Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Grammy-Winning Emerson Quartet Meets the Tony Award-Winning Alexander Borodin

Two previous posts covered Beethoven's String Quartet Op.132 which concludes the program and, covering the middle works, Bartok's 1st Quartet and three songs by Eugene Drucker, Of Troubled Times. In this post you can hear the Emerson Quartet's recording of the quartet Borodin composed in 1881 and find out how a “Sunday Composer” who took in stray cats won a Tony Award in 1954. I suppose you could call the 2nd movement “Sunday in the Park with Alexander” though I'm not sure how many of Borodin's “Cats” actually put in an appearance here, despite their having the run of his Petersburg apartment... Certainly, it's all Kismet.

Join us for the concert on Saturday evening at 7:30 at Temple Ohev Sholom, 2345 North Front Street in uptown Harrisburg.

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Alexander Borodin
In this country, Alexander Borodin – Dr. Alexander Borodin – is what we would call an “amateur” in the sense he did not make his living by his art (“amateur, from the Latin amo/amas/amat, to love”). Yet anyone familiar with Borodin's music would realize there is nothing “amateurish” about its quality. Part of the history of Russian Music, however, must be our awareness that, at this time, there were few ways for a young would-be musician to gain any professional training.

Borodin was largely “un-trained,” another aspect of consideration when bandying about the word “amateur.” True, when he would've been a student, they didn't have music schools in Russia – Anton Rubinstein opened the first official one in St. Petersburg, the Imperial capital, in 1862 and when his brother Nikolai opened one in Moscow four years later, one of his first students was a former law-student named Tchaikovsky.

Instead, following his scientific interests, Borodin had entered the Imperial Academy of Medicine and Surgery in St. Petersburg in 1850 – a prestigious institution dating back to the days of Peter the Great: one of its later students named Pavlov might ring a bell – and following graduation, he spent a year as a surgeon in a military hospital, then was appointed as a professor of pathology and therapeutics before receiving his Doctorate in medicine and pursuing some post-doctoral work first in Heidelberg, Germany, in the late-1850s, then in Pisa in 1862, the year he published a paper describing the first nucleophilic displacement of chlorine by fluorine in benzoyl chloride. One of his fellow students in Heidelberg, by the way, was a chemist named Mendeleyev who would publish his first periodic chart of the elements seven years later.

While in Heidelberg, Dr. Borodin met a young Russian woman – Ekaterina Sergeievna Protopopova – who was an amateur pianist with a preference for Chopin and Schumann. A woman of weakened health, she had come to Germany for “the cure,” but returned to St. Petersburg in 1862 – as did Borodin – and not long after that they were married.

Borodin's interest in music was awakened, in a sense, by Ekaterina's playing. So is it any coincidence he composed this piano quintet while traveling in Italy?When they returned to Russia, Borodin was appointed a professor of chemistry at his alma mater and he and his new wife set up house-keeping in a spacious and rent-free apartment in the Academy building where domestic life took on a happy if often chaotic domesticity.

One other thing happened in 1862: though he had met a civil servant named Modest Mussorgsky, another would-be composer, a couple of times, it wasn't until he returned to Russia, his musical interests reactivated, that Borodin met composer and teacher Mily Balakirev and began taking lessons from him in his “spare” time.  

By then, Borodin had already completed a small number of chamber works – a couple of piano trios, a cello sonata (inspired by Bach), two string trios, a string quintet and a string sextet – before he began his Piano Quintet in C Minor. So technically, if we examine that “amateur” status again, as far as the Piano Quintet was concerned, yes, Borodin was as yet “un-trained.” He finished it before he turned 29. Once he started working with Balakirev, then, he jumped right into composing his first symphony.

In 1869, he'd begun two substantial projects: his 2nd Symphony which he then interrupted in the fall to start work on the opera, Prince Igor. With one thing and, mostly, another, it took him around seven years to complete the new symphony; the opera fared less well and remained incomplete sixteen years later when he died suddenly in 1885. With that kind of a schedule, his 1st String Quartet took about five years to complete; fortunately he began his 2nd Quartet in 1881 while staying at a friend's country estate, and finished it in a very short (for him) time.

It appears he had intended his new quartet as a 20th Anniversary gift for his wife and at one time he specifically referred to the second theme of the scherzo as an attempt to “conjure up the impression of a light-hearted evening in one of the pleasure gardens in suburban St. Petersburg.”

Whether his tunes – and who would deny he had a particular talent for creating memorable melodies? – are particularly Russian or not does not bother us today: like that theme from this quartet's third movement, the famous “Nocturne,” whether you grew up associating it with the Broadway musical, Kismet, or not – for which, curiously enough, Borodin won a posthumous Tony Award in 1954 (also, probably unique among Russian composers, he has an asteroid named after him).

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As life unfolded for Prof. Borodin – who added to his workload by championing education for women and later founding the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg – he found little time for much of anything beyond his profession. Living at the academy itself made him accessible, day and night, to students and colleagues. Relatives of his wife's would show up if they needed a place to stay and at any one time someone might be sleeping on a couch or in a spare bed or, as happened one time, on the grand piano, forcing him to abandon plans to get any composing done for the moment. He called himself “a Sunday composer” who, during the winter – teaching season – could compose only when he was home sick. Consequently, his music-friends would greet him not by saying 'I hope you are well' but by saying 'I hope you are ill.' 

In addition to friends and relatives, the Borodins seemed to collect stray cats. As Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov noted in his autobiography,

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“Many cats that the Borodins lodged marched back and forth on the table, thrusting their noses into the plates or leaping on the backs of the guests. These felines enjoyed the protection of Catherine Sergeïevna. They all had biographies. One was called Fisher because he was successful in catching fish through the holes in the frozen river. Another, known as Lelong, had the habit of bringing home kittens in his teeth which were added to the household. More than once, dining there, I have observed a cat walking along the table. When he reached my plate I drove him away; then Catherine Sergeïevna would defend him and recount his biography. Another installed himself on Borodin’s shoulders and berated him mercilessly. ‘Look here, sir, this is too much!’ cried Borodin, but the cat never moved.”
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During the 1860s, Borodin became a member of that legendary circle of composers orbiting around Mily Balakirev, along with Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky and a fellow named Cesar Cui whose day-job was being a military engineer and later a music critic. Advocating a "national Russian voice" in their music, they became such a powerful presence in Russian music they were known as “The Mighty Handful,” though the exact words the critic Vladimir Stasov (sometimes referred to as the 6th member of The Five) used to describe them is better translated as “Mighty Bunch.” (I have often argued that Cesar Cui, the last to be mentioned and the most easily forgotten, might well be the “Little Finger of the Mighty Handful,” but that's another story.) More often they are referred to simply as “The Five” but this is something they never used among themselves and which was rarely used in Russia at all (it was mostly a French thing). Rimsky, in his autobiography, always referred to themselves as “Balakirev's Circle.”

(front row) Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Borodin; (in back) Stasov & Cui


They advocated incorporating folk-songs into their general musical styles. In most cases, this came out in colorful orchestral tone-poems full of exotic "scene-painting" or operas based on Russian folk tales or history, like Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov or Rimsky-Korsakov's Snegourochka. One major work in this style, Rimsky-Korsakov's massive Scheherazade, is not technically a Russian folk story, but full of the Orientalism that so many Russians, as their empire expanded into the Middle East, were fascinated by. 

One thing they generally tried to avoid were typically Germanic inspirations like abstract symphonies or string quartets. Mussorgsky in particular was opposed to Borodin's wasting so much time on his string quartets and symphonies, when he should be working on Prince Igor. But even Rimsky-Korsakov wrote very "Un-Russian"-sounding chamber music (his 2nd Symphony, Antar, was at least inspired by Slavic legends). Somehow, Cesar Cui's major operatic endeavor was a setting of a Heinrich Heine play set in 17th Century Scotland (!?): how that fared with his colleagues, I've no idea... Even Tchaikovsky, who incorporated authentic Russian folk-songs in his symphonies (even if he used them inauthentically) and who used Russian plots for his operas, was never considered "one of them" regardless of his international reputation.

