Monday, January 14, 2013

The Schumann Trio Plays Some Brahms, Too

We often wonder what inspired a composer to write a particular piece. We know a stormy passage across the Baltic Sea on a rickety ship prompted Wagner’s equally stormy overture to the opera, “The Flying Dutchman,” an opera about a ghostly ship and its strange crew and captain. Did Beethoven really write the “Moonlight Sonata” because he was in love with the woman he dedicated it to? Was Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio – for clarinet, viola and piano – really written while he was playing a kind of lawn-bowling game?

And, for that matter, what prompted Johannes Brahms, who’d announced his retirement from composing, to make a come-back with a number of works for clarinet – like the A Minor Trio we’re going to hear the Schumann Trio play on Tuesday night’s concert with Market Square Concerts at 8pm at Whitaker Center?

(You can read about some other works on the program in earlier posts: here, for Schumann's "Fairy Tales" and here for a work by Rebecca Clarke.)

As I’d said before, chamber music is often music played by friends for friends. It can also be written for friends.

While the bowling game (“skittles” or “kegelstatt”) might’ve been behind Mozart’s little trio, the whole occasion of the piece concerned a dinner party which ended up with some music-making: Anton Stadler, a leading clarinetist in Vienna (though not as famous as his brother, Johann), was a guest, as was Mozart who loved to play the viola in chamber music ensembles, and the host’s daughter was one of Mozart’s more able piano students. Not only does the whole work exude this relaxed, “un-buttoned” atmosphere of friends enjoying each other’s company after dinner, it wasn’t long until Mozart – who wrote great woodwind parts in his piano concertos and operas because of the great players in Vienna (as opposed to more provincial Salzburg) – wrote Stadler two more works: the Clarinet Quintet K.581 and the Clarinet Concerto, K.622, both masterpieces and both major works for any clarinetist’s repertoire.

Just as Mozart’s cousin Carl Maria von Weber wrote his two concertos and a clarinet quintet for clarinetist Heinrich Bärmann (you can read more of the story behind these works, here), and Ludwig Spohr, one of the most famous violinists and a very popular composer in his day, wrote four clarinet concertos for Johann Simon Hermstedt, it was a clarinetist whom Johannes Brahms heard playing these works that brought him out of retirement.

With his great beard and fussily grumpy personality, we think of Brahms as an old man though at the time he told his publisher in 1890, after his Op.111 String Quintet, that he was going to stop composing, now, he was only 57 years old. This G Major String Quintet hardly sounds like a farewell piece by an old man with its exuberant opening and youthful energy, the finale one of the liveliest of the gypsy finales Brahms ever composed. When a close friend heard the piece in a read-through, he cried out “Brahms in the Prater!”, thinking of the famous amusement park in Vienna where Brahms liked to hang out with his friends. Brahms shouted back “You’ve got it! And all the pretty girls there, too, eh?”

Why Brahms felt the need to “retire” is another matter, but the fact that he even thought that – much less made an official announcement that this would be his last piece – is striking.

So how did Brahms handle his retirement?

In March the next year – 1891, Brahms a few months shy of 58 – the composer went to Meinigen, a small city-state that was now part of the German Empire, where the local count had maintained a fine orchestra, one Brahms often used to “try out” his new symphonies before taking them to Vienna. It was meant to be a good time, a holiday – honorary dinners with Brahms decked out in formal attire wearing all his medals and listening to the orchestra play his recent 4th Symphony, played so well, he asked them to play it again.

Critic Eduard Hanslick, Johannes Brahms & Richard Mühlfeld
He also heard their principal clarinetist, a fellow named Richard Mühlfeld who arrived in Meinigen almost 20 years earlier as a violinist and for some reason, learned to play the clarinet, succeeding in three years’ time to become the orchestra’s principal clarinetist in addition to being the orchestra’s assistant conductor. In the 1880s, he also became the principal clarinetist at Wagner’s opera house in Bayreuth but remained for the duration of his playing career in Meinigen.

