Penderecki: String Trio
Surely Krysztof Penderecki (1933- ) is one of the most significant composers of “New Music” since 1950. In 1960, his style turned from serialism à la Boulez toward an entirely personal direction that became known as “sound mass music.” Among the composer’s first works expressing the new style was his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima composed in 1960 for 52 string instruments. The following year, Penderecki received the UNESCO Prize for the work. Soon his international reputation became enhanced through the success of the St. Luke Passion (1963-1965). These two works have remained among Penderecki’s best known music.
Although in the full flush of his career he focused on music for large forces (e.g., opera, oratorio, and large orchestra), Penderecki’s catalog shows a sprinkling of chamber music, which flourished briefly in the 1990s. The String Trio of 1990-91 is one of the fruits of that period. Although the work is very dissonant in places, its clarity of sound and of form owes much to the music of the Classical Giants: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Penderecki has said as much: “Logic. You must have exposition, you must have development … nobody can do anything better.”
The number three also figures significantly in this work. (Its connection to the performing trio is obvious, of course.) Analyst Kenneth Woods has explained this idea clearly:
The screamingly dissonant chords that launch the work (heard three times) are a combination of three triads [chord entities]: G major, G sharp minor and B flat diminished. These chords preface three cadenzas, which introduce three strongly differentiated musical personae – the morose viola, the mercurial cello and the volcanic violin.
Although the String Trio is cast in two movements of several minutes each, the first contains seven different tempos. Three of these are the cadenzas mentioned above.
The Vivace second movement is mostly a fugue in which the composer emphasizes a two-note idea: the minor third (on a piano, the notes would be three keys apart). The intellectual fugal sections alternate with “dramatic unisons and solo episodes” [Woods]. Elements of a gloomily animated wit are worked into the mix, leading to an ending both instrumentally and intellectually complex and challenging.
Franҫaix: String Trio in C Major
Jean Franҫaix (1912-1997) was something of a prodigy who fulfilled his promise with numerous later works. He had composed his first piano piece at the age of six. Later, his father, a conservatory director trained him thoroughly in piano and sent him to Paris to complete his education at the Conservatoire. There, he received a first prize in piano and studied composition privately with Nadia Boulanger. From the 1930s, he was an active composer, writing music with wit, irony, and at times even mischievousness. His style shows the distinct influences of Stravinsky, Ravel, and Poulenc, yet there is a freshness about many of his works that has become synonymous with his name.
Franҫaix composed his String Trio in 1933, and it is an excellent example of his personal brand of neo-classicism. In the first movement, the spiccato perpetual motion is more important than melodic ideas, although there is one lyrical moment. Nicolas Slonimsky has pointed out that the viola part contains a concealed reference to Bach’s name spelled backward (H [B-natural], C, A, B-flat): a humorous reference to the “back-to-Bach” crusade of the 1930s.
The Scherzo is actually a mock waltz, but it follows the Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo classical form. Offset rhythms in the cello and occasional accent shifts in the viola add to the caricature. The Trio section tries humorously to be pompous.
Somewhat Satie-like, the Andante spins out a languid violin melody over a repetitive harmonic accompaniment. There follow two mutations, one an eloquent cello echo and the other a warm viola solo.
The final Rondo is a galloping polka built on a square-phrased main theme. The middle section brings back the satirical quality of the first two movements. At last, Franҫaix pours forth a mock apotheosis, but this disappears into a brief, puckish coda.
Mozart:Divertimento in E-flat for String Trio, K. 563
The year was 1788, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was entering the saddest period of his life. His music being out of favor with the Viennese public and having only a tiny regular income, he went into debt. In June, he began to borrow money regularly from his brother in Freemasonry, the well-to-do merchant Michael Puchberg. Frequently, from that time until April 1791, Mozart would beg money from this always-generous friend, making blue-sky promises of repayment once his fortunes in music improved. Mozart’s lodge-brother probably never expected to see his money again.
Puchberg was not entirely without recompense, however. In September 1788, Mozart dedicated to him something unique in his output: his only complete work for string trio. It ran six movements, including two minuets: a divertimento. Mozart must have been proud of the E-flat Divertimento, for he performed it in Dresden in 1789 (on his way to Berlin), and again in Vienna a year later. Divertimentos were usually light-hearted, but Mozart sometimes violated that tradition. As it turns out, the first half of this work has a serious tone, while the latter half is blithe.
