Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Summermusic 2014: String Trios by Mozart, Beethoven & Schubert, Part One

The first program for this year's Summermusic is 8 pm on Friday evening at Market Square Church.

(You can read more about them in Ellen Hughes' article with the Patriot-News here, and in the initial post for this series, examining “inspiration” in the selection of the programs, here.)

All three works on this program – string trios by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert – were written within a span of 28 years.

This would be not much different, if they were written in our lifetimes, to hear a rather derivative work composed by a promising student who might become a major name in a few more years, something he'd written earlier this year, along with a significant work by a well-known and much respected (if not financially successful) composer who died 25 years ago in 1989, a work written in 1986.

In between, there's a composer who's gone on to become one of the most innovative new names in the music world (though fallen on difficult times at the moment – written out? his fame has certainly already crested) but at the time was doing some startling things that set tradition-loving audiences back then on edge. An early work, it was written in 1995 back before anybody had ever really heard of him.

So the Mozart Divertimento in E-flat (K. 563) would be the equivalent of the one written in 1986... Schubert's String Trio in B-flat (D.471) would be the newest piece, written in 2014... and the Beethoven String Trio in C Minor (Op. 9, No. 3) would have come out just three years before his first real success, a set of string quartets and a symphony, written before the New Millennium.

Taking our time machine back to 1816, however, we'd be aware that Mozart had died in 1791 at the age of 35, just three years after this Divertimento; that Beethoven, a 27-year-old late-bloomer, had began his three string trios of Op. 9 in 1797, and was still unknown; and that Schubert, still a teen-ager, legally, when he was studying with a man named Antonio Salieri, started work on a string trio that might have been a composition assignment at a time when he was also unknown (and who, if the stories are accurate, would never really become well known in his lifetime).

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While we don't come into this world with a “use-by” date stamped on our left butt-cheek, the term “mid-life crisis” is fairly vague when it comes to someone who died in their early- or mid-thirties. Mozart was hardly “middle-aged” when he was 17 or Schubert, when he was 15 (the earliest works we have by him come from a few months after his 13th birthday, a late-bloomer, compared to Mozart, whose first piece was jotted down when he was 5).

So it's amazing to consider that, between his 13th Birthday and his death a few months before he'd turn 32, Schubert produced almost 1,000 works – mostly songs and many short piano pieces, but also lengthy masterpieces like the “Great” C Major Symphony, those last three piano sonatas, two great piano trios (the E-flat Major trio's on Sunday's program), and the C Major String Quintet (on next Wednesday's program), all written in the last two years of his life.

If Beethoven died as young as Schubert did, we would know him as a student of Haydn's who'd composed a very nice set of six string quartets and a symphony that showed a great deal of promise. He didn't become “BEETHOVEN” as we think of him today until he'd written his Eroica Symphony (which the Harrisburg Symphony will be playing on its first concert this season) when he was 33. So if he'd only lived as long as Mozart, then, we'd know Beethoven as someone with considerable potential and then play the game we so often play with Mozart and Schubert – “What if...?

Of course, we know who Beethoven became – and he only lived to be 57, by the way – but we don't often think where he came from, so this program gives us an opportunity to put him in context. And in a fairly limited context: the rarified textures of a small ensemble that never became as popular as the string quartet and which never amassed the repertoire an additional player would bring to it.

Mozart's trio represents the culmination of a way of thinking about art – the balance and proportion that are the hallmarks of the Classical Age (at least, generally).

Beethoven's represents a way of thinking about that way of thinking about art by going beyond the acceptable limits of musical propriety, something he would do more openly in his later works but which were already evident to his contemporaries in his first piano trios, his Op. 1: we think of them as “Haydn-esque,” but Haydn thought the world wasn't ready for the C Minor Piano Trio and supposedly suggested it be held back a while (in any event, he suggested placing it third in the group so as not to put people off as the opening piece in the collection). As it was, they were published in 1795, at least a couple of years after they'd been completed.

As you listen to Beethoven's string trio after the Mozart, remember they're separated by only 9-10 years.

Schubert's, the last of these to be written – he was 19 at the time – would seem to ignore everything Beethoven was implying possible. And keep in mind, Beethoven began his trio the year Schubert was born. But Schubert, aside from still being a student, was more typical of Beethoven's contemporaries. If we examine other composers active in Vienna during his lifetime, Beethoven was never a composer who then everybody started imitating. In fact, many composers openly disliked Beethoven's “advancements” in music, including Schubert. Carl Maria von Weber, one of the more significant composers of the Early Romantic School, heard Beethoven's 7th Symphony (from 1812) and thought he was “ripe for the mad-house.” Though acclaimed and “popular,” Beethoven was not the idol he'd become to later generations.

