Schnittke, Third String Quartet (1983)
Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent contemporary composers. Born in Engels on the Volga, Schnittke studied at the Moscow Conservatory during the 1950s under Golubev and Rakov. From 1962 until 1972 he taught at the Moscow Conservatory. Since that time, Schnittke composed free-lance, occasionally teaching abroad. Schnittke’s style has been influenced by composers as diverse as Carl Orff and Luigi Nono. He has produced a sizeable oeuvre including symphonies, chamber works, choral music, and four violin concertos which have been championed by Gidon Kremer.
The Third String Quartet was commissioned by the Mannheim Gesellschaft für Musik and composed during the summer of 1983. The Eder Quartet premiered it in Mannheim in May 1984. The work exemplifies Schnittke’s current concern to reconcile tradition and historical awareness with modern musical language and procedures. To this end, the quartet begins as three quotations from historical contexts: (1) a cadence from a Stabat Mater by Orlandus Lassus, (2) the principal theme from Beethoven’s Grosse fuge, Op. 133, and (3) the note sequence D, E-flat, C, B-natural, which Shostakovich used in a few works as a motto of his own name (in German spelling: D, Es, C, H, suggesting the abbreviation, D. Sch).
In the first movement, Schnittke keeps these fragments quite distinct, commenting on each and exploring their implications. The balance between consonance and dissonance and between tonality and non-tonality is a delicate one maintained masterfully throughout these explorations.
The second movement (Agitato) proceeds without a pause. In it, Schnittke begins to transform the thematic material, injecting more of himself into the music and with more immediacy than before. The contrast between emotionally charged rhythmic passages with those that seem to suspend the music in time is particularly striking.
Again without pause, the last movement (Pesante) pounds forth with its opening stamping chords. Fragmentary, cryptic references to the historical themes are sometimes perceptible, but the emphasis falls on Schnittke’s style and what it has learned from the precedent masters that the composer has chosen to inform his work.
Shaw, Blueprint (2016)
The youngest composer ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music is Caroline Shaw (1982- ). At age 30, she received this honor for her a cappella vocal work Partita for 8 Voices. In addition to composing, Shaw is active as a violin soloist, chamber musician, and ensemble singer, chiefly with the group Roomful of Teeth, for whom she composed Partita. Her recent commissions include works for Carnegie Hall, the Guggenheim Museum, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. She has also collaborated frequently with Kanye West. Shaw has studied at Princeton, Rice, and Yale Universities.
Shaw most often composes for a particular artist or ensemble, crafting her music to a degree on aspects of the artist/ensemble revealed through personal encounters. Blueprint was composed for the Aizuri Quartet, which played its world premiere in April 2016 at Wolf Trap Vienna, VA). The title of this seven-minute work uses that quartet’s name as a springboard for Blueprint. However, the work also relates closely to an early string quartet by Beethoven. As Shaw explains:
The Aizuri Quartet’s name comes from “aizuri-e,” a style of Japanese woodblock printing that primarily uses a blue ink. In the 1820s, artists in Japan began to import a particular blue pigment known as “Prussian blue.” . . . The story of aizuri-e is one of innovation, migration, transformation, craft, and beauty. Blueprint, composed for the incredible Aizuri Quartet, takes its title from this beautiful blue woodblock printing tradition as well as from that familiar standard architectural representation of a proposed structure: the blueprint. This piece began its life as a harmonic reduction — a kind of floor plan — of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 6 [“La Malinconia”]. As a violinist and violist, I have played this piece many times, in performance and in joyous late-night reading sessions with musician friends. . . . Chamber music is ultimately about conversation without words. We talk to each other with our dynamics and articulations, and we try to give voice to the composers whose music has inspired us to gather in the same room and play music. Blueprint is also a conversation — with Beethoven, with Haydn (his teacher and the “father” of the string quartet), and with the joys and malinconia of his Op. 18, No. 6.
Beethoven, Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, no. 1
The six works of Op. 18 represent Beethoven’s first burst of energy in the direction of the string quartet. At the time of writing (1798-1800), Beethoven had many occasions 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. There, a group of musicians was placed at Beethoven’s disposal, giving him opportunities rarely afforded a composer.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed the F Major Quartet second in the series, but he placed it at the head of the set because of its size and impressiveness. This work stems from 1799, and Beethoven dedicated its initial version to his friend, Karl Amenda. Two years later, the composer revised it with the statement, “I have just learned how to write quartets properly.”
