Samuel Barber (1910-1981) spent the years 1924-1932 as one of the first students at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. He worked in voice (a baritone), piano, and composition. Barber showed early potential as a composer, and the works of his student years — the Serenade, DoverBeach, the Violin and Cello Sonatas, and the Overture to The School for Scandal — are not at all apprentice pieces. They are the youthful flowering of a prodigious, creative talent that have become part of the standard repertoire.
The Cello Sonata was, in fact, the last music Barber wrote under the tutelage of his Curtis teacher, Rosario Scalero. He began the sonata while in Europe during the summer of 1932. Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti (fellow student at Curtis) had hiked and boated from Innsbruck to Menotti’s family villa high above Lake Lugano. There, without a piano, Barber composed the sonata’s entire first movement and the Presto section of the second. When Barber returned to school in the fall, he completed the sonata under Scalero with technical help from Orlando Cole. Cole was the cellist who then premiered the sonata in December 1932 with Barber at the piano.
The influence of Brahms on Barber’s sonata is unmistakable in the first movement. After the relentless march of the first theme group, comes a very Brahmsian second theme. Barber’s development section, however, is his own brand of rhapsody. The compacted and re-arranged recapitulation shows Barber’s incipient sense of elegant yet expressive form.
The slow movement and scherzo are folded into one movement, a technique already perfected by Beethoven and Brahms. Barber’s song-like Adagio is a reflective introduction to the Presto middle section, a high-spirited study in perpetual motion. The returning Adagio is now elongated and more expressive, building to a dynamic climax before receding into a quiet close.
Barber marks the final movement Allegro appassionato, and with good reason. Instead of an opening theme, the composer gives us an impassioned outcry. By contrast, the following cello-piano dialogue is at turns introspective and witty. The passion returns with some fresh perspectives, leading again to secondary material stated in new ways and to a Brahmsian-heroic ending.
perkinson: Lamentations (Black/Folk song suite)
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004), unlike his Black-British namesake, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), was never fashionable among the upper classes nor highly paid for virtuoso performances. Perkinson struggled most his life in one way or another. Yet he overcame many problems, notably racial bias. He is now considered to be among the finest Black American composers of the 20th century: alongside names such as Florence Price and William Grant Still. Perkinson received a musical education carrying some distinction from New York’s High School of Music and Art, New York University, and the Manhattan School of Music (Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees).
His professional life was always diverse, and sometimes surprisingly so. As a jazz pianist, he toured with drummer Max Roach. He composed the ballet For Bird [Charlie Parker], With Love for Alvin Ailey, then became Ailey’s Music Director. His film score credits included music for From Montgomery to Memphis (Martin Luther King Documentary) and four films for Sidney Poitier. In the field of education, he taught at Brooklyn College and Chicago’s Columbia College, where he was Director of the Center for Black Music Research and headed The New Black Music Repertory Ensemble. In the field of traditional Classical Music, in 1965, Perkinson co-founded New York’s Symphony of the New World.
About his personal concert-music style, Dr. Johann Buis (Wheaton College, Illinois) writes, “Perkinson was more forward-looking than better-known African-American counterparts like Florence Price and William Grant Still. His music falls into a kind of ‘in-between category,’ with a constant tension between the pull of atonality and a sophisticated, never faddish use of jazz idioms.” Lamentations (Black/Folk Song Suite) for cello solo is a near-perfect embodiment of Buis’s description of Perkinson’s very personal style.
The composer does not elaborate on the “Black/Folk Song” reference in the suite’s title. A repeated jazzy pattern (an ostinato) informs Fuging Tune. Flashes of melody seep through, but the ostinato becomes the substance, and it dominates the movement’s ending.
By contrast, Song Form is a long string of hazily tonal melodic phrases. Strongly lyrical in their way, these melodies become a sort of psychological portrait of the composer’s often-difficult life.
Calvary Ostinato, entirely pizzicato (plucked), uses a short repeated pattern (the ostinato) to form the backbone of touching (sometimes tortured) melodic phrases. Occasional strummed chord patterns lend a charming variety to the other textures. The movement ends as it began, with a soft utterance of the ostinato.
The Perpetual Motion in the final movement (bearing that title) is a series of single repeated notes (or pairs of notes). From that platform, a procession of short phrases develops, becoming gradually more intense. This climaxes in an exploration of the cello’s high range and Perkinson’s grand, concluding fireworks.
