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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
Quartet in D minor Op. 56 Voces Intimae
Sibelius’ Quartet in D minor was completed in 1909 and has five movements, symmetrically arranged in an arch form around the lyrical third-movement Adagio, with scherzos on either side separating it from the opening movement and finale.
The name Voces Intimae derives from a Latin inscription (meaning “intimate voices”) written in the composer’s hand above three mysterious repeated chords in the manuscript of the lyrical slow movement. And indeed, the whole quartet seems like one long conversation between inner voices, given how much motivic material the movements share between them.
The work opens with a short duet between violin and cello that affirms the work’s allegiance to the simple D minor scale. When all four instruments join together they introduce at the top of their first phrase an important musical motive: a single step up, followed by a downward leap of a 4th. This motive will dominate the development section in the middle of the movement and is emphatically proclaimed in its closing bars. Another melodic pattern repeated throughout the entire quartet comes in the movement’s second theme, a short skip up and down the scale with a dotted rhythm.
Sibelius’ slivery coolness of affect in this movement results from his constant use of running scale passages, often in all four voices simultaneously. His ideas are mostly presented linearly, in contrapuntal lines that often move together in the same note values, rather than in the standard texture of foreground melody with supporting background harmony. Block chords in this movement are reserved for special moments of emphasis that separate phrases or formal sections.
The brief second movement follows without a break and its tone is that of a Mendelssohnian scherzo that transforms the principal motives from the preceding movement into a feathery moto perpetuo of pulsing string tremolo, either scurrying along in unison like the string lines that open the famous finale of his Fifth Symphony, or richocheting acrobatically through sonic space.
The emotional heart of this quartet arrives in its third movement Adagio, structured around the alternation of two themes in contrasting tone colours—one major, the other minor. It is during the first appearance of the minor-mode theme that we hear the three mysterious chords that have given this quartet its nickname. Abandoning the contrapuntal ‘coolness’ of previous movements, Sibelius allows the first violin to pour its heart out in a series of tender melodic lines pleading for resolution, their sense of yearning reinforced by sigh motives and sobbing syncopations.
If the first scherzo in this quartet owes much to Mendelssohn, the second, in the fourth movement, is more indebted to Brahms in its seriousness of tone, Spartan texture and rhythmic heft. The heavy-footed plodding of its simple folk-like theme is occasionally relieved by mysterious strands of minuet-like melody that stand out against the murmuring whispers of running lines in the inner voices.
The concluding rondo finale begins with considerable swagger as punchy phrases, rocking back and forth with off-beat accents, echo through the texture. A new theme of small range is then announced by the viola over a bouncing-bow accompaniment and put up for discussion between all instruments. As the alternation between opening refrain and intervening episodes proceeds, a moto perpetuo dynamic takes over, turning the last half of the movement into an accelerando of steadily increasing momentum. Small fragments of melody pop up from time to time to plead their case against the onslaught of 16th-note patter, but to no avail. This movement drives relentlessly to its conclusion with an energy that even Rossini would envy.
Piano Quintet in A major Op. 81
Concert audiences of the late nineteenth century were powerfully attracted to Antonín Dvořák’s ethnically flavoured but artfully crafted music. The reasons are not hard to find. In a developing age in which the language of music was rapidly changing, Dvořák offered a range of aesthetic virtues that harkened back to the Classical era: formal clarity, rhythmic vitality, and a clear sense of tonality, devoid of the chromatic ambiguities and slip-sliding harmonic drift that made Wagner’s music so disorienting for the ear. At the same time, Dvořák appealed to late Romanticism’s love of the exotic with his soulful melodies tinged with the tang and bite of village life, frequently enriched with loving countermelodies. And performers loved him, too, for his brilliant use of instrumental colour in a seemingly infinite range of inventive textures and scorings that made every piece ‘speak’ well in the concert hall.
All of these qualities, and many left unmentioned, are to be found in his Piano Quintet in A major, composed in the late summer and early autumn of 1887, a work which along with Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat and Brahms’ mighty F minor Quintet, stands at the summit of what 5 instruments, 10 hands and 50 fingers can accomplish under the creative direction of a master composer.
The work opens in lyrical splendour with a solo cello melody singing forth under the gentle cover of a raindrop accompaniment in the piano. Beginning in a sunny A major, it soon dips into the minor mode before yielding to a restless, more driving variant of itself propelled onward by all instruments. This urge to develop themes straight out of the gate is a particularly Brahmsian touch (the F Minor Quintet begins with such contrasts) and many a variant of the cello’s opening melody are presented before a second theme, in the minor mode, is announced by the viola. This second theme is then folded into yet another utterly scrumptious blend of piano and string sonority. Dvořák’s inventiveness is limitless, his textures like cookie dough for the ears.
The development section, unlike the exposition, eschews sectional contrast to pursue one long continuous arc of harmonic argument that unfolds with a sense of inevitability that impels it into a glorious recapitulation of the opening theme, led by the piano. The movement is crowned by an extended coda with its own propulsive energy that drives headlong to its conclusion.
In place of a slow movement, Dvořák gives us a ‘thoughtful’ one. The second movement is labeled Dumka, a Ukrainian word meaning ‘little thought,’ and the pensive, lonely little opening theme of this movement lives up to the title. This opening also shows once again the depth of Dvořák’s textural inventiveness as its flickering tune, appearing first high up in the piano register, is soon matched with a countermelody far below in the viola. An alternation between slow and fast-moving sections is frequently found in the dumka and this movement features a rondo-like alternation of melancholy and upbeat passages in a formally symmetrical A-B-A-C-A-B-A pattern, with the friskiest section (C) arriving right in the middle. The little opening theme keeps returning, like a nostalgic thought drawn out of memory. The fragile poignancy of the magical final bars radiates the same sense of pathos found at the end of the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K. 488, also in F♯ minor.
In the place normally occupied by a third-movement scherzo, Dvořák offers a furiant, a fast Bohemian folk dance that often follows the dumka, erasing all morose thoughts the former movement might have inspired. Along with some eminently toe-tapping rhythms, Dvořák’s furiant offers a healthy display of musical exuberance with plenty of high-jinx and pianistic sparkle in the high register that often sounds like it’s going to run right off the end of the keyboard. The middle section acts as a little island of serenity amid all the frantic frolicking.
Dvořák’s last movement is an uplifting and riotously buoyant sonata rondo, with a spiffy opening refrain theme and a full-on fugato in the middle section. Themes glint and twinkle in between the major and minor modes, and the piano provides a level of keyboard chatter to rival the last movement of a Mendelssohn piano concerto. A slow chorale-like section appears at the end to let everyone catch their breath, but its real function is to act as a springboard for the final exhilarating charge to the finish.
Given its demonstrated mood-brightening effect on concert audiences, this movement should be given serious consideration by the medical community as a replacement for prescription antidepressants.
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
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (“Death & the Maiden”)
Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet is a sombre work, with all four of its movements set in a minor key. It takes its name from the composer’s lied Der Tod und das Mädchen (1817) that provides the theme for the quartet’s slow movement, a set of variations. The poem’s depiction of Death coming to claim a young life may well have had personal resonance for the 27-year-old Schubert since in 1824, when this quartet was written, symptoms of the disease that would kill him four years later had already begun to appear.
Despite the despairing back-story, or perhaps because of it, the first movement of this quartet is unusually muscular in its scoring, thick with double-stop accompaniment patterns and punchy triple- and quadruple-stop chords at important cadences. This orchestral quality is evident from the startling salvo of string sound that opens the work, comparable in its dramatic abruptness to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This fanfare-like call to attention announces the serious tone of the movement while at the same time introducing the descending triplet figure that will be the principal motive of its first theme, presented immediately following. The other important motive dominating the movement arrives in the work’s second theme: a small grouping of notes ending in a lilting dotted rhythm, lovingly offered up in thirds, Viennese-style.
Schubert’s treatment of these two motives in this movement displays his more ‘relaxed’ notion of the structural principles underlying classical sonata form. While composers in the era of Mozart and Haydn considered their key choices and modulation patterns to be the harmonic pillars and load-bearing walls of a sonata-form movement’s musical architecture, Schubert, by contrast, was more interested in interior decorating than structural engineering. Rejecting sonata form’s traditional concentration on just two tonal centres – the home key presented at the outset and its alternate, presented in the second theme – he preferred to spin his tonal colour wheel more freely so as to choose just the right tonal accent for this little motive here, and the right tonal shade to paint that broad thematic space there.
While not ignoring the form’s three-part division into exposition, development and recapitulation, Schubert lets this pattern out at the seams to create a more vibrant palette of harmonic possibilities. The tonal drama that interests him happens at a moment-by-moment pace, riding forward on waves of harmonic colour. The triplets that appear so portentous as the movement opens, when cast in different tonal colours, becomes a daisy-sniffing walk-in-the-park hummable tune. And the lilting dotted-rhythm motive, so gracious at its first appearance, becomes worrisome when constantly repeated in the minor mode.
