Program notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason (www.shavergleason.com)
Felix Mendelssohn's parents recognized and encouraged his musical talent at an early age, providing the prodigy with the resources upon which he would build a successful career. By the age of 10, Mendelssohn took composition lessons with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who impressed upon his pupil the importance of studying Baroque and early Classical music. Zelter introduced Mendelssohn to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, sparking a lifelong love of the fugue. In his studies, Mendelssohn composed twelve string symphonies between 1821 and 1823, at the ages of twelve to fourteen. Mendelssohn had the advantage of hearing these string symphonies played right away, as his home became a gathering place for intellectuals and local musicians. Through these string symphonies, Mendelssohn worked out classical musical techniques such as sonata form, which traditionally gives shape to the first movement. He also played with texture, dividing sections of instruments in unconventional ways to create new effects. The Symphony for Strings no. 9 in C major, “Swiss” is a prime example of this experimentation; it features a divided viola section, creating a five- or six-part harmony, depending on whether the basses played with the cellos. Mendelssohn composed his ninth string symphony in March 1823, when he was fourteen years old.
It begins with a trudging Grave introduction that gives way to a balanced Allegro. Rather than using two contrasting themes for his sonata form, Mendelssohn submits just one theme to the process, borrowing a technique often used by Haydn. In the development section, however, he reconfigures the theme into a fugue, an early indication of how deeply the music of Bach influenced his style. In the Andante, Mendelssohn divides the string orchestra in a non-standard way. The movement begins with just the violins, divided into four parts for a light, gentle impression. The basses, cellos, and violas—still split into two parts—issue a response that is dark and brooding, building layer upon layer. The violins return with their ethereal strains, and the lower strings are folded into the texture before the end of the movement. The sprinting Scherzo gives way to a pastoral Trio section that gives the symphony its nickname: The first violins play a folksong labeled “La Suisse,” with a yodel tag at the end of its phrases. The string symphony ends with a bustling Allegro vivace that constructs yet another fugue before sprinting to the conclusion.
Mendelssohn turned to the symphony to demonstrate his mastery of classical forms, whereas Antonín Dvořák turned to the serenade to evoke freedom from such forms. In 1875, Dvořák's personal life and career were going well. He married two years prior, and the couple had just welcomed their first son to the world. Professionally, Dvořák had applied for the Austrian State Prize in composition in 1874; the jury included critic Eduard Hanslick and Johannes Brahms, who were won over by Dvořák's talent. He was awarded the stipend in February 1875, with the comment that, “The applicant...deserves a grant to ease his strained circumstances and free him from anxiety in his creative work.” Able to compose without fear of poverty, Dvořák wrote his Serenade for Strings in E Major, Opus 22 within two weeks, from May 3-14. It premiered in Prague on December 10, 1876, and the following year it was published in a piano four-hands version. Only after Dvořák's subsequent success with his enormously popular Slavonic Dances did publishers express interest in producing the orchestral score. The Berlin firm Bote and Bock published the full score in 1879, praising its “naturalness and grace.”
All movements except the last are in ternary or ABA form, containing a middle contrasting section before returning to the initial material. The first movement, Moderato, begins with an easy conversation between second violins and cellos, gliding over pulsating violas. The middle section features a sprightly dance before the original melody returns with some embellishment. Dvořák indicates the second movement as Tempo di Valse; although the dance features a triple meter and maintains an elegance, the forlorn melody lacks the exuberance of a traditional Viennese waltz. The contrasting Trio is gentler, yet features unexpected harmonic shifts. Next comes a light-hearted Scherzo that resembles a musical game of tag that pauses for a lilting dance. The contemplative Larghetto borrows a melody from the previous movement; it presents it as an outpouring of earnest emotion, but the middle section retains an air of mystery. When the opening returns, the violas play a slower version of their dance rhythm from the Scherzo, further establishing the ties between the two movements. The Finale: Allegro vivace cycles through many ideas, moving swiftly from a dramatic introduction, to a tragic dialogue, to a country dance. The cellos emerge with the passionate theme from the Larghetto (which itself was adapted from the Scherzo), but the opening themes return. This time, the dance segues into the main theme of the first movement before the finale theme reasserts itself for a jubilant ending.