Monday, July 13, 2015

Summermusic 2015 Begins: Friday with Schubert & Schumann

A Schubert Trio, 2014
"One glance at Schubert’s Trio and the troubles of our human existence disappear, and all the world is fresh and bright again.”

That's Robert Schumann, music critic as well as composer, writing about Franz Schubert's B-flat Major Piano Trio, the work that opens this season's Summermusic series with Market Square Concerts on Friday. In fact, a work by Schumann – his Piano Quartet – will balance the Schubert on the 2nd half.

It may be a lot to expect that one or two pieces of music would make all the anxiety we feel watching the evening news go away – whether it's the spread of ISIS, the Greek Debt Crisis, “climate change” (void where prohibited by law), or the fact that cancer can exist, and that's without even mentioning drugs, crime or presidential campaigns.

To some, those who use music to make “the troubles of our human existence disappear” would be labeled as escapists (because everybody needs a label) yet to find out how necessary that idea is to Americans today, all you have to do is turn on the TV.

Of course, there are different ways of escaping: you could be watching The Amazing Ninja Survival Chase on most network channels or you could be watching the latest Masterpiece Mystery on your local BBC affiliate – just as you might prefer reading a book, whether it's Another Shame of Gray or Proust's In Search of Lost Time.

This Friday, at 8:00 at Market Square Presbyterian Church in downtown Harrisburg, you can let Schubert and Schumann “take you away from all this.”

Market Square Concerts directors Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang will again be joined by cellist Cheng-Hou Lee to play Schubert's B-flat Piano Trio, and Stuart Malina will be at the piano, joining Sirotin, violist Michael Stepniak and cellist Fiona Thompson for the Schumann Piano Quartet in E-flat Major.

To counter claims of “escapism,” I like to point out that without balance, things – including us – would fall down. Or apart (“the center cannot hold” as Yeats expressed it after World War I). The suicide rate would greatly increase, I suspect, if all we had was The News to watch and read. That's why they invented the internet – so we could amuse ourselves with endless cat videos, right?

And Classical Music is full of good things that act like antioxidants for the soul – balancing tension with release, and unity with variety (whether harmonic, melodic, or structural), among other things. There's a fast movement followed by a slow movement; the weightier, more intellectually demanding first movement is usually followed by an emotional slow movement, both of which can be balanced by two light-hearted movements, a dance (minuet or scherzo) and a simpler, often child-like fourth movement to give everything, even dramatic first movements, a happy ending. Plus there are loud passages followed by soft passages – it's not all one or the other.

There are reasons for that – because, before they invented listening systems you could plug directly into your ears, people listened that way and needed the respite from one or the other. A three-minute rock song blasting away may be one thing, but a half-hour-long piece of chamber music (much less an hour-long symphony) has to approach the listener differently and it does this through balance.

While there is, of course, the musical equivalent of broccoli and others may consider serialism a little too high-fiber for their tastes, a musical diet that offers you some of the finest works by some of the greatest composers can offer a good balance as well.

For those who attended last year's concerts, you may remember hearing Schubert's E-flat Piano Trio and Schumann's Piano Quintet. In fact, there's a balance right there – not just that we often think of these composers together (not quite like we do Schumann and Brahms, mentor and protege; and not exactly like the collegial Mozart and Haydn, either).

Schubert, technically, was born in the 18th Century – 1797, so just barely – but that doesn't make him an 18th-Century composer. Beethoven, born almost 27 years earlier, was already working on his first great masterpieces (like the Op. 18 String Quartets; the 1st Symphony was just around the corner) around the time Schubert was born in another part of Vienna. But where Beethoven was already “not sounding like an 18th-Century composer,” much to the chagrin of his teacher, Haydn, the epitome of the 18th Century, many of Schubert's works – especially his early symphonies and string quartets – had a distinctly Haydnesque appeal to them up until the music he began writing in the mid-1820s: his early music possessed clear textures, well-balanced and equally clear structures, and an essentially direct harmonic language, all trademarks of the classical style.

Around the same time Beethoven, now in his 50s, had begun those monumental Late Quartets, Schubert finally left the 18th-Century ideal to explore his own monumental late works, expanding not just the length of the music and how far he could stretch it but also the harmonic language and how it related to the overall forms both composers had inherited from the past.

This, in turn, inspired Robert Schumann, would-be law student, who was born when Schubert was 13 and who was himself 18 when Schubert died at the age of 31.

You can read more about the conjunction of Schubert and Schumann in this post from last year's series on the MSC Blog: Schumann and Schubert's Piano Trio.

Though this refers to the E-flat Major Piano Trio performed last year, much of the information is pertinent to this year's trio for another interesting reason, speaking of balance.

In the Good Old Days, composers didn't write one piece at a time – think of Haydn's quartets (usually a half-dozen in a set) or those “London” Symphonies (two sets of six written for separate visits). Even Beethoven wrote six quartets for his first published set, Op. 18, and there were three written for Count Razumovsky.

Beethoven often conceived his symphonies in contrasting pairs – if not the Eroica & the 4th, certainly the 5th & 6th, the 7th & 8th, and the epic 9th & the barely begun 10th, left in sketches when he died in 1827 at the age of 57.

