“At the end of La Strada, one of Federico Fellini’s earliest films, the simple Gelsomina witnesses the accidental death of Il Matto (the circus fool and high wire act) who had been fighting with Zampano (the brash and uncouth street performer and Gelsomina’s boss). For the rest of the film she says only ‘Fool is hurt.’”
So begins Simon Holt’s note for his brand-new composition Fool is hurt, a piccolo concerto jointly commissioned by NOVA and the London Sinfonietta that will enjoy its world premiere on NOVA’s concert of November 6. Holt’s work will appear alongside a selection of works from the early career of Johannes Brahms, continuing NOVA’s multi-season exploration of the composer's early work.
The second half of the 1850s was not an easy time for Brahms. In 1856, his friend and mentor Robert Schumann died after a protracted period of madness and institutionalization. (For more on Brahms’s relationship with the Schumanns and the vital role that Robert Schumann played in Brahms’s early life and career, see the Nova Note from November 1, 2015, “New Paths and Young Progressives.” The loss of Schumann was compounded by Brahms's subsequent separation from Clara Schumann, Robert's widow and one of the most famous pianists in Europe, who had been forced by her family's financial circumstances to adopt a hectic schedule of concertizing and touring. And, as a cherry on top of an already difficult time, Brahms's nascent love affair with a young singer by the name of Agathe von Siebold quickly went up in flames. Brahms felt bereft and unmoored; much like Fellini's Gelsomina, the loss of his mad friend left him unable to communicate––or, at least, unable to communicate in the way most vital to him: through his music. He no longer knew, he wrote to Clara Schumann, "how one composes, how one creates."
At the same time, however, Brahms needed work. Between 1856 and 1860, he would publish no new works at all. Instead, he turned to conducting and music lessons as a source of income. The first steady (if temporary) position he found was in Detmold, a city in north-western Germany, where he was hired as a pianist and conductor for a local choral society; and it was for the Detmold chorus in 1857 that Brahms composed his Begräbnisgesang (“Funeral Song”), Op. 13, a searing work steeped in the traditions of the German Baroque. In the mid-nineteenth century, choral societies were one of the most important loci for amateur musical performance, and in 1859 Brahms founded an amateur choral society for women in Hamburg. It was for this choir that he composed the Four Songs for Women's Choir, Harp, and Horns, Op. 17. Both of these rarely-heard choral works will be featured on NOVA's upcoming concert; in a special twist, NOVA will perform the Four Songs with choristers from Salt Lake City’s Madeleine Choir School.
Happily, Brahms hit his stride again at the turn of the decade, and the first half of the 1860s witnessed an efflorescence of chamber music: a cello sonata, the horn trio, two piano quartets, the piano quintet, and the two string sextets all date from this time. In the autumn of 1862, Brahms traveled for the first time to Vienna, taking with him introductions from Clara Schumann and other major musicians. He would also capitalize on his friendship with one Bertha Porubszky, a native of Vienna who had recently returned to the city after residing in Hamburg––where she had been a member of the ladies’ choir founded by Brahms! The series of concerts Brahms gave in Vienna met with great acclaim; a particular favorite was his newly written Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25, which had been premiered the previous November with Clara Schumann at the piano. The quartet is almost symphonic in scope: its four movements last some three-quarters of an hour, and it is full of rich harmonies, soaring melodies, and the filigree of highly skilled counterpoint. But the most beloved movement is likely the last, the “Gypsy Rondo,” full of nimble dance rhythms and spicy melodies. This monumental work will round out NOVA's upcoming concert.
The likening of the piano quartet to a symphony is not coincidental: in 1862, Brahms began sketches for his first symphony. Although the world would have to wait another decade and a half before the premiere of this extraordinary work, the pieces selected by NOVA present an important glimpse into this vital period of Brahms' compositional development. They also provide early evidence of his prowess in writing for large groups of voices and instruments. In fact, in 1853 Robert Schumann himself had predicted the extraordinary sounds that Brahms would be able to create with such an ensemble. In a now-famous essay introducing Brahms to the highest musical circles in Germany, Schumann declared: “If he would turn his magic wand to the massed forces of choir and orchestra … we would see before us the most marvelous glimpses into the secrets of the spirit world.” On November 6, NOVA audiences will have an opportunity to judge Brahms’s compositions for these “massed forces" for themselves.