Program Notes by Barbara Leish and Willard J. Hertz
Program I. July 11 – Inspiring MozartMozart: rio in E-Flat Major for Clarinet, Viola and Piano K. 498, “Kegelstatt”
Trio in E-Flat Major for Clarinet, Viola and
Piano, K. 498, “Kegelstatt” (1786)
Friendship was the inspiration for this Trio, which probably got its nickname through a mix-up. Purportedly Mozart composed it while enjoying a game of skittles, an early form of bowling. (“Kegelstatt” means “skittle alley.”) In fact Mozart did compose a work while bowling with friends – it just wasn’t this one. A week earlier he had composed a set of duets for horns, and on that manuscript he had written, “Vienna 27 July 1786 while playing skittles.” Somehow “Kegelstatt” got appended to this Clarinet Trio. Accurate or not, the nickname does suggest one of the Trio’s many endearing qualities: it is, as Alfred Einstein notes, “a work of intimate friendship and love,” written to be enjoyed by friends playing together at home.
Mozart had a rich social life. His closest friend was Gottfried von Jacquin, the son of the famous botanist Nikolaus von Jacquin and the brother of Franziska, Mozart’s talented young piano pupil. Mozart was part of a group that gathered weekly at the Jacquin house for talk, games, and music-making. Another good friend was Anton Stadler, a fellow Mason, a rogue, and, most important, a brilliant clarinetist. Mozart loved the sound of Stadler’s clarinet and wrote the Clarinet Quintet and the Clarinet Concerto for him. He also loved the deep, rich sound of the viola, his instrument of choice when he played chamber music. All of these elements came together in the E-Flat Major Trio. Mozart wrote it for Franziska Jaquin to play at one of the family’s informal gatherings, and he scored it for a unique combination of his favorite instruments. Most likely the Trio was first performed at the Jacquin home with Franziska playing the piano, Mozart the viola, and Stadler the clarinet.
The Trio is a splendid example of chamber music as a perfectly balanced conversation among equals. Unusually, Mozart begins with a first movement Andante rather than an Allegro. Unusually, too, while the movement is in sonata form, Mozart develops just one theme. To achieve unity he relies on subtle elaborations and instrumental interplay, and on the gruppetto (ornamental turn) that recurs throughout the movement. Like the Andante, the cheerful Menuetto is distinguished by Mozart’s blending of the genial galant style with complex polyphony. The movement’s minor-key trio – with its dynamic contrasts and the viola’s energetic triplets – adds bite; and the reappearance of the trio’s theme at the end of the movement is a delectable touch. Mozart concludes with a rondo that “sings from beginning to end,” in Einstein’s words. It features colorful contrasts, virtuosic turns, melodic and contrapuntal delights, a minor-key episode that briefly turns the movement darker, and a joyful ending that brings the work to a perfect close.
Mozart-Adagio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1992)
Mozart’s Classicism meets Arvo Pärt’s “spiritual-minimalism” in Pärt’s affecting transcription of the Adagio from Mozart’s early piano sonata in F Major, K. 280. Pärt composed this work in memory of the Russian violinist Oleg Kagan, a close friend who was a devotee of Mozart’s music. That Pärt himself admired Mozart is no surprise given the transparency and pared-down eloquence of Pärt’s own music, in which every note and every silence has meaning.
Born in Estonia, Pärt spent his early career writing music for Estonian radio, theater, and film. He was a member in good standing of the Soviet musical avant-garde, and for many years he experimented with a variety of 20th-century techniques and styles. In 1960 he wrote “Nekrolog,” Estonia’s first twelve-tone composition; Soviet authorities promptly condemned it as “avant-garde bourgeois music.” In the late 1960s he again ran into trouble when officials banned his choral work “Credo,” which quoted Bach and invoked the New Testament. Feeling artistically and spiritually adrift, Pärt withdrew from the public and spent the next eight years studying Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. By the time he reemerged, he had left the world of atonal and serial music and had found a new style, a new voice, and a new system of composition.
Pärt called his new system “tintinnabuli,” from the Latin word for bells. He introduced it in 1976 with a strikingly simple piano piece, “Für Alina,” which is built from just two opposed lines: one a melody, the other, notes from a harmonizing triad. “The three notes of a triad are like bells,” Pärt explained; “and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.” He also noted that the piece necessitated what he described as “a need to concentrate on each sound so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.” A year later he wrote “Tabula Rasa,” a piece for two violins, string orchestra, and prepared piano that brought him wide fame. Pärt has gone on to create works of eloquence and spiritual profundity that have made him the most frequently performed classical composer year after year.
Mozart’s touching Adagio – with its transparently beautiful melody, moments of silence, and sparing but effective use of dissonant minor seconds that add to the poignancy – is a good fit for Pärt, who treats Mozart’s work with respect while adding his own distinctive touches. He opens up Mozart’s score by distributing the piano part among the three instruments. He also adds a brief introduction, an even briefer coda, and occasional commentary, all of which highlight the dissonances, the pauses, and the depths of feeling in Mozart’s music. The result is a heartfelt tribute, crafted from a young Mozart’s moving work.
Horn Quintet in E-Flat Major, K. 407 (1782)
The year 1782 was full of promise for Mozart. He had moved the year before from Salzburg to Vienna and was savoring his first year of independence from his father. He was proving he could make a living as a freelance musician, and he was establishing important relationships with wealthy and influential supporters. Outgoing and sociable, he maintained a large and varied group of friends and acquaintances, including a number of fellow countrymen from Salzburg. One of these was a horn player named Joseph Leutgeb. Mozart had known him since 1763, when Leutgeb had arrived in Salzburg to play in the Salzburg court orchestra and had become friends with the Mozarts, including the seven-year-old prodigy Wolfgang.
