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.