Thursday, July 5, 2018

Summermusic 2018: Fauré & his 1st Piano Quartet

While the Dog Days of Summer have yet to arrive, officially, the first of Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2018 programs takes place this Saturday – inside – in air-conditioned comfort – at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg, beginning at 8pm. For those who have braved the 4th of July concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony during one of the hotter weeks in recent concert memory, join us to hear three survivors of the Harrisburg Symphony – conductor Stuart Malina, concertmaster Peter Sirotin, and principal cellist Fiona Thompson – joined by violist Blanka Bednarz of Dickinson College for a program of three piano quartets by Antonin Dvořák, Gustav Mahler, and Gabriel Fauré.

This post is about Fauré's 1st Piano Quartet that concludes the concert, but you can read about the efforts of Dvořák and Mahler in their piano quartets in this earlier post.

Just to recap (briefly – well, for me, briefly...) – the Dvořák quartet was written in 1875 when he was 34 and he'd just gotten his big break, winning the important Austrian State Prize, a huge boost to his self-confidence; Mahler's quartet (or the one movement that survives of it) was written in 1876 and premiered just a few days after his 16th birthday, when he'd not yet officially declared himself a “composition major” at the conservatory. Both pieces are considered “early” works in their composers' output, Dvořák's in the “professional” sense and Mahler's in the context of his age.

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So now, on to Gabriel Fauré's Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, Op.15!

Gabriel Fauré (1875)
Fauré was in his early-30s when he began his first piano quartet in 1876, though he didn't finish it until 1879. After it was premiered the following year, he revised it and wrote a completely new last movement in 1883.

The quartet is in the traditional four movements with a brief scherzo in second place rather than the usual third. Here are two videos of the piece, each one complete in a single clip. The first is a live in-house performance from an Irish summer music festival in 1998, features the Leopold Trio with pianist Marc-André Hamelin, for those who just want to listen to it.

The second, complete with score (I've been told that even listeners who don't read music still find it intriguing to follow along with the score as long as they don't have to turn pages), is with pianist Vincent Coq and Trio Wanderer, and this one is followed by a more detailed (but far from in-depth) analysis of “what's going on” as you listen to it.

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(Given how begrudgingly small the space Blogger allows for a YouTube video to fit proportionally on these blogs, it might be more effective -- and easier on your eyes -- to view the score-video here.)

The first movement opens with a “muscular” theme, strongly rhythmic (though not strongly “metric” like a march since it's “in 3” but doesn't really sound like it). This proceeds along the lines of a conversation between the strings and the piano, shifting its tone accordingly. Its contrasting theme is suitably lyrical and fluid (beginning at 1:27 in the second video). The Development Section begins placidly enough (around 2:50) with occasional notes that sound more typical of French composers than German, and a fluid shift of harmonies that floats along almost without any sense of drama (dominated mostly by the opening, no longer “muscular” theme) – until the harmony and the dynamics starts pushing us toward the Recapitulation and the return of the (once again “muscular”) first theme as we'd heard at the opening (at 6:03), the lyrical second theme now in C Major (at 7:24). Rippling arpeggios (8:19) lead to a whispered version of the opening “march” before ending quietly (at 9:30).

The scherzo ticks along with understated, clock-like precision (from 9:36 to 14:56), delightful, light-hearted wisps of sound cascading through a shimmering light – however you want to describe it – with a seeming effortlessness unless, of course, you're one of the players (it is deceptively virtuosic in its brief span). But if it strikes you – assuming you're used to classical Germanic (academic) 4-bar symmetry – as slightly off-kilter, it's because it bubbles along (for the most part) in 3-bar units with the occasional set of 4. Even better, once we get to the middle section (at 12:11), these units-of-time (how we feel the pulse) become less predictable, like a gauzy fabric stretched over a metric frame that can be a mix of 3s and 4s but without the sense of “regular phrasing.” The beginning returns and wraps up the scherzo with one last smile – and an emphatic cadence (unlike the opening movement) at 14:54.