Leutgeb was a brilliant hornist, skilled at playing the valveless waldhorn. But for some reason, he long had been a butt of Wolfgang’s jokes and pranks. Mozart would amuse himself by writing insulting comments – “Oh how flat you play!” “Ouch!” “Help!” – on Leutgeb’s music. Or he would throw manuscript pages on the floor and have Leutgeb crawl around collecting them. On the autograph of the E-flat Horn Concerto, Mozart wrote, “Wolfgang Amadé Mozart takes pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and simpleton.” Maynard Solomon thinks that Leutgeb may have served Mozart as a willing buffoon or court jester. As Mozart himself once wrote, ”I can never resist making a fool of someone.” Despite all this, the two men remained on friendly terms. Evidently Mozart appreciated what a superb horn player Leutgeb was, because he wrote all of his horn concertos as well as the Horn Quintet for him.
Mozart scored the amiable Quintet for an unorthodox string combination – one violin, two violas, and a cello – that contributes to its unusual sonorities. Humor runs through the Quintet; it’s as if Mozart’s relationship with Leutgeb infected the mood of the piece. From the opening measures, with their contrast between a rhythmic fanfare and an airy response, the first movement announces that this work will amuse as well as charm. Throughout the movement, as the horn introduces long-lined motifs and the violin answers, the flow is interrupted by a playful four-note fanfare. With the graceful Andante the joking is put on pause, as the horn and the violin engage in a tender duet and all five instruments contribute to the lyrical conversation. High spirits return in the jovial rondo, which begins with a rhythmic variant of the Andante’s main melody, and which gives the hornist a good workout, thanks to an exceptionally difficult part. As Melvin Berger notes, Mozart mischievously makes it unclear whether the opening theme begins on the downbeat or the upbeat (it’s an upbeat). It’s all part of the fun of this good-natured work.
Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 15 (1879)
Aaron Copland described Fauré’s music as possessing “all the earmarks of the French temperament: harmonic sensitivity, impeccable taste, classic restraint, and a love of clear lines and well-made proportions.” He might also have mentioned Fauré’s harmonic and melodic innovations. While the scale of many of Fauré’s compositions is relatively small and intimate, his strikingly original ideas had an outsized impact on musical development in the first part of the 20th century, especially through his students Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger.
All of Fauré’s strengths and the sources of his appeal are on display in his early Piano Quartet in C Minor. Fauré wrote it at a moment of crisis in his life. After a five-year courtship, he had become engaged to Marianne Viardot, the beautiful daughter of a prominent musical family. Marianne soon ended the engagement, perhaps because the family was displeased that Gabriel wanted to write chamber music instead of grand opera. “Perhaps the break was not a bad thing for me,” Fauré would later write. “The Viardot family might have deflected me from my proper path.” This quartet is proof that he took the right path. It is elegant and spirited, featuring rich, melodic lines, supple rhythms, rapid but nuanced modulations, and subtle, often modal harmonies.
The tripartite first movement, Allegro molto moderato, opens vigorously, with strings playing the robust, modal first theme in unison while the piano adds an off-the-beat rhythm. At once the character of this first theme softens, after which a lyrical second theme is introduced by the viola. In a characteristic technique, Fauré modulates these themes in subtle steps, up and down. The first theme provides the material for a gentle, flowing development that ends with a brief stormy passage and a return to the forceful character of the opening. After another transformation, the more delicate character prevails, and the movement appears to waft away. It’s a perfect lead-in to the second-movement Scherzo, a merry, gossamer, very French confection featuring pizzicato chords, an airy, syncopated melody, and shifting meters. In the change-of-pace trio, muted chords in the strings carry the melody over the piano’s arpeggios.
With the elegiac Adagio, Fauré turns from playful to melancholy – perhaps a reflection of distress over the broken engagement. The movement is built around two rising themes, the first dark and solemn, the second more expansive and contemplative. While it is the second subject, yearning and nostalgic, that is elaborated upon, it is the mood of the darker first theme that begins and ends this emotionally intense movement. Restless piano arpeggios introduce an electric Allegro molto finale. Filled with rapid shifts in rhythm and mood, the movement melds inexhaustible energy with lyrical grace as it rushes to a triumphant conclusion.
Program II. July 18 – Influential FriendshipsDvořák: Terzetto in C Major for Two Violins and Viola, Op. 74
Terzetto in C Major for Two Violins and Viola,
Op. 74 (1887)
Last week’s concert began with a delightful piece of Hausmusik from Mozart – a trio he wrote for the enjoyment of making music at home with friends. This week it’s Dvořák’s turn. At the time Dvořák wrote the Terzetto for Two Violins and Viola, he already had composed a large and acclaimed body of work – “ambitious symphonies, a lot of chamber music, and, of course, his Slavonic Dances” and his career was flourishing. In January 1887 he just had returned to Prague from one of his popular concert tours in England. In Prague he was staying in his mother-in-law’s house, where a young chemistry student, Josef Kruis, was renting a room. Kruis was studying the violin with Jan Pelikan, a friend of Dvořák’s. The composer heard Kruis practicing and thought it would be fun to write a string trio that he could play with the two violinists – one that would give him a chance to play the viola, the instrument with which he had supported himself early in his career. So he spent a week writing the Terzetto for Kruis, Pelican, and himself.
It turned out that Dvořák had overestimated Kruis’s abilities; the piece he wrote was too difficult for the student. Instead Dvořák dashed off some easier bagatelles. Clearly he was having a good time. To his publisher Simrock he wrote, “I am now writing some bagatelles for two violins and viola, and this work gives me just as much pleasure as if I were composing a great symphony; what do you say to that?” The more ambitious Terzetto must have given him the same pleasure. It exudes charm, and there is plenty of the melodic invention, folk spirit, rhythmic variety, and harmonic and contrapuntal adroitness that make Dvořák’s music so appealing.
