Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Love & Sextets: Summermusic 2015 Concludes at the Civic Club

The final program of this season's Summermusic with Market Square Concerts takes place Wednesday evening at 6:00 (that's SIX o'clock) at the Civic Club in downtown Harrisburg – for the unfamiliar, check out this link to last summer's directions and information about downtown parking but note that the program is different – with string players from the resident artists' ensemble playing sextets by Johannes Brahms and Arnold Schoenberg.

In both of them love (in one form or another) plays an inspiring role: in Brahms' case, the memory of a girlfriend from years past; in Schoenberg's, telling the tale of a man and woman who find their love transfigured by the revelation of a secret.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

One of the two works on this program had been rejected by the composer's usual publisher and "sunk" by another one who found it "vile music that one should suppress." Shades of reviews of an earlier work that some critics called "mathematical music."

Are we talking about Schoenberg, a composer too many people associate with the contemptible aspects of contemporary music?

No. This is the G Major String Sextet that Johannes Brahms had completed in 1865.

Here are the four movements of Brahms' String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36
1st Movement (at 2:30 – the “Agathe Ade!” Motive) w/members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet

2nd Movement Scherzo w/ChamberFest Cleveland 2013

3rd Movement – Slow Movement w/The Shanghai Quartet & Friends in Tokyo

4th Movement w/Amadeus Quartet + Cecil Aronowitz & William Pleeth


A couple of years before he had started composing the 1st String Sextet, Brahms (right) was still living in his hometown of Hamburg in 1858 when a friend invited him to come check out Göttingen, a college town about 170 miles south. This friend, Julius Otto Grimm, composer, teacher and music director of the local choral society, the Cäcilienverein (Cecelia Club), wrote to him, “If it would please you to have a few good voices lodged in very lovely girls, sing for you, they will take pleasure in being at your disposal. Come quickly!” Odd that Brahms had hesitated, at first.

So, in the midst of working on a serenade originally for a small group of strings and winds, he did so reluctantly, even if it was part of a holiday with Clara Schumann, her five youngest children, her half-brother, composer Woldemar Bargiel and violinist Joseph Joachim. It didn’t, however, take Brahms long to succumb to the charms of the town and especially some of the young ladies in town – one soprano named Agathe von Siebold, in particular.

In addition to having long dark hair, a lush figure, a fondness for practical jokes and a voice that Joachim likened to an Amati violin, Agathe (left) was also studying composition with Julius Grimm who once berated her for some sloppy counterpoint exercises. When Brahms agreed to play a trick on his friend, he wrote out her assignment himself which she duly handed in as her own. Grimm exploded over this “swinish mess” and when Agathe asked “well, what if Johannes had written it,” he said it would be even worse. Here, Brahms had actually screwed it up on purpose, playing a joke on both of them.

Oh, those wild and crazy musicians… such larks…

At the end of this extended vacation, Brahms returned to Detmold, about 30 miles to the northwest as the crow flies, where he was employed part of the year as a “court musician,” performing with the orchestra there and teaching music to the family of Prince Leopold III. In addition to organizing chamber music concerts, he also conducted a women’s choir for whom he wrote numerous short choral works.

In addition to playing concertos by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin (I’m trying to imagine Brahms playing Chopin, but hey…), he also conducted his first Bach (the cantata, “Christ lag in Todesbanden”) and was known to accompany Mozart violin sonatas by starting them in the wrong key to “test” his colleague’s transposition skills. As a composer, his B Major Piano Trio (the original version of Op. 8) and the G Minor Piano Quartet were received coolly.

Visiting Göttingen again in 1859, he and Agathe continued their friendship and apparently became secretly engaged. According to his friends, they seemed perfectly happy with each other.

Then he left for two performances of his finally completed D Minor Piano Concerto which was neither a success nor a failure in Hannover but which was frostily received in Leipzig five days later. After a long silence, perhaps three pairs of hands bothered to applaud before the hissing began. Critics called it “banal and horrid.”

By then, returning to see Agathe, Brahms suffered what today would be called “a fear of commitment.” When he wrote to her, "I love you! I must see you again! But I cannot wear fetters! Write me whether I may come back to fold you in my arms, to kiss you, to tell you that I love you!" she responded by breaking off the engagement.

To his friends, Brahms would admit to “playing the scoundrel” to Agathe. Over a decade later, he recalled those days, how he would like to have married but when his music was hissed in the concert hall and so icily received, he realized while this was something he himself could tolerate, returning alone to his room,

“...if, in such moments, I had had to meet the anxious, questioning eyes of a wife with the words ‘another failure’ – I could not have borne that! For a woman may love an artist… ever so much… and if she had wanted to comfort me – a wife to pity her husband for his lack of success – ach! I can’t stand to think what a hell that would have been.”

During the first months in Göttingen , he wrote several songs for Agathe to sing, many of them using a musical motif based on her name spelled out in certain available notes


using the old German notation where B = B-flat and H = B-natural, and where S (or Es) = E-flat and “As” = A-flat.


In the months following his break-up with Agathe, Brahms composed more songs, still occasionally employing the “Agathe Motive” but setting it to words about parting and lost love.

Brahms would use this “Agathe Motive” again in the 2nd String Sextet which he completed a few years after he and Agathe von Siebold parted ways.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Moving ahead a few years, Brahms had completed two new piano quartets and three versions of his Piano Quintet, before writing to his Göttingen friend Julius Grimm once again, asking how things were “in all the houses where one used to go so happily… of that house and gate – ” which he didn’t need to explain was the house where Agathe von Siebold lived with her father.

Grimm told him “the old Professor had died three years ago” and Agathe had taken a job the past year as a governess in Ireland where she teaches music and German to the daughters of a rich young English family. She had to get away, he said, from “the shadowed pages of her life… what a gloomy lot is that of a girl alone.”

Brahms returned to Göttingen and stood by that ruined gate, looking at the empty house (such images typical of the lovelorn poetry of the Romantic Age). In September, he composed the devastated and exalted songs of Op. 32 which included the lines “I would like to stop living, to perish instantly, and yet I would like to live for you, with you, and never die.”

That same month, he began the first movement of the 2nd String Sextet. The second movement was based on a Baroque-like gavotte he’d written (part of a collection of tongue-in-cheek dances in the early-1850s) contrasting with a jocose middle section. The original sketch of the slow movement’s variations was written in 1855 and the overall sound is basically “wandering, empty, tragic.” The finale sounds like it might be a proper scherzo with a warm contrasting section with a bit of a dance to it: perhaps a “last dance, at the end of an affair,” as Swafford describes it.

The opening is a gem of a motive – an oscillating G-F# connecting first a G Major triad and then, unexpectedly, an E-flat triad (the G being a common pitch). It would be possible to analyze this music in terms of these two sounds (the oscillation and the G—D , E-flat—B-flat) but the most striking element, considering the theme of this post, is a motive that appears in the transition between the 1st and 2nd themes of the Sonata’s exposition:


This is Agathe’s Motive - and at its most obvious, climactic point, it is repeated five times. Yet this time, there is another note inserted within the motive – a D (see above) – which helps spell out the word “adé” or “Adieux, Farewell” in the inner voices. One could even sing "Agathe, adé" to this fragment of a melody.

Brahms is certainly saying farewell to Agathe, taking his leave, musically if not emotionally. Yet in the very first song he wrote for her – Op.14 No. 1 of 1858 – this “adé” motive appears when the night-watchman sounds his horn as the lovers part.

We may think of this as purely abstract music with no literary allusions or suggestions of telling a story, the sort of thing Liszt and the New German School espoused. But even Brahms must have had something on his mind, here, when he was writing this – a young girl who used to sing his songs for him and with whom he once contemplated marriage.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Here's a review from the first Viennese performance of one of the two works on this program: is it regarding the Brahms Sextet or Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht?

"We are always seized with a kind of oppression when [this composer] announces himself. [He] makes us quite disconsolate with his impalpable, vertiginous tone-vexations that have neither body nor soul and can only be products of the most desperate effort."

Which composer do you think was the subject of this review?

This was by an anonymous critic writing for the Wiener Zeitung (Viennese Newspaper) following the February 3rd, 1867 performance of Johannes Brahms' String Sextet No. 2 in G!

