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Program Notes: Danish String Quartet

Johann Sebastian Bach
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I
Fugue No. 16 in G minor BWV 861 (arr. Förster)

If you have ever happened to see one of those cooking shows in which a chef is challenged to create an entire meal—appetizer, entrée and dessert—out of a minimum of ingredients (an ox-tail, say, and a banana) then you are well on your way to understanding the recipe for cooking up a Baroque fugue.

The aim of a fugue is to create an entire polyphonic composition out of only two melodies, either stated in their entirety or broken up into bits and pieces. These two melodies—the fugue’s subject and countersubject—are presented first in staggered entries, in the manner of a round. The subject enters first alone before being accompanied in subsequent entries by the countersubject. And then it’s off to the races in an alternating pattern of entries (where the subject is stated whole) and episodes (in which the bits and pieces are chewed over), roaming around in different keys. Somewhere near the end there is usually a stretto section, in which the conversation gets so lively that one voice can hardly get started before another voice interrupts to say the same thing, much in the manner of lively Italian dinner conversation.

Cleverness and ingenuity are built into the DNA of fugue-writing and Bach certainly did not stint on either in the construction of his Fugue in G minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722). Witness the manner in which Bach constructs his fugue subject in two contrasting parts: a first part with semitone steps on either side of a downward-leaping minor 6th, then a second part comprised of a few notes running up and down in smooth stepwise motion. The countersubject (here is the cunning bit) is the same, but in reverse order and inverted: a few notes running down and up followed by a variant of an upward-leaping minor 6th motive. Bach’s subject generates its own countersubject—in the mirror!

The odd thing about this four-voice fugue is that the texture only rarely features all four voices playing at once—likely in order to make the dramatic leap of a minor 6th stand out more easily in a work written for keyboard. German composer Alban Förster (1849-1916), who arranged this fugue for string quartet, might have other ideas, however, about leaving one member of a quartet filing his nails while the others do all the heavy lifting.

 

Felix Mendelssohn
Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 13

Mendelssohn was not your typical Romantic-era composer. The polished grace of his melodies and clear formal outlines of his musical structures show him to have had one foot in the Classical era of Mozart and Haydn, while his penchant for imitative counterpoint and fugal writing shows that even that foot had at least a big toe in the Baroque era of Bach and Handel, as well.

As a child, while his youthful contemporaries were gainfully employed in kicking over garbage cans and pulling the pigtails of young girls, Felix, at the age of 11, was writing fugues. And if his tastes in music were perhaps acquired under the influence of his arch-conservative music teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832), his championing of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach remained nevertheless a lifelong endeavour. Indeed, the performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Singakademie in Berlin in 1829, which Mendelssohn conducted at the age of 20, is credited with initiating the revival of 19th-century interest in Bach’s music.

The String Quartet in A minor Op. 13 was composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was still establishing himself as the most learned teenage composer in Berlin—admittedly, not a crowded field. Its frequent use of fugal textures attests to the young composer’s admiration for Bach while numerous formal features, especially its cyclical design and recall of themes from earlier movements, point to the influence of Beethoven—the late string quartets and Ninth Symphony in particular.

The first movement opens with an endearing Adagio full of short coy phrases which lead to a repeated three-note motive (C# B D) derived from one of Mendelssohn’s own songs (Frage Op. 9 No. 1). This motive will recur throughout the entire quartet, either in its dotted rhythm or in its melodic contour stretching over a minor 3rd. Lyrical repose, however, is in short supply in the remainder of the first movement. The Allegro vivace that follows the introductory Adagio is a restless affair that offers up two anxious little themes, both set in a minor key.

But “anxiety” is a relative term. In Beethoven it summons up the panicky feeling that you’re swimming just slightly ahead of a shark—that’s gaining on you. Mendelssohnian anxiety, by contrast, is more like not knowing where you put the car keys.

Imitative counterpoint is pervasive in this movement, not just as a “spot technique” to add intensity to the development section à la Mozart and Haydn, but even in the initial presentation of the movement’s themes.

