Thursday, May 28, 2020

From Quarantine to Cautious Optimism: Five Play Mozart

So, how many of you got it right when you took one of those “Where Do You Think You'll Be in Five Years” Quizzes back in 2015? Hmm?

Well, as we move out of Full-Bore Quarantine (so to speak) into the Yellow Phase here in Central PA and discover what it's like to be out-and-about a little bit more than we've been able to do over the past eighteen months (or whatever it feels like to you), we move from Music for Isolation and works for solo instruments by Bach and Ysaÿe from two weeks ago, to Music for Small Gatherings like the 2nd Piano Quintet of Ernő Dohnányi last week, and now a String Quintet by Mozart.

“For this week’s dose of great music,” Peter Sirotin writes, “I chose Mozart’s String Quintet in G Minor, K.V. 516, one of my absolute favorite works of chamber music. From the sublime to the ridiculous, its emotional range and eloquence exemplify Mozart’s singular genius.”

This performance by members of Market Square Concerts' resident Summermusic ensemble – Peter Sirotin and Leonid Ferents, violins; Michael Stepniak and Blanka Bednarz, violas; and Cheung Chau, cello – was recorded on July 22nd, 2018, at Market Square Church by Newman Stare.


(again, due to space limitations on the blog format, if you want to view the performance at “full screen,” click on the box-like image in the lower right corner when you hover the cursor over the video.)

Mozart entered the G Minor Quintet into his "thematic catalogue" on May 16th, 1787 (to place it in his time-line, he wrote Eine kleine Nachtmusik in August, and Don Giovanni was completed in October). The quintet's in four movements: an opening Allegro in sonata-allegro form; the minuet is the second movement, here, not the more typical third movement, and so the slow movement, an Adagio ma non troppo (slow, but not too slow), has been moved to third place; and that's followed by the finale, an Allegro that is preceded by a long, slow introduction.

At the end of this post, I've included one of those Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presentations with Bruce Adolphe talking about the first two movements of this quintet: the talk is about 50 minutes, if you have time to follow it. Yes, it would make my work a lot easier just to post that and be done with it, but I have other ideas for my own post.

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In this Summermusic's first concert's post about the Dvořák and Mahler piano quartets – both “early” works in their composers' careers – I talked a lot (as usual) about things like form and development and how student works sometime rarely transcend the level of an assignment (“write a text-book sonata form”) – even the Fauré piano quartet sticks fairly close to the book in the first two movements. There are things listeners expect and there's a certain amount of satisfaction when you hear what you expect: this is particularly true in the harmonic direction a phrase takes, the idea of digressing from a point and expecting it to resolve to some point (aaah!).

Mozart (by Joseph Lange) 1782/3
But without getting into the technical details of how or why Mozart does this, let's say from the outset, he is intent on not giving you what you expect: phrases don't always go where you think they should, rhythms don't always keep to regular patterns (there is the actual, written pattern and then there's the one you actually hear which often seems to be at odds with what's on the printed page – the minuet, a stately dance in 3, is a case in point: the second movement, here, is hardly easy to dance a stately minuet to!). Listening to it from this point-of-view, it's not hard to see why listeners who expected to be entertained by pleasant “expectations” appropriately resolved would find this piece especially startling – and therefore, more “dramatic” than we usually associate with the Classical Era in the 1780s.

But while “contrast” is a necessary part of music, often you'll hear something “unexpected” followed by something “expected” – perhaps the answering phrase does what you thought it would; or maybe the first phrase was okay but, man, the second one just took off and who knows what's going on now...

Among other things, you can also listen for the “conversational” quality of Mozart's instrumentation. The 1st Viola essentially becomes the equivalent of the 1st Violin, the usual melody-bearer in a quartet (don't forget, Mozart preferred to play the viola in chamber music!). Listen how fragments of the tune get passed from one instrument to another, as if sometimes they agree but sometimes they also, even if only slightly, disagree.

I always feel I'm listening to an opera in this piece, the way voices (instrumental voices, of course) respond to one another in the ensemble: the 1st Violin states the theme and then the 1st Viola restates the theme as if the soprano sings first, answered by the tenor. Later on there will be duets (often in thirds) for the pair of violins or the pair of violas, or the 1st violin and 1st viola. Not that the cello is left out, but it's like the baritone comes in to comment on what the others are singing about. And suddenly, I hear the textures of Mozart's comic opera about domestic duplicity, Cosí fan tutte, which he didn't begin working on until two years after writing this quintet.

The minuet is full of these dramatic contrasts, from the off-beat “stabbing” chords in the second phrase which push the pulse away from the expected beat, to the beatific closing duet for the two violas during the middle-section which, if not extraordinary, is so calming, it's major purpose is to make you smile.

The slow movement is one of Mozart's most beautiful meditations. After the darker drama of the first two movements, both in the dark key of G Minor – famously for Mozart the most dramatic and personal of keys: he wrote only two symphonies in a minor key, and they're both in G Minor – the calm E-flat Major of the Adagio is like a respite: we've had our little discussions, now let's sit back and talk of more pleasant things.

But note the “fracturing” of the ensemble, the wide separation between the 1st violin answered by the lower register restatement in the cello, before the middle voices fill it in and the phrase rounds out to the expected resolution back to E-flat Major (between 13:42–15:11 in the video). This could've ended at 14:43, which is what you'd expect, listening to the harmony, until it resolves to a C Minor chord rather than the anticipated tonic of E-flat. This way, Mozart manages to pull you forward another 28 seconds, until that “oooh” moment finally turns into the delayed “aaah” moment.

All is not entirely bright and cheerful in this slow movement: the contrasting passage becomes increasingly unsettled until, harmonically, it just wanders off into entirely unexpected keys in such a short space of time before – aah – finally resolving to where you'd expected it should've been going all along. Every now and then, he'll throw you an unexpected chord like a raised eyebrow before letting it go on as expected.

What you expect, then, is a last movement that becomes the usual “happy ending,” even in a work billed as being in G Minor. It would of course be in G Major. But instead, Mozart starts what sounds like another slow movement, but an infinitely sad one in the original key of G Minor.

Usually, composers in Mozart's and Haydn's times might use a “slow introduction” for the first movement, something to set the scene while the audience settles in (literally or figuratively), a curtain-raiser, if you will. But to do this before the finale is odd – and especially as it follows the slow movement itself (maybe, coming after the minuet, it would be another form of contrast).

By the time the final Allegro starts, you've heard a 3-minute slow movement that is more than an introduction and not really a transition, open-ended and, after a drawn-out "almost there, not yet" cadence, ready to turn over into the light-hearted rondo that concludes the piece. It's as if Mozart is setting up the “happy ending” with an even starker contrast of moods – the very internal, personal sadness of G Minor, here, with the extroverted, public expectation – which he would never have been able to make just going from the E-flat of the 3rd Movement directly to the G Major of the 4th.

As Maynard Solomon writes in his 1995 biography, “Mozart's twin adagios tell of many things, and among them may be the endlessness of our longing to return to sources, to start over, to find once again the place where it all began.”

At this point, we have no need for unexpected distractions and prolongations: the Rondo is fairly straightforward and ends with the balance and delight one would expect of an 18th Century Classical composer. To quote Jorge Luis Borges, “happiness does not need to be transformed; happiness is its own end.”

By the way, it's interesting to note that Haydn and Mozart occasionally played chamber music together and not just around the time Mozart was working on those six quartets he wrote “dedicated to Haydn.” There is evidence that, in the summer he returned from an unsuccessful trip to Berlin in June, 1789, he and Haydn played the viola parts for private performances of both the C Major and the G Minor string quintets. (Can you imagine being in that audience?!)

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Mozart (1788)
Mozart completed the G Minor String Quintet on May 16th, 1787, not long after he'd finished its companion, the C Major String Quintet on April 19th. They are both majestic works in his output. It's interesting to see the juxtaposition of C Major and G Minor here. The following summer, he would write three symphonies for no apparent reason, and would finish the G Minor Symphony (No. 40, K.550) on July 25th, 1788, and then complete the C Major Symphony, the “Jupiter” (No. 41, K.551) on the 10th of August.

What was going on around the time he composed these two string quintets, then?

First of all, the plan was to produce a set of three – everything in those days was done in sets of three or six, like a “set” of string quartets consisting of contrasting ways of presenting a solution to the challenge of writing a string quartet (or whatever). But the story goes that Mozart was “negotiating” with the King of Prussia's court to become a court-composer there – a well-paying secure job, unlike the free-lancer's ups-and-downs he was experiencing (and suffering) in Vienna – but these went nowhere and so the two quintets were issued, along with a hastily arranged version of an earlier wind serenade in C Minor (K.388) since Mozart had other work he needed to concentrate on, a new opera to be premiered in Prague in October: Don Giovanni.

It is a sign of the times that, having advertised subscriptions for these three works to finance their publication (the 18th Century approach to a Go-Fund-Me page), he had to admit in the press that as of June, 1788, “as the number of subscriptions is very small, I find myself obliged to postpone the publication of my three quintets until 1 January, 1789.”

Ouch...

There was one thing “going on” in his life. And it involved his father.