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Schoenberg in 1903
I love this quote about Schoenberg's music from the introduction in Allen Shawn's wonderfully readable book, Arnold Schoenberg's Journey. Given that Schoenberg is a composer frequently cast as the Boogey-Man of Modern Music, the “inventor” of serial music (therefore the killer of all that is considered good in music whom theorists analyze by slathering technical jargon on by the ladle-full until we are knee-deep in incomprehensible gobbledy-gook in ways they would never write about Beethoven, Shawn writes,

= = = = =
“...perhaps Schoenberg's work deserves a more superficial treatment than it has hitherto received.”
= = = = =

We don't need to get into atonality or serial music (or the difference between them) because that will be years into the future from the work you can hear on Wednesday's program. For those who feel "Oh, I don't like Schoenberg" as some people have told me why they're not coming to this performance, I say "But this is not that Schoenberg."

Verklärte Nacht was composed in 1899 so it is honestly a 19th-Century piece even though it had to wait until 1902 for its first performance. It begins darkly in D Minor and ends luminously in D Major and while it may go far afield in between, one could say the same of Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde (completed forty years earlier) not to mention the middle bits from the finale of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor (completed on July 25th, 1788), but I digress...

Basically, it is a tone-poem for six string players, though we normally expect story-telling “tone-poems” from orchestral music, not chamber music (which tends to be a fairly abstract world). This may be one reason Schoenberg later arranged it for the full string section of your typical symphony orchestra.

It's based on a poem by Richard Dehmel about love that is perhaps a little more up-to-date than the love-plots of Wagner's operas which are more about “redemption through love” which usually involves having to die to attain it. Here, a man accepts the fact the woman he loves is already pregnant with a child by a man she doesn't love: he tells her he will love her and will love the unborn child as if it were his own, that their love will make the child his own – and at that moment, walking in the moonlit woods, the child, the man, the woman and the night itself are all transfigured from darkness into light.

(You can read a translation of the original poem here. Cary Burkett, whose voice will be familiar to listeners of WITF-FM, will read the poem before the performance.)

Poster for Verklärte Nacht
This unattributed image with trees, a path and moonlight (also available as an iPhone skin) evokes Dehmel's poem but could also serve for Schoenberg's later Erwartung where a woman wanders through similar woods at night believing she has killed her lover (and possibly just tripped over his body)... The cliché of being lost in the woods predates Freud – think any number of fairly tales but especially “Hansel and Gretel” (not to mention Stephen Sondheim's fairy-tale-inspired Into the Woods). It was certainly common enough during the end of the 19th Century: think, also, of Pelleas and Melisande, Maeterlinck's play which inspired both the opera by Debussy and Schoenberg's orchestral tone poem. That makes three works by Schoenberg dealing with the imagery of seeking identity while wandering lost through the woods at night.

Talk about mystery and psychological subtext...

Here is a recording with the Juilliard Quartet plus violist Walter Trampler and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, complete with score:




Victorian England and the (shocking!) not-so-private lives of various composers like Liszt and Wagner aside, there were some things you just didn't talk about in polite society in late-19th Century Vienna, despite the erotic goings-on not very far beneath that respectable surface. Clearly the “secret sex life” of Vienna was enough to fuel the work of numerous artists (think Gustav Klimt, whose “Beethoven Frieze” from 1902 contains this famous detail; the most famous paintings of his Golden Period dates from 1907) as well as Sigmund Freud whose first writings on sexuality appeared in 1898, though his more significant works on the subject were still shocking people when they appeared in the first decades of the 20th Century.

Richard Dehmel in 1905
Richard Dehmel published his “Verklärte Nacht” in 1895, a year before a volume of poems, Weib und Welt (Woman and World) triggered such a scandal he eventually landed in court charged with obscenity and blasphemy. Though he was acquitted on technical grounds, the court still condemned the volume and ordered it to be burned! Later on, Dehmel would again be prosecuted for obscenity and blasphemy, but would again be acquitted.

In his defense, Dehmel wrote “I believe that anyone who helps the human soul open its eyes to the bestial urges serves true morality better than many a moralistic accuser.” Many of these poems were inspired by his affair with Ida Auerbach for whom he eventually left his wife (I know, shocking, right?).

All this unleashed a creative surge in Schoenberg, then in his mid-20s and two years away from marrying Mathilde Zemlinsky, the sister of his friend and “teacher,” Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Schoenberg as cellist, July 8, 1900
He and Zemlinsky met in the amateur orchestra Zemlinsky conducted. Schoenberg played the cello - in the photo (left), he is the sad-sack in the midst of these Merry Musicians which also includes a mustachioed violinist named Fritz Kreisler.

He had begun to write music only recently without ever having had any instruction. Zemlinsky, only two years older than Schoenberg, said he was never really Schoenberg's teacher: they used to show each other their music and, with more experience, Zemlinsky took on the role of “coach,” making suggestions, loaning him scores – attending concerts was basically outside Schoenberg's budget – and engaging in long hours of “shop talk.”

One of his first finished works was a String Quartet in D Major from 1897 which some think sounds very much like Brahms – and Brahms had just died on April 3rd that year. Personally, I think it sounds more like Dvořák-imitating-Brahms but it's clearly a student work full of this-and-that. 


The change in two years between this quartet and the sextet, Verklärte Nacht, is almost as shocking as the shift between it and the 2nd String Quartet of 1907 which includes, in its last two movements, his first attempts to put tonality completely aside.

The classical old-fashioned clarity of this early quartet was soon overwhelmed by a few lessons in counterpoint from Zemlinsky and apparently Dehmel's poetry which unleashed Schoenberg's Wagnerian side in a late-19th Century dichotomy: what are you, a classicist (Brahmsian) or a romanticist (Wagnerian)? By this time, now 25, Schoenberg was trying to figure out how he could manage the best of both worlds. One of the critics at the premiere of Verklärte Nacht complained it sounded like the “pages of Tristan freshly smeared over.”

Curiously, once past the dense post-Wagnerian textures and harmonic activity of things like the very Romantic oratorio Gurrelieder and the atonal drama of his one-character opera Erwartung, Schoenberg began to re-examine the music of Brahms, calling him “Brahms the Progressive” (something Brahms or his contemporaries would never have considered) and eventually devising a new organizational language he called “composing with 12 tones”. But again, that's for the future...

It is often said that the first performance of Verklärte Nacht in Vienna in March of 1902 was “loudly hissed” by both audience and critics. True, there were disruptions, even fisticuffs (please, no fisticuffs at the Civic Club: there will be students present).

But there were these comments, as well:

A critic for the German newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that the sextet was “rich in invention, powerful in inspiration, genuine in feeling and captivating in its sonorities, despite the wrong notes” (which might have been performance issues or perhaps his perception of what should've been the right notes). A friend of Brahms' greeted the arrival of “an authentic and admirably gifted musician” who was “serious and profound” despite some “deliberately confused and ugly music.”

Gustav Mahler's sister had been there and wrote to him appreciatively about the concert he'd missed while guest conducting in Russia. Mahler (who would finish his 5th Symphony that summer) replied that “would have been of great interest to me.” Even though Mahler found Schoenberg's later music – the increasingly chromatic and eventually atonal works of the new century – difficult to understand if not completely incomprehensible, they remained acquaintances until Mahler's death in 1910, a relationship often tested by Schoenberg's own antipathy for Mahler's style which sometimes led him, for instance, to refuse the older composer's invitations to dinner or to hear his newest symphonies.

In 1910, Schoenberg (who had yet to develop his “12-tone system”) began writing a theory book he called Harmonielehre which is less a traditional textbook than a philosophical way of looking at harmony. In it, for instance, he wrote,

= = = = =
“It has never been the purpose and effect of new art to suppress the old, its predecessor, certainly not to destroy it. ...The appearance of the new can far better be compared with the flowering of a tree: it is the natural growth of the tree of life. But if there were trees that had an interest in preventing the flowering, then they would surely call it revolution. And conservatives of winter would fight against each spring. ...Short memory and meager insight suffice to confuse growth with overthrow.”
(quoted in Allan Shawn: Arnold Schoenberg's Journey.)
= = = = =

If you listen to Verklärte Nacht as the product of a 25-year-old who is only two years out from having produced a derivative piece of juvenalia in that Brahms/Dvořák-inspired string quartet, the self-assurance as well as the musical flowering is amazing. 


Whatever he did in the rest of his creative life began, essentially, here – and whatever the rest of the world may collectively think of his legacy, the tree that began here had a deep and long-ranging impact on the new century, whatever those who followed his path may have done with it.

Dick Strawser

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio: In Memory of a Friend and Mentor

Tchaikovsky in 1880
This Sunday afternoon's program with Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2015 – beginning at 4:00 in the air-conditioned Market Square Church – includes two works, both very different if not diametrically opposed in nature: the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio and the Dvořák Piano Quintet. The Tchaikovsky will be performed by the Mendelssohn Piano Trio – Peter Sirotin, violin; Fiona Thompson, cello; Ya-Ting Chang, piano. The Dvořák will be performed on the second half by Peter Sirotin and Leonid Ferents, violins; Michael Stepniak, viola; Cheng-Hou Lee, cello and Stuart Malina, piano.

Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor was written in commemorate his friend and mentor, Nikolai Rubinstein – and he dedicated it “to the memory of a great artist.”

This is a work I find difficult to find a definitive performance of. Of two that Peter Sirotin prefers, and two that have their own personal significance for me, none are really good recordings, and however powerful and intense their performances may be, they are, as live performances are susceptible to the whims of the day, not flawless. It is, however, that intensity, that giving oneself over to the magic and risk-taking of a live performance that make recordings like these more valuable, perhaps, than the perfection one can achieve in a studio with retakes and editing.

Even though this is a vast work, and time is short, I'm going to include two of these performances. Peter's choices included a video made in 1987 with legendary Russian performers filmed in concert: pianist Sviatoslav Richter, violinist Oleg Kagan, and cellist Natalia Gutman.


My own choice is one I've only just discovered while researching this article, a recording made in 1990 by a friend and former colleague of mine (we both taught at the University of Connecticut in the mid-1970s), pianist Joseph Villa, performing here with violinist William Preucil (also of the Cleveland Quartet) and cellist John Sharp, a recording that exists only because Joe, who died in 1995, had given a friend of his a cassette copy of it to listen to.


The trio is basically in two movements: the opening "Pezzo elegiaco" (Elegiac Piece), about 18 minutes long, followed by a set of eleven variations and a finale (with coda) that can last about a half-hour. While the first movement is a very Germanic sonata form, the variations are based on a much simpler folk-like theme that gives the movement a Russian tone and offer the contrasts of both slow movement, scherzo as well as finale. Some of these variations are "character pieces" that might have stepped out of Schumann's Carnaval - there's a music box; a salon waltz; a fugue, among others - and the finale would seem to be headed toward a brilliant finale when the first movement's opening theme comes back as if reality suddenly intrudes upon these pleasant memories. The piece ends with an emotional funeral march that dissolves into a slowly fading pulse.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Ellen Hughes in 2007 (*)
There is a special significance in this weekend's performance which will be dedicated “to the memory of a great friend and colleague,” Ellen Hughes who died this past June 9th. She had been, in addition to her associations with local radio stations and the Patriot-News, an indefatigable supporter and promoter of the arts (and all the arts) in Central Pennsylvania, but in this particular instance, Executive Director of Market Square Concerts between 2008 and 2011 inheriting the post from long-time director and founder Lucy Miller Murray and then passing it on to our current directors, Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang. She is one who is greatly missed.

However, in this post, let's look at the personal history behind Tchaikovsky's trio and how friendship and mentoring brought it into being.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Instead of just going back to Tchaikovsky's beginnings (“Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7th, 1840 in...”), why not go back to the very roots of Russian music – or at least Russian music in the 19th Century? For the sake of understanding Tchaikovsky in context, it's important to realize that anyone who wanted to study music in Russia before 1860, roughly, would have to study with some visiting foreigner or go to Germany. The story is that Mikhail Glinka, considered the “Father of Russian Music,” traveled through Europe in the 1830s as a young man, listening to performances everywhere, meeting composers when he could and then spent five months in Berlin studying composition with a fellow named Siegfried Dehn. When Glinka had to return to Russia because of his father's health, he had to end his studies. Later, his friend, Alexander Dargomyzhsky, unable to travel, basically learned composition more or less by borrowing Glinka's notes.

It wasn't until the Russian Musical Society was founded in 1859 by pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein who had also studied in Germany, in fact could count Felix Mendelssohn as a mentor. Three years later, with financial support from an aunt of Tsar Alexander II, Rubinstein opened a music school in her palace, the first music school in Russia, intent on fostering native talent. This would later become the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, much to the amusement of at least one fashionable lady who thought the very idea of teaching music “in” Russian rather than in French or German was an “original idea” (insert appropriate emoticon for ironical-tone-of-voice here).

One of its first students was a low-ranking civil servant in the Department of Justice named Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky who studied composition with Rubinstein and theory with Nikolai Zaremba and who graduated in 1865, three years later.

Nikolai & Anton Rubinstein
The following year, the indefatigable Anton Rubinstein sent his brother Nikolai off to Moscow to do likewise where he founded his own music school and hired the freshly minted Tchaikovsky as a professor of harmony, though the young man (now 26 years old) found himself “barely one page ahead of his students.”

Anton wrote that Nikolai, if he'd worked a little harder, could have been the better pianist. Nikolai, when asked why he didn't compose more music, said Anton “wrote enough for three.”

And yet as pianists they were very different performers: Anton was fiery, and was part of the Franz Liszt school of Romantic Virtuoso; Nikolai, on the other hand, was a more restrained performer, more in the line of Clara Schumann, generally regarded as the opposite (or antidote) to Liszt.

Emil von Sauer, one of Nikolai's students (he also later studied with Liszt), said Anton Rubinstein was the more impetuous performer but he could be inconsistent in his playing; however, “Nikolai never varied,” always the same in public or in private, always maintaining “the same standard of excellence.”

Though Tchaikovsky studied composition with Anton, it is brother Nikolai who became the leading creative force in Tchaikovsky's life.

There is an anecdote I remember hearing back in the '60s though I'm not sure if it's based on fact or is merely one of those legends that grow up to fill in the blanks of composers' lives, but apparently Nikolai had suggested a simple theme to Tchaikovsky as the subject for a few variations, asking him to bring what he'd written a few days later. Supposedly, Tchaikovsky came back with not five variations or even fifteen, but apparently fifty variations – all written within a few days.

Certainly, the “variation procedure” is one of Tchaikovsky's favorites – he seems to spin them, one after the other, almost effortlessly. Actually, it's a trait shared by many Russian composers, especially those of the Nationalist School (like the Mighty Handful or Russian Five) who based their musical style of folk-songs which do not lend themselves to development in the traditional Western European way of creating “musical mileage” as Beethoven or Brahms might do. But Tchaikovsky is much more adept at spinning out variants of his themes, folk-songs or not, with the same innate love of melodic embellishment one might find in works by Mozart or Schubert, a practice that was looked down upon by the Nationalists.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Anton Rubinstein was something of an exotic artist in his day, a German-trained Russian musician with an international reputation: as he put it, “too German for the Russians, too Russian for the Germans, and to everyone a Jew.” Tchaikovsky, as his student, learned too much about German musical procedures rather than learning it, as the Nationalists did on their own, by studying the folk music of the Russian people, thus developing a truly Russian style. Curiously, Russian culture is a mash-up of folk-inspired art and old history focused on Moscow with a European surface, courtesy of Peter the Great and his new Imperial city of St. Petersburg, his “window on Europe.” Tchaikovsky could just as easily write a Germanic theme and develop it “Germanically” as he could use a Russian folk-song and spin endless variations on it: not enough to impress the Nationalists; still, European and American audiences would hear the last movement of his 1st Piano Concerto, say, and swear vodka-swilling Cossacks were breathing down their very backs. Tchaikovsky was constantly caught in the middle of this cultural tug-of-war between the Nationalists like Rimksy-Korsakov and the Cosmopolitans like the Rubinsteins.

And so Anton's idea of sending brother Nikolai and one of his best students off to Moscow was not just opening a branch office in the Old Capital: it was as much an effort to bring Cosmopolitan music and training into the very heart of a culture that looked toward the past.

It was not, however, all things rosy between Nikolai Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, and one particular event would challenge their relationship greatly.

Shortly after he'd completed his new piano concerto – the famous (if not overly-famous) Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor – Tchaikovsky visited Rubinstein and played it for him. Rubinstein, however, savaged it so badly, Tchaikovsky felt wounded not just by the criticism but by the vehemence in which it was delivered. The fact it was Christmas Eve may have had something to do with it, but it was clear, writing to his friend and patron Nadezhda von Meck about it three years later, the criticism still hurt.

Regardless, Tchaikovsky vowed to change not a note of his concerto – though he would later revise it three times – and he found another pianist to premiere it: Hans von Bülow took it on, gave it its world premiere in, rather unusually, Boston that October where problems in the performance (the trombones apparently came in wrong in the middle of the 1st movement and the audience could hear the pianist sing out quite audibly “the brass may go to hell”) did not deter the audience who called for the finale to be repeated (the critical reaction, on the other hand, was quite different).

When performed for the first time in Russia – in St. Petersburg – the pianist was a former student of Anton Rubinstein's and a professor at the Conservatory named Gustav Kross. According to Tchaikovsky, his performance was “an atrocious cacophony.” Small wonder one of the critics likened the new concerto to “the first pancake – a flop.” Were these critics reacting to the piece or to the performance? If nothing else, Tchaikovsky was getting a crash course in how to deal with critics.

