Janáček: Podhádka (“Fairy Tale”)
In 1910, both Igor Stravinsky and Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) made musical settings of Russian folk tales. Stravinsky’s famous Firebird ballet for full orchestra was quite literal and became world famous. Janáček’s Fairy Tale, a more general setting for cello and piano, went relatively unnoticed. This statement is not to take away from the mastery and charm of Janáček’s music, but rather to contrast two opposing approaches to similar material. The full title of Janáček’s work was originally “The Tale of Czar Berendey.” When the composer revised the work in 1923, he shortened the title simply to Fairy Tale.
Briefly, the story goes that Czar Berendey is duped into ransoming the soul of his son, Ivan, to Kashchey, Ruler of the Underworld. When Ivan is old enough, his father tells him of his terrible fate, whereupon Ivan sets out, determined to free himself of the curse. Early in his odyssey, he sees a duckling turned into a beautiful maiden, and they instantly fall in love. She turns out to be Marya, the good daughter of Kashchey. In later episodes, Ivan (with Marya’s help) successfully accomplishes two tasks set for him by Kashchey, but Marya is changed into a flower. Ultimately, the couple are rejoined in a happy ending.
In the Fairy Tale, the cello part represents Ivan while the piano speaks for Marya. These symbols are immediately apparent in the first movement, as a fanfare-like cello pizzicato punctuates the gently curving main theme. A canon (imitation) between the instruments perhaps symbolizes the betrothal of the couple. Soon, however, this tender stroking turns into a gallop, possibly signifying Kashchey’s pursuit of the lovers.
Another piano-cello canonic dialogue opens the second movement, but this spiky theme is answered by a more lyrical variant. The fanfare motive from the first movement returns along with other music heard previously.
The most “Russian” sounding part of the Fairy Tale is the main theme of the final movement. One striking feature that occurs in every movement is a sort of “dissolution” at the end, rather than a solid recapitulation and conclusion. As biographer Jaroslav Vogel points out, this “. . . heightens the fairy-tale atmosphere, and the charm is enhanced by Janacek’s ability to enter completely into the spirit of the old Russian epic tales.”
Tailleferre: String Quartet
In 1917, World World War I was still raging throughout Europe, A group of six composers gathered frequently in Paris to discuss progressive aesthetic theory and practice. Included were Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Talleferre.
The progressive-minded Talleferre (1892-1983) was the only female member of Les Six, and here rebellious nature preceded her there. Born with the family name of Taillefesse, she changed it to Tailleferre to spite her father, who refused to support her musical studies. She took piano lessons with her mother, and began to compose short original pieces. These led to her studies at the Paris Conservatoire, where she met the young composers who, with her, would soon constitute Les Six. Her early relationship with them soon led to her association with the artistic crowds in the districts of Montmartre and Montparnasse. There the idea of Les Six was born, unified by their faith in writer Jean Cocteau’s published ideas.
During the 1920s, Tailleferre wrote many of her most important compositions, and she remained reasonably prolific throughout her long life. In addition to the concert hall, she composed several film scores, music or the radio and television, and incidental music for the theater. Her music for piano solo and concertos was especially profuse.
Talleferre composed her only string quartet during 1917-1919 at the height of her involvement with Les Six. She was a student of Milhaud at the time. The conciseness of each movement suggests that the work may have originated as a composition assignment or a competition entry.
The quartet opens with a movement marked Modéré. A short theme is passed around between instruments. Then another, led by the Second Violin receives similar treatment. Led by the First Violin a cascading idea now becomes the focus, and this leads to a short coda (or, wrapping up) of the first movement.
Marked Interméde, the second movement opens in a playful, puckish mood. By contrast, the central section is smooth and closely concentrated on two or three short musical ideas. A variant recap of the first section rounds out the intermediate movement.
A somewhat ferocious mood, marked Très ritmé greets us at the opening of the finale. Then, sudden quietness prevails while the players explore the lower regions of their instruments. This congeals into a surprising solo by the first violin. Shifting into a tremulous pattern, the opening music returns, now transformed in mood and texture. A brief transition leads to a recapitulation of the opening material, which soon dissolves into freer expression and a new section of the movement. Then, taking on a veneer of heroism (Un peu plus lent), the music slips slowly into a hushed ending.
