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