Toledo Blade Chamber Series Program Notes 2017-2018

Toledo Blade Chamber Series

PROGRAM NOTES
by Kalindi Bellach ©2017

Goldberg Variations / Mozart & Dvořák / Schubert String Quartet / Romance and Spirituals / Brahms Piano Quintet

Goldberg Variations

Program:

Bach - Cello Suite No. 1
Bach Arr. Sitkovetsky - Goldberg Variations for String Trio

Cello Suite No. 1
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

“We find a world of emotions and ideas created with only the simplest of materials.” – Lawrence Lesser, cellist

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) composed Six Suites for solo cello during the six years he served as Kapellmeister in Köthen, Germany (1717–1723). In addition to his position as Kapellmeister, he also composed music for the court of Prince Leopold. During these years, Bach concentrated primarily on secular instrumental music – different from what he was composing when he was living in Weimar. In relation to the entirety of Bach’s compositional output, the time he spent at Köthen was among the most productive in terms of instrumental music, and from this period we received his Six Sonatas [and Partitas] for solo violin, the Well-Tempered Clavier (v. 1), and the six Brandenburg Concerti.

Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, passed away in 1720, leaving him with several children to care for. He remarried the next year, to Anna Magdalena Wicke, the daughter of a court trumpet player and an excellent musician in her own right. Anna Magdalena sang soprano in the choir and accepted a position as a copyist, a service she often performed for her husband as well. In fact, most extant copies of his works are in her hand and marked with her signature.

Unlike many composers of the Classical, Romantic, and even twentieth-century) periods, Bach left very little explanation of his works or his thoughts on music and his contemporary musicians behind. What little we do have is speaks chiefly of the pedagogical aspects of his work. For example, his Well-Tempered Clavier included a page explaining its use for clavier students who wished to become fluent in all twenty-four keys along with something similar for professionals who wished to “brush up.”

As evidenced by his devotion to teaching and the complexity of his scores, Bach approached music as both an intellectual and an artistic challenge. This accounts, at least in part, for his attraction to writing solo works; the solo instrumental genre was not particularly popular at the time. Bach’s interest in the theory and construction of music is very much evident in the cello suites. In his biography on Bach, Johann Nikolaus Forkel writes: “How far Bach’s meditation and penetration in the treatment of melody and harmony was carried, how much he was inclined to exhaust all the possibilities of both, appears furthermore from his attempt to contrive a single melody in such a manner that no second singable part could be set against it. At that time it was an established rule that every union of parts must make a whole and exhaust all the notes necessary to [be] the most complete expression of the contents, so that no deficiency should anywhere be sensible by which another part might be rendered possible.” Before Bach, no one had been able to accomplish this with only a single voice.

Still, we can’t take this idea or Bach’s accomplishment of it completely literally. Bach himself made several arrangements of the Cello Suites which included more stops (pitches performed simultaneously), as in the edition for lute. There are also versions for various stringed and bowed instruments with piano accompaniment. However, thinking of the Suites as akin to etudes – that is, both compositional and performative – distinctly impacts how we choose to interpret them.

By his death, Bach had left very little in writing behind. This fact and the shifting musical ideals of the time caused his work to lose popularity in the second half of the eighteenth century, and the Cello Suites were forgotten. He gained back a certain amount of acclaim during the nineteenth century through the promotion of Felix Mendelssohn. However, Mendelssohn glossed over most of the solo instrumental works. Although the Cello Suites were printed as early as 1825, they seldom appeared on concert programs. Occasionally single movements would be performed, but it was not the practice to perform an entire suite as it is today.

It was not until the early twentieth century that the suites began to be taken more seriously as legitimate solo repertoire and moving out of the etude category, with cellist Pablo Casals (1876–1973) responsible for that shift. After finding a copy of the Suites in a little music shop in Barcelona when he was a young student, Casals was thrilled. He labored over the Suites for the next twelve years, finally performing one in its entirety when he was twenty-five years old. Casals was determined that the Suites be taken seriously as works of art. “To Casals,” writes author Amedee Daryl Williams, “they mirrored the very heart and soul of Bach’s creativity.”

Unfortunately, no manuscript copy in Bach’s hand survives. This means that there is no performance practice we can say definitively was supported by the composer, and this has given rise to sometimes heated (and unending!) debates on how the Suites should be performed. A common saying among performers and teachers of the Suites is ‘There are as many interpretations of Bach as there are people in the world.” Musicologist Maurice Riley writes, “Inasmuch as Bach left no dynamic markings, bowings, or tempo indications, these Suites have been a challenge to each successive editor to supply directions and fingerings that will aid the performer in achieving the Baroque style … there are now many editions available … often with conflicting … markings. Artist performers and musicologists have written numerous articles on performance practices for these transcendent works … there is often disagreement, and the reader may be left more confused than informed.”

While Bach was writing the Cello Suites, Germany was still recovering from the Thirty Years’ War, a period of reconstruction that extended beyond Bach’s life. This reconstruction included the integration of French cultural elements into German cultural expressions. Bach would definitely have been aware of these elements, and almost all of his dance music is based on the French tradition begun by dancers at the court of King Louis XIV in the second half of the seventeenth century. This style, which would later develop into ballet, was graceful, balanced, refined, and highly disciplined.

The term suite traces back to the French suivez, which means “to follow.” Beginning in the second half of the Renaissance and continuing through the Baroque period, a suite was a collection of dance movements. Gradually, these dance movements evolved from having a direct relationship to particular dances into short instrumental concert pieces that loosely followed the same forms. These forms were further developed and then formalized in the early Renaissance period.

Another characteristic of Renaissance music that found its way into Bach’s Cello Suites is its connection to oration. In the Suites you can see the influence mostly in the structure of his phrases, which are constructed with a musical syntax and grammar that resembles how a language is constructed.

Baroque suites traditionally include an allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. However, it was not uncommon to include other movements. In his Cello Suites, Bach augmented the traditional suite by including a prelude and what was thought of at the time as an “optional movement” – for example, a gavotte or a minuet or a bourrée. One of these optional movements was inserted between the sarabande and the gigue in each suite, giving each of Bach’s suites a total of six movements.

The primary purpose of the Prelude was to introduce the material presented later in the suite – literally to “play before” the rest. The Preludes are not dance movements, so Bach was freer to improvise with rhythm and structure. Music writer Eric Siblin supports this idea: “The first measures unfold with the storytelling power of a master improviser.” In fact, the term prelude – praludieren, in German – also functions as a verb that means “to improvise.”

The Prelude from the first suite follows a fairly basic arc. Proportion was very important to Bach, and he often used the golden ratio in structuring his music. His preludes are good examples of this.