As it turned out, Bülow soon dropped it from his repertoire. The Moscow premiere took place with one of Tchaikovsky's composition students, Sergei Taneyev, an excellent pianist who'd studied with Nikolai Rubinstein as the soloist, and none other than Nikolai Rubinstein himself on the podium. He had eventually changed his mind about the piece and subsequently played it often himself, especially while touring in Europe, helping to spread Tchaikovsky's fame.

Nikolai Rubinstein
In fact, Nikolai had such a change of heart about it, he even asked his friend to write a second concerto specifically for him to premiere. (It is one of those things that most classical music lovers who dote on Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto don't realize he actually wrote a 2nd – and in fact, a 3rd – piano concerto.)

But by the time the 2nd Piano Concerto was finished in March of 1880, Tchaikovsky was concerned about what Rubinstein's reaction might be this time. Even though he still made suggestions (and, in hindsight, many of them probably justified), Rubinstein was looking forward to playing it.

Unfortunately, before that could be finalized, Nikolai Rubinstein, while on tour in Paris, became ill with tuberculosis – and died on March 23rd, 1881.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Tchaikovsky had been vacationing in Italy and had moved on to southern France when he received two telegrams, as he wrote to his brother Modeste on March 25th, 1881. The first informed him Nikolai Rubinstein was quite ill, his condition hopeless; the second one told him Rubinstein had died. Tchaikovsky left at once for Paris.

On the 28th, he wrote a long letter to his patron, Mme Nadezhda von Meck in which he described how his thoughts, following the funeral that morning, have turned to religious matters. He was now preparing to return to Moscow, accompanying the body of his friend.

Nadezhda von Meck
The following day, he writes again to Modeste, that he is on his way home and will tell him more about Rubinstein's death when he arrives but also about the news of Mme von Meck's impending bankruptcy. It has been her fortune and her love of his music that supported the composer with a generous stipend that should free him from the need to earn money, so he could dedicate all his time to composing – on the one odd condition that they never meet. This led to many new works like the 4th Symphony completed in 1878 which, when he wrote to her about it, he called “our symphony.” What this news of bankruptcy means is at the moment uncertain, but he thinks he may need to return to teaching (which he loathes) in order to make ends meet. This uncertainty, on top of the loss of his friend...

After returning to Moscow, he writes to Mme von Meck that he has declined the Directorship of the Moscow Conservatory, having been asked to replace Nikolai Rubinstein in the post. It would have been the best income he could imagine as a teacher, but it would also be the end of his creative life.

Shortly afterward, he left for his sister's country estate in Ukraine, his beloved Kamenka. She was ill and her husband was taking her to Switzerland for her health and so Tchaikovsky found himself, despite his concern for his sister's health, in a more enjoyable role – playing Uncle Petya to her children. He writes to his publisher, Jurgenson, “I have no inclination to compose. I wish you would commission something. Is there really nothing that you want? Some external impulse might reawaken my suspended activity. Perhaps I am getting old and all my songs are sung.”

Tchaikovsky had just observed his 41st birthday.

A few days later he writes again to both Mme von Meck and to Jurgenson that in his current frame of mind, his thoughts have turned to religious music and he has begun studying the old church music of the Russian Orthodox faith (which is actually more complicated than it would seem). He asks Jurgenson to send him certain collections and books that will help him. He describes himself as “gray, without inspiration or joy” but then recalls he'd been through similar periods “equally devoid of creative impulse” and survived.

In the meantime, he writes to Modeste about the difficulties he's finding in setting the Vespers service, how even the priests he talks to do not understand how the changeable parts of a given day's service are to be chosen. Jurgenson sends him a project – editing the liturgical works of Russian composer Dmitri Bortnyansky (1751-1825) whose 7th setting of the Cherubic Hymn is the one work of his best known in the West. Tchaikovsky thought a “complete edition,” while imposing, was “out of place in connection with a man of no great talent who has written a lot of rubbish and only about a dozen good things.” But, realizing his situation, he also noted “on the other hand there is nothing derogatory in my editing this rubbish for the sake of what I can earn. My pride, however, suffers from it.” It would prove, however, a difficult task to complete.

At the same time, he writes to the conductor Eduard Napravnik trying to arrange for the first performance of his new Festival Overture 1812, written in the fall of 1880, a work initially suggested by Nikolai Rubinstein. The original project was abandoned in the days following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II only 10 days before Rubinstein's death, and so now Tchaikovsky was looking for another occasion for his “occasional” piece. He described the work – and this, to the conductor he hoped would premiere it – as “of no great value and I shall not be at all surprised or hurt if you consider the style of the music unsuitable to a symphony concert.” It would eventually be premiered in the summer of 1882.

Rubinstein had called Tchaikovsky “a composer of genius” but still didn't care for some of the more modernist tendencies in his harmony and form (keep in mind, even as a pianist, he was more of a classicist than his wildly romantic brother, Anton). One of the few works that Rubinstein could totally endorse was the Serenade for Strings, composed in 1880, and one of Tchaikovsky's more neo-classical works, certainly by comparison to the next work he wrote, the 1812 Overture.

This often contradictory history between them did not keep Tchaikovsky from missing Rubinstein terribly, valuing him also as “one of the greatest virtuosi of the day” and one of the main props of his own creative life. Rubinstein had always been the best interpreter of his music, either as pianist or as conductor. In fact, one time, Rubinstein played Tchaikovsky's G Major Piano Sonata so well that even the composer “did not recognize it.” He knew that, with his music in Rubinstein's hands, he would experience “no disappointment.”

And now this champion was gone forever.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

In late summer, Tchaikovsky wrote to Taneyev that “I believe I might never write anything good again.” Taneyev was still hoping to convince him to come back to the Conservatory but Tchaikovsky declined (at least for now) and told him, “You, on the contrary, seem made to carry out Rubinstein's work.”

From the 1812 Overture in the fall of 1880 until September of 1881, he'd composed nothing. Even the atmosphere at Kamenka could not inspire him because he was constantly worried about the health of his absent sister. He struggled with his Bortnyansky edition – this “wishy-washy music” which made him “burn with rage.” Yet he eventually finished his setting of the liturgy (not to be confused with an earlier setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom of 1878) – excerpts from the Vespers or All-Night Vigil – only to have it forbidden by the ecclesiastical authorities in Moscow where an archbishop described it “to be a Catholic service!”

The next day after informing Mme von Meck about this news, he left for Rome (did he see the irony, there?) where he attended a concert celebrating the 70th birthday of Franz Liszt whose music “leaves me cold. [His works] have more poetical intention than actual creative power, more color than form – despite external effectiveness, they are lacking in the deeper qualities.” Unlike Schumann, he continued, whose works, though they may have had their problems, Tchaikovsky preferred immensely.

Meanwhile, his new Violin Concerto – composed and published in 1878 and, like the 1st Piano Concerto, likewise on a rocky road trying to find a performer who'd play it – was finally given its first performance in Vienna on December 4th, 1881, a premiere which prompted Brahms' championing critic, Eduard Hanslick, to famously exclaim this was music that “stinks in the ear.”

As his patron, Nadezhda von Meck had hoped Tchaikovsky would provide her with a piano trio – for her “house trio,” musicians she's hired to play regularly for her and her guests and to teach her children their music lessons. This included a young pianist she'd picked up in Paris on her travels, a teen-ager named Claude Debussy who had just written her a piano trio of his own.

At the time – this would be October 26th, 1880, some five months after he'd completed his 2nd Piano Concerto – he'd told her that

= = = = =
“I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this is beyond me. My acoustic apparatus [!] is such that I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend... it is torture for me to have to listen to a string trio or a sonata of any kind for piano and strings. I cannot explain this physiological peculiarity; I simply state it as a fact. Piano and orchestra – that is quite another matter but... here we are dealing with two equal opponents. ...On the other hand, how unnatural is the union of three such individualities as the piano, the violin and the 'cello! Each loses something of its value. The warm and singing tone of the [strings] sounds limited beside that king of instruments, the piano [which] strives in vain to prove it can sing like its rivals. To my mind, the piano can be effective in only three situations: alone, in context with the orchestra, or as accompaniment, as the background of a picture. But a trio implies equality and a relationship and do these exist between stringed solo instruments and the piano? They do not; and this is the reason why there is always something artificial about a piano trio...”
= = = = =

Now, almost 14 months later, Tchaikovsky writes in December 1881 to tell her “the beginning of [my new piano] trio is finished.”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

It might come as less of a surprise for those familiar with the new piano concerto he'd written for Nikolai Rubinstein since the slow movement contains long solo and duet passages for the concertmaster and principal cellist – this becomes a mini-piano-trio (or at times “triple concerto”) within the concerto when the pianist enters. (Listen here, with L'Orchestre de Paris conducted by Paavo Järvi [not Putin] and pianist Denis Matsuev, beginning at 7:23 to 12:46)

“In spite of this antipathy,” as he'd described it in his earlier letter, “I made up my mind to experiment with this combination which so far I have never attempted,” Tchaikovsky wrote from Rome with the surprising news. “Whether I shall carry it through, whether it will sound well, I do not know, but I should like to bring it to a happy termination.” He adds, after telling her he is only trying this to bring her some pleasure – since no one specifically asked him to write it, not even his publisher – that “I will not conceal from you that I have had to do some violence to my feelings before I could bring myself to express my musical ideas in a new and unaccustomed form,” this combination of piano with strings.