The slow movement has been described as “majestic and profound,” serene, poignant – dark – not unlike a pavane (a slow, stately dance in duple time from the medieval era, or at least as it was thought to be in late-19th Century). Contrast (at 17:04) comes with the nostalgic dream-like (song-like) middle section when, as if the dreamer awakens surrounded by this sense of sadness (at 19:10) the opening theme returns (or more likely resumes) but accompanied by the arpeggios of the contrasting theme still in the piano until it wears itself out by 22:10.

The finale begins out of this dark C minor cadence, the piano setting up a moto perpetuo under a motive in the strings clearly drawn from the slow movement's main theme. One can psychoanalyze this in so many ways: turning grief into moving forward? Without any specific explanation from the composer, it is our interpretation which might say more about our state of mind than the composer's.

Stylistically, it is the chord sequence (blocked chords beginning with the viola melody) at 22:58 that strikes us (at least the listener in 1884) with something new: the first movement started out fairly conventionally, in terms of its harmony, but through the slow movement especially he began to prefer certain types of chord movement which were slightly different and less typical. It is these sounds which strike the modern listener as “essentially French,” emerging from the shade of Cesar Franck (who composed his Piano Quintet in 1879) and pointing the way toward Debussy (whose first compositions started to appear in the early-1880s; he was still a conservatory student in 1884) and to Ravel (his own student, eventually, who'd begun composing around 1890 and who would later dedicate his String Quartet in 1905 to Fauré, his teacher and mentor).

The “status quo” returns with the real second theme (at 23:48) with a few harmonic slips into raised-eyebrow territory for the more conservative listeners at the time At 24:49, the opening theme's motive appears against the “metric uncertainty” of the piano (another example of “hemiola”) which seems to be moving in an almost different (slower) tempo, like a reflection. Then (at 26:07) the opening theme comes galloping back in in the piano (the strings continue the slower layer of the contrasting chords) then building harmonic tension (especially through a prolonged, unstable augmented chord) which (at 26:39) brings us back to a full statement of the opening theme (resolution!). This then, sounding like the expected Recapitulation, is stopped short by an unexpected piano chord (around 28:00) before switching (still unexpectedly) into a fluttering passage with elements of both the first and second themes intermixed or superimposed. Eventually, we end up (expectedly) in C Major for what is ultimately a triumphant conclusion – C Minor is often considered a dark and tragic key; C Major, by contrast, the brightest, most triumphant of keys (just ask Beethoven's 5th or Brahms' 1st Symphonies) – that is as full of energy as any German's finale.

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In 1845, Gabriel Fauré was born in the south of France not far from the Pyrenees along the border with Spain. When Fauré was 9, a local politician in the National Assembly along with a local bishop helped his family send the boy to Paris to attend a new music school, L'ecole Niedermeyer, founded primarily for the education of future church organists and choral directors. When the school's founder died in 1861, Camille Saint-Saëns, then 25, took over and began teaching the boy piano as well as composition. Fauré won a prize in composition for his choral work, the Cantique de Jean Racine with strings and organ, written around 1864 and first performed the following year with the composer at the organ. Cesar Franck later conducted it in 1875, around the time it was published as his Op.11. Despite being an early work – he was 19 at the time – it sounds so much like his Requiem, it is often thought to be a contemporaneous piece, though the Requiem was composed between 1887 and 1890.

Fauré in 1864
It's interesting to note that his first published work, a set of three “Songs without Words” for solo piano, were published in 1863 – as Op.17! His publisher thought it might improve sales if people didn't think it was such an “early” work. Keep that in mind when you listen to his Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, Op.15 published in 1884.

After Fauré graduated in 1865, he found a job as an organist/choir director at a small church in remote Brittany where he supplemented his meager income with piano lessons. Despite Saint-Saëns' urgings, whatever he wrote during these years has not survived.

It wasn't until (a.) he lost his job in Brittany (showing up for morning mass wearing his evening clothes after an all-night social whirl) and (b.) he enlisted in the army during the war in 1870, that his interest in composing resumed. After returning from the front where he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, he found a job at a church in Paris, became Widor's assistant at one of Paris' major cathedrals – Saint-Saëns also occasionally hired him as a “sub.” He also began teaching at his old alma mater, L'ecole Niedermeyer, and began composing again. Unlike Saint-Saëns and others, he wrote no patriotic works during this time – morale-boosting, if nothing else, following the French defeat – but the songs and piano pieces he did compose are described as being dark and somber.