The remaining movements are less complex, although they each display unique elements. The allemande is a slightly slower, contemplative German dance (allemande is French for “German”). The allemande is an example of binary form, with two roughly equal sections that are each repeated. Bach wrote it in a slow quadruple (or duple) meter, and began with an anacrusis – like the preparatory plié in ballet – into the opening chord. Each section ends with a short, often one-bar, post-cadential figure and features dotted rhythms. Bach’s allemandes are usually more closely related to the preludes than any other movement, and the allemande in this first suite is no exception.

The next movement is the faster courante – “running” in French. Although the notes move quickly, the beat of the dance is not hurried. Rather, a courante was a “noble, grand, hopeful, and earnest” dance. Like the allemande, it has a binary form, and each section is preceded by an anacrusis. Courantes can also feature hemiola – rhythmic emphasis on the weak beats.

Sarabandes are traditionally slower. The dance’s origin is not certain. The earliest references connect it to dances from Spain and Latin America that would have accompanied singing and an instrumental performance. Musicologists Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne describe the sarabande as a “colorful, tempestuous, exotic dance … its opponents called the sarabande ‘lascivious’ and wrote tracts against it.” They go on to explain that the French “tamed” the sarabande, molding it into something seemingly “calm, serious, and sometimes tender, but ordered, balanced, and sustained.” Gradually, the sarabande lost its connection to dance form and become simply an instrumental performance. Bach’s sarabandes are characterized by a slower tempo, with emphasis placed on the second beat of the triple meter.

The “optional” minuets were written in pairs and are quite joyful. The minuet is a rural French dance that was later adopted for court performance. In Bach’s Suites, each minuet is repeated, forming a double binary form, and is followed by a da capo – a final repeat “from the top.” Rhythmically, these are the least complex of all the movements. German composer Johann Matheson describes them as projecting a characteristic “contentment, pleasantness.” Little and Jenne, in discussing the bourrées (and this is applicable to the minuets as well), add that while these movements do not “expose the depths of a composer’s soul … they do express a genuine, aristocratic joie de vivre.

Like the sarabande, the gigue has several possible sources. Most likely the dance came from the jig of the British Isles, but it could also come from the French – the verb giguer means “to dance” – or from the German word Geige, “violin.” French gigues are often characterized by syncopation and hemiola – that is, by playful or unexpected rhythmic emphases. Bach’s gigues are written in compound duple meter, with two large beats per bar, each of which contains three quick beats; the gigue was adopted by the French court in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Bach’s Cello Suites are dear to so many musicians and music lovers that they border on the sacred – and therefore three hundred years later there is still so much controversy about how they should be performed. Musicologists Valery Lloyd-Watts and Carole L. Bigler, “During the Baroque era, all art was concerned with its power to arouse and affect a person’s emotional response…. It was the composer’s responsibility to write the appropriate patterns of rhythm and harmony [according to the theory of affects or Affectenlehre] into the music and the performer’s responsibility to interpret each affect or emotion so that the listener would immediately experience the desired reaction.” It’s safe to say that Bach fulfilled this mandate – some say too well! Instead of viewing the overabundance of varying (and conflicting) ideals as limiting, I want to appreciate it as enriching both to performance practice and our culture in general. After all, the Suites originally hail from a small town in Germany, and now performers all over the world have taken them into their hearts, making the Suites a global phenomenon that is simultaneously communal and highly personal. As Italian cellist Mario Brunello said, “Bach’s music comes closest to the absolute and to perfection.”

 

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Arranged by Dmitry Sitkovetsky (1954- ) for String Trio

“There is something in it of Divinity more than the eare discovers.” – Sir Thomas Browne, Religio medici

Among all of Bach’s works, his compositions for keyboard have been consistently cherished. The Clavier-Übung (“keyboard practice”) series in particular, of which the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) are a part, has been continually studied and performed since they were written.

The genesis of the work is, as musicologist Yo Tomita puts it, “surrounded by mysteries.” Bach historian Johann Nikolaus Forkel tells us that Count Keyserlingk, a Russian ambassador to Dresden, commissioned the set of variations to help with his insomnia. Reportedly, he wanted Bach to write something that his manservant could play for him – something of “a character so gentle and somewhat merry that he could be a little cheered” – when he was awake at night. His manservant’s name? Goldberg. However, recent scholarship has cast doubt on Forkel’s sources for this information, and the score is not marked for the count in any known copy, so we don’t know for sure.

Bach composed his Goldberg Variations between 1739 and 1742, intending them to serve both as etudes and performance pieces. There is some discussion amongst musicologists on the relationship between the Goldberg Variations and some of Bach’s other instrumental work. For example, musicologist Peter Williams explains that “looking at these three pieces now [Goldberg VariationsChaconne in D minor for violin, and Passacaglia in C minor for organ], we can recognize them as presenting three commanding conceptions of variation form, unmatched as a group in the work of any other composer, each totally different in strategy and tactics, but all of them obviously aiming to wrest harmonic variety and create substantial works by deferring to (not merely decorating) a pattern of chords.”

Originally titled An Aria with Diverse Variations, the Goldberg Variations present thirty musical essays not just on the harmonic material of the Aria but on the language of music as Bach heard it. Like the Cello Suites, Bach’s keyboard works have strong elements of oration in the phrasing. As Williams notes, “The use of rhetorical devices or ‘figures’ in speech and poetry is analogous to the use of certain devices in music, leading to the theory of musical rhetoric.” Also like the Cello Suites, the Goldberg Variations display elements from both French and Italian styles. For example, the opening aria shows its French influence in its ornaments, which hint at the French galant style.

Bach was a master of patterns, and his Goldberg Variations is full of examples of his mastery. Williams notes, “We have here a [set of] variations or varied treatments not of a melody but of a series of chords, which are explored in a series of discrete genres and according to a uniquely ingenious plan.” This points toward the idea of perceptual and conceptual shape, or various patterns that are based on different criteria overlaying one another. In this case, the perceptual shape (easily perceived when listening) can be noticed in the contrasts between movements and their points of climax and semi-climax. Conceptually (referring to the patterns present in the score) the pattern is not necessarily apparent to the listener. The thirty variations can be broken down into ten groups of three, each group following the same pattern: dance/genre piece, arabesque (usually making use of both manuals on the harpsichord), and canon. These groups form little arches, with the largest movement in the middle of each. It is also possible to read a pattern of duples in the Goldberg Variations: each movement is structured in exact halves, with two-bar phrase structures, using two manuals, thirty-two pieces in all (which can be broken down evenly), etc. This equal structure in a binary form was not common, as binary movements were usually skewed to include a more developed second half.