Now, Brahms listened to him play the quintet by Mozart and concertos by Weber and Spohr. They quickly became friends and Brahms sat around listening to him play for hours at a time. This wasn’t just a sense of discovering a talented musician – something that had drawn him to his life-long friend and collaborator Joseph Joachim (for whom he wrote the Violin Concerto) or Robert Haussmann, the cellist in Joachim’s quartet, for whom he wrote the 2nd Cello Sonata but also the Double Concerto with Joachim (not until after he’d heard Dvořák’s Cello Concerto did he consider maybe writing a cello concerto of his own for Haussmann, but by then, it was too late, he felt). With Mühlfeld, it was the epiphany of also discovering an instrument.

He had not seriously considered the clarinet before, outside of its role in the orchestra. Suddenly hearing how Mühlfeld handled the instrument’s three different layers of sound, the registers that can sometimes be problematic in less proficient hands, he delighted in the nuances of sound Mühlfeld made, showing Brahms the clarinet could sing like a fine mezzo (and Brahms always enjoyed a fine singer’s voice) or how it could be shaded like an exceptionally played viola. He dubbed Mühlfeld “Fräulein Klarinette” for having seduced him with this mellifluous voice (as there had been so many fräuleins in Brahms' life before).

The net result of this initial flirtation was the Trio in A Minor, written that summer for clarinet, cello and piano while Brahms was vacationing at Bad Ischl, a fashionable spa-town east of Salzburg popular with the Austrian Imperial Court. In 1880, he spent a not very pleasant summer there between the weather and an ear infection that worried him he might be going deaf, despite writing two new piano trios: the C Major and one in E-flat that never made it to the publisher and was no doubt subsequently burned on the altar of his ever-present insecurities. During 1889’s visit, he revised his Op. 8 Piano Trio to the version we usually hear today.

Some react to this new trio which, by comparison to the Op.111 Quintet, sounds like a more austere affair, as a cello sonata with clarinet obbligato: perhaps, since he was just trying his fling with Fräulein Klarinette, he was still more aware of Herr Hausmann’s cello. This changed, however, with the work he immediately wrote next, finishing up this fruitful summer of his so-called retirement with the Quintet in B Minor for Clarinet and Strings which is all about the clarinet and makes one wish he had gone on to write a concerto for the instrument as well as, eventually, two sonatas.

Brahms described the quintet as “a far greater folly” than the recently completed trio, though it would become one of his chamber music masterpieces. The trio, for some reason, has not caught on nearly as much and, frankly, I see it less on clarinetists’ programs than you’d think, given the choice of repertoire.

It's interesting, considering the nature of this program with the Schumann Trio, that the two works scheduled to open and close the evening are both late works by two composers who lives are inextricably intertwined: Robert Schumann, unaware the end was near, writing a work only a couple of weeks after he and his wife met Brahms, then just 20 years old; and a work by his protegee, written thirty-eight years later, having come back from a self-imposed retirement.

Brahms wrote to his old friend Clara Schumann, Robert's widow, racked with pain and barely able, at times, to walk, inviting her to come to Berlin to hear the first public performances of both the Trio and the Quintet:

"To listen to the clarinet player would mark a red-letter day in your life. ...You would revel, and I hope that my music would not interfere with your pleasure."

Unfortunately, Clara was unable to make the performance, but it would seem to have been a suitable rounding-out any artist interested in the on-going breath of one's artistic existence would have basked in, nostalgic for the past but pleasant in the presence of friends.

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This time, with the Schumann Trio which consists of a clarinetist, a violist and a pianist, we’ll hear the Trio in a slightly different format than originally intended.

Because there were not that many clarinetists out there – whether they could play such music, or not – Brahms’ publishers, no doubt delighted he was writing again at all, balked at the idea of so much time and effort spent on a piece that may not sell that well. In those days, much of a composer’s income (and certainly a publisher’s) came from the amateur market, people who would snap up the latest pieces of chamber music to play them at home with their friends. So Brahms agreed to making “viola versions” of these works, despite the importance of the clarinet’s very sound behind their inception.

