Program Notes: Treasure

Program Notes: Treasure

florence Price: String Quartet in G Major

Florence Price (née Smith) (1888-1953) is a significant Black composer of concert music. Among her many other honors, Price was the first African-American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra (the Chicago Symphony).

She hailed from near Little Rock, Arkansas, where she graduated high school (as valedictorian) at the age of 14. Moving on to Boston’s New England Conservatory, she studied piano and organ, composing her first symphony and graduating with honors (1906) with a double major in organ and music education. Professor/Composer George Whitefield Chadwick continued to be a mentor to Price for many years. Returning to Arkansas, Florence taught at the college level, and in 1912, she married attorney Thomas J. Price. Together they had two daughters and a son.

To escape racial oppression, the Price family moved to Chicago in 1927. There Florence began a long period of compositional activity. Notably, her Symphony in E minor won a major award and was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock, conducting. 

In 1931, the Prices divorced, and Florence soon moved in with her close friend, Margaret Bonds. At that point, Price’s most productive creative period began. In addition to orchestral, chamber, and piano music, she composed widely for the voice, leading to warm, valuable friendships with Black singers Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes. (Anderson would usually end her recitals with a Black spiritual as arranged by Price.) In 1964, Chicago honored Price (posthumously) by naming an elementary school after her.

The musical style of Price’s instrumental concert works is key-oriented, a holdover from the Romantic 19th century Other 20th-century composers who took this approach included Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, and Richard Strauss. Her frequent key changes and passages of thick, continuous counterpoint are reminiscent of the late-romantic, César Franck. 

The opening movement (Allegro) of Price’s G-Major String Quartet (1929) is almost a textbook of her style: frequent key changes, a great variety of musical themes and shorter ideas that flow quickly from one to another. Key changes sometimes occur in the middle of musical phrases, sweeping the listener’s ear very quickly from one soundscape to another.

The second movement is actually an Andante moderato liked to an Allegretto finale. The theme of the Andante is informed by the style of American folk songs. The Allegretto that follows starts with a trio of free improvisations on that theme, first lyrical, then dominated by pizzicato, finally, like a folk dance. A variant of the theme as a waltz, starting in a minor key, leads to an apotheosis and the quartet’s bright ending.

* *  *

In an introductory lecture at the first International Florence Price Festival (at SUNY-Fredonia, January 2020), Jordan Randall Smith commented:

It (almost) goes without saying: the music of composers like Beethoven and Brahms isn’t going anywhere. Cherished repertoire of the past will always have a welcoming space in the concert hall. That said, it is time to finally and fully celebrate the vibrant history of all women and all persons of color who have been the creators and performers of some of music’s greatest riches as a regular part of the concert going experience. We must endeavor to honor Florence Price as a pioneer and secure her place in the musical canon through a rigorous exploration of her music and a zealous advocacy for her legacy. 

edvard Grieg: String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 27

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) composed only about a dozen chamber works, notably his three violin sonatas. By comparison, the body of art songs he wrote seems enormous. It comprises 70 opus-numbered collections and probably an equal amount of unpublished songs. In one of his published sets, Op. 25, which were settings of poetry by Hendrik Ibsen, he revived a musical idea that earlier had been the opening flourish of his Piano Concerto in A Minor (1868). The song, “The Minstrel’s Song,” was based on a Norwegian legend about water sprites who lure minstrels to their waterfalls with the promise of revealing the secret mysteries of music, but only at the cost of their happiness. The possibility that Grieg considered this song text to be relevant to his own life is shown in his own words, “I used the beginning of the song as the core motive in the string quartet that was composed a short time later,” coupled with his later comment on the quartet, “Herein lies . . . a bit of a life story. . . .”

At the premiere, the audience loved it, but the critics hated it. This situation caused problems getting the work published. However, the music continued to be a success, admired by both Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Grieg’s chief publisher finally had to give in with some embarrassment.