When Mozart decided to quit the family business in Salzburg – being a court musician to the Archbishop there and follow in his father's footsteps, this despite years of traveling around Europe as a child prodigy hoping to find a more promising and lucrative position among the courts of numerous kings and emperors – and move to Vienna in 1781, his father lost all immediate control he had over his 25-year-old son's activities, both professional and personal. As Mozart is usually depicted, he was never one to deal comfortably with reality and while Leopold Mozart is often seen as a manipulating, over-protective stage-father in all this, it is true there was little love lost between them, especially after Mozart married Constanze Weber (the later composer, Carl Maria von Weber would be a cousin) whom Leopold strongly disapproved of (mostly out of fear her family would gobble up whatever fortune his son might be able to earn).

When Mozart's sister “Nannerl,” as she is known to history, had a son she named Leopold after her father, Leopold Sr now determined he would turn him into a child prodigy just as he had done with Wolfgang.

So when some of Wolfgang's friends were trying to arrange a tour England for him, perhaps find a decent position there, and write a number of works for the London audiences, no doubt a lucrative opportunity, Leopold refused to take care of Wolfgang and Constanza's children who were too young to travel. He was positive his hapless son and his worthless wife would stay in England and abandon their children to him, something he could little afford.

As it turned out, Mozart had to decline the offer – this was in January and February of 1787 – and on March 1st, when these friends stopped in Salzburg to see Leopold and deliver a letter from Mozart, Leopold wrote to Nannerl afterward he was relieved Mozart had not come along and sent his son a “fatherly reply” advising him he should not accept a tour there unless he had an advance agreement for a certain amount of money, that he shouldn't make the journey without having 2,000 florins in his pocket (in 1786, Mozart earned between 2600 and 3700 florins – when Haydn would travel to London in 1791, he would write 6 symphonies and earn about 24,000 florins).

As strained as their relationship was, there were moments – for instance the trip Leopold made to Vienna in 1785 and met Haydn, then easily the most famous composer in Europe, who told him his son was the greatest composer known to him – that must've made a father feel proud!

Leopold Mozart
But still, their correspondence becomes reserved and restricted to an exchange of news. In March, 1787, Leopold complained to Nannerl that he had not received “one letter of the alphabet” from his son. Most of his comments about him indicated he was constantly looking for proof that his son was incapable of taking care of his own affairs and that any financial problems he was having was brought about by extravagant wastefulness.

But in April, 1787, Mozart learned his father was “gravely ill” and he sent a letter dated April 4th – while working on the C Major String Quintet, finished two weeks later – in which, after hoping he would be recuperating soon, he implored his father not to hide the truth from him “so I may come to your arms as quickly as is humanly possible.”

It's clear, then, that once Mozart began work on the G Minor Quintet, keeping in mind how dramatic (and indeed darkly-tinged) this key was for Mozart, he knew his father was ill and, possibly, dying.

In the midst of all this, five days after completing the C Major Quintet, the Mozarts moved house, leaving a prestigious address, centrally located near St. Stephen's Cathedral, to the Landstrasse suburb, the result of economic necessity. His father wrote to Nannerl that Mozart told him about the move but made no explanation. Leopold told her "I can only guess why..."

Three weeks after this move, Mozart finished the G Minor Quintet.

Whatever Leopold wrote back to his son, however, did not survive but judging from other letters he'd written, his situation didn't seem that serious, yet. He had admitted to Nannerl in February that “for an old man there is no such thing as excellent health. There is always something wrong.” He was hoping with warmer weather would come with some improvement but instead he found out he had trouble with his heart, suffering from an accumulation of fluid. Another report indicates a doctor had diagnosed a “blockage of the spleen” in May.

On May 10th, Leopold wrote to a friend “I am no worse, thank God, and I hope for prolonged good weather so I might take the fresh air.” But then, not much later, a friend reported he hardly expected Leopold would last the summer.

Still, it is reported he died suddenly on May 28th – nine days after Mozart completed the lively Allegro that concludes his G Minor String Quintet. On May 29th, Mozart finished a Sonata for Piano Duet (two players at one keyboard), K.521, and a few days later wrote to a friend “I inform you that on returning home today I received the sad news of my most beloved father's death. You can imagine the state I am in.” But beyond this, there is no other mention of the news or his reaction to it.

Of course, it is easy to go from this to the new opera he was working on that spring which includes the ominous figure of the Commendatore, whom the “hero” kills in the opening scene and whose statue comes back to drag him off to Hell in the final scene, a great image in Milos Forman's film Amadeus, based on Peter Shaffer's play, but perhaps a bit of Monday Morning psychoanalyzing which may suit the 20th Century mindset, perhaps, but as far as Mozart is concerned, is all conjecture.

There is this, however. While Mozart has been accused of being hard-hearted by 20th Century critics since he didn't go to be with his father or attend the funeral, keep in mind the death, when it did come, came suddenly; that mail in those was not like e-mail or social media today, taking at least three days to get from Salzburg to Vienna (even that, by modern postal standards, can seem fairly fast); nor was it like hopping on a jet or even a train to arrive in Salzburg later the same day. Considering the fact Leopold would probably have been buried even by the time Mozart had received the news, it would take most likely six or seven days to go by stage-coach from Vienna to Salzburg.

And there is also this: on June 4th, Mozart wrote a poetic tribute to his pet starling who'd just died, a bird who'd learned to sing a tune from one of his piano concertos (No. 17 in G, K.453). It seems frivolous to have left a memento like that and not write at least something about his father. Still, though there are no other major works composed during the two months following Leopold's death, on June 14th he did complete the Musical Joke, that paean to a generic and otherwise overly not-quite-talented court composer (as Mozart often viewed much of his “competition”) and then finished its companion, a work of true genius if not simple perfection, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, on August 10th.

Meanwhile, he proceeded to work more in depth on his next big project, the opera, Don Giovanni.

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To conclude, here's one of those Lincoln Center programs with Bruce Adolphe to explain it all for you: the topic, here, the first two movements of Mozart's String Quintet in G Minor, K.516. If you have the 50 minutes to listen to it, consider it an excellent pre-concert talk complete with live illustrations. The remainder of the clip is a live performance by the Amphion Quartet with violist Matthew Lipman of the first two movements of the quintet.
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Okay, my work here is done.

– Dick Strawser

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If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' posts of videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:

Music for a Time We're Wondering When 'Normal' Will Return (Ernő Dohnányi's 2nd Piano Quintet)

Before Quarantine, Music for Isolation: Solo Works by Bach & Ysaÿe (Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 with Andrei Ioniţă; Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin with Kristóf Baráti)

Musical Contrasts in a Time of Imbalance: Mozart and Bartók (Mozart's String Quartet in B-flat, K.589 and Bartók's 2nd String Quartet with the Escher Quartet)

Uplifting Music from Troubled Times: Schumann's Piano Quintet

Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů

Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)

Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)

Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
and
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)  

Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (Members of the Harrisburg Symphony Play the Brandenburg Concertos (Excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  

A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Music for a Time We're Wondering When 'Normal' Will Return: Dohnányi's 2nd Piano Quintet

“This week’s dose of great music,” Peter Sirotin writes regarding this week's Weekly Dose of Great Music, “invites you to experience Romantic opulence of Dohnanyi’s Piano Quintet No. 2. Written in the twilight of Belle Époque on the eve of World War I, this work is filled with nostalgia and longing for the world that would never be the same. This emotional state seems particularly relevant to our experience today. Enjoy this beautiful performance by the Ariel Quartet and pianist Orion Weiss from 2014.”


(again, due to space limitations on the blog format, if you want to view the performance at “full screen,” click on the box-like image in the lower right corner when you hover the cursor over the video.)

Dohnányi's Piano Quintet No. 2 in E-flat Minor is in three movements: a mysterious opening ushers in the Allegro non troppo (“not too fast”); the second is an Intermezzo marked Allegretto (another way of saying “not too fast” but less fast than the previous movement), a nostalgic waltz-like movement which begins around 10:33; and the third movement, starting off with a fugue at 16:28, is marked Moderato and strikes one as the slow movement, the way it unfolds, until, as it builds, we get more reminiscences from the first movement. While there's not much of a lively contrast, no happy Vivace or brilliant Presto or even an Allegro molto, dramatic or otherwise. That doesn't mean the piece lacks variety. But it is a far more serious piece than one might expect, given what expectations you might have for a composer you're probably not that familiar with.

One blogger, in promoting the piece for a concert, wrote,
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...There is a sweet familiarity in some of the quintet’s themes, a reflective longing or melancholy in others, and times where they all come together in intense culmination. What’s interesting is these turbulent climaxes of thematic “memories” often result in something startlingly beautiful, as if reliving all of your life’s pain brings you rebirth and hope. The best example of this is in the last third of the first movement, where at the highest point of dramatic intensity there is an abrupt change from what had been a furious C minor to an ethereal C major.”
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Originally, this concert which opened the 2014-2015 Season was planned around the Centennial of the Start of World War I and the 2nd Piano Quintet of Ernő Dohnányi was programmed because, its musical value aside and the fact it's rarely heard, it was composed in 1914.

Musically, if you remember something about the most significant new works of music written in the early-20th Century – including Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, written between 1911 and 1913 – something new and often unsettling, especially to the Old Ways, was in the air. Musical styles were changing, new voices were being heard and many people, used to the melodies of Brahms or the rich textures of Wagner and Mahler, could not understand these voices.

