Program Notes: July 6, 2013
FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828): Sonatina No.1 in D Major for Violin and Piano (D.384)
Franz Schubert composed more than 1000 works in his tragically short lifetime, even shorter than Mozart’s. Unlike his Austrian predecessor, however, Schubert was neither a prodigy nor a virtuoso, and held no position of any prominence up until his death, at the age of 31, in 1828. Yet the Viennese composer is best loved for his melodies and intense lyricism that fills not only his Lieder but his instrumental works as well.
Schubert was barely 20 when, in 1817, he composed four sonatas for violin and piano. He had already completed a large number of works, although his greatest compositions, including the late sonatas and quartets, “Die Schöne Mullerin,” “Winterreise,” and the Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9, were still to come. Although he undoubtedly called these early works sonatas, they were published, after his death, as sonatinas, most likely to give them greater appeal for amateur musicians.
To call these sonatinas lightweight would do them disservice. Their innocent simplicity adds rather than detracts from their charm, being more reminiscent of the earlier Mozartean style than that of Schubert’s real hero, Beethoven. Schubert, after all, was one of the last exponents of the Viennese Classical School of composition, and helped pave the way to musical Romanticism.
The first of the group, in D Major, is the most formal. The initial impression is one of spontaneous lyricism and natural melody, of simplicity, sweetness, and elegance. The first movement, in a comfortable cruising speed, opens in a very similar fashion to Mozart’s Sonata in e minor, KV 304. In the jovial Andante, it is the piano that has the right-of-way most of the time, although it gives the violin room to sing in the middle section. The final movement allows the violin to state the opening theme, climaxing in a blissful finale both stylishly rustic and lavishly buoyant.
CARL FRÜHLING (1868-1937): Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in A minor, Op.40
If we know anything at all about the much-neglected Austrian composer Carl Frühling, we owe most of it to British cellist Steven Isserlis. Isserlis is as renowned for his performances as he is for championing lesser-known composers, and indeed Frühling fits the bill. Born in Lemberg (now Lvov, in the Ukraine) in 1868, Frühling died penniless in Vienna in 1937. He is known to have composed nearly 100 works, but aside from a handful of chamber pieces, little else has surfaced.
The Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano was in fact the work that first endeared Frühling to Isserlis. “An amateur clarinetist friend introduced me to the clarinet trio, and I loved it – the unpretentious warmth, the humor, the gentle charm of style. He wasn’t a great composer, perhaps, but he’s a thoroughly loveable one,” Isserlis writes. “Having got to know this trio, I tried to find out more about him, but found it very hard to do so.”
Tracking down the forgotten musician turned out to be a detective story worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Isserlis’ research turned up some early songs, a fantasy for flute, an orchestral ballet-suite in full score, and another in piano score. He also discovered that Frühling had been best-known as a chamber-music pianist, collaborating with the likes of violinists Bronislaw Huberman and Pablo Sarasate. But why did no one remember anything about a man who had died as recently as 1937?
A possible answer surfaced in the form of a dusty old file on Frühling, dating from the 1930’s, discovered in an Austrian radio station. A large “J” was scrawled over it, indicating that Frühling was Jewish. The fact that he had converted to Christianity in 1907 apparently did not save his work from the neglect it received in the years immediately after his death.
Of Frühling’s few known works, most are salon pieces for piano. His clarinet trio, however, is a more substantial work, written in the Romantic tradition. Indeed, the four-movement piece sounds quite Brahmsian. Who knows how many other such fascinating gems lie hidden somewhere gathering dust, just waiting to be discovered?
CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918): String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 (1893)
Of all the composers of his time, Debussy most fully parallels the symbolist movement in poetry and impressionism in painting. As far as music is concerned, this meant an increased interest in sound as such, that is, harmony and tone-color at the expense of melody and clarity of structure. Debussy was as much an innovator in extending keyboard possibilities, as were Scarlatti and Chopin. He created many subtle new sounds, e.g., the contrast of very high and very low registers, the clash of overtones, polytonal effects, exotic scales, and the blending of sonorities by use of the pedals.