So, the A Minor Trio is available for Viola, Cello and Piano, the B Minor Quintet as a string quartet with a prominent added viola part, and the two sonatas have gone on to become major works in any serious-minded viola player’s repertoire.

And the viola, incidentally, tunes its strings like a cello only an octave higher, so presumably it can play a cello part but in a different octave. Violists, habitually lacking in repertoire and not shy about purloining anything suitable (I once heard a friend play a recital which included a set of songs by Fauré, set in a mezzo’s range, which sounded wonderful as “songs without words”), could consider adapting this particular trio for their given combination. There is something lost in the compression of the registers, the viola’s being so similar to the clarinet, but there is also something poignant in their being two sides of not quite similar coins.

Again, finding reasonably good performances on You-Tube can amount to a carp-shoot (seizing the day), but here is the original version with cello, to give you an idea of the piece with which Brahms came out of retirement, even if only briefly.

Clarinetist Paul Meyer, cellist Jing Zhao and pianist Eric LeSage in this performance recorded in a museum in Denmark:

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- Dick Strawser

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Quorum of the Schumann Trio Plays Something by Rebecca Clarke

Rebecca Clarke in 1919
The Schumann Trio’s performance at Whitaker on Tuesday at 8pm includes a rarely heard composer by the name of Rebecca Clarke – her “Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale,” a.k.a. Three Pieces for Clarinet and Viola. Also scheduled for this program are two late-works by two closely related composers, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms as well as a few pieces by Max Bruch of “Scottish Fantasy” fame. You can read more about the ensemble and the Schumann “Fairy Tales” in this earlier post and about Brahms and his post-retirement Trio in this subsequent post.

Rebecca Clarke is one of those composers who could’ve been, to turn a familiar movie phrase less often associated with artists, “a contender.”

She grew up at the end of the Victorian Era with its societal repression of women’s roles and was dominated by her equally repressive father, an American living in England and married to his German wife. The idea of a woman becoming a musician was unthinkable for a respectable lady and that she wanted to study composition seemed ridiculous, apparently, even to many fellow musicians. She was allowed to study the violin at the Royal Academy of Music – after all, she could still play for musicales at home – but two years later, when her violin teacher “proposed to her,” her father pulled her out of school (not, as usually thought, because he disagreed with her course of study - well, yes, that too, no doubt).

Two years later, now 21, she resumed her studies at the Royal College of Music, studying composition with one of the leading composers and teachers in England of that generation, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who suggested she play the viola rather than the violin. It seems, in addition to Mozart’s preference – because you’re sitting in the middle of the action and get to appreciate everything going on around you (particularly good from a composer’s viewpoint) – the viola was also beginning to become a respectable solo instrument and there weren’t as many people who played it well. Very quickly, she became one the best viola players around and so she found herself getting more “gigs” rather than competing with all those violinists hanging about.

She also began studying composition more seriously and was the first of Stanford’s “female composer” students. She also worked with Ralph Vaughan Williams, a youngish composer despite pushing 40 (let’s say, he was a late-bloomer) on the verge of premiering his choral first symphony, “A Sea Symphony.”

However, when she criticized her father for his extra-marital affairs, he tossed her out of the house and cut off his financial support (stuffy old twit, he was: concerned about her being a lady and then pushing her out onto the streets because he was acting like a pig, but hey…). So, she left school once more, this time to find necessary employment, becoming the first female member of a major London orchestra when the legendary Sir Henry Wood hired her for the Queen’s Hall Orchestra.

Once the First World War began, she went to the United States to set up a career here, performing several pieces of her own on a program in New York City, one of them posted under the pseudonym “Anthony Trent.” Critics liked the Trent piece but ignored her other works, not even dismissing them.

A similar thing happened with the Viola Sonata she composed in 1919 when she submitted it to a competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (who also happened to be a friend and neighbor of hers). Out of over 70 entries, her sonata tied for first place with a work by Ernest Bloch. The assumption by the judges was that “Rebecca Clarke” must have been a pseudonym for Bloch himself, so the story goes, entering two pieces, because, certainly, no woman could’ve written such a good piece as that. The assumption is, the judges didn’t realize the second composer’s true identity until after the decision had been made. A woman composer! They were shocked, no doubt – shocked!

