Friday, November 13, 2020

A Weekend with Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Part 2: Two Composers from Mexico, Two More from Argentina

This Sunday at 4pm in Harrisburg's Whitaker Center, Cuarteto Latinoamericano will be performing a program of quartets by Latin American composers. Part 1 of this concert's post was about Heitor Villa-Lobos and his 5th String Quartet which opens the program. This one explores three shorter works by Manuel Ponce and Gabriela Ortiz from Mexico, and Astor Piazzolla from Argentina, along with the 1st String Quartet by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera.

Villa-Lobos met Ponce in Paris in the 1920s, and wrote “I remember asking him at that time if the composers of his country were as yet taking an interest in native music, as I had been doing [in Brazil] since 1912, and he answered he himself had been working in that direction. It gave me great joy to learn that in that distant part of my continent there was another artist who was arming himself with the resources of the folklore of his people in the struggle for the future musical independence of his country.”

Manuel Ponce was a year older than Villa-Lobos and, the twelfth child in the family, was considered a musical prodigy, sitting down at the piano after his sister's piano lesson and playing back the piece she had just been playing: he was 4 years old. At age 9, while recuperating from a common childhood disease, he wrote his first composition, called, appropriately, La Marcha del Sarampion or “The March of the Measles.”

Manuel Ponce in his studio, 1920

Though he composed three concertos and a handful of orchestral and chamber works, he was primarily a composer of pieces for solo piano, for guitar, and, his primary love it seems, songs. And if he wrote nothing else, he will remain world-famous for one little song he composed in 1912 at the age of 30. I suppose one could do worse than be famous for having written Estrellita (“Little Star”).

There are two schools of thought on this. One is that it was a song Ponce composed in the popular style and published it with a series of piano pieces, many of which were arrangements of actual folk or popular songs. The other is that Ponce merely arranged an already existing tune and therefore didn't really compose it, doing what a lot of composers in Europe were doing, transcribing folk songs from hearing them being sung by “the people.”

One thing is certain: Ponce sold the pieces outright so there was no copyright under his name, regardless. He didn't make a cent off the piece. He could have retired a very wealthy man on the royalties from Estrellita. But such is life...

When Jascha Heifetz was touring in Mexico in 1923 and realizing he had no music by a Mexican composer to put on his program, he heard someone sing Estrellita in a cafe that evening, jotted it down on a napkin, quickly wrote out an arrangement of it and played it at a concert the next night. It would become one of his favorite encores.

(This is cellist Álvaro Bitrán's arrangement of Heifetz's arrangement of what could well be Ponce's arrangement of the popular song, Estrellita...)

Ponce's Gavotte (or Gavota) was originally a piano piece published in 1913, a year after Estrellita. Rather than being inspired by Mexican popular music, it brings to mind the European salon music in an Italian style that was the preferred sound of classical music in Mexican social circles at the time.


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Gabriela Ortiz, one of the leading composers in Mexico today, was born in Mexico City in 1964. Her father was an architect and her mother was a psychoanalyst but they were also founders of one of Mexico's leading folk music ensembles. While folk music is "where it began" for her, her own musical style eventually incorporated traditional classical styles mixed with rock, African, and Afro-Cuban influences as well as the world of “electro-acoustics.”

As a teenager, her piano teacher introduced her to some of the Mikrokosmos of Bela Bartók"For me, it was a window open to the 20th century music. That definitely changed my mind in a completely new way," Ortiz says. "And then I decided: I want to be a composer."

The composer writes this about this particular work which is the last movement of Altar de Muertos (“Altar of the Dead”) which was commissioned and premiered by the Kronos Quartet in 1997:

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Gabriela Ortiz
“The tradition of the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico is the source of inspiration for the creation of Altar de Muertos, for string quartet, whose ideas could reflect the internal search between the real and the magic, a duality always present in Mexican culture, from the past to the present.

“Altar de Muertos is divided into four parts, each of these describes diverse moods, traditions, and the spiritual worlds which shape the concept of death in Mexico, plus my own personal concept of death.”

Of the last movement specifically, she adds, “Syncretism and the concept of death in modern Mexico, chaos and the richness of multiple symbols, where the duality of life is always present: sacred and profane; good and evil; night and day; joy and sorrow.

This movement reflects a musical world full of joy, vitality and a great expressive force.

At the end of La Calaca I decided to quote a melody of Huichol origin, which attracted me when I first heard it. That melody was sung by Familia de la Cruz. The Huichol culture lives in the State of Nayarit, Mexico. Their musical art is always found in ceremonial and ritual life. (Optional: Each musician can put a Mexican mask on.)”

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(Given the Age of the Mask we're currently living in, I was wondering if the quartet will wear actual “Mexican Masks” for the Day of the Dead, or perhaps a Covid19 Mask with the grinning mouth of a traditionalMexican sugar skull?) 

While her "sound" is full of color, in this string quartet she uses Aztec percussion instruments called huesos de fraile or "friars' bones" that the musicians attach to their ankles.

"Every time they see an accent on the score, they have to step," Ortiz says. "It's a very energetic movement, very rhythmic and it has a lot of influence from the 'Danza de Concheros' ... one of the oldest dances that we know [from] when the Spanish came."

Last year, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, spoke with NPR about the recent premiere of Gabriela Ortiz's new choral work, Yenga. "Gabriela is one of the most talented composers in the world, not only in Mexico, not only in our continent — in the world. She has an ability to bring colors, to bring rhythm [and] harmonies that connect with you. That is something beautiful, something unique."

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And now, to Argentina!

Astor Piazzolla with Bandoneon

There's probably no name in Latin American music better known around the world than Astor Piazzolla's. And while he went to Paris in 1954 to study with Nadia Boulanger in hopes of becoming a great composer of “concert music” – whatever one calls “serious” classical music – he was disappointed when he played some of his compositions (trying to hide his “tango past”) which failed to impress her. It wasn't until he played his tango “Triunfal” that she congratulated him because that, she said, was where his true talent was, where his most natural voice was to be found
in the musical past he was trying to hide.

And so he gave up his dreams of becoming a “classical composer” writing symphonies and instead incorporated a lot of what he was learning in his compositional studies – the ideas of structure, development, even such an old-fashioned scholastic exercise like counterpoint, not to mention the use of color in how you write for instruments – and applied them to the world of the popular dance, especially the tango. This new style of his became, suitably enough, known as Nuevo Tango.