But perhaps there's something more in this music than just a nostalgia for the musical past?

Remember this was composed in 1914 during the tense times leading up to the war which began that summer – it is not about the war, nor inspired by it; it is not a description of the war or the times the composer and his listeners were or would be, most likely, living through. Perhaps the emotional tension in the piece reflects the fears of what is yet to come (though how would anyone know what was to come?), but certainly its mood and overall style seems to question whether we will ever be the same again.

How many of us, every time we go to the store or remind ourselves we can't go to the hair-dressers or to a concert yet, every time we look at another family gathering on Zoom, every time we turn on the news, may not be thinking the same thing?

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The build-up to World War I did not begin with the assassination of an Austrian archduke in the Balkans in the summer of 1914, pulling on the strands of all those entangling alliances between the major countries of Europe. Political tensions in Europe had been on edge ever since the end of the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s and the emergence of the German Empire as a major political and military power. If that seems like going back into the past to find the causes of a war, remember that much of the reason we're fighting in the Middle East today has a lot to do with the Western attitude toward nation-states and the arbitrary establishment of artificial borders there at the end of World War I.

Part of these entanglements find themselves in the national identities of Austro-Hungary's population, one of those conglomerate empires in which tiny Austria ruled much of Central and Eastern Europe from its capital, Vienna: after the war, the Empire was broken up into newly formed constituent nations based more on ethnic backgrounds who had long been agitating for independence since before the Revolutions of 1848: mainly Bohemians (or Czechs), Moravians, and Slovaks were grouped under the nation of Czechoslovakia; Hungary (itself shorn of a lot of its former territory, losing Bela Bartók's hometown to modern Romania); and the regions of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia joined with independent Serbia to form Yugoslavia. Across this vast array of ethnic nationalities, the German-speaking Austrians were regarded as an occupying culture.

And that is evident even in the name of the composer of this piano quintet: born in Hungary of an old Hungarian family that had been ennobled by the Austrians in 1697. Officially, he was Ernst von Dohnanyi, the Germanic form of his name, which is how he styled himself through his career. Today, he is generally known by the Hungarian form of his name, Ernő Dohnányi.

As I posted before this performance with the Ariel Quartet and pianist Orion Weiss, if you listen to Dohnányi's early works, they sound little different from the music being written by Johannes Brahms and the raft of Brahms imitators who dominated the Viennese music scene at the end of the 19th Century, names largely forgotten.

Curiously, his first published piece – though actually the 68th work he composed – is a Piano Quintet that was not only approved by Brahms in 1895, Brahms arranged for its first performance in Vienna.

Here's the opening movement of this 1st Piano Quintet with the Avalon Quartet (again, who'll be appearing with Market Square Concerts in November). Even the last movement (performed here by the Amernet Quartet who'll join us for our April concert) is like one of Brahms' beloved Hungarian Dance finales (though here sounding more Czech than Hungarian).

While it would be easy to dismiss this – an Op. 1, after all – as a youthful work since the composer was all of 17 at the time, it is still a derivative work even if it's by an assured young composer who certainly knows what he's doing even if he hasn't developed his own voice, yet – and how many 17-year-olds have, Mozart and Mendelssohn aside? Even Richard Strauss, writing a horn concerto at 17, sounds more like Schumann than the Strauss we'd come to know and love in the tone-poems written not too many years later.

But what of the second piano quintet?

Not surprisingly, YouTube is full of performances of the first quintet, a much more accessible work. I'm not sure how frequently the 2nd Quintet is performed – this will be the first time pianist Orion Weiss is playing it in public – and while I'm sure it doesn't mean that much when I say before Peter Sirotin asked me about doing this pre-concert talk, I'd never heard it.

By this time, Dohnányi turned 37, so we're 20 years further along. This Op. 26 Quintet is by no means an extroverted work of a brilliant student showing off what he can do and while it's a much more serious and dramatic work than his Op. 1, I also need to point out the piece he'd recently completed, a set of variations, Op. 25, is a chameleon-like delight for piano and orchestra based on, of all things, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” taken through successive disguises in various styles of the day, from its pompous Wagnerian introduction to jibes at Tchaikovsky and Debussy among others along the way, subtitled “For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others.”

You can hear a (highly recommended) performance with the composer at the piano at the age of 79. The photograph was taken three years later.

And yet, his next work is one of the darkest contrasts imaginable. Like the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, it is a reminder that art can be escapist in challenging times - life goes on - just as it can be remind us that, when times beat us down, we still have a soul.

For those of you who read music and want to follow the score, check out the link to the “Petrucci Library” (the musical equivalent of the Gutenberg Library for literature) and download the score free as a .pdf file.

Admittedly, my first impression was “where's the fourth movement?” There had to be a finale, right? It certainly didn't sound complete – one problem I had with some other performances I found on-line. The third movement is like some grand slow movement, not a finale. But when I read the score, I realized how the ending “works” – a vague and perhaps unsatisfactory “conclusion” – no joyous celebration (think Beethoven), no “demolition derby” wild dance in the Hungarian style (think Brahms) – written in a time that was anything but satisfactory and conclusive.

While the counterpoint suggests the tension of Beethoven's “Grosse Fuge” – and I think for a reason, given the composer's Germanic side – and the return to the material of the opening movement – a typically French gesture from the late-19th Century “cyclical” style of Saint-Saëns and Franck – is more than just a “reflection” on previous material as Brahms might do. It leaves you in the dark – and E-flat Minor is, no matter how you play it, a “dark” key, but with, at the very end, a beatific-sounding E-flat Major chord by way of benediction.

What the unsettled period before the War would mean to Dohnányi is one thing – he'd been teaching in Berlin before the war started (and having an affair with the German actress Elza Galafrés), and where this piece was composed – but he would return to Budapest in 1915 where life during the War would be quite something else.

(You can read more about life in Hungary around this time – when Bartók was composing his ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin – in this post, part of a pre-concert talk for the Harrisburg Symphony.)

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Dohnányi was one of the great pianists of his day and while he may have been described as “one of the first great concert pianists to regularly play chamber music” (I'm not sure how Clara Schumann would react to that), his organization of the musical life of the Hungarian capital was prodigious. According to his younger colleague (and decidedly anti-German) Bela Bartók, Dohnányi, who gave about 120 concerts per season in Budapest during the still unsettled years following the war, provided the entire musical life of Hungary both as conductor and pianist.

His son Hans von Dohnanyi would become an official in Germany before and during the 2nd World War when he was involved in the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. He was arrested and then sentenced by Hitler himself to be hanged, strung up by piano wire. Hans's son, Christoph, born in Berlin in 1929, would leave Hungary with his grandfather in 1944 and later become one of the leading conductors of his generation.

After leaving Hungary's wartime fascist state before the Soviet occupation, Dohnányi never quite rejuvenated his international career, and eventually settled in Tallahassee, FL, where he taught at Florida State University and died in 1960 while in New York City recording some Beethoven sonatas for the Everest label at the age of 82.

In 1914, writing his 2nd Piano Quintet, how could he know how the impending War would change his life?

- Dick Strawser

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If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' posts of videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:

Before Quarantine, Music for Isolation: Solo Works by Bach & Ysaÿe (Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 with Andrei Ioniţă; Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin with Kristóf Baráti)

Musical Contrasts in a Time of Imbalance: Mozart and Bartók (Mozart's String Quartet in B-flat, K.589 and Bartók's 2nd String Quartet with the Escher Quartet)

Uplifting Music from Troubled Times: Schumann's Piano Quintet

Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů

Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)

Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)

Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
and
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)  

Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (Members of the Harrisburg Symphony Play the Brandenburg Concertos (Excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  

A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Before Quarantine, Music for Isolation: Solo Works by Bach & Ysaÿe

This week’s dose of great music focuses on the richly nuanced narrative of two masterpieces for solo instruments written two centuries apart. I hope that the two audio recordings will reintroduce the joy of pure listening into our quarantined lives currently dominated by screens.

The first link is featuring Bach’s intimately reflective Suite No.1 for Cello Solo, performed by the Romanian cellist Andrei Ioniţă as part of his recital at the Temple Ohev Sholom on February 12:

The second link offers a look back at the 2015 performance of Ysaÿe’s Second Sonata for Violin Solo by Hungarian violinist Kristóf Barati on the eve of his Carnegie Hall debut in 2015. 

- Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts.

For those us tired of looking at screens instead of live musicians, here's an opportunity to hear live musicians recorded in concert but without that often crucial (but sometimes distracting) visual element. For those of us who might be nostalgic for some good old-fashioned technology, think of it as... well... radio!

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Andrei Ioniţă in 2015
Before you fear mispronouncing his name, it's quite simple when you can print those diacritical markings (otherwise known as “funny little marks”) like ö, ř, ç, and å – and know how they sound: though it's usually printed “Ionita” for lack of those marks, it's really “Ioniţă” where in Romanian the “ţă” is pronounced “tsuh.” Now, put the accent on the second syllable and it's “yuh-NEE-tsuh.” (Close enough.)