The most impressive feature of the first movement is its initial “turn” motive. Beethoven intensively experimented with different versions of this idea, covering no fewer than 16 pages in his sketch books. At last, he devised a motive that music scholar Joseph Kerman says “behaves like a coiled spring, ready to shoot off in all directions. . . .” Although this motive dominates the movement with its 104 occurrences, there is a rich abundance of other thematic ideas. Kerman states that the movement’s mood “owes much to the perilous effort of holding all this material together.”
Beethoven did not give “names” to much of his music, but he occasionally had some extra-musical idea in mind. At the end of one sketch of this quartet’s Adagio, Beethoven wrote, “les deriers soupirs,” “the last breaths.” Reportedly, he interpreted this to his friend, Amenda, with the words, “I thought of the scene in the burial vault in Romeo and Juliet.” Broad theatrical emotion is rampant throughout the movement, but especially in the development, which romanticizes its themes as no quartet ever had before.
The size and emotional range of the Scherzo are slight in comparison with the preceding movements. However, as a witty respite, it works well. In the Trio section, a “limping” motive, adds a humorous touch.
Beethoven inherited from Haydn two responsibilities for the finales to early works such as this: They must be effervescent, and they must be sharply rhythmic or dance-like. The finale to the F Major Quartet fills both requirements — and then some. To balance the magnitude of the first movement, Beethoven here provides a lengthy sonata-rondo form with well-contrasted themes. The verve and directed energy of this finale provide an appropriate finish to a monumental accomplishment in chamber music.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2019
Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 12, No. 2
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 other 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.
“Effervescence” is the word for the A Major Sonata’s first movement. Only momentarily does Beethoven depart from the tripping-skipping of the first and second themes. In the exposition, the only “serious” departure comes after those themes — a momentary catching of the breath before the composer whirls off in a new direction. In the brief development, Beethoven maximizes his small collection of ideas, and in the recapitulation, he extends them in a post-development that flies into a new key before a final landing in A major and a delightful coda.
“Dialogue” would be a good descriptor for the Andante. Interchanges of similar phrases between piano and violin characterize the lyrical outer sections. In the center, however, the two instruments become more closely entwined. Nineteenth-century writer Friederich Niecks commented that “the charm of the movement lies in its simplicity and naiveté and in the truth of its tender, plaintive accents.”
“Scherzo” might have been Beethoven’s appellation for the final movement, had he chosen that form. It has all the good-humored flavor of the best of Beethoven’s scherzos, and the composer himself used the word piacevole (pleasing) in the tempo marking. Following tradition, the movement is a rondo that presents the sunniest of themes, appropriately completing this “feel-good” sonata.
Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 (“Spring”)
It may be altogether too glib to say that Beethoven anticipated or pioneered every major musical development of the Romantic age that followed him. Yet, when listening to his aptly nicknamed “Spring” Sonata, the notion is tempting. Here, in a nutshell, Beethoven presents a pre-echo of the heartfelt spirit, naivety, and boldness of Mendelssohn and Schumann — as well as elements of their melodic and harmonic vocabulary.
The first movement is particularly illustrative. In its opening, we have the innocent freshness of a Mendelssohn, heard in melodious themes given first to the violin and then answered by the piano. A short development leads to the unprepared and surprising recapitulation. Now, the harmonic color of the principal themes is tinged with the pathos of experience, but the spirit of pure joy returns in the sumptuous coda.
The Adagio is more comparable to Schumann in its harmonic richness and full, pianistic textures. However, chamber music authority W.W. Cobbett maintains that the opening theme of this five-part form “seems to have escaped from some opera by Mozart.”
The very brief Scherzo movement turns again to a Mendelssohn-like spirit. Its elfin violin elody. However, it is accompanied by offset piano rhythms that could have come only from Beethoven’s pen.
Over the rondo finale, the big-hearted Schumannesque spirit hovers again, although there are occasional winks in the direction of Mozart. In contrast with the opening movement, the piano is usually the leader and the violin the follower in presenting new themes. One Beethovenian feature in the harmonic plan is a false recapitulation in the key of D major, which then slips deftly back into F major for the concluding sections.
