Sunday, July 22, 2018

Summermusic 2018: The Russians Have Landed - Tchaikovsky & Taneyev, Together Again

What: Summermusic 2018's 3rd Concert with an All-Russian program with works by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Taneyev
When: Wednesday evening at 7:30 (note the slightly earlier start time, here)
Where: at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg
Who: Violinists Peter Sirotin & Leonid Ferents; Violists Blanka Bednarz & Michael Stepniak; Cellists Cheung Chau & Fiona Thompson

With any luck, I can make it through this post about works by two Russian composers without alluding to current events. It is times like this I find this quote helpful: “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.” 

While politics may have little to endear itself between the United States and Russia over the past century or so, it is good to remember Russian literature and music, art and architecture, theater and dance which are sometimes difficult to disconnect from Russia's usually dark and often disturbing history.

And yet the Art survives – and flourishes – leading us quite often to glimpse what we think of as “The Russian Soul.”

And so the third concert of Summermusic 2018 includes two works by connected composers, both 19th Century Romantics in style (though the one was completed in 1901, it is hardly a “20th Century” work in anything else), one the teacher and mentor of the other.

Tchaikovsky, 1888
Tchaikovsky was the first Russian composer to gain international fame and he is, to most Americans, the first name that comes to mind when someone says “Russian music.” His symphonies, ballets, and operas – or at least some of them – are popular mainstays in this country, and where would American concerts be without his “1812 Overture” or “The Nutcracker Suite”? Chamber music, on the other hand, was a small part of his musical interests and it's little known and not often heard in this country – except for the string sextet, the Souvenir of Florence, on Wednesday's program.

Sergei Taneyev, on the other hand, will leave most American concert-goers scratching their heads. His name occasionally appears in program notes about Tchaikovsky's music, but otherwise... who? Chamber music is a large part of his output and we heard his 1911 Piano Quintet at last year's Summermusic.

Not that hearing the first of his two string quintets this summer is (as far as I know) part of a larger Taneyev Festival or the start of a Taneyev Revival (one has to have a “vival” before one can have a “re”vival), but it gives us an opportunity to hear a different aspect of Russian music beyond what we're already familiar with.

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To enjoy some of the connections between this program and the other two concerts in this year's Summermusic series, I'll mention that Brahms' String Quintet from Sunday's concert was composed in the summer of 1890 following a holiday in Italy, and that Tchaikovsky's String Sextet on Wednesday's concert was composed in June of 1890, following a three-month stay in Florence, Italy.

While Sergei Taneyev's String Quintet was completed in 1901, the composer graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1875 – the same year Dvořák wrote the piano quartet we heard on the first program earlier this month – as a student of Tchaikovsky, in fact giving the first Moscow performance of his teacher's recent Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor that December when he was 19. And in 1878, when Tchaikovsky resigned from the Conservatory to compose full-time (thanks to a generous stipend from his patron, Nadezhda von Meck) – when Gabriel Fauré was working on his 1st Piano Quartet – Taneyev became a member of the conservatory's theory faculty where he continued to teach until 1905.

Oh, and I'll tell you about the dinner Tchaikovsky attended in Leipzig while “traveling abroad” in 1888, where Johannes Brahms was one of the other guests – but first, let's hear this string sextet he called “Souvenir of Florence.”

Tchaikovsky in front of his hotel in Florence, 1890
He'd already written three string quartets but in 1887 had tried getting a string sextet off the ground. It didn't fly. Once it finally took off, he wrote it in a matter of 18 days (talk about “flying”) and the work we have is his most popular piece of chamber music. It's in the standard four movements: a spirited Allegro with an ear-grabbing opening – ready or not – followed by one of Tchaikovsky's wistful adagios, a pas de deux suitable for choreography, complete with a brief interruption by some scurrying winds in the middle section. The third movement isn't so much a scherzo or minuet as an Intermezzo built around an elegiac folk-song with some contrasting dance elements – it was typical that Tchaikovsky would be criticized for writing symphonies that were too much like ballet and for writing ballets that were too symphonic – but then he does it one better in the finale, a rousing Allegro vivace, with his most Russian theme yet for this supposed Italian souvenir, and then, of all things, turns it into that most German of academic exercises – a fugue!

Here is a live performance from a recent Utrecht Festival with violinists Janine Jansen & Vilde Frang, violists Lawrence Power & Julian Rachlin, and cellists Nicolas Altstaedt & Jens Peter Maintz:
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And if you were wondering how Tchaikovsky – master of the epic finale with an orchestra blasting away at full force – was going to end a chamber work for six players, there you have a perfect example of the tried-and-true formula for “how to end a concert” – “fast and loud” which then becomes “faster and louder.”

But this music didn't come about quite so effortlessly as it sounds.

In June, 1887, while staying in Borzhom, a town in the Caucasus not far from the provincial capital of Tiflis (or Tblisi), the composer noted in his diary: "Composed a little (start of a sextet)" and then four days later wrote to fellow-composer Ippolitov-Ivanov, "I jotted down sketches for a string sextet, but with little enthusiasm... I haven't the slightest inclination to work. ...Because I have only a passing desire to compose, I'm beginning to fear that I am losing my powers of composition, and becoming angry with myself." 

