A “Baroque/Classical” thread weaves through the piano music of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Just as Debussy’s piano music had bowed in the direction of the French clavecinistes in the Suite bergamasque (1890) and Suite: pour le piano (1901), so Ravel composed the Menuet antique (1895), Pavane for a Dead Princess (1899), Sonatine (1903-5), and Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17). All of these used more or less strict forms from the 18th century, and all contained classical restraint of expression.
The Sonatine became a project “by default.” In 1903, the Weekly Critical Review, an Anglo-French magazine sponsored an international composition competition. For a prize of 100 Francs, composers were to submit the first movement of a piano sonatine. Ravel entered. Unfortunately, the magazine shortly went bankrupt. Ravel’s piece, an exercise in adapting his style to sonata form, then took on a life of its own, and over the next two years, he continued to dabble with it, eventually completing all three movements in 1905.
The first movement of the Sonatine is so clearly in sonata form that it could appear in a textbook. The principal, secondary, and closing themes are extremely distinctive in melody and texture. After the repeated exposition of these, a carefully controlled development takes us through contrasting keys in an emotional crescendo that has to cool a little before the recapitulation of themes — now less restrained than at first and rounded out at the end with a charming, refined coda.
The second movement, a graceful minuet, begins like a typical French harpsichord piece: with a repeated couplet. A new theme digresses, but soon we hear a reprise of something like the couplet. Another digressive theme leads us back to a general reprise of the movement’s main ideas.
Capping the Sonatine is a toccata-like movement that begins with flashy passagework, fast-moving broken chords, and a fanfare motive. Then, Ravel the modernist steps forward with a section in alternating meters. The unusual 5/4 meter predominates. Then, for classical balance, the composer introduces the movement’s first real melody. Bringing back a variant of the first section, Ravel now occupies the remainder of the movement working out and combining elements from the first (flashy) and second (melodic, mixed-metered) sections. The accelerated coda fuses these together in a frenzied series of repetitions that conclude the Sonatine.
Étude en forme de habanera
There is a joke in the musical world that goes, “The best Spanish music was written by French composers.” Although there is more than a grain of truth there, it is only half proven in the case of Maurice Ravel. Ravel was born in the Pyrenees town of Delouart, and his mother was Basque. Ravel’s lifelong attraction to and mastery of the Spanish idiom is undeniable. Everyone knows Bolero, but Ravel composed at least seven other works in direct reference to Spanish music and culture.
In 1907, Ravel completed and premiere the first of these: the orchestral masterpiece Rhapsodie espagnole, a four-movement work that exposed Ravel’s colorful genius. “Habanera” was the moody third movement. Its soon became so popular (separate from the Rhapsodie) that the composer made an independent piece out of it under the name Vocalise Étude en forme de habanera. However, its melody was so lovely and the piano accompaniment so colorful that arrangements for other solo instruments were soon produced and published.
Several concert violinists incorporated the Étude into their programs or used it as an encore. Players of other string instruments — notably the cello — soon followed suit. Interestingly, in one of Ravel’s preliminary versions of the piece, he wrote a subtitle: “In the fragrant land caressed by the sun.”
Deux mélodies hébraiques
Maurice Ravel had a lifelong interest and love of folk culture, and this included European Jewish culture, especially its music. The unusual scales, the energetic dance rhythms, and the vocal embellishments especially fascinated him. The composer very personally expressed this fascination in the pair of songs titled Deux mélodies hébraiques (Two Jewish Songs) completed in 1914. Originally for solo voice and piano, this well-loved pair of religious-text settings was soon adapted several times as instrumental solos (with piano). Versions for wind instruments and for strings abounded. The viola or cello were very appropriate, since their ranges mirrored male vocal ranges, as chanted or sung by Jewish cantors.
The first movement, “Kaddish,” is in two sections. Each is distinguished by the style of its piano part. The first part presents the piano chiming long notes or chords that seem to hang in the air. In the second, the piano plays in lower ranges: mostly broken chords woven around the solo line. In both, the soloist plays rambling, improvisatory-style melodies full of tragic pathos.
