program notes: las musas

wallen: are you worried about the rising costs of funerals? 

Born in Belize, Errollyn Wallen (1958- ) moved to London, England, with her parents and siblings at the age of two. When her parents moved to New York, the children were raised by an aunt and uncle living in England. Growing up, she took lessons in dance, and her uncle sparked her interest in music through piano lessons.

Following graduation from boarding school, Wallen spent about two years (1976-78) training at the Dance Theater of Harlem (New York), but then returned to England, now thoroughly dedicated to music composition and performance. Studying in London at Goldsmiths and then at King’s College London, she earned a Master’s Degree from Kings College, Cambridge in 1983. Wallen now lives and composes in a lighthouse on the coast of Scotland.

In her career as a composer, Wallen has received numerous commissions and honors. A few top honors were Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2007 and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2020. She is one of the top 20 most performed living composers of classical music in the world. A very versatile and productive composer, Wallen has written nine chamber operas and a variety of other vocal music, a large and varied repertoire of chamber music, and numerous orchestral works, notably her most recent: Concerto Grosso, premiered in 2022 by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, John Butt, conducting.

Philip Headlam conducted the premiere recording of Are You Worried . . . on Avie Records. For that CD he also wrote the following insightful description of this song cycle:

turína: las musas de andalucia, op. 93

Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) was born in Seville. His early studies were there and in Madrid. Following his predecessors, Isaac Albèniz and Manuel de Falla, Turína moved to Paris in 1905, where he studied with d’Indy. He became a friend of Debussy and Ravel. While in France, Turina, Albéniz, and Falla resolved to become nationalist composers writing in a Spanish style. After the outbreak of WW I in 1914, Turina returned to Madrid. His early career there included conducting for the Ballets Russes and at the Teatro Real.

In the early months of 1929, Turina visited Havana, Cuba, where he gave a series of lectures at the Hispanic Institute of Culture. Two years later he was made Professor of Composition at the Madrid Conservatory. During the 1920s and ’30s, Turina frequently spent time in Catalonia and Barcelona, where he absorbed the Catalán culture and composed music that paid tribute to it.

Turina was most prolific in the field of chamber music, which led to performances at the piano with the likes of Pablo Casals. Several of his chamber works are based on some model or idea. Las Muses de Andalucia is an example. Combining the idea of the nine Ancient Greek Muses with musical idioms from his native Andalucia, Turina was able to create a work containing a panoply of musical colors, musical effects, and unique forms.

Las Muses de Andalucia was composed for one soprano voice, piano, and string quartet. Each movement was composed for a different instrumental combination or solo. This variety of musical colors and textures produces varied effects. The nine movements are:

  1. Clío 
  2. Euterpe 
  3. Talía 
  4. Polimnia 
  5. Melpómene
  6. Erato 
  7. Urania 
  8. Terpsícore 
  9. Calíope 

faure: la bonne chanson

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) came from a family of minor aristocrats and educators in the South of France.  As a child, he showed musical talent early, and his parents sent him to study in Paris. Initially, he studied church music. However, in 1861, he began to study the piano with Camille Saint-Saëns. This very popular composer introduced young Gabriel to the music of contemporary composers, which made a deep impression on him and his compositional style. 

Throughout his early professional life, Fauré’s main source of income was as a church organist. At the same time, his recognition as a composer grew steadily, and in 1896 he was appointed professor at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1905 he became its Director. However, his fame arrived late, and in concert life, he is still underrated. Historians consider him the greatest French composer between Berlioz and Debussy and one of the greatest song composers in history.

Proof of that claim can be found in his famous song cycle, La Bonne Chanson, (“The Good Song”). For this work, Fauré chose poems by Paul Verlaine, who had in mind his wife, to whom he was deeply devoted. Fauré composed most of La Bonne Chanson during the summers of 1892 and 1893, times when he was having a serious romantic affair with his vacation neighbor, singer Emma Bardac (later, Claude Debussy’s second wife). She would sing songs for the composer as he finished them. The song cycle was finally completed in February 1894. When published, La Bonne Chanson’s dedication was (naturally) to Emma Bardac.

Biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux has commented: 

“Fauré’s passion for Emma Bardac not only disrupted the even, bourgeois tenor of his life but, unusually for him, had the effect of completely reorienting his compositional activity. . . . He cast off from the moorings of what was reasonable, what “sounded well,” and at a stroke achieved the sovereign liberty that marks the great creative artist.”

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2023. All rights reserved. 

program notes: Star-crossed

 

c.debussy: pelléas et mélisande (arr. for piano trio by mouton)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) composed only one full-length opera: Pelléas et Mélisande (in 5 acts, adapted from a play by Maurice Maeterlinck). He had begun working on it in 1893, and it premiered in 1902. Some aspects of it were traditional, but some were new or adapted from recent operatic developments, notably Richard Wagner’s “music dramas,” Tristan und Isolde (1865) and Parsifal (1882). Wagner had assigned new responsibilities to the orchestra, particularly a web of short passages he called “leading motives.” In essence, the orchestra, in parallel with the singers, revealed the emotional (or psychological) aspects of the drama.