One of the benefits of hanging out with Camille Saint-Saëns, regarded as one of the leading composers in France at the time, was meeting other artists – like the mezzo-soprano, Pauline Viardot, one of the most famous opera singers of the day (Saint-Saëns would later write the role of Delilah for her, though by the time it premiered in 1877, she declined because of her age).

She also had a daughter, Marianne, with whom Fauré fell in love. They met in 1873 and then became engaged in July of 1877 except she broke off the engagement (apparently without explanation) in November, leaving the composer devastated. As a distraction, Saint-Saëns took Fauré with him on a visit to Weimar to meet Franz Liszt.

It is said the Piano Quartet was composed as a direct result of the break-up with Marianne Viardot though he had presumably begun work on the piece in the fall of 1876. It is quite possible the mood of the first two movements reflects his happiness in their relationship and the slow movement, though we have no idea exactly when it had been written, reflects his emotional distress following the end of their relationship, but officially there is no proof of that. On the one hand, you could argue a composer learns to compartmentalize his private emotions from his creative needs, and that the slow movement is dark and “sad” simply because that is what is needed at that particular moment as the work progresses. After all, he wrote “sad” moments in earlier pieces and those songs he was writing during and after the war in 1870 were, after all, described as “dark and somber.” Of course, what creative artist with any emotional self-awareness would not be affected by such an abrupt change in his life that it might not, one way or another, have some impact on his creativity?

Another aspect of Fauré's life should be mentioned, here: following the war and his now being involved in the artistic (not just the professional and social) life of Paris, especially with his mentor Saint-Saëns close at hand, Fauré became involved with the rebuilding of French musical life after the devastation of their defeat at the hands of the Prussians. He became a founding member of the “National Music Society” (it sounds so much better in French: Société Nationale de Musique) co-chaired by Saint-Saëns in 1871 and of which he became secretary in 1874. Promoting works by young French composers, it became a natural platform for him to find performances for his own music, and so he began writing more seriously, perhaps with an eye to becoming more than just a professional church musician.

Oddly, for such an accomplished organist (Saint-Saëns said he “could be a first-class organist when he wants to be”), he left no works for the organ, preferring the piano as a compositional medium. As yet, he had not written any large-form (or multi-movement) works – mostly songs and what are usually called “character pieces,” short, independent piano pieces usually of some literary inspiration (one thinks of Schumann and Mendelssohn), but which was also loosely applied to the nocturnes and ballades of Chopin.

Then, in 1876, he composed his 1st Violin Sonata, his Op.13, premiered the following January and received with great success. It's usually described as his first “mature” masterpiece: he was, by then, 31 years old.

No doubt buoyed by its success, he began the 1st Piano Quartet later that same year. By the time the quartet was finished initially in 1879, the only other thing he had completed (at least that survives) appears to be the first movement of a violin concerto which, after having it performed, he decided to leave unfinished, though he did publish it as his Op.14.

Fauré & his wife, Marie (1889)
In 1879, he traveled to Bayreuth to hear Wagner's Ring Cycle and was one of the few French composers who admired Wagner's musical style without falling under its spell. Many composers did, turning to mythological (or medieval) subjects full of mystical interpretations replete with “leitmotives” and lots of chromatic harmony, whether it did anything more than reflect the spirit of Wagner's Wagnerisms. For whatever reason, while he was working on the piano quartet – and then revising it after its initial 1880 premiere – he felt secure enough in his own voice, as it was developing, not to succumb to the potent influences of the Wizard of Bayreuth.

In 1884, then, he composed an entirely new finale for the quartet, four years after its initial premiere, apparently destroying the original. Oh, and by the way, he had married Marie Fremiet the year before, in 1883, though I've never heard it suggested his happiness at having married her (there first son was also born later that same year) inspired him to write the blah blah blah...