You've heard the expression “it takes two to tango”? In this case, it takes four, and this was composed in 1987. Piazzolla was in New York at the time and went backstage after a concert by the Kronos Quartet to congratulate them when David Harrington, Kronos' first violinist, asked if he could call him in a few days. When Harrington called, Piazzolla had already written "Four for Tango" for them. 

The road to fame is more complex than that famous anecdote about Boulanger: how did he become a good enough composer for Boulanger to accepted him as a student in the first place?

Meeting Artur Rubinstein (see previous post re:his meeting Villa-Lobos) in Buenos Aires in the 1940s, Piazzolla was inspired by his suggestions to study the music of Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók, and especially to study with Alberto Ginastera (see below). Both urged him to pursue studies in Paris, so when he won a scholarship following a performance of a symphonic work despite the fact a fight broke out in the audience between those for and against the presence of not one but two bandoneons, that traditional accordion-like instrument of the typical tango band, in a traditional orchestra!

Say what you want about Wikipedia, but I found this line very telling, wherever it came from: “In his musical professionalism and open-minded attitude to existing styles he held the mindset of an 18th-century composing performer such as Handel or Mozart, who were anxious to assimilate all national "flavors" of their day into their own compositions, and who always wrote with both first-hand performing experience and a sense of direct social relationship with their audiences.”

And I think that about sums up the divide between what classical music aficionados call “serious music” [sic – as if rock bands and jazz musicians are not “serious”!] and “music for entertainment” [as if Beethoven and Elliott Carter cannot entertain those who enjoy their most complex works!].

As Roger Sessions, himself usually regarded as a cerebral composer, once wrote, "Every composer whose music seems difficult to grasp is, as long as the difficulty persists, suspected or accused of composing with his brain rather than his heart – as if the one could function without the other."

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This same sense of identity is at the heart of another Argentine composer's musical and spiritual identity, Alberto Ginastera, whose 1st String Quartet closes the program.

Before there was even the glimmer of a pandemic on the horizon, concerts have often had to weather the outrageous fortunes of, say, sudden snow storms like the one that canceled the appearance of the Enso Quartet in January, 2016, where they'd programmed Ginastera's String Quartet No. 1. However, for the time they were able to reschedule the concert, one player was unable to make it so a substitute was brought in (it happens) who had never played Ginastera's 1st but had played Ginastera's 2nd, and so they substituted one quartet for the other. It still fit in with 2016 being the year of the Ginastera Centennial.

This post, then, is merely a reworking of that 2016 introduction. Interestingly, the video I'd used for the performance was the one by Cuarteto Latinoamericano. And now – finally – we get to hear Ginastera's String Quartet No. 1 in Harrisburg and with Cuarteto Latinoamericano.


Alberto Ginastera
Just listening to the first few minutes of the opening, this is not your grandfather's collection of folksy dance tunes! Even the tempo indication – Allegro violento ed agitato (Violently Fast and Agitated) – lets you know he's aiming right between the eyes.

While the contrasts are between different types of violence and agitation in the first movement, mostly in the sense of rhythmic propulsion with a savage folkloric theme of limited scope over hammered, crunching chords, the second movement, beginning at 4:25, brings in an aspect of “magic” with its element of the supernatural (that old black magic), more than a Disney-style sense of fantasy, but with contrasts between the colors of playing close to the bridge (the glassy sounds at 4:35 and again at 7:00), the plucked strings against the hypnotically repeated perpetual motion on a single tone that expands at 6:00, which itself contrasts with the odd scurrying passages, not to forget the col legno passage at 7:18 where the players tap on the strings with the wooden backs of the bow rather than the bow-hairs! So much color and so much variety in just a few minutes.

The long slow movement, beginning at 8:00 – a contrast in length as well as tempo after two brief and concentrated fast movements (one violent, one eerily mysterious) – again brings Bartók to mind, his famous brand of “night music” where, rather than the romantic moonlit nocturnes of Chopin, we hear the sounds of nature complete with insects and other strange noises we're not sure of and, on occasion, even frogs (Bartók's son Peter, in his memoir, My Father, describes how the composer was fascinated by the sounds of the night at his uncle's farm, especially the frogs). The music slowly unfolds in simple intervals creating long sustained chords, full of silences and anticipation with fragments of melodies slow to evolve. These chords are based on (or comparable to) the tunings one might expect from a guitar. And the expansiveness is something one might experience alone under the stars of the great Pampas of rural Argentina.

The final movement – a dance – begins at 16:25 and is marked allegramente rustico or “cheerfully rustic,” the closest thing Ginastera has created to an overt folk-dance in this quartet, especially in its contrasting 5/8 sections. And while four string players might “kill” to be able to create the kind of “louder/faster” frenzy a huge orchestra can bring to, say, the conclusion of Estancia, there are ways of building to a sonorous and rhythmically exciting end.

Alberto Ginastera's cat reacts to a particularly spicy chord

How many Argentine composers other than Alberto Ginastera and Astor Piazzolla can you name? Surely, they didn't spring up, like Minerva, fully formed from the beginning of musical time in that Latin American nation? And as we saw with Piazzolla's influences, Ginastera was a major inspiration. So where did he come from?

Born to a Catalan father and an Italian mother, Ginastera was already studying piano, theory and composition at the age of 12 in the “Williams Conservatory,” founded by the Argentine-born composer Alberto Williams in 1893 (he had studied with Cesar Franck in Paris). While a senior in 1937, Ginastera composed a ballet, Panambí, (which one reviewer in 1998 described as “a seductive work that sounds like Ravel on growth hormones”) that, after a suite was premiered at Argentina's major concert hall, Teatro Colón, established his national reputation. When the full ballet was staged for the first time in 1940, Ginastera won several national and local prizes for music.

The next year, the young composer met Aaron Copland, then on a Latin American tour with the American Ballet Caravan (they'd produced Copland's ballet, Billy the Kid). On the strength of Panambí, the company's director, Lincoln Kirstein, commissioned Ginastera to compose a ballet for them which would become Estancia. A suite of four dances from the ballet – about the life of the gauchos on a ranch in the Pampas (basically) – remains one of his most frequently performed works, and the “Danza final” (a malambo) remains his greatest hit.

Unfortunately, the American dance company folded and was unable to produce Estancia, so a collection of four dances from the ballet was premiered in 1943 (the ballet itself wasn't staged at the Teatro Colón until ten years later) but the composer received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to study in America, a trip that had to be postponed because of the war. In 1941, he had already been appointed a professor of composition at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires and also the “chair of music” at the General San Martín Military School, a post he was dismissed from when Juan Perón came to power. That December (1945), he and his family moved to the United States where he studied with Copland and heard some of his music performed by the League of American Composers in New York City and by the Pan-American Union in Washington, DC.