At the same time, he writes to his publisher, Jurgenson, shortly after the new year that things are going badly for him, musically: his two latest operas (The Maid of Orleans and Eugene Onyegin) have not achieved any new productions, the violinist he'd asked to play his Violin Concerto, Leopold Auer, is apparently warning other Russian violinists not to play the work, and his 2nd Concerto is not being taken up by any pianist (since Nikolai Rubinstein's death postponed the premiere). “But what makes me furious and hurts and mortifies me most” is that the Mariinsky Opera “which would not spend a penny on The Maid of Orleans has granted 30,000 rubles to mount Rimksy-Korsakov's [new opera], Snegourochka [“The Snow Maiden”]. Is it not equally unpleasant to you that 'our subject' has been taken away from us...? It is as though someone has forcibly torn away a piece of myself and offered it to the public in a new and brilliant setting. I could cry with mortification.”

Ten years earlier, he had written incidental music for Ostrovsky's play and had long hoped to write an opera based on it. Now, this dream would be impossible. It was a new wrinkle in an old rivalry.

His next letter, January 25th, nine days later, informed Mme von Meck that “the trio is finished... Now I can say with some conviction that the work is not bad.” Having written orchestral music all his creative life, the idea of writing chamber music (despite his earlier string quartets) was unfamiliar territory for him and he feared he may have “arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio instead of writing directly for my instruments.” He tried to avoid this, he adds, but wasn't sure he's succeeded.

One wonders what her young pianist, Claude Debussy, would have made of this work, had he seen it – or played it. He was employed by her only for the summers in 1880, 1881 and 1882, so it is quite likely he might have. Considering what Tchaikovsky thought of the 18-year-old Debussy's Danse bohemienne which she'd sent him in September, 1880 – “It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity” – history has apparently not recorded young Monsieur Debussy's reaction to Tchaikovsky's Trio.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Tchaikovsky had started the trio at some point in mid-December, 1881. By January 25th, 1882, he could tell her he'd completed it, and then, at the end of the month he sent a copy off to his publisher in Moscow.

In the accompanying letter, the composer explained “the Trio is dedicated to Nikolai Grigorievich Rubinstein.” (The official dedication is To the Memory of a Great Artist.) “It has a somewhat plaintive and funereal coloring” (to which I can only add, “ya think?). He also urged that Taneyev, who should be the pianist to first perform the work, “keep fairly accurately to my metronome markings.”

Tchaikovsky remained in Italy until April, returned to Moscow only briefly before moving on to Kamenka once again. In May, he wrote to Modeste how he was weeping because he had finished reading Charles Dickens' Bleak House, now faced with tearing himself away from all these characters and then talks of a new opera he is to write, Mazeppa, based on the Ukrainian folk hero (the pull of the Cosmopolitan answered by the pull of the Nationalist). He remained at Kamenka except for a brief visit to Moscow which only aggravated his dislike of the city, its public life and the social politics there. It wasn't long before he'd returned to Italy.

The Trio was read through in a private performance at the Moscow Conservatory on the first anniversary of Nikolai Rubinstein's death with Sergei Taneyev at the piano. The cellist was Wilhelm Fitzenhagen for whom Tchaikovsky composed his Variations on a Rococo Theme in 1876. The first public performance was held on October 30th where it was well received by the audience, less so by the critics.

Sergei Taneyev
After the October premiere, Taneyev wrote to the composer that “I have studied your Trio for the past three weeks, working on it for six hours a day. I ought long since have written you about this glorious work. I have never had greater pleasure in studying a new composition. The majority of the musicians here [in Moscow] are enchanted with the Trio. It also pleased the public. [The Director of the Musical Society] has received a number of letters asking that it may be repeated,” a letter which greatly pleased the composer who responded “my artistic vanity is much flattered by your praise as it is insensible to the opinions of the press, for experience has taught me to regard them with philosophical indifference.”

Even if he hadn't died before then, Tchaikovsky would've been equally immune to yet another comment by Eduard Hanslick who heard the Trio the first time it was performed in Vienna: “the faces of the listeners almost expressed the wish that it should be also the last time… It belongs to the category of suicidal compositions, which kill themselves by their merciless length.”

The whole work is usually about 48-50 minutes long in performance, the second movement alone about a half-hour long. The composer sanctioned at least one substantial cut in the finale, itself one more variation, reducing the length by about 5 minutes.

It has been suggested that many of the second movement's variations – basically short “character pieces” – were inspired directly by pleasant memories of times spent with Rubinstein. Even the theme of the variations was supposedly something he'd heard while on a picnic with his mentor in the countryside, sung by nearby peasants. Tchaikovsky of course denied all these associations but given their often tumultuous history, his respect for Rubinstein the artist – the piano part is as challenging as any concerto – and the way his death affected him, any memories must surely have influenced so emotional a composer as Tchaikovsky, working at white heat.

Does it matter? No. Though it goes far to explain the unusually dramatic and elegiac nature of the music, considering its dedication.

Tchaikovsky in 1892
And then, eleven years later, the 20-year-old composer whom Tchaikovsky had thought so highly of, a young man named Sergei Rachmaninoff who'd written a symphonic poem Tchaikovsky was looking forward to conducting, composed a Trio élégiaque dedicated to the memory of Tchaikovsky who had just died at the age of 53. Certainly one of Rachmaninoff's emotions was the loss of someone who could've been an important mentor in his life – perhaps like Nikolai Rubinstein had been in Tchaikovsky's.

And while Rachmaninoff's work is clearly modeled on Tchaikovsky's trio, complete with a vast second movement set of variations, it is also... even longer...

It is interesting to contemplate, listening to Tchaikovsky's Trio, how music perpetuates itself, how Tchaikovsky, by championing Rachmaninoff, managed to carry on the role that one friend, one great artist, had had on his life.

It is just one of those magical connections we can find in this mystery we call Art.

- Dick Strawser

= = = = = = = =

(*) The photo of Ellen Hughes was taken in 2007 by Dan Gleiter of the Patriot-News.

All quotations from Tchaikovsky's letters taken from Modeste Tchaikovsky's edition, translated by Rosa Newmarch and published in 1973 by Vienna House (NY).

Monday, July 13, 2015

Summermusic 2015 Begins: Friday with Schubert & Schumann

A Schubert Trio, 2014
"One glance at Schubert’s Trio and the troubles of our human existence disappear, and all the world is fresh and bright again.”

That's Robert Schumann, music critic as well as composer, writing about Franz Schubert's B-flat Major Piano Trio, the work that opens this season's Summermusic series with Market Square Concerts on Friday. In fact, a work by Schumann – his Piano Quartet – will balance the Schubert on the 2nd half.

It may be a lot to expect that one or two pieces of music would make all the anxiety we feel watching the evening news go away – whether it's the spread of ISIS, the Greek Debt Crisis, “climate change” (void where prohibited by law), or the fact that cancer can exist, and that's without even mentioning drugs, crime or presidential campaigns.

To some, those who use music to make “the troubles of our human existence disappear” would be labeled as escapists (because everybody needs a label) yet to find out how necessary that idea is to Americans today, all you have to do is turn on the TV.

Of course, there are different ways of escaping: you could be watching The Amazing Ninja Survival Chase on most network channels or you could be watching the latest Masterpiece Mystery on your local BBC affiliate – just as you might prefer reading a book, whether it's Another Shame of Gray or Proust's In Search of Lost Time.

This Friday, at 8:00 at Market Square Presbyterian Church in downtown Harrisburg, you can let Schubert and Schumann “take you away from all this.”

Market Square Concerts directors Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang will again be joined by cellist Cheng-Hou Lee to play Schubert's B-flat Piano Trio, and Stuart Malina will be at the piano, joining Sirotin, violist Michael Stepniak and cellist Fiona Thompson for the Schumann Piano Quartet in E-flat Major.