If you want to read more about this concert, check this post which, in addition to the Bach (copied & pasted below), included intriguing works for solo cello by Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly, Australian composer Brett Dean, and especially if you've been hankering for some Swedish classical/rock/folk/jazz composer Svante Henryson played by a Romanian-born cellist who won Russia's Tchaikovsky competition in 2015 who now lives in Berlin and who'd played this at his Market Square Concerts' program at Temple Ohev Sholom in Harrisburg on a program with an 18th-Century German, a 20th-Century Hungarian and a 21st-Century Australian! Talk about global!

Who would've believed, those of us sitting at Temple Ohev Shalom that February night, this would be the last time we could all be together with great live music during our 2019-2020 Season, all thanks to a global pandemic...
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Bach: Cello Suite #1
Like his Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Bach also wrote Six Suites for Solo Cello. Though “partita” and “suite” are essentially interchangeable, a collection of dances, here, the idea of a “sonata” was a little more weighty: apparently Bach chose to stay on the lighter side of things with the cello (even though the weightiest of the violin pieces is undoubtedly the Chaconne from the D Minor Partita, still originally a dance piece). There are no fugues for solo cello, not even the same kind of three-voice counterpoint you'd find in the violin works. But if you took the constant arpeggiations of the cello suites and “blocked” them into chords, you'd find essentially the same thing, just “broken up” into arpeggios played one-note-after-the-other rather than as single chords. This is a French style from around 1700 called style brisé or “broken style,” especially suited to instruments like the lute. It can be applied to the cello more than the violin for acoustical reasons: given its lower register, the cello's texture would be too muddy to be playing such dense chords. Also, given the span it would take for the fingers to play them, it would also be more tiring. That's why the Cello Suites sound “lighter” than the contrapuntal Violin Sonatas and Partitas: our ear, despite sensing the harmonies, hears single notes in a running thread – called monophonic. One musicologist referred to these suites as “Monophonic music wherein a man has created a dance of God.”

Usually, I talk about the “biography behind the music,” leading up to the work's composition, but as is typical with Bach, we're not sure when he wrote them: sometime while he was responsible for the chamber music at Cothen, between 1717 and 1723 (when he became the choir director at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig). Since the manuscript of the violin pieces is dated 1720 and given the style of the cello pieces by comparison, it's assumed the Cello Suites were written first. There is also a question whether they were all written as a set or individually over the years, then collected at some point into a volume ready to be published.

That said, another problem exists in that the only manuscript copy (see photo, above) is not in Bach's own handwriting but his wife, Anna Magdalena's, who herself was a singer and served as a copyist in the “family business,” as Bach churned out new cantatas for his demanding job in Leipzig's main church. That is, when she found time to copy his music, not only raising her stepchildren from Bach's first marriage but having thirteen – thirteen!!! – children of her own. By the way, in 1723, when they moved to Leipzig, the new Frau Bach was 21 years old.

For a while, there was a theory that she was actually the composer of the cello suites, though the grounds for such an assumption were more than flimsy – yes, women composers were frowned upon and it's not unusual for their music to be presented under their husbands' names. But most Bach scholars have trounced this theory, studying manuscripts and other works and finding nothing in the least bit comparable to them anywhere else in the collection. If there's a discrepancy in the styles between the cello and the violin pieces, it may also have to do with the fact Bach himself played the violin but not the cello. Any possible wrong notes or “mistakes” in harmony as have been suggested as proof Bach could not have composed them could also be the result of copyist errors (it has been known to happen...).

But what of “Life After Composition” for our six cello suites?

Any of the technical and scholarly problems that exist can also be traced to the lack of an authoritative original manuscript. And since the old man's library was divided between his composing sons, much of the collection was dispersed. Wilhelm Friedemann, the oldest, never much of a success and unfortunately an alcoholic, sold many of the ones he owned because he was always in need of money. Some of Carl Philip Emanuel's portion, overlooked in a Berlin library, was stolen by the Soviets after World War II and has since disappeared.) Subsequent copies and what was eventually published were also not without discrepancies. In fact, they were not published until they were “rediscovered” in 1825, 75 years after Bach's death (and four years before Mendelssohn's famous revival of the St. Matthew Passion).

Regardless, they were basically ignored. Mozart and Beethoven never wrote concertos for the cello – at least Beethoven wrote five sonatas for it – and very few, other than Boccherini, himself a cellist, paid the instrument much attention. It was an “acoustical” thing, that was the primary excuse, and even though Brahms wrote two sonatas and half of the “Double Concerto” for it, he was so surprised to hear how well Dvořák avoided these issues in his new Cello Concerto in 1895, he was sorry he had not tried one himself but now felt it was too late to bother (he would die two years later). Imagine...

So, meanwhile, in Barcelona. Picture it: 1889, in a dusty second-hand book shop, a 13-year-old cello prodigy named Pablo Casals found a tattered copy of six suites for solo cello by Bach in one of the bins. He bought them – one wonders for how much! – took them home and worked on them every day. Still, it wasn't till another 13 years passed he felt ready to perform them in public (that would make it 1902). And even then, he waited until 1936 when he was 60 to record them.

And now, fast forward to 1915, in Budapest, in what was then the dying years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where there was a young composition professor who'd only received his first public performances five years earlier. In 1907, he'd spent six months traveling through Berlin, then Paris, returning with a bunch of scores, most notably music by Claude Debussy. He and a friend had already begun their excursions into the Hungarian countryside, studying the true folk music of the region (not the “gypsy stuff” popularized by Liszt and Brahms), and all of these influences apparently coalesced into a series of pieces written once the start of the “Great War” (as World War I was called until there was a second one) curtailed not only their folk music collecting trips but also had other impacts on their creative and daily lives.

In 1915, Zoltan Kodály, then 32, wrote his Sonata in B Minor for Solo Cello, now considered the first major work for solo cello to be written since Bach composed his six suites some two centuries earlier.

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Speaking of those Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin, Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann about Bach's D Minor Chaconne (which Brahms arranged for piano, left hand only): “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

It was Joseph Szigeti's performance of the 1st of Bach's epic collection – the Sonata in G Minor – that prompted Eugene Ysaÿe, one of the great violinists of his day, to try his hand at “doing likewise.” In this case, that meant an encyclopedic variety of musical techniques both in terms of its composition as well as in the demands placed on the performer.

Written in 1920 – in the aftermath of World War I's devastation as Europe tried pulling itself out of the rubble, and just a few years after Bartók finished his 2nd String Quartet (heard in last week's “dose”) – the Belgian Ysaÿe dedicated each of his six sonatas to a different colleague. In this program, Baráti played both the 2nd and 3rd Sonatas, dedicated to Jacques Thibaud and fellow-composer Georges Enescu respectively. In today's “dose,” we'll hear the 2nd which, not coincidentally, starts off with more than a nod to Bach's Partita No. 3 in E Major!

Here again is the link to the audio recording of Kristóf Baráti playing Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 2.

As Ysaÿe explained, "I have played everything from Bach to Debussy” – who'd died in 1918 – “for real art should be international." In these sonatas, he used now familiar fingerprints of early-20th Century style ranging from Debussy's whole-tone scales, dissonances that might be familiar from the earlier works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartók, even “quarter tones” which have to be approached very carefully or a listener may think “but he's playing out-of-tune!”

But virtuosity is not just the ability to play fast notes flashily. Ysaÿe employed virtuoso bow as well as left-hand techniques throughout, believing “at the present day the tools of violin mastery, of expression, technique, mechanism, are far more necessary than in days gone by. In fact they are indispensable, if the spirit is to express itself without restraint.” So, just as Bach did so significantly two centuries earlier, Ysaÿe's set of sonatas places high technical demands on its performers. Yet Ysaÿe recurrently warns violinists that they should never forget to play instead of becoming preoccupied with technical elements; a violin master "must be a violinist, a thinker, a poet, a human being, he must have known hope, love, passion and despair, he must have run the gamut of the emotions in order to express them all in his playing."

Julian Haylock of The Strad reviewed Baráti's recent release of the Ysaÿe Sonatas, available on Brilliant Classics:

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"Kristóf Baráti is recorded with exemplary presence in a seductively enveloping acoustic – it feels as though the young Hungarian violinist is standing in the room with you, and the range of dynamics and articulation he encompasses is remarkable. Tapping into his instrument’s natural resonances, cleanly defined by exceptionally strong finger-falls (with occasional fingerboard resonance), the gives the effect of a pure, open sound being gently coaxed and cajoled rather than forced out of the instrument. Little wonder, then, that his mentor Eduard Wulfson is a former pupil of both Nathan Milstein and Henryk Szeryng.

Baráti’s dazzling range of bow strokes and ear-ringing intonation combine throughout to create the impression of technical challenges arising directly out of the music’s expressive core rather than mere hurdles to be overcome. In the opening ‘Obsession’ of the Second Sonata he employs an exciting slight kick to his staccatos and multiple-stopping reminiscent of the young Shlomo Mintz. But what makes this a truly exceptional disc is Baráti’s interpretative vision – movements that in even the most skilled of hands often sound expressively one-dimensional here emerge as deeply compelling emotional narratives. He even makes the moto perpetuo semiquavers that crown the ‘Fritz Kreisler’ Sonata no.4 dance free of musical gravity, with an enchanting sense of every note floating on air. A highly distinguished release."
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As a pianist, I was often aware how lonely music-making can be, just me and my piano no matter what sized room I'm in. But I thought, often smuggly, that at least I can make music by myself without needing to rely on an "accompanist" or some other collaborators for chamber music or a whole orchestra of colleagues.

