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Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Now sadly relegated to little more than a footnote in music history (only in Germany is his music given the respect it deserves), Weber is actually a figure of towering importance. More than any other composer he paved the way for Wagner and for the astonishing flowering of German Romanticism in the mid-nineteenth century, and composers as diverse as Stravinsky, Debussy and Mahler revered him.
Weber’s last work was commissioned by the Royal Opera in London, and the composer taught himself English in order to set the libretto. Received opinion is that he need not have bothered with learning such a difficult language – the libretto is not of the finest quality. The esteemed writer on music, Donald Francis Tovey, went so far as to write that Weber ‘poured his last and finest music into this pig-trough’.
Whatever the (de)merits of the libretto, the overture to the opera is a masterpiece. Sadly Weber did not live to see his final work achieve great success; he died of tuberculosis, aged 39, shortly after the premiere, while staying at a friend’s in London. For the first time, he had locked his bedroom door from the inside.
[Notes by Richard Laing]
Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
2. Turandot, Scherzo
A recent meme circulating among musicians on social media depicts a cartoon sketch of a middle-aged couple at the end of a dinner party. ‘They’re not leaving,’ complains the woman. ‘Put on some Hindemith!’ Sadly the name of this great German composer still inspires fear among those who would struggle to name a single thing he wrote. In reality, Hindemith’s music is thrillingly energetic and atmospheric, combining the passionate honesty of European folk music with an impulsive rhythmic sense and a sophisticated but satisfying harmonic language.
Hindemith left home at the age of 11 because his parents objected to his pursuit of music. He supported himself by playing violin in dance bands; subsequently he became leader of the Frankfurt opera and one of the finest viola players of his day. In 1938 Hindemith and his family left Germany following condemnation by the Nazis, fleeing first to Switzerland, and then to America, where he was appointed Professor at Yale University.
It was in America that the work which eventually became the Symphonic Metamorphosis began to gestate, initially as a ballet suggested by Léonide Massine, with music based by Hindemith on some of Weber’s compositions, and stage action inspired by Pieter Bruegel’s paintings. However, choreographer and composer soon fell out over the kind of music to be provided – Massine wanted simple orchestrations of the Weber pieces, while Hindemith wanted to use Weber’s music as a springboard for something new. Hindemith was soon referring to Massine and his colleagues as ‘blockheads’, and the two never really resolved their differences. The completed work was eventually performed as a purely orchestral event in New York in January 1944, adding two new movements to two which had been previously written for Massine.
The ‘Themes of Weber’ are taken from somewhat obscure works by that composer: some music for piano duet, and the incidental music to Turandot (not to be confused with Puccini’s opera on the same story). The themes are presented simply, without adornment, before being given the full orchestral treatment by a composer at the height of his powers.
[Notes by Richard Laing]
Symphony no.2 in D major
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
When we think of Brahms it is difficult not to picture in our mind’s eye the famous photograph of the elderly composer, portly, hirsute, serious. ‘Too much beer and beard,’ said Paul Dukas. Yet to remember Brahms this way is to do him a disservice and to misunderstand the man. During Brahms’s youth and even his middle age, he cut a remarkably dashing figure; his elegance and his roguish sense of humour won him many admirers, and his warm regard for his fellow man (and his fondness of practical jokes) endeared him to all. Knowing this, it is possible to see the hint of a twinkle in the eyes of the old man in those grainy photographs, but of course, Brahms’s music gives a truer depiction of the man than any camera could capture.
In the summer of 1877 the composer, beardless, was staying in the village of Pörtschach on the Wörthersee in Austria, close to the Italian border. Here, as he wrote to the critic Eduard Hanslick, the air was so full of melodies that he had to ‘be careful not to tread on them’. The D major symphony was written with remarkable rapidity. The following year Brahms returned to Pörtschach and composed the Violin Concerto.
Brahms’s first symphony had been a weighty, serious work, years in the making, as the composer felt the looming presence of Beethoven over his shoulder and doubted his own ability to create a work worthy of continuing the tradition. But once the first symphony had finally been born, the second followed shortly after. If Brahms’s audience were expecting a work of similar grandeur and pathos to his first symphony, he did little to convince them otherwise. He wrote to friends that the new work was ‘dirge-like’ and in F minor, and announced that at the premiere he would wear a crepe armband ‘in deference to the solemn and mournful nature of my latest child’. Indeed, he told them, ‘the new symphony is so melancholy, that you will not be able to bear it. I have never before written anything so sad and mournful’ and instructed his publisher, ‘you must put a black edge round the score to give an outward show of grief.’
Yet this was another of Brahms’s jokes. This symphony is surely one of the sunniest ever penned, and while there is a hint of melancholy in the slow movement, Brahms would surely be laughing long and hard at the pompous writers who even today tell us that the second symphony is deeply ‘tragic’ underneath the surface. Indeed, at several points in the music one feels one can actually hear Brahms laughing, a joyous, utterly unalloyed laughter which is clothed in some of the most endearing music ever composed.
[Notes by Richard Laing]
Richard Laing is an artist of remarkable versatility. In an age of increasing specialisation he is a true polymath, bringing a wide variety of influences to his music-making. He is Principal Guest Conductor of Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, Associate Conductor of Chandos Symphony Orchestra, and Music Director of Leamington Chamber Orchestra. He began his career as Sinfonia ViVA Conducting Scholar at Birmingham Conservatoire, where after nine months of study he was awarded his Masters Degree, a Postgraduate Diploma, and the Postgraduate Prize for the most outstanding contribution to the musical life of the college. Shortly thereafter he was appointed to the post of Associate Conductor with the virtuoso young ensemble Sinfonia Cymru.
As one of the nation’s foremost choral conductors, Richard frequently undertakes choral preparation, off-stage conducting and pre-concert talks for Britain’s top orchestras. For the Hallé he has prepared Belshazzar’s Feast, Alexander Nevsky, The Music Makers, The Planets and Poulenc’s Gloria. For the BBC Symphony Orchestra he has prepared Carmina Burana. As a violinist Richard is a core player with the Orchestra of the Swan, a guest Principal with the English Symphony Orchestra, and a guest leader for several of the finest amateur orchestras in London and the Midlands. As a pianist he has worked as a répétiteur and coach at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, where he is now a competition adjudicator and external examiner in orchestral conducting.
Richard writes on a wide range of subjects. While still an undergraduate, his work on John F. Kennedy’s policy in Vietnam won the Kaiser Award for American History. He has presented papers on subjects as diverse as apocalyptic cinema, M.C. Escher, and reality TV at the International Conferences on Film and Literature at Florida State University. He has recently been awarded the Open University’s Certificate in Astronomy and Planetary Science, achieving a distinction in every examination. Richard is an expert on the work of Wagner, and as a student was the youngest of the sixteen authorities from around the world invited to present his research at the International Wagner Symposium at the University of Adelaide.
His work is regularly published in The Wagner Journal and Wagner News, though his proudest achievement is being published in the iconic games magazine White Dwarf.