To counter claims of “escapism,” I like to point out that without balance, things – including us – would fall down. Or apart (“the center cannot hold” as Yeats expressed it after World War I). The suicide rate would greatly increase, I suspect, if all we had was The News to watch and read. That's why they invented the internet – so we could amuse ourselves with endless cat videos, right?

And Classical Music is full of good things that act like antioxidants for the soul – balancing tension with release, and unity with variety (whether harmonic, melodic, or structural), among other things. There's a fast movement followed by a slow movement; the weightier, more intellectually demanding first movement is usually followed by an emotional slow movement, both of which can be balanced by two light-hearted movements, a dance (minuet or scherzo) and a simpler, often child-like fourth movement to give everything, even dramatic first movements, a happy ending. Plus there are loud passages followed by soft passages – it's not all one or the other.

There are reasons for that – because, before they invented listening systems you could plug directly into your ears, people listened that way and needed the respite from one or the other. A three-minute rock song blasting away may be one thing, but a half-hour-long piece of chamber music (much less an hour-long symphony) has to approach the listener differently and it does this through balance.

While there is, of course, the musical equivalent of broccoli and others may consider serialism a little too high-fiber for their tastes, a musical diet that offers you some of the finest works by some of the greatest composers can offer a good balance as well.

For those who attended last year's concerts, you may remember hearing Schubert's E-flat Piano Trio and Schumann's Piano Quintet. In fact, there's a balance right there – not just that we often think of these composers together (not quite like we do Schumann and Brahms, mentor and protege; and not exactly like the collegial Mozart and Haydn, either).

Schubert, technically, was born in the 18th Century – 1797, so just barely – but that doesn't make him an 18th-Century composer. Beethoven, born almost 27 years earlier, was already working on his first great masterpieces (like the Op. 18 String Quartets; the 1st Symphony was just around the corner) around the time Schubert was born in another part of Vienna. But where Beethoven was already “not sounding like an 18th-Century composer,” much to the chagrin of his teacher, Haydn, the epitome of the 18th Century, many of Schubert's works – especially his early symphonies and string quartets – had a distinctly Haydnesque appeal to them up until the music he began writing in the mid-1820s: his early music possessed clear textures, well-balanced and equally clear structures, and an essentially direct harmonic language, all trademarks of the classical style.

Around the same time Beethoven, now in his 50s, had begun those monumental Late Quartets, Schubert finally left the 18th-Century ideal to explore his own monumental late works, expanding not just the length of the music and how far he could stretch it but also the harmonic language and how it related to the overall forms both composers had inherited from the past.

This, in turn, inspired Robert Schumann, would-be law student, who was born when Schubert was 13 and who was himself 18 when Schubert died at the age of 31.

You can read more about the conjunction of Schubert and Schumann in this post from last year's series on the MSC Blog: Schumann and Schubert's Piano Trio.

Though this refers to the E-flat Major Piano Trio performed last year, much of the information is pertinent to this year's trio for another interesting reason, speaking of balance.

In the Good Old Days, composers didn't write one piece at a time – think of Haydn's quartets (usually a half-dozen in a set) or those “London” Symphonies (two sets of six written for separate visits). Even Beethoven wrote six quartets for his first published set, Op. 18, and there were three written for Count Razumovsky.

Beethoven often conceived his symphonies in contrasting pairs – if not the Eroica & the 4th, certainly the 5th & 6th, the 7th & 8th, and the epic 9th & the barely begun 10th, left in sketches when he died in 1827 at the age of 57.

Schubert, whether he planned them that way or not, wrote his two piano trios around the same time. In fact, there's a fair bit of debate about which came first and which one might have been performed on the only concert of his music he was ever to give in his lifetime, that epic program on March 26, 1828 (the first anniversary, as it turned out, of Beethoven's death – Schubert had been a pall-bearer at the funeral).

Even though there are similarities, they are not so different in the way they're written – not at least the kind of contrasts that you would find between Beethoven's 5th & 6th Symphonies or even within a set of six string quartets. But yet, neither sounds derivative of the other, given our age for sequels and prequels.

Franz Schubert: Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, D.898
with the Munich Artistrio (complete in one clip and concludes at 40:53)


(While there are numerous, not always reasonable performances or decent recordings available on-line, this one was recorded at a summer music festival last July in Lubljana, Slovenia. One wonders how Schubert's music might have changed if, in 1816, he had actually been accepted for that teaching position in Laibach (now known as Lubljana) where he would have had a reliable job, a steady income and would've been able to fend off the apprentice baker to whom his teen-aged sweetheart, Therese Grob, was eventually engaged to because her father thought dimly of Schubert's prospects.)

Schubert, who could write several different settings of the same poem, firmly believed (like most good composers before him) that there were many ways to skin a sonata, not just churning out one piece after another all built to the same mold. This "sonata form" was the traditional structure on which you stretched out all your thematic and harmonic ideas for the serious opening movement of any multi-movement abstract work, whether it's a sonata, a symphony, or a piano trio (as well as many of Schubert's non-abstract works that seemed to defy the idea of a sonata like the “Wanderer Fantasy”).

These two trios were published eight years after Schubert's death as Op. 99 in B-flat and Op. 100 in E-flat, making the pairing even more obvious even though it's a fairly arbitrary coincidence. The cataloguer Otto Deutsch numbered the E-flat Trio (completed in November 1827 and first heard the following month at Vienna's Musikverein) as D.929 and the B-flat Trio (whose manuscript has been lost and which may have been composed sometime during the year 1827 – some sources suggest it was written in October but there is no proof of that) as D.898.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

On the other hand, Robert Schumann, who was inclined to focus his concentration, wrote both his Piano Quintet and Piano Quartet consecutively in the same summer – in fact, he wrote almost all his chamber music that year. As he had focused on songs, writing 168 of them in 1840, and 1841 saw him working on four different symphonies (not all of which saw the light of day but which produced No. 1 and, eventually, No. 4), 1842 became the “Year of Chamber Music,” actually an eight-month period between early-June and late-January the next year.

Having completed three string quartets in the span of seven weeks and following a bit of a summer holiday in August (it should be mentioned the Schumanns' second child was born nine months later), Schumann returned to Leipzig in early September and began writing the Piano Quintet on September 23rd, finishing the rough draft on October 12th. Then he started his Piano Quartet twelve days later and finished it sometime during the next month (unfortunately not indicating a specific end-date).

Robert Schumann: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.47
1st Movement with members of the Cleveland Quartet and Emanuel Ax

2nd Movement – a tribute to his friend Mendelssohn's “elfin” music from the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture or the Octet for strings – with the Lemberg Piano Quartet

3rd Movement with the Faure Quartet

4th Movement with members of the Emerson Quartet & Menahem Pressler


Now, I could write a good deal about Schumann and the background to his Piano Quartet, but instead, why not have Bruce Adolphe talk about it for an hour – and that's only about the third movement! If you have the time, I highly recommend listening to the way he “deconstructs” the piece – warning: after 24 minutes, you've heard only the opening few notes and two versions of the first theme, but you'll hear a great deal about Schumann's harmonic ambiguity and his use of dissonance, not to mention what Schumann wrote about hearing his own music (courtesy of his alter-egos, Florestan and Eusebius).

At 55:00, Adolphe begins to talk about Schumann as a “Romantic,” about the role of suffering and about the unsuccessful suicide Schumann attempted 11 years after writing all this chamber music which led to his being institutionalized for mental illness, where he died three years later. If you don't have the time – or if talk of diminished chords and suspended ninths goes in one ear and doesn't even make it to the other – I recommend at least listening to these five minutes.



This, by the way, is from a brilliant series of talks presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. While Bruce Adolphe brought his approach to Mozart's G Minor Piano Quartet to Market Square Concerts in seasons past, the pianist Michael Brown appeared in Market Square Concert's 2011-2012 season playing Beethoven's and Schubert.

He and the cellist in this Lincoln Center ensemble, Nick Canellakis, will be playing at Market Square Church in MSC's November program with works ranging from Schumann, Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff to Michael Brown and Bulgarian folk music (oh yeah). Though they don't have much to do during this lecture, the violinist is Sean Lee and the violist, Matthew Lipman. Their performance of the quartet's third movement actually – finally! – begins at 1:03:07.

I'm sure if Peter has any remarks before the performance on Friday, they will be much shorter.

= = = = = = =
Concert #2 takes place Sunday at 4pm at Market Square Church and will feature Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor and the Dvořák Piano Quintet in A Major.

