String Sextet from Capriccio
Capriccio (1942), Richard Strauss’ last stage work, is an opera about opera, constructed as a series of elegant salon conversations dealing with a question that has bedevilled opera lovers for centuries: which is more important, the words or the music?
The year is 1775 and the setting is the aristocratic chateau of the aesthetically refined Countess Madeleine in the French countryside. Philosophical questions do double-duty as proxies for romantic intrigue since the Countess’ two main suitors are a composer and a poet. In a flirtatious spirit of free enquiry, she sets them the task of jointly writing a work that will reveal the relative merits of their respective artistic domains—and marriage proposals. (Spoiler alert: the Countess decides, in the end, that she can’t decide.)
The opera begins with a lusciously scored string sextet that functions both as a prelude to the action and as the first topic of conversation in the on-stage drama. This is because halfway through, as the curtain rises and the stage lights up, it is revealed that the six string players are in fact performing a new work written by the Countess’ composer-suitor especially for her, in front of her, in the elegant Rococo drawing room that is the set for the first scene in the opera.
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The musical style of the sextet, in keeping with the opera’s historical setting and its philosophical message, is certainly backward-looking, at least with respect to the revolutionary musical developments of the early 20th century. The spiky neo-classicism of Stravinsky’s own look-back at the 18th century, his ballet Pulcinella, is nowhere to be heard in this score.
Richard Strauss is here writing in the post-Wagnerian Late Romantic style of extended tonality with which he began his career in the 1880s and 1890s. This is a style of writing in which even the most remote key centres are made instantly accessible by means of smooth, but highly chromatic voice-leading practices, with the aim of bringing wondrously varied harmonic colourings to the surface of the music.
The result is a radiant brightness of tone, enhanced by Strauss’ skillful disposition of his six instruments in sonic space to produce the silken sheen that is the trademark of his string writing, so different from the ‘thick chunky soup’ texture of Brahms’ string quartets.
Unifying the score of this sextet is the recurring melodic motive announced by the 1st violin in the opening bars, a motive remarkably similar to the ear-worm phrase rippling endlessly through Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. It is the gentle conversation between this and other gracious motives in the texture, elaborated over many endearing and nurturing points of imitation, that makes this sextet such an appropriate introduction to an opera that takes the discussion of music itself as its principal dramatic aim.
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)
On a cold moonlit night a couple walks in a barren, leafless grove of trees. She is carrying a child that is not his, she tells him. Despairing of finding true happiness, she had longed to find purpose in life through motherhood and had let down her guard with a man she didn’t love. Now, having found a man she does love, she is wracked with guilt. They walk on. Let that not be a burden to you, he replies. The special warmth we share between us will transform that child into ours, mine and yours. As they embrace, his breath and hers kiss in the night air, and they walk on, bright with a feeling of promise under the vault of heaven.
Such is the story told in the poem Verklärte Nacht (1896) by the German poet Richard Dehmel (1863-1920) that inspired Arnold Schoenberg’s eponymous chamber work composed in 1899. Its premiere in 1901 caused a scandal, both for the work’s association with Dehmel—whose poetic preoccupation with sex had seen him thrice put on trial for obscenity and blasphemy—but also for what was perceived as the immoral “sensuality” of Schoenberg’s score. The German public evidently felt discomfort basking in the lyrical warmth of a work about premarital sex, especially one based on a story that so closely parallelled the Christian Nativity narrative, and used the religious language of “transfiguration” in doing so.
But Schoenberg’s chamber tone poem tells a sympathetic story of secular transformations: of a frightened pregnant young woman into a reassured mother-to-be, of a problematic unborn child into a bond uniting future spouses, and of a cold moonlit night into a warm natural setting for the nurturing of human love.
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The musical language Schoenberg uses combines the most important—and even opposing—tendencies of his time. Few relationships in German music of the late 19th century were more adversarial than those between the proponents of Wagner’s free-roaming evocations of psychological states and the supporters of Brahms’ craftsmanlike control of abstract formal structures. And yet Schoenberg seems to create a delirious synthesis of both ideological positions.