Schubert’s treatment of his musical material in the following slow movement is much more regular and formally proportioned. The theme for this movement’s set of variations is in two parts, each repeated. The first is a direct quotation of the piano introduction to the Death and the Maiden lied, with its plodding funeral-march rhythm and mournful repetition of melody notes evoking the sorrow that death brings. The second part maintains the processional rhythm but is more hopeful, ending in the major mode to reflect the lied text’s depiction of death as the Great Comforter. Most of the variations decorate the theme with an elegant application of melodic embroidery in the first violin. But the third variation breaks this pattern with its frightening acceleration of the theme’s processional rhythm, a pacing that some have compared to the galloping of Death’s horse.
The Allegro molto scherzo is of a rough Beethovenian stamp, predicated on the play of small repeated motives, frequent syncopations, and sudden contrasts between piano and forte. Its Trio middle section is a gently swaying Ländler that counts as one of the few moments of sustained lyrical repose in this quartet.
The rondo finale, marked Presto, is a kaleidoscope of seemingly contradictory emotional states. Alternating between the driving vehemence of its tarantella refrain in the minor mode and the almost celebratory spirit of its major-mode episodes, this movement is bound together by its boundless energy alone, an energy that seems to transcend major-minor distinctions. Witness its whirlwind coda, that clearly signals an intention to end the work in the major mode only to switch back to the minor for its last hurrah, yet with no loss of breathless exuberance.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor K 457
In 1785 Mozart’s Sonata in C minor was published together with the composer’s Fantasia in C minor as a single opus, with the Fantasia forming a kind of introductory ‘prelude’ to the sonata. Given that the Fantasia was composed many months after the sonata, scholars are divided as to whether this was Mozart’s intention or simply a clever marketing ploy on the part of his Viennese publisher. Certainly, the common key of C minor and a shared fondness for heightened musical drama link the two works. Not to mention how the practice of combining an improvisatory movement with a more formally rigorous one has traditional roots in the Baroque pairing of fantasy and fugue.
And yet this three-movement sonata is entirely capable of standing on its own. It is a small sonata with big ideas: operatic in its wide range of emotions, orchestral in many of its effects (especially its imitation of alternating orchestral ‘choirs’ of instruments), and pianistic in its unabashed display of quasi-virtuosic keyboard techniques, all of which have been cited as possible influences on – and perhaps even models for – some of the early sonatas of Beethoven in a minor key.
The work opens with an imperious fanfare: an arpeggio rising dramatically over more than an octave. This abrupt gesture looks back to a similar instrumental effect associated with mid-18th-century orchestras in south-west Germany called the “Mannheim rocket” while at the same time looking forward to a similar opening in Beethoven’s first piano sonata, the Sonata in F minor Op. 2 No. 1.
Cowering in the upper register of the keyboard where this fanfare left off is a timid little answer full of plaintive sighs. A subsequent repeat of this Punch & Judy show establishes from the outset the wide emotional range that this sonata will claim for itself. Indeed, off-beat accents and abrupt juxtapositions of loud and soft are recurring features of the movement, features that may have given Beethoven ideas to follow up on.
The movement’s second theme, singing out in the major mode atop a burbling Alberti bass is more sociable, with hand-crossing replies echoing up from the bass. But even this theme is not immune to unexpected interruptions. One of the most dramatic is a passage of broken-chord figuration that extends from the bottom to the very top of the fortepiano keyboard of Mozart’s time, an indication that this movement may have been written for the composer’s personal use, with his own hand in mind. He was known to be a bit of a show-off at times, we hear.
The second-movement Adagio is no less spectacular in its own way. It is a study in melodic ornamentation and remarkable for the myriad possibilities that Mozart finds to decorate its simple melodic structures, structured around chord tones that sit on top of an audaciously rudimentary harmonic undergirding. Slow movements are not normally the place for virtuoso fireworks, but included in the decorative detail of this slow movement are breathtaking ecstatic runs spanning more than three octaves that astonish the ear.
The Allegro assai finale is a rondo that returns to the restlessness mood of the first movement, typified by the confrontational manner in which its opening refrain melody is structured. It begins piano with a series of suspensions that evoke a feeling of whimpering pathos, but then turns on a dime to become aggressive and insistent, with shoulder-poking repeated notes ringing out forte in a foretaste of the rondo refrain from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. Even the coquettish quality of this rondo’s interludes cannot mask the troubled atmosphere evoked by its many sudden changes in dynamics and the searching quality of its numerous dramatic pauses. This is Mozart at his most ‘Beethovenian’.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major K 414
Mozart’s twelfth piano concerto was one of three composed in 1782 for sale to the Viennese public by advance subscription, the 18th-century equivalent of ‘crowd-sourcing’. A major selling point of these ‘subscription’ concertos (K. 413, 414 & 415) was that they were composed not only for concert use but also for performance at home by a fortepiano and string quartet, as the wind parts were not structurally important and could easily be dispensed with.
The Concerto in A major K. 414 has always been the favourite of the set, perhaps because it displays so well the one trait that sets Mozart’s piano concertos apart from those of his contemporaries, i.e., their ‘operatic’ quality. A piano concerto by Mozart is poles apart from the concerto genre as practised in the Baroque era, when the soloist was treated as part of the orchestra, playing along during the tuttis and emerging from time to time to play ‘lead breaks’ before folding back into the ensemble texture again.
Mozart’s soloist is an operatic diva, a faultlessly courteous one, of course, but one who is definitely the star attraction of the show. Her entrance is a major event in each movement, one that we are made to wait for. The form of Mozart’s first movements, with their ‘double exposition’ of themes parallels the ritornello form of the operatic aria, and for the same reason. The opening orchestral tutti not only presents the major themes of the movement but more importantly, as in opera, it builds up anticipation for the soloist’s first utterance.
Moreover, Mozart is in no way loathe to trust the piano with lyrical, even sentimental melodies requiring a sustained ‘singing’ tone in the gracious manner of Italian opera, unlike Haydn, whose vigorous and ‘knuckle-y’ keyboard style often presupposes a certain crispness of touch. Furthermore, the soloist’s cadenzas in a Mozart piano concerto serve not only to display the technical facility of the performer, but also through their changes of tempo, their sudden hesitations, their succession of moods, they convey the capricious ‘personality’ of the character that the instrument plays in the musical drama.
The first movement of the A major concerto is remarkable for the profusion of themes that it presents—four in the orchestral exposition alone. The second of these themes is accompanied by a leering countermelody in the viola that evokes the intimacy and camaraderie of chamber music more than the starched formality of the concert hall. The development section, as it would be called in sonata form, reveals just how wobbly is the notion that the Classical concerto is simply a sonata arranged for soloist and orchestra. Not only does the piano introduce an entirely new theme to start things off, but it then goes on to snub all the themes of the exposition, immersing itself deeply in the minor mode, like the contrasting B section of an operatic da capo aria, reaching a climax of excitement in a thrilling series of high trills followed by a multi-octave scale plunging to the bottom of the keyboard. This concerto simply oozes personality, with cadenzas provided for all three movements.
The second movement opens with a direct quote from an overture to Baldassare Galuppi’s La Calamità dei cuori written by Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), youngest son of J. S. Bach. Mozart had met and been befriended by J. C. Bach while still a young child, so the elder composer’s death earlier in the year has been suggested as the motivation for this tribute. And certainly, the many unusual passages in the minor mode in this movement support that view.
The last movement is a sonata rondo with a great profusion of themes but a quite eccentric formal structure. The orchestra briefly introduces two themes, the first a skipping tune decorated with trills followed by a unison passage featuring a repetitive motive of three notes descending by step. When the piano enters, however, it ignores both of these, choosing instead to spin out its own tune. It does eventually get around to taking up the tunes presented by the orchestra, but more surprises await when the piano cadenza ends up in a dialogue with the orchestra! Filled with thrills and spills, this concerto gave its Viennese audience quite an exhilarating ride.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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
FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN
String Quartet in D minor, Op. 76, No. 2
Those of us wondering in our spare moments what a happy retirement consists of might do well to consider the case of one Franz Joseph Haydn, whose life in the years 1796-97, when his collection of six string quartets Op. 76 was written, offers a model of retired bliss. The period of the 1790s saw Haydn’s official career as an active court composer for the Esterhazy family drawing to a close and his status as an international musical celebrity take flight in earnest. After two tours of England (1791-92 and 1794-95), he returned to Vienna a wealthy man, free to compose whatever he wished, whenever he wished, and his writing for string quartet bears the marks of this newfound personal liberty.
The six quartets of Op. 76 are widely regarded as the supreme accomplishment of Haydn’s career as a string quartet composer. They fulfill Goethe’s wish that a string quartet be a “civilized conversation between four independent personalities.” And yet they are more than that.