The previous autumn, he had promised friends of his in the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society he would write them some piece of chamber music as a way of thanking them for selecting him as a member, but meanwhile he was preoccupied with other things. When he did start what would become this sextet, it was a difficult process and several times, he laid it aside. In 1888, writing to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, he was “thinking of a new symphony [his 5th] and a string sextet,” but otherwise, it is not mentioned again until the spring of 1890 when he is staying at his home in Frolovskoye near Moscow, beginning work on it on June 12th and finishing the rough draft on June 30th, though he admits he wrote it “with great difficulty” – not for lack of ideas, he pointed out, but because of the “novelty” of writing for six stringed instruments – but in the end he wrote he was “quite pleased with myself.”

(It intrigues me he decided to write a sextet and then had difficulty coming up with solutions “how to write a sextet” rather than start writing something – a 4th String Quartet, say – before realizing, “no, this material really needs more players” and add a viola or a cello or both.)

Now, the sextet is usually called the “Souvenir of Florence” (usually in French) and, depending on where you read about it, you will discover it was written in Florence, it was inspired by Florence, it is a collection of his impressions of Florence – in other words, “Holiday Snaps from my Vacation in Florence, Italy” captured in music – yet he had begun it in the Caucasus so it could have become “Caucasian Sketches” (oh wait, that was used by Ippolitov-Ivanov a few years later) and most of the sextet was composed the summer after he returned home to Russia and staying at Frolovskoye, not far from Moscow.

Tchaikovsky (center), Dec. 1890
The trip to Florence, however, was over a span of three wintry months in early 1890 where he went to focus on his new opera based on one of Pushkin's tales, The Queen of Spades (or, as it's usually known in French, Pique Dame because English-speakers are too chicken to refer to it as Pikovaya Dama). The photograph, here, with the composer in the center and two of the opera's lead singers, was taken in St. Petersburg, December of 1890, before the opera's premiere and around the time his String Sextet was given its first, private read-through at the hotel where he was staying.

One of the stories I'd grown up with was, while staying in Florence, every tune Tchaikovsky jotted down that couldn't fit into the opera was set aside in a special notebook. When he returned from Italy, he used these themes and ideas for the Sextet – thus, they are “souvenirs” of his creative time spent in Florence. While his Capriccio italien captures many musical reminiscences of his stay in Rome, there is nothing so literally programmatic in the Souvenir of Florence.

As “Russian-sounding” as this piece is, it's interesting to note that at least we know (from one of his letters) the basic idea of the violin and cello duet in the 2nd Movement was originally intended for The Queen of Spades (a Russian story set in 18th Century Imperial Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great) but didn't fit, so, yes, it was written in Florence. The first movement was largely outlined in 1887, incidentally. And while Tchaikovsky was “pleased” with the finale after he'd completed it, he was so depressed after the first read-through that December in Petersburg he completely rewrote the Fugue in the finale and the middle section of the third movement, touching up other spots as well. And then he made one last round of revisions which he completed in January, 1892, while in Paris (he would bring back a souvenir from Paris: the celeste he would use in the Nutcracker's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy). Only then would he allow the sextet to be published in December, 1892.

Tchaikovsky at his summer home in Frolovskoye, 2 weeks after completing the Sextet there

Tchaikovsky was never a fan of Brahms. He referred to him – “that scoundrel Brahms” – in his dairies in disparaging terms and even refused the nickname “Tragic Symphony” for his 6th because Brahms had written a “Tragic Overture” and that will never do. (Tchaikovsky was a huge fan of Georges Bizet's Carmen which premiered in 1875.)

Brahms had little interest in Tchaikovsky's music though he never took him seriously enough to consider him “a rival” as he did Wagner and Liszt or Anton Bruckner. (Brahms was a big fan of Johann Strauss whose Die Fledermaus premiered in 1874.)

As it happened, both composers were in Leipzig at the same time in January of 1888, Brahms to conduct his Double Concerto and play the C Minor Piano Trio; Tchaikovsky to conduct a concert of his works and attend a program of his chamber music (the Op.11 Quartet and the Piano Trio). The concertmaster of Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra decided to throw a dinner for them which was also attended by Edvard Grieg and his wife (Grieg's Peer Gynt premiered in 1875; his Holberg Suite would be completed in 1888).

Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modeste about the performance of the Double Concerto the night before – “What I suffered during the evening cannot be described” – but that he and Brahms were thrown together quite a lot during the past few days. “We are ill at ease because we do not really like each other, but he takes great pains to be kind to me. Grieg is charming.”

That said, Mrs Grieg ended up being seated between Brahms and Tchaikovsky. At one point, she jumped up and said “I can't sit between these two any longer, it makes me so nervous!” Her husband gallantly (and quickly) slipped around the table to take her place: “I have the nerve!” 

That photo of Tchaikovsky at the head of this post? Check the autograph: it's inscribed to Frau Grieg, 3rd Jan. 1888 Leipzig.

Tchaikovsky later described Brahms in his diary as “that self-inflated mediocrity.”

Clearly there would be no collusion between them when, two years later, they each wrote the two pieces you'll hear during this year's Summermusic series...

