Thursday, November 15, 2012

Beethoven & His Late Quartets: Part 1

Q&A with the Doric Quartet
Last night, at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore, the Doric Quartet gave us a preview of tonight's concert with excerpts from each work on the program, ending with the conclusion of  Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131. The program also includes quartets by Robert Schumann and Ernest Chausson – and will open with excerpts from Britten's Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello played by Julia Rosenbaum whom some of you may have heard play with the Harrisburg Symphony last weekend (she’s the 16-year-old winner of the latest “Rising Star” Concerto Competition held at Messiah College).

You can read more about the concert here in this earlier post (which includes directions to Temple Ohev Sholom at 2345 N. Front Street in Harrisburg). The concert begins at 8:00.

This post is about Beethoven’s Late Quartets, more or less in general. Part 2 of this post, Beethoven, the Late Quartets & His Audience, continues at my other blog which will also give you more background on these works, often described as the Himalayas of the String Quartet Repertoire.

It’s difficult to find the best performances or recordings on YouTube, even when there are so many good ones available. I’ve chosen this clip for two reasons: it’s complete in one “video” and it’s the Juilliard Quartet, recorded in 1960. However, the sound, transferred from vinyl, is not the best. But it is the Juilliard Quartet.

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The work is ostensibly in seven movements, though a few of them are little more than expanded introductions. The main difference between these movements and those in other works Beethoven composed, they’re played without interruption. It’s also interesting to realize how the composer balances the difficult movements (the opening fugue, for example) with a contrasting movement (at 6:47), a scherzo built on simpler phrase structures and dancelike rhythms that are more easily assimilated.

While the rhythmic design might give the whole work a more seamless flow, the frequent changes in tempo and mood might give it more discontinuity – rather than being closely organized around the tonal center of C-sharp Minor, there are six distinct “main” keys and thirty-one changes of tempo (ten more than in the longer Op.132 Quartet).

At 9:40, a brief recitative-like dialogue sets up the heart of the quartet, a long, largely slow set of variations (beginning at 10:34) with its own sense of unity and contrast.

This easier-to-follow movement is followed by a wild scherzo (at 25:56) ending with the glassy sound of the strings being played near the bridge, before rising up to a dramatic conclusion (31:03) that sets up a slow, tragic passage that leads us into the dramatic and intensely rhythmic finale (at 33:22).

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Beethoven in 1823
It’s possible these five late string quartets of Beethoven’s might never have been composed.

In 1822, Beethoven had been sketching at a new quartet while he was working on the Missa Solemnis and had offered both works (the nearly completed Mass and the as yet unfinished if unbegun quartet) to one of his publishers, C.F. Peters, who accepted the Mass but turned down the quartet, saying they were more interested in, say, piano trios or piano quartets. Besides, they had enough “beautiful quartets” by Ludwig Spohr, Bernhard Romberg and Pierre Rodé (how many of you have heard any quartets by either of these composer recently? Anyone? Bueller?)

So Beethoven put the quartet aside and resumed work on the Mass (he had finished the first draft).

Then, in late November, 1822, a Russian prince from St. Petersburg who had lived in Vienna and was quite familiar with Beethoven’s music, sent him a letter hoping to commission from him one, two or three string quartets. Beethoven immediately sent off a letter to a student of his then in London to look around and see if there was the possibility of “selling quartets” there which, it turned out, was answered in the affirmative. He also pursued other arrangements with another publisher, meaning he could write something for Prince Galitsin who would pay for its being composed, and then make additional money from publishers in England, Germany and Vienna.

They argued about fees, the publishers feeling Beethoven’s asking price too steep, though the Prince was willing to pay whatever Beethoven wanted. The only problem was, in early 1823, Beethoven had other projects still in the fire that needed to be completed first: the Mass, the 9th Symphony, the Diabelli Variations – all vast works – and that only after the May 1824 concert which saw the symphony’s premiere would he be able to turn his attention to the new quartets.

This request from Galitsin almost didn’t come about.

Having heard Carl Maria von Weber’s new opera, Der Freischütz, he thought perhaps he would contact Weber for his newest commissioning project. Galitsin was then 27 years old, a talented amateur cellist married to a talented amateur pianist. He employed his own string quartet (of which he was the cellist). But when he announced he thought about commissioning Weber, the violist in his quartet, himself a composer, advised against it and said he should contact Beethoven instead.

Now, Beethoven may have already had a quartet on a back burner – he always had new works on numerous back burners but didn’t always complete them (an opera based on Macbeth at least provided some ideas for his “Ghost” Trio, for instance). Without a possible performance outlet, would Beethoven have spent the time and effort on a quartet for the sake of writing another quartet? And would he have written, as it turned out, five of them?

He picked up his discarded quartet sketches again before he completed the 9th Symphony, put them away again. He had initially proposed completing the first quartet by March of 1823 but then put Galitsin off with more delays and excuses that the prince probably feared he would never see his quartets.

Then, in May of 1825, after the premiere of the 9th, Beethoven settled down to work on the quartets. Originally there were going to be three for Galitsin. But he kept on writing them, perhaps keeping an eye to the other publishers and the lucrative deal he had made with them for those three. At one point, while working on the third of these quartets, he wrote to a publisher in Berlin that, ultimately, he planned on writing a total of six quartets – imagine, another Late Beethoven Quartet!

Beethoven’s friend, the violinist Karl Holz (recently, the new 2nd Violinist of Ignaz Schuppanzig’s quartet) had joked there was enough music in the Op.130 Quartet for two works – and then the decision to separate the difficult finale known as the Grosse Fuge resulted in at least an additional fee.

By February of 1825, over two years since Galitsin first wrote to him, Beethoven completed the first of these quartets, the E-flat Major, Op.127. Then in July, he had completed the A Minor which would be published as Op.132. Come November, the B-flat Major, Op.130, was finished.

But he just kept going.

In May of 1826, Beethoven informed his publisher Schott that a new quartet was ready – this was the C-sharp Minor, op.131 – though he didn’t send them the manuscript until mid-August. It was announced by the publisher in February of 1827 but didn’t go into print until June. By that time, Beethoven had died.

Immediately after sending off Op.131, then, Beethoven started work on the F Major, Op.135, which he finished in October.

Sometime during this span of months, there’s a fragment of a sketch for a Quartet in C Major, what might have become the sixth quartet from this set.

Between October and November, then, while visiting his brother in Gneixendorf, along with his nephew in what turned out to be a most unfortunate visit, Beethoven composed the new finale for the Op.130 quartet, replacing its original Grosse Fuge ending.

This would turn out to be Beethoven’s last completed composition. He and his nephew returned to Vienna. Beethoven’s health took a decided turn for the worse and he died on March 26th, 1827.

In April, 1825, while composing the A Minor Quartet, Op.132, Beethoven had suffered another relapse, this time with intestinal complications and spitting blood. A letter to his doctor ended “Doctor, close the door to Death! Music will also help in my hour of need.” In late May, he began to feel better: he composed the famous slow movement of the quartet, the Heiliger Dankgesang with its prayer of Thanksgiving to God on his convalescence with a sense of renewed strength in the contrasting sections.

A few days later, his nephew wrote to him “God is my witness that my sole dream is to get away completely from you.” Karl was 18 at the time.

There followed a precarious truce. But it was a time filled with tension and several letters back and forth between Beethoven and Karl’s teacher who was not supposed to allow Karl out of the house at night under any circumstances.

Then, on July 31st, 1826, Karl attempted to commit suicide, shooting himself in the head with a pistol but succeeding only in wounding himself (apparently, a week later, they had not yet removed the bullet). Among other things, this caused the need to cover it up since attempting suicide was a state crime. Something had to be done to get Karl out of this state of mind – perhaps a military career would give him the necessary discipline and, also, get him out from under the obsessive watch of his Uncle Ludwig.