The probing chromatic harmonies, long-held sighs and paroxysms of ecstasy found in Tristan und Isolde are much in evidence in Schoenberg’s score, as is Wagner’s use of rising sequences of melodic phrases to portray rising levels of emotional intensity. The texture, however, is thoroughly contrapuntal, with frequent imitative interplay between the instruments, and with melodic motives developed in the Brahmsian style of “continuous variation”.
The story is told in an extended narrative arc that begins in a sombre D minor, with long, slow notes in the bass to indicate the deliberate walking pace of the couple, and a descending scale indicating the dreary prospects for the upcoming conversation. The ensuing musical discussions are fraught with anxious emotion, hammered home by the oft-repeated motive of two descending semitones in the texture, and the first half, in which the young woman tells her story, ends in a despairing whisper.
The male figure’s reassuring reply, however, opens the second half in a softly radiant and consoling D major that only builds in tenderness and intimacy as the magical transformation of man, woman, child and natural landscape takes place before our ears. The shimmering glassy sound of harmonics at the very end is the perfect emotional correlative of the serenity that comes when human sympathy conquers all obstacles.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Souvenir de Florence Op. 70
In 1890 Tchaikovsky spent three months at the Florence villa of his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, composing his opera The Queen of Spades. While there, he sketched out the slow movement of what would become the four-movement sextet he completed on his return. Published under the title Souvenir de Florence, it nevertheless shows little by way of Italian musical influences, apart from the Adagio serenade. The third and fourth movements in particular are Russian to the core, brimming over with folk tunes and the vigour of village dancing.
Even more surprising is the neo-classical bent of the work, not just in the clarity of its string textures and the simplicity of its rhythmic pulse, but also in its routine application of Mozart-era symphonic counterpoint, with numerous passages of cascading imitative entries gracing the score, and even a full-on fugue in the finale.
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The sonata-form first movement bursts onto the scene with the brash, bold confidence of a gypsy violinist leaping over a campfire. The first sound to hit your ear is a minor 9th chord, a tart burst of harmonic flavouring that snaps you awake like the bracing first bite into a Granny Smith apple. The movement’s first theme is a hearty thumping romp with numerous rhythmic quirks, backed up by an oscillating oom-pah-pah accompaniment that owes much to the string textures of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. The second theme, by contrast, soars serenely in long held notes over a rambunctious accompaniment. The development is entirely in the mould of contrapuntally obsessed development sections of the Classical era while the recapitulation’s race-to-the-finish coda prompts a return to the minor mode—a tonally colouring that had been virtually forgotten in all the previous merriment.
The second movement Adagio cantabile e con moto begins with a richly textured slow introduction followed by a naively simple tune in the 1st violin suitable for singing under an Italian window sill. Certainly the pizzicato string accompaniment offers a ready-made substitute for a guitar or mandolin. But the serenade turns into a duet when the a solo cello joins in. Hardly less enchanting is the ‘whispering wind’ middle section, played by all instruments a punta d’arco (at the point of the bow).
The third movement is heavily inflected with the folk music idiom. It opens with a modest little tune in the dorian mode marked by bird-calls of repeated notes and plaintively inconclusive cadences. Its moderate pace and overlapping thematic entrances almost suggest a ceremonial dance ritual, but Tchaikovsky has other plans, driving the repeated-note motif into much more energetic territory, a direction confirmed by a middle section strongly reminiscent of the Trepak from the composer’s Nutcracker Suite.
The musical scent of Russian country life is even stronger in the last movement, as indicated by the drone-like accompaniment pattern that strums on alone for four bars at its opening. The theme that arrives to float on top of it is eminently folk-like in its small range and modal character. Tchaikovsky is quick off the mark to capitalize on its rhythmic potential, adding punchy off-beat accents, exhilarating runs and large leaps to its developing character until a long-limbed and wide-ranging lyrical tune brings a measure of breezy relaxation to the proceedings. The star attraction in this movement is the fugue, perhaps matched only in vigour and sheer visceral exhilaration by the Beethoven’s-Ninth-style final page where, even if Tchaikovsky didn’t write a blaring brass section into the score, you could almost swear you hear one, anyway.
Donald G. Gíslason 2018