From the beginning Dvořák effectively balances his unusual combination of instruments, through the deft use of counterpoint, and by having the viola compensate for the absence of a cello bass line. The Introduction, with its gently lyrical outer parts and rhythmically prickly middle section, sets the mood for what is to come. Like his mentor and friend Brahms, Dvořák had a gift for evoking bucolic calm, as he does in the serene Larghetto that flows from the Introduction. Here too, animated rhythms briefly interrupt the calm. For the Scherzo Dvořák turns to one of his favorite Bohemian dances, a spirited furiant with its two-against-three rhythm; the movement’s trio is a lovely, lilting waltz. Dvořák brings the Terzetto to a satisfying close with a harmonically inventive set of variations that end with an infectious flourish. For Dvořák’s biographer John Clapham, these variations – melodic, rhythmic, imitative, recitative – are a testament to Dvořák’s “great resource, imagination and experience.”
Trio in A Minor for Clarinet, Cello and Piano,
Op. 114 (1891)
As far as Brahms was concerned, the G Major String Quartet that he wrote at Bad Ischl in the summer of 1890 was going to be his last composition. He was 57 years old, tired, and sure that inspiration was deserting him. To a friend he said, “I’m just not going to do any more.” His resolution proved to be short-lived, however. Early in 1891 he was invited to Meiningen for an arts festival. There he heard the eminent clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld play Weber’s Clarinet Concerto and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Brahms was enchanted. Amazed by the nuances of color and volume that the clarinet could produce, he spent hours listening to Mühlfeld play, and the two became good friends. To Brahms, Mühlfeld became “Fräulein Klarinette” and “my dear nightingale.” Brahms’s creative juices again began to flow. That summer, back at Bad Ischl and newly inspired, he composed the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, and the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, the first of the four great works for clarinet that would be his final chamber-music compositions.
The Clarinet Trio is a wonderful example of the concise, thematically unified style that over the years had come to distinguish Brahms’s compositions. While he fully exploits the clarinet’s range of timbre and dynamics – from its lush, soulful low tones, through its velvety center, to its sometimes delicate, sometimes sharp highest notes – at the same time, the three instruments continuously complement one another. In particular, “the harmonious blending of the tones of the clarinet and the cello are magnificent; it is as though the instruments were in love with each other,” as a good friend wrote in admiration.
Brahms builds the first movement from simple material: the rising arpeggios and falling scales of the opening are the source of contrapuntal development throughout the tightly constructed movement, right up through the coda, where the music floats away in a flurry of scales. He continues his romance with the clarinet in the serene Adagio. The three instruments pass long melodic lines and ornate accompaniments continuously back and forth, in a beautifully crafted movement that sustains an atmosphere of great peacefulness from beginning to end. For utter charm it’s hard to top the third movement, which begins with a graceful Viennese waltz and features, at the start of the folk-dance-like trio section, a yodeling clarinet. If Austrian folk style inspires this movement, a suggestion of gypsy style, with its rapid metrical shifts, propels the fiery, virtuosic Allegro with which Brahms ends the work.
Brahms was especially fond of his Clarinet Trio. As Jan Swafford provocatively suggests, “Perhaps the clarinet pieces are the only true love songs to an instrument Brahms ever wrote.”
Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44 (1842)
Schumann’s Piano Quintet was the first great chamber-music work that paired the piano with a string quartet. In the year Schumann wrote it, he was on a typical-for-Schumann emotional roller coaster. Married less than two years, he hated it when his wife Clara was on tour, but he also hated traveling with her and being in her shadow. At home and miserable while Clara was away early in 1842, he passed the time studying counterpoint and the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. But he was depressed, drinking too much, and unable to compose. Robert blamed Clara. In their household book he wrote, “You deprive me of all my ideas right now. I can’t even put a single song together.” He quickly revived after she returned home. By the end of the year he had written three string quartets, a piano trio, a piano quartet, and the glorious Piano Quintet, his most famous chamber work.
It took Schumann less than three weeks to finish the Quintet, which he wrote for and dedicated to Clara. Not surprisingly, given Clara’s brilliance as a pianist and his own love of the instrument, the piano is front and center for much of the Quintet. But the work is also very much a lush exploration of the sonorities produced when piano and strings work together.
From the outset the Quintet is marked by what Ronald Taylor describes as “verve, enthusiasm, serenity, charm, and above all a sense of utter conviction, the feeling … that Schumann saw its entire course from the very moment of its joyful opening bars.” Schumann launches the work with a bold unison opening that will reappear in several guises later on. In one of Schumann’s magical transformations, this opening motif melts almost immediately into an expressive song. Next the cello and the viola present an equally disarming second theme. Virtuosic piano runs in the development section and a satisfyingly big sound at the end are among the highlights of a movement marked by Schumann’s melodic gifts and his sense of high drama.
Each of the movements that follow is brilliant in its own way. The solemn second movement has the air of a funeral march, although both a lyrical second subject played over a restless piano and an agitated middle section affect the opening mood. The instruments chase one other up and down the scale in the acrobatic Scherzo, which features two trios, the first a lyrical inversion of the first movement’s opening theme, the second a whirl of motion. The Quintet ends with an exultant Allegro that sweeps to a stunning coda: a fugue whose subjects are the first theme of the opening movement and the main theme of the finale. In terms of musical thrills, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Program III. July 25 – A Postcard from Russia
Melodies for Violin and Piano, Op. 35bis (1925)
The first three composers on today’s program suggest just how complex the relationship between art and politics was in the Soviet Union. Prokofiev left the country, but homesickness brought him back; Glière stayed and remained in Stalin’s good graces; Shostakovich learned at an early age the steep price of modernism.
Prokofiev had little interest in the revolutionary fervor sweeping Russia in 1917. He had won early fame, and his career was booming. Listeners were intrigued by his modernist harmonic style, with its unusual combination of old and new. Preoccupied with his music, he was indifferent to the political and social turmoil all around him. In fact, 1917 was one of his most productive years, during which he composed the First “Classical” Symphony, the First Violin Concerto, the Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas, and “Visions fugitives.” Still, it was becoming increasingly clear to him that for now, at least, Russia was not a good place for artists. He left Russia in 1918 for America, intending to stay away for only a few months. He didn’t move back until 18 years later.
