program notes: all-ravel

Sonatine

A “Baroque/Classical” thread weaves through the piano music of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Just as Debussy’s piano music had bowed in the direction of the French clavecinistes in the Suite bergamasque (1890) and Suite: pour le piano (1901), so Ravel composed the Menuet antique (1895), Pavane for a Dead Princess (1899), Sonatine (1903-5), and Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17). All of these used more or less strict forms from the 18th century, and all contained classical restraint of expression.

The Sonatine became a project “by default.” In 1903, the Weekly Critical Review, an Anglo-French magazine sponsored an international composition competition. For a prize of 100 Francs, composers were to submit the first movement of a piano sonatine. Ravel entered. Unfortunately, the magazine shortly went bankrupt. Ravel’s piece, an exercise in adapting his style to sonata form, then took on a life of its own, and over the next two years, he continued to dabble with it, eventually completing all three movements in 1905.

The first movement of the Sonatine is so clearly in sonata form that it could appear in a textbook. The principal, secondary, and closing themes are extremely distinctive in melody and texture. After the repeated exposition of these, a carefully controlled development takes us through contrasting keys in an emotional crescendo that has to cool a little before the recapitulation of themes — now less restrained than at first and rounded out at the end with a charming, refined coda.

The second movement, a graceful minuet, begins like a typical French harpsichord piece: with a repeated couplet. A new theme digresses, but soon we hear a reprise of something like the couplet. Another digressive theme leads us back to a general reprise of the movement’s main ideas.

Capping the Sonatine is a toccata-like movement that begins with flashy passagework, fast-moving broken chords, and a fanfare motive. Then, Ravel the modernist steps forward with a section in alternating meters. The unusual 5/4 meter predominates. Then, for classical balance, the composer introduces the movement’s first real melody. Bringing back a variant of the first section, Ravel now occupies the remainder of the movement working out and combining elements from the first (flashy) and second (melodic, mixed-metered) sections. The accelerated coda fuses these together in a frenzied series of repetitions that conclude the Sonatine.

Étude en forme de habanera

There is a joke in the musical world that goes, “The best Spanish music was written by French composers.” Although there is more than a grain of truth there, it is only half proven in the case of Maurice Ravel. Ravel was born in the Pyrenees town of Delouart, and his mother was Basque. Ravel’s lifelong attraction to and mastery of the Spanish idiom is undeniable. Everyone knows Bolero, but Ravel composed at least seven other works in direct reference to Spanish music and culture.

In 1907, Ravel completed and premiere the first of these: the orchestral masterpiece  Rhapsodie espagnole, a four-movement work that exposed Ravel’s colorful genius. “Habanera” was the moody third movement. Its soon became so popular (separate from the Rhapsodie) that the composer made an independent piece out of it under the name Vocalise Étude en forme de habanera. However, its melody was so lovely and the piano accompaniment so colorful that arrangements for other solo instruments were soon produced and published.

Several concert violinists incorporated the Étude into their programs or used it as an encore. Players of other string instruments — notably the cello — soon followed suit. Interestingly, in one of Ravel’s preliminary versions of the piece, he wrote a subtitle: “In the fragrant land caressed by the sun.”

Deux mélodies hébraiques

Maurice Ravel had a lifelong interest and love of folk culture, and this included European Jewish culture, especially its music. The unusual scales, the energetic dance rhythms, and the vocal embellishments especially fascinated him. The composer very personally expressed this fascination in the pair of songs titled Deux mélodies hébraiques (Two Jewish Songs) completed in 1914. Originally for solo voice and piano, this well-loved pair of religious-text settings was soon adapted several times as instrumental solos (with piano). Versions for wind instruments and for strings abounded. The viola or cello were very appropriate, since their ranges mirrored male vocal ranges, as chanted or sung by Jewish cantors.

