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 – camerata recital ft. viktor valkov

C.P.E. Bach, Würtemberg Sonata No. 1 in A Minor 

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s “Württemberg Sonatas” were named after their dedication to Carl Eugen Duke of Württemberg who studied with Bach at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin. They were published in 1744. Together with the “Prussian Sonatas” published two years earlier, the “Württemberg Sonatas” are undoubtedly some of the most significant German piano works among the general piano art music of the 18th century, and they clearly stand out from the expressive and playful rococo style of his times.

Concerning the earliest pianos of his time of his time, C. P. E. Bach wrote his impressions in his famous book, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments

The new Forte pianos, when they are resistant and well-made, have many advantages, though their mechanism must be studied carefully and not without difficulty. They do well when played alone and in [ensemble] music not too loud.

Yet he generally preferred the harpsichord for solo keyboard performance.

For the first movement of the A Minor Sonata the music marked Moderato, that is, moderately fast. Yet Bach seemingly contradicts this direction by emphasizing runs and chord outlines in very fast notes. In fact, “figures,” such as chord outlines and scales, dominate the music most of the time. Like a Scarlatti keyboard sonata, this movement is constructed in two halves, each repeated.

The Andante that follows is (in contrast) very sweet and melodic. We 

are hearing the “inner” C.P.E. Bach. Although the melody seems to wander at times, the composer is in control, shaping the music by bringing back the opening melody to initiate the middle third of the movement. The final third starts as a quiet meditation, then forte for a declarative ending.

The sonata’s finale, Allegro assai (very fast), restores the energy of the first movement and adds to it some of the melodic values of the middle movement. In form, the finale follows somewhat the binary structure we experienced in the opening movement, thus binding the ideals of both previous essays. Now C.P.E. Bach displays the kind of wit that made Haydn’s finales famous in the next generation.

 Brahms, Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 

In 1853, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) first met and came under the influence of Robert Schumann. After that, Brahms wrote no more sonatas for solo piano, but rather concentrated on variations and, along the path of Schumann, shorter piano pieces. Toward the end of his life, Brahms once again devoted much attention to the short piano piece. In 1892, he wrote 20 works for the instrument which were published as Opp. 116, 117, 118, and 119, and have been called Brahms’s “children of Autumn.”

Rather than using Schumannesque pictorial titles, Brahms gives his pieces more generic labels, chiefly “Intermezzo” and “Capriccio.” The Intermezzos are usually in a slow or moderate tempo, and their mood is often wistful or nocturnal. The Capriccios, on the other hand, are brilliant concert etudes. In character, they are sometimes bright, sometimes stormy, but always technically demanding. Here is a brief description of the Fantasien, Op. 116:

No. 1, Capriccio: “Defiant and unruly” with heavy octaves and brusque chords, this piece is reminiscent of the “Edward” Ballade and may have been composed earlier than the rest.

No. 2, Intermezzo: A “whimsical” first section contrasts with a lament of “wistful loneliness” in the second. Clara Schumann was particularly fond of this piece.

No. 3. Capriccio: Somewhat austere arpeggios in the outer minor sections give way to a majestic, sweeping central episode in the major mode.

No. 4. Intermezzo: Brahms once considered calling this a “Nocturne.” It is almost a pure improvisation on its opening two ideas.

. No. 5: Intermezzo: “One is positively rocked by it, as in a cradle,” remarked Clara Schumann. Cross-rhythms and overlapping hands are some of the technical difficulties in this deceptively simple-looking piece.

No. 6. Intermezzo: Of all the Brahms Intermezzi, this may be the most typical in mood (graceful, pensive) and one of the simplest in form (A-B-A).

No. 7. Capriccio: To end the set comes a fast, restless movement. Its syncopated middle section, at once tender and fantastic, again pays homage to Robert Schumann,
Brahms’s pianistic mentor. 

Tchaikovsky, Dumka in C Minor 
(Scenes from a Russian Village) for Piano, Op. 59

Originating in Ukraine, the Dumka became popular with Slavic and Russian composers during the late 19th Century. Notably, the Czech nationalist Dvořák used it as the basis of three works. Russian composers Mussorgsky, Balakirev, and Peter I. Tchaikovaky (1840-1893) were also attracted to its sudden alternations between slow, tragic sections and fast, athletic dances. Tchaikovsky composed his Dumka in 1886 in response to a request from Parisian publisher Félix Mackar. The following year Mackar received a copy of the piece and probably brought about the Dumka’s premiere at a Parisian concert that year.

