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!
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
Prokofiev, String Quartet No. 1, Op. 50
We are most used to hearing such music by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) as Romeo and Juliet, the Lt. Kije Suite, The Fifth Symphony, or the later piano sonatas. Those works were products of the repatriated Prokofiev who sought to reach a wide audience and satisfy Soviet authorities. However, there was an earlier Prokofiev, the expatriate with a home base in Paris. This was the Prokofiev of The Fiery Angel, the Second to Fourth Symphonies, and works that show the “primitive” fallout from the earlier Scithian Suite, Sarcasms, etc. The composer resided outside the USSR nearly 20 years, during which time his music was often a little rebellious, a little tinged with French neo-Classicism, and a bit influenced by his fellow expatriate, Igor Stravinsky.
The impetus for composing the First Quartet came during a tour of the United States in 1930. Here, the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation of the Library of Congress commissioned him to write, specifically, a string quartet. As a composer, Prokofiev was not attracted naturally to chamber music, his output being a mere handful of works. However, he accepted with good grace and produced his First Quartet with diligence. In April 1931, the Brosa Quartet gave the premiere at the Library of Congress.
In preparation, he even made a study of Beethoven’s quartets. “That is the source of the rather ‘classical’ language of the quartet’s first section,” Prokofiev later said. Actually, that section — with its squarish-sardonic theme and propulsive accompaniment — is more typically Prokofiev than what follows. The torso of this loose sonata-form is reminiscent of late Beethoven quartets: heavily contrapuntal, broadly developmental of a few short themes, and deadly serious. Here is the intellectual side of Prokofiev we rarely hear.
At the opening of the second movement, Prokofiev tricks us into thinking it will all be slow. However, after a few moments it turns out to be the quartet’s “scherzo,” a big, A-B-A structure, somewhat polyphonic like the first movement. The “A” section’s scurrying quality is a foil for its catchy violin theme. Imperceptibly, the rhythm turns to triplet motion for the B (Trio) section. Here, the music is more ingratiating and traditional. The breathless A section returns to bring closure.
The Andante promised in the foregoing movement is delivered fully in the finale. Here is the most emotionally intense portion of the quartet, where Prokofiev is at last completely at home in his contrapuntal language. This comes across most clearly in the frequent dialogues between high and low instruments. A movingly rich harmonic palette also pervades the movement. Soviet critics later deemed the Andante to be “a peculiarly Russian Romantic introspection,” interpreted as the composer’s longing to return to his homeland. Quite possibly that was the case, for in a few short years, Prokofiev did repatriate to Russia.
Bartók, Out of Doors
In addition to his remarkable prowess as a composer, Béla Bartók (1881-1945) was a professional-level pianist. He performed the premieres of his First and Second Piano Concertos as well as many of his solo works. During the 1920s, Bartók developed a special interest in composing solo music for his instrument, the high points being his only Sonata for piano (1926) and the suite, Out of Doors, also completed in 1926. The composer performed the premieres of both works the same year.
Although Bartók did not reveal the impetus for composing his suite, some part of it apparently was related to his current editing of 17th – and 18th-century keyboard music, particularly the suites of Francois Couperin. Although Bartók titled his suite’s third movement “Musettes,” we hear no Baroque posturing such as might be present in Stravinsky’s music from the same period.
Yet the Out of Doors suite is not even neo-Baroque. Its five varied movement titles — “With Pipes and Drums,” “Barcarolla,” “Musettes,” “The Night’s Music,” and “The Chase” — may strike the listener as more akin to those in Robert Schumann’s loosely constructed piano sets.
“With Pipes and Drums” takes full advantage of the piano’s percussive possibilities, which Bartók had perfected about ten years earlier in pieces like Allegro barbaro. Hammer-like dissonances and tone clusters support a fragmentary melody.
“Barcarolla” rests atop undulating accompanying figures, which are rhythmically asymmetrical. The smooth melodies we might expect of traditional barcaroles are here replaced by somewhat jagged, un-romantic strains, where we might suspect some underlying psychological commentary.