Debussy made his own personal adaptation of Wagner’s approach to the orchestra. In Pelléas, as in Tristan, the characters sing the words, but the emotional content comes from the orchestra. That is the key to Mouton’s “arrangement” of orchestral excerpts drawn from Debussy’s opera. He splices together a panoply of orchestral excerpts, arranged for violin, cello, and piano, which encapsulates much of the opera’s (subliminal) emotional content. In addition, Mouton’s Pelléas gives the concert venue a beautiful selection of infrequently heard music by Debussy.

Rather than telling the story outright, Mouton’s arrangement makes allusions to the opera by quoting orchestral passages. He links together several different (and often contrasting) segments from the opera’s orchestral flow. In essence, we are hearing something like a synopsis of the opera’s emotional content. We should enjoy Mouton’s arrangement as a “tone poem,” loosely modeled on the Pelléas story. 

C. schumann: piano trio in G minor, Op. 17

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 Wieck had been her teacher, not only for the piano but also in the rudiments of composition, which she worked at joyfully from an early age.

During the 1830s, a lodger at the Wieck household (and also a piano student of Friedrich) was Robert Schumann. Clara and Robert fell in love and wished to marry. Despite Friedrich’s opposition, they were married in 1840. 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. 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. Orchestral performances took first consideration, including concertos (notably her own piano concerto) and recitals     both solo and ensemble. 

Clara composed regularly until her husband’s death and sporadically thereafter. The G-minor Piano Trio was composed over the summer of 1846, and premiered the following January in Vienna.

The opening Allegro moderato shows us how clearly Clara’s sense of balance between instruments is never upset, although in many passages the piano dominates. The character of themes is likewise in balance, where the dramatic first theme group gives way to more lyrical themes without losing forward momentum. The central development section raises the emotional stakes, yet transformations of the themes remain, keeping them clearly in focus. Balance also comes into play when themes are brought back in their original form toward the end.

Giving the second movement the title Scherzo may be a mere formality, since the marking Tempo di Menuetto more clearly defines the movement’s contents. Here we have music in the style of “parlor” pieces (with Clara as the gracious hostess). The central “Trio” section becomes more adventurous, with several accent shifts and varied phrase lengths. The movement’s first section then reprises.

The Andante movement that follows reminds us of the friendship between the Schumanns and Felix Mendelson. For it begins truly like a “Song Without Words.” Its main theme is “sung” first by the piano, then by the violin joined in the theme’s center by the cello. Without warning, the strings come to the fore, pitted against the piano in a dramatic encounter. Finally subsiding, the music returns to the main theme, now clothed in drama. This is resolved by alternations between strings and piano, all playing phrases from the original “song” theme. Earlier dramatic moments are now revived as the music drives toward a recap of the “song,” now reprised by the cello with elaborated accompaniment by violin and piano. The full trio brings the movement to a close in clear, resonating harmonies.

The work’s Allegretto finale begins with a theme containing subtle folksong elements. Playful musical ideas are now shared among the ensemble. Then, a big surprise: a FUGATO (quasi-fugue) unfolds among the trio, but only temporarily. A rugged turn to fragmentary folksong ideas prefaces a final return of the fugato theme. After a rapid transition, the movement’s opening theme returns, punctuated here and there by fragments of the fugato. A faster tempo finally signals that the end is in sight. Then a momentary slowing gives the music added strength to drive to its triumphal ending.

j.brahms: PIano trio in B major, Op. 8

The Piano Trio in B Major was the first published chamber work by Johannes Brahms (1833- 1897), but it was doubtless not his first trio, and certainly not the first chamber work he composed. There is evidence that Brahms destroyed some 20 string quartets before allowing one (Op. 51) to be published in 1873. Two or more piano trios may have preceded Opus 8, and it is possible that a Trio in A Major, which came to light in 1938, was an early work that Brahms meant to destroy.

Brahms completed the B Major Piano Trio early in 1854, and its first version was published the same year. Clara Schumann found the work beautiful but did not especially care for the first movement. She felt the entire work was repetitious, and the first movement was particularly long. This movement contained no fewer than five themes, which did not contrast well with one another. After a normal development section there was a second development — a fugato — imbedded in the recapitulation.

