2019 Program Notes


Program Notes by Barbara Leish

Program I. July 17

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) Sonata No. 3 in C Major for Two Violins, Cello and Bass (1804)

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Sonata No. 3 in C Major for Two Violins, Cello and Bass (1804)

No, the date isn’t a misprint. Rossini composed this cheerful sonata – one of a set of six – when he was twelve years old and had studied music formally for only a few years. Already, though, he was working to help support his family. His parents were struggling to earn a living as musicians – his father was an itinerant horn player, his mother a soprano who couldn’t read music – and their musically precocious son was expected from an early age to contribute to the family income. By the time he was twelve, Gioachino was making money singing as a soloist in church choirs, playing continuo in orchestras, and transcribing operas. He had begun some formal musical education, but much of what he would learn about harmony would come from studying the scores of Haydn and Mozart. (Years later he would write, “Mozart was the admiration of my youth, the desperation of my mature years, and the consolation of my old age.”)
In 1804 he was invited to spend the summer at the Ravenna home of the wealthy merchant and amateur double bass player Agostino Triossi. He, Triossi, and several friends spent happy evenings making music together, and it was for them that Rossini wrote six unusually scored sonatas (there was no violist in the group). Looking back, he would one day write a tongue-in-cheek apology for his efforts. “First violin, second violin, violoncello and contrabass parts for six terrible sonatas composed by me at the country house (near Ravenna) of my friend and patron Agostino Triossi, and this at a most youthful age, not having even received a lesson in thorough bass. They were all composed and copied in three days….”
Despite the disclaimer, the sonatas are charming works, unfailingly melodious, brimming with good humor, and with virtuosic turns for everyone. The Sonata No. 3 in C Major is a sprightly confection. Throughout the Allegro, Rossini balances rhythmic agility with melodic winsomeness, as the violins chase up and down while the cello and the bass keep a steady beat and occasionally interject their own amusing commentary. In the soulful Andante, Rossini shows his instinct for lyrical melody. And in the sparkling Moderato – a set of variations in which each of the instrumentalists gets to shine – he displays the wit that would propel his comic operas.
Within a few years Rossini would write the first of his 39 operas. This early sonata offers a tantalizing glimpse of the gifts that would make him the richest and most famous composer in Europe. He retired at the age of 37 to lead the life of a Parisian bon vivant renowned for his intellect, mischievous wit, and Epicurean tastes.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor (1917)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor (1917)

Debussy, who died 100 years ago, had a transformative influence on musical development in the 20th century. Stravinsky called him “in all senses the century’s first musician.” This summer we’re celebrating his achievements with three remarkable sonatas that he wrote near the end of his life. If you are not familiar with them, their sound may surprise you, for they are leaner, simpler, and less texturally dense than his earlier Impressionistic masterpieces. The real surprise is that Debussy called them sonatas at all, since he had spent his life rebelling against Western European musical traditions. To Debussy, though, the sonata was simply an instrumental piece of French origin; and he turned for inspiration not to the German model but to the sonatas of the 18th-century French Baroque masters. Written while France was at war with Germany, Debussy’s sonatas were efforts to define French tradition and strengthen his own links to a French musical past that reached back to Rameau and Couperin.
The Violin Sonata is brief, forward-looking, and relatively abstract. It is a work of many moods, from sad to humorous to capricious to fiery. Like all of Debussy’s work, it is modal and harmonically ambiguous. At times it suggests Spain; at other times, gypsy fiddlers. The melodic first movement follows the traditional sonata form of exposition, development, and recapitulation. But from the violin’s melancholy opening theme, there are many irregularities. Keys shift unexpectedly. Motifs are inserted in unexpected places. The rhythmic interplay between violin and piano is complex from the very first notes, with beats often obscured, or the violin playing in 2/4 time over the piano’s 3/4 time. At times the violin and piano seem to be competing against each other rather than working together as they would be in a traditional sonata.
This first movement is subdued and nuanced except for a brief passionate outburst at the end of the development and a fiery, Spanish-tinged coda. The playful second movement is more extroverted and capricious. Titled Intermède (Fantasque et léger), it recalls another classical source much beloved by French artists: the Italian commedia del’arte and especially its floppy clowns. A rhythmic, dance-like theme alternates with a melodious second theme before the movement dies away. Debussy described the vivacious Finale as “full of a joyous tumult.” The structure, he said, with its opening subject taken from the first movement, was “an idea turning back on itself like a snake swallowing its own tail.” Again, there is a suggestion of Spain, as well as of the music of a gypsy violinist whose playing had impressed Debussy during a visit to Budapest.
The Violin Sonata was the last thing Debussy wrote. He died of colon cancer in 1918 during the German bombardment of Paris.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 87 (1802; published 1822)

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)
Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 87 (1802; published 1822)

Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s music may not be widely familiar today, but during his lifetime he was one of the brightest stars in Europe’s musical firmament – a virtuoso pianist whose fame rivaled Beethoven’s, and a celebrated composer who influenced a generation of Romantic composers. Hummel began attracting attention as a young child. When he was eight, Mozart heard him play and agreed to take him on as a pupil, free of charge. Two years later, at Mozart’s suggestion, he and his father began a grand tour of Europe that lasted four years and cemented his reputation as a prodigy. Back home in Vienna, he spent several years studying composition and vying with Beethoven for the title of Vienna’s greatest virtuoso and composer. Recalling those years, he later would tell his pupil Ferdinand Hiller, “It was a serious moment for me when Beethoven appeared. Should I have tried to walk in the footsteps of such a genius? For a while I didn’t know who I was.” Nevertheless, Hummel and Beethoven managed to maintain a long, if stormy, friendship.
Hummel served as music director at various courts, including Esterházy (with Haydn’s blessing) and Weimar. He devoted much of his time to teaching Europe’s leading pianists, to concertizing, and to composing music that many considered comparable to Beethoven’s. He was Chopin’s early muse. Liszt admired him enormously and played two of Hummel’s concertos on his debut tour. Schubert planned to dedicate his last three piano sonatas to Hummel and wrote his “Trout” Quintet at the request of a patron who wanted a work with the same combination of instruments as Hummel’s Piano Quintet.
Hummel’s music was a bridge between Mozart’s Classicism and the emerging Romantic age. As you’ll hear in the Piano Quintet, his work is marked by melodiousness, lavish embellishments, interesting harmonic colors and sonorities, and pianistic fireworks, all wrapped up in Viennese charm and grace. The fun begins with the sonata-form Allegro, which opens with a declamatory four-note motif on which the entire first movement is built. There is a lyrical second theme, a stormy, harmonically adventurous development, and a recapitulation that introduces some new ideas. Throughout, Hummel creates washes of piano color with triplets, arpeggios, and rapid, irregularly grouped runs. The second-movement Menuetto – which is really more like a scherzo – is playfully gruff, with its bite softened by the violin’s whimsical turns and by a trio that is all scalar lightness. The piano is at its most lyrical in the brief Largo that serves as an introduction to a rousing Finale. A rondo, the Finale is an entertaining combination of mania and flowing song, as the piano drives the music at a breathless pace.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano in E-Flat Major, Op. 40 (1865)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano in E-Flat Major, Op. 40 (1865)

The melody that opens the Horn Trio came to Brahms during a leisurely early-morning walk in the Black Forest, near Baden-Baden, in the summer of 1865. For years it was Brahms’s habit to spend the spring and summer months combining vacation with work, buoyed by pleasant company and the beauties of nature. This particular spring, however, his pleasure was tempered by sadness over the recent death of his mother.
Not surprisingly, the Trio is a memorial for his mother. Beyond that, one of the instruments Brahms chose – the valveless Waldhorn, or natural horn – had strong childhood associations. His musician father had played it, and as a child Brahms had learned to play it too. Although horn players were turning to the new, valved French horn, Brahms was much fonder of the darker, more muted sounds of the natural horn and preferred that it be used in performances of the Trio. “I would be apprehensive about hearing it with the valve horn,” Brahms wrote to a friend. “All poetry is lost, and the timbre is crude and dreadful right from the start.” Not surprisingly, Brahms wrote the Trio in the key of E-Flat, the Waldhorn’s natural key.
The Horn Trio is a marvelous blend of elegy, nostalgia, and high spirits. Brahms was as usual breaking musical ground. The very combination of instruments was a striking departure from the expected violin-cello-piano scoring. It was the first and only time, too, that Brahms wrote a chamber piece whose first movement is not in sonata form. Rather, it is an Andante that, with its ABABA pattern, moves leisurely away from and back to the gentle, somewhat melancholic theme that opens the work. The second movement is a robust Scherzo, with typically Brahmsian rhythmic inventiveness and darker hints in the minor-key trio section. The full weight of Brahms’s mourning for his mother arrives with the elegiac third movement, whose mood Brahms makes explicit in his tempo marking: Adagio mesto (“sad adagio”). But it is a gentle sadness, in keeping with the spirit of the early movements. In another nod to the past, Brahms links this movement to the next with a German folk tune that his mother had sung to him. The tune appears at the end of the Adagio and then, speeded up, becomes the theme of the exuberant Finale. The clouds lift in this irresistible closing movement, as the three instruments merrily let loose and the Waldhorn indulges in cheerful hunting calls.
Brahms was the pianist for the Trio’s premiere in December 1865, and in the following years he performed it many more times. But despite his wishes, the obsolescent natural horn rarely became the horn of choice for performers.

Program II. July 24 

Ned Rorem (1923-) Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano (1960)

Ned Rorem (1923-)
Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano (1960)