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Sergei Taneyev
Once Tchaikovsky's “star pupil” and a close friend till his mentor's death in 1893, Sergei Taneyev divided his career between being a soloist, a teacher, a theorist and scholar (famous for his treatises on counterpoint and fugue), and also a composer.

Composition came slowly to him and he described how he would take his ideas, explore their potential with all manner of possibilities, and only then begin putting them into a piece.

Using the less frequent “two-cello” set-up compared to Mozart's and Brahms' preference for the “two-viola” set-up (even though, perhaps, the most famous or at least most frequently performed string quintet is Schubert's C Major with two cellos), Taneyev began his first string quintet in 1900 and completed it the following year. 

It's in three movements, with an opening gesture that seems to look in different directions (much as one might think about with the beginning of a new century). There are times it's masquerading as Mozart or Mendelssohn which then contrasts with more Romantic-sounding textures and thematic turns. I would say the Development Section looks forward to the future – or at least acknowledges Wagner's music might indeed be the eventual path the 20th Century would take. Curiously, the sound of the Mozart-like “Classical” style, especially in the Recapitulation, brings to mind what Richard Strauss would begin to sound like with his Post-Salome, “neo-classical” style a decade down the road.

The scherzo, brief as it is, Vivace con fuoco (“very fast, with fire”), returns to pure 19th Century romanticism and the interplay of musical gestures (and yes, fugal writing is one way of prolonging the “development” of these ideas). It is not without its surprises – two of them coming very near the end of the movement, with an unexpected resolution after the harmonic build-up followed by a dash off stage as if, oh well, I'm running out of time...
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The finale is a set of variations, each one self-contained like little character pieces in contrasting moods or natures. Given Taneyev's skills in counterpoint – that most German of techniques – it's not surprising one of them becomes a fugue (at 14:00). Like his teacher – and Tchaikovsky loved to write variations (check out the last movements of the 3rd Orchestral Suite or the Piano Trio and of course, in relation to Taneyev's style here, his “Rococo Variations”) – Taneyev enjoyed exploring the possibilities, like the rather stern one beginning at 7:38, dominated initially by pairs of cellos and violas. A sizable 20-minute movement (well, part light-hearted intermezzo, part finale), it could, conceivably, go on a lot longer, the way he keeps spinning them out. Yet it's all of the same fabric we've heard in the first two movements and a testament to what he is best remembered for: his craftsmanship.
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(These performances are taken from a recording by the Taneyev Quartet with cellist Beynus Morozov.)
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The second string quintet, his Op. 16, might make you think he then went on immediately to compose a companion piece, but it actually dates from three years later. Like I said, composition came slow for him and, like any teacher and scholar, there were other things frequently getting in the way of his creative time.

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Taneyev, like Glazunov, is one of those “between-the-generations” composers, taught by their teachers like Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, and famous for their pupils, like Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, and later the two giants of the Soviet Era, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. This whole generation is overshadowed by the past and the future, ironically, but in Taneyev's connection with Tchaikovsky, let me examine one aspect of this connection with the past.

Taneyev playing Tolstoy's piano (c.1895)
Once Taneyev rescued Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto from a potentially disastrous Moscow premiere by replacing the original soloist, Tchaikovsky was so impressed, he dedicated his tone poem, Francesca da Rimini, inspired by Dante, to Taneyev in 1876. When the intended soloist of his 2nd Piano Concerto died before the premiere, Taneyev again gave the work its Moscow premiere in 1882. Then, when Tchaikovsky himself died before realizing what to do with his one-movement 3rd Piano Concerto – it had started out as his 7th Symphony – Taneyev edited two other works to create a full three-movement 3rd Concerto which is even less often heard than the 2nd.

During this friendship, Taneyev was one of the few people Tchaikovsky could turn to for musical advice and, being notoriously thin-skinned when it came to criticism, often regretted it but realized it was intended honestly and often true to the mark. Taneyev could get away with making comments that none of Tchaikovsky's other friends would dare consider, leading to a kind of “fear” the older composer had when he did ask for it (and which often resulted in the response, “well, he asked for it...”).

One of Taneyev's later students wrote about this aspect of his relationship with Tchaikovsky: “I think [Tchaikovsky] was unnerved by the overt frankness with which Taneyev reacted to [his] works: Taneyev believed that one must indicate precisely what one finds to be 'faults,' while strong points would make themselves evident. He was hardly fully justified in his conviction: composers are a nervous lot and they are often particularly dissatisfied with themselves. Tchaikovsky was just such a person: he worried himself almost sick over each work and often tried even to destroy them...”

Yet the younger man had his humorous side and wrote a little ballet for Tchaikovsky's birthday, once, something with an absurd scenario and music that was “a contrapuntal pot-pourri” of themes from Tchaikovsky's works. There were also several parodies (like “Quartets of Government Officials”), comic fugues and variations as well as “toy symphonies”!

While it could be mentioned that Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rubinstein, and Glazunov were “Homeric drinkers,” surpassed only by the unfortunate Mussorgsky, Taneyev was uncharacteristically a teetotaler. Not surprising.

If anything, however, today we might wonder if perhaps that isn't what's missing from his music...