Beethoven composed the “Spring” Sonata in 1800 or 1801 and published it in the latter year alongside the Op. 23 Violin Sonata (no. 4). Much of the youth, vigor, and studied innocence of the “Spring” Sonata may be attributed to the early period in which the work was written. This was the time of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata for piano and the First Symphony, but a time before he fully realized (or admitted) his loss of hearing. Thus, with this sonata we might imagine Beethoven standing at the brink of the future. It is also easy to imagine this happening on a bright, sunlit day with a spring breeze wafting through the young master’s hair.
Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47 (“Kreutzer”)
It seemed that entirely new impulses, new possibilities, were revealed to me in myself, such as I had not dreamed of before. Such works should be played only in grave, significant conditions, and only then when certain deeds corresponding to such music are to be accomplished.
These are not the words of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) nor of Kreutzer, but rather of Tolstoy’s tragic hero in the novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, where a performance of this sonata drives him over the edge of insanity, and he kills his wife. Fantastic as that notion seems, it is imaginable through the unrestraint of the first movement and the excitement of the last. However, none of that was Beethoven’s intention. He composed the “Kreutzer” Sonata in 1802-1803 just ahead of the “Eroica” Symphony. This was a turning point in Beethoven’s style, the entry into his “Heroic Decade,” to use Maynard Solomon’s expression.
This violin sonata was the longest written to date, just as the Third Symphony would be the longest of its genre yet heard. And, just as Beethoven changed the dedication of his symphony, he re-directed the dedication of the sonata. Originally, Beethoven wrote the work for George Bridgetower, with whom he premiered the music in 1803. However, the two subsequently fought over the attentions of a woman. Beethoven then used the sonata as a political tool for his proposed (but never accomplished) move to Paris by dedicating it to the French virtuoso, Rodolphe Kreutzer. Ironically, Kreutzer never performed the sonata, finding it, in the words of Berlioz, “outrageously unintelligible.”
Although that was an exaggeration, many violinists have found the first movement to be awkward. Another feature that may have put off Kreutzer is the equal prominence of the piano. In the sketches, Beethoven made the notation, “in a very concertante style, somewhat like a concerto.” But it is a concertante for both violin and piano: a concerto without orchestra.
Beethoven begins with the only slow introduction among the ten violin sonatas, and he periodically returns to Adagio in the course of the first movement. “Feverish,” “fiery,” and “passionate” are terms often applied to the Presto that follows. Beethoven seems to have created a contest for superiority between the two instruments, and only in the heat of the development section do they achieve true parity.
The theme and variations in the second movement are a complete contrast. Here, Beethoven reminds us that violin sonatas were originally salon or drawing-room music. The theme and first two variations follow that idea; however, the fourth (in the minor mode) is music of somber introspection. A final decorative variation and quiet coda round out the movement.
In his haste to complete this sonata for its premiere, Beethoven used for his last movement the discarded finale from the Violin Sonata, Op. 30, no. 1 (which it would have overbalanced). This galloping tarantella puts the sonata into a whirl that balances the first movement in length and emotional values. Slowing only occasionally, the motion of this music is relentless, driving breathlessly to a tempestuous finish
Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2019
Schumann, String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, no. 3
During his most productive periods, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) would concentrate on a single musical medium over an extended time. For example, we are acquainted with his “song year” (1840) and his “symphony year” (1841). During his “chamber music years” (184243), Schumann composed the three string quartets of Op. 41 plus several other works. He wrote the quartets in less than two weeks.
As was his habit before embarking on a new medium, Schumann immersed himself in the music of that medium by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Possibly, one of the Haydn quartets he studied was the D minor “Quinten” (Op. 76, no. 2), since the interval of a falling fifth is important in Schumann’s first movement, as in Haydn’s. This “sighing” or so-called “Cla-ra” motive is prominent in the introduction and in both of the principal themes and becomes a motto permeating the entire movement.
The second movement is a set of variations on a theme not explicitly stated until after the first three variations: a restless agitato, a Schumannesque galloping variation, and a fugato. After stating the theme, the composer presents a final broad-rhythm waltz variation.
In the third movement, Schumann’s harmonic genius is prominent as he fleshes out an otherwise undistinguished first theme. Here (as in most of the quartet) all instruments play most of the time. Wisely, Schumann thins the texture in much of the dotted-rhythm middle section, allowing the first violin and viola to hold a close dialogue.
