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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Quartet in D major K. 499 “Hoffmeister”
Mozart’s most accomplished string quartets are generally considered to be the ten he wrote after moving to Vienna in 1781, beginning with the set of six dedicated to Haydn, published in 1785 and ending with the set of three dedicated to the King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, published in 1791. In between came a ‘one-off,’ the four-movement Quartet in D major K. 499 composed in 1786 and dedicated to Mozart’s friend and fellow Freemason, the music publisher and composer Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754–1812).
This is a quartet that gets ever more compositionally ‘weighty’ with each movement. Its minuet and finale are unusually intense in their use of contrapuntal procedure, perhaps as a result of Mozart’s discovery and study of the works of Bach. And its slow movement pulls out all the stops in its search for deep expressiveness, perhaps under the influence of Haydn.
The first movement Allegretto is surprisingly light, both in its thematic material and the elaboration of it. It opens with a gentle fanfare as all four instruments in unison hop through the notes of the D major triad, ending with four repeated notes on the dominant. These two motives—the arpeggiated triad and the jolly repetitions of a single note—will pervade the movement to such an extent that one can hardly even speak of there being a second theme at all. The entire movement unfolds as a series of loose variations on its opening bars.
The Menuetto is where things get interesting. Normally conceived of as a place of mental relaxation and toe-tapping repose, this minuet gets ever ‘brainier’ as it goes along, with creeping chromatic lines and small points of imitation in the opening dance steps preparing the way for full-on canonic imitation in the minor-mode trio. Arrestingly novel is the way in which Mozart plays “bait and switch” with the cadencing bar of the trio, turning it surprisingly into the first bar of the minuet when returning to the opening material.
The Adagio pleads its case with poise and dignity in slow, halting dotted rhythms, which soon give birth to the long lines of florid decoration in the first violin that will dominate the movement. Unexpected harmonic turns and pulsing accompaniment figures deepen the expressivity of the thematic material. Notable is the way in which Mozart often divides the quartet into pairs of upper and lower instruments that echo each other’s sentiments in alternation.
In his Allegro finale Mozart paints a chiaroscuro of light and dark textures. Nothing could be easier to follow than its playful opening, that features a teasing series of short phrases tossed out by the first violin between pauses. And yet few things could be more eye-crossing and eyebrow-knitting than the dense contrapuntal entanglements that these simple triplet figures get enmeshed in before the movement ends. Perhaps the dedication of this work to a close personal friend allowed Mozart the freedom to express his own personal character, by turns mischievous and learned, in this quartet.
Quartet No. 9 in E flat major Op. 117
In 1962, Shostakovich had risked the wrath of the Soviet authorities with his controversial Thirteenth Symphony that featured settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous poem Babi Yar denouncing widespread antisemitism in the Soviet Union. It should not be surprising, then, that he would turn to the more intimate, less public genre of the string quartet for his next major work, the String Quartet No. 9 in E flat major (1964), which is laid out in five continuous movements in a fast-slow-fast-slow-fast pattern.
The power of Shostakovich’s musical language in this quartet lies in its ambivalence. His use of recurring themes and musical motives, presented and developed in various voices of the texture, and in various contrapuntal contexts, is in line with the rhetorical heritage of the string quartet going back to the time of Haydn and Mozart. The way in which these themes and motives are treated, however, is more in line with the soul-destroying rhetoric of Soviet double-speak.
The first movement, for example, opens with a jaunty melody featuring a rising 3rd and falling 4th, eminently suitable for whistling on a bright sunny day. In Shostakovich’s setting, though, it is deprived of the cheerful harmony it deserves, and instead is fraught with worry, hounded by the constant murmuring of menacing running figures—as if being followed by the KGB. This is a melody that constantly changes direction, like a prisoner pacing in his cell, unable to escape the dull drone on the cello below.
The almost clownish second theme, strutting about in staccato, has even more reason to be merry with its octave leaps and chipper oft-repeated motive of a filled-in minor third. But its leering accompaniment seems more mocking than supportive. And then there are those worrying murmurs from the running figures that keep coming back to keep watch on the proceedings.
The second movement evokes an air of fervent prayer, as emotionally intense in parts as Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings. Emphasis on minor chords in the harmony creates a mood of unremitting sadness while its hymn-like texture of four closely-set string voices seems almost claustrophobic. The first violin’s rumination on the filled-in minor 3rd motive, mournfully slowed down, provides a thematic link to the immediately following third movement Allegretto.
And here is where the real fun begins as the first movement’s filled-in minor third motive is transformed into a madcap polka, complete with oom-pah off-beats and the ‘Lone Ranger theme’ (AKA the fanfare from Rossini’s William Tell Overture) thrown in for good measure. One can only imagine the puzzled looks on the faces of the Soviet censors. All that’s missing is Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat poking his head out from the wings to clap and yell “Hey!” at the end of every phrase.
The fourth movement takes as its theme the worrying running figures that murmured throughout the first movement. Extreme contrasts in texture characterize this Adagio, mixing creamy Debussy-esque chord streams with lonely solo musings and abrupt multi-string pizzicati, as if the flow of musical thought were coming apart at the seams.
All is saved, however, in a last movement of impressive vigour and real exuberance, the longest movement of the quartet. Typical of Shostakovich, this finale reviews the themes and dramatic gestures from previous movements, including the murmuring running figures, the emphatic pizzicati, and the ‘Lone Ranger’ theme. It culminates in a mighty fugue and a long, exhilarating march to its final, punchy proclamation in unison of the one motive that has dominated this work from start to finish: the filled-in minor third.
Quartet in E minor Op. 44 No. 2
Mendelssohn wrote in a neo-Classical style that prized simplicity and directness of expression in clear transparent textures and balanced formal structures, effortlessly enriched with Baroque-style counterpoint. In the age of Liszt he seemed to be channelling Mozart. And yet his credentials as a Romantic composer were considerable. Lyricism came naturally to him and he had a real gift for pathos.
Unique amongst composers of the post-Beethoven generation, Mendelssohn seemed unperturbed by the challenge of integrating the Romantic notion of music as feeling, an emotion to be experienced, into the logical structure of the Classical sonata, with its conception of music as idea, to be analyzed and processed. All of these qualities are on full display in his four-movement Quartet in E minor Op. 44 No. 2, composed in 1837.
Its opening Allegro assai appassionato balances the emotional states of brooding restlessness and welcome repose. It opens with a panting accompaniment supporting an arching theme that travels up the E minor triad and down again, ending with a sigh motive. Many have noted the resemblance between this theme and opening of the Violin Concerto in the same key that he was to write the following year. The second theme, in a sunny G major, is based on the rhythmic profile of the first, using many of its motives as well, especially the sigh motive. This equivalence is made explicit when the E minor first theme reappears, dressed in the happier G major tonality, near the end of the exposition. For Mendelssohn, then, the contrast expected in sonata-form between first and second themes is represented by the contrast between minor and major. It is the psychological contrast, in feeling and emotion, between tone colours, not between thematically distinct musical materials.
The two theme siblings are then developed using the classic devices of the Classical era: modulation, fragmentation and close imitation. And the recapitulation, which arrives with the infinite subtlety and nuance of a morning sunrise, holds only one surprise in store: its quiet ending.
The fleet and light-stepping scherzo is so associated with the Mendelssohn brand that such movements by other composers are often called ‘Mendelssohnian’. And in this quartet the composer in this second movement does not disappoint. The defining gesture, or ‘hook’ of this movement (to use the jargon of popular music) is the feathery shiver of repeated notes with which it begins. Spicy features of this scherzo are Mendelssohn’s delirious use of cross-rhythms, hemiola, and even a hint of fugato. Once again turning Classical forms to Romantic use, Mendelssohn creates no separate ‘trio’ to contrast with the animated motion of the scherzo, preferring instead to grab moments of occasional lyrical relief on the fly at various points in the movement’s trajectory.
What follows is not the classic slow movement but rather an Andante, very similar in style to one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words for piano. With his indication nicht schleppend in the score, Mendelssohn warns against “schlepping” in the tempo, lest the movement’s dignified lyricism devolve into mere sentimentality and smarminess. To keep things moving along, he provides a constant ripple of 16th-note figuration in the accompaniment beneath the soaring melody line, which is projected almost exclusively by the first violin.
The sonata-rondo finale is remarkable for its driving energy and integration of disparate musical materials into a continuous flow by means of flawless transitions and motivic linkages. Mendelssohn’s ability to communicate urgency without panic, and breeziness without flippancy, allows him to construct in this movement a panorama of interconnected moods, all loyal to the same overarching rhythm.
Donald G. Gíslason 2020
Johann Sebastian Bach
Three Chorale Preludes (arr. György Kurtág)
The chorale, a hymn setting of pious verse in simple note values, was a central element in Lutheran liturgical practice, whether sung in unison by the congregation, in four-part harmony by the choir in a cantata, or artfully arranged into a web of contrapuntal lines on the organ as a chorale prelude. In a chorale prelude the cantus firmus (fixed melody) of the hymn is intoned in long notes against a backdrop of imitative counterpoint derived from the same melody—but in smaller note values. Bach was a master of the genre and produced dozens of such works.
This fractal layering of the same melody at different note values throughout a composition was not just a clever musical trick but a theological statement in music. It gave voice to the belief that God was immanent in all things, moving in and about the world to animate every object and being in it. The long-held notes of the cantus firmus symbolized the timeless eternal presence of God while the chattering counterpoint that accompanied it represented that divine presence reflected in the activities of secular life.