Beethoven was still working on the final version of Op.131 in July of 1826, only sending the score off a couple of weeks after his nephew’s attempted suicide. Originally, the score was to be dedicated to Johann Nepomuk Wolfmayer, a devoted friend of Beethoven’s, but instead he gave the dedication to General Baron von Stutterheim who had secured a place for Karl in his regiment: Karl joined the regiment in January of 1827 and never saw his uncle again. Wolfmayer, instead, received the dedication of the next quartet, Op.135. A wealthy textile merchant, Wolfmayer had advanced Beethoven a large sum for a Requiem that Beethoven promised he would write but never did. (Imagine the irony of both Mozart and Beethoven writing requiems at the times of their deaths?)

Alternating between depression and defiance, Karl’s life was not an easy one, kept in almost virtual imprisonment at his school and forbidden to see his mother. Whatever tensions led to Karl’s attempt to take his own life must not have been easy for the composer to bear, either.

For lack of space and time, we’ll have to leave the biographical details at that, but it’s enough of a headline to give you an idea Beethoven was not working on this quartet in an idyllic setting.

Click here for Part 2: Beethoven, the Late Quartets & His Audience.

Dick Strawser

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Doric Quartet Drops By with Schumann, Chausson & Beethoven

The Doric String Quartet stops by in Harrisburg after Washington’s Phillips Collection and New York City’s Morgan Library before heading back to Europe for concerts in Berlin and Amsterdam.

They’ve just released their fifth recording, a CD of string quartets by Franz Schubert – the “Rosamunde” and “Death & the Maiden” Quartets – which will be an excuse to hold a CD Release Party at the Midtown Scholar Book Store tonight at 7pm where we’ll hear some Schubert played live and have a bit of Q&A about the life of a quartet. This event is free and coupons for a $10 discount on Thursday night’s concert with the Doric Quartet will be available to attendees.

Then Thursday night, at Temple Ohev Sholom, they’ll play three quartets – Schumann’s 2nd; the last work Ernest Chausson almost finished, his only String Quartet; and one of the monuments of the repertoire, Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131.

The program opens with a performance by Julia Rosenbaum, the 16-year-old cellist who performed the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations with the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina this past weekend at the Forum. The winner of the latest “Rising Star” Concerto Competition, she’ll play excerpts from Benjamin Britten’s Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello.

Incidentally, Market Square Concerts standard student ticket policy for all concerts offers $5 tickets to college students with a valid ID. School-aged children (K-12) attend for free and an accompanying adult can purchase a $5 ticket.

The concert begins at 8:00. Temple Ohev Sholom is located at 2345 N. Front Street in Harrisburg, between Seneca and Emerald Streets. Since most of Harrisburg’s one-way streets always seem to be going the wrong way, if you’re approaching the Temple from downtown, take 2nd Street past Seneca to Schuylkill Street, turn left toward Front: the parking entrance is just beyond Seneca.

This post covers the Schumann and Chausson quartets on the program. You can read more about Schubert and his Death & the Maiden Quartet here. The Beethoven quartet requires a post of its own.

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In the past, I’ve written a great deal about Robert Schumann’s life and his Year of Chamber Music – you can read this post which is primarily about the Piano Quintet but which will give you the biographical background to that summer when he composed all three of the Op.41 String Quartets as well as the Piano Quintet and Quartet, all between June and November.

Better known at the time as a writer about music than a composer of it, Schumann had recently complained about the fate of the string quartet genre, how, the glory days of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, no one of the next generation had written string quartets of any comparable value.

It’s important to realize, given the easily jumbled chronology of the music we’re familiar with in the concert hall or on recordings, that Schumann was writing this about 15 years after Beethoven’s death (and the Late Quartets were generally unknown and largely unpopular with the typical concert-going audiences of the day – more on that, later) but also about 10 years before he met a young composer named Johannes Brahms (when Schumann composed his quartets, Brahms was still only 9 years old).

Only Felix Mendelssohn wrote quartets during the period between Beethoven’s and Schubert’s deaths and Schumann’s article which have endured in the repertoire: the first two were written when he was 18-20; the three quartets of Op.44 were composed when he was 28-29.

It’s not unusual, then, to see Schumann sitting down to write some string quartets to see how he would fare – and then dedicating them to his friend and colleague, Felix Mendelssohn.

In the spring of 1842, Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of her day, had returned home after a long tour. Plans for an American tour were receding and Robert was glad to have his wife home with him as housewife, mother and hostess rather than concert artist. It was a time they had both begun studying string quartets by Mozart and Haydn when Robert decided to put into practice what he had learned.

By June 2nd, he was sketching “quartet essays” and two days later began the 1st String Quartet. On the 11th, he began the 2nd Quartet even before the first one was finished. In between the 2nd and the 3rd Quartet, not begun until July 8th, he wrote a scathing article about Clara’s ex-boyfriend Carl Banck and his new composition (it was so nasty, Schumann did not include it later when he re-published most of his articles) and also ended up in a libel case which netted him a 6-day jail sentence which was commuted to “a five thaler fine” (I don’t know what the equivalent of the standard German unit of currency would’ve been, but an 1841 thaler recently sold on E-bay for $270). The 3rd Quartet was finished on July 22nd, seven weeks after he’d begun work on the first.

We often talk a lot about Schumann’s “split personality,” not that he was schizophrenic in the medical sense or that he was any different from any artist who might be 50/50 Right-Brained/Left-Brained, as we might think of it today. Like the ancient Greek philosophers writing dialogues between teacher and student, Schumann often wrote articles or reviews from the viewpoints or with direct conversations from characters he named Florestan and Eusebius, among others. Florestan was the free and happy one and Eusebius the more pensive and dreamy. The 2nd of these three quartets from 1842 is definitely the Florestan side – hearing the opening theme can’t help but make you smile.

It’s difficult finding decent performances (much less recordings) on-line to post as examples, here, especially of the 2nd Quartet which, for some reason, is under-represented compared to the 1st and 3rd. This performance, by a group called the Manfred Quartet which I’m unfamiliar with, may give you a good idea of what to expect or if you want to hear it again after the performance (though you could come to the concert and buy the Doric Quartet’s CD on Chandos of all three Schumann quartets!).

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Robert Schumann: String Quartet No. 2 in F, Op.41/2 – 1st Movement.

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2nd Movement – Andante

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3rd Movement – Scherzo

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4th Movement – Finale

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Ernest Chausson’s music is not that well known, at least in this country. He was primarily trained as a lawyer though he had little interest in the profession. His father made the family fortune during the 1850s, helping with the rebuilding of Paris into the modern city we think of today, one of the greatest urban development programs of all time. Chausson was something of a dilettante who dabbled in drawing and writing before deciding on music.

Chausson’s string quartet is Op.35 and compared to Schumann’s Op.41, written when he turned 32, and seeing a number like Op.131 a little later in the program, we might assume it’s a fairly early work. In fact, it’s his last almost-finished composition. He wrote little, published less, and may be best known for the Poeme for Violin and Orchestra and a little less for the Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet. His songs should be better known (of course, in these days when song recitals are almost a thing of the past, any songs should be better known) and his sole Symphony could be heard more often in this country.

He was something of a late-bloomer, taking up composition in his early-20s and studying with Jules Massenet, the then-reigning opera composer in France. He heard the world premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal along with his friend, fellow composer Vincent D’Indy, and this became a major influence on his style at a time when most French composers viewed the Germanic style of Wagner or even Beethoven and Brahms, as anathema, though in the late-1880s, he saw that a “period of de-Wagnerization is necessary” in order to rediscover a musical language free of “Nordic mists” and “extreme Romanticism” in favor of “a healthier, more classical expression,” again pointing out the artistic personalities of the right-brained and the left-brained artist.

You can read more about Chausson’s life in a post from one of Market Square Concerts past Summermusics which featured a live performance of the “Concert(o) for Violin, Piano & String Quartet.”