This aesthetic viewpoint is important for the development of Russian music (and Russian culture in general). At this time, there were those who favored the old Russian traditional identity, called “Slavophiles,” and those who preferred the idea of being cosmopolitans, becoming part of Europe both culturally and socially. Yes, technically this division goes back before the days of Peter the Great – "Peter I" to Russians who, historically, do not always consider him all that great – back in the early-1700s when he brought the old Asiatic empire kicking but mostly screaming into the sphere of Western Europe. (I could point you in the direction of several fat books that delve into this topic, if you're interested: Orlando Figes' Natasha's Dance and Bruce Lincoln's Between Heaven and Hell; for those aspiring to “Expert Level,” there's also Richard Taruskin's On Russian Music).

The idea – developments already happening in Western Europe following various nationalist-inspired revolutions in 1848 and 1849 – was to incorporate the folk-songs and dance rhythms of the people into the music rather than rely on the “imported traditions” of especially German music, then the dominating voice in most of Central and Eastern Europe. They essentially rejected such things as symphonies and concertos and especially the abstract world of chamber music.

While his early Piano Quintet (which you may recall from a 2017 Summermusic performance) sounds more Russian than this later quartet, I'd asked Peter Sirotin if the quintet quoted actual tunes Russians would recognize (folk-songs which most Americans would not) but he said they were original: “they just sound like it: he was very good at creating faux folk-tunes.”

Borodin wrote a surprisingly small amount of music – or should I say, “completed” a surprisingly small amount of music: he wrote three symphonies (the 3rd was left unfinished at his death) and a single tone-poem, In the Steppes of Central Asia; one full-length opera (which was also left incomplete), Prince Igor; and two string quartets. In addition to several songs, he also wrote a handful of piano pieces, including several paraphrases on “Chopsticks.” (Technically, it's not the same “Chopsticks” we know and probably loathe and he didn't take credit for composing the theme, whether he knew its original source or not. His daughter was playing a four-bar version of it called “Tati-Tati” one night for some friends and it became a party-piece as they started creating some impromptu variations. Seriously, the tune we call “Chopsticks” is far more interesting... Not that I would suggest you listen to all 32 minutes of them, but there it is...)

And on that note, this is Dick Strawser, signing off.




The Emerson Quartet Plays Bartók and One of Their Own

This is the second in a series of three posts for this Saturday's performance by the Emerson Quartet, a special presentation in honor of Market Square Concerts' 40th Anniversary and the Emerson's decision to retire after a career of 43 seasons as one of the world's leading chamber music ensembles. 

Join us Saturday Evening at 7:30 at Temple Ohev Sholom, 2345 North Front Street in uptown Harrisburg.

The program concludes with Beethoven's Quartet in A Minor, Op.132, which you can read about in the previous post here, and opens with Borodin's tuneful Quartet No. 2 in D Major, the subject of the third post which you can read here. This post is about the two works in between: three songs by Eugene Drucker, Of Troubled Times, and Bela Bartók's First String Quartet.

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Consider the chronological distance separating the four different works on the Emerson Quartet's program: from the second of Beethoven's Late Quartets, completed in 1825, it was 56 years till Borodin wrote his 2nd Quartet in 1881. The distance from Borodin's quartet to Bartók's, however, only 28 years later, may sound greater: more, stylistically, has changed in between; though one could argue Beethoven's style was so atypical of his age, it's not a fair comparison to pit him against Borodin's pleasant if old-fashioned lyricism and Bartók's striving toward “the new.” And then, a recent work by Emerson Quartet violinist, Eugene Drucker, written during the on-going Pandemic as recently as 2020, is actually separated from the Bartók by 111 years, the broadest span on the program. If the Beethoven is almost 200 years behind us, and it's over 100 years between the two “modern” pieces on the program, does that mean anything for a listener trying to sort out where these composers fit into the Time Line of Music History?

More important, however, would be where these pieces stand in relation to what the composers were writing in their own lifetimes. But for those who still think Bartók is “modern” (he finished this in 1909), that would mean – if Bartók's quartet was being premiered this year, the conservative listener, longing for the familiar comfort of Borodin's beautiful tunes and lush harmonies, might be waxing nostalgic over something composed in 1994. Considering what we may have been listening to then, those of older than, say, 30-something, has there been that significant a change in how musical styles developed over a few decades?

Enough of that suggestion: in this post, I'll provide you what the composer wrote about his lockdown-inspired song cycle and Bartók's answer to the break-up of a relationship when he was in his late-20s (he was, coincidentally, born the same year Borodin composed his 2nd Quartet.

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Eugene Drucker
Eugene Drucker is not just a founding violinist with the Emerson Quartet. In addition to his life as a performer, soloist, and teacher, he has written a novel, The Savior, published in 2007, with another one, Yearning, published late last year. He made his debut as a composer in 2008 with a set of Shakespeare Sonnets for baritone and string quartet, and Madness and the Death of Ophelia, based on scenes from Hamlet, a concert piece for female speaker/singer and string quartet. A setting of five poems by Denise Levertov for soprano and quartet premiered in 2017, and "Series of Twelve" for string quartet premiered the following year. 

Here is the premiere performance of the first of five poems making up "Levertov Settings," The Blind Man's House at the Edge of the Cliff with mezzo-soprano Ashley Chui and a quartet with the composer playing 1st Violin:

 

Of Troubled Times is a cycle of three songs Drucker wrote for mezzo-soprano, violin, and cello, setting a poem by Lucy Murray and two more by Denise Levertov who had been a personal friend of his in the decade before her death in 1997. Here are the program notes for the piece, provided by the composer:

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In December 2020, music annotator, poet and novelist Lucy Murray wrote a brief, touching poem about the pandemic that had already wrought so much destruction in the U.S. and the rest of the world. The verse ends with a wish, perhaps almost a prayer, that “love [may] persist and sorrow soon be put to rest.” Unfortunately, much more death was to follow in the next few months, and, as it turned out, December had not yet “brought the cruelest time.” But there was “hope in sight,” after all, with the development and rollout of various vaccines that had been researched, created and manufactured in record time. I thought that a musical adaptation of this wistful, sensitive poem could introduce the brief song cycle I had already begun to compose on several works of Denise Levertov before the pandemic, for mezzo-soprano, violin and cello. In the first few months of the lockdown, in the spring of 2020, I continued to work on that group of settings, and later welcomed the opportunity to add “Of Troubled Times.” Ms. Murray’s poem addresses the human disaster of a pandemic. The rest of the poetry in this cycle deals with other sorts of catastrophes, but I thought that they could be linked musically (through similar motifs and harmonic language) as well as thematically, and decided to use Of Troubled Times as the title for the entire piece. I have rendered the somewhat hopeful note at the end of the first song with a degree of ambiguity, so that the final cadence does not provide a comfortable resolution before we move on to the next setting.

The great activist poet Denise Levertov (1923-97) often wrote about war, environmental degradation, the excesses of unbridled capitalism and the spiritual wasteland that characterizes so much of modern life. The Love of Morning oscillates between horror and childlike innocence, which I’ve tried to capture through tone painting and sudden shifts of texture. Arpeggios across all four strings in both violin and cello illustrate the feeling of being “swung like laughing infants” when “we wake to birdsong”; then, abruptly, a series of dull, plodding chords evokes the struggle of the human spirit on “gray mornings,” and a few moments later, the cello resumes the arpeggios to accompany the “summons” that calls us to take some sort of action to alleviate the world’s “leaden burden of human evil.”

On the Mystery of the Incarnation asks us to confront “the worst our kind can do,” and marvels at the fact that God’s Word has been entrusted to “this creature,” so “vainly sure it and no other is godlike,” rather than to an innocent life form like a flower or a dolphin. This gift has been accorded us “as guest, as brother,” “out of compassion for our ugly failure to evolve.” I could find no better way to interpret “the Word” in musical terms than to imitate the harmonic simplicity, voice leading and phrase structure of a Bach chorale. But I deny the listener/reader a satisfying resolution, slipping from the warmth and reassurance of an expected cadence in F Major to an E Minor chord with an added seventh as the instrumental sound turns to a brittle sul ponticello timbre. 