The “Minstrel’s Song” motive becomes a motto for the entire work, figuring into each movement. The dramatic first movement introduction leads to an agitated main theme, a contrastingly sweet second theme (subtly incorporating the motto), and a playful third. The development is characterized by heavy emotional contrasts, as the main ideas are worked out. A reprise of the themes brings no surprises, except that near the end a high melody in the cello sings out the second theme accompanied by trembling high strings — perhaps echoing a water sprite?

Titles of the last three movements reflect Grieg’s penchant for “character” music. The second movement is a romanze. Here is Grieg the tunesmith, pealing out a sweet, graceful salon-style melody. But what are these agitated episodes made more emotional by their reliance on the motto? If the quartet is truly autobiographical, this contrast might reflect some of the inner conflicts that plagued Grieg throughout his life.

The intermezzo, third movement, like many by Brahms, stands in place of a classical scherzo/minuet. Grieg’s music reflects the folk dances of his native Norway, heard especially clearly in the central section. Here is Grieg the nationalist at his best.

Following a slow introduction, quick saltarello rhythms animate the finale. The saltarello was a 16th-17th century leaping dance (which also informed the finale of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony). Grieg’s music is lively but not as wild as an Italian saltarello. It serves here to bring the quartet to a bright conclusion with the motto adding weight to both the pensive introduction and the lively coda.

 

Emperor – Program Notes

Emperor – Program Notes

del Aguila: Cutting Limes

Miguel del Aguila (1957- ) has been characterized as “Philip Glass, but with a sense of humor.” Born in Uruguay, Aguila moved to the United States in 1978 to pursue his musical education. Following the completion of his B.A. from the San Francisco Conservatory, he spent ten years in Vienna studying, conducting, teaching, and performing as a pianist. Settling in Southern California in 1992, Aguila rapidly made a name for himself as a composer, winning accolades locally (Los Angeles Times Resident Music Man of the Year, 1994) and nationally (Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, 1995). Active also as a pianist/conductor, he has performed at New York’s Carnegie Recital Hall and Merkin Hall, and at Vienna’s Konzerthaus and
Bösendorfer Hall. In 1995, he became conductor and music director of the Ojai Camerata, a position he held for four years.

While he has great respect for the classical tradition, Aguila believes he must create the freshest, most spontaneous music he can. What results is a captivating interplay of classical balance and romantic excess. Aguila’s penchant for devising programs for his own works (which he usually does not disclose) further enhances his highly dramatic style in which musical ideas, always simple and recognizable, are pushed to extremes by propulsive rhythms and adventurous instrumentation.

About Cutting Limes, the composer writes:

Cutting Limes (Cortando Limones) for solo violin was written in 2015. It was commissioned, premiered and recorded by Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio. A five-minute-long work for unaccompanied violin, the piece showcases the rhythmic possibilities of the violin through complex chords, harmonics, alternating hands pizzicati and other extended techniques. Built on a simple modal theme the music has an Andean character. The unaccompanied violin imitates a range of Latin
American instruments such as charango, quena and Zampoña as well as the singing of a chicharra (cicada). As I was writing this piece, I kept visualizing the way in which the bow moved along the strings while performing this music. In my mind, it looked as if it was sawing the strings. When I sent the first draft (still untitled) to the violinist, Stephanie soon replied that she was unable to play it because she accidentally cut her fingers while cutting limes. I immediately felt that this was the perfect title of the piece as this dangerous movement of a knife cutting limes was similar to the sawing bow movements I visualized while composing this work.

Miguel del Aguila

Josef Bologne, Chevalier de St.-Georges: String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 1 No. 4

Chevalier de St.-Georges (1745 –1799) was born Josef Bologne, to a wealthy Caribbean French planter, Georges de Bologne, and his Black slave, Anne dite Nanon. Josef is presumed to be the first Black composer of European “art” music, including symphonies, violin concertos, chamber music, songs, and operas.

