“Humankind” Program Notes

“Humankind” Program Notes

Krása: Tanec. Passacaglia and Fugue

Since Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time became well known after World War II, more and more music composed in Nazi prison camps has come to light, and has been performed and recorded. Understandably, most of these works have come from the hands of Jewish composers, who had been rounded up along with their co-religionists throughout Europe. One such composer was the Czech Hans Krása (1899-1944). Although Krása formally studied only piano, he gained some reputation as a composer during the 1920s, being performed by Zemlinsky in Prague and Koussevitzky in Boston and New York. During the 1930s, Krása developed his style through his operas, about which he wrote an explanation of his style:

If I state that I was influenced by Schoenberg, by that I wish to emphasize the fact that I am trying all the more to avoid the emptiness which is so favored. I try to write in such a way that every bar, every recitative and every note is necessarily a solid part of the whole. This logic, without which every composition has no spirit, can, however, degenerate into mathematic-scientific music if the iron law of opera is not heeded, namely that the sense and aim of opera is the singing. I am sufficiently daring, as a modern composer, to write melodic music.

Krása’s public career was cut short when he was interned at Terezin in 1941. That camp was set up to look like a “self-governing” place of detention, where the arts were nurtured. This was for the benefit of the Red Cross and other agencies that inspected the facility from time to time. Krása’s 1938 children’s opera Brundibár (Bumble-Bee) was performed there in 1943, and he was permitted to compose more, producing works for small orchestra, string quartet, and the Tanec and Passacaglia and Fugue for string trio. In reality, Terezin was merely a way-station for prisoners on their way to Auschwitz, where Krása was transferred late in 1944 for immediate extermination.

As an introduction to Tanec and the Passacaglia-Fugue, the thoughts and words of cellist-conductor Kenneth Woods cannot be topped:

Krása’s called his first string trio, completed in 1944, Tanec, or “Dance,” but the title seems intentionally misleading. The churning ostinato with which the cello begins the piece is just the first of several bits of music tone-painting that evoke the sound-world of trains, in an atmosphere that ranges from eerie nostalgia, to barely contained menace, to explicit violence. The main dance theme, heard first in the violin, is frequently poised on the edge of mania, finally tipping over the edge on the work’s final page.

The Passacaglia and Fugue from later that same year was Krása’s final completed work. Krása takes these two ancient forms, in which the rules of rhetoric are traditionally engaged to give structure and lucidity to the exchange and development of ideas among independent voices, and profoundly deconstructs them. Rather than contrapuntal engagement leading towards reason and clarity, both the Fugue, and the Passacaglia that precedes it, essentially ‘fail’, as discussion degenerates into argument and argument descends into violence.

The primary theme of the work, the repeated figure that forms the structure of the Passacaglia, is first heard in the cello, but also often present is the “dance” theme of the earlier Tanec. The Passacaglia opens in gravely austere beauty, but in the course of the variations that follow, the emotional temperature gradually rises until all hell breaks loose. After a desolate codetta, the viola begins the Fugue, on a speeded up version of the cello’s Passacaglia theme. The contrapuntal exchanges gradually become more rapid and intense, until, in the coda, the developmental process breaks down. Rather than engaging in reasoned dialogue and perpetual development, the music becomes violent and primitive. The cello repeats the passacaglia/fugue theme obsessively, fortissimo, all pretense of development abandoned, while the violin and viola scream out the “Tanec” theme and the work drives headlong to a terrifying conclusion.

Prokofiev: Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 119

Both Shostakovich and his elder colleague, Sergei Prokofiev (1881-1953), had a tenuous relationship with the Soviet Union’s leader, Joseph Stalin. Every few years the politically cultural Stalin would hear some work by one of these composers, and he would explode with anger, often writing a scathing review in the newspaper. This had a devastating effect on the careers of any composers whom Stalin (or his “committees”) cast in a bad or questionable light. Who would then touch any of their music or write about any of them in a positive way? In 1948, one of Stalin’s Central Committees came out with a condemnation of “formalism” in Soviet music. Both composers were named (among others), and both were shattered. Some of their music was actually banned.

The aging Prokofiev issued a formal written admission of guilt and an apology. He continued to compose, and his music regained favor with the public. In 1949, he completed his Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 119. Ironically, in March 1953, both Prokofiev and Stalin died on the same day.

