July 12, 2017 Program Notes

Higdon, Janáček, Brahms: July 12, 2017

The Festival is thrilled to welcome composer Jennifer Higdon for the 2017 season. Her Piano Trio and Light Refracted (to be performed on Friday, July 14th) explore relationships between music, color, and light. With movements titled “Pale Yellow” and “Fiery Red,” Higdon explores the energies and dynamicity of individual colors, much in the manner of a painter. The program continues with Janáček’s whimsical reflection on youth, Mládí, written for the occasion of his 70th birthday, followed by Brahms’s own poignant reflection on age, with the String Quintet, Op. 111, initially conceived as his final composition before retirement.


Piano Trio

Jennifer Higdon has provided the following program note to accompany her Piano Trio:

Can music reflect colors and can colors be reflected in music? I have always been fascinated with the connection between painting and music. In my composing, I often picture colors as if I were spreading them on a canvas, except I do so with melodies, harmonies and through the instruments themselves. The colors that I have chosen in both of the movement titles and in the music itself, reflect very different moods and energy levels, which I find fascinating, as it begs the question, can colors actually convey a mood?

This work was commissioned in 2003 by the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, Vail, Colorado.


Mládí (Youth)

The final decade of Janáček’s life was his most fruitful compositionally. Janáček had sustained a distinguished career as director of the Brno Conservatory since 1881; however, despite his prominence there, success in the Czech capital of Prague long eluded him, and Janáček lamented what he considered his merely provincial rank. Finally, in 1916, after years of refusal, the National Theater finally accepted his opera, Jenůfa; the performance received great acclaim, and at last, at age 62, Janáček was propelled to national renown.

An even more important spark to Janáček’s creativity came in 1917, when Janáček met the young Kamila Stösslová. He fell deeply in love with her (an affection which she never wholly reciprocated), and began a prolific and intimate correspondence: over 700 letters until his death in 1928. Stösslová became the direct source of inspiration for three operas, a song cycle, and a string quartet (pointedly subtitled, “Intimate Letters”).

In 1924, Janáček wrote to Stösslová from Hukvaldy, a Moravian village which Janáček visited for a few weeks on his 70th birthday: “while here I have composed a sort of memoir of my youth.” He had just completed Mládí. The musical reminiscence includes a direct quotation, in the third movement, of Janáček’s “March of the Blue Boys,” which evokes his boyhood days as a chorister in the Brno Monastery. Janáček also employs a technique he had developed to emulate the tone of the speaking voice: the opening theme of the first movement, introduced by the oboe and featured again in the final movement, sets the phrase, “Mládí, zlaté mládí,” (“Youth, golden youth”).


String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111

At the age of 57, Brahms was undergoing feelings of creative fatigue – a worrisome sentiment for the lifelong perfectionist – and he began to contemplate retirement from composition. Unsatisfied with preliminary sketches for his planned fifth and sixth symphonies, Brahms resolved to write one final work: a second string quintet. His first quintet, Op. 88, had been one of his favorite works – when he published it, he wrote to his publisher, “you’ll never receive anything more beautiful from me” – and his close friend, virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim, had been asking for a companion quintet. So, spending the summer of 1890 at the Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl, Brahms sought to pour all his remaining energies into the work. This time, when he sent his publisher the completed manuscript, Brahms wrote, “with this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop”.

Despite the poignant circumstances, Brahms sought to strike a joyous tone, infusing the quintet with dance music and a sense of youth. Max Kalbeck, a music critic and friend of Brahms’s, suggested that the composer might nickname the work, “Brahms in the Prater,” recalling the name of the large and convivial park a stone’s throw from Brahms’s Viennese residence. (Brahms is said to have responded, “You’ve got it! And all the pretty girls!”) Another friend, pianist Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, wrote to Brahms: “Reading it was like feeling spring breezes … He who can invent all this must be in a happy frame of mind. It is the work of a man of thirty.”

Brahms’s sincere intention to retire notwithstanding, the creative urge returned the following summer, when clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld inspired Brahms’s two final chamber works, the famous Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, and Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115.