Johann Strauss inspired by Brahms?

Our orchestra opened 2011with waltzes & polkas. As always, the mix is surprisingly tiring to play being pretty much the same physical movements all through the concert. Aside from that I find real enjoyment in the quality of many of the pieces, especially the ones by Johann Strauss (Son). My favourite this time was the “Kaiser-Walzer”.
I love the way he throws in a big theme in bassoons, trumpets, trombone and celli a bar early just at the end of waltz no 3; here is the cello part of the last 16 bars leading into the theme: ex 1

Listen to this section including the entrance of walz no 4 (which has its own ambiguity).


When the listener hears it (red cross) the feeling is probably that of a strong start on the main beat of the period. The accompaniment however starts one bar later: ex 2


Try, in your mind to place this theme in a four bar pattern letting it start with a down beat bar. Then try it with the first bar being the fourth in the pattern. Notice how different it feels? Especially when you reach (ex 1) the two bars of extended E in the end where Strauss lets the whole phrase turn over to shift emphasis within the up – down structure.

Finally try scanning it through your mind as starting on the second beat of the four bar pattern. (In the Coda this theme comes back with no tying it up in the end.) Again, different feeling. Which is correct?
I feel we should not attempt to correct what is written here but play the theme as written, starting with an up beat as the double bar makes perfectly clear when we read the score.  Everything then follows naturally with little or no need to fix bowings.

Here is the beginning of the first walz, introduced by three bars of dotted halfnotes in the celli, (not shown here):


The listener, given three bars of introduction will tend to feel the first bar as an upbeat. The harmonic sequence would then fall into place in a way that also fosters this illusion. The second part of this waltz begins on an unquestionable downbeat, bringing perfect variation to the flow of the music.


On the other hand, look at this:

The second symphony of Brahms starts with an up-beat bar in the low register. This is not altogether clear to the listener since harmonically it is leading away from the tonic to the dominant while the next bar finds the music still pursuing tonic material. We are in the limbo of a 6/4 chord from the start.
Later in the movement this upbeat phrase is treated as a motif in its own right and categorically placed on the downbeat – making the listening experience wonderfully full of having to accept the multifaceted ambiguity of human thought. This is one of Brahms’ trademarks. Listen to the beginning and follow along to the timpani entrance: do you have any clue as to where the main beat is? (a diminished chord on top of that adds up to the uncertainty we feel…)


Johann Strauss was aware of and attempting to master these complexities also in his perhaps not altogether light popular music.

Brahms’ 2 dates 1877 , Strauss’ Kaiser-Walzer 1889

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Ein Heldenleben – Hero overcomes minor flaw?

We know Richard Strauss was portraying himself, tongue in cheek, in Ein Heldenleben. The companion piece Don Quixote was written one year earlier and Strauss felt the two pieces where linked together even though this seldom, if ever, is taken into account in concert programming. For those who think Strauss was taking himself too seriously it is worth considering Don Quixote was first side of the coin.

Ein Heldenleben; did you ever notice the opening theme has a few odd notes? In the seventh bar the grand theme in Horn, Violas and Celli has a minor infliction of flats before reaching its last eb as a suspension on top of a dominant Bb7 chord:

Never thought much of it?


Ok, I know this is just two notes with flats but it seems to me that we have a little joke here. The Hero is  magnificent – but – these are spots that could still be improved….

Look at how the theme almost half an hour later comes roaring out in triumph (number 77 in the score); he has just won the war!  Cl, Bass CL,Violins, Violas, Celli and Double Basses:


Fuller sound, no flats anymore… Notice how, after the theme, 8 [yes! in unison...] horns repeat twice the tonality “correct” [eb-d-c-bb] Eb major scale fragment. Self assured, feeling good – no doubt about it!


Now, as you could hear, the “minor” flaws are gone – he has matured and is greater than ever. The theme ends in an enormous Cadenza and his beloved companion joins him for a copy of bar 17 -22 with the Heroines melody singing in joined ecstasy.

The piece is full of these storytelling games if you enjoy this line of thought. As pure music it works too, of course, but reading the score you cannot help but smile in awe at the witty way he unfolds the story.

If you look at how the battle was won; from number 71 in the score you see the beginning of a long series of descending half note duplets with added flats:

They are however rising in sequence one after the other until a Dominants Dominant F7 chord is reached and the enemies are heard running away scattered and defeated.  These duplets are the same idea as the flat notes we heard in the beginning. Through working on his own flaws he has been able to reach victory, and this is the place of cadenza and the full main theme entering without blemishes (earlier, in ex 2).

Here is the full section discussed above in one go: The final blow of the fight, enemies scattered, triumph, a better man, immaculate, selfassuredly (8 heroic horns) steering towards the spectacular Cadenza followed by hero and heroine in joined ecstasy…

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Prokofiev vln concerto no 2

In the second violin concerto by Prokofiev, second movement, there is in the last bar a small phrase for clarinet and solo bass. For some reason this often comes out less convincing than it should despite being quite easy to play.

I think there is a reason for this:

The tutti basses change from playing pizz to arco on the downbeat of the last bar. This has a tendency to take a little extra time being their final note and all…

Prok vln concerto, end of mov 2

The solo bass player will be very sensitive to what goes on in his surrounding and this produces a small delay even before starting his solo which then means the natural curve of the rit is destroyed. The clarinet is most likely not noticing the late arco downbeat and plays with the natural flow of the music.

With an alert downbeat there should be no problem.

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Haydn 95 and Beethoven

This week we have played the Haydn 95 symphony. Written in 1791 this is one of the famous London symphonies for which Haydn was greatly rewarded in fame as well as cash. He must have been proud and happy when returning back to Vienna in late spring 1792. In November Beethoven arrives in Vienna to have lessons with the master. To quote Thayer: “this small, thin, dark-complexioned, pockmarked, dark-eyed, bewigged young musician of 22 years had quietly journeyed to the capital to pursue the study of his art with a small, thin, dark-complexioned, pockmarked, black-eyed and bewigged veteran composer.”

We know Haydn was very impressed with his young student but he was too busy writing new masterpieces for his next trip to London to really spend time correcting and monitoring the studies in counterpoint that Beethoven was eager to pursue and get over with. Is it likely that Haydn showed and discussed his latest achievements, of which he was so proud and exited, with Beethoven? They had coffee together… ( “Coffee, 6 x for Haidn and me” )

Now, what´s the point? As we rehearse the first movement we come across the following passage in the bassline:

Later, in the last movement Haydn reuses this idea in a new context:

Interesting from a composers point of view – or at least interesting enough to immediately  stick to the eye – how the same material is used to connect between movements, something Beethoven was later to make great use of. But being a bass player my fingers disturbes me (I am rehearsing – not supposed to be mind drifting..) : Hey, you have played this pattern before! Sure – isn’t this one of the most practiced sequences of notes in a bass players orchestral repertoire: The scherzo of Beethovens Eroica Symphony ?

Could it be with a slight touch of good humor that Beethoven gives a third example of how this “lick” can be used; ending with a long rythm-disturbing duple feeling. The texture in the orchestration turns into unison string playing (in octaves) at this point in Haydn and Beethoven alike, making this sequence stand out from its surrounding…

Even if, quite likely, this is all mere coincidence; a result of using the same type of patterns, I enjoy the hands-on reminder of how close in time and space these symphonies are and the implied human connections makes it feel somehow contemporary to me. People connect.

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