The second, titled “The Eternal Enigma,” begins with a more cohesive, folk-song style by the soloist on top of repeated patterns of mostly dark, dissonant chords. The middle section becomes more familiarly harmonic in the piano, supporting the lyrical soloist, who now performs in a higher range. A stylistic reprise of the first section brings the song to a close. Through these two songs, Ravel clearly expressed his love for Jewish tradition and music.
Violin Sonata No. 2
During the 1920s, Maurice Ravel developed a love for American Jazz that became legendary. His admiration for George Gershwin, for example, was such that when the two met, it was as much an honor for Ravel as for Gershwin, who admired Ravel and would have liked to study with him. Ravel heard jazz first hand. In 1921, an Afro-American band played in Paris, delighting everyone. They must have played the blues, which impressed Ravel deeply. For later, when he toured the United States, he declared, “To my mind, the ‘blues’ is one of your greatest musical assets, truly American despite earlier contributory influences from Africa and Spain.”
From 1923 until 1927, Ravel worked at composing his Violin Sonata, and it became his first work to employ jazz influence: the second movement even bears the title “Blues.” The first movement, however, exposes us to another trend in the sonata: paradoxical contrast. The piano and violin at the opening are clearly in different keys. Respite from the tension of such passages comes in the classical cantilena theme laid out for us by the violin. Although both instruments develop this and the more tripping opening idea, they often sound like they are in different tonal orbits — this is the paradox Ravel achieves.
Banjo-like, the violin strums its chords at the opening of the “Blues” movement. With the piano picking up the chords, the violin is now free to “sing” the blues, for the most part using just one finger to get the proper idiomatic sliding effects. A steady beat and appropriate “blue notes” complete the composer’s commentary.
Ravel later reflected that he composed his sonata for two “essentially incompatible instruments, which not only do not sink their differences, but accentuate the incompatibility to an even greater degree.” In the perpetual motion of the third movement the composer emphasizes this contrast. He does not overlook jazz, however. Attentive listeners will hear in the piano, and later repeatedly in the violin, a blues “lick” (motive) also used prominently in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
The Violin Sonata’s purposeful contrast between the sound of the two instruments, its bitonality, and its jazz idiom constitute new ground that Ravel had broken in his development. These also account for a paradox that commentator Gérald Messadiè terms “the piece’s sarcastic exuberance in spite of its sentimental, tender resonance. . . .”
Maurice Ravel was never a prolific composer, and his output for chamber media was correspondingly sparse. After completing his String Quartet in 1903 as a student at the Paris Conservatoire, Ravel wrote little chamber music of significance until embarking on his Piano Trio in 1914. Early that year the composer retired to the countryside to work uninterrupted, but he soon developed problems. One was his preoccupation with a proposed piano concerto on Basque themes, which never materialized. Then, during the early summer, he seems to have experienced a form of “writer’s block,” and he became disgusted with his work on the Trio. Finally, when France entered World War I in August, Ravel became determined to finish the work quickly, so that he could volunteer for military service. He worked feverishly at the Trio during August and wrote to a friend, “I am working — yes, working with the sureness and lucidity of a madman. At the same time, I get terrible fits of depression and suddenly find myself sobbing over the sharps and flats!” By the end of the month, Ravel had finished what many consider to be one of the most significant chamber works of the 20th century.
In the first movement, cast roughly in sonata form, the most striking feature is the rhythm. The meter marking is 8/8, and the resulting asymmetrical rhythmic design of each measure is usually some variant of 3 + 2 + 3 eighth notes. This is the Bulgarian rhythm that Bartók used frequently, but it is also the rhythm of certain Basque dances which Ravel was pondering at the time he wrote the Trio.
Rhythm and meter are also critical factors in the second movement, “Pantoum.” A “pantoum” (or “phantoum”) is a poetic form, probably of Malayan origin, used by Baudelaire and other French poets. It consists of bringing back two lines of one quatrain in the following one, which gives the impression of two distinct ideas juxtaposed. Ravel carries out this principle in both the structure and the rhythm of this high-spirited movement. The alternations and combinations of mosaic themes of the movement are crowned in the middle by an extended passage in polymeter. Here, the strings continue in the original meter of 3/4, while the piano accompanies with rich chords in 2/2 time.