Composer, diarist, raconteur – Ned Rorem holds a special place in American arts and letters. He has been described as “an essential, brilliant, and more than occasionally irascible American artist.” Rorem has been prolific with both words and music. “When I was young,” he has said, “it was a toss-up whether I would be a composer or a writer, so I became a little of both.” His 16 volumes of diaries, lectures, and criticism – beginning with his Paris Diary of 1966 – are witty, earthy, graceful, filled with strong opinions, and notoriously candid. Not surprisingly, given his love of both words and music, songs have been at the heart of his work as a composer. He has written hundreds of them –lyrical, deeply felt songs that reflect his exceptional gift for setting words to music. But songs are just the beginning. He has composed innumerable operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber works, and much more. Stylistically he has been called “an elegant anomaly” for the way he has stuck with tonality even during the years when atonal, complex Modernism was sweeping American music.
Rorem has said that the sound of the voice drives his work. “I always think vocally,” he says. “Even when writing for violin or timpani, it’s the vocalist in me trying to get out.” You can hear what he means in the Trio for Flute, Cello, and Piano, a work brimming with song-like lines. The four movements are filled with surprises – theatrical outbursts, seductive solos, high-speed gambols. The first movement belongs to the flute, an instrument that is a particular favorite of Rorem’s (he has described flute music as “song with the voice removed, with the flute as the voice”). Rorem bases the sensuous flute solo that opens and closes the movement on six notes, which are transformed in an exuberant, rhythmically quirky middle section.
In the dramatic second-movement Largo, the flute and the cello wind around each other in hushed tones, while the piano interrupts at closer and closer intervals with crashing chords. Rorem’s own description of this movement is cheerfully irreverent: “The Largo presents a whispered idiotic conversation between flute and cello; whispered because both play muted and non-vibrato even at their loudest, idiotic because each voice says the same thing at the same time and neither listens to the other.” The cellist gets his turn in the Andante, with a haunting melody that is based on the same six notes as in the first movement. Rorem describes both the second and fourth movements as “built from similar blocks–a squeezed sequence of four consecutive tones.” The tones become unsqueezed in the concluding Allegro molto, a jaunty movement featuring pianistic dazzle and plenty of fireworks.

Anton Arensky (1861-1906) String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 35 (1894)

Anton Arensky (1861-1906)
String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 35 (1894)

In late 19th-century Russia, a country awash with Romantic composers, young Anton Arensky was one of the bright rising stars. The son of a pianist mother who was his first teacher, he had begun composing by the time he was nine. At the St. Petersburg Conservatory he studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov and graduated with high honors in just three years. At the age of 21 he became a professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory, where he remained for many years, teaching, among others, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin (Rachmaninoff dedicated an early composition to “my dear professor Anton Stepanovich Arensky”). At the same time, Arensky was pursuing a career as a much-admired composer, conductor, and pianist. He composed steadily – songs, piano pieces, orchestral and chamber works, opera. For years he was one of the luminaries of Moscow’s vibrant musical life. Tchaikovsky had become a friend and a mentor, and his impact on Arensky’s style was great. But Arensky was an alcoholic and a gambler, and his addictions took their toll. Debilitated, he died of tuberculosis at the age of 45.
Arensky’s lyrical gifts and technical adroitness are abundantly apparent in the String Quartet in A Minor, a work that he wrote a few months after Tchaikovsky’s death as a memorial to his friend. The Quartet is unusually scored for two cellos, and the reason is clear from the opening notes: A muted, somber theme that sounds like a Russian Orthodox psalm is given sonorous depth by the addition of the second cello. The opening mood is tempered by a lyrical second theme, and these two themes are developed throughout a dramatic movement that ranges between tenderness and passion before closing with a return to the funereal opening.
The second movement is Arensky’s direct homage to Tchaikovsky. Taking as his theme the fifth song, “Legend,” from Tchaikovsky’s “16 Songs for Children,” Arensky presents seven wonderfully varied and inventive variations that showcase his distinctive rhythmic and melodic style and his feeling for instrumental color. The variations travel from the simple canon of the first variation, through cantabile melodies, vivacious pizzicatos, tranquil andantinos, driving rhythms, sweeping arpeggios, and a final simple melody before ending with a coda that brings back the Tchaikovsky theme as well as the chant that opens the Quartet.
Like the first movement, the Finale begins with a dirgelike hymn. But this time the mood quickly turns celebratory as Arensky launches into a robust patriotic folksong. If the tune sounds familiar, that’s because Mussorgsky used the same one in Boris Godunov, and Beethoven used it in the second “Rasumovsky” Quartet. Arensky treats it fugally and ends with an outburst of virtuosity – a satisfying ending to this very Russian, appealingly lyrical work.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47 (1842)

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47 (1842)

After Beethoven, the question for 19th-century Romantic composers was what to do next. For Robert Schumann – whom Charles Rosen called “the most representative musical figure of central European Romanticism” – one answer was to pay homage, which he did in this Piano Quartet.
Schumann composed obsessively, one genre at a time. His pattern was to work in huge bursts of energy until, exhausted, he collapsed. In his twenties he focused almost exclusively on solo works for the piano. In 1840 – the year he married his great love Clara Wieck – he turned to song, within months composing one masterful song cycle after another. The year 1841 was devoted to large-scale orchestral works. In 1842 it was the turn of chamber music. While Clara was away on a concert tour, Robert, alone and depressed, passed the time at home studying the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and especially Beethoven, whose work particularly inspired him. Then, in a great creative burst, over the next six months he wrote three string quartets, his famous Piano Quintet, and this jewel of a Piano Quartet.
Beethoven’s influence is palpable from the very beginning of the impassioned, rhythmically driven E-flat Major Quartet. Not only is it in the same key as Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 127, but it begins the same way, with a slow, solemn Sostenuto that is followed by a lively Allegro whose first theme is derived from the introduction. The slower Sostenuto reappears twice in the movement, before the development, and again before the coda. Although the movement is in sonata form, Schumann twice bends the rules, focusing on just the first theme in the development section, and having the cello introduce a new theme in the coda.
While the first part of the nimble Scherzo shows the influence of Schumann’s friend Mendelssohn, the movement’s second trio, with its series of syncopated chords, is pure Schumann. His gift for song is on full display in the ardent Andante cantabile, during which each instrument gets its turn to sing. The movement ends with a strikingly original coda: the cellist tunes the low string down to B-flat, then sustains that tone as a low drone while the other instruments anticipate the opening theme of the last movement. This ebullient Finale demonstrates Schumann’s skill at contrapuntal writing as he spins out theme after wonderful theme – one fugal, another lyrical, a third recalling the Scherzo. It’s an exhilarating end to a quintessentially Romantic work, rich in grand themes, emotional expressiveness, and surprising developments. Clara Schumann, who played the piano part for the Quartet’s premiere, loved it, referring to it as “this beautiful work, which is so youthful and fresh; as if it were his first.”

