Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Summermusic 2014: String Trios, Part Two - Beethoven & Schubert

 (This is a continuation of an introduction to the first program of for this year's Summermusic. You can read Part One here.)

As I mentioned in my introductory post (which you can read here), Beethoven had planned on going to Vienna, leaving his provincial hometown of Bonn behind, to study with Mozart. He had been to Vienna briefly, may have met Mozart, even may have played for him (the remark Mozart was supposed to have made about hearing him play is probably apocryphal, that “this youth may some day make a noise in the world” – Beethoven himself never mentioned having met Mozart).

Fanciful Painting of Beethoven playing for Mozart (pub. 1919)
Still, for many young musicians who knew what was going on in the greater musical world, Mozart was a name to reckon with even if Haydn was more famous and, on the whole, more successful.

Unfortunately, Beethoven couldn't stay in Vienna. He would be only 16 then, called back to Bonn after barely two weeks there once news arrived that his mother was dying.

Family obligations and a lack of financial backing delayed a return to Vienna, and Beethoven, who was developing more as both pianist and composer. One of the works he composed, the E-flat Major Piano Quartet (on of those “WoO” Pieces – never published and known by this abbreviation for “Work without Opus”) was clearly modeled on Mozart's G Major Violin Sonata K.379 – this is the one famous for Mozart's not having had time to write out the piano part in time for the scheduled performance, playing from a score which included the violin part and blank measures for the piano: no, he did not “make it up on the spot” as I've heard people say – he was merely remembering what he'd composed in his head before he'd gotten to the mundane process of writing it down, in itself no small feat). Published in 1781, it became the inspiration for several of Beethoven's themes for this piano quartet in 1785 – at least, his way of writing them – and though he never published it (perhaps because he felt it too imitative of Mozart's style), he did use certain ideas from it in no less than four of his Viennese piano sonatas, including the famous Pathétique. As many young composers have done before and since, Beethoven learned compositional details by imitating what he admired. It is quite possible other sonatas from this set of Mozart's supplied inspiration for the other two piano quartets Beethoven composed at the same time.

By now, things looked good to plan a return trip to Vienna for the following year – 1792. Unfortunately, Mozart had died in December of 1791.

But the pull of going to Vienna to prove himself and to find his career was too great to put aside: so instead, he went to Vienna to study with the next-best-thing – the great and more widely acclaimed Franz Josef Haydn.

And so that is how Count Waldstein's words came true: that he “might yet receive Mozart's spirit from Haydn's hands.” Beethoven arrived in Vienna within a year of Mozart's death. Unfortunately, Haydn turned out to be a not very good match for the young man from Bonn. It was doubtful if Haydn was really all that good a teacher in the technical sense: he seemed to miss many mistakes in Beethoven's counterpoint assignments, a fact much tittered about by Albrechtsberger who later took up Beethoven's lessons when Haydn took off for his second trip to London.

So Beethoven did was he could to “learn” from Mozart – by hearing his music, studying his scores and playing his concertos (he was well known for his performance of Mozart's C Minor Concerto which, presumably, influenced his own C Minor concerto a few years later).

Did he “imitate” Mozart's E-flat Divertimento when he came to write his own string trios?

It's unlikely he was unaware of it. There are four other trios before the C Minor one on this program, and it might be more effective to listen to them in chronological order to see how similar these earlier ones are to their possible model.

Here is the opening movement of the first string trio, Op. 3, with the autograph score!

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Even here, this is obviously already Beethoven, not a slavish imitation of Mozart's style.

And while we don't know exactly what order the Op. 9 trios were written, it's quite possible the C Minor, like the third of the piano trios in the same key, was not the last to be completed.

While Beethoven might have “imitated” Mozart by taking his Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat, K.452 of 1784 and “doing likewise” in what became his quintet for the same instruments in the same key (Op. 16 of 1796-97), he might by now have assimilated enough of Mozart's style into his own not to need direct models.

