Friday, November 14, 2014

Music for Cold Weather: Schumann & Tchaikovsky to Warm the Soul

The Avalon Quartet
With the return of the Polar Vortex this week, what better antidote than the heat of great Romantic music, especially two of the most popular 19th Century composers best known for their melodic gifts and rich harmonies. So prepare yourself for the cold with a generous helping of Robert Schumann and Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky this Saturday (the 15th) at 8pm at Market Square Church!

If you attended any of the Summermusic concerts this past season (remember those wonderful warm temperatures), you've already heard the cellist of the quartet, Cheng-Hou Lee. This time, he'll be joined by his colleagues, violinists Blaise Magniere and Marie Wang, and violist Anthony Devroye of the Avalon Quartet to offer the third of Schumann's three quartets (all written in a seven-week period when he was 32) and the first of Tchaikovsky's three quartets (written when he was 31, though he'd jotted down the melody of the famous second movement, the Andante cantabile, two years earlier).

It’s often difficult finding decent performances (much less recordings) on-line to post as examples, here, but I've been able to solve the problem by using two different quartets with two different approaches to Schumann's style.

The British-based Doric Quartet played Schumann's 2nd Quartet here two years ago. The 2nd & 4th Movements, here, are from a performance last year at London's great Wigmore Hall (and yes, there's a new violist since their appearance in Harrisburg).

I've chosen the Ysa├┐e Quartet of France for the 1st and 3rd Movements, finding this 2012 performance recorded in Paris.

Ysaye Quartet – 1st Mvmt

Doric Quartet - 2nd Mvmt

Ysaye Quartet – 3rd Mvmt

Doric Quartet - 4th Mvmt

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For the Tchaikovsky, similar rules apply, but I found four different performances, not all with the best recording sound, but since the Avalon Quartet is performing at Market Square Church, how can I not use their video of the Tchaikovsky first movement recorded in a church at a 2010 performance?

Based on a folk-song Tchaikovsky overheard – whistled, so the story goes, by a house-painter at his sister's estate in Ukraine – the second movement of this quartet has taken on a life of its own in various arrangements. Here's the original version in a stunning performance by the Borodin Quartet.

The third movement – a scherzo that would be difficult to tap your foot to (unless you're Russian) – is performed by the Kontras Quartet, based in Chicago, and recorded here in a 2010 concert in North Carolina. Not the best sound, but I like their energy.

Of course, Russian music played by a Russian quartet would be the best and while I could've found a couple of different recordings of the entire quartet in a single clip, I liked the idea of sampling different approaches, here. But I have to end with another performance by the Borodin Quartet, itself one of the best and most long-lived quartets in Russia and the Soviet Union. Here's the finale with an appropriately wintry scene to accompany the audio.

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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. You can figure out which side of his nature is behind the music in each of the movements of this quartet, written at white heat in the summer of his Chamber Music Year.

After this he would write a number of other chamber works including, almost back-to-back, the Piano Quintet and the Piano Quartet. People often say Schumann might have lived longer had he been treated for his illness but one has to wonder what impact a healthy life might have had on his music – first of all, would he have had the manic energy to tackle so many works in a single genre all at one time over the span of a few months? He might have been like many of his contemporaries, composers he wrote about and even championed, who were talented and perhaps even popular or at least well respected but, from our standpoint today, completely forgotten.

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Tchaikovsky (undated)
Of course, when it comes to the emotional world of the Romantic Era, there are probably few souls more tortured than Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky and for more reasons than the fact that Russian music in general always strikes us as so sad.

When I was teaching a course in Russian Music, Art and History at the University of Connecticut in the late-70s, I had a chance to talk to a famous Soviet anthropologist visiting our campus who spoke primarily about how the Soviet government was trying to create a unified Soviet culture out of the various ethnic elements that made up the Soviet Union, making the distinction that while Shostakovich was a Russian composer, Aram Khachaturian was an Armenian (not a Russian) even though we in the West would consider them both “Russian Composers” rather than “Soviet Composers.” Anyway, I had the chance to ask her about folk music across this vast country and finally, humorously, asked the question so many Americans think if not ask: “what makes Russian music so sad?”

