Program Notes: R. Schumann & Elgar

Members of the Seattle Symphony horn section step into the spotlight for Robert Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns and the orchestra shines with Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and Jessie Montgomery’s Strum, broadcasting from the Benaroya Hall stage on Friday, April 23, 2021, at 8pm on Seattle Symphony Live.


FRIDAY, APRIL 23, 2021, AT 8PM
R. Schumann & Elgar

Farkhad Khudyev, conductor
Jenna Breen, horn
Jeffrey Fair, horn
Danielle Kuhlmann, horn
John Turman, horn
Seattle Symphony

ROBERT SCHUMANN    Konzertstück, Op. 86


Romanze: Ziemlich langsam

Sehr lebhaft





EDWARD ELGAR   Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op. 20

Allegro piacevole






2020–2021 Masterworks Season Sponsor: Delta Air Lines
2020–2021 Season Streaming Sponsor: Scan|Design Foundation by Inger & Jens Bruun
Jeffrey Fair’s position is generously underwritten as the Charles Simonyi Principal Horn.


Konzertstück, Op. 86

BORN: June 8, 1810, in Zwickau, Germany
DIED: July 29, 1856, in Endenich, Germany
WORK PREMIERED: February 25, 1850, in Leipzig, Germany

The mental illness that afflicted Robert Schumann throughout his adult life reached a crisis point in 1844, when symptoms of insomnia, phobias, exhaustion, paranoia and auditory hallucinations caused his composing to grind to a halt. As he emerged from that particularly deep depression, he found that the flow of music that had once come so naturally could no longer be taken for granted. He later wrote in a diary, “I used to compose almost all of my shorter pieces in the heat of inspiration …. Only from the year 1845 onwards, when I started to work out everything in my head, did a completely new manner of composing begin to develop.”

Schumann rebounded in the coming years, and his “new manner of composing” helped him tackle larger and more complex forms and ensembles. One distinctive project from 1849 was the Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra, composed for the top-notch musicians of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, where his late friend Felix Mendelssohn had been Music Director. Schumann crafted this “concert piece” to feature horns with valves, which were just starting to displace natural horns in orchestras around Europe.

The opening movement, marked Lebhaft (“Lively”), showcases the agility and melodic range of the new instrument, including passages that reach daringly into the upper limit of the horn’s compass. The slow movement takes the form of a Romanze, a genre born out of a simple and heartfelt style of vocal music, with the melodies rendered here in sweet harmonies for the horns. In a sign of how far Schumann had come in integrating and unifying his large-scale works, a fanfare-like figure intrudes near the end of the slow movement to initiate a seamless transition into the jubilant finale.

Scored for 4 solo horns; 2 flutes and piccolo; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 2 trumpets; 3 trombones; timpani; strings.



Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op. 20

BORN: June 2, 1857, in Broadheath, England
DIED: February 23, 1934, in Worcester, England
WORK PREMIERED: July 21, 1896, in Antwerp, Belgium

For 200 years following Henry Purcell’s death in 1695, the most significant music created in England was the work of foreigners, including Handel, J.C. Bach and Haydn. The man who broke England’s dry spell was an unlikely candidate — the son of a piano tuner, Catholic in a Protestant country and untrained in music except for some violin lessons as a teenager. Edward Elgar gained international recognition with his intriguing Enigma Variations in 1899, and he helped forge a distinctly British sound in the waning years of the Romantic era.

That signature score that made Elgar famous in his forties was built off the hard work of his journeyman years, including a period when he supported his family by teaching and conducting in Malvern, a sleepy spa town. It was there that Elgar composed his Serenade for Strings in E minor in 1892, incorporating some material from an earlier work he had abandoned. The Serenade title evoked those quintessential pieces of night music that Mozart wrote to entertain his Austrian patrons, and the genre retained its emphasis on breezy pleasure even as it morphed from glorified background music for outdoor parties to a staple of the nineteenth-century concert hall with sterling examples by Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. Given his career profile at the time, Elgar had to settle for a modest debut for his Serenade when he conducted a private reading by his students in the Worcester Ladies’ Orchestral Class. It only reached the British public for the first time in 1899, Elgar’s breakout year.

A nimble rhythmic figure ushers in the dance-like first movement, set in a flowing meter that maintains its thrumming pulse under a series of elegant melodies. After a central Larghetto movement featuring one of Elgar’s most tender melodies, the finale rounds out this slim Serenade with more dancing music, including a closing reference to the first movement’s bouncing rhythm.

Scored for strings.




WORK COMPOSED: 2006, revised 2012
WORK PREMIERED: April 2006, performed by the Providence String Quartet

Jessie Montgomery began classical violin lessons at age four, but she learned just as much from the days she spent at her father’s rehearsal studio for rock and jazz bands in Manhattan’s East Village. Since studying violin performance at The Juilliard School and film scoring at New York University, she established herself as an essential composer, performer and educator within New York’s dynamic music scene, including a role as the first-ever Artistic Partner of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Commissions from the New York Philharmonic and National Symphony Orchestra (among many, many others) confirm that Montgomery has earned a lasting place in the highest echelon of living composers. 

A true musician’s musician, Montgomery leans on her history of playing orchestral and chamber music at the highest level to craft scores that feel as good to perform as they sound. Strum, one of her most often-played compositions, has gone through many iterations since it was first conceived in 2006 as a string quintet with two cellos. She tailored it into a string quartet version with revisions in 2008 and 2012, and it became a marquis piece for the Catalyst Quartet of which Montgomery was a founding member, with their recording serving as the title track of her debut album in 2015. The latest revision in 2019 added an optional bass part to allow for performances by full string orchestras.

“Within Strum,” Montgomery wrote in a program note, “I utilized texture motives: layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out.” The primary driver for the piece is a strumming gesture, with the string players plucking both up and down in the manner of a guitar, as opposed to the basic finger-plucks typically used by members of the violin family for pizzicato passages. “Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement,” Montgomery added, “the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.”

Scored for strings.

© 2021 Aaron Grad

Posted on April 22, 2021