A Piano Trio had a similar fate in a subsequent competition, placing well but winning no prize. At least she did receive Mrs. Coolidge’s financial patronage as a result.

But this, alas, ended up being the peak of her career which was, by most retrospective glances, just beginning. Instead, she returned to England and focused primarily on performing, organizing concerts and making recordings. Visiting her brothers in America, she was stranded here at the start of World War II and, to support herself, became a governess for a family in Connecticut. Meanwhile, she composed some more – in 1941, one her better-known later pieces, the “Passacaglia on an Old English Theme” for viola and piano, using an old-fashioned modal tune attributed to Tallis. Presumably the work is dedicated to Benjamin Britten, a young ex-patriot English composer then staying in America (and hanging around Tanglewood) who would, five years later, write his own passacaglia on a theme by Purcell, better known as "The Young-Person's Guide to the Orchestra."

Rebecca Clarke
Next, she composed her “Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale” for viola and clarinet which appears on our program as “Three Pieces for Clarinet and Viola,” apparently for her brother and his wife. While the Allegro may be her “20th Century Voice,” the Pastorale reminds us of her English roots – in fact, both this and the earlier Passacaglia are clearly reminders of home – considering the typical concept of the “cow-looking-over-the-fence” pastoral school of composing which was so frequently aimed at Vaughan Williams and his colleagues.

Her music was largely overlooked – most people would say “forgotten,” but to be “forgotten” you first have to be known, and she never really was “known” as a fine composer. In fact, from her childhood on into her maturity, this lack of support and encouragement resulted in a chronic form of depression now called “dysthymia” which often prompted her to not compose.

Ironically, in the mid-1940s, she ran into an old school friend in New York City and they, now both in their 50s, decided to get married. James Frisken was a composer and pianist and on the faculty of the newly formed Juilliard School of Music and, even though he was supportive of his wife’s composing, she essentially stopped completely. A radio broadcast of some of her music on the occasion of her 90th Birthday revived interest in her existence, but she died in 1979 at the age of 93.

One wonders what she might have written had things been easier not just for her but for other women who wanted to become composers. Few had the indomitable butchness of Ethel Smyth to overcome the idiocy that held them back, and even then, who pays much attention to Dame Ethel’s music, these days?

While I can’t find any respectable presentation on You-Tube of the piece on this program, here’s a reasonable presentation of the first movement of her wonderful Viola Sonata. Molly Carr is the violist with Yi-fang Huang, the pianist.
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- Dick Strawser

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Schumann Trio Plays (Naturally Enough) Some Schumann

Now that we’ve survived the Old Year (in so many ways) and are headed into the New 2013, it’s time for January’s program with Market Square Concerts. This first concert of the year features an unusual trio which includes three musicians you might be familiar with.

They call themselves the Schumann Trio but they’re not, as you might think, a piano trio in the technical sense. In this case, it’s with clarinet, viola and piano. There’s not a lot written for that combination, but they’re scheduled to open the program with a work by the trio’s namesake, Robert Schumann, his Märchenerzälungen or “Fairy Tales,” and include along the way three pieces for clarinet and piano by English composer Rebecca Clarke, along with a few of the pieces written for the trio by Max Bruch.

And, repertoire being scarce, it should come as no surprise that they dip into another rare combination for clarinet, cello and piano by Johannes Brahms, for one of his valedictory works, his Clarinet Trio in A Minor – the viola can play the cello part an octave higher. (You can read about how this work came about, here.)

You can hear them Tuesday evening at Whitaker Center beginning at 8pm.

Incidentally, you’ll also be able to hear a young performer as a “warm-up act” for this concert. Pianist Daniel Glessner, currently studying at Penn State, will perform one of the Transcendental Etudes by Franz Liszt. It’s an opportunity for us to hear some of the many fine young musicians in the area: hearing great performers is one thing but it’s always nice to know the future of classical music is in good hands.