Returning to Argentina as his international reputation grew, he helped establish a local league of composers that became the Argentine division of the International Society for Contemporary Music (known as ISCM) in 1948. He also became the director of the Conservatory in La Plata (just outside Buenos Aires), and from this year on, he would make frequent trips to Europe as a representative of Argentine music.

I mention these events in detail because it was in 1948 that he composed the 1st String Quartet that concludes our program.

It's important to realize that, looking back on his career, Ginastera himself would later say this quartet marked the dividing line between his early style and his “second” period. He was now 32 – think of Beethoven who, at 30, was moving into what is universally called his “Middle Period” following his first set of quartets and the 1st Symphony – and what Ginastera called his “objective nationalism” with its strong influence of “creole music” like Estancia, with its overt use of gaucho folk-songs and dance rhythms.

This new 2nd Period he called his “subjective nationalism,” where, while elements of folk music are still in evidence, it's not nearly so explicit and often more like what other composers had been doing internationally – think “Bartók” – but with an Argentine accent.

Bela Bartók had started quoting elements of folk music in his own music, having moved on from mere transcriptions, and then began absorbing it into his more abstract style, what he often called “imaginary folksong.” The fingerprints of the folk style were present but the melodic and rhythmic materials were original, significant building-blocks of many of his major works, especially the 3rd, 4th, and 5th String Quartets.

Ginastera w/Students

Other aspects of the international style were absorbed into Ginastera's evolving language: he would use serialism (which most composers were using in one way or another in the 1950s) but not in any especially doctrinaire manner, influenced more by Berg and the expressionist atonality of Schoenberg than the rigorous approach of Webern and, particularly, Boulez (who even worked with serializing rhythms and dynamics as well as pitch). He would use polytonality – the presence of different layers of tonality but each strand in a different key – and “micro-tonality” (the use of quarter-tones) as well as elements of chance (the “aleatoric” music of John Cage, for instance). Above all, even though he was still disposed to “traditional forms” like the sonata or variations, he would “revitalize” them in his own, often different ways.

His music always had a rhythmic drive – often ferocious as you can hear in the Final Dance from Estancia – and he was above all fascinated by instrumental color, preferring to find new colors from combinations of standard instruments rather than using electronics. It was not unusual for his music to move along like a kaleidoscope of "sound-images" though with an underlying core of what constituted Ginastera's own “voice” so a casual listener might not notice the diversity. In other words, subjectivity aside, despite its technical variety, it would sound entirely consistent.

Keeping in mind that “dissonance” is technically a sound that implies the need for resolution – as a Dominant 7th Chord in Haydn is still technically a dissonance needing to resolve to a tonic chord – Ginastera's use of dissonance is often more a matter of color or rhythm (in a sense) than just the idea of creating harsh sounds. You can hear this in the aggressive opening of the 1st Quartet - which in the process generates a lot of the music's drive.

In the end, Ginastera has created a string quartet – something so associated with European culture and its history of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms (and Bartók) – that is at home on any world stage and brings with it echoes of his homeland, letting everyone else know that, yes, there is music in Argentina – and it sounds like this.

There is much more to Ginastera's music in the 35 years he continued to compose – interestingly, in the last years of his life, he talked about how his music was becoming less aggressive, returning not so much to the folk music of his past but to the folk music before his past.

“This change is taking the form of a kind of reversion, a going back to the primitive America of the Mayas, the Aztecs, and the Incas. This influence in my music I feel as not folkloric, but – how to say it? – as a kind of metaphysical inspiration. In a way, what I have done is a reconstitution of the transcendental aspect of the ancient pre-Columbian world.”

So with his first quartet, we hear a composer, now in his 30s, reaching out to create a style that synthesizes the national and the personal – that will, by the time he is in his late-60s, return to find deeper roots to inspire him but to continue evolving an individual voice.

Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 12, 2020

A Weekend with Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Part 1: A Chance to Travel without Walls and Travel Bans - First Stop, Brazil

: Cuarteto Latinoamericano 

What: Works for String Quartet by Latin-American composers Heitor Villa-Lobos, Manuel Ponce, Gabriela Ortiz, Astor Piazzolla, and Alberto Ginastera 

When: Sunday, November 15th, at 4:00pm 

Where: Whitaker Center, Market Street between 2nd & 3rd Streets, Harrisburg PA  

You don't need to be fluent in Spanish to understand the name chosen by Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Founded by three Chilean-born brothers and a friendly violist in Mexico City in 1982, the quartet consists of 1st Violinist Saúl Bitrán, 2nd Violinist Arón Bitrán, Cellist Álvaro Bitrán, and Violist Javier Montiel. Starting off with the usual repertoire of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and the like, they've gone on to become internationally famous as exponents of music by Latin American composers. 

Their program with Market Square Concerts this Sunday at Whitaker Center brings quartets by well-known composers like Heitor Villa-Lobos from Brazil and Alberto Ginastera from Argentina, as well as a popular dance by perhaps the most recognizable name among Argentine composers, Astor Piazzolla (if Johann Strauss, Jr., is known as the Waltz King because of his specialty, certainly Piazzolla is the Tango King).

To this, add one of the most popular Mexican songs, “Estrellita” by Manuel Ponce, and a newer composer, Gabriela Ortiz who was born in Mexico City in 1964 and grew up in a family of folk musicians. Her own musical style incorporates traditional classical styles interspersed with rock, African and Afro-Cuban influences as well as the world of “electro-acoustics.” 

You can read the second half of this post - about the Mexican and Argentinian part of the program - here.  

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As many of you are aware of – every time you put on your mask and step outside into the real world – 2020 has been a year unlike any of us imagined possible. And while it has severely impacted our opportunities to eat at a restaurant or attend a live concert, even the idea of going shopping for groceries or traveling or sending the kids to school – or vote in an election – is nothing like what we used to call “normal.”

And so our programs at Market Square Concerts, like every other concert-giving organization, has had to learn how to be flexible.

If you remember back what seems like a few years when we announced the new season, the November concert featured guitarist Jiji along with the Cuarteto Latinoamericano in a program that included the famous Quintet for Guitar and Strings by Luigi Boccherini. But Jiji who teaches at the Arizona State University was unable to perform because of the university's general out-of-state travel ban due to the Pandemic.