Beethoven, perhaps before 1800
All of Beethoven's string trios were composed between 1796 and 1798 – the first two published as Op. 3 and Op. 8 (notice the Quintet of 1796 is Op. 16: opus numbers are never a source of chronology in Beethoven's works) and the last three as Op. 9. Even the first of Op. 9 still sounds like “entertainment” music, the divertimento style of the courtly classical composer typical of the 18th Century. It is the C Minor trio that steps beyond this and becomes a work more recognizable as the “mature” Beethoven. Indeed, this is the most “advanced” work Beethoven had so far composed – but that would change.

The first movement of the C Minor String Trio - like Mozart's E-flat Divertimento - opens with a brief unison statement. But from there, it goes off in a direction clearly Beethoven's. But there's much more Mozart beneath the surface than may seem obvious to the casual listener.

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The following year, he would begin work on his first six string quartets which would mark the high-point of “Early Beethoven” and point the way forward into the new century.

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Though the last in chronological order, Schubert's one movement String Trio in B-flat, D.471 (to distinguish it from another String Trio also in B-flat Major, D.581, a complete, four-movement trio written the next year) is second on the program and perhaps it's better that way. You can hear the more direct influence of Mozart on Schubert rather than Beethoven's intervening take on Mozart (written almost two decades earlier) which would have little or no influence on Schubert at this time.

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Franz Schubert at 17
Compared to Mozart (and even Mendelssohn, later on), Schubert got a late start, though anyone who could compose “Gretchen am Spinnrade” at the age of 17 and the famous “Erlking” the next year, is no slouch in the prodigy department.

Like Mozart's early works, Schubert's are derivative of the age he lived in – barring Beethoven – and while many do not seem terribly innovative, even those two songs are enough to make us realize that here is a true and (already) original talent.

As a boy, Franz Schubert won a chance to sing in what became known as the Vienna Boys Choir – yes, that Vienna Boys Choir – in 1808. He had already “auditioned” for Antonio Salieri, the court composer – yes, that Antonio Salieri, the one “accused” of murdering Mozart – the year before. He already sang well (he was first in the auditions that year) and played the violin and piano. He had also begun composing, apparently had been as soon as he could read music: none of these compositions have survived – the first work in the catalogue, a piano duet, was written in 1811.

In the years leading up to 1816, young Schubert had written four masses, four symphonies (a fifth would be written in the weeks following this string trio), maybe a dozen or more string quartets (not all completed) for the family quartet to play – amateurs making their own music, what people did before the invention of TVs and sound systems – and some 248 songs.

One could hardly think these masses and symphonies and especially the quartets belong to the same years Beethoven was composing his 7th and 8th Symphonies and his last violin sonata which preceded a horrendously dry period which didn't seem to lift until he had regained some self-confidence with the popularity of Wellington's Victory in 1815 and eventually beginning what we call his “Late Period” with the Hammerklavier Sonata of 1818.

Salieri, as a teacher, was probably even more conservative than he was as a composer. Even during Mozart's day, he was considered a reactionary and the 25 years after Mozart's death didn't seem to change Salieri's viewpoint. He was a proponent of Italian lyricism and was genuinely not interested in Schubert's settings of German poems – which may be one reason many of the songs sound so completely different from most of his instrumental and choral works, especially those that he showed to his teacher.

In June of 1816, Salieri was celebrating the 50th Anniversary of his arrival in Vienna as a 16-year-old boy tagging along with his teacher Florian Gassmann, a student of the famed Padre Martini (who would also figure in the training of the teen-aged Mozart very briefly and who, incidentally, also figures in the list of those teachers I mentioned in Jennifer Higdon's compositional legacy in the previous post, here). Gassmann, by the way, had come to Vienna to produce his operas – which Mozart thought were so terrible, some of them not even making it as far as three performances, he wondered if Gassmann's goal wasn't to kill off German opera before it had even begun.

Nonetheless, in 1816, Salieri was in an expansive and reflective mood and for a celebratory gathering of his pupils, Schubert – just another of his students, though the only one whose name we'd recognize – wrote a small cantata (D.407) which they were to perform for their master at a “jubilee dinner.”

This brings to mind two diary entries. Now, Schubert was not a regular journal-keeper, but at this particular time, he made several entries over a period of a few days.