Tchaikovsky’s opening section may remind us of tragic epic poems. The music wants to tug at our heart-strings. Slow, wandering phrases finally give way to a counterpoint between a reprise of the tragic melody now coupled with a flitting, improvisation-style tune in the piano’s upper range. Coming down to mid-range, dissolving into pure accompaniment supporting the ongoing sorrowful melody.

The first dance section follows, perhaps seeming trivial compared with the first section. Block chords lead to a faster dance and new melodies occupy our attention. One melody in a moderate tempo emerges to seize our attention. Then, pure pianism takes center stage to begin developing some previous musical ideas.

Now we hear a reprise of something familiar, yet it has been re-dressed in dark block chords. Sudden stop! A sparse, sad tune comes, supported only by occasional, choppy, low chords. These dominate now, as the music reaches an abrupt conclusion.

Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition

It is difficult to conceive that the piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition written in 1874 by Modeste Mussorgsky (1839-1881), had to wait until after the composer’s death to be published. The origin of Pictures at an Exhibition goes back to 1873. That year saw the death of Victor Hartmann, architect and artist, who was a close friend of Mussorgsky’s. The composer expressed his sorrow at the loss to Russian critic Vladimir Stassov, who had first introduced them. The following year Stassov helped to arrange an exhibition of 400 of Hartmann’s watercolors and drawings in St. Petersburg. From this collection, Mussorgsky chose eleven works on which to build his suite, introducing some of the movements with a recurring “Promenade” theme. The “Promenade,” as explained by Stassov, represents the composer “walking now right, now left, now as an idle person, now urged to go near a picture; at times his joyous appearance is dampened as he thinks in sadness of his departed friend. . . .” 

“The Gnome” is the sketch of a nutcracker in the shape of a deformed gnome. “The Old Castle” (following a “Promenade”) portrays a medieval Italian castle with a singing troubadour in the foreground.

“Tuileries” (following another “Promenade”) shows a crowd of children and nursemaids in the famous Parisian park. Mussorgsky’s subtitle reads: “Dispute of the Children after Play.” “Bydlo” portrays a Polish peasant wagon with giant wooden wheels drawn by oxen. “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” (following a “Promenade”) was based on a design for a child’s ballet costume, which is a shell from which only the head and limbs protrude. “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” contrasts strongly with the previous section and stems from two pictures the artist gave to Mussorgsky (now lost). “Limoges — The Marketplace” shows a group of women gossiping by their pushcarts amid hustle and bustle.

“Catacombs,” a picture of the Paris catacombs, led Mussorgsky to inscribe, “The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me toward skulls, apostrophizes them — the skulls are illuminated gently in the interior.” “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua” (With the Dead in a Dead Language), a continuation of the catacombs motif, reworks the “Promenade” theme into an eerie character piece.

“The Hut on Fowls’ Legs” is a drawing of a clock in the shape of the hut of Baba-Yaga, the Russian witch. Toward the end of the section, Mussorgsky suggests the witch flying. When she lands, it is squarely on the downbeat of the final section, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” This was Hartmann’s design for an ancient-style gate, complete with decorative cupola and a triumphal procession marching through the arches (represented by the “Promenade” theme). The full mass of the piano’s resources comes together here to give Pictures at an Exhibition a majestic conclusion.

Program notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2020/2022. All rights reserved.

Program Notes – Camerata REcital 2021

Barber: Cello sonata, op. 6

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) spent the years 1924-1932 as one of the first students at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. He worked in voice (a baritone), piano, and composition. Barber showed early potential as a composer, and the works of his student years — the Serenade, Dover Beach, the Violin and Cello Sonatas, and the Overture to The School for Scandal — are not at all apprentice pieces. They are the youthful flowering of a prodigious, creative talent that have become part of the standard repertoire.

The Cello Sonata was, in fact, the last music Barber wrote under the tutelage of his Curtis teacher, Rosario Scalero. He began the sonata while in Europe during the summer of 1932. Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti (fellow student at Curtis) had hiked and boated from Innsbruck to Menotti’s family villa high above Lake Lugano. There, without a piano, Barber composed the sonata’s entire first movement and the Presto section of the second. When Barber returned to school in the fall, he completed the sonata under Scalero with technical help from Orlando Cole. Cole was the cellist who then premiered the sonata in December 1932 with Barber at the piano.

The influence of Brahms on Barber’s sonata is unmistakable in the first movement. After the relentless march of the first theme group, comes a very Brahmsian second theme. Barber’s development section, however, is his own brand of rhapsody. The compacted and re-arranged recapitulation shows Barber’s incipient sense of elegant yet expressive form.