Fireside coziness arrives in the Adagio non lento with its serene and elegiac melody in the 1st violin,  drenched in tearful sigh motives. These sigh motives, chromatically inflected, then become the basis for the full-on fugue that follows—an obvious hommage to a similar fugue in the second movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor Op. 95. Clever lad that he is, young Felix even inverts his fugue subject before returning to the poised serenity of the opening.

In place of a scherzo, Mendelssohn gives us a relaxed and unbuttoned intermezzo. The tune that begins the movement is of the utmost simplicity, one that uses the same catchy rhythm four times in a row, without somehow becoming tiresome. In the middle section trio, however, Mendelssohn returns to type with a fleet and light-footed romp of detached 16ths lightly peppered with repeated notes. And who could resist combining these two contrasting sections in the movement’s final bars? Certainly not Mendelssohn.

High drama marks the opening to the Presto finale, with a flamboyant and wide-ranging recitative in the 1st violin holding forth over melodramatic tremolos below. The reference to the finale of the Ninth Symphony is obvious but this opening is even more closely patterned on the last movement of Beethoven’s A minor Quartet Op. 132 (next on the program). The troubled theme that emerges is similar in mood, as well, to the rocking main theme of Beethoven’s Op. 132 finale. Pacing back and forth in tonal space over a harmonically restless cello line it eventually issues into a cross-country horse-gallop before “remembering” the fugue subject from the second movement in a series of flashbacks. The work closes with the same lyrical Adagio with which it opened, framing the quartet’s inner drama as a gently fading memory.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quartet No. 15 in A minor Op. 132

Beethoven’s late string quartets are at one and the same time backward-looking, progressive, and even visionary works. The fascination he entertained in his last years for densely contrapuntal textures and the arcane procedures of canon and fugue harkened back to the Baroque era. His expansion of the number of movements in a serious work, along with innovations in the formal design of each movement, moved well beyond the norm of Classical-era practice. And his use of increasingly numerous, increasingly precise performance markings, along with his abrupt dynamic and tempo changes, bespoke a type of music that moved at the pace of human thought, in response to the impulses of an individual personality, offering a foretaste of the Romantic movement to come.

All these traits are on display in his Quartet in A minor Op. 132, composed in 1825.

The quartet unfolds in five movements instead of the usual four, arranged symmetrically around a central slow movement. The work opens with a slow introduction fixated on the overlapping entries of a four-note fugue-like subject in long notes that does more than simply set up the off-to-the-races arrival of the movement’s first theme, announced by the cello high in the soprano register. Pay attention to these opening bars: the long notes of this theme, and the intervals out of which it is constructed (especially the descending semitone), will haunt the entire first movement with the magisterial authority of a Baroque fugue subject in augmentation hovering over melodic motion in smaller note values.

Audience members enjoying a double espresso at the intermission will undoubtedly notice the similarity between the theme of this slow introduction and the subject of the Bach fugue which began the program: both are structured around the leap of a minor 6th with semitone motion on either side. Those opting instead for a Red Bull will in addition notice the similarity between the principal motive of Beethoven’s first theme—stepwise motion up and down over a minor 3rd—and the Bach fugue’s countersubject. Devilishly clever programming on the part of these Danish lads, what?

Despite the frequently grave demeanour of its contrapuntal rhetoric, this movement is anything but down-in-the-mouth. On the whole it is bursting with self-confidence—of a somewhat volatile sort—and offers up a good measure of animated instrumental dialogue. Its lyrical second theme, for example, arriving in the 2nd violin over a somewhat loopy accompaniment in undulating triplets, is eminently hummable.

The second movement is not a standard scherzo, but rather an eccentrically mincing minuet and trio. It’s a minuet that thinks it’s a scherzo, though, in the way it tosses short phrases and small motivic fragments back and forth, cleverly manipulated to create a fair bit of metrical “wobble” in the ear. The middle-section Trio is part musette, with a drone in the bass supporting wispy musings in the high treble, and part oom-pah-thumping village dance.

Beethoven reveals the inspiration for his slow movement in its titling: Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (Holy song of a convalescent to the Deity, in the lydian mode). The ‘convalescence’ referred to is the composer’s welcome deliverance in 1825 from a painful intestinal condition that had plagued him for some time. This extraordinarily long movement is structured in alternating sections of pious prayer and joyful deliverance as the composer moves from Heaven-directed thoughts of gratitude to buoyant feelings of corporeal invigoration.