Prokofiev felt underappreciated in the United States, where he was viewed primarily as a pianist rather than as a composer. “I arrived too early,” he later wrote; “this infant – America – still hadn’t matured to an understanding of new music.” But a trip to California in 1920 lifted his spirits. “I’m as ecstatic about California as it is about me,” he wrote to a friend. “I am smiling along with the California countryside.” In his new mellow mood, he wrote the lyrical “Five Songs Without Words” for voice and piano (Op. 35). Unlike Prokofiev’s earlier declamatory treatment of the voice, here the style was soft and flowing, with soaring, long-breathing legato phrases. As Harlow Robinson notes, “So ‘instrumental’ are these five songs that it was easy for Prokofiev to revise them slightly for violin and piano in 1925.”
By 1925 Prokofiev had moved to Paris, where he and the violinist Pawel Kochanski transcribed the songs so that they could perform them together in concert. Prokofiev had to do little more than add violin embellishments to the vocal line. Each of the three melodies you’ll hear tonight is a beautiful and expressive miniature with its own character and color. In the first, Andante, the violin floats dreamily over the piano’s gentle, at times tonally ambiguous accompaniment. The next, Animato ma non allegro, with its turbulent fortissimo opening and restless piano throughout, is as unsettled as the Andante is calm. The playful Allegretto leggero e scherzando, with its syncopated rhythms, sounds charmingly French – you can imagine a boulevardier sauntering down the avenue. All three are distinguished by Prokofiev’s lyricism and his distinctive harmonics.
Suite for Violin and Double Bass, Op. 39 (1909)
(Selections Transcribed by Frank Proto)
Glière was a 20th-century composer with 19th-century musical instincts. Gifted and prolific, over a long career that began in Czarist Russia and ended during Stalin’s Soviet regime he never strayed from his Russian Romantic nationalist roots. While his onetime composition student Prokofiev fled to the West to escape the Russian Revolution, Glière stayed and remained relatively unscathed by the upheavals that shook the country and traumatized so many of its artists. For many years he was an esteemed professor of composition, first at the Kiev Conservatory and then at the Moscow Conservatory, where he influenced a generation of Russian composers.
Glière wrote more than 500 works, many of them on a grand scale. His epic Third Symphony, which charts the exploits of a legendary Russian hero, was a huge success. So were his operas and ballets, especially the 1927 ballet The Red Poppy, which was hailed as a model of Soviet Socialist Realism (it included “Dance of the Russian Sailors,” the Glière piece that Westerners are probably most familiar with). Glière wrote everything from overtures to commemorate Soviet anniversaries to a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich. It helped that he was apolitical, that his music never veered from tonality, and that he sought out and incorporated into his compositions the folk melodies of the far-flung republics of the USSR. He was heaped with honors: the Order of Lenin, People’s Artist of the USSR, and the Stalin Prize were among his many awards.
While much of what Glière wrote was big and stirring, he showed a more intimate side in his songs, piano pieces, and especially works for small combinations of strings – he had been a violin prodigy and enjoyed writing for strings in particular. As might be expected from a composer who also was an influential teacher, Glière was a skilled craftsman, and his compositions show a winning inventiveness. You can hear his adroitness in this charming set of colorfully drawn pieces, which Glière originally wrote as Duos for Violin and Cello. The American bassist and composer Frank Proto transcribed several of the pieces for violin and double bass; we’re hearing three of them tonight.
The titles suggest a Baroque suite of dances; and as in a Baroque suite, each of these compact pieces has its own strong character and style. The dark, unsettling opening Prelude, with its heart-tugging emotion, is bathed in Romantic sentiment. Tchaikovsky would have appreciated the Intermezzo, an elegant waltz with lovely long melodic lines. From Romantic to Baroque, the light-hearted Gavotte looks back to Bach, except that its middle section is more folk than Baroque. With their combination of Romantic gestures, suggestions of Russian folk melody, and Baroque formality, these atmospheric duos ingratiate.
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940)
For Shostakovich, life as an artist in Soviet Russia was harrowing. He found himself praised one day, condemned the next, and publicly humiliated. Shostakovich’s early rise to fame had been swift. While still a student at the Leningrad Conservatory he made a triumphant public debut with his First Symphony, written when he was eighteen. Success reached a peak in 1934 with his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mzensk District, which was a sensation both in Moscow and abroad. Then in 1936 Stalin attended a performance. Two days later an article in Pravda denounced the opera for pandering to the decadent tastes of the bourgeois West and warned, “This is a game…that may end very badly.” As Shostakovich’s biographer Laurel Fay wrote, “For Shostakovich, who was cast down overnight from the summit as the brightest star among young Soviet composers to the abyss as pernicious purveyor of cultural depravity, things would never again be the same.” Shaken, Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony from its scheduled premiere and began the work that would redeem him: the Fifth Symphony of 1937. Three years later, as a further sign of renewed official approval, his Piano Quintet was awarded the hundred-thousand-ruble Stalin Prize.
Shostakovich wrote the Quintet for the Beethoven String Quartet. He later told a friend that he wrote the piano part for himself so that when the group took the Quintet on tour, they would have to take him along. The Quintet is a work of beguiling charm, directness, and vitality. It begins dramatically with a grand Prelude and Fugue that looks back to Bach and forward to Shostakovich’s own 24 Preludes and Fugues. In the Prelude a solemn theme, introduced by the piano and picked up by the strings, surrounds a lighter, livelier middle section. The polyphony-rich Fugue starts gently and quietly, one instrument at a time, then slowly builds to a peak of great tension before the music recedes and finally melts away.
Nothing could be further from the grandeur of the Fugue than the boisterous Scherzo. Here the Shostakovich who was known for irony and irrepressible wit puts in an appearance, as the piano romps over earnest strings, then introduces the trio with what appear to be wrong notes. Tranquility returns with the soulful Intermezzo, a lyrical movement that is striking for its long melodic lines and an underlying poignancy. This movement leads without pause to an upbeat Finale that is rich in distinctive themes, and that has a surprisingly whimsical ending.
The Quintet was a public triumph. As one observer recalled, it “was discussed in trams, [and] people tried to sing in the streets the second defiant theme of the finale.” Today it remains one of Shostakovich’s most popular works.
