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. . . .”
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.
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.”
- 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.
- 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..
- 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.
Shostakovich: String quartet no. 8, op. 110
The intimate chamber idiom has its share of composers’ personal mottos and autobiographical references. Still, it is rare to glimpse into any composer’s memories as clearly as in the Eighth String Quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). This work contains a musical motto intended to symbolize his name, which is stated in the opening measures and reworked into each succeeding movement. Resembling J.S. Bach’s motto, B-A-C-H (B-flat, A, C, B), the Shostakovich notes are D, E-flat (Es in German), C, B-natural (H in German). Together, this sequence suggests “D. Sch.,” a German mnemonic of the composer’s initials. Still more autobiographical are the musical quotations from the composer’s earlier works and other familiar melodies, with possible references to the sounds of WW II bombers and gunfire. The words of Shostakovich’s closest biographers and of the composer himself can best complete our introduction to this quartet of 1960:
He worked on the score in Dresden. . . . The beautiful city of Dresden had been swept off the face of the earth in a single night, but was rising again from the ruins, all of which stirred old feelings seemingly locked in his past. It is not without cause that he dedicated the Eighth Quartet . . . to the memory of the victims of Nazism and war. . . . Written in no more than three days, as if poured from the depths of the artist’s soul, the quartet is autobiographical. . . . In the course of the quartet’s five continuous movements, themes from various compositions make their appearance
. . . from the opening subject of the First Symphony, which is interwoven with the Largo of the first movement, to the motifs from the movement entitled “Eternal Memory” in the Eleventh Symphony. Dmitri and Ludmilla Sollertinsky, Pages from the Life of Dmitri Shostakovich
When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of “exposing fascism.” You have to be blind and deaf to do that, because everything in the quartet is as clear as a primer. I quote Lady Macbeth, the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet, it quotes a song known to all Russians: “Exhausted by the hardships of prison.”
And there is also the Jewish theme from the Piano Trio in this quartet. 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’s multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It’s almost always laughter through tears. Solomon Volkov, ed. Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich
Schubert: STring quartet in A minor, d.804
After Schubert had put aside his “Unfinished” Symphony in 1822, he did not give up the idea being a symphonist. On the contrary, he had grand plans for what would become the “Great” C Major Symphony, but he felt that he needed more seasoning in the instrumental domain. As a result, he turned his attention to chamber music, writing three string quartets and the Octet. After completing the Quartet in A Minor and the Quartet in D Minor (“Death and the Maiden”) in March 1824, he wrote to his friend, Leopold Kupelweiser, “I have written two quartets . . . and an octet, and I intend to write another quartet. In this manner, I want to pave the way to a grand symphony.” Although Schubert completed all three quartets, the A Minor was the only one in the trilogy to be published during his lifetime.
The first movement begins like one of Schubert’s songs: with a brief introduction (in fact, a little uneasy, like “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”) leading to an exquisite lyrical melody. Following a vigorous transition, the second theme is, likewise, song-like. The development reveals some wonderfully colorful key explorations before settling down to a recapitulation that turns unexpectedly to the major mode for the second theme.
For the Andante’s main theme, Schubert borrows his own Entr’Acte music from Rosamunde. This he treats in a series of variations that cover a subtle variety of moods.
Alfred Einstein called the Menuetto movement “the germ or kernel of the A Minor Quartet,” also pointing out that it is a Ländler and not a minuet. In addition, it opens with a direct quotation from Schubert’s 1819 setting of Schiller’s ode, “The Gods of Greece.” If this quartet “is ‘about’ disenchantment and the loss of innocence,” as biographer John Reed asserts, then this movement, with its wistful pre-Brahms melancholy, epitomizes the work.
The rondo finale, set in A major, dispels some of that melancholy with its rustic flavor. But Einstein describes it as appearing “in the same Hungarian disguise which Schubert was to use again in Die Winterreise in an exactly similar sense: outwardly exuberant and chevaleresque, but . . . without any real consolation….” Nevertheless, the impetuousness and rhythmic verve of the finale does much to redirect the quartet’s previous moodiness onto a more positive course.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2021. All rights reserved.
haydn: string quartet in e-flat major, op. 76/6
[In this work] it is easy to take at face value Haydn’s outer shell, the part he exposed to the public eye, as being the whole man. The Finale of No. 6 is dry, but the point that is being made is not one that admits of a Mozartian warmth, while the opening Allegretto fulfills exactly the same function as that in No. 5 — that of preparation for the slow movement. – H.C. Robbins-Landon
The graceful ingenuities of… No. 6… roll away like the process of peeling an onion… – Sir Donald Tovey
These comments expose the framework in which we should consider the E-flat Quartet: The man Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) had several layers of depth, and so did much of his music composed late in life. This quartet properly falls last in the half dozen works of Opus 76. The analogies of the onion and of an outer shell that holds inner treasures hold true. But so could the image of a revolving door, where Haydn can survey the entire 18th century on the inside, yet he also ventures into a preview of the 19th on the outside.