The first movement, “Kaddish,” is in two sections. Each is distinguished by the style of its piano part. The first part presents the piano chiming long notes or chords that seem to hang in the air. In the second, the piano plays in lower ranges: mostly broken chords woven around the solo line. In both, the soloist plays rambling, improvisatory-style melodies full of tragic pathos.

The second, titled “The Eternal Enigma,” begins with a more cohesive, folk-song style by the soloist on top of repeated patterns of mostly dark, dissonant chords. The middle section becomes more familiarly harmonic in the piano, supporting the lyrical soloist, who now performs in a higher range. A stylistic reprise of the first section brings the song to a close. Through these two songs, Ravel clearly expressed his love for Jewish tradition and music.

Violin Sonata No. 2

During the 1920s, Maurice Ravel developed a love for American Jazz that became legendary. His admiration for George Gershwin, for example, was such that when the two met, it was as much an honor for Ravel as for Gershwin, who admired Ravel and would have liked to study with him. Ravel heard jazz first hand. In 1921, an Afro-American band played in Paris, delighting everyone. They must have played the blues, which impressed Ravel deeply. For later, when he toured the United States, he declared, “To my mind, the ‘blues’ is one of your greatest musical assets, truly American despite earlier contributory influences from Africa and Spain.”

From 1923 until 1927, Ravel worked at composing his Violin Sonata, and it became his first work to employ jazz influence: the second movement even bears the title “Blues.” The first movement, however, exposes us to another trend in the sonata: paradoxical contrast. The piano and violin at the opening are clearly in different keys. Respite from the tension of such passages comes in the classical cantilena theme laid out for us by the violin. Although both instruments develop this and the more tripping opening idea, they often sound like they are in different tonal orbits — this is the paradox Ravel achieves.

Banjo-like, the violin strums its chords at the opening of the “Blues” movement. With the piano picking up the chords, the violin is now free to “sing” the blues, for the most part using just one finger to get the proper idiomatic sliding effects. A steady beat and appropriate “blue notes” complete the composer’s commentary.

Ravel later reflected that he composed his sonata for two “essentially incompatible instruments, which not only do not sink their differences, but accentuate the incompatibility to an even greater degree.” In the perpetual motion of the third movement the composer emphasizes this contrast. He does not overlook jazz, however. Attentive listeners will hear in the piano, and later repeatedly in the violin, a blues “lick” (motive) also used prominently in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The Violin Sonata’s purposeful contrast between the sound of the two instruments, its bitonality, and its jazz idiom constitute new ground that Ravel had broken in his development. These also account for a paradox that commentator Gérald Messadiè terms “the piece’s sarcastic exuberance in spite of its sentimental, tender resonance. . . .”

Piano Trio

Maurice Ravel was never a prolific composer, and his output for chamber media was correspondingly sparse. After completing his String Quartet in 1903 as a student at the Paris Conservatoire, Ravel wrote little chamber music of significance until embarking on his Piano Trio in 1914. Early that year the composer retired to the countryside to work uninterrupted, but he soon developed problems. One was his preoccupation with a proposed piano concerto on Basque themes, which never materialized. Then, during the early summer, he seems to have experienced a form of “writer’s block,” and he became disgusted with his work on the Trio. Finally, when France entered World War I in August, Ravel became determined to finish the work quickly, so that he could volunteer for military service. He worked feverishly at the Trio during August and wrote to a friend, “I am working — yes, working with the sureness and lucidity of a madman. At the same time, I get terrible fits of depression and suddenly find myself sobbing over the sharps and flats!” By the end of the month, Ravel had finished what many consider to be one of the most significant chamber works of the 20th century.

In the first movement, cast roughly in sonata form, the most striking feature is the rhythm. The meter marking is 8/8, and the resulting asymmetrical rhythmic design of each measure is usually some variant of 3 + 2 + 3 eighth notes. This is the Bulgarian rhythm that Bartók used frequently, but it is also the rhythm of certain Basque dances which Ravel was pondering at the time he wrote the Trio.