The movement opens solemnly, in the manner of a hymn, with overlapping entries in strict imitation. The antiquarian religious feel of this opening is enhanced by its being written in one of the old church modes. (The lydian mode is simply the F major scale with B natural instead of B flat.)  This is followed by a section entitled Neue Kraft fühlend (Feeling new strength) and what a change in mood this is! Leaping octaves and sprightly trills sonically attest to the composer’s bright new outlook on life until thoughts of his indebtedness to the Almighty return. Each subsequent appearance of these alternating sections is a more florid variation of the previous until the movement ends in the celestial regions of each instrument’s highest register.

The 4th movement brings us back down to earth with a short rollicking little march, even more metrically ambiguous than the previous minuet. But then, as if an opera character had just rushed on stage with dramatic news, the 1st violin erupts into a declamatory recitative (like that in the finale of the Ninth Symphony) over a fretting bed of tremolo strings below.

The theme that emerges out of all this theatrical drama to begin the quartet’s last movement is surprisingly subdued. Wistful but restless, serene but strangely urgent, its gently rippling texture reminds us of Brahms. A rip-roaring development section follows, with plenty of contrapuntal interplay, but then, as in many a Beethoven final movement, minor turns to major, trouble turns to triumph, and the same musical motives that caused all that brow-knitting at the beginning of the movement become, in the end, a cause for joyous celebration.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program Notes: Z.E.N. Trio

Franz Schubert
Notturno in E-flat major  Op. 148

Schubert’s Adagio for Piano Trio D 897 was composed in 1827 but only published decades later, under the publisher’s title Notturno. And indeed, the opening section does conjure up images of nighttime serenity, with its heavenly texture of harp-like arpeggios in the piano supporting a hypnotic melody intoned in close harmony by the two stringed instruments.

Formally structured A-B-A-B-A, the work alternates this ‘angelic choir’ A-section with an equally repetitive, but much more assertive and glorious B-section, as triumphalist as anything from a Liszt piano concerto. Without straying much beyond the tonic-dominant harmonic vocabulary of the average ABBA chorus, it manages to stir the passions by means of the wide-ranging carpet of piano tone that it lays down in cascades of broken chords. With the resolute character of a processional anthem for someone wearing a crown, or at least a long cape, it makes you feel like you ought to be standing while listening to it.

The style of this work, of course, is classic Schubert. In the minds of some it represents an exaggerated Romanticism that abuses the patience of its audience. Detractors obsessed with the prolixity of Schubert’s musical thoughts, and their thin motivic content, will no doubt be quick to point out how the work opens by squatting for a whole six bars on the E flat chord – clear evidence of compositional “dithering.” (One wonders what they would say of the pages and pages of E flat in Wagner’s Rheingold prelude.) And with a little prompting, they will vent their irritation over how Schubert’s melodies never seem to “go anywhere” but just seem to circle around a single pitch.

Schubert aficionados of long standing will, by contrast, ascribe to these same procedures the virtues of ‘heavenly length’ and ‘delicious dreaminess’. Only arguments from personal taste can be dispositive in deciding whether Schubert provides the soul with dessert-quality Viennese cream puffs of exquisite manufacture, or simply empty musical calories.

What both sides can agree on, however, is that given the repetitious quality of the work’s double-dotted rhythms and its multiple incantations of the same melodic fragments, it is the electrifying changes in harmony that provide the principal drama in this work.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67

Shostakovich’s second piano trio was composed in 1944, in response to the unexpected death by heart attack of his close friend and mentor, the musicologist, music critic and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Ivan Sollertinsky (1902-1944).  Sollertinsky had championed the music of Mahler in the Soviet Union and the edgy parodies of folk music in this trio (especially the klezmer tunes in the last movement) may well be a tribute to Sollertinsky’s fascination with this composer.

Shostakovich’s signature style of starkly simple contrapuntal lines is much in evidence in this commemorative work. The textures, while frequently dissonant, are kept clean in the ear by exceptionally sparse writing for the piano, which often plays mere single lines in widely-spaced open octaves. The mental scene set before us is that of a trio of mourners, expressing together a common range of bewildering emotions, from the dull aching pain of grief to the hysterical laughter of despair.