– ©2022 Eugene Drucker

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Bela Bartók in 1927
Regarded as one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, Bela Bartók's first published quartet is in A Minor. That doesn't mean it sounds like it's the A Minor you might be familiar with from, say, a teenaged Mendelssohn's A Minor Quartet, much less Beethoven's Op.132 Quartet on the second half of the program or even the famous opening of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (also in A Minor). By 1900, the idea of what keys you could "move to" within a piece – the home or central tonality that makes it a 'Something in A Minor' – was very different from the choices composers had in 1700 or even 1800. All of this weakened the hold of the "central tonality" as a structural force in the music. Mozart, in his Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, written in 1788, moved so quickly through so many keys at one point in the finale, listeners then must have become dizzy because they had no idea what “key” they were in, everything whizzing by so fast. In fact, some writers in the 20th Century pointed to this as an early example of “atonality” which basically means "music that has no fixed tonal focus."

It's not that the music's chords themselves were necessarily becoming more “dissonant”: it's that the harmonic dissonance, increasing the tension between the chords, was beginning to fracture the confidence a listener might have knowing what key-center or tonality the music was in at any given moment.

While most concertgoers would be more familiar with Bartók's 3rd, 4th & 5th Quartets, the first of the six may come as a surprise, but I guess you could say the same to someone who'd only ever heard Beethoven's Late Quartets and had never, somehow, managed to hear any of his Op. 18 Quartets. What a difference twenty years can make!

Bartók was 27 when he began his first string quartet, writing most of it in 1908 (he finished it in January the next year). At the same time, Schoenberg was working on his 2nd Quartet, the one with the soprano in the final two movements, the last of which is famous for being the first “atonal” composition, more or less.

Schoenberg's 1st Quartet had been premiered in 1907 in Vienna, though I doubt Bartók would've had a chance to hear it by the following year. Even if they don't sound very much alike, they share a common sense regarding disintegrating tonality and interestingly also a tie with the past for all their looking into the future, as if wondering where the tonality of Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and Mahler was heading in the first decade of the 20th Century.

1st Movement: Lento (Very slow)

 

Bartók's opening movement sounds little removed from the fugue that begins Beethoven's C-Sharp Minor Quartet, Op. 131 (begun immediately after he'd completed the Op.132 Quartet), slow and meditative but also timeless (hear the opening movement of Beethoven's quartet here, from the Emerson's 1997 Grammy-winning recording). It's also important to keep in mind Bartók described this opening movement as “my funeral dirge” – not just “a” funeral dirge but “my” funeral dirge: What could possibly have happened to a young man in his late-20s at the very beginning of his career that would inspire him to compose that? (See below.)

Whether he knew anything about Schoenberg's newest pieces like the 2nd String Quartet with its first example of “atonal” music (with its text, “I feel air from a different planet”), he did find out what Debussy had been up to in Paris. His friend and fellow-composer Zoltan Kodály had just returned from a trip to France with several scores of Debussy's works. You can definitely hear the influence of Debussy beginning at 5:59 into the clip of Bartók's first movement. It's such a sudden change from the rest of the movement, it almost sounds like Kodály dropped by with a score of Debussy's Quartet the day Bartók was composing this passage... Stranger things have been known to happen and strike a young composer's fancy!

2nd movement: Allegretto (not too lively)  

3rd Movement: Introduction. Allegro – Allegro vivace = = = = = = =

As I've often told my students, a young composer's job is to be a sponge and soak up everything you hear, anything that excites you, whatever you like but wonder “how can I do that my own way?” Eventually, some influences will go by the wayside and others will come to the fore and solidify into that elusive thing called “the composer's voice,” that recognizable style where, if you're lucky, as soon as someone hears it, they know, “Oh yeah, that's Bartók!”

Bartók & Kodály (1908)
Now, in Budapest at this stage of his life, Bartók probably didn't know much about what Schoenberg was writing in Vienna. I suspect he might have known Transfigured Night written in 1899 once the score was published in 1904 (follow the link for a live performance with the Emerson Quartet and Friends). Perhaps he might've made a trip to Vienna (rare for Bartók) or an ensemble had brought something by Schoenberg to Budapest (possible); or a friend like Kodály had come back from hearing a concert there and told him all about it. Certainly, as an amateur forensic musicologist, I hear shades of Schoenberg's influence by 2:24 into the 3rd movement's clip but curiously more of what I'd associate with serial Schoenberg which was some 12 years off in the future! It certainly doesn't strike me as “sounding particularly like Bartók.” But then, by 3:37, we are definitely in more recognizable territory with a melody whose rhythms are based on Hungarian speech-patterns and more representative of Bartók's mature style. But why does this sound so different from everything else in the movement?

Bartók in 1903
Well, in 1904, visiting a summer resort, Bartók heard a teen-aged peasant girl from the nearby rural area singing folk-songs unlike anything he'd heard before. But it wasn't until 1908 when Kodály, who had already started studying the folk music of Hungary, introduced his collection to Bartók. This then began his systematic study of not only Hungarian folk music but also a great deal of folk music from across Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Again, it's almost as if, on the day he was writing this passage, Kodály stopped by and they were talking about genuine folk-songs (which Kodály had already begun studying) and Bartók's creative spirit sparked at the possibilities.

In Europe, Hungarian music really meant “Gypsy Music.” This was what Franz Liszt, born in Hungary but cosmopolitan by nature, introduced to the world in his Hungarian Rhapsodies and what the very German Brahms incorporated into his Hungarian Dances and the dance-like finales of works like the 1st Piano Quartet or the Violin Concerto. He'd heard this music as a young man, accompanying a Hungarian violinist named Eduard Reményi. Basically, this was the urban pop music of the day and, like jazz fans in New York City in the Roaring Twenties, people in Vienna went to smoky taverns to hear gypsy bands play the night away (the good Dr. Brahms had his favorite haunts with bands he followed like any jazz fan).

Bartók recording folk songs in 1908

Bartók first incorporated some of this real folk-song style in the last movement of this 1st String Quartet, then later writing several piano pieces based on it that year as well. The photograph of Bartók (above) was taken later in 1908, in fact, as he recorded peasants in rural Slovakia singing into an Edison recording machine! Later, the common structure of much of this folk music would inspire him to create a harmonic and melodic vocabulary unlike standard classical tonality. When he would use this later in his own original works, he referred to it as his “imaginary folk-music.”

I couldn't find anything that wasn't overly arranged (either too New Agey or just rocking out in a pop-rock style), but here's an example of a quiet song about unrequited love that may give you an idea. (If you ever get a chance to hear one of those Nonesuch “Explorer” recordings, many of them transferred to CD, you're in for a definite ear-opener!)

Just as Schoenberg was finding his future voice in his first attempts at writing atonality in 1908 with the last movement of his 2nd String Quartet (“air from a different planet” indeed), Bartók was finding his in the realm of folk-song with the last movement of his 1st String Quartet begun in the same year.

What I'd be curious about is – and I've been unable to find any reference to that theme in particular – is it a genuine folk song, something he'd heard or Kodály gave him, or did he make it up to sound like a real folk song? And if it were real, did it have a text that perhaps had some extra-musical association for him – perhaps resonating with something else going on in his life?

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Stefi Geyer
In 1907, Bartók had fallen in love with a violinist named Stefi Geyer (this photograph of her is dated 1905: she would have been about 17, then). Apparently it was mostly a one-sided relationship, whether completely unrequited or not. Being a composer, naturally Bartók wrote her a violin concerto but when she broke off the relationship the following year, he suppressed the work which was not published until after they had both died. However, after they'd broken up, he did use the first movement as the first of Two Portraits, re-naming it “Ideal,” even three years later adding a dissonant, ironic second portrait labeled “Grotesque.” He uses a sonority of a minor chord with a major 7th superimposed on it – F#-A-C#-E# which he referred to as his “Stefi Chord.” (A version of this motive is spelled out in the opening pitches of the 1st Quartet.)