 In 1888, Brahms’s publisher Simrock wrote to the composer asking if he would care to make some revisions in his early works for the purpose of publishing second editions. Brahms replied enthusiastically, “I shall certainly revise, and in such a manner that you will be justified in announcing it on the title page.” Thus in 1890, Simrock published a new version of the Opus 8 Piano Trio. Brahms had completely overhauled the first movement, making it more concise by deleting the fugato and replacing several subordinate themes with one incisive one. The Adagio and Finale were treated similarly. A superfluous Allegro section in the slow movement was removed, and the overabundance of material in the final Allegro was trimmed to improve its formal integrity. Only the Scherzo escaped major surgery, for Brahms revised only its coda. In this version, we hear the Piano Trio in B Major today, revised by a mature hand but missing none of the youthful exuberance of its original creation.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2023. All rights reserved. 

program notes: 1918-1939: Breaking away

Janáček: Podhádka (“Fairy Tale”)

In 1910, both Igor Stravinsky and Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) made musical settings of Russian folk tales. Stravinsky’s famous Firebird ballet for full orchestra was quite literal and became world famous. Janáček’s Fairy Tale, a more general setting for cello and piano, went relatively unnoticed. This statement is not to take away from the mastery and charm of Janáček’s music, but rather to contrast two opposing approaches to similar material. The full title of Janáček’s work was originally “The Tale of Czar Berendey.” When the composer revised the work in 1923, he shortened the title simply to Fairy Tale.

Briefly, the story goes that Czar Berendey is duped into ransoming the soul of his son, Ivan, to Kashchey, Ruler of the Underworld. When Ivan is old enough, his father tells him of his terrible fate, whereupon Ivan sets out, determined to free himself of the curse. Early in his odyssey, he sees a duckling turned into a beautiful maiden, and they instantly fall in love. She turns out to be Marya, the good daughter of Kashchey. In later episodes, Ivan (with Marya’s help) successfully accomplishes two tasks set for him by Kashchey, but Marya is changed into a flower. Ultimately, the couple are rejoined in a happy ending.

In the Fairy Tale, the cello part represents Ivan while the piano speaks for Marya. These symbols are immediately apparent in the first movement, as a fanfare-like cello pizzicato punctuates the gently curving main theme. A canon (imitation) between the instruments perhaps symbolizes the betrothal of the couple. Soon, however, this tender stroking turns into a gallop, possibly signifying Kashchey’s pursuit of the lovers.

Another piano-cello canonic dialogue opens the second movement, but this spiky theme is answered by a more lyrical variant. The fanfare motive from the first movement returns along with other music heard previously.

The most “Russian” sounding part of the Fairy Tale is the main theme of the final movement. One striking feature that occurs in every movement is a sort of “dissolution” at the end, rather than a solid recapitulation and conclusion. As biographer Jaroslav Vogel points out, this “. . . heightens the fairy-tale atmosphere, and the charm is enhanced by Janacek’s ability to enter completely into the spirit of the old Russian epic tales.”

Tailleferre: String Quartet

In 1917, World World War I was still raging throughout Europe, A group of six composers gathered frequently in Paris to discuss progressive aesthetic theory and practice. Included were Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Talleferre. 

The progressive-minded Talleferre (1892-1983) was the only female member of Les Six, and here rebellious nature preceded her there. Born with the family name of Taillefesse, she changed it to Tailleferre to spite her father, who refused to support her musical studies. She took piano lessons with her mother, and began to compose short original pieces. These led to her studies at the Paris Conservatoire, where she met the young composers who, with her, would soon constitute Les Six. Her early relationship with them soon led to her association with the artistic crowds in the districts of Montmartre and Montparnasse. There the idea of Les Six was born, unified by their faith in writer Jean Cocteau’s published ideas.

During the 1920s, Tailleferre wrote many of her most important compositions, and she remained reasonably prolific throughout her long life. In addition to the concert hall, she composed several film scores, music or the radio and television, and incidental music for the theater. Her music for piano solo and concertos was especially profuse.

Talleferre composed her only string quartet during 1917-1919 at the height of her involvement with Les Six. She was a student of Milhaud at the time. The conciseness of each movement suggests that the work may have originated as a composition assignment or a competition entry.

 The quartet opens with a movement marked Modéré. A short theme is passed around between instruments. Then another, led by the Second Violin receives similar treatment. Led by the First Violin a cascading idea now becomes the focus, and this leads to a short coda (or, wrapping up) of the first movement.

Marked Interméde, the second movement opens in a playful, puckish mood. By contrast, the central section is smooth and closely concentrated on two or three short musical ideas. A variant recap of the first section rounds out the intermediate movement.

A somewhat ferocious mood, marked Très ritmé greets us at the opening of the finale. Then, sudden quietness prevails while the players explore the lower regions of their instruments. This congeals into a surprising solo by the first violin. Shifting into a tremulous pattern, the opening music returns, now transformed in mood and texture. A brief transition leads to a recapitulation of the opening material, which soon dissolves into freer expression and a new section of the movement. Then, taking on a veneer of heroism (Un peu plus lent), the music slips slowly into a hushed ending.

Bloch: Piano Quintet No. 1

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was a composer of Swiss origin. His studies and early musical career centered in his native city, Geneva. In 1916, he traveled to the United States as the conductor of a Swiss dance company. When the company suddenly went bankrupt, Bloch was stranded without friends or financial resources. Within a short time, however, he had begun a new career here, at first teaching at the Mannes School of Music, then becoming Director of the Cleveland Institute and later the San Francisco Conservatory. 