Extreme ranges are proxies for extreme emotional states, as illustrated by the fugato introduction of the first movement. The cello begins in harmonics, like the eerie wailing of a dead spirit, so high in its range that the violin’s entry forms a bass-line underneath it. When the piano joins in, it does so in its ‘graveyard’ register, far below middle-C. This topsy-turvy texture expresses just how much the emotional world of the composer has been turned upside-down with bewildering sadness. Then, over a breathy drumbeat of repeated notes in the strings, the piano announces the movement’s principal theme, hauntingly scored with right hand high in the treble and the left hand stalking it like a dark shadow four octaves below. Almost incongruous folk-like buoyancy appears from time to time, as the instruments engage in conversation in a densely imitative texture, but the movement ends quietly, as if drained of energy.

The short second movement scherzo, however, has energy in spades but it is more than a little manic, full of triadic scamper and obsessively repeated small motives.

The third movement Largo is a funeral dirge cast in the form of a Baroque passacaglia, based on the six-fold repetition in the piano of an 8-measure chordal progression that sounds out as the movement opens like the tolling of a death knell. The exchange of imitative entries in the violin and cello that unfolds above this slowly repeating bass pattern has the searing intensity of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In 1975 this movement was played as the public filed past the coffin of the composer lying in state in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

The Allegretto finale follows immediately, without a break, introducing a klezmer-inflected tune in pizzicato in the violin, metrically off-balance like the gait of a limping hobo. This tune muses sadly—or playfully, it’s hard to tell which—over a close clutch of semitones, occasionally leaping back and forth over the space of a minor 9th, to a distinctly folk-like oom-pah accompaniment. In this danse macabre, merriment and mourning sit on either side of a knife-edge of irony, building in emotional intensity until memories of previous movements re-appear in its closing section: the theme of the opening movement over a shimmering carpet of piano sound, the glassy harmonic of the work’s opening, and finally the solemn chords of the 3rd-movement passacaglia. In such a series of deeply tragic thematic remembrances, the final quiet major chord of this work sounds more lurid than peaceful.

 

Johannes Brahms
Piano Trio No. 1 in B major Op. 8

Brahms’s Piano Trio in B major is a work both young and old. Brahms was only 19 when he published  it in 1854 but more than 30 years later, when the Simrock publishing house acquired the rights from Breitkopf & Härtel, he was offered the chance to make revisions. He accepted, and in 1889 took sheep-cutting shears to large swathes of every movement except the Scherzo with the aim of reining in what he considered the “youthful excesses” of the work’s original version.

The result is a stereoscopic view of the composer both at the very start of his career and in his mature years. What is clear is that the mature composer’s taste for rich, low piano textures was present from the very beginning. The piano introduction to the first movement Allegro con brio hardly strays a few notes above middle C before the cello enters with a broad, almost anthem-like main theme in the baritone range, soon joined by the violin in a glorious duet.

A second theme in the minor mode based on slow broken-chord figures provides thematic contrast without breaking the mood of sustained lyricism. The job of roughing things up is given to pulsing syncopations in the piano part, and to stabbing triplet motives that appear at the end of the exposition. These triplets are a major force to contend with in the development section and even continue rumbling away at the bottom of the piano keyboard when the strings re-introduce the main theme at the start of the recapitulation.

The second movement Scherzo, in B minor, has a Mendelssohnian fleetness of foot but treads more menacingly on the ground of this genre. Beginning softly, it frequently explodes with a violence of emotion that recalls Beethoven. Beethovenian, as well, are the ‘jab-in-the-ribs’ accents on the last beat of the bar. Distinctly Brahmsian, however, are the darkly glinting washes of keyboard colour that occasionally splash across an otherwise jumpy texture of staccato quarter notes. The contrasting trio in B major has a dancelike elegance that, with just a little more lilt, could easily have become a waltz.