The opening aria, upon which the Goldberg Variations are all based is, according to musicologists Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne, “possibly the most poignant and lyrical of Bach’s pieces in sarabande rhythm, and, in fact … easily serves as a textbook model for the sarabande.” Williams adds that the melody, “particularly as it begins, is an exquisite example for the claim that all beautiful melody has a tinge of sadness or … transports us to a world of imagination always inclined by its transience towards melancholy.” American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick said of the work: “I think myself that it ‘feels special’ because, whatever antecedent this or that feature has, its beauty is both original – seldom like anything else, even in Bach – and at the same time comprehensible, intelligible, coherent, based on simple, ‘truthful’ harmonies … the Goldberg has its own language, but one made from standard vocabulary.”

The Goldberg Variations is perhaps one of the best examples of Bach’s work. In it, as Williams explains, you can see in this work Bach’s “highly systematic approach to composition, actively exploring various styles and compositional techniques, both new and old, within a large but tightly constructed structural boundary, as if to create a unique microcosm in each work.” And yet, all technical elements aside, “what the Goldberg really brings to the listener is a world of experience otherwise unknown, and I am not sure anyone can succeed in describing that world to others.”

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Mozart And Dvořák

Program:

Ewzazen - Trio for Trumpet, Violin, and Piano

Mozart - Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major, K. 452

Dvořák - String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, Op. 51 "Slavonic"

Trio for Trumpet, Violin, and Piano
Eric Ewazen (b. 1954)

American composer Eric Ewazen is most well known as a writer of music for brass. Like many composers, Ewazen wrote for the musicians around him, and he began writing brass music after meeting and befriending Chris Gekker, the trumpet player in the Eastman Brass Quintet, while they were both students. Gekker was a fan of contemporary music and asked Ewazen to write for the group. Over the next couple of years, while Ewazen attended Juilliard, Gekker introduced him to other musicians with similar interests, among them Joseph Alessi of the American Brass Quintet and the New York Philharmonic. These introductions led to commissions for Ewazen and, needless to say, these relationships helped to make a significant contribution to the brass repertoire.

Ewazen completed the Trio for Trumpet, Violin, and Piano in 1992 with Gekker in mind to play the trumpet part. It’s in four movements and constructed to highlight the individual qualities of each instrument and explore the ways in which they contrast and complement one another. This isn’t really a different or new concept in chamber music, but somehow it seems fresh in this piece because of the unusual instrumentation. Throughout the work, the melodic material is traded between the trumpet and the violin, giving each instrument a chance to play the lead role or blend with the other. This too is not a new concept, but again, bears examination because of the disparate timbres.

The first movement is marked Andante and begins calmly, underscored by a sense of expectancy and tension. The second movement is an energetic Allegro molto. It features two main contrasting themes over ostinato (small repetitive patterns) rhythms that carry the phrases forward. Ewazen also plays around with the placement of rests, or breaths, in this movement, using changes in meter to surprise us. An elegiac Adagio follows. His losing his mother around the time he was writing this movement might have inspired it's tone. Here, Ewazen highlights the softer dynamic ranges of the instruments as well as some unique sound capabilities at these limits. For example, at the beginning of the movement, the muted violin is instructed to tremolo (very fast detached strokes that create a continuous sound) to imitate a marimba along with the piano. The trumpet plays a chantlike melody, showing the mellower side of the instrument. The finale is another Allegro molto. It’s very lively and again full of rhythmic play. Ewazen references Mexican mariachi music here to produce a joyous dance. Finally, he pulls in a bit of the first movement to tie things together.

Despite Ewazen’s unconventional choice of instrumentation, this piece has become one of his most popular. Critic Alex Ross said of it: “The trumpet is a dangerous creature to bring into the china shop of chamber music, but Mr. Ewazen cannily exploits the instrument’s lyric side … the performance made an excellent argument for his beautifully shaped and balanced piece.” (NY Times, Jan. 12, 1995) The Trio was premiered at Juilliard in 1994.

 

Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-Flat Major, K. 452
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

In 1784, Mozart’s career was in full swing – he was only two years away from producing some of his most successful works, including The Marriage of Figaro and Symphony No. 38. However, he was also thoroughly occupied with the concerto genre, specifically concerti for piano. Commentator Michael Morrison notes that in 1784 alone Mozart completed six piano concerti, and another three in 1785. He also composed the “Linz” Symphony, several concert arias, the horn concerti, and the Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452, which you will hear tonight. Of the Quintet Mozart said, “I consider it the best work I have ever written.”

Morrison notes, “In some respects, Mozart’s Quintet reflects his ongoing preoccupation with the piano concerto as the piano’s role in the piece is at times disproportionate.” While writing the piece, Mozart also developed techniques for which he became known in his piano concerti, most notably his writing for winds. Before the Quintet, commentator Herbert Glass explains that the wind parts were often just doubling the strings, “adding flecks of color and filling out the harmony, rather than adding readily discernible support, to say nothing of leading ineluctable lives – as would soon become a defining element of the Mozart concerto.” Mozart’s characteristic intertwining of the wind and solo parts was also as yet undeveloped. Since there are more sketches for the Quintet than for most of Mozart’s other works, we can guess that Mozart was using the opportunity to experiment.

The Quintet is in three movements and is a relatively short piece. Its movement structure ties it to the concerto genre, which also has three movements.

The first movement is not long, and opens in largo, steered by the piano. Glass describes it as a “slow, sonorous introduction,” during which everyone shares the melody. The largo section soon gives way to a lively allegro, “a tour-de-force of variety and inspiration.” The second movement is a gentle larghetto, full of delicate textures. Mozart displays better balance between the instruments in this movement than he did in the first, conveying a “sadly sweet mellowness” (Glass). The finale is marked allegretto, and is a rondo. It is the longest of the three movements and favors the piano, although Mozart intersperses several wind passages that function almost like cadenzas.

The Quintet is scored for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon and was premiered on April 1, 1784 at the Burgtheater in Vienna as part of a concert featuring several of Mozart’s newer works. It was billed alongside a “Symphony with Trumpets and Drums,” which Glass suggests is probably the “Haffner,” Piano Concerto K. 451, the “Linz” Symphony, various improvisations on the piano, and another unnamed symphony, which the date tells us must be the “Paris.” Mozart actually performed in the premiere himself, which took place on April Fool’s Day!