And yet here, thanks to Bach and those he inspired, a violinist or a cellist can experience "a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings" with only themselves and their instruments.

Not to mention, if we're lucky, those who can also, once in a while, listen in.

- Dick Strawser

If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' posts of videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:

Musical Contrasts in a Time of Imbalance: Mozart and Bartók (Mozart's String Quartet in B-flat, K.589 and Bartók's 2nd String Quartet with the Escher Quartet)

Uplifting Music from Troubled Times: Schumann's Piano Quintet

Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů

Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)

Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)

Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
and
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)  

Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (Members of the Harrisburg Symphony Play the Brandenburg Concertos (Excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  

A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák



Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Musical Contrasts in a Time of Imbalance: Mozart and Bartók

M.C. Escher: Relativity (1953)
For this week’s dose of great music I chose a memorable performance by the award-winning Escher String Quartet offering a dramatic juxtaposition of Mozart’s most serene and poised String Quartet K.V. 589 and Bartók’s cinematically evocative and intense Second Quartet. Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts.

If the world has recently felt more like one of those M.C. Escher etchings, then today's "dose of contrasts" may help you find some balance. We usually think of Mozart and Bartók as polar opposites, but beneath their very different skins, there's actually a lot more in common than you might think.

Formed in 2005 and taking their name from the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher (the life of a touring musician under normal circumstances must seem like walking into one of Escher's dimensionally-challenged lithographs – never mind what our own lives are like in the Age of the Virus), the Escher Quartet performed with Market Square Concerts during the 2016-17 Season. They've been championed by the legendary Emerson Quartet and appeared as “Season Artists” of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, frequently streaming concerts live on the Internet (and available on-demand through YouTube), in 2013 one of a only few ensembles to win an Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Here's the first half of their November 2016 concert with the Quartet in B-flat Major, K.589 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (written in May of 1790) and, by way of contrast, the Quartet No. 2 Op. 17 by Bela Bartók (written between 1915 and 1917) which begins 23:51 into the video. And yet, stylistic language and surface details aside, there may be a lot more in common between these two than with either of them and the late-Romantic quartet by Antonín Dvořák which concluded the original program (and is not included here).



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Mozart composed the first of his three “Prussian” Quartets in June 1789, right after returning from Berlin. He began work on Cosí fan tutte apparently sometime in September; the other two had to wait till later, in May and June, 1790, the first major works he completed after the opera's late-January premiere. The second of these, the one composed in May, is the one included on the Escher's program.

In the spring of '89, Mozart had traveled to Berlin, hoping to impress the Prussian king and find a reasonable court gig (or at least make some money in the process). In the fairly short run, he failed at both (that he died two and a half years later didn't help matters in the long run...) but apparently he did receive some sort of commission for some string quartets and six "easy sonatinas" for the king's daughter. The particularly cash-strapped Mozart told a friend he was going to have the King's dedication copy engraved at his own expense. And there's no coincidence that, the king being an avid amateur cellist, the cello is strongly featured in these works. Rather than just being stuck playing the harmonic bass-line with the occasional tune thrown in, very often the cello plays the melody in its uppermost register (unfamiliar territory for the typical chamber musician of the day).

There were, apparently, supposed to have been six quartets for King Friedrich Wilhelm II but somewhere before he finished the third, Mozart became aware the king had lost interest and no official "royal commission" would be forthcoming, so he was forced to "give them away for nothing" to his publisher.

And these were not easy times: in addition to Mozart's needing to write letters to his friend Puchberg begging for loans, Mozart found himself in bad health in April, complaining to Puchberg, "I would have gone to see you myself in order to have a chat with you, but my head is covered with bandages, due to rheumatic pains, which make me feel my situation still more keenly." (His "situation" was more likely a financial one.) At the beginning of May, he is complaining of a headache and a toothache. He wrote this Quartet, K.589, in May.

There was also on the national level a disastrous on-going war with Turkey the Austrians didn't want to be involved in (another situation of entangled alliances), not to mention the death of Emperor Joseph II in late-February, weeks after Cosí's premiere. Given the loss of a supportive patron, there was also the uncertainty of the future with the new emperor, Leopold II, who couldn't care less about music, much less someone like Mozart who was far too new-fangled for his wife's tastes.

Apparently, Mozart had been offered a not well-paying job in Berlin which he turned down in May 1789, but perhaps with these quartets and the disintegrating situation in Vienna, did he hope maybe to make another play for becoming an employee of the cello-playing King Friedrich Wilhelm II? Were they an audition piece, like Bach had sent those six concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg

In May of 1790, things were very different than they'd been a year before. He was contemplating a possible visit to London and, if it proved favorable, perhaps staying there. Haydn had gone instead: Mozart was young, he could go another time. Unfortunately for classical music, Mozart died at the age of 35, months before Haydn, who'd turned 60 in London, returned to Vienna.

Given the role the Emerson Quartet has played in the Escher's history, here's the Emerson Quartet describing what it's like to record these works. (The clip begins with the finale from the 2nd of the Prussian Quartets, K.589, and concludes with the finale from the 3rd, K.590.)



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While Mozart's serene quartet, written so soon after the success of his opera, Cosí fan tutte, may seem the height of classical perfection, an emphasis on harmonic directness and formal clarity, clean textures and structural as well as aesthetic objectivity, Bartók's quartet will seem a violent contrast in so many ways, not the least with its dissonance and often emotional intensity, not to mention the rhythmic brutality of its middle movement.

Yet, compared to what else was going on in music at the start of the 20th Century, Bartók is beginning to evolve a style less associated with the late-Romanticism of Richard Strauss and Wagner which he initially found himself imitating, and finding a voice built more on clarity of textures, contrasts between segments rather than phrases spinning in long, flowing lines (this quartet's first movement still has some affinity with Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht from 1899, considered "the pages of Tristan freshly smeared"), and short rhythmic and melodic cells, particularly in the middle movement, to build longer and longer units of structure often defined more by their contrasts than their similarities. On the whole, his 2nd Quartet is a work of transition between the past and what Bartók would write in the future. Schoenberg had abandoned tonality by 1911 with Pierrot Lunaire, but his first "serial" works didn't emerge until the 1920s.

In this sense, compared to many of his contemporaries, Bartók eventually found himself on the side of the Neo-Classicists (Stravinsky had just started branching out in this direction following The Rite of Spring: his "and now for something completely different" L'Histoire du Soldat was written in 1917 as Bartók was finishing his 2nd Quartet). So in a sense, there is more in common, beneath the surface, between Mozart and Bartók than first meets the ear, and more than either might have in common with Dvořák whose next-to-last quartet concluded this program: but then, most listeners would categorize Mozart and Dvořák as "pleasant to listen to" and Bartók as "difficult," or at least requiring a different level of concentration to appreciate.

When Bartók composed his 2nd quartet over a century ago, now, he had already written some significant works but, being a “modern composer” in conservative (and Germanic-oriented) Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was having trouble getting anything performed. So far, he had not attained anything like international recognition: in fact, if you've heard any of the recent pieces by Bartók performed here in Central PA in the few months before this concert – Ya-Ting Chang & Stuart Malina playing his “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion” at Messiah College for a September 11th Memorial Concert, posted with an earlier “weekly dose” last month, or the Harrisburg Symphony's performance with Sara Davis Buechner and one of Bartók's last almost-completed pieces, the 3rd Piano Concerto – it's difficult to argue Bartók had ever attained the same level of international fame as Stravinsky and Schoenberg, still often overlooked as one of the major “original voices” of the 20th Century.

Still, in this early work, written during the years of World War I – it was composed between 1915-1917 but not premiered until 1918 and published finally two years later – one hears different influences as a young composer absorbs his past to create what will, later, become recognizable as “Bartók's Voice.”

The first movement might remind one that, in 1907, Bartók discovered the music of Claude Debussy whose “impressionism” – and its ambiguous tritone interval – helped find a different way of creating a sound-world outside the standard classic tonal system of the previous two centuries.

Bartók had only recently discovered true Hungarian folk music as well, something that would have a more lasting impact on the development of the musical voice we know as Bartók's. Before, most people thought the Hungarian Dances and Rhapsodies of Brahms and Liszt were based on folk songs but they're actually what we'd call the “urban popular music” of the Gypsies (who are not, technically, of Hungarian origin). The second movement is a wild folk-dance, where he incorporates ideas he'd found on a folk-music collecting trip to Northern Africa, his trip to Algeria in 1913 his last field-trip before the War.

Again, strong contrasts often alternate between fragments and more complete segments with one slower, almost waltz-like section sounding more like a whoozy (and decidedly European) dance band tune. While he labeled this “Allegro molto capriccioso,” a compelling performance emphasizing the hypnotic drum-beats of its rhythms might seem more “barbaric” than “capricious.” It ends in a whirlwind.

