“Brahms Third”

By Laurie Shulman © 2019
First North American Serial Rights Only

Grieg: Piano Concerto: Though strongly influenced by Schumann’s piano concerto, Grieg’s ravishing piece is rich with Norwegian melodies and rhythms. The quintessential romantic concerto, it features rhapsodic Chopinesque figuration in the slow movement and a vigorous Norwegian dance in the finale.

James Lee III’s Emotive Transformations is a highly personal response to loss. Lee composed it in the wake of his father’s death and those of several others whom he treasured. His new piece follows the trajectory from grief to acceptance and hope.

Symphony No.3 in F Major, Op.90 is the shortest of Brahms’s four symphonies, and is sometimes called Brahms’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. Despite some heroic and dramatic moments, every movement ends serenely. The opening notes are the ascending pitches F-A-F, which stand for Frei aber froh [Free but happy], Brahms’s personal motto. Those notes dominate the first movement and recur at the symphony’s close.


Emotive Transformations

James Lee III
Born 26 November 1975 in St. Joseph, Michigan
Currently residing in Edgewood, Maryland

James Lee III makes his first appearance on a Louisville Orchestra program this weekend with the premiere of Emotive Transformations. Currently Professor of Music at Morgan State University in Baltimore, he holds a DMA in composition from University of Michigan, where he studied with Michael Daugherty, William Bolcom, and Bright Sheng. He was also a composition fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, working under the tutelage of Michael Gandolfi. Lee was the winner of a Charles Ives Scholarship and the Wladimir Lakond Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  His music has been widely performed by orchestras and chamber music series throughout the USA. He has also had his music performed in South America, Cuba, and Russia.

Emotive Transformations is one of four premieres Lee has this spring; the other three are an orchestral piece for the Detroit Symphony, his Second Violin Concerto, Teshuah with violinist Carla Trynchuck and the Andrews University Symphony Orchestra in Michigan, and Daniel Lau in Lee’s Piano Concerto with the Washington Adventist University Symphony Orchestra in Maryland.

The piece we hear sprung from tragedy. In November 2016, James Lee’s father lost a battle with pancreatic cancer. His father’s passing was the catalyst and inspiration for Emotive Transformations, as Lee explains in his composer’s note.

One does not really understand how others experience grief until they, too, lose a loved one. Since 2016, I have lost other friends and family and, most poignantly, a young couple’s nearly six month-old baby in November 2018.  Emotive Transformations conveys the various stages of grief, including shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance. In addition, this work also addresses the strong emotional transformations that one undergoes in life as a result of various circumstances.

Two principal ideas course through Emotive Transformations : a two-note ascending motive and a rhythmic figure of two notes functioning as a musical sigh. Both ideas undergo various developments. These two musical building blocks are contained within a structure that loosely suggests a first movement sonata form. There are suggestions of two contrasting themes connected by a transition; a closing theme, development, and recapitulation. Near the end of the piece, the two themes are combined, moving to a climactic and exuberant moment in which one celebrates the strong desire to see their loved one in a future resurrection that will result in an eternal life of bliss.                                                                   — James Lee III


The piece is a journey, from agitation and cries of grief, to a period of mourning and reconciliation with what cannot be undone. Eventually the musical gestures start moving upward as much as down, signaling optimism a glimmer of hope.  The music grows more rhythmic and determined, building to heart-pounding excitement at the end.

The score calls for woodwinds, horns, and trumpets in pairs, timpani, and strings.


Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16

Edvard Grieg
Born 15 June, 1843 in Bergen, Norway
Died 4 September, 1907 in Bergen

For most of the 19th century, Germany was the center of the musical world. Aspiring performers and composers from all over Europe went to Germany to pursue their education. That was the case for Norway’s celebrated musical son, Edvard Grieg. At age 15, his family sent him to study at the Leipzig Conservatory.  Leipzig was a particularly celebrated city for music: Bach, Mendelssohn, and Schumann had all lived and worked there.

Though Grieg was not happy in Leipzig, he became immersed in the city’s vibrant musical culture. Before returning permanently to Norway, he also spent time in the Danish capital of Copenhagen. There, the most influential composer was Niels Gade, who had worked in Leipzig for many years and was close friends with Mendelssohn. Thus the German influence on Grieg was strengthened.

Beginning in the 1860s, however, Grieg began to take a strong interest in the folk music of his homeland.  Thenceforth his music took on an increasingly Norwegian slant.  Today, Grieg is regarded as the most important composer that Norway has produced, and the father of Norwegian nationalist music.

In spite of his celebrity in his homeland, Grieg’s international reputation rests primarily on the Piano Concerto, Op.16.  As its low opus number indicates, it is a relatively early work, completed when the composer was only 25. The concerto is important for a number of reasons. It was Grieg’s largest orchestral work and the last piece that he wrote in the Austro-Germanic style he had learned in Leipzig. After the concerto, Norwegian folk music influenced all his music. The concerto was thus a turning point.