Critic A.E.F. Dickinson has called the fourth movement of this quartet “a well-organized ballet-movement rather than a finale.” Whether one agrees or not, the dance impulse of the movement is indisputable. This movement in rondo form is highly sectionalized and repetitive, often giving full voice to the stamping main theme. In contrast, digressions appear: delicate, balletic rhythms; minor-key gypsy-like strains; and a “Quasi Trio” (Schumann’s marking), which undeniably is a Gavotte. The main theme is at last developed during a long coda that caps this ingratiating quartet.
Klughardt, Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 43
The composer-conductor August Klughardt (1847-1902) studied music at his birthplace, Cöthen, Desau, and Dresden. His career consisted mainly on a series of appointments as a conductor, usually in theaters and opera houses. Probably the most significant of these was his 1869 appointment at Weimar, where he formed a close friendship with Franz Liszt. Under the influence of Liszt, Klughardt developed an appreciation of Wagner and actually met him in 1873. Klughardt attended the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 and heard The Ring. It made an indelible impression on him, and the new Wagnerian style became an ingredient in his own music, including chamber works. He became a “progressive traditionalist,” perhaps the sort of composer that many critics wished Brahms had become.
The Piano Quintet in G Minor was premiered in Cöthen in 1884. Its success snowballed with performances in Leipzig and Dresden leading the way to international performances and celebrity. As one critic wrote, “Having heard it, we understand the immense success this masterful work has had in the concert hall and in the salon.”
Following an introduction exploring various shady moods, the opening Allegro bursts forth with a series of heroic themes and transition. By contrast, the cello leads in presenting the sweet second theme, which soon breaks into a heroic concluding thematic group. This also introduces a development section that glorifies several of the themes and fragments of them. Almost imperceptibly, the recapitulation occurs – more seasoned by the recent development. We hear themes presented more excitedly than earlier as the movement drives to a climactic finish.
The Adagio starts with an ultra-lyrical “song without words” that spotlights the instruments singly and together. A heroic-style transition brings another songlike section, which soon changes to a piano-led lyrical recap of the first theme in brief, as the movement’s coda.
The spirit of Schumann hangs attractively over the first section of the mode3rato third movement. A hymn-like central section focuses on strings alone at first, the answered by the piano and full ensemble in dialogue. A reprise of the first section shows dramatic contrasts between a big, spikey statement and a song-like coda.
Allegro non troppo, the final movement opens march-like with melody and counter-melody. A brief second section is more lyrical, returning before long to the heroic march, enhanced by counterpoint. A sudden change to triple meter sets off the central section a short lyrical break. Heroics return briefly, only to dissolve into a fugue on ideas from the opening melodies. A developmental reprise of the second section leads back to heroics, now enhanced by counterpoint, but dissolves into memories of other ideas in the movement. These become faster and excited, finishing finally in the quintet’s grand ending.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2020
Clara Schumann, Three Romances, Op. 22
One of the most celebrated pianists of the 1800s was Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896). Women concert soloists were somewhat rare during her early lifetime, but she won her fame by her dazzling yet heartfelt performances. Her father Friedrich was her teacher not only for the piano but also in the rudiments of composition, which she worked at joyfully from an early age.
A lodger at the Wieck household (and also a student of Friedrich) during the 1830s was Robert Schumann. Clara and Robert fell in love and wished to marry. However, Clara’s father exercised his right (under German law at that time) as Clara’s “owner,” and refused to give his consent. Clara and Robert took him to court over the matter in 1840 and won. They were married that year. The Schumanns had eight children, but Clara continued to perform, teach, and compose as much as her time allowed. Robert found employment at first in Leipzig, then in Dresden, and finally in Dusseldorf
Robert suffered from what is now believed to have been Manic-Depressive Disorder. It worsened in the early 1850s. In 1854, he attempted suicide and was placed in a sanatorium until his death in 1856. From that period until near the end of her life, Clara Schumann worked unceasingly to support her children. Performances and tours took first consideration, including concertos (notably her own piano concerto) and recitals ̶ both solo and duo. One of her closest collaborators was Josef Joachim, perhaps the most celebrated violinists of his day.
Clara composed very little after her husband’s death, and the Three Romances, Op. 22, written between 1853 and 1855, was one of her last works. She dedicated the set to Joachim, who wrote to her, calling them “a sheer delight to play, marvelous and heavenly.”
In Clara’s century, the “romance” was a genre of “character piece,” a short instrumental piece conveying one or more moods or emotions. In the Op. 22 romances, Clara does not identify such specifics in the first two, but merely gives us generic tempo markings (Andante molto and Allegretto). For the final Romance, however, the tempo marking is Leidenschaftlich Schnell: “Passionately fast.”