In “Musettes” we hear only occasional melody. The focus is on the low drone sounds of small bagpipes (18th-century musettes) and mid-range figuration. The pounding drones dominate and drown out melodic suggestions.
“The Chase” is the suite’s final movement. It amplifies the mood of the first movement to a frenetic level. Atop a rapid, dissonant, repeated figure (ostinato) rides the main focus of the music — not really a melody, but “chase music” such as we might expect in a Western movie. Bartók makes his suite’s finale brief but of high impact.
Discussion of “The Night’s Music,” the fourth movement of Out of Doors is saved for last, because of its importance in piano repertoire and in Bartók’s own output. Perhaps inspired by Debussy’s impressionism, in “The Night’s Music” Bartók gives voice to his extraordinary sensitivity to the sounds and impressions of nature. This was the first of a “brand” of Bsrtókian slow movements, which would reappear in several of Bartók’s later works, notably, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and the Third Piano Concerto. Here is biographer Halsey Stevens’ description of “The Night’s Music”:
The techniques here employed to create the atmosphere of the out-of-doors at night include the blurred sounds of pianissimo cluster-chords, each introduced with a gruppetto of three notes, as a background, against which are heard the twitterings, chirpings, and croakings of nocturnal creatures. Presently a folklike tune is heard in a single line, doubled three octaves above; still later a flute melody . . . appears, upon which cluster-chords, played with the palm of the hand, impinge; then the two tunes are superimposed, as if heard simultaneously from different directions. Fragments of the flute melody continue to the end, evanescent as the night sounds.
In this astonishingly convincing nocturnal excursion Bartók succeeded, as in the many which followed, in devising a music of an intensely personal character which nevertheless re-creates for the listener an atmosphere incapable of misinterpretation.
Ornstein, Piano Quintet, Op. 92
Leo Ornstein (1893-2002) was born in Kremenchug, Ukraine, but immigrated with his family to New York in 1907. After studying the piano at the Institute of Musical Art (now Juilliard) with Bertha Fiering Tapper, he made his debut in 1911 and wrote his first “modernist” compositions in 1913. The following year he toured Europe, and in London gave a performance of contemporary music, which established his reputation as a new music interpreter and as a composer. Four New York recitals the following year established him more firmly as a composer — a controversial one. Pianistic “tone clusters” (groups of neighboring notes played by the fingers, hand, or forearm) became his specialty. Although he did not invent tone clusters, his note groupings, including various gaps, were unique. Around 1918, wishing to pin a label on him, the press and public began to label him a “futurist” composer (part of an extremist movement then raging in Russia, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe). Ornstein’s response in 1918 was clear:
Futurism is not even a name to me. If my music becomes more generally understood at some future time, perhaps, from that point of view it might be called futuristic music. All that I am attempting to do is to express myself as honestly and convincingly as I can in the present.
In 1922, Ornstein abruptly retired for the most part from the performing stage, continuing to build his career as a composer. He did, however, establish The Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia, where he remained director until 1953. Much of his music was and is little known, yet he received the Marjorie Peabody Waite Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1975. He continued to compose into his 90s, when he wrote some of his finest music.
Ornstein’s Piano Quintet comes from the year 1927. The first movement displays a blend of experimental modern (futurist?) tendencies and more traditional leanings, especially in melody. Some melodies and rhythms suggest Russian, Jewish, or Middle Eastern influences, which might hark back to Ornstein’s pre-American childhood, while other tunes are downright post-Romantic. One striking feature of his forms is a tendency to develop an idea or texture for a short while, then to move on to something new. Perhaps this harks back to Debussy’s do-next-thing procedures in form.
The first extended section of the second movement seems to be an Eastern or Middle-Eastern style dirge employing compelling string effects. Variants on these ideas follow in the strings and the piano. A heroic march breaks in and runs its course. Long lyrical lines for the strings and then the piano follow. This is a free reprise of the first extended section, and it quietly brings the movement to a close.