The personal stamp that Haydn put on these works prefigures tendencies which would later characterize the work of his young student, Beethoven. The first of these was a new level of seriousness in musical expression. No longer was Haydn’s audience presented with music of such courtesy and deference that it could easily be thrust into the background of the social setting which it graced. This was music that demanded the full concentrated attention of its listeners. Emblematic of this new seriousness was an increased use of the minor mode, a denser fabric of motives in the musical texture, and a general shifting of the centre of gravity in sonata- form movements towards the development section, where the ‘churn’ of motivic interplay dominated the proceedings.
All of these tendencies are on full display in the second of the Op. 76 quartets, nicknamed the ‘Fifths’ quartet in recognition of the intensity with which its falling fifth motive echoes throughout the first movement (occurring more than 100 times, by a rough count). Indeed, the degree to which it keeps occurring throughout the entire exposition, like a gravy boat continually passed around a table of dinner guests, has caused scholars to disagree on just where the ‘second subject’ begins, if there is one at all. And the development section only increases the density of motivic reference by adding inversions and strettos into the mix. With falling fifths ricocheting off every wall, the need to ‘re-introduce the theme’ to the listener is reduced and so the recapitulation is short, but a coda of renewed developmental vigour (also to become a Beethovenian characteristic) keeps tension high till the final emphatic chords.
A relaxed and gracious second movement, a theme and variations, offers an opportunity to lower the blood pressure somewhat. Yet within the diminutive confines of this simple theme, Haydn finds a wealth of possibilities for variety and tonal interest, dipping now and then into the minor mode and providing many a florid vamp at the top of the texture for the first violin. Attentive listeners will also notice a few sly references to the first movement’s falling fifths.
The third movement Minuetto returns to the minor mode, which along with Haydn’s use of severe contrapuntal procedure (its outer sections being in strict two-voice canon), has earned this movement its own nickname: the Witch’s Canon. Who knew that witches were so learned? The austerely elegant minuet from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor K. 550 provides an interesting precedent for such an intensely contrapuntal, minor-mode take on this courtly dance. But then again, it might well be that Haydn is simply sending up the genre rather than offering a demonic variant of it.
The trio provides much needed relief in the major mode, but brings playful surprises of its own in the form of a clock-like tick-tocking, as rhythmically rigid as the framing opening and closing sections are melodically severe, and an almost gypsy-like alternation between the major and minor mode.
All pretense of gravitas is abandoned in the last movement, however, which unfolds in a rollicking sonata-form movement with many a coy pause along the way. Even the minor mode has lost its tragic edge here in favour of a Mendelssohnian-style merry scamper that finally comes out of the closet to end the work in a bright and buoyant D major.
The Four Quarters Op. 28
The multi-award-winning British composer, pianist and conductor Thomas Adès is a towering figure in contemporary music. A major factor in his success is that despite the modernity of his musical language, he writes from inside, and from well inside, the classical tradition, always anchoring his listener’s attention in some element of the aurally familiar. One finds within his works clearly defined melodies walking abreast with lively contrapuntal side-chatter. Musical connoisseurs will raise an eyebrow of discerning interest to discover canons and ostinati pulsing within his most embroiled textures, even while their toes prove unable to resist tapping in the face of repeated rhythmic invitations to the dance.
And he writes in the traditional genres of the classical canon. His list of works includes operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, pieces for solo piano, and choral anthems. His sonorities, moreover, are full and resonant but, like those of Stravinsky, elegantly transparent and easy to ‘parse’ in the ear.
One never has the suspicion, when listening to his music, that he is trying to evoke the sound of an SUV driven, in tragic error, through the plate glass window of a Tim Horton’s, or to broadcast the unfiltered sonic output of radio waves received from deep space by the Hubble telescope. These things Mr. Adès does not attempt. And a grateful world thanks him for his restraint.
The crowning virtue of his compositional creed is that he composes entirely for natural instruments, without resorting to the sort of electronic gadgetry and digital trickery that have become such a blight upon the aural landscape of our time. He seeks to ‘update’ (to use his term) traditional music-making, not destroy it, nor supplant it with technology. When in need of new orchestral sounds, for example, he prefers to have his musicians scrub a washboard, rattle a bag of metal knives and forks, or lower a vibrating gong into a bowl of water rather than have them twiddle a dial, tap an electric foot-pedal, or slouch over a laptop as if absorbed in a computer game.
The Four Quarters was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and was premiered there by the Emerson Quartet in March 2011. The work takes as its subject the passage of time during a 24-hour period, with each of its four movements, or ‘quarters’, evoking a distinct time of day.
We start our journey in the late evening with a movement entitled Nightfalls, a curious plural of mysterious import. The sound of the strings, played at the opening without vibrato, is as raw as the night is dark. While the mood is meditative to begin with, the sudden dramatic contrasts of loud and soft that follow hint at the unsettling presence of things that go bump in the night.
The second movement Serenade: Morning Dew suggests in its opening pizzicato section the arrival of water droplets on the fronds and leafy limbs of outdoor plant life, and hints in its bowed sections at the glints of sunlight arriving with the dawn of a new day.
Days, another curious title in the plural, brings us to noon and beyond. Largely structured around a syncopated ostinato rife with repeated notes in the second violin, it builds to a climax in which all instruments play in unison before trailing off as they head their separate ways.
The Twenty-Fifth Hour is an impossible time of day, a fact given whimsical acknowledgement in its almost- impossible time signature: 25/16, which is divided up into repeating sections of 2/4 + 3/16 and 2/4 + 6/16. The simple dance-like quality with which it begins belies the treacherous difficulty of the alternating harmonics and stopped notes that generate its ‘yodeling’ timbral charm. The movement churns to its conclusion in the second half over throbbing sustained double-stops in the cello that nudge the increasingly acquiescent and peaceable musings of its non-knee-held colleagues ebbing towards a soft but nonetheless shocking (for contemporary music) conclusion: a major chord.
LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN
String Quartet in B flat major Op. 130
Beethoven’s thirteenth string quartet, written in 1825, is a massive work comprising six movements and lasting a good three quarters of an hour. It is also considered one of the most head-scratching, enigmatic works in the classical canon, one that has baffled musicologists and music theorists to this day.
The aspect of the work most responsible for uniting fingernail to hair follicle in a scratching motion is the last movement, the so-called ‘Great Fugue,’ a work of such formal extravagance that it moved Beethoven’s publisher to tactfully suggest that the composer might wish to replace it with something a tad more … digestible. Which he did, in fact, writing a traditional finale for the first publication of the quartet in 1826 and leaving the original Grosse Fuge to be published separately as his Op. 133.
This evening, however, the work is being performed according to its original conception and there is much to recommend this decision. For all its small-scale difficulties (the bizarre dynamic markings, changes in metre and abrupt changes in tone and mood) the large- scale shape of this work, as originally conceived, is clear. While it may be a hard nut to crack, the nut is clearly divided into an intellectually engaging outer ‘shell’ (the first and last movements) and a meaty inner ‘core’ of rewarding musical ‘nuggets’ (the four movements in between).
The two outer movements are really musical hybrids, ‘fantasies’ masquerading as more serious musical forms: the first movement is in ‘sonata drag’ while the last is a fugue at a masked ball, changing masks faster than a flirt changes dance partners. These outer movements are colourfully ‘contrasty’ (to use Joseph Kerman’s term) while the four inner movements are remarkably uniform, each picking a single mood and sticking with it. The outer movements flash with the dazzling charm of the fast card trick while the inner movements grab the heart in an ever-closer embrace of simple nourishing emotion.
It’s quite a ride, this quartet. So here is your dance card.
The first movement begins with a question of musical etiquette. The slow introduction to a sonata-form first movement as used, for example, in Haydn’s Symphonies 101 and 104, or Beethoven’s Symphonies 1 and 7, is meant to ease you gently and solemnly into the sound world of the piece you are about to hear, which normally takes off like a scalded cat once this introductory function is fulfilled. It’s like an usher who shows you ceremonially to your seat and then leaves you to enjoy your evening’s entertainment, never to be heard from again. Said usher is not expected to sit down beside you and interrupt every time a stray thought enters his head.
And yet, that is just what the slow introduction to this movement does. No sooner have you left behind the tender musings that open the work, and you start to follow the spiffy tumbling 16th-note figures of the movement’s first subject, than the slow introduction pops up again after a few bars to say ‘You know, I was just thinking …’ and then promptly disappears again. Very odd. Anyone who has sat beside a talkative stranger of questionable marble-count on public transit will know just how awkward these situations can quickly become.