The slow movement and scherzo are folded into one movement, a technique already perfected by Beethoven and Brahms. Barber’s song-like Adagio is a reflective introduction to the Presto middle section, a high-spirited study in perpetual motion. The returning Adagio is now elongated and more expressive, building to a dynamic climax before receding into a quiet close.

Barber marks the final movement Allegro appassionato, and with good reason. Instead of an opening theme, the composer gives us an impassioned outcry. By contrast, the following cello-piano dialogue is at turns introspective and witty. The passion returns with some fresh perspectives, leading again to secondary material stated in new ways and to a Brahmsian-heroic ending.

perkinson: Lamentations (Black/Folk song suite)

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004), unlike his Black-British namesake, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), was never fashionable among the upper classes nor highly paid for virtuoso performances. Perkinson struggled most his life in one way or another. Yet he overcame many problems, notably racial bias. He is now considered to be among the finest Black American composers of the 20th century: alongside names such as Florence Price and William Grant Still. Perkinson received a musical education carrying some distinction from New York’s High School of Music and Art, New York University, and the Manhattan School of Music (Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees).

His professional life was always diverse, and sometimes surprisingly so. As a jazz pianist, he toured with drummer Max Roach. He composed the ballet For Bird [Charlie Parker], With Love for Alvin Ailey, then became Ailey’s Music Director. His film score credits included music for From Montgomery to Memphis (Martin Luther King Documentary) and four films for Sidney Poitier. In the field of education, he taught at Brooklyn College and Chicago’s Columbia
College, where he was Director of the Center for Black Music Research and headed The New Black Music Repertory Ensemble. In the field of traditional Classical Music, in 1965, Perkinson co-founded New York’s Symphony of the New World.

About his personal concert-music style, Dr. Johann Buis (Wheaton College, Illinois) writes, “Perkinson was more forward-looking than better-known African-American counterparts like Florence Price and William Grant Still. His music falls into a kind of ‘in-between category,’ with a constant tension between the pull of atonality and a sophisticated, never faddish use of jazz idioms.” Lamentations (Black/Folk Song Suite) for cello solo is a near-perfect embodiment of Buis’s description of Perkinson’s very personal style.

The composer does not elaborate on the “Black/Folk Song” reference in the suite’s title. A repeated jazzy pattern (an ostinato) informs Fuging Tune. Flashes of melody seep through, but the ostinato becomes the substance, and it dominates the movement’s ending.

By contrast, Song Form is a long string of hazily tonal melodic phrases. Strongly lyrical in their way, these melodies become a sort of psychological portrait of the composer’s often-difficult life.

Calvary Ostinato, entirely pizzicato (plucked), uses a short repeated pattern (the ostinato) to form the backbone of touching (sometimes tortured) melodic phrases. Occasional strummed chord patterns lend a charming variety to the other textures. The movement ends as it began, with a soft utterance of the ostinato.

The Perpetual Motion in the final movement (bearing that title) is a series of single repeated notes (or pairs of notes). From that platform, a procession of short phrases develops, becoming gradually more intense. This climaxes in an exploration of the cello’s high range and Perkinson’s grand, concluding fireworks.

Brahms: Cello sonata in F Major, Op. 99

In the summer of 1886, Brahms’s new-found lodgings at Lake Thun, Switzerland were a delight to him. That year, he was very productive, especially in the chamber domain. Among his completed music was his Second Cello Sonata, a work written with a particular performer in mind: Robert Hausmann, the cellist with Joachim’s string quartet. (For Hausmann and Joachim, Brahms would write his Double Concerto the following year.)

It had been nearly 20 years since Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) had composed his First Cello Sonata. The new sonata, besides being a completely mature work, is also fresh in other respects. Brahms exploits a higher general range in the cello than previously, and he shows a deeper understanding of the instrument’s natural character, which, in the words of Martin Cooper, “ranges from gruff surliness to a manly ardor and an almost feminine lyrical tenderness.”

A unique tremolo texture dominates much of the first movement, beginning in the piano in a thunderously low range. The cello picks up the idea in the development section, making it shadowy and remote. Biographer Karl Geiringer refers to this movement’s character as “ardent pathos.”

For the Adagio, Brahms moves the tonality up a half-step to the remote key of F-sharp major. We might consider this a more “moonlit” key, where the composer can spread out his heartfelt nocturne. A highly emotional middle section again shifts key.

The agitated Scherzo reminds us of Brahms’s stormy youthful style, growing as it does from a quiet opening. The Trio turns to the major mode in the proud demeanor of classical elegance.