String Sextet in D Minor, Op. 70,
“Souvenir de Florence” (1890; revised 1891-92)
Tchaikovsky’s music is infused with both Slavic temperament and the Western musical traditions he admired. You’ll hear both of these influences in his ebullient String Sextet, his last chamber music composition. Conceived in part during a visit to Florence, one of his favorite Italian cities, it is a lush and sunny work that is filled with tuneful melodies, driving rhythms, contrapuntal riches, and an irresistible mix of passion and lyricism.
Tchaikovsky began writing the Sextet in 1887 to fulfill a promise to the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society for a new work. He quickly put it aside, though, and didn’t pick it up again until 1890, after the inspiration for the Adagio theme came to him while he was in Florence working on his opera Queen of Spades. The difficulty, as he wrote to his brother Modest, was figuring out to write for “six independent and at the same time homogeneous voices.” Still, he wrote quickly, and when he was done he confessed to Modest, “At the moment I’m terribly pleased with myself.” But after listening to a private performance, Tchaikovsky decided to revise the third and fourth movements. Happily, none of his problems with the Sextet are reflected in the untroubled finished work.
Throughout the opening Allegro con spirito, Tchaikovsky juxtaposes the spirits of Russia and Italy. The contrasts begin at once, when a stormy theme gives way to a warm, serenade-like second theme, marked “sweet, expressive, and cantabile.” Among the movement’s many pleasures are its striking textures, such as when tuneful melodies are played against brisk, busy accompaniments; its wonderful contrapuntal writing, which shows just how well Tchaikovsky had mastered the challenge of integrating six stringed instruments; and the exhilarating build-up as the movement drives to a fast and furious coda.
Tchaikovsky’s superb melodic gift shines in the Adagio, whose beautiful bel canto melody is sung first by the violin over pizzicatos, then by the violin and cello in a tender duet. In an unusual middle section, the strings are instructed to play on the tip of the bow, creating a sound that one listener described as an essay in sheer sound effect. If this movement is a loving reminiscence of Italy, the last two movements are redolent of Russia. In the energetic Allegretto the violas introduce a spirited Slavic folk tune. In a wonderful contrast, the movement’s central trio is as airy as a Mendelssohn scherzo. The finale, too, is driven by folk melodies. The counterpoint here is brilliant, particularly in the fugue that leads to the Sextet’s headlong, thrilling ending. As Tchaikovsky himself exclaimed to his brother, “What a sextet, and what a great fugue there is at the end – a real delight.”
Program IV. August 1 – Schubert’s Extraordinary Year: 1828Bach: Trio Sonata in C Minor from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079
Trio Sonata in C Minor from
The Musical Offering, BWV 1079 (1747)
On May 11, 1747, the palace of the Prussian King Frederick the Great at Potsdam issued the following press release:
Last Sunday the famous Kapellmeister from Leipzig, Mr. Bach, arrived with the intention to have the pleasure of hearing the excellent Royal music there. In the evening, at about the time when the regular chamber music in the Royal apartments usually begins, His Majesty was informed that Kapellmeister Bach had arrived at Potsdam and was waiting in His Majesty’s antechamber for His Majesty’s most gracious permission to listen to the music. His August self immediately gave orders that Bach be admitted, and went, at his entrance to the fortepiano, condescending also to play, in His Most August Person and without any preparation, a theme for the Kapellmeister Bach to expand into a fugue.
This was done so happily by the aforementioned Kapellmeister that not only His Majesty was pleased to show his satisfaction thereat, but also all those present were seized with astonishment. Mr. Bach found the theme propounded to him so exceedingly beautiful that he intends to set it down on paper as a regular fugue and have it engraved on copper…
Frederick, an accomplished flutist and himself a composer, had invited Bach to Potsdam because of Bach’s reputation as a composer and improviser. When Bach arrived, Frederick first invited him to try out the palace’s collection of keyboard instruments. Then came the challenge, successfully met, to turn Frederick’s Royal Theme into a three-part fugue. But when Frederick next asked for a six-part fugue, Bach instead chose a theme of his own.
After his return to Leipzig in mid-May, Bach began to compose a massive work on the Royal Theme that included not just the original three-part fugue, but a six-part fugue; a trio sonata for flute, violin and thorough bass; and 10 canons (a concentrated form of counterpoint). Bach entitled the complete work Musical Offering. The entire packet was delivered to the king with a flowery dedication dated July 7. There is no record of royal gratitude for the work or of its performance at Potsdam.
Today the complex fugues and canons of the Musical Offering are mainly of academic interest. The Trio Sonata, on the other hand, is considered one of Bach’s finest chamber works. With the flute part written for Frederick, the sonata blends Bach’s mastery of contrapuntal writing with the more melodic and harmonically varied musical language favored by the younger composers at the Potsdam court.
The Trio Sonata is in four movements, with the Royal Theme taking a different form in each movement. In the opening Largo, it is merely suggested. In the following Allegro, it is used as a cantus firmus – that is, as a sustained “foundation tune” for a contrapuntal structure above it. In the third movement, Andante, the theme is broken into shorter motives. In the closing Allegro, the theme is the subject of a dance-like fugue.
The term “trio sonata” was the most common chamber-music designation during the Baroque period. It originally called for four performers playing three music lines – two featured instruments and an accompaniment consisting of a keyboard continuo to fill in the harmony and a cello or viola da gamba to reinforce the bass. Eventually the viola da gamba or cello was dispensed with, but the harpsichord continued in its continuo role.
Nottorno in E-Flat Major, D. 897 (1828)
For Schubert scholars and biographers, this is a mystery piece. No one knows when the piece was written and for what purpose. We know only a few facts about its publication, and these are less than enlightening.