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Of our Schumann Trio, Violist Michael Tree has been best known as one-fourth of the legendary Guarneri Quartet who, during their long and illustrious career as one of the finest string quartets in the world, made frequent and welcome stops in Harrisburg with Market Square Concerts Past – most recently, in 2009, one of their very last concerts together. You may remember an additional and unexpected bit of excitement about that performance when concert-time had arrived but the quartet’s second violinist hadn’t, yet, being stuck somewhere in traffic – and so the program began with a series of anecdotes told by those players present (perhaps a quorum in the political sense but not good for Haydn, Dohnanyi or Ravel). You can read about that aspect of the performance, here.

Clarinetist Anthony McGill will be familiar, if not by name, as one of four performers, along with violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Gabriela Montero, freezing their combined assets off during the outdoor swearing-in ceremony at Barak Obama’s 1st Inauguration, playing a work by John Williams based on the Shaker Hymn, “Simple Gifts.” (I would imagine any of them no longer complain about playing outdoor concerts on hot humid summer days…)

Pianist Anna Polonsky, pursuing her own career as a soloist and chamber musician, has appeared in the region in past summers – speaking of outdoor concerts – with Gretna Music, among her appearances in Vienna, Amsterdam or New York City, appearing here as both solo recitalist and combining with string players for some little-heard music by Ernest Chausson. She has also joined the Guarneri Quartet, among others, for chamber music, playing at major chamber music festivals around the country. Incidentally, as a child, she attended the same music school in Moscow which MSC’s Artistic Director Peter Sirotin had also attended, even though he first heard her at a concert at Bard College – music can be a small world.

Now, with “Flu Season” in full swing – and we hope all of you are well and don’t want anyone to miss this performance – it’s perhaps a good time to mention that there’s always a possibility that expression “program subject to change” may be invoked. Executive Director Ya-Ting Chang has been deluged with a blizzard of last minute program changes for each of the remaining concerts of the season, a concert presenter’s nightmare. At least they came in before the program for these concerts went to press. Should there be any changes to this program, let’s say Clara Schumann knew all about these issues…

Which brings me to the Trio’s namesake and the first piece on the program which is by Robert Schumann, who spent much of his life as a writer about music and a composer trying to make his way in the world while married to one of the greatest pianists of the day and was, subsequently, often regarded as Mr. Clara Schumann. (As one of Clara Schumann’s admirers once asked the husband, standing idly by at a post-concert reception, “Are you a musician, too?”)

I often define chamber music as “music played by friends for friends.” Before the advent of smaller concert halls especially for the presentation of chamber music, chamber music concerts usually took place in people’s homes which could have been a specifically designated music room whether it was in Count Razumovsky’s palace in Beethoven’s day or the rather substantial house in Berlin where Felix Mendelssohn grew up and frequently performed (and composed for) Sunday afternoon musicales, or, for that matter, in the parlors (or living rooms) of professional or amateur musicians across Europe, whether your name was Robert Schumann or Johann Nepomuck Publik.

For instance, the summer that Schumann so industriously poured forth with his three string quartets, the piano quintet and the piano quartet (among other pieces), the unofficial world premiere of Schumann’s famous Piano Quintet took place in their living room, his wife Clara joined by friends of theirs for the occasion. There was a second performance planned (prior to its first public performance) in which Clara Schumann, pregnant with her second child, Elise, was to perform but illness prevented this and, at the last minute, Felix Mendelssohn stepped in and sight-read the part. (Therein, by the way, lies a hint…)

Most of Schumann’s well-known chamber music was written that busy year of 1842, overshadowing much of his later music. Another thing overshadowing his later music is his health and our attitudes about it. Throughout his life, Schumann was plagued with what had been called “manic depression” or, more recently, “bi-polar disorder.” Frequent bouts of creativity – such as the summer of 1842 – were balanced by its aftermath when, drained of energy, Schumann was unable to create and sank into periods of depression.