- Dick Strawser

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To read more about Taneyev, check the second half of last summer's blog-post regarding Taneyev and Borodin's Piano Quintets.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Summermusic 2018: The Retiring Brahms

What: Summermusic 2018's 2nd Concert with String Quintets of Mozart & Brahms.
When: Sunday, July 22nd, 2018, at 4pm
Where: Market Square Presbyterian Church on Market Square in downtown Harrisburg PA
Who: Violinists Peter Sirotin & Leonid Ferents; Violists Michael Stepniak & Blanka Bednarz; and Cellist Cheung Chau.

Johannes Brahms
Our usual image of Brahms is the Old Man with the dark clothes, overweight, a long flowing white beard – oh, and don't forget the cigar. One of the adjectives often coming to mind, whatever you think of his music, might be “stolid.”

Try this image on for size: it is an evening in 1890 and Brahms is with friends at a tavern in Vienna's Prater (a park set aside by Emperor Joseph II in 1766 for public amusement and a home to many taverns and places of popular entertainment and, in 1873, a World's Fair) and the tavern's band was playing that latest American hit, “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!” As the musicians would slow up on the “ta-ra-ra...” leading into the refrain, drawing out the tension of anticipation (speaking of expectations), it was customary for listeners to thump the tables with their beer mugs on the boom! of “boom-de-ay!” Viennese music critic Max Graf recorded his watching Brahms, sitting there, whacking their table with his umbrella, “beaming with beer and high spirits... like a boy.”

When a bunch of Brahms' friends heard the first rehearsal for his new String Quintet in G Major that November, his friend Max Kalbeck was the one who blurted out after its whirlwind finale, “Brahms in the Prater!” To which the composer replied “You've got it!” then added, “and all the pretty girls, there, eh?”

Here's a little fact for you: when Mozart was writing his G Minor String Quintet in 1787, he had just – and I mean just – moved to a new apartment in the Landstrasse suburb of Vienna – or what was then a suburb – which happens to be right next to the Prater! Small world!
Vienna with the Prater District (outlined) and the Landstrasse District

That's the program for the second program of Market Square Concerts' “Summermusic 2018” this Sunday at 4pm at Market Square Church – no beer or roller coasters, alas, but plenty of great music and with the breathless ending of Brahms' quintet, who needs a roller coaster?

To find out more about Mozart's quintet and hear a performance by the Emerson Quartet (with guest violist Kim Kashkashian), you can read my previous blog-post here.

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After viewing several YouTube Videos “lacking” either in interpretation, sound or visual quality (too bland; recording too tinny; Joshua Bell breaking out into a sweat by bar 5), I'm going to go with this one even though I have no idea who the uncredited performers are (I'm pretty sure the 1st violinist is Cho-Liang Lin and the cellist is Jian Wang) but their performance, I find, is breathtaking:

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For those who want to get into more technical detail, here's a presentation with the score that features comments by David Goza – who styles himself “The Atheist Codger” (as opposed to Dickens' “The Artful Dodger”), someone any curmudgeon going by the persona of Dr. Dick would support – and a performance by members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet:

(to view directly (and largely) on YouTube, click here.)
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The work is in the four usual movements: the first movement, Allegro con spirito (“Lively, with spirit”), opens with a hopefully brilliant blaze of glory, assuming the lone cellist can stand up against his four colleagues sawing away on their undulating sunshine at full volume. It is this very opening which his friends thought needed to be changed: Joachim said it would take “three cellos” to be heard over that, and it was recommended Brahms tone it down a bit. And true to fashion, just as he did with so many of Joachim's suggestions to improve the Violin Concerto of 1878, Brahms ignored everybody and left it as he'd originally written it. It is a powerful effect but a bow-busting challenge to achieve the right balance.

Brahms (1890)
(Once, when Brahms was playing his 1st Cello Sonata with his friend and amateur cellist to whom he'd dedicated it, Brahms played so loudly, the cellist complained he couldn't hear himself play. Brahms grumbled back at him, “Lucky for you, too” and continued without adjusting the volume. I've also heard this with the simple response, “Good!” but then Brahms was often a sort of Grumpy Cat according to many of his friends, speaking of curmudgeons.)

As this opening movement progresses, we hear a great variety of contrast wafting by: the lilting, laid-back Viennese tune of the second theme-group (more than one memorable tune) before everything slides off into a dramatic and conflict-filled development section despite all the sunshine and lilting qualities of the main themes. Occasionally a fragment of one of the themes will peak out from behind the thunderclouds even after we've officially returned to the Recapitulation. But before we reach the expected conclusion – again, those expectations – he turns what in Mozart would've been a fairly simple “coda” (literally, a “tail”) into a second development section, a common habit of the 19th Century romanticists after Beethoven who found it a convenient way to prolong the conflict and add length (and tension) to the traditional Sonata-Allegro Form (“I'll take Expanding Traditional Musical Forms for 400, Alex...”).

The middle movements, as often with Brahms, are emotional contrasts as much in scope as in introspection. While his outer movements (whether in symphonies or his chamber music) tend to be large, open, and public, the inner movements are often more “interior,” personal, and perhaps retrospective or nostalgic. It is these qualities, particularly in his later pieces – this is, after all, Op.111 – that earn him the frequent adjective, “autumnal.”