Anyway, I find it interesting the first two movements are fairly straight-forward in terms of their structure, almost as much as writing a sonata-form movement "by the book" just as any student might do – or any tried-and-true classicist, for that matter. Keep in mind the academic approach would be like taking, let's say, a set pattern for a room and painting it accordingly, adding details like colors or trim, ornaments on the windows or the fireplace, light fixtures, accent points and so on, even the size of it, but basically remaining true to the room, its basic shape, its function, its essence.

Then, in the last movement (which is written about eight years after he'd begun the quartet in the first place), Fauré decides to be a little freer with his form, with that academic starting-point, and instead of using something that is clearly one thing or another – sonata-form, rondo, variations, whatever one might choose for a finale – takes his themes and their harmonies (what before might have been considered "the paint") and say "what can I do with this to create some kind of form?" While he's still using a lot of the basic rules he'd learned as a student, he's now pushing the boundaries he'd once been given and letting his "material" determine its presentation.

This is basically the difference between a classicist and a romanticist and in the process of completing this piano quartet – he'd turn 40 in 1885 – Fauré began the move from one to the other. It would be interesting to compare this work with his 2nd Piano Quartet which he began writing in 1885 or 1886, premiering it in January of 1887.

But that's another chapter...

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I've made several mentions of “French vs German” in describing the musical style of Fauré's quartet – keeping in mind he'd begun composing again after the nationalist awareness following the French defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1870. While there were French composers whose clear inspiration came from (and would still come from) German composers like Beethoven and Mozart in the past (Saint-Saëns, for one), there were many more then-contemporary composers inspired by Wagner “for the future.” So it's not entirely a case of “national identity” as it was what best suited the French “voice.” Technically, that could easily be a whole different course (on a graduate level, at that), but I'll scratch the surface in just a bit.

Reading program notes for French works written in the late-19th Century, the constant reference to their “sense” and “elegance” – one concert-companion book on music appreciation even had a whole chapter called “French Composers of the Charm School” – made me think, in addition to the usual courses in harmony and counterpoint, they studied deportment and fashion-sense. Yet, if you've listened to either performance of Fauré's quartet, here, while there are moments of “charm” and “elegance,” there is also a dramatic sense that makes no sense on the runways of Paris' haute couture.

Often, the vague harmonies of many of Debussy's Impressionist pieces – the Preludes, in particular – lack the innate tension of dissonance-and-resolution we're familiar with from German music, therefore striking us often as “aimless” or, well... “vague.” But in those particular instances, that is what Debussy – or the painters who inspired him – were going for: if you listen to his opera, Pelleas et Melisande, there are moments of almost terrifying violence, by comparison, but it is not something Debussy uses more than to create another mood, a color, an emotional reaction, rather than drawing it out for several minutes or more as Verdi or Wagner might have done.

In that sense, Fauré is often overlooked as a bridge between the pre-Impressionist composers and those like Debussy and Ravel who succeeded him, looking at it generationally. In a sense, that is true, but to dismiss Fauré (and others) because they are not one or the other is unfortunate if not just nonsense.

As if everything were black or white (not to mention Debussy's more abstract En blanc et noir for piano four-hands of 1915), just as there was Wagner and Brahms in German music (and by German, I mean “German-speaking” culture, not a specific national identity of Germany as opposed to Austria), there was also Saint-Saëns and Franck in French music (though some of my French friends were quick to point out Franck was, after all, Belgian).

And this was going on at the same time as the music on this program: in the 1870s, France was dealing with the loss of the Franco-Prussian War and its ensuing political aftermath (the Paris Commune in the Spring of 1871 when Fauré fled to Switzerland to avoid the street fighting); the chaos of the “Panic of 1873” as it rippled across Europe and the United States following banking collapses in Vienna just a week after the World's Fair had opened, celebrating the material achievements of the Empire, the economic repercussions persisting until 1879 in many countries, for two decades creating the “Long Depression” in England and what was called “The Great Depression” in the USA until the events of 1929 set a new standard.