Even if that were not the case, however, Grieg’s Concerto would be a marvel. Along with the Piano Concerto by Robert Schumann (also in A Minor), with which it is frequently compared, Grieg’s masterpiece holds court as the quintessential romantic concerto. His biographer John Horton calls it:

. . . the most satisfying and successful of Grieg’s attempts at composing in the larger traditional forms, and the one that is generally agreed to be the most complete musical embodiment of Norwegian national Romanticism.

Grieg acknowledged that he had studied Schumann’s Piano Concerto carefully before embarking on his own. Like the Schumann, Grieg’s concerto opens with a dramatic flourish for the soloist. He also follows Schumann’s lead by dispensing with the extended orchestral passage preceding the piano entrance (called a double exposition), an approach that is familiar in the Mozart piano concertos.

Grieg’s concerto has several distinct and contrasting theme groups, including a completely new melody that oboes and bassoons introduce in the coda. The pianist’s cadenza dazzles with romantic passage-work in a heroic style.

After all the dust kicked up by the first movement, Grieg’s Adagio settles things down.  Muted strings introduce the music, joined first by bassoon, then upper winds, before the soloist enters. Grieg’s piano writing in the opening pages is reminiscent of the delicate filigree in Chopin’s piano music; so too are his harmonies. This slow movement takes us on an extraordinary and passionate journey.

The finale gives us the most prophetic glimpse of Grieg’s Norwegian voice, which he would adopt for the balance of his career. Characterized by strong rhythmic profile and a fiery –  even pagan – spirit, this movement is a halling, a Norwegian folk dance that Grieg used in several other compositions.

A switch to a relaxed and lyrical section takes romantic liberties.  Indeed, the tempo changes have a great deal to do with the dramatic tension that makes the finale so effective.

Because he was the soloist at the premiere in 1869, Grieg undoubtedly sought opportunities for display. This flashy concerto did much to establish Grieg’s international reputation. He continued to revise the orchestration until the last years of his life, with special attention to the brass and woodwind parts.  We hear the 1906-1907 revised version.

The score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, solo piano, and strings. 


Symphony No.3 in F major, Opus 90

Johannes Brahms
Born 7 May, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany
Died 3 April, 1897 in Vienna, Austria

All four Brahms symphonies are staples of the repertoire, anchor works on whatever program they appear, and emotionally rewarding in a way that increases with repeated hearings. The Third Symphony, was neither a first effort nor a swansong, but the proud announcement of a master in full command of his faculties.

Brahms turned fifty in 1883. He was coping with middle age and, by extension, the prospect of mortality. Despite the tonality of F, traditionally associated with pastoral themes, an element of heroism prevails in the Third Symphony. That heroism was to find its greatest expression and catharsis in the powerful finale to the Fourth Symphony, but that is not to underestimate its effect in the Third.

Brahms’s carefully honed instinct for dramatic development and tension allows him to build his momentum steadily through his four movements. In the eighteenth century, musical substance and import tended to be concentrated in the opening movement; finales tended to be lighter. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its powerful choral finale, signaled a shift in emphasis. Symphonies by later nineteenth-century composers increasingly invested more psychological and emotional weight in their last movements.

Brahms was a musical architect, by which we mean that he was keenly aware of larger structure and formal design in his compositions. Three of his four movements in the F Major Symphony are in sonata-allegro form. No complex technical secrets shroud the materials of his building blocks in this piece. All its components are readily perceptible to the listening ear.

Three chords at the start usher in the first big theme, a sweeping descending arpeggio that answers the ascending chords. Built on the musical spelling F-A-F (an acronym for Brahms’s purported motto, “frei aber froh”, or “free but happy”), this opening idea recurs throughout the entire work. The Third has been called a “motto symphony.”  It dominates the entire first movement, and serves as the cyclic glue binding the finale to the whole.

Yet it is misleading to imply that the Symphony is one-sided or monothematic. To the contrary, the Third is an astonishing amalgam of formal discipline and melodic freedom.  Among its delights are a wondrous richness of instrumental color. Throughout the score are many indications that Brahms took special care with his orchestration. For example, he uses trombones in three of the movements, and in one the contrabassoon replaces the tuba. The second movement opens with woodwinds and horns; later both clarinet and bassoon are featured. A wonderful cello theme stands out memorably in the intimate, romance-like Poco allegretto.

All four movements end quietly.  Brahms has no need for the bombast of loud closing measures; the tension and drama he creates in his music are part of a larger design. Indeed, he manages to deliver this Symphony without any real slow movement. Both inner movements function as tension-relievers, more like intermezzi. We have the sense of an event of immense importance unfolding before us at the commencement of the finale, and Brahms does not disappoint us. Elements of chorale fuse with his gift for letting the music gather its own internal momentum. The journey is both exhilarating and emotionally satisfying, and when we hear the familiar strains of the opening motto and theme, we have a comforting sense of closure that says we have arrived safely in harbor.

The score calls for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, solo piano and strings.