 

String Quartet No. 10 in E-Flat Major “Slavonic”
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)

Dvořák was a versatile composer who was comfortable in many genres. However, over the course of his career he became known for works of a nationalistic nature. He accomplished this primarily by drawing inspiration from folk music in his works, particularly folk music of Slavic origin, such as his Slavonic Dances, Slavonic Rhapsodies, Moravian Duets, and other such pieces. Musicologist David Hurwitz goes so far as to call Dvořák “the founder of the Czech national school in all genres except opera.”

Commentator Blair Johnston brings up the fact that Dvořák’s success with his more nationalistic works had the unfortunate effect of detracting from his more substantial compositions, which were not as easily marketable. Johnston goes on the explain, “To the public and even many fellow musicians, Dvořák was suddenly typecast as an author of Bohemian novelties.” Many years later, one of his students reportedly remarked that Dvořák was patriotic rather than nationalistic, and that he actually wrote few works, if any, that were nationalistic.

In any case, violinist Jean Becker of the Florentine Quartet was quite taken with the hype surrounding Dvořák’s work and asked him to write a new quartet “in the Slav spirit.” Dvořák agreed. He tried to finish in a reasonable amount of time, but unfortunately was delayed multiple times by various interruptions. He nevertheless approached the assignment with the same care and eagerness that he brought to all his work.

In his Tenth Quartet, and in many of his other chamber works “in the Slav spirit,” Dvořák does not actually lift the melodic material. Instead, he replaces the traditional scherzo or minuet or slow movement (usually the second or third of four) with a Czech dance. Generally this is either a furiant or a dumka, both of which originated in the Ukraine! Johnston explains, “The thematic material, rhythms, and harmony all betray close associations with the spirit of folk music in a decidedly stylized form.” This may be a small exaggeration. Though Dvořák uses rhythmic elements from the traditional dances, he doesn’t usually go out of his way to point out their ethnic features; rather, he allows them to speak for themselves. However, Dvořák did make the “ethnic flavor particularly explicit” in this quartet.

Dvořák gives us the traditional four movements in this piece. The Allegro non troppo opens in a relaxed manner, one that is “not too fast,” featuring a sweetly lilting melody over a dancelike counter melody. It’s vaguely suggestive of a two-step or (Bohemian) polka. In this opening movement, Dvořák mostly follows sonata form, introducing quick shifts between major and minor tonalities in the development section. He deviates slightly from sonata form in the recapitulation, opening it with the second subject instead of the first.

The second movement, Dumka: Andante con moto – vivace, is the most clearly “Slavonic” of the four and is sometimes subtitled “elegie.” The term dumka refers to a heroic folk ballad, opening with a slower lament and featuring contrasting sections of celebratory material in a faster tempo. Here, the lament begins in G Minor with an affecting duet between the violin and viola over cello pizzicato. The faster sections often make use of the rhythmic elements from the furiant – that is, juxtaposed groupings of two and three.

The next movement is the Romanza: Andante con moto in B-flat Major. Johnston calls this “one of Dvořák’s loveliest thoughts … a wonderful lyrical nocturne of dreamy, intimate mood.” While it doesn’t display a specific Slavic trait, Dvořák shows us warmth and directness that are finely crafted, simple, and breathtaking.

The Finale: Allegro assai is based in dance, and follows a loose outline of sonata form. Dvořák presents a lively, rollicking stylization of the skačna, a Czech folk dance and fiddle tune similar to an Irish reel. One of the most fun characteristics of the skačna – and the one that lends itself so well to this form – is its continuous motion. Dvořák is able to highlight constantly shifting textures in otherwise relatively simple music. This gives the Finale an “infectiously rustic folk character, a superb blend of high art and music from and for ‘the people.’ The work brims with a sense of life contentment, joy in his hitherto success, and his self-confidence as a composer.” (Johnston)

The quartet was premiered in Berlin in July of 1879 at a private party in Dvořák’s honor hosted by the renowned violinist Joseph Joachim. The score is marked to Jean Becker, and, along with Quartet No. 11, was the last that Dvořák would complete for over a dozen years. The combination of emotionally direct, flowing melodies and detailed compositional craftsmanship make this one of the best and most beloved works in the string quartet repertoire.

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Schubert String Quartet

Program:

Françaix - Divertissement for Bassoon and String Quartet

Saint-Saëns - Septet in E-Flat Major, Op. 65

Schubert - String Quartet No.15 in G Major, D. 887

Divertissement for Bassoon and Strings
Jean Françaix (1912–1997)

Jean Françaix grew up in a musical family. His father was Director of the Le Mans Conservatory and his mother was a choir director and a music teacher. He had piano lessons as a child, and later studied harmony, counterpoint, and composition with the celebrated composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. Françaix published his first composition when he was only ten years old – a piano suite called Pour Jacqueline, and dedicated to his baby cousin.  

In 1932, legendary conductor Pierre Monteux premiered Françaix’s First Symphony. In the same year, Françaix completed his Concertino for Piano and Orchestra. The premiere of this second work is really what cemented his reputation as a successful composer, after which he was much in demand. The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo then commissioned Françaix to write a ballet, and so he had the opportunity to work with choreographer Léonide Massine. In 1935, the Paris Opera premiered his second ballet, Le Roi nu (“The Naked King” or “The Emperor’s New Clothes”). A year later later, Françaix produced a piano concerto, which he performed while on tour in the United States several years later.

Besides his original works, Françaix was also well known for his orchestrations and his arrangements of works by other composers, especially those of Mozart and Schubert. His orchestrations are clear and sharp and not overemotional; they are almost neo-classical.

Though Françaix obviously developed as a musician throughout his life, his music always retained an accessible, attractive, and charming style that sometimes caused listeners and commentators to overlook his depth of creativity, sensitivity, and cleverness. One critic used the term “frivolous” to describe it, and several others have suggested that while his music is alright, it was static throughout his life. However, others have claimed that he found his most authentic voice as a composer early in his career, and therefore he didn’t need to try out a variety of styles.

Françaix composed the Divertissement for bassoon and strings in 1942. Unfortunately, after only a few initial performances the piece was lost until 1966, when bassoonist William Waterhouse was able to locate the parts. Waterhouse subsequently recorded the work, and when it was published, Françaix dedicated it to him.

The bassoon plays a principal part in the Divertissement, and Françaix uses the instrument well. Waterhouse described it as “vintage Françaix with a characteristically rich harmonic palette, catchy, syncopated rhythms, brittle sonorities, and a slightly tongue-in-cheek lyricism, hallmarks of the composer from his very earliest works.” You can also hear some challenging and engaging writing for the double bass.