The musical world first learned of the work’s existence in 1845 when it was published by the Viennese firm of A. Diabelli & Co. Schubert had labeled the manuscript, now in the Austrian National Library, simply as “Adagio,” and Diabelli, on his own, captioned it in the first printed edition “Nottorno, Op. 148.” The collected edition of Schubert’s works, published in the late 1880s, continued the “Nottorno” title. In 1950, Otto Deutsch, in his authoritative catalog of Schubert’s works, arbitrarily assigned the work No. 897.
The scholarly speculation today is that Schubert had intended the work as the slow movement for his Piano Trio in B Flat Major, D. 898, composed in 1827, but had rejected it in favor of the movement eventually published with that Trio. Meanwhile, following Schubert’s death in 1828, his brother Ferdinand discovered the rejected MS among Schubert’s pile of unpublished papers. Over the years Ferdinand repeatedly delivered to publishers unpublished material from this treasure trove, and that may have been what happened in this case.
The piece is now frequently heard in concert halls and recordings as a self-contained work for piano, violin and cello. While the opus number has been dropped, the work has become know under either title – Adagio or Nottorno – and with Deutsch’s catalog number.
Whatever its title, D. 897 is an 11-minute demonstration of what an imaginative composer can do with the simplest of melodic materials. The music is cast in A-B-A-B-A form. The A section begins with the piano playing a series of subdued measures, each with three chords, marked appassionato. Over this accompaniment the strings play the melody – a sequence of measures each consisting of a long three-beat note followed by four 16ths. The piano then takes over the melodic pattern while the strings play the chords pizzicato.
The B section is equally epigrammatic. Shifting into a triple rhythm and marked fortissimo, the melody consists of a repeated cell in a dotted-note rhythm played by the strings over running 16th note triplets in the piano. The cells of both sections are subjected to endless harmonic and dynamic variations, and both sections are repeated at length with further variation.
Today the Nottorno is overshadowed by Schubert’s two four-movement piano trios, D. 898 and D. 929, each taking about 40 minutes. But taking the Nottorno on its own terms – as a one-movement stand-alone composition – its overall impact is magical.
November 19, 1828 for Piano, Violin, Viola
and Cello (1988)
Schubert died on November 19, 1828. In this ingenious homage, John Harbison imagines him on a musical journey into the afterlife on the day of his death. Harbison – the eminent and prolific American composer of everything from jazz to symphonies to opera – incorporates elements of Schubert’s style throughout the four-movement work, including, in the third movement, a direct quotation from one of Schubert’s compositions. What is striking about “November 19, 1828” is how seamlessly Schubert’s harmonies blend with Harbison’s dissonances. In Harbison’s words, “The piece asserts Schubert’s relevance to our present rather than any nostalgia for the past.”
Throughout the work, Harbison imagines Schubert listening to sounds that are both familiar and strange. The quartet begins with a fanfare from the strings, described by Harbison as “the trumpets of death,” heard three times. Harbison’s note for this movement perfectly captures the flavor of the entire piece: “Schubert begins his journey haunted by sounds which are not his music, but pertain to his music in disturbing ways.” In the second movement Harbison continues to lead Schubert into unfamiliar territory. Harbison presents five character sketches – a very Schubertian concept – but then treats them “in a manner previously unknown to Schubert – everything is played back immediately upside down.”
The third-movement Rondo begins with an unfinished Schubert Allegretto from 1816. As Harbison notes, “Emblematic of a storehouse of ideas which are still to be explored, perhaps even in future times, the short fragment which begins this Rondo is the only one in this piece composed by Schubert in his first life.” Straightforward in its first appearance, the fragment is repeated two more times, each time more extensively altered by Harbison. In between these recurrences are three harmonic and rhythmic transformations that take the rondo into territory Schubert only could have dreamed of.
Harbison’s inspiration for the last movement is intriguing. As he describes it, “Shortly before his death, Schubert went to the theorist Sechter to work on a very specific problem pertaining to the tonal answer of the fugue subject, important to Schubert in the composition of his masses. Sechter, well aware that he was teaching the most extraordinary student who ever came for a lesson, concluded by assigning Schubert a fugue subject on his own name. Schubert was unable to undertake the task; he died about a week later, on November 19, 1828.” So Harbison completes the assignment for him, with not one, but two fugues. It’s a fitting ending to this imaginative appreciation. As Harbison wrote, “The only reason to make a tombeau for Schubert is his continuing fertility, his immediacy for the 21st century, his light shining in the future.”
String Quintet in C Major, D. 956 (1828)
If any evidence is needed of Schubert’s tremendous achievement and unfulfilled potential, it can be found in the phenomenal output of the final year and a half before his death at the age of 31. Benjamin Britten called it arguably “the richest and most productive 18 months in our music history,” the period during which Franz Schubert wrote Winterreise, the C Major Symphony, the B-Flat and E-Flat Piano Trios, the Four Impromptus Op. 142, the Mass in E-Flat, his last three piano sonatas, and the C Major String Quintet.
Just as astounding was the number of years it took for the recognition and publication of most of these final masterpieces. The String Quintet – by general consensus the greatest of Schubert’s chamber works and one of the most moving pieces in the literature – was not even heard publicly until 1850!
Completed in September, 1828, the C Major Quintet was Schubert’s last instrumental work. Like Mozart, Schubert, after writing a successful series of string quartets, turned to a five-voice format because of the possibilities it offered for greater sonority and richness. However, unlike Mozart, who added a second viola, Schubert added a second cello. This instrumentation enabled him not only to reinforce the bass line but also to send one cello soaring eloquently into its higher register while keeping the bass intact. In some passages, one cello even doubles the first violin an octave lower.
Another striking characteristic of the quintet is its unprecedented freedom from the traditional bonds of key structure. Schubert had a unique gift for changing, or modulating, keys to vary the presentation, treatment and coloration of his themes. This was a device that he developed initially in his lieder to underscore the drama or contrasts in the texts. In the quintet, Schubert carried this continuous shifting of tonal gears to its highest level of originality and imagination. Melodic strains are repeated in three or four different keys, each with a different harmonic seasoning, and modulations occur unexpectedly, even abruptly, but almost always ingeniously. Thus, the openings of the first and fourth movements leave the listener uncertain about the tonality, and the first movement is rarely in one key for more than a few measures at a time.