The third movement is an odd and unsettling contrast: keep in mind, this was written in the midst of war. His friend Zoltan Kodály saw this whole quartet as a series of “life episodes” with the brooding intensity of the ending as “suffering.” As far as a 19th Century German would've been concerned – tonality aside – this would have been the slow movement, requiring a finale of whatever emotional impact to conclude the work satisfactorily.

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The idea of attending a live concert can be augmented by additional opportunities to enrich the listening experience. Of course, many people go to concerts to relax, because they enjoy classical music and you don't need to do anything beyond that just to enjoy a performance, whether you listen to how you enjoy the music or how the composer creates what it is you're enjoying or how the performers interpret what the composer wrote so you could enjoy it.

There are program notes by Lucy Murray which I always highly recommend, giving you some background about the composer's life, a description of what to expect with the work itself and perhaps critical responses to the music, how the music was received by listeners when it was “new music,” all bringing you different insights into what you'll be hearing.

A pre-concert talk – like the one I gave before this program – may focus on different aspects of the music ranging from the “heads-up” variety with musical examples of “what to listen for” to deeper background and a more intense examination of the composers' lives and the music they'd composed at that point in history. Sometimes, it may be a different way to listen to, say, a familiar piece or, with an unfamiliar one (“new music” or just “new to you”), ways of processing things to make them more accessible.

Taking the opportunity to experience anything that's available to you may enhance the “experience” of attending a concert, making the “listening” more enjoyable in the long run.

Years ago, a friend of mine argued against the need for such things (“why can't I just listen?”), one of the problems he had with the “overly technical” demands made by classical music on its listeners. He told me they don't need to do this for a football game, so why do it with classical music?

Of course, when classical music becomes as commonplace and ubiquitous as sports in this country – will weathermen preface their forecasts by saying “it's a great night for going to a concert”? – that may be, but then I point out those interminable pre-game panels on TV broadcasts where experts discuss the various teams' and their individual players' stats and past histories, not to mention the post-game wrap up where experts analyze the game's play-by-play highlights. (At least some people live in towns where they still can read a review of a concert they might have attended).

Just be thankful we don't talk over the music to tell you “and now Lapointe's taken the theme and runs off into the key of – wait, is that E-flat Major? What's he doing in E-flat Major?!”

(...with all due respect for Peter Schickele's classic “concert-casting” skit with Beethoven's 5th, “New Horizons in Music Appreciation.”)

– Dick Strawser

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If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' posts of videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:

Uplifting Music from Troubled Times: Schumann's Piano Quintet

Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů

Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)

Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)

Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
and
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)  

Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (Members of the Harrisburg Symphony Play the Brandenburg Concertos (Excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  

A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák



Thursday, April 30, 2020

Uplifting Music from Troubled Times: Schumann's Piano Quintet

“This week’s dose of great music aims to inject exuberant energy into our currently subdued quarantined existence. I hope that Schumann’s uplifting Piano Quintet featuring Stuart Malina at the piano will brighten your weekend.” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director, Market Square Concerts

You've seen those memes about Newton discovering calculus and formulating the law of gravity while being quarantined during the Plague Year 1665, so you're probably asking yourself what have you been doing with your time? (All I know is I'm not writing the Great American Novel or even the Great American Piano Quintet during the Coronavirus Pandemic). Still, keeping healthy is important, and listening to great music, music that moves us, inspires us, entertains us, whether it makes us think and ponder the Meaning of Life or just makes us tap our toes, is a good way to get our minds off the constant barrage of news and the fear it creates (as if the virus weren't scary enough), even if only for a little while.

So, to brighten your day – especially given much of the weather we've had the past 144 days of April showers – let's begin the Month of May with this performance of Schumann's justifiably beloved Piano Quintet, so full of energy and sunlight, recorded during Summermusic 2014 with pianist Stuart Malina (as we continue this year celebrating his 20th Anniversary with the Harrisburg Symphony) joined here by violinists Peter Sirotin and Leonid Ferents, violist Michael Stepniak, and cellist Cheng-Hou Lee.

(As usual, the blog format reduces the size of the videos to fit the dimensions of narrow columns. To view full-screen, click on the box-like icon in the lower right corner of the video once it begins to play.)

1st Movement: Allegro brillante

2nd Movement: In modo d'una marcia, un poco largamente

3rd Movement: Scherzo

4th Movement: Allegro ma non troppo

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Many people think a composer sits down and writes a piece of music because he (or she) is inspired and when feeling happy, writes happy music; or feeling sad, writes sad music. If only it were that easy...

Much of Schumann's music would be considered “uplifting” or “delightful,” helping us through difficult times, perhaps taking us away from our anxieties whether as an escape or a chance to “recharge our batteries.” Yet, every time I listen to the Piano Quintet especially, I'm amazed it exists at all! Pessimistic though it may sound, it may remind us every silver-lining has a cloud which in turn might give us hope that, from the deepest turmoil, we can overcome what seems insurmountable.

If you've read the earlier post about his A Major String Quartet, you're aware how Schumann's life-story was dominated by his mental health, what we now call “bipolar disorder,” formerly known as “manic depression.” His father and sister dealt with it – his sister committed suicide when Schumann was a teenager – and Schumann himself would end his life in an asylum, following his own suicide attempt, where the kind of crude treatment he received might have done little to mitigate the pain and fear of his final years.

Who knows if he'd been treated with modern medication whether his music would've been any different? One thing is certain: the circumstances under which it was created would've been very different.

Much of the time, he did not compose just because he was no longer troubled by this cloud of depression: the manic swing in the opposite direction is what usually triggered a creative phase that often stretched until it wore itself out and he sank back under the clouds again. Whether anyone was aware it was a disease, these constant “mood swings” were also a trial for those around him, especially his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann who had to balance being a wife and mother (they had seven children; an eighth was born shortly after Schumann's suicide attempt) with her own concertizing.

The “Year of Chamber Music” – from June, 1842, to January, 1843, when Schumann composed three string quartets, the Piano Quintet, the Piano Quartet, and several smaller pieces which he would later revise – came at a time following his marriage to Clara in September of 1840, a happy time which inspired a year devoted almost exclusively to songs; and a productive symphonic year in 1841 (his 1st Symphony, the “Spring,” and what eventually became his 4th Symphony; plus two other large-scale symphonic works, one he did not complete and the other which he only published later).

At the time, Schumann was well known more as a writer about music than as a composer of music. He had trained to become a concert pianist, studying with his future wife's father (a very long story in itself), but due to an injury, he was no longer able to play the piano and so turned more seriously to composition. Before then, he had written a great deal of solo piano music, ostensibly for himself to perform, but this was not very different from what many concert-pianists of the day would have been doing.

Schumann – or at least his ego – was also bothered by his wife being more famous than he was: he was, essentially, “Mr. Clara Schumann,” the husband of the great pianist...

In early 1842, the Schumanns had gone off together for one of Clara's extended concert tours across northern Germany when it really hit him, this being in the shadow of his wife, so after a month he returned to Leipzig and his job as journal editor while Clara went on to Copenhagen without him. During her month-long absence, unable to compose and dealing with a “deep melancholy” he tried drowning in “beer and champagne,” he studied fugue and counterpoint and examined quartets by Mozart and Haydn, then later those by Beethoven. Meanwhile, Friedrich Wieck, his former teacher and current father-in-law who had bitterly opposed his daughter's marriage, managed to spread the rumor they’d separated and were heading for a divorce. Thoughts of a tour of America – which Robert dreaded and didn't help his depression – were shelved when Clara returned in late-April.

By June 2nd, he was sketching “quartet essays” and two days later began the 1st String Quartet. On the 11th, he began the 2nd Quartet even before the first one was finished. In between the 2nd and the 3rd Quartet, not begun until July 8th, he wrote a scathing article about Clara’s ex-boyfriend Carl Banck and his new composition (it was so nasty, Schumann did not include it later when he re-published most of his articles) and also ended up in a libel case which netted him a 6-day jail sentence which was commuted to a fine. The 3rd Quartet was finished on July 22nd, seven weeks after he’d begun work on the first. And none of them reflect the despondency and anxiety he'd experienced only a few months before.

During August, there was a bit of a summer vacation - the Schumann’s second child would be born nine months later - then back to Leipzig for rehearsals of the three quartets in early September.

On the 23rd, then, just ten days after the quartets' private premiere for Clara's birthday, he began work on the Piano Quintet which, after sketching it out in just five days, he completed on October 12th, 19 days after he started.

Despite the “constant, fearful, sleepless nights” (I can't find any reference when these started), twelve days after completing the Quintet he began work on the Piano Quartet which he finished in a month.

In the next month, he also composed a piano trio which he wasn't satisfied with, seven years later recasting as the Phantasiestücke (Op. 88); a work for two pianos, two cellos and horn later became a set of variations for two pianos (Op. 46).

1843 looked to start off as a Year of Choral Music. The new Leipzig Conservatory opened in April, his friend Mendelssohn in charge: Clara was a professor of piano, and Robert a professor of “piano-playing, composition and playing-from-score.” But by June, Schumann was again struggling with new projects that failed to take: he remained “fallow,” compositionally, for the rest of the year.