Bassoonist James Jeter, who was coached on the Divertissement by Françaix has some interesting comments: “It was a wonderful experience to meet this lively 70-year-old…. Having first learned the work only from the score, it was a revelation to hear Mr. Françaix explain the musical intent behind the markings.

“Mr. Françaix hears this [first] movement à la burlesque. To this end, the tempo must be maintained…. He was quite emphatic about this and started conducting whenever the tempo got behind. Unfortunately, there was not time to rehearse the second movement with Mr. Françaix. However, taking Françaix’s general outlook into account, I feel that this movement should be played slowly, but con moto. In general it is best to characterize the bassoon in this movement as the ‘chanteuse,’ singing a tender song. The key to the second movement is in the phrasing.

“Mr. Françaix hears this piece [the third movement] played as straightforward as possible. He especially said no to excessive rubato and ritards…. The composer wants this [fourth] movement to fool the audience. It should begin sounding like a ‘serious piece,’ that is until the prankster bassoon cuts that short with its entrance.

“I learned a great deal about Françaix’s music by simply meeting and visiting with the composer. I found him quite witty and sharp-minded, very straightforward and without formality…. Mr. Françaix also told me that he is constantly composing. As soon as one piece is finished, he begins another.”

Commentator Brian Reinhart notes that throughout the first few decades of the twentieth century, Françaix maintained his compositional integrity, producing music that is “sweet, satisfying, and pleasantly warm … unperturbed by the waves of serialism, Boulez-ism, avant-garde-ism, and every other -ism, writing gently witty music which seems to reside permanently in the cafés of 1920s Paris.”

Françaix’s Divertissement is scored for bassoon, two violins, viola, cello, and double bass.

 

Septet in E-Flat Major, Op. 65
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)

Camille Saint-Saëns is a composer of extensive talents, having worked in almost every form, medium, and genre available to him. The Septet, Op. 65, with its unconventional instrumentation, is an example of this.

In the 1870s and ’80s, Saint-Saëns was involved with a small, amateur chamber music society in Paris called La Trompette. He did his best to help the members and their founder, a mathematician named Émile Lemoine. Lemoine asked Saint-Saëns repeatedly to write for the group’s configuration of trumpet, strings, and piano – he asked so often that it became something of an inside joke for the two of them. Saint-Saëns held Lemoine off with some small quip or other. But eventually he decided to write for La Trompette and give his piece to Lemoine as a New Year’s or belated Christmas gift. He presented Lemoine with the Préambule for trumpet, string quartet, bass, and piano. Lemoine was thrilled and had the Préambule performed as soon as it was possible. Saint-Saëns was then inspired to complete the work – originally titled Suite – by writing its other three movements.

Commentator John Henken suggests two reasons for Saint-Saëns’s apparently sudden interest in writing for La Trompette. First, the valve trumpet was still under development and was now capable of new sounds. As the trumpet was developed, so the players’ capabilities increased as well. The Besson Company in Paris and London, leaders in trumpet-making, was also creating higher-pitched instruments, including the E-Flat trumpet. As a friend of Xavier-Napoléon Teste, the principal trumpet of the Paris Opera, who performed on a Besson instrument, Saint-Saëns would have been very aware of all of these developments. Second, Paris was in the throes of a renewed interest in early music, particularly of the Baroque period. The Septet displays certain elements of this, especially in the latter part of the Préambule, and in the overall form, which conforms to that of a Baroque suite. Commentator James Reel suggests a special affinity of the Septet with the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau – and Saint-Saëns had edited a collection of Rameau’s works. For the most part, though, the ties with the Baroque era are subtler, such as small turns in the counterpoint and a certain clear and simplistic approach taken with the textures and harmonies. Henken calls it “Neoclassical before its time,” and Reel specifically cites Stravinskian Neoclassicism.

The Préambule opens with a strong chord in the piano and strings and quickly sets up a lively and dramatic atmosphere. The trumpet enters then with what Reel calls a “long, calming note … [before] embarking on a mock-pompous processional theme accompanied by sharp chords and occasional piano flourishes.” This marchlike theme opens into a fugato section before smoothing out the melody again with “a sense of Baroque pomp and ceremony.”

The second movement is a Minuet and was originally titled Marche funèbre. It features a trumpet melody over a marcato (emphatic) accompaniment. The waltz-like trio section tries to blend the strings and trumpet into a unified voice that is contrasted with the piano accompaniment

Next is the Intermède. Once again, the piano takes the accompanimental role here, while the strings and trumpet play a long, softly restrained melody on top. Finally, the Gavotte et Finale is an energetic play on the Baroque dance and displays quite a bit of quick passagework for the piano. The trumpet adds bugle calls to the texture, which are picked up by the other instruments. There is one last fugato based on material from the first movement before the finale ends.

Naturally, there are some balance issues with the instrumentation; inevitably, the trumpet dominates the texture almost whenever it plays, but Saint-Saëns does make a sincere effort to keep the sound as consistent and fair as possible, and the Septet displays beautiful compositional technique. Despite the potential problem with balance, the Septet was extraordinarily popular right from its premiere. So Saint-Saëns hurriedly arranged it for piano trio, after which his student Gabriel Fauré created a version for piano four-hands, which was inevitable, followed by many other versions.

Saint-Saëns officially completed the Septet in 1881, though the premiere of the full suite occurred the year before, with Saint-Saëns himself at the piano.

The Septet is scored for trumpet, piano, string quartet, and double bass.

 

String Quartet No. 15 in G Major, D. 887
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)

Like Saint-Saëns, Franz Schubert grew up in a family of musicians. In fact, he had a complete string quartet in his Viennese home, doubtlessly helping to build his love of the genre. His brother Ferdinand described the “uncommon pleasure” of playing in this quartet (in which young Franz played the viola) during school holidays, along with their other brother Ignaz and their father, also called Franz. Commentator Harry Haskell explains that there was “no standing on seniority in the Schubert household … [and] according to Ferdinand, ‘whenever a mistake was made, were it ever so small, [Franz] would look the guilty one in the face, either seriously or sometimes with a smile; if Papa – who played the cello – was in the wrong, he would say nothing at first, but if the mistake was repeated, he would say quite shyly and smilingly: ‘Sir, there must be a mistake somewhere!’ and our good father would gladly be taught by him.'”

Schubert composed his String Quartet No. 15 in G Major in 1826 in the traditional four movements, opening with the Allegro molto moderato. In this movement Schubert puts oil and water together. First he gives us a full G Major triad and then plunges us almost immediately into G Minor. This modal uncertainty continues throughout the work. Commentator Michael Morrison also suggests that the extensive use of tremolo is the “coloristic equivalent” to this harmonic coloring, supporting the “dark, mysterious feeling, at once urgent and insubstantial.” The tremolos also initially obscure the pacing of the movement, at least until its almost symphonic introduction is finished; “the music only gradually reveals its true pulse.” The middle sections of the movement display high drama, and it is only in the recapitulation that Schubert smooths out the edges, replacing the tremolo with gently rocking triplets that “seem gently to console.”