We may be astonished by the plethora of musical ideas in the first movement’s exposition. However, in the development, Mozart chooses to focus on a motive from the second theme group for serious contrapuntal treatment.
The gradually swelling passion of the Adagio falls outside the realm of divertimento tradition. Its development goes far afield harmonically before returning to the home key for an elaboration of each theme.
In the first Menuetto, Mozart’s theme features cross accents of 2+2+2 beats within the space of 3+3 beats. Development is again the watchword, as ideas grow in the second portion. The Trio section stresses equality among the three string parts in the form of alternating solos.
The Andante now places us squarely in the traditional divertimento domain. Here is a carefree, walking theme. The following variations become progressively more decorative or rhythmically dense until the quasi-Baroque minore variation. Bursting back into the major mode, Mozart now demands non-stop passagework from the players until the music unwinds in the coda.
Truly entertaining, the second Menuetto has some comic overtones. Both Trios are in Ländler rhythm (forerunner of the waltz) and flavored with the spirit of the Viennese public dancing parties for which Mozart wrote his German Dances.
The final Allegro balances the seriousness of the opening movement with a complete relaxation of mood. The recurrent main theme is a playful peasant dance capped by a little drumming fanfare. Even the semi-serious counterpoint in the middle section is not long lived. As a coda, the little fanfare takes over, bringing to an end what Alfred Einstein termed “the finest, most perfect trio ever heard.”
Notes by Michael Fink, 2019
Weinberg, Capriccio for String Quartet, Op. 11
Surely, Russia’s best known modern composers were Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. However, a third composer from their era, previously little known in the West, is now a rising star: Mieczław (Moisey) Weinberg (1919-1996).
Weinberg was a child of the Warsaw Ghetto. At the age of 12, he entered the Warsaw Conservatory, where he studied the piano but also began composing. With the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Weinberg fled (on foot) to Minsk (Belarus), where he studied composition at the conservatory for two years before relocating in Tashkent. There he married and also met Shostakovich, with whom he formed a close lifelong friendship. Weinberg wrote, “It was as if I had been born anew…. Although I took no lessons from him, Dmitri Shostakovich was the first person to whom I would show each of my new works.” After the war, the Weinbergs and Shostakoviches moved to Moscow, where they became next-door neighbors. Beginning in 1948, several composers, including Weinberg, were black-listed by Stalin’s regime, and in February 1953, he was jailed. Shostakovich wrote a letter on his behalf to an official he knew, and that must have delayed Weinberg’s inevitable execution. Stalin himself died the following month, and Weinberg was soon released.
Weinberg was extremely prolific with over 150 opus numbers, including 25 symphonies, seven operas, film scores, and a vast amount of chamber music. Concerning his musical style, biographer Lyudmilla D. Nikitina writes:
Weinberg’s compositional style is influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Bartók, and Mahler; his works are often based on a program, largely autobiographical in nature, and they reflect on the fate of the composer and of humanity in general…. For all the importance of … the programmatic nature of many works and the occasional Slavic and Jewish thematic materials, his music has an absolute — even abstract — quality, with similar themes able to assume varied semantic hues in given environments
In the Capriccio, Weinberg’s stylistic debt to Shostakovich is apparent from the outset. The backdrop of the entire composition is a sardonic waltz, frequently punctuated by changes in meter that upset the waltz character of the music. Melodies are slightly wild (reflecting influences of both Shostakovich and Prokofiev). At the piece’s center comes a string of more primitive accompanied melodies (the waltz’s “Trio”?) Then the music returns to the lighter sardonic attitude of the opening to round out this very fun piece.
Arensky, String Quartet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 11
About the biography of Anton Arensky (1861-1906), one writer states:
The circumstances of Arensky’s life read like the pages of a Dostoyevskian Russian novel — a brilliant talent, fostered under the tutelage of the great Rimsky-Korsakov, degenerating into a life of drinking, gambling, and dissolution, leading to oblivion and death in a Finnish sanatorium, aged 45.
Not only was Arensky’s musical training prestigious, but so was his teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. Among his students, he could number Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Gliere. From Moscow, Arensky went on to direct the Imperial Chapel in St. Petersburg, retiring in 1901 with a generous pension. Unfortunately, his alcoholism and gambling addiction led to a rapid decline and an early death. Of him, his Moscow Conservatory colleague Tchaikovsky remarked, “Arensky is a man of remarkable gifts, but morbidly nervous and lacking in firmness, and altogether a strange man.”