The third movement is a formally strict 20th-century adaptation of the Baroque French Passacaille, a contrapuntal variation form. The nature of this movement hints at why Ravel dedicated his Trio to André Gédalge, the famous contrapuntist and Ravel’s former teacher.
In the Trio’s brilliant finale, written in a free rondo form, asymmetrical rhythm again comes into play. Passages in 5/4 time alternate with 7/4 segments. Ravel also becomes more orchestral and virtuosic in this movement, with its shimmering cello tremolos and quick violin arpeggios. Rich, thick chords in the piano work rhythmically both with and against the strings to give the impression of “floating” meter, a feature that strongly unifies the entire Trio.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2021. All rights reserved.
COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: FANTASIESTÜCKE FOR STRING QUARTET, OP. 5
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was a black English composer-conductor of considerable talent and, in his day, a widespread reputation. Educated at the Royal Conservatory of Music (largely under scholarship), Coleridge-Taylor began to compose and achieve performances as early as 1893. Soon after leaving the Conservatory in 1897, he began to make a reputation as both a composer and conductor of choral music. Commissions from many English choral festivals came his way, and by 1910 he was famous enough as a conductor to be dubbed “The Black Mahler.”
At the time Coleridge-Taylor lived, exoticism was in high fashion and many composers were finding an identity in the music of their cultural roots. However, his idol was Anton Dvořák. Like Dvořák, he became fascinated with American Indians, especially in presentations like Longfellow’s poetry. Thus, his most famous works were a series of choral and orchestral pieces based on Hiawatha.
Coleridge-Taylor felt drawn to the United States in spite of prevailing prejudices. After a tour in which he was feted by no less than the President himself, the composer thought of emigrating, writing to a friend, “That which you and many others have lived in for so many years will not quite kill me. I am a great believer in my race.” The Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, established in Washington, DC in 1901, is testimony that his race was (and is) also a great believer in him.
As the German spelling suggests, the 5 Fantasiestüke were inspired by Robert Schumann’s two sets of piano miniatures, which he titled Phantasiestüke (Fantasy Pieces). Composed in 1896 for strings, Coleridge-Taylor’s moderate-size essays explore many coloristic possibilities in a string ensemble.
The first movement, “Prelude,” Is structured in varied sections, which are sometimes contrasted in content and mood. “Prelude’ is inspired greatly by Schumann. Full of sweetness, its themes, alone and in counterpoint, reflect Schumann’s sensitivity.
No.2, “Serenade,” has a more wandering structure with each of the instruments lending mutual support. They explore several different melodies, as if walking along through newly discovered musical places.
No. 3, “Humoresque,” is a pixie scherzo in the manner of Mendelssohn. Though digressions from the main theme provide more forceful humor, the composer never loses sight of the Mendelssohnian ideal.
No. 4, “Minuet.” Trills and other decorations adorn this charming impression of the courtly 18th century. However, the Romantic-style harmonies and long-lined melodies place the music back in the hands of Coleridge-Taylor.
No.5, “Dance,” demonstrates the perennial imprint of the dance on concert-music finales. Coleridge-Taylor, however, places his own personal imprint on this music. Full of verve, the plentiful variety of themes and smaller musical ideas show the composer’s mastery of his medium as well as well as his ability to move his listeners.
BRIDGE: PIANO QUINTET IN D MINOR
Frank Bridge (1879-1941) Is not as well known to American audiences as perhaps he ought to be. He grew up at a time when Charles Stanford was the predominant English composer, and Bridge studied with Stanford during all of his four years at the Royal College of Music (1899-1903). Between then and the start of World War I (1914) Bridge was largely overshadowed by Edward Elgar, whose Pomp and Circumstances marches (for which he was knighted in 1904). Nevertheless, Bridge developed as a composer during the first decade of the 20th century.
