Schumann, 5 Stücke im Volkston, Op. 94 (Five Pieces in Folk Style)

In the art songs of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), the composer makes the piano a more equal partner with the voice than any song composer had done before. We might even say that for Schumann, songs were an extension of his piano music, which, up to 1840 (the “song year”), was the only type of music he had composed. So it is with Schumann’s chamber music. Except the string quartets, every one of his chamber works employs the piano. In this music, the piano is at least an equal partner and often the predominant one. Good examples are the four chamber works he composed in 1849 as experiments for a solo instrument coupled with the piano: the Adagio and Allegro for horn (Op. 70), the Fantasiestücke for Clarinet (Op. 73), the Romanzen for oboe (Op. 94), and the Fünf Stücke im Volkston for cello (Op. 102).

The Five Pieces in Folk Style are miniatures containing the simplicity, bold expression, and broad humor of German folk songs and dances. The first, Mit Humor, is a jaunty piece dominated by anapest rhythms and a whimsical mood. In contrast, Langsam (slowly) is like a lullaby or meditative ballad focusing largely on the cello’s melody. The third piece, marked Nicht schnell (not fast), begins and ends as a little wistful waltz; then, surprisingly, the meter and mood change to become assertive and declarative. Nicht zu rasch (not too quickly), is one of Schumann’s passionate moments often associated with his manic side. In his writings and in the Davidsbundertänze for piano, he ascribed this mood to a character named “Florestan.” The final piece, marked Stark und markiert (strong and well-marked), is characterized by triplet rhythms — more dance than song. Again showing Florestan (now in an impetuous mood), this concluding music moves to strong chord progressions, both cello and piano asserting their individual but cooperative messages.

Beethoven, Violin Sonata in D Major, Op. 12

When Beethoven’s first set of three violin sonatas (Op. 12) went on sale at the end of 1798, the musical world of Vienna was no more ready for them than it had been for his previous music. A review of the sonatas written in June 1799 makes such statements as:

After having looked through these strange sonatas, overladen with difficulties . . . [I] felt . . . exhausted and without having had any pleasure. . . . Bizarre . . . Learned, learned and always learned — and nothing natural, no song . . . a striving for strange modulations. . . .

If Herr v. B. wished to deny himself a bit more and follow the course of nature he might, with his talent and industry, do a great deal for an instrument [the piano] which he seems to have so wonderfully under his control.

Such bad press obviously did not deter Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) from his vision. In all, he composed ten violin sonatas spread over his first and second style-periods, including the famous “Kreutzer” Sonata (Op. 47). The last violin sonata was composed in 1812 and published as Op. 96.

From the beginning of the D major Sonata, the violin and piano are on an equal footing, departing from the 18th-century convention of a predominant piano part. The main theme group is involved, but the second becomes a dialogue between the instruments. Suddenly, we are in a new key for the opening of the development section, which searches through successive modulations, finally finding the home key for the recapitulation. In the concluding pages of the movement, Beethoven again goes exploring harmonically before returning to D major to finish.

The second movement is a set of four variations on a delightful Andante theme shared by the violin and piano. In the first variation, the piano’s right hand seems to improvise new melodic twists to the theme. It is the violin’s turn to do this in the second variation. In the third (minore)variation, violin and piano seem locked in a competitive struggle amid sharp dynamic contrasts. The final variation presents a hymn-like melody, forecasting one of Beethoven’s most profound and effective gestures. The movement’s ending is more a postscript than a coda.

Beethoven begins his rondo finale in textbook form. Then, suddenly the violin turns to the minor mode, leading to a restless middle section. With a reprise in the major, again come several harmonic novelties and an unusually abrupt ending.

Mendelssohn, Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 66

“He has raised himself so high that we can indeed say he is the Mozart of the nineteenth century.” Those words were Robert Schumann’s reaction to the music of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), and particularly his feelings about Mendelssohn’s first piano trio (in D minor, Op. 49) written in 1839. Schumann’s readers must have agreed, for that work became one of Mendelssohn’s most famous. Six years later, he again turned his hand to the piano trio medium, this time producing the C minor Trio, Op. 66. It was composed in the same year as his famous Violin Concerto in E Minor and, thus, is one of Mendelssohn’s most mature works. The composer dedicated the trio to Louis Spohr, and they were known to have played it together.

Although the C minor trio has not received the unqualified raves enjoyed by the earlier work, it shows Mendelssohn’s growth during the intervening years. The first movement, with its very flexible thematic material, is a peak in Mendelssohn’s rise to technical perfection. Here, he treats his themes more contrapuntally than usual. After a routine slow movement, the composer unfolds a sparkling Scherzo reminiscent of the elfin Scherzos in the String Octet and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.

The trio’s finale is remarkable in many ways. Its principal theme was derived from the Gigue in Bach’s third English Suite. Mendelssohn’s adaptation, in turn, was quoted literally in Brahms’s Piano Sonata in F minor, and echoes of it may be heard in symphonic works by Bruckner and Mahler. During the finale’s development section, there is an unexplained appearance of the Lutheran chorale of death, Vor Deinen Thron. Did Mendelssohn foresee that he would die an early death? If so, the tempestuous mood of the movement suggests that his sentiments were a foretaste of poet Dylan Thomas, who wrote in the next century:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Michael Fink, copyright 2018