Most of the music Bloch composed during the 1920s could be termed “neoclassic” That is, music written in Classical Period forms, or music adhering to formal principles (such as balance and proportion) found in Classical Period composers, notably, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. At the same time, Bloch’s own musical style became intensely personal, and consistently so. He completed his Piano Quintet No. 1in 1923.

Tension and drama inform the opening minutes of Bloch’s quintet. In part, this can be attributed to the contrast between the piano’s music and the music for strings. The piano then begins a new “bed” of sound for individual and pairs of strings to etch brief musical statements. This whole passage is a transition to a new theme group, again contrasting piano and strings. Melodies and accompaniments are freely exchanged between strings and piano. These textures are somewhat simplified as the music reaches the epitome of its development. The music becomes declamatory again (as in the opening music), finally tumbling to the conclusion of the movement.

Marked Andante mistico, the central movement begins with the piano offering low-pitched support for sustained fragments of melody exchanged among the strings. This texture now dominates for a substantial period of time until the lower registers of the piano join in the melodic interchange. Strings soon dominate again, offering attractive melodies and duets above the rumbling piano. The whole quintet gradually become more rhapsodic leading to a new section marked misterioso. Former melody fragments return, now supported by steadily rocking rhythms in the piano. Gradually, all the players gel into a rocking rhythm until a climactic moment, when the ensemble gradually re-assembles in an intense quasi-pastoral setting. Again winding down, the music arrives at a restatement of earlier, quieter music. This gradually recedes to a sustained, soft finish.

Allegro energetico reads the tempo marking for the finale. The dance impulse is undeniable, yet the “dancers” seem to stumble often. All this makes for an entertaining movement full of surprises. Mostly unpredictable, the music draws the listener close, waiting for the next surprise. Occasional long-breathed string melodies are stretched across a percussive texture, but they never reach a stable conclusion. Viola and cello struggle to create a melody with   some continuity, and soon the other strings join them. Finally, we hear galloping rhythms accompanying the fragmented melody, now shared with the piano. A great variety of rhythms inform the next pages of this movement, ushering in reminiscences of slower, earlier ideas and melodies. A sizeable and even slower, long-breathed melody leads to a quiet, high-pitched ending to the Quintet.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2023. All rights reserved.

Program Notes: 1918-1939: 19th century Echoes

Korngold: Much Ado About Nothing: Suite for String Quartet, Op. 11 (composer’s adaptation)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is well known to classic movie buffs as the composer of scores to such adventure films as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk. However, Korngold at one time held an honored position in European opera and concert music that originated in his youth. This Wunderkind composed his first major work, the pantomime ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman), at the age of 11 and went on to write a series of successful operas, culminating in Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), completed when he was only 23.

The Austrian-born Korngold got involved in Hollywood film scoring in 1934, when Max Reinhardt arranged with Warner Brothers to make a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Korngold adapted the music of Mendelssohn for this project but then went on to compose a string of 18 original film scores — most of them “swashbucklers.” These melodramatic adventures were not far removed from the Viennese operatic stage from which Korngold had come, and his late- Romantic, Wagner/Strauss style fit them perfectly.

Back in 1919-20, Korngold had composed orchestral incidental music for a stage production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which was premiered the following year. While composing music for the play, he was also adapting some of it as a suite for orchestra, which he also adapted for violin and piano and for string quartet. Here are the movements:

  1. The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber. Through music, we hear the variety of thoughts running through the bride’s mind on the eve of her wedding – some sweet and lyrical, some jumbled and fearful, but ending quietly and at peace.
  2. March of the Watch (Dogbert and Verges). Very much in the style of Prokofiev, the music is a comic march, with the pretense of bravery and loyal duty. But frequently, the Watch soldiers trip over themselves or each other.
  3. Masquerade (Hornpipe). Comic and energetic comes a sailor’s dance. Both players are kept busy with their parts, which project jollity and a humorous, playful Punch-and-Judy ending to the suite.

Kreisler: String Quartet in A Minor

The world knew Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) first as a virtuoso violinist and then as a composer. He was an incredible child prodigy, entering the Vienna Conservatory at the age of seven. There he won the gold medal in violin and went on to the Paris Conservatoire, where he graduated at the age of 12 with another gold medal. Soon, for unexplained reasons, Kreisler gave up the violin for a time while he pursued further education and military service. In 1896, he chose a musical career, quickly regained his technique (he never needed to practice much), and embarked on a triumphant career that took him through Europe, England, and the United States. During and after World War I, Kreisler spent time in France and the United States (his wife’s homeland), finally settling there in 1939 and becoming a citizen in 1943. He continued concertizing and broadcasting until 1950. Kreisler’s bowing technique, tone color, and vibrato style influenced almost every concert violinist of the 20th century.