At the age of seven, his father took him to France, where he was educated and grew up, becoming prominent in several fields, including fencing, horsemanship, military leadership, violin playing, and composing music. As a young man, he received royal recognition, obtaining the title “Chevalier” [knight] and (honorary) Officer of the King’s Bodyguard. He was henceforth known as “Chevalier de St.-Georges.”

Very little is known about St.-George’s musical education. However, his name is connected to François Gossec. In 1773, Gossec turned over to St.-Georges directorship of the Concert des Amateurs (later re-named Le Concert Olympique), a small orchestra that St.-Georges trained to become the brightest musical attraction in Paris. Queen Marie Antoinette was one if its
patrons. While St. Georges was living at the mansion of the Duc d’Orlêans in 1777, Mozart also resided there for several months. Thus, it is very possible that the two composers enjoyed an acquaintance.

For Mozart and most other European freelance composers of the 18 th century, opera houses were the rough equivalent of Broadway for American composers of the 1920s-1960s. Thus, St.-George devoted considerable time and effort composing operas and trying to obtain performances of them with mixed success. In all, St.-Georges composed seven operas, always in
parallel with his efforts in instrumental music, including his final set of string quartets, Opus 14 (1785).

St.-Georges was in London at the fall of the Bastille in Paris (July 14, 1789), the start of the French Revolution. To aid the revolutionaries, he formed the Légion St.-Georges, made up completely of Black soldiers and officers.

During the 1790s, Josef took an active part in the revolution, leading a force of men of color for the revolutionaries. However, in 1793, he barely escaped the guillotine. Instead, he was imprisoned for “non-revolutionary activities,” i.e., performing music.

In 1796, St.-Georges plunged again into the world of concert music, creating a new symphony orchestra and playing violin solos. He died of complications from a bladder disease on June 12, 1799. Following his death, he was quoted as having declared, “Towards the end of my life, I was particularly devoted to my violin. Never before did I play it so well!”

Over time, St.-Georges has been called “The Black Mozart.” Some people disagree. Listen to his string quartet now, and YOU be the judge!

Kodály: Intermezzo

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967). (1882-1967) was a many-faceted musician and scholar, who made significant contributions in the fields of composition, ethnomusicology, elementary music education (the “Kodály Method”), and higher education (teaching and administration). He composed concert and religious music for a wide variety of vocal, chamber, orchestral, and operatic forms. He grew up several Hungarian towns, where he was exposed to a variety of native folk music. Around the turn of the 20 th century, Kodály collaborated with Béla Bartók in making folk-song collecting/recording trips through the countryside of Hungary. Together, they published a collection of songs from their findings in 1906. That was in the year following the composition of Kodály’s Intermezzo for String Trio. In this work, as in many to follow Central European folk music was a strong influence (as it was in the music of Bartók).

The Intermezzo consists of a chain of short thematic sections. The first recurs, such as in a rondo. The violin plays this pleasant, folksy melody, with a jaunty accompaniment by the viola and cello. The alternate sections, by contrast, are more lyrical and emotional, showing a vocal influence. Each return of the main theme has the same jaunty mood, but its instrumental presentation changes among the three players. The Intermezzo has no pretense of depth, but it
succeeds remarkably as entertaining, “feel-good” music.

Enesco: Aubade

Many regard George Enescu (1881-1955) as the greatest composer in the history of Rumania. At first a child prodigy on the violin, he made his debut at the age of eight, going on to study the violin and composition at the major conservatories of Vienna and Paris. In 1897, a concert of his works was given in Paris, and the following year the Cologne Concerts premiered
his Poème roumain, Op. 1. Despite his growing popularity in Paris, Enescu decided to dedicate himself to raising the level of music in his native country. He became a busy conductor there but continued also to compose.

Besides his famous Rumanian Rhapsodies for orchestra and a few nationalistic chamber works, Enescu composed extensively in a more “objective” chamber music vein. These works of varying dimensions span his entire creative life from the Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 2 (1897) to the Chamber Symphony, Op. 33 (1954). However, even these carry ethnic nuances, usually modes in place of traditional major/minor scales.