The Adagio has a certain intimacy about it, but it is the intimacy of sitting alone in an empty cathedral. There is mystery in the widely-spaced and sonorous piano chords of the opening, whispered from opposite ends of the keyboard, regularly answered by the strings in a strangely impassive dialogue. A spirit of gradual awakening animates the middle section, but still, the mystery remains. There always seems something that this movement is not telling us.

The Allegro finale in B minor demonstrates Brahms’ uncanny ability to draw mighty consequences from the slenderest of musical materials. Written in sonata form, its main theme is an anxiously repetitive melody presented by the cello that frets chromatically on either side of a single note in a hushed mood of worry and concern. Burbling piano triplets give an undercurrent of nervous agitation to this theme, soon taken up by the violin. By the time the piano takes the theme in hand it has become a passionate outcry, riding atop a rich carpet of piano tone surging up in the left hand from the deepest regions of the keyboard. A more spacious second theme in the major mode tries to counter the tragic undertow but to no avail. Despite moments of calm in the development section, the forward drive of this movement is irresistible, as wave upon wave of swirling piano tone envelop the plaintive pleadings of the strings.

Whatever revisions may have been made in later years, the dark passions roiling the heart of the young Brahms remained starkly evident in the final version of this trio.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

Program notes: Nikki and Timmy Chooi and Angela Cheng

Claude Debussy
Sonata in G minor for violin and piano

The sound of Debussy’s music confounded many of his contemporaries. From a tonal point of view, it floated in stasis in a world of pastel sounds that arrived at their destination more by whim than by design. How, they asked, could what he composed actually be called music? After all, it had so little of what, since the 1600s, had been the operating principle of Western music: tonal tension. Tonal tension was that feeling that certain chords wanted, needed, felt the inner urge to proceed to other chords, and that when they did so, the music went from a state of tension to one of relaxation—in other words, that dissonance had resolved to consonance.

Debussy didn’t just break the established rules of harmony. He ignored them. His use of parallel streams of identically structured chords blurred the distinction between harmony and melody. His textures seemed like lush exotic gardens of sound, with each melodic phrase a flowering plant swaying in the breeze, combining with others to create an overall impression. The comparison with the emerging school of Impressionist painters was all too obvious.

And yet, for all his painterly credentials as a musical pictorialist, we find Debussy at the end of his life writing sonatas, the most rule-laden form (apart from fugue) that Western music had produced, the genre most associated with the musical Establishment. The Sonata in G minor for violin and piano, Debussy’s last major work, was composed in 1917 as part of a projected set of six sonatas for chamber instruments, of which only the first three were completed before his death.

We find Debussy’s trademark sense of understatement everywhere in this sonata, which unfolds in a subdued atmosphere of soft to medium-soft dynamic levels, imbued nonetheless with considerable emotional warmth. Phrases tend to be short and often unpredictable, either coquettishly playful or tender and pensive. Textures are thinned out and made more transparent by the use of streams of parallel 5ths, especially in the bass, and melodic octave doublings throughout the texture.

There is little sense of ‘stable’ melody since Debussy’s melodies are self-developing—they mutate as soon as they are announced—but to compensate, the pace of harmonic rhythm is slow. Debussy thus inverts the normal relationship between melody and harmony.

It has been suggested that the title ‘Sonata’ for this work is equivalent to ‘Untitled’ as the title of a painting and the reference to visual art is quite appropriate, since Debussy treats melody and tempo like the eyeball movements of a viewer in front of a painting, and harmony like the moods that slowly melt into one another as the viewer gazes from one area of the canvas to another.

The Allegro vivo first movement opens in a manner strikingly similar to that of the Franck Violin Sonata in A major, laying down a reflecting pool of keyboard colour over which the violin enters with a melodic motive of slowly rocking 3rds. Elaboration of this melodic motion in 3rds, in 4ths, and then in 5ths is a major source of onward momentum in the more active sections of the movement, which on the whole is nevertheless warmly melodic in tone. Debussy also, however, makes frequent nods to the rhapsodic practices of gypsy fiddling, especially pronounced at the end of this movement.

The Intermède tips its hat to the traditional sonata scherzo in a playful movement of wide melodic leaps and their opposite: insistent patterns of repeated notes. The opening bars set the movement’s tone of sly whimsy with a pair of ‘oopsa-daisy’ portamenti from the violin that nevertheless recover quickly enough to display an acrobat’s sense of balance in a few showy arpeggios. Clownish as this nimble movement is, its sense of mischief is more hopping Harlequin than hapless hobo.