During the first half of 1844, the Schumanns went on a long Russian tour, though Robert spent a week in one town too ill to travel. In St. Petersburg, Clara played before Tsar Nicholas I and an aristocrat's private orchestra played Robert's “Spring” Symphony. Clara's public audiences were small but Robert's Piano Quintet was well-received in Moscow. Otherwise the tour did not achieve what they had hoped and they returned to Leipzig by the end of May.

Schumann spent much of this tour “tortured by fits of melancholy,” irritated he was wasting his time, unable to work on an operatic setting of Faust he'd been planning since the previous November. Shortly after they returned, he resigned from the magazine he'd founded in 1834, Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and began more serious work on Faust which became increasingly frustrating during the summer – setting it aside in July, he suffered another breakdown in August when it became intolerable for him to listen to music, which, he said, “cut into my nerves as if with knives.” In October, Clara often found him “swimming in tears” during sleepless nights when he was “seized with fits of shivering and an apprehension of death.” In December, he set Faust aside once more, leaving the work unfinished until 1853 when he described it as an oratorio, “Scenes from Goethe's Faust” (his suicide attempt, btw, was in February, 1853).

So, in the midst of all this pain and anguish – before and after – he found time to write some of the most joyous chamber music ever composed, his three string quartets, this Piano Quintet as well as the Piano Quartet, all within the space of six months!

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One of the curious things most people forget today is that, before Schumann’s, there were no famous Piano Quintets to serve as models.

To Schumann’s example, we would later add those by Brahms and Dvořák, both famous but both later, as would be the less-well-known one by Cesar Franck and the most famous 20th Century one by Shostakovich. There are no Piano Quintets by Mozart or Beethoven (though they wrote piano quartets), much less by their also-rans.

Except for one by Prince Louis Ferdinand, who published one in 1803.

Also-ran he may be, but this prince, a nephew of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (a great general and a talented if not-so-great composer himself), played the piano “not like a prince but like a real pianist,” according to Beethoven (who dedicated his C Minor Piano Concerto to him). The entry in Grove's Dictionary for “piano quintet” indicates he was a student of Beethoven’s, but the same dictionary’s biographical entry on the prince does not mention this fact.

He was also considered a brilliant soldier, dying on a Napoleonic battlefield in 1806 about a month before his 34th birthday, killed by a French soldier after he refused to surrender. He wrote thirteen published works, his Piano Quintet in C Minor being his Opus 1, his only work published in his lifetime. There are three piano trios and two piano quartets, as well.

I suppose you could ask – considering Schumann knew Prince Louis’ quintet and one could imagine him thinking “here’s a good idea that’s never caught on, take a string quartet and add a pianist” – what prompted Prince Louis to write one?

There are, basically, other works for keyboard and four string players – those by Padre Antonio Soler were intended for the organ, and those by J.C. Bach included the fortepiano or harpsichord more in its role of continuo, the traditional baroque duty of supplying the “harmonic filler” between the melody line and the bass line.

It was also the tradition, in the days before radios, television and stereos when people provided their own entertainment at home, that publishers made piano concertos available to the amateur public. Rather than deal with an orchestra (even the much smaller sized ones in Mozart’s day than the one we think of today), the orchestral part was either arranged or written for three or four string players. The piano here is purely a soloist and the strings, in the standard sense of chamber music, are not equal partners to the piano.

Yes, while Mozart wrote two piano quartets with strings, he did write a quintet for piano and winds (not surprising, since he was delighted with the great wind players he found in Vienna), a work which Beethoven thought so highly of, he imitated it in one, himself. But Beethoven’s publisher also realized there were few opportunities for performances, given the number of wind players as opposed to the number of string players around, so he suggested Beethoven also arrange the work for strings and get more mileage out of it. But curiously, rather than arrange the four wind parts for four strings, one to each wind part, he reworked it into the more standard format of piano quartet with just three stringed instruments. Perhaps if he had decided on four strings, he might have written the first Piano Quintet and decided it was really a good medium, then maybe he'd've written an original one or two. And others may have come along and done the same. But, alas... another chapter in the great game of “What If...”

By the way, a “Piano Quintet” implies a piano with four other players, though it’s usually defined as a piano plus a string quartet (two violins, viola and cello) – or if you’re a string player, a string quartet plus a piano (since it’s more likely you’ll find a pianist being added to a string quartet program than vice-versa). To distinguish them, the two works with winds I mentioned by Mozart and Beethoven are called “Quintets for Piano & Winds.” And since the Trout Quintet by Franz Schubert uses one violin, viola and cello, then adds a double bass, it’s technically not a “piano quintet.” Fortunately, it can just be called the Trout Quintet on the fly rather than the official “Quintet in A Major for Piano & Strings.” But that’s another topic...

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If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:

Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů
Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)
Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
and
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)  
Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (with members of the Harrisburg Symphony (excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  
A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák

Note: all videos recorded at Market Square Church were made by Newman Stare. 
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- Dick Strawser

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů

Welcome to this week’s dose of great chamber music which, as Market Square Concerts Artistic Director Peter Sirotin said, “offers two charming and whimsical oboe quartets featuring soulful playing by Gerard Reuter, who performed for our audience on many occasions. While Josef Rheinberger and Bohuslav Martinu are not composers familiar to everyone, their light-hearted pieces are full of ear-teasing surprises.

And while "quartets" usually brings to mind string quartets, these two works are written for slightly different combinations of four players, featuring first and foremost the oboe.

While many people are “passing the time” (a euphemism for “trying not to go stir-crazy”) during 40-some days and 40-some nights of isolation either by refamiliarizing themselves with old favorites or by discovering new things, here's something that will probably fall under the category of “discovering new things” that are yet somehow familiar.

How many of you could say Joseph Rheinberger is a familiar composer? Probably not many – and I mean more than those who heard the original performance of this piece in July of 2011.

And yet he was one of the leading composers in Germany at the end of the 19th Century, a respected teacher at the Munich Conservatory from 1867 until his death and no less than the conductor of the Bavarian royal chapel in Munich from 1877 until he retired in 1894 for reasons of health. He died in November of 1901 at the age of 62.

The Quartet for Oboe, Horn (or Viola), Cello and Piano in F Major by Joseph Rheinberger is a work in two movements, the first being basically an extended slow introduction to a sonata-form second movement marked “Allegro molto.” Here's the 2nd Movement from Summermusic 2011 recorded at Market Square Church with oboist Gerard Reuter, violist Peter Sirotin, cellist Fiona Thompson, and pianist Ya-Ting Chang:


While the composer's name might be unfamiliar to you, his musical style might remind you of Robert Schumann (who'd died in 1856) and a bit of Johannes Brahms (who died in 1897). Rheinberger would fit in with this more conservative wing of German Romanticism and it's quite possible this piece was written fifty years after it sounds like it was.

The first theme unfolds in a leisurely lyrical fashion that might also remind you of Mendelssohn (who died in 1847). The second theme, also lyrical, begins in the cello at 1:28, the exposition of the two themes is then repeated beginning at 3:37. The expected development section which treats the two themes in various ways, deals with them less lyrically, more dramatically this time with a decidedly old-fashioned fugal work-out (a good sign of a good academician) until the first theme reappears (this is the “recapitulation” of sonata-form) at 8:50, the second theme at 10:13, before proceeding to a triumphant ending.

Grove's Dictionary says “His career was accompanied by many, if not all spectacular, successes which brought him numerous honours and marks of recognition.” No less than Hans von Bülow, one of the leading conductors of the day, champion of both Wagner and Brahms, had said of him, “Rheinberger is a truly ideal teacher of composition, unrivaled in the whole of Germany and beyond in skill, refinement and devotion to his subject; in short, one of the worthiest musicians and human beings in the world.”

So why is he virtually unknown, his music largely forgotten?

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When Peter said he'd chosen this piece for this week's program, I went back to my posts for Summermusic 2011, expecting to copy "the Rheinberger bit" verbatim into this one. While I've often been accused of writing 30,000 words about 30 minutes of music, my mention of Rheinberger's Quartet over six separate posts consists of 24 words: two mentions of the composer's name and the piece's title, plus the detail “a contemporary of Brahms.” Not much, eh?

Granted, in many cases, that might be all you need to know to enjoy the music – in fact, you could enjoy it with considerably less, that's true. But my purpose here (if I have one) is to fill in the wealth of background that makes the composers something other than those marble busts we sometimes see and to let you know what was going on in their lives around the time they were composing these works: the human context, if you will.

But I can't even find an opus number for this piece or a date is was composed or published! If he was a contemporary of Brahms', what was Brahms writing at the time? How does Rheinberger fit into the "contemporary music" scene?

Executive Director (and pianist) Ya-Ting Chang told me this was definitely something that Gerry Reuter had discovered, I assume from rooting around in old libraries or back catalogues, always on the look-out for unknown if not downright unusual repertoire for the oboe. She told me when the score arrived, it came with both a horn part and a viola part: as was often the case, composers who wrote for "unusual" instruments, alternate versions had to be published, substituting something more likely found among the amateur demographic where the publishers expected to make their money. If it weren't for that kind of reasoning, violists wouldn't have two of their finest Sonatas, the ones Brahms didn't write for them...