Emotionally, he was strongly affected by this rejection and his friends worried about the state of his health. After he'd begun work on a new string quartet, he wrote to her that it opened with what he called “my funeral dirge.” If this event signaled the end of one aspect of his life – before the year was out, he married one of his piano students, apparently on the rebound: it was not to be a happy relationship – the quartet ends with another sound that would become his future voice, its inspiration found in the folk songs of his ethnic heritage, something only recently discovered within him, resonating in his innermost soul, and which would form the foundation of his mature musical voice. He would later describe the whole quartet as “a return to life” (keep in mind, in the midst of his “Prayer of Thanksgiving,” in the Op.132 Quartet, Beethoven marked the contrasting motive “finding new strength”!)

In 1984, Hungarian conductor Zoltan Rosznyai was the guest conductor for a Harrisburg Symphony concert that featured concertmaster Julie Rosenfeld of the Colorado Quartet, then in residence with the orchestra, playing the Two Portraits. I remember Rosznyai explaining to the orchestra how he'd known the Geyer family and had met Stefi Geyer late in her life at a sanatorium in Switzerland where she'd spent most of her life.

As I recall Rosznyai's explanation, Bartók was just too unpredictable for her and presumably not regarded as a good match by her father. She was also only 19 at the time; and Bartók, remember, recently appointed a junior teacher at the Budapest Conservatory, was 27. Not long afterward, she married a Viennese lawyer, presumably a more stable personality and a more securely established professional. After he died during the Flu Epidemic of 1918, she married composer Walter Schulthess and moved to Zurich where she taught and performed. She died there in 1956.

The violin concerto Bartók had composed for her wasn't discovered until after she died, and first heard in 1958. The famous and rather large-scale concerto Bartók wrote in 1937 now had to be re-christened the Violin Concerto No. 2 to make room for this slighter, less mature early work inspired by unrequited love. Its aftermath became the starting point for the first of his six string quartets, starting a collection regarded as monumental to the 20th Century as Beethoven's had been to the 19th.

– Dick Strawser

Monday, May 9, 2022

A Special Evening with the Emerson Quartet: Beethoven's Op.132

In appreciation of the Harrisburg community’s loyal support over four decades, Market Square Concerts presents a special concert featuring the eminent Emerson Quartet.

Who: The Emerson Quartet (with mezzo-soprano, Susannah Woodruff)

What: Borodin's 2nd String Quartet; Bartok's 1st String Quartet; "Of Troubled Times," Three Songs by Emerson Quartet violinist Eugene Drucker; Beethoven's String Quartet in A Minor, Op.132

When & Where: Saturday, May 14th, 2022, at 7:30, at Temple Ohev Sholom 

Read about the Bartok & Drucker in the second post in the series, and about the Borodin in the third

 

Mask wearing is optional to attend this concert and
proof of vaccination will not be requested.

There are many aphorisms like “all good things must come to an end” which could begin this post. Suffice it to say, the Emerson Quartet has decided, after the 2022-2023 Season, to retire following a career spanning 47 years. And so we are glad that, given the number of times their tours have brought them through Harrisburg during Market Square Concerts' 40 seasons, they give us one last chance to hear them and celebrate their legacy.

Back in the mid-1970s, while walking down Broadway from the 72nd Street subway station on one of my many infusions of New York City's concert-life, I ran into a violist I'd met a few years earlier when he was a freshman at the Eastman School of Music and I was a teaching assistant. I didn't know him well, but he occasionally sat in on my 9:00 theory class when he overslept his 8:00 class. I knew he had transferred to Juilliard at some point, so I asked him how things were going.

“Great,” he said. “Some friends and I just formed a quartet,” very enthusiastic about their prospects in what is admittedly a difficult world to break into, much less survive in.

Knowing how many quartets there are and how few of them survive to make it to the top (if that's not too much to aspire to), I wished him well and hoped things would turn out for the best. Also knowing that, after finding a few friends to make a compatible group, one of the more challenging Rites of Passage for new quartets was to establish their “brand,” I asked him, “Have you decided on a name yet?”

“We have – we're going to call ourselves the Emerson Quartet.”

“After Ralph Waldo? Well, that's something to live up to...” I wished him well and the best of luck.

And with that, Larry Dutton continued on his way, and I, on mine.

So here, almost 46 years, 9 Grammys and countless other awards and accolades from around the globe, recognized as one of the finest quartets in the world today, Larry and his friends in the Emerson Quartet are getting ready to retire!

The quartet is unusual in there is no set “first violinist” or “second violinist” but rather two violinists who share the responsibilities. So you may see Eugene Drucker playing First on one piece, but on the next piece, Philip Setzer may be sitting in the First chair. (In addition to his responsibilities as a performer, Eugene Drucker is also represented on this program as a composer, but I'll get to that in a second, subsequent post.) In addition to Lawrence Dutton, the violist, there's cellist Paul Watkins who joined the Emerson Quartet at the end of the 2012-2013 Season, replacing long-time cellist David Finckel. If you're wondering what that does to an established ensemble, it means after 34 years, in addition to just getting used to somebody new in their midst, they would have to go through and “re-learn” everything in their repertoire with “the new guy,” bringing him up-to-speed but also reworking how the four of them now interact with the music itself.

Here's a brief video prepared by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for their “Spotlight” series, posted in 2014: 

For a “virtual concert” recorded during the Pandemic in the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University (NY), the Emerson Quartet prefaces their performance of Beethoven's Op.132 (preceded by Britten's arrangement of Purcell's “Chaconny”) with a pre-concert Zoom interview, ranging from “what was this past year like, dealing with Covid” to giving their various insights about Beethoven – which you can view here. While you can continue viewing the link beyond the talk's conclusion at 32:03, I've included the complete and continuous Beethoven performance, recorded enmasked in an empty hall, as an embedded video following the individual movements from their 1997 recording of the Complete Beethoven Quartets (which won the Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance that year). 

The program opens with Alexander Borodin's String Quartet No. 2 in D Major (the source of several of his best-loved tunes, by the way), and Bela Bartók's 1st String Quartet. In addition, mezzo-soprano Susannah Woodruff joins two members of the quartet for a performance of three songs composed by violinist Eugene Drucker. But I will discuss these works in a subsequent post. This post is concerned solely with one of the towering masterpieces of the repertoire, one of Beethoven's "Late Quartets" - which, incidentally, we owe to a violist who suggested, when a music-loving Russian prince was thinking of commissioning some new works, he should contact Beethoven...

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Beethoven's String Quartet in A Minor, Op.132, is in five movements – not the usual four – creating sort of an arch form around the central slow movement which is generally regarded as this quartet's “crown jewel.” This is surrounded by two faster movements – first, there's the seemingly old-fashioned dance of the 2nd Movement, and then it's followed by the march-like 4th Movement which hardly seems to have gotten started when a recitative-like solo in the 1st violin turns into the finale, a dramatic mirror to the opening movement – hence, the arch, with its famous Heilige Dankgesang as the keystone:

Drama – Dance – Prayer – March – Resolution of the Drama.

Nowhere in this quartet is Beethoven's signature “scherzo” (the earthy, jocular replacement of the old-fashioned minuet). In fact, compared to the previous two opus numbers, it seems almost a return to near-normal. After all, you say, Op. 130 is in six movements and Op. 131 is in seven – so what's new and unusual about Op.132 being in five? 

Beethoven's original MS, opening of Op.132

Just from the opening introduction, follow the constant half-step motion of the G#-to-A (or its reverse, A-to-G#) as it appears in different voices. It's hard to imagine this is the “kernel” that generated this whole quartet and provided, apparently, some fertile soil for the
Grosse Fuge – but that's Op.130, so didn't that come first? More (as usual) on that in a bit...

Assai sostenuto – Allegro (Very sustained; Lively) – The opening movement would not be familiar territory to the careful listener of 1825 – it seems to be in Sonata Form but rather than repeat the exposition (as one normally would) he writes it out in the wrong key – so was that bit of transition the development section and this is... uhm... wait, it's over? Nowhere are those clear-cut boundaries one was used to in Haydn's day which told us plainly where we were: Exposition, Development, or Recapitulation with its final return to the home key. And what to make of those occasional operatic-like flourishes in the first violin that sound a bit like old-fashioned recitatives? Hmmm...