This symbolic dimension sometimes extended down to small pictorial details in the melodies themselves. For example, the chorale Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (From deep affliction, I cry out to Thee) begins with the pitches B-E-B-C. The word ‘deep’ (tiefer) is depicted by a plunging 5th (B to E, then back to B). The word ‘affliction’ (Not) is then painfully represented by the most emotional interval of the scale, the semitone (B to C). Bach’s chorale prelude on this hymn tune starts with the melody imitated in small note values before it majestically enters in long notes buried in the middle register, in keeping with its dark message.
By contrast, the upbeat message of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Saviour of the Gentiles), a traditional hymn for the first Sunday in Advent, begins in long notes right away, sounding in the uppermost voice, where its clarion call can be most easily heard.
The last in this trio of transcriptions is not really a chorale setting, but it is a prelude. It is the gentle and peaceful introduction to Bach’s Actus tragicus (funeral cantata) entitled Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s time is the best time of all). Its subject being the Christian view of death, its mood is one of consolation, with soothing harmony chords in the lower register supporting the plaintive but resigned sighs of two imitative voices above.
Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s reverent transcriptions make available to the concert hall works previously performed only in church. Arranging these works for piano duet ensures that the full pitch range of the original is available to the ear in a concert setting. But the inability of the piano to sustain tone in the way that an organ can presents unique challenges to performers wishing to retain the same textural balance as the original setting provided.
Andante & Allegro Brillante in A major, Op. 92
The time: spring 1841. The place: Leipzig, Germany. Young pianist Clara Wieck, a former child prodigy who had toured Europe at the age of twelve, is in need of help to further her professional career but is estranged from her strict and controlling music-teacher father after defying him to marry one of his students. That student – a certain Robert Alexander Schumann, nine years her senior – also needs help with the same problem. Unable to perform in public because of a hand injury, he has gained a modest reputation as a composer of piano music, but needs to break out of that niche to gain a wider public with his recently composed First Symphony. Who will help this young married couple advance their careers?
Enter Felix Mendelssohn, conductor of the city’s acclaimed Gewandhaus Orchestra and a friend of the Schumann newlyweds. Mendelssohn organizes a fundraising concert for the orchestra’s pension fund at which Robert’s symphony will be performed, and to create a spot for Clara to play as well, quickly composes an Andante and Allegro Brillante for piano duet which he and Clara will perform together. Historians would record this concert as the first time that Robert and Clara Schumann appeared in public together on the same program.
Mendelssohn’s two-part piano duet, composed in a matter of days, is light, easy-on-the-ears salon music, but graced with the polished elegance and craftsmanship that is the composer’s trademark. The Andante is comfort food for the soul, with a yearning melody of sighing phrases covered in a chocolate sauce of warm, deeply satisfying harmonies.
The Allegro brillante, by contrast, is a nimble and scampering scherzo with the type of quick, darting figurations that Mendelssohn made famous in his Midsummer Night’s Dream scherzo, composed when he was only 17 years old.
While this score is wonderfully balanced in tone and texture, what is remarkable in it is how Mendelssohn gives ample space for solo playing by each pianist—presumably to allow Clara Schumann her place in the sun along with the composer.
At the opening of the Andante, for example, and in the lyrical second theme of the Allegro, the performers take turns playing alternate phases of the melody and its accompaniment—alone. One performer will take the antecedent phrase of a musical period which is then completed in the consequent phrase by the other performer, both playing solo. At other places the left hand of the primo (upper) pianist must insert itself cunningly in between the two hands of the secondo (lower) player without causing a three-hand pile-up of digits in and around middle C. A major technical challenge for the performers in this work, then, is just getting out of each other’s way.
Considering the degree of physical intimacy this work demands of its performers, full marks to Mrs. Mendelssohn for allowing her husband to play it, in public, with another man’s wife.
Fantasie in F minor, D. 940
Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor for piano duet, composed in 1828, is similar in structure to the composer’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy of 1822. Both are laid out in one continuous movement of four sonata-like sections played without interruption, comprising an opening Allegro, a slow movement, a scherzo and a finale containing a fugue. And both embrace the cyclical principle of reprising the first movement’s themes in their final movement.
But while the Wanderer stands out for its emphatic musical rhetoric and unabashedly muscular keyboard writing, the F Minor Fantasie entices its listeners with an inverse appeal in long passages at dynamic levels of pp, or even ppp, and a more reflective tone overall.
Nowhere is this reflective tone more strikingly evident than in the first movement Allegro molto moderato, in which a timidly pleading, almost whimpering first theme, obsessing over a number of small melodic intervals, emerges out of a hushed murmur of harmonic support. Juxtaposed with this delicate flower of a melody is a stern, implacable second theme that soon arrives to challenge it, advancing gravely and ponderously in great granitic blocks of sound. As is so typical of Schubert, the two themes in this section are presented in ‘stereo’, so as to speak – in both their major- and minor-mode variants.
The Largo second movement presents a similar juxtaposition of opposing musical personalities. Beginning with a jarring series of trills, this movement alternates between the defiant gestures of a double-dotted, French-overture-like first theme and a ‘tra-la-la’ second theme of a distinctly Italianate melodic stamp that roams blissfully carefree over an oom-pah-pah accompaniment.
The scherzo Allegro vivace provides much needed relief from all this drama with its dancelike verve and general spirit of bonhomie as the two players coyly echo each other phrases. Schubert’s quicksilver changes of mode, often alternating between major and minor in successive phrases, give this movement an intriguing tonal sparkle that is maddeningly hard to define.
The Allegro molto moderato finale brings us back full circle to the poetic opening bars of the work. But at the entrance of the imposing second theme, a brow-knitting fugal argument breaks out leading to a sustained bout of contrapuntal navel-gazing which only the opening theme, returning yet again, can quell. The uncompromisingly bleak tone of the closing bars is exceptional in the works of Schubert.
Leo Smit was an immensely gifted Dutch composer whose career spanned the interwar years of the 20th century and who died a victim of the Holocaust. Raised in Amsterdam, he graduated with high honours from the Amsterdam Conservatory but in his mid-twenties moved to Paris, where for nine years (1927-1936) he absorbed at close range the music and stylistic legacy of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Les Six, especially Milhaud, Honegger & Poulenc. The personal musical style he brought back to his native Holland was thus inflected with a host of typically French traits, including a preference for light textures, formal clarity and the vivid use of harmonic colour. The jazz idiom, as filtered through French ears, was an especially marked characteristic of his music.
Smit’s Divertimento for piano duet (1942) illustrates well his neo-classical leanings. Its first movement begins with a series of imitative entries, like the opening bars of a fugue, but with the carefree jaunty air of a boulevardier strolling down a fashionable street in Paris, twirling his cane. The tender and wistful second theme that follows, however, would easily be at home in any North American jazz lounge. The musical flow in this movement is easy on the ear because of Smit’s tendency to repeat the same small melodic motives over and over when building up his phrase structure.
The Lento second movement is more atmospheric than conventionally lyrical, offered up as a slow-jazz meditation on a few short motives, hypnotically repeated, rather than structured around the presentation and development of a single strand of melody.
The finale is a punchy and self-confident moto perpetuo, full of jazzy syncopations, with the motoric drive of the Precipitato finale of Prokofieff’s Seventh Sonata and the festive mood of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.
Ma Mère l’Oye, cinq pièces enfantines
Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was written in 1910 as a piano duet for two small children, Mimi and Jean Godebski, whose parents were friends of the composer. Ravel was an avuncular presence in the Godebski home, as Mimi would later recall in her memoirs:
“Of all my parents’ friends, I had a predilection for Ravel because he used to tell me stories that I loved. I used to climb on his knee and indefatigably he would begin, ‘Once upon a time…’ ”
The musical stories depicted in Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye were taken from the classic 17th-century fairy tales of Charles Perrault and Marie d’Aulnoy. The score is of the utmost simplicity, tailored to suit the small hands and limited technical abilities of the children who were to play it.
Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant paints the hushed stillness enveloping Sleeping Beauty, who is cursed to remain in an enchanted slumber until being awakened by the kiss of Prince Charming. Recurring pedal points in the bass summon up the drowsiness of sleepy-time while modal harmonies (with a flat 7th scale degree) evoke an era in the distant past when courtiers danced the pavane, a slow stately processional dance popular in the Renaissance.
Petit Poucet tells the story of Tom Thumb wandering through the forest (in a steady pattern of double 3rds) dropping crumbs behind him to find his way back, only to find that birds (with high chirps in the upper register) have eaten them all up.
Laideronette, impératrice des pagodes is the story of a Chinese princess transformed into an ugly young girl by an evil fairy. As she takes her bath, she is surrounded by a troupe of servants playing various instruments for her entertainment. The pentatonic scale, used throughout, represents the Oriental setting of the tale.
Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête is a conversation, carried out in the high and low registers of the keyboard, between Beauty and the Beast. She expresses herself in a touchingly innocent soprano melody declaring that she doesn’t find him ugly at all while he growls out gruffly in the bass of his devotion to her. The surprise comes at the end, of course, when he is transformed into an ever-so handsome prince and they live happily ever after.
The concluding story of the suite is Le Jardin féerique, that tells of the fairy garden in which Sleeping Beauty lies in deep slumber. The scene opens in a mood of quiet elegy but soon the Prince’s arrival is announced in a passage of sustained arpeggios. The elegiac tone returns as the prince touchingly beholds the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and bends down to kiss her. Being thus released from her enchanted sleep, she awakens to a chorus of glittering glissandos expressing the brilliant light hitting her eyes and the exultation she feels at seeing her long-awaited Prince Charming.