The final movement brings back the contrast of lyrical and pounding ideas heard in the first movement. Now, however, the music takes on more determination and forward force. The central section, however, is compellingly long-lined and sweet. A passionate rhapsodic mood then sets in, and earlier ideas are developed. Finally, the main theme is stretched out into a long, reflective statement that becomes the Quintet’s final coda.
Copyright Michael Fink 2018
Thanks for the great concerts this weekend! Such wonderful audiences! We had lots of requests for the set list so here it is:
Marquez Homenaje a Gismonti (sq)
Prokofiev/Borissovsky Introduction to Romeo and Juliet (vla/pno)
Hubay Maggiolata (vla/pno)
De Falla/Kreisler Danse Espagnole (vla/pno)
Paredes/Golijov Cançao Verdes Anos (sq)
Lara/Golijov Se Me Hizo Façil (sq)
Briseño/Golijov El Sinaloense (sq)
Schoenberg Die Eiserne Brigade (piano quintet)
Vecsey/Cziffra Valse Triste (pno)
Debussy Beau Soir (cello/piano)
Ravel Piece in un Forme de Habanera (cello/piano)
Granados Intermezzo from Goyescas (cello/piano)
Kosma/Takemitsu Autumn Leaves (sq)
Abreu Tico Tico (sq)
De Falla El Amor Brujo (quintet)
Couperin/Le Tic Toc Choc (quintet)
A little video teaser of the fun on this weekend’s program!
Fauré, String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 121
By the time Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) had reached his 77th year, he had assembled a fine catalog of chamber music that comprised two violin sonatas, two cello sonatas, two piano quartets, and two piano quintets. Possibly wishing to make the cycle more complete, the composer embarked on a string quartet and a piano trio. He composed them simultaneously and completed the trio in the spring of 1923. The quartet, finished in September 1924 about a month before Fauré’s death, was his final work. It was also his only chamber work not to include a piano.
On September 9, 1923, the composer wrote to his wife Marie in Paris from his working-vacation spot, Annecy-le-Vieux:
I have undertaken a quartet for strings, without piano. This is a genre which Beethoven in particular made famous and causes all those who are not Beethoven to be terrified of it! . . . So you can well imagine I am frightened too. I have spoken of this to on one. I shall say nothing about it as long as I am nowhere near my objective: the end! (Translation: J. Barrie Jones)
And as was Beethoven when composing his Last Quartets, Fauré was now completely deaf. Returning to Paris for the fall season, he had finished the first two movements. It was not until the following summer that he was able to resume work, but on September 12, 1924, he wrote to his wife, “I finished that finale yesterday evening. So, therefore, the quartet is completed. . . .” The premiere took place the following June, but, unfortunately, Fauré did not live to hear it.
The style of the first movement may surprise those who love Fauré’s more standard, lyrical works. In his very late style, his music was often more abstract, more dissonant, and less attached to the polarity of keys. In the central portion of this movement, the music becomes for a time steeped in counterpoint, giving us textures unusual in Fauré’s music. A reprise of earlier ideas eventually winds down, bringing the movement to a pianissimo ending.
The impressionistic description of the second movement by biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux is in the gossamer (and more traditional) style of the music itself:
The Andante is one of the finest pieces of string quartet writing. From start to finish, it bathes in a supernatural light. . . . There is nothing that is not beautiful in this movement with its subtle variations of light-play, a sort of white upon white. [At the ending,] the sublime music sinks out of sight, where it carries on, rather than seeming to come to an end.
For a time, Fauré considered adding a fourth movement to this work. As we listen to the existing final Allegro, we can understand how that might have been possible. For this music can be perceived as a scherzo in disguise. The playful pizzicato and spiccato accompaniments support long-breathed melodies. However, once we are accustomed to the pace of the background, the music may give listeners a sense of abstract meditation.
Every aspect of Fauré’s String Quartet is fresh and inventive. This puts us in mind of a famous earlier quotation by the composer himself: “Where there is invention, there is genius.”