Allegro ma non tanto (Not too lively) – The second movement starts off like a minuet but then that G#-A movement on the downbeat makes it awkward to dance to (where's the beat?). And as it unfolds, it really not a minuet, more of a lilting ländler, the folksy precursor of the more elegant waltz. The middle section, the "trio," is a gentle country dance with its drones (the open A-string affording a hurdy-gurdy-like accompaniment to a simple tune in the 1st violin) beginning at 4:27 one of the sweeter moments after all the unsettled turbulence implied in the first movement. Not without its own interruptions from reality, harking back to that half-step motive of the first movement's introduction (a premonition of the Grosse Fuge yet to come), it then relaxes to a gentle conclusion.

Every time I hear this movement, I think back to the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 when Beethoven, then not yet 32 years old and near-suicidal over the possibility – no, the inevitability of his deafness – wrote...

= = = = =
“...what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life - only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence...”
= = = = =

He kept that document in his desk (quite likely having shown it to no one), however many times he moved over the years, where it wasn't discovered until after his death. Six years before he began writing these Late Quartets, Beethoven was reduced to using the "Conversation Books" where friends would write down questions for him, thus recording for posterity one side of what conversations Beethoven had but leaving us ignorant of his responses. Still, to communicate with the world this way...?

Molto adagio – Andante (Very slow; a walking tempo)

The third movement – the famous “Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity (in the Lydian Mode)” – is a hymn that seems simple enough (the fact it is in the Lydian Mode – F Major with a B-natural instead of a B-flat – doesn't make it sound as “ancient” to our ears as it must have done to someone in the 1820s) with its “white notes” (in this case, open half-notes) even evoke the look of Palestrina's 16th-Century polyphony

The hymn itself (those slow-moving notes in simple block harmonies) alternates with different approaches to the opening prayer-like motive (sometimes inverted, sometimes overlapping itself). These alternate with more lively passages he marks “feeling new strength.” There is little more transcendent, indeed consoling music in the whole realm of classical music to become one of the most universal moments in all of Beethoven.

Alla marcia, assai vivace (Like a march, very fast) The brief fourth movement will come as something of a shock after the spirituality of this slowly unfolding hymn – a simple march-like passage that barely gets going before it is interrupted by one of those operatic flourishes (remember, in the first movement?) which leads directly – again, no boundary to cross, no pausing to turn the page – into the finale.

5th Movement, Allegro appassionato (Lively, very emotional) This is basically a rondo, not unexpected as finales go – incidentally, paging through the sketch-books if you could read them, the main idea of this movement was originally intended for a fully instrumental finale to the 9th Symphony, before he decided on adding a chorus and setting Schiller's Ode to Joy (imagine, you're listening to one of Beethoven's rejects, here!) – and here, the lyrical element which never got to take the lead in the first movement finally comes to the fore yet not without its own bits of turbulence along the way. 

As we near the end – how many times do we think we're “nearing the end” in Beethoven's finales only to find “wait, there's more!”? – this lyricism takes on new heights (literally) and it almost seems as if everything is going to ascend into the air. A happy A Major ending, finally, as the music transcends the drama, the expectations, the implications of the past, to achieve humanity. But even when it arrives (after some nifty side-steps), it still seems a bit peremptory. 

Here is the Emerson Quartet performing the complete quartet in one continuous video, from a "virtual concert" recorded at the Staller Center of Stony Brook University in April, 2021.

 

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Beethoven in 1823
The earliest sketches for Op.132 appear in late-1824 during the final push to complete the first of these quartets, the E-flat Major, Op.127, a more “standard” quartet in four movements, which he completed in February of 1825, moving immediately into the new A Minor Quartet which became Op. 132.

So, what happened to Op. 130 and Op. 131? They were actually composed later: the B-flat Quartet with its original Grosse Fuge finale was begun in August of 1825, immediately after he finished the A Minor. This makes more sense when you realize the opening slow introduction of Op.132 is actually an integral part of the Grosse Fuge from Op.130 (the Fugue was later surgically removed and published separately as Op.133, but that's another story). Then, having completed this “Great Fugue,” he began another quartet which opens with a great fugal movement – if minuets were old-fashioned by the 1820s, fugues were like “ancient, scholarly stuff” – the C-sharp Minor Quartet (eventually Op.131) which he “finished” in May of 1826, as he told his publisher, though he apparently kept working on it until he submitted the score that August. Again, he then immediately began work on Op.135, the F Major Quartet, which he completed in October, 1826.

Keep in mind, in the same sketchbook, there are ideas intended for a String Quartet in C Major.

Wait – there could have been a sixth Late Beethoven Quartet?

Beethoven died in March, 1827. He was 56.

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While all five of his “Late Quartets” are considered the Mount Everest of Chamber Music, both for performers as well as listeners, it's amazing to consider the personal world of Beethoven when he was writing them. 

Unfortunately for Prince Nikolai Galitsin's legacy - he commissioned Beethoven to write “a few quartets” for him - “The Late Quartets” never became known as “The Galitsin Quartets” as we generally know those three Middle Quartets dedicated to Count Razumovsky. Many people – at least, Classical Music Lovers – know Razumovsky's name (even if they have no idea what a Razumovsky is) only through his association with Beethoven's quartets. 

N. Galitsin (1820s)
First of all, Prince Nikolai Galitsin (Голицын in Russian: it can spelled different ways phonetically in different Western European languages) had to wait so long for them, asking Beethoven in 1822, offering to pay him “whatever amount you deem adequate.” Beethoven thought 50 ducats seemed adequate, though I've never found any way of comparing an 1822 Ducat to a 2022 pre-inflation Dollar.

Galitsin had lived in Vienna for a while and was familiar with the latest German music. An amateur cellist who played in his own house quartet (as Count Razumovsky played 2nd violin in his), he arranged several of Beethoven's piano pieces for his ensemble. At one point, he decided he would commission some quartets from the latest rage in German music, Carl Maria von Weber, but the violist advised he should contact Beethoven instead.

Considering Beethoven had not written a string quartet since he finished the Op. 95, the one he called the “Serioso,” in 1810, it is unlikely Beethoven would simply have decided “oh, okay, now that the Missa Solemnis is done and the 9th Symphony has been premiered, let me write these five string quartets for no reason whatsoever.”

So we have a violist to thank for bringing them about! (Think on that, ye collectors of viola jokes!)

To help his cause, Galitsin arranged what turned out to be the world premiere of the Missa Solemnis in St. Petersburg, the Russian Imperial capital in 1824. For his troubles, Galitsin also received the dedication to Beethoven's new overture, The Consecration of the House, written for the opening of a new theater in Vienna. 

Once he was ready to start work on the quartets, it was 1824, two years after Galitsin's request, and while the legal issues dealing with his nephew's custody were behind him, the composer still had to deal with a rebellious 17-year-old who clearly had no interest in living with his rough, demanding, and not to mention stone-deaf uncle, regardless of his being The Great Beethoven. 

While working on the Op.127 quartet, the constant yelling between uncle and nephew, not to mention the deaf composer's pounding at the piano when he composed, proved too much for the landlord who threw them both out and Beethoven was forced to find new lodgings!

There were problems with the boy's occasionally running off to his mother (the infamous sister-in-law Beethoven referred to as “The Queen of the Night”) and there were always problems at the boarding school the boy'd been sent to. Later, while Beethoven was in the midst of composing the Op.135 Quartet, the boy, just before he turned 20, tried to commit suicide.

Listening to these quartets, it is amazing to imagine a composer being able to concentrate on writing anything, much less works of this profundity. Perhaps the drama surrounding Beethoven's final years had as much to do with shaping the inner world where these quartets came from as did the isolation from his deafness.

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There is a habit among commentators (and performers) who often explain these works as a kind of “summing up” in Beethoven's career – as if the term “Late Beethoven” refers to “the late Beethoven,” recently deceased. Beethoven had no idea he was going to die in March of 1827. If you didn't know that the Op.135 Quartet was his last completed work, neither did he.