Arensky composed his String Quartet No.1 in 1888, and it was already the work of a masterful composer. Yet, the overall plan and in the forms of individual movements he chose show a somewhat student –like adherence to Classical Period ideals. For example, the first movement uses a repeated exposition and a conventionally worked-out development. Nevertheless, the musical experience is fresh and engaging.
Beginning hymn-like, the second movement then unfolds into a multi-voiced lyrical essay. In a sense, we are hearing a “song without words,” such as made famous by Mendelssohn. This becomes a drawn-out coda to the whole movement.
Think of it as either a fast waltz or a slow scherzo, the third movement is full of wit as well as academic (but sincere) counterpoint. The movement’s ending is especially warm and witty.
Philip Ying of the Ying String Quartet offers this insightful description of the last movement:
A Russian element makes its appearance in the Finale, with its variations on a Russian theme. These bring their surprises, not least in the traditional folk texture suggested by the plucked accompaniment in one variation and the later fragmentation of the theme, before a cadenza and the return of the theme in a mood of mounting excitement, leading to an emphatic and vigorous conclusion.
Tchaikovsky, Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50
Chamber music, according to the books, is the most classic of musical media. We read terms like “purity of style,” “objective,” “music for music’s sake,” etc. It is true that most chamber-music composers have adhered to classical forms, yet the intimate character of chamber music allows the composer much personal latitude. This “personal” side seems almost paradoxical, especially when taken to the extreme of being biographical or autobiographical, as happens with much of the late 19th and 20th century chamber music that we hear.
The Tchaikovsky Trio — the only one he wrote — “deals with” Nikolay Rubinstein, and Tchaikovsky’s reaction to his sudden death in 1881. Nikolay Rubinstein, brother of Anton, was Director of the Moscow Conservatory. The Trio is dedicated “à la memoire d’un grand Artiste,” and although the first of its two movements is titled “Pezzo elegiaco,” the work is not so much a sincere tombeau to his friend as it is a representation of Tchaikovsky’s emotional reaction to his death. The composer wrote to his brother, Modest, “To my shame, I must admit that I was suffering not so much from a sense of fearful, irretrievable loss as from the dread of seeing poor Rubinstein’s body.” The year before, Mme. von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patron, had asked for a piano trio, but Tchaikovsky declined because he did not think the combination was an acceptable setting for the piano. Now he would write a Trio in which the piano is so predominant that at times it obscures the violin and cello lines.
We shall not indulge in an analysis of the trio, but the second movement deserves some comment. It is a set of variations and finale on a Russian folk tune. Since for many years Tchaikovsky would allow the Piano Trio to be performed only in private, the supposed “program” of this movement was not generally known. This raised some skepticism, and one critic wrote:
The variations of the Trio figure a representation of the episodes of Nikolay Grigorievich’s [Rubinstein’s] life. . . . How amusing! To compose music without the slightest desire to represent something and suddenly to discover that it represents this or that, it is what Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme must have felt when he learned that he had been speaking in prose all his life.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2019
Beethoven: String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3
Of the six quartets in Op. 18, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed the G Major Quartet first chronologically. However, he then spent much time revising it. In musical sketchbooks from 1798-99, Beethoven extensively and laboriously worked out four of the quartets. The earliest is the D Major, making it his first completed mature string quartet.
As in his Symphony No. 1 (from the same general period), Beethoven introduces musical uncertainty right from the first notes, and that sets the tone for the entire first movement. In the graceful first theme group, instead of comfortably establishing the home key, the composer gives us a plethora of notes ornamental to the underlying harmony. Classically, the second theme group should be in the key of A major, but Beethoven takes us to the “wrong” key of C major for the first part, then jerks us into A major with two or three assertive chords. In the development section, he goes even further by clothing much of his thematic material in unaccustomed minor keys. What might be an otherwise routine recapitulation is spiced considerably by splashes of the minor mode and remote keys, notably E-flat (!) only moments before the movement’s ending.
Maintaining character, Beethoven leaps into the key of B-flat major for the Andante movement. The music begins in a serene mood, then runs a gamut of emotions that show Beethoven writing from the heart (rather than by form) with remarkable maturity. Against the music’s pulsating continuity, the individual instruments often take on special characteristics, becoming almost like players in a drama.