Brahms: Cello sonata in F Major, Op. 99
In the summer of 1886, Brahms’s new-found lodgings at Lake Thun, Switzerland were a delight to him. That year, he was very productive, especially in the chamber domain. Among his completed music was his Second Cello Sonata, a work written with a particular performer in mind: Robert Hausmann, the cellist with Joachim’s string quartet. (For Hausmann and Joachim, Brahms would write his Double Concerto the following year.)
It had been nearly 20 years since Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) had composed his First Cello Sonata. The new sonata, besides being a completely mature work, is also fresh in other respects. Brahms exploits a higher general range in the cello than previously, and he shows a deeper understanding of the instrument’s natural character, which, in the words of Martin Cooper, “ranges from gruff surliness to a manly ardor and an almost feminine lyrical tenderness.”
A unique tremolo texture dominates much of the first movement, beginning in the piano in a thunderously low range. The cello picks up the idea in the development section, making it shadowy and remote. Biographer Karl Geiringer refers to this movement’s character as “ardent pathos.”
For the Adagio, Brahms moves the tonality up a half-step to the remote key of F-sharp major. We might consider this a more “moonlit” key, where the composer can spread out his heartfelt nocturne. A highly emotional middle section again shifts key.
The agitated Scherzo reminds us of Brahms’s stormy youthful style, growing as it does from a quiet opening. The Trio turns to the major mode in the proud demeanor of classical elegance.
As in his expansive Second Piano Concerto, Brahms places a brief, light, and charming fourth movement rondo finale in his Second Cello Sonata. The cheerful mood is broken only by a reference to the slow movement before Brahms finishes in high spirits.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink. All rights reserved. Copyright 2021
[In this work] it is easy to take at face value Haydn’s outer shell, the part he exposed to the public eye, as being the whole man. The Finale of No. 6 is dry, but the point that is being made is not one that admits of a Mozartian warmth, while the opening Allegretto fulfills exactly the same function as that in No. 5 — that of preparation for the slow movement. – H.C. Robbins-Landon
The graceful ingenuities of… No. 6… roll away like the process of peeling an onion… – Sir Donald Tovey
These comments expose the framework in which we should consider the E-flat Quartet: The man Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) had several layers of depth, and so did much of his music composed late in life. This quartet properly falls last in the half dozen works of Opus 76. The analogies of the onion and of an outer shell that holds inner treasures hold true. But so could the image of a revolving door, where Haydn can survey the entire 18th century on the inside, yet he also ventures into a preview of the 19th on the outside.
With a theme that could be a “prequel” to music by Robert Schumann, Haydn sets out the theme and variations that forms the quartet’s first movement. These variations are wide ranging in emotional and formalistic character, creating an underlying tension throughout. The climax comes in the fugue on part of the theme, ending this concise movement in a cheerful mood.
Often, you may find this quartet nicknamed “Fantasia.” That is because Haydn gave the Adagio second movement that title. Robbins Landon remarks, “… It can only be described as one of the boldest and most original movements in the whole eighteenth century.” Immediately, we realize that the opening theme is a remarkable forerunner to Beethoven’s slow “hymn-like” themes. The emotional, wandering harmonic character of sections contrasting with the “hymn” is also progressive — ahead of Haydn’s time. Ultimately, these tendencies merge in an extended epilogue, which can leave a listener nearly breathless.
Although Haydn titles the third movement “Menuetto,” its lively speed and witty character make it more of a scherzo — again, pre-echoes of Beethoven. Even the central section, “Alternativo,” is playful and humorous.
In the Allegro finale, short downward scale patterns form the chief thematic ideas. This movement is full of fun and Haydnesque droll humor. There seems to be no end to the descending scale fragments, and the composer seems determined to see how long he can work with them before his listeners grow uncomfortable. However, the master knows just when to wind things up with a brilliant, frothy finish.
Corea: Adventures of hippocrates
Chick Corea (June 12, 1941-February 9, 2021) was an important figure in modern jazz and rock performance and composition. A keyboardist of considerable reputation, his initial musical education came from his father (a professional musician) and from transcribing and learning improvised solos from records. Bud Powell and Horace Silver were early influences. Corea’s first professional experiences were with Latin bands, but in the late 1960s he joined Miles Davis’s group, which was pioneering jazz-rock fusion through electronic abstract jazz. When he formed his own avant-garde group, Circle, in 1970, it was to explore “free” jazz improvisation in a non-electronic sound environment. However, Corea gradually turned to synthesizers and other electronic devices to achieve his sound ideal. He developed as a composer during this period, with some of his tunes (notably Windows, Spain, and CrystalSilence), becoming jazz standards. Corea’s interest in the interaction of jazz and rock grew in the 1980s through the formation of a trio, the Elektric Band. Since then, the versatility and wide-ranging musical interests of Chick Corea have become legendary, and his name is known equally among jazz and rock listeners, as well as many classical enthusiasts.