But no matter, the exposition finally gets underway in earnest with a vigorously pursued agenda of constantly chattering 16ths which finally give way to a slower, more vocally-inspired second subject in longer note values. At the traditional repeat of the exposition, however, up pops your slow-introduction usher again to show you to your seat (the one you are already occupying) as if the two of you had never met. Within the frame of expectations of the sonata-consuming public, it all seems like some strange episode of The Twilight Zone, an impression reinforced when the slow introduction returns to seat you yet a third time for the development section.
By now, however, this is the least of your problems. The development section that follows is one of Beethoven’s strangest. A ‘development’ is normally the place where all the musical washing is done as the preceding thematic material is sudsed up right proper and put through the contrapuntal wringer. But this development section is the least active segment of the whole movement, seeming more like an eerie moonwalk of trance-like calm, numbly self-absorbed in its own obsessive rocking rhythm.
And yet a perfectly normal recapitulation sets you back on familiar ground. But just as things are drawing to a close, here once again comes the slow introduction interrupting every effort to keep the music moving forward, until finally cooler heads prevail and the musical conversation comes to a rousing conclusion.
All this might seem the height of musical impudence, but Beethoven has done this before, in one of his earliest works. His Pathétique Sonata in C minor, Op. 13, features a slow introduction that occurs, and interrupts, in exactly the same three places within the first movement. A new twist on an old trick? It is quite possible that Beethoven, in melding the sectional surprises of the ‘fantasy’ genre onto the staid moorings and weight-bearing architecture of the traditional sonata, is having just a wee bit of fun here, playing peek-a-boo from behind the pillars of this musical structure, as it were, in the style of his teacher Haydn, the pranksterish inventor of the ‘false recapitulation’.
The much more straightforward inner movements begin with a furtively whispered Presto that gives every indication of wanting to be a full-on scherzo in ternary form, but its ‘trio’ middle section provides little by way of contrast. Despite its minor-mode seriousness and breathless heartbeat rhythm, the mood is more determined than grim, yet even that may be just a pose. Its quick, double-hairpin dynamic markings add a humorous ‘leering’ quality to the phrasing that the written-out glissandos in the 1st violin almost push to an open giggle of glee.
The charm offensive begins in earnest in the 3rd movement Andante, where we find ourselves more than halfway to the Viennese whipped cream that Brahms serves up in his most sumptuous slow movements. The wonderfully unbuttoned easy-breathing melody that begins in the viola and then is taken up by the 1st violin evokes a pleasant walk in the park, the walking pace reinforced by a constant metronomic tick-tock in the accompaniment. The occasional jarring note squealed out by the 1st violin, as if someone had just pinched his bottom, reveals, perhaps, the meaning of the indication Poco scherzoso at the beginning of the movement.
The 4th movement Alla tedesca takes lilting to a whole new level in its ever more sophisticated textural treatments and melodic variations of a nostalgically simple tune, reminiscent of a waltz. Its charm is such that if there is one tune you will be found humming in the shower tomorrow, it’s this one. A little game of ‘Who’s got the theme?’ arrives at the end, with each instrument taking a single bar of the tune (and not even in the right order) to round out the movement on a note of wit and whimsy.
We arrive at the warm beating heart of this quartet in its 5th movement, the operatically named Cavatina, and what a wellspring of operatic emotion it is. You can easily visualize the scene, with a single pensive character inhabiting a pool of light in the middle of the stage. Beethoven confessed that he could never think of this movement without weeping, and the score bears every mark of the emotion he felt: the low tessitura of the two violins, the sigh motives on first beats of the bar, the reluctance to cadence, and, above all, the unrestrained pathos of the section marked Beklemmt, in which the 1st violin breaks away to sob openly in front of its companions.
This Cavatina was chosen by Carl Sagan for inclusion on the Golden Record placed on the two Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977, meant to convey the heights of human achievement to whatever intelligent life form might find them.
The Grosse Fuge last movement, by contrast, has seemed to many to have charted the opposite path, arriving to us on earth from somewhere deep in outer space. Indeed, musical analysts with cranial cavities considerably larger than that of the present writer have spent many an hour that could more profitably have been spent sorting laundry in an attempt to understand what are referred to as the ‘problems of continuity’ in this movement, as if its overall form constituted some sort of compositional speech impediment that needed to be excused or explained.
Perhaps it is the sheer scale of this movement, in all dimensions, that so baffles the musical pundits. Was the great composer responding to an inner voice asking: “Would you like to supersize that fugue?” The movement occupies fully one third of the quartet’s entire length, and its range of expression is nothing if not extreme, with dramatically large leaps peppering the melodic outline of its fugue subject, and dynamic indications such as ff, f and sf profusely scattered throughout the score, sometimes on every beat for pages on end.
Worse still, the question of musical etiquette posed in the first movement seems to have progressed into a full-blown case of multiple personality disorder, given the way the piece opens. There was, after all, no tradition of starting a fugue with a slow introduction, or an introduction of any kind whatsoever. And yet as the finale opens (under the grandiose name of Overtura) we are served up a series of short thematic statements, each abandoned immediately after a single phrase, like someone changing TV channels with the remote every 5 or 6 seconds. Each short phrase is in a different rhythm, and has a different character.
First comes (a) a bold, strident declaration in half notes comprising an odd mix of gaping intervals and stepwise motion, ending in a trill, then (b) an almost flippant, skippy-dippy version of the same melodic intervals, but in a triplet rhythm, then (c) a more soothing placid variant of these, then (d) the same melodic intervals again, chopped up and separated by rests, before the arrival of (e) a jagged-edged, wildly leaping fugue theme, using the ‘chopped up’ theme as its countersubject.
Has Beethoven gone barking mad? Crazy like a fox, I would say. When starting out on a movement of such breathtaking length, what better way to prepare the listener for the arduous road ahead than to provide a ‘table of contents’ indicating the various transforms of the theme to be encountered along the way?
In writing this ‘fugal fantasy’ Beethoven not only treats his material according to standard fugal procedures (stretto, inversion, augmentation, etc.), he combines these with the processes of sonata development, as well, creating as wildly different versions of his melodic material as he can devise, and announcing the major variants at the outset. Then, just as he did in the Fifth Symphony, he proceeds in the course of the movement to delete notes from his theme to make it splinter into shorter and shorter fragments, until finally the texture is reduced to a series of duelling trills, like two dogs snarling at each other in a dispute over a bone.
The result is an uninhibited virtuosic display of compositional mastery, an 1812 Overture of intellectual fireworks unique in the literature of Western music.
Donald G. Gíslason © 2014
Sonatina for violin & piano in A minor D. 385
It humbles me to think, paraphrasing Tom Lehrer, that when Schubert was my age, he had already been dead for several decades. Lest I forget, there are his first three sonatas for violin and piano, which he composed in a sprint of creative friskiness during the spring of 1816, at the tender age of 19. Youthful as these works may be, their naïve charm shows how thoroughly he had absorbed the models left by Mozart, and something of the path being charted by Beethoven, whose work he much admired.
But why, enquiring minds will want to know, are these works known as sonatinas when they have every claim to the more dignified title of sonata? The answer lies in their publication history. In the bohemian margins of Viennese life in which young Franz lived, not every work issuing from his pen found a place in print, at least not during his lifetime. In fact most didn´t. The manuscripts were gradually fed to publishers after his death and it was they, the publishers, who christened them with names suitable to the market of the time. So the works which Schubert himself referred to as his violin sonatas, when published by Anton Diabelli in 1836 as the composer’s Op. 137, were marketed as “Sonatinas” in order to plump up sales in the expanding market for amateur music-making.
The choice of A minor as the key of the second in this set is a nod toward Beethovenian drama. Even more so is the opening texture of half notes against a throbbing left-hand chordal accompaniment, immediately recognizable from the opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 14, No. 1. Also dramatically Beethovenian are the widely spaced intervals of the piano´s melodic line, followed by wider, even more daring leaps in the violin. It is not long, however, before Schubert’s characteristic songfulness surfaces in the tuneful second theme, following which a fair bit of fan-fluttering in the piano texture completes the musical material treated in this sonata-form movement. The development section is short and uneventful, the recapitulation without surprizes.
The second movement Andante opens with a melody of great dignity and poise. Constructed out of simple note values and expressively ending its phrases with feminine endings, this melody gives the violin ample scope to charm the ear with its singing tone. A contrasting section with more varied harmonic colouring and smaller note values alternates with the opening theme to create a formal structure of balanced repose.
The Menuetto is diminutive in form and emotional range. While formally in a frowning D minor it constantly wants to lean over and smell the roses in F major.
The last movement is the most compositionally intense of the work. Although it opens in the manner of the other movements with a simple singable melody, it soon works itself into a froth of thematic development that lets us know who studied counterpoint, and who didn´t.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for violin & piano in C minor Op. 30 No. 2
You are always in for a good ride when Beethoven writes in C minor. There is something about this key that brings out his ‘classic’ persona as the composer capable of developing fragmentary, enigmatic utterances into explosions of fist-shaking defiance. And more often than not, he also surprizes us with his grandeur of spirit by offering remarkable displays of lyrical eloquence, and even playful humour, in the same work.