Again foreshadowing the First Symphony, the Allegro third movement is a true Beethoven scherzo — essentially a minuet at breakneck speed. The high spirits in the outer sections contrast with the Trio, where the violins conduct a whirlwind dialog in the minor mode.
In the finale, Beethoven whips up the scherzo’s joviality into a frothy lather of triplet notes and jabbing accents. As in the first movement, the underlying harmonies run far afield at times. Despite this Presto’s near-perpetual motion, a few definite themes emerge, notably an idea that reminded one annotator of the “Mexican Hat Dance.” However, Beethoven — always full of surprises — ends this otherwise boisterous and bombastic movement with the quietest of low whispers.
Beethoven: String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95 “Serioso”
Between 1806, when Beethoven finished his three “Razumovsky” Quartets, Op. 59, and 1810, when he dashed off the “Serioso” Quartet in one month, the composer wrote little chamber music. A cello sonata (Op. 69), two piano trios (Op. 70), and the Op. 74 string quartet are the tally. During this time, he was deeply occupied with such matters as the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the last two piano concertos, to name only a few of the projects. Personal problems involving, finances, health, deafness, love, and family life also beset the composer at the time. We are not surprised, then, that he was at turns despondent and angry, and that he should express these feelings in his most intimate medium, the string quartet. Of the “Serioso” quartet, analyst/philosopher Joseph Kerman writes:
. . . This is first and foremost a problematic work which thrusts in the direction of eccentricity and self-absorption. But Beethoven at his most quirky is Beethoven possessed. In this quartet, and in none of the others so far, he evokes that almost tangible sense of the artist assaulting a daemon of his own fancying. . . .
The F-minor Quartet is not a pretty piece, but it is terribly strong — and perhaps rather terrible. . . . The piece stands aloof, preoccupied with its radical private war on every fiber of rhetoric and feeling that Beethoven knew or could invent. Everything unessential falls victim, leaving a residue of extreme concentration, in dangerously high tension.
Kerman uses the word “concentration,” and we might paraphrase that with the word “compression.” For the individual movements of this quartet are among the shortest Beethoven ever wrote in this medium. And just as air heats up when compressed, so does Beethoven’s music. The first movement, for example is dominated by the opening five-note motive. Though he does introduce other ideas, this brusque idea recurs often, virtually etching itself on our ears. The form of the movement, too, is compressed. Ignoring the usually obligatory repeat of the exposition, Beethoven plunges into a compressed development after just one hearing. Then, the recapitulation is a compressed version of the already terse exposition. Finally, the coda concentrates on the five-note motive, gradually grinding it down dynamically from a pounding fortissimo to a whispering pianissimo.
Beethoven named this quartet “Serioso” himself, and nowhere in it is the description more apt than the second movement. With melancholy concentration, the composer introduces a fully harmonic opening paragraph. We find no prettiness here, nor in the middle section, which starts as a fugato on a new idea. This dissolves into a wispy episode. Then another fugue begins on a new theme, but now the first fugato theme joins in: a double fugue! (The careful listener will also hear the original theme occasionally turned upside down.) After a reprise of the opening paragraph, the music becomes quiet, only to be shaken by the forcible opening of the third movement. The movement would be the “scherzo” (scherzo = joke), but this music is no laughing matter. In Beethoven, anger and determination are often indistinguishable, and this is one of those times. The recurring Trio section offers some emotional relief, but the persistent main idea always hammers away afterward.
The brief Larghetto introduction to the finale bespeaks tragic introspection, but it leads to music that comes off like a quick waltz. This not a merry waltz, however, but a passionate and driving one, much like the breathless finale to the “Appasionata” piano sonata (also in F minor, incidentally). By contrast, the major mode coda at the very end could be taken as some kind of joke on Beethoven’s part. Having been dubbed a “comic-opera” ending, it is almost as if Beethoven thought, “Whoops, we’d better give them a happy ending.” Whether we take the music this way or, more nobly, as proof of the composer’s belief in an indomitable human spirit, we come out with positive feelings.
Beethoven: String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 127
The string quartets and Grosse fuge of Opp. 127-135 were the last music penned by Beethoven, and if the early and middle works of Beethoven were often misunderstood in their day, the final ones were a complete enigma. The unusual qualities of these works were so alien to early audiences that many listeners ridiculously considered the quartets to be either the absent-minded doodling of a once-great master in his dotage or the work of a man so totally deaf and out of touch with musical sound, that he could no longer distinguish consonance from dissonance — even on paper!