She thought for a moment as if this had never occurred to her, and then said, “I don't know – long winters?”

Tchaikovsky was something of a late bloomer, keeping in mind they had no music schools in Russia when he was growing up and what musical life existed in the capitals of St. Petersburg and Moscow were either imported – many Italian composers, for instance, were enticed to move to Russia and write operas and even church music for the imperial court – or entirely within the realm of amateurs. It wasn't until 1862 that Russia had its first music school, founded by the pianist and composer, Anton Rubinstein (a cosmopolitan figure and rival of Liszt's, he once quipped “to the Germans, I am a Russian; to the Russians I am a German; and to everyone, I am a Jew”, but as a pianist and conductor, a force of nature who told his students “Beethoven's music must never be studied – it must be reincarnated”).

At any rate, one of the school's first students was a young lawyer named Tchaikovsky who had always wanted to study music (against his father's wishes) but there was no way he could do what other would-be composers did: travel to Germany to study.

(Keep in mind, the United States didn't have a music school until Harvard choirmaster and organist John Knowles Paine convinced his colleagues to let him offer music courses for credit – and he became a one-man music department in the early-1870s.)

So, listening to this string quartet that Tchaikovsky composed in 1871 when he was 31 years old, forget the drama of the last three symphonies (especially the Pathetique) or even the bombast of the Piano Concerto (No. 1, as if most people even know he wrote two more) but remember that piano concerto was only four years away and the 4th Symphony, six.

It's quite possible, when he wrote his 1st Symphony at the age of 26, the year after he graduated, he hadn't even heard a Beethoven symphony in those days before the Internet and recordings. As soon as he graduated, Tchaikovsky was hired by Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolai, another amazing pianist, to teach at the soon-to-opened music school he founded in Moscow where, basically, Tchaikovsky felt he was a few pages ahead of his students in the harmony class he was teaching. Still, it kept him from going back to being a law clerk to make a living. He continued teaching there until 1878 after Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow and a generous fan, offered him a stipend so he could devote all his time to composing.

While fame came slowly to the developing composer – keep in mind Schubert had died at the age of 31 – Tchaikovsky had written dances, piano pieces and songs as well as operas (which, though a large work, was still a collection of shorter elements that could be the equivalent of songs, dances and short orchestral interludes). So in a way, his first string quartet is only his second attempt at a large-scale and largely Western-style work, as far as the form is concerned. Even that first symphony, known as “Winter Dreams,” was revised before its delayed premiere took place in 1868 and it wasn't published until 1873, two years after the string quartet. The version we usually hear today (if we hear it) is a further revision made and premiered in 1883, five years before he finished his 5th Symphony.

In 1866, in the midst of working on this symphony which did not progress smoothly, he had a nervous breakdown. Three months before that, he wrote to one of his brothers,

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“My nerves are altogether shaken. The causes are: (1) the symphony, which does not sound satisfactory; (2) Rubinstein and Tarnovksy [Nikolai Rubinstein, his roommate, and Konstantin Tarnovsky, a mutual friend] have discovered I am easily startled and amuse themselves by giving me all manner of shocks all day long; (3) I cannot shake off the conviction I shall not live long and shall leave my symphony unfinished. I long for the summer and for Kamenka [their sister's house in Ukraine] as for the Promised Land, and hope to find rest and peace and to forget all my troubles there... I hate mankind in the mass, and I should be very delighted to retire into some wilderness with very few inhabitants.”
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The House at Kamenka
Whether he found the necessary rest and peace at Kamenka that summer or not, we can only imagine, but one thing he did find at one of his visits there three years later was a beautiful and simple tune with a fairly silly text – “Vanya sat on a divan, drinking, thinking of his sweetheart” – a Russian folk-song sung by a gardener or house-painter at his sister's estate (other sources say a baker). Two years later, he would use this for the slow movement of his 1st String Quartet, the famous Andante cantabile.