As a composer, Kreisler achieved some notoriety when he revealed that several compositions from his concert repertoire that he had passed off as authentic “olden” works were actually from his own pen. However, he also composed many contemporary pieces for violin and piano that epitomized the colorful recital fare of his day.

Kreisler also dabbled in chamber music. He composed his one string quartet in 1919, dedicating it to his wife. Each of the four movements is titled. The first, Fantasia, is just that: a quilt of different themes and moods in a form that is free except for the ending, which is a literal reprise of the introductory measures.

The second movement, Scherzo, is a playful, puckish piece that owes much to Mendelssohn. The slower, more sentimental, central section, however, is a showcase for individual instruments, as well as a resting point before a reprise of the main section.

Introduction and Romance is the title of the next movement. The well-proportioned introduction makes an emotional contrast with the main torso of the music. Led by the soloistic first violin, this music is at turns cheerful and passionate. Perhaps the high point is the ending, an adventurous progression of harmonies in the upper instruments over some charming pizzicato work by the cello.

Finale: Retrospection completes Kreisler’s quartet. Following a brief introduction, its main thematic group unfolds as a lively, witty march that evokes Brahms’s “barrel house” style. An atmospheric contrasting section (still in march rhythms) lends momentary seriousness before a partial reprise of main themes. Surprisingly, Kreisler concludes with an encapsulation of music from the opening of the quartet, lending a long moment of nostalgia to its soft, sweet ending.

Price, String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor

Florence Price (née Smith) (1887-1953) is a significant Black composer of concert music. Among her many other honors, Price was the first African-American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra (the Chicago Symphony).

She hailed from near Little Rock, Arkansas, where she graduated high school (as valedictorian) at the age of 14. Moving on to Boston’s New England Conservatory, she studied piano and organ, composing her first symphony and graduating with honors (1906) with a double major in organ and music education. Professor/Composer George Whitefield Chadwick continued to be a mentor to Price for many years. Returning to Arkansas, Florence taught at the college level, and in 1912, she married attorney Thomas J. Price. Together they had two daughters and a son.

To escape racial oppression, the Price family moved to Chicago in 1927. There Florence began a long period of compositional activity. Notably, her Symphony in E minor won a major award and was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock, conducting.

In 1931, the Prices divorced, and Florence soon moved in with her close friend, Margaret Bonds. At that point, Price’s most productive creative period began. In addition to orchestral, chamber, and piano music, she composed widely for the voice, leading to warm, valuable friendships with Black singers Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes. (Anderson would usually end her recitals with a Black spiritual as arranged by Price.) In 1964, Chicago honored Price (posthumously) by naming an elementary school after her.

The musical style of Price’s instrumental concert works is key-oriented, a holdover from the Romantic 19th century. Other 20th-century composers who took this approach included Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, and Richard Strauss. Her frequent key changes and passages of thick, continuous counterpoint are reminiscent of the late-romantic César Franck.

Around a short, repeated musical idea (ostinato) in the second violin, the opening movement unfolds as a lyrical strand of attractive melody. The movement introduces a second theme group more serious-sounding than the first, but it soon comes to a soft conclusion. Ever more lyrical, the third theme group joins the quartet together. Its vocal-inspired melodies now come mostly from the First Violin. Other members of the quartet play brief commentaries, but the First Violin consistently shepherds the ensemble back together. Now come passages where the instruments’ melodies differ and compete, yet regularly they blend together. A euphonious, forthright statement by the First Violin and Viola reflect aspects of Price’s cultural background in Gospel and folk music. The music now becomes competitive among the performers as they drive to the end of the movement.

Andante cantabile marks the second movement. Beginning in a minor key, it is lyrical in Price’s best way, yet there is an overreaching mood of tragedy and sadness. Phrases are traded or shared among quartet members. A new section of music brings a more confident mood. Soft, comforting music follows, as a fragmentary song pours out, drawing the movement to a quiet conclusion.

A significant dance impulse informs the third movement — yet it is a polite, courteous dance, well measured, crisp, and in a moderate tempo. The music becomes “bluesy” at times, yet it never loses its proud façade. The second section is another story. We might call it “showy.” We hear passing references to past musical phrases, but no solid development —just “swing,” which finally winds down to a polite ending.

Quick triple rhythms open the finale, tripping and skipping along. Momentum is the main idea now, as new ideas come and go. At about the halfway point some brief solo interchanges among the quartet lead us to a short pause and a recapitulation of the tripping-skipping music of the finale’s original music. At last, a brief slower passage introduces the finale’s “finale” and a cheerful, energetic ending to Price’s String Quartet in A Minor.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2023. All rights reserved.

QUARTETS PROGRAM NOTES

QUARTETS PROGRAM NOTES

MOZART: STRING QUARTET IN A MAJOR, K. 464

“Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the profound knowledge of composition.”

