C.P.E. Bach, Würtemberg Sonata No. 1 in A Minor
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s “Württemberg Sonatas” were named after their dedication to Carl Eugen Duke of Württemberg who studied with Bach at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin. They were published in 1744. Together with the “Prussian Sonatas” published two years earlier, the “Württemberg Sonatas” are undoubtedly some of the most significant German piano works among the general piano art music of the 18th century, and they clearly stand out from the expressive and playful rococo style of his times.
Concerning the earliest pianos of his time of his time, C. P. E. Bach wrote his impressions in his famous book, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments:
The new Forte pianos, when they are resistant and well-made, have many advantages, though their mechanism must be studied carefully and not without difficulty. They do well when played alone and in [ensemble] music not too loud.
Yet he generally preferred the harpsichord for solo keyboard performance.
For the first movement of the A Minor Sonata the music marked Moderato, that is, moderately fast. Yet Bach seemingly contradicts this direction by emphasizing runs and chord outlines in very fast notes. In fact, “figures,” such as chord outlines and scales, dominate the music most of the time. Like a Scarlatti keyboard sonata, this movement is constructed in two halves, each repeated.
The Andante that follows is (in contrast) very sweet and melodic. We
are hearing the “inner” C.P.E. Bach. Although the melody seems to wander at times, the composer is in control, shaping the music by bringing back the opening melody to initiate the middle third of the movement. The final third starts as a quiet meditation, then forte for a declarative ending.
The sonata’s finale, Allegro assai (very fast), restores the energy of the first movement and adds to it some of the melodic values of the middle movement. In form, the finale follows somewhat the binary structure we experienced in the opening movement, thus binding the ideals of both previous essays. Now C.P.E. Bach displays the kind of wit that made Haydn’s finales famous in the next generation.
Brahms, Seven Fantasies, Op. 116
In 1853, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) first met and came under the influence of Robert Schumann. After that, Brahms wrote no more sonatas for solo piano, but rather concentrated on variations and, along the path of Schumann, shorter piano pieces. Toward the end of his life, Brahms once again devoted much attention to the short piano piece. In 1892, he wrote 20 works for the instrument which were published as Opp. 116, 117, 118, and 119, and have been called Brahms’s “children of Autumn.”
Rather than using Schumannesque pictorial titles, Brahms gives his pieces more generic labels, chiefly “Intermezzo” and “Capriccio.” The Intermezzos are usually in a slow or moderate tempo, and their mood is often wistful or nocturnal. The Capriccios, on the other hand, are brilliant concert etudes. In character, they are sometimes bright, sometimes stormy, but always technically demanding. Here is a brief description of the Fantasien, Op. 116:
No. 1, Capriccio: “Defiant and unruly” with heavy octaves and brusque chords, this piece is reminiscent of the “Edward” Ballade and may have been composed earlier than the rest.
No. 2, Intermezzo: A “whimsical” first section contrasts with a lament of “wistful loneliness” in the second. Clara Schumann was particularly fond of this piece.
No. 3. Capriccio: Somewhat austere arpeggios in the outer minor sections give way to a majestic, sweeping central episode in the major mode.
No. 4. Intermezzo: Brahms once considered calling this a “Nocturne.” It is almost a pure improvisation on its opening two ideas.
. No. 5: Intermezzo: “One is positively rocked by it, as in a cradle,” remarked Clara Schumann. Cross-rhythms and overlapping hands are some of the technical difficulties in this deceptively simple-looking piece.
No. 6. Intermezzo: Of all the Brahms Intermezzi, this may be the most typical in mood (graceful, pensive) and one of the simplest in form (A-B-A).
No. 7. Capriccio: To end the set comes a fast, restless movement. Its syncopated middle section, at once tender and fantastic, again pays homage to Robert Schumann,
Brahms’s pianistic mentor.
Tchaikovsky, Dumka in C Minor
(Scenes from a Russian Village) for Piano, Op. 59
Originating in Ukraine, the Dumka became popular with Slavic and Russian composers during the late 19th Century. Notably, the Czech nationalist Dvořák used it as the basis of three works. Russian composers Mussorgsky, Balakirev, and Peter I. Tchaikovaky (1840-1893) were also attracted to its sudden alternations between slow, tragic sections and fast, athletic dances. Tchaikovsky composed his Dumka in 1886 in response to a request from Parisian publisher Félix Mackar. The following year Mackar received a copy of the piece and probably brought about the Dumka’s premiere at a Parisian concert that year.
Tchaikovsky’s opening section may remind us of tragic epic poems. The music wants to tug at our heart-strings. Slow, wandering phrases finally give way to a counterpoint between a reprise of the tragic melody now coupled with a flitting, improvisation-style tune in the piano’s upper range. Coming down to mid-range, dissolving into pure accompaniment supporting the ongoing sorrowful melody.