The opening of the first movement illustrates Schubert’s daring use of contrast in both tonality and instrumental color. The work starts with a C major chord swelling over two measures. The first violin takes the lead and the second cello is silent, tilting the tonal balance upwards. In the third measure, however, ambiguity is introduced when the second violin raises its G up to A and blends in an F sharp, and the viola drops from E to E flat. The first violin carries on the melody against this shifting harmonic background. Eleven measures later the entire strain is repeated, but starting in D major. The first cello now takes the lead, the first violin is silent, and the second cello joins in, tilting the tonal balance downwards.
Even more remarkable is the presentation of the lilting second theme – a duet for the cellos. As the cellos pull away from the five-voiced texture, they prepare us for the theme in the expected dominant key of G major. Instead, they launch the melody in the warmer tonality of E flat, return to C halfway through, and finally end up with a G major cadence. The duet is then repeated in the violins.
Toward the end of the exposition, a third theme – a somber little march – is merged with the second theme, and the two elements combined are the main concern of the long development. In the recapitulation, both the opening strain and the second theme wear still different instrumental dress – the second theme is now a duet for viola and first cello. The overall effect is a unique blending of drama, serenity and pathos.
The second-movement Adagio is surely one of the most moving in all music. The middle strings play a long melody for 28 measures, their message enriched by the expressive figures of the first violin and the pizzicato notes of the second cello. The mood is interrupted by an emotionally charged middle section in F minor; over agitated triplets and anxious syncopation, the violin plays a sorrowful melody of increasing intensity. The first section returns with the middle strings repeating their melody, but the first violin and second cello now play intensified variations of their original parts. Brief figures in the violin are transformed into passages of the utmost poignancy, and the pizzicato notes of the cello take on great dramatic force.
The Scherzo provides some release from the tension of the first two movements – to some listeners, the feverish energy and bounding rhythm suggest a hunt. With the trio, however, the intensity returns. Unlike the folk-dance style that Schubert often used in the trio sections of his scherzos, the meter here shifts to 4/4 and the tempo slows to andante sostenuto. Major and minor modes alternate, and the mood is dark, brooding and resigned. The search for new tone color is heard – the opening phrase is scored for viola and second cello, and this is followed by other instrumental groups in twos and threes.
The finale is lighter in emotional weight than the other movements – indeed, it has the flavor of Hungarian gypsy fiddling. But there is still the persistent playing with tonalities and instrumental colors. With the coda, the tempo gradually picks up, and the quintet concludes at a hectic pace. Until the end, however, there are hints of other tonalities, and even the final unison C is prodded home by a D-flat grace note.
Program V. August 8 – CelebrationBeethoven: Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano and Winds, Op. 16
Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano
and Winds, Op. 16 (1796)
Beethoven’s ingenuity comes face to face with Mozart’s classical style in this delectable Quintet, which “possesses in its melodies and effects, a charm which will never grow old,” as Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny wrote. Beethoven was riding a wave of public acclaim when he wrote it. He had taken Vienna’s salons by storm as a brilliant improviser and keyboard virtuoso, he had demonstrated his mastery of Viennese classical form, and he had launched a major career as a composer. Mozart remained a fundamental influence, particularly in Beethoven’s chamber music for winds. At the same time, Beethoven increasingly was asserting his own strong musical personality.
Beethoven most likely modeled the Opus 16 Wind Quintet on Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452, written a dozen years earlier: Beethoven’s Quintet is written in the same key of E-flat major, scored for the same instruments, and given the same three-movement structure. You can hear external similarities throughout the Quintet, from the first movement’s long, stately introduction to the last-movement rondo with its hunting theme. This being Beethoven, though, it’s no surprise that he didn’t stick faithfully to the classical script. With all of Opus 16’s surface nods to the Mozart Quintet, there are noteworthy substantive differences – in the way, for instance, that Beethoven focuses on thematic development, and especially in the prominent role assigned to the piano.
The appeal of the Opus 16 Quintet lies in its freshness and affability. The first movement charms with its genial themes, its engaging dialogue between piano and winds, a briefly stormy development section that ends, playfully, with a return in a classically incorrect key, and a graceful coda. The Andante cantabile is striking for the beautiful melody with which the piano opens the movement, and for the increasingly elaborate embellishments and rich instrumental textures as the movement progresses. High spirits reign in the good-natured last movement, a rondo in which, as in the other movements, the piano glitters.
An impish Beethoven enlivened the premiere of the Quintet. According to Ferdinand Ries, in the finale “Beethoven suddenly started improvising, taking the Rondo subject as his theme and entertaining himself and those listening for quite some time. This was not the case with the accompanists, however; they were very annoyed…. It did indeed look very droll to see these gentlemen, expecting to begin at any moment, raising their instruments to their mouths incessantly and then quietly putting them down again.”
When the Quintet was published in 1801, Beethoven included a Quartet arrangement for Piano and Strings, also designated Opus 16, probably in an effort to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
Arranged for piano four-hands by Henry Levine
Many European composers were inspired by American jazz, but none of them captured its essence as memorably as George Gershwin, the American composer who took classical music into the Jazz Age. Gershwin began his career in Tin Pan Alley, where his genius for melody had him spinning out song after unforgettable song – “Swanee,” “Lady Be Good,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful,” “The Man I Love,” “Summertime.” Gershwin had bigger dreams, though. In addition to being a gifted musical-theater entertainer, he was a serious student of 20th-century classical music. He studied the compositions of Stravinsky, Berg, and Ives, was friends with Ravel and Schoenberg, and eagerly absorbed their ideas.