The Piano Quintet came into being during that time. Bridge completed the four-movement first version in 1904, and it received some private insignificant public performances. However, the composer was dissatisfied with it, and put the work away until 1912. During those years, Bridge concentrated on playing the viola professionally and conducting, and he was considered one of the most gifted figures on the British music scene.
In 1912, Bridge retrieved and re-thought his Piano Quintet — we might even say “re-composed” the work, since revisions of the even proportion were radically revised. For example, the original to middle movements were melded into a single A-B-A (arch-form) movement.Briefly, the war (1914-1918) affected Bridge deeply, and his music became more dissonant and less key-associated. However, he could still train students traditionally. Notably, Benjamin Britten studied with him for several years of his youth. Britten went on to compose Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge in 1937 and to publish a memorial article in 1966, “Early influences — a Tribute to Frank Bridge.”
- Adagio – Allegro moderato – Adagio e sostenuto. From a beginning that resembles a cello sonata, the opening builds to a full ensemble presence. Then starting over, a new rhapsodic episode unfolds, becoming more intense until the main body of the movement (allegro), equally rhapsodic and unabashedly late-Romantic. Loose, free-wheeling development grows until it collapses into an echo of the opening adagio and a calm finish.
- Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro con brio – Adagio ma non troppo. Now the tripartite middle movement unfolds as an instrumental song. The piano and individual strings take turns, solo and in ensemble, presenting new phrases. The elfin scherzo central section is a complete contrast to what we have just heard. Mysteriously, the music brings us seamlessly back to the rhapsodic, smooth, stretched-out Adagio reprise of the opening music, ending very mysteriously..
- Allegro energico. Brilliant from the start, the quintet’s finale is marked by sudden contrasts, some in cultural styles (e.g., occasional gypsy connotations). This music is BIG in every sense. Even the softer central section has an inexplicable broadness, recalling ideas from the earlier movements. Long-lined rhapsodic themes in semi-improvisatory gestures lead to an ending in a truly GRAND style.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, 2021. All rights reserved.
SCHUMANN: MÄRCHENERZÄHLUNGEN, OP. 132
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) composed roughly one-third of his entire oeuvre during the three years he spent in the service of the town of Düsseldorf (late 1850 to the end of 1853). This is doubly amazing, considering his extensive musical and administrative duties as town music director coupled with his advancing state of ill health. In spite of these obstacles, Schumann’s almost obsessive creative drive spurred him on to create many works that were not required (or even usable) in his normal duties.
The highly original Märchenbilder (Fairy-Tale Pictures, Op. 113, 1851) for viola and piano is a good example. After publication, this set of pieces for viola and piano became very successful. In October 1856, Schumann composed Märchenerzählungen (Fairy-Tale Narrations) for clarinet, viola, and piano ─ possibly a sequel to Märchenbilder (both sets contain four pieces). Clara Schumann remarked in her diary, “Today Robert completed 4 pieces for piano, clarinet, and viola and was very happy about it. He thinks that this compilation will appear highly romantic” ─ that is, appealing to the emotions.
The first of the four Märchenerzählungen is a plucky little piece featuring the clarinet much of the time. Its light, jolly mood dominates the music and sets a fanciful mood as a backdrop for the three following movements. “Lively and with clipped implementation” is Schumann’s tempo indication for Movement No. 2. “Contrasts” could have been another indicator. Loud-soft, rapid-ponderous, thundering-flighty are the pairings of mood that make up the mixed character of No. 2. On the other hand, “dreamy” might well describe the floating character of No. 3 with its near-continuous gossamer melodies shared by clarinet and viola. The solid, regulated piano accompaniment is like a storyteller, holding it all together. The fourth movement’s energy balances the strength and resolve of the opening movement. A light-hearted centerpiece gives welcome release, reminding us of the brighter middle movements. The third section is a resolute march that effectively draws us out of fairyland dreaming and into a positive, life-affirming ending.