The first dance section follows, perhaps seeming trivial compared with the first section. Block chords lead to a faster dance and new melodies occupy our attention. One melody in a moderate tempo emerges to seize our attention. Then, pure pianism takes center stage to begin developing some previous musical ideas.
Now we hear a reprise of something familiar, yet it has been re-dressed in dark block chords. Sudden stop! A sparse, sad tune comes, supported only by occasional, choppy, low chords. These dominate now, as the music reaches an abrupt conclusion.
Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition
It is difficult to conceive that the piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition written in 1874 by Modeste Mussorgsky (1839-1881), had to wait until after the composer’s death to be published. The origin of Pictures at an Exhibition goes back to 1873. That year saw the death of Victor Hartmann, architect and artist, who was a close friend of Mussorgsky’s. The composer expressed his sorrow at the loss to Russian critic Vladimir Stassov, who had first introduced them. The following year Stassov helped to arrange an exhibition of 400 of Hartmann’s watercolors and drawings in St. Petersburg. From this collection, Mussorgsky chose eleven works on which to build his suite, introducing some of the movements with a recurring “Promenade” theme. The “Promenade,” as explained by Stassov, represents the composer “walking now right, now left, now as an idle person, now urged to go near a picture; at times his joyous appearance is dampened as he thinks in sadness of his departed friend. . . .”
“The Gnome” is the sketch of a nutcracker in the shape of a deformed gnome. “The Old Castle” (following a “Promenade”) portrays a medieval Italian castle with a singing troubadour in the foreground.
“Tuileries” (following another “Promenade”) shows a crowd of children and nursemaids in the famous Parisian park. Mussorgsky’s subtitle reads: “Dispute of the Children after Play.” “Bydlo” portrays a Polish peasant wagon with giant wooden wheels drawn by oxen. “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” (following a “Promenade”) was based on a design for a child’s ballet costume, which is a shell from which only the head and limbs protrude. “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” contrasts strongly with the previous section and stems from two pictures the artist gave to Mussorgsky (now lost). “Limoges — The Marketplace” shows a group of women gossiping by their pushcarts amid hustle and bustle.
“Catacombs,” a picture of the Paris catacombs, led Mussorgsky to inscribe, “The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me toward skulls, apostrophizes them — the skulls are illuminated gently in the interior.” “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua” (With the Dead in a Dead Language), a continuation of the catacombs motif, reworks the “Promenade” theme into an eerie character piece.
“The Hut on Fowls’ Legs” is a drawing of a clock in the shape of the hut of Baba-Yaga, the Russian witch. Toward the end of the section, Mussorgsky suggests the witch flying. When she lands, it is squarely on the downbeat of the final section, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” This was Hartmann’s design for an ancient-style gate, complete with decorative cupola and a triumphal procession marching through the arches (represented by the “Promenade” theme). The full mass of the piano’s resources comes together here to give Pictures at an Exhibition a majestic conclusion.
Program notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2020/2022. All rights reserved.
The first half of Camerata’s program, in the University of the Incarnate Word concert hall, featured string quartets by two composers from off the beaten path. The first-rate musicians were violinist Matthew Zerweck and Anastasia Parker, violist Emily Freudigman, and cellist Ken Freudigman.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish Jew who fled to the Soviet Union in 1939 and became a friend of Shostakovich, has been gaining notice in recent years. He is probably best known for his powerful Holocaust opera The Passenger, whose planned 1968 premiere was scuttled by Soviet authorities; performed for the first time in 2006 in a Moscow semi-staging, it has since received several important productions, including its US premiere at Houston Grand Opera. His brief Capriccio, Op. 11, for string quartet, was composed in 1943. This charming, lyrical music bears some superficial resemblance to Shostakovich, but deep down it is neoclassical, almost Haydnesque, but with modern harmonies that recall Richard Strauss.
Anton Arensky was a tragic figure, showing brilliant talent when he was young, but soon trapped by addictions to alcohol and gambling. He died in 1906 at age 45. His String Quartet No. 1 of 1888 reveals a master of harmony, a fertile musical imagination. and – like the Weinberg piece, a debt to Haydn. Of its four movements, the second, marked Andante sostenuto, is especially interesting for a sweetly lyrical but grounded sentimentality, rather like a film by Ozu. Metaphorical sparks flew from Mr. Zerweck’s violin in the fourth movement, Variations on a Russian Theme.
Pianist Viktor Valkov joined Mr. Zerweck and Mr. Freudigman in the concert’s final work, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor. The performance was big and fearless in every way. Individually and as an ensemble, these guys left nothing on the table.
Read the entire review by Mike Greenberg at incidentlight.com
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