The Adagio is perhaps mournful – D Minor was for Brahms a “tragic” key – dominated by the viola sonority (generally considered darker, compared to the violin), despite ultimately cadencing on a wistful D Major chord. The third movement, the place for the traditional minuet or scherzo, is here more of an intermezzo, again typical of Brahms: a gentle dance in G Minor contrasts with a softly swaying, “countrified” waltz – in Schubert's day, it was called a Ländler – and there's something that evokes the world of Schubert and, to an extent Dvořák, in this middle section, the “trio” of the third movement, especially when it's hinted at at the very end (one of those delicious moments when you realize not everything unexpected has to be dramatic).

Brahms & the "Red Hedgehog"
With the finale – Allegro vivace – we're back in the public world: keep in mind Brahms' reaction to his friend's comment, “Brahms in the Prater!” While there's no sign of Tamara Boomdier, it's a night on the town listening to a gypsy band – the Viennese equivalent of a New York pub-crawl through smoky jazz dives. In spite of an again dramatic development section (this is not just pure entertainment) which threatens to turn into a fugue (that most academic of musical procedures), everybody finally just kicks the tables back and starts to dance. Small wonder the official premiere created “a sensation.”

(This famous silhouette, btw, is code to show Brahms strolling off to Zum Roten Igel, the "Red Hedgehog," his favorite tavern!)

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So you might wonder, after hearing that ending, why Brahms went into this with the conviction it would be his last piece? It was his intention as he told his friends and his publisher he was going to retire after this. What, given this quintet, would make a composer think he'd written himself out?

As with any artistic nature – and the nature of artistic talent – this is not a decision one makes easily. Of course, there are those who keep plugging along, unaware each new work they produce is no match for earlier successes. Others make the bold decision to go out on a high note rather than wait to be told it's time to give it up. Sometimes it's for reasons of health or the realization that it's not fun any more or that it's become too much work.

Besides, while ideas became harder to come up with, the response from his friends, not just the public, following his 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto was disappointing. He began many new works he never finished.

Brahms (1890) & a friend
While on one last holiday in Italy, his seventh – an earlier one proved inspirational for the finale of his 2nd Piano Concerto – Brahms sketched some ideas for at least one new symphony. There may have been two, but one of them got far enough along he could play it on the piano for his friend (and frequent traveling companion) Theodore Billroth. Whatever the response was, Brahms, ever the perfectionist, destroyed it. Kalbeck, who'd heard the quintet's first rehearsal, assumed the opening of the quintet was originally meant to be the opening of a symphony. Imagine that becoming Brahms' 5th!

Before leaving for Italy, Brahms was having dinner with some friends when the great violinist Joachim “put in an order” for a new piece: “What shall we have next,” he asked, “a new quintet! We have one” – the F Major Quintet, Op.88, written eight years earlier – “a very fine one; let's have another.”

When Brahms returned from Italy, he headed for the village of Bad Ischl, not far from Salzburg and one of his frequent destinations to spend a summer composing before returning to the city and a winter spent performing and touring. There, he conjured up the G Major Quintet just as Joachim asked.

But it had become a time when he realized how music was moving into the future and Brahms, ever the conservative in an age of the avant-garde of Wagner and Liszt, found himself becoming increasingly irrelevant and so he decided he'd worked hard all his life and now it was time to sit back on his laurels and enjoy his retirement.

He was 57.


Fortunately for us (and especially for clarinetists everywhere) he met Richard Mühlfeld whose clarinet-playing would bring The Old Man out of retirement for a Clarinet Quintet, a Clarinet Trio, and two Clarinet Sonatas - but that's another chapter.

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Now, each work on the first program of this summer's Summermusic was connected by the time all three piano quartets were composed: between 1874 and 1878 (though officially Fauré added a new finale to his quartet in 1884).

The second program's works might be connected by their location, though over 100 years separated them: Mozart lived in the Landstrasse district of then suburban Vienna when he composed his G Minor String Quintet; and the mood of the Prater, just next door to the Landstrasse district, permeates the finale of Brahms String Quintet in G Major.

The third program consists of two works by Russian composers: Sergei Taneyev was a student of Tchaikovsky's and the two shared a long and productive friendship until Tchaikovsky died in 1893.

But there's also a connection to this program: while Brahms' Quintet was ostensibly a souvenir of a trip to Italy, Tchaikovsky's String Sextet is usually referred to by its subtitle, “Souvenir of Florence.” It was not so much the musical equivalent of holiday snapshots – there's the Capriccio Italien for that – but I'll tell you about that in the next post.

Oh, and I'll also tell you about a very icy dinner in which poor Mrs. Edvard Grieg couldn't stand the tension while sitting between Brahms on one side and Tchaikovsky on the other.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Summermusic 2018: Mozart For Five

Mozart in 1789
There are two more programs next week as Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2018 continues: the second program is on Sunday the 22nd at 4pm and the final program is on Wednesday the 25th ta 7:30pm, both inside at the air-conditioned Market Square Presbyterian Church in downtown Harrisburg. (Note the slightly earlier start-time on Wednesday of 7:30!)