Despite these issues, France called the years from 1871 to 1914 La Belle Époche – the Beautiful Epoch, literally, an “end-of-the-century” Golden Age – “a period characterized by optimism, regional peace, economic prosperity, an apex of colonial empires and technological, scientific, and cultural innovations.” The arts flourished, especially in Paris, and one might feel it was a way to avoid the underlying political and social issues that would eventually give rise to the events of 1914-1918: “the Belle Époque was named in retrospect, when it began to be considered a "Golden Age" in contrast to the horrors of World War I.”

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So, looking at the art and architecture of the period, reactions to the traditional Romanticism earlier in the century, the idea of what is German and what is French becomes less of an issue than those same characteristics we think of as “romantic” or “classical.” There were French composers inspired by Wagner but they were still French Composers: writing in the style of Wagner was one thing; being influenced by his style (or at least the “trappings” of his style – adding a few more harps and a ton of brass instruments to the orchestra; creating a leitmotive for every character or abstract construct like “love” or “courage” that appeared on stage) was another.

Fauré in 1907
There were French composers who were still inspired by Beethoven and Mozart but there were also composers like Erik Satie in the late-1880s who rebelled against what he called “musical sauerkraut,” the contrapuntal lines often associated with German music's denser textures. This was one of the extremer views of neo-classicism with its leaner textures and simpler, more accessible harmonies and forms. Just as Wagner's and Liszt's harmonies, given credit for breaking down the classical rules behind tonality, inspired some French composers to experiment with their own ideas of dissonance and resolution (“dissonance” essentially meaning “a tone that needs to be resolved” rather than in the now usual sense of “nasty-sounding”), younger composers like Debussy employed whole-tone scales which lacked the necessary grounding of tonic-and-dominant that defined “tonality.” Still, today we would be shocked – shocked, I say – at the idea such works could be anything but pretty.

And to these and other young composers at the turn of the century, the elder Fauré, now in his 50s and 60s, not only gave them his open mind, he would also give them his considerable political backing against the more conservative academic composers of the day, even if one of the modernists' staunchest critics was his own mentor, Camille Saint-Saëns.

But once again, that is a subject for another time (and course)...

So, let me leave you with a handful of paintings – and I admit to being one of those less affected by visual arts, myself – not that one can find a single painting to serve as an example to such a complex question.

German Romanticism often deals with Nature as an overwhelming force in the face of what had been Classicism's abiding structure, replacing Man's symmetrical buildings of, say, a Greek temple, with the wild and “inhuman” (and psychologically disconcerting) dark woods (not for nothing did so many fairy tales take on dark psychological overtones when one strays from the path through the forest!). This is Caspar David Friedrich's “Rocky Landscape in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains” (c.1823):

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This is a seascape the same painter painted in 1835 and while it looks like “Five People watching a bunch of Boats going out to Sea,” he called it “The Stages of Life,” obviously implying an entirely different way of looking at it. All the same, the lines are much cleaner – clearer – more “classical” in its visual textures and the positioning of the various elements of the painting, the five ships and the five different characters, all seen from the back, viewing the scene:

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Another seascape, this one by the Philadelphia-born painter, William Trost Richards (associated with the Hudson Valley School), is almost photographically real: entitled simply “Seascape,” it was painted in 1870:

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Not exactly a seascape but a portrait of a gondola on a canal in Venice, painted by Eduard Manet in 1875. Notice the difference in the use of brushstrokes to depict the water and the reflections of light on the water, of the posts and of the gondola itself. Certainly “impressionistic” rather than “realistic” though recognizable:

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By the time Fauré was completing his Piano Quartet (the first time), Renoir painted this “Sunset at Sea” in 1879: the play of light on water dominates the canvas with color and the texture from the brushstrokes, like notes and chords and instruments in a musical piece becoming completely submerged (pun intended) in the coloristic effects:

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And one last painting – another seascape in which “impression” subsumes the image until we wonder “what are we looking at?” At quick glance, this appears to be another striking “Sunset at Sea.” Usually the painting is called “The Slave Ship,” but the artist's original title – and you'll need to look closer at an enlargement of the canvas to see the details – Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on. It was painted by the Englishman J.M.W. Turner in 1840 yet could easily be from a more “modern” era, though painted only five years after the second ("classical") painting I'd posted above: 

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Okay, there's the bell – class dismissed! Enjoy the concert!

Dick Strawser

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