The truth of the matter is that the last quartets are transcendental. They transcend the standards of form, harmony, and chamber technique as they were known at that time. A mystical quality also pervades the quartets, which Aldous Huxley used symbolically in his novel, Point Counter Point. Then there is the matter of technical difficulty. Never a composer to compromise, Beethoven’s grand visions infused his last quartets with a multitude of transcendental difficulties in rhythm, ensemble playing, and pure endurance.
Beethoven opened this final chapter of composition with the E-flat String Quartet. When he received the commission in 1824, about 14 years had passed since he had composed a quartet, the F Minor, Op. 95 (“Serioso”). The new work was very different, however, and unique for its songlike qualities. One writer has even called it “a kind of Lyric Suite [by Alban Berg] before its time.”
The material and extremely plastic structure of the opening movement certainly support that idea. Introductory material recurs during the movement, and there is a free flow between themes and chief sections.
Following an unusual harmonic opening, the slow movement proves to be the extended lyrical centerpiece of the entire quartet. Here is a set of six variations on a long-lined theme, luxuriant in harmony yet vibrant in its rhythms and variety of ideas.
The Scherzo is similarly a full-length essay, but one dominated by the puckish, four-note motive announced in the cello at its beginning. The Presto Trio section literally skims along, and Beethoven brings back a taste of it as part of the coda.
The finale recalls much of the singing Allegro quality of the first movement and its structure is every bit as compact. A lucid modification of rondo form, the movement finally melts into the sweep of triplets that drive the final coda to a brilliant close.
Program notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2018
Krása: Tanec. Passacaglia and Fugue
Since Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time became well known after World War II, more and more music composed in Nazi prison camps has come to light, and has been performed and recorded. Understandably, most of these works have come from the hands of Jewish composers, who had been rounded up along with their co-religionists throughout Europe. One such composer was the Czech Hans Krása (1899-1944). Although Krása formally studied only piano, he gained some reputation as a composer during the 1920s, being performed by Zemlinsky in Prague and Koussevitzky in Boston and New York. During the 1930s, Krása developed his style through his operas, about which he wrote an explanation of his style:
If I state that I was influenced by Schoenberg, by that I wish to emphasize the fact that I am trying all the more to avoid the emptiness which is so favored. I try to write in such a way that every bar, every recitative and every note is necessarily a solid part of the whole. This logic, without which every composition has no spirit, can, however, degenerate into mathematic-scientific music if the iron law of opera is not heeded, namely that the sense and aim of opera is the singing. I am sufficiently daring, as a modern composer, to write melodic music.
Krása’s public career was cut short when he was interned at Terezin in 1941. That camp was set up to look like a “self-governing” place of detention, where the arts were nurtured. This was for the benefit of the Red Cross and other agencies that inspected the facility from time to time. Krása’s 1938 children’s opera Brundibár (Bumble-Bee) was performed there in 1943, and he was permitted to compose more, producing works for small orchestra, string quartet, and the Tanec and Passacaglia and Fugue for string trio. In reality, Terezin was merely a way-station for prisoners on their way to Auschwitz, where Krása was transferred late in 1944 for immediate extermination.
As an introduction to Tanec and the Passacaglia-Fugue, the thoughts and words of cellist-conductor Kenneth Woods cannot be topped:
Krása’s called his first string trio, completed in 1944, Tanec, or “Dance,” but the title seems intentionally misleading. The churning ostinato with which the cello begins the piece is just the first of several bits of music tone-painting that evoke the sound-world of trains, in an atmosphere that ranges from eerie nostalgia, to barely contained menace, to explicit violence. The main dance theme, heard first in the violin, is frequently poised on the edge of mania, finally tipping over the edge on the work’s final page.
The Passacaglia and Fugue from later that same year was Krása’s final completed work. Krása takes these two ancient forms, in which the rules of rhetoric are traditionally engaged to give structure and lucidity to the exchange and development of ideas among independent voices, and profoundly deconstructs them. Rather than contrapuntal engagement leading towards reason and clarity, both the Fugue, and the Passacaglia that precedes it, essentially ‘fail’, as discussion degenerates into argument and argument descends into violence.