BUNCH: UNTIL NEXT TIME
It is difficult for a contemporary composer to be prolific without sacrificing fresh and novel ideas. Yet, Kenji Bunch (1973- ) has done just that. This violist-composer, based originally in Portland, Oregon, has a catalog filled with instrumental and vocal music of many sorts, including two symphonies, seven concertos and quasi-concertos, and a vast array of chamber music. Educated at the Juilliard School, Bunch now resides again in Portland.
Bunch has held residencies with various orchestras and projects. Since 2014, he has served as Artistic Director of “Fear No Music” and teaches viola, composition, and music theory at Portland State University, Reed College, and for the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Young Composers Project.
His global reputation has resulted in all-Bunch concerts performed in New York City, Boston, Denver, Nashville, Mobile (AL) and Portland (OR), as well as at the Perpignon Conservatoire in southern France, the Stamford Festival in England, and the Oranjewoud Festival in The Netherlands. Bunch’s music often incorporates elements of hip hop, jazz, bluegrass, and funk.
The original version of Until Next Time was for unaccompanied violin or viola (his chief instrument). However, the tuning of individual strings is not standard. This de-tuning of one or more strings has an Italian name: scordatura. In Until Next Time, Bunch’s particular scordatura has the effect of enlarging the instrument’s resonance. From a long introduction that pairs a series of trills on one string with an adjacent open string, the music gradually finds a distinctive melody. In the next section: a new, warm melody on one string is surrounded by colorful broken chords on others. The broken chords come to the fore in a magnificent procession of harmonies. From this emerges virtuosic broken chords, which soon quiet into paired notes, similar to the introduction. Quietly, now, a series of trilled note-pairs emerges, bringing the music back to the contemplative mood of the introduction for a quiet finish.
BEETHOVEN: CLARINET TRIO, OP. 38
For Ravel, it was Bolero; for Rachmaninoff, it was his Prelude in C-sharp Minor; and for
Beethoven, it was the Septet in E-flat Major. Each of these composers had one composition that became so immensely popular as to obscure works that the composer considered more important. Eventually, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) grew so sick of hearing his Septet that, in the words of his student Carl Czerny, he could not endure his Septet and grew angry because of the universal applause with which it was received. Beethoven began work on the Septet in 1799, and it premiered on April 2, 1800 along with his First Symphony. Its success was immediate and long- lasting.
The original instrumentation was clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and contrabass, but Beethoven later arranged it for a clarinet-violin-piano trio (Op. 38). Dozens of other different arrangements also soon appeared. Together, these generated what musicologist Paul Nettl described as one thousand performances.
The six-movement Trio follows the tradition of the Classical divertimento, a blend of suite and sonata cycle. Beethoven’s debt to Haydn in this work is obvious from the opening Adagio that leads to a sonata-allegro main movement. Here, Beethoven shows us he is his own man by presenting an unusual eleven-measure main theme. The work’s reputation for beauty rests mainly on the Adagio cantabile movement. There is an unresolved controversy whether Beethoven borrowed the Rhenish folk song, Ach Schiffer, lieber Schiffer for his main theme. As a song, it first appeared in print in 1838, and it is possible that, like some tunes by Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s melody was original and so well-known as to become part of the urban folk repertoire. For the Tempo di Menuetto, Beethoven borrowed a theme from his own Piano Sonata in G Major, written in 1792 and later published as Op. 49, no. 2. The Trio section, however, is entirely new.
The fourth movement, variations on an Andante theme, gives us different color combinations (some surprising) within the group. Most characteristic of Beethoven are the minor-mode Variation IV and the coda, which takes some unexpected turns. A fast Scherzo movement balances the previous minuet. Its waltz-like Trio briefly spotlights the cello.