For Chausson, composing was an often painful process. Talented as he may have been, it did not flow as easily for him as it did Schubert or even Schumann (who still, for all his many bursts of creativity, had to contend with subsequent periods of depression and exhaustion). About the time he turned 40, mid-life crisis or not, he became increasingly pessimistic, though whether that was a natural development or the result of discovering Russian authors like Dostoievsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev (or perhaps what drew him to these writers), who can say? He was also heavily influenced by the Symbolist poets of the day. Some say his music sounds more influenced by Debussy with whom he was on friendly terms until the mid-1890s when Chausson disapproved of Debussy’s promiscuous lifestyle. But realistically, it would be more his being influenced by the same things – poetry and painting especially – that influenced Debussy.

His String Quartet is a work I’ve never heard either in performance or in recordings. I’ve heard his Piano Trio and his Piano Quartet, both live, but the only thing I can find written about the String Quartet beyond the story of its composition is this, from the Grove Dictionary:

“…and the austere String Quartet, begun in 1897 and left unfinished at his death.”

And this:

“He wanted to prove, above all…, that a sonata or a quartet may contain as much music as a whole opera. In the first bar of the String Quartet Op. 35, the basic elements of the work are superimposed on each other – a 3rd in the first violin, a 5th in the second violin and viola, and a 6th in the cello; the principal theme is composed of just these three intervals.” This sounds definitely like he’d given up his intense Romanticism for the more intellectual world of the classical architect.

As for the biography of the quartet itself, Chausson was spending the summer at one of his country estates in 1899 when he decided to go for a bike ride. Though details are sketchy (there being no witnesses), he was riding downhill, perhaps lost control of the bike and, in those days before safety fanatics urged everyone to wear helmets, crashed into a wall (stone or brick, according to different accounts I’ve read) and died instantly. One source inferred he had recently been depressed and therefore implied possible suicide but that would also suggest a decision to put everything in order beforehand, which he didn’t seem to do.

An undated quote may impose a certain context, here: "There are moments when I feel myself driven by a kind of feverish instinct, as if I had the presentiment of being unable to attain my goal, or of attaining it too late.”

The quartet was left “unfinished” but how unfinished, I’m not aware. If it’s mentioned anywhere, it seems he was “almost finished” with it but are we talking the last several measures or simply going through an otherwise complete draft and doing some editing? Whatever needed to be done, Vincent D’Indy prepared the work for its premiere the following January.

Curiously, Chausson appears to have “adopted” (consciously or otherwise) a theme from Wagner’s Das Rheingold in the second movement.

When we think of composers who’ve died young, Franz Schubert and Mozart come first to mind, Schubert at 31 and Mozart at 35. We forget that Mendelssohn was 38 or Schumann was 44 when he tried to commit suicide, dying a few years later in a mental institution.

Chausson was also 44 when he went on that last bike-ride through his country estate, just as his career was taking a whole new turn.

And Beethoven, who seems so universal and agelessly titanic compared to every other composer even vaguely familiar to the mass audience today, was 56 when he died, not long after he had completed his last five string quartets.

When a friend asked him which he thought was the best, Beethoven responded “Each of them, in their own way.” But one of them – the C-sharp Minor, Op.131 – was his favorite and it concludes the Doric Quartet’s program for Market Square Concerts.

I’ll write about that in a separate post, which you can find (eventually) here.

Dick Strawser

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The photos of the Doric Quartet are copyrighted by the quartet. The photo of Julia Rosenbaum was taken at the Harrisburg Symphony concert, Nov.10th, 2012, by Kim Isenhour.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Meeting Lutoslawski

The Phiharmonia Quartet Berlin will be performing familiar works by Mozart and Beethoven on tonight’s performance with Market Square Concerts opening program – 8pm at Market Square Presbyterian Church – and in between, a work probably most listeners in the audience will be unfamiliar with: the String Quartet by Lutoslawski.

Most of my pre-concert talk tonight – which begins at 7:15 – will deal with listening to unfamiliar music, regardless of the style.

Since many of my posts here are more “audience enrichment” posts – like those things you see on PBS that say “to learn more about [such-and-such], go to [website]…” Some of the background information on Mozart and Beethoven might help illuminate what you’ll hear, but you can certainly enjoy the performances without knowing any of it.

Lutoslawski - photo by Marek Suchecki, 1984
The Lutoslawski, because it’s “different” from the standard repertoire, may present a problem to first-time listeners not familiar with “other ways of organizing musical sounds.” In this sense, some biographical background may help, particularly after a performance, like reading a novel, then maybe reading something about the novel which helps elaborate something about the author’s style or theme or structural approach which makes you want to read it again, to see what more you can discover about it, how it might affect you differently.

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Witold Lutoslawski (or officially, in Polish, Lutosławski with the diacritical mark softening the L) may not be a household name in America – like many 20th Century composers – but he is one of the leading Polish composers of the last century and regarded as a major figure in contemporary music for several of his works. His most frequently performed orchestral work is probably the Concerto for Orchestra (the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina performed it a few seasons ago) – if nothing else, at least paired in recordings with Bartok’s concerto which inspired it. There’s also the brilliant set of Variations on a Theme of Paganini (yes, that theme of Paganini’s which also inspired Brahms and Rachmaninoff, among others) for two pianos. His “mature” works, those that reflect his most individual voice, may not have the following of these earlier pieces, but they contain an original voice that is easily identifiable.

The String Quartet was written when he was 51 but it is one of the earlier of these mature works. In it, he continues working out the different ideas that had occupied his creative thoughts from the previous decades.

Lutoslawski’s biography is very much involved with the history of his native Poland. When he was born in 1913 – next January will mark the centennial of his birth, by the way – Poland was part of the Russian Empire and his father, a member of the Polish landed aristocracy, was involved in an on-going, underground independence movement that, once Russia was at war with Germany during the 1st World War, tried to negotiate an independent Poland once the war concluded. Unfortunately, before that, the February Revolution forced the Tsar to abdicate and in November, the Bolshevik Revolution toppled the provisional government and sued for peace with Germany. Though an independent Poland did in fact materialize out of all this, Lutoslawski’s father, then in Moscow, had been imprisoned by the communist police and executed by firing squad a few days before his scheduled trial.

The family returned to Poland to find the estate in ruins after the war. It was at this time, Witold, the youngest of three sons, began taking piano lessons when he was 6. In 1926, he heard the 3rd Symphony of Karol Szymanowski, at the time Poland’s best-known composer, and he decided to take violin lessons as well, attending the Warsaw Conservatory where Szymanowski was a teacher and its director. He also began to compose, but couldn’t balance his regular schooling with all his music lessons, so he dropped out of the conservatory and concentrated on mathematics (at least more practical, in such difficult times). But later, after he entered Warsaw University to major in mathematics, he started taking music classes and was soon studying composition with a former student of Rimsky-Korsakoff, then eventually dropped mathematics. He graduated in 1936 with a diploma in piano performance (he performed Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto) and a year later, another one in composition.

His plans to travel to Paris to continue his studies was interrupted by World War II when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 from the west and the Soviet Union invaded from the east. Lutoslawski served in a radio division in Krakow but was captured by German soldiers. Being marched off to prison camp, he managed to escape and walked 250 miles to Warsaw. His brother had been captured by the Soviet army and later died in a prison camp in Siberia.

In Warsaw, he joined with fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik, also a pianist, and played music for two pianos in cabarets. Concerts were banned by the occupying Nazis – organized meetings, they were considered – so these cabaret programs were often the only way many Poles could hear live music – especially of Polish music which was also banned (especially Chopin)! Lutoslawski and Panufnik made their own arrangements of many pieces and even wrote some songs to the Resistance. One of the works he composed at this time was the set of variations on Paganini’s 24th Caprice.

But the situation was rapidly deteriorating. Lutoslawski and his mother left Warsaw only days before the Nazi crackdown of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, escaping with only a handful of his scores. Of the 200 pieces he and Panufnik composed during this time, the Paganini Variations was the sole survivor.

(If you want to find out more about this period in history, I recommend Roman Polanski’s film “The Pianist”and a very personal account of life growing up in Poland during the 2nd World War and Communist Poland in Wilhelm Dichter’s autobiographical novel, “God’s Horse,” written by the father of a friend and former student of mine: you can read my review, here.)