The French Aubade originated as morning music played by town musicians on the arrival of noble personages or high-ranking officials — a counterpart to an evening’s serenade. Gradually, it evolved into a kind of pastorale. Before Enescu’s 1899 Aubade, composers such a Gounod, Lalo, and Bizet had composed Aubaudes. Besides Enescu, 20th-century French composers such as Poulenc, Roussel, Milhaud, and Satie composed Aubades.

Enescu’s Aubade for string trio is a good example of his blend of traditional form elements and Rumanian ethnic nuances. While the cello and viola strum a lulling rhythmic accompaniment, the violin spins out the graceful main theme. The cello takes its turn with this charming melody, then hands it back to the violin. Now comes strong, brief reminiscences of Rumanian folk music, which introduces the development of established melodic ideas. Against the main theme from the violin comes an independent, new melody, spun out from the viola. Meanwhile the cello strums its original, main-theme accompaniment. Gradually, the viola comes to the fore, and the Aubade ends quietly as the trio bids a soft farewell.

Haydn: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76 No. 3 “Emperor”

The “Emperor” Quartet is probably the best known string quartet of among the works of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). While Haydn was in England (1790-1792 and 1794-1795), he became thoroughly impressed by the fervor with which the British people sang their national anthem, “God Save the King.” Encouraged by friends, Haydn pursued the idea, and a friend, Count Saurau, commissioned a text from poet L.L. Haschka. Haydn’s setting of these words made history.

The idea of a National Anthem was not unique to England and Austria; France also had one. It seemed good for Austria also to adopt a national hymn for increased morale in the face of Napoleon’s push through Europe. The anthem, “Gott! erhalte Franz den Kaiser” (God preserve the Emperor Francis) was premiered on February 12, 1797, the Emperor’s birthday. The hymn was an immediate sensation, and various arrangements of it could soon be heard throughout the country. Its later history is also noteworthy. In 1841, it was given new words, “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles,” which became the national anthem of Germany and Austria until after World War II. The tune continues today as Germany’s national hymn.

We must wait for the C Major Quartet’s second movement to hear it, however. The first movement is based chiefly on a single theme, which Haydn develops by putting it through several mood transformations. All the while, he makes virtuosic demands on the players.

All through the second movement, Haydn makes sure we can hear the famous national-anthem melody. Presented first in the topmost part of a hymnlike texture, it then sounds as a solo line in each of the variations. This strong melody is played by one violin (Var. 1), while the other etches a virtuoso part; is heard in the cello (Var. 2), while the other strings weave free line above it; appears in the viola (Var.3), surrounded by free countermelodies. In the final variation, the rich hymnlike texture returns, but soon Haydn shifts the instruments into a higher register, lending greater brilliance to the music, which contrasts with the quiet, dignified ending.

Haydn never ceased experimenting, and the Menuetto is a good example. The two violins play a melody in octaves, and the viola and cello soon echo that melody (also in octaves) in follow-the-leader fashion. The Trio middle section contrasts sharply by offering a chordal texture and dynamic nuances.

Another Haydnesque feature is the Hungarian flavor of the finale, something to be found in other of his chamber works. Syncopated rhythms here contribute to this essence. However, the movement also possesses the sophistication of an 18th -century drawing room. In all, we have the feeling that Haydn has made his mark with the “Emperor” movement, and the other three movements, although masterful, are frosting on the cake.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2020

Program Notes: Blueprint

Program Notes: Blueprint

Schnittke, Third String Quartet (1983)

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent contemporary composers. Born in Engels on the Volga, Schnittke studied at the Moscow Conservatory during the 1950s under Golubev and Rakov. From 1962 until 1972 he taught at the Moscow Conservatory. Since that time, Schnittke composed free-lance, occasionally teaching abroad. Schnittke’s style has been influenced by composers as diverse as Carl Orff and Luigi Nono. He has produced a sizeable oeuvre including symphonies, chamber works, choral music, and four violin concertos which have been championed by Gidon Kremer.