On this score, the Sonata in C minor Op. 30, No. 2 will not disappoint. Its tense and brooding outer movements enclose two much more unbuttoned inner movements that provide repose and distraction from the overarching mood of psychological turmoil. Composed in the spring of 1802 under the composer’s recognition of his increasing deafness, the three sonatas of Op. 30 were published the following year as “Three Sonatas for the Pianoforte with the Accompaniment of Violin.”
This decades-old naming practice points back to a time when free-standing piano sonatas were published with an optional, and relatively easy violin part patched over top to provide increased opportunities for participation in a home-entertainment setting. Beethoven’s violin part, however, is anything but optional or amateur in nature. It dialogues fully and freely with the piano throughout, and the number of double and triple stops in the score indicates clearly that it was composed for the professional violinist. That said, the wide-ranging piano part would have to count as the major contributor to the rich carpet of sound characterizing the work as a whole.
The first movement shows Beethoven playing with his thematic material like a cat playing with a mouse. It opens with a menacing motive that ends with a throw-away gesture. Pauses add to the suspense until the violin takes up this material, with the piano rumbling below. Contrast comes with the second theme, a simple little march of Mozartean stamp that adds a dotted rhythm to the movement’s thematic mix. The exposition is not repeated but, as if by compensation, the recapitulation has an extended coda, an innovation that was to become a hallmark of Beethoven’s expansion of sonata form.
The second movement in ternary form is a study in calm, tranquil lyricism, its middle section exploring slightly more dark, minor-mode territory than its dignified opening theme. Remarkable in this movement is the variety of decorative patterns that Beethoven finds to give a richly textured background to his melodies.
The third movement is an emotionally healthy scherzo in the untroubled key of C major, full of musical wit and compositional surprizes. The grace notes of the opening theme contribute to a skipping, tripping momentum that is quickly subverted by accents on unexpected beats of the bar. The Trio plays humorous havoc with the squareness of its canonic melody by confusing the beat count with off-beat accents in the lead-up to the cadence.
Drama returns in a big way in the sonata-rondo finale. It opens with a rumble and a harmonic hand grenade—an augmented 6th chord—tossed into the air, requiring immediate resolution to the dominant. The intervening refrains are generally less confrontational, rarely rising above the threat-level of wicked merriment, but a furious coda reminds us never to underestimate the enormous reserves of emotional energy this composer has to draw on.
Sonata for viola & piano in F minor Op. 120, No. 1
We owe this sonata to the interest that Brahms had in the clarinet near the end of his life as a result of hearing clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinet of the Meiningen court orchestra. The two sonatas for clarinet or viola that he published in 1895 as his Op. 120 are among the very last works published during his lifetime, revealing his last thoughts on the form of the classical sonata.
The Sonata in F minor is a darkly lyrical work that exploits the low range of the viola. In the course of its four movements it moves from a mood of passionate yearning into steadily brighter emotional territory to end, exceptionally for a minor-key Brahms sonata, with a finale in the major mode.
We see the economy of Brahms’ musical thought at the very beginning of the first movement. While the wide-ranging melody presented by the viola in bar 5 is the apparent main theme of the movement, it is the opening motive, the first four notes of the short piano introduction of bars 1-4, that dominates musical discussion from start to finish. This simple motive is still echoing in the ear at the end of the coda, marked Sostenuto ed espressivo.
The mood of calm reflection continues into the second movement, Andante un poco adagio. Apart from the opening poco forte there are only two more bars of forte in the entire movement, which is dominated by the markings piano, dolce, espressivo and pianissimo. Remarkable in this movement is the thinly textured piano part, a scoring that allows the viola to sing out melodically throughout. This is especially important when the opening melody is repeated later on in the lowest range of the instrument.
The Allegretto grazioso third movement sees Brahms at his most grandfatherly in an affectionate intermezzo that can’t help but tip occasionally into a lilting Austrian Ländler. Even the darkish implications of its minor-mode middle section are lightened by the syncopated ‘rain-drop’ texture in the piano.
The bright mood so far established is given a firmer rhythmic base in the fourth movement, a rondo in the eye-brow-raising key of F major (for a sonata that began so seriously in F minor). The three bell-like repeated notes announced at its opening pop up everywhere in this exuberant finale, which is flecked by quicksilver changes of harmonic colour and joyously chummy exchanges between the two instruments.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.
String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No. 1
If there was one great figure in European music that Brahms revered more than any other, that figure was Ludwig van Beethoven. With the Great Master’s bust looking impassively down on him from the wall of his Vienna apartment, feeling behind him the great “footsteps of a giant” jiggling every teacup on the shelf, Brahms was over forty before he published his first symphony and first string quartet, the two genres that his towering predecessor had dominated.
For the first work in each genre he chose a key darkly emblematic of the brooding temperament and explosive emotional energy of his musical forbear. Both his Symphony No. 1 and first string quartet are in the smoldering, fateful key of C minor, making them tonal step-siblings to the Pathétique and Op. 111 piano sonatas, as well as to the Fifth Symphony. This key, however, had more than mere commemorative value for the score of Brahms’ first string quartet. C-natural is also the lowest pitch on the cello, allowing the composer ample space for expressive depth in his string writing.
Indeed, the sound space occupied by this quartet, its outer movements especially, could readily be described as not just Beethovenian, but “symphonic”. It opens with an anxious orchestral tremolando, recalling similar effects in the C minor quartet from Beethoven’s Op. 18, and the exposition of the Pathétique. Over top races an urgent rising figure that culminates in a downward leap of a diminished 7th, the same interval that opens the Op. 111 sonata. After a bit of metrical vertigo induced by the cross-grouping of rhythmic and harmonic patterns, we are stopped short by two sharp “exclamation point” chords. In a mere seven breathless measures, Brahms takes us from a furtive piano to a defiant forte, from a textural spacing of a single octave to a gaping expanse of four and a half—from the low C on the cello to a high-high A flat in the first violin—and from a pulse- quickening pace to an abrupt crash-test halt.
It is at this point that seasoned quartet-lovers reach down to fasten their seat belts.
More seriously lyrical material intervenes leading on to a second subject in E flat—more minor than major—but the restless mood continues unabated in continuous eight-note activity, with the notable emergence of a small da-da-da-DUM motive glinting with knowing winks back at Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Following an emotional climax in cascading stretto, the exposition closes with graceful arabesques from the first violin to spread soothing melodic oil over the troubled textural waters.
The development transforms the movement’s opening pulses into a mere harmonic flutter before the heavy lifting begins and the themes of the exposition are jostled about at close quarters in invertible counterpoint. The recapitulation is remarkable for its coda, an intense accelerando of fz accents that pulls back in its final bars to end with a written out ritardando in the major mode.
Between the more rhetorically fraught first and last movements, Brahms inserts two miniatures of distinctly contrasting mood. The Romanze is a Mendelssohnian voyage into the domestic coziness
and Biedermeyer Gemütlichkeit of the middle-class drawing room. This is music to curl up with in front of a fire, with a cat in your lap. The close spacing of the string writing and restrained dynamic range add to the feeling of intimacy in this movement, which alternates between a warmly expressive opening theme, brocaded with melodic variation at its second occurrence, and a slightly more heart-fluttering B-section featuring pleading groups of sigh motives.
Where an extroverted scherzo in triple meter would normally be expected as a third movement, Brahms writes instead a darkly flavoured, but deeply ambivalent duple-metered intermezzo. While nominally in F minor, it coyly refuses to either confirm or deny the fact for most of its duration. Its pattern of little two-steps, stalked by a leering countermelody in the viola, evokes a mood of mischief (perhaps there is the scherzo quality) somewhere between mincing and menacing. This is music your cat would like. Its simpler, more harmonically clarified middle section—a ‘trio’, in effect—features a remarkable accompaniment pattern in the second violin in which the same pitch is repeated on alternating stopped and unstopped strings.
The fourth movement begins with an aggressive restatement of the climbing motive that opened the first movement, with its dramatic downward leap of a diminished 7th. So tightly argued is this sonata-form movement that its development and recapitulation sections seemed inseparably grafted together. While moments of soaring major-mode lyricism appear between the clouds to bring spiritual uplift to the argument, especially in the second theme, what remains in the ear after the final coda is the cello’s low C at the bottom of the string register, anchoring this work emphatically in its opening tonality of C minor.
Sonata for Viola and Piano in E-flat major, Op. 120, No. 2
At a time when European music was turning towards large programmatic orchestral works performed in grandiose public concerts, Brahms continued to write music created from just the basic building blocks of the tonal system, intended for private performance by small ensembles. In so doing, he established the foundations for a rich new literature of chamber works that featured hitherto neglected instruments such as the clarinet and viola in a leading role. Indeed, the duo-sonata literature for these instruments can be said to begin with Brahms.