Program III. July 31

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) Assobio a Játo (“The Jet Whistle”) for Flute and Cello (1950)

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)
Assobio a Játo (“The Jet Whistle”) for Flute and Cello (1950)

The New Grove Dictionary calls Heitor Villa-Lobos “the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music,” citing his “achievement in creating unique compositional styles in which contemporary European techniques and reinterpreted elements of national music are combined.” That’s a very dry way to describe a very colorful composer, whose unique voice had a profound musical impact on his country and won him international fame.
From his earliest years Villa-Lobos rebelled against expectations. His father, an amateur musician, taught him the cello and the clarinet, but Heiter liked the guitar, which he taught himself. His mother expected him to be a doctor, but Heiter was captivated by Brazilian popular music and preferred the life of Rio’s street musicians. As a teenager he left school and began a decade of traveling throughout Brazil, collecting folk and traditional music while at the same time teaching himself composition. The ethnic music he discovered and adapted, combined with his own experiments in rhythm and harmony, contributed to the creation of his distinctive musical voice. Brazilian critics savaged his early works, with their daring balance of vernacular music and Modernist techniques. But he had supporters, including the pianist Artur Rubinstein, who began playing his music abroad. By the time he went to Paris in 1923, he already had begun to develop a following. And by the time he moved back to Brazil in 1930 – having met and been influenced by Debussy, Stravinsky, and Varèse – he was an international star, as well as a national hero for his championing of Brazilian folk and popular music.
Villa-Lobos’s output was enormous. His range was equally impressive: He could apply Bachian contrapuntal techniques to Brazilian themes (the nine pieces of Bachianas brasileiras), or base a masterful set of fourteen technically complex pieces on the chôros, a rhythmic, improvisational, uniquely Brazilian musical form. Or he could surprise with the unexpected, as he does in “The Jet Whistle,” with its exotic pairing of two instruments of contrasting range, timbre, and texture. From the opening notes of the Allegro, Villa-Lobos has fun with the instrumental contrasts, as the flute chirps over the cello’s long, low lines. When the two reverse roles, the flute becomes flamboyant while the cello accompaniment lumbers. Twice they move in opposite directions, the flute to the top and the cello to the bottom of their ranges. The mood changes in the second-movement Adagio, where the flute’s cool melody intertwines with the cello’s at times dissonant counterpoint.  In a boisterous finale, the cello eggs on the flute, which charges higher and higher in a series of pyrotechnic runs until the flutist blasts air into the mouthpiece – a screech that reminded Villa-Lobos of a jet engine on takeoff. Hence the title.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) Fantaisie for Violin and Harp in A Major, Op. 124 (1907)

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Fantaisie for Violin and Harp in A Major, Op. 124 (1907)

For many years, no composer or pianist was more revered in France than Camille Saint-Saëns. The public adored him, and Berlioz and Liszt were among the many forward-looking musicians who admired him (Liszt described him as “the greatest organist in the world”). His vast output included works that remain staples of today’s classical concerts, including his Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”), the symphonic poem Dance macabre, the opera Samson et Delila, and of course Carnival of the Animals (which he wrote as a joke and, worried that it would hurt his reputation, refused to have it performed during his lifetime). His interests were wide-ranging. He was one of the first pianists to experiment with recordings, and he was the first famous composer to write music for the cinema, a 1908 film called “The Assassination of the Duke of Guise.” During his lifetime he was heaped with awards, and statues were erected to honor him.
Yet although he was once considered an innovator, Saint-Saëns stubbornly resisted Modernism, and as he got older his influence and reputation began to wane. His music was criticized for being elegant and beautifully written but lacking depth and emotion. In addition, his conservative, Romantic style put him at odds with France’s musical revolutionaries, especially Debussy. But he never stopped writing well-crafted, often inspired, harmonically and contrapuntally masterful music, and throughout his long life, audiences – especially in England and America – continued to revere him. Late works like the lyrical Fantaisie for Violin and Harp help to explain his enduring appeal.
Saint-Saëns wrote the single-movement Fantaisie for two sisters, the violinist Marianne Eisler and the harpist Clara Eisler. Like Villa-Lobos, he was interested in the possibilities when two instruments of very different timbres are paired. In this inventive, atmospheric work – which is filled with flowing melodies and bravura turns for both instrumentalists – the flute and the harp engage each other in an ever-changing pas de deux. At first, in the opening Poco allegretto, they take the roles expected of them, with the violin rising melodiously over the harp’s rippling arpeggios. From this gentlest of openings, as the music progresses through its five sections, the interactions grow in complexity. In the middle section, Vivo e grazioso, which begins with the violin skittering playfully over harp chords, the two relate more as equal partners. In the wonderfully paced Andante con moto, the harp keeps up an obsessive ostinato over which the violin weaves increasingly elaborate flourishes and the music grows in intensity. Throughout, there’s a silky smoothness to Saint-Saëns’s touch as he leads his duo from calm, through playfulness, whimsy, and passion, back to calm with a return to the balance and clarity of the opening.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1915)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1915)