The quartet, however, was able to fill out the program on their own – not a problem, given the scope of their repertoire – and since they are currently in residence in Boston, they can drive to Harrisburg and remain safe in the process.

However, their original violist will be unable to attend and so Carlos Boltes will substitute for him. But he has played with them so often, he's practically one of the band already, so it's not like he's some free-lancer sitting there trying to figure out how to fit in with three brothers who've been playing together all their collective lives.

And so, our first stop - Brazil. 

The opening work on the program is the String Quartet No. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Here's a video with Cuarteto Latinoamericano that might prove a bit distracting if you pay too much attention to the setting. I should also mention one other thing you might overlook with that: they're all playing from memory.

(This video was recorded at Las Pozas in Mexico, a collection of architectural sculptures in an Eden-like rain-forest. Another video, with the score for those of you who want to follow along, also uses the Cuarteto's recording.)

"How many quartets did I write before this one?" Actually Villa-Lobos is demonstrating one of the hand-gestures he developed to indicate "do-re-mi" pitches when conducting children's choirs of a thousand or more.
("How many quartets did I write before this one?" Actually Villa-Lobos is demonstrating one of the hand-gestures he developed in the 1930s to indicate "do-re-mi" pitches when conducting children's choirs of a thousand or more.)

Written in 1931 when he was in his mid-40s, Villa-Lobos' 5th Quartet, unusual among his 17 quartets for using genuine folk material, is subtitled "Quarteto popular," referring to his use of actual popular Brazilian melodies incorporated into the work's traditional texture and structure. Later in his life, Villa-Lobos himself (quoted in a 1991 article) considered this quartet one of his weaker compositions. If, like me, you find yourself enjoying it on first (or tenth) hearing, the composer's own attitude might come as a surprise. Though undated, as far as I can tell, it's probably from a period in the late-1950s following a resurgence of his international fame following this period of “nationalist isolation” in the 1930s-to-mid-1940s (but I'll get to that in a minute).

The tempo of the first movement, marked Poco Andantino, changes frequently, ranging from Lento to Presto. The impression is one of a kaleidoscopic patchwork of tunes in delightful settings. This is often the case in works based on popular melodies or folk tunes which defy the classical traditions of development. Rather than consider it a weakness (because it's not one thing), you should just take it for what it is (another).

In the third movement, a unison theme suggests Indian music, but the fourth, in a steady Allegro, uses a series of children's tunes from his collection, Guia prático, including "O Bastão ou mia gato" (The Stick or a Cat's Meow), played in harmonics in all four instruments.

In the United States, Heitor Villa-Lobos is remembered primarily as the creator of an authentic Brazilian Voice in Classical Music, blending a European colonial heritage (like the USA which speaks English, Brazil speaks Portuguese) with indigenous folk music as well as the imported European-based folk music, European classical music of the upper classes and the local popular music that grew out of “all-of-the-above.”

He also composed between 1930 and 1945 nine pieces he called Bachianas Brasileiras (Bach-inspired Brazilian pieces), adding to his inspirational sources his love of Bach. The most famous, No. 5 with its soprano and eight cellos, was written originally in 1938. But he'd already incorporated neoclassicism (the early-20th Century retrospective on music from the 18th Century) by 1913, before it became popular in Paris with Poulenc and his friends in Les Six. Yet it was the result of his exposure to the amazing world of 1920s Paris (Roaring, indeed) that inspired him anew.

Around 1918, coincidentally the end of World War I, Villa-Lobos decided to liberate his style from European romantic traditions and began listening more to the music around him. A string quartet intended to reflect Brazilian urban life did not fare well at a 1922 festival of new music in São Paolo. The great pianist Artur Rubinstein played Villa-Lobos' 1918 suite A prole do bebê (“The Baby's Family,” inspired by a collection of dolls) and while today we know it only through its brilliant toccata-like finale, Polichinelle, one of Rubinstein's favorite encores, the music was apparently too intellectual for the audience and was booed. As he told Rubinstein, “I'm still too good for them.” Perhaps, with a title like that, they were expecting a remake of Debussy's Golliwog's Cakewalk?

Anyway, Rubinstein suggested he go to Paris, the current hot-spot for modern art following the War. He had made two extended visits to Paris in the mid-to-late-1920s, intended to stay there, renting an apartment in the famous Latin Quarter. But in 1930, he returned to Brazil to conduct some concerts before returning to Paris. Unfortunately (or not), the timing was not good.

And this is where Art and Politics collide.

This post is not the place to get into the details of such a complicated history nor do I want to get into political arguments and what it meant that Villa-Lobos was an artistic supporter of the ideals of the Revolution and its charismatic leader who became a dictator similar in his own ways with the Fascists of Germany and Italy. I point this out only because too many Americans listen to music as if it were created in a complete vacuum and that whatever reality the artist was living in and creating in has no bearing on Art.

What is generally called Brazil's “Old Republic” was sinking into turmoil, with no help from the worldwide Great Depression of 1929. The economic chaos it created was not just something which made life difficult in America and which factored heavily in the rise of European Fascists like Hitler and Mussolini. With the start of a grass-roots revolution led by Gen. Getúlio Vargas the following year that eventually brought down Brazil's government, the Revolution of 1930 meant money could no longer be taken out of the country, and so Villa-Lobos had no means of traveling abroad much less paying rent in Paris.

Forced to stay in Brazil, he arranged concerts instead around São Paulo, and composed patriotic and educational music. Involved with Vargas' educational reforms at the “Superintendancy for Musical and Artistic Education,” or SEMA – he became director in 1932 – his duties included arranging concerts like the Brazilian premieres of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and Bach's B Minor Mass as well as various Brazilian compositions. Villa-Lobos participated fully in the re-invention of Brazil's music education and created massed choral patriotic spectacles that today we would consider “propaganda.”

His involvement with SEMA led him to compose mainly patriotic and propagandist works but Villa-Lobos also composed five string quartets – Nos 5 through 9 – which explored the possibilities his “public music” opened up and now dominated his output. It is important to note that because of the political situation in Brazil as well as World War II in Europe, Villa-Lobos was unable to travel until after President Vargas was overthrown in 1945. However, his political support and involvement in propaganda music for Vargas' initially benign regime damaged his reputation among younger composers looking for a more universal musical style after the War. Still, his “liberation” of Brazilian music from a kind of European musical colonialism is an important aspect of his legacy.