And so, with Schubert, we'll hear what much of Vienna thought was “good music,” as if 20 years of Beethoven had never existed.

(Oh, and by the way, speaking of limitations, these three composers' works on this program not only represent a span of 28 years – they also represent only a small part of what today is downtown Vienna, not what was going on elsewhere in the musical centers of Europe. It is because of the concentration of composers like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in the Imperial capital of Vienna that we can properly proclaim there was no other musical center like it at the time. And of these composers – and many after them – Schubert was the only one who could call Vienna his hometown.)

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(Mozart (in light blue) playing the viola)
Since this post is primarily about the influence of Mozart on Beethoven and Schubert, I needn't spend a lot of time on the development of Mozart's style and how he came to write this particular piece.

Usually, we associate “divertimento” with a piece meant for light entertainment in the late-18th Century, something diverting and often used synonymously with “serenade” which at least specifically referred to an evening's entertainment. Another term we might come across for such music was “cassation.” Anyway, the scoring for such pieces could range from small orchestras to small ensembles – many such dinner-party pieces were for wind octets.

This one, composed in September of 1788, happens to be for string trio and while it seems a lengthy work for a concert piece, its six movements were very much like the serenades Mozart composed for Salzburg, multi-movement pieces which often lasted between 45-50 minutes. Lightness here refers to mood rather than content: it is a well-crafted piece and by no means a quick knock-off for mindless background music.

Here's the first movement of Mozart's "Divertimento" with the Grumiaux Trio (the score is an arrangement for piano):
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The story behind it is fairly straightforward: Mozart, very talented at living beyond his means (he was never a very good manager of reality in general, always a sore spot between him and his often contentious father), was forced to borrow money from friends to make ends meet. Many of these letters survive and if nothing else show Mozart in an entirely different light, whether his straits are genuine (at least to that extreme) or he was also talented at turning the right phrases to win over his friends. The begging Mozart is a very different image from the otherwise care-free bon vivant we have from other sources.

But then his music so often has these two extremes even in a single phrase: all it takes, at this time in music history, is to suddenly inflect a lowered sixth scale degree to open up a whole world of emotional turmoil, a harmonic dissonance – this shadow of the minor key – that was so unusual to the music of the day. It didn't originate with Mozart: he borrowed it from Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, the most famous of Bach's sons, whose “empfindsamer” or expressive style was full of such devices which rarely failed to cause an emotional twinge in the more attentive listener.

Whether this “divertimento” was written to pay off a debt or not, it was dedicated to Michael Puchberg who was one of Mozart's “frequent lenders,” a fellow Mason and a successful textile merchant. There are nineteen of these “begging letters” that have survived from Mozart to Puchberg, many of which were written after this string trio. It was suggested Mozart composed it for a dinner party Puchberg was giving and the viola part was written for Mozart himself to play. The other performers were probably Masonic brothers.

The 4th Movement, Variations:
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In the last variation, beginning at 6:15, one can imagine Mozart having fun with the lot of the typical violist, playing a simple hymn tune in what sounds like “whole notes” in a counterpoint exercise while the first violinist gets to play rapidly running notes. Then, at 7:00 in the transition to the ending, the viola gets to whip off a few measures of his own rapidly running notes as if to say, “see, I can do that, too.” I can just imagine Mozart looking over at his violinist and smiling...

The last movement is one of those tunes of such child-like simplicity – similar to the last piano concertos' finales – that bring to mind the image of Mozart as the child who never grew up. Let's say, perhaps, the man who never lost track of his inner child:

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By the way, Mozart composed his Divertimento just six weeks after he'd completed the Jupiter Symphony, the third of three symphonies he composed in the summer of 1788 for no reason at all – all in an unbelievable span of six weeks.

Writers about music often point to certain passages in Mozart – and this trio is full of them – which “point forward to Beethoven.” This is hardly justifiable, considering Mozart had no idea who Beethoven was - even if he did meet him or hear him play that spring of 1787 - or where he would take the musical style that was Mozart's creative voice.

We must keep in mind – especially in this concert's context – that Beethoven is looking back on Mozart. While he studied with Haydn and took the string quartet and symphony in directions Haydn never dreamed of (unless he had nightmares), Beethoven often took what Mozart had hinted at in his melodic and harmonic fingerprints and took them a few steps further. Somehow, I think the composer of the D Minor Piano Concerto (K.466) and Don Giovanni would have approved.

For Part Two - Beethoven and Schubert - click here.

- Dick Strawser

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