The second movement, Andante un poco moto, highlights lyrical sincerity and outpourings of sentiment. It is only about half as long as the Allegro and is darker and sweeter in character. Morrison points out the use of Schubert’s “distinctive ‘hairpin’ maneuver – complete stops after which the music resumes on a different rhythmic and dynamic plane.”

Schubert brings us out of the depths of the Andante with the more energetic Scherzo: Allegro vivace. While this movement is every bit as complex as the previous movements, it is characterized by a stronger rhythmic drive created by extensive use of triplets. This contrasts with the Trio section, which is less forceful. Composer, author, and teacher David Schiff points out that “while the third movement follows the classical outline of Scherzo and Trio, the rapid repeated notes of the Scherzo echo the edgy, nervous quality of the tremolos head in the previous movements. The Trio sounds like a lullaby – like the lullaby that the brook sings at the end of Die Schöne Müllerin, that gently rocks the miller to his death.”

The finale is marked Allegro assai and features two main rhythmic figures. The first is a dotted rhythm, and the second is a continued prominent use of triplets. Traditionally, in the classical symphonic quartet form, the fourth movement is the most expansive, complex, and rich. As violinist Mark Steinberg notes, “this last movement has the energy of a night ride on horseback through open terrain.” He goes on to describe, “a recurrent passage [that] has the whole quartet moving together in gasps reaching for something unknown. The terrible revelation it seems to be reaching toward is unrevealed, always answered by an almost naïve sounding dance.”

Steinberg references an important document in his writing – a relatively small personal essay by Schubert called “My Dream.” Schubert writes, “For long years I felt torn between the greatest grief and the greatest love … Whenever I attempted to sing of love, it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love. Thus were love and pain divided in me.” Morrison explains, “For Schubert there is no false hope of banishing the one and holding on to the other. Not only do love and pain coexist in his soul but he recognizes that they are one and the same, the one contained in and giving meaning to the other.”

This quartet is one of Schubert’s last contributions to the genre and was not published or performed publicly until long after his death.

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Romance and Spirituals

Program:

Traditional - Go, Tell It On The Mountain
Price - Folk Songs in Counterpoint, "Calvary"
Perkinson - String Quartet No. 1 "Calvary," Movement 2
arr. Brown - Spirituals: Five Negro Folk Songs
Coleman - Go, Tell It On The Mountain
Giddens arr. Garchik - At the Purchaser's Option
Still - Songs of Separation
Singleton - Jasper Drag
Roumain - String Quartet No. 5 "Parks"

Throughout this season’s North Star Festival, we are taking a look at spirituals and their influence in Western music. What began as a relatively insular genre has grown and touched many facets of the music we listen to today, both popular and classical. And, in keeping with the prodigious advances in recording and communications technology since spirituals were first codified, the crossover continues to expand.

This performance, the fourth in our Blade Chamber Series as well as part of our North Star Festival, traces the journey of the spiritual in miniature, touching on the spiritual in its original form* and moving through its various permutations and settings. In many of tonight’s selections, the voice has been replaced with a solo instrument, and some of the pieces are more loosely inspired by spirituals. Incidentally, in Western classical music, a romance, or romanza, is a term used to refer to a short, purely instrumental piece that displays a narrative or songlike character. Tonight’s programming moves approximately from the traditional to the present-day – from roots deep in the tradition on outward.

Go, Tell It On the Mountain” will be performed first with voice and piano. As is typical for most spirituals, neither the music nor the text can be definitively attributed to any one composer; rather, both have been adapted to fit one role or another in one context or another, from use as a hymn, Christmas carol, or civil rights anthem.

Although the original composition of this piece cannot be traced with certainty, John Wesley Work II is credited with its preservation and some of its earliest recorded performances. The text (from The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion) follows:

Refrain: Go, tell it on the mountain,/ over the hills and everywhere;/ go, tell it on the mountain/ that Jesus Christ is born./ 1. While shepherds kept their watching/ o’er silent flocks by night,/ behold, throughout the heavens/ there shone a holy light./ 2. The shepherds feared and trembled/ when lo! Above the earth/ rang out the angel chorus/ that hailed our Saviour’s birth./ 3. Down in a lowly stable/ the humble Christ was born,/ and God sent us salvation/ that blessed Christmas morn.

Florence Price’s “Folk Songs in Counterpoint” for string quartet is clearly an example of a piece based on a spiritual, without voice and with the inclusion of elements of American folk and gospel music. While the definition of a spiritual references Western music and European hymns, composer Antonín Dvořák points out, “Spirituals are the basis of a new American school of music.”

Price produced two quartets in her life – “Five [Negro] Folksongs in Counterpoint,” around 1930 (though the final date marked on it is 1951), and “Negro Folksongs for String Quartet,” in 1949–51. Both of these works include settings of various spirituals, which may not have remained consistent. Price’s set of folksongs is challenging technically for the performers, especially in terms of rhythm and the inherent flexibility of the phrasings.

Composer and pianist Lawrence Brown is most well-known now for his arrangements of various spirituals. He also collaborated extensively with singer Paul Robeson. Brown’s “Spirituals – Five Negro Folk Songs” was published in 1923 and features cello and piano. The texts follow:

“Ev’ry Time I Feel de Spirit”

Refrain: Every time I feel the Spirit/ moving in my heart I will pray./ Yes, every time I feel the Spirit/ moving in my heart I will pray./ 1. Upon the mountain, when my Lord spoke, out of God’s mouth came fire and smoke./ Looked all around me, it looked so fine,/ till I asked my Lord if all was mine./ 2. Jordan River, chilly and cold,/ it chills the body but not the soul./ There is but one train upon this track./ It runs to heaven and then right back.

“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child./ Sometimes I feel like a motherless child./ Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,/ a long ways from home, a long ways from home./ 2. Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone./ Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone./ Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone,/ a long ways from home, a long ways from home.