Depressed by World War I and eager to contribute to the French war effort, Debussy turned to the only thing he had to offer: his music. “I want to work not so much for myself, but to give proof, however small it may be, that not even 30 million ‘boches’ can destroy French thought,” he said. In the sonatas that turned out to be his last compositions, Debussy sought to capture what he saw as the spirit of French tradition. As he told Stravinsky, his intent was to return to “pure music.” He planned to write six sonatas for different combinations of instruments: cello and piano; flute, violin, and harp; violin and piano; oboe, horn, and harpsichord; clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, and piano; and as a grand finale, a sixth sonata that would be scored for all those instruments plus a double bass. As it turned out, he wrote only the first three before succumbing to colon cancer.
In the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, Debussy wraps an 18th century French sensibility – elegant and uncluttered – in 20th century tonality. Debussy described this Sonata as “in the ancient, flexible mold with none of the grandiloquence of modern sonatas.” What is immediately striking is the way in which, from the ethereal opening measures, Debussy exploits the distinct and contrasting timbres of his unusual combination of instruments. Striking too is the unconventional structure. Beginning with the flute’s melancholy opening strain, the episodic Pastorale is made up of six brief motifs. After a lively middle section that is driven by dotted rhythms, these motifs recur without variation but in a different order. Throughout this sensuous movement and the two that follow, there are striking shifts in tempo and mood. And even with Debussy’s new aesthetic, there is a beguiling range of colors and textures that recall his earlier Impressionistic works, and suggestions of the Eastern influences so prominent in his compositions.
Debussy continues his homage to the past in the Interlude. Marked “Tempo de Minuetto,” the movement with its carefree melody captures the spirit of the graceful, sunny Baroque dance. Vigorous rhythms propel the energetic Finale, with the viola’s pizzicatos and the flute’s arpeggios among the movement’s driving forces. William Austin called the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp “the last word in the vein of Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun and Syrinx, with both the voluptuousness of the former and the austerity of the latter.” Debussy’s own assessment of the Sonata is intriguing. Looking back with seeming regret, he wrote to a friend that it was “the music of a Debussy whom I no longer know. It is frightfully melancholy and I don’t know whether one should laugh or cry – perhaps both?”

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 (1864)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 (1864)

Brahms’s Piano Quintet is the work of a master at the height of his powers. Brahms first wrote it as a string quintet; but Joseph Joachim questioned the scoring, telling Brahms that “the instrumentation is not energetic enough to convey the powerful rhythmic convulsions.” So Brahms turned the music into a sonata for two pianos. Now it was Clara Schumann who had objections. “It is masterly from every point of view,” she wrote to Brahms, but “it is not a sonata.” Clara thought it demanded an entire orchestra. Brahms wasn’t yet ready to undertake a symphony, though, so instead he prepared a third rescoring, for piano and strings. This time Clara approved.  Brahms finally had found the right combination of instruments to bring out the exceptional richness and complexity of his magnificent creation.
The Piano Quintet is considered by many to be Brahms’s crowning chamber-music achievement. It is a work of powerful lyricism, in which small motivic ideas play key roles in carrying out a grandly conceived formal design. All of the characteristic Brahmsian traits are here: the dramatic intensity, the lush lyricism, the rhythmic adventurousness, the intricate thematic and tonal innovations. What is added is a sense of dramatic progression that links the four movements and gives the work an overall unity.
From the opening measures, Brahms indicates how he will handle his material to achieve both unity of form and great emotional impact. After a quiet beginning, in stark octaves, the music explodes as Brahms speeds up the theme – one of the many rhythmic devices he uses to great effect throughout this majestic movement. The opening theme also introduces the falling halftones that become a unifying motif throughout the Quintet. A wealth of melodic ideas follows, in sharply contrasting moods and varied rhythms. The movement ends with a striking coda that begins quietly and ends, fortissimo, with the same explosive energy and passion that opened the Quintet.
The Andante that follows is as lyrical and tender as the first movement is stormy and tense, and as relatively straightforward as the first movement is complex. It’s a respite before the return of intensity and passion in the Scherzo. Another richly inventive movement, driven by syncopation and displaced downbeats, the Scherzo is built from three successive themes: the first shadowy, the second energetically rhythmic, the third bold and vehement. A lyrical trio provides a brief island of calm. Among the highlights of the Finale are a trove of thematic ideas, starting with the Slavic-sounding dance theme that Brahms introduces after a strange, somber opening. There’s an energetic Presto, and an extended coda that’s a whirlwind of verve and powerful sound – a big, orchestral-like ending that must have delighted Clara.