His special interest in the clarinet came late in life when, in 1891, he encountered the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist in the court orchestra of Meiningen (Thuringia), noted for his warm tone and expressive playing. Brahms’ last published chamber works were two sonatas Op. 120 composed in 1894 for clarinet and piano (dedicated to Mühlfeld) and then re-issued with slight revisions by the composer in a version for viola.
The second of these, the three-movement Sonata in E flat, is remarkable for its relaxed ease of expression, its underlying ethos of moderation, both in mood and in tempo. It begins with a sinuous, songlike melody with many a winding turn but nary a care in the world. A second theme arrives, less meandering but equally carefree, that even the occasional outburst from the piano cannot perturb. This first movement is what a happy contented old age sounds like.
The formal contrasts that normally distinguish sections within first-movement sonata form are attenuated in this last sonata movement that Brahms was to compose. The fluidity of form is most keenly felt in the development section, where tumult is avoided in favour of civilized lyrical conversation. Despite the odd provocation from the piano, the blood pressure rarely rises beyond a slight quickening of pulse from duplets to triplets, so that the recapitulation arrives like a welcoming hostess announcing to her guests that dinner is served. The coda, marked Tranquillo, nudges the movement to a conclusion with the viola playing beneath the piano for the last chord.
The Allegro appassionato second movement is where one would expect real fire, but this is not a whip-cracking scherzo like that in the F minor piano sonata, nor the heaven-storming scherzo of the Piano Concerto No. 2. The passion here seems more remembered in affection than vividly lived through in the present moment. Its headlong impetus, most persuasively argued for in the massively demanding piano part, is blunted by the relatively gentle pace, one-in-the-bar rhythmic feel, and frequent use of feminine phrase endings. The middle-section trio is a fervent hymn-like elegy that maintains the seriousness of mood, contrasting only in the stern evenness of its steady quarter-note motion.
The last movement, Andante con moto, is a series of variations on a gracious theme with alternating two-note patterns of dotted and even notes. The first variation staggers the viola and piano parts with rhythmic offsets, sounding almost as if preparing for a fugato. In the second, the two instruments take turns enveloping the theme in a lace-like tracery of arpeggiation. The third variation intensifies the decorative detail into a constant patter of 32nd notes while the fourth slows down the pace to linger lovingly over the resolution of a constant chain of syncopations. The original rhythmic pattern of the theme returns in the fifth variation in a sparkling minor-mode treatment leading to the finale, which builds from an almost pastoral mood to one of vigorous celebration as the work ends.
Quintet for Clarinet & Strings in B minor, Op. 115
After hearing Meiningen clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld in 1890, Brahms was stimulated to write four great works for this musician and his instrument: the Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114, two sonatas for clarinet and piano, Op. 120, and this Clarinet Quintet in B minor, composed in 1891. Works for clarinet and string quartet were a rarity in Brahms’ time, the last great work in the genre being Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet of 1789. One reason could have been that woodwinds were notoriously tricky instruments to keep in tune, but the clarinet had undergone significant improvements in the course of the 19th century and Brahms was particularly captivated by the sweetness of tone that he found in Mühlfeld’s playing, a quality that he exploited to the maximum in this work, especially in its songful second movement.
Coming as it does near the end of the composer’s life, this work is often described as autumnal, no doubt from its generally subdued tone, the falling melodic lines that begin each movement, and the piano or pianissimo ending of each. Intriguing in the work as a whole is how easily and gracefully it glides between major and minor tone colourings, giving it an overall cast of nostalgia and bittersweet remembrance.
Its opening is unusually reflective and self-absorbed for the first movement of a chamber work. The daydreaming quality is reinforced by the tonal ambiguity of its first four bars, played by the strings: is it in B minor, or D major? The clarinet enters with a delicious arpeggio up to its high range, where long held notes allow its surpassing sweetness of tone to ring in our ears. A transition in strutting triplets leads us to a more flowing second theme, announced by the clarinet. After the repeat of the exposition, the development opens with the same rising arpeggio in the clarinet against even more hushed strings to begin the working out of the themes, which is motivically intense but emotionally contained, strangely serene. It is the recapitulation, indeed, that contains some of the most forceful musical assertions of the movement, but even these soon ebb to a quiet close.
The second movement Adagio, is undoubtedly the emotional heart of the work. It is here that the expressive potential of the clarinet is shown off to fullest advantage. It is also the most technically demanding movement for the instrument. This lyrical movement, like the movement that follows, is monothematic. It begins with three simple notes that bear the weight of the world upon them, a motive which clarinet and violin ruminate over constantly, as if in disbelief at what the world has come to. Beneath is an almost static, but sympathetic pulsing accompaniment of syncopations in the other strings.
But then something astonishing happens. While the strings continue to repeat this motive, the clarinet breaks with the pack and takes off like a gypsy fiddler in wild rhapsodic flights of fancy up and down the full range of his instrument. The strings soon join in with stirring tremolos, as if to imitate a Hungarian cimbalom orchestra. But reality sets in again, and the movement ends in the wistful mood in which it began, recalling the rising arpeggio that announced the first entry of the clarinet in the first movement.
These two movements occupy more than 2/3 of the work, so Brahms ends with two shorter movements: a scherzo that pretends not to be one, and a theme with variations finale. The third movement opens with a simple folk-like tune in D major, not far distant in mood and melodic gesture from the memorable C major anthem in the 4th movement of his first symphony, but then transforms it into a peppery scherzo theme in B minor that motivates much of this movement’s active motivic play. The D major ditty returns, however, to complete the framing of this “nested” scherzo.
Brahms’ last movement, like the last movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, is a theme and variations, the theme being much like that of the previous movement, written in simple note values. But here the mode is clear: we are unambiguously in a wistful B minor with a vaguely ‘antique’ feel to its cadences. The variations are part character pieces, part solo opportunities for various members of the ‘band’. The first features the cello in a leading role. The second is a wildly extroverted gypsy fling that would be welcomed at any Eastern European wedding celebration. The third is a chummy duo between clarinet and first violin, while the fourth features a chatty conversation between all instruments. The meter changes to 3/8 in the fifth variation, preparing for the surprise return of the opening theme from the first movement, as this work bids itself a final bittersweet farewell.
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2
As every parent knows, twins do not necessarily turn out alike. A case in point is the set of two string quartets, in C minor and A minor, that Brahms published as his Op. 51, works which share many characteristics, but differ in many more. There is between them a similarly intense employment of contrapuntal devices such as invertible counterpoint and canonic imitation. And there is, as well, a desire to create a wide-ranging unity of musical purpose by means of thematic links between movements.
Yet like many a second-born, the Quartet in A minor, the second of these quartet siblings, was less strictly bound than its elder brother to the rules and discipline that regulated how a polite young sonata movement from a respectable musical family should behave. While the opening of the C minor quartet is made to march in a rigorously uniform rhythmic pattern, the A minor quartet breathes free of such restrictions. It uses a more relaxed mixture of note values (indeed acting out with a 3-against-2 rhythmic pattern) and is even allowed to send its boy-pal a message to read with his secret decoder ring. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th notes of the opening theme (F-A-E) stand for Frei aber einsam (free but lonely), the personal motto of Brahms’ friend Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), leader of the Joachim Quartet that premiered many of the composer’s new works.
While the melodic writing in this first movement is often characterized by improvisatory freedom, it is anything but unfocused, often displaying great strength of character. The second theme, for example, arriving after a solo arabesque from the first violin, is as lilting an evocation of Viennese elegance as any waltz by Strauss. And the development section is rife with dramatic outbursts, beginning with the tearing apart of the smallest 16th-note fragment of the opening theme, in the manner of a dog worrying a bone. Under cover of this fierce concentration of motivic development, the recapitulation slips back in so inobtrusively that it is underway before you notice it, like a person entering a room while others are busy talking. Its climax comes when a rhythmic food-fight breaks out in a patch of syncopated- 2-against-3-against-4 that leads to a defiant conclusion.
The Andante moderato second movement overflows with lyricism, but not unalloyed. There is plenty of drama in store for the listener in the middle section. It opens with a thinly scored violin melody that is gradually gathering a warmer harmonic coating when out of the blue the first violin challenges the cello to a duel—in musical terms, a canon—while the other instruments fret like a Greek chorus, tremolando, in the background. This little Schubertian masquerade once vented (Schubert loved to put emotionally intense minor-mode dramas as contrasting middle sections of his lyrical movements) the parties dust themselves off and walk hand-in-hand back into lyrical territory to finish the work they began.