“I Know de Lord’s Laid His Hands on Me”

Refrain: O I know the Lord, I know the Lord,/ I know the Lord’s laid His hands on me./ O I know the Lord, I know the Lord,/ I know the Lord’s laid His hands on me. Did ever you see the like before?/ I know the Lord’s laid His hands on me,/ King Jesus preaching to the poor./ I know the Lord’s laid His hands on me. 2. O wasn’t that a happy day,/ I know the Lord’s laid His hands on me./ When Jesus washed my sins away?/ I know the Lord’s laid His hands on me. 3. Some seek the Lords and don’t seek Him right,/ I know the Lord’s laid His hands on me./ They fool all day and pray at night,/ I know the Lord’s laid His hands on me./ 4. My Lord’s done just what He said,/ I know the Lord’s laid His hands on me./ He’s healed the sick and raised the dead./ I know the Lord’s laid His hands on me.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

Refrain: Swing low, sweet chariot,/ coming for to carry me home;/ swing low, sweet chariot,/ coming for to carry me home./ 1. I looked over Jordan and what did I see,/ coming for to carry my home?/ A band of angels coming after me,/ coming for to carry me home./ 2. If you get there before I do,/ coming for to carry me home; tell all my friends I’m coming too,/ coming for to carry me home./ 3. I’m sometimes up, I’m sometimes down,/ coming for to carry me home;/ but still my soul feels heavenly bound,/ coming for to carry me home./ 4. The brightest day that I can say,/ coming for to carry me home;/ when Jesus washed my sins away,/ coming for to carry me home.

Flutist Valerie Coleman’s arrangement of “Go, Tell It On the Mountain” for flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and horn is another example of a purely instrumental interpretation of a spiritual. Coleman’s arrangement includes elements of gospel and classical influence and was intended as a celebration of Christmas.

Rhiannon Giddens is an American musician well versed in many genres, including folk (specifically old-time), bluegrass, blues, gospel, jazz, celtic, R&B, and several others. She is a violinist, banjo player, and singer, and a founding member of the Grammy-winning band Carolina Chocolate Drops. The string quartet "At the Purchaser’s Option with variations" (arranged by Jacob Garchik) was published in 2016. It was commissioned for “Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire” by the world-renowned Kronos Quartet. Many elements from Giddens’s original version of this song are still in evidence in the quartet version, including extensive use of pizzicato and various nonclassical ornamentations.    

William Grant Still is one of the first African American composers to receive classical musical training and have a successful career. He is most well-known for his Afro-American Symphony, in which he blends the European symphonic genre with blues elements. In his “Songs of Separation” (1949), his skill at combining seemingly disparate elements is in full effect.

Instead of using spirituals or hymns, Still uses poetry by black poets. The texts come from the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and Haitian Phillippe Thoby-Marcelin. Interestingly, as musicologist Orin Moe notes, only Hughes’s A Black Pierrot speaks directly or in any certain terms to black experience, “although the theme of separation is common in black poetry, and, significantly, in the blues.” Still structures the set with the largest and most complex movement (both poetically and musically) at the end, the whole piece leading inexorably to A Black Pierrot.

Arna Bontemps’s “Idolatry”

You have been good to me, I give you this:/ The arms of lovers empty as out own,/ Marble lips sustaining one long kiss/ And the hard sound of hammers breaking stone./ For I will build a chapel in the place/ Where our love died and I will journey there/ To make a sign and kneel before your face/ And set an old bell tolling on the air.

Phillippe Thoby-Marcelin’s “Poeme” (originally in French)

It was not dawn yet/ But I had got up/ Rubbing my eyes./ The world around me slept./ The banana tree under my window/ Shivered in the moonlight’s/ Calm/ Then I took my head in my hands/ And thought of you.

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Parted”

She wrapped her soul in a lace of lies,/ With a prime deceit to pin it;/ And I thought I was gaining a fearsome/ prize,/ So I staked my soul to win it./ We wed and parted on her complaint,/ And both were a bit of barter/ Tho’ I’ll confess that I’m no saint,/ I’ll swear that she’s no martyr.

Countee Cullen’s “If You Should Go”

Love, leave me like the light,/ The gently passing day;/ We would not know, but for the night,/ When it was slipped away./ Go quietly: a dream,/ When done, should leave no trace/ That it has lived, except a gleam/ Across the dreamer’s face.

Langston Hughes’s “A Black Pierrot”

I am a black Pierrot:/ She did not love me,/ So I crept away into the night/ And the night was black, too./ I am a black Pierrot:/ She did not love me./ So I wept until the red dawn/ Dripped blood over the eastern hills/ And my heart was bleeding, too./ I am a black Pierrot:/ She did not love me,/ So with my once gay-colored soul/ Shrunken like a balloon without air,/ I went forth in the morning/ To seek a new brown love.

Alvin Singleton is an award-winning American composer and professor of composition. He is primarily trained in Western classical music, but also uses elements of other genres in his work. He has composed for large and small ensembles, solo instruments, and the theater, and his works have been performed world-wide. His “Jasper Drag” (2000) for clarinet, violin, and piano was commissioned by Michigan State University and the Phillips Collection for the Verdehr Trio. It is probably the most “contemporary” sounding piece on this program, with its use of block chords and repetitive motives.

Haitian-American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, or DBR (b. 1970), is also a classically trained violinist and, like Still, well-known for his ability to cross genre boundaries and blend elements of seemingly disparate origins; he works with the full orchestral palate and also branches into rock and electronica. His “String Quartet No. 5 ‘Parks’,” after Rosa Parks, is in three movements titled “Isorhythmiclationistic” (isorhythm refers to the use of repetitive rhythmic cells), “I made up my mind not to move,” and “Klap Ur Handz,” featuring actual clapping. Notice the way DBR uses rhythm differently in each to drive the motion or provide a backdrop for the action. 

*A spiritual is a religiously inspired song generally associated with African American southern Christians, and usually derived from European hymns and African musical elements brought to the US by those who were captured and forced into slavery. 

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Brahms Piano Quintet

Program:

Bernstein - Dance Suite for Brass Quintet
Mahler - Piano Quartet in A Minor
Brahms - Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Op. 34

Dance Suite for Brass Quintet

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)

A celebrated conductor, pianist, and composer, Bernstein completed his Dance Suite for Brass Quintet in 1989. This project is among his final works and the last to be completed before his death in 1990.

The Dance Suite is in five movements, each dedicated to a different choreographer and friend. He originally intended it to be performed with dancers – presumably from the American Ballet Theatre – but this element is not in practice today, and even then, the choreographer slated for the project apparently backed out at the last moment.

The first movement, Dancisca for Anthony, is dedicated to Antony Tudor (1908–1987). Tudor was an British-born American dancer, teacher, and choreographer credited with developing what we now call “psychological ballet.” This term is generally used in reference to Tudor’s works after Lilac Garden, in 1940, in which he focused on character development in dramatic plot.