The Third String Quartet was commissioned by the Mannheim Gesellschaft für Musik and composed during the summer of 1983. The Eder Quartet premiered it in Mannheim in May 1984. The work exemplifies Schnittke’s current concern to reconcile tradition and historical awareness with modern musical language and procedures. To this end, the quartet begins as three quotations from historical contexts: (1) a cadence from a Stabat Mater by Orlandus Lassus, (2) the principal theme from Beethoven’s Grosse fuge, Op. 133, and (3) the note sequence D, E-flat, C, B-natural, which Shostakovich used in a few works as a motto of his own name (in German spelling: D, Es, C, H, suggesting the abbreviation, D. Sch).

In the first movement, Schnittke keeps these fragments quite distinct, commenting on each and exploring their implications. The balance between consonance and dissonance and between tonality and non-tonality is a delicate one maintained masterfully throughout these explorations.

The second movement (Agitato) proceeds without a pause. In it, Schnittke begins to transform the thematic material, injecting more of himself into the music and with more immediacy than before. The contrast between emotionally charged rhythmic passages with those that seem to suspend the music in time is particularly striking.

Again without pause, the last movement (Pesante) pounds forth with its opening stamping chords. Fragmentary, cryptic references to the historical themes are sometimes perceptible, but the emphasis falls on Schnittke’s style and what it has learned from the precedent masters that the composer has chosen to inform his work.

Shaw, Blueprint (2016) 

The youngest composer ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music is Caroline Shaw (1982- ). At age 30, she received this honor for her a cappella vocal work Partita for 8 Voices. In addition to composing, Shaw is active as a violin soloist, chamber musician, and ensemble singer, chiefly with the group Roomful of Teeth, for whom she composed Partita. Her recent commissions include works for Carnegie Hall, the Guggenheim Museum, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. She has also collaborated frequently with Kanye West. Shaw has studied at Princeton, Rice, and Yale Universities.

Shaw most often composes for a particular artist or ensemble, crafting her music to a degree on aspects of the artist/ensemble revealed through personal encounters. Blueprint was composed for the Aizuri Quartet, which played its world premiere in April 2016 at Wolf Trap Vienna, VA). The title of this seven-minute work uses that quartet’s name as a springboard for Blueprint. However, the work also relates closely to an early string quartet by Beethoven. As Shaw explains:

The Aizuri Quartet’s name comes from “aizuri-e,” a style of Japanese woodblock printing that primarily uses a blue ink. In the 1820s, artists in Japan began to import a particular blue pigment known as “Prussian blue.” . . . The story of aizuri-e is one of innovation, migration, transformation, craft, and beauty. Blueprint, composed for the incredible Aizuri Quartet, takes its title from this beautiful blue woodblock printing tradition as well as from that familiar standard architectural representation of a proposed structure: the blueprint. This piece began its life as a harmonic reduction — a kind of floor plan — of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 6 [“La Malinconia”]. As a violinist and violist, I have played this piece many times, in performance and in joyous late-night reading sessions with musician friends. . . . Chamber music is ultimately about conversation without words. We talk to each other with our dynamics and articulations, and we try to give voice to the composers whose music has inspired us to gather in the same room and play music. Blueprint is also a conversation — with Beethoven, with Haydn (his teacher and the “father” of the string quartet), and with the joys and malinconia of his Op. 18, No. 6.

Beethoven, Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, no. 1

The six works of Op. 18 represent Beethoven’s first burst of energy in the direction of the string quartet. At the time of writing (1798-1800), Beethoven had many occasions to experiment with the medium and to hear his music when the ink was barely dry. He regularly attended the quartet sessions of Prince Lichnowsky and Emmanuel Förster, a composer who exerted a degree of influence upon young Beethoven. There, a group of musicians was placed at Beethoven’s disposal, giving him opportunities rarely afforded a composer.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed the F Major Quartet second in the series, but he placed it at the head of the set because of its size and impressiveness. This work stems from 1799, and Beethoven dedicated its initial version to his friend, Karl Amenda. Two years later, the composer revised it with the statement, “I have just learned how to write quartets properly.”

