In a sense, this year’s Summermusic series is kind of like that, as far as composers are concerned, whether it was intended that way or not. In the first two concerts we heard Beethoven’s early Quintet for Piano and Winds, written a few years before his “break-out” pieces, the Op. 18 String Quartets and his 1st Symphony and, on a smaller scale, the “Pathetique” Sonata which always surprises me when I think it was written before 1800.
(You can read more about Beethoven's life at the time he composed the quintet here.)
|Poulenc w/Sirotin, Chang & Malina|
|Les Six in 1921 at the Eiffel Tower|
What strikes me as so amazing, listening to the piece, is how much it sounds like Poulenc, that it would never have occurred to me this was a bit of “juvenilia” – especially a piece he wrote before he even started studying with a teacher!
|Britten in 1933|
And while it might sound at times like his version of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism (Stravinsky had written the ballet Apollo in 1927, Les Noces in 1923 and L’Histoire du soldat in 1918), it is very obviously a work by Benjamin Britten, full of those musical fingerprints that we associate with other, more familiar works of his written after World War II.
|Sirotin, Stepniak, Thompson & Reuter rehearse Britten|
Usually, Reuter explained, most string players he'd worked with felt - Britten being a teen-ager and all - he didn’t understand how to write for strings (though he’d been studying the viola since he was 10) and so they would end up homogenizing the contrasting metronome markings almost to the point of finding a common denominator.
By following the composer’s well-thought-out and clearly indicated intentions, they turned it into a harrowing piece that made me think “wait, this wasn’t written during World War II, was it?” But then Fiona Thompson, born in England, said, “no, there was a lot of anticipation of the next war during that whole generation between the wars” – like waiting for the other shoe to drop. The fact the Nazis hadn’t come to power yet had no impact on this sense of foreboding or on Britten’s music.
But then, recalling Ralph Vaughan Williams’ chilling Sancta Civitas premiered in 1926 and the Dona nobis pacem of a decade later, despite their titles these are decidedly anti-war works. Britten was, all his life, a pacifist. One can hear his reaction to this inevitability of war in the mechanistic tread that opens the Phantasy Quartet which, despite its small forces, rises to an unexpected intensity before the march resumes, harrowing, hollowed out before dying away with one final breath.
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|From Friday Night's Concert|
If he’d been trying to create a musical forgery that could be passed off as a newly discovered work by the late Master, his colleagues would’ve immediately caught him up on it: no, the reason for the imitation was so he could learn from what Mozart had done – and then do it “his way.” Despite the fact he was past his mid-20s, he was still thinking of himself as a student but once he had learned from Mozart what he could, he now had the self-confidence to head out on his own path.
In the third concert of the series – tomorrow, back at the Market Square Church and beginning earlier than usual at 6:00 (that’s six o’clock) – the program includes a reading of Lucy Miller Murray's poem Sonata with excerpts from three of the five string trios Beethoven wrote around the same time he was working on the Quintet and all completed before he began work on the string quartets and the symphony.
If the Quintet was an homage to Mozart, these trios branch out from the serenades and divertimentos of Mozart and Haydn, music for “easy listening” written as background music for dinners and garden parties. Written between 1796 and 1798, the first two – published as Op. 3 and Op. 8 – are closer to this sense of “art as entertainment.” Another serenade-like work written at this time - for flute, violin and viola - wasn’t published until 1802 as Op. 25.
But the three trios of Op. 9 – the first in G, the second in D and particularly the third in C Minor (a more dramatic work in what, for Beethoven, was always a dramatic key) – go beyond that ease of function.
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2nd Movement, Andante, of the String Trio, Op. 9/2 (up to 4:48)
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Scherzo from the String Trio, Op.9/1 (up to 2:38)
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In fact, Beethoven considered them “among his best” even though a few years later he would declare he was unsatisfied with everything he’d written so far, including the first quartets and the first two symphonies.
That, however, would come with maturity and a greater sense of self-awareness. The confidence to achieve that was something he learned in the process.
Another work on tomorrow’s program is the Piano Quartet in C Minor by Richard Strauss, written when he was 20. You can read more about it in a subsequent post.
- Dick Strawser