The Très animé finale is all about exuberance, expressed in relentless toccata-like chatter from the keyboard paired with swirling or swooping melodic lines in a violin line that extends over the entire range of the instrument. An introduction nostalgically recalls the opening melody of the first movement but then it’s off to the races. The breathless pace continues throughout, relieved only briefly in its middle section by the appearance of what one commentator has called a “drunken waltz”.

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano

This is not your mother’s Shostakovich.

In a totalitarian state like the Soviet Union, with an arts establishment beholden to the official ideology of socialist realism, the spiky modernisms that we associate with this nerdy, thickly bespectacled composer were not his bread and butter. What paid the bills was his work for the Soviet Union’s mammoth film industry, about three dozen film scores in all, selections of which he entrusted to his friend Lev Atovmian (1901-1973) to arrange for concert performance in order to supplement his income in those periods when he was officially in disfavour.

5 Pieces for Two Violins and Piano is simple popular music meant for entertainment. The opening Prelude, with its searingly lyrical violin lines in parallel 6ths and 10ths, inflected from time to time with flecks of Neapolitan (flat-II) harmony, suggests the warmth and sentimentality of Brahms’ Vienna.

The square phrasing and gently persistent pulse of the Gavotte evokes a feeling of simple but relaxed jollity. Elegy returns to the warmth of the Viennese café, unfolding in a series of sighs, with even a little dialogue between the violins.

The sad little Waltz in G minor is a restless affair that rises to surprising heights of passion in its short duration. The concluding Polka is a rollicking village romp full of breathless phrases and stomping cadences that would be perfect music for a carnival ride.

 

Marc-André Hamelin
Reverie for Two Violins and Piano

Marc-André Hamelin is a brilliant throwback to the 19th century, the age of the virtuoso pianist-composer. As a pianist he is known for his performances of the often devilishly-difficult keyboard works of now-neglected composers such as Alkan, Godowsky, Sorabji and Samuil Feinberg (whose Sonata No. 4 in E flat minor he performed at the Chan Centre for the VRS in 2018). As a composer his own additions to the keyboard repertoire have included his set of piano etudes in all the minor keys, and his Toccata on ‘L’Homme armé’, which was the required test piece, played by all 30 competitors, at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

His Reverie for Two Violins and Piano comes fresh from his pen this summer and he sends us these notes about this new piece:

“This short work owes its existence to a dream which its dedicatee Leila Getz, the soul behind the Vancouver Recital Society, had one night. She emailed me one day saying she’d experienced a vision in which Angela Cheng and the Chooi brothers were performing a piece I’d written. I’d be giving a lot away if I described her dream in any more detail, since the way the resulting piece unfolds is, let’s say, not quite traditional…

The work is simply an attempt at a direct translation of Leila’s dream, trying to imagine what the performing situation Leila described would yield musically. I have to say that it was a lot of fun to try to imagine what Leila heard in her sleep!”

Marc-André Hamelin

 

Cécile Chaminade
Theme and Variations, Op. 89 for Piano

You may not know the music of Cécile Chaminade but Queen Victoria did, and invited her to Windsor Castle in 1892 to hear more of it. Chaminade had a successful career as a performing pianist both in Europe and in the United States. Sheet music of her smaller works sold extremely well on both continents, and even spawned the creation of numerous Chaminade Musical Clubs in the US. In 1913 she became the first female composer to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur by the French nation.

So why isn’t she better remembered?

Her career difficulties were, in the academic jargon of gender studies, intersectional. She was a woman in a world dominated by men, she was French in a music world dominated by Germans, and she was a composer of salon music in an era dominated by musical revolutionaries.

“Her music has a certain feminine daintiness and grace,” bleated one critic after a Carnegie Hall concert in 1908, “but it is amazingly superficial … While women may someday vote, they will never learn to compose anything worth while.”

To look down one’s nose at salon music—as her critics did—was to look down one’s nose at the middle-class—which her critics also did. But snobbishness aside, there is no mistaking her gifts as a melodist and as a composer for the keyboard.