Rebuilding Poland – not just Warsaw – after this destruction, both physically and culturally, was a continuous challenge. In addition to salvaging his 1st Symphony, begun in 1941, Lutoslawski wrote “functional” music like the “Warsaw Suite” to accompany a silent film about the rebuilding of the Polish capital. He had met Danuta Bogusławska at one of his war-time café concerts and they married in 1946. The year before, Lutoslawski was elected an officer of the newly formed Union of Polish Composers but soon the same political fallout we’re familiar with in Shostakovich’s life – especially the 1948 Zhdanov decree denouncing “formalism in music” – hit Poland as well. The Union of Polish Composers was taken over by Stalinist zealots and Lutoslawski resigned. His 1st Symphony had finally been premiered in 1948 just in time for the Stalinists to declare it “formalist” and Lutoslawski found him and his music shunned by the political forces now controlling Polish culture and politics.

In 1954, Panufnik defected to England but Lutoslawski remained behind, composing “practical” music that fit the Communist guidelines and was embarrassed to have won the Prime Minister’s Prize (the Polish equivalent of the Stalin Prize) for a set of children’s songs. To him, it was a way of making a living, but at the same time he was exploring “serious art music” which resulted in his first major success, the Concerto for Orchestra which earned him two state prizes the following year.

Gradually, after Stalin’s death in 1953, things began to thaw and Warsaw became home to an annual contemporary music festival known as “Warsaw Autumn.” In 1958, Lutoslawski’s “Funeral Music,” in honor of Bartók’s death in 1945, also won an international prize, through UNESCO. Like most post-war composers, he began intrigued by serialism, the system of writing with twelve notes originated by Arnold Schoenberg, in which the linear and harmonic aspects of the music are created out of “rows” of 12 pitches placed in a particular order and its various permutations.

For some, this became a very stringently controlled way of composing, a system that was, unfortunately, easily abused, though in reality it’s not very different from the “system” behind tonal music’s concepts of harmony and melody with its own rules and regulations which could also be abused by composers with little talent – the difference between, say, Mozart, and any one of thousands of otherwise forgotten composer-craftsmen from the end of the 18th Century.

Ironically, Lutoslawski became interested in a certain randomness in his musical voice – the exact opposite of such tightly structured language. This was primarily in ways of synchronizing the linear aspects – melody, accompaniment, counterpoint – without being rhythmically rigid.

His adoption of serial technique in the ‘50s led to a creative crisis – you can almost hear someone saying “the start of his Middle Period” – which was resolved by his hearing a radio broadcast of John Cage’s Piano Concerto. It wasn’t the sound of Cage’s music or its philosophy, but the intrigue created by this “indeterminacy” which Lutoslawski started to apply rhythmic freedoms to his harmonic language, especially in the independence of the linear aspects.

(While there are so many technical terms that can be thrown around that sound intentionally off-putting, sometimes the idea of “linear aspect” might be better than saying “melody” when the average listener will hear this and react, “you call that a melody?!” So a “harmonic structure” – or worse, aggregate – could be a chord but it doesn’t work the same way a chord does in Beethoven or Wagner.)

Another term often applied in situations like this is “aleatory” or “chance,” especially as we think of John Cage’s musical aesthetic. But that can also be a world of wide-ranging possibilities: “improvisation,” the art of making it up on the spot, can be misunderstood. Yes, jazz musicians improvise and frequently make everything up on the spot, but pianists in Mozart’s day “improvised” their cadenzas and Bach or Beethoven had been famous for their ability to improvise variations or fantasies on given themes. But keyboard players in the Baroque era also filled in the harmony (the “inner voices” of a musical texture) according to the guidelines the composer supplied: they might be very specific about the exact chords that were to be used, writing out the all-important bass line underneath the equally-important melody, but these inner parts, not so much.

While improvised, it was a “controlled” improvisation of a harmonic nature to fit within the rhythmic and structural context supplied by the composer’s abbreviations, those little numbers underneath the bass line which any keyboard player worth his salt knew how to translate into exact pitches.

How and where those pitches were “realized” was less important, but there was no room for the keyboard player’s own creative flights-of-fancy. What we call “figured bass” is merely a kind of notational short-hand, like a master artist leaving the work-a-day realization of minor details in the background up to an assistant or apprentice.

There were many works in the 1960s and ‘70s where conductors were more like semaphore operators, signaling when an improvisatory section might begin and, perhaps, the musicians were left on their own. I remember one critic, listening to such a free-for-all composition, wishing the entire orchestra would’ve been spontaneously inspired to play Beethoven’s Fifth…

There is, in that sense – as well as in John Cage’s, considering his (in)famous 4’33” – a fine line between “art created by the artist” and “noise.” The problem for Lutoslawski and many other composers was how to maintain the artistic integrity of a composition while giving the performer an amount of independence. It was, above all, about the sound of the texture: how to get something that sounded random to not be random – or at least, too random.

In one sense, this led composers to notate rhythms so specifically and calculate tempos so intricately, you end of with an ultra-complex-looking score where you have 7 dotted 16th notes to be played against 5 eighth notes in a tempo with a metronome marking of something like ¼ note = 127.25 (it would be in relationship to a previous tempo which, is correctly established, should lead you to this tempo automatically, making it look much more complicated than it really is). The assumption is performers cannot function without a metronome and listeners cannot appreciate it without a “slide rule” (given this was big in the ‘60s and ‘70s before hand-calculators killed off that antique that was the bane of most math students everywhere).

In another sense, composers like Lutoslawski might be “vague” enough to allow certain aspects of it to be determined by the individual musicians in how they choose their own rhythms or tempos within the given context.

The first solution would always sound the same, very precise and intricate (“can you play 7 against 13?”) where the second is more fluid and will never sound the same but will never be so different it couldn’t be recognized as an interpretation of what the composer wrote.

It’s interesting that Lutoslawski’s wife was originally a draftsman: in addition to becoming his copyist, writing out the final scores for publication or the individual parts for performance (a drudgery to any composer), she also helped him with some of these notational challenges. Together, they worked out a system of musical notation that is instantly recognizable.

She placed a given “cell” of notes in a box – the composer called these “mobiles” – which would then be played as long as the “wiggly line” (not an official technical term) went, creating a physical and spatial sense of time, compared to other events in other “mobiles,” sometimes determined by duration – “c.2 seconds” – or by conductor’s cue or, in chamber music, musicians’ nods.

from Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 2
In this page from his 2nd Symphony, written in 1967, Lutoslawski has the conductor cue the flutes, celeste and a percussionist at “No. 7” where they play their passage without attempting to synchronize with the other musicians. After the conductor feels they’ve concluded this passage, he cues “No. 8” with an indication of the tempo for two oboes and English horn, again playing their parts without synchronizing them, repeating them at will. When the conductor cues “No. 9,” the musicians continue playing till they reach the repeat sign and then stop. It’s unlikely they would all end at the same time. In this way, the composer controls the pitches and the registers plus the dynamics of what the musicians play, but not the rhythm, the meter (in some cases) or the specific tempo. He can control the specific instrumental colors (the sound of flutes, celeste and percussion followed by the sound of oboes and English horn), he can control the “harmony” created by their specific pitches, but the texture they create rhythmically is “indeterminate.”

In 1961, Lutoslawski composed his “Venetian Games” which explored this technique within the scope of a full orchestra, and again, in 1963, he wrote a work for chorus and orchestra, the “Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux.”

That’s fine when you have a conductor cuing members of the orchestra or a choir, but how would it work in a smaller context – in chamber music?

In 1964, he composed his String Quartet, a work in two movements which he described as an “introductory” movement followed by a longer “main” movement. Initially, there was no score – only the individual parts, as if the composer didn’t want the musicians to see what the others were playing and try to make them line up the way they would normally play Beethoven or Schoenberg.

The textures vary from segment to segment – and there are passages of striking octaves that must be perfectly synchronized (which makes them all the more striking) which becomes a kind of refrain, a recognizable sign-post for the listener. In and out of these, Lutoslawski builds structural tension and variety of his “color palette” with this sense of “controlled improvisation” but integrated traditionally notated and performed music with elements of “chance.”