Bloch: Piano Quintet No. 1
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was a composer of Swiss origin. His studies and early musical career centered in his native city, Geneva. In 1916, he traveled to the United States as the conductor of a Swiss dance company. When the company suddenly went bankrupt, Bloch was stranded without friends or financial resources. Within a short time, however, he had begun a new career here, at first teaching at the Mannes School of Music, then becoming Director of the Cleveland Institute and later the San Francisco Conservatory.
Most of the music Bloch composed during the 1920s could be termed “neoclassic” That is, music written in Classical Period forms, or music adhering to formal principles (such as balance and proportion) found in Classical Period composers, notably, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. At the same time, Bloch’s own musical style became intensely personal, and consistently so. He completed his Piano Quintet No. 1in 1923.
Tension and drama inform the opening minutes of Bloch’s quintet. In part, this can be attributed to the contrast between the piano’s music and the music for strings. The piano then begins a new “bed” of sound for individual and pairs of strings to etch brief musical statements. This whole passage is a transition to a new theme group, again contrasting piano and strings. Melodies and accompaniments are freely exchanged between strings and piano. These textures are somewhat simplified as the music reaches the epitome of its development. The music becomes declamatory again (as in the opening music), finally tumbling to the conclusion of the movement.
Marked Andante mistico, the central movement begins with the piano offering low-pitched support for sustained fragments of melody exchanged among the strings. This texture now dominates for a substantial period of time until the lower registers of the piano join in the melodic interchange. Strings soon dominate again, offering attractive melodies and duets above the rumbling piano. The whole quintet gradually become more rhapsodic leading to a new section marked misterioso. Former melody fragments return, now supported by steadily rocking rhythms in the piano. Gradually, all the players gel into a rocking rhythm until a climactic moment, when the ensemble gradually re-assembles in an intense quasi-pastoral setting. Again winding down, the music arrives at a restatement of earlier, quieter music. This gradually recedes to a sustained, soft finish.
Allegro energetico reads the tempo marking for the finale. The dance impulse is undeniable, yet the “dancers” seem to stumble often. All this makes for an entertaining movement full of surprises. Mostly unpredictable, the music draws the listener close, waiting for the next surprise. Occasional long-breathed string melodies are stretched across a percussive texture, but they never reach a stable conclusion. Viola and cello struggle to create a melody with some continuity, and soon the other strings join them. Finally, we hear galloping rhythms accompanying the fragmented melody, now shared with the piano. A great variety of rhythms inform the next pages of this movement, ushering in reminiscences of slower, earlier ideas and melodies. A sizeable and even slower, long-breathed melody leads to a quiet, high-pitched ending to the Quintet.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2023. All rights reserved.
Korngold: Much Ado About Nothing: Suite for String Quartet, Op. 11 (composer’s adaptation)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is well known to classic movie buffs as the composer of scores to such adventure films as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk. However, Korngold at one time held an honored position in European opera and concert music that originated in his youth. This Wunderkind composed his first major work, the pantomime ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman), at the age of 11 and went on to write a series of successful operas, culminating in Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), completed when he was only 23.
The Austrian-born Korngold got involved in Hollywood film scoring in 1934, when Max Reinhardt arranged with Warner Brothers to make a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Korngold adapted the music of Mendelssohn for this project but then went on to compose a string of 18 original film scores — most of them “swashbucklers.” These melodramatic adventures were not far removed from the Viennese operatic stage from which Korngold had come, and his late- Romantic, Wagner/Strauss style fit them perfectly.
Back in 1919-20, Korngold had composed orchestral incidental music for a stage production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which was premiered the following year. While composing music for the play, he was also adapting some of it as a suite for orchestra, which he also adapted for violin and piano and for string quartet. Here are the movements:
- The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber. Through music, we hear the variety of thoughts running through the bride’s mind on the eve of her wedding – some sweet and lyrical, some jumbled and fearful, but ending quietly and at peace.
- March of the Watch (Dogbert and Verges). Very much in the style of Prokofiev, the music is a comic march, with the pretense of bravery and loyal duty. But frequently, the Watch soldiers trip over themselves or each other.