Concert #3 takes place Wednesday evening at 6pm (yes, six o'clock) at the Civic House on Front Street in Harrisburg just south of the Harvey Taylor Bridge - with two string sextets: Brahms' G Major Sextet, Op. 36 and Arnold Schoenberg's lushly romantic "Verklärte Nacht."

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Amernet Quartet and "Jewish Voices"

Amernet Quartet
Saturday's performance, concluding the official season of Market Square Concerts, brings the Amernet String Quartet to the Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg for a program entitled “Jewish Voices” in observance of the 70th Anniversary of the End of World War II.

The concert is at 8:00 but there is a pre-concert talk with this program, given by Dr. Truman Bullard at 7:15.

Though Felix Mendelssohn may seem the odd-man-out for music relating to the Second World War, his music – whether or not it showed any influences of Jewish themes – was banned in Nazi Germany. Even though his father had Felix and his older sister Fanny baptized in the officially sanctioned Lutheran Church in Prussia when they were still children, his Jewish origins dogged him throughout his career, winning him the enmity of the anti-Semitic Wagner and producing vociferous demonstrations against his appearances on several occasions throughout Germany. While he had composed the oratorio Elijah, he had also composed one on St. Paul, converted on the Road to Damascus. At the end of his life, he was working on a third oratorio, Christus, left incomplete. His symphonies may have evoked landscapes of Scotland and Italy, but in the 5th (actually one of his earlier symphonies) he quoted Luther's “Ein feste Burg” as part of the symphony known as “The Reformation.”

Mendelssohn in 1847
His last quartet – his last completed major work – was a dramatic outpouring of his personal loss following the death of his beloved sister, Fanny, who'd died suddenly in 1847 of a stroke before Felix had returned home from the English premiere of Elijah. He was unable to cope with the loss, canceling plans for further performances of his latest masterpiece. During a trip to Switzerland, hopefully to revitalize his nerves, he composed his F Minor Quartet which he dubbed “a requiem for Fanny.”

(Follow this link to hear the Amernet Quartet perform the work's first movement.)

Highly Romantic in sound and passion, this is far removed from the elfin delights we often associate with his name – masterpieces like the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture or the scherzo from the Octet for Strings, both written when he was still in his mid-teens – but nothing if not genuine in its intensity and various stages of grief.

A month after it was given a private performance in Mendelssohn's Leipzig home, the composer died following a series of strokes at the age of 38.

Despite Mendelssohn's enduring fame as one of the leading composers of the 19th Century, his statue in front of the Leipzig Gewandhaus was removed by the Nazis in 1936 and only replaced in 2008. The Mendelssohn Scholarship for students at the Leipzig Conservatory which he founded was discontinued in 1934, then re-instated in 1963.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Erwin Schulhoff
In 1913 and 1918, the winner of this Mendelssohn Scholarship was a young Czech named Erwin Schulhoff, a Jew born in Prague in 1894, first for piano and the second time for composition. He had received early encouragement from no less than Antonin Dvořák and studied in Vienna and Leipzig where his studies were interrupted by World War I. He served at the Russian Front in the Austro-Hungarian Army and after having been wounded, found himself in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp at the end of the war.

Afterwards, he became interested in the popular music of the day, a man in his 20s inspired by jazz. American critic Olin Downes wrote of Schulhoff's “Five Pieces for String Quartet” at the Salzburg Festival in 1924:

“These pieces attempted only to charm or entertain. They had spontaneous humor, sentiment, a fluent and admirable technic [sic]. The idiom has enough modern pepper in it to constantly stimulate the ear; but the music is not forced, any more than it is portentous. A young composer of talent disported himself in these pieces, and his audience was duly grateful. Not all composers, old or young, have the good sense not to take themselves, now and again, too seriously.”

Here's the 3rd piece, a Czech folk dance, performed by the Kontras Quartet:


...and the sultry Tango, (No. 4), performed by the Cypress Quartet:


Between his style and his Jewish heritage, not to mention his leftist politics, Schulhoff and his music were quickly labeled “degenerate” by the Nazi regime. Returning to Prague, his Communist sympathies began getting him in trouble there, as well. By the time the Nazis invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, he had composed his highly discordant Symphony No. 5 (performed by the Harrisburg Symphony several seasons ago) to convince the Soviet Union to accept his application for a visa which was finally approved in 1941. Unfortunately, Schulhoff was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis before he could leave Prague.

On April 29th, 1945 – 70 years ago next Wednesday – American troops liberated the concentration camp at Dachau though others had been already liberated – among them, Buchenwald by the Americans on April 11th, Auschwitz by the Soviets on January 27th, 1945. The first had been found by the Soviet troops advancing through Poland at Majdanek on July 23rd, 1944, but all of this was too late for Erwin Schulhoff who died of tuberculosis in the camp at Weissenburg in Bavaria on August 18th, 1942.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Dmitri Shostakovich (l) & Mieczyslaw Weinberg (r)
Of the four works on the Amernet Quartet's performance, the quartets by Shostakovich (written in 1949) and Mieczyslaw Weinberg (in 1945) are closely connected, biographically. And to understand either of them, we need to be aware of two aspects of life in the Soviet Union – the role of the artist in society and what is usually labeled “The Jewish Question.”

Let's begin with Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 4 in D Major – a title that sounds abstract and uncomplicated enough. It's in four movements, the first built on folk-like tunes over almost bagpipe-like drones and the last using Jewish folksongs absorbed into the fabric (rather than being stated as one might in, say, a “suite of Jewish folk tunes”).

Here is the recording by the Fitzwilliam Quartet accompanied by the musical score:


Having run afoul of Stalin's government (or more specifically, Stalin himself) with his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District which provoked a terrifying backlash in the press (the famous “Muddle instead of Music” review), Dmitri Shostakovich, then a rising star in the Soviet musical firmament not yet 30 years old, chose to pull his 4th Symphony before its premiere would make things worse and, instead, compose a new symphony - his 5th - which someone else described as “A Soviet Artist's Artistic Reply to Just Criticism.” This managed to rehabilitate the composer in a country where official recognition was a matter of success or failure.

But it happened again.

Andrei Zhdanov, bureaucrat
Andrei Zhdanov, Chairman of the “Supreme Soviet” (a primary governing body within the Soviet Union), had been Stalin's cultural minister in the mid-1940s, devising various artistic policies regarding what he considered “proper” for Soviet Art and trying to eradicate foreign influences. Folksong was considered a good source of material as it appealed to The People – and keep in mind Soviet Culture was an ideological one, not an ethnic one. With this policy, Zhdanov was then able to censor any artist – composer, writer, painter, poet – who disagreed with him.

In January, 1948, Zhdanov issued something of a “Decree against Formalism” which condemned various composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian among others, for being too entrenched in the principals of Western Music, writing things like symphonies that were apolitical and all about abstract form rather than symphonic poems extolling the virtues of Soviet Men and Women.

As a result, these composers' works were banned in performance and it was unlikely anyone would commission new works from them; without performance fees coming in from their publishers, eventually their sources of income would dry up. They were forced to publicly recant their “artistic crimes” before the Soviet Composers' Union. But instead of writing “an artistic reply to just criticism” this time, Shostakovich continued to compose what he wanted, putting it aside for eventual publication, assuming this too would pass. Otherwise, he made a precarious living writing music for films and official music for the Communist Party (of which he was not yet officially a member, by the way).

Shostakovich & Copland, NYC 1949
Curiously, Stalin himself called Shostakovich to inform him he was being sent to an international arts and peace conference in New York City representing the Soviet Union, but the composer wondered how someone shunned by the government could represent that government on the international stage. While he was able to get a little flexibility in certain works of his being performed again, he still was forced to read a prepared speech which he was unable to finish reading (replaced by someone with a rich radio baritone voice).

The perception in the West was, as a result, that Shostakovich was a “tool of the government” and nothing more than a party hack. Later that year, he was “commissioned” to write The Song of the Forest in praise of Stalin (“the great gardener”) and his reforestation project. While we in the West call this "propaganda," perhaps Soviet citizens considered this "patriotic music."

In that sense, it's interesting to see this informal photograph of Shostakovich, the representative of Soviet Communist Art, apparently arguing with Aaron Copland, the creator of "The Great American Sound," taken in New York during that international conference. Once a member of the American Communist Party in the '30s, Copland would be brought before the House Committee for Un-American Activities by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. However, appalled at Stalin's persecution of Shostakovich, Copland had already begun divesting himself of his political affiliations by then.

At the same time he was working on The Song of the Forests, Shostakovich was composing his String Quartet No. 4 in D Major, a work he knew would never be performed under his current situation.