Brahms’ third movements are normally devoted to the dance, and here in a “Quasi menuetto” Brahms invites into his ballroom the bewigged silk-stockings that danced the previous century to its end. The ghostly pallour of their powdered cheeks is audible in the high string sound of the opening, and the dead past from which they emerged reinforced by the drone in the cello. The ceremonial mood is interrupted time and again, however, by the more agile steps of a fleet game of musical ‘catch’ executed brilliantly in a dazzling series of canons between the instruments, with first violin and viola taking a leading role. It is all the old courtiers can do to straighten their wigs and prance the movement to a dignified end.
The spirit of the dance pervades the final movement, as well, but that doesn’t mean that marking time is going to be easy in this rondo-like alternation of spirited and more lyrical segments. The opening dance theme, with its distinctly Hungarian freedom of accent placement, sets simultaneous duple and triple meters in competition for the allegiance of your tapping foot. Then to add to the crazed merriment, a few passages in strict imitation between the voices are thrown in for good measure. This is one of Brahms’ most energetic and ingenious finales, and leaves the listener feeling like a cat tossed in a dryer on the ‘fluff’ cycle.
Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38
It is no doubt significant that Brahms chose the cello for his first published duo-sonata, given the deep bass resonance he preferred and eagerly wrote into much of his instrumental music. Few composers, for example, would have dared fill in the minor third of a D minor chord planted at the very bottom of the keyboard, but dear old Johannes did just that at the end of the Scherzo from his Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 83. One feels that much of the authority that emanates from his music derives from the gravity of its timbre and the sonic impact that low notes have on the human psyche.
His Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor begins, not surprisingly, on the low E of the cello, supported by plump off-beat chords not dissimilar to those that accompany the opening theme of the Fourth Symphony, also in E minor. Moving up to the middle register, Brahms soon lets us hear the searing mellowness of the cello’s baritone register to complete his statement of the opening theme. An amiable transition with flowing triplets in the piano leads us to a second theme, more steely and determined, but just as darkly wrapped around the minor triad as the first. Contrast and relief come at the close of the exposition in a consoling lullaby of the kind that virtually defines Brahms in the popular imagination.
These three themes are worked through in turn in the development, for much of their course dogging each other’s footsteps barely a beat apart. When the opening theme returns in the cello, it finds a more pensively reflective partner in the piano, enlacing it thoughtfully with descending patterns of figuration. The second theme is unrepentant but the lullaby ensures an ending more marked by repose than rancour.
There is no slow lyrical movement in this sonata, perhaps because of the weighty matters that ballast the outer movements. Instead Brahms moves straight to the dance movement, the Allegretto quasi Menuetto. Here more than in the preceding A minor string quartet the minuet is not just ‘quasi’ but eminently danceable, although a certain antique flavor is maintained in the Phrygian cadences of the melody. Its straightforward rhythm and simple pattern of note values contrast with the more fulsome harmonies and Romantically conceived piano writing of the Trio that provides ‘period relief’ in its middle section.
The last movement is a bravura display of instrumental and compositional skill. The idea of writing a fugal last movement may have come to Brahms from the example of Beethoven’s last cello sonata, if not from similar finales in the late piano sonatas and string quartets. The texture is not unremittingly fugal however. It begins the movement in fugal style but then its thematic material is parceled out for sonata-type development in the ensuing sections, returning frequently to the fugal idiom to establish its command over the structure of the movement. Inescapable is the mood of continuous striving, struggle and defiance, only rarely relieved by calmer moments in the major mode. The dramatic octave leaps that open the movement in the piano part are developed into even greater dramatic gestures between the top and bottom of the cello register. The piano writing, rife with double thirds and trills at the top of right-hand octaves, presages the gargantuan pianistic challenges of the Piano Concerto No. 2.
Quintet for Strings in G major, Op. 111
At the age of 57, Brahms sent this quintet in to his publisher, Fritz Simrock, with a note announcing his retirement. “It really is time to stop”, he wrote. This was of course before he had heard Meiningen court clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, who inspired him to come out of retirement to write works for the clarinet.
It is obvious, though, that with this G major string quintet he planned to go out with an impressive work, and truly impressive it is. The sound, for one thing, is luminous and luxuriantly full. Having five string players at his disposal, Brahms had no compunction about enlarging the sound even further by the frequent use of double stops. The scoring used by Mozart for his string quintets—with an extra viola instead of the extra cello favoured by Schubert—allowed for a richer mid-range, which he exploits to the fullest. The first movement’s second theme, for example, is introduced by a brace of violas.
Composed while Brahms was vacationing in the Austrian Alps in the summer of 1890, the work sends fresh mountain air up the nostrils of its listeners and evokes the vast panoramic landscapes that its composer must have seen when composing it. Nothing offers better evidence of this than its astonishing opening, with the cello holding forth against the rest of the ensemble’s quavering soundscape to spin out a fresh-as-spring melody of wide harmonic range and swaggering rhythmic vigour. In the first of the many dance forms that interlard this work, its second subject is a double dollop of Viennese waltz played by the violas. The development is strikingly symphonic in scope, with numerous contrasting sections to occupy the ear until the opening theme returns, in the first violin for the recapitulation, which takes the previous thematic material to new heights of expressiveness in the high register.
The second movement is monothematic, without contrasting sections. Its simple melody, embellished by a turn, is presented in four variations that range from the serene to the passionately declamatory. This movement is marked with unusual harmonic interest and is distinctly darker in tone colour than the first because of the prominent role given to the viola, which presents the theme at the opening and introduces its final statement with a small cadenza near the end.
The third movement is one of those wistful pieces, paced neither slow nor fast, that capture something unique in the Brahmsian musical aesthetic: that restrained middle ground between restrained sentiment and outright sentimentality best described as intermezzo. An utterly charming Trio in the major mode features dueling pairs of violins and violas that return for a final bow at the end of the movement.
The finale is a romping sonata-rondo richly imbued with dance rhythms. The principal theme, based on a mischievous snippet of four 16th notes, is given a jaunty accompaniment with many an off-beat accent. The second theme, in triplets, has its own type of swagger strongly suggestive of country folk dance. Neither, however, can match the high-kicking élan of the coda, reminiscent of the Hungarian czárdás.
String Quartet in B flat, Op. 67
After writing two string quartets in the minor mode, published as his Op. 51, Brahms was in the mood for a bit of good old- fashioned fun. His third and final string quartet, Op. 67, is notable for its playful tone and a kind of bouyant, healthy exuberance that was fairly thin on the ground in the Romantic age, but common enough in music of the previous century.
Inspiration from the Classical period is most evident in the outer movements: not just in the use of square cut phrases, cleanly defined formal sections, and the occasional cadential trill, but also in the sheer confidence with which contrasting material is juxtaposed, reminiscent of the winking, good-natured merry- making of Haydn at his most mischievous, Mozart at his most childlike. Indeed the very key chosen for this work, B flat, situates it among other ‘classical homage’ works such as the St. Antony and Handel Variations in the same key. Indeed, the details which it shares with Mozart’s ‘Hunt’ Quartet K. 458, also in B flat, are striking.
Chief amongst these is the so-called ‘horn-call’ opening of the first movement The off-beat accents in this triadic theme are the first clue that rhythmic and metrical tricks await the listener in abundance, for no sooner has a toe-tapping 6/8 pattern been set up than a three-to-the-bar cross-rhythm hijacks the proceedings. After a transition section that makes no secret of its desire to reach the dominant, the second theme area turns out to be configured in alternating passages of 2/4 and 6/8— sometimes even with different time signatures on different staves simultaneously. The two opposing meters decide to “agree to disagree” in the development section, the first half of which unfolds in groups of triplet 8ths in 6/8, the latter half mainly in groups of duple 16ths in 2/4. This leaves it to the recapitulation to sort things out, where of course a merry mix-up ensues, with everyone talking at the dinner table at once.
The middle two movements are much less quirky and chaotic. The lyrical second movement, Andante, is an outpouring of lyric emotion much in the intimate, quietly yearning style of Mendelssohn, with balanced phrases, lovingly supportive stepwise motion in the bass, and an extraordinarily wide melodic range. Deep heroic thoughts however, lurk beneath the surface and they come out in a dramatic spate of double-dotted defiance that for a time seems to be channeling a Lullyan French overture. After a short period of self-doubt and a bit of brow-knitting all round, the lyric mood returns to bring back the cozy atmosphere and chumminess of the opening section.
Despite its Italian marking, the third movement is not the kind of Agitato that would have you reaching for your Pepto-Bysmol. While definitely dance-like in rhythm, it seems to wobble more than lilt. And there is something quite peculiar about its (literally) off-beat character: downbeats are often missing, the phrases run out of breath after a single bar, and the accompaniment seems almost in competition with the searching, groping melody above it. The viola gets its place in the sun in this movement, leading melodically for almost its entire duration. Even the Trio—which
starts off as a real trio, without the viola—invites it back in to pursue its melodic agenda, as before. This elegantly ungainly intermezzo is Brahms at his most characterful.