Turkish musician Fazil Say is a cultural phenomenon, and a triple-threat actor on the world stage. As a pianist he plays almost 100 concerts a year and has recorded more than 40 albums featuring an extraordinarily wide range of repertoire, from Bach and Haydn to Stravinsky and Gershwin—as well as his own compositions. As a composer, his list of compositions includes works for solo piano, for chamber ensembles and for orchestra. But it is his political activism for which he is best known in his native Turkey. In 2012 he was charged with blasphemy for insulting Islam in a series of tweets in a case that was later withdrawn. He is a self-declared atheist and vehemently opposes the cultural and social policies of the Erdogan government.
These three strands of his life and career come together in Night, a piano duet written in 2017 for Lucas & Arthur Jussen and premiered by them at the Concertgebouw concert hall in Amsterdam in April 2018. According to the composer, the work describes “a traumatic night in Turkey” – perhaps an oblique reference to the failed coup of 2016 in that country.
Beginning with the restless rumbling of a rhythmic ostinato in the lower register it spins out jagged, slightly menacing fragments of phrase with an almost ‘hip’ jazzy feel. One special effect used is the hand-muting of strings for selected notes played from the keyboard to produce a strangely dull, plucked sound reminiscent of the timbre of Turkish national folk instruments. Structured in alternating passages of toccata-like frenetic energy and mysterious wet-pedalled goings-on, the work builds to an impressive climax that simply falls off a cliff in its closing bar.
Donald G. Gíslason 2020
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.
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
Cello Sonata No. 2 Op. 58
Mendelssohn’s second sonata for cello and piano reveals him as the Classical-Romantic hybrid that he was. An effortless practitioner of Classical etiquette in the construction of symmetrically balanced phrases, he eagerly took part in the Romantic age’s fascination with tonal colour and virtuoso keyboard writing.
This sonata was written in 1843 for Mendelssohn’s brother Paul, a cellist, and displays the four canonical movement types of Classical tradition: a sonata-form first movement allegro, a scherzo second movement, a lyrical slow movement and a sparkling finale overflowing with merriment and good spirits.
The first movement Allegro assai vivace opens with a upward-driving melody in the cello over a panting accompaniment of pulsing harmonies in the piano, a textural configuration that recalls the opening of the composer’s Italian Symphony. Immediately noticeable is how equal he makes the two instruments in the presentation of thematic material. Indeed, the piano is so empowered that its fondness for swirling textures arpeggios often threatens to upstage the lyrical outpourings of the cello. The minor mode in this sunny movement only really makes itself heard in the development section, and even there it is more of a tone colour than a seriously dramatic furrowing of the musical brow.
The pacing of the Allegretto scherzando second movement is a tad leisurely for a real, rollicking scherzo in the Beethoven mould. This movement is more in the way of an intermezzo, with a scherzo-like mischievounesss perceivable merely in the merry twinkling of its run-up grace-note ornaments. The tart opening section gives way to a contrasting middle sectionswith a melt-in-your-mouth melody given entirely to the cello, a melody eminently suitable for humming in the shower if ever there was one.
Utterly unforgettable in this sonata is the Adagio slow movement, that opens with luxuriant rolling arpeggios in the piano outlining a chorale-like melody such as Bach would have composed. And the association is not fortuitous. Mendelssohn was a devoted promoter of the Bach’s music and scholars have noticed unusual similarities between this slow movement and the aria “Es ist vollbracht” from the St. John Passion, as well as the closing sequence of the Fantasia from Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor. The cello’s operatic outpouring of emotion contrasts strikingly with the equanimity of the piano’s chorale-inspired piety and this creates the real drama in the movement as the cello gradually comes round to see things from the piano’s point of view.
The Molto allegro e vivace finale is somewhere between effervescently cheerful and manically hectic, like the finale of the composer’s G minor Piano Concerto, which it resembles. Singularly noticeable from the opening exchanges is the degree of cooperation between the two instruments that regularly complete each other’s thoughts. This is music for that part of the road movie in which the two buddies have got the cash and are making a joyous getaway
3 Romances Op. 94
This gentle trio of romances was composed in 1849 at the end of Schumann’s composing life, just before his mental health problems overwhelmed him to the point that he needed to be committed to an institution. They were originally published as pieces for oboe but have been adopted by violinists, as well as wind players, to enrich their respective repertoires. The affectionate tone of these pieces is in keeping with what appears to have been their initial purpose: they were composed in December and Schumann is said to have given them to his wife Clara as a Christmas present.
Here we have real red-meat Romanticism in the German mould, with a depth of piano sonority in the low register that at times suggests Brahms. Their melodic range is kept well within that of the singing voice and there is little to suggest instrumental writing in the succession of eminently singable 8ths and quarter notes that make up the melodic line.
Each romance is written in song form with an A-B-A structure, the contrasting B section being the quicker and more animated section in the first two romances, while the third has a slower, more lyrical middle section.
Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 19
Rachmaninoff’s music for piano is renowned for its lushness of scoring, and the keyboard writing in this chamber work for cello and piano is every bit as opulent, its technical demands as challenging, its effects as spectacular, as anything in his concertos or major works for piano solo. Despite having an additional instrument to write for, Rachmaninoff yielded nothing by way of concession to this sonorous exponent of the baritone range when writing the piano part of his Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 19. Its piano textures still feature a rich panoply of countermelodies in the mid-range riding sidecar to sumptuous melodies ringing out in the right hand above, regardless of whatever throbbing lyricism might also emerge from the cello. One could almost believe, as has often been said, that the work is really just a big piano sonata with cello accompaniment.
Written in 1901, around the same time as his famous Piano Concerto No. 2, this sonata is impressive in its expressive range and orchestral heft of sonority. As Steven Isserlis has pointed out, many of its themes bear the stylistic imprint of Orthodox hymns, especially in their use of close intervals, their obsessive repetition of single notes, and their bell-like sonorities.
The first movement begins with a slow introduction that slips in much of the thematic material that will be pursued in the following Allegro moderato. Of special note is the rising semitone, intoned in the cello’s mid-range, that opens the work. This oft-repeated motive pervades the themes of the exposition and drives the momentum of the stormy development section, which is end-weighted, merging into the recapitulation at its climactic point of highest tension, as in the first movement of the Second Concerto. The movement closes with the rap-on-the-door rhythmic gesture that would become this composer’s signature sign-off: RACH-man-in-OFF!
The second movement Allegro scherzando is remarkable for its emotional volatility. It begins with a worrying urgency reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlkönig but lyrical impulses soon begin to mix in with all the fretting and the middle section is a swaying duet of no small sentimental charm. Nonetheless, Rachmaninoff does not hesitate from time to time to reveal the iron fist within the velvet glove in outbursts of distinctly muscular pianism, like a lion showing his teeth.
The Andante third movement is the jewel of this sonata, its quivering harmonic ambivalence between major and minor a bittersweet and vaguely exotic sonic wrapping for the bell-like repeated notes of its opening phrase. Dark and brooding, the long phrases of this elegiac movement build up to an impassioned climax before ebbing into a consoling calm of warm contentment.
The Allegro mosso finale in G major is a sonata-form movement of abundant contrasts, featuring a doggedly upbeat opening theme and a wistful anthem of a second theme, yielding at times to the type of fervent military march that often emerges in Rachmaninoff’s finales. Just before the end, the pace slows to a crawl in a coda that seems to want to pass in review the movement’s best lyrical moments past. Will this be the end? No, of course not. Our dreaming duo awake from their reverie and scamper off to the work’s brilliant conclusion like a pack of squealing school children let loose to find Easter eggs.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017
Variations Concertantes Op. 17
Felix was not the only musician in the Mendelssohn family. His older sister Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) was a prodigiously talented pianist and composer, although she chose marriage over a public career, and his younger brother Paul Mendelssohn (1812-1874) was no slouch as a cellist, to judge by the Variations Concertantes that Felix wrote for him in 1829.
The adjective concertantes in the title underlines the notion that this work was written for two solo instruments, not one instrument accompanying another. In the late 18th century sonatas for cello and piano were grossly lopsided affairs. In an age without sound technicians to turn a knob and boost the bass frequencies
in a chamber ensemble, piano sonatas were often published with an optional cello part doubling the bass line. This gave a bit of “oomph” to the lower regions where the sound of the early fortepiano, forerunner of the modern concert grand, was lamentably thin.
It was Beethoven who elevated the cello to the status of equal interlocutor in duo chamber works with cello, beginning with his Op. 5 sonatas for cello and piano. And Beethoven is an important point of reference in the musical style of this work (especially his Piano Sonata in A flat Op. 26), although the spirit of Mozart hovers over the variation theme with its feminine cadence patterns, as well.
The compositional task, in sets of variations such as these, is to keep the listener’s interest engaged by constantly varying the texture and mood. Mendelssohn accomplishes this in pairs of tag-team variations that see first the cello, then the piano taking a leading role.
It is Var. 7, in which the cozy, parlour haze of Biedermeier domesticity is stripped from the theme in a minore variation with flying octaves in the piano part and operatic recitative in the cello, that points clearly in the direction of the Romantic era to come. Then, after reprising the opening theme in all its simplicity in the manner of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the final variation takes things further in an extended coda of Beethovenian proportions that nonetheless tapers the work to an elegant conclusion in a mood of tranquility and repose.