Here is a performance by the New Budapest Quartet playing Witold Lutoslawski’s 1964 “String Quartet” (which was premiered in 1965). (I’m not sure what the graphic of a foggy cemetery has to do with it, but it’s difficult to find any good performance on YouTube much less one with a decent video of a performance.)

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The work starts off with a violin playing wisps of linear ideas (motives, fragments of melody). At 1:28, the other instruments enter with similar fragments, but imitative of each other though not played together. This stops at 2:04 when (I’m assuming) the other violin enters with a contrasting, more dramatic fragment. Again, the others return, building up an imitative texture, when at 2:50 two instruments start playing a more sustained line underneath the others’ more jagged fragments.

A new sound is heard: a dramatic octave at 3:11 setting off a skitterish response, but the repeated octaves travel through different registers of different instruments. This sets off another “new sonority,” the pizzicato (plucked) passage at 3:26 until the octaves return at 3:54, setting off yet another response, with long sustained chords superimposed over the occasional skittering fragment.

And so on.

He prepares you, in this introductory movement, with a new way of approaching his language, before setting you lose in the “main” movement: by then, you will have figured out that things, here, may be different from what you’re used to, but he gives you some pointers to be able to appreciate it better.

In this way, Lutoslawski sets up all the standard aspects of “traditional” classical music – giving us linear ideas (melodies or melodic fragments, shapes or gestures if not actually “tunes” as we know them), harmonic ideas with a sense of unity through re-occurrence, of contrast and variety, as well as structural unity: he creates tension by their juxtapositions and resolutions (harmonic, textural or otherwise) in the ways they lead from one to another, or, in some cases, alternate between “limited improvisation” and traditionally composed synchronized textures.

These resolutions may not be as dramatic as Beethoven or as satisfying as reaching a tonic chord at the end of the development section of a 19th Century symphony’s 1st Movement, but they create tension within the music’s own contexts.

Which is really what every composer does, regardless of what era he (or she) lived in or what musical language he (or she) used. You could approach Bach or Mozart or Beethoven or Wagner or Schoenberg or Xenakis the same way.

It’s just another way of getting there.

Dick Strawser

Monday, October 8, 2012

Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet

Beethoven in 1806
The Philarhmonia Quartet Berlin performs Mozart and Beethoven Quartets as part of their performance with Market Square Concerts first program of the new season, Wednesday night at 8pm at Harrisburg’s Market Square Presbyterian Church. In between, they’ll play the String Quartet written in 1964 by Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski – next January marks the 100th Anniversary of Lutoslawski’s birth.

So, listening to the Mozart that opens the Philharmonia Quartet Berlin’s program and the Beethoven that ends it, not much time, chronologically speaking, has passed – barely a generation. But in between, Beethoven composed a few works that changed the course of music history in the new century – the Eroica Symphony and the 5th Symphony – which nominally mark the beginning of what we call “The Romantic Era” – in general, 19th Century Music and all its contrasting varieties between Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Liszt to Wagner, Brahms, Mahler and Strauss.

Lutoslawski’s Quartet, performed between them – because programs do not need to follow chronological or stylistic order – will throw this into even greater relief. But I will save most of my remarks about these significant developments for my pre-concert talk, focusing more on listening to “new music” whether it was Mozart’s audiences in 1786, Beethoven’s in 1810 or Lutoslawski’s today which can still present challenges to anyone listening almost 50 years later but not knowing “what to listen for” if it doesn’t sound like something more familiar written a 150 years ago.

You can read about (and listen to) the Mozart Quartet K.499 in this earlier post.

Here’s a classic recording of one of the great quartets of all time, the Budapest Quartet, playing Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-flat, Op.74, the “Harp,” recorded in 1951.

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The “Harp” Quartet earns its nickname from the unusual passages where the instruments pluck the strings – called pizzicato – as part of the opening theme at 2:11-2:20 but especially at two structurally significant moments, 4:35-4:50 and again at 7:12-7:40, both leading up to the return of the main theme.

The second movement (at 8:24), the slow movement, is a straight-forward adagio in A-flat Major, which Philip Radcliff in his book on the quartets calls “one of the most directly appealing movements that Beethoven ever wrote” with its “mood of Olympic serenity.” Judging from the sketches, this long-breathed theme came into existence more spontaneously than usual for Beethoven who frequently struggled with his ideas, the final version sometimes lacking any similarity with his first attempt.

The third movement (at 17:51) abruptly changes the overall mood. In Beethoven’s darkly dramatic key of C Minor (think especially the C Minor 5th Symphony), it bears many resemblances to the scherzo of the 5th with its almost constant “fate” rhythm in the background. Unlike the 5th, however, the transition to the finale (at 21:50) works in reverse: rather than building up to it, it’s more like the Storm movement in the 6th Symphony, the Pastorale, where the thunder and tension recedes into the background. It moves directly into the 4th Movement without (hopefully) a break.

This finale (at 22:22) starts off almost anticlimactically with a seemingly mundane theme. This, however, sets up a series of variations that soon shifts into the patterns we’d normally associate with Beethoven. The harmony is simple, almost prosaic – easy for a listener to follow than some of the things he’d written before which often left listeners unwilling to leave the 18th Century behind them.

Rather than being old-fashioned, it’s his way of taking “something old” and turning it into “something new.” Perhaps not as new as the variations that would conclude his late piano sonatas and would fill the Late Quartets with some of their most magical moments, but well on its way.

And this quartet is a difficult work to “place.” It follows the symphonic brilliance of the three “Rasumovsky” Quartets (Op. 59) and though it seems to be a “one-off” work, not part of a larger set, it’s actually part of a pair of quartets that were written about the same time, though its companion piece, the Op. 95 Quartet in F Minor, which Beethoven called the “Serioso,” was published several years later. It would be twelve years before Beethoven would begin his last set of string quartets, known collectively as the “Late Quartets.”

You can read more background information about the quartet – how it fits biographically into Beethoven’s life as well as chronologically into his creative output – in this post which continues at my main blog, Thoughts on a Train.

- Dick Strawser

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin Opens the Season with Mozart

photo by Daniel Hanack
If you’re like me and are amazed that October’s already here, then you might be surprised that the opening program with Market Square Concerts’ new season is just days away!

We begin with the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin (left), as it’s officially known, because it was founded by four principal players from the legendary Berlin Philharmonic’s string sections where they are all currently members. They’ve won high praise around the world for their performances but something about violinist Yehudi Menuhin’s comment speaks a great deal: “I’d like to hear music always played as beautifully as you play.”

Between regular appearances at Carnegie Hall or London’s Wigmore Hall, they’ve also been invited to play private concerts for the likes of Pope Benedict XVI and the Spanish Royal Family. Two days after they play here in Harrisburg, they’ll be performing the same program in Carnegie Hall, so… yeah!

Here’s the Quartet playing the opening movement of Beethoven’s 1st “Razumovsky” Quartet (F Major, Op.59/1) recorded last year in Berlin’s Chamber Music Hall:
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Their concert in Harrisburg is Wednesday, October 10th, at 8pm at Market Square Presbyterian Church – I’ll be giving a pre-concert talk starting at 7:15 in the sanctuary.

The program opens with Mozart’s Quartet in D Major, K.499 and concludes with Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet, his E-flat Quartet Op. 74. In between – quite a contrast – is the String Quartet written by Witold Lutoslawski in 1984. January 2013 marks the Centennial of the birth of Poland’s leading composer from the 2nd half of the 20th Century. (Later, I'll post more about these works.)

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One of the problems with the vast amount of… well, stuff one can find on the Internet today is not only the variety of material and information, but its accuracy and quality. Looking for videos of any particular work means you can find good and bad performances or recordings and it’s difficult, sometimes, to find something that’s representative. So, not having the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin’s performances available, this time I chose different performers for each movement of Mozart’s D Major Quartet, K.499.