Rhythm and meter are also critical factors in the second movement, “Pantoum.” A “pantoum” (or “phantoum”) is a poetic form, probably of Malayan origin, used by Baudelaire and other French poets. It consists of bringing back two lines of one quatrain in the following one, which gives the impression of two distinct ideas juxtaposed. Ravel carries out this principle in both the structure and the rhythm of this high-spirited movement. The alternations and combinations of mosaic themes of the movement are crowned in the middle by an extended passage in polymeter. Here, the strings continue in the original meter of 3/4, while the piano accompanies with rich chords in 2/2 time.

The third movement is a formally strict 20th-century adaptation of the Baroque French Passacaille, a contrapuntal variation form. The nature of this movement hints at why Ravel dedicated his Trio to André Gédalge, the famous contrapuntist and Ravel’s former teacher.

In the Trio’s brilliant finale, written in a free rondo form, asymmetrical rhythm again comes into play. Passages in 5/4 time alternate with 7/4 segments. Ravel also becomes more orchestral and virtuosic in this movement, with its shimmering cello tremolos and quick violin arpeggios. Rich, thick chords in the piano work rhythmically both with and against the strings to give the impression of “floating” meter, a feature that strongly unifies the entire Trio.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2021. All rights reserved.

Memory – program notes

Memory – program notes

Mason: In Memory (2020)

Quinn Mason (b. 1996) is a composer and conductor based in Dallas, Texas. He has studied at SMU with Dr. Lane Harder has also worked closely with distinguished composers David Maslanka, Libby Larsen, David Dzubay and Robert X. Rodriguez. His music has been performed in concert by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Utah Symphony Orchestra, South Bend Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Seattle, Mission Chamber Orchestra, loadbang, Voices of Change, Atlantic Brass Quintet, UT Arlington Saxophone quartet, the Cézanne, Julius and Baumer string quartets and concert bands of SMU, UNT and TCU. He has received awards from the American Composers Forum, Voices of Change, Texas A&M University, the Dallas Foundation, the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, the Heartland Symphony Orchestra, The Diversity Initiative and the ASU Symphony Orchestra. He is also a conductor, having studied with Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Will White, and has guest conducted Orchestra Seattle, the Brevard Sinfonia and the TCU Symphony Orchestra.

This piece wasn’t written about a specific time or person. It is meant to be a contemplation of memories past, which could be anything the listener/player desires – the viola acts as the voice that recalls these memories and reflects on them with tranquil, yet occasionally tumultuous introspection. Thus, this composition can speak to and work in any occasion.  

Quinn Mason

Schoenfeld: Café Music

Paul Schoenfeld (1947- ) is an American composer-pianist active also in Israel. Educated at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Arizona, Schoenfeld has concentrated much of his attention on piano music and chamber music involving the piano. He writes in a virtuoso style with fast tempos and complex textures. One writer has called his music “frenzied,” and the composer himself has remarked that his “is not the kind of music to relax to, but the kind that makes people sweat; not only the performer, but [also] the audience.”

In an effort to explore his Jewish roots, Schoenfeld has become interested in folk music, particularly the folk music of past Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe. (These were also sources for the musical Fiddler on the Roof.) The instrumental music of this culture is called “Klezmer” with a constantly evolving repertoire largely made up of dance songs for weddings and other celebrations.

Schoenfeld’s Café Music is heavily influenced by both the Klezmer tradition and American jazz of the 1920s-1930s — and this is a fascinating fusion. The first movement blends jazzy themes, ragtime rhythms, and the wildly virtuosic style of Klezmer bands, playing at breakneck speed most of the time.

The second movement is what might be called “low-down” in the blues tradition. Sad and blue, the music is nonetheless partially parody. Choosing a minor key, Schoenfeld also recalls the laments of Ashkenazic Jewish peoples — and this style dominates the second half of the movement.