On June 13th (1816), he noted a visit to a musical salon where he was one of the performers. He doesn't say where this was or how much he was paid (if at all), but he heard a Mozart string quintet, “so to speak one of his greatest minor works.” As Elizabeth McKay writes in her biography,

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“[h]e enthused over the beauties of the music and the unforgettable impression it made and praised the playing of the leader of the quartet [sic]. In the context of his aesthetic approach to music, he wrote of its power to raise the spirits, to lighten darkness with hope and confidence, bringing 'comforting images of a brighter and better life...'. For Schubert this was, as he began his entry: 'A clear, bright, fine day' which 'will remain [with me] throughout my whole life... O Mozart, immortal Mozart...'.”
(– Elizabeth McKay, “Franz Schubert: a Biography,” (p.61) Clarendon Press (Oxford) 1996.)
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Schubert then performed a set of variations by Beethoven (presumably Op. 34 of 1802) and sang two of his own songs.

More telling is the entry he jotted down after returning home from Salieri's party and the performance of his cantata three days later:

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It must be fine and enlivening for an artist to see all his pupils gathered around him, each one striving to give of his best for the master's jubilee, and to hear in all these compositions the expression of pure nature, free from all the eccentricity that is common among most composers nowadays, and is due almost wholly to one of our greatest German artists; that eccentricity which combines and confuses the tragic with the comic, the agreeable with the repulsive, heroism with howling and that which is most holy with harlequinades, without distinction, so as to goad people to madness instead of soothing them with love, to incite them to laughter instead of lifting them up to God. To see such eccentricity banished from the circle of his pupils and instead to look upon pure, holy nature, must be the greatest pleasure for an artist who, guided by such a one as Gluck [who had been one of Salieri's mentors], learned to know nature and to uphold it in spite of the most unnatural conditions of our age.
(quoted in McKay, ibid, p.63.)
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The reference to “one of our greatest German artists” is a way of introducing Beethoven into the conversation without mentioning his name. Aside from the fact Schubert had just been celebrating the music of Salieri (and the influence of Gluck, long out of fashion in modern Vienna), remember the “craze” for Beethoven had fairly much petered out after his 7th Symphony: dealing with renewed symptoms of his deafness, Beethoven wrote no major works (counting Wellington's Victory as a “not major work”) since the end of 1812. When he would start producing new and what we consider “great” works again would not be until 1818, and even then, this Late Period style left more people confused than enthusiastic.

(While it might be only as a suggestion for light summer reading, I have my own purely fictional account of Beethoven's troubles at this time of his life in an excerpt from my novel, The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, dealing with “The Tale of the Master and His Belovèd” which, I repeat, is entirely fictional.)

Incidentally, it's interesting to note that the next day, June 17th, 1816, Schubert wrote in his journal “today I composed for money for the first time... a cantata for the name-day of Professor Watteroth,” a highly respected law professor in Vienna. This cantata, Prometheus, unfortunately, has become lost, but imagine that Schubert, having already composed 450 works, has finally earned some money from his compositions!

That September, Schubert began writing a string trio, D.471, what is considered a one-movement work. However, there is also the start of a second movement which was abandoned after a few measures, so the work was neither a one-movement assignment or a work complete in one movement. Like many pieces he would begin – most of his operas, more than one symphony, as well as the “Quartetsatz” in C Minor – it would remain incomplete.

This was followed by his second commission, a cantata for a family “sponsor,” Joseph Spendou, who was the administrator of a charity to distribute money to the widows of school elementary schoolteachers which, that fall, was celebrating its 20th anniversary. Then there were some short choral pieces for his church choir, some piano pieces (including a sonata), some songs on Goethe's Wilhelm Meister poems, plus a new symphony – his 5th, the one “without trumpets and drums” – for his friends in an amateur society who frequently got together to read through orchestral music (Schubert led the viola section).

All of this during the month of September, 1816. And all of which espouse the ideals he heard in the music of Mozart, if not those championed directly by his teacher, Salieri.

However, Schubert's attitude toward Beethoven would change considerably as he also matured into his own “late period.” More of that when we hear the E-flat Piano Trio on Sunday's program and the incredible C Major String Quintet on the last program on Wednesday evening.

– Dick Strawser

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