Program IV. August 7

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1942)

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1942)

Even as an undergraduate at Harvard, Leonard Bernstein had strong ideas about what American music should sound like. In his senior thesis, entitled “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music,” he envisioned an amalgam of musical traditions. His vision was that popular music, jazz, and the music of black America and Latin America would combine with European classical traditions to form a distinctively American musical sound. Years later, in one of his Young People’s Concerts, he said: “So, it’s like the English language spoken with an American accent. It’s the accent that makes it almost like a whole other language. The accent, the rhythm of speaking, the speed that comes out of the way we live, the way we move in America…. the words look the same on paper; but, boy, do they sound different!”
Soon after he arrived in New York in 1942, Bernstein turned to the theater to put his ideas to work. With Jerome Robbins he wrote the ballet Fancy Free. With Betty Comden and Adolph Green he wrote the musical On the Town, in which he drew on his classical training to tell a popular tale of three sailors on leave in the city. Most stunning of all was West Side Story, with its Latin rhythms, Tin Pan Alley lyrics, and sophisticated 20th-century style. Musical theater wasn’t Bernstein’s only focus, though. Throughout these years he also was composing much-admired symphonies, beginning with his First Symphony, “Jeremiah,” in 1943. That same year, he conducted the New York Philharmonic in a concert that brought him instant international celebrity.
In the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Bernstein’s first published work, he shows how adept he already was at straddling the two worlds of popular culture and high art. Bernstein had studied with Paul Hindemith, whom he once described as “a true master in the great German tradition.” The sonata-form first movement shows the influence of Hindemith’s concise, Neo-Classical, contrapuntal style. The opening Grazioso begins with the clarinet meandering slowly and seductively over the piano’s steady, rhythmic, sometimes agitated counterpoint. There is some loosening up in the lively development, and by the end of the movement other strands have started to creep in – a hint of blues here, a touch of syncopation there. Everything changes in the second movement, which opens moodily and dissonantly but soon bursts out in the cheerful rhythms of jazz, with lots of syncopation and playful clarinet riffs. The soulful mood returns but again gives way to shifting, jazzy rhythms. The piano and the clarinet engage in an increasingly exuberant conversation before the clarinet brings the sonata to a close with an exultant soar to the top of its range.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) Trio élégiaque No.1 in G Minor (1892)

Sergei Rachmaninoff  (1873-1943)
Trio élégiaque No.1 in G Minor (1892)

Rachmaninoff’s early life reads like a Chekhov play. His parents were descendants of land-owning aristocrats, and his mother had brought extensive property as a dowry when she married. But his profligate father went through all the family’s money, their several estates were sold off one by one, and finally, when Sergei was nine, they were forced to move to cramped quarters in St. Petersburg. His sister died of diphtheria, his parents separated, and three years later Sergei failed all his exams at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Worried by what she saw as her gifted son’s laziness and indifference, his mother shipped him off to Moscow at the age of twelve to study piano with, and learn some discipline from, Nicolai Zverev, a famously hard-driving teacher. The plan worked. Sergei buckled down, and under Zverev’s rigorous regime he blossomed as both a pianist and a student. He entered the Moscow Conservatory and graduated in just three years, becoming only the third graduate to win the school’s highest honor, the Great Gold Medal in composition.
Rachmaninoff had begun composing soon after he arrived in Moscow, and he confidently turned out works at a steady clip. What is impressive about these early works is how quickly the young student arrived at his distinctive mature sound. It’s there in the Trio élégiaque No.1, which he wrote in a few days during his final year at the Conservatory. (Later that same year he would write one of his most famous pieces, the Prelude in C Sharp Minor.) Why Rachmaninoff wrote an elegy isn’t entirely clear. The work clearly had a connection to Tchaikovsky, to whom Sergei was devoted: Listeners immediately would recognize that the opening theme was a reversal of the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. But Tchaikovsky was still very much alive. Perhaps Sergei’s Trio was a nod to the Piano Trio that Tchaikovsky wrote to mourn the death of the pianist Nikolai Rubenstein; its first movement also ends with a funeral march.
The structure of the single-movement Trio élégiaque is simple. It opens with the piano presenting a somber, very Russian melody – marked “Lento lugubre” – and closes with the melody repeated as a mournful funeral march. In between, as the music progresses from section to section, soulful passages alternate with great surges of passion, climaxing with a rise to a fortissimo episode, marked “Appassionato,” just before the funeral march. The themes pass from instrument to instrument, with violin and cello getting chances to embellish the Romantic, heart-on-sleeves melodies. But this is a piano-driven work – not surprising, given Rachmaninoff’s keyboard brilliance. From the beginning, it is the piano’s massive chords and big Romantic washes of color that propel the music.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano (1926)

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano (1926)

Francis Poulenc was a man of contradictions. He was both a hedonist and a deeply religious Catholic. He could write witty melodies that would be at home in a Parisian music hall, as well as sacred music inspired by his faith (the latter included his great opera Dialogues of the Carmelites). He was a manic-depressive, and even his most happy-go-lucky music at times had darker undercurrents. His friend the French critic Claude Rostand said, “In Poulenc there is something of the monk and something of the hooligan.” Or as the American composer Ned Rorem put it, Poulenc was “always interlocking soul and flesh.”
Poulenc burst onto the Parisian musical scene when, at the age of 18, he wrote Rapsodie nègre for baritone and chamber ensemble, a work that turned him into an overnight sensation in France. His ballet Les Biches, which Diaghilev staged in 1924, cemented his reputation. His close musical colleagues and friends – Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honneger, Darius Milhaud, and Germaine Tailleferre, a group who, along with Poulenc, were dubbed Les Six – were anti-Impressionists and anti-Romantics who admired Satie and Cocteau and advocated clarity and simplicity in music. Influenced by Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism and Satie’s irreverent wit, Poulenc’s secular music was distinguished by color, tunefulness, glitter, urbanity, and most of all, a sense of fun.
The Neoclassical qualities of simplicity and balance, plus plenty of humor, infuse Poulenc’s sparkling Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano, one of his earliest chamber works. “I worked on it a lot,” he reported; “It’s in a style new to me yet at the same time very Poulenc.” Taking his teacher Ravel’s advice, Poulenc modeled the Trio on the works of earlier composers whom he admired. In addition to following a Classical fast-slow-fast format, he noted that “the first movement follows the plan of a Haydn allegro and the final Rondo that of the scherzo from the second movement of Saint-Saëns’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.”
The Trio begins with a series of sober, dissonant piano chords that neither the bassoon nor the oboe is willing to take quite seriously, after which the three instruments break out into a spirited gambol, with the two winds cavorting over jazzy piano chords. After a middle section highlighted by the oboe’s long lyrical lines, frivolity returns to end the movement. The Andante, which Poulenc described as “sweet and melancholic,” is a lovely, Mozart-like slow movement that showcases Poulenc’s considerable melodic gifts. A brisk Rondo, bright and brimming with panache, brings the Trio to a joyful close. Poulenc was pleased with the work, writing to Claude Rostand, “I quite like my Trio because it comes over clearly and is well balanced.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A Major, K. 581 (1789)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A Major, K. 581 (1789)