Let’s begin with a recording by the Franz Schubert Quartet playing the first movement, marked Allegretto (‘not too fast’), not the typical lively Allegro:
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The Hagen Quartet, recorded in 2004, plays the second movement, a Minuet and Trio:
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Here’s a classic performance by one of the great quartets of the past, recorded in 1934 – the famous Budapest Quartet, playing the 3rd Movement, the slow movement marked Adagio:
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The finale is performed by the Quatour Mosaïques, an ensemble using period instruments with also “period tuning,” in other words tuning what we call A=440 down to what musicians used to tune to back in Mozart’s day. They also don’t use as much vibrato as modern players do, so the whole performance may sound a little different from what you might expect.
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Mozart, 1785
Mozart completed this quartet on August 19, 1786, the year after he had completed a set of six string quartets ‘dedicated to Haydn.’ His next (and last) set of string quartets would be the three written for the King of Prussia between 1789 and 1790.

The “Haydn” Quartets (some of the finest in the entire quartet repertoire) were composed as a specific project, Mozart studying the latest quartets by his older friend and the recognized “father of the string quartet (as well as the symphony)” and hoping to emulate them in the combination of various stylistic and compositional elements and better realizing the potential of four string instruments playing together.

The “Prussian” Quartets were the result of a trip to Berlin after which Mozart hoped writing the king a set of six quartets would prompt King Friedrich Wilhelm II to offer him a job in the royal court. But something must have happened along the way because by 1790, Mozart had completed only three quartets and abandoned that particular project. These works weren’t published until a few weeks after his death in 1791.

This particular quartet is kind of an “odd man out.” Usually, in those days, composers wrote sets of works, not single works – the six “Haydn” Quartets or the various sets by Haydn (usually six at a time, sometimes three), even the six quartets of Beethoven’s Op.18 or the three of his Op.59 – because part of the experience was to explore the different possibilities of the ensemble. There might be a “concertante” quartet which would feature the 1st violin (making it a mini-concerto, in a way, or a sonata accompanied by three other stringed instruments), a “dramatic” quartet (often the only one in a minor key), a more lyric one and a more complex (often described as “symphonic”) one where the instruments might be on a more even balance, perhaps a “pastoral” one to balance the dramatic one.

But the D Major Quartet, K.499, stands alone. Why?

It’s sometimes referred to as the “Hoffmeister” Quartet which sounds confusing (as if 'the Mozart Haydn Quartets' isn’t confusing enough: which composer wrote it?). Franz Anton Hoffmeister, if he’s remembered at all today, was a composer as well but in his day was more famous as a music publisher. In fact, the Leipzig branch of his firm was bought out by C.F. Peters in 1806 which is still one of the leading publishers in the world today.

Mozart, 1788
Mozart was to compose three piano quartets (something new in the music world) for Hoffmeister who’d just founded his publishing company in 1784. In those days, new compositions were often sold “by subscription” before their release date in order to help defray expenses and, unfortunately, there was so little interest in Mozart’s new works, the plan was scrapped by mutual agreement. Only the first two were composed – and yet what works!! Mozart completed the G Minor Piano Quartet (K.478) in October, 1785, and the E-flat Piano Quartet (K.493) in June, 1786. Eventually, the older firm Arataria published these two works in 1787 and even though they failed to attract much attention in Vienna, amateurs throughout Germany snatched them up and played them with considerable enthusiasm (“Mozart has written a very special Quartet and such-and-such a princess or countess possesses and plays it!,” the 18th Century answer to word-of-mouth advertising).

It’s suggested that Mozart wrote this string quartet for Hoffmeister by way of apology, giving him something that might fare better and make up for the lost effort with the piano quartets.

Libretto from Prague, 1786
1786 had started off a busy year for Mozart. Most of the first half had been taken up with composing and producing the opera, The Marriage of Figaro (which, incidentally, did also not go over well in Vienna in May, 1786, but became a hit in Prague that December). Before finishing Figaro, Mozart wrote two great piano concertos – the A Major (K.488) and the dramatic C Minor (K.491) – both in March. Figaro, officially K.492 in Köchel’s catalogue, was completed in April and premiered in May. The E-flat Piano Quartet (K.493) was finished in June.

Then, in early August, Mozart wrote his delightful Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano (K.498) known as the “Kegelstatt” Trio, which he and friends played after a dinner party.

On the 19th of August, Mozart added the freshly finished D Major String Quartet (K.499) to his own catalogue.

Curiously, he completed no other new works until November. In October, his son Johann Thomas Leopold, was born and died of suffocation less than a month later.

What else was going on in Mozart’s life at the time?

After moving to Vienna in 1781, Mozart had become estranged from his father, Leopold, and his recently married sister Maria Anna (ever known by her childhood nickname, “Nannerl”). This became even worse after Wolfgang married Constanze Weber whom Leopold highly disapproved of and then the birth, in 1785, of Nannerl’s son, named in her father’s honor, Leopold (it had been a bone of contention that Wolfgang had not named his first son after him). As Leopold (Sr.) had created the prodigies of Wolfgang and Nannerl, he set about doing the same with Little Leopold only to be disappointed to discover the boy had no talent, much less genius.

Not long after arriving in Vienna, Mozart still thought of moving elsewhere to find a better paying, more stable employment situation but it wasn’t until an English musician arrived in Vienna to study with him that Mozart began thinking about London – even to go there on an extended tour. Johann Peter Salomon, a German-born impresario in London, would not arrive until later – he was responsible for enticing Haydn to London: Mozart, alas, was tied up with commitments and a sick wife, then, but he was younger and they would try this again sometime (as it turned out, Mozart died while Haydn was in London on his first trip).

Mozart writing to his father, 8 Aug, 1786
Possible arrangements were made through connections with his student, Thomas Attwood, and the singer Nancy Storace (the original Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro), that in 1787 Mozart would go to London and write three operas (for any other musicians, he could write whatever music he wanted, just not operas). But Constanze was sick and Mozart would not travel without her. Later, when he asked his father Leopold if he would look after their two children while they traveled to London, Leopold was outraged, telling Nannerl in a letter that he didn’t wanted to “get stuck” with two children if something happened to them or they decided not to come back: he was already raising (and attempting to train) her son, Little Leopold! So the plans were dropped – later: there was always later.

But later never came for Mozart. He died at 35 in 1791, four years later.

Imagine – again, the “what if” fantasies – if Mozart had gone to London and written three more operas and who knows how many symphonies and concertos and quartets and sonatas for the London audiences, the way Haydn would write his last twelve symphonies plus several other quartets and sonatas while he was there!

And it was a big disappointment for Mozart who had started learning English well enough to try reading English novels and plays – including Shakespeare – looking for potential opera subjects.

Keep in mind, Haydn earned 24,000 florins in his two trips to London, the first in 1791, the second in 1794. Mozart had earned about 3,000 florins in 1786. Another “what-if” – what if Mozart didn’t have to write all those letters begging for money from his friends in the last years of his life?

Anyway, in the midst of all this, Mozart composed this lone string quartet when he was 30 years old, building on the skills he’d learned from writing the six “Haydn” Quartets and feeling the joy and enthusiasm at a very fruitful time in his life – the concertos, the opera, even that dinner party at the Jacquin household with its effervescent “Kegelstatt” Trio, surrounded by friends and, despite Vienna’s apparent loss of interest in the one-time prodigy who’d played for kings and empresses when he was child, a fair bit of hope for the future.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Summermusic 2012: Erkki Melartin & Richard Strauss

The last of the Summermusic 2012 concerts is tonight, featuring string trios by Beethoven with Lucy Miller Murray's poem, Sonata, read by Cary Burkett, a string trio by a little-known Finnish composer - okay, let's say virtually unknown in this country - Erkki Melartin, whose career was overshadowed by his contemporary, Jean Sibelius, and then concludes with a rarely heard, early work by a very well-known composer, the Piano Quartet of Richard Strauss which the Mendelssohn Piano Trio - Peter Sirotin, Fiona Thompson and Ya-Ting Chang - recorded on the Centaur label with  violist Michael Stepniak.