Schubert, whether he planned them that way or not, wrote his two piano trios around the same time. In fact, there's a fair bit of debate about which came first and which one might have been performed on the only concert of his music he was ever to give in his lifetime, that epic program on March 26, 1828 (the first anniversary, as it turned out, of Beethoven's death – Schubert had been a pall-bearer at the funeral).

Even though there are similarities, they are not so different in the way they're written – not at least the kind of contrasts that you would find between Beethoven's 5th & 6th Symphonies or even within a set of six string quartets. But yet, neither sounds derivative of the other, given our age for sequels and prequels.

Franz Schubert: Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, D.898
with the Munich Artistrio (complete in one clip and concludes at 40:53)

(While there are numerous, not always reasonable performances or decent recordings available on-line, this one was recorded at a summer music festival last July in Lubljana, Slovenia. One wonders how Schubert's music might have changed if, in 1816, he had actually been accepted for that teaching position in Laibach (now known as Lubljana) where he would have had a reliable job, a steady income and would've been able to fend off the apprentice baker to whom his teen-aged sweetheart, Therese Grob, was eventually engaged to because her father thought dimly of Schubert's prospects.)

Schubert, who could write several different settings of the same poem, firmly believed (like most good composers before him) that there were many ways to skin a sonata, not just churning out one piece after another all built to the same mold. This "sonata form" was the traditional structure on which you stretched out all your thematic and harmonic ideas for the serious opening movement of any multi-movement abstract work, whether it's a sonata, a symphony, or a piano trio (as well as many of Schubert's non-abstract works that seemed to defy the idea of a sonata like the “Wanderer Fantasy”).

These two trios were published eight years after Schubert's death as Op. 99 in B-flat and Op. 100 in E-flat, making the pairing even more obvious even though it's a fairly arbitrary coincidence. The cataloguer Otto Deutsch numbered the E-flat Trio (completed in November 1827 and first heard the following month at Vienna's Musikverein) as D.929 and the B-flat Trio (whose manuscript has been lost and which may have been composed sometime during the year 1827 – some sources suggest it was written in October but there is no proof of that) as D.898.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

On the other hand, Robert Schumann, who was inclined to focus his concentration, wrote both his Piano Quintet and Piano Quartet consecutively in the same summer – in fact, he wrote almost all his chamber music that year. As he had focused on songs, writing 168 of them in 1840, and 1841 saw him working on four different symphonies (not all of which saw the light of day but which produced No. 1 and, eventually, No. 4), 1842 became the “Year of Chamber Music,” actually an eight-month period between early-June and late-January the next year.

Having completed three string quartets in the span of seven weeks and following a bit of a summer holiday in August (it should be mentioned the Schumanns' second child was born nine months later), Schumann returned to Leipzig in early September and began writing the Piano Quintet on September 23rd, finishing the rough draft on October 12th. Then he started his Piano Quartet twelve days later and finished it sometime during the next month (unfortunately not indicating a specific end-date).

Robert Schumann: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.47
1st Movement with members of the Cleveland Quartet and Emanuel Ax

2nd Movement – a tribute to his friend Mendelssohn's “elfin” music from the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture or the Octet for strings – with the Lemberg Piano Quartet

3rd Movement with the Faure Quartet

4th Movement with members of the Emerson Quartet & Menahem Pressler

Now, I could write a good deal about Schumann and the background to his Piano Quartet, but instead, why not have Bruce Adolphe talk about it for an hour – and that's only about the third movement! If you have the time, I highly recommend listening to the way he “deconstructs” the piece – warning: after 24 minutes, you've heard only the opening few notes and two versions of the first theme, but you'll hear a great deal about Schumann's harmonic ambiguity and his use of dissonance, not to mention what Schumann wrote about hearing his own music (courtesy of his alter-egos, Florestan and Eusebius).

At 55:00, Adolphe begins to talk about Schumann as a “Romantic,” about the role of suffering and about the unsuccessful suicide Schumann attempted 11 years after writing all this chamber music which led to his being institutionalized for mental illness, where he died three years later. If you don't have the time – or if talk of diminished chords and suspended ninths goes in one ear and doesn't even make it to the other – I recommend at least listening to these five minutes.

This, by the way, is from a brilliant series of talks presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. While Bruce Adolphe brought his approach to Mozart's G Minor Piano Quartet to Market Square Concerts in seasons past, the pianist Michael Brown appeared in Market Square Concert's 2011-2012 season playing Beethoven's and Schubert.

He and the cellist in this Lincoln Center ensemble, Nick Canellakis, will be playing at Market Square Church in MSC's November program with works ranging from Schumann, Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff to Michael Brown and Bulgarian folk music (oh yeah). Though they don't have much to do during this lecture, the violinist is Sean Lee and the violist, Matthew Lipman. Their performance of the quartet's third movement actually – finally! – begins at 1:03:07.

I'm sure if Peter has any remarks before the performance on Friday, they will be much shorter.

= = = = = = =
Concert #2 takes place Sunday at 4pm at Market Square Church and will feature Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor and the Dvořák Piano Quintet in A Major.

Concert #3 takes place Wednesday evening at 6pm (yes, six o'clock) at the Civic House on Front Street in Harrisburg just south of the Harvey Taylor Bridge - with two string sextets: Brahms' G Major Sextet, Op. 36 and Arnold Schoenberg's lushly romantic "Verklärte Nacht."

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