With a theme that could be a “prequel” to music by Robert Schumann, Haydn sets out the theme and variations that forms the quartet’s first movement. These variations are wide ranging in emotional and formalistic character, creating an underlying tension throughout. The climax comes in the fugue on part of the theme, ending this concise movement in a cheerful mood.
Often, you may find this quartet nicknamed “Fantasia.” That is because Haydn gave the Adagio second movement that title. Robbins Landon remarks, “… It can only be described as one of the boldest and most original movements in the whole eighteenth century.” Immediately, we realize that the opening theme is a remarkable forerunner to Beethoven’s slow “hymn-like” themes. The emotional, wandering harmonic character of sections contrasting with the “hymn” is also progressive — ahead of Haydn’s time. Ultimately, these tendencies merge in an extended epilogue, which can leave a listener nearly breathless.
Although Haydn titles the third movement “Menuetto,” its lively speed and witty character make it more of a scherzo — again, pre-echoes of Beethoven. Even the central section, “Alternativo,” is playful and humorous.
In the Allegro finale, short downward scale patterns form the chief thematic ideas. This movement is full of fun and Haydnesque droll humor. There seems to be no end to the descending scale fragments, and the composer seems determined to see how long he can work with them before his listeners grow uncomfortable. However, the master knows just when to wind things up with a brilliant, frothy finish.
Corea: Adventures of hippocrates
Chick Corea (June 12, 1941-February 9, 2021) was an important figure in modern jazz and rock performance and composition. A keyboardist of considerable reputation, his initial musical education came from his father (a professional musician) and from transcribing and learning improvised solos from records. Bud Powell and Horace Silver were early influences. Corea’s first professional experiences were with Latin bands, but in the late 1960s he joined Miles Davis’s group, which was pioneering jazz-rock fusion through electronic abstract jazz. When he formed his own avant-garde group, Circle, in 1970, it was to explore “free” jazz improvisation in a non-electronic sound environment. However, Corea gradually turned to synthesizers and other electronic devices to achieve his sound ideal. He developed as a composer during this period, with some of his tunes (notably Windows, Spain, and Crystal Silence), becoming jazz standards. Corea’s interest in the interaction of jazz and rock grew in the 1980s through the formation of a trio, the Elektric Band. Since then, the versatility and wide-ranging musical interests of Chick Corea have become legendary, and his name is known equally among jazz and rock listeners, as well as many classical enthusiasts.
About Hippocrates, Corea has written: “This quartet was written by a relatively inexperienced writer for strings (me) so, technically, my notation may be unorthodox (or standardly wrong). But I find that most string quartet players, knowing that, will go ahead and make the proper adjustments themselves. This is better than trying to alter the musical concept to fit the correct technical point. Hippocrates is the name of a little robot in a science fiction series by L. Ron Hubbard. There are 7 stories in the 2 volume set entitled Ole Doc Methuselah.”
In 1994, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Society and the Orion String quartet commissioned a work from Corea. The outcome was The Adventures of Hippocrates. This was to be Corea’s first work in which a keyboard was not the central instrument.The music is a suite of five substantial movements for string quartet, each exploring a different tempo and rhythmic character. The composer describes their character: (1) Quasi Tango, (2) Waltz, (3) Lyrical (4) Quasi-Rock, and (5) [Finale] (with a “swiftly-moving tempo”). The music is as fresh as writing a string quartet was for Chick Corea. However, we can perceive a few outside influences in this music, such as Astor Piazolla (the “godfather” of the modern Argentine tango) and Béla Bartók (whose Mikrokosmos for piano Corea had previously recorded), and Corea’s own ’70s recordings of Fusion-Rock and “Free” Jazz. Summing up Hippocrates, critic-musicologist Kai Christiansen writes:
Corea has always been a composer and keyboardist with a sophisticated sense of rhythm, harmony and linear momentum. But this string quartet commission challenged Corea to project these skills onto instruments foreign to his fingers as well as splitting his keyboard conception into four separate parts. The results are intriguing, challenging and effective, as is so much of the great music Corea has created in his distinctive style.
Beethoven: STring Quartet in g major, op.18/2
The six works of Opus 18 represent Beethoven’s first burst of energy in the direction of the string quartet. At the time of writing (1795-99) Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) had ample opportunity 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. The group was placed at Beethoven’s disposal, giving him opportunities rarely afforded a composer.
The G Major Quartet, although placed second in publication, was the third in order of composition. More than in any other quartet, this is Beethoven’s homage to the wit of Haydn, the “father” of the string quartet. The work is nicknamed the “Compliment” Quartet, and Beethoven appears to pay his respects formally in the elaborate opening. Joseph Kerman writes that “it seems irresistibly to summon up images of courtly bowing and scraping in some never-never-land of rococo fantasy.”