That concert is tonight at the Market Square Church at 6:00 - that's not a typo: it really is at six o'clock!

Erkki Melartin
While I've dug into the whole idea of how so much of this summer's music has been written by well-known composers "before they became famous" - you can read an earlier post about Beethoven, Poulenc and Britten - it would be unfortunate to leave Melartin out of this simply because he never became famous. His music, what I've heard of it in digging around YouTube, is certainly worthy of examination, whether I'd be convinced he's "unjustly neglected" or not (considering how many composers get performed who should be "justly neglected," but I digress...).

His situation merely points out the fact how much music is out there that is not being heard. When you consider it, there are a lot of composers we hear on a regular basis but in reality that only scratches the surface of all the composers, at what ever level, have tried to climb this mountain we call "lasting fame." Could there be something out there - other composers, other works - hidden from view (or rather, our awareness), who might speak to a later generation of listeners?

After all, if it had been up to Beethoven's contemporaries, we'd never have heard his Violin Concerto if it hadn't been for a teenager named Joseph Joachim who decided to play it 17 years after the composer's death and brought it into the repertoire.

Or if Mendelssohn hadn't been passionate about a neglected work that had never been performed since its composer's death. Of course, someone else might have dusted off Bach's St. Matthew Passion, but the point is, somebody had to.

Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang, always on the look-out for something new and interesting, heard Melartin's String Trio (Op. 133) at the Bard Festival and decided they wanted to include it on some future program. It was written in 1927, ironically about the time Sibelius 'retired' from composing (though he would live another 30 years and famously destroy many other works including an eighth symphony). Melartin himself died ten years after completing this trio, leaving a 7th and an 8th symphony unfinished.

Yet out of some 185 published works, I'd never heard of him before, myself, and considering my interest in the obscure, that's (frankly) saying something!

So, no doubt, you'll have a chance to discover something you've probably never heard before at tonight's concert.

Here are links to some YouTube videos I found of his music, to give you an idea what to expect: from his 5th Symphony and his 6th Symphony (the last one completed) and his earlier Violin Concerto.

There's much to say about the young Richard Strauss finding his voice - and you can read that over at my other blog, Thoughts on a Train. It also includes videos of the complete Piano Quartet and then links to many of the works Strauss composed before and after it.

Enjoy the discovery!

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Summermusic 2012: Before They Were Famous

Maybe you’ve seen those segments on the Entertainment News Programs about “Movie Stars Before They Were Famous” or watched some early movies of your favorite actors or directors and wondered how they got from that point to where they are today?

In a sense, this year’s Summermusic series is kind of like that, as far as composers are concerned, whether it was intended that way or not. In the first two concerts we heard Beethoven’s early Quintet for Piano and Winds, written a few years before his “break-out” pieces, the Op. 18 String Quartets and his 1st Symphony and, on a smaller scale, the “Pathetique” Sonata which always surprises me when I think it was written before 1800.

(You can read more about Beethoven's life at the time he composed the quintet here.)

Poulenc w/Sirotin, Chang & Malina
Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Duet (see photograph, left: the opening skirmish - having fun with piano duet 'turf wars' - performed here by Ya-Ting Chang & Stuart Malina, as Peter Sirotin tries to stay clear while turning pages) is also a very early work, composed in 1918 when the composer was 19, listed as No. 8 in his chronological catalogue. His first surviving composition was written only the year before, a piano piece that caught Stravinsky’s attention.

Les Six in 1921 at the Eiffel Tower
In 1920, Poulenc (2nd from left in this photograph) and a bunch of his rowdy young friends were meeting at an artist’s studio in Montparnasse when somebody started calling them Les Six. Only in 1921 did Poulenc actually begin his first formal compositional studies – with Charles Koechlin.

What strikes me as so amazing, listening to the piece, is how much it sounds like Poulenc, that it would never have occurred to me this was a bit of “juvenilia” – especially a piece he wrote before he even started studying with a teacher!

Britten in 1933
On the second program, I’d forgotten Benjamin Britten’s “Phantasy Quartet” for Oboe & Strings – a staple of any oboist’s repertoire – was composed in 1932 when he was still a teen-ager. Even for his Opus 2, it’s a very mature-sounding work – maybe the second work he published, but not the second work he wrote. Though he started studying composition shortly after he turned 14, there are some 800 works and fragments written before he published anything. This quartet was composed while he was studying at the Royal College of Music.

And while it might sound at times like his version of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism (Stravinsky had written the ballet Apollo in 1927, Les Noces in 1923 and L’Histoire du soldat in 1918), it is very obviously a work by Benjamin Britten, full of those musical fingerprints that we associate with other, more familiar works of his written after World War II.

Sirotin, Stepniak, Thompson & Reuter rehearse Britten
Talking with Gerry Reuter afterward, I told him it was the best, most compelling performance I'd ever heard of a piece that usually strikes me as “let’s go for a nice walk and then it gets weird.” Gerry was full of praise for his colleagues – Peter Sirotin, Michael Stepniak and Fiona Thompson – because, for the first time in his career (and I’d first heard him play in New York back in the late-70s), they actually followed the composer’s tempo indications and worked very hard to make the opening slower than you’d normally hear it and the climactic section faster, creating certain technical challenges in playing it cleanly and sounding "nice." In fact, Sirotin, in introducing the work, said "If you walk up to us afterward and say 'that was nice,' then we failed miserably: we weren't doing our job."

Usually, Reuter explained, most string players he'd worked with felt - Britten being a teen-ager and all - he didn’t understand how to write for strings (though he’d been studying the viola since he was 10) and so they would end up homogenizing the contrasting metronome markings almost to the point of finding a common denominator.

By following the composer’s well-thought-out and clearly indicated intentions, they turned it into a harrowing piece that made me think “wait, this wasn’t written during World War II, was it?” But then Fiona Thompson, born in England, said, “no, there was a lot of anticipation of the next war during that whole generation between the wars” – like waiting for the other shoe to drop. The fact the Nazis hadn’t come to power yet had no impact on this sense of foreboding or on Britten’s music.

But then, recalling Ralph Vaughan Williams’ chilling Sancta Civitas premiered in 1926 and the Dona nobis pacem of a decade later, despite their titles these are decidedly anti-war works. Britten was, all his life, a pacifist. One can hear his reaction to this inevitability of war in the mechanistic tread that opens the Phantasy Quartet which, despite its small forces, rises to an unexpected intensity before the march resumes, harrowing, hollowed out before dying away with one final breath.

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From Friday Night's Concert
Thinking back to the Beethoven Quintet (see photo, right), which was a conscious imitation of Mozart’s Quintet for Piano & Winds in the same key, the prominence of Mozart’s influence is difficult to ignore and while it might show us, over 200 years later, where Beethoven’s maturity evolved from, we also hear “fingerprints” of his own voice (evident in other works he composed at this time – already in the Op. 1 Piano Trios and the Op. 2 Piano Sonatas) that make this unmistakably Beethoven: for instance, several modulations, the series of off-beat accents and so on.

If he’d been trying to create a musical forgery that could be passed off as a newly discovered work by the late Master, his colleagues would’ve immediately caught him up on it: no, the reason for the imitation was so he could learn from what Mozart had done – and then do it “his way.” Despite the fact he was past his mid-20s, he was still thinking of himself as a student but once he had learned from Mozart what he could, he now had the self-confidence to head out on his own path.

In the third concert of the series – tomorrow, back at the Market Square Church and beginning earlier than usual at 6:00 (that’s six o’clock) – the program includes a reading of Lucy Miller Murray's poem Sonata with excerpts from three of the five string trios Beethoven wrote around the same time he was working on the Quintet and all completed before he began work on the string quartets and the symphony.

If the Quintet was an homage to Mozart, these trios branch out from the serenades and divertimentos of Mozart and Haydn, music for “easy listening” written as background music for dinners and garden parties. Written between 1796 and 1798, the first two – published as Op. 3 and Op. 8 –  are closer to this sense of “art as entertainment.” Another serenade-like work written at this time - for flute, violin and viola - wasn’t published until 1802 as Op. 25.