With those words, Franz Josef Haydn expressed his feelings about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (to Mozart’s father, Leopold). The year was 1785, and the occasion was the playing of some of Mozart’s six “Haydn” quartets. These had been composed over the years 1782-1785, and Mozart would soon dedicate them in print to the “Father” of the String Quartet.

The A Major Quartet is the fifth in the series, and it is probably the least performed. Yet there are treasures for the listener in this work. The general grace of the first movement is one. Beginning with a waltz-like gesture, the first theme-group presents a turning, cascading idea that soon lands in the distant key of C. There, the waltz impulse becomes intensified. The second theme has an ascending chromatic “motto” that introduces its several phrases before the first theme returns to round out the exposition and open the door to the development. In the recapitulation, Mozart replaces the key of C with the even more remote key of F. But soon all is resolved, and the movement ends normally.

The minuet movement (placed second in this quartet) begins with two contrasting phrases. The main motives from these are then combined and reshuffled to generate the rest of the movement. Unexpected rests and dynamic shifts add humor by breaking up the natural flow.  From A major, Mozart moves to E for the Trio section. The smoothness of its first strain is broken by agile first violin triplets in the second.

A theme with variations forms the Andante. The elegance of the theme continues in the first three variations. Then in the fourth, a minor variation, the melody dissolves into triplet activity. The suavity of the opening returns in the fifth variation, but in the final variation this combines with an extended staccato rhythmic figure that moves gradually through the instruments from cello to first violin.

The finale is dominated chiefly by one theme. Interestingly, it opens with a descending chromatic line, mirroring the ascending one in the first movement. The variety of textures in this movement is remarkable. They range from insistently repeated bass notes to hymn-like passages to stretched notes in the outer parts played against running scales in the inner parts. Mozart brings the quartet to a close with a final, clever reference to the descending chromatic idea.

BACEWICZ: STRING QUARTET NO. 4

During the first half of the 20th century, women composers did not enjoy the liberal, open treatment and recognition they have achieved (gradually) during the second half and beyond. This “glass ceiling” situation was more pronounced in Eastern Europe than in Western society. Knowing this helps us to understand why the very talented Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) had to wait until 1945 to complete her first orchestral work, the present concert overture, and another four years before its premiere. Of course she lived through the upheavals of two World Wars and also other tragic events in her native Poland during that time. Society and the Arts were often in a state of upheaval, making concert schedules unsure and suddenly changeable. Her education in Warsaw (Kazimierz Sikorski) and Paris (Nadia Boulanger) focused on composition and also violin playing.  Most of her adult life, Bacewicz made her living as a violinist. It was not until after WW II that, now married and living in Warsaw, she turned her attention professionally to composing music. Describing Bacewicz’s activities in the 1950s, music researcher and writer Judith Rosen introduces the String Quartet No. 4:

A significant work from this period is the String Quartet No.4 (1951), which received first prize (out of 57 entries) in the International Composers’ Competition in Liège, Belgium. In 1953, it became a required piece for competitors in the International String Quartet Competition in Geneva and continues to be chosen for performance in the United States and abroad. 

(Part I.) An Andante introduces Allegro segments, which are spikey at first, but new themes smooth out and become ever more lyrical, then strident, leading to a short solo by the viola. This introduces a new theme in high range of the cello. Then comes punctuating music, flirting with dissonance before answered by a lyrical melody in the first violin. Now, the music is clearly developmental for a time. A new segment of development focuses on the instruments’ high ranges. The stamping chords from early in the movement now are explored and developed, now and again morphing into dragging chords that support fleeting melodic thoughts. The solo viola returns with lyrical melody, and then is joined by the others in an exchange of two-note ideas that wander with little connection to a single key. Smoothly, the music discovers the quick coda ending of the movement.

(Part II.) Again, the music begins Andante, but smooth and mildly contrapuntal among the instruments. Soaring music then makes a landing, and repeated chord formations support a violin-cello duet that soon melts into a rich chordal transition. The violin-cello duet now plays an answer to their preceding statement, leading to a “vamping” segment a short, restful interlude. Imitative counterpoint among the quartet is now extensive, until the now-familiar brief melody comes from the viola and cello, while the violins accompany. The music continues with a review of several previous musical ideas, which “discover” the end of the movement.

(Part III.) No tempo is specified, but it could be marked Allegro giocoso. The music has the definite “feel” of Baltic folk music, and it has a quick dance impulse. We hear fast triplet rhythms and phrasing that frequently comes to a complete stop. As in the previous movements, this finale’s melodies are usually fragmentary and certain fragments repeat. Suddenly, the music is cast in a more moderate tempo, allowing melodies to become more lyrical. Soon, however, mischief brews, and we are on our way back to the whirling rhythms of the opening. Soon however, the music digresses (keeping the dance character, but exploring new moods and string effects). Like any good rondo, the music returns to the original main thematic matter, but this time in pizzicato. This, too, soon morphs into a wandering, quasi-developmental segment. The music seems to yearn for a return to familiar territory, and Bacewicz delivers it, returning to a full-blown re-statement of the main theme. But now the music builds toward a climax, which presents as a final dancing coda to the movement and the whole quartet.

