Contrasts program notes

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

All rights reserved

All Shostakovich Program notes

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.

-LeraAuerbach.com

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.

Malcolm MacDonald

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.

Dmitry Shostakovich

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

All rights reserved

PROGRAM NOTES: POSTCARDS

Wallen: Five Postcards

Errollyn Wallen – “renaissance woman of contemporary British music” (The Observer) – is as respected as a singer-songwriter of pop influenced songs as she is a composer of contemporary new music. The motto of Errollyn’s Ensemble X, ‘we don’t break down barriers in music… we don’t see any,’  reflects her genuine, free-spirited approach.  Commissions have ranged from the BBC to the Royal Opera House, for BBC’s The Last Night of the Proms (2020), the London Symphony Orchestra, Leipzig Ballet and most recently, the pop band Clean Bandit.  Her most recent EP Peace on Earth was released by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Errollyn has won numerous awards for her music including the Ivor Novello Award for Classical Music. In 2007 she was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire and in 2020 awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, both for services to music. “Five Postcards” was commissioned in 2010 by the Miller-Porfiris Duo.  The third movement is based on Errollyn’s song “Off the Map.”

-MP2 Music

Schickele: Little Suite for Autumn

On more than one occasion, while visiting my alma mater, Swarthmore College,my lodgings have been the home of Gil and Mary Stott, and a homier home is hard to imagine. The Little Suite for Autumn was written as a “thank you” present – bread-and-butter notes, if you will – after one such visit in October, 1979. A lot of music, writing, art and cooking has gone on in that house; neither one of them is lazy, so I thought I’d let Gil (violin) and Mary (viola) work a little (or at least play a little) for my thanks. 

-Peter Schickele

Puts: Arches

Commissioned by Chee-Yun and Spoleto USA, Arches was premiered by Chee-Yun at Seoul Arts Center, Seoul Korea in October 2000. In its alternation between “caprices” and “arias”, the work moves between the poles of virtuosity and lyricism throughout. The title was suggested by the symmetrical form of the piece (Caprice—Aria—Caprice—Aria—Caprice) and by the key scheme which supports this symmetry and the many arch-like figures that arise. The only pause in the work occurs after the first Caprice.

-Kevin Puts

strauss: Piano Quartet, Op. 13

The major orchestral music of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was concentrated early but revived throughout his career, and his concertos came both early and late. Strauss’s chamber music, however, was sparse with only four major works, all composed before the 1890s: a string quartet, a cello sonata, a violin sonata, and the Piano Quartet. The Piano Quartet owed much to Brahms’s piano quartets, yet it ranks high in Strauss’s complete catalogue. Composed in 1885, the Quartet took shape the year in which he met Alexander Ritter (composer and violinist), who endeavored to convince Strauss to pursue a compositional style in keeping with Wagner and Liszt (rather than Schumann and Mendelssohn).

Deceptively quiet, the short musical introduction suddenly explodes into the first movement’s exposition. Now, energetic themes vie with sentimental or playful ones, building to restatements of the first theme and others, finally quieting before a reappearance of the exposition, which spills into a full development. Here, drama and playfulness vie for our favor, then flow together in support of thematic growth and sentimental recall of themes. Seamlessly, Strauss recapitulates his thematic material in the final minutes, which effectively sew up his musical message, ending with a majestic, pounding flourish.

Scherzo: Presto marks the start of a musically athletic movement. Here Strauss has not forgotten Mendelssohn at all. Particularly in the piano part, we hear echoes of pixies and fairies reflecting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The music proceeds just as “pixelated,” continuing the rapid tempo and lightly jabbing notes. Following a brief transition, strings come to the fore, and the more lyrical central section proceeds. Led by the violin, each instrument takes a turn presenting a short phrase. Strauss hints that he is winding thing up, as he returns to the rollicking mood of the first section. Brief snippets soon take form recalling earlier ideas, and the music concludes with a smart flourish.

The beginning of the Andante may remind us of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words.  First the piano, then individual strings, play fragmentary, heart-breaking phrases. Again, the piano leads the ensemble into some fragmentary ideas that expand now into a full melody. A rhapsodic new stating point introduces a development that mixes and alternates prior ideas, finally reaching the movement’s apotheosis and fragmentary coda ending.

All the preceding points to what? — the Vivace Finale. Fragmentary yet driven, the music excites and entrances. Dynamically forceful, the opening section eventually gives way to a melodic general developmental discussion among all the instruments.  The piano now takes the spotlight, momentarily, then invites all the strings to joint in the final coda, which tops all with its brilliance.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2021

All rights reserved

 

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.