Like Brahms, Mozart fell in love with the sound of the clarinet late in his life. That love suffuses the Clarinet Quintet, one of Mozart’s most beloved compositions. It is a work of melodic eloquence, distinguished by what Jan Swafford describes as “the grace of his earlier music, but the weight and depth of his last pieces.” Throughout, it is genial, good-humored, and filled with bountiful pleasures.
Mozart wrote the Clarinet Quintet for his friend and fellow Freemason, the clarinetist Anton Stadler (Mozart referred to it as “Stadler’s Quintet”). Stadler may have been a less than admirable character – he allegedly borrowed money that he never repaid, and Mozart’s sister-in-law described him as one of the composer’s “false friends, secret bloodsuckers, and worthless persons who served only to amuse him at the table and intercourse with whom injured his reputation.” However, he was a lively companion and, more to the point, a brilliant clarinetist. As one critic wrote of his playing, “One would never have thought that a clarinet could imitate the human voice to such perfection.” Stadler experimented with extending the clarinet’s range, inventing an instrument that added four low notes. This instrument, known as the basset clarinet, is thought to be the one for which Mozart originally wrote his Quintet.
The Clarinet Quintet’s superb first movement, with one genial theme after another, sets the tone for the entire work. The strings introduce each of three themes, with the clarinet responding in a different way each time: it adds embellishments to the first theme, repeats the second theme in a minor key, and completes the strings’ statement of the third theme. In the relatively short development section, all the instruments pass arpeggios back and forth, creating rich sonorities.
The clarinet comes to the fore as a singing instrument in the spacious Larghetto, a long cantilena played over muted strings. All the instruments get their turn in the Menuetto – the strings in the minor-key first trio, the clarinet in the second, a ländler-like peasant dance. Alfred Einstein described the expansive last movement – a theme and variations – as “brief and amusing with all its variety and richness, serious and lovable.” It features a satisfying variety of moods and textures, beginning with the first variation, where the clarinet plays in counterpoint to the strings’ restatement of the theme. The second variation focuses on rhythm. In the third, in A Minor, the viola takes the lead. The clarinet gets a virtuoso turn in the fourth variation, after which the music slows to a lyrical Adagio for the final variation. Then it’s back to Allegro for a lively coda that brings the Quintet to its cheerful end.

Program V. August 14

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor (1915)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor (1915)

The outbreak of war took a heavy toll on the ardently patriotic Debussy. To the publisher Jacques Durand he wrote, “I have suffered much from the long drought forced upon my brain by the war.” But by 1915 he was again able to work. That summer and fall he wrote the first two of a planned cycle of six sonatas for various combinations of instruments. The cycle began auspiciously with the Sonata for Cello and Piano. Debussy had considered calling it “Pierrot fâché avec la lune” (Pierrot raging at the moon), a reference to the sad clown of French pantomime and perhaps an indication of Debussy’s state of mind when he wrote it.
Like all of Debussy’s late works, the Cello Sonata pays homage to a French musical tradition of elegance, clarity, and restraint. It takes the shape of a Classical sonata: The Prologue is in roughly ABA form, the Sérénade is a scherzo, and the Finale is a dance movement. Other than that, it is unorthodox from the unusual titles of the movements on. The first motif of the Prologue, introduced by the piano, evokes the melodies of medieval French trouvères, the northern counterparts of troubadours. This opening theme is the first of three ideas that are juxtaposed, rather than developed as they would be in a conventional sonata. The cello introduces a second theme, a descending figure that sounds like a lament, followed by a third motif of alternating major and minor ascending fourths. After a brief, agitated section led by the piano, the opening ideas are repeated once more, and the movement ends in a final restatement of the opening theme and a shift from minor to major. All of this takes place in a brief span of about three and a half minutes.
The eerie and poignant Sérénade starts with the cello plucking out a low, rhythmically jerky motif that suggests a disoriented Pierrot stumbling around, then picking up his guitar and singing in a falsetto voice. The movement is filled with wandering tonalities and irregular rhythms created by short bursts of accented notes, interruptions, and sudden changes of tempo. The Finale, which is as modally melodic and flowing as the Sérénade is spiky and abrupt, is marked by extreme shifts in tempos and the striking juxtaposition of unrelated tonalities. Debussy was pleased with the proportions and form of the sonata, which he described as “almost classical, in the good sense of the word.” Clearly making a statement, he signed the printed manuscript, “Claude Debussy, musicien français.”
In their harmonic adventurousness, Debussy’s last sonatas look to the future. As Aaron Copland said of Debussy, “His work incited a whole generation of composers to experiment with new and untried harmonic possibilities.”