BEETHOVEN: STRING QUARTET IN E-FLAT MAJOR, OP. 74 “HARP”

For Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), the year 1809 was a year of both triumph and defeat. For one thing, he became financially secure through an annual income contributed jointly by Archduke Rudolph, Prince Lobkowitz, and Prince Kinsky. This allowed him to seriously contemplate marriage. However, it came as a severe blow when his proposal was rejected. It was also the year in which Beethoven solidified his chamber-music techniques after the experimentation and symphonic ideals expressed in the three “Razumovsky” Quartets, Op. 59. This solidification was achieved through writing the Quartet in E-flat, for a work in which Beethoven again seems at ease and in complete technical control. 

After a slightly mysterious slow introduction the main body of the first movement launches with an opening arpeggio motive. This proves to generate the passages that have lent the work its sobriquet, “Harp.” (The term arpeggio derives from the Italian arpeggiare, meaning to play the harp.) Indeed, Beethoven’s later treatment of the arpeggio motive is harplike, since he generally introduces it in pizzicato. This happens briefly in the exposition and in more expanded form during the development section. The first movement is a paragon of brevity and simple elegance.

For some, the middle movements are the high point of the quartet. The Adagio is a serene yet deeply emotional essay. Its romanticism is at once recognized by its expressive harmonies. The main theme, in musiclogist Joseph Kerman’s words, is “certainly one of Beethoven’s best lyrical ideas to date. Tender, and yet at the same time slightly remote in emotional quality.” Late in the movement, Beethoven’s vast capacity for pathos can be heard in passages where the first violin plays halting ornamental commentaries while lower strings spin out the chief melody. 

Beethoven’s characteristic driving rhythm typifies the Scherzo movement, marked Presto. The rhythmic motives of this portion of the work may strike the listener as a speeded up, yet “benign” relative of the Fifth Symphony’s Scherzo. The intenseness of the quartet’s main Scherzo section contrasts sharply with the broad humor of the Trio. Beethoven asks for a tempo twice as fast as the opening and composes the Trio in “textbook” double counterpoint. Here he is lampooning pedantic contrapuntists as well as himself (for around this time he compiled a series of counterpoint drills for Archduke Rudolf).

The final movement follows the Scherzo without break. It is in a traditional form binary theme with variations. Yet a remarkably untraditional feature is the alternating dynamic markings for the variations: semper forte (Var. 1, 3, and 5) and semper dolce e piano (Var. 2, 4, and 6). 

Kerman succinctly summarizes the “Harp” Quartet’s significance when he describes is as “a work of consolidation rather than exploration, a work which though by no means content to repeat something that has been done before, is content to move within an expressive framework laid down by its predecessors.”

Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2022. All rights reserved. 

 

Contrasts program notes

Still: Mother and Child from Suite for Violin and Piano

William Grant Still (1895-1978) could be called the Dean of Black American Composers. There is no doubt he was prolific, with close to 200 works in several areas. They include five symphonies, nine operas, four ballets, numerous chamber and other instrumental works, and a variety of vocal and choral music. In his career of over 50 years, he composed music for both the concert hall and for various commercial projects in the media. He was the first Black person to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the Deep South. He pioneered the application of Black American musical idioms in serious concert music, and he was the first to have a symphony and an opera performed by major American musical organizations. And these accomplishments only scratch the surface.

Still had the remarkable ability to look at a visual work of art and internally hear music in it. This was the case with his Suite for Violin and Piano composed in 1943. Still has adapted/transcribed his work for several different solo instruments and ensembles. About the suite, Still remarked: “When I was asked to compose a suite for violin and piano, I thought of three contemporary Negro artists whom I admire and resolve to try to catch in music my feeling for an outstanding work by each of them.”  The three movements are:

  • “African Dancer”: Richmond Barthe’s sculpture;
  • “Mother and Child”: Sargent Johnson’s portrait; and
  • “Gamin’ ”: Augusta Savage’s painting

In the opening segment of “Mother and Child” the accompanied violin presents a long chain of phrases, all starting with the same caressing four-note figure. We hear these at various pitch levels, and each phrase presents the four-note idea multiple times, yet each generating a phrase different in some ways from the previous ones. Together they present a sort of musical sketch. Gradually, the phrases grow longer and in a higher range than at first. At the same time the piano’s chords become more prominent until they are on an equal footing with the violin. By now, their music has become a free rhapsody with frequent appearances of the four-note pattern amidst the constant, flowing violin melody. Unobtrusively, the music returns to its original moderate range. However, now the piano is gaining an equal footing with the violin. Together, they spin out a free melody that builds to the violin’s unaccompanied cadenza. This grows emotionally to the point where the piano re-enters. Now we hear the duo in a free rhapsody. Gradually subsiding emotionally and flowing into a slightly lower range, the violin again takes up the four-note idea, and weaves it into a new, quieter, more intimate mid-range rhapsody. In that calm mood, “Mother and Child” arrives at its peaceful ending.

