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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