While the first program included piano quartets – you can read about the earlier program in the previous posts, with early works by Dvořák and Mahler, here; and the Fauré, here – these two will feature three string quintets and a string sextet that was also a holiday souvenir.

It's Mozart and Brahms on Sunday; and an All-Russian Program on Wednesday the 25th with a little-known composer (in this country), Sergei Taneyev, and his better-known mentor, Tchaikovsky. This post introduces Mozart's G Minor String Quintet (K.516). You can check out the post for Brahms' Quintet in G Major, here.

Our performers for this concert are MSC Artistic Director Peter Sirotin and Leonid Ferents, violinists; Michael Stepniak and Blanka Bednarz, violists; and cellist Cheung Chau; cellist Fiona Thompson will join them for the third and final concert of the series.

Mozart entered the Quintet in G Minor, K.516, into his "thematic catalogue" on May 16th, 1787. It's in four movements: an opening Allegro in sonata-allegro form; the minuet is the second movement, here, not the more typical third movement, and so the slow movement, an Adagio ma non troppo (slow, but not too slow), has been moved to third place; and that's followed by the finale, an Allegro that is preceded by a long, slow introduction.

Here's a live performance, recorded in 1989 with a young Emerson Quartet (watching them at this part of their career just makes me smile), and joined by violist Kim Kashkashian. I love the performance, even if the opening banter while they're tuning is a bit of a distraction before such a dramatic opening (if you want, just skip ahead to 1:48 for the beginning of the performance).
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For those who like following the score, here's a recording with the Melos Quartet and violist Franz Beyer:
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(If the image is too small to follow the score, you can watch it directly on YouTube where you can enlarge it to your heart's – and eyes' – content.)

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Afterward, I'll include one of those Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presentations with Bruce Adolphe talking about the first two movements of the quintet: the talk is about 50 minutes, if you have time to follow it. Yes, it would make my work a lot easier just to post that and be done with it, but I have other ideas for my own post.

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In the first concert's post about the Dvořák and Mahler piano quartets – both “early” works in their careers – I talked a lot (as usual) about things like form and development and how student works sometime rarely transcend the level of an assignment (“write a text-book sonata form”) – even the Fauré piano quartet sticks fairly close to the book in the first two movements. There are things listeners expect and there's a certain amount of satisfaction when you hear what you expect: this is particularly true in the harmonic direction a phrase takes, the idea of digressing from a point and expecting it to resolve to some point (aaah!).

But without getting into the technical details of how or why Mozart does this, let's say from the outset, he is intent on not giving you what you expect: phrases don't always go where you think they should, rhythms don't always keep to regular patterns (there is the actual, written pattern and then there's the one you actually hear which often seems to be at odds with what's on the printed page – the minuet, a stately dance in 3, is a case in point: the second movement, here, is hardly easy to dance a stately minuet to!). Listening to it from this point-of-view, it's not hard to see why listeners who expected to be entertained by pleasant “expectations” appropriately resolved would find this piece especially startling – and therefore, more “dramatic” than we usually associate with the Classical Era in the 1780s.

But while “contrast” is a necessary part of music, often you'll hear something “unexpected” followed by something “expected” – perhaps the answering phrase does what you thought it would; or maybe the first phrase was okay but, man, the second one just took off and who knows what's going on now...

Among other things, you can also listen for the “conversational” quality of Mozart's instrumentation. The 1st Viola essentially becomes the equivalent of the 1st Violin, the usual melody-bearer in a quartet (don't forget, Mozart preferred to play the viola in chamber music!). Listen how fragments of the tune get passed from one instrument to another, as if sometimes they agree but sometimes they also disagree.

I always feel I'm listening to an opera in this piece, the way voices (instrumental voices, of course) respond to one another in the ensemble: the 1st Violin states the theme and then the 1st Viola restates the theme as if the soprano sings first, answered by the tenor. Later on there will be duets (often in thirds) for the pair of violins or the pair of violas, or the 1st violin and 1st viola. Not that the cello is left out, but it's like the baritone comes in to comment on what the others are singing about. And suddenly, I hear the textures of Mozart's comic opera about domestic duplicity, Cosí fan tutte which he didn't begin working on until two years after writing this quintet.

The minuet is full of these dramatic contrasts, from the off-beat “stabbing” chords in the second phrase which push the pulse away from the expected beat, to the beatific closing duet for the two violas during the middle-section which, if not extraordinary, is so calming, it's major purpose is to make you smile.

The slow movement is one of Mozart's most beautiful meditations. After the darker drama of the first two movements, both in the dark key of G Minor – famously for Mozart the most dramatic and personal of keys: he wrote only two symphonies in a minor key, and they're both in G Minor – the calm E-flat Major of the Adagio is like a respite: we've had our coffee, now let's sit back and talk of more pleasant things.

But note the “fracturing” of the ensemble, the wide separation between the 1st violin answered by the lower register restatement in the cello, before the middle voices fill it in and the phrase rounds out to the expected resolution back to E-flat Major (between 15:58–17:24 of the score video). This could've ended at 16:58, which is what you'd expect, listening to the harmony, until it resolves to a C Minor chord rather than the anticipated tonic of E-flat. This way, Mozart manages to pull you forward another 26 seconds, until that “oooh” moment finally turns into an “aaah” moment.