Gershwin’s dream was to marry classical and popular music – to “make an honest woman out of jazz.” His first attempt to bring jazz into the concert hall was his most famous: Rhapsody in Blue. The work was a commission from the bandleader Paul Whiteman, who shared Gershwin’s ambition to elevate jazz by giving it a classical respectability, and who wanted a new orchestral work for an upcoming concert called “An Experiment in Modern Music.” The commission came at the last minute, and Gershwin wrote hastily. Whiteman’s own arranger, Ferde Grofé, scored the piece for jazz band. Gershwin was the soloist at the concert, which took place in February 1924 (two weeks after the first New York performance of The Rite of Spring, which “exercised a great influence” on Gershwin, as he told a friend). The hall was packed with musical celebrities, including Leopold Stokowski, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, John Philip Sousa, Alma Gluck, and Rachmaninoff.
From the clarinet’s famous opening glissando, the audience sat rapt, and at the end of the performance they went wild. What they had heard was a brash, melodically rich, tonally daring composition featuring a brilliant opening, a dizzying series of harmonic modulations, propulsive rhythms, and of course the continuous use of flatted blue notes. Gershwin later wrote that when he began to work on the rhapsody, he “heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” It’s that vision, successfully carried out, that makes Rhapsody in Blue an iconic portrait of Jazz Age America in all its exuberance and dance-driven vitality.
It doesn’t take a full orchestra to capture Rhapsody in Blue’s multitude of charms. Over the years it has appeared in many guises, including a performance by 84 pianists at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. As today’s performance shows, four hands are more than enough to convey the pleasures of a composition that has become probably the best-known American concert work of the 20th century.
Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano, H.300 (1944)
The Bohemian composer Bohuslav Martinů’s life easily could have made his outlook dark. He lived in poverty in Paris, barely escaped the Nazis, spent many years in exile in the United States, and pined for his homeland, Czechoslovakia, from which he was barred by the Communist government. Yet the hundreds of compositions that he wrote over the years – including today’s Trio – are marked by a hard-to-resist vitality, optimism, originality, and joie de vivre.
Martinů’s life got off to an unusual start: His childhood was spent high up in a church tower in the Bohemian village where his father was the bell keeper. The experience shaped his worldview. Looking out from his aerie, he later said, he saw “everything in miniature…and above it all a great, boundless space. It was this space that I had constantly before me, and that I am forever seeking in my compositions.” Formal classrooms were not for him. He was drummed out of the Prague Conservatory for “incorrigible negligence.” But Paris, where he moved in 1923, was invigorating. He spent 17 years there, absorbing French modernism and jazz and neo-classicism, but also rediscovering his Czech roots. His works from the Paris years ranged from the Stravinsky-inspired Half-Time (1925), which depicted a football match, to the surrealist opera Julietta (1937), to the Baroque-inspired Concerto Grosso for Chamber Orchestra (1941).
In 1941, when the Nazis invaded Paris, Martinů fled to the United States. Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony and a Martinů enthusiast, helped him get settled with a commission to write his First Symphony and the offer of a summer teaching position at Tanglewood. The symphony was the first of scores of new compositions that won for Martinů a large and enthusiastic American audience. Martinů went on to teach at Mannes, Princeton, and Curtis, before moving back to Europe in 1956.
Martinů wrote the Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano in a holiday spirit during a New England summer, just after he finished his Third Symphony. It is an animated work propelled by Martinů’s distinctive musical voice. Among its highlights are the rhythmic inventiveness that drives the sunny first movement, with the three instruments exchanging brief rhythmic passages as they playfully chase one another; a meditative Adagio that is filled with yearning; an infectious finale in which Martinů continues to show his adeptness at writing for the flute; and throughout, rich harmonies and tonal colors, as well as hints of jazz and Czech folk rhythms. Virgil Thomson loved the Trio, calling it “a gem of bright sound and cheerful sentiment. It is tonally perfect, it sounds well, it feels good, it is clearly the work of a fine jewelry maker and it does not sound like any other music.”
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Sextet for Piano, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon,
and Horn (1932; revised 1939)
For irrepressible good cheer, it’s hard to top Francis Poulenc. His musical aesthetic was shaped by Erik Satie’s shocking, surrealistic 1917 ballet Parade. As Poulenc later described it, “For the first time, the music hall was invading Art with a capital A.” Poulenc was one of a group of young composers dubbed Les Six whose goal, he wrote, was to create music that was “clear, healthy, and robust – music as overtly French in spirit as Stravinsky’s Petrouchka is Russian.” He thrived in this new era of “the circus and the music hall,” as Satie called it. Poulenc set out to capture a French lightness of spirit in works that drew no line between serious music and entertainment.
Poulenc was the quintessential urbane Parisian. As his friend Claude Rostand wrote of him, “He always placed a great value on being regarded as light, charming, frivolous, and flip. He loved risqué jokes and a Rabelaisian way of life. … it was a point of honor for him never to appear serious.” But as Rostand also noted, there was a more troubled side: “Behind this spontaneity, this easy and ironic cutting up, was hidden much inner turmoil….” Perhaps that is what led him back to Catholicism in the 1930s, and to the religious music that he would write in his later years. Through it all, he remained true to the cabaret and the dance hall.
Poulenc wrote the Sextet for Piano and Winds as “an homage to the wind instruments I have loved from the moment I began composing.” It’s an ingeniously constructed work that is filled with jaunty tunes and bouncy intertwining rhythms. It’s not all surface ease and lightness, though. The rapid exchange of short melodic phrases rests on a complex structure, and there are constant abrupt shifts in mood, from humor to more weighty emotions.
The Sextet begins with a bang, with loud scales followed by a merry section in which all the instruments exchange catchy phrases. Abruptly the bassoon slows everything down to introduce a moody middle section, featuring a melancholy melody that will recur throughout the Sextet. After this digression, the movement ends with a return to the opening sprightliness. In the Divertissement the pattern is reversed, as sweet and expressive melodies in the outer sections frame a perky interlude. The flow of brash good humor continues in the finale, with its rapid shifts between syncopated jazzy riffs and long-lined lyricism. Suddenly, though, there’s a pause, the bassoon reintroduces the melancholy theme, and Poulenc brings the Sextet to an end with a final dissonant chord. It’s a surprising close to such a carefree work, and it reminds us that there are depths beneath Poulenc’s airiness.