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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Shostakovich/Auerbach: 24 Preludes for Piano, Op. 34
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1979) composed his Twenty-four Preludes for piano between December 1932 and March 1933. The work emulated The Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) in the idea of 24 keyboard preludes covering each of the major and minor keys.*
The 26-year-old Shostakovich infused his preludes with a broad palette of emotions and gestures. Some of the preludes maintain one consistent emotion (or attitude) throughout. Others may unexpectedly change emotional expression suddenly.
These sharp turns were to become hallmarks of Shostakovich’s style, and in some ways they mirrored his life under the Communist regime. For example, frequently, he and other prominent Russian composers were periodically denounced by the government’s news services for some (usually imagined) infraction of governmental fine-arts policy. The most (in-)famous of these was his 1948 censure (alongside Prokofiev and others) for “formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies” — whatever the authorities imagined those to be. At other times, just as predictably, he would be lauded, often receiving some honor or prize. One of his highest honors was an appointment to membership in the Supreme Soviet in 1962.
The Preludes are short essays. However, they also became the proving ground for content that we can hear in Shostakovich’s mature symphonies, concertos, and chamber works.
*Shostakovich differed from Bach in the matter of organization, that is, the order of keys — major and minor. The First Prelude (and Fugue) in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (Book I) is in the key of C major and so is that of Shostakovich’s first Prelude. However, Bach then follows each major key with its parallel minor (e.g., C Major and C minor). He then proceeds to the next higher key on the keyboard, (C-sharp Major and C-sharp Minor, etc.), completing the whole series in the key of B Minor.
Shostakovich organized his 24 Preludes by following each major key with its relative minor key, that is, the minor key with the same number of sharps or flats required to play correctly in that key (e.g., C Major and A Minor — no sharps or flats). Then, he proceeds to the pair of keys requiring one sharp: G Major and E Minor. The next pair requires two sharps (D Major and B Minor), etc. Following the six-sharp pair, the composer switches to six flats (E-flat minor) for Preludes no. 15 and 16, then works his way back to one flat (F Major and D minor) for Preludes 23 and 24. Another point of interest is that Bach composed a sequel: the WTC (Book II), and Shostakovich composed his sequel, 24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op. 87, in 1950-51.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2022
About Lera Auerbach (arranger of the Shostakovich Preludes heard today)
A renaissance artist for modern times, Lera Auerbach is a widely recognized conductor, pianist, and composer. She is also a published poet and an exhibited visual artist. All of her work is interconnected as part of a cohesive and comprehensive artistic worldview.
Lera Auerbach has become one of today’s most sought after and exciting creative voices. Her performances and music are featured in the world’s leading stages – from Vienna’s Musikverein and London’s Royal Albert Hall to New York’s Carnegie Hall and Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center.
Auerbach is equally prolific in literature and the visual arts. She incorporates these forms into her professional creative process, often simultaneously expressing ideas visually, in words, and through music. She has published three books of poetry in Russian, and her first English-language book, Excess of Being – in which she explores the rare form of aphorisms. Her next book, an illustrated work for children, A is for Oboe, will be published by Penguin Random House in the fall of 2021. Auerbach has been drawing and painting all her life as part of her creative process. Her visual art is exhibited regularly, included in private collections, and is represented by leading galleries.
Lera Auerbach holds multiple degrees from the Juilliard School in New York and Hannover University of Music, Drama, and Media in Germany. The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, selected her in 2007 as a Young Global Leader and since 2014 she serves as a Cultural Leader. Internationale Musikverlage Hans Sikorski publishes her work, and recordings are available on Deutsche Grammophon, Nonesuch, Alpha Classics, BIS, Cedille, and many other labels.
Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147
Shostakovich was a pianist, not a string player. Yet he clearly valued above all that vocal quality in string instruments that allowed them to stand as surrogates for the composer’s personal voice in quartet, concerto, or sonata, evoking public debate or private soliloquy.
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975) was one of the 20th century’s musical geniuses and probably the most successful Russian composer of the Stalin era. Yes, he had occasional doctrinal scuffles with the Communist regime (which alternately praised or condemned him). Yet he nonetheless became quite prolific, composing 9 operas, 40 film scores, 15 symphonies, and 15 string quartets.
He was a “workaholic,” composing the Viola Sonata’s first two movements in ten days during early July 1975 and the third in two days later that month. Soon after that, he entered the hospital. Evidently, everyone knew this would be the composer’s final hospitalization. So, his publisher rushed the sonata’s typesetting, and on August 9, 1975, the day of his death, the composer was proof-reading his final work.