The most impressive feature of the first movement is its initial “turn” motive. Beethoven intensively experimented with different versions of this idea, covering no fewer than 16 pages in his sketch books. At last, he devised a motive that music scholar Joseph Kerman says “behaves like a coiled spring, ready to shoot off in all directions. . . .” Although this motive dominates the movement with its 104 occurrences, there is a rich abundance of other thematic ideas. Kerman states that the movement’s mood “owes much to the perilous effort of holding all this material together.”

Beethoven did not give “names” to much of his music, but he occasionally had some extra-musical idea in mind. At the end of one sketch of this quartet’s Adagio, Beethoven wrote, “les deriers soupirs,” “the last breaths.” Reportedly, he interpreted this to his friend, Amenda, with the words, “I thought of the scene in the burial vault in Romeo and Juliet.” Broad theatrical emotion is rampant throughout the movement, but especially in the development, which romanticizes its themes as no quartet ever had before.

The size and emotional range of the Scherzo are slight in comparison with the preceding movements. However, as a witty respite, it works well. In the Trio section, a “limping” motive, adds a humorous touch.

Beethoven inherited from Haydn two responsibilities for the finales to early works such as this: They must be effervescent, and they must be sharply rhythmic or dance-like. The finale to the F Major Quartet fills both requirements — and then some. To balance the magnitude of the first movement, Beethoven here provides a lengthy sonata-rondo form with well-contrasted themes. The verve and directed energy of this finale provide an appropriate finish to a monumental accomplishment in chamber music.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2019

Program Notes: Unabashed

Program Notes: Unabashed

Schumann, String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, no. 3

During his most productive periods, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) would concentrate on a single musical medium over an extended time. For example, we are acquainted with his “song year” (1840) and his “symphony year” (1841). During his “chamber music years” (184243), Schumann composed the three string quartets of Op. 41 plus several other works. He wrote the quartets in less than two weeks.

As was his habit before embarking on a new medium, Schumann immersed himself in the music of that medium by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Possibly, one of the Haydn quartets he studied was the D minor “Quinten” (Op. 76, no. 2), since the interval of a falling fifth is important in Schumann’s first movement, as in Haydn’s. This “sighing” or so-called “Cla-ra” motive is prominent in the introduction and in both of the principal themes and becomes a motto permeating the entire movement.

The second movement is a set of variations on a theme not explicitly stated until after the first three variations: a restless agitato, a Schumannesque galloping variation, and a fugato. After stating the theme, the composer presents a final broad-rhythm waltz variation.

In the third movement, Schumann’s harmonic genius is prominent as he fleshes out an otherwise undistinguished first theme. Here (as in most of the quartet) all instruments play most of the time. Wisely, Schumann thins the texture in much of the dotted-rhythm middle section, allowing the first violin and viola to hold a close dialogue.

Critic A.E.F. Dickinson has called the fourth movement of this quartet “a well-organized ballet-movement rather than a finale.” Whether one agrees or not, the dance impulse of the movement is indisputable. This movement in rondo form is highly sectionalized and repetitive, often giving full voice to the stamping main theme. In contrast, digressions appear: delicate, balletic rhythms; minor-key gypsy-like strains; and a “Quasi Trio” (Schumann’s marking), which undeniably is a Gavotte. The main theme is at last developed during a long coda that caps this ingratiating quartet.

Klughardt, Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 43

The composer-conductor August Klughardt (1847-1902) studied music at his birthplace, Cöthen, Desau, and Dresden. His career consisted mainly on a series of appointments as a conductor, usually in theaters and opera houses. Probably the most significant of these was his 1869 appointment at Weimar, where he formed a close friendship with Franz Liszt. Under the influence of Liszt, Klughardt developed an appreciation of Wagner and actually met him in 1873. Klughardt attended the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 and heard The Ring. It made an indelible impression on him, and the new Wagnerian style became an ingredient in his own music, including chamber works. He became a “progressive traditionalist,” perhaps the sort of composer that many critics wished Brahms had become.