Suite Italienne (arr. Gregor Piatigorsky)
Stravinsky’s music for the ballet Pulcinella, which premiered at the Paris Opéra in May 1920, exemplifies the new neo-classical style which he adopted after the First World War. Setting aside the bold rhythmic experiments and gargantuan orchestral ensembles that had propelled his pre-war ballets Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and Rite of Spring (1913) to international success, he looked instead to create more transparent textures, with fewer instruments, in direct imitation of music of the past.
The ballet Pulcinella features stories about the traditional stock characters of Italian commedia dell’ arte and Stravinsky’s musical score is equally traditional, using melodies from the gracious scores of Neapolitan opera composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Music this easy on the ears was bound to spawn arrangements and in 1932 Stravinsky and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky set to work on a version for cello and piano, completed in 1933.
Stravinsky’s aim was not to produce a mere pastiche of the earlier composer’s style, but rather a modernist re-imagining of Pergolesi’s melodies in a post-World-War world. He preserved the clear phrasing, courtly cadences and Baroque ornamentation of the originals, but signalled a new modernist context for the work by means of numerous irregularities such as strong accents on weak beats of the bar and exaggerated dissonance in the bass-line—a clever way of increasing sonic resonance without thickening the score.
The Introduzione is the overture to the ballet, written in the Baroque ritornello style; that is, structured as a regular alternation between sections played by the whole orchestra (ripieni) and sections played by a small group of soloists (concertino). These structural divisions are still audible in the cello and piano version, as well.
The gentle lilt and dotted rhythm of the Serenata identifies it a sicilienne. It is based on the tenor canzonetta Mentre l’erbetta pasce l’agnella (While the little lamb grazes) from Pergolesi’s Il Flaminio (1735) but its overall mood of pastoral tranquillity also contained an odd hint of melancholy.
In the following Air, the cello plays the role of the socially awkward basso buffo Bastiano from Il Flaminio pleading his suit to the love of his life—unsuccessfully, to judge from the lyrical love lament from Pergolesi’s Lo frate ‘nnamurato (1732) that follows.
The virtuoso showpiece of the suite is the Tarantella, set in the high register of the cello and featuring a whirlwind of melodies spun out at breakneck speed.
The Minuetto and finale builds up gradually in excitement from its opening tone of sustained elegy until it finally explodes into an exuberant fanfare of excitement worthy of an 18th-century comic opera finale, from which emerges a series of nostalgic reminiscences of the most hummable phrases from the overture.
Sonatina for Cello and Piano
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) are considered the fathers of Hungarian art music. Their work collecting wax-cylinder recordings of folksongs in the Hungarian countryside and in Hungarian-inhabited areas of Slovakia and Romania counts among the earliest contributions to the field of ethnomusicology. While the music of both composers displays clear signs of both their Classical training and their interest in folk culture, Kodály’s synthesis of these two influences was more easily received by the Hungarian public than that of Bartók.
At the heart of Kodály’s music is an interest in melody and his Sonatina for Cello and Piano of 1922 overflows with a passionate lyricism that situates it a direct line of descent from the cello works of Beethoven, Schumann, and Dvořák.
Structured in a type of sonata form without formal development, the work owes much of its pentatonic style of melody construction to Hungarian folk music, while its often shimmering piano textures, remarkable in their variety, are clearly influenced by the composer’s exposure to French impressionism and the music of Debussy in particular.
Sonata for Solo Cello
György Ligeti (pronounced LI-ge-ti) was a leading figure of the avant-garde in the latter half of the 20th century. He is perhaps best known to popular audiences for the use of his searing scores Atmosphères (1961), Lux Aeterna (1966), Requiem (1965), and Aventures (1962) used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
His early career, before he emigrated from Hungary in 1956, was beset with the difficulties inherent in working under a communist regime suspicious of artistic innovation and other “bourgeois” tendencies. His Sonata for Solo Cello, which was banned by the Composers’ Union for its modernity, comes from this period.
The Sonata comprises two contrasting movements, the first composed in 1948 and the second five years later in 1953. The first movement Dialogo is written without fixed metre and depicts a conversation between a man and a woman—a conversation narrowly focused on a small range of topics, it would appear, given the amount of repetition of the opening phrases.
The second movement, entitled Capriccio, is a strictly metered moto perpetuo in 3/8 time that pays tribute to the virtuoso exuberance of Paganini’s famous Caprices for violin.
Sonata for Cello and Piano in F major Op. 99
The Sonata in F major Op. 99 is an adventurous work combining the restless energy characteristic of the young Brahms with the lyrical luxuriance of the composer in his mature years. Composed in the summer of 1886 while the 53-year- old Brahms was vacationing in the Swiss countryside, it breathes the clean fresh air of the mountain slopes and often echoes with hints of rural folksong. The sound palette is full and resonant, especially the piano part, which is written with a symphonic sonority in mind.
The first movement Allegro vivace opens in sweeping fashion with a feverish quivering of piano tremolos over which the cello sets out its thematic agenda in a series of bold fanfares. This pattern of tremolos will form an important unifying motif throughout the movement as a stabilizing counterbalance to the melodic fragmentation that characterizes the principal theme.
The second movement Adagio affettuoso is in simple ternary form. Its principal theme, sung out with full-throated fervour by the cello after a brief introduction, is remarkably chromatic but vocally lyrical nonetheless. The piano takes the spotlight in the minor-mode middle section, but then welcomes the cello back to sing out once again, its theme graced with an even more decorative accompaniment than before.
If the second movement belongs to the cello, it is the piano that captures the ear in the third movement Allegro passionato, a scherzo featuring strongly assertive keyboard writing that makes the piano a major presence in the sonority. Adding to its punch and impact are the typical Brahmsian techniques of 2-against-3 rhythms and “oomphy” syncopations reminiscent of those in the scherzo from the composer’s Quintet in F minor. In this movement it is the cello that gets to shine in the middle section, where it hums out a wistful melody of irregular phrase lengths that suggests the influence of folksong.
The sonata concludes with a gentle rondo of uncomplicated design written in the relaxed vein of the last movement of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Op. 83. The simple, rhythmically repetitive tune that opens the movement alternates with a series of short contrasting episodes that, even when cast in the minor mode, seem only designed to highlight all the more the contentment to be gained by returning to the major.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The earliest German lieder we have in the concert repertoire come from the more than 30 works that Mozart wrote between 1768 (at the age of twelve!) and his death in 1791. His mature songs reflect his skill as an opera composer in their sensitive treatment of the text, bolstered by large-scale structural key modulations and delicate pictorial touches in an independent piano accompaniment.
Needless to say, it was not ever thus. The publishing tradition from which these songs emerged was much less expressively rich with composers pursuing the ideal of folksong-like simplicity in scores often consisting of a mere two staves. The keyboard player – who, in amateur performance, might well be the singer – was expected to play along with the top-line melody while improvising a suitable harmonic accompaniment from the bottom line, perhaps joined by a cello for a bit more ‘oomph’ in the bass register. Haydn’s 12 Keyboard Lieder of 1781, for example, were published in this way.
By the 1780s, however, Mozart’s reflexes when writing vocal music tended instinctively to the multidimensional sphere of the operatic. Each of his songs in this recital deploys its vocal and instrumental resources to create a mini-drama, a comic cameo or a psychological scene, much in the manner of the Romantic generation of composers who were to follow.
Das Veilchen (The Violet) is likely the most famous of Mozart’s songs. The text, by Goethe, is from the singspiel Erwin und Elmire (1773-74), which tells of how a young woman coldly tramples on the affections of a sincere young suitor, only to realize her mistake and be united with him in the end. She sings this song in recognition of her mistake, the violet being a metaphorical stand-in for the crushed and crumpled young man who nonetheless remains true in his feeling for her.
Mozart, in setting this text, creates a different mood for each verse. Notable is how the tripping steps of the young woman are evoked in the piano at the words mit leichtem Schritt und munterm Sinn (light in step and merry in mood).
The accompaniment of Komm, liebe Zither (Come, beloved zither) was not written for the piano at all, but rather for that miniature monarch of the sub-balconic serenade, the mandolin (which the piano arrangement ably imitates). In a foreshadowing of the later appearance of this instrument in the Don’s aria Deh vieni alla finestra from Act 1 of Don Giovanni (1786), this song features an aspiring lover who shares his girl troubles with his plucky little instrument, hoping that as his Leoporello it will do all the fretting for him and pull strings to win him the object of his heart’s desire. What is a rather ordinary poem, on a fairly standard theme, gets transformed in Mozart’s hands into an engaging duet between a sentimental young man and his chatty instrumental servant.
The term ‘explicit’ is not a word that normally comes to mind when describing Classical-era lieder, but An Chloë comes as close as one would wish to deserving the epithet. Setting prudish fans a-flutter to cool the blushing cheeks of maidens and matrons alike is this read-between-the-lines scene of serious hanky-panky, hidden behind a verbal screen of fairly transparent meaning.
Mozart plays the innocent here. Setting this ‘wink- wink’ text in the style of a simple, whistle-able folksong melody, he loads the score with all the sigh motives and dramatic pauses of an operatic love scene. While not quite as rhythmically and randily realistic as Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier overture, Mozart’s setting nevertheless leaves us in no doubt that by the end our ‘exhausted’ horizontal hero is reclining snugly next to his love interest, and probably having a cigarette.
Bringing us back down to earth is Abendempfindung (Evening feeling), an elegiac meditation on death. When composing this work in June of 1787, Mozart likely had death very much on his mind. His father Leopold had died just the previous month, and he and his wife Costanze had already lost two infant children in their young marriage.