Turina, String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 4 (“de la Guitarra”)
Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) was, alongside Albéniz, Granados, and de Falla, one of the leading Spanish nationalist composers of the early 20th century. Like Falla, he spent time in Paris, where his style developed certain aspects of musical Impressionism. These he mixed effectively with native and synthesized Spanish folk melodies to produce music in a style similar to Falla’s, yet distinctive in many ways. Turina became best known for both his atmospheric solo piano music and his colorful orchestral and chamber ensemble works.
He also contributed significantly to the literature of the classical guitar. Encouraged and inspired by Andrés Segovia, who brought the instrument to prominence in the 1920s, Turina composed several works for the guitar, mostly modelled on Andalusian dances. The String Quartet “de la Guitarra” is so called because it contains a musical motto comprised of the tones of the guitar’s open strings. Composed in 1911, the quartet preceded Turina’s relationship with Segovia by more than a decade. Thus, the music demonstrates this composer’s affinity as a Spaniard for this Spanish instrument.
Following an explosive opening, the Preludio presents the guitar-string motto in the cello pizzicato, leading to a flowing sequence of melodies and short ideas. The motto appears again twice, each time leading to a chain of attractive song-like melodies.
The second movement (Allegro moderato) gives us a glimpse of Turina’s time in Paris and the Impressionistic side of his music. Momentary themes weave in and out of the quartet’s multi-voice fabric, and the harmonic language is often reminiscent of Debussy. A subtle climax occurs about two-thirds through the movement, after which the music takes on a more climactic, determined Allegro feeling.
The Zortzico, a Basque folk dance, is the model for Turina’s third movement. Much of the dances asymmetrical rhythmic character occurs in the opening section. In the central portion, the composer repeatedly presents a lyrical melody that unmistakably reflects the music of his native Seville. Rounding out the movement, the asymmetrical rhythms of the opening return, but the music takes on in a quieter character.
The Andante quasi lento is a study in mood contrasts. Its chain of brief sections presents a continuity of contrasting themes, most of which are distinctly Impressionistic. Apparent tempo changes aid this kaleidoscopic effect.
Sunny Iberia would seem to be Turina’s idea at the opening of the Finale. He goes on to develop this music as well as offer a few new themes. Wisps of flamenco melody weave in and out of the musical fabric. The guitar string motto introduces the final section, which summarizes the Quartet’s message.
Debussy, String Quartet in G Minor
The songs show Debussy to be the poet’s musician, and many of the piano works the painter’s musician. He is seldom the musician’s musician, at any rate not in the sense that he wrote works deriving inspiration from the technical resources of music alone.
With these words, biographer Edward Lockspeiser introduced the chamber music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The passage suggests that, like Mussorgsky before him, Debussy was out of his element in “absolute” music, much of which he found too academic to be dynamically interesting and vital. However, he found ways around the problem in his 1892 String Quartet, which was not without “outside” influences. The Javanese gamelon music, which had impressed Debussy so deeply when he heard it at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, had found its way into his style. We may hear the gamelon spirit especially in the quartet’s second movement. The outside sections, with their insistent pizzicato in moto perpetuo give an approximation of the repetitious, percussive music of the Javanese.
Debussy usually avoided or severely recast the classically-fashioned classical forms inherited from the Viennese masters. The quartet is something of a paradox in this respect, for amid the lush harmonies, the modal scales, the flights of thematic fancy, and the splashes of impressionistic tone color lie the outlines of pure, clear classical form.
Debussy builds the quartet around a motto theme, which appears in each movement. This cyclic technique had first been introduced by Beethoven and was used frequently by Debussy’s teacher (and sometime adversary), César Franck. The first movement, a very loose sonata form, is dominated by the motto. In the second, a three-part form, the theme occupies the flanking sections, while contrasting ideas are introduced in the center. The slow movement, another ternary form, reverses the thematic pattern: A fragment of the motto appears in the middle section, while the outside sections seem to ignore it entirely.
In the finale, we hear echoes of the motto as early as the introduction and in the fugato (!) that follows it, then more fully (and in long notes) toward the middle of the movement. The quartet’s finale is constructed more as a mosaic than a classical form, and it completes what may be Debussy’s finest contribution to the chamber medium.
Dr. Michael Fink, Copyright 2017. All rights reserved