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, Op. 12 (1919-20)

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)
Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, Op. 12 (1919-20)

Kodály’s music is connected in essential ways to each of the other composers on today’s program. He was influenced by Debussy’s early Impressionism, and he and Dvořák shared a passion to preserve their countries’ folk heritages.
“If I were asked to name the composer whose works are the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit, I would answer, Kodály,” Béla Bartók wrote of his compatriot, fellow ethno-musicologist, and close friend. Kodály was a man with a mission: to capture and preserve the authentic folk music of the Hungarian peasantry, and to make that folk heritage the basis of a genuine Hungarian musical style. Bartók shared Kodály’s passion, and around 1905 the two composers began traveling to remote back-country villages, where they recorded and catalogued thousands of Magyar songs. Kodály’s lifelong focus remained on Hungary’s ethnic heritage, and he spent his life working to establish a national musical culture and to make it the basis of music education in Hungary. By the time he died he was a national hero, and the system of music education that he developed for school children had international influence.
Years before that, though, Kodály had run into political trouble. During the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic that was established in 1918, he was appointed Deputy Director of the National Academy of Music in Budapest. When the Republic was overthrown by a right-wing dictatorship, Kodály lost his job and was accused of crimes against the state. He eventually was allowed to return to teaching, but his reputation had been damaged. One of the few works he composed during this fraught period was the Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, Op. 12. Bartók, impressed by the work and eager to see his friend’s reputation restored, wrote a glowing review that praised its unusual chord combinations, its originality, and the superb richness of its instrumental effects and melodies.
The Serenade is an ingratiating work that is typical of Kodály’s style: a blend of folk inspiration and modern harmonies, wrapped in classical form. It begins with a rousing rhythmic pattern that drives the sonata-form first movement, and it ends with a rambunctious, dancelike finale. These movements bracket an unusual Lento, a witty and entertaining dialogue between the viola and the first violin, carried out over the second violin’s tremolo. The viola opens with a seductive, come-hither melody, which the violin answers with chirps that Kodály marks ridando (laughingly). Throughout the movement, he issues directions such as imitando, indifferante, disparado – emotions that inspired one listener to imagine it as a conversation between a lover and the coy object of his affections. For Bartók the movement was a delight: “We find ourselves in a fairy world never dreamed of before.”

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81 (1887)

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81 (1887)

Three great piano quintets emerged from the Romantic era. Brahms and Schumann wrote the first two; Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A Major is the third. Dvořák was at the peak of his career when he wrote it. He was acknowledged at home and abroad as one of the great composers of his day – a master at evoking his Slavonic musical heritage within the classical traditions of Beethoven, Schubert, and especially his friend Brahms. He was happy in his personal life too. He was contentedly married, his children were flourishing, and after years of financial struggle he could afford to live comfortably. Dvořák had visited his sister-in law and her husband at their chateau in the small village of Vyoská, near Prague, and had fallen in love with the area. Eager for a place that could be a peaceful retreat from his increasingly busy travels abroad, he bought an old farm building that he turned into a summer home for his family. For years he spent long, idyllic summers there. Dvořák wrote many of his famous compositions at Vyoská, including his Symphonies No. 7 and No. 8, some Slavonic Dances, the opera Rusalka, and this epic Piano Quintet.
Fifteen years earlier, Dvořák had written an unmemorable Piano Quintet in A Major, which he published as Op. 5. Years later he tried to revise it but then decided to start a new one from scratch, in the same key. What he composed in its place is this melodically sumptuous, flawlessly structured, sonically grand work that joyfully blends Europe and Bohemia. Dvořák’s brilliant handling of his material begins with the first measures of the opening Allegro, as the cello plays one of Dvořák’s meltingly beautiful melodies over the piano’s gentle arpeggios. Almost immediately, the mood changes with a rousing series of elaborate transformations of this theme. Not until many measures later does the viola introduce a second, livelier minor-key theme. These contrasts – between gentle and vigorous, major and minor, lyrical and muscular – shape the rest of the movement as it flows melodiously through an elaborate development to a jubilant coda.
The Dumka, with its alternating lament and rhythmic folk dance, was a Dvořák specialty, and this one is superb. The opening melancholy melody alternates with two dances, the first a cheerful melody in D Major, the second a lively, rhythmic Vivace. Each time the lament returns it is treated more elaborately, with increasingly rich textures. Melodic invention and rhythmic elan drive the last two movements. The Scherzo combines the effervescence of a Mendelssohn scherzo with the vivaciousness of a Furiant, the accent-driven Slavonic dance. Its gentle trio charmingly recasts the Scherzo’s brisk theme. Capping the Quintet is a merry Finale with a fugato in the development, a brief chorale near the end, and a dazzling, headlong coda – an exhilarating demonstration of just how effortlessly Dvořák melds a Czech folk spirit with classical form. Throughout the Quintet, in the words of one critic, “A joyous springtime happiness flows through the music.”