All is not entirely bright and cheerful in this slow movement: the contrasting passage becomes increasingly unsettled until, harmonically, it just wanders off into entirely unexpected keys in such a short space of time before – aah – finally resolving to where you'd expected it should've been going all along. Every now and then, he'll throw you an unexpected chord like a raised eyebrow before letting it go on as expected.

What you expect, then, is a last movement that becomes the usual “happy ending,” even in a work billed as being in G Minor. It would of course be in G Major. But instead, Mozart starts what sounds like another slow movement, but an infinitely sad one in the original key of G Minor.

Usually, composers in Mozart's and Haydn's times might use a “slow introduction” for the first movement, something to set the scene while the audience settles in (literally or figuratively), a curtain-raiser, if you will. But to do this before the finale is odd – and especially as it follows the slow movement itself (maybe, coming after the minuet, it would be another form of contrast).

By the time the final Allegro starts, you've heard a 3-minute slow movement that is neither introduction nor transition, open-ended and ready to turn over into the light-hearted rondo that concludes the piece. It's as if Mozart is setting up the “happy ending” with an even starker contrast of moods – the very internal, personal sadness of G Minor, here, with the extroverted, public expectation – which he would never have been able to make just going from the E-flat of the 3rd Movement directly to the G Major of the 4th.

As Maynard Solomon writes in his 1995 biography, “Mozart's twin adagios tell of many things, and among them may be the endlessness of our longing to return to sources, to start over, to find once again the place where it all began.”

At this point, we have no need for unexpected distractions and prolongations: the Rondo is fairly straightforward and ends with the balance and delight one would expect of an 18th Century Classical composer. To quote Jorge Luis Borges, “happiness does not need to be transformed; happiness is its own end.”

By the way, it's interesting to note that Haydn and Mozart occasionally played chamber music together and not just around the time Mozart was working on those six quartets he wrote “dedicated to Haydn.” There is evidence that, in the summer he returned from an unsuccessful trip to Berlin in June, 1789, he and Haydn played the viola parts for private performances of both the C Major and the G Minor string quintets. (Can you imagine being in that audience?!)

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Mozart completed the G Minor String Quintet on May 16th, 1787. He had finished its companion, the C Major String Quintet on April 19th. They are both majestic works in his output. It's interesting to see the juxtaposition of C Major and G Minor here. The following summer, he would write three symphonies for no apparent reason, and would finish the G Minor Symphony (No. 40, K.550) on July 25th, 1788, and then complete the C Major Symphony, the “Jupiter” (No. 41, K.551) on the 10th of August.

What was going on around the time he composed these two string quintets, then?

First of all, the plan was to produce a set of three – everything in those days was done in sets of three or six, like a “set” of string quartets consisting of contrasting ways of presenting a solution to the challenge of writing a string quartet (or whatever). But the story goes that Mozart was “negotiating” with the King of Prussia's court to become a court-composer there – a well-paying secure job, unlike the free-lancer's ups-and-downs he was experiencing (and suffering) in Vienna – but these went nowhere and so the two quintets were issued, along with a hastily arranged version of an earlier wind serenade in C Minor (K.388) since Mozart had other work he needed to concentrate on, a new opera to be premiered in Prague in October: Don Giovanni.

It is a sign of the times that, having offered subscriptions for these three works to finance their publication (the 18th Century approach to a Go-Fund-Me page), he had to admit in the press that as of June, 1788, “as the number of subscriptions is very small, I find myself obliged to postpone the publication of my three quintets until 1 January, 1789.”


There was one thing “going on” in his life. And it involved his father.

When Mozart decided to quit the family business in Salzburg – being a court musician to the Archduke there and follow in his father's footsteps, this despite years of traveling around Europe as a child prodigy hoping to find a more promising and lucrative position among the courts of numerous kings and emperors – and move to Vienna in 1781, his father lost all immediate control he had of his 25-year-old son's activities, both professional and personal. As Mozart is usually depicted, he was never one to deal comfortably with reality and while Leopold Mozart is often seen as a manipulating, over-protective stage-father in all this, it is true there was little love lost between them, especially after Mozart married Constanza Weber (the later composer, Carl Maria von Weber would be a cousin) whom Leopold strongly disapproved of (mostly out of fear her family would gobble up whatever fortune his son might be able to earn).

When Mozart's sister “Nannerl,” as she is known to history, had a son she named Leopold after her father, Leopold Sr now determined he would turn him into a child prodigy just as he had done with Wolfgang.

So when some of Wolfgang's friends were trying to arrange a tour England for him, perhaps find a decent position there, and write a number of works for the London audiences, no doubt a lucrative opportunity, Leopold refused to take care of Wolfgang and Constanza's children who were too young to travel. He was positive his hapless son and his worthless wife would stay in England and abandon their children to him, something he could little afford.

As it turned out, Mozart had to decline the offer – this was in January and February of 1787 – and on March 1st, when these friends stopped in Salzburg to see Leopold and deliver a letter from Mozart, Leopold wrote to Nannerl afterward he was relieved Mozart had not come along and sent his son a “fatherly reply” advising him he should not accept a tour there unless he had an advance agreement for a certain amount of money, that he shouldn't make the journey without having 2,000 florins in his pocket (in 1786, Mozart earned between 2600 and 3700 florins – when Haydn would travel to London in 1791, he would write 6 symphonies and earn about 24,000 florins).