But his 1st Violin Concerto (he was in the midst of the cadenza movement when Zhdanov's decree was delivered) and several other works including much if not all of his 10th Symphony, went into that same desk drawer for later.

Another thing we need to understand is the Soviet attitude toward the Jews. While, compared to the Nazi policy, Stalin's Soviet Union attracted many leftist, Jewish intellectuals who needed to leave Germany before the war – as Erwin Schulhoff had tried to do. While a few sentences would hardly do the complexity of the situation justice, Stalin's policy in 1931 was to condemn anti-semitism, but by 1936 and the start of the Great Purge, many of those targeted by Stalin for “anti-Soviet crimes” were also Jewish though several historians are careful to point out they were not targeted because of their ethnicity.

In the following years, Jews were frequently persecuted along with many other factions in Soviet society. And proximity could often prove its own dilemma. Because Shostakovich was a friend of a general and had dinner with him, discussing artistic issues, the composer was brought in for interrogation after the general was implicated in a plot to overthrow Stalin. In fact, Shostakovich was prepared to be arrested at any moment and imprisoned, only to be reprieved when he arrived for his next interrogation to discover the agent interrogating him had himself been arrested! (All this while he was writing his 5th Symphony!)

After the war, however, despite seeming government support for Jewish cultural organizations, leading Jewish intellectuals and artists were being labeled “rootless cosmopolitans” and were accused in the press of “bourgeois Jewish nationalism.” The director of the Moscow Yiddish Theater, Solomon Mikhoels, was murdered (it turned out later by order of Stalin) – he was a friend of Shostakovich's and also Mieczyslaw Weinberg's father-in-law. Shortly after Mikhoels' murder, Soviet agents began following Weinberg himself.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Mieczyslaw Weinberg
Mieczyslaw Weinberg – pronounced "myeh-CHEE-swoff", his first name also appears in Hebraic form, Moisie; his last name is often transliterated from the Russian spelling, Vainberg – was a Jew born in Poland who lost his entire family in the Łodz Ghetto. After the 2nd World War began, he went to Moscow where he met Shostakovich. Even though the 20-year-old conservatory graduate never officially studied with Shostakovich, the recenbtly rehabilitated composer was certainly his major mentor. “It was as if I had been born anew,” Weinberg later wrote.

In 1944, Weinberg composed a piano quintet (which you can hear at “Stuart & Friends” with Stuart Malina and Peter Sirotin among the performers on May 5th at HACC's Rose Lehrman Center) – Shostakovich had written his own quintet in 1940. While Shostakovich's Quintet is of course one of the great works of the chamber music repertoire, here is Weinberg, rarely heard in this country at all and it seems we have a mini-festival here in Harrisburg with your chance to hear two of his works, composed within a year of each other, in the span of ten days.

1945 was a busy year for Weinberg: he composed both his 4th & 5th Quartets as well as a few sonatas, several songs and piano pieces that year.

Given everything that's available on YouTube, I was unable to find any performance of the 5th Quartet which the Amernet will be performing here. But to give you an idea of what you'll be hearing, here is an audio recording with “Quartet Danel” in an Italian production of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's String Quartet No. 4, written earlier that same year.



If you only have time for one movement, I recommend the 3rd, 18:04 – 27:45, a slow march, or at least the last few minutes before it ends.

When Shostakovich's music was banned following the 1948 decree by Zhdanov and he was “removed” from the Conservatory in Moscow, Weinberg's works were not banned though he was almost completely ignored by the Soviet musical establishment. At this time, he could only earn money by writing for the theater and the circus.

After Shostakovich and Weinberg initially met, “they had declared a law that each would play for the other his latest music” and Weinberg's wife recalled how, once receiving a telephone call from Shostakovich, Weinberg went over to hear Shostakovich's latest Quartet – No. 8, which he told him was his musical autobiography. Weinberg “returned home shaken by the power of this music.”

Shostakovich dedicated his own 10th Quartet to his friend Moisei Weinberg in 1964 – he always “loved and valued his music” yet barely had the strength to attend the premiere of Weinberg's opera “The Madonna & the Soldier” in Leningrad during the last months of his life in 1975. Weinberg (often referred to by the nickname “Metak”) had been one of Shostakovich's close friends during the dark, lonely years following the Zhdanov decree in January, 1948.

At the time Weinberg's father-in-law had been murdered, without knowing the circumstances of Stalin's involvement, Shostakovich, despite his own political problems, went to the Weinberg's flat to offer his condolences; shortly afterward, he quietly loaned some cash to him to help his family get through these difficult times even though he would have very little income of his own, now.

Shostakovich
In September, 1948, on his 42nd birthday, Shostakovich invited several friends (including Weinberg) to hear his latest work, a series of “simple Jewish songs.” Given the current “anti-Cosmopolitan” policy of the Stalin Regime (another buzzword for “Jew”), Weinberg's wife realized this was not just a new work but “voiced what we dared not ever express in conversation. It was an open protest by Shostakovich against the hounding of the Jews in this last five-year plan of Stalin's.”

It had not been the first (nor the last) time Shostakovich had used Jewish themes – his 2nd Piano Trio was written in 1944 as news of the Holocaust was reaching Moscow, with the diabolic scherzo's Jewish theme inspired by the image of Jews being forced to dance on their own freshly dug graves before being executed by Nazi soldiers.

Also in 1948, a writer of a book about “Yiddish Folksongs” fell into disfavor with the government and was being threatened with arrest. Shostakovich hid him in his Moscow flat until he was able to help get the arrest warrant rescinded.

At one point, later in life, he supposedly told Semyon Volkov, the author of the much disputed Testimony purporting to be proof of Shostakovich's inner thoughts,

= = = = =
“Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it, it’s multifaceted, it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It’s almost always laughter through tears. This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my ideas of what music should be… Jews became a symbol for me. All of man’s defenselessness was concentrated in them. After the war, I tried to convey that feeling in my music. It was a bad time for Jews then. In fact, it’s always a bad time for them.”
= = = = = =

And by extension, then, a bad time for him...

Shostakovich composed his 4th String Quartet the following year, employing (among other influences) Jewish folk-song or its “ethos,” especially in the lengthy last movement. Given the Zhdanov Decree and its aftermath, it was unlikely this work would ever be performed. When the Borodin Quartet “auditioned” the work for the Cultural Ministry, they did not explain any of the music's details.

“There is a story,” the cellist recalls in Elizabeth Wilson's biography of Shostakovich, “that we had to play the quartet twice on this occasion: once in our genuine interpretation and a second time 'optimistically,' to convince the authorities of its socialist content. It's a pretty invention, but [the story] is not true: you cannot lie in music.”

While the minister, trying to help Shostakovich out with a little money, agreed to pay for the quartet (an after-the-fact commission), it still was not publicly performed until after Stalin's death in 1953.

In February, 1953, Weinberg was arrested on charges of "Jewish bourgeois nationalism" as a part of the so-called “Doctor's Plot” when several prominent Moscow doctors (mostly Jewish) were accused of plotting to kill Soviet officials. Shostakovich wrote to Lavrenti Beria, chief of police, on Weinberg's behalf (and told his friend he would look after Weinberg's daughter if his wife wеre also arrested). As it turned out, Weinberg was saved only by Stalin's death the following month.

After that, Weinberg continued living in Moscow where he was busy as both a composer and a pianist. He and Shostakovich lived near one another, sharing ideas on a regular basis. Perhaps because of the admiration which Shostakovich frequently expressed for them, many of Weinberg's works were taken up by some of Russia's foremost performers and conductors. But they are still largely unknown abroad.
Weinberg, suffering from Crohn's Disease, died in 1996, having completed his last symphony, No. 21 “Kaddish,” five years earlier and his 17th String Quartet four years before that. His opera, The Passenger, written in the mid-50s, wasn't premiered until ten years after his death.

The fact that much of his music “sounds a lot like Shostakovich” has not helped Weinberg's music. Of course, if we listen to more than just Mozart and Haydn from the 1780s and '90s, we'd know there was a common language among composers who seem to be imitating Haydn, and certainly there are fingerprints of both in Beethoven's early music. There is a whole school of composers in Vienna in the late-19th Century who sound like recycled Brahms, and one could say the same of a number of other German composers and the English and even American students who'd studied with them.

Shostakovich was undoubtedly a major personal as well as musical influence on Weinberg, but to quote Alexander Ivashkin's comment, how composers such as Weinberg damaged not only their own reputations, but that of Shostakovich as well – "these works only served to kill off Shostakovich's music, to cover it over with a scab of numerous and bad copies" – seems a tad harsh.

One more indignity in a world full of challenges.

- Dick Strawser