Almost immediately after the fall of the Vargas regime, Villa-Lobos returned to the international scene and was recognized as a leading composer with numerous commissions, not all of which were well received. His last completed string quartet, his 17th, was ready in 1957 but premiered in Washington DC only two years later. The composer died a month later without knowing it had ever been performed.

Villa-Lobos on the 500 Crusados bill, currency used only between 1986-1989 but in time for the Villa-Lobos Centennial

One of his last projects was a 1959 film score for Hollywood, the movie Green Mansions starring Audrey Hepburn as a girl from the jungles of South America who falls in love with a Venezuelan adventurer played by Anthony Perkins (who, the following year, would star in Psycho). Unfortunately, after Villa-Lobos composed and conducted the recording of the complete film score, most of it ended up on the cutting-room floor and someone else was brought in to provide more "suitable" music. The movie was also one of the few flops in Hepburn's career, but that's another story.

 - Dick Strawser


Sunday, October 4, 2020

Stepping Into the Future: Dancing and Improvising As We Go

It's hard to believe the last time we had a chance to gather in public and listen to live music was in February! While that may feel like over 610 days ago, the Pandemic has changed everything in our lives, not the least for many of us the ability to play and listen to music in a live setting shared with friends. And while we may not yet be “back to normal,” even if it feels like we're dancing on the wrong end of a pin, a journey of a thousand miles still begins with a single step.

Mark Markham
And so we start the season with pianist Mark Markham in a recital starting at 7:30 on Tuesday, October 6th in Whitaker Center – where there's ample opportunity to maintain social distancing – and while lots of things have changed (and will no doubt continue to change as the season unfolds) since the announcement of the 2020-2021 Season, we all take a deep breath and move forward.

Mark Markham is at home as a recitalist, concerto soloist, collaborative pianist who performed with the late soprano Jessye Norman for twenty years, as well as a jazz pianist. He offers a program called "Cances and Improvisations" with works by Bach, Ravel, Chopin, and Poulenc before closing with a series of Improvisations from "The American Songbook." This program "celebrates the unique freedom of expression found by great composers in transcending both genres while creating evocative and beguiling musical gems.

You may remember Mr. Markham's last visit to Harrisburg in 2018, when he appeared as a soloist with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra performing Ravel's Piano Concerto, and gave piano and vocal masterclasses at Messiah University, then played an unforgettable recital for MSC's audience including Liszt's monumental Piano Sonata.

A rare late-March snowstorm made it impossible for some of you to attend Mr. Markham's recital then. Here is a recording of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in B Major, Op. 32, No. 11, from that performance

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Please note that TICKET SALES for upcoming Oct 6 concert presenting Mark Markham are CLOSED due to the current PA indoor gathering limits for performing venues. Option to purchase the 30-day access to either audio or videorecording of the performance is still available via EventBrite. For more information, contact Anne or call 717-221-9599.

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So let's begin with Bach. Here is Andras Schiff recorded ten years ago playing the C Minor “French Suite” with which Mark Markham begins his program.


Why Bach's “French Suites” are called French Suites is bit like the old joke about the French Horn (which is German) and the English Horn (which is French). Twelve years after Bach died, a biographer first referred to his set of six keyboard suites as French Suites because they were written in the French Style. Presumably, this has been explained, the different dances making up the various suites are French dances. Of course, the very first dance is an Allemande (which means “German” in French). 

The second movement is a Courante (in French) but Bach often spells it Corrente (in Italian): in these suites, however, he always uses the French spelling. The stately Sarabande was originally a lively dance with castanets that reached Spain by way of Guatemala and Mexico in the 16th Century. The Menuet (or Minuet) is actually a French dance and the concluding Gigue is not far removed from its origin in the English Jig! 

The last of these French Suites also includes a Polonaise, which is of Polish origins as the name implies, but it is far removed from the national spirit one hears reflected in the piano works of Frederic Chopin.

Now, each of these became stylized as courtly dances with their own special steps with specific time signatures (duple or triple time) and rhythmic patterns. By the time they became instrumental movements, they were no longer intended to be “danced” at those aristocratic or upper-class social gatherings we see in BBC adaptations of period dramas, but their origins in The Dance were unmistakable.

(For the sake of confusion, compare the French Suite's dances with those in Bach's six English Suites, here which were inspired by his interest in French lute music.)

Unlike classical-era composers who would set out a project to write and publish a set of six string quartets, say, Bach would write his suites whenever he felt like it and later, when in a cataloguing mood, gather them together in some kind of compendium like the six individual concertos that became The Brandenburg Concertos (even the great Mass in B Minor is a compilation of mass movements written over a span of years and not initially intended as a single work). The French Suites were composed between 1722 and 1725 (the first could be dated earlier, there's no way of knowing), while the English Suites are earlier, written between 1713 and 1714.

Perhaps the major distinction, if you compare this 2nd Suite in C Minor to more familiar keyboard works of Bach, like The Well-Tempered Clavier, is the texture. It's entirely right-hand-melody/left-hand-bass-line throughout – what we call “two-part writing” – not playing actual chords but implying them in the way the lines move, giving us the aural perception of chords. Yet while there's none of the dense texture we associate with fugal writing – follow along with this adaptation of the C Minor Fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier  – it is intensely “polyphonic” with two entirely independent voices in which the left-hand is not subservient to plunking out the bass-notes of the harmony.

Compare this also with the opening of the Chopin Andante spianato (coming up after the Ravel) where the melody in the right hand is supported by a choral accompaniment in the left hand. Bach's style is called polyphonic (two or more voices or layers); Chopin's is called homophonic (one melodic layer with accompaniment).

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Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales (which nicely translates to “Noble & Sentimental Waltzes”) is a suite of eight contrasting waltzes composed for piano in 1911. They take their inspiration in the strings of waltzes written by Franz Schubert, the Valses nobles (in French despite his Viennese location) in 1823 and the Valses sentimentales presumably in 1827. While Schubert's were intended to be danced to at house parties – one reason they'd been dismissed as “salon music” – it be unwise to roll up the rug and try dancing to Ravel's waltzes, though they are wonderfully choreographable. Schubert couldn't dance to save his soul but he loved to sit at the piano and improvise for hours so his friends could enjoy a good dance party. Ravel initially had other ideas, here...