The second movement is titled Waltz for Agnes, and Bernstein marked it to Agnes de Mille (1905–1993), an American choreographer and dancer famous for using American themes and vernacular to heighten narrative impact.

The next movement is the Bi-Tango for Mischa, dedicated to Mikhail (Nikolayevich) Baryshnikov (b. 1948). Born in Latvia – at that time part of the USSR – Baryshnikov was extremely well known in the 1970s and ’80s as a dancer before accepting a position as ballet director.

The fourth movement is titled Two-Step for Mr. B, written for George Balanchine (1904–1983). Balanchine might be the single-most important choreographer of the twentieth century in America. He founded the New York City Ballet in 1948, and acted as both its artistic director and chief choreographer. He also worked extensively in musical theater and choreography for film.

The final movement is MTV for Jerry, for Jerome Robbins (1918–1998). Robbins was unquestionably among the most beloved of twentieth-century choreographers, and his name is synonymous with Broadway, where he incorporated the structure and grace of classical dance with edgy, contemporary thematic material.

As a whole, Bernstein’s Dance Suite for Brass Quintet is a vital and colorful work. It had its premiere in January 1990 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, played by the Empire Brass Quintet at the American Ballet Theater’s fiftieth anniversary gala.

Piano Quartet in A Minor

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)

Gustav Mahler was a unique composer in that his output almost exclusively consists of contributions to the two genres of symphony and song. This Piano Quartet comes from his student days, when he was studying composition with Robert Fuchs at the Vienna Conservatory. The score is marked 1876 and labeled by Mahler’s wife, Alma, as “early compositions.” There may have also been a Piano Quintet, which won two prizes before Mahler allegedly threw it away. However, some scholars believe that this mystery Quintet was actually the Piano Quartet and blame the poor recordkeeping of whoever was in charge of such things at the Conservatory at the time for the confusion. Something that supports this idea is Mahler’s admission that he didn’t finish many works at this time because he was always becoming fascinated by a new project before the one already underway was completed.

During his studies, Mahler undoubtedly would have become familiar with the work of Schubert, Brahms, and Wagner. Some commentators suggest that his Piano Quartet has more in common in terms of overall sound and aesthetics with these composers than with any of Mahler’s later work. There are definitely commonalities in the structure as well.

Mahler’s Piano Quartet is in a single movement. Likely, there were supposed to be other movements, but the only other surviving material from this piece is twenty-four measures of a scherzo. Mahler chose A Minor for the work, a tonality that would come to represent in his work the “unconscious anticipation of things to come.” The Quartet is brimming with an aching melancholy interspersed with touches of aching sweetness.

Mahler marks the beginning Nicht zu schnell, “not too fast,” and lays down a cushion of sound with pulsing triplets in the piano. The cello enters over this with the main thematic material. The second theme is more angular, adding an element of anxiety to the conversation. This second idea is marked Entschlossen, “resolute,” and includes a brief cadenza for the violin. The movement closes softly.

The Quartet didn’t appear until 1964, and there is no indication that the piece was ever performed during Mahler’s lifetime. In fact, the score was thought lost until Alma found it among the composer’s old school things. Its first known performance was in New York City in February 1964. In 1988, Russian composer Alfred Schnittke composed a second movement for Mahler’s Piano Quartet, which has sometimes been performed alongside it.

Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Op. 34

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)

“In the morning I added an eighth note. In the afternoon I took it out.” – Brahms

Brahms began work on his Piano Quintet in F Minor in 1862, and made excellent progress, at least at first, finishing three movements in just a few months. Although the statement above may not be a completely accurate depiction of a day in Brahms’s life, as a composer he was famous for taking his time and revising often. This is never as true as in this work, which he reworked from scratch several times. In its initial iteration, Brahms conceived of it as a quintet for strings (a string quartet plus an extra cello), like Schubert’s C Major Quintet.

Brahms presented the first three movements to his friends Joseph Joachim (violinist and composer) and Clara Schumann, both of whom received the work with enthusiasm. However, both Schumann and Joachim changed their minds about it later, especially Joachim, who wrote, “The details of the work show some proof of overpowering strength … but what is lacking, to give me pure pleasure, is, in a word, charm.” Joachim went on to add that if Brahms could just listen to the Quintet “quietly,” he would surely agree.

These notes prompted Brahms to attempt revisions on the bits Joachim mentioned specifically, but he felt he had not actually resolved the problem. Rather, he decided the fault lay in the string writing itself. Commentator Steve Lacoste explains, “Brahms still was not pleased … Brahms’s demands upon the instruments exceeded his understanding of their capabilities.” At this point he decided to rescore the work for a different instrumentation.

In 1863, the String Quintet became the Sonata for Two Pianos. Brahms performed the work with pianist Karl Tausig in April 1864 in Vienna. To his disappointment, the premiere was met with a lukewarm reception.

Of the various iterations of this work, Brahms was especially fond of the sonata version, writing to his publisher afterward, “I still think we must keep the work in mind as a sonata for two pianos. It appeals to me in this form and has also thus appealed to everyone who has played it or heard it.”

Clara Schumann restated her love of the music, but told Brahms that though this was a “splendid work, it cannot be called a Sonata. Rather it is a work so full of ideas that it requires an orchestra for its interpretation. These ideas are for the most part lost on the piano. The first time I tried the work I had the feeling that it was an arrangement…. Please, remodel it once more!”

At this point, Brahms received advice from conductor Hermann Levi to transform the Sonata into a piano quintet. Rescoring it again, Brahms then sent the new Piano Quintet to Levi, who replied, “The Quintet is beautiful beyond words. Anyone who did not know it in its earlier forms of string quintet and two-piano sonata would never believe that it was not originally thought out and designed for the present combination of instruments … You have turned a monotonous work for two pianos into a thing of great beauty, a masterpiece of chamber music.”

The opening movement is in sonata form, and displays an impressively economical use of thematic material together with Brahms’s excellent skill in the development of that material. The second theme uses many of the same elements as the first, lending the movement a sense of security and coherence.

The gentler second movement forms a loose arch form and sounds almost like Schubert in its incredible lyricism. The third movement is a scherzo and incorporates a marchlike dotted rhythm (long-short). This close figure expands naturally into the Trio.

The Finale begins with a slow introduction. According to commentator Dr. Richard Rodda, this introduction is “pensive … fueled by deeply felt chromatic harmonies, exactly the sort of passage that caused Arnold Schoenberg to label Brahms a ‘modernist.’” The remainder of the movement is set as a sort of cross between rondo and sonata forms.

Brahms’s Piano Quintet was published in 1865 and dedicated to Her Royal Highness Princess Anna of Hesse.

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