SCHUMANN: MÄRCHENERZÄHLUNGEN, OP. 132
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) composed roughly one-third of his entire oeuvre during the three years he spent in the service of the town of Düsseldorf (late 1850 to the end of 1853). This is doubly amazing, considering his extensive musical and administrative duties as town music director coupled with his advancing state of ill health. In spite of these obstacles, Schumann’s almost obsessive creative drive spurred him on to create many works that were not required (or even usable) in his normal duties.
The highly original Märchenbilder (Fairy-Tale Pictures, Op. 113, 1851) for viola and piano is a good example. After publication, this set of pieces for viola and piano became very successful. In October 1856, Schumann composed Märchenerzählungen (Fairy-Tale Narrations) for clarinet, viola, and piano ─ possibly a sequel to Märchenbilder (both sets contain four pieces). Clara Schumann remarked in her diary, “Today Robert completed 4 pieces for piano, clarinet, and viola and was very happy about it. He thinks that this compilation will appear highly romantic” ─ that is, appealing to the emotions.
The first of the four Märchenerzählungen is a plucky little piece featuring the clarinet much of the time. Its light, jolly mood dominates the music and sets a fanciful mood as a backdrop for the three following movements. “Lively and with clipped implementation” is Schumann’s tempo indication for Movement No. 2. “Contrasts” could have been another indicator. Loud-soft, rapid-ponderous, thundering-flighty are the pairings of mood that make up the mixed character of No. 2. On the other hand, “dreamy” might well describe the floating character of No. 3 with its near-continuous gossamer melodies shared by clarinet and viola. The solid, regulated piano accompaniment is like a storyteller, holding it all together. The fourth movement’s energy balances the strength and resolve of the opening movement. A light-hearted centerpiece gives welcome release, reminding us of the brighter middle movements. The third section is a resolute march that effectively draws us out of fairyland dreaming and into a positive, life-affirming ending.
BUNCH: UNTIL NEXT TIME
It is difficult for a contemporary composer to be prolific without sacrificing fresh and novel ideas. Yet, Kenji Bunch (1973- ) has done just that. This violist-composer, based originally in Portland, Oregon, has a catalog filled with instrumental and vocal music of many sorts, including two symphonies, seven concertos and quasi-concertos, and a vast array of chamber music. Educated at the Juilliard School, Bunch now resides again in Portland.
Bunch has held residencies with various orchestras and projects. Since 2014, he has served as Artistic Director of “Fear No Music” and teaches viola, composition, and music theory at Portland State University, Reed College, and for the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Young Composers Project.
His global reputation has resulted in all-Bunch concerts performed in New York City, Boston, Denver, Nashville, Mobile (AL) and Portland (OR), as well as at the Perpignon Conservatoire in southern France, the Stamford Festival in England, and the Oranjewoud Festival in The Netherlands. Bunch’s music often incorporates elements of hip hop, jazz, bluegrass, and funk.
The original version of Until Next Time was for unaccompanied violin or viola (his chief instrument). However, the tuning of individual strings is not standard. This de-tuning of one or more strings has an Italian name: scordatura. In Until Next Time, Bunch’s particular scordatura has the effect of enlarging the instrument’s resonance. From a long introduction that pairs a series of trills on one string with an adjacent open string, the music gradually finds a distinctive melody. In the next section: a new, warm melody on one string is surrounded by colorful broken chords on others. The broken chords come to the fore in a magnificent procession of harmonies. From this emerges virtuosic broken chords, which soon quiet into paired notes, similar to the introduction. Quietly, now, a series of trilled note-pairs emerges, bringing the music back to the contemplative mood of the introduction for a quiet finish.
BEETHOVEN: CLARINET TRIO, 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. All rights reserved. Copyright 2021