Her Thème varié Op. 89, first published in 1898, is not a formal set of variations but rather a continuous retelling of two attractively harmonized melodic ideas set in increasingly more involved keyboard textures, culminating in a kind of ‘three-handed effect’ with a trilled pedal point sounding out in the mid-range between the two hands, a texture famously used by Beethoven in the finales of his Waldstein and Op. 111 sonatas, and by Tchaikovsky in the first movement cadenza of his B-flat minor concerto.

 

César Franck
Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano

It will be a while yet before the Huffington Post is read by musicologists as a scholarly journal, and yet Alan Elsner, the Huff-Po reporter hot on the trail of breaking news in 19th-century Belgian music, is not wide of the mark in observing that

There is a kind of breathless religious ecstasy to Franck’s music—soaring themes; simple, pure harmonies; those ceaseless, swirling, gliding accompaniments. This, one feels, is truly the music of the angels. (29 Nov. 2011)

The work inspiring such shortness of breath and heady spiritual delirium in the intrepid journalist is, of course, the Sonata in A major for violin & piano, a wedding present by the composer to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and in fact performed at the wedding in 1886 by Ysaÿe himself and a wedding-guest pianist.

The Allegro ben moderato first movement floats in a world of harmonic uncertainty. It opens with a number of dreamy piano chords, each followed by a simple chordal interval, as if giving the pitches to the instrumentalist, who then obliges by using them to create a gently rocking, barcarolle-like melody, the outline of which will infuse much of the work as a whole. This theme, played by the violin over a simple chordal accompaniment from the piano, builds in urgency until it can hold it no more, and a second theme takes centre stage in a lyrical outpouring of almost melodramatic intensity but ending in a dark turn to the minor. The violin will have none of it, however, and dreams both sleepwalkers back to the major mode for an amicable review of the two themes, both in the home key. The serenity of this movement results from its rhythmic placidness, often featuring a sparse, simple chordal accompaniment in the piano, and little rhythmic variation in the wandering pastoral ‘de-DUM-de-DUM’ triplets of the violin.

Where drama breaks out for real is in the Allegro second movement, one of the most challenging in the chamber repertoire for the pianist. This sonata-form movement bolts from the starting gate with a swirling vortex of 16ths in the piano, fretting anxiously over a theme in the mid-range that is soon picked up by the violin. Its worrisome collection of motives is based on the same small-hop intervals that opened the first movement, but reversed in direction and cast in the minor mode. A more sunny mood prevails in the second theme which, however, ebbs away as both instruments take stock of the ground covered in a sober interlude marked Quasi lento. The development section engages in a full and frank discussion of the two themes until the convulsive agitation of the opening theme returns in the recapitulation. Despite the turbulence roiling at the heart of this movement, it manages to pull a major-mode ending out of a hat for its final cadence.

The slow third movement, a free-form meditation marked Recitativo-Fantasia, is bruised with the memory of the first movement’s bliss. Its piano opening is almost a bitter parody of the sonata’s very first bars. As this thematic material is brooded over, the violin tries to change the subject several times in distracted flights of fancy, but eventually agrees to join with the piano in a ruminative journey that passes through nostalgic reminiscence to end in heart-wrenching pathos. The searing intensity of the octave-leap ‘wailing’ motif at the end of this movement is the most profound moment in the sonata.  No major-mode ending here.

All tensions are eased, all hearts healed, however, in a last-movement rondo that offers up a simple tuneful melody in continuous alternation with brief sections of contrasting material. This tune, so harmonically rooted as to suit being presented in strict canonic imitation (like a round), is shaped from the melodic outline of the theme that opened the sonata, bringing its cyclical journey full circle. Even the ‘wailing’ motif from the previous movement is recalled to the stage to give it, too, a happy ending.

British musicologist David Fanning got it right when he intuited the celebratory meaning beneath Franck’s remarkable use of imitative counterpoint for the end of this “wedding present” sonata:

It is hard to resist reading this as a musical symbol of married bliss, especially when the dialogue is placed even closer together, at a distance of half a bar rather than a full bar, on the deliriously happy closing page.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

 

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