The Piano Quintet in G Minor was premiered in Cöthen in 1884. Its success snowballed with performances in Leipzig and Dresden leading the way to international performances and celebrity. As one critic wrote, “Having heard it, we understand the immense success this masterful work has had in the concert hall and in the salon.”

Following an introduction exploring various shady moods, the opening Allegro bursts forth with a series of heroic themes and transition. By contrast, the cello leads in presenting the sweet second theme, which soon breaks into a heroic concluding thematic group. This also introduces a development section that glorifies several of the themes and fragments of them. Almost imperceptibly, the recapitulation occurs – more seasoned by the recent development. We hear themes presented more excitedly than earlier as the movement drives to a climactic finish.

The Adagio starts with an ultra-lyrical “song without words” that spotlights the instruments singly and together. A heroic-style transition brings another songlike section, which soon changes to a piano-led lyrical recap of the first theme in brief, as the movement’s coda.

The spirit of Schumann hangs attractively over the first section of the mode3rato third movement. A hymn-like central section focuses on strings alone at first, the answered by the piano and full ensemble in dialogue. A reprise of the first section shows dramatic contrasts between a big, spikey statement and a song-like coda.

Allegro non troppo, the final movement opens march-like with melody and counter-melody. A brief second section is more lyrical, returning before long to the heroic march, enhanced by counterpoint. A sudden change to triple meter sets off the central section a short lyrical break. Heroics return briefly, only to dissolve into a fugue on ideas from the opening melodies. A developmental reprise of the second section leads back to heroics, now enhanced by counterpoint, but dissolves into memories of other ideas in the movement. These become faster and excited, finishing finally in the quintet’s grand ending.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2020

 

Virtuosity Program Notes

Virtuosity Program Notes

Weinberg, Capriccio for String Quartet, Op. 11

Surely, Russia’s best known modern composers were Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. However, a third composer from their era, previously little known in the West, is now a rising star: Mieczław (Moisey) Weinberg (1919-1996).

Weinberg was a child of the Warsaw Ghetto. At the age of 12, he entered the Warsaw Conservatory, where he studied the piano but also began composing. With the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Weinberg fled (on foot) to Minsk (Belarus), where he studied composition at the conservatory for two years before relocating in Tashkent. There he married and also met Shostakovich, with whom he formed a close lifelong friendship. Weinberg wrote, “It was as if I had been born anew…. Although I took no lessons from him, Dmitri Shostakovich was the first person to whom I would show each of my new works.” After the war, the Weinbergs and Shostakoviches moved to Moscow, where they became next-door neighbors. Beginning in 1948, several composers, including Weinberg, were black-listed by Stalin’s regime, and in February 1953, he was jailed. Shostakovich wrote a letter on his behalf to an official he knew, and that must have delayed Weinberg’s inevitable execution. Stalin himself died the following month, and Weinberg was soon released.

Weinberg was extremely prolific with over 150 opus numbers, including 25 symphonies, seven operas, film scores, and a vast amount of chamber music. Concerning his musical style, biographer Lyudmilla D. Nikitina writes:

Weinberg’s compositional style is influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Bartók, and Mahler; his works are often based on a program, largely autobiographical in nature, and they reflect on the fate of the composer and of humanity in general…. For all the importance of … the programmatic nature of many works and the occasional Slavic and Jewish thematic materials, his music has an absolute — even abstract — quality, with similar themes able to assume varied semantic hues in given environments

In the Capriccio, Weinberg’s stylistic debt to Shostakovich is apparent from the outset. The backdrop of the entire composition is a sardonic waltz, frequently punctuated by changes in meter that upset the waltz character of the music. Melodies are slightly wild (reflecting influences of both Shostakovich and Prokofiev). At the piece’s center comes a string of more primitive accompanied melodies (the waltz’s “Trio”?) Then the music returns to the lighter sardonic attitude of the opening to round out this very fun piece.