This quartet is a product of the time of his earlier masterpieces—e.g. Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune and the Nocturnes. It is not in the main stream of his extensive series of works based on the cyclical plan of César Franck, that is, the use of the unifying device of a theme that occurs in all movements. Debussy turned from his usual impressionistic methods. This is his only work that has such a Beethoven-like title, Premier Quatuor en sol mineur, Op. 10. It is his only work with an opus number. Yet he did not completely abandon impressionism. There are numerous small touches of this style. Here, for once, Debussy inhabits two worlds―the academic one of César Franck and that of his own dream world of l’Après-midi d’un Faune.
The opening theme, with its lowered second degree of G minor, is equivalent to the Phrygian mode, one of those used in Gregorian chant. It is the recurring of this theme in all movements that makes it a “cyclical” work. The first movement is a sonata form. In the recapitulation, the second theme is omitted. The second movement is a scherzo with much use of pizzicato and meter changes. The third movement is slowly paced. It builds up to the high point of the whole work. The finale contains much contrapuntal writing and devices such as augmentation―thus proving that Debussy could do it. Why is it surprising that composers such as Debussy and Schubert can do what an A student in music theory can do?
This quartet, with its successful blend of classic quartet writing and impressionistic feeling, has come to be regarded as one of the high points in chamber music literature.
Program Notes: July 13, 2013
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791): String Quartet in C Major, K.157
Mozart, in his travels, collected musical ideas the way most of us might collect postcards. His works for accompanied sonatas, and strings in particular, derive from the many locales where he set pen to paper. These include his two sets of string quartets, K.155-160 in Milan and K.168-73 in Vienna, an oboe quartet in Munich, two flute quartets in Mannheim, and a set of piano and violin sonatas in Mannheim and Paris.
The early Milanese quartets, composed by a teenage Mozart in 1772-1773, largely conform to Italian traditions. The String Quartet No. 4, in particular, holds traits that reveal Mozart was simultaneously working on an opera, “Lucio Silla.” The first movement is full of parallel thirds and sixths in the violins, intervals common in vocal duets. The work is also Italianate in its three-movement structure, its expressive minor key middle movement, and extended contrapuntal passages. Then again, the young composer might be merely showing off for his Italian mentors, Padre Martini and Eugene Ligniville. Mozart, of course, always aimed to please – that the Milanese quartets sound so “Italian” stems from the fact that he frequently tailored his chamber music to local audiences.
While the bright, gentle tune that opens the Allegro might not sound overtly vocal, it does have a fair share of trills and a semblance of birdcalls in the first violin that suggest coloratura. It is the Andante, however, that really evokes an opera aria, thanks particularly to the first violin’s plaintive line. This proceeds over a gently rocking accompaniment – not too far from a barcarolle – with periods in which all four instruments take the theme in unison.
The third and final movement – remember, we’re in Italy, so there’s no minuet – is a brief Presto. It’s a rollicking sonata-rondo hybrid with lively syncopations wrapped up with a tiny but stimulating coda. The coda is unusual in that it consists of a crescendo, not yet a common technique, designed to bring Mozart’s surprised audiences to their feet.
KENJI BUNCH (1973- ): Suite for Viola and Piano 1998
Kenji Bunch enjoys an active, multifaceted career as a violist, a fiddler, a composer, and a teacher. As a violist, Mr. Bunch has become a leading interpreter of new and experimental music. Recognized for his own original works for viola, he frequently performs recitals and workshops with his wife, pianist Monica Ohuchi. He was recently featured in the Journal of the American Viola Society and on NPR Performance Today performing his own work. A frequent guest of chamber music festivals, he also plays fiddle in the bluegrass band Citigrass, and has performed with many prominent rock, jazz, folk, and pop musicians. Mr. Bunch’s compositions have been performed by over twenty American orchestras and have been recorded and broadcast worldwide. Mr. Bunch studied viola with Toby Appel and composition with Robert Beaser at the Juilliard School.