Bartok: Contrasts, Sz.111

Possibly the best known feature of the music of Béla Bartók (1881-1945) is its relationship to Hungarian folk music. The connection goes back to Bartók’s earliest years as a professional musician — the first decade of the 20th century. He and his colleague Zoltán Kodály conclusively disproved Franz Liszt’s faulty theory that Gypsy music was the true music of Hungary.

Eventually, Bartók’s personal style of composition entirely absorbed the essence of Hungarian folk music; many of his themes were actually synthesized folk melodies. Several themes such as these can be found in Contrasts, commissioned by clarinetist Benny Goodman at the suggestion of Hungarian violinist Jozsef Szigeti. Composed in 1938, the work provides the only appearance of a woodwind instrument in the chamber music of Bartók.

Originally, there were to be only two movements, the lively “Verbunkos” (Recruiting Dance) and “Sebes” (Fast). After the premiere in 1939, the slow interlude, “Pihenő” (Relaxation) was inserted in between. In finished form, Goodman, Szigeti, and Bartók recorded the Contrasts in 1940 (and ultimately transferred to CD).

The style of this work is characterized by both Hungarian and Bulgarian dance rhythms found chiefly in the fast movements. In the second movement, an unusual sonority called a “tritone” is used extensively. For this feature, the violinist must retune his instrument or employ another violin tuned in tritones.

The writing emphasizes the clarinet and violin. Although the piano seldom competes with these, it intensifies the atmosphere in a way that places it beyond mere accompaniment.

Biographer/analyst Halsey Stevens offers these words to illuminate the instrumental functions in Bartók’s Contrasts:

They share the duties and the rewards of the composition quite evenly. The statement of themes is alternated between them, in the manipulation of them, now one, now the other, is given the spotlight. The clarinet has a cadenza in the Verbunkos, the violin one in the Sebes. Around them the piano provides the frame which intensifies the landscape without calling attention to itself. . . . The piano remains an instrument of percussion, the clarinet a blown air-column, the violin a set of bowed and plucked strings with a resonator; and it is only by a deft manipulation of relative weight that the illusion of ensemble is reached.

Between the slow dance and the fast one that constitute the outer movements, the relaxation of the Pihenő has been felicitously compared to the concentric circles which spread out from the point at which a pebble is dropped into the water. The languid phrases of the violin and clarinet, opposing each other mirrorwise, are marked by faint ripples in the piano. Presently the undulation is intensified and then subsides, while the piano follows . . . .

Beethoven: Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 38 

For Ravel, it was Bolero; for Rachmaninoff, it was his Prelude in C-sharp Minor; and for Beethoven, it was the Septet in E-flat Major. Each of these composers had one composition that became so immensely popular as to obscure works that the composer considered more important. Eventually, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) grew so sick of hearing his Septet that, in the words of his student Carl Czerny, he could not endure his Septet and grew angry because of the universal applause with which it was received. Beethoven began work on the Septet in 1799, and it premiered on April 2, 1800 along with his First Symphony. Its success was immediate and long-lasting. 

The original instrumentation was clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and contrabass, but Beethoven later arranged it for a clarinet-violin-piano trio (Op. 38). Dozens of other different arrangements also soon appeared. Together, these generated what musicologist Paul Nettl described as one thousand performances. 

The six-movement Trio follows the tradition of the Classical divertimento, a blend of suite and sonata cycle. Beethoven’s debt to Haydn in this work is obvious from the opening Adagio that leads to a sonata-allegro main movement. Here, Beethoven shows us he is his own man by presenting an unusual eleven-measure main theme. The work’s reputation for beauty rests mainly on the Adagio cantabile movement. There is an unresolved controversy whether Beethoven borrowed the Rhenish folk song, Ach Schiffer, lieber Schiffer for his main theme. As a song, it first appeared in print in 1838, and it is possible that, like some tunes by Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s melody was original and so well-known as to become part of the urban folk repertoire. For the Tempo di Menuetto, Beethoven borrowed a theme from his own Piano Sonata in G Major, written in 1792 and later published as Op. 49, no. 2. The Trio section, however, is entirely new. 

The fourth movement, variations on an Andante theme, gives us different color combinations (some surprising) within the group. Most characteristic of Beethoven are the minor-mode Variation IV and the coda, which takes some unexpected turns. A fast Scherzo movement balances the previous minuet. Its waltz-like Trio briefly spotlights the cello.

In the sixth movement, Beethoven follows the funeral-march opening with a bustling, Haydnesque finale. One unusual feature is the piano cadenza (written out) that precedes the recapitulation. The coda, likewise, emphasizes the piano for a shimmering ending guaranteed to bring down the house.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2021/2022

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