After his death, people found in his sketchbooks and in his desk, among other things (like that letter to the Immortal Belovéd as well as the Heiligenstadt Testament), sketches for a 10th Symphony's first movement, a C Major String Quartet, a string quintet – hardly the stuff of someone who was dying. Granted, between October of 1826 and his death, he completed only that alternate happy-go-lucky replacement finale for the Op.130 Quartet, for those who argued the Fugue was impossible to play and made the quartet too long for mere mortal attention spans. Yes, he was ill and yes he'd been sick before, perhaps even worse, but thoughts he was on the verge of dying never occurred to him before he completed the quartets, much less began contemplating them three years earlier.

He had written three quartets for Galitsin but then immediately produced two more – in Haydn's day, it was typical that quartets were produced in sets of six or maybe three: even Beethoven produced six quartets for his first set, Op. 18, and three for Razumovsky in Op. 59 in 1806. Perhaps, now, he decided he would go for six again, another complete set. 

There are “whiffs of mortality” about these works because we find them there, and if Beethoven put them there, it's probably because most of his music from 1803 on also contained elements exploring the human condition – in the opera, Fidelio, but certainly the dramatic moments of the Eroica and the 5th Symphony. Could anything sound more “mortal” than the great Funeral March of his 3rd Symphony or even the slow movement of the 7th, even though one could argue these are essentially conventions Beethoven imbued with super-mortal inspirations?

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If you want to understand the quartets better, listen to them in the order they were composed. Usually they are played in “opus order,” but to hear the A Minor Quartet as a response to the E-flat Op.127 quartet helps pave the way for the increasing complexities of the next two – the B-flat whose original finale is so carefully tied into the opening of the A Minor; the C-sharp Minor whose fugal writing is an outgrowth of the complex fugue that ended its predecessor – and the seeming reaction in the shorter, seemingly less daring in not quite so innovative F Major that was the last one he completed.

But, tell me, who could imagine, given that trajectory over three years' time, what a sixth quartet in C Major might have been like?

And now for some reality: Beethoven had requested a fee of 50 ducats per quartet before he'd started work on them. Prince Galitsin paid Beethoven a down-payment of 25 ducats for the first quartet, Op.127, but due to financial difficulties, he was unable to pay the debt he acknowledged in a subsequent letter. By the time Beethoven died, perhaps Galitsin figured it no longer mattered and Beethoven's heirs – acting on behalf of Karl van Beethoven, the nephew, who, despite everything, turned out to be a pretty decent fellow after all, once the soldiering life straightened him out – had to pursue the Prince through the courts until it was finally paid in 1852 – twenty-five years after the composer died! It's a good thing this hadn't come out before he had completed the 2nd of these “Galitsin Quartets,” or Beethoven could have easily said, “the hell with you and your quartets – I'll write something else!” 

But then, nobody commissioned Op.131 and Op.135 or the C Major Quartet left abandoned in the sketchbooks. 

So, thank Galitsin's violist for that much!

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

A Little Bit of House-Music: Brahms & his Love-Song Waltzes

Who: “Stuart & Friends” with pianists Stuart Malina & Ya-Ting Chang, plus soprano Rebecca Meyers, mezzo-soprano Dianna Grabowski, tenor Christyan Seay, baritone Jonathan Hays

What: Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op.52 & Op.65; Schumann's Pictures from the East (Op. 66); and Rachmaninoff's Six Pieces for Piano Duet, Op. 11

When: Thursday, 7:30, April 21st

Where: Market Square Church, downtown Harrisburg 

 Please note: Masks are now optional and proof of vaccination is no longer required to attend our April and May concerts.

House-Music” certainly means something different today than it did in the 19th Century. Now, it's a style of electronic dance music originating in the 1980s, but to composers like Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff, it referred to music composed specifically to be performed in people's homes, not concert halls or the music rooms of aristocratic palaces. It was geared to be played by amateur musicians, not professionals, and though not designed for virtuosos of the concert stage, the more intimate setting of someone's living room or parlor made for a more intimate musical style as well, both in the composition and its performance.

This post is mostly about the combination of piano duet and songs on the first half of the program, music for a gathering of friends to make “social music” for their own entertainment and for the family and friends making up the chamber-sized audience (imagine, if you will, you are seated in someone's living room). Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes are both a series of dance pieces for piano four-hands and a collection of songs written for various combinations of a mixed quartet of singers. They can be performed by the pianists alone (one pair of pianists referred to it as “the karaoke version”) but the songs can also be sung by a small choir and, in this format, they are much-loved by amateur choral groups around the world. There's even an orchestral version for larger choirs which, IMHO, is a bit heavy-handed for the music, but it only attests to the music's popularity.

On the second half, Stuart Malina and Ya-Ting Chang will play works by Robert Schumann, his “Pictured from the East,” and Rachmaninoff's youthful collection of Six Pieces, Op. 11. In this post, you can read about them and listen to videos of them after the Brahms.

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In several past posts, I've described the “piano duet” (more amicably called “piano four-hands”) as the do-it-yourself home entertainment system of the 19th Century, before there were recordings and stereo systems, even radios, that turned music into a passive experience. We read accounts of Mozart or Haydn playing before aristocratic audiences in their palaces, but once the new century's economy created a middle class who wanted their own musical entertainment but were unable to hire performers or have a musical staff on hand like Prince Esterházy, not only did “free-lance” musicians find new employment as music teachers for the children (especially the young ladies) of bourgeois families, they also discovered composing new works especially designed for the burgeoning “amateur market” so these families could make their own music.

Wiling away an evening before there was television, a family (with friends, perhaps, invited over) would gather 'round the parlor piano (or, if wealthy enough, a grand piano in the music room) and listen to members of the family run through their favorite selections: a scene comes to mind from George Eliot's Middlemarch where young Fred Vincy plays the flute to his sister Rosamond's accompaniment. Piano duets, with two people sharing a bench (and staking out their turf on the keyboard), were a favorite way of “making social music.” In addition, others would raise their voices in song: many of Schubert's songs, and a great many collections of dances and various piano duets, were written for “the amateur, home market,” and where there was one singer, there were probably others.

The phenomenon of the “Part Song” is (pun intended) part of this same social music-making legacy. Schubert supplied this aspect of the Amateur Market with numerous “vocal quartets” for various combinations, sometimes mixed voices or perhaps four men or four women as the text required. The important thing, here – despite the definition perpetrated by Wikipedia – is, this is not originally intended as “choral music” unless Wikipedia's idea of a choir consists of 2 or more singers... And it's true many of them will work well with more than one singer on a part but, at least as the composer intended, very few households might have a chorus of 50 on hand for an evening's music-making.

(A typically dour Victorian photograph of a family in the midst of an evening of social music-making: one hopes they're not singing the Liebeslieder Waltzes here...)

Brahms' two sets of “Love Songs” (which, except for the conclusion of the 2nd set, also happen to be waltzes) is the result of this legacy of domestic music-making, combining the piano duet – not two pianos – with four singers often grouped (for variety's sake, if nothing else) in various combinations of solos, duets, and quartets. Yes, they are frequently heard performed by choral groups and the piano part has been arranged for orchestra, but the way we'll hear them in this concert is as the composer intended them – except for the fact we're sitting in a church rather than, say, Clara Schumann's living room surrounded by family and friends. A very real definition of chamber music in this setting would be "music made by friends for friends," and in this case, composed by a friend as well.

The Big Question, once you get past the sheer entertainment value of the music, is, okay, if they're love songs, is there someone to whom they're directed? Are they just random songs about love written by a composer in his mid-30s, love being a favorite topic for things artistic (witness the most popular novels of the day, and the reams of poetry written during an age that wasn't called "Romantic" for nothing)? Most people will say they're the result of the composer's unrequited love for Clara Schumann, who, aside from being one of the finest pianists of the day, was the widow of the composer Robert Schumann. And Brahms had met them both in the fall of 1853 when Brahms, just 20 years old, showed up on their doorstep with a pile of manuscripts under his arm, including piano sonatas (Schumann called them “veiled symphonies”), string quartets, and songs. For Brahms, it was a life-changing encounter.