- Andante Molto. A wistful beginning and ending frames a more fervent center, painted with broad strokes. The piano part is amazing for its dual role of accompaniment to the violin and soloist with engaging melodic ideas.
- Allegretto. There is a certain coyness to the opening theme. It becomes playful like a game between the violin and the piano. When the “coy” theme returns it brings more earnestness with it.
- Leidenschaftlich Schnell. Long intense lines in the violin are accompanied by a virtuosic piano part. The central section has something of a drawing room quality in its “proper” demeanor. A return to the passion of the opening becomes tame and sweet for a sketch of the violin and piano interlocked in a sweet, intimate adieu.
Dohnányi, Serenade in C Major, Op. 10
Ernst von Dohnányi (18771960) is considered to be among the finest Hungarian composers between Liszt and Bartók. He conducted a brilliant career in Europe and the U.S., first as a pianist and later as a composer and conductor. At times, he was also a musical administrator (Director, Budapest Academy) and a rugged individualist whose popularity was sometimes only temporary. Dohnányi was not a prolific composer, and he produced only nine published chamber works. The earliest of these owe a great deal to the influence of Brahms, whom he knew, and who arranged the Vienna premiere of Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet No. 1.
The Serenade is Dohnányi’s only work for string trio, but it is a masterful one. In it we can hear the beginning of the composer’s most mature handling of harmony, exotic scales, and unusual key combinations. There are also some humorous surprises in this work. Sir Donald Tovey (1875-1940) pointed out that the first movement march ends “by three meditative murmurs of its first bar followed by a figure like a sneeze.” The Romanza incorporates effects that evoke the feeling of Spanish or Hungarian scale modes. The third movement is a scherzo but is worked out in fugal style, with the theme of the trio eventually combining with the main theme in a double fugue. The work is rounded out by a witty rondo finale with “its mocking vein and its indignant end with the trio of the opening march.” (Tovey)
Dohnányi’s Serenade is a serenade in the classical tradition of Mozart, as seen outwardly in its beginning and ending march rhythms. However, there is an inward connection with Mozart as well: a sensitive balance between formal purity and dramatic purpose. As Tovey puts it, “There is no stroke of form without its dramatic value, and no stroke of drama that does not serve to complete the form.”
Brahms, Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 26
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) often explored new compositional territory with a pair of works rather than singly. The first two symphonies, string quartets, and string sextets came into existence in this way. Although Brahms had worked on movements for one piano quartet as early as the 1850s (eventually becoming Op. 60), his first completed essays in this medium stemmed from 1861-62 in the form of the G Minor and A Major Piano Quartets. These run somewhat parallel to the first two symphonies by Brahms: the stormy minor-key antecedent work giving way to a sunny optimism in a major-key consequent work. Brahms sent both finished quartets to Josef Joachim for criticism (and help with the string parts), and the violinist was quite enthusiastic about them: “I have gotten to like the A major quartet more and more. The tone of tenderness is well contrasted with sparkling life.” A few of Joachim’s further remarks about the quartet are illuminating:
Your second sections flow splendidly and show a wealth of contrapuntal device. The first A major movement is an especially good example. This movement, so full of lyricism as to suggest the influence of Schubert, also contains its share of fairly strict, imitative counterpoint. The development section also contains an experimental group of three variations on the main theme, which moves into the remote key of C minor.
The wonderful Poco Adagio with its ambiguous passion is a nocturnal movement beginning and ending with muted strings. The “shadowing” of the piano’s melody at the beginning is reminiscent of Schumann, while the key pattern appears to be influenced deeply by Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major. The ending of the movement is an elaborate variation on its opening.
The Scherzo is a well-rounded whole. It reminds one a good deal of the later Beethoven; the structure is so compact as well as the turn of the melody. Amiable as its overall mood is, this movement does come remarkably close to the spirit of Beethoven. The main section attempts to accomplish a small sonata form, and the minor-key trio strives to be unified with the main section by borrowing the rhythm of the main theme for its own secondary thematic idea.
The finale is a refreshing complement to the preceding movements. With its plethora of themes it seems to sprawl at times into what Beethoven might have called an “unbuttoned” state. However, frequently enough, Brahms buttons up the movement with tight, asymmetrical rhythms and periodic returns to the main rondo theme. The movement is capped by a final animato coda, the sound of which verges on the symphonic.
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