shape. The middle section throbs in anticipation each time answered by calming strings at first deep and confident, then less so. The opening idea returns, now in the French horn and winds, followed by an impassioned final reprise in the full strings. An uneasy calm introduces the Finale as sinuous lines smoothly weave their uncertain pattern. A hushed and stuttering section follows, building tension to the first dynamic release of the movement; it will not be the last. Episodes of exceptional violence and intensity energize this movement like none other in Brahms’ symphonies. Yet, despite the variety of characters presented, the unity of idea is never lost—a tribute to the master’s powers of thematic manipulation. The conclusion feels as though we have survived the aftermath of a calamity, a hard-won calm settles over the orchestra as the sighing theme from the opening movement drifts down like welcome sleep to the weary. ©2023 Robert S. Katz, Ph.D.