The flow of the text is given a dramatic quality by the way in which the smooth cantabile vocal line of the opening alternates with a simpler, more direct recitative style of delivery to give the impression of emotions that interrupt the singer in mid-thought.
Ludwig van Beethoven
If there were action comic books for classical composers, there would surely be one for Beethoven. Few composers can lay claim to the super-hero status that this rebellious symbol of liberty and humanitarian values has become in popular and political culture around the world. Was there really any competition in the choice of the Ninth Symphony for the concert to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Surely not.
And yet the 80 or so songs of this composer reveal a side to him quite different from that of the heroic and high-minded herald of freedom and democracy. Without the bullhorn in hand, he reveals himself to be witty, affectionate, and just as likely as any adolescent to fall victim to a pretty face and an alluring smile.
His mid-career Lied aus der Ferne (Song from afar), published in 1810, addresses the familiar problem of what to do when you are here, and she is not. At such times, words like Sehnsucht (yearning) come spontaneously to the mind of your average 19th-century young man of sensitivity and feeling, who will inevitably head off for a walk in the upland forested regions of the German countryside to find suitable poetic parallels for that expansive swelling feeling in his chest that tells him he is alive.
Beethoven brings the scene to life for us in a setting that gives a picturesque musical description of the successive scenes capturing the young man’s attention. A lengthy introduction replete with piano trills in the high register informs us that aviary wildlife is warbling nearby and the dance-like rhythm of the vocal line gives plausibility to the toe-tapping upswing in his mood.
The accompaniment changes for the second verse in imitation of the rhythm of his footfall as he trudges uphill while the third verse lets us hear the bout of tachycardia that afflicts him at the top of the hill. The rosy-cheeked optimism of the first verse then returns to round out our brief excursion into this Grouse Grind of the human heart.
Der Kuss (The kiss) finds Beethoven in a more jocular mood. Here we meet up with the ever-attractive girl-about-town Chloë – fresh from her engagement in the previous song by Mozart – beset once again by the attentions of a male suitor with conquest on his mind. Part of the joke here is the way the poem repeats the pursed-lip front-vowel ü sounds in the words Küss (kiss) and Müh’ (effort), forcing the singer into a visual gag by making him adopt the facial configuration of a kiss.
Reckoning it easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, our young swain makes bold to initiate the much-desired lip-lock. Chloë, he is not surprised to learn, turns out to be one of those girls who in mock annoyance and disingenuous discouragement is wont to say: “I’ll give you exactly two hours to get your hand off my knee, or I shall write a letter.” Beethoven makes the punch line (that she didn’t scream then, but oh boy did she scream later) into a series of Benny-Hill-style elbows in the ribs, with numerous text repetitions for leering comic effect on the last page.
More characteristic of Beethoven in a straightforward lyrical mood is Ich liebe dich (I love you), in which melody flows unimpeded over an evenly uniform accompaniment pattern, untroubled by sudden dramatic inflections or intruding thoughts: a perfect embodiment of the poetic sentiments of the text.
The picture of love presented in Beethoven’s early song Adelaide from 1794-1795 is the idealized one of unattainable love – a theme that was to repeat itself in Beethoven’s personal life. (No one, apparently, took the trouble to introduce him to Chloë.)
Adelaide offers many poetic parallels to the scene presented in Lied aus der Ferne: a lovelorn swain wanders alone in a garden where he experiences the presence of his love interest in every natural feature of the landscape, calling out her name in ecstasy at regular intervals. The uncertain, searching mood of the piece is evoked by the 2-against-3 pattern of the piano opening, indicative of the complex emotions swirling in the singer’s heart. The piano writing, unusually assertive for the time, supports the depth of feeling expressed by the singer.
Six Songs on texts by Heinrich Heine
Mendelssohn, like Mozart, began writing songs as a child and continued for the rest of his life, with rarely a month that didn’t produce a new song from his pen. And yet this composer’s song output has suffered in comparison with that of other Romantic-era composers such as Schubert and Schumann who typified more intensely in their music and in their lives the dark psychological and emotional concerns of this age – concerns which Mendelssohn seemed to float above with a blithe cheerfulness.
Consider a song such as Neue Liebe (New love), with a text that evokes a supernatural sighting of forest fairies returning from the hunt with a load of stag antlers as their catch. The singer is torn between thinking he is intercepting a sign that could either be foretelling romantic bliss, or his own death. Spooky stuff, this, halfway to ghoulish, even. But while Schubert in his setting of Erlkönig paints the aspect of real danger in such a fairy encounter, Mendelssohn presents the scene, musically, from the fairies’ point of view, with a light, airy, scampering rhythm much akin to the mood evoked in his famous scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Typical of the un-neurotic approach of this composer to his poetic subject matter is the miniature Gruss (Greeting), which paints in a few short breaths, the sheer exhilaration of the arrival of spring.
More psychologically complex is Morgengruss (Morning greeting), in which poet Heinrich Heine sends up the cliché of a lovers’ farewell at daybreak. The young man looks up at her window for a last farewell, a parting gesture which doesn’t come. ‘No matter,’ he thinks, making the best of a bad situation, ‘it’s probably just because she is dreaming of me.’ Mendelssohn tones down the savage irony of Heine’s text, but still gets the message across with a grinding forte dissonance on the word mir (‘she dreams of me-e-e-e’), suggesting a subtle ‘Yeah, right!’ from the composer.
Darker in tone, with a tumultuous piano accompaniment to match, is Allnächtlich im Traume seh’ ich dich (Each night I see you in my dreams). Here the mode is minor and the deep disturbance in the night-dreamer’s psychology realistically presented. Exceptionally ingenious in Mendelssohn’s word setting is the harmonically inconclusive way that way the vocal line ends, leaving it for the piano to cadence definitively in the home key, a musical representation of the dreamer’s bewilderment and disorientation when he awakens from his dream.
Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On wings of song) features one of Mendelssohn’s best known melodies. In typically Mendelssohnian fashion, it eschews a literal painting of the text (set in the exotic locale of India) to concentrate on its purpose as a drawing-room seduction poem. And seduce it does through a perfectly balanced melody lovingly constructed with contours that symmetrically rise and fall, and a floating arpeggiated drawing-room accompaniment reminiscent of Schubert’s Ave Maria.
Reiselied (Travelling song), by contrast, is definitely not meant for performance in the amateur drawing room, with its story of high drama and virtuoso piano accompaniment to match. Similar to Schubert’s Erlkönig, it features a breathless horseback ride by night, with the wind and racing horse hooves painted by a moto perpetuo pattern in the piano that almost overshadows the vocal line. Light and dark, danger and relief alternate in this song as the worrying piano figuration in the minor mode changes to a lighter, more buoyant major-mode oom-pah-pah pattern when happier thoughts pass through the mind of the rider, a young man racing to see his beloved.
Six Songs on texts by Heinrich Heine
These six songs come from the final period in Schubert’s life. Composed to a set of poems by Heinrich Heine, they were published posthumously in a collection entitled Schwanengesang (Swan song) in 1829 and it has been suggested that their bitter irony and tragic cast of thought make them a logical continuation of Die Winterreise, Schubert’s song cycle of the lonely wanderer treated harshly by the world which ends with a desolate picture of the lonely and lamentable Leiermann (hurdy-gurdy man).
Those who think of Schubert as a composer of ‘light’ Viennese melodies that paint the delicate flutterings of the human heart will be thrown back against the wall by the majestic grandeur and symphonic conception of Der Atlas. Atlas is the mythological figure who, after losing in a war involving the Titans and Zeus was punished by the father of the gods by being made to hold up the skies eternally. The distress of this fallen hero is symbolized by whirling tremolos in the piano, his staggering under the immense weight he bears by the two hammer-stroke octaves that begin in the first bar and continue throughout.
Ihr Bild, a song of irretrievable loss, is as spare and sonically undernourished as Der Atlas is stormy and overbearing. The bare unisons bespeak utter desolation and the numbness of loss while intervening passages in chordal harmony evoke happier days that will never return. Throughout, the steely gaze of the singer’s persona is utterly chilling.
A much less emotionally complex tone is struck in Das Fischermädchen (The fisher maiden), a barcarolle of guileless simplicity that paints the scene, musically, from the young girl’s point of view, although the narrator is a cynical seducer, trying to convince the girl to ‘trust him as she trusts the waves’. Heine’s subtle irony is toned down in Schubert’s more buoyant setting of the scene.
Desolation returns in Die Stadt (The town) as the poet sits in a rowboat heading for the town where his disappointment in love began. The boatman’s oars are rhythmically sketched in the tremolo pattern of the piano accompaniment, and the misty shapes of the town in the distance by impressionistic overlay of harmonies over top. This imaginative conception of the scene in sound, painting the poet’s despair so starkly but with so few gestures, is far in advance of its time.
A mysterious chord progression begins Am Meer (By the sea), painting a scene of mysterious calm. There seems to be nothing these two estranged lovers can say to each other. The music depicts both the shadow of their former happiness in eerily placid passages in the major mode that alternate with chromatically tortured tremolo passages emblematic of their pain.
Der Doppelgänger is the pendant piece to Der Leierman from Die Winterreise: a lonely figure standing in the middle of human society but utterly alienated from it by his inner pain. Schubert gives the scene a tragic dimension of fateful inevitability by placing the singer’s vocal declamation – it could hardly be called ‘melody’ – over a recurring passacaglia pattern low in the piano accompaniment, as mournfully dark as anything out of Mussorgsky.