About Hippocrates, Corea has written: “This quartet was written by a relatively inexperienced writer for strings (me) so, technically, my notation may be unorthodox (or standardly wrong). But I find that most string quartet players, knowing that, will go ahead and make the proper adjustments themselves. This is better than trying to alter the musical concept to fit the correct technical point. Hippocrates is the name of a little robot in a science fiction series by L. Ron Hubbard. There are 7 stories in the 2 volume set entitled Ole Doc Methuselah.”
In 1994, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Society and the Orion String quartet commissioned a work from Corea. The outcome was The Adventures of Hippocrates. This was to be Corea’s first work in which a keyboard was not the central instrument.The music is a suite of five substantial movements for string quartet, each exploring a different tempo and rhythmic character. The composer describes their character: (1) Quasi Tango, (2) Waltz, (3) Lyrical (4) Quasi-Rock, and (5) [Finale] (with a “swiftly-moving tempo”). The music is as fresh as writing a string quartet was for Chick Corea. However, we can perceive a few outside influences in this music, such as Astor Piazolla (the “godfather” of the modern Argentine tango) and Béla Bartók (whose Mikrokosmos for piano Corea had previously recorded), and Corea’s own ’70s recordings of Fusion-Rock and “Free” Jazz. Summing up Hippocrates, critic-musicologist Kai Christiansen writes:
Corea has always been a composer and keyboardist with a sophisticated sense of rhythm, harmony and linear momentum. But this string quartet commission challenged Corea to project these skills onto instruments foreign to his fingers as well as splitting his keyboard conception into four separate parts. The results are intriguing, challenging and effective, as is so much of the great music Corea has created in his distinctive style.
Beethoven: STring Quartet in g major, op.18/2
The six works of Opus 18 represent Beethoven’s first burst of energy in the direction of the string quartet. At the time of writing (1795-99) Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) had ample opportunity to experiment with the medium and to hear his music when the ink was barely dry. He regularly attended the quartet sessions of Prince Lichnowsky and Emmanuel Förster, a composer who exerted a degree of influence upon young Beethoven. The group was placed at Beethoven’s disposal, giving him opportunities rarely afforded a composer.
The G Major Quartet, although placed second in publication, was the third in order of composition. More than in any other quartet, this is Beethoven’s homage to the wit of Haydn, the “father” of the string quartet. The work is nicknamed the “Compliment” Quartet, and Beethoven appears to pay his respects formally in the elaborate opening. Joseph Kerman writes that “it seems irresistibly to summon up images of courtly bowing and scraping in some never-never-land of rococo fantasy.”
Beethoven follows this introduction with the real meat of the exposition. His ready-set-go transition theme evolves into the secondary material soon to become important. In the development section, he employs as many themes as he can, in as many ways as possible. Characteristically, Beethoven’s recapitulation also presents material in new ways. The coda brings the wit of this movement into full bloom.
The Adagio is justifiably famous for one of Beethoven’s innovations. After exposing a sumptuous main theme, he abruptly inserts a section in binary song-form marked Allegro. Following this unpredictable but highly effective segment, the Adagio reprises with the cello and first violin sharing the honors.
Marked “Scherzo,” the third movement is a quickened minuet using galloping rhythms. The Trio section follows more the conventional 18th-century tradition.
The spirit of Haydn smiles through the main theme of the finale. But this playful rondo movement reflects the Haydnesque humor in new, Beethovenian ways. For example, there are false returns of the main theme in “wrong” keys, and mock-scowling shadings of the theme in the minor mode. The quartet ends with two codas: the first pompous and inflated and the second light and witty.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink. All rights reserved. Copyright 2021
On May 23, 2021, we finally returned to live performance in front of an audience, and three days later we were back in the beautiful and spacious Laurel Heights United Methodist Church’s sanctuary for our annual free master class for area students. Our 2020 masterclass had to be conducted online (read about that here), so we were so pleased that COVID conditions had improved enough to allow us to bring students back for a live class. Audience was limited to family members and the class was recorded and released on our YouTube channel a few days later. This year’s class was made possible by a gift from the San Antonio Symphony League in support of our education programs.