The composer writes: “Suite for Viola and Piano was written in 1998 for violist Naoko Shimizu. It was my first work for viola, which is the instrument I play and know more intimately than any other. My motivation for this work was to write a virtuosic, substantial piece that would present the viola as a versatile solo instrument capable of a multitude of colors and characters. The work is in five movements, the last three of which are played without pause. It begins with a dramatic rhapsody that alternates between exclamatory Romantic gestures and placid stillness. The second movement is a scherzo built upon a silly pizzicato figure I developed with my friends backstage at a summer festival in Vermont. There are also elements of speakeasy jazz and stride piano romps. The third movement is… based on a descending lament-bass figure that is presented throughout the movement. This gives way to a viola cadenza that makes reference to the previous movement before exploding into a final perpetual motion that gains momentum every few bars until it crashes to the end.”
ANTONIN DVOŘÁK (1841-1904): Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81 (S.103) (1887)
There can be no question of American influence in this work since it was written before Dvořák’s stay in the United States. The overall impression is one of “joyous springtime happiness.” There are moments of sadness, but these are soon abandoned for a prevailing optimism and cheerfulness.
A three-note motif occurs frequently in all movements. It first comes in the cello part in measure three on the notes E-A-G-sharp. Dvořák used a similar device in the New World Symphony. The first movement is in sonata form with an unusual feature. The second group of themes is centered around C-sharp rather than E, which would be normal for a piece beginning in A.
The two middle movements, based on Czech folk music, call for some comment. Czechs claim that only they know what a dumka is. Nevertheless, let me attempt a non-Czechian definition. A dumka is a Bohemian folk song that goes from melancholy to joy―from dirge to dance, with jolting suddenness. This entails alternation of soft and loud, and of slow and fast. It is a rondo with the pattern A B A C A B A. All repetitions are varied. The main key is F-sharp minor. The third movement is named Scherzo (Furiant). It reverses the tempo pattern of the Dumka. This is not a true furiant since it lacks the rhythmic shift called hemiola. If you know the dances from Smetana’s Bartered Bride, you have experienced this. The finale is a brilliant, fast-paced rondo except that, near the end, Dvořák relaxes the forward thrust to “tranquillo” and then, “poco a poco più mosso” to a frantic finish.
The A Major Quintet has received lavish praise. Quoting the English writer on music, Alec Robertson: “It is simply one of the most perfect chamber music works in existence; perfect in that it accomplishes perfectly what it sets out to do, perfect as a whole and in all its parts. There is not a note too many―and there are plenty of notes!”
Program Notes: July 20, 2013
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897): Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano in D Minor, Op. 108 (1888)
In the latter years of the nineteenth century, most of the leading composers were primarily concerned with the music of the theater and the orchestra as the vehicles of musical Romanticism. Only Brahms was deeply involved in chamber music.
The third violin sonata is a product of the decade of the eighties, a most productive time for Brahms. It was written in the summer of 1888 by the lake at Thun, which was his favorite summer abode. It is dedicated to Hans von Bulow in acknowledgement of his enthusiastic support by both his playing and conducting. It is regarded as the greatest of the violin sonatas in depth of feeling and range of expression—a judgment with which I fully concur.
The first movement, allegro, starts with a rising-fourth motif accompanied by syncopated octaves on the piano. This is the germ of the whole movement. The development section is notable in that it is built entirely over a pedal point on A, the dominant of the D minor tonality. The ensuing adagio is a warm melody that has no contrasting central section. The use of double stops on the violin is especially poignant. This adagio is, to me, one of the most profoundly expressive pieces of the Romantic period. The third movement, un poco presto e con sentimento, is a lightly written piece—a fitting contrast between the second and last movements. Like the second movement, it is without the usual contrasts. There is no trio section as is usual with scherzi. As Daniel Gregory Mason says, “Brahms is able to beat from the first five notes the whole texture as a skillful chef beats a meringue from the white of an egg.” The overall key is F-sharp minor, but he covers many keys including a pompous F minor and a “delicately pastoral F Major.” The finale, presto agitato, is full of driving energy—a savage energy that is suggestive of Hungarian music—a trait found in many of Brahms’ last movements. There is a smoother march-like second theme. The movement has the grand proportions of the first movement. The sonata is brought to a triumphal ending.