Again frenetically energetic, the third movement launches as a more classically oriented piece. Here and there we hear snippets of Gershwinesque jazz, yet the dance-style underpinning is clearly Klezmer. The only breaks we have from this emotional frenzy are occasional smooth passages in a quasi-Impressionistic style. By the end, Café Music has been quite a ride in a unique blend of Old World and New World musical styles.

Schumann: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47

During his most productive periods, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) frequently composed clusters of works of a single musical type. In his “chamber music years” (1842-43), for example, Schumann wrote all of his string quartets and several works for piano and strings. During a particularly creative two-month period, Schumann “invented” the piano quintet by composing his E-flat Piano Quintet, Op. 44, also completing the Piano Quartet, Op. 47, in E-flat as well. Each of these works required only five days to sketch and another two weeks to complete. Both were written between October and November of 1843.

In this music, the relationship of piano to strings is sometimes unbalanced. Unlike the lighter piano parts in works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or Brahms, the piano is king with Schumann. Listeners may even have the impression that the E-flat Quartet is an extension of Schumann’s solo piano music, since the strings so often double the piano part or oppose it as a block.

In its brief sostenuto introduction, the Piano Quartet’s first movement gives us a small variety of mood snapshots, followed by the Allegro’s first theme, which Schumann presents in three distinct characters. All of them are “with energy and passion,” as Schumann’s directions indicate. The central development offers more cheerful/heroic moods and musical working-out. Before we know it, the principal music returns, abbreviated, and the movement ends in a bright, brave gesture.

The quartet’s Scherzo follows. Here is a perpetual-motion “Wild Horseman”-style opening, giving way to a graceful dialogue between piano and strings. The “Horseman” re-appears to mark the conclusion of this exciting music. 

The strings take the spotlight at the opening of the Andante. Then, the piano takes over with an “endless” melody, leading to a full-ensemble texture that seems to speak directly to the heart. The central section is a waltz-dialogue for strings with lilting flourishes from the piano. A cello solo is especially attractive, leading to the movement’s quiet, polite ending.

Counterbalancing the Quartet’s opening movement, the finale introduces a powerful fugue-like main theme. A smooth, but exciting section follows, and then we are back to the fugue, which now introduces a heroic-quality section that builds in excitement. The movement’s central section is smoother and more relaxed, though the tempo is still fairly fast. In several short segments, this music showcases all instruments. The fugue idea returns, now fragmented and developmental. In the final section, each instrument has a brief opportunity to show virtuosity, followed by a powerful, percussive conclusion.

Dr. Michael Fink 2020 (Schoenfield and Schumann notes)

Program Notes – Conversation

Program Notes – Conversation

Schumann, 5 Stücke im Volkston, Op. 94 (Five Pieces in Folk Style)

In the art songs of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), the composer makes the piano a more equal partner with the voice than any song composer had done before. We might even say that for Schumann, songs were an extension of his piano music, which, up to 1840 (the “song year”), was the only type of music he had composed. So it is with Schumann’s chamber music. Except the string quartets, every one of his chamber works employs the piano. In this music, the piano is at least an equal partner and often the predominant one. Good examples are the four chamber works he composed in 1849 as experiments for a solo instrument coupled with the piano: the Adagio and Allegro for horn (Op. 70), the Fantasiestücke for Clarinet (Op. 73), the Romanzen for oboe (Op. 94), and the Fünf Stücke im Volkston for cello (Op. 102).

The Five Pieces in Folk Style are miniatures containing the simplicity, bold expression, and broad humor of German folk songs and dances. The first, Mit Humor, is a jaunty piece dominated by anapest rhythms and a whimsical mood. In contrast, Langsam (slowly) is like a lullaby or meditative ballad focusing largely on the cello’s melody. The third piece, marked Nicht schnell (not fast), begins and ends as a little wistful waltz; then, surprisingly, the meter and mood change to become assertive and declarative. Nicht zu rasch (not too quickly), is one of Schumann’s passionate moments often associated with his manic side. In his writings and in the Davidsbundertänze for piano, he ascribed this mood to a character named “Florestan.” The final piece, marked Stark und markiert (strong and well-marked), is characterized by triplet rhythms — more dance than song. Again showing Florestan (now in an impetuous mood), this concluding music moves to strong chord progressions, both cello and piano asserting their individual but cooperative messages.