Getting ensembles together to rehearse in 20-21 was … challenging… so we opened the class up to solo performers and ended up with a small but very interesting program, opening with cellist Simon Phoa performing Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Simon is an alum of Ken Freudigman’s cello studio (Ken is our cellist and Artistic Director) and also of our String Quartet Seminar and is now studying cello at Southern Methodist University. Our violinists Matthew Zerweck and Anastasia Parker took point with Simon, discussing larger musical points and challenges of performing the Paganini Caprices in particular and also adjusting technical choices to accommodate the performance space.
Second was a very talented young quartet which worked together much of this year with Matthew, preparing for quartet competitions. Adriana Bec, Viviana Peters, Ray Zhang and Vincent Garcia-Hettinger performed the first movement of Shostakovich’s Third String Quartet. Our entire quartet worked with them on unifying across the group and controlling/focusing energy.
With continued vigilance, we are looking forward to more concerts with live audiences in 21-22, and more live master classes, too!
Composer-violinist-educator Jessie Montgomery (1981- ) hails from New York’s Lower East Side, where her father managed a music studio. She was, in her words, “constantly surrounded by all different kinds of music.” Thus, her own compositions have drawn from many diverse influences, such as African-American spirituals, civil rights anthems, improvisational styles, modern jazz, film scoring, etc. From those early years, she developed, chiefly as a violinist, to receive degrees from the Juilliard School and New York University. In her professional performing life, Montgomery has been a member of the Providence String Quartet and the Catalyst Quartet. The latter began as a project of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which creates opportunities for African-American and Latino string players.
As a composer, Montgomery was the resident Composer-Educator for the Albany Symphony during the 2015-16 season. In addition she has been recognized with grants and fellowships from the American Composers Orchestra, the Sphinx Organization, the Joyce Foundation, and the Sorel Organization. Her reputation has been spreading steadily, mainly in North America, beginning in New York City, Providence, and Boston, reaching out to Deer Valley, Utah; Miami Beach, Florida; Birmingham, Alabama; and Toronto, Ontario. Montgomery’s debut record album Strum: Music for Strings was released on the Azica Records label in late 2015. The concluding album track is Strum.
This one-movement work was commissioned by Community Music Works and premiered by the Providence String Quartet in 2006 and was revised in 2012. About the music, critic Maggie Molloy writes:
Strummed pizzicato lines serve as a texture motive across all four instruments, creating a rhythmic vitality which propels the piece forward from its nostalgic first moments all the way through to its ecstatic and dramatic ending. Layered rhythms and harmonic ostinati round out the piece’s warm, dancelike spirit, crafting a joyous and hopeful ending. . .
Dvorak: Piano Quintet In a major, op. 81
“This work probably epitomizes more completely the genuine Dvořák style in most of its facets than any other work of his.” (John Clapham)
“ . . . One of the most delightful and successful chamber works, not only in the composer’s works but also in the whole of chamber music composition.” (Otakar Šourek)
“ . . . The best piano quintet ever written, demonstrating as it does from start to finish some of the most lovable characteristics of a lovable composer.” (Gervase Hughes)
With accolades like that, there is very little to add except the bare facts. Having attempted, unsuccessfully, to improve his First Piano Quintet, Op.5 (also in the key of A major), Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) decided to start afresh. He began Op. 81 in mid- August 1887, and by mid-October the new quintet was completed. It was a period of contentment for Dvořák, and he worked in a pleasant environment. Once finished, Dvořák dedicated the new work to Dr. B. Neureutter, a generous patron of music. The premiere took place the following January, and Simrock published it immediately.
The first movement displays a wide expanse of moods generated from its two themes, both essentially song-like. These moods alternate rapidly during the development and keep the entire movement fresh and spontaneous.
The second movement bears the title Dumka, a kind of melancholy Slavonic folk ballad. In the hands of Dvořák, however, the Dumka involves sudden mood changes from melancholy to exuberance. That is what happens in the middle section of this rondo, when the rhythmic Vivace section springs up.
Although Dvořák gave a subtitle of Furiant to the Scherzo, it is not a genuine Furiant, since there are no predominating shifts of accent. However, every bit of the movement is Slavonic. Interestingly, the Trio section contains chiefly ideas from the main Scherzo theme.
The finale is a bustling movement in sonata form carrying an exhilaration that counterbalances the earlier melancholic moods. From the perky first theme to the last note, the movement is full of rustic fun. Dvořák’s mastery of every feature found in the quintet turn it into what Hughes has called “no less perfect a work of national art than the Dumka itself.”
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2020. All rights reserved.