In Prokofiev’s sonata, the movement tempos progress from andante, through moderato, to allegro. The first movement presents the composer’s notable lyrical gift, with soaring melodies for both instruments in the first third. Suddenly, a faster tempo and more agitated mood takes over, eventually melting into the opening tempo and development of themes. Now, however, the music is more fantastic/mystical for a time. Toward the movement’s end, the mood becomes temporarily heroic and virtuosic, only to end in a threefold “amen.”

Despite its moderate overall tempo, the central movement is the sonata’s scherzo. Playful at times, a comical mock march at others, the varying humorous modes are foils for the central romantic-style lyrical theme. It sprawls and seems to take over, only to be punctuated by a telescoped reprise of the movement opening antics.

The spirited finale summarizes, in some ways, the preceding two movements. There is even a quotation from the first movement. Some listeners also perceive Armenian elements here and there — possibly a reference to the sonata’s dedicatee, Levon Atovmyan, who was Prokofiev’s Armenian patron. The piano plays a significant role in winding up the sonata, seeming at times to dominate the cello. However, in the final moments, the cello is again ascendant, leading to a triumphant ending for both cello and piano.

Dvořák: Piano Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 87

Few works in the chamber music field have been attended with such contradictory criticism as has Dvořák’s second piano quartet.  Commentary on the work has ranged from the destructive (“Dvořák seems temporarily to have lost his grip of the chamber-music medium.”) to the most laudatory (“. . . a masterly and striking composition . . . It is both grateful to play and stirring to hear.”)  The quartet, written a mere two years after the composer’s triumphant Piano Quintet, perhaps suffers by comparison to the former chamber work.  Dvořák composed the Piano Quartet quickly (July 10 – August 19, 1889), immediately following the completion of the opera, The Jacobin.  Then, less than a week after finishing the quartet he set to work on his Eighth Symphony.

There are some unusual features in the Piano Quartet that could conceivably stir a controversy.  One of these is the composer’s emphasis on the piano, brought forth at odd moments.  The work shows an obvious mastery of the pianistic idiom, but this is sometimes displayed in a crude manner.  Then, there is the matter of diversity of flavor and musical style.  In the first movement, the dramatic moodiness of the first theme is anything but typical of chamber music.  This leads to a melodramatic-sounding development section, which focuses rather heavily on the piano.

The remainder of the work is somewhat more conventional.  The tripartite second movement features a lyrical cello melody that is surely among Dvořák’s loveliest.  This contrasts with a dramatic middle section.  The quartet’s third movement is a gracious waltz rather than the traditional scherzo.  With its splashes of oriental scale work and reflection of the cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer), it contains more true Czech spirit than any other movement.  The finale is a vigorous country dance in the good-humored tradition of Haydn.  Also Haydnesque is its commencement in E-flat minor, arriving at the major home key only toward the midpoint.  Thus, we have the spirited conclusion to one of the most unusual and original-sounding chamber works of the late 19th century.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2018

Review – Conversation

Review – Conversation

“The week opened with an extraordinary season opener by Camerata San Antonio…Pianist Viktor Valkov joined Camerata string quartet regulars Matthew Zerweck (violin) and Ken Freudigman (cello) in music by Schumann, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. The performances were consistently taut, red-blooded, muscular and huge, the kind that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go till the end.”

Read more at incidentlight.com

It’s our 15th anniversary season and after 15 years of concerts (and nary a repetition to be found), we’ve racked up quite the list of performed works! Take a look!

Works

Program Notes – Conversation

Program Notes – Conversation

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

2018 YOSA Summer Symphony Camp Quartet Seminar

Lots of great learning and music making happened at this summer’s quartet seminar! For the first time, Cadenza Academy and YOSA collaborated to present the one week Quartet Seminar for student quartets, coached by us. We had eight quartets this year, ranging from students playing quartets to the first time to old pros. Each group prepared their parts ahead of camp, rehearsed each day and received a coaching from a member of the Camerata San Antonio quartet. Each day after lunch, the groups were reconfigured with different personnel and repertoire to mix things up and keep it fresh, including one more rehearsal and coaching with a different coach. Eurhythmics and listening lab also helped give everyone a chance to manage their energy (either getting some rest or get some excess energy worked out). Each student performed in daily master classes at least once and each quartet performed on one of two concerts on the final day!