 From that clatter-bang of an opening that set its initial audience's teeth on edge, to the magic of its dream-like ending, Ravel explored different ways of “waltzing” in its variety of tempos and moods, even in its styles, mixing various “modernist” techniques with impressionistic harmonies. He was fascinated by the waltz, beginning work on what eventually became the famous tone-poem La Valse as early as 1906 – he eventually completed and published it in 1919, after World War I – and this set explores many of his eclectic viewpoints but without specifying which are “noble” and which, “sentimental” (one assumes the slow ones are “sentimental” in our sense of the word, but not all the fast ones seem so “noble” to us). The final waltz is an Epilogue, with fragments of the previous waltzes floating through our consciousness before fading into memory.

There's the famous story of their premiere at a 1911 concert where all-new works were presented anonymously so listeners could judge the music on what they heard rather than on any pre-conceived reactions to the composers' names. Of course, the whole point, eventually, boiled down to trying to figure out who wrote what!

Judging from initial reactions, given the boos and cat-calls during the performance, many thought the pianist was hitting wrong notes on purpose, that it was a nose-thumbing parody. As Ravel recalled it, “a minute majority” guessed he was to blame, though Erik Satie and other French modernists of the previous generation like D'Indy and Charles Koechlin were among those suggested (whoever could imagine Satie writing such a piece!?). Of the other composers on the program, none are well-known to modern American audiences and without further research I'm at a loss to figure out what François Couperin was doing there...

Ravel sat in a box surrounded by friends (mostly amateur musicians and socialites) who soon joined in the cat-calls, “protesting indignantly over the presentation of such mediocre buffoonery.” As all composers on the program had promised to keep their involvements a secret, Ravel remained silent. But after the performance and before the Big Reveal, a well-known critic and supporter of Ravel's told him (to his face), “You are mistaken in trying to dupe us by putting such a 'lemon' on this program. Nobody has been fooled. It is obviously the work of an amateur who has heard some waltzes by Chopin and intended imitating them. But the total absence of craftsmanship is too evident. It shows itself so clearly! He is a shabby fellow, this composer! We shouldn't be taken for imbeciles, you know!” and then stormed off. (Related by Emile Vuillermoz in his biography on Fauré who overheard this conversation.)

Not surprisingly, while giving credit to Schubert for his inspiration, Ravel prefaced this score with the quote, “the delicious and forever-new pleasure of a useless occupation.”

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Chopin's piano music hardly needs an introduction. The Andante spianato and Grand Poloniase may, however, benefit from some explanation. It began life as a Polonaise for piano and orchestra, begun before Chopin left Warsaw and finished in 1831 during a short stay in Vienna (which proved dissatisfying so he moved on to Paris). Then, in 1834, invited to give his first public performance with orchestra in Paris, he chose the Grand Polonaise and added a solo piano introduction to better show off the lyrical side of his playing. This, he called Andante spianato , a rippling accompaniment supporting one of Chopin's most gorgeous melodies. The rarely seen term spianato means “smoothly.” It's a perfect example of how the style of bel canto opera inspired Chopin's pianistic lyricism. The Polonaise is more often played today as a solo work throughout.


Chopin – whose father was French, emigrating to Poland as a teenager in 1787 – was a Polish composer in his heart even if most of his short career located him in Paris. Many of his pieces are what we call “stylized dances” – his waltzes, for example, wouldn't be suitable for standard ballroom dancing – and very often capture the essence of Poland's national musical voice. Keep in mind Poland at this time did not exist: it had been subdivided and divvied up between Russia, Prussia, and Austria so many times, it was difficult to figure out what was left of its proud and ancient heritage, at one time a huge nation stretching over Eastern Europe. When Chopin was born in the Duchy of Warsaw, it was still dominated by Russia, becoming a puppet state of the Empire in 1815. It was not reinstated as an independent nation until 1918, after World War I. Interestingly, considering Chopin's fame as a Polish composer in the wider world, the first Prime Minister of an independent Poland was the internationally acclaimed pianist, Ignacy Paderewski.

Chopin was born in 1810, and his father had become a teacher of French to aristocratic families. Nicholas Chopin (spelled Szopen in Polish) would only allow Polish to spoken in his home. His love for his adopted country had a serious impact on the boy.

His first composition at the age of 7 was a Polonaise, harking back to the grand days of aristocratic Poland. His Grand Polonaise Op. 22 (before he added the Andante spianato) was his third polonaise, written when he was 20-21 years old. In addition to the earlier Introduction & Polonaise brillante for Cello and Piano (Op.3), there are seven polonaises for solo piano published in his lifetime, the last completed in 1846; there are three earlier ones published posthumously and perhaps six or seven more that remain unpublished.

While the brilliant polonaise of Op.22 grabs the attention, the spinning line of the opening Andante (for years, I thought spianato meant “spinning” as a spider spins a web, that fine, delicate silken thread!) is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the piece. This vocal-inspired melody, endlessly unfolding, is a hallmark of the romantic style and the inspiration to every generation of composers specializing in piano music to follow – just try to imagine Rachmaninoff or early Skryabin without Chopin!

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Improvisation is something less common in classical music today than it had been. In the Baroque days, keyboard players frequently “made up” the harmonies they would play which the composer supplied by the composers' shorthand notation called “figured bass” (a hoary subject and bane of most freshman theory students to this day). It did not mean they were “creating their part out of thin air” – as long as they stayed within the parameters of this shorthand, it was more like “realizing” the composers' intentions.

When I was in college, my composition teacher was delighted to discover a Baroque composer – I've forgotten who, I think he was English but his work pre-dated Handel's Messiah – had written a trio sonata in which the keyboard part (which consisted solely of the bass-line and this figured-bass shorthand) could be realized to quote exactly Handel's famous “Hallelujah” Chorus. It's not a question of plagiarism in either direction: Handel wrote a fairly standard and extremely memorable harmonic progression which this trio sonata composer (and no doubt thousands of others) had also used. It was just amusing to be listening to this trio sonata and hearing in the keyboard part a quotation from the “Hallelujah” Chorus. But any keyboard player could have realized it to come up with different notes.

There's also a frequently misunderstood story about Mozart and two of his Violin Sonatas, one of which was performed before the Emperor in 1784. As with the G Major Sonata (K.394) in 1781, when Mozart admitted to his father he hadn't had time to complete the work in time for its performance, he just wrote out the violin part and left the piano part blank. When the Emperor looked at the score of the B-flat Sonata (K.454) on the piano after the first performance, he was amazed (and somewhat perturbed) to see any notes in the piano part (compared to “too many notes” as he once complained).