The primary theme of the work, the repeated figure that forms the structure of the Passacaglia, is first heard in the cello, but also often present is the “dance” theme of the earlier Tanec. The Passacaglia opens in gravely austere beauty, but in the course of the variations that follow, the emotional temperature gradually rises until all hell breaks loose. After a desolate codetta, the viola begins the Fugue, on a speeded up version of the cello’s Passacaglia theme. The contrapuntal exchanges gradually become more rapid and intense, until, in the coda, the developmental process breaks down. Rather than engaging in reasoned dialogue and perpetual development, the music becomes violent and primitive. The cello repeats the passacaglia/fugue theme obsessively, fortissimo, all pretense of development abandoned, while the violin and viola scream out the “Tanec” theme and the work drives headlong to a terrifying conclusion.
Prokofiev: Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 119
Both Shostakovich and his elder colleague, Sergei Prokofiev (1881-1953), had a tenuous relationship with the Soviet Union’s leader, Joseph Stalin. Every few years the politically cultural Stalin would hear some work by one of these composers, and he would explode with anger, often writing a scathing review in the newspaper. This had a devastating effect on the careers of any composers whom Stalin (or his “committees”) cast in a bad or questionable light. Who would then touch any of their music or write about any of them in a positive way? In 1948, one of Stalin’s Central Committees came out with a condemnation of “formalism” in Soviet music. Both composers were named (among others), and both were shattered. Some of their music was actually banned.
The aging Prokofiev issued a formal written admission of guilt and an apology. He continued to compose, and his music regained favor with the public. In 1949, he completed his Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 119. Ironically, in March 1953, both Prokofiev and Stalin died on the same day.
In Prokofiev’s sonata, the movement tempos progress from andante, through moderato, to allegro. The first movement presents the composer’s notable lyrical gift, with soaring melodies for both instruments in the first third. Suddenly, a faster tempo and more agitated mood takes over, eventually melting into the opening tempo and development of themes. Now, however, the music is more fantastic/mystical for a time. Toward the movement’s end, the mood becomes temporarily heroic and virtuosic, only to end in a threefold “amen.”
Despite its moderate overall tempo, the central movement is the sonata’s scherzo. Playful at times, a comical mock march at others, the varying humorous modes are foils for the central romantic-style lyrical theme. It sprawls and seems to take over, only to be punctuated by a telescoped reprise of the movement opening antics.
The spirited finale summarizes, in some ways, the preceding two movements. There is even a quotation from the first movement. Some listeners also perceive Armenian elements here and there — possibly a reference to the sonata’s dedicatee, Levon Atovmyan, who was Prokofiev’s Armenian patron. The piano plays a significant role in winding up the sonata, seeming at times to dominate the cello. However, in the final moments, the cello is again ascendant, leading to a triumphant ending for both cello and piano.
Dvořák: Piano Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 87
Few works in the chamber music field have been attended with such contradictory criticism as has Dvořák’s second piano quartet. Commentary on the work has ranged from the destructive (“Dvořák seems temporarily to have lost his grip of the chamber-music medium.”) to the most laudatory (“. . . a masterly and striking composition . . . It is both grateful to play and stirring to hear.”) The quartet, written a mere two years after the composer’s triumphant Piano Quintet, perhaps suffers by comparison to the former chamber work. Dvořák composed the Piano Quartet quickly (July 10 – August 19, 1889), immediately following the completion of the opera, The Jacobin. Then, less than a week after finishing the quartet he set to work on his Eighth Symphony.
There are some unusual features in the Piano Quartet that could conceivably stir a controversy. One of these is the composer’s emphasis on the piano, brought forth at odd moments. The work shows an obvious mastery of the pianistic idiom, but this is sometimes displayed in a crude manner. Then, there is the matter of diversity of flavor and musical style. In the first movement, the dramatic moodiness of the first theme is anything but typical of chamber music. This leads to a melodramatic-sounding development section, which focuses rather heavily on the piano.
The remainder of the work is somewhat more conventional. The tripartite second movement features a lyrical cello melody that is surely among Dvořák’s loveliest. This contrasts with a dramatic middle section. The quartet’s third movement is a gracious waltz rather than the traditional scherzo. With its splashes of oriental scale work and reflection of the cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer), it contains more true Czech spirit than any other movement. The finale is a vigorous country dance in the good-humored tradition of Haydn. Also Haydnesque is its commencement in E-flat minor, arriving at the major home key only toward the midpoint. Thus, we have the spirited conclusion to one of the most unusual and original-sounding chamber works of the late 19th century.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2018
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