In the sixth movement, Beethoven follows the funeral-march opening with a bustling, Haydnesque finale. One unusual feature is the piano cadenza (written out) that precedes the recapitulation. The coda, likewise, emphasizes the piano for a shimmering ending guaranteed to bring down the house.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink. All rights reserved. Copyright 2021
Shostakovich: String quartet no. 8, op. 110
The intimate chamber idiom has its share of composers’ personal mottos and autobiographical references. Still, it is rare to glimpse into any composer’s memories as clearly as in the Eighth String Quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). This work contains a musical motto intended to symbolize his name, which is stated in the opening measures and reworked into each succeeding movement. Resembling J.S. Bach’s motto, B-A-C-H (B-flat, A, C, B), the Shostakovich notes are D, E-flat (Es in German), C, B-natural (H in German). Together, this sequence suggests “D. Sch.,” a German mnemonic of the composer’s initials. Still more autobiographical are the musical quotations from the composer’s earlier works and other familiar melodies, with possible references to the sounds of WW II bombers and gunfire. The words of Shostakovich’s closest biographers and of the composer himself can best complete our introduction to this quartet of 1960:
He worked on the score in Dresden. . . . The beautiful city of Dresden had been swept off the face of the earth in a single night, but was rising again from the ruins, all of which stirred old feelings seemingly locked in his past. It is not without cause that he dedicated the Eighth Quartet . . . to the memory of the victims of Nazism and war. . . . Written in no more than three days, as if poured from the depths of the artist’s soul, the quartet is autobiographical. . . . In the course of the quartet’s five continuous movements, themes from various compositions make their appearance
. . . from the opening subject of the First Symphony, which is interwoven with the Largo of the first movement, to the motifs from the movement entitled “Eternal Memory” in the Eleventh Symphony.Dmitri and Ludmilla Sollertinsky, Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich
When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of “exposing fascism.” You have to be blind and deaf to do that, because everything in the quartet is as clear as a primer. I quote Lady Macbeth, the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet, it quotes a song known to all Russians: “Exhausted by the hardships of prison.”
And there is also the Jewish theme from the Piano Trio in this quartet. I think, if we speak of musical impressions, that Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it, it’s multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It’s almost always laughter through tears.Solomon Volkov, ed. Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich
Schubert: STring quartet in A minor, d.804
After Schubert had put aside his “Unfinished” Symphony in 1822, he did not give up the idea being a symphonist. On the contrary, he had grand plans for what would become the “Great” C Major Symphony, but he felt that he needed more seasoning in the instrumental domain. As a result, he turned his attention to chamber music, writing three string quartets and the Octet. After completing the Quartet in A Minor and the Quartet in D Minor (“Death and the Maiden”) in March 1824, he wrote to his friend, Leopold Kupelweiser, “I have written two quartets . . . and an octet, and I intend to write another quartet. In this manner, I want to pave the way to a grand symphony.” Although Schubert completed all three quartets, the A Minor was the only one in the trilogy to be published during his lifetime.
The first movement begins like one of Schubert’s songs: with a brief introduction (in fact, a little uneasy, like “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”) leading to an exquisite lyrical melody. Following a vigorous transition, the second theme is, likewise, song-like. The development reveals some wonderfully colorful key explorations before settling down to a recapitulation that turns unexpectedly to the major mode for the second theme.
For the Andante’s main theme, Schubert borrows his own Entr’Acte music from Rosamunde. This he treats in a series of variations that cover a subtle variety of moods.
Alfred Einstein called the Menuetto movement “the germ or kernel of the A Minor Quartet,” also pointing out that it is a Ländler and not a minuet. In addition, it opens with a direct quotation from Schubert’s 1819 setting of Schiller’s ode, “The Gods of Greece.” If this quartet “is ‘about’ disenchantment and the loss of innocence,” as biographer John Reed asserts, then this movement, with its wistful pre-Brahms melancholy, epitomizes the work.
The rondo finale, set in A major, dispels some of that melancholy with its rustic flavor. But Einstein describes it as appearing “in the same Hungarian disguise which Schubert was to use again in Die Winterreise in an exactly similar sense: outwardly exuberant and chevaleresque, but . . . without any real consolation….” Nevertheless, the impetuousness and rhythmic verve of the finale does much to redirect the quartet’s previous moodiness onto a more positive course.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2021. All rights reserved.