In the first movement, the most important thing to notice is that Shostakovich was composing in “free atonality.” that is, in no traditional key. We hear this in the viola’s pizzicato introduction, which is joined by the piano, playing “plucky” notes in counterpoint to the viola. The music broadens, and, on an equal footing, viola and piano present a lengthy dramatic outburst. The texture changes when the viola etches out melodies in tremolo (rapid, repeated bowing on each note) in a long statement. Eventually, the music turns back to an echo of the movement’s opening, ending in a calm mood.
As a “cure” for the first movement’s seriousness, the central movement is a true scherzo (“joke”). It is a comic fast waltz, but frequently turns into a raucous march. If the first movement was often atonal (in no particular key), the scherzo counterbalances it in several places by placing the viola in one key and the piano in another key: “bi-tonality” for comic effect. In the central section, viola and piano reverse jobs: the piano hammers out a melody while the viola attempts an accompaniment as loud as the piano. This exchange recurs in the reprise of fragments from the first section. Eventually, the individual functions of melody and accompaniment become blurred, and a return of the comic march does not help. The ending comically leaves these matters unresolved.
With the third movement, Adagio, we arrive at the sonata’s poignant center of gravity. It begins with an unaccompanied cantilena from the viola. When the piano enters (also unaccompanied), we may “get” the music’s true direction. According to Fjodor Druzhinin, the Sonata’s dedicatee, Shostakovich composed this movement in memory of Beethoven. Now the piano proves it with the repeated three-note pattern closely reminiscent of the opening of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata (Op. 27, no. 2). This three-note figure will recur many times in the course of the Adagio, always in the piano (Beethoven’s instrument). As the movement progresses, we hear a further reference to that famous, touching piece of music: a repeated note (dah-dee-daaah). The Adagio’s steady flow is later interrupted only by a declamatory cadenza from the viola (unaccompanied), but the piano joins in again. Gradually, the composer leads us thunderously back to a “Moonlight” piano accompaniment to support a flowing viola line. During the final minute, the viola-piano dialogue unravels softly. Thus, we have the touching ending of the Viola Sonata — and of the beloved composer’s life.
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67
The E Minor Piano Trio by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) belongs to the same period as his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and the Eighth Quartet. These works share not only a World War II genesis but certain emotional characteristics as well. Anxiety, tension, and tragedy are moods associated with wartime, which critics have also identified in these works.
The Piano Trio has, in addition, a more personal side. In February 1944, the composer’s very close friend Ivan Sollertinsky died suddenly of a heart attack. Within days, Shostakovich began composing the Piano Trio No. 2, dedicating it to the memory of Sollertinsky. Between that time and early August, when he completed the second movement, Russian troops had liberated Nazi death camps at Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, and Majdanek. The shattering reality of the Holocaust began to be revealed with that news, and Shostakovich, who had been extremely sympathetic toward Soviet Jews since at least the late 1930s, was deeply grieved.
Thus, the tragic significance of the piano trio took a turn at the midpoint, becoming an elegy for the murdered Jews of the Holocaust. Shostakovich consciously emulated Jewish style music in the trio, especially the final movement. When the work was premiered in November 1944 (with the composer at the piano), the audience was profoundly moved. One listener reported, “The music left a devastating impression. People cried openly. By audience demand, the last ‘Jewish’ part of the Trio had to be repeated.”
At the opening of the work, the violin and cello parts play in exchanged ranges, producing an unusual tone quality. Each voices an elegiac, modal theme. The piano’s low entry with the theme leads to discussion among the instruments, which evolves into a second section containing more energetic material. Some of this is cheerful — often to the point of banality. The movement winds down to a quiet ending.
The second movement is a scherzo with all the verve and stomping of a Beethoven work. Violin and cello often chase each other, but cooperating closely at other times, with the piano set off aurally. The movement shows, harmonically, the “classical” side of the composer’s aesthetic palette.
Heavy piano chords at the opening of the third movement immediately cast a funereal mood. A taut, emotional dialogue between violin and cello follows, set against the somber background of chords from the piano. Shostakovich here gives the listener a glimpse into the wrenching agony he was feeling.
The finale follows directly, carrying the listener into the trio’s famous “Jewish” theme. About Jewish music, Shostakovich said:
I think, if we speak of musical impressions, that Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it; it is multifaceted; it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It is almost always laughter through tears.
However, here the melody’s treatment is eerie, possibly even menacing, as in a danse macabre. This may have been prompted by a story the composer received of SS guards making their victims dance beside their own graves. A series of variants on the theme proceeds, punctuated by sardonic cadences and some new material also informed by Jewish musical tradition. About the halfway point, the dance reaches a crazed pitch, only to be released in a passionate outpouring. A brief but lush development follows, capped by a return of the Jewish theme in the piano. The elegiac chords from the third movement now return, combined with bits of the Jewish theme, to form a coda that lays the E Minor Piano Trio peacefully to rest.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2022
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