As strained as their relationship was, there were moments – for instance the trip Leopold made to Vienna in 1785 and met Haydn, then easily the most famous composer in Europe, who told him his son was the greatest composer known to him – that must've made a father feel proud!

Leopold Mozart
But still, their correspondence becomes reserved and restricted to an exchange of news. In March, 1787, Leopold complained to Nannerl that he had not received “one letter of the alphabet” from his son. Most of his comments about him indicated he was constantly looking for proof that his son was incapable of taking care of his own affairs and that any financial problems he was having was brought about by extravagant wastefulness.

But in April, 1787, Mozart learned his father was “gravely ill” and he sent a letter dated April 4th – while working on the C Major String Quintet, finished two weeks later – in which, after hoping he would be recuperating soon, he implored his father not to hide the truth from him “so I may come to your arms as quickly as is humanly possible.”

It's clear, then, that once Mozart began work on the G Minor Quintet, keeping in mind how dramatic (and indeed darkly-tinged) this key was for Mozart, he knew his father was ill and, possibly, dying.

In the midst of all this, five days after completing the C Major Quintet, the Mozarts moved house, leaving a prestigious address, centrally located near St. Stephen's Cathedral, to the Landstrasse suburb, the result of economic necessity. His father wrote to Nannerl that Mozart told him about the move but made no explanation. Leopold told her "I can only guess why..."

Three weeks after this move, Mozart finished the G Minor Quintet.

Whatever Leopold wrote back to his son, however, did not survive but judging from other letters he'd written, his situation didn't seem that serious, yet. He had admitted to Nannerl in February that “for an old man there is no such thing as excellent health. There is always something wrong.” He was hoping with warmer weather would come with some improvement but instead he found out he had trouble with his heart, suffering from an accumulation of fluid. Another report indicates a doctor had diagnosed a “blockage of the spleen” in May.

On May 10th, Leopold wrote to a friend “I am no worse, thank God, and I hope for prolonged good weather so I might take the fresh air.” But then, not much later, a friend reported he hardly expected Leopold would last the summer.

Still, it is reported he died suddenly on May 28th – nine days after Mozart completed the lively Allegro that concludes his G Minor String Quintet. On May 29th, Mozart finished a Sonata for Piano Duet (two players at one keyboard), K.521, and a few days later wrote to a friend “I inform you that on returning home today I received the sad news of my most beloved father's death. You can imagine the state I am in.” But beyond this, there is no other mention of the news or his reaction to it.

Of course, it is easy to go from this to the new opera he was working on that spring which includes the ominous figure of the Commendatore, whom the “hero” kills in the opening scene and whose statue comes back to drag him off to Hell in the final scene, a great image in Milos Forman's film Amadeus, based on Peter Schaffer's play, but perhaps a bit of Monday Morning psychoanalyzing which may suit the 20th Century mindset, perhaps, but as far as Mozart is concerned, is all conjecture.

There is this, however. While Mozart has been accused of being hard-hearted by 20th Century critics since he didn't go to be with his father or attend the funeral, keep in mind the death, when it did come, came suddenly; that mail in those was not like e-mail or social media today, taking at least three days to get from Salzburg to Vienna (even that, by modern postal standards, can seem fairly fast); nor was it like hopping on a jet or even a train to arrive in Salzburg later the same day. Considering the fact Leopold would probably have been buried even by the time Mozart had received the news, it would take most likely six or seven days to go by stage-coach from Vienna to Salzburg.

And there is also this: on June 4th, Mozart wrote a poetic tribute to his pet starling who'd just died, a bird who'd learned to sing a tune from one of his piano concertos (No. 17 in G, K.453). It seems frivolous to have left a memento like that and not write at least something about his father. Still, though there are no other major works composed during the two months following Leopold's death, on June 14th he did complete the Musical Joke, that paean to a generic and otherwise overly not-quite-talented court composer (as Mozart often viewed much of his “competition”) and then finished its companion, a work of true genius if not simple perfection, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, on August 10th.

Meanwhile, he proceeded to work more in depth on his next big project, the opera, Don Giovanni.

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To conclude, here's one of those Lincoln Center programs with Bruce Adolphe to explain it all for you: the topic, here, the first two movements of Mozart's String Quintet in G Minor, K.516. If you have the 50 minutes to listen to it, consider it an excellent pre-concert talk complete with live illustrations. The remainder of the clip is a live performance by the Amphion Quartet with violist Matthew Lipman of the first two movements of the quintet.
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Okay, my work here is done.

Click here to read the post on the Brahms String Quintet in G Major, Op.111, which concludes the program on Sunday, July 22nd, at 4:00 – and for future posts on the Taneyev String Quintet and Tchaikovsky's “Souvenir of Florence” on Wednesday, July 25th's concert (and a reminder that the start-time for that one is 7:30pm).

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Summermusic 2018: Fauré & his 1st Piano Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that's another chapter...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dick Strawser