In the last years of his life, stuck in the provincial world of Düsseldorf as the town music director, his lack of skills as a conductor eventually made things worse: the orchestra refused to play under him as had the chorus. His bouts of illness, beginning with a “rheumatic attack” in the spring of 1852, should not imply a period of constant sickness: again, there were ups and downs and he was still quite prolific as a composer. And it was not an entirely unhappy time, either. It wasn’t until the fall of 1853 that the Schumanns met a young visitor by the name of Johannes Brahms, a 20-year-old friend of the violinist Joseph Joachim (for whom Schumann had written a Fantasie with orchestra as well as a violin concerto).

During this time, he wrote a number of “make-work” pieces, “mechanical” things like arrangements of earlier orchestral works for piano (for amateur study and performance) or writing piano accompaniments for some of Bach’s works for solo violin or solo cello, primarily to keep himself creatively active. But he also wrote a “Festive Overture” with chorus on the Rheinweinlied which was a popular success at its premiere along with his recently revised and now completed 4th Symphony (a work written initially in 1841 but set aside as unsatisfactory).

Not long after Brahms arrived on his doorstep, Schumann composed four short pieces for clarinet, viola and piano he called Märchenerzälungen or “Fairy Tales,” a nondescript image he had used for other, similar short pieces in the past (there's also a set of Märchenbilder or "Fairy Pictures" though often also translated as "Fairy Tales," written only two years earlier). They were written between October 9th and 11th. The following week, he wrote some short piano pieces (similar to many of his more famous earlier miniatures) which he called Gesänge der Frühe or “Songs of the Early Morning” which, as Schumann wrote to his publisher, “depict the emotions on the approach and advance of morning, but more an expression of feeling rather than painting.” Then he went back to writing accompaniments for, among other works, Paganini’s famous 24th Caprice.

By the end of the month, there was a little music-making in the Schumann parlor when several friends joined to honor Joseph Joachim (it is often described as a birthday celebration, though he was born in June and had just turned 22). There was a collaborative violin sonata which made use of Joachim’s favorite expression, “Frei aber einsam” (free but lonely) converted into the pitches F, A and E. Schumann wrote two movements, Brahms wrote the scherzo and another Schumann pupil, Albert Dietrich, wrote the first movement. Joachim and Clara played through them, and the violinist was to guess who composed them.

Unfortunately, the following year he was exhibiting “painful aural symptoms” (in the manner of hallucinations) and eventually, momentarily left unguarded while the family gathered for dinner, a distraught Schumann ran out of the house and jumped off the bridge into the Rhine. (You can read more about this in a post on my other blog, here.) Saved from drowning, Schumann was nonetheless sent off immediately to an asylum where he died two-and-a-half years later, shortly after his 46th birthday.

These “Fairy Tale” Pieces are typical of Schumann’s miniatures which often implied a story rather than depicted one in music. Growing up in a family where his father was a book-seller, Schumann developed an early love for “spinning tales” and, inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman (himself a writer as well as a composer), he was torn between wanting to become a writer and wanting to become a musician. Many of his early piano pieces tell or imply stories: Carnaval, Kreisleriana, Kinderszenen or even Waldscenen with pieces entitled Prophet Bird.

Again, these particular tales – identified only by descriptive tempo markings, more “with tender expression” rather than story-titles like “The Princess and the Pea” or whatever – create more the mood of a tale or set an appropriate tale-telling ambience than suggesting much less setting any specific story.

There are four of these in this set:
Lebhaft, nicht zu schnell (Light but not too fast);
Lebhaft und sehr markirt (Light and very marked [in rhythm]);  
Ruhiges Tempo, mit zartem Ausdruck (Quiet Tempo with sweet expression) and
Lebhaft, sehr markirt (Light, very marked, with a middle section in a Somewhat Quieter Tempo before the opening section returns).

Though this would not be my ideal preference for a performance, it gives you an idea of what to expect with Schumann’s very comfortable tale-spinning. Imagine yourself in a warm domestic atmosphere surrounded by friends listening to some delightful music. (And you get to follow along with the score - without having to turn pages.)
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- Dick Strawser