So when I hear, say, radio announcers saying (in absolute awe) that Mozart “completely made up the piano part on the spot,” I want to throw things! No – it was all in his head, fully composed. Yes, there may have been spots he could fill in or even make some changes along the way, but it was all guided by (a.) what he had already given the violinist in terms of harmony and rhythm, and (b.) what he had already composed in his head but didn't get a chance to write it out later. That's one of the reasons he could write an overture the night before an opera's premiere: it was already composed, it just wasn't down on paper yet – it was a matter of transcription, not an act of instant composition. And not improvisation, as we normally consider the term.

Today, there are very few pianists who are going to sit down an improvise a cadenza for a Mozart or Beethoven piano concerto which was the norm in those days. In fact, unlike most concert performers of the 19th Century who often wrote concertos for themselves to play, it would be amusing to see what Itzhak Perlman or Joshua Bell could come up with if they were asked to write a concerto for themselves.

But in the world of jazz, improvisation – whether made up on the spot or working tangentially with other musicians, the jazz combo a form of chamber music, after all – is standard procedure. But again it's all within various structural features already established and “filled in” accordingly. Once they establish a key and a meter, maybe a mood, there are different patterns of chords (I love how in jazz they're called “changes” rather than “progressions”) and even prescribed measure numbers within which they work. It's still not blithely sitting down and pulling something out of thin air (or anywhere else). It's like weaving a tapestry: there's a pattern, there's a plan, but how you implement them, that's up to you.

And so Francis Poulenc's 15 Improvisations, written over a span from 1932 to 1959 (he died in 1963), are a slightly different creative stew. Just as Schubert could sit down and improvise hours of dances for his friends and then write down some of them later on to publish, many composers might sit down and “noodle around” at the piano to come up with some ideas, then take the ones they like, write them down and, sooner or later, come back to them and flesh them out.

Poulenc, in his own right a fine pianist, wrote: “Many of my pieces have failed because I know too well how to write for the piano ...[A]s soon as I begin writing piano accompaniments for my songs, I begin to be innovative. ...It is the solo piano that somehow escapes me. With it I am a victim of false pretenses.” Often not taken seriously because of his light-hearted, often tongue-in-cheek style, Poulenc was very aware of the intellectual involvement in his innate sense of creativity. The question was making it sound natural, effortless – not intellectual.

These improvisations probably began as just such an exercise: try to create something on the spot, something spontaneously, then work it into something that sounds like a finished piece, something one could argue whether the heart or the brain came first.

He called them “improvisations,” however they began, however they evolved, to avoid anything too specific or too structured, formally, keeping them short and uncomplicated.

Mr. Markham will play six of this group of fifteen – including an homage to Schubert (No. 12) and one to Edith Piaf (No. 15 from 1959) which, Poulenc being Poulenc, makes perfect sense.


Pascal Rogé is the pianist in this performance of all fifteen improvisations. You can locate the one's Mr. Markham will be playing by scooting the time-bar across to these timings:

No. 1 (beginning) No. 7 (at 9:17) No. 12-15 (at 17:17 to the end)

And one more improvisation, this one (bringing the program not quite full circle) based on the name of Bach with a rather cheeky waltz finished on October 8th, 1932, and dedicated to Vladimir Horowitz.


Robert Schumann made a frequent habit of crafting musical motives out of names: his Carnaval is full of them, taking what musical pitches exist in the name or substituting other pitches for those that don't. It might seem like cheating, but you could also use solfege syllables where possible: that way, a name with an LA- in it could be represented by the pitch A which is la in solfege, or RE- which becomes – do-re-mi – the pitch D.

But Schumann didn't invent this: Bach was doing it with his own name a century earlier (and even then, this was nothing new). So how do you play B-A-C-H in musical pitches? H? In German, just to make it confusing, they use B for B-flat and B-natural becomes H. So, you can spell it B-flat – A – C – B-natural. Poulenc spells it out in the upper notes of the right hand's first three measures in his little waltz. At one point, he plays it in reverse and then, at the end, there's even a pile-up of B-ACH as a chord.

To end the program, Mark Markham will play “Improvisations from The American Songbook” which he'll announce from the stage. And so I'll let him do just that.

– Dick Strawser

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Schubert's Piano Trio: Easing the "Miserable Human Condition"

 “With Labor Day approaching, marking the traditional end of summer, this week’s dose of great music will be the final one. We are starting to look ahead with cautious optimism and are planning to present our season 2020-'21 in compliance with the government guidance on social distancing, face coverings and limits on gatherings.

After 24 weekly doses of great music, we’d like to finish this series with the uplifting Piano Trio in B Flat Major by Franz Schubert. Robert Schumann famously wrote about this piece: 'a glance at Schubert’s trio and all miserable human condition vanishes and the world shines in a new splendour.' It is our hope that you will find a much needed life-affirming energy and inspiration in this glorious music.” – Peter Sirotin, Market Square Concerts Director.

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This performance of Schubert's B-flat Major Piano Trio – whether you want to call it No. 1, Op.99 or D.898 – featured violinist Peter Sirotin, cellist Cheng-Hou Lee, and pianist Ya-Ting Chang, recorded at Market Square Presbyterian Church on July 17th, 2015, by Newman Stare.

A four-movement work, it begins with a striking and optimistic first movement, followed by one of the most beautifully expansive slow movements Schubert ever composed (beginning at 11:24). A lively scherzo with its gentle, folk-like middle section (beginning at 20:08, the brief 'trio' at 23:17) precedes a high-spirited, dance-like Finale (which begins at 27:07).

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To anyone who took one of those Facebook Quizzes in the summer of 2015 asking “Where Will You Be in Five Years” – did anybody get it right?

Probably not what you were expecting, either...

Five years ago, for the original post about the Schubert Trio's concert, the current news seemed grim enough. Compare this to what we're experiencing today.

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It may be a lot to expect that one or two pieces of music would make all the anxiety we feel watching the evening news go away – whether it's the spread of ISIS, the Greek Debt Crisis, “climate change” (void where prohibited by law), or the fact that cancer can exist, and that's without even mentioning drugs, crime or presidential campaigns.

To some, those who use music to make “the troubles of our human existence disappear” would be labeled as escapists (because everybody needs a label) yet to find out how necessary that idea is to Americans today, all you have to do is turn on the TV.

Of course, there are different ways of escaping: you could be watching The Amazing Ninja Bachelor Survival Chase on most network channels or you could be watching the latest Masterpiece Mystery on your local BBC affiliate – just as you might prefer reading a book, whether it's Another Shame of Gray or Proust's In Search of Lost Time.