Beethoven, Violin Sonata in D Major, Op. 12

When Beethoven’s first set of three violin sonatas (Op. 12) went on sale at the end of 1798, the musical world of Vienna was no more ready for them than it had been for his previous music. A review of the sonatas written in June 1799 makes such statements as:

After having looked through these strange sonatas, overladen with difficulties . . . [I] felt . . . exhausted and without having had any pleasure. . . . Bizarre . . . Learned, learned and always learned — and nothing natural, no song . . . a striving for strange modulations. . . .

If Herr v. B. wished to deny himself a bit more and follow the course of nature he might, with his talent and industry, do a great deal for an instrument [the piano] which he seems to have so wonderfully under his control.

Such bad press obviously did not deter Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) from his vision. In all, he composed ten violin sonatas spread over his first and second style-periods, including the famous “Kreutzer” Sonata (Op. 47). The last violin sonata was composed in 1812 and published as Op. 96.

From the beginning of the D major Sonata, the violin and piano are on an equal footing, departing from the 18th-century convention of a predominant piano part. The main theme group is involved, but the second becomes a dialogue between the instruments. Suddenly, we are in a new key for the opening of the development section, which searches through successive modulations, finally finding the home key for the recapitulation. In the concluding pages of the movement, Beethoven again goes exploring harmonically before returning to D major to finish.

The second movement is a set of four variations on a delightful Andante theme shared by the violin and piano. In the first variation, the piano’s right hand seems to improvise new melodic twists to the theme. It is the violin’s turn to do this in the second variation. In the third (minore)variation, violin and piano seem locked in a competitive struggle amid sharp dynamic contrasts. The final variation presents a hymn-like melody, forecasting one of Beethoven’s most profound and effective gestures. The movement’s ending is more a postscript than a coda.

Beethoven begins his rondo finale in textbook form. Then, suddenly the violin turns to the minor mode, leading to a restless middle section. With a reprise in the major, again come several harmonic novelties and an unusually abrupt ending.

Mendelssohn, Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 66

“He has raised himself so high that we can indeed say he is the Mozart of the nineteenth century.” Those words were Robert Schumann’s reaction to the music of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), and particularly his feelings about Mendelssohn’s first piano trio (in D minor, Op. 49) written in 1839. Schumann’s readers must have agreed, for that work became one of Mendelssohn’s most famous. Six years later, he again turned his hand to the piano trio medium, this time producing the C minor Trio, Op. 66. It was composed in the same year as his famous Violin Concerto in E Minor and, thus, is one of Mendelssohn’s most mature works. The composer dedicated the trio to Louis Spohr, and they were known to have played it together.

Although the C minor trio has not received the unqualified raves enjoyed by the earlier work, it shows Mendelssohn’s growth during the intervening years. The first movement, with its very flexible thematic material, is a peak in Mendelssohn’s rise to technical perfection. Here, he treats his themes more contrapuntally than usual. After a routine slow movement, the composer unfolds a sparkling Scherzo reminiscent of the elfin Scherzos in the String Octet and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.

The trio’s finale is remarkable in many ways. Its principal theme was derived from the Gigue in Bach’s third English Suite. Mendelssohn’s adaptation, in turn, was quoted literally in Brahms’s Piano Sonata in F minor, and echoes of it may be heard in symphonic works by Bruckner and Mahler. During the finale’s development section, there is an unexplained appearance of the Lutheran chorale of death, Vor Deinen Thron. Did Mendelssohn foresee that he would die an early death? If so, the tempestuous mood of the movement suggests that his sentiments were a foretaste of poet Dylan Thomas, who wrote in the next century:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Michael Fink, copyright 2018