Beethoven follows this introduction with the real meat of the exposition. His ready-set-go transition theme evolves into the secondary material soon to become important. In the development section, he employs as many themes as he can, in as many ways as possible. Characteristically, Beethoven’s recapitulation also presents material in new ways. The coda brings the wit of this movement into full bloom.
The Adagio is justifiably famous for one of Beethoven’s innovations. After exposing a sumptuous main theme, he abruptly inserts a section in binary song-form marked Allegro. Following this unpredictable but highly effective segment, the Adagio reprises with the cello and first violin sharing the honors.
Marked “Scherzo,” the third movement is a quickened minuet using galloping rhythms. The Trio section follows more the conventional 18th-century tradition.
The spirit of Haydn smiles through the main theme of the finale. But this playful rondo movement reflects the Haydnesque humor in new, Beethovenian ways. For example, there are false returns of the main theme in “wrong” keys, and mock-scowling shadings of the theme in the minor mode. The quartet ends with two codas: the first pompous and inflated and the second light and witty.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink. All rights reserved. Copyright 2021
Composer-violinist-educator Jessie Montgomery (1981- ) hails from New York’s Lower East Side, where her father managed a music studio. She was, in her words, “constantly surrounded by all different kinds of music.” Thus, her own compositions have drawn from many diverse influences, such as African-American spirituals, civil rights anthems, improvisational styles, modern jazz, film scoring, etc. From those early years, she developed, chiefly as a violinist, to receive degrees from the Juilliard School and New York University. In her professional performing life, Montgomery has been a member of the Providence String Quartet and the Catalyst Quartet. The latter began as a project of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which creates opportunities for African-American and Latino string players.
As a composer, Montgomery was the resident Composer-Educator for the Albany Symphony during the 2015-16 season. In addition she has been recognized with grants and fellowships from the American Composers Orchestra, the Sphinx Organization, the Joyce Foundation, and the Sorel Organization. Her reputation has been spreading steadily, mainly in North America, beginning in New York City, Providence, and Boston, reaching out to Deer Valley, Utah; Miami Beach, Florida; Birmingham, Alabama; and Toronto, Ontario. Montgomery’s debut record album Strum: Music for Strings was released on the Azica Records label in late 2015. The concluding album track is Strum.
This one-movement work was commissioned by Community Music Works and premiered by the Providence String Quartet in 2006 and was revised in 2012. About the music, critic Maggie Molloy writes:
Strummed pizzicato lines serve as a texture motive across all four instruments, creating a rhythmic vitality which propels the piece forward from its nostalgic first moments all the way through to its ecstatic and dramatic ending. Layered rhythms and harmonic ostinati round out the piece’s warm, dancelike spirit, crafting a joyous and hopeful ending. . .
Dvorak: Piano Quintet In a major, op. 81
“This work probably epitomizes more completely the genuine Dvořák style in most of its facets than any other work of his.” (John Clapham)
“ . . . One of the most delightful and successful chamber works, not only in the composer’s works but also in the whole of chamber music composition.” (Otakar Šourek)
“ . . . The best piano quintet ever written, demonstrating as it does from start to finish some of the most lovable characteristics of a lovable composer.” (Gervase Hughes)
With accolades like that, there is very little to add except the bare facts. Having attempted, unsuccessfully, to improve his First Piano Quintet, Op.5 (also in the key of A major), Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) decided to start afresh. He began Op. 81 in mid- August 1887, and by mid-October the new quintet was completed. It was a period of contentment for Dvořák, and he worked in a pleasant environment. Once finished, Dvořák dedicated the new work to Dr. B. Neureutter, a generous patron of music. The premiere took place the following January, and Simrock published it immediately.
The first movement displays a wide expanse of moods generated from its two themes, both essentially song-like. These moods alternate rapidly during the development and keep the entire movement fresh and spontaneous.
The second movement bears the title Dumka, a kind of melancholy Slavonic folk ballad. In the hands of Dvořák, however, the Dumka involves sudden mood changes from melancholy to exuberance. That is what happens in the middle section of this rondo, when the rhythmic Vivace section springs up.
Although Dvořák gave a subtitle of Furiant to the Scherzo, it is not a genuine Furiant, since there are no predominating shifts of accent. However, every bit of the movement is Slavonic. Interestingly, the Trio section contains chiefly ideas from the main Scherzo theme.
The finale is a bustling movement in sonata form carrying an exhilaration that counterbalances the earlier melancholic moods. From the perky first theme to the last note, the movement is full of rustic fun. Dvořák’s mastery of every feature found in the quintet turn it into what Hughes has called “no less perfect a work of national art than the Dumka itself.”
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2020. All rights reserved.