PROGRAM NOTES – VICTORIAN TWILIGHT

COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: FANTASIESTÜCKE FOR STRING QUARTET, OP. 5

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was a black English composer-conductor of considerable talent and, in his day, a widespread reputation. Educated at the Royal Conservatory of Music (largely under scholarship), Coleridge-Taylor began to compose and achieve performances as early as 1893. Soon after leaving the Conservatory in 1897, he began to make a reputation as both a composer and conductor of choral music. Commissions from many English choral festivals came his way, and by 1910 he was famous enough as a conductor to be dubbed “The Black Mahler.”

At the time Coleridge-Taylor lived, exoticism was in high fashion and many composers were finding an identity in the music of their cultural roots. However, his idol was Anton Dvořák. Like Dvořák, he became fascinated with American Indians, especially in presentations like Longfellow’s poetry. Thus, his most famous works were a series of choral and orchestral pieces based on Hiawatha.

Coleridge-Taylor felt drawn to the United States in spite of prevailing prejudices. After a tour in which he was feted by no less than the President himself, the composer thought of emigrating, writing to a friend, “That which you and many others have lived in for so many years will not quite kill me. I am a great believer in my race.” The Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, established in Washington, DC in 1901, is testimony that his race was (and is) also a great believer in him.

As the German spelling suggests, the 5 Fantasiestüke were inspired by Robert Schumann’s two sets of piano miniatures, which he titled Phantasiestüke (Fantasy Pieces). Composed in 1896 for strings, Coleridge-Taylor’s moderate-size essays explore many coloristic possibilities in a string ensemble. 

The first movement, “Prelude,” Is structured in varied sections, which are sometimes contrasted in content and mood. “Prelude’ is inspired greatly by Schumann. Full of sweetness, its themes, alone and in counterpoint, reflect Schumann’s sensitivity.

No.2, “Serenade,” has a more wandering structure with each of the instruments lending mutual support. They explore several different melodies, as if walking along through newly discovered musical places.

No. 3, “Humoresque,” is a pixie scherzo in the manner of Mendelssohn. Though digressions from the main theme provide more forceful humor, the composer never loses sight of the Mendelssohnian ideal.

No. 4, “Minuet.” Trills and other decorations adorn this charming impression of the courtly 18th century. However, the Romantic-style harmonies and long-lined melodies place the music back in the hands of Coleridge-Taylor.

No.5, “Dance,” demonstrates the perennial imprint of the dance on concert-music finales. Coleridge-Taylor, however, places his own personal imprint on this music. Full of verve, the plentiful variety of themes and smaller musical ideas show the composer’s mastery of his medium as well as well as his ability to move his listeners.

BRIDGE: PIANO QUINTET IN D MINOR

Frank Bridge (1879-1941) Is not as well known to American audiences as perhaps he ought to be. He grew up at a time when Charles Stanford was the predominant English composer, and Bridge studied with Stanford during all of his four years at the Royal College of Music (1899-1903). Between then and the start of World War I (1914) Bridge was largely overshadowed by Edward Elgar, whose Pomp and Circumstances marches (for which he was knighted in 1904). Nevertheless, Bridge developed as a composer during the first decade of the 20th century.

The Piano Quintet came into being during that time. Bridge completed the four-movement first version in 1904, and it received some private insignificant public performances. However, the composer was dissatisfied with it, and put the work away until 1912. During those years, Bridge concentrated on playing the viola professionally and conducting, and he was considered one of the most gifted figures on the British music scene.

In 1912, Bridge retrieved and re-thought his Piano Quintet — we might even say “re-composed” the work, since revisions of the even proportion were radically revised. For example, the original to middle movements were melded into a single A-B-A (arch-form) movement.Briefly, the war (1914-1918) affected Bridge deeply, and his music became more dissonant and less key-associated. However, he could still train students traditionally. Notably, Benjamin Britten studied with him for several years of his youth. Britten went on to compose Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge in 1937 and to publish a memorial article in 1966, “Early influences — a Tribute to Frank Bridge.”

  1. Adagio – Allegro moderato – Adagio e sostenuto. From a beginning that resembles a cello sonata, the opening builds to a full ensemble presence. Then starting over, a new rhapsodic episode unfolds, becoming more intense until the main body of the movement (allegro), equally rhapsodic and unabashedly late-Romantic. Loose, free-wheeling development grows until it collapses into an echo of the opening adagio and a calm finish.
  2.  Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro con brio – Adagio ma non troppo. Now the tripartite middle movement unfolds as an instrumental song. The piano and individual strings take turns, solo and in ensemble, presenting new phrases. The elfin scherzo central section is a complete contrast to what we have just heard. Mysteriously, the music brings us seamlessly back to the rhapsodic, smooth, stretched-out Adagio reprise of the opening music, ending very mysteriously..
  3. Allegro energico.  Brilliant from the start, the quintet’s finale is marked by sudden contrasts, some in cultural styles (e.g., occasional gypsy connotations). This music is BIG in every sense. Even the softer central section has an inexplicable broadness, recalling ideas from the earlier movements. Long-lined rhapsodic themes in semi-improvisatory gestures lead to an ending in a truly GRAND style.

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