Arensky, String Quartet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 11

About the biography of Anton Arensky (1861-1906), one writer states:

The circumstances of Arensky’s life read like the pages of a Dostoyevskian Russian novel — a brilliant talent, fostered under the tutelage of the great Rimsky-Korsakov, degenerating into a life of drinking, gambling, and dissolution, leading to oblivion and death in a Finnish sanatorium, aged 45.

Not only was Arensky’s musical training prestigious, but so was his teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. Among his students, he could number Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Gliere. From Moscow, Arensky went on to direct the Imperial Chapel in St. Petersburg, retiring in 1901 with a generous pension. Unfortunately, his alcoholism and gambling addiction led to a rapid decline and an early death. Of him, his Moscow Conservatory colleague Tchaikovsky remarked, “Arensky is a man of remarkable gifts, but morbidly nervous and lacking in firmness, and altogether a strange man.”

Arensky composed his String Quartet No.1 in 1888, and it was already the work of a masterful composer. Yet, the overall plan and in the forms of individual movements he chose show a somewhat student –like adherence to Classical Period ideals. For example, the first movement uses a repeated exposition and a conventionally worked-out development. Nevertheless, the musical experience is fresh and engaging.

Beginning hymn-like, the second movement then unfolds into a multi-voiced lyrical essay. In a sense, we are hearing a “song without words,” such as made famous by Mendelssohn. This becomes a drawn-out coda to the whole movement.

Think of it as either a fast waltz or a slow scherzo, the third movement is full of wit as well as academic (but sincere) counterpoint. The movement’s ending is especially warm and witty.

Philip Ying of the Ying String Quartet offers this insightful description of the last movement:

A Russian element makes its appearance in the Finale, with its variations on a Russian theme. These bring their surprises, not least in the traditional folk texture suggested by the plucked accompaniment in one variation and the later fragmentation of the theme, before a cadenza and the return of the theme in a mood of mounting excitement, leading to an emphatic and vigorous conclusion.

Tchaikovsky, Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50

Chamber music, according to the books, is the most classic of musical media. We read terms like “purity of style,” “objective,” “music for music’s sake,” etc. It is true that most chamber-music composers have adhered to classical forms, yet the intimate character of chamber music allows the composer much personal latitude. This “personal” side seems almost paradoxical, especially when taken to the extreme of being biographical or autobiographical, as happens with much of the late 19th and 20th century chamber music that we hear.

The Tchaikovsky Trio — the only one he wrote — “deals with” Nikolay Rubinstein, and Tchaikovsky’s reaction to his sudden death in 1881. Nikolay Rubinstein, brother of Anton, was Director of the Moscow Conservatory. The Trio is dedicated “à la memoire d’un grand Artiste,” and although the first of its two movements is titled “Pezzo elegiaco,” the work is not so much a sincere tombeau to his friend as it is a representation of Tchaikovsky’s emotional reaction to his death. The composer wrote to his brother, Modest, “To my shame, I must admit that I was suffering not so much from a sense of fearful, irretrievable loss as from the dread of seeing poor Rubinstein’s body.” The year before, Mme. von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patron, had asked for a piano trio, but Tchaikovsky declined because he did not think the combination was an acceptable setting for the piano. Now he would write a Trio in which the piano is so predominant that at times it obscures the violin and cello lines.

We shall not indulge in an analysis of the trio, but the second movement deserves some comment. It is a set of variations and finale on a Russian folk tune. Since for many years Tchaikovsky would allow the Piano Trio to be performed only in private, the supposed “program” of this movement was not generally known. This raised some skepticism, and one critic wrote:

The variations of the Trio figure a representation of the episodes of Nikolay Grigorievich’s [Rubinstein’s] life. . . . How amusing! To compose music without the slightest desire to represent something and suddenly to discover that it represents this or that, it is what Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme must have felt when he learned that he had been speaking in prose all his life.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2019