- Masquerade (Hornpipe). Comic and energetic comes a sailor’s dance. Both players are kept busy with their parts, which project jollity and a humorous, playful Punch-and-Judy ending to the suite.
Kreisler: String Quartet in A Minor
The world knew Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) first as a virtuoso violinist and then as a composer. He was an incredible child prodigy, entering the Vienna Conservatory at the age of seven. There he won the gold medal in violin and went on to the Paris Conservatoire, where he graduated at the age of 12 with another gold medal. Soon, for unexplained reasons, Kreisler gave up the violin for a time while he pursued further education and military service. In 1896, he chose a musical career, quickly regained his technique (he never needed to practice much), and embarked on a triumphant career that took him through Europe, England, and the United States. During and after World War I, Kreisler spent time in France and the United States (his wife’s homeland), finally settling there in 1939 and becoming a citizen in 1943. He continued concertizing and broadcasting until 1950. Kreisler’s bowing technique, tone color, and vibrato style influenced almost every concert violinist of the 20th century.
As a composer, Kreisler achieved some notoriety when he revealed that several compositions from his concert repertoire that he had passed off as authentic “olden” works were actually from his own pen. However, he also composed many contemporary pieces for violin and piano that epitomized the colorful recital fare of his day.
Kreisler also dabbled in chamber music. He composed his one string quartet in 1919, dedicating it to his wife. Each of the four movements is titled. The first, Fantasia, is just that: a quilt of different themes and moods in a form that is free except for the ending, which is a literal reprise of the introductory measures.
The second movement, Scherzo, is a playful, puckish piece that owes much to Mendelssohn. The slower, more sentimental, central section, however, is a showcase for individual instruments, as well as a resting point before a reprise of the main section.
Introduction and Romance is the title of the next movement. The well-proportioned introduction makes an emotional contrast with the main torso of the music. Led by the soloistic first violin, this music is at turns cheerful and passionate. Perhaps the high point is the ending, an adventurous progression of harmonies in the upper instruments over some charming pizzicato work by the cello.
Finale: Retrospection completes Kreisler’s quartet. Following a brief introduction, its main thematic group unfolds as a lively, witty march that evokes Brahms’s “barrel house” style. An atmospheric contrasting section (still in march rhythms) lends momentary seriousness before a partial reprise of main themes. Surprisingly, Kreisler concludes with an encapsulation of music from the opening of the quartet, lending a long moment of nostalgia to its soft, sweet ending.
Price, String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor
Florence Price (née Smith) (1887-1953) is a significant Black composer of concert music. Among her many other honors, Price was the first African-American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra (the Chicago Symphony).
She hailed from near Little Rock, Arkansas, where she graduated high school (as valedictorian) at the age of 14. Moving on to Boston’s New England Conservatory, she studied piano and organ, composing her first symphony and graduating with honors (1906) with a double major in organ and music education. Professor/Composer George Whitefield Chadwick continued to be a mentor to Price for many years. Returning to Arkansas, Florence taught at the college level, and in 1912, she married attorney Thomas J. Price. Together they had two daughters and a son.
To escape racial oppression, the Price family moved to Chicago in 1927. There Florence began a long period of compositional activity. Notably, her Symphony in E minor won a major award and was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock, conducting.
In 1931, the Prices divorced, and Florence soon moved in with her close friend, Margaret Bonds. At that point, Price’s most productive creative period began. In addition to orchestral, chamber, and piano music, she composed widely for the voice, leading to warm, valuable friendships with Black singers Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes. (Anderson would usually end her recitals with a Black spiritual as arranged by Price.) In 1964, Chicago honored Price (posthumously) by naming an elementary school after her.
The musical style of Price’s instrumental concert works is key-oriented, a holdover from the Romantic 19th century. Other 20th-century composers who took this approach included Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, and Richard Strauss. Her frequent key changes and passages of thick, continuous counterpoint are reminiscent of the late-romantic César Franck.