As in his expansive Second Piano Concerto, Brahms places a brief, light, and charming fourth movement rondo finale in his Second Cello Sonata. The cheerful mood is broken only by a reference to the slow movement before Brahms finishes in high spirits.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink. All rights reserved. Copyright 2021

Review – Prism and The Beautiful Soul

Review – Prism and The Beautiful Soul

Camerata San Antonio is one violin short of a string quartet this fall for a worthy reason: Violinist Matthew Zerweck is taking paternity leave. In compensation, the remaining members have been able to explore some of the literature for string trio, with side trips to two and four in the company of frequent collaborator, pianist Viktor Valkov. For the Nov. 15 concert, Camerata visited an unaccustomed venue, the intimate recital hall in the Palo Alto College performing arts center. The space proved acoustically dry but left nothing unheard – including the occasional loud expulsion of breath by which cellist Ken Freudigman telegraphed some especially important turn in the music. The towering finale, Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet in A, had an especially generous number of those. The first half took less-traveled roads to Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for violin and piano and Ernst von Dohnanyi’s Serenade for string trio. The eminent violinist Joseph Joachim was the thread connecting all three composers: He collaborated closely with both Clara Schumann and Brahms, and he invited Dohnanyi to teach at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, of which the violinist was director. 

Clara Schumann was one of Europe’s most celebrated pianists in the middle decades of the 19th century. She composed a good deal of music – much of it for her own solo and chamber music performances – in her 20s. After a five-year hiatus, she had a burst of activity in 1853, the year she met Brahms and the year of the Three Romances. Her husband, Robert Schumann, was committed to a mental institution the following year, and Clara became the sole support of seven children, including a newborn boy. Those circumstances dictated that she concentrate on her lucrative concert career and set composition aside. 

That’s our loss. On the evidence of the Three Romances, Clara Schumann was a composer of considerable merit. The whole set flies by in only 10 minutes or so, but a lot of music is packed into that slender frame. The violin is given generally long-lined, declarative melodies that sustain interest by avoiding the obvious. The piano part, considerably busier, invites billowing dynamics and sculpted phrasing. The two parts are distinct, even opposite personalities in earnest conversation – for which the cool reserve of violinist Anastasia Parker and the heated passion of Mr. Valkov were well suited. 

Dohnanyi’s Serenade is so immediately engaging that it’s easy not to notice how expertly it is crafted. Dohnanyi composed this five-movement work in 1902, when he was in his mid-20s, and in some ways it looks back to the Romanticism of Brahms. But the energetic, intricately wrought counterpoint – especially in the fugal Scherzo and bustling Rondo – and the fresh harmonies contain at least a hint of the new century. Mr. Freudigman put plenty of snap into the occasional Hungarian folk tropes, violist Emily Freudigman spun lovely melody to open the Romanza, and Ms. Parker was especially effective in the disconsolate Theme and Variations, the emotional center of the Serenade. 

Brahms was a young man of 28 or 29 in 1861 when he completed his second piano quartet, a chamber work that is symphonic in both duration (about 50 minutes) and ambition. The allegro movements that open and close the work seem steeped in testosterone, the Scherzo has a restive undercurrent, and even the sweet Poco adagio is agitated by rocking eighth-note figures that seem prepared at any moment to spring into action. The performance was big, bold, and muscular – words that often come to mind when Mr. Valkov is involved in chamber music. Those traits were amplified by the physical circumstances: The seven-foot Steinway B Mr. Valkov was playing might not have been enough piano for a big concert hall, but it was possibly too much piano for Palo Alto’s little recital hall. At times the piano overwhelmed the strings in volume, but the pianist’s in-the-bones Romanticism was the driving force in a compelling performance.  

Coda: Technical difficulties kept me from posting a timely review of Camerata’s October concert, with three works for string trios performed by Ms. Parker, Ms. Freudigman, and Mr. Freudigman in the University of the Incarnate Word concert hall. They opened with Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Trio of 1990-91, music that is less self-consciously avant-garde than the clouds of dissonance that characterized much of his music from the late 1950s and 1960s, but no less startling. The first of its two movements was the more remarkable, with extended solo cadenzas of widely different character for each of the instruments – all played with conviction. Jean Francaix’s String Trio in C of 1933 was at the opposite pole – three brief witty, jaunty, cheeky movements and one wistful, lyrical Andante. A warm, affectionate account of Mozart’s grand Divertimento in E-flat, one of his longest works, closed the concert.

Read Mike Greenberg’s review at incidentlight.com

Review – Prism and The Beautiful Soul

The Beautiful Soul Program Notes

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.”

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.