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Rather than give you a detailed “analysis” of the individual songs in the collection, I'm going to offer you a bit of insight “behind the scenes” with what was going on in the composer's life at the time the music you'll be hearing was written. Unfortunately, it's a long story since, as with many composers and many of their compositions, a work doesn't always spring up isolated without some sort of biographical context. And in this case, there is so much back-story, it reads like a sub-plot for, say, a George Eliot novel (if Brahms and the Schumanns had been Victorians instead of good middle-class Germans). And I chose the reference to Middlemarch because the novel was written between the years Brahms produced his two sets of Liebeslieder Waltzes, and was set shortly after Schubert had died in what might be considered, with its ubiquitous “Schubertiads,” a Golden Age for Domestic Music.

But first of all, the music: there are two sets of songs, 18 in the first and 15 in the second. The first set is the one most involved in the back-story I'm about to tell; the second was a sequel inspired by the financial success of the first set, composed to fulfill the demands of the amateur market. It is, however, not without its own context (read on...).

Here is a recording, one of the best I've heard of the original version, with an unlikely quartet of singers as you'd find in your average bourgeois household, with one of the pianists being a famous conductor familiar to fans of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Here are soprano Edith Mathis, alto Brigitte Fassbänder, tenor Peter Schreier, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and pianists Karl Engel and Wolfgang Sawallisch. The recording was made in 1981. Beneath each video-clip is a link to a collection of the poems Brahms set.

Op.52

(You can read the texts here.) 

Op.65

(You can read the texts here.) 

(The final song, setting Goethe's Zum Schluss, begins at 16:07) 

The poems, inspired by folk poetry or actual folk songs from Central and Eastern Europe, are by one of Brahms' favorite poets, G. F. Daumer, best known for his love-songs, but who also wrote more “serious” poems inspired by his early theological studies and directed “at the hypocrisy he associated with Orthodox Christianity.” (An interesting story: Brahms, not long after the success of his 2nd Set of Liebeslieder Waltzes, went to visit Daumer, living in retirement in northern Bavaria, imagining, as he described it to a poet-friend, “a touching moment, a heartfelt exchange between colleagues, a new insight into the poems,” but instead, meeting “a little dried-up old man!” “I soon perceived he knew nothing either of me or my compositions, or anything at all of music. And when I pointed to his ardent passionate verses, he gestured with a tender wave of the hand to a little old mother almost more withered than himself, saying, 'Ah, I have only loved the one, my wife'!” So much for meeting our idols...) 

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The Schumanns (1847)
In order to appreciate the story behind these songs, you need to go back to that fateful February day, just months after Brahms met the Schumanns in Düsseldorf when Robert, tormented by increasing bouts of an illness once described as “manic-depression” and attacks of tinnitus which “unhinged his reason,” threw himself into the Rhine in an attempt to commit suicide. (You can read my post, “And Schumann At the Close,” here.)

Having become close to both the Schumanns – Robert was definitely his mentor in the brief time he knew him, but Clara would become a life-long inspiration – Brahms changed his plans and came to help Clara deal with the reality of a husband who, having survived the attempt, was immediately sent to what was then called an asylum in Bonn (in the remaining years of his life, she would never see her husband again) and a large family to raise. In fact, at the time of Robert's attempted suicide, she was pregnant with their 8th child, born two months later (a son, Felix, named after their late-friend, Mendelssohn).


As Clara returned to concertizing – she needed to, she defended herself, not just because she needed the music: she needed the money! – Brahms would come and stay with the family as a kind of baby-sitter. Marie, the oldest, was only 13 at the time. Another daughter, Julie, was all of 9. The younger children called him “Uncle Johannes,” if you can imagine the Brahms we know (with the most famous beard in Classical Music) compared to the 20-something Brahms crawling around on the floor giving them piggy-back rides! 

The photo above was taken around 1860 and includes five of the Schumann children: Felix (the youngest), Elise, Julie (standing, center), Marie (the oldest), and Eugenie. 

Fast forward to 1868. Brahms, who was often something of a jerk, had managed to insult his friend Clara (frequently) but this time their relationship had come to a standstill. Always a self-critical composer, Brahms often would “submit” a new work to Clara for her approval as much as for her suggestions; occasionally, a work that did not pass muster might be completely revised (the Piano Quintet of the early-1860s began as a sonata for two pianos, was converted into a string quintet before finally gaining the seal of Clara's approval in 1864 as the Piano Quintet we know today); more often, the work was consigned to the wastebasket or the fireplace (Brahms' most characteristic advice to young composers was to buy a wastebasket).

There is, of course, the old story Brahms was in love with Clara Schumann, but, being modern and prone to active imaginations, we imagine “being in love with” and “becoming lovers” as a logical progression. Certainly, arm-chair psychologists have had numerous field-days hypothesizing about their relationship, whether it was “platonic” or something that had been realized or merely “unrequited love.” Certainly, being 14 years older than Brahms, there might have been a motherly instinct (a woman who'd had 8 children by the time she was 35) towards the young composer who, let's face it, lacked considerable finesse in his own personality.

But there's another woman behind the love-songs Brahms, now 35 himself, was writing in 1868: and that would be Clara's younger daughter, Julie, who was now 23. You can argue it as a case of “transference,” but Brahms did have relationships, mostly, it seemed, platonic and unrequited, with a few young women in the intervening years, some of them more serious than others: infatuations might be a more accurate term.

While we're aware of the 20-some years it took Brahms to complete a first symphony (not necessarily his 1st Symphony), there was also a piano quartet, originally in C-sharp Minor, he had begun around the same time, not long after Robert's suicide attempt but before Robert died in the Bonn asylum. In the mid-1860s, he picked this up again, rewrote it in C Minor (the same key the 1st Symphony would be in), and, sending it off to his publisher with a note referencing Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther – a novel about a young man in love with another man's wife who then goes off and, having been rebuffed by his would-be love, shoots himself with a borrowed pistol – which of course has given all manner of fuel to the argument about his relationship with Clara.

It seems, however, there was another woman he longed for, now. He didn't exactly keep it a secret but he never told the object of his ardor much less her mother. During 1868, he composed a number of love-songs to poems by Daumer (published between Op.46-49) which he mentioned to more than one friend being inspired by a certain someone...

Another song he wrote at this time was the Wiegenlied of the Op.49 set, written to one of his “old girlfriends,” Bertha Faber (neé Porubzsky) now happily married, to celebrate the birth of her first child, a Cradle Song which the world would eventually know as “Brahms' Lullaby.” A simple folk-like text with a simple folk-like melody, it is accompanied by a reminiscence of an earlier song he had composed for Bertha which she would be familiar with: so while she is singing her infant son to sleep, Brahms explained, “a love-song is being sung to her.” I mention this, chronological context aside, merely to show “this is how Brahms' creative mind worked.”

As their latest tiff dragged on and Brahms missed his association with Clara and by extension her family (he was still very much a part of this family), he sent her a postcard from a holiday in Switzerland on which he jotted down a long slow alp-horn melody, under which he wrote the words, “High on the mountains, deep in the valley, I greet you a thousandfold.” A few years later, he would take up this theme and turn it into that famous moment when, out of the murky introduction of his C Minor Symphony's finale – which had, as usual, so far stymied him – this horn-theme soars out over the orchestra. Whether anyone else would know or not was immaterial: Clara could not help but recognize the significance of that tune "I greet you a thousandfold."

Whether it was the result of this September postcard or not, Brahms met Clara and the family in October while they were all traveling and staying in Oldenburg. He had, as usual, a bunch of new pieces with him, finished and unfinished, to play for her as they resumed their old familiarity: among them, his latest four-hand duet, the waltzes of Op.39. At a party, they read through a few of his new Hungarian Dances (yet to be published). There were also some part-songs he dubbed Hausmusik – music to be played in the home – as biographer Jan Swafford described them, “confectionery tunes with a large helping of Viennese Schlagobers (whipped cream) for four-hand piano and vocal quartet.” They may have paid tribute to his love of Schubert's dance music – he had just edited a volume of his Ländler, the folksy precursor of the Waltz – and we know Brahms was a big fan of one of the most popular “pop musicians” in Vienna, Johann Strauss Jr., “The Waltz King.” Brahms' waltzes, however, are “the Viennese Waltz á la Brahms.”