Brahms returns to classical form in his theme-and-variations finale, but with a number of sly little quirky surprises craftily hidden beneath its polished surface texture. The first is the odd little modulation to D major at the cadence of its very first phrase, prompting a slightly amusing harmonic lurch in the second phrase to get us back home to B flat in time for its cadence. And as this is a series of variations based on the harmonies of the original theme, the little joke keeps getting funnier and funnier as the variations progress.
The second surprise is when the horn-call theme from the first movement walks onto the stage unannounced. As the ending of this movement builds in theatrical excitement, there is much interplay between the themes of the first and last movements until, like the finale in a comic opera, all rivalries, rhythmic and otherwise, are quelled in an ensemble chorus of jubilation from all concerned.
Sonata for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op. 108
Brahms’ last sonata for violin and piano creates a great variety of musical characterizations within the relatively short span of its four movements.
As it opens, we seem to catch the violin in mid-thought, in a musing, introspective frame of mind, giving forth a wistful theme not entirely devoid of gypsy turns of phrase. The piano ruminates deep below in syncopated sympathy with its companion, soon grabbing the theme to project it out with heroic strength. The second theme, announced by the piano before being taken up by the violin, is a lyrical tidbit of small melodic range with an insistent dotted rhythm. Where the weighty mystery lies in this movement is in the development section, in which the piano intones a low A, dominant of the key, for almost 50 bars beneath relatively serene motivic deliberations from the violin above. All seems to be well during the recapitulation, but no sooner is the first subject reviewed when another development section breaks out that is as harmonically volatile as the previous development was stiflingly stable. Its passion spent, the recapitulation continues, but with the piano plumbing another pedal point, a low D, at the bottom of the keyboard.
Balancing the dark mysterious mood of the first movement is the Adagio, an openly lyrical aria for the violin, accompanied throughout by the piano. Noteworthy in its unvaried repetitions throughout this movement are the deeply affecting falling intervals and passionately expressive outbursts in double thirds, reminiscent of the gypsy manner.
Brahms’ third movements are often hard to pin down as their precise character. This third movement is obviously more scherzo than intermezzo, more subversive than sentimental. And yet it remains enigmatic because of its almost gypsy volatility of mood and mode. It opens with playful cat-and-mouse exchanges of echoing thirds in the minor mode, but soon moves into much more violent and passionate expressive terrain. Its playful exchange is more serious the second time around, but then drifts into fairy land, only to turn on a dime from major to minor and return to its opening material, as if nothing had happened in between.
There is nothing ambiguous, however, about the last movement, Presto agitato. While dance-like elements are present in its principal theme in 6/8, the thick scoring of the piano part prevents any spirit of lightness from taking hold in this turbulent and dead serious sonata-rondo. The dark clouds do break momentarily, however, for the simple chorale-like second subject, announced first in the piano. A range of textures, from throbbing syncopations to eerie unisons, ensures variety in the continuous development of ideas pulsing through this movement that lends massive end- weighting to the sonata as a whole.
Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34
Great art is not a coincidence. It’s a series of them.
Suppose you had a stray thought. Suppose that, while taking out the recycling, your life coach’s late cat, Ernestine, unexpectedly pops into your head. And suppose that, when it does, you wonder why you have never met an actual person with that name. Then later that same day—stay with me here—you struggle to pick up your chin when you notice that the cashier taking your money in the checkout line is wearing a nametag that says “Ernestine”. Even more wondrous to report, you are watching television that evening and the nostalgia channel is showing reruns of Laugh-In from the 1960s, with Lilly Tomlin in the role of … Ernestine, the phone operator. All in the same day.
Such eerie paranormal experiences are rare, but when they happen, you begin to think that the Gods of Chance are playing with your head. But Brahms lovers have these experiences all the time. A theme you have just heard can show up in places you least expect it further on, or right away: as a passing motivic flourish, or a fast-moving accompaniment figure. A twirling pattern of notes that you hardly paid attention to can later morph into that glorious melody you end up humming to yourself while waiting for your yoga class to begin. Brahms’ thematic material, once stated, simply refuses to go away, as the Quintet in F minor amply demonstrates.
And yes, he is playing with your head.
The first movement begins with a bare-bones unison statement of a theme in 8th notes rocking back and forth around a number of common chords. Then the piano picks up the pace and tries to move on to other material with a snappy round of 16ths. But wait! Those 16ths rushing by are the same melody as you have just heard, reduced in note value but reproducing the melodic outline of the previous theme perfectly. Talk about economy.
An interval as simple as a semitone—and there is a prominent one at the end of the restated main theme—can keep the entire transition to the second theme transfixed with its hypnotic power, in both the melody and accompaniment voices simultaneously.
And the second theme, when it comes, seems to have inherited quite a few hand-me-downs from its elder brother, the first theme: its minor mode, the arpeggiated chord tones, the same melodic turns at key points in its contour.
With these three elements—the first and second themes, plus the semitone motive—you can essentially “parse” the shape and formal structure of the Quintet’s first movement sonata form and its various textures. Of course, some prefer to simply sit back and enjoy the glorious melodies and invigorating rhythmic drive of the piece. To each his own.
After the turbulent and densely argued first movement comes a slow movement, in A-B-A form, of audacious simplicity and seductive Viennese charm. On the surface, it appears to have little to recommend it. The phrases are virtually all symmetrical four-bar units. The piano plays in 3rds or 6ths for most of its duration. And the same elements keep recurring over and over again: a little “Scotch snap” at the beginning of the bar, and a pattern of octave leaps in the accompaniment. And yet we are gradually drawn in by how accompaniment patterns seem to find themselves repeated in the melody itself, and the melody’s Scotch snap appears echoed in the accompaniment. Not to mention the sheer luxuriance of the enveloping string sound that, by the end, coats the ear sonically in buckets of Viennese whipped cream. This movement is positively fattening.
The scherzo that follows, allows the ear to work off all that weight in a movement that is ear-catching not only for its propulsive rhythmic drive but also because of the way that it springs from a very small number of musical elements. It begins with a suspenseful build-up of syncopations in the strings to which the piano adds a busy little circling pattern of 16ths, very much like a pesky fly circling round that you just can’t manage to swat. Relief comes quickly, however, when a fresh new melody, a stirring anthem of hope and bright cheer, arrives to sweep away all trace of the previous material. But is it really new? No. It ́s the same ‘pesky fly’ motive, in larger note values, and in the major mode. And when this busy little motive returns to be treated in fugato, its ‘contrasting’ countersubject is really just an augmented version of itself at double note values. The interlaced right- and left-hand martellato piano writing? Simple. It ́s a hocket created from the repeated notes at the beginning of the motive. Even the Trio theme in the middle section is traced from the rhythm of the anthem. And yet, despite how this whole movement seems to be constructed like a house of mirrors at the circus, it inevitably ends up being the most memorable.
After such a movement as the Scherzo, the risk of anticlimax is real. So Brahms begins his last movement with a torturously slow introduction. The main theme, when it arrives, is an uncomplicated affair, a decorated rising minor scale and little more. But this being Brahms, of course, it is hardly finished when it gets immediately repeated in inversion, coming down the scale as simply as it went up. The sections of this massive finale all derive in some way from the slow introduction, the principal theme, or any number of variations of these two. The massive coda with which the work ends is a virtual movement in itself, and settles the anticlimax question once and for all.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.
“If they say the violin is a human voice, I would say the viola is the voice of the soul.”
Discovery: “I studied at the boarding school, and there was a viola player in the next room. Its vibrations touched me deeply when I played it. That was how I realized that I can play this instrument.”
Repertoire: “[There is] a huge gap in the Romantic period. Since I’m a romantic character, I would miss this repertoire, and so I make all sorts of arrangements – for example, Tchaikovsky’s Rococo variations, which I arranged for viola and performed at the Proms in London; and there is an arrangement by Sitkovskaya of the Cello Concerto by Saint-Saëns, or [Cesar] Franck’s sonata, to name a few.”
On the highly competitive world of music: “Once you lose your quality, there are many young boys and girls who would gladly take your place. At the same time, I believe there is a place for everybody. If the player is good enough for an international scene, we don’t need to push each other in and out. A top-class, world maestro like Rostropovitch felt to his last day that he had to prove to everybody that he was No. 1. I think a musician cannot survive without an ego – yet, that said, I’m concerned that my ego should not become larger than the world itself.”
Maxim Rysanov performs at West Vancouver’s Kay Meek Centre on Sunday, October 16 at 3:00pm. His repertoire includes Bach’s Suite no. 2 in D minor, Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, and Franck’s Sonata in A major.
Call Cory at the Vancouver Recital Socity to book tickets: 604-602-0363.