Now, this movement is very simple – a very straight-forward setting of the tune with simple harmonies and textures, a slightly contrasting (and original) second theme before the main tune returns. It does not win technical points – Colin Mason, in his article on Tchaikovsky's chamber music in Gerald Abraham's collection, “The Music of Tchaikovsky” (1946) calls it “feeble” and feels that Tchaikovsky “wastes” the tune in this “less interesting” movement, compared to the much better crafted movements of the rest of the quartet even though he admits it would probably be forgotten if it weren't for its “popular slow movement.” Of course, the fact that it's “popular” will rankle any academicians butt, but I digress...

But there is more to this quartet than this “simple” slow movement. Some writers feel it is the best of the three quartets because it is the most consistent. Keep in mind the young, inexperienced composer, fresh from college, basically, had begun by writing a symphony when the few Russian composers around weren't writing symphonies (except Anton Rubinstein who, by this time, had written only half his six symphonies). As a student of Rubinstein's, Tchaikovsky was probably more aware of Mendelssohn's quartets than Beethoven's, but since very few people today would even be aware that Rubinstein had written 10 string quartets himself, it's impossible to say how much of an influence they may have been on the evolving composer.

Grove's Dictionary has this to say about it, though: “a number of [Tchaikovsky's] compositions, especially the weaker ones, show the influence of his former master: his attitude to songs and piano music, for instance, was very similar to Rubinstein's. But in addition, certain passages of Tatyana's music in Tchaikovsky's Onyegin are derived from similar passages in Rubinstein's The Demon allotted to Tamara, who is, however, a puppet-like figure beside Tchaikovsky's incomparable heroine.”

Nikolai & Anton Rubinstein
Likewise, Grove's assessment of Rubinstein's output as a composer seems to bear out in the public awareness of his music today: his larger-scale works often showed “signs of haste,” good ideas that could be developed in a “trivial manner” that revealed “his fatal facility as a note-spinner.” He felt his name on the title page was enough to generate interest in selling his music. Out of six massive symphonies, five piano concertos suitable for a giant of the keyboard plus some 20 works for the stage, in addition to a lot of chamber music for various combinations and tons of songs and what are generally dismissed as “salon pieces” for the piano, he is primarily remembered today for only two early works, piano pieces like the “Melody in F” and the “Angelic Dream” from the collection of 24 pieces, Kammenoy Ostrow (The Stone Island).

Anton's younger brother Nikolai, was himself an exceptional pianist, “more detached and analytical” than Anton. He was however more of a champion of Tchaikovsky and his music than the teacher, despite Nikolai's infamous attack on the 1st Piano Concerto (written just four years after this string quartet) and it was Nikolai's death in 1881 that brought forth the Piano Trio in which Tchaikovsky poured out – at great length – his grief.

It may have been Rubinstein's cosmopolitan world with its Germanic training that tempered Tchaikovsky's innate Russianness and made him an object of concern to the Nationalist School of The Mighty Handful, the famous “Russian Five” of Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Mussorgsky, Borodin and... oh yes, Cesar Cui who championed Russian folk-song as the root of Russian music (taking their cue from Glinka in the earlier generation, generally considered the first “native-born” Russian composer of any stature – as Stravinsky would later say, his “Kamarinskaya” was the acorn from which the might oak of Russian music grew – here it is, performed by a student orchestra in Peter Sirotin's hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine. Peter tells me his father used to conduct this orchestra in the 1980s and he played his first chamber music concert with Beethoven's Op.12 Sonata in that hall in 1986!)

Even though Balakirev famously gave Tchaikovsky the complete outline and thematic profile for his first successful orchestral work, the overture Romeo and Juliet which was premiered (in its first version – we, primarily, know the third version today) the year before he composed this string quartet. There were various hopes and attempts to “convert” Tchaikovsky to the Nationalist Cause but he was too much his teacher's student to fall completely under their sway. Even though he frequently used Russian folk-songs and dances in his symphonies, his popularity was always suspect by the Five. But that is more a story for the future.

Right now, think of Tchaikovsky, aged 31, only five years after he made the decision to give up his day-job as a law clerk in the Ministry of Justice to become a professional composer.

- Dick Strawser