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Joseph Rheinberger
Despite his reputation, despite the vast amount of music he composed, lists of his works are far from complete and those that are mentioned are often completely lacking in detail. Even Grove's Dictionary glosses over his chamber music output without mentioning the instrumentation of the few pieces they've included. However, one – the only one in F Major, this Quartet's key – is his Op.191a (which makes me wonder what plain old Op. 191 is...?) but a closer inspection, and the use of a magnifying glass, indicates this is apparently one of a set of piano trios (and itself a pleasant, rather Brahmsian work from 1898, the year after Brahms died).

So, who was Joseph Rheinberger? You might assume he's a German composer but without getting into the complex history of Germanic culture as opposed to its political identities, technically Rheinberger is a Liechtensteiner, from an independent state within the former Holy Roman Empire that, since 1396, was not beholden to Bavaria (to the north) or Austria (to the east), and which, by 1719, became the present-day principality, named for the family who'd owned these lands as feudal lords since 1140 or so. (There was a time, during the Napoleonic Wars, Liechtenstein was part of Napoleon's “Confederation of the Rhine” until the Congress of Vienna restored its independence in 1815, but I digress.)

Rheinberger, born in the capital city of Vaduz in 1839, was the son of the court treasurer of Prince Aloys II who ruled until 1858 – two of his sons would, in turn, become Princes: Johann II reigned for 70 years (the second longest European reign ever); his younger brother Franz I till 1938; his grand-nephew Franz Josef II, ruled till 1989, when his son Hans-Adam II (Aloys II's great-great-grandson) became the current reigning Prince – and while we might think little of a little country of a mere 62 square miles, it does, after all, have the highest income-per-capita of any European state today!

At any rate, young Rheinberger was clearly a prodigy: by 7, he was already organist at the parish church in Vaduz, his first composition performed a year later. In 1849, he crossed the border into Austria's Voralberg province to study music, and then on to Munich where he entered the conservatory in 1851, joining the faculty shortly after graduation. He spent the rest of his life in Munich.

Ludwig II, who, besides his mania for building castles, was a huge fan of Richard Wagner, became King of Bavaria at the age of 18 in 1864, when Rheinberger was a rehearsal coach and pianist at the Royal Opera House in Munich. As a composer, Rheinberger was more inclined to favor the classical side of German Romanticism, primarily Schumann and Mendelssohn – and, as an organist, going back further to Bach – so it was not a pleasant experience for him, working with Wagner in preparing the premiere of Tristan und Isolde in 1865.

Mr. & Mrs. Rheinberger
At any rate, two years later Rheinberger resigned from the opera and also married a student of his (she was actually 8 years his senior) – (see photo of him and his wife Fanny (Franziska) taken shortly afterward) – then ten years after that was appointed court conductor for the royal chapel which required he also write a great deal of music for the Catholic church (he wrote 14 masses, 3 requiems, numerous motets, and the Christmas oratorio, The Star of Bethlehem).

Today, if he's remembered at all, it's as a composer for the organ: apparently, he had planned to write a series of 24 organ sonatas, one in each key, but completed only 20 of them; there are two concertos with orchestra that have been recorded (check out the finale of the 1st, written in 1884) and could be substituted once in a while for the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony, completed in 1886 – but then who would buy tickets to hear an unknown like Rheinberger when you know people will flock to hear a beloved war-horse like the Saint-Saëns?

In addition to several stage works, two symphonies and a piano concerto, he wrote a great deal of chamber music – three string quartets, a string quintet, four piano trios, even a trio for organ, violin and cello (here's the Finale), as well as a piano quintet in 1878, plus a nonet for winds & strings – and somewhere along the way this otherwise unmentioned Oboe Quartet – there's also enough piano music (including four sonatas) to fill a 10-CD box set.

He was an influential teacher, in a time when many young Americans were still coming to Europe (especially Germany) to study before American schools had set up reputable music schools of their own: while Rheinberger counted among his students Europeans like the future composer of Hansel & Gretel, Englebert Humperdinck, in the mid-1870s, and the Italian-German Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari in the 1890s, he also taught George Whitefield Chadwick (before 1880) and, among others, Horatio Parker in the early-1880s, who would later teach at Yale where one of his students would be Charles Ives.

Given Rheinberger's conservative tastes, one wonders what he'd've made of his future grandstudent's Variations on “America”, written in 1891 by the 17-year-old Ives? (Since Rheinberger would live another ten years, it's conceivable he could've heard it, though I doubt he'd've had the opportunity.)

Oh wait, here's a coincidence, considering there are only 12 notes to go around: the National Anthem of Liechtenstein, “Oben am jungen Rhein,” written in the 1850s, uses the same tune as “America” a.k.a. “My Country 'Tis of Thee,” a.k.a. “God Save the King”! Hmmm...

So, after all that (and all those digressions) – not to mention about 1,500 words – how does such a highly respected and frequently performed composer like Rheinberger who wrote an awful lot of music – which, incidentally, is not the same as “a lot of awful music” – disappear from public awareness?

Trust me, this a question many a composer asks whenever a new piece comes to mind...

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The second piece in this week's program is the Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Cello, and Piano by Bohuslav Martinů written between September 15th and October 21st, 1947, when he was 56. This performance, with oboist Gerard Reuter, violinist Peter Sirotin, cellist Fiona Thompson, and pianist Ya-Ting Chang, took place during Summermusic 2013.



The first movement is marked Moderato poco allegro, full of that bustling neo-classical texture Martinů made his own. The slow movement, an at-times lilting Andante following a dramatic opening at 5:40, almost blends into the lively, at-times quirky finale, marked Poco allegro, starting at 8:36, which ought to leave listeners smiling.

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Martinů at 5

As Liechtensteiner Rheinberger spent his life in Munich, Paris would eventually become home to the Czech-born composer, Bohuslav Martinů, raised in a small-town church tower in an apartment 193 steps above the street (talk about a “walk-up”...). He gave his first violin recital when he was 14 but since the age of 10 he'd been focused on becoming a composer. He played in the 2nd Violin section of what became the Czech Philharmonic after the nation's independence following World War I, but in 1923, now in his early-30s, he received a scholarship that allowed him to study composition in Paris where he remained for the next 17 years, making a living as a “poor, starving musician” – a true Bohemian! With the outbreak of World War II, he managed to escape before the Nazi Occupation of Paris and settled in the United States. It was here that he wrote the Quartet we're going to hear on this program.

Martinů in 1945
Martinů was a prolific and seemingly effortless composer. A great deal of his music has this overall happy sense of well-being, usually energetic and often optimistic. It's not that his life was necessarily well-adjusted: aside from the poverty of his Paris days (recognition came slowly, if at all), when he fled the approaching Nazis who had already black-listed his music (which, I suppose, was a kind of recognition, though it was primarily for his role in the Czech Resistance), he was forced to leave most of his manuscripts behind and had difficulty booking passage to America, first finding refuge in Southern France, then Lisbon. It took almost a year to get a boat to New York City where he arrived speaking no English and bringing with him only the few scores he'd composed in the past year.

It was Serge Koussevitsky in Boston who came to his rescue – much as he did with another war-time immigrant from Central Europe, Bela Bartók (the result, there, was his famous Concerto for Orchestra). And so, Martinů composed his 1st Symphony for the Boston Symphony, gained some recognition and re-gained some much-needed confidence before setting off to write four more symphonies and several concertos over the next five years. After the war, he was invited to return to Prague to teach at the conservatory there, but the new Communist regime blocked his passport and he now found himself stuck in America.

That summer of 1946, he was appointed to the faculty at Tanglewood (another Koussevitsky save) but he was unable to fulfill it because of a serious fall from a balcony resulting in a fractured skull and a concussion, afterward drifting in and out of a coma. All this affected his hearing and his nerves, not to mention hitting him with serious medical bills. As he recuperated, a friend at this time described him as "a different man: gaunt, irritable, crippled and in pain from the accident." It required a few years, as one source put it, before he was able to return to his former state as a solid composer.

And yet the following year, living in New York City in 1947, he composed this Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Cello and Piano, a work that hardly reflects the reality of the context it was written in.

If you're interested in hearing more works by Martinů, I recommend his String Quartet No. 7, also written in New York in 1947, completed in late-June, just before the Oboe Quartet which he began in mid-September.

The first work of his I'd ever heard (friends at Eastman were playing through it, back in the early-'70s, when I walked past their practice room and it stopped me in my tracks) was the duet for violin and viola called "Three Madrigals" (here's a wonderful performance with Arnaud Sussmann and Paul Neubauer), which by the way was also written in New York City in 1947, from mid-February to mid-March, starting it just eight months after the accident! Talk about music written in trying times!!

Later, he taught at the Mannes School of Music in NYC and then at Curtis in Philadelphia – his students included Alan Hovhannes and Burt Bacharach – even after he returned to Europe, where he spent much of his time in the South of France, also teaching at the American Academy in Rome. But he was still beset by financial insecurity: Paul Sacher, a noted Swiss conductor and patron to many famous composers, invited Martinů to live on his estate in Switzerland, where he died two years later at the age of 68.

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If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' posts of videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:

Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)
Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
and
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)  
Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (with members of the Harrisburg Symphony (excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  
A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák

Note: all videos recorded at Market Square Church were made by Newman Stare. 
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- Dick Strawser