So, let Schubert and his Piano Trio in B-flat “take you away from all this.”

To counter claims of “escapism,” I like to point out that without balance, things – including us – would fall down. Or apart (“the center cannot hold” as Yeats expressed it after World War I). The suicide rate would greatly increase, I suspect, if all we had was The News to watch and read. That's why they invented the internet – so we could amuse ourselves with endless cat videos, right?

And Classical Music is full of good things that act like antioxidants for the soul – balancing tension with release, and unity with variety (whether harmonic, melodic, or structural), among other things. There's a fast movement followed by a slow movement; the weightier, more intellectually demanding first movement is usually followed by an emotional slow movement, both of which can be balanced by two light-hearted movements, a dance (minuet or scherzo) and, for Schubert, usually a simpler, often child-like fourth movement to give everything, even dramatic first movements, a happy ending. Plus there are loud passages followed by soft passages, complex harmonic passages resolving to simpler, more direct harmonies, modulations to other keys and, eventually, returns to the home tonic – it's not all one or the other.

There are reasons for that – because, before they invented listening systems you could plug directly into your ears, that was the way people listened and needed the respite from one or the other. A three-minute rock song blasting away may be one thing, but a half-hour-long piece of chamber music (much less an hour-long symphony) has to approach the listener differently and it does this through balance.

While there is, of course, the musical equivalent of broccoli (and others may consider serialism a little too high-fiber for their tastes), a musical diet that offers you some of the finest works by some of the greatest composers can offer a good balance as well, even in a single composition.

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Franz Schubert, painted in 1825

Schubert, technically, was born in the 18th Century – 1797, so just barely – but that doesn't make him an 18th-Century composer. Beethoven, born over 26 years earlier, was already working on his first great masterpieces (like the Op. 18 String Quartets; the 1st Symphony was just around the corner) around the time Schubert was born in another part of Vienna. But where Beethoven was already “not sounding like an 18th-Century composer,” much to the chagrin of his teacher, Haydn, the epitome of the 18th Century, many of Schubert's works – especially his early symphonies and string quartets – had a distinctly Haydnesque appeal to them up until the music he began writing in the mid-1820s: his early music possessed clear textures, well-balanced and equally clear structures, and an essentially direct harmonic language, all trademarks of the classical style.

Around the same time Beethoven, now in his 50s, had begun those monumental Late Quartets, Schubert finally left the 18th-Century ideal to explore his own monumental late works, expanding not just the length of the music and how far he could stretch it but also the harmonic language and how it related to the overall forms both composers had inherited from the past.

In the Good Old Days, composers didn't write one piece at a time – think of Haydn's quartets (usually a half-dozen in a set) or those “London” Symphonies (two sets of six written for separate visits). Even Beethoven wrote six quartets for his first published set, Op. 18, and there were three written for Count Razumovsky.

Beethoven often conceived his symphonies in contrasting pairs – if not the Eroica & the 4th, certainly the 5th & 6th, the 7th & 8th, and the epic 9th & the barely begun 10th, left in sketches when he died in 1827 at the age of 56.

Schubert, whether he planned them that way or not, wrote his two piano trios, concurrently or consecutively, around the same time period following Beethoven's death. In fact, there's a fair bit of debate about which trio came first and which one might have been performed on the only concert of his music he was ever to give in his lifetime, that epic program on March 26, 1828 (the first anniversary, as it turned out, of Beethoven's death). 

Even though there are differences, they are not so different in the way they're written – not at least the kind of contrasts that you would find between Beethoven's 5th & 6th Symphonies or even within a set of six string quartets. But yet, neither sounds derivative of the other, given our age for sequels and prequels.

Schubert, who could write several different settings of the same poem, firmly believed (like most good composers before him) there were many ways to skin a sonata, not just churning out one piece after another all built to the same mold. This "sonata form" was the traditional structural outline on which you stretched out all your thematic and harmonic ideas for the serious opening movement of any multi-movement abstract work, whether it's a sonata, a symphony, or a piano trio (as well as many of Schubert's seemingly non-abstract works that defied the idea of a sonata like the “Wanderer Fantasy,” among other “fantasies” which are still, regardless of not being called sonatas, essentially sonata-like four-movement works).

Schubert (r.) with friends J.B. Jenger & Anselm Huttenbrenner (1827)

Schubert composed two piano trios which were published eight years after his death as Op. 99 in B-flat and Op. 100 in E-flat, making the pairing even more obvious even though it's a fairly arbitrary coincidence. The cataloguer Otto Deutsch numbered the E-flat Trio (completed in November 1827 and first heard the following month at Vienna's Musikverein) as D.929 but the B-flat Trio (whose manuscript has been lost and which may have been composed sometime during the year 1827 – some sources suggest it was written in October but there is no proof of that) as D.898.

Of the works listed between D.898 and D.929 in the Deutsch catalog (originally published in 1950-1951), there are six lesser-known, mostly short piano pieces as well as the famous set of Four Impromptus (D.899), 22 songs and part-songs as well as the 24 individual songs that make up the magnificent song cycle, Winterreise (D.910), plus 88 pages of an unfinished opera, one of many such opera projects Schubert tried and abandoned. But even the placement of the B-flat Trio in this catalog is not an indication of chronology, since the first four works on this list can only be marked "1827(?)" with no more conclusive dates. Considering we know Schubert was working on the extremely dark poems that make up Winterreise between February and October, 1827, could this brilliant and optimistic Piano Trio – thinking of Schumann's words about the vanishing of the "miserable human condition" which Peter quoted in his introduction – have been written simultaneously with the dark and ultimately pessimistic song cycle? (Can there be a more desolate conclusion than that final song, Der Leiermann...?)

Another historical fact to consider, thinking how composers must work in the real world, not the “fantasy vacuum” most of us assume the creative “ivory tower” to be, the great Beethoven had died on March 26th, 1827, and Schubert, who by this time in his life revered him, was one of his pallbearers at the funeral three days later. These two trios, as well as most of Schubert's major works written during his last few years, could never have been written without Beethoven's influence.

Little did Schubert know he would not outlive the next year, dying on November 19th, 1828, at the age of 31. But the large number of works he composed in that final year include some of his finest. It is difficult to imagine anyone of any age writing that many masterpieces in so short a space under such circumstances, but that is another story to contemplate for another time.

– Dick Strawser