 But the three trios of Op. 9 – the first in G, the second in D and particularly the third in C Minor (a more dramatic work in what, for Beethoven, was always a dramatic key) – go beyond that ease of function.

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2nd Movement, Andante, of the String Trio, Op. 9/2 (up to 4:48)

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Scherzo from the String Trio, Op.9/1 (up to 2:38)

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In fact, Beethoven considered them “among his best” even though a few years later he would declare he was unsatisfied with everything he’d written so far, including the first quartets and the first two symphonies.

That, however, would come with maturity and a greater sense of self-awareness. The confidence to achieve that was something he learned in the process.

Another work on tomorrow’s program is the Piano Quartet in C Minor by Richard Strauss, written when he was 20. You can read more about it in a subsequent post.

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Summermusic 2012: Dvořák's Piano Quartet

Last night, at the 'Dine with the Musicians' evening for Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2012, I had a few conversations with some of the other guests about the Dvořák Piano Quartet that Peter Sirotin, Michael Stepniak, Fiona Thompson and Stuart Malina will be performing this afternoon at the Rose Lehrman Arts Center at HACC - concert time is 4:00.

Though you may not be finding this until after the concert, you can still read the post these conversations inspired -  Dvořák Finds His Voice - after-the-fact. Consider it "audience enrichment" filed under "better-late-than-never."

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Summermusic 2012: Beethoven, Before He Became a God

The first program of Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2012 - Friday evening at 8pm, Market Square Church in Harrisburg - includes an early work by Ludwig van Beethoven, his Quintet for Piano & Winds, Op. 16.

Rehearsing Beethoven
Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, will be the pianist for this collaboration with oboist Gerard Reuter, a regular guest at Summermusic, clarinetist Christopher Grymes, familiar to fans of Concertante, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, who played in the Harrisburg Symphony a few seasons ago, and hornist Geoffrey Pilkington, a recent addition to the current Harrisburg Symphony (one of the four soloists in February’s Schumann Concert-Piece).

Beethoven – the “Divine” Beethoven, as he is often imagined – is one of the cornerstones of the repertoire of classical music, his symphonies, sonatas and string quartets forming the foundation on which everything else seems to rest.

So it is perhaps interesting to people used to the “Titanic” Beethoven, the “Larger-than-Life” Beethoven, to hear a few works he composed in the first years of his pre-1800 apprenticeship. It was not a sudden breaking away from his teacher’s traditions that would herald the New Century, replacing efficient formal Classicism with the messy emotional Romanticism.

Music, like history in general, is too prone to such black-and-white observations. Beethoven did not erupt on the scene with his “Eroica” Symphony.

The Quintet for Piano and Winds, from the more “human side” of Beethoven, is not that well known. In fact, it would probably never be mistaken for a “great” work unless Beethoven had never written anything beyond his 2nd Symphony. It was consciously patterned after a similar quintet by Mozart (which Mozart regarded as one of the best things he had ever written at a time he was in the midst of writing the string quartets dedicated to Haydn) but because Beethoven’s is “not so original,” in hindsight, it is considered something of a student work.

Back in March, after Stuart Malina played Mozart’s “Kegelstadt” Trio and Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet as part of his annual “Stuart & Friends” concert with colleagues from the Harrisburg Symphony, I was thinking “wouldn’t it be great to do the Beethoven Quintet next year?” Not long afterwards, sitting in Stuart’s living room to record a pod-cast for an up-coming Masterworks Concert, I was delighted to see the score for the Beethoven Quintet on his piano’s music rack. At the time, I didn’t think it was for Market Square Concert’s Summermusic, but I was equally delighted to see it on the program. And there’s always the Mozart Quintet for Piano & Winds for the next time.

And this conjunction of the Mozart and Beethoven Quintets is not just accidental. Beethoven composed his around 1796 or so, about five years after Mozart’s death and only about a dozen years after Mozart had written his quintet.

This performance features another conductor at the piano – James Levine, best known as the music director of the Metropolitan Opera – with members of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics: oboist Hansjörg Schellenberger, clarinetist Karl Leister, hornist Günter Högner, and bassoonist Milan Turković.

= = = = =
1st Movement:

2nd & 3rd Movements:

= = = = =

The overall elegance and balance of the style and formal structure of the piece is evident in the first movement, from its regal slow introduction (something Beethoven would rarely use in the future) – especially with its harking back to the rhythm of the French Overture of Handel’s day leading to a very dramatic dialogue between the pianist and the winds – to the eloquence of the themes, not to mention an almost cursory development section (something Beethoven would later greatly expand) and avoiding the return to the home tonic without even a wink.

It might bring to mind some of the wonderful piano concertos Mozart had composed after he arrived in Vienna himself, back in 1781, where the wind players were so much better than the ones he worked with at home in Salzburg. But as chamber music, there is more interplay between the players than just juxtaposition of the piano against a small orchestra.

If the first movement reminded me of a piano concerto,the slow movement, the emotional core of the work, brings to mind many of the great arias Mozart composed for his best operas, several of which have prominent woodwind obligatos. There is a moment at 0:50-1:06, the closing fragment of woodwinds’ version of Theme 1, which sounded like… well, I couldn’t quite place it: was it a quote or a coincidence? It was one of those moments where you let the music that’s there go off in a slightly different direction when the light-bulb went off – the opening of the final duet, “Es ist ein Traum” (5:58-6:13, here) in the conclusion of Der Rosenkavalier which Richard Strauss composed in 1911!

Of course, Rosenkavalier is Strauss’ tribute to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, so the coincidence of this similarity would make sense. Both are invoking the spirit of Mozart, Beethoven from only a few years’ distance; Strauss, over a century later.

With the finale, we are back in the world of the concerto – as envisioned by Mozart. His themes often had an ebullient simplicity – child-like rather than childish – no matter how perfect the context was around it.

The story goes that at one performance with Beethoven at the piano and the great Friedrich Ramm playing the oboe (Mozart had written his Oboe Concerto for him), the composer took the liberty of taking off at what in a concerto would’ve been a soloist’s prerogative, improvising a short cadenza on a particular chord marked with a fermata. As the passage came around with each restatement, Beethoven would continue improvising: even though the wind-players began to anticipate this, it annoyed Ramm in particular.

Curiously, when the quintet was played in 1816 with Beethoven’s student, Carl Czerny, at the piano, Czerny did the same thing but Beethoven was so annoyed by this, he upbraided his student for his behavior - then sent him a letter of apology the next day.

Today, casual listeners might find Mozart and Haydn indistinguishable, both high points of the Classical Style (c.1750-1800) even if they couldn’t name another composer from the same era. But this is clearly a work inspired by Mozart right down to the turn of phrase and the smallest formal details. Haydn could never have written this piece: if the last movement makes you smile, it’s not the same sense of humor you would hear in a Haydn finale, lacking any overt jokes or musical puns. It is more the light-hearted spirit – that Viennese spirit that we call “joie de vivre” in French because “Wiener Blut” (“Vienna Blood”) sounds so ghastly – than outright humor, a smile rather than a chuckle.

The year after Mozart died and Beethoven was leaving Bonn to study with Haydn in Vienna, Beethoven’s friend and patron, Count Ferdinand Waldstein (for whom a later piano sonata would be named), wrote in his travel album, “With the help of assiduous labor, you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

By studying and imitating the best of Mozart – what even Mozart thought was “the best of Mozart” – was this how Beethoven received Mozart’s spirit?

Not long after completing the Quintet – and also the three string trios later published as Op. 9 which, at the time, he thought were among his best works to date – he began his first string quartets (which became the six quartets of Op. 18) and his first symphony, all of which were first heard in 1800.

In 1802, as he was working on his Second Symphony, he told his friend Wenzel Krumpholz (for whom he often played through some new pieces), “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on, I shall take a new path.”

One of the works he began working on at that time would soon become his Third Symphony, the Eroica.

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What was Beethoven’s life like at the time he was writing his homage to Mozart?

You can read a continuation of this post, here.

- Dick Strawser