Julie Schumann in 1868
Whether he showed them to her in Oldenburg or not, we don't know, but the next May, they all gathered in Baden-Baden where Brahms and Clara would try out these new “Love-Song Waltzes” as the rest of the family and several friends gathered around to join in singing or just sat to listen. Then, on May 11th, Clara excitedly told Brahms the news: Julie was to become engaged to an Italian count! You can almost here her “Isn't that wonderful?” as Brahms “choked out a response and ran from the house.”

As Swafford continues (paraphrasing lines from p.349 in his biography),

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So that was it. Suddenly everything became clear to her: the reason not only for his flight but for his moods going back years, his rudeness, his awkward kindness toward Julie, her confused withdrawal, his restiveness in the Schumann house. Surely somewhere in his mind he had known that sooner or later, for a reason hopeful or tragic, the moment of losing his fantasy was inevitable. But when it came, the moment was no less terrible for that.

Now he suddenly went limp. “Johannes is quite altered,” Clara wrote in her journal; “he seldom comes to the house, and speaks only in monosyllables when he does come. And he treats even Julie the same way, though he always used to be so specially nice to her. Did he really love her? But he has never thought of marrying, and Julie has never had any inclination towards him.” [Conductor] Hermann Levi confirmed it to Clara: Brahms had spilled his feelings to Levi and probably to others. Likely, there had been late-night session with Brahms anguishing, entreating friends to tell him what to do about her, what to do. Rumors that Clara never heard had been going around. That spring in a Hamburg ship, somebody innocently to Elise Brahms [Johannes' older sister] that a Viennese gentleman with her name was engaged to Clara Schumann's daughter.

...The magnificent side of Clara Schumann came forward when Johannes' helpless infatuation revealed itself. If she had no great insight into human nature, Clara seems to have understood the irrational impetus of love and respected it. She had broken with her father for sake of a passion she regarded as holy [her love for Robert Schumann] and maybe she saw all love as no less holy, even if hopeless. She could have taken Johannes' love for Julie as a betrayal of herself. Instead, she saw it for the sad spectacle it was, between two people whom she loved. The chances are that she and Johannes never spoke directly about it at all. But for a long time, Clara would be very gentle with him.

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This change in his life might also explain the change in mood for the second set of waltzes, which he continued working on but didn't complete for publication until 1874 as Op.65. No longer “confectionery tunes and whipped cream,” we hear of darker moments when the lover is compared to a rose that “will bleed its leaves when it dies,” or when “a poisoned arrow infects the target of my heart,” or, with a touch of humor, “I won't hear another word about love: you'll only let me down.” (I've joked about how Brahms could've called this 2nd set the Liebesleider or "Love-Sorrows" Waltzes.) 

To conclude this set, Brahms chose a poem by Goethe and though it is not technically a waltz (despite being in triple time): “Now, you Muses, enough! / In vain you strive to describe / how misery and happiness / move in a loving breast. / You cannot heal the wounds / that Amor inflicts, / but solace comes / you Kind Ones, only from you.”

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Allgeyer, Brahms, & Levi
The day before Julie's wedding to her count, in September of 1869, shortly after Brahms published the first set of Liebeslieder Waltzes, several friends gathered at Clara's, and she wrote in her journal, “there was music and laughter... and [the lovers] cooed over their presents.” Swafford continues, “Brahms' personal gift to Julie was a daguerreotype of his mother. He, [Hermann] Levi and [Julius] Allgeyer together gave the couple an embossed brass platter, and had a photo taken of themselves contemplating the gift” [see left]. Allgeyer, who towered over Brahms, “indulgently leans over so as not to dwarf Brahms” who was very self-conscious about his being short. Levi, for the same reason, is seated...” It's an almost comical pose, the three friends, such seriousness as if examining some ancient artifact hoping to unlock some historical secret (perhaps, in a way, Brahms was). You'll notice Brahms is still clean-shaven, even at 36 (the beard came after the 1st Symphony was completed).

Brahms also wrote a “bridal song” for Julie which he sent to Clara after the wedding, known rather blandly as “The Alto Rhapsody,” a work for solo alto voice, men's chorus, and orchestra, setting lines from Goethe's “Winter Journey in the Harz Mountains,” one of Brahms' bleakest and darkest works. In one section, the soloist addresses a nearly invisible figure, a young man who recedes into the thickets and “the barren waste” of the winter landscape “swallows him up.”

“Ah, who can heal the pains / Of one for whom balm has become poison, / And who sucked hatred of mankind from the abundance of love?”

In the concluding hymn, the men's chorus sings “If... there is a tone / his ear can discern, / Refresh his heart! / Open to his clouded gaze / the thousand springs / Alongside him as he thirsts / in the wilderness.”

Goethe's poem was written “at a turning point in his life, away from his youth and toward a more mature vision of his life and work.” Clearly, Brahms was aware of the same, having come under the spell of Young Goethe's passionate Werther with the C Minor Piano Quartet and now with the “solitary misanthrope” of Goethe's desolate poem.

So, with the Rhapsody, then, which begins in C Minor and ends with a benediction in a soothing C Major, Brahms bade farewell to Julie – alas, always frail in health, she would die in childbirth only a few years later. Then he turned to something else that had been haunting his path, with or without the footsteps of Beethoven trudging behind him, something he'd first started sketching not long after Robert Schumann's suicide attempt 20 years earlier. In another seven years, after figuring out what to do with that symphonic finale that continued to elude him, he took the Alp-Horn Tune he'd sent to Clara and turned it into that glorious transition from darkness into light; with its subsequent hymn, a tribute to Beethoven's “Ode to Joy.” It was a symphony not unlike Beethoven's 5th in plan, beginning in a fateful C Minor and ending in a blast of C Major triumph! Whether he succeeded in exorcising either ghost, Beethoven's or Clara's, is unclear, but at least, once done, he continued. 

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The second half of the program consists of two piano-duets, the Bilder aus Osten or “Pictures from the East” that Robert Schumann composed in 1848. These six "impromptus" were inspired by a translation of a medieval Arabic poet popularly known as Hariri who was born in what is now Basra, Iraq, in the mid-11th Century. Schumann, however, never set Hariri's actual poems but used the “ideas” behind the poems to create Character Pieces similar to what he'd done in Kreisleriana which Stephen Hough played for MSC in February: you aren't really being told a story, but he creates an atmosphere (with generic mood-indicating markings rather than titles) in which you, the listener, place yourself and imagine your own story. Schumann compares Abu Seid, the hero of Hariri's poems, to the German trickster, Till Eulenspiegel. Imagine what you will.

 

Rachmaninoff in 1892
With Rachmaninoff's set of six pieces, Op.11, we find a transition from household music for amateurs to something geared more for concert repertoire, written for two young pianists who were budding concert artists (besides, I doubt many Victorian spinets would survive its last movement). They were written in 1894 when Rachmaninoff was 21, a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory with a “Free Artist” Diploma he'd received two years earlier, and well on his way as a pianist and a composer. Stunned by the death of his idol Tchaikovsky in November of 1893, his 2nd Piano Trio, composed in Tchaikovsky's memory, was premiered at the first concert of Rachmaninoff's music in Moscow the following January.

Rachmaninoff often spent holidays and summers with his aristocratic cousins on their country estate near Tambov, where he enjoyed playing piano duets with various members of the family. As a teenager, he wrote two pieces for piano six-hands for the three Skalon sisters, frequent guests of the family. His first cousin, Natalia Satina, three years his junior, was also a budding young pianist, so there was a great deal of music-making during these visits and, surrounded by this care-free and isolated environment, Rachmaninoff composed a great deal of music here. One of these works, his Op. 1 Piano Concerto, was written for another first cousin, Alexander Siloti, a native of Kharkiv, Ukraine, who had studied with Tchaikovsky and had given many performances of Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto to the composer's acclaim. 

Eventually, Rachmaninoff, in the years after the disastrous premiere of his 1st Symphony in 1897, would marry Natalia Satina after receiving special dispensation since first cousins were not allowed to marry. After two years of depression over the symphony's failure and the seemingly unrelenting delays in being able to marry Natalia, he then wrote his 2nd Piano Concerto in 1900, but this time the composer was the soloist and Siloti conducted. The rest, as they say, is history.

- Dick Strawser