Around a short, repeated musical idea (ostinato) in the second violin, the opening movement unfolds as a lyrical strand of attractive melody. The movement introduces a second theme group more serious-sounding than the first, but it soon comes to a soft conclusion. Ever more lyrical, the third theme group joins the quartet together. Its vocal-inspired melodies now come mostly from the First Violin. Other members of the quartet play brief commentaries, but the First Violin consistently shepherds the ensemble back together. Now come passages where the instruments’ melodies differ and compete, yet regularly they blend together. A euphonious, forthright statement by the First Violin and Viola reflect aspects of Price’s cultural background in Gospel and folk music. The music now becomes competitive among the performers as they drive to the end of the movement.
Andante cantabile marks the second movement. Beginning in a minor key, it is lyrical in Price’s best way, yet there is an overreaching mood of tragedy and sadness. Phrases are traded or shared among quartet members. A new section of music brings a more confident mood. Soft, comforting music follows, as a fragmentary song pours out, drawing the movement to a quiet conclusion.
A significant dance impulse informs the third movement — yet it is a polite, courteous dance, well measured, crisp, and in a moderate tempo. The music becomes “bluesy” at times, yet it never loses its proud façade. The second section is another story. We might call it “showy.” We hear passing references to past musical phrases, but no solid development —just “swing,” which finally winds down to a polite ending.
Quick triple rhythms open the finale, tripping and skipping along. Momentum is the main idea now, as new ideas come and go. At about the halfway point some brief solo interchanges among the quartet lead us to a short pause and a recapitulation of the tripping-skipping music of the finale’s original music. At last, a brief slower passage introduces the finale’s “finale” and a cheerful, energetic ending to Price’s String Quartet in A Minor.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2023. All rights reserved.
Four young area music students are spending their Spring Break rehearsing with their teachers from Camerata San Antonio to perform a special free concert. Each of the four young musicians studies with one of the Camerata’s core string quartet and will share the stage with their teachers for this very special free event, part of Camerata San Antonio’s 20th season.
“We have made a tradition of performing Mendelssohn Octet every ten years, and we’re just so excited to share this performance with these four extraordinary young musicians,” says Ken Freudigman, cellist and Artistic Director of Camerata San Antonio.
The side-by-side concert is a long-held tradition in classical music education, and particularly meaningful in a chamber music setting, where each performer must prepare their own individual part and all stand as equals together. Each member of the quartet has a fond formative memory of being invited to join our mentors onstage in this way.
“Mendelssohn wrote the octet when he was only 16 and I can’t imagine a more joyous sonic explosion of youthful exuberance,” says Emily Freudigman, violist and Co-Founder of Camerata San Antonio. “We’ve worked with most of these students either as their weekly lesson teachers or as chamber music coaches since they were in middle school. It’s really a privilege to help shape a young musician’s growth. Chamber music instruction is part of our Camerata mission, and this is a really unique capstone project for these young San Antonio musicians, as we get ready to send them off to college in the near future.”
What: FREE Concert of Mendelssohn Octet featuring Camerata San Antonio’s string quartet and four extraordinary area student musicians
When: Sunday, March 19 at 2:00PM
Where: Christ Episcopal Church (510 Belknap Pl)
More about the student performers:
|Ellie Kennedy, violin, was the 2021 winner of the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio Concerto Competition, has won first place prizes in nationwide competitions including American String Teachers Association(ASTA), and has been concertmaster of the TMEA Texas All State Symphony Orchestra and the Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) Young Artists Orchestra. Ellie studies with Matthew Zerweck.|
|Viviana Peters, violin, has performed as a soloist with the San Antonio Sinfonietta, organized many front-yard COVID concerts, and has been accepted for study at the Tibor Varga Winter Music Academy in Switzerland. Viviana studies with Matthew Zerweck.|
|Ray Zhang, viola, is a Texas Commission on the Arts Young Master, has toured Europe with the National Youth Orchestra, won first prize in the 2023 TexASTA Concerto Competition, was a finalist in the American Viola Society Competition, and was Principal Viola of the TMEA Texas All State Symphony Orchestra. Ray studies with Emily Freudigman.|
|Vincent Garcia-Hettinger, cello, is a 2023 Sphinx Competition Laureate and recipient of a Sphinx MPower Grant, as well as a From the Top Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award. He has won competitions including the Ann Arbor Symphony Young Artist and Nie Competitions, and was invited to participate in the 2022 Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians. Vincent studies with Ken Freudigman.|