DAVID AMRAM (b. 1930): Theme and Variations on “Red River Valley” for Flute and Strings
One of the most eclectic, versatile, and unpredictable American musicians of the present day, David Amram’s compositions and performances have crossed fearlessly back and forth between the classical and jazz worlds, as well as those of ethnic folk, television, and film music. In addition to a pair of operas, his more than 100 orchestral and chamber music works include scores for Broadway theater and, most notably, the scores for the films “Splendor in the Grass” and “The Manchurian Candidate.”
Amram is considered a pioneer of jazz French horn, and also plays piano, numerous flutes and whistles, percussion, and dozens of folkloric instruments. Chosen by Leonard Bernstein as the New York Philharmonic’s first composer-in-residence in 1966, the famously irrelevant composer once commented, “I couldn’t care less if I’m gifted or not. I never tried to prove anything by writing music.” He is currently writing his fourth book, “David Amram: The Next 80 Years,” to be published in 2014.
Born in Philadelphia in 1930, Amram spent most of his childhood on the family farm in Bucks County, where they moved shortly before his seventh birthday. His father had been a farmer before becoming a lawyer, and like Amram to this day, has continued to farm in addition to his professional pursuits.
Perhaps it was bucolic Bucks County that led to Amram’s penchant for the simple life of rural America, so lovingly expressed in his Theme and Variations on “Red River Valley.” Dedicated to his wife, Lora Lee, it was written for the 20th anniversary of the Kerrville Music Festival in Kerrville, Texas in 1991. The piece was also composed in memory of Texas rancher, musician, and folk hero Hondo Crouch, with whom he played music at the Lukenbach, Texas general store.
Based on the popular nineteenth-century frontier song, Amram’s set of variations, like most of his compositions, readily accepts a popular flavor. It is soft-focused and genial, yet brilliantly virtuosic in its melding of jazzy, bluesy slides infused with Celtic-sounding slurs and trills.
— Steve Siegel
LOUISE FARRENC (1804-1875): Piano Quintet No.1 in A Minor, Op. 30 (1839)
Parisian-born Jeanne-Louise Dumont showed and obvious musical gift at an early age, and received excellent training in both piano and composition. She married Aristide Farrenc, a flautist and music publisher, in 1821 and enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a pianist, composer and pedagogue.
Most of Louise Farrenc’s early compositions are for solo piano. Her first chamber work, composed in 1839, was the Quintet No.1, Opus 30 for piano, violin, viola, cello and bass. Within a year she had composed a second quintet with the same instrumentation. Over the subsequent twenty years she composed numerous chamber works including four piano trios, two sonatas for violin and piano, a cello sonata, a string quartet, a sextet and a nonet. She also composed three symphonies and three overtures. Most of her compositions were published by Aristide Farrenc and many were simultaneously printed by other publishers in England and Germany.
It is curious that her first chamber composition was scored for such a rare instrumentation. The two known precedents for this instrumentation are Hummel’s Quintet and Schubert’s famous Trout Quintet of 1819. While it is likely that she knew of these works, the presence of a great bassist, Achille-Victor Gouffé of the Paris Opera is the most likely impetus for Farrenc to have used this instrumentation. Given the popularity of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, it is astonishing that both of Farrenc’s delightful quintets have disappeared from the repertoire.
The Quintet No. 1, Opus 30 is grounded on classical formal models: the first movement is in sonata-allegro form; the second is a slow rondo; the third is a scherzo-trio; the fourth is a rondo-sonata. The work is thoroughly romantic in its soaring melodies, modulations to distantly-related keys, range of moods, sheer length and virtuosic piano writing.
—Dr. Susan Pickett