Six Songs on texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Auf dem See (On the lake) likely dates from sometime around 1817 and recounts a boat trip taken by Goethe with friends in 1775 while on vacation. The goldne Traüme (golden dreams) of the second verse is likely a reference to a young girl that Goethe was infatuated with (and trying to forget). The rocking rhythm which Schubert creates in the piano accompaniment is not only astonishingly evocative of the movement of a boat bobbing among the waves, but also a perfect foil for the wide-ranging melody that it supports above.
More philosophical concerns stand at the centre of Grenzen der Menschheit (Limits of Mankind), composed in 1821. The poem dates from 1775, when Goethe was grappling with the concept of Fate and its role in human existence. Schubert’s setting reaches for the sublime in confronting the poet’s thought in music: the stern and implacable chord progressions of the piano accompaniment evoke the majesty of the gods while the low range and unadorned declamatory style of the vocal line lends prophetic heft to the text. The extreme dynamic range (from ff to pp) in this work stands witness to the stark divide that separates human and divine destinies.
Appreciation for the young male form is present, as well, in Ganymed (Ganymede), Goethe’s evocation of the ancient Greek legend of Zeus bringing the most handsome of men, the young Ganymede, up to the heavens on a cloud to become his cup-bearer. The sensuality of the scene is matched by Schubert’s rapturously arching phrases and the ever-increasing pace of the action conveyed through increasingly lively figuration in the piano.
Erlkönig (The Elf King) was published as Schubert’s Op. 1 and along with Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) counts as one of the founding works in the development of the Romantic lied. This macabre story, cast in the popular and sensationalist genre of the strophic ballad, derives from a terrifying night ride actually undertaken by Goethe in 1779 with a seven-year-old boy, the son of a close friend, in the saddle in front of him. The demonic energy of the ride is conveyed in the pianist’s (incredibly difficult) battery of octaves that pulse throughout, a dramatic foil to the four distinct voices heard within the poem: the narrator, the boy, the father, and the lurid, luring voice of the Elf King himself, whose ‘desire’ for the young boy is fraught with a menacing hint of pedophilic lust.
Wanderers Nachtlied II (Wanderer’s Night Song 2), the second poem by Goethe with this title, derives from a mountain hike that the poet undertook in 1780 into the beautiful forested mountains of Thuringia where, struck by the peace and calm of the view, he etched this poem into the wall of the hut where he was staying. Visiting the hut again, fifty-one years later on his eighty-second birthday in 1831, he teared up at reading his words still visible on the wall: Warte nur, balde ruhest du auch (Just wait, and soon you, too, will be at rest). Schubert captures the hushed, contemplative atmosphere of the scene in this famous setting, sung pp throughout, with simple harmonies and placidly even tone colour to create a mood of absolute serenity.
An Schwager Kronos (To Coachman Kronos) combines Greek legend and human life in the extended metaphor of the coach journey. Kronos the Titan was father of Zeus and often identified with the figure of Chronos (Time). In this poem, the poet declares, with the bravado of youth, his desire to go down in a blaze of glory at the peak of his powers rather than submit to a humiliating decline in old age. Schubert here composes with a muscular aggressiveness not normally associated with him but admirably suited to this text evoking the invulnerability of youth.
Donald G. Gíslason © 2014
The Art of Fugue
Fugue is the Rubik’s cube of compositional genres. It’s the sort of thing that only the ‘brainiest’ of modern composers, one with a bent for antiquarian curiosities, would attempt.
And yet in its golden age in the first half of the 18th century, fugue writing was commonplace, an expected skill for any composer aspiring to a royal appointment, or a post as Kapellmeister in an aristocratic house. In concept, you could think of it as ‘Row, row, row your boat’ meets the Riddle of the Sphinx: an arcane puzzle for the composer to solve, and yet a simple-sounding but richly textured and wondrous aural achievement for its audience to experience. By the time that Bach wrote his encyclopedic compendia of fugal procedure – the two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier (1722 & 1744) and his Art of Fugue (1750) – the rules of the game for this test of musical moxie were well established.
Each voice in the polyphonic texture was to enter with a complete statement of the fugue subject, or theme, and then noodle on with a countersubject, a strand of melody meant to accompany subsequent statements of the theme. Once all the voices had thrown their hat into the ring and the exposition was complete, they would all take a kind of coffee break, an episode, to engage in water cooler conversation about their boss, often repeating themselves in a series of harmonic sequences, until one of them remembered what they were being paid for and piped up with the theme subject again. By now, of course, they had wandered into another key. No matter, they would just go on alternating theme statements with episodes of motivic banter, modulating around the table of keys like they were at a ouija board séance.
Then “just to make things more interesting” (as poker sharps are wont to say), the cleverest of the lot might begin stating the theme in any number of altered forms: some in diminution (halved note values), others in augmentation (double note values), still others in inversion (mirrored intervals) and the biggest eggheads of all might actually sing it out in retrograde (backwards). As if that weren’t enough, somewhere near the end, they would all start to interrupt each other in stretto, not letting a theme statement finish before echoing what was just being said. It can all get a bit hard to follow for anyone unfamiliar with the pace of Italian dinner table conversation. Inevitably, someone would get their toe stepped on, producing a long pedal point in the bass that would remind everyone where their harmonic loyalties should lie, and prompting a general consensus that the piece should end on friendly terms.
Such a dazzling display of compositional ingenuity was tailor-made for the Baroque world-view that conceived of this earthly existence as infused with a divine order imaginatively paralleled in the fractal scalar replications of fugal procedure. For musicians of the later 18th century, however, such darkly embroiled musical arguments were the antithesis of what the Enlightenment mind, illuminated by the clear light of Reason, would find pleasing. Fugal procedure in the Classical era of Mozart and Haydn thus became a ‘spot’ technique applied sparingly, and for specific purposes, e.g., in the development section of a sonata-form movement, or as the final ‘Amen’ movement of a Mass. Related to this was the use of fugue as the crowning last movement of an extended multi-movement work such as a symphony or a grand sonata. In the more dramatic instrumental essays of Beethoven, especially his late works, a fugal finale became a way of summing up and resolving tensions still left hanging in the air from previous movements – sort of like Hercule Poirot calling everyone into the library to review all the evidence and name the murderer.
Despite its decline in compositional use, fugue continued, however, to be cultivated in the conservatories of Europe, remaining a required subject in the training of young composers. Needless to say, this produced some long faces and not a little mumbling in the porridge of the emerging generation of Romantics. Berlioz whined at having to show competence in fugal writing in order to win his Prix de Rome, and placed a fugue in his La Damnation de Faust as a way of parodying the dusty pedantry of German music. And Wagner, for his part, joined in on the whinging with a fugue in Die Meistersinger that sarcastically painted Beckmesser as a musical prig.
Yet despite its being out of step with the prevailing artistic climate, fugues remained an object of prestige and even veneration by a generation of ‘absolute music’ composers that included Mendelssohn and Brahms, while attracting the attention even of died-in-the-wool Romantics such as Liszt and Schumann (both of whom wrote fugues on the notes B-A-C-H). The prominent exception was Chopin, who while making the left hand a worthy melodic partner to the right, otherwise showed little interest in imitative counterpoint, and none at all in fugue.
In the 20th century fugue survived, surprisingly, as a viable vehicle for the expression of musical ideas, perhaps because of the trend of neo-classical nostalgia that emerged after World War I. Bartók, for example, opened his Music for Percussion and Strings with a fugue, while Samuel Barber ended his Piano Sonata Op. 26 with one. But the outstanding figure in 20th-century fugal writing would have to be Dmitri Shostakovich, whose 24 Preludes and Fugues in all the keys, Op. 87 (1950-51), stands as a modern monument of Bach-worship.
Our concert today takes us through a few of the works of the 19th and 20th centuries in which fugue is a major protagonist. Of these, Mendelssohn is by far the most conservative, looking back with genuine affection to the music of Bach, while Shostakovich brilliantly adapts fugal procedure to his distinctly modern idiom. And as for Beethoven, well, only a mind such as his could begin a string quartet with a fugue without fear of creating an anticlimax in what followed.
Capriccio and Fugue from Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 81 (Nos. 3 & 4)
Mendelssohn was a 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 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 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, 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.
Mendelssohn was a prodigious composer, in terms of output, but only a fraction of his compositions were published in his lifetime. The Four Pieces for String Quartet comprise both youthful and late works, published posthumously as the composer’s Op. 81 (all of the composer’s opus numbers after 72 are posthumous publications).
The third movement Capriccio, written in 1843, is a product of Mendelssohn’s maturity and features a pair of boldly contrasting sections. The opening Andante con moto presents a long-arching lyrical melody over barcarolle-like rocking undulations in the accompaniment. The fugue that follows is nothing if not spiffy. Its subject is parceled out in two rapid spurts of 16th notes followed by a slower rising scale figure. These two musical ideas, heard successively at first, are just made to be heard one on top of the other and – spoiler alert – that’s exactly what happens in the brisk contrapuntal tennis match that unfolds. Mendelssohn indulges here his predilection for perpetuum mobile textures, with the scurrying voices brought back to earth only by the grounding provided by long bass pedals near the end.
The fourth movement, Fuga, is a much earlier work, composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was still establishing himself as the most learned teenage composer in Berlin – admittedly, not a crowded field. Much more introverted in tone than the Capriccio, it unfolds placidly and demurely with a distinctly un- boyish gravitas unperturbed even by the dramatic upward leap of a minor 7th in the fugue subject. It is not long, though, before a second exposition supervenes to let us know that we have, in fact, a double fugue on our hands here. The new second theme, in faster note values, glides serenely up and down the scale, soon combining with the first in a spirit of inter-thematic chummy-ness that promises all will be well.
Despite its scholarly construction, the extreme warmth of tone colour in this fugue, especially at the end, places it closer in spirit to the warm ‘hot-milk-and- cookies’ domesticity of Biedermeyer Berlin than to the severe rigour of Bach’s Lutheran Leipzig of the previous century.
String Quartet No. 9 in E ♭ major, Op. 117
I had always wondered why my Russian hosts in Moscow insisted on having the television on, loud, whenever we spoke together. It was my dissertation supervisor, who had done research in what was then East Germany, who finally explained it to me: no citizen of a totalitarian state feels comfortable speaking with a Westerner without background noise to mask the conversation – in case it was being recorded.
You didn’t need to tell that to Dmitri Shostakovich, a survivor of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and 40s. The doublethink of George Orwell’s 1984 was a reality for Soviet citizens, who learned, each in his own way, to frame their public utterances in their own dialect of doublespeak, musicians included.
Shostakovich veered quite close to the flame, though, with his controversial Thirteenth Symphony (1962) that featured settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous poem Babi Yar denouncing widespread anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. It should not be surprising, then, that he would turn to the more intimate, less public genre of the string quartet for his next major work, the String Quartet No. 9 in E ♭ major (1964). Framed in five continuous movements in a fast-slow-fast-slow-fast pattern, the dual states of mind of Soviet citizenry are on full display in a series of musical contrasts written into the work.
The lyrical first theme that opens the quartet roams anxiously back and forth, constantly changing direction, like a prisoner pacing in his cell, seemingly unable to escape the dull drone in the cello below. No such problems plague the confident strutting second theme announced staccato by the cello. This breezy and whistle-able tune leaps about where it wants, when it wants, living the good life. Quite a pair, these two, as they fall into conversation to start this quartet on its journey.
The second movement evokes an air of fervent prayer, its hymn-like texture providing continuous support for a top-voice melody that eventually muses its way into a stray musical thought that turns into the theme for the third movement.
Here is where the real fun begins. The filled-in minor third of the strutting tune from the first movement is transformed in the third movement into a madcap polka, complete with oom-pah off-beats and the ‘Lone Ranger theme’ (alias the fanfare from Rossini’s William Tell Overture) thrown in for good measure. (One can only imagine the puzzled looks on the faces of the Soviet censors.) All that’s missing is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat poking his head out from the wings to yell “Hey!” with a high clap of the hands at the end of every phrase.
The fourth movement is the most extreme in terms of textural contrast, mixing creamy Debussy-esque chord streams with lonely solo musings and abrupt multi- string pizzicati, as if the flow of musical thought were coming apart at the seams.
All is saved, however, in a last movement of impressive vigour and real exuberance, the longest movement of the quartet. Typical of Shostakovich, this finale reviews the themes and dramatic gestures from previous movements, culminating in a mighty fugue and a long crescendo to a final emphatic “So there!” statement of the main theme from all instruments in unison.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Quartet in C♯ minor, Op. 131
Beethoven’s late period is remarkable for his experiments in large-scale form, notably the inclusion of fugues within a musical structure – the sonata – that is largely at odds with the operating principles and esthetic aims of fugal procedure. What distinguishes fugue from your average run-of-the-mill sonata movement such as a sonata allegro, a scherzo or a rondo, is its extreme density of musical thought. If a scherzo might be compared to a fluffy pillow, and a rondo to a helium balloon, a fugue would be more like a bowling ball: not something you chuck into the lap of the unwary listener without a heads-up of fair warning.
And yet that is just what Beethoven did in the very first movement of his Quartet in C♯ minor Op. 131, which opens with an eyebrow-knitting fugue of imposing gravity replete with all the tricks of the high-Baroque fugal trade such as augmentation, diminution and stretto.
Beethoven had used fugue in a string quartet before, as the last movement of his third Rasumovsky quartet Op. 59, No. 3. And fugues had also more recently served as final movements of his monumental piano sonatas Opp. 106 and 110 as well as his string quartet Op. 130. But the exhilarating pace of the Rasumovsky fugue in no way disappointed those in his audience expecting a rousing, toe-tapping finale, while listeners of Opp. 106, 100 and 130 had had ample warning of the composer’s high- minded cast of thought in the movements leading up to these crowning fugues.
What ever could the brooding Brainiac from Bonn have been thinking by not ending, but starting his C♯ minor quartet with a fugue, and a thick and gravely-paced one at that?
The answer lies in the larger-scale plan he had for the quartet, conceived of in its entirety. The key areas explored in the opening fugue – D major, A major, E major, B minor and major, G♯ minor, and of course C♯ minor – are, not coincidentally, the very keys of the movements that follow, creating a kind of harmonic table-of-contents for how the larger framework of the work will unfold.
Added to this are tantalizing bits of the fugue subject, as well as its general up-and-down shape, that photo- bomb the melodic selfies of the other movements, ultimately culminating in full-scale quotations in the last movement.
Not that the essential outline of the traditional sonata movement structure has been abandoned entirely in favour of an impressionistic slide-show. The load- bearing pillars of the quartet’s structure – movements 1, 4 and 7 – are still the more-or-less traditional movements of the sonatas he had written hither-to- fore. He merely laid them out in reverse order: a fugue for a 1st movement (instead of a last movement), a theme and variations 4th movement (in the central ‘slow-movement’ position) and a sonata allegro to end rather than begin the work. Filling out the traditional line-up is a 5th-movement scherzo (complete with trio), which neatly counter-balances the dance movement that follows the opening fugue. And acting as a kind of ‘clutch’ to ease the gear-changing between these variously paced musical offerings are the short transitions of movements 3 and 6.
A noticeable feature of this work is what the late Joseph Kerman calls the “flatness” of the writing: how each movement (except the sonata-form finale) establishes a single emotional tone and sticks to it throughout, creating an emotionally homogenous ‘tile’ that contributes to the overall mosaic pattern of the whole. And what would that ‘whole’ be?
A clue might be found in Beethoven’s insistence on giving a number to each of the seven movements as if they were individual set pieces in a ‘number’ opera. The entire work, then, could be thought of as one complete ‘act’ of an opera. The way that the seven movements are played in a continuous stream without interruption, as well as the recitative and cavatina-like qualities of the transitional movements (3 and 6), certainly lends credence to this view.
“Surely the saddest thing ever said in notes” is how Richard Wagner described the opening Adagio fugue of this quartet. While certainly sombre in tone, the mood is anything but resigned. Its pervading chromaticism evinces a sense of luminous hope, or at least a hopeful yearning, evocative of an inner strength of will typical of this composer.
Beethoven brings us back down to earth in a second movement Allegro molto vivace that swings and sways with the body rhythms of the dance. Mono-rhythmic and virtually mono-thematic, this movement perfectly exemplifies a ‘flat tile’ in the colourful mosaic of this quartet.
The transitional 11-bar 3rd movement cleanses the palette with a few brisk chords (typical of the introduction to an operatic recitative) followed by a moustache-twirling flourish in the first violin to whet our appetite for the 4th movement theme and variations, the most traditional movement in the quartet. Its theme, despite a lilting emphasis on the 2nd beat, is the very soul of propriety, with regular phrase lengths and nary a single modulation, not even to the dominant. Six equally graceful variations follow, ranging from the ornamental to the imitative, culminating in the ‘hymn variation’, so called because of its hymn-like homophonic texture. A coda thrilling with trills leads to a tepid cadence to set up the burst of energy to come.
The fifth movement Presto is as simple and childlike a scherzo as Beethoven ever wrote, full of playful hesitations, games of hide-and-seek between piano and forte dynamics and comic pizzicato asides. If your foot doesn’t start spontaneously tapping during the eminently whistle-able Trio, give it a wiggle: it’s probably fallen asleep.
Another short palette-cleanser follows in the 6th movement, attempting to clear all the laughing gas from the air. It takes the form of a tearful cavatina, i.e., a song consisting of a single phrase without any repetition. Its minor-mode lyricism bridges the gap between the hilarity and buoyant good spirits of the major-mode scherzo and the firm resolve of the minor- mode finale.
Here, finally, we get a movement with internal contrast – and plenty of it. The sonata-form seventh movement that ends the quartet is remarkable for its sheer wildness. It takes off from the starting blocks at a gallop in a steady hunting rhythm only stopping for breath to linger over its loving second theme, a gracious descending scale in E major. Beethoven pulls out all the stops in this finale, prompting Wagner to call it “the dance of the whole world itself: wild joy, the wail of pain, love’s transport, utmost bliss, grief, frenzy, riot, suffering; the lighting flickers, thunders growl: and above it the stupendous fiddler […] who leads it haughtily from whirlwind into whirlpool, to the brink of the abyss.”
Donald G. Gíslason © 2014
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Sonata in F major
Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto is such an established pillar of the standard repertory that it comes as a surprise to learn that this composer also wrote three sonatas for the instrument, although these are as obscure as the concerto is popular. The first, in F major, dates from 1820 when the composer was still a lad of eleven; the second, in F minor, was written five years later and published as Op. 4; and the third is a work of Mendelssohn’s maturity, written in 1838, but not published during the composer’s lifetime. This sonata was discovered only in 1953 by Yehudi Menuhin, who also introduced audiences to Mendelssohn’s early Violin Concerto in D minor. Of the sonata, Menuhin wrote that it “has the chivalrous romantic quality of the age that produced Schumann, the elegance and lightness of touch of the age inherited from Mozart, and in addition the perfect formal presentation which Mendelssohn himself drew from Bach.”
The sonata opens with a bold, striding subject, almost Schumannesque in its vigor, first for the piano alone, then for the violin accompanied by a torrent of arpeggios in the piano. The tightly-knit structure of this sonata soon becomes apparent as the first theme dissolves into the second, whose character is different (suavely lyrical) but whose rhythmic profile is based on that of the opening subject. The slow movement features music of ravishing sweetness, and the last scampers along with characteristic Mendelssohnian fleetness and lightness of touch.
Gabriel Fauré: Violin Sonata no. 1 in A major, Op. 13
Gabriel Fauré was basically a lyricist who excelled in small, intimate forms: piano pieces, chamber music, works for small chorus, and songs. In the larger forms he left a famous Requiem and two rarely-heard operas, Prométhée and Pénélope. The sonata we hear this afternoon, composed in 1876 and lasting nearly half an hour, is actually one of his largest pieces.
Fauré himself said that his music exemplified “the eminently French qualities of taste, clarity and sense of proportion.” He hoped to express “the taste for clear thought, purity of form and sobriety.” To these qualities we might add meticulous workmanship, elegance and refinement, for in all these respects his Violin Sonata Op. 13 certainly conforms.
“Schumannesque” is often used to describe the opening movement, not only for the music’s impassioned urgency, but for its sophisticated rhythmic layering, pervasive use of syncopation, and intricate mingling of the voices. The second movement, a barcarolle in D minor, offers some much needed relief. The third movement is a scherzo in all but name: stylish, witty, brittle, epigrammatic, and crackling with electricity are just a few of the descriptions that have been applied to this undeniably appealing music. The finale is another sonata-form movement with an unorthodox sequence of keys (again the Schumann influence).
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Sonata in A major, K. 305 (K. 293d)
Aside from the symphony, Mozart wrote more violin sonatas than any other type of music. More than forty sonatas survive, and they were written in every period of Mozart’s life, starting at age of six. Nearly half of the early sonatas are essentially keyboard sonatas with violin accompaniment, in which the violin merely doubles the melodic lines and adds incidental imitation and dispensable figuration. But beginning with the so-called “Palatinate” (or “Palatine”) Sonatas (K. 296 and K. 301-306), written in Paris during the first half of 1778, Mozart gave the violin a significantly greater role to play, drawing the two instruments closer to the equal partnership found in the late sonatas. The designation Palatinate refers to the dedicatee, Maria Elisabeth, wife of Carl Theodor, Elector of the Palatinate (a region in western Germany adjoining France).
Brilliance, energy and much unison writing mark the first movement, whose exuberance is relieved only during the gentle second theme. It is in standard sonata form, with a short but harmonically adventurous development section. The second movement is a theme and variations set. The theme is, as violinist Abram Loft puts it, “all melting lyricism and grace.” The first of the six variations is for piano alone, the second involves many ornamental touches from the violin, the third consists of flowing triplets traded back and forth between the two instruments, the fourth has the violin playing a simple melodic line while the piano provides a luxuriant underlay, the fifth is in the minor mode, and the sixth brings the sonata to a joyous conclusion.
Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Sonata no. 2 in D major, Op. 94a
September 1942 found Prokofiev in the far-off, exotic Central Asian city of Alma-Ata, where he was working with Sergei Eisenstein on the film Ivan the Terrible. Having a fair bit of free time on his hands, Prokofiev decided to use it to write something quite different from the film score he was preparing. With memories of the great French flutist Georges Barrère in his mind from his Paris years (1922-1932), Prokofiev sketched out a sonata for flute and piano, on which he put the finishing touches upon returning to Moscow the following year. The first performance was given in December by the flutist Nikolai Charkovsky and accompanied by Sviatoslav Richter. But scarcely anyone else seemed interested in the work, so when David Oistrakh suggested that Prokofiev turn it into a violin sonata, the composer eagerly agreed. In this form, the work bears opus number 94a (or 94bis). The first performance of the Violin Sonata took place on June 17, 1944, played by Oistrakh and Lev Oborin. (Prokofiev’s other violin sonata, No. 1, was begun in 1938 but not completed until 1946, well after the “second” sonata.
Prokofiev said he “wanted to write the sonata in a gentle, flowing classical style.” These qualities are immediately evident in the first movement, both of the principal themes are lyrical and eloquent. The Scherzo, in A minor, bubbles over with witty, energetic writing in the form of flying leaps, rapid register changes and strongly marked rhythms, while the brief, expressive slow movement possesses, in critic Alan Rich’s words, “the tenderness of a Mozartian andante.” The Finale goes through several changes of mood and tempo and, in the concluding pages, it hurtles along with a white-heat intensity to a thrilling close.
Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.
Johannes Brahms: Piano Trio no. 3 in C minor, Op. 101
This is the last work Brahms wrote for the piano trio. It is a magnificent work in every respect, from the sharply etched melodies to the concision and masterly manner in which they are handled. It is also one of Brahms’s most compact scores, tightly and concisely argued using a minimum of melodic substance developed with maximum efficiency. Brahms seemed to reserve C minor for some of his weightiest, most dramatic and gravely serious works – the First Symphony, the First String Quartet and the Third Piano Quartet come to mind. The first performances – in Hofstetten and Budapest that year – were private ones. The Trio’s official public premiere took place on February 26, 1887 in Vienna with members of the Heckmann Quartet and Brahms at the piano.
The very opening is sufficient to arrest the listener’s attention and hold it for the duration of the movement: a bold, even fierce gesture that biographer Malcolm MacDonald refers to as “explosive wrath.” This first subject consists of several elements, including a tautly rhythmic figure for the three instruments in unison. The second theme, though warmly lyrical, brings no relaxation of the tension and momentum.
The second movement, also in C minor, is mysterious, almost wraithlike, yet also of great delicacy. MacDonald calls it “a profoundly uneasy movement of grey half-lights, rapid stealthy motion, and suppressed sadness.” The central episode changes to block chords for the piano and pizzicato for the strings, but the mood remains subdued. The dynamic level rarely rises above piano.
The third movement’s main features are a relaxed mood of tenderness and natural simplicity with an antiphonal treatment of piano and strings and an irregular metre of 7/4. The key is now C major rather than C minor. For the central section the music moves into another rare metre, 15/8 (five equal groups of triplets).
The sonata-form finale returns to C minor and to the spirit of grim determination that dominated the first. As in the monumental First Symphony, drama and fury give way to radiant warmth, and C minor yields to C major in the final pages.
Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Trio no. 2 in C minor, Op. 66
Six years after writing his first piano trio (1839), Mendelssohn produced a second. It was first performed on December 20, 1845 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where Mendelssohn was serving as conductor of its famous orchestra. The musicians were the orchestra’s concertmaster Ferdinand David, cellist Franz Karl Witmann and the composer as pianist.
The first movement, in perfectly constructed sonata-form, opens with a restless, flowing subject for the piano, soon joined by the strings. The second subject is a glorious, life-affirming theme in E flat major. The exposition is not repeated, perhaps since the development section is so extensive and does such a thorough job of working out both themes with great inventiveness.
The slow movement offers a good measure of consolation after the relentless pace and intensity of the first. It is a three-part structure, with the outer ones gently songlike and set to the pervasive rhythmic pattern of short-long, short-long. The central section has a more flowing quality and is sustained by the piano’s continuous triplet figures.
The Scherzo flies by in a blizzard of notes. It is further characterized by much imitative writing and by a vaguely Hungarian gypsy flavor.
In its powerful sonorities, massive piano chords, extremes of range, seriousness of purpose and overall intensity, the finale seems to speak more of Brahms than of Mendelssohn. Another feature of this movement is the incorporation of a chorale-like theme that has had scholars searching intently for its German-Lutheran origin – in vain. The Trio concludes with an extensive, exuberant coda in C major that is nearly symphonic is scope.
Franz Schubert: Piano Trio no. 2 in E flat major, Op. 100 (D. 929)
If the public today holds a slight preference for the first of Schubert’s two piano trios, the one in B flat major, this is countered by Schubert’s own preference for the other, in E flat. Both reflect the composer’s study of similar works by Mozart and Beethoven in their refined compositional technique and equal partnership of three instruments. The first performance was given on the day after Christmas, 1827 at the Musikverein in Vienna. Exactly three months later, in the same hall, Schubert performed the piano part at the only public concert he ever gave. The concert was an artistic and financial success, but the event was never repeated.
Lasting about forty minutes in performance, the E flat Trio is longer than any Schubert symphony except the Great C major. Although it does not contain as many beguiling themes as does the B flat Trio, it has even fuller, almost symphonic textures with greater brilliance and more breadth to the development sections.
The first movement is constructed from four thematic ideas. The first of these, memorable as it is, and boldly stated in the opening bars, turns out to be the one Schubert employs the least, while the last of them is the one he exploits to the fullest. The melancholy cast of the slow movement derives from a Swedish ballad Schubert presumably borrowed after hearing a tenor sing it. The Scherzo is a canon, with close imitation between piano and strings, while its central Trio section takes on the quality of a waltz. The finale breathes an air of carefree charm and lightness, at least initially. The second theme offers marked contrast of mood, metre and key. The movement develops into one of the longest Schubert ever wrote, over a thousand measures in the original version, but even in reduced form, as commonly played today, it runs to nearly fifteen minutes. Schumann’s description of Schubert’s final symphony as being “of heavenly length” can again be invoked for the finale of the E flat trio.
Program notes by Robert Markow, 2013.