This week I have come to the end of the year 1875 in my journey through the history of classical music – a year that turned out to be full of popular classics that have mostly held their place in the repertoire. I’ve already written about two of the most famous: Tchaikovsky’s startlingly fresh and adventurous first Piano Concerto and Bizet’s ever new opera Carmen. The year also saw the creation of Grieg’s music for Ibsen’s poetic drama Peer Gynt, Ponchielli’s robustly romantic opera La Gioconda with is ballet music, The Dance Of The Hours, which you know even if you don’t realize it, Delibes’ second great ballet hit, Sylvia with its famous Pizzicato movement that you also know believe me. 1875 also saw the premier of the comic opera, Trial By Jury, Gilbert and Sullivan’s first successful collaboration and three symphonies that I listened to with differing enthusiasms. Tchaikovsky’s Third, it bored me years ago and, sorry about this, it still bores me today even though I can hear in the two little middle movements the emerging genius of the three great ballet scores. There was also the now largely forgotten but once celebrated composer Joachim Raff’s Seventh which was not dearly as dull as the Tchaikovsky and which even if over long and more than a little over-confident of the composer’s abilities, is an atmospheric and mostly absorbing portrait of the Raff’s childhood home around the beautiful Zurich Lake in Switzerland. The last of the three symphonies this year is by the young and thrillingly optimistic Antonin Dvorak, his Sixth and, by far, the most interesting wok of the three. Coming to early Dvorak as i have been doing recently, I am continually surprized by the strength of his work even as a relatively young man. This symphony, not his greatest, of course, is full of energy, enthusiasm, a real sense of drama and popular communication and, as in so many of this man’s compositions, full of wonderful uplifting melody. It is a young man’s work and deserves a place on the top table of popular classical music.
So that else was written in 1875 and what would I take with me, if i could only take one piece. Well, many of the pieces discussed above, I know so well, I don’t really need to hear again. The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto came back to me as a surprizingly impressive piece, one to put with the half dozen great pieces by this man, Carmen is wonderful, great theatre and full of great and very sexy tunes and La Gioconda fits into that select bracket of pieces that I love passionately for a mix of biographical and extra-musical reasons (more of this later in another blog). I can take or leave the Grieg whilst being newly impressed by how his maybe over-played tunes work so well when included in Ibsen’s now seldom performed drama, I am newly thrilled by Delibes’ ballet Sylvia after watching a video recording of a vibrant production from Paris – it was a pleasant surprize to hear the alto saxophone in one of its earliest outings in a symphony orchestra. As for Raff, I have followed his work with special interest through this period as my joker card always wondering how he was once spoken of in the same breath as Wagner and Brahms. I have enjoyed many of his pieces over the years and impress on you that they are more interesting than you might think but, sad to admit, he deserves his place in the canon of music’s also ran. Gilbert and Sullivan are not really my “thing” but it was lovely to hear the beginning of their witty relationship.
In the end, none of these pieces qualify for the ultimate test – the piece that should sit on your shelf representing the year 1875. This has to go to Brahms and his String Quartet No. 3, written two years after his first two published quartets and probably the twenty third quartet that he wrote, so he claims, before destroying all the others on his way to mastering this most difficult of forms and writing a work tha deserves to stand next in line to the masterpieces of Beethoven and Schubert. In this quartet, and the earlier two, Brahms consolidates his knowledge of past masters, in these pages you can hear his tributes to Handel, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, along with Mendelssohn and Schumann but you can also hear how music was progressing, towards Mahler, Schoenberg and beyond. It is a major work on the road to the 20th Century but also his last great step before writing the first of his masterly symphonies. I can’t wait to listen once more to his first symphony but that, my firends, has to wait until 1876.
Here is the quixotic